An interview with EnergyBBDO Chief Creative Officer Dan Fietsam

Social media and content marketing may be hot trends, but big brand creative agencies still make their money with big, mass marketed programs. I was intrigued, then, when I began to see the Chief Creative Officer of EnergyBBDO, Dan Fietsam (rhymes with “tweets some,” which he does), repeatedly tweeting this thought: Content is the new reach.

Why was a super-successful, multi-award-winning, Cannes-Film-Festival-attending, Super-Bowl-spot creating creative head of a traditional agency talking about content?  And why was a creative guy connecting it first to reach, a media concept?  I asked Dan if I could sit down with him and find out:

Brandingmag: How do you see content as being the new reach?

Dan Fietsam: I see it as human beings being the distribution system versus a media company doing it.  If you put out an interesting piece of content that people want to share, they’re going to distribute it for you at no cost.  So you can reach a lot of people without buying media. Again, that’s not a new idea; there are some people doing it [like] Red Bull.  They are probably the best example of what I mean by that. They develop their own content, people distribute it for them, and then don’t spend as much in traditional media.

BM: They don’t spend a lot in placement – the distribution is free – but the common misconception is that social media and content is free.

DF: That’s a great point

BM: A lot of people feel that traditional agencies are behind in the content game. Do you feel any need to competitively respond to clients that are becoming their own media companies? There’s Red Bull Media House, for instance.

DF: I’m more interested than threatened by it. However – and this is going to go back to something you said earlier –  the distribution may be free, but that doesn’t mean the production is cheap.  Just because you’re not going to sink a ton into paid media, to make quality product you still need talented people doing interesting things executed with excellence.  You still need that or nobody’s going to pay attention.

    …just because you’re not going to sink a ton into paid media, to make quality product you still need talented people doing interesting things executed with excellence…

BM:  Besides Red Bull, who do you see doing compelling content?

DF:  Brand-wise, I think Dollar Shave Club did it.  And what is exciting about them is a really interesting business idea and a small investment, and they took off.  Ten years ago could that have happened? I don’t think they could have reached as many people as they can now.

BM: Do you think content can be relied on to routinely deliver predictable success for brands with what is often a viral phenomenon?

DF: Well, that’s the million-dollar question.

BM: Well come on, you have a million-dollar idea every day.

DF: I try to have one… we haven’t hit it yet.  The experiment there – Chuck is talking about my hashtag [#todaysmilliondollaridea] – the experiment there is how long will it take to get there. And that’s based on another idea I have… that you have to generate a lot of ideas to get to the good one.  That came out of a conversation I was having with creative people that you don’t walk right in and – BOOM –   there it is, a million dollar idea.  I don’t succeed at this, but I try to have one every day, I give myself that assignment,  and I try to make it good.

BM: I know clients walk in the door wanting [the big idea] every day.   Are you hearing much from your clients in terms of content, of  delivering more of the “pull” instead of the “push?”DF: I wouldn’t say they’re asking for content per se, I’d say they’re asking for marketplace success. And if content is a way to get to that that, they want it. But it’s not their job to be thinking about it , that’ s my job.  I should coming in and say, “OK… you’ve told me that your marketing problem is X and I think a way to solve that is this,” using as much creativity and efficiency as possible.

I wouldn’t say [clients are] asking for content per se, I’d say they’re asking for marketplace success.

BM: Brand advertising has often been seen more as a monologue, as a brand making a presentation to consumers, and content, looking for engagement, as more dialogue.  Do you think there is an opportunity to combine those two things?

DF: It depends.  Does a toothpaste need to have a short film?  I don’ t know.  If it gives people either entertainment or utility then sure, yeah.   And if it’ s connected to a brand and makes them like a brand more or buy it then I think it’s worthwhile.

BM: Do you hold those two things, utility and entertainment, as sort of the Holy Grail of content?

DF: Yeah, I do.  I don’t have any science behind it, but I guess I just look at it in a caveman-like way.  I’ll use an example, American Airlines (they’re not my client). I use the shit out of it.  It has a high utility for me. I use it all the time because I fly a lot and I’m a control freak. Even if I’m perfectly fine with my seat, I’ll move it. I control that.  I get a lot of utility out of it. Is it entertaining? I guess on some level. I’m over-simplifying things… but you’re either trying to get something done or take a break from getting something done.

BM: Do you see lead creative agencies like yours taking on a broader and more active role in content creation beyond advertising?

We think about the brand first and how it manifests itself in the world second.

DF: I do, in the way that we do here, where we have more of a brand leadership mentality.  We think about the brand first and how it manifests itself in the world second.  Now, a lot of the tasks at hand are traditional tasks… it’s still where a lot of the money is being spent… and you can’t ignore that. The kind of thinking ahead and broader and more holistic things we’re talking about,  I’ll take that on, and we’ll have conversations with clients when appropriate.

BM: So, if content is the new reach, and your job is to effectively reach consumers, what do you see as the shape of your agency, or of big brand creative agencies in the future?  Do you have the skill sets you need now, or do you need to acquire new skill sets?

DF: All the above. You need a group of people that can understand the business aspect of what’s going on with the brand, and what it needs and who we’re trying to reach  and who’ s going to move the business the most. There’s a lot of “strategery” to be done, so you need that skill set. You need people that can do the magic and that is to come up with compelling ways to talk about things – story tell, copy write, art direct, create experiences. And then you need people that understand how to manifest that… in technical ways.

You need people that can do the magic and that is to come up with compelling ways to talk about things… story tell, copy write, art direct, create experiences.

BM: As someone who operates within a large holding company structure, do you see that system continuing in sort of a sister/cousin agency cooperation, or do you see more of that coming in-house?

DF: I guess I’m of this school: I’m very DIY.  if I can make it, why wouldn’t I make it? It’s part of being creative..

BM: Do you agree with those who say that agencies need to do content marketing for their own new business development? For instance, the podcast I hear you’re launching – is that a personal passion or part of an agency strategy to get exposure in a “new world” way.

DF: There are a couple of questions in there, so let me start with the first one. I think the best ads for the agency are what we do for our clients. I’m a believer that if you solve clients’ problems, you’ll get more business. As far as what I do, I’m a compulsive maker of things. So, if there was an idea for a podcast that would move business for a client…

BM: So, would you tell us about your new podcast?

DF:  There isn’t as much strategic thought behind it as you might have prefaced… it’s just this butt simple.  I got turned on to Marc Maron and Jeff Garlin and Alex Baldwin, and I commute from the North Shore, and it’s a long commute. I find them super-compelling and I just wanted to make one.  That’s all it is… that’s as deep as it goes.

So, what can I talk about, right? I’ve known other interesting creatives in Chicago for a long time and I… know I can have a really robust conversation with them. So I’ve been calling them up and recording our conversations. I had one last night with Vinny Warren of The Escape Pod.  We got a bunch of beer and I thought we’d talk for 45 minutes – we ended up talking for two and a half hours.

BM: So it’s really BeerPod.

DF: Well, it was last night with Vinny.

BM: That’s at

DF: Yes.

BM: Dan Fietsam, thank you very much!

Author’s note:   Although I was some years ago employed at BBDO and have occasionally since performed freelance work for them, this article was not prompted, sponsored, reviewed or otherwise influenced by my them.