Ian Sohn is a global client lead at WPP. Formerly, Sohn was CEO, Wunderman Thompson (Central Region), and before that Managing Director at SapientRazorfish. He is also one of the advertising professionals who I most want to hear from on Twitter each day. This is the case because I value calm, patient people with an inclusive approach and a well-considered point of view.
Sohn is an agency leader who knows. I am pleased that he chose to share some of his valuable knowledge with Adpulp’s audience.
Q. What gets you up in the morning?
A. My dog crawling on top of me to say hello. The smell of coffee brewing that I’ve set the night before. The desire to catch the sunrise at the exact right moment on my morning run. And these days, the craving to check the news even when I know it’s going to be bad.
Q. How and why did you join the ad business in the first place?
A. My first “real” job was at Sony Music in the PR department. It was the late 90s and the business was being completely disrupted by digital. Wanting to get closer to the marketing side of the business, I joined a small digital shop doing some pioneering work in what was basically the precursor to social media. From there I landed a global marketing role at Nokia. In 2007 I left New York, after 11 years, and moved back home to Chicago with my first (of two) sons in tow. I spent about eight years at Ogilvy & Mather, followed by a few at Razorfish, and then back to WPP in 2018.
Q. What’s the best campaign you have ever worked on?
A. This is kind of a strange answer. In 2000, while working at this little digital shop in New York, I met a guy called Hesher who was signed to Warner Bros records. To give you a sense of his vibe, he was the “spliff coordinator” for the band Bad Brains before getting a record deal. I didn’t love his music, nor did the critics. But he was funny and a hustler and all-around insane. He called me non-stop with crazy ideas. He couldn’t focus for more than five minutes, so we never got anything done. But I spent a lot of time with him and came to deeply appreciate his passion, even when it manifested itself in really bizarre ways. And even more so, the gratitude he showed me for simply giving a sh*t about him. His display of gratitude motivated me to try harder and care more. It’s a lesson I think about all the time, and try to practice every day.
Q. Do account service professionals get the respect they deserve? Why/why not?
A. Well, the good ones do. The ones who see their jobs as more than note-takers and email forwarders.
Q. What’s the best and worst thing about working in Chicago?
A. The best and worst parts are that we’re not New York, which I can say having been a long-time New Yorker. What I mean is, our sensibilities are more grounded in the 300 million (or so) Americans who don’t live in California or New York City – that’s a huge asset to clients. The flip side is we can sometimes have a chip on our shoulder – for some, it’s an inferiority complex – about being midwestern. I wish we’d embrace it more. I do.
Q. Please describe your primary responsibilities (day-to-day and big picture) at WPP…
A. I’m the global WPP lead for our Walgreens Boots Alliance business. I am responsible for a team of discipline/cross-agency folks who sit mostly in London and Chicago.
Q. What was the last best book that you read?
A. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. It’s the most epic and beautifully written memoir about Finnegan’s decades of traveling the world in search of the perfect wave. Close seconds are Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, Night of the Gun by David Carr and The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander.
Q. If you could wave a magic wand and make industry-wide bad practices vanish, which bad practice would you wish away?
A. I have no tolerance for the self-loathing that can be so persistent in our business. Not only is it unproductive, but it’s so boring and unoriginal. So I’d wave that magic wand over everyone in advertising who hates it, and vanquish them to another industry.
Q. What are clients looking for in their new agency?
A. The same as ever: Passion, creativity (both big C and creative problem-solving), talent fluidity, efficiency, results. I think it would be a red herring to answer something like “deep understanding of technology and data.” Because of course statements like that are correct but in the pursuit of results, driven by passion, creativity, talent, etc.
Q. Do you believe in award show culture?
A. When I win, yes. But seriously, I think awards – when approached and judged with integrity – can be a very valuable proxy for great, inspiring work.
Q. Is advertising for grownups yet (something Howard Gossage hoped would happen one fine day)?
A. I kind of hope not. Meaning, I hope advertising people don’t lose their childish joy for what they do. But as you know, I’m passionate about doing my part to battle ageism in our business as I believe in the power of experience/perspective.
Q. What is the best preparation for a fruitful career in advertising?
A. If you can listen and are curious – and extra points if you’re not an asshole – you can make it in advertising. I don’t mean to be curt, but it’s what I’ve always believed and always will.
Q. Do you recognize the industry today? Do you think any of us will recognize it a year or two from now?
A. A friend and former colleague, Kevin McTigue who’s now a professor at Northwestern, says: “the brief hasn’t changed in 100 years.” The tools are different, but the jobs-to-be-done remain largely the same. So in that respect, in all feels familiar.
Q. Who are today’s advertising trailblazers?
A. I think the work coming out of WPP shop DAVID is really interesting, attention-grabbing, and just plain fun. I continue to be impressed by what the team at Spotify is doing with both their product and marketing. Finally, folks like Ian David at Fearless, The 3% Conference, and the leaders at Have Her Back are so important for the future of our business — my admiration is massive.
Q. What’s the most under-utilized and under-appreciated medium in today’s marketing mix?
A. It’s 2020 and I’m surprised more clients don’t ask about podcasts – both advertising on them and doing them.
PREVIOUSLY ON ADPULP.COM: The Adpulp Interview with Copywriters Jim Mitchem and Jason Fox