66: "The Servant Leaders" - George Felix & Jesse Johnson

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"The Servant Leaders"

In 2018, KFC was named marketer of the year. Wieden + Kennedy were named agency of the year. And their partnership produced the Campaign of the year. Their partnership is driving business results and changing culture. It’s also the embodiment of the Wieden + Kennedy philosophy that Jason Bagley and Eric Baldwin described in our podcast last year - a philosophy they describe as ‘branded everything’. George Felix and Jesse Johnson are the two people at the heart of this very modern creative partnership.


Three Takeaways

  • Respect for each other
  • Intention
  • Sense of urgency

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 66: "The Servant Leaders" - George Felix & Jesse Johnson

I’m Charles Day and this is Fearless!!

This is my conversation with George Felix of KFC and Jesse Johnson of W+K - which was recorded at the Cannes Creativity Festival in June.

KFC was named marketer of the year. Wieden and Kennedy were named agency of the year. And their partnership produced the Campaign of the year. Their partnership is driving business results and changing culture.

It’s also the embodiment of the Wieden + Kennedy philosophy that Jason Bagley and Eric Baldwin described in our podcast last year - a philosophy they describe as ‘branded everything’.

One of the indicators of the depth of the relationship between client and agency is that when I approached George about coming on the show he agreed on the condition that I also invited Jesse so the they could talk about their partnership, as he described it.

It’s clear from our conversation that both are focused on creating the best outcome for everyone involved on both sides of the relationship. 

So this episode is called: “The servant leaders.” 

“The stuff I can't teach are people that can work and develop a strong relationship with an agency partner, people that believe in servant leadership, people that are more about the team than themselves. Those are the things that I can't ... I can't change you. Either you have those things or you don't.”

Leading a business that depends on creativity - whether a brand, agency, content or tech company - is filled with tension. The tension between reward and risk, between predictability and uncertainty, between the known and the unknown and between commerce and art.  But there’s one other place where the tension is greatest - the battle between our instinct for self preservation and the desire to unlock the potential of others. This is a fight we wage every day - some days more willingly than others. 

The instinct to protect ourselves is written deep in our DNA. WE would not have survived as a species without it. But we can not unleash the potential of a truly creative business if we are not genuinely as committed to the growth of others as we are our to our own success.

But the growth of others has to be placed in a clear context. That every individual, while important, is part of a whole. And the whole has no champion, no protector, except for the leader.

Which means that the servant leader is ultimately responsible to two specific masters. 

The business.

And yourself. Including the person you aspire to be.

Make decisions that meet the needs of both and you’ll be able to live with the consequences, whatever the results. 

Charles:

George, Jesse, thank you for joining me here at the Majestic during our week of Cannes. And thanks for being on Fearless.

George Felix:

Thanks for having us.

Jesse Johnson:

Thanks for having us. This is great.

Charles:

George, let me start with you. What's your first memory of something showing up in your life that was creative? When you were first aware of creativity showing up in your life?

George Felix:

Ooh, Charles, that's a good question. I guess probably ... It's funny. As a kid, I was a pretty big fan of, I would say, like cartoons fans. So I'm thinking, like Transformers. Like, if I think of the earliest thing that really captured my imagination, it was probably Transformers. It started with the cartoons and all of that, and then when I found out you could actually buy them, you know, and make your own and like, do it in real life, it was like mind-blown. I couldn't believe it.

So that is probably the earliest thing I can remember that really got me.

Charles:

Where did you grow up?

George Felix:

I grew up in Toledo, Ohio.

Charles:

Big family? Small family?

George Felix:

Just my older sister. And I was the first person in my family born in the US. My family is from India, so my sister was born there, and then came over when she was about one. So born and raised in Toledo.

Charles:

Were you a risk-taker as a kid?

George Felix:

Not really, to be honest. Pretty quiet. Pretty reserved, I would say. You know, definitely curious, but I wouldn't describe myself as a risk-taker. More of a rule follower.

Charles:

We'll come back to that.

George Felix:

Okay.

Charles:

For sure.

Jesse, what about you? When did creativity first show up for you?

Jesse Johnson:

You know, my family was- they're all very musically inclined, I would say. So that would be my first thing. I just remember my entire family singing at all times, in different kind of ways. One sister is more classically trained. One sister is more Janice Joplin with the guitar. I may be somewhere in the middle. And my dad was a gospel singer and my mom can play guitar and sing. So that was kind of ... Everything that was around, was around music.

Charles:

Holidays must be wild in your family.

Jesse Johnson:

Well, yeah it is. And my dad used to have a recording studio, and I remember as we were growing up, we would go down and actually record and stuff like that. So we were definitely in the sound booth a lot and that kind of thing.

Charles:

What about you? Were you a risk-taker?

