5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Rob Palmer

Advertising Agency
Portland, USA
Executive creative director of Opinionated speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about getting yelled at by Steve Jobs, arrested with Johnny Knoxville, and creating ESPN’s ‘This Is SportsCenter’ campaign
Rob Palmer has been an executive creative director at traditional and digital agencies, as well as a CMO/CCO for one of Fast Company’s ‘Most Innovative Companies in the World’. While at Wieden+Kennedy, he helped create ‘This Is SportsCenter’ for ESPN, one of the most applauded and long lasting campaigns in advertising. That campaign now boasts more than 400 commercials, is still going strong, and is even a Harvard University case study.
Speaking of university, once upon a time Steve Jobs interrupted a class he was teaching to yell at him. 

Rob is currently an associate professor at ArtCenter College of Design, but his day job is executive creative director at Portland agency Opinionated. On the weekends he races cars at high speed and he was once arrested with Johnny Knoxville in Utah.

LBB’s Addison Capper speaks with Rob about all of this. 

LBB> Opinionated is a very pointed name for an agency. How important are opinions in advertising? But also, how do you nurture healthy opinions versus unwanted, unhealthy ones?

Rob> There’s inherent tension in our name, and we did that on purpose.
Every agency says they bring an objective opinion to the table. As well they should—that’s what we’re hired to do. But too often those opinions are informed or influenced by what clients want to hear rather than what they need to hear. And if you’re going to create a strong point of view for a brand that helps set them apart from their competitors, you can’t do it through a ‘please all’ opinion.
We uncover truths about our clients’ businesses that they might not see, or want to see; forming opinions based off of those truths to drive strategy, creative and everything in between. 

LBB> How is that name somewhat of a guiding light for the way you run Opinionated's creative department?

Rob> We don’t get too caught up in brand actions around our name at the agency. We don’t have an ‘opinion of the day’ Slack channel or anything like that. But, we absolutely encourage everyone to voice their opinion.
That said, anarchy can only go on for so long. In the end we make choices and give direction based on what we believe will lead to the best creative solutions.

LBB> I find many agency 'capabilities' sections on their websites to be pretty forgettable. Opinionated's is wonderful, and despite its alternative approach, somehow gets the point across in a much more digestible way. Firstly, I just wanted to note that. Secondly, I guess the question is more around Opinionated as a brand and the way you show up to the world. How important is that and why?

Rob> Ah yes. The House Specials.  
That was probably the very first promotional piece we did about Opinionated. It didn’t start out that way, we were just talking about clients and their challenges in between new business calls (there was some down time at that point). It began as a realisation that throughout our careers we had worked with a lot of clients and brands who had faced a lot of similar problems, and then it kind of took on an empathetic tone. A gallows humour with a ‘been there/seen that’ kinda vibe.

LBB> You worked in-house as CCO/CMO of Fuhu for about 18 months before joining Opinionated. What lessons did you pick up during that period that are serving you well today?

Rob> Empathy. Straight up empathy for clients. Back then I didn’t realise how little an advertising agency factors into a CMO’s day. In an agency our world revolves around our clients. As a client, my world did not revolve around an ad agency. The amount of other responsibilities was shocking to me. 

LBB> You're an associate professor at the ArtCenter College of Design. How did you get into teaching? And why is it something you enjoy doing?

Rob> I give a ton of credit to my instructors at ArtCenter for getting me to where I am in my career. So when I was presented with the chance to teach I jumped at it. 
I had two very different experiences teaching. My first round I went in and tried my best to copy the way Mark Fenske (former Wieden CD) taught. I had always loved how freeform and exploratory his class was. He had a way of getting work out of students without them knowing he was doing it. I realised quickly, I was not Mark Fenske.
Years later I went in again with an actual course syllabus for the term, armed with insight and hindsight. That proved more natural for me. It is especially rewarding when your students go on to be successful. We’ve actually freelanced and even hired a number of them at Opinionated.

