Beautiful Thinkers: A conversation with Michael Boamah about finding the next gag, making your own luck, and writing for an audience of one.
I think I’ve found my ad-twin. He’s French, he’s an account manager, and he works in PR. While that might not sound much like me — an American leading the creative side of things at an advertising agency that doesn’t have a PR department — we have a lot in common. His blog, The Next Gag, does the same thing I’m attempting to do with Eunoia (only on a much bigger stage).
It was fascinating to hear his reasons for doing the blog (very in line with mine) and what he got out of it (again, similar). Thankfully, he was generous enough to allow me to interview him about interviewing people. How meta.
You’ve been writing The Next Gag, for over four years. Why did you create the blog?
I started my first blog when I was a student 13 years ago. I used it to get inspiration, to follow what was going on in the industry and to find what was new in terms of creativity. I got a job, so I stopped for a couple of years. But then I got the bug again. I was sharing emails with my colleagues about what I was seeing online and then I thought, “You know what? I should just create a simple blog where I can share all the links of stuff that I see during the week.” I did that for a while, and then on January 1, 2014, I launched The Next Gag.
Where does the name The Next Gag come from?
It’s from the movie Ocean’s 13. If you’re not familiar with the series, in Ocean’s 11, Brad Pitt and George Clooney rob Andy Garcia’s casino. In the second one, Andy Garcia gets his money back. In Ocean’s 13, they rob Al Pacino’s casino with the help of Andy Garcia.
There’s a scene in the film where Andy Garcia asks the guys why they don’t just use the same technique that they used to rob his casino. The guys respond, “Oh, no, no, no. You never do the same gag twice. You do the next gag.” I really liked the line, so I wrote it down in my journal. When I was searching for a name, I went back to read it and thought it’d be perfect because I liked the idea of never repeating yourself.
Some agencies, especially the big ones, have done legendary work but are still talking about it 10–15 years later. I hate that because I believe that you need to build your creative reputation by proving yourself every single year. I like the idea of thinking about what you’re going to do this year.
In the beginning of the blog, I tried not to be too U.S.-centric because a lot of blogs were covering that already. I wanted to uncover work from other countries, especially from agencies that weren’t mainstream. I also didn’t always choose film because there was a lot of TV ad coverage, so I’d feature a nice social media post, a design, even a mobile website if it was interesting. I tried to be