On this episode, we welcome VCU professor Kevin Rothermel. He’s at the front lines with students of advertising and seeing the challenges, the growth and the promise. In this conversation, we look at how strategy is taught, and what breaks through.

Transcript by Otter.ai

Adam Pierno 0:29
Alright, welcome back to another episode of the strategy inside everything. We are joined today by a professor so I really feel like I have to step up my my game here with my diction and my all my word choice has really got to be up to snuff here. Kevin Rothermel, who is a professor at VCU Brand Center has finally made his way to the show. We’ve been working on this for a while. Have we not, Kevin?

Kevin Rothermel 0:53
Yeah, it has been it has been some time. I was glad we could find to make it work. Yeah, thank you.

Adam Pierno 0:57
I really appreciate you finding a way to do it. You’re, you’re doing a little after hours, and I, I appreciate it. And I think the listeners are gonna appreciate it, this is going to be really cool. Before we get started, why don’t you give people a sense of your career and what you did and where you came from before you joined VCU, and even a little bit about what you’re doing there.

Kevin Rothermel 1:21
Okay, well, um, so let’s see. So first of all, I’m not well, you know, we have the title of Professor. We’re not real academics. We don’t know, we don’t have you know, none of us have PhDs. It’s a it’s a program that’s intended to be kind of taught by practitioners. And so I guess, to go way back, when I first left undergrad and college, when I graduated from college, I moved with a band and we were going to play music for a living in North Carolina. And that worked for about three months. I had a backup to just you know, where my parents were living just outside of DC and I worked at a in the marketing group at a software reseller up there for about a year, which was it was just terrible. And I think anyone who has had a terrible job, and then has gotten into this business can really appreciate kind of the difference and what a difference having a gap like actually makes. And so while I was there, I was aware of a program and Richmond’s called the VCU ad Center, which is what brands are used to be called. That’s right. And so while I was sort of suffering through that year, I worked really hard on an application to get in there because I knew that, you know, advertising and strategy was something that I was interested in. I’ve always been interested in kind of creativity and people in that sort of thing. So did the two years there have got the master’s degree, and from there, moved around a bit worked at McKinney in North Carolina, then moved on up to Boston to work with Gareth Kay at Modernista. Before heading out west, we were out in San Francisco at a smaller shop called 11. Inc. which was a really cool game because it was it was working with Apple on a lot of internal stuff. And then, you know, after we were out there for two years or so, my wife was also from Virginia, every time we moved, she was always like, when when can we move back to Virginia?

Adam Pierno 3:28
When Goodby opens an office there. Right?

Kevin Rothermel 3:31
Right. But then an opportunity came up at the Martin agency, I kept in touch with them for a number of years. And so we were able to make it happen. And move back here in back here to Richmond in 2010. spent about five and a half, six years at the Martin Agency before making the transition over to the brand center.

Adam Pierno 3:55
Did you work at the Martin agency while you were at the brand center? Or was it kind of clean break, you started one after the other.

Kevin Rothermel 4:02
It was a clean break before years years back I taught as an adjunct faculty. So a couple classes in the brand center and also and the undergrad advertising school over at VCU. So I done teaching while I was at the Martin agency, which isn’t the easiest thing to do, just given the travel schedule. And I mean, you don’t have schedules kind of fluctuating around. But yeah, so when I came over full time, that was a it was a clean break. Think it was August and 2015. And so I’ve been there since since then just kind of you know, doing that during the year, like I was mentioning before the call. We don’t have summer programs. So we so there’s a lot of kind of freelance is going on in the summers and things like that. But But yeah, it’s been a really, it’s been a really great transition.

Adam Pierno 4:51
Now, that freelance that you do is actually really important, because he said that brand center uses practice yours to be professors. So you’re freelancing and staying sharp and making sure that you’re using the skills for both I’m sure personal satisfaction as well as paying some summertime bills is always nice. Yeah, absolutely.

Kevin Rothermel 5:11
Yeah. Yeah, and that’s one of the things that I think the brand center was was founded on. Back when it was the ad center was this idea of, you know, it’s almost almost a simulated ad agency, the environment. And so, you know, all the professors are people who have who have been doing this, who have worked in the business and are continuing to work in the business, so they can sort of speak to what’s really going on. And, and it is important, it’s it’s really easy, you know, as I’m sure a lot of people know, if they if when you step out of the business, it can be really easy to kind of get frozen in time. And so you’re gonna if you’re not going back, and if you’re not digging in, if you’re not doing actual real client work, I think it can be tough to stay relevant. Absolutely. And you know, I mean, I think that the other the other side of it is that you know, who knows, if you want to get back into, into the job, right, or back into strategy, rejoin an agency, go do something like that, you want to sort of keep everything kind of fresh.

