5 Minutes with… Troy Hitch
Troy Hitch is a man of many talents and even more ventures. Born and raised in northern Kentucky, he studied theatre at school, has been an actor, a voiceover artist, director, writer, podcast host and has written the score for musicals. But it was the birth of the Internet that led to his foray into advertising, as he spotted an opportunity to harness all of his skills and passions in one place. His journey led him to found Big Fat Brain in 2004, an agency that was dedicated to creating original online content for brands - before YouTube even existed. His comedy series ‘You Suck At Photoshop’ has millions of views online, is the winner or three Webby Awards and named one of Time Magazine’s Top 10 TV Episodes of the year.
Nowadays, he’s the Chief Creative Officer at Barefoot Proximity, the Cincinnati office of BBDO’s data-driven agency, though he has a cheeky side gig in trolling the industry’s po-faced, self-appointed ‘thought leaders’. LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with him to find out more.
LBB> You’ve been in the business for 20 years - but you’re a man of many talents outside the advertising industry too! So, what drew you to the industry to make it your main venture? Was it a planned thing or more of a happy accident?
TH> I think it was partly due to time and place. I have a theatre degree and before that I tried to set myself up as an illustrator/animator. When I came out of school in the early ‘90s, the concept of the Internet was just beginning to happen. I found my way into a medical illustration position at a publishing company. It was at about the time the Internet exploded. I realised that all of the things that I loved to do were happening in this place. The most effective way to get in there and really start doing things seemed to be at the commercial end of it with how brands were trying to be there. It was sort of planned but it also happened to coincide with great timing for my career, my skillsets and my passions. And I never looked back.
LBB> You’ve been CCO at Barefoot Proximity for three years now (after a stint at BBDO Chicago and back at Barefoot before that), and during your time at the helm you’ve transformed the agency into a bit of a creative data specialist. How and why did this evolution come about?
TH> Barefoot is about 25 years old and started life as an advertising agency, but it was always ahead of the curve when digital was coming around. It was acquired by Proximity and Proximity’s heritage is direct mail and the very first addressable media, so it’s been in our DNA for decades. It was a perfect match for Barefoot at the time. Data has always been at the heart of what we do as Proximity, so while I wouldn’t say that it’s been an easy transition into this new space, it’s definitely been natural.
LBB> Getting to grips with the creative use of data is something every agency is trying to do… do you think the industry has worked it out yet or does it still have some way to go?
TH> I think it’s happening in different layers - I see data impacting creativity in four different ways. You’ve got data as insight, and we’ve been using that for a long time as an industry - but we’ve gotten away with making it a little bit more qualitative than hardcore data-driven insights. Then you have data as measurement on the other side. Whether it’s media mixed-modelling which we’ve been doing for decades, trying to understand how advertising is moving the needle on the business, or now where we have control over optimising content and making it perform harder and better, and understanding through that measurement what works and what doesn’t. The industry has got its arms around those two bookends pretty well.
The two pieces in the middle, which are still really the white-space territory, are data as fuel for the experience - how you use an individual’s behaviour and personal passions to give them a very customised experience. That’s something we’re still learning.
And finally - and this is what I think is even more fascinating and why the ad industry is under so much threat from the tech companies - is the idea of data as product. Whether it’s the Nike+ platform or any other space where a brand has realised that it’s not just about their product, it’s about the possibility of giving their customers data - whether it’s biometric data about themselves or weather information - that data as product can be an extremely powerful mechanism, and I don’t think we’ve harnessed that just yet.
LBB> Let’s go back in time a bit… in 2004 you founded Big Fat Brain, an agency that creates original content for the web. 2004 seems a long time ago for an agency to be dedicated to online original content like that! How did the business come to be? What was the inspiration behind it and how did it evolve?
TH> I have a somewhat unconventional background. I had a degree in theatre acting and directing, I’d been in front of the camera for a while, I loved performing and writing original content. I did some early animation and a lot of experiential stuff for a client with the idea of taking these things to video and putting them on the Internet. So, it was sort of natural to start creating original content, on the back of the stuff that we were already doing.
We were fortunate enough to meet up with a guy called Rob Barnett, who was the head of CBS Radio but left to start a company called MyDamnChannel. And we began to create content in the very early days with those guys and a few other places, so we really were on that first wave of original content for the web. I learned a lot of things, made a lot of mistakes.