Jesse Johnson:

No. Same. I was four point oh in high school, like three nine eight in college. Super focused. I didn't really become a risk-taker until I came to [inaudible]. I think they ... And it probably took me a couple years, and then they finally got me loosened up, and now we're free swinging.

Charles:

What got you into advertising in the first place?

Jesse Johnson:

You know, I was going to be a teacher, as all rule followers are. I was going to be a teacher, and then I was a camp counselor one summer and just had a rough go. And a parent said the right thing at the right time to me. Said, "Well this is a good test if you want to be a teacher." And I just looked at them, and I was like, "You're right. I don't."

And that kind of sent me into a summer of thinking through what I really wanted to do, and it actually came back to music. And it came back to singing jingles from TV commercials and how much I loved the communication aspect of it. I was going to go be a teacher, a communications or English teacher, so it was still in that same field but it was more of that, wow, I really love that creative outlet, I really love that piece. And that's how I made the switch.

Charles:

How did you get into the business?

Jesse Johnson:

I started out of college. I had an internship at an agency in Minneapolis called Carmichael Lynch. My goal coming out of college was to work at Wieden & Kennedy, Portland. I didn't know when I would ever get the opportunity; I thought it was like when I'm 40, maybe I'll get lucky and get in. And then at 25, I was at Wieden & Kennedy, Portland. I was like, "Well, I need a new goal."

Charles:

So you had that clear an ambition that early on?

Jesse Johnson:

Very clear, yeah. It was that work ... I remember writing my internship application, and I picked a piece of work from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland.  I was like, they are so authentic and honest in the details and the curation into the work, that I was just obsessed with how they got to that level. And that as my goal, and I found the way. So I'm really happy about that.

Charles:

George, what about you? How did you get into the business?

George Felix:

It's a bit of a winding road. I started ... So, in college, I started off pre-med, believe it or not. That lasted for about four weeks, when I failed my first chemistry exam like so badly. The professor was like, "I don't even know that it's worth pointing out where things went wrong. You might want to think about, you know, is this really what you want to do?"

So it kind of caused me to reevaluate because growing up, my dad was a doctor. I would say, it may sound stereotypical, but for a lot of Indian families it's kind of like, you're either going to be a doctor or an engineer. So I honestly didn't put much thought into it, which sounds weird, through high school. I just kind of figured, oh, I'm sure this doctor thing will kick in at some point.

And so, after that moment, I had to really sit down and think about it for real.

Charles:

So was there a moment when you realized you didn't want to be a doctor? Or did it dawn on you over time?

George Felix:

I think it was after I failed that exam. It was like I actually had to think about it, and kind of came to the realization that I wasn't really passionate about doing that. And so, that kind of started trying to figure out what it is I did want to do. I found my way to the business school in undergrad. I immediately eliminated finance and accounting, knowing I am not a numbers guy. My heart was telling me marketing; logic was telling me, from some upperclassmen, that marketing was a really tough place to get a job.

And so I'd always been kind of interested in technology, computers, so I actually ended up getting my undergrad degree in management information systems. And so, I worked in IT for about five years out of college at a company called Abbott Laboratories, a big pharmaceutical company in Chicago, basically doing project management type of stuff. And, you know, at that point, like four years in, kind of realized I'm not excited about this. I looked at the career paths where this could go and so I said, you know, I really think I need to give marketing a shot.

I didn't scratch the itch in college, so I went back to business school. Decided to really look into brand management and marketing. And once I talked to some people and found out what that job really means ... Like, what it sounds like, it sounded interesting enough. And then ended up getting my internship in business school at Proctor & Gamble. And I was assigned to the Old Spice brand, which is where I first was introduced to Wieden & Kennedy. And that kind of started me on the journey, and I was hooked.

A twelve week internship that summer, got to work on the Swagger campaign and really kind of see what all aspects of a brand really is. And I'm fascinated by brands; I was just kind of geeked out on it. And realized what it felt like to find that thing that you're really interested and passionate about.

Charles:

So you really had to overcome a couple of big voices in your head. You had the cultural norms you said, of you're supposed to be a doctor or an engineer and not a marketing person or anything else. And then you had voices literally telling you marketing is too difficult to get into. So you actually had to overcome a couple of different emotional obstacles.

George Felix:

Yeah. And I think that probably goes back to the risk-taker thing, where you know, I was probably playing it a little too safe early. And then, you know, it was actually my dad at the time, when I was going through this ideal, like I'm not going to be a doctor, and he was like, "That's fine. Not everybody should be. And you gotta find" ... He's like, "The reason I was, is that it's the thing I was most excited about. But you gotta find what that is and whenever you find it, then go do it."

So it was helpful to have that kind of support for me to branch out and go try something that felt very foreign to me.

Charles:

Yeah, I can imagine that would be true. So, Jesse, you get to Wieden.

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah.

Charles:

I'm sorry, you said you were how old?

