An in-depth interview with our boss and eatbigfish founder, Adam Morgan
Challenger enthusiast. Pencil fetishist. Son of a diplomat. Just who is Adam Morgan? Consultant and author Christophe Lachnitt visited our offices to find out for the benefit of the listeners of his Superception podcast. The resulting interview covered everything from Frank Gehry’s binoculars to baking cupcakes (sort of) and Christophe has kindly allowed us to republish the podcast alongside an edited transcript here.
What influence did your childhood have on who you are and what you do today?
My father was a diplomat. And more particularly, he was a Chinese speaking diplomat, which was very unusual at the time. Speaking Chinese is all the rage these days, but not so much then. So I was born in Beijing in 1959 and spent the first couple of years of my life there. We spent time in the Philippines, in Sierra Leone, in South Africa, and we went back to China again when I was 13 to 16, when Mao was failing and Madam Mao and the Gang of Four was just starting to come through.
What I learnt from that was a love of seeing the world through different lenses and being multicultural and enjoying those different perspectives. To some degree, even what I do now, when I’m working with clients and challengers, it's about getting them to stop being parochial and see the world through different lenses, see the opportunity through different eyes. At a funny level, that was imprinted on me very early, and it still remains a very obvious but a very important thing in the work that I do.
You then studied at Oxford University. What did you study and what did it teach you?
I studied classics. I studied Latin and Greek. I did those for 16 years of my life. What those subjects teach you is structural thinking as well as a love of philosophy, a love of argument, how to put arguments together, how to structure and explore, cultural literature and so on.
I always thought I was going to become a diplomat like my father. Then, while doing a summer job, and just as I was about to try and pursue my career in the diplomatic service, I started going out with a young woman who worked in the department store next to me. And her dad was in advertising. I thought he seems a smart guy. I’ll go and spend some time with them. He was a smart guy. He had a lovely house with a beautiful art collection. I thought maybe I’ll try this.
So right at the last minute, I thought, I’d try advertising instead of the diplomatic service. And I started working as the worst account executive in the history of account executives. And then they gave me a chance to switch, after a year, into planning. And I found what I really loved.
You then had positions as planning director in two or three agencies including an important stance at TBWA/Chiat/Day?
That’s right. So it was Chiat\Day at the time, before it was bought by Omnicom in Los Angeles. And I went out there and I didn’t know much about the actual building in Los Angeles, but the building, in fact, was part of what seduced me. It’s a Frank Gehry building. It’s off Main Street. It’s a Google building now.
The main entrance is a three-storey pair of Claus Oldenburg binoculars that you drive in through with Gehry’s bit on either side. Jay Chiat was an art collector. I had a Frank Stella that was about ten feet by ten feet right behind me. There was a Rauschenberg rattlesnake coming down from the ceiling. And every time you drove into work and you drove in through the bottom of the binoculars in the parking lot and you came up to Frank Stella, you thought, I’ve got to do something really amazing today; otherwise, what the hell am I doing here?
And it was the eternal sunshine of Californian optimism outside and this amazingly, kinetic, creative environment inside. It was just one of the most exciting times of my life.
You had the opportunity to work with Lee Clow, who is one of the most important creative figures of our trade. Can you tell us more about him and what you learnt from working with him?
What was exciting about working with Lee was that he didn’t talk much about the past; he was always interested in what happened next. So my experience with those kinds of very seasoned, very experienced legends is they tend to talk a lot about things that happened 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago. Lee didn’t do that. He was interested in the next pitch, the next client, what was happening now.
And we sat in this very open plan environment and he’d come every day and he’d just stand over my desk and start talking to me. And then he’d move on. And I didn’t know why he had come round or what he was doing there. And I realised, after a couple of days, he was waiting for me to say something interesting that would stimulate him. And if I didn’t do that, and if I didn’t start doing that, he’d stop coming and feeding there. So I needed to actually really up my game.
Anyway, we developed a fantastic relationship and the heart of any success I had there was very much to do with having a very strong relationship with him, and his openness to working with this young, naïve Englishman in terms of helping develop ideas for famous American brands. It was a fantastic experience.
And then, the big pivot in your career was writing Eating the Big Fish, which was 1999?