Adam Pierno 6:13
It’s like playing music, I mean, you you have to kind of keep keep sharp and keep rehearsing and otherwise, you’re, when you pick up your instrument, you’re not able to do anything with it.

Kevin Rothermel 6:21
Yeah, that’s right. And I think, you know, it helps to keep a little bit of the humility that comes from doing client work.

Adam Pierno 6:26
It’s you gotta get your teeth kicked in. So you’re You don’t?

Kevin Rothermel 6:30
That’s right.

Adam Pierno 6:31
Let’s talk about teaching kids today at Brand Center. So you have you teach four different classes, you said earlier, I think before recording, but just give me a sense about of Give, give the listeners a sense of like, what is the someone who comes to school for strategy? What’s the rough education they get as a high level and then I want to dig in and talk about in challenges that you see good stuff that you see?

Kevin Rothermel 6:56
Well, they’re going to go through a few different classes. The thing is, it’s something like four classes a semester, the and the classes are all as you can imagine, and you work in an educational institution. So to change the actual name of a class involves going through this bureaucratic spanking machine that yeah, I think most people wouldn’t believe that the classes have names that are that are fairly general. And the purpose being that then we can sort of adjust the content and topics and everything like that, as we see things changing out in the world. And as some things work better than others, right. So we can be a little bit nimble, like that. But, you know, I think, you know, I mentioned that I graduated from the Ad Center back in the day, and it was really focused on account planning back then. And I think that it’s really come a long way. And it looks a lot different from those early days. You know, we have I mean, like, ultimately, what we talk about is how do we how do we make strategists kind of the best partners in the room. And the way that the industry has changed, even from when I was a, you would, you would go to the Ad Center, and you will learn how to crank one specific kind of widget, right, you would learn how to crank the copywriting widget,

Adam Pierno 8:15
You’d get super, super sharp with that, you’d come out with a really crafted copywriting book for that situation that you got at ad school.

Kevin Rothermel 8:24
And then you would go into the world to an agency and you would crank that widget, right? There’s almost like a, like an industrial age mindset of how things worked. But I think, you know, just the sheer amount of creative jobs and business that are available that we have our students going to now was so wide and so varied. So part of part of what we try to do is to make sure that our strategies are used to working with with creatives and designers from all different types of whatever it is they happen to be solving for. Right, so we’ve got classes where they will be so I teach a class called strategic thinking that’s first semester and there is going to be strategists and brand managers in that class. And so they learn to work together a little bit in there. And then, you know, after that they will be in classes where it’s just the strategists and the experience designers. Okay,

Adam Pierno 9:19
that’s really smart.

Kevin Rothermel 9:20
Yep. And then they will have the more I think, kind of legacy style pair up in one class where it is kind of, you know, one strategist with a team of art director and copier. Yep. And so, you know, they go through all those, there were also every semester, there’s a class that is all five tracks together, working in teams trying to solve problems. And, you know, so they get, they get experienced just working across a wide variety of different kind of skill sets. And we also are able to bring in a lot of live clients, for them to work on, you know, we’ve had, we’ve had brands like Spotify come in, and Microsoft, we just did a did some work with the PGA Tour last year. And so that, that gives them a think, another, I think angle on the world and understanding that you can get if you’re just doing if you’re just making a portfolio. Yeah, right. In the same way that if you’re a musician, you really get better by going out and playing in front of people. I think, having having that client to act as you know, oppositional force is probably the wrong way to look at it. But having a client that’s going to be out there judging and pushing and probing for things, kind of forces a completely different mindset of things.

Adam Pierno 10:37
Well, yeah, to 2,000,000%. If you’re solving a problem, you you go at it differently, if it’s a real problem with real inputs and real information that you know, in a real conclusion that you’re trying to get to, I always struggled when I was putting a portfolio together, it’s there’s so much blue sky, it could go anywhere. And so you have to really be there’s a different kind of discipline, which is when do I stop? When do I? Oh, yeah, this is the direction that is really good and smart. And we can stop, we can settle here and focus on this problem versus when a client gives you a brief? No, no, they have to get traffic in the door like Right.

Kevin Rothermel 11:13
And there, you know, and, and I think there are there are realities with with budget and timing, and, and that sort of thing. And it’s, you know, first semester in first class, I like to bring in some local clients sometimes, because, you know, they, they’re going to be a little bit easier on the students there are a little bit lower. But it also forces the students to have to work with, you know, companies, small places, coffee shops, you know, these these companies that don’t have media money, right. And so it’s it’s thinking about how, how can a brand sort of operate in a world that I think is increasingly creeping up the chain a little bit, right? Where there’s not a lot of money to do big extravagant things all the time? But how can you sort of be creative to solve for what the business problem actually is?