Jesse Johnson:

25. 24, maybe.

Charles:

So a man of real intention and action?

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah.

Charles:

Right. Nothing but forward movement. What was the experience compared to what you thought it was going to be? Because you had a very clear view about what that company was going to feel like, right?

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah, it's intimidating. Even when you walk in, just the building ... It's these big steel doors, right in the middle of the Pearl District. And you walk in and you see about-

Charles:

You're talking about Portland?

Jesse Johnson:

In Portland, yeah. You walk in and there's 300 faces of some of the best creatives and creative people in advertising looking at you. And it's a really ... It was humbling. I remember being in awe. And I think you should; I think when you first walk into that place, you should feel that because that agency has- our agency- has earned that. But it was a cool feeling coming in.

But I definitely was in a little bit of shock for like the first six months. I don't think I talked to anyone outside of my team. I worked on Nike golf. I went through the whole Tiger thing, and so-

Charles:

The down thing?

Jesse Johnson:

Before and after, yeah. Kind of rode the whole roller coaster. But it was ... I think that was a really great experience for me to get that real taste of great production, but also to deal with a major crisis. And a brand like Nike responding to that the way they did was a great experience for me.

Charles:

And when you say respond the way they did, you mean in terms of the way they leaned into it?

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah, the decisions that were made on the ad we made. I don't know if you remember it, a spot called Earl and Tiger, and just kind of giving that advice if Earl was still around, the advice he would have given. It was a nice moment for us as a brand, for Nike to make a statement about it. It aired only once on Sports Center, right before the Masters, and it was a spot that was then instantly shared a million times.

And I just remember feeling very proud of the way that we handled that and the way that we kind of answered all the questions that were going on about it, just so we could focus on golf again. So that was a pretty big moment early on in my career, for sure.

Charles:

So you said it took them two years to break you down essentially? To open you up?

Jesse Johnson:

To warm me up, yeah. And then I went and worked on Proctor & Gamble's Thank You, Mom campaign. And that was when I think things finally started really clicking for me. I spent five years working on that over three Olympics. And that's when I really started to find my groove. And then, this opportunity to work on a KFC pitch opened up, and then that's really been ... You know, the last three years have been the best of my career, and I have a feeling that the best is still to come.

Charles:

When you say you found your groove, what is your groove?

Jesse Johnson:

I mean, I'll let George answer that. George and I have worked hand-in-hand for the last three years, and so I think he would ... I'd be curious what his answer is. I think it's finding that level of, as a leader, I think my role is to make sure that creatives find value in clients and clients find value in creatives. And as long as that equation is always there, that they both value what the other has to say, we're going to be really successful. And it's my job to make sure that I can help everyone have the right context to have those kind of conversations.

And so, that's what I feel like I've really found. My groove is helping folks understand that. I think I've been blessed to work with some of the best CDs at Wieden. Eric Baldwin and Karl Lieberman and Kevin Jones and Al Curtis, and the list goes on and on. It's been fantastic for me. But then I also get to work with great clients, like George Felix and Kevin Auckman, that really appreciate it and understand the push for great creatives.

So I've been in a great place. I understand that. But I think I've hopefully been part of that. And certainly our relationship has been a big part of that.

Charles:

Do you think you’re creative yourself?

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah, you have to be. I think that Wieden makes sure that everyone is. I think you want to make sure ... You know, Dan always talked about Wieden being in the center of the cultural storm. And so, you quickly learn that's part of the breaking down phase of a very polite Midwestern man. You start to realize that you need to have interests. You need to stay on top of culture and really think about what is happening in culture and how that applies to advertising.

And that's just something, like kind of an unwritten rule, that's kind of demanded of you at Wieden. And I think that's important. It makes you better, and if you have some creative thoughts, that usually really helps, both on the client side and then also with CDs, that you can sit down and have a conversation of like ... I use this line a lot, of like here's the really bad account guy version of what we need to do. And that at least puts a line in the sand of, okay, that's terrible. But I do understand what your intent is, and having a little bit of creativity with that definitely helps.

George Felix:

It's usually not as bad as the really bad client version of the idea, to be clear.

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah, that's fair.

Charles:

So George, you're in the marketing business at this point and you have discovered the things that you definitely don't want to do. What was it about marketing that made you go, this is something I do want to do.

George Felix:

You know, it was the experience of understanding the idea of building a brand. It just fascinates me. Like why people are loyal to brands and fanatic about brands, and the fact that you could build something like that. So again, my first experience was on Old Spice, and the way we talked about that brand was that, you know, it's a deodorant brand. That's not something that's, you know ... Like, when you're sitting in class, dreaming of marketing, you're probably thinking of Nike and a brand like that.