Yes. I actually started writing the book in 97. I took six months out to do it. I didn’t finish it in that time. It took me much longer to get the interviews and get the thinking together. So I wrote that book for TBWA. By the time I finished it, 18 months later – it was a long and painful period of writing – the agency didn’t want it anymore. It wasn’t sure it wanted to be a challenger or be about challengers anymore. TBWA thought perhaps they’d like to have a go at brand leaders. I said, well, we haven’t pitched a brand leader or won a brand leader in 18 months. That doesn’t matter, they said, we think we might want to.
So I’m a very easy-going guy, but for six months, I was driven entirely by anger and bile and I thought, I’m going to leave and I’m going to take the book with me. And I was about to be 40 and the book was going to come out just before my 40th birthday. I thought, all the signs are pointing towards something interesting.
And I was very lucky in that we merged at that point with BDDP, a famous French agency and Jean-Marie Dru, a famous Frenchman who wrote the book about Disruption, was my new President. And I had gone from being planning director to joint planning director, which was theoretically a constructive dismissal. So I went to Jean-Marie and said, this is constructive dismissal. And he said, you’re absolutely right. If you choose to go, there is money for people like you. I hope you don’t go. And obviously, we’ll give you work if you do. He was wonderful about it, everything you would hope he would be. And I chose to go and take a little bit of severance and become an entrepreneur.
I never wanted to become an entrepreneur. I never intended to. I’ve not been one of those people that’s always had an idea I wanted pursue. But I had this thing I had become very attached to over 18 months and nobody else wanted it; I wanted to show that it had a heartbeat, it had a life, it was important. And I had enough money to survive for six months. I thought, well, now is my chance. And if I’m 40 and it doesn’t work out, I can go back into advertising, so what’s the harm? So I’m a reluctant entrepreneur.
What was the most challenging part of becoming an entrepreneur?
Somebody gave me a book to read very early on called The E-Myth. And The E-Myth is not about e-commerce or anything like that. It’s about the myth of the entrepreneur. And the book says that they myth is, you know, "Adam, you’re very good at baking cupcakes, you should start your own cupcake company." The idea that you’re a good technician at something means you’d be good at starting your own business. And of course it says, that’s not the case; you need to be good at three different things.
You need to be a good technician. If you’re going to start a cupcake company, they need to be really good cupcakes or different cupcakes from everybody else’s cupcakes, in a challenger spirit. Secondly, you need to be a good entrepreneur, you need to be good at drumming up business and getting the newspapers to write about you. And you need to be a good manager – manager of cash flow, manager of people. And very few people, the book says, are good at those three things. So you need to be aware of which of those things you are good at or want to be good at, and which you’re not.
I was a good technician but a terrible manager of people, of cash flow – it didn’t really interest me – and I wasn’t, at the time, an entrepreneur. So the hardest thing was working out which of those things do I need to get someone to help me with, and which of those things can I become better at myself. And I was lucky I found Teresa, a brilliant manager who is still with me 18 years later. I learnt that if I had something I was passionate about and pitching it for myself, I could do it. So I came to love being an entrepreneur, which I had no idea about when I started.
How long did it take to take off? You said you could survive during six months. Was it a long process to get successful and profitable? Or did you have a quick success in conjunction with the publishing of the book?
The book took off very quickly. So it got up to, I think, number 80 on Amazon in general ratings, which was great. At one point, it was 20 places above Bill Gates’ book that was just out and I thought, this is interesting; it’s clearly touched a nerve in some way. And so that allowed me to get onto conference platforms and speaking platforms. And the speaking circuit was very different then. People paid you to speak. And then clients came up afterwards and said, oh, that was interesting – can you come and help us? So it was quite easy to generate leads like that in a way that’s much harder now.
Then friends in advertising agencies got me involved and I started to get a few early clients. And then one of them just took off like a rocket. We did a project with one client that, within a year, became the fastest-growing packaged goods company in the UK as a result of the work we’d done.
Of course, two years later, we hit 9/11 and that was a very different story. I remember very clearly, on 9/11, we were in the office and the phone rang only to cancel projects. We were five people at the time, including one in the States. And for ten weeks, we just watched the money in our bank account go down and down without the phone going. We discussed which of us was going to have to leave, and when we would be able to re-employ them.