Adam Pierno 12:00
That would that might be more of a problem for seasoned agency people, then newcomers? I would imagine, I’ve thought about this a lot. And if you listen to Bill Simmons talk CEO, he says this generation of teenagers are going to blow the doors off of any kind of creative output that we’ve ever seen, because they’ve grown up with all these tools. And you know, that Final Cut on your phone, versus having to be let through a gatekeeper and have $1,000 to buy Photoshop. And I wonder if these are the new students that you that you bring in you see them? Are they more nimble thinkers, and more, you know, when you say there’s no media budget, are they quicker to come up with solutions? Or do they hit the same roadblocks that that some more experienced strategist might come up with?

Kevin Rothermel 12:48
Well, I think so there’s, there’s a couple things to that, because I think they come into the Brand Center. And even if you are familiar with strategy, or the idea of what strategy is, like, no one really knows what I mean, there. They’re strategist, they really don’t quite understand what it is just yet. And so I think, when they come in, they read the brand center sign and automatically attach that to ads. And so there’s a little bit of a deprogramming that has to take place and like, like, yes, yes, ads are fun. But let’s take a step back here. And let’s look at kind of like, what is the brand and and, and that the brand is the sum of all these behaviors, and right, and so like, all these different ways that people are going to come into contact with the brand can really have a dramatic effect. And I think that, you know, yes, they are savvier media wise, and they’ve grown up with social media and things like that. But I think in a lot of cases, they’ve never had to think about it before. Right. And so it’s one thing to go on Snapchat, and send a post to some friends. It’s another thing to think about. Okay, well, what, how, how should someone else be using this to accomplish a specific thing?

Adam Pierno 13:59
Right, versus me wanting to do something funny for myself? Right.

Kevin Rothermel 14:04
Right. And so I think that’s, that’s one of the things that’s, you know, you see, and I get that question a lot, right? When talking about social media, like, should they still be learning kind of social media strategy type thing was like, Yeah, because they don’t, they don’t know what they’re doing. I mean, they know what they’re doing. But they don’t know why they’re doing it. Right. In a lot of cases. And, and then I think, to, you know, against to apply that to a different situation to a different company to a different person, it it requires, I think, a little bit of a different mindset that maybe they haven’t considered before.

Adam Pierno 14:36
Yep. Now, you said when you attended, it was more planning focused, and now it’s more strategy focused. So is that more in your mind? Is that going more further upstream, and solving bigger business problems than the planning? You know, we’re trying to inform the media output?

Kevin Rothermel 14:56
Yeah, we’re trying to shift upstream a bit. You know, there’s increasingly a need. And we hear this over and over again, one of the ways that we we try to keep tabs on what’s going on is we’ve got an extensive alumni network. And so we’ll hear from them, you know, a lot about kind of what they’re seeing out in the world. And with recent grads, like what do they wish they would have learned that they didn’t? What did they learn that was been really helpful and things like that, but so we’re definitely turning up turning up the the knob on kind of business e business learnings, right? So they can have a, you know, have a better understanding of like, ultimately, this is about a company that is trying to make money, you know, that somehow, right? And so moving upstream from that standpoint, but also, I think, moving upstream to the point where Yeah, the answer is maybe isn’t an ad, right. And so one of the classes I teach is comms planning, which is, you know, back when I was in school, we had, I think, one or two years where they had a creative media planning trick. That’s gone. Now. And so the strategy is they’re learning how do you how can you be strategic with media, right, and, and then there’s also a little bit of like working with, with designers. So how, you know, there’s a class called strategy and design where they’re going to be working with the expertise to come up with different solutions to different problems that are invariably not going to be advertising, right?

Adam Pierno 16:24
That’s smart, because so much of what we’re doing so much, so many of the briefs, you actually get and have to write or for things that are not two dimensional, or an ad of any shape or size. It’s like, interface design needs a brief. Right, right.

Kevin Rothermel 16:36
And I think that, you know, at least from from what I’ve seen, the people who are involved in briefings at better agencies now, like, you’re not going to have the same old cast of characters in there, right, you’re going to have people in there that are going, you’re gonna have, you’re gonna have developers in the room, right? You’re going to have production people in the room, right, in addition to the art directors and the copywriters. And so I think you need to be able to write a brief that’s going to be of use for everyone in the room, right, to some extent, and there, and there may be necessarily some more in depth things to give some people and not others and things like that. But I think, you know, keeping things at that higher level, really getting at like, Okay, well, what, what is the problem that we’re trying to solve for here? Right, ultimately, or what is the opportunity here? Or, you know, we may have the client may have given us a problem to solve for, but is there a better version of that problem? That right? what’s what’s

Adam Pierno 17:37
the real problem we’re trying to solve? Yeah. Versus the problem they told us they want us to solve?