And the other reality of that category is basically the technology. Everyone has the same technology. So like, as much as we're all talking about, the products all work about the same. And so at that point, it's kind of a marketer's dream because at that point, you're really just saying ... You have to come up with a way to make your brand better than the next guy's. And for us to be a part of the journey of turning the Old Spice brand around, and how we were going to position ourselves against Axe, and really create this brand that young guys could really latch onto and do it in a way that I felt really proud of, to me ...

And then, to be involved in all the aspects of that, whether it was the packaging, whether it was the advertising, and just kind of watch right in front of your eyes over the course of four years this brand go from an afterthought to almost beyond what you'd think of when you think of traditional marketing- like an entertainment property almost- it was just an awesome time to be there. And it was the intersection of social media, Facebook, and YouTube channels were just launching, all of that stuff. So for me it was just like the perfect time to get involved, I feel like. That it just, to me, was so exciting and such a great challenge.

Charles:

So how did a rules follower, as you've described yourself, step into that kind of environment, where everything is up for grabs, everything's changing, nothing is as is expected. How did you adapt to that?

George Felix:

It was tough, probably like Jesse, it took me a little while. I think I was fortunate ... Two things probably, I had a great, my first boss, James Moorehead was my brand manager when I was an intern at ABM, and he was just amazing in terms of teaching the fundamentals of what it was to be a great marketer. Everyone knows that's what Procter & Gamble does. But also, [inaudible] the idea of like, you gotta trust your gut. Understand that with creative, you never know. It's never a sure thing. But you always have your gut instinct. Never forget that.

And then, the second thing I had going for me was that I was working for Wieden+Kennedy from the get go and they can either, in my opinion, they taught me how to be a good marketer, and what great creative really was, and what it takes to make great creative. The things that we did with them, that ended up turning out to be big successes, I can tell you, at every stage of the process, we have tons of questions on whether it was the right thing to do, and whether it was going to work. They really taught me the value and the important of trusting that process. Having the courage to go out there and do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, and pushes the boundaries a bit versus playing it safe.

If I look at a lot of the brands at P & G for instance, I think they're in categories that are pretty, you'd call the advertising fairly mundane and pretty predictable right? There's things you can do that play it safe, but we were in a position where we knew we couldn't do that. That wasn't going to solve our problems. They were the perfect partner to really push us, and then, once you're in that environment, I felt like I just became more comfortable, for me, to kind of let that part show. Fortunate to work with the right people.

Charles:

What have you found out about yourself in that journey?

George Felix:

I don't know, I think I've learned that I probably am much more willing to take on risk and go for it than I probably originally thought. I think I've also learned, I think people joke at work that I'm pretty even keel, like it doesn't matter whether things are way down, massive crisis, or we're high-fiving over something great, chances are I'll probably look about the same. I think those two things have helped me, at least in my career, whether it was at P & G, and now at KFC, to kind of, I think, work and develop some things that have been really successful and breakthrough. You have to be willing to take chances, you have to be willing to fail. I think that's okay. Take those risks. But, the temperament is also helpful in those times of both good and bad to kind of be able to carry on and follow the north star that we've set out.

Charles:

And be a reference point for the chaos around you? Do you think of yourself as creative?

George Felix:

It's funny, when you work with an agency like Wieden, I think the fun part is you are surrounded by creative people. And Jesse's right, it's not just ... I mean, the creatives are amazing, but I mean, the strategy team, the accounting, everybody is just cut from a different cloth. I would say, comparatively to them, I would not consider myself to be all that creative, but I would say in the scheme of ... In the marketing landscape, I'd like to think of myself as creative and as somebody that can at least see the potential in a big idea.

Charles:

Let's talk about the relationship, and what makes this work? I'm going to have you each talk about the other.

So, we'll start with you George, from your perspective, what does Jesse bring that makes this relationship so powerful, and in fact, so effective right? The work that you guys have created and the awards that you've been given, demonstrate that this is pretty powerful in terms of a marketing relationship.

George Felix:

Yeah, I would say there is no way we could've done what we've done over the last three years without him captaining the ship at Wieden+Kennedy. That's not to say we wouldn't have had the same great, creative ideas, and the same great strategy, but Jesse is kind of the glue that holds this whole crazy mes together. What we set out to do is pretty ambitious. We're basically changing everything about our brand, and basically relaunching the brand. That goes across every single touchpoint, creative, and trying to break new ground in terms of going beyond traditional marketing. That creates ... That's a lot of chaos and a lot of havoc. You need somebody that not only can keep it all together, but he is a champion of great work, but he also understand the realities of our business. Sometimes, agencies can get so caught up in a great idea that they can't understand that there are practical limitations to what we can do. I think what Jesse brings to the equation is such a strong understanding of our business that he's not going to let a creative idea die because of those. He's going to find a way and partner with me to work it out.