LBB> Speaking of teaching, I heard that Steve Jobs interrupted a class of yours to yell at you. What did you do to upset Steve?!

Rob> That was classic. I was teaching class at Chiat, pretty sure we were in the Binocular building in Santa Monica back then. I probably only had a third of the class’s attention. 
I got a call from Steve. It wasn’t the first time because of my work on Apple, so I had his number saved in my phone. I picked it up and showed it to the class. All of a sudden, I was the coolest teacher they had…until he proceeded to chew me out regarding a sloppy retouch job on some print ads. Live and learn.

LBB> Which recent piece of work (or a few pieces of work) from Opinionated are you particularly proud of and why?

Rob> I am super proud of our global FootJoy ‘Feel the Joy’ launch. It’s very clear through the work that FootJoy’s opinion is that there is a joy in golf that only a true golfer understands. The athletes in the spots are clearly feeling it, as are the consumers that see the spots. 

I’m equally proud of the team that worked on FootJoy. Our art director/copywriter duo Nate Corrado and Lauren Olson helped pitch and win the business, so seeing their work move forward from pitch to production is a great feeling.

LBB> You've been a creative since the early ‘90s. What's your craziest or favourite on-set story?

Rob> One of my favourite stories includes a fairly well known actor and a campaign that meant driving across the country in a bus and filming doc style for three weeks. 
The idea was that a couple of hardcore X Games fans would drive from their home in Rhode Island to San Diego to watch the X Games, and along the way they would visit athletes. At this time, we portrayed these athletes as very much counter culture. We were influenced by a video series called ‘Whiskey,’ and ‘Big Brother’ magazine. So when we discovered a video of Johnny Knoxville testing self defence tools on himself (like bullet proof vests and tasers), we knew we had our lead.
There was a lot of questionable behaviour on the road - which almost ground to halt when we got arrested in Utah for filming in a National Park without a permit. The real issue was Knoxville filling a 4-foot bong in the park's waterfall. When the cops hit the rollers, we just left the camera on. Somewhere out there is some terrific footage of us all leaning against the bus with handcuffs while the line producer tried to talk us out of it.

LBB> Which piece of work do you feel was most important to your career?

Rob> I probably have to go with ESPN’s ‘This is SportsCenter’ which I worked on as an art director at Wieden+Kennedy. Back when it all started, everybody thought it was just going to be a thing we did for a couple of seasons and then onto something new. But now there are more than 400 or so spots. I’m super grateful to have been a part of it. 
Beyond its success as a campaign, ‘This is SportsCenter’ was also a huge lesson for me in approaching work assignments. Find something you love about every opportunity you get, and recognise it while you are in the moment. 

LBB> How did you wind up in this industry in the first place? Was it somewhat planned or more a happy accident?

Rob> Happy accident. Then, as planned. 
When I was kid, I wanted to be an architect. I loved grid paper and rulers and compasses and mechanical pencils. I even worked for an architect running blueprints and errands. The plan was to attend Boise State University and eventually transfer up to University of Idaho to finish the degree. That plan fell apart my first semester. I simply could not do math. I started in calculus and eventually even flunked math for liberal arts students. 
I had to start filling all of the gaps in my schedule so I took an elective called advertising design. It was really graphic design but it hooked me, and I didn’t have to toss out all of my grid paper. That led to more classes and exploration until I found ArtCenter College of Design. Then it was a full stop. I quit BSU, quit my job and put everything into putting a portfolio together. Once I was in the door I never looked back.

LBB> What do you get up to at the weekend to keep yourself energised and excited about advertising?

Rob> I find that having close brushes with disaster really invigorates me. I need an outlet that lights my hair on fire without breaking the law. So I’ve really gotten into motorsports. I race a car in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) sanctioned events between March and October. It’s incredibly challenging (and yes, dangerous). I love that it requires complete focus. Being able to completely blank out advertising for a brief while actually makes me better at it. 

More News from Opinionated
Work from Opinionated