Kevin Rothermel 17:42
Sure. Yeah, yeah. And you know, I like it. Because I feel like, especially in larger agencies, a lot of times you get phone calls from the client, almost like they’re ordering a pizza. Yeah, right. where it’s like, Okay, well, we’d like to get a free 32nd spots. And one of the things that that I really try to get our certain students to understand is that you need to be able to push back in, you need to be able to, like, really evaluate what’s going on here. Right? What are they really looking to do? If they called up and specifically asked for a TV spot? Maybe that’s the right answer, but maybe it’s not. Right. And so, you know, how do you have that conversation? And, and get trying to get them there? I think, you know, this is one of the challenges that I found is how do you get students who have been programmed by public education for a very long time to be very good at following directions? How do you get them to stop following directions? Right?

Adam Pierno 18:42
It’s a pretty crazy skill to learn to the skill to navigate those conversations, especially if they when they graduate from Branson, or they get their first job, and they’re going an entry level? Or is that’s tough question to ask, maybe potentially a strategy director. So if they’re, if they’re speaking to that person and say to you sure. That would be if someone came in my office on their third day and said, Are you sure they need that and be like, right, right.

Yeah.

But it’s, it’s the question that always needs to be asked, but it’s, I’m sure, as you go up, the next person up that you ask would always be like this. They want it right there. We’ve already thought about it. Very rarely do someone go, I don’t know, let me see that. Right.

Kevin Rothermel 19:26
Or even, you know, coming back with like, okay, we, here’s, here’s what you asked for, but also, here’s what we think is the better answer.

Adam Pierno 19:34
Yeah, that’s a great way to navigate it.

Kevin Rothermel 19:36
And so trying to get them to kind of go down that road and, and understand how to do that and start to do it intuitively is it’s, it’s, it’s really difficult, but it’s really rewarding when you see it happen. You know, and it’s just, it’s, it’s, you see it happen in little kind of silly ways. Like there was a woman, I think, my first year of teaching who I had the class, do a design breakdown where they just had identify some object out in the world, and then deconstruct it, right, and talk about the materials and how it worked and all that sort of thing. And this one girl, and she was also really good at illustration, she broke down Icarus has wings. And, and it was really great. And then don’t get me wrong. Like she also did a really good job at it. But you know, kind of, I think, being able to take an assignment like that and bend it and twist it and do something that’s interesting. I think, you know, that that really made me feel pretty good about what the program was capable of helping. Yeah,

Adam Pierno 20:39
she set a high bar. Yeah, sure. He never you never saw another recurs his wings come through there.

Kevin Rothermel 20:45
No, it’s all gumball machine. Yeah.

Adam Pierno 20:48
She kind of she kind of blew it for everybody else coming after. Right. That’s pretty cool. So what did she have all feathers and wax? And?

Kevin Rothermel 20:57
Oh, gosh, yeah, I don’t I don’t remember it. Now. This was a I mean, this is, you know, way back then. But yeah, it was it was a drawing of Icarus and the wings and kind of call outs of the feathers and the wax and

Adam Pierno 21:07
I love it. So, yeah, what do you said, you said earlier, when you talked about that first class, you mentioned that a lot of the students really don’t know what strategy is yet when they walk in there that first day. So what’s the first breadcrumb you put down for them? Typically, like, where do you start? Well,

Kevin Rothermel 21:30
it depends. I’ve approached it a different ways throughout the years, you know, one way that I think is, can be helpful is to start looking at ads, and start saying, Okay, what what were they trying to do here? Have them reverse engineer a brief, creative? Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And, and even that doesn’t always work. But so well, so you know, we’ll break down. Okay, let’s, so objectives, strategy, gee tactics, right? Let’s talk about what each of those means, right? And really getting down to the fundamental level here. And, you know, maybe talking because if you if you look around online, like if you go to the Wikipedia page for a strategy, I mean, there’s 17 different ways that people have talked about it for, you know, across all the different applications of it. And so, you know, it’s a little bit of repetition, it’s different kinds of examples of different kinds of conversations, can can help them to start to understand it. But I think, you know, anyone who’s done this, you know, at all I think it, that’s where you really start to understand it, is by doing it and failing, and doing it and failing. Yeah, doing and kind of getting a little bit better. Right? Because it’s, it’s all this terminology and all these concepts and everything else that that I think when you’re in an agency, it starts to become sort of second nature, it’s, it’s there, they’re really slippery. For people who haven’t thought about it a lot or haven’t done a lot with a

Adam Pierno 23:00
Yeah, if you’re not doing it 60 hours a week, the words kind of go right past, so you don’t really even recognize them. Right? You’re in that conference room, or you’re in the breakout room or you’re at your desk, and you’re hearing it back and forth all day long. Yeah, you’re right. It’s become you become steeped in it. And you understand the shorthand now to get there faster. Right, right.