To have somebody like that on the other side, so I always know I can pick up the phone and have that tough conversation, and we trust each other enough to sort that out, has enabled so many of the ideas that I think if we didn't have that relationship, probably would've died or we would've never been able to make.

Charles:

So, and Jesse, before you talk about George, I'm curious, what's the hardest part of being that person for a client?

Jesse Johnson:

The intense feeling of ownership you have on those ideas, and it's almost like I have a new baby. I would never say it's like having a child, but I would've maybe a year ago. No, you feel the stress of wanting to make that work. You know how good the work could be. You know how important it is for the brand, you feel the pressure to help make that happen. I think that's probably the hardest thing, is trying to separate that from yourself. So, you're not always feeling like you're carrying all that. But I definitely, especially early on, I always felt that heavy load on your back that you're trying to get this thing through for everyone.

I think that's probably the biggest thing, you know, having partner like George has certainly made it a lot easier and a lot more fun. But it is almost ... These extra phone calls, or conversations we'll have around after we've presented work, those are the conversations, in my opinion that made some of those things go. You can't understate how important it is to have a client like George to be that person that understand the KFC system, and the right people to share work with, and how we're going to get everyone excited.

I know that's not common as a client. I've worked with clients that haven't had that piece in their job, it's so critical. To me, that just says, when you ask is George a creative person, I was like, of course George is a creative person.

Charles:

So what does he bring to the table specifically that makes this relationship so powerful?

Jesse Johnson:

He talks about being even keeled but the energy is definitely there. One of the first things I always think about when I try to take how special George is as a client, and bring that to other clients, I think he's one of the only clients that literally doesn't violate the don't peek rule. When we share work, I always feel like someone's going to go ahead and flip ahead, you kind of lose some of the power of the presentation, but I know that George literally does not change slides until you tell him to.

George Felix:

My team knows. My teams knows absolutely no peeking. It ruins everything.

Jesse Johnson:

Just that genuine joy that he brings to reviewing creative work. It has a big impact on our creative teams, on my main team as well. We feel appreciated for the level of thought that we're bringing. That just sets a really great morale for the Wieden team.

The reaction and the thoughtful takeaways that he has when he looks at work. We can pretty quickly pinpoint what he feels is the biggest idea and then what are the next steps we have to do to make it happen. I think it's a level of accountability he has on okay, I need to help you make that happen. It's, again, a very complex system at KFC in terms of the people that you need to share work with. They're all wonderful, but it does help having someone who literally champions the work. That's the biggest thing. I would say you're a champion of creative work and that's rare.

Charles:

I'm fascinated by this because you described yourself as a rules' follower, right? We've talked about your background. You're dealing with one of the most creative companies in the world, presenting your ideas that are literally blowing the doors off what is possible, and you have become the champion for them? How did you make that transformation? What's the toughest part for you of being that person that Jesse has just described?

George Felix:

I think it's getting comfortable being uncomfortable, understanding I've seen it work now on two brands. On Old Spice and KFC, and I think there are still times, I tell Jesse this all the time, my favorite days at work, are when on my calendar I know there's a creative presentation. It doesn't matter if it's like a social idea, or a TV idea. Those are the days that I get energized, and those are the most fun. But I still get the ... There's sometimes they show me stuff, and as much as I try, like literally, I've been working with them for the better part of ten years, and I'll always still try to guess what I'm going to see, I'm like literally batting zero.

I never get it right. Which is awesome, right? That's probably a bad sign, if I'm getting it right. They always surprise me. Sometimes, I get the pit in my stomach, I'm like, oh boy. Oh boy, now they've done it. I'm super intrigued, but I'm also now starting to think through, I'm letting my mind drift to all the things that are going to have to happen to make that possible. That's that tension, I just firmly believe that if you don't have some of that tension and that discomfort, then you're probably not pushing it hard enough.

Charles:

How do you hold that discomfort at bay? Discomfort, fear, anxiety, however it manifests in any individual, how do you hold it at bay long enough to give the idea the opportunity to live long enough to see whether it really is the right answer?

George Felix:

I honestly think that is where the relationship between Jesse and I, and also between KFC and Wieden+Kennedy becomes so important to enable this type of work. I can't imagine teams that are closer than our two teams. A lot of it is through long standing relationships that we've had that have spanned several years. But we're just there, so in it with us. There's a mutual trust that ... Somebody will ask, whether it's our franchisees or my management, they're going to ask me about some parts of a program, right? We're sending a chicken sandwich to space. How do you know that this launch thing is going to happen and I said, "I gotta be honest, I don't know right now, but I trust that they know the things that have to be done." They always deliver for us. I trust that that's going to happen. So, my job is to make sure that we're doing all the things we need this to do for our brand and Jesse's job, that team's job is to make sure that they make it happen, right?

