26. Steven Brinlee, Sr Creative Dir for AR NY

Senior Creative Director for AR New York, Steven Brinlee has +19 years experience developing initial strategic platforms, creative ideas, concepts, needs, and limitations of creative organizations to create beautiful advertising campaigns.

How does your job fit into the marketing process? At AR New York I’m involved in all points of the creative process: from developing the initial strategic platforms to developing the creative ideas, concepts and campaigns. 

I am a bit of an unusual animal having worked both in-house for brands including Barneys New York and Coach as well as for agencies including McCann-Erickson NY and Deutsch NY. This has given me a dual point-of-view of both client and agency behaviors — the needs and limitations of creative organizations and ultimately the creative opportunities that come from those.

Brands come to ad agencies with a particular business need in mind and briefs us on it. Some brands approach us from an emotional POV (We want to be known as a luxury brand) and some from a business POV (We have to sell X number of sweaters). During the brief we have to find out what the brand really means, so we ask ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘what are you really trying to do?’. We ask a lot of questions to get to the brand’s philosophical core.

Brands began because somebody loved to do something, because of humor or love or irony. As the brand grows they try to tell that story to people who may not be familiar with the brand’s origins. So we, the ad agency, try to determine the brand’s original story’s emotions and infuse that emotional aspect to their advertising campaign no matter how practical or analytical the objective. 

What differences have you noticed between in-house and agencies? In-house can be quite a conundrum. On the one hand you have the luxury of being completely immersed in your brand’s needs and goals, which can lead to the freedom to tell your brand’s story in the most creative and cost effective way possible – ingenuity at it’s best. BUT, on the other hand you’re steeped so deep your brand’s goals and needs that you can’t always see solutions because you’re looking out from the inside.  

As a result of this conundrum, on the agency side clients come to external ad agencies because of those blind spots. I think that’s where creative opportunities arise. Having the two paired together helps brands see and assess what they might be lacking or desiring. If you think about it on a personal level, admitting weaknesses can be hard to do, especially when you’ve worked so hard creating something. It’s an interesting psychology.

What’s a campaign you’ve worked on? Here are four:

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Do you mostly work on magazine print ads?  AR New York has a strong history of editorial print, however not exclusively. For example, for the Jones New York Empowerment campaign there was a big digital component. It was fun and took off quite well online. We enlisted a lot of women leaders in politics and fashion and created a little black book, giving advice to women just starting out in their career. The response to that was so great that after launching the campaign many other professional women from other fields approached Jones wanting to be a part of it.

What’s a misconception clients have about the industry? Digital has the potential to feed curiosity, tell amazing stories, reveal surprises, hold interest, educate, motivate and sell the offering when an authentic commitment to do so exists.

But I think, specifically in recent years, a misconception has been that ‘Digital can do everything’ and ‘Digital can be done cheaply.’ Caught up in this forward momentum, it can become a sort of ‘me too’ default reaction for brands, causing them to be easily enticed into jumping headlong into the pool before taking the time to define what they actually want to be in that digital space. 

That said, digital executed well is also the point at which a brand and what they do best can suddenly converge to become an authentic piece of brand experience.

A best-case scenario would be honestly defining what your brand’s digital objective will be:

  1. If your objective is to sell then you need to commit to creating an amazing e-commerce site. Make it the best ‘selling’ experience consumers encounter.
  2. If your objective is to honestly reflect the character of your brand and build a community around your brand, then you have to do the real work to get there.

Your images have to be spectacular, whatever they are. Narratives and affiliations have to be crafted with care and intent. If a brand isn’t willing to sell shoddy product in it’s stores then why would they settle for a shoddy online destination?

Also, it may be counter to prevailing wisdom but the reality is that ‘virtual’ is virtual no matter how you spin it. Sure, digital can be sensory to a point but it isn’t a fully three-dimensional, tangible experience. With digital experiences you can’t taste or smell or touch, so there is something compelling about printed matter where we can appeal to our sense of touch and the nuance of how something is printed – the smell of ink and paper, the sound, the sensuality of it to me seems more intimate.

Most brands that have a legacy and a quality of character are ultimately best experienced in person – it’s primal in a way, and these experiences can be dialed up or down depending on the intent of the experience.

Finally, in the deadline driven momentum of ‘we have to get our website up NOW’, some brands didn’t honor themselves in the right way and rushed. They didn’t build their website with as much care as they took in building their brand. This is unfortunate because when digital isn’t executed well, consumers can see it right away. So elevating it to become a real and compelling part of the brand experience should hopefully become the universal goal.

Having learned this lesson, there are brands now going back and refining their digital branding – finessing and improving their brand’s visual experiences. Even with the timeline of getting your website and digital experiences up and running everything ultimately has to be as beautiful and meaningful as you can make it.

Digital can help get your brand message out – it can tempt – but tasting a freshly picked Tuscan tomato, feeling the most priceless cashmere on your fingertips or standing inside a Richard Serra is about being there in person, and I think too many of us are missing out on that experience. 

What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from experience? The breakthrough in a true client-creative relationship is the willingness to pause in the process when we believe we are not doing our best work and talk about it. We all know there are a million reasons why good work isn’t always created but the reason why our clients come to AR New York as collaborators is to seek ideas and solutions they haven’t been able to arrive at independently.

Many brand’s marketing/advertising directors only hold their position for 2-3 years, and so may be more concerned about short-term than long-term. How do you get them to ‘pause in the process’? It can be challenging because you can get clients who only want to attain a short-term goal. Some clients may only have one point of contact with the ad agency, but usually there are 2 or 3 people.

Even if there is only one person on the client’s marketing team who initially isn’t concerned with getting to the deeper meaning of the brand, when we show them the thinking behind the ideas, their peers really come to our support and really do their own best job to sell the ideas internally to their teams. When it touches somebody they become an advocate within their company.

Where do you go to for ideas/inspiration? The bookmarks I hit on my daily scan are:

Advice for someone who wants to do your job:

  1. Be prepared to work for it! Seriously, not in a ‘this is hard’ way, but in a ‘be open to a diversity of experiences way’. In a ‘can I think of a better way?’ way.
  2. Know that the creative process isn’t linear; It’s neither easy nor comfortable
  3. Know that there’s a world of spectacularly talented people out there who do things differently than you or I and we get to work with them which is simultaneously humbling and exciting.

What’s one of your favorite advertising campaigns? Here are four:

I have a small advertising budget, any advice? Identify the mood you want to portray and then focus on crafting one amazing image with one phenomenal message and then work to get it out there in as many creative ways as possible. 

It doesn’t even have to be a photograph. It could be art or wild posters – simple yet so colorful and graphic that they catch people’s attention and communicate something – distinguishing you from your peers. 

And this doesnt have to be over-the-top super expensive. It could be as simple as a typed message on a white page. Let’s see if you can create one thing to be out there consistently and steadily until you can afford two pieces of communiation, then three pieces…

In cities you can do it street level grass roots without the over the top campaigns.  Make 500 oragami birds if that achieves the message. People love to be surprised during the course of their day, and are curious enough that if they see something that sparks their interest, they’ll explore it.

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