Kevin Rothermel 23:19
Yeah, yep. And, you know,

that’s actually been one of the one of the more interesting parts of taking the job is I think that, you know, we all have kind of these ways of doing things and of kind of approaching assignments and beliefs about what tools are good and what tools are not, and that sort of thing. But it’s not until you have to get up in front of people and have a three hour conversation about it that you have to you really have to take a look at like, Okay, well, what is it? What is it that I do? And why do I do that? And what are the different components? And what parts of this is just kind of like, you know,

Adam Pierno 23:56
jargon II jargon and garble. And so you started having to, like, tease apart all of these things that you’ve chunked together over time, and, and re examine everything about how you’ve gone about work. Did you? Did you go back to an old project? Or did you start taking notes as you were doing a live project, so that you in real time as you were working on something you are saying, Okay, now that now once I’ve done Part A, then I start thinking about parts B, and C?

Kevin Rothermel 24:24
Well, no, you still you think about concepts you think about, you know, that we all joke about, like, making brand onions, right? and things like that. And it’s like, Okay, well, we know those things can be silly, but why are they silly? Right? And, and really taking a look at that, because I think there are some things about kind of brand architecture, stuff like that, that are overwrought and overused. And that helpful. Yeah, but there’s also some stuff that can be helpful there that can be useful. And if nothing else, once they get into the world, it’s regardless of my opinion of any of this stuff. They are they not need, they need this literacy, to be able to approach things that are going to come up and client situations. Yeah, it’s better that they’ve at least heard it, even if you tell them you should never say this.

Adam Pierno 25:09
But here, here’s what, here’s why I think it’s silly. And here’s why people like it. Right? Right.

Kevin Rothermel 25:14
And yeah, and, and kind of here’s, here’s the usable parts, right. And here’s the parts where maybe it’s not so useful. And so really trying to understand going back and trying to understand that stuff and pulling it apart, I think is was was really interesting. And I can tell that when I go out and I’m doing freelance work now then I’m approaching things maybe a little bit differently than I would have before I came back and was sort of forced to do this,

Adam Pierno 25:41
you have a more clear kind of process in your mind or a methodology in your mind of what you’re doing and why versus kind of know you did instinctively before. Right, right.

Kevin Rothermel 25:51
Yeah. And you know, some of that may just be kind of time frame timescale of when you’re when you’re working in an agency, and you’ve got to turn a brief around, and you know, like, by the afternoon due to that sort of thing. And so you just got to do it. But yeah, when you can actually take a step back, and things aren’t moving quite so fast. You can sort of say like, Oh, hey, that was a

that was a really dumb way of doing things before right there. Like, I didn’t make any sense at all.

Adam Pierno 26:17
The first two thirds of my career, I was just like, look back at and sometimes I was like, I wish I knew, I wish I could work as quickly now then, while I had your G. Right, it’d be an unstoppable work robot, I would be unbelievable. I spent most of the time doing things wrong. And, and, you know, redoing it. Yeah, is the worst. But let’s let me ask you a question about So, before you went there, you were at Martin agency? And were you training people there and strategy as well.

Kevin Rothermel 26:50
Um, so before I took the job, I, you know, we, so I was planning, I was planning director at the Martin agency and the way that the team was recompose, we would have people, juniors coming from kind of different aspects of strategy that would come to teams. And so I think from that standpoint of working with juniors on teams, and sort of helping them out with with stuff, you know, it’s not official training or anything like that, but right, probably just the natural mentorship that happens with teams. So I was doing doing that. And also, the Richmond ad club here, you know, they always look for mentors, professional mentors, for seniors in college who were about to graduate. And so I was I was, I did that a couple times. And just found that I really liked working with people and sort of helping them because I think a lot of a lot of what this is, is like, yeah, there’s the, there’s the craft, and there’s the tools, and there’s the ways of thinking. But I think a lot of it is really about kind of figuring out, who are you, right, in this setting? And understanding who you are and what your voice is. And you know, just things about like, Well, okay, so how, how can you be in a client meeting and be present in a client meeting? As authentically, you know, as you were authentic self, right. And a lot of people who are quiet, you know, the like, and I hear this every year, I’ll sort of get on him a little bit about not participating in class. And they’ll say, Well, what do you just want me to talk to talk? Like, no, no, I don’t want you to talk to talk, I want you to learn how to be a presence in the room. Yeah. Which may or may not involve talking. But you need to figure out how to do that as yourself. Right?

Adam Pierno 28:40
You can do it without talking at all. Yeah, absolutely. But you have to be there, they have to know recognize that you were there and feel that you did something valuable, even if it’s taking great notes. And and, you know, projecting yourself in a way that’s meaningful, and adding something to the process and not just for the conversation and not just in sitting there, you know, looking at phone the whole time.

Kevin Rothermel 29:03
Yeah, that’s right.