That's how I have managed to put some of that discomfort at bay, is through trust. There are things we're doing now that I don't think we could've done three years ago because the relationship was new at the time, we were still building that trust. We're at a point now where if the idea is big enough and we feel like it's going to do what we want, and all that's left is Wieden needs to figure out how to do it, we're going to hit go.

Charles:

When you're dealing with that kind of trust, as George has described it, how do you maintain the momentum of pushing the boundaries constantly for a client that you know this well. One of the risks is that you start to think that you really understand them so well that you can figure out how to sell them almost anything. How do you push the boundaries so that you're not only living up to their expectations, but living up to your own expectations?

Jesse Johnson:

That's a good question and I think it's one that you need to start asking yourself probably every quarter. Things are changing so fast in advertising right now. One of the ways that we addressed it, our creative leadership at the Portland office coined a new phrase, "Branded everything." We've really taken that heart. We actually did a year long brief for KFC this year where we had the entire office come up with all the ideas possible. We came up with 800 ideas. They were then whittled down to 60 that we presented to KFC. That was, to me, the widest spectrum of ideas possible that many, many, many of them pushed the boundary that we had to dial back in. I knew that we're still doing okay based on some of the ideas that came through-

George Felix:

You wouldn't believe some of the 60 that they showed up.

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah, of the 60 then we dialed it down to about 15. That's a good test that we have. We're trying to figure out how often we do something of that scale. This brand is so special, it allows you to do so many things that are pretty unorthodox. We definitely have the creatives in the building in Portland to push it. Just to give you an example of how that meeting might feel, we had one of those foghorns, one of those ... If George saw an idea that he loved, we didn't have to explain it, just by the key visual, if he could see that, he could just slap that button and it was sold. We try to keep it fun and also know that the whole point of this is to push this brand.

With that, you kind of have the right energy in the room to really think about and believe in ideas that are probably questionable at best.

Charles:

Did you want to see any of the 740? Have you asked to see those?

George Felix:

I'm sorry?

Charles:

Did you want to see of the 740 ideas that they didn't show you?

George Felix:

I did. Oh, I asked. I was like, "Guys, I'd love to have the reverse of this meeting. What were the first 60 that absolutely got cut?"

Charles:

That would be fascinating ...

George Felix:

Yeah.

Charles:

Yeah, that'd be really interesting. Would you show him those?

Jesse Johnson:

No, I don't think so. No.

George Felix:

Someday.

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah, someday.

Charles:

Really powerful actually. What's the biggest risk in this relationship? I mean you guys have such a strong chemistry and so much faith and trust in each other, where can that go bad?

George Felix:

It hasn't gone bad, so that's good. I know this sounds bad, I just feel like we are very much, Jesse and I, on the same page, and we really understand what each other has to do and how we work together. Something that hypothetically could happen would be, like you said, they bring something that really just is too far, and pushing in the wrong direction, or not the right place for the brand. That hasn't happened, we certainly don't buy everything that they present us, but it's usually just normal reasons. It's not that I believe that the motives have gone in a different direction. That trust, it's so strong that I just feel really good that we're not going to get into that place.

Charles:

And what about for you, Jesse, when might this go wrong?

Jesse Johnson:

It would have to be getting too conservative or not buying great work. That's what we're set out to do and ... One of the best, if not the best client that is working with Wieden and Kennedy right now, so we don't really see that happening. But if at some point we stop making great work that we're proud of, then that's probably the risk. You never know what happens, but I just can't see that happening, based on the success we've had over the last three years. I think people do believe that Great Creative is helping drive the business results, and so we're pretty happy about where we're at right now.

Charles:

I want to talk about leadership for a couple of minutes. Obviously, putting the right kind of people into a situation like this is crucial. What are the characteristics that you're looking for as you build a team to work with Wieden on KFC?

George Felix:

Yeah, it's funny, I'm less concerned if people have advertising experience or done social media, those things. I joke with my team, marketing, it's not necessarily rocket science. I can teach somebody about advertising and productions and making commercials. The stuff I can't teach are people that can work and develop a strong relationship with an agency partner, people that believe in servant leadership, people that are more about the team than themselves. Those are the things that I can't ... I can't change you. Either you have those things or you don't.

There's a line from Hamilton, "I'm looking for a mind at work." That's kind of like what I say. Obviously, I'm looking for somebody that's intelligent, but also displays those qualities that are I know are going to drive this team, because our jobs, the hinge so much on collaboration that there's just no way we can succeed if I have people that can't work well with other people, adapt, and do the sparring with the agency, because it's not one way. We have tons of debate. That's the myth is we just buy everything that they give us.

I think the sign of a good relationship is that we do have the tension, and we have those conversations, but they're honest conversations. We don't have to tip-toe around it. Those are kind of the things I look for on my team more so than any sort of specific marketing skills or degree.

Charles:

The heart of collaboration is trust, right?

George Felix:

Yeah.

Charles:

If you don't have trust, how do you engender trust within your group?

