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Volume 20 No. 45
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The Sit-Down: John Osborn, BBDO N.Y.

The agency veteran speaks to the drastically shifting advertising landscape, why some paranoia is healthy, and how the best advice he ever received from a client was not to become a …


  odays advertising industry headlines are:
More channels and more opportunities to engage consumers. It’s incumbent upon us as partners of great brands to sort through that clutter and formulate big ideas that drive growth.

A lot more of our communication is not just sending a message, but providing consumers the tools to carry that message forth. If you do that artfully, you can give consumers the power to carry the message for you.

Hiring and retaining talent is the essence of our business. I will take an overachiever who fits our values over someone who is intellectually smarter that doesn’t fit our values any day. I make decisions very quickly. When I meet someone, I will know within five or 10 minutes whether the lights are on. If I can look in someone’s eyes and feel their energy, they’re halfway home.

Healthy paranoia is an important quality. We’re not a small agency, so the biggest danger is complacency. I worry that my clients are always in need. It borders on an unhealthy paranoia, but that’s OK. Healthy paranoia is a great accelerant to success.

The Olympics were unique this year. The best creative work is driven by a sense of purpose and is inextricably linked to the platform. I saw more brands than ever using what’s unique about Olympics — that intersection of humanity and performance — and using that as important platforms.

People are moving through their lives at 100 miles an hour, so you have to believe that mobile is perhaps the most vital developing medium. If you can, give consumers relevant content in the context of how they move through their lives. Sports are a great example of that — it’s a big reason for people to check their smartphones. Sports are inherently social, they are a catalyst to driving passion and they are obviously a currency that keeps escalating in venue. You never want to be even three minutes behind an important sports event.

I manage with compassion. My heart’s on my sleeve. I expect a lot, but also respect the power of we over me. It’s OK to make a mistake, but getting caught by surprise is the very worst thing anyone can experience. As a leader, you’ve got to be sleeves rolled up, sitting with the troops at a minimum.

I was never an athlete, but I was the manager of the Dartmouth hockey team. I got in for one shift against Harvard, like the story of “Rudy” and got my clock cleaned. But being the manager did prepare me for a career in advertising, because it was all about preparation. It sounds simple, but people move so fast now, they often forget about the basics.

You can’t get everything done in a day that you want to, so one of my more recent learnings is to try to do fewer things better.

My meetings are usually loud and high octane. They can be messy, but they work. We’re too meeting-crazy in this business, so we’ve tried to limit them. Oftentime meetings that last an hour could have been done in 10 minutes.

I get a lot of ideas on the train to work. I’m hearing what people say about pop culture, picking up on their cues about life. It’s a great melting pot of culture, business, people, and politics.

My CFO once told me the two most important points about negotiating are don’t offer up anything and don’t make any jokes. I can’t help but do both, so it’s impossible for me to be a great negotiator.

I got my most indispensable piece of business advice when I was promoted to president/CEO in 2004. [FedEx ad director] Steve Pacheco sent me a single index card in a FedEx envelope that said, “Don’t become a D__.” That’s a gem, so I’ve tried to live that way.

I’m online when I get up. I’m a weather junkie, so after I check my emails, I go to and Then it’s on to,, I check my Tweetdeck and go to my Facebook page. Then I am out the door — usually without breakfast. On the train, I read hard copies of the New York Post, Page Six; The New York Times, Business/Sports section; and The Wall Street Journal, which I usually read from the inside out.

I love the energy of New York City, and loved living there, even though I am a diehard Red Sox fan. But there’s another side of me that needs to decompress, so I live in the ’burbs, where I can walk my two black Labs for relaxation. Otherwise, I’d be that proverbial candle in the wind.