Yes, absolutely. And I think what’s really hard for people to do, and this is another one of the challenges is when they when they first get to school, and when they’re doing something like presenting, like everyone has this sort of cosplay business person. They try on like when they’re presenting, or when they’re writing their first papers. You know, where they use like the, they’ll use a bunch of like business jargon. And when they get up in front of the class to present they try to be very, you know, like, like, you would imagine a businessman being right. Yeah. And so getting them to understand that like, No, no, that’s, that’s not how you do it. Like you have to, you have to be yourself in front of in front of these people. And you have to figure out what you look like your personality looks like.

Adam Pierno 30:00
Let’s talk about that before. But that’s exactly right. And totally works. If you are playing yourself really well. And you can’t get up there and mimic something you saw in a movie. Right,

Kevin Rothermel 30:11
then that’s exactly it. And it’s exactly what what they do. And so, so there’s a lot of especially the first year of the first semester, when they get there, there’s a lot of deprogramming that you have to do, you know, in, in occasions like that, but also just in trying to get them to write for brevity.

Adam Pierno 30:31
Oh, yeah, that’s, that’s a challenge every all the time. Right?

Kevin Rothermel 30:34
Well, you know, because they’ve all just gone if they come came straight from undergrad, they have spent the last, you know, however many years decades, learning how to fill large quantities, large buckets of words. Yeah, it’s almost like the the content of what they’re writing doesn’t matter as much as whether or not it fills up the designated met space. So then, so then to fix that, to get them to stop doing that, to stop using words that are too long to be used and to start writing like people. It’s, it’s really difficult, and it can be really uncomfortable for them to get the hang of.

Adam Pierno 31:15
Yeah. Which is harder the writing or the presenting?

Kevin Rothermel 31:18
Oh, boy. I think presenting? Well, they’re hard in different ways.

I think writing was everyone tends to overestimate how good of a writer they are.

Adam Pierno 31:35
That’s right. It’s like driving. If you ask anybody. Americans like I’m a great driver. And then you know, right.

Kevin Rothermel 31:42
Yeah, anywhere you move to the lake, if it’s raining really hard. Someone’s always like, oh, no one here knows how to drive when it rains. Yes. And like, Oh, so you do right. You’re.

Adam Pierno 31:54
You’re really good at it, though. Yeah, right. That’s right. But you’re right. And same thing applies with writing you like, Yeah, everybody always thinks they’re a great writer until they write something and have it reviewed by someone else who, who gives them solid feedback? Not like, right?

Kevin Rothermel 32:08
Well, yeah. And then they think, like, they think that writing creatively or being interesting when writing involves using a lot of flowery language, you know, versus having having the actual writing itself convey all of that stuff. Almost, you know, it’s almost like decoration instead of content. But you know, and I think that’s, it’s something we lean on them really hard with, because as we tell them all the time, they’re going to do as a strategist, you’re going to do more writing than anyone else in the agency, between between emails, between decks, between papers, research all of that stuff. So like, so you better really know how to do it well. So we lean on him pretty hard for that. And I think you know, the presentation, that is something that I think just takes a little bit of time. For most for most people. One of the things that the program’s always been really good at is you present over and over and over and over again, to the point where I think by the end, you know, you just become expertly yourself in that setting. And even if you do get nervous, you’re still able to get up and do it, you just kind of you just you just get used to it after a while.

Adam Pierno 33:23
Yeah, I think that’s how it usually goes, when you see someone who’s really young, that’s comfortable in a room like that. I’m always astonished, right?

It’s a natural right there. It’s very, very unusual. So you mentioned partnership, you want to train them to be the best partners they can be, which is is perfect for strategy, they have to be able to connect people across the agency or across a project. What do you what is happening that’s helping them do that? I know, in the different classes, you’re pairing them up with different types of different disciplines. Is there anything else that you’re doing to encourage that that understanding of what makes a good partner? And what can break a partnership? Or is it is it just kind of repeat repetition? And and going over it again? And again, with projects?

Kevin Rothermel 34:09
Well, it’s it’s the practical project work a lot of times and you know, that’s, that’s a lot of times I talk about that our curriculum is a little bit like that, that picture of iceberg that you always see. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. But it’s, you know, that there’s kind of the overt curriculum, which is what we do in class and the tools and the discussions and everything like that. And then there’s kind of the the undersea massive curriculum, which is, which is not over. But it’s what happens when they’re working together in a project at two in the morning, and someone’s, you know, throwing a chair

Adam Pierno 34:39
out that part is not documented anywhere. Right? This is, this is the real work that you have to figure out how to dance together.

