By uptra / /
Charlie Quirk Account Planner, Overland Agency
Australian Rules Football is precisely what its name implies: the Down Under analogue to our NFL, rugby-like in play, equally beloved, equally domestic. But “footy” does boast a small stateside toehold, just enough to keep Charlie Quirk (certified Australian) on the pitch. Not slowing for expatriation, Quirk won a national title in Minnesota while working at the strategy firm Tait Subler, and he now coaches the Portland Steelheads in time spared by his position at Overland Agency. He’s truly a full-time strategist, though; he reads, works, blogs and thinks in those terms. I didn’t look him over thoroughly, but I suspect there’s no off switch anywhere. Even of coaching Quirk says earnestly: “From a work perspective why I think it’s valuable is, if you’re teaching someone how to kick or hand-pass the ball, you’ve really got to get into their head. There’s a real depth of understanding as to, ‘How can I explain it in a way so that this guy’s going to get that muscle memory that’s required?’ “And similarly with clients you ask, ‘What do they actually need?’ You can go in and say, ‘This brand is shit, they’ve got no taste, the design is crap,’ and it’s like, ‘Hang on, they know all that, but what they need right now is this one thing. How can you absolutely make this as good as it can possibly be?’ It’s a skill, that depth of understanding.” Uncovering the intellectual in a no-pads, full-contact sport seems somehow characteristic of Quirk. He invests a great deal into the care and feeding of his overactive mind — the hallmark of a good strategist, and of a good interview. Below, questions and lessons with Charlie Quirk.
Q: Describe your most recent workday. Charlie Quirk: I started yesterday doing research for a new pitch. It was a complicated industry I knew nothing about — commercial construction — so being able to get up to speed quickly on the industry trends and the psychology of the client’s target personas was quite a challenge. The Internet is long on conjecture but relatively short on useful hard data, so I think as a planner you’ve sometimes got to dig around a bit to find useful info. It is very helpful having something concrete to use to support your ideas and strategic recommendations. I then wrote a draft of the executive summary and industry overview for the proposal that we’ll send out by end of the week. The second part of the day involved idea generation and research for a separate client that’s beginning to crank up its social media presence. As many others have observed, social media is still an awkward pimply teenager that most brands haven’t fully figured out quite yet. Defining ROI and the means of messaging is an ever-changing proposition so you’ve really got to have your finger on the pulse. I then wrapped up the day reviewing some work with the creative director and CEO.
Q: Describe your most recent non-workday. CQ: I’ve got a little girl, and quite often we might come down to the Saturday market or something. We might go out with friends, [my wife] might go fishing — she’s quite a big fly-fisherwoman — and I’ll read books with my little girl. I still love sports, I just watch less of it. I’ll go to [Australian Rules] football practice when I can. I’ve played my whole life, since I was a kid. I love sports of all kind, and Aussie Rules…anyone who likes sports and is a basketball enthusiast, football, rugby, whatever, it has the best elements of all the games. And it’s very inclusive. I also love to read; it’s one of the great pleasures of life. Mostly non-fiction. I like to read business books, and stuff like Michael Lewis.
Q: If you were reduced to a single media outlet for all your needs, where would you turn? CQ: That’s tough. I mean, I’d get bored if I read The Economist all the time, but that’s quite a popular one — if you read nothing else, you read The Economist. Because it’s US-centric, but it’s British and it’s global. So it’s cool in that sense. It talks about things that you’d never find in an American publication.
Q: Name an organization or individual doing under-sung creative work in Portland right now. CQ: I’d say Aaron Draplin, because…I’m not a designer, but I have such a great appreciation for wonderful design, and that guy is fucking brilliant. And I think Jelly Helm. The stuff he did with the Timbers is just superb. I think teams for the most part under-leverage the power of brand. Players have shelf lives; they come and go. The best brands — the Steelers, the Yankees — they represent an idea. When [Helm] made it about the people, about the guys who were gonna get behind this team, he made the fans superstars. Which is the complete opposite direction of how sporting teams are normally promoted. He said, “No, the Timbers aren’t about the players. It’s about the people who have the fucking Timbers tatt.” They’re the ones coming through the turnstiles.