George Felix:

Well, I try to be as transparent as possible with my team, and just really, really honest. Just kind of bring them in and show them how I operate, what I expect from them, in terms of how they treat our agency. But really just I kind of try to develop a team that feels more like a family. I joke we spend enough time together that we should have some fun. I think over the course of the last three years, I've had just an incredible team that's been able to feel like ... When I came here, I told them I came to this job because I thought we could really make some of the best marketing in the world.

I told them at the time it was three people on my team. They could have either looked at me like I had three heads, because I don't think that made a ton of sense three years ago, or they could have bought in and gone for it. Thankfully, they bought in, and here we are. I think if you're honest and open and transparent with your team, I think it just shows, just builds that trust internally that we can then kind of transfer that over to these guys too.

Charles:

Jesse, from your perspective, as you said, Wieden has a very specific culture. It attracts a certain kind of person. What are you looking for within the context of that that makes them right to work on this brand?

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah, when I'm hiring my team, everything is about what I like to think of just as the will to win. Specifically working on KFC, there are so many projects that just have never been done before. This isn't a standard, "Go make TV and radio and some banners and call it a day, and you have six months to do it." This is neck-breaking turnaround times, no idea where to start with how you get a chicken sandwich in a space or how you go make whatever it is that we're doing to sell chicken.

I'm looking for someone who just has the attitude of, "I will get this done. I will find a way to get this done. I will enjoy doing that." I've definitely hired people that have had that spirit who are less trained than someone they were up against. I just cannot understate how important that is in this job, specifically within account management. It's just you need to have that spirit and that ownership that you will take this on, and you'll find a way to make it happen. I have a team right now that every single one of them checks that box for me, and I think that's why it's working so well.

George Felix:

We call the team in Portland the Chicken Squad. You'll literally never find a more passionate team in the world. It's incredible. Like you said, you just kind of ... I think the brand and Jesse and the leadership team on there, they attract those people that want to do that, but it's remarkable to work, and it's energizing for us to work with them, even though we're mostly on the phone with them, given the distance, but it's pretty amazing to see.

Charles:

There must be times, given the level of creativity that you guys are operating at that you have disagreements. How do you resolve those, other than [inaudible 00:40:26] the client gets to say no?

George Felix:

Client's always right, right?

Jesse Johnson:

Just keep bringing it back until they buy it.

George Felix:

They have employed that tactic a few times.

Jesse Johnson:

It comes to it, we've gotten into plenty of arguments, but again, I think that's just a testament to the strength of the relationship that I'd rather be honest and go at it. I think George probably feels the same way. Hang up the phone, call back the next day, and figure out, "Okay, where are we going to move forward?" It's definitely happened both ways. Sometimes work has not been approved or killed, and sometimes we're like, "No, dude. I'm flying out. We're bringing it again."

Again, not a lot of people you can have that relationship with and speak so freely, but that I think is so critical. You're not playing any games. You're not playing any political games or anything like that. You're just literally in service of the creative work. That's why it's been so good.

George Felix:

It's funny too. I think there are some times where we get in that situation, and it doesn't always make it to the point where it gets escalated to be this bigger thing. Jesse and I joke sometimes it's like we got to go into the smoky back room, and figure this thing out, and really just work through it. Sometimes we can solve some of those problems that way where it doesn't become a big thing, and we kind of come to a resolution, and we kind of compromise and solve it. Other times, it is a much bigger deal. Again, that's why we respect them. If they really feel like it's the right thing for the business, and that's the key. It's not that they just think it's a fun creative idea. They're like, "Guys, you told us this is the business problem. We really think this is what you should do to solve it." They're going to stick to their guns. Like you said, sometimes we buy it, sometimes we don't, but that's why they're our partner.

Charles:

Yeah, it's a crucial distinction, isn't it? When an agency is trying, anybody actually is trying to solve the business problem rather than just trying to do the thing that seems kind of cool and interesting in that moment. How do you lead?

George Felix:

I'm sorry?

Charles:

How do you lead?

George Felix:

I try to lead by example, I'd say is my go to. When I came to KFC, it was a bit of a culture shift that we were trying to make, in terms of just ... There wasn't a lot of pride in the brand, the people working for the brand. For me, it was setting that vision and that goal of I don't care how crazy this sounds. We are going to be the best marketers in the world, and then you go act like it.

Three years later, I'd say we've got confidence and we've got a swagger, that we belong. The fact that KFC's here at Cannes I think is a testament to that, but it's a testament to all the people on my team that have bought into that idea. I think there's something powerful to just seeing it, and the more you see it, you'll start to embrace it. It just becomes every day. Working with these guys helps too. That's all part of it.

Charles:

Jesse, what about you?