LBB> What kind of perception did you get from brands when you began to go to them with these ideas?
TH> It was really challenging. We had some really interesting opportunities with clients who had nothing to lose. One client was Tibco, a tech company out of San Francisco. They were a pretty big company, worth about $2 billion, but that was peanuts compared to their competitors, like IBM. They were this challenger brand that had nothing to lose, and we created an animated series for them called Greg the Architect.
It was action figure theatre talking about software architecture, and it was very disruptive in that space, as I’m sure you can imagine. Still to this day nobody thinks about B2B and there’s often a knee-jerk to white papers and webinars and stuff like that. And we made this really shitty, low budget, action figure series about this software architect who keeps getting stepped on all the time, and no one understands what he does. He became this sort of mascot for Tibco and it was a highly effective programme for them.
So, there were some brands who were ready to embrace it because they had nothing to lose - but we still struggle to this day getting brands to understand the role that they play in branded content, to be relevant and authentic, and still deliver value for the brand. That’s 10-15 years later, and we’re still figuring how to tell that story in a compelling way so that everybody can come along for the ride.
LBB> You’ve written and directed numerous original entertainment pieces - a skill that’s almost essential for a creative in the ad industry now. Your comedy series ‘You Suck At Photoshop’ won three Webby Awards and was named one of Time Magazine’s Top 10 TV Episodes of the Year. How have these skills helped you as your career advanced and the industry evolved?
TH> I think it’s both helped my career progress but also maybe held me back a bit too. Ok, maybe it hasn’t held me back but I think that spiritually and emotionally it’s difficult for creatives to make the transition sometimes. There’s this theory I have called the ego epiphany, and that’s a moment in time when you, as a creative, feel more reward seeing your team succeed than if your idea made it through.
I’ve spent a lot of my career making things and doing stuff, and I’ve seen some of those things succeed and others fail, and I got the chance to get that out of my system. For the most part, a lot of creatives don’t really get that out of their system. For me it’s helped a lot in knowing that I have escape hatches for when I need to be a really creative person, I still keep those projects alive today. But it also gives me a lot brain space and bandwidth to focus on creative and scale with my clients and getting to something that’s maybe a bit different but with the same spirit behind it.
LBB> You have too many extra-curricular activities for me to even try and ask a question about each of them - music scoring for theatre, podcasts, etc. - so I’m going to keep this open. Why is it important for you to keep those projects up and, in your opinion, how important is it for creatives to explore creative endeavours outside of the ad industry?
TH> It’s vitally critical because there are so many opportunities to be creative for our clients. There’s new technologies available everyday, new ways consumers are behaving. And I think we need to stick ourselves out in that world. Whether that means you’re just an avid social media user that publishes a lot of content on Instagram and Facebook and are a part of the way that consumption engine works, or you want to become a better oil painter, or finish that screenplay - whatever it is, staying connected to what’s relevant to people and how they want to consume that stuff is absolutely critical.
For me personally, it’s almost a sickness. It’s hard for me to switch off, and I use those things for outlets. One of the things I’ve been working on for a few years, and am really close to finishing, is a mobile game that will launch on iOS and Android. It incorporates a lot of things I love to do, like original music, animation and programming. Will I ever apply those direct skills to work that I do for a client? Maybe. But the act of going through and struggling to figure out how something works, pushing yourself to maintain a consistency of quality even though I’m tired of drawing the same thing for the 100th time, those disciplines pay off in spades for the work we do with our clients.
LBB> In 2015 you jokingly vowed to wear an Oculus Rift headset for an entire year - the pledge was a bit of a dig at Silicon Valley. What were you aiming to convey with that stunt and do your thoughts still stick in 2017?
TH> I actually did a stint in the BBDO Chicago office, and when I came back to Cincinnati I took the title of “Chief Innovation Officer”. And when I looked around at what chief innovation officers were doing, it was the worst, douchiest thought-leader stuff, with people publishing these tripe articles on LinkedIn, just trying to gain some brand for themselves. I thought, I want to be out there and create some chatter for myself and bring clients and prospects into the agency to hear what we have to say - but I wanted to do it in a different way. I began fashioning this concept of the Stephen Colbert of Malcolm Gladwell, and becoming the ultimate, most pretentious thought leader, leading the universe with my thought leadership. That was the first thing I did to kick it off.
