Egotist Briefs: Jim Magill

By Egotist / /

Currently, Jim Magill is the CMO of Cibo. But the ad man is a long-time San Franciscan whose father ran the city’s McCann office back in the day. So we chatted with him about the state of the Bay Area ad world, all the interesting stuff going on at Cibo and why he likes Audi advertising.


You’ve been in SF a long time and have seen the ups and downs. Give us your take on creativity in San Francisco at this moment in time.

I look at San Francisco as being the leading edge in creativity over the long haul: leading the trends, recovering from the down periods and always evolving and leading. Most folks don’t realize that SF had the second-oldest ad club in the country and an amazingly robust community as far back as the ‘07 Earthquake. Early on we had the Walter Landors in design, Howard Gossage in copy and a slew of independent firms helping clients build their brands.

In the ‘Mad Men’ days – a time when my father ran the McCann office here – there were these incredibly long relationships that allowed for great work for clients like Wells Fargo, Del Monte and others. And the SF offices of the national agencies had an independent streak and were actually breaking more ground than New York. Then along came Hal Riney and Goodby, and suddenly national clients had to have an agency in San Francisco, dramatically shifting the opportunities for what you could work on. We all traveled, and 75 percent of our revenue came from clients based in other cities, giving creatives less interaction with clients and I think, in some ways, allowing them more time to create great work.

The dot bomb devastated the industry as it did travel and technology, compounded by poor guidance from ad agencies to clients, which contracted the entire community. But, once again, we bounced back.

We had the emergence of tech companies and the rising profile of Silicon Valley, and suddenly technology became an important part of almost any brand’s pitch to consumers. That was followed by the impact of social media, which was really the second wave of tech’s impact on advertising. As a result, traditional advertising and media strategies began to be replaced by integrated solutions with technology components, and this thing called digital was being driven by a rising tide of consumers who saw the world and advertising very differently. The old heroes had retired or passed away, and new crop of designers, technologists, craftspeople and writers, working in a range of new forms of media, provided a whole new way to engage with the customer. And that’s where we are today. The 4As routinely talk about the ad industry changing; SF has already leapt far ahead of that conversation, and is making it happen.

We’re clearly in a heyday here in the Bay Area again. Why should a kid who’s about to graduate be a creative at an agency in San Francisco as opposed to say, NYC?

These days it seems everyone I know has kids in their early 20’s leaving for New York, but I think that has more to do with the lifestyle and nature of it being a great and big city.

Daily we read about layoffs, mostly in big agencies and mostly in holding company firms; while much of this is driven by client changes, their business models never adjusted fast enough from the heyday of media commissions and getting paid for creating solutions for clients.

SF has always embraced young talent, and by operating in a far less structured hierarchy, shops here provided opportunity for success with a simple, great idea. SF shops also embrace technology as a force in engagement, and today’s recent grads come with both an intuitive sense of that skill and the knowledge of how to harness that power in their work.

It seems that every time we turn around we’re hearing Cibo’s name. What has been happening recently at your shop?

We have by design operated under the radar for the last couple of years while we built the kind of firm we thought would uniquely address where clients’ needs lie today. We all came from large and successful firms and took the best of what we learned from those shops and experimented with what we could create.

Since we opened over three years ago we’ve worked with some great brands that I think others would die for, and we’ve continued to hone our point of view of being at the intersection of brand narratives, UX and technology. Lately we’ve begun to invest in more leaders, like bringing in Cary Savas as our President and Keith Ciampa as our CCO, and our acquisition of our friends at HYDRANT, Alder Yarrow and Bob Subic. Our client list has grown and we’re moving to a new space. More importantly, we’re finding that intersection of brand, UX and technology is compelling for clients that want a partner who can bring these components together uniquely and distinctively, depending on their needs.

You also just recently bought HYDRANT. How will adding a major UX component change what Cibo is doing?

We have from day one believed that customer experience was key, and we attracted a large portion of our clients based on delivering that kind of thinking. We’ve known the partners at HYDRANT from before founding Cibo, and have been partnering with them on projects for several of our clients over the last three years, so the marriage was an easy one that allows us to continue to build our SF studio to an ideal state and size.

With the rise of social media, there’s a growing segment of marketers who believe that the “big idea” is dead – that it’s not about single campaign ideas but more of an ongoing conversation. Where do you stand on the “big idea”?

It may be my age talking, but I still love a big idea. The difference I’ve noticed is that it’s no longer a one-dimensional big idea, like it used to be. Learning this business from somebody like Riney, without being on the creative side myself, provided me an opportunity to really observe the way he thought about the brands we worked on and their customers.

In many ways, he was a brilliant planner, but he also had an unusual knack for clearly identifying how the big idea should be executed with each form of engagement, long before folks used that language. A mirror with your logo in a bar, the back label of a beer bottle, the quantity of beer cases stacked in an aisle, the kind of bar that carried your brand, a few discrete mentions – all of this added up to reinforce the brand image and make it a much bigger idea than one big Super Bowl spot. He showed us how conversations are created – and can last longer – when all the elements of an idea are in sync.

We’ve seen predictions of more crazy growth in the ad world in 2014. We’ve also seen the warnings of the 2001 dot com bust all over again. Give us your prediction for the coming year.

There will be growth and consolidation. I tend to look at where the industry’s revenues are coming from. Data for the large companies is becoming a primary source of income, and will continue to impact how they view their role. Digital and social are both pushing limits, and we occasionally see breakouts where unique ideas are very powerful. Companies like AB InBev invest a lot in the Super Bowl, but at the same time, Budweiser has gone from 50 million barrels to 17 million. One of the reasons we’re so vested in UX and technology with brands is that you need it to measure and to understand the customer’s journeys to maximize each of the engagement opportunities you’re presented with.

We’re in a bubble here in the Bay Area, but it’s very different, one that’s based on a much stronger business foundation, which is technology. And the kinds of brands based here aren’t about technology for the mere sake of technology, but rather about products and services that improves our lives.

What are the key traits that make a good creative person?

Inquisitiveness and endless curiosity; an ability to sort out what’s important and what isn’t; never being contained by whatever tool you’re using and its limitations when creating; clarity in articulating how the customer will interact with the work; getting beyond the idea that they like; capable of passionately engaging with the client on how this will change their brand and getting them vested in the idea; accepting criticism and rising above it; and accepting that ideas come from anywhere and everyone.

Where do you get your creative inspiration from?

I’ve spent much of my career perfecting being a generalist yet also understanding each and every discipline that comes together in this crazy business. When I thought it was stale, I left and studied what consultants and IT and digital firms were doing. My early years at O&M and Riney taught me focus and skills of exploring every aspect of a situation, and I generally go there to think my way out of things.

I also love the role I play as CMO, not for Cibo, but for our clients, as I’m able to dig deep enough but also marshal my years of experience to provide a point of view that sometimes gets us all out of the weeds. When none of that works, I ski.

What’s the one current campaign you look at and think, “Man, I wish I had done that.”

I love the Audi work. Admittedly I’ve owned three Allroads in 15 years, but as a marketer they communicate with me, with potential customers and just about everyone with such a pure and authentic voice.

Give us three nuggets of advice that every creative should hear.

Understand how your idea works before you fall in love with it.

Don’t limit your ideas. Some of the best work I have seen comes from closing the door and covering the walls with dozens of concepts.

Learn how to partner. There is so much more power in a team. At Cibo a creative team consists of art directors, writers, technologist, UX and – dare I say – even the account person.