Jesse Johnson:

I think leading by example is right. I think our managing director in Portland, Carl Dixon, always told me when he was at Wieden before, that he always thinks of himself, "Would his team hire him as an AE?" Was always his kind of bar. I thought that was really great advice, just that you are willing to work at every single level. As you kind of grow in your career, that you're not above doing things that maybe ... Even opening a job or something like that. Willing to do anything. If you are willing to do that, I think everyone else kind of follows that example.

I think I lead with a lot of optimism. I think you should have fun. We literally work in advertising. It's the most fun job. If you're not having fun, then something is wrong. I try to bring a lot of positivity to that. I think that's really critical. Then everything else is trying to find the right time to let people fly. I think getting out of people's way sometimes is the best way to lead, and let them do their thing, and let them take ownership of a project or a bigger job, and see what they're made of. Be there along the way, but as far as away from the steering wheel as you can get sometimes is the best thing to do as a leader. I think it's a mix of those, but that's kind of where my head goes.

Charles:

Last question. What are you afraid of?

George Felix:

What am I afraid of? I'm afraid of getting complacent, I guess would be the right way to say it. There's times ... It's been a great three years on KFC. There are times where it feels like we have made just an amazing amount of progress, and then there are times where it feels like we're still nowhere and we have so much to go. I think the reason we've been able to do what we did was that we were really hungry, and we were an underdog, and we had that mentality. Awards are nice, and that's great, but the real results are are we growing this business? Are we growing this brand? Are we getting this brand to where it really needs to get to? We're making progress, but it's not there yet. I think just being scared of getting complacent and losing that edge I think that's what I'd be afraid of.

Charles:

Jesse?

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah, I think just how the whole advertising world is evolving, I think as a creative agency, I think you want to make sure that you're still 10 steps ahead. I think our office is doing a great job of that, but I worry about the speed of how quickly we need to move to kind of stay on that cutting edge. That's why a brand like KFC would want to work with us is that we're constantly bringing that level of thought ahead of the curve. It's just happening so fast right now that I want to make sure that we're constantly being the leaders in that. Again, I think we're doing a great job, but I think there's a lot that's coming our way. I just want to make sure that we're able to push into those.

It's hard to buy as a traditional brand like KFC, and certainly when we started working with them three years ago, it was mainly TV and a little bit of radio, and that was it. We've grown so much over the three years, but I just know that there's ... Especially when you start thinking about experiential and things like that that are going to be coming in a big way, that are we ready to take that on in a credible way. I'm curious to see what would happen, but I think that's the intention that we're going to have.

Charles:

George, you're appearing on stage tomorrow, right?

George Felix:

Yes.

Charles:

Are you appearing as yourself or as somebody else?

George Felix:

Well, Charles, I guess you'll have to come and find out yourself in person.

Charles:

I think your image is the most widely publicized of the week. I've been seeing it in my email box for about four months, you dressed as Colonel Sanders.

George Felix:

Yeah, yeah. That picture almost ended the relationship between me and Wieden and Kennedy. Thankfully for everyone, I will be showing up as myself and not as the Colonel. That photo was a lot of fun. I can confidently say I'm the worst looking Colonel we've had.

Jesse Johnson:

Tell him that story.

George Felix:

Oh gosh. Yeah, you can see on my badge here, they made me take a new photo, because they pulled up the one of me looking like a Colonel, and the woman behind the desk said, "Oh my God, somebody hacked your photo and made you look ... Gave you white hair and a beard." We had to take a new one.

Charles:

I will post the photograph as part of the website on the website.

George Felix:

Oh perfect. Thank you. Just what we need.

Charles:

So people can understand, and we can share it again over the months to come.

George Felix:

Amazing.

Charles:

I wrap every episode with three takeaways that I've heard, and I'm going to do this through the lens of the partnership, because clearly it's such a powerful point. I think the first feedback or element or reaction that I have, the first reaction that I have is that you have such respect for each other and for the process that you're involved in. You're clearly so willing to listen to opposing points of view, and you have so much respect for what it is that each other is trying to bring to that table that I think it creates a massively important foundation. I think second is that you have obviously real intention. You both talked about trying to solve the business problems of the brand. I think in too many cases, that kind of gets fallen by the wayside over a bunch of other stuff which has ego, fear, all kinds of things attached to it. That's clearly not here, not that I've seen anyway.

Then I think the other part of it that's important for you guys is that you both have the same sense of urgency. You're trying to make stuff happen as quickly as possible, obviously with respect to the craft in the process, but nevertheless, you are aligned I think very much in the fact that you want to get this to happen. Do those resonate with you?

Jesse Johnson:

Yeah.

George Felix:

Yeah, absolutely.

Charles:

Thank you both so much for joining me here at the crowded now Majestic Bar. Have a great rest of the week, and thanks for doing this.

George Felix:

Thank you for having us.

Jesse Johnson:

Thanks, Charles. Appreciate it.