Q&L: David Burn, Bonehook

By uptra / /

Q&L is questions and lessons with Portland’s advertising community. This edition of Q&L is brought to you by SURFING Magazine Managing Editor // writer and strategist Stuart Cornuelle. His last post was on Jelly Helm’s recent Show & Tell presentation at PSU.




David Burn

President and Chief Storyteller, Bonehook



Janet Champ is the copywriter who, then at W+K, co-created Nike’s iconic “If You Let Me Play” spot as part of a seven-year campaign to inspire woman athletes. A young David Burn was just collateral damage. Burn was a writer, a journalist, and a sometime itinerant Dead Head when Champ’s ads ran during the mid-‘90s. He was no woman athlete — but still, in his own way, was moved by the work and the writer. He saw his own professional future in brand storytelling and made moves to realize it, a process that’s crossed state and client industry lines over more than 15 years. Burn has lent his pen to campaigns for HP, McDonald’s, Coors, Captain Morgan and more, and now runs his own agency, Bonehook, here in SW Portland. He also operates the industry blog AdPulp and writes untold volumes on music, wine and whatever else tickles his overactive fancy — the lot of which can be found here via his personal website. Below, questions and lessons with David Burn.



Questions: Q: Describe your most recent workday. David Burn: I work for myself, which can be a pain, but also a luxury. For instance, I choose to go into the office in the morning based on random factors like the weather or my wife’s need for the car. Today Darby needs the car, so I rode the MAX from Hollywood into the city, headed over to Spella for my iced espresso fix, then cranked out two AdPulp posts before settling in to do paying work. I started by making client changes to a website we’re about to launch. Then I made edits to a brochure I’m writing for another company. I also had the good fortune to bid a job today, and I’m happy to say the lead came through AdPulp — which might look to some like an obvious funnel for leads, but it’s not.



Q: Describe your most recent non-workday. DB: I’m a big fan of the stay-cation, and given our location here in Portland, you can pretty much point yourself in any direction and score. Last Sunday, we did something that too few Portlanders do: we explored the wineries of Clark County, WA. There’s no amazing pinot noir over there like they make in Yamhill County, but there are some solid producers across the river, making Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and various blends with fruit sourced locally and also from growers in central Washington.



Q: If you were reduced to a single media outlet for all your needs, where would you turn? DB: I’m a big fan of the New York Times. It’s the paper of record in the United States — and, interestingly, now they’re starting to charge for online content, right? Here’s where I’m at with that: I’m glad they’re putting up a paywall, even though that’s a bad name for it, because I think they should be paid for what they do. The whole “free” thing — it was a bad idea to begin with. The New York Times, none of these newspapers or magazines should ever have been free online. Why they ever had the idea that they should be free online, I don’t really know, other than that certain web evangelists got all excited about the, you know, the kumbaya moment. “It’s free, baby!” No, it’s not. It’s not free.



Q: Name an organization or individual doing under-sung creative work in Portland right now. DB: Ziba Design is one of those companies that, in the design world, especially industrial design, they’re just huge, but they’re not…I don’t want to say they’re not well known locally, but they’re kind of in a different field than the ad world. They do take on clients; they are an agency. They’re a design shop, a very big one. They’ve got a lot going on that’s very impressive.



Q: Who is your dream client? DB: Bonehook is set up to work with companies of merit. Obviously, that’s highly subjective; merit according to whom? Well, according to me, because I’m the one who’s going to partner with them. To be a company of merit, you’ve got to produce a product or service that’s good. People’s lives can be impacted or improved in a positive way through that product or service. To be more particular, I can give a market segment that I’m targeting, which is the Oregon and/or Washington wine industry. I’m a big fan of the local producers of pinot noir and other varietals, and then Washington has maybe twice the number of wineries as Oregon, which is just a huge number. I’m really, really, really excited about finding the right winery or some wine-related business that needs our help.






A small shop doesn’t mean small reach. Bonehook occupies but the littlest fraction of a spacious 8th floor on Yamhill Street. Its full-time staff could fit into a tweet, middle names included. Its office Secret Santa would be…anticlimactic. In short, it’s a very small agency. But by calling on Burn’s nationwide network of contractors instead of an in-house team, Bonehook’s capacity can instantly grow to that of a much bigger shop, should a job so require, and then shrink again just as quickly once the project’s needs are met. This flexible, dynamic, low-overhead approach blows away any limitations on the type of work Bonehook can take on. “The business model we’re working from is the Hollywood production system,” says Burn. “You make a film by bringing a team together to make that film, and when it’s finished, the team disperses. You can do it again to make a sequel, or bring parts of it back together for a new film. That’s the thinking that goes into this company.” Burn explains that affordability is front-of-mind for clients of all sizes right now, and that Bonehook’s ability to scale its human resources to a job’s needs — big or small — lets the agency do work that bulkier shops couldn’t profitably accept. “There’s a lot of business being left on the table,” he says. “I created the company that can address the small business needs. That’s not typical; it’s not typically what agencies go after. But I care more about small business.”



Seek clients who respect marketing. “There are a lot of smart people,” Burns says diplomatically, “especially in small business, who run their business strictly from an operational point of view. They don’t invest in marketing, and they don’t believe in it, frankly.” Good for them. But if you’re the lucky comms pro trying to serve such a business, defending every move to a client who addresses you as “Cost Center,” the relationship may be more trouble than it’s worth. Burn has been there. Now, when he senses too much deep-seated resistance from a potential Bonehook client, internal sirens sound. “In that situation, you’re having to educate, sell, and up-sell all the time,” Burn explains, a process that’s costly not just in time and energy but in morale and creative enthusiasm as well. Burn’s two cents: give the relationship a chance before casting judgment — but if a client simply believes what you do to be unimportant, excise that client before their attitude like a cancer spreads.



Don’t all convert to Measurementism just yet. The internet is a busted dam of behavioral data gushing forth from our every Like — but for the moment, you might say that data is still flooding the city; it’s not yet irrigating the plains. In other words, analytics are powerful, but it’ll be a while before they’re the marketing cure-all proponents sing about. Some in the quant camp, Burn suggests, may be jumping the gun. “The whole ROI thing is terribly messy,” he says. “Very few people in this industry know how to measure effectiveness. It’s just digital, really, that’s driving the huge movement toward measurement — but my belief is that it’s really in its infancy, and it’s very, very questionable.” Burn, like any rational adman, knows that measurement is essential and that moving the needle is his raison d’etre. He just isn’t ready to concede that data and analysis trump ideas, stories, and deep human insights — a widely shared reservation among creatives — and he knows that numbers aren’t his weapon of choice anyway. “People like me, with a creative background, we don’t want to do measurement,” he says. “The last thing I want to do is get involved in measurement. Not because I’m against it — I’m for it, because it’s going to help me sell — but that’s not my area of expertise or my area of interest. I’m not the person to crunch data. When I need that, I have that person on the team.”