And ten weeks later, we got our first call and business started coming back in and we were okay. But it scared the life out of me and it taught me several things. One is, always have a great deal of money in the bank and don’t owe anybody anything, which we continue to do. We’ve never been in debt. Secondly, have a geographical spread. So America is very important to us, the UK is important to us, but also other geographic regions. We’re not dependent on any one. And in an emerging Brexit Britain, that’s been invaluable because I’ve got lots of friends in this market, in the UK, who have had a really hard time because they’re just UK based, and we’ve been fine.
My advice is don’t be too dependent on any one client. So we’re quite deliberate about that. Which sounds very obvious stuff, but that wasn’t our situation back then.
How does the digital, the social, the mobile revolution help or hinder challenger brands to break the rules and to implement new rules? Obviously, we have famous examples such as Google, Uber or Airbnb but if you tried to put that a little bit more at the conceptual level, which you are attuned to, what’s your thinking about this?
Digitally born challenger brands, very often, actually, are tech products with names rather than brands as a whole. I think it’s quite easy to create new challenger products in that kind of world, but they’re not often very well branded. In terms of the other conversation people tend to have about, 'Oh with Twitter with no money at all, you can go viral and create brands that become hugely famous'. The number of brands that actually happens to is minute.
My sense is that the principles of challengers remain the same. You need to have a strongly differentiated offer, you need to have an idea that is very exciting and creates a lot of energy, and actually, with 99% of brands, old or new, those two things are completely lacking. The reason we are indifferent to most brands that we see trying to talk to us is because they are neither differentiated enough nor do they have a brand idea that appeals to us in any way that makes us break our step or stop and look at them.
Talking about Google, which was a challenger brand when you published the book, and even the second edition of the book, how do you envision the challenges posed to challenger brands that become leading brands? How should they manage that difficult transition?
The key one is obviously culture. As a challenger grows you bring in other people to help you grow, and those people are very often people who see their job and the value they add as to professionalise the business. So they’ll put in an innovation process with stage gates. They’ll start to put all sorts of internal review processes in. The organisation starts to slow. Things don’t move as quickly. They take less risks because you’ve become loss-averse at this point.
One of the striking things about Google is their emphasis on small teams right? So they believe that very big projects can be attacked. So you can see Google culturally trying to resist and fight all those things that slow large businesses down, in a way that, non-digital companies haven’t understood. They haven’t understood that kind of need for speed. So that and the desire to "professionalise" the business are the two biggest dangers that one sees.
Apple was probably the strongest and the most iconic challenger brand with the strongest point of view when Steve Jobs came back at the helm of the company and took it to unexpected heights. Today, the point of view of Apple is much more difficult to see. The brand is much weaker than it was, even though the brand is the most valued brand in the world, hand-in-hand with Amazon. So I wanted to have your perspective on the situation of Apple today in terms of thought leadership, identity and positioning.
I had the pleasure of working at one level removed on the relaunch of Apple. So Lee Clow very much worked hand-in-hand with Steve Jobs at TBWA\Chiat\Day in the US on the relaunch of Apple when Jobs came back. And of course, at the time, all of the business world was lowering Apple into the grave of business history and there was a small group that didn’t believe it, that included obviously Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive, and indeed, Lee Clow. And they produced this extraordinary statement about what Apple stood for roughly five weeks after Steve Jobs came back. And that was initially planned to show Mac-heads and those Apple users who were losing their confidence that Apple knew what it was about; it was about saying, we are back and we know what we stand for and this is what we’re going to create.
In the 12 months that followed, they produced the G3 chip that was faster than the relevant Intel chip. They produced the iBook and they produced the iMac. So it was quickly accompanied by a group of products that changed the way we thought about that technology. And then, of course, the iPhone came along a few years later.
Since then, neither of those two things have happened. There hasn’t been a restatement of what Apple stands for that’s made us reimagine the world and what our place in it could be; nor have the products, in any way, reimagined what a category could be about or how we could rethink or reengage with the technology or the benefits of that category.
At the same time, Apple is poised to become the world’s first $1 trillion company. So they’re not entirely foolish in this entire thing.
If you are a romantic brand person, you’d say surely those things could travel hand-in-hand. And I’m sure there are people in Cupertino who are busy, probably not trying to reinvent the television anymore, I suspect that ship has sailed, but there is something going on which will come our way and be enormously exciting but it just seems like they’ve lost that sense of who they are and why it matters.
Thank you for your time and for sharing these ideas.
A great pleasure.
Interview by Christophe Lachnitt for the Superception Podcast.