Kevin Rothermel 34:47
Yeah, learning how to be a creative person with other people, some of whom are not going to be good at it, right, some of them are going to be really good at it. And it’s really interesting to see the difference mix of people that we get to come back, because a lot of times we will have people in their 30s who are changing careers, and they’ll be on teams with people who came straight out of undergrad. And so to see someone that has actual real world experience and leadership experience kind of working in group, you, you you’ll oftentimes you’ll hear that person from undergrad will be complaining that so and so is you know, steamrolling everyone cases. And in some cases they might be I think one of the most interesting things that I’ve that I’ve had to start doing, like I, I knew that getting people you know, there’s there’s kind of that end of people who are going to are going to be coattails writers, right, who you need to kind of like get to up to speed and up to actually working with the group. But then there are people who are so good at just driving the show and kind of natural born leaders, but they don’t, they don’t lead people they just sort of dominate. Yeah. And so trying to work with them to get them to figure out like, how do you actually lead the group, first of just get in and lay down the rules and kind of steamroll everyone, right?

Adam Pierno 36:04
You don’t want domination you want someone to shepherd and be make it as a constructive trip that we’re all happy we went on. Right, right. And you know,

Kevin Rothermel 36:12
for a lot of these, like, these are natural born leadership personalities. And so it’s you know, and sometimes it’ll be something like, they’ll they’ll be complaining about someone who’s cocktail writing in the group, and you kind of have to have that the conversation of like, Listen, you’re really good at this, you part of your job, as someone who was natural at this is to figure out how do you bring those people on board, you know, you know, this is a team, we’re all responsible for each other. So you’ve got to start, you’ve got to start working on that.

Adam Pierno 36:44
That’s a hard thing to learn. And the but it’s it’s another important thing, I mean, just like a just like questioning the answers that you get, and when you get a brief out how to get someone to carry their weight is critical, especially for younger people, new people in the industry that are going to be putting you in the majority of hours doing the work. Right. And you get put with a bad partner. That is that is death. works not fun anymore, when you’re when you’re dealing with that. Yeah,

Kevin Rothermel 37:11
yeah. And so you know, if you and the reality is, and we get when they want to switch teams, because invariably someone wants to switch teams, because so and so is you know, they don’t get along with them, or something like that. And usually we say no, because in the world, you’re gonna have to learn how to kind of navigate these relationships.

Adam Pierno 37:31
Are they teams just for the duration of a project? Or is it for an entire semester or class? What’s that? How long is that?

Kevin Rothermel 37:37
Well, I think most of the classes do it by project, there was one class where they do it for the semester. And so there’s, there’s a couple different dynamics that okay, the one when that’s the case, but you know, I try to cycle them around a little bit so they can get used to working with different kinds of personalities and things like that. And the drawback is that you don’t get the same amount of trust, a thing that a team that’s been working together for some time will develop. But, you know, I think the more that they can sort of learn how to work with a multitude of different kinds of people that think you know, the better.

Adam Pierno 38:11
Yeah, no, that’s awesome. All right. You’d work it. You work at four agencies that you listed here, but of the 3am agencies, Kenny, modern east and Martin agency, three very different agencies and agency cultures. Yeah. No, yeah. Which which culture? Did you thrive in the best? I think when people hear people of a certain age here, those three agency names they go oh, I know exactly. I can dial in. In fact, I remember an ad I think where they had outfits of you remember this, it was like, maybe it was for ad week or something where it had somebody from Modernista. From some Martin agency was in like a vest with flannel, you know, this. Right, right, on show ad or something. Which of the cultures did work the best for you? Well, mother nice to was sort of like

Kevin Rothermel 38:56
a disco that did add. It was lot of fun. And I think, you know, they had they there was just music on every floor. And it was just, you know, it was a little latency that blew up pretty big, pretty fast. And so it had a lot of had a lot of wild energy. And you know, there were some creative firepower, there was just unreal. Just actual, absolutely brilliant people. So I probably had the most fun there. of everyone. But, you know, I think all different agencies are all kind of good at different things. Like when I got back to the Martin agency and realize there were adults there at that. Well, that’s interesting. There’s a dance here, the new take on it. Right, right. And so there’s and and, you know, there’s pros and cons to that. And I think in every situation, we can have this conversation all the time when when students have multiple offers. And they say, Well, which one? Which one should I go to? And the answer is depends.

Adam Pierno 40:03
Yeah, I mean, you could get the right offer from the right place. That’s just not the right shit. Yeah, absolutely. 100%. And I think everybody’s been in that situation where they’re two days in. And they’re like, no,

Kevin Rothermel 40:15
yeah, what am I done? This is not a good thing. Yeah, and one thing that, you know, we see happen over time, and I’m pretty sure I did it when I was a student is the strategy students will see what what the hot agencies are that the creatives are really into. And they’ll decide that they want to go work at those places. And we talk we always have to have is like, well, they may not be a great place for strategy. Now there might be but you know, some questions. Yeah, let’s learn a little bit more about this before. Before you throw, you know, all of your all your eggs into that basket.

Adam Pierno 40:49
That’s funny. That is so true. I mean, if it’s, if it’s, I mean, I would imagine, Modernista. Although I know you were there. I know Gareth k was there, there was a hard strategy spine to the place. When I would imagine a place that was creatively dominated. There was just a lot of like, Yeah, but we’re going to do it and figure out why it makes sense.