I made a short video about wearing the Oculus Rift headset, published it on LinkedIn, and one of the most beautiful things happened. If you get half of your audience to believe that it’s real, and the other half to know that it’s a joke, and they fight with each other - that’s the best thing you can possibly do.
I had C-level executives at other agencies calling me an idiot for destroying my eyesight, and questioning my thought-process of embracing technology like this. And then others were just like, “you are a jackass for even thinking this is real”. I had this amazing tension going so I started writing all kinds of trolly-style articles. I wrote a story about a company called Fostersnap which is trying to tackle the problem of foster parenting by allowing anyone with the app to tap a button that says “I have some free time”, and within 30 minutes a van will drop off a foster child for you to become the legal guardian for 240 minutes. (Read more about it in Troy's LinkedIn post here.) I published that and had angry people writing to me from foster organisations.
But with each of those I had a principle behind it that I could talk about when the time was right. So, when people got what I was doing and asked why, I could tell them how even though technology is bringing us closer together, it’s actually making us less intimate and less connected to each other, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. But I wanted to tell it through a different device. And it actually worked out really well.
I still use it. Just the other night I pitched a new startup called Teleportly which is a concept that uses revolutionary drugs to knock people out for 50 hours so that they don’t remember flying to Melbourne. I gave this presentation to an entrepreneurial group at a university and I gave it mother-fucking straight as an arrow - in fact, I used a British accent because the only domain name I could get for this startup was Teleportly.co.uk. Everybody thought it was real!
The company may be absurd, but actually it’s based on lots of consumer insights - it’s not that absurd! It could actually really happen. But the question is, can you use that kind of hyperbolic, agitating storytelling to create conversation? I’ve been able to do it pretty successfully.
LBB> Let’s talk about the industry a bit more generally - what’s the best thing about advertising today?
TH> I think the best thing about advertising today is that it still exists. In the wake of the doomsayers, advertising is like the cockroach after the apocalypse. It’s our job to ensure that it does the best it can, and it deserves to be celebrated that it’s still living.
LBB> And the most frustrating? Or what needs to change to ensure that survival?
TH> This isn’t going to sound novel at all, but because of the behaviour of consumers today, the places where brands really win is going to require them giving up more and more control and trust their user base, customers and audience to do what’s right. The consumers are in control and it’s still hard for brands to recognise that, embrace it and use it for good.
LBB> Which piece of recent work from Proximity are you most proud of and why?
TH> Our London office did some work for The Economist which I think was super smart. It’s exemplary of our belief in data-driven creativity putting the right content in front of the right people in a provocative way - and it delivered on the business objectives for the client, which is what gets me most excited, to really push the needle for our clients. Great creativity, great business results and a true demonstration of data-driven creativity.
LBB> Tell us about the creative scene in Cincinnati.
TH> The cool thing about Cincinnati is that it’s going through this amazing creative renaissance. We have a longstanding history of being an ad town because of P&G being based here but a lot of that energy has moved into the tech scene and there are a lot of really awesome startups now. They’re really trying to turn the Midwest into this new tech centre for startups, so that’s pulling in a lot of amazingly talented people. Cincinnati’s culture has shifted and people are living in the downtown area now.
When I got back from Chicago I created and hosted an event called Agency Fight Night because I wanted to say, “hey agencies, look at all the revolutionary stuff happening in the tech, startup space - we should be doing the same”. So we created this event in which the three big agencies in town got together, we had a client at stake - the Cincinnati Reds from Major League Baseball came in and offered up a project. The three agencies competed in real time, on stage, doing concepts, brainstorming and pitching the client, in front of a giant theatre bar of 500 agency folks. It was super fun. That’s what Cincinnati affords us now, to break from convention and do cool new things because the people are here to do it.
LBB> When you’re not working, writing TV shows, producing podcasts, scoring theatre shows, voicing ads, what do you like to get up to?
TH> I am playing all of the Assassin’s Creed games in order right now.
LBB> Ok. That’s a pretty hefty task!
TH> It is! There are nine main games - the next one is probably going to be announced at E3 - and there are upwards of 200 hours worth of gameplay and I’m about halfway there. Video games are the only way I can let my brain go right now.