Q: Who is your dream client? CQ: Someone like Muhammad Yunus’s company, Grameen Bank. Microfinance, or anything that’s unequivocally a good idea for the world. We go to work and, I mean, right now someone is rebranding corn syrup into corn sugar. It goes back to Mad Men days, you know, with the damage that cigarettes can do. It raises all these ethical questions: Do you just try and peddle what your client asks? I’d hate to work on something like with Google in China or Yahoo! in China, when they went in there and worked with Chinese cops to sting those bloggers. I’m like, “Fuck you. What, you don’t have enough money? You have to go in and arrest all these people who are trying to speak their mind?” Even today it bugs me, working with a client where no one would care if their product didn’t exist. You’ve got to have a distinction in the marketplace. If you’re not making that your endgame goal, then it’s probably time to move to fucking Boca Raton and sell real estate.
Network in Person, Not Pixels Arriving to Portland three years ago with no job prospects and a daughter on the way, in the basement of an awful recession, Quirk faced an uphill battle. The fastest way up that hill? Coffee and beer. “I remember Eric Hillerns [of Pinch], the advice he gave me was, ‘Look, forget about all these social networks. They’re valuable in setting up meetings, but just get out there and get in front of people,’” says Quirk. So he did, recognizing a fundamental truth: the most valuable social networking site is a chair across the table from another human — preferably with drinks in hand. “People can ignore a resumé, ignore an email,” Quirk continues. “People who work in the creative services industry are for the most part quite busy. If they’re not busy, they’re broke. So if you’re expecting someone to take the time to read about, you know, ‘Look how good I am…’” In other words, he says, it’s not whom you know — it’s who knows you (hat tip Mitch Joel via Charlie Quirk). And the best way to be known is in the flesh.
Be The Change Though Quirk calls himself a keen tech user, he admits, “Something about it always rubbed me the wrong way.” (He blames childhood Nintendo inferiority.) But upon joining Overland in 2009, he had to shelve his personal predilections and man up. Overland’s tagline is “All Things Digital,” so suddenly, that had to be Quirk’s attitude as well.He began a daily diet of TechCrunch, Engadget, Emarketer and ReadWriteWeb, and absorbed all he could from Overland’s developer staff. Rather than resent the digital onslaught, Quirk embraced it. It’s simply impossible to be strategically effective for modern clients, he now insists, without digital fluency. “Even if you’re not interested in digital in this day and age, digital is interested in you,” he says. “There are very few brands who can get away with not having a digital component to their greater brand story.” He takes a similarly progressive position on crowdsourcing, another oft-divisive topic. “People are going, ‘Oh, it devalues creativity and commoditizes it,’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘We can fucking talk about this all day long, but it’s happening — with various degrees of ethical soundness, but it’s happening. So let’s determine how we can best make it palatable to a broader public.’” If change is a bulldozer, in other words, at least make sure you’re driving it.
Creativity Is Not a Badge A common knock on the ad business is that it’s peopled with failures to launch: wannabe artists, filmmakers and novelists who end up more or less unfulfilled selling their skills to corporate clients, while at the same time using a career in creative services as a sort of status symbol. Charlie Quirk sees, and he is not impressed. “[Those people] end up doing a job they feel lukewarm about, and feel that just dressing like a hipster, having horn-rimmed glasses and forearm tatts is enough of a creative outlet. Don’t be fooled. They may be somewhat artistically inclined, but I subscribe to the Ken Robinson idea that creativity is defined as the process of having original ideas that have value. “Genuine creative types,” he continues, “are intrinsically motivated and couldn’t really give a crap about the social cachet that comes with looking the part. That’s my experience anyway.”