Tom is a writer, creative director, and storyteller applying his craft at the newly formed Rockbox. Along with partner Tim Kail they are grabbing people’s attention and not easily letting go. Their tool of choice: online video.
What led you to writing and advertising in the first place?
In 7th grade, I got chewed out on the sidelines of a football game. It was second down and nobody realized we only had 10 guys on offense. One of our offensive tackles was sitting on the bench with his head in the clouds. That was me. I was staring up at the sky, looking at cloud formations when my coach starting ripping me. A cliché. That was a long bus ride home, Captain of the Space Cadets, etc.
By profound contrast, in advertising, I’ve had demanding creative bosses chew me out for not using my imagination enough. So, fundamentally, this business was a way to get paid to do something I couldn’t help doing anyway. Daydream.
In the beginning, I fell in love with writing headlines for print ads. Sounds funny now. Headlines? Print ads? But even in 2015, I’m still in the same business. I get paid by people who say, “Here’s this really important puzzle, and for the life of us, we can’t solve it. But maybe you can.” And then I get to go away to an imaginary world, see things in my mind nobody else can see, and be the introverted, ADD kid with his head in the clouds.
You’ve recently bid adieu to the standard agency model to pursue video and content creation. What are you liking about the change and why now?
I owe my livelihood to ad agencies. I worked my way up the ranks in intense environments under wildly gifted, shrewd, funny people who taught me everything I know. So no gripes there.
I think it was just time for me personally. And in a weird way, the right time culturally? Years ago, you wouldn’t be caught dead eating food from a truck. On construction sites, they used to call it The Roach Coach. What happened? Now everybody’s eating tacos out of Airstreams. Talent is reinventing business. People are leaving big environments and going small. Because they can. It’s about focus.
From a business standpoint, the market’s there. Clients needs video because, guess what? Everybody’s watching video. On our laptops, tablets and amazingly, our phones. As you walk back to your seat from the bathroom on the airplane, tell me, what are people doing? Watching video.
Finally, on a personal level, I had a once-in-a-blue-moon chance to start something with two remarkable people, Tim Kail and Tucker Trotter, two guys I would bet my future on. Which I did. (The new company’s called Rockbox, by the way.)
How do you approach digital content differently than say a big broadcast spot?
It’s all about context. That’s the hardest thing for traditional creative people to wrap their heads around. In content marketing, you’re not talking to people who aren’t interested in what you’re selling. You’re talking to people who are.
I went into Gary Gribble’s (running shoe store) in August and I said, “I’m running a half marathon in three months. I weigh 210 pounds. I currently don’t run much. What do you recommend?”
“OK,” he says, “I’m going to show you two great pairs of shoes. Let me explain the difference.”
And off we went, down a friction-free path to a mutually beneficial socio-economic exchange.
But most agency creative people would have completely fucked that up. They would have said, “OK, but before we talk shoes, let me tell you this really funny joke I made up.”
That better be the funniest fucking joke in the world.
Outside of kittens and babies, what elements does your work need to perform well online?
Interestingly enough, my company just helped our friend, Jim Dore at Bernstein-Rein produce some pro-bono video content for KC Pet. Subject matter: Kittens and puppies.
The eternal art of storytelling (and everything it entails) is always fundamental. But for me, today’s headline goes back to context. I’ve heard Google referred to as “the database of intentions.” So in this day and age, maybe the most important attribute of video content is that we know people are asking for it?
Nordstrom’s got a sleeper hit on YouTube, “How To Tie a Scarf: 4 Scarves 16 Different Ways.” They put just the right amount of production value into it: it’s visually appetizing, musically delightful and highly digestible. Two million people watched it. Partly because the video itself is perfectly crafted. But mostly because two million people want to know how to tie a scarf.
The flip side is, some stories just need to be told. We created a short piece recently, a series of kids talking about how they never want to live in an old folk’s home. It was a touching, funny way to deliver a provocative message about the way American culture compartmentalizes the elderly.
What is your latest epiphany?
Ever see Louis C.K.’s bit about air travel (Everything’s Amazing + Nobody’s Happy)? We live in a magical but bewildering age. What’s important? What really matters? Only a handful of things.