Kevin Rothermel 41:06
Well, yeah. And I thought, you know, the planners that work there, and we’re really good. You know, most of the most of the strategy that was happening was while hanging out with the creatives, right, there was it was just if there was a lot of conversation, yeah.

Adam Pierno 41:20
organically happening between the group as a team and not barely assembly line.

Kevin Rothermel 41:26
That’s right. That’s right. And and, you know, and and they were the creatives didn’t suffer a lot of BS, right. And so I think, you know, just being in an environment like that is, yeah, it’s absolutely critical that as the strategist, you’re bringing some value, right? You’re bringing some ideas to the table?

Adam Pierno 41:44
Yeah. That’s probably the biggest lesson is is how to stand up for yourself without being a jerk. And being being difficult, you know, stand up yourself in defense of the work. And not defense of your, your ego, which is right. Psychologists, you’re teaching them craft, but I guess some part of it is almost deconstructing their psyche to tell them like, No, no, no, you can’t do that way. You come off as too aggressive.

Kevin Rothermel 42:10
Well, right. And ultimately, it’s, it’s a business of relationships. And so being able to get a relationship with the creative director to that point, where you can tell them like, no, this idea is this idea is terrible, right? Or, you know, I still remember the first time I had a creative director come specifically to my desk to ask me a question about the assignment or the, you know, the brief. And I was just like, man, I felt like I really made it to that point. Yeah, that’s such a good feeling. But

Adam Pierno 42:40
it was a CD that you that you respected and admired, then it’s like, Whoa, that was really cool.

Kevin Rothermel 42:45
Absolutely. Yeah. And, and so you know, developing those relationships, and you can’t, but foster that so much in a school setting, right. And they’re going to hang out with who they hang out with, and, and that sort of thing. But you know, really try to impress upon them that this isn’t, you’re not automatically guaranteed a seat at the at the Big Boy table, like you’ve got to earn your way there, you’ve got to have those relationships, you’ve got to bring ideas and and good thinking and all that to the table.

Adam Pierno 43:16
Does that exist in the different? I know, you don’t have grade level? I guess the years does that exist? In the different years? Do you have to earn your way up in stature in inside the school? Or is each class individual independent? Oh, each class is I mean,

Kevin Rothermel 43:30
I think the classes, you know, they they will go through first and second year together. And so I think you see, when creatives start to, you know, have friends who work in strategy, and you start Rafi when you when you have projects. So we did a project for the the students who were about to graduate, where we allowed them to pick their own teams. And we didn’t have any requirements on casting. So they could, it could be a team of all brand managers, or it could be a team of all art directors or whatever else. And so it was, it was really interesting to see. Not only there was a team of three brand managers who submitted an idea to L’Oreal, and got really far in a competition that they were having. And it was an idea for an app. And so it’s three brand managers, they were able to do that, which I thought was really cool. But you also see, you know, creatives, who are then like who are the strategist that get pulled in and are working with a really good creatives and stuff like that, which is really, really great to see. Right?

Adam Pierno 44:32
Yes. satisfying. Yeah.

Kevin Rothermel 44:36
Yeah. When they start to click like that, and when they want to be they want to be working with the strategists and the strategist, or have a good enough relationship to where they are going to be working on these on these kind of whatever the project, maybe.

Adam Pierno 44:49
That’s really cool. Well, I think I think we will leave it here. Where can people find you online?

Kevin Rothermel 44:56
Well, I guess just KevinRothermel.com is my sorely neglected blog. But I think you can get to everywhere else from there. You can check out the cool the school website at brandcenter.vcu.edu. And, yeah, I think I think that’s it.

Adam Pierno 45:18
Man, this was awesome. I really appreciate you making time. I’m excited, or we have a bright future ahead of us for strategy students or

Kevin Rothermel 45:30
absolutely, absolutely something that’s coming out

Adam Pierno 45:32
that oh, I wasn’t sure where you’re going with that. I didn’t know if you’re like, no, don’t hold your breath.

Kevin Rothermel 45:39
No, no, we’ve got a couple of the best classes that I’ve seen come through have just have just graduated. So

Adam Pierno 45:45
Oh, I’m sorry for you. But I’m glad to the rest of us.

Kevin Rothermel 45:48
Yeah, there were a few that I sort of wanted to fail so that they couldn’t leave. Yeah. I don’t think that would be that would be allowable.

Adam Pierno 45:57
I guess that’s probably frowned upon. Yes.

Unknown Speaker 45:59
Yes.

Adam Pierno 46:00
Well, thank you very much for making time. This is a lot of fun.

Kevin Rothermel 46:02
Alright, man, thanks so long.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

If you’re interested in learning strategy, you can buy Adam’s books Under Think It or Specific at Amazon.