‘Respect yourself and honor what you’re capable of doing’: Beyond the Brief with Andy Askren, Grady Britton

Andy Askren, Grady Britton

To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the 4A’s has partnered with The Drum to pull back the curtain and look at an industry full of problem solvers, creative types and analytical minds. But what keeps them going once the briefs are written, the campaigns executed, and the pitches won (or lost)?

Since 2003, Andy Askren has been a partner and creative director at Grady Britton, a creative agency based in Portland, Oregon. They have done work with Women’s Healthcare Associates, Travel Portland and more.

In addition to Askren’s agency work, he has also been hosting a podcast called “Have a Nice Idea” since January 2015. The focus of the podcast it to hear from creatives about where ideas come from and what they’re doing with those ideas.

Askren’s work in the advertising industry plus his work on his creative podcast and his passion shows that she living beyond the brief.

What makes you excited about going to work every day?

Two opposing things keep me cranked up:

Bad work, or blah-work — and it is everywhere. It’s the fact that someone, somewhere, not only dreamed up (which may give it too much credit) but had the nerve to present to a client that fuels my fire. Clients are trusting us to do the right thing. To deliver work, thinking and solves they themselves cannot create. When there’s push-back, it’s our job to stay true to good work that will give the client the results they want. How some can butcher that trust and get them thinking that their investment is best served with average (or worse) work is beyond me. And it sure leaves a mess for the good people to clean up. As you can tell by my rant, this fires me up to do the best possible work for clients and never betray that client-agency trust.

[Secondly,] It’s my personal mission to make someone’s day better because of something we had a hand in. Our deliverables have work for the client, but, first and foremost, they have to work for the intended audiences. They have to connect, click, resonate, surprise, delight, move and so on. All that happens on an emotional or experiential level- from how something looks and feels to how it sounds and works. The words, images, approaches, insights and angles we take all matter. You can tell when there’s thought and heart put into it creative work. The someone’s somewhere that strive to do more than what is expected and create work that the world needs, those are my people.

What keeps you sane in this industry? What keeps you driven to do great work?

I haven’t worked in any other industry, but I can’t believe there are many others that can be crazier than this one. In this industry, if you’re good, you’re addicted to the pressure, budgets, timing, expectations, scrutiny, and yet it often (maybe always?) snowballs. It gets insane—I’m talking ”why do I do this?!” kind of insane. But what keeps me going is when great work sneaks in where you least expect it; where despite the constraints or expectations, there’s evidence of care and intention. When someone could’ve taken the easy way, but instead used this moment in time to make a statement or stake out a new position that took more doing and more courage to go there. I love people who do that and clients who want that; that combo is a rare and wonderful thing. It is very potent and very inspiring for me. Grady Britton only works with clients that want to leave tomorrow better than today and that helps keep me sane. I know that the work I’m doing here is putting good out there in the world.

My love for learning is what has always driven me to do great work. I like to learn how something works, why it does what it does, what might work better, what used to work but now doesn’t—and tinker with expressing those things. For me, learning (and the wondering, considering, exploring, experimenting that goes along with it) is about uncovering the real truth of a particular problem. What needs to be said? What if we weren’t marketing or advertising; what would we say? What’s my mark going to be on this category?

I like to see something really make a difference. It has to affect the heart or the brain or the funny bone. That reminds me of what my go for is and what we’re all really capable of. I believe advertising can do so much more than it is often given credit for, and that certainly keeps my candle lit. I am driven to help drive that change in this industry.

What’s the biggest issue the industry faces? How would you solve it?

Relevance. How relevant is what we do to the very people we say we’re professionals at reaching? How relevant is our work beyond producing business results? And the big one — how relevant is our work to a more diverse group of future employees? Who’s going to take this on after us?

Advertising has been insulated for a long time; creating a ton of work, some of it even culturally significant, but doing it from a pretty narrow perspective. You used to have to come from a certain mindset, follow a certain path and do a certain kind of work. The thinking and approaches were all fairly set.

There’s more room than ever for agencies to honor their pasts, but not be bound by it. More room for us to reinvent ourselves smartly and boldly. We are in a time where we can pull ourselves out of our own weeds and take an honest look at where we are in the world and what we’re really contributing to. I think that impacts how an agency gets structured, the type of clients they work with, and, especially, hiring. It’s essential to be open to new perspectives from more diverse backgrounds — life, education, experience. Automatically that will start changing your business for the better — ultimately ensuring you’re relevant.

The solution? Beyond agencies themselves doing their own work - it takes a lot to challenge, upset and rebalance a fragile infrastructure and remain vital as a business. A commitment to teaching is significant in this. I believe investing in teaching another generation - that thinks what we do is invisible and irrelevant - is critical to ensuring the work we’re doing now actually lasts beyond us. We need to exposing students and newbies to the reward of this industry. They need to know that they can affect culture, business and policy change through their work.

What’s a virtue that you live by?

Respect yourself and honor what you’re capable of doing. I want to be proud of how I leave things, what I’ve done or helped do. Be good, do good — in projects or life. I’m a huge believer in optimism— it’s my favorite place to be. Optimism shifts you into a mindset that pulls you past what is difficult, uncomfortable or seemingly impossible. It changes the way you look at a problem. Optimism opens up what is possible, where you can go and how you grow.

Where is your happy place/space?

I love complexity and conjuring up solutions to complex problems, otherwise I wouldn’t be in this business. In complement to that, outside of work I feel really happy and at peace when things are very simple and stripped down raw. It’s essential for me to have that opposition in my life. For me, that happens in the outdoors, away from what I’m usually surrounded with. I’ll take a bike, a pack or a motorcycle and get out there for as long as I possibly can. The mountains, desert, forest and coast is what renews and recharges me. I need that shift to help me reset on my perspective and what matters. It helps me let go of a lot of baggage that I didn’t even know I’d been carrying around, so I’m able to be a better me. Overall, it makes me better at my job because I am able to get a fresh perspective, which helps me produce more thoughtful work for clients.

What life advice do you give others?

Get in there. Get messy! Life is beautiful and rare and wonderful. But at times, maybe a lot of times, it seems to be the opposite. Life is unfair, bewildering, sad, inhumane. It’s full of stress and worry. The tendency is to try to hide from it all or let it paralyze you into a really small, protected existence. Take a look at why those negative experiences have that effect on you. There can be such good information in there. Then take it head on and learn from it. You won’t break. In fact, feeling those things intimately and personally is exactly how you develop compassion for others and for yourself. Compassion sparks imagination, and imagination is how you create the life you want to have in the first place. Whoa, am I right?

To pitch someone from a 4A's member agency for Beyond the Brief, please complete this linked form.

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Haley Velasco

Haley Velasco is a writer based in Chicago, IL, who has a background in PR for a sports media company and has reported on a variety of topics, including sports, opinion, politics and celebrity news. Based in the Windy City, she covers industry happenings in the Midwest and throughout North America. She has been reporting for The Drum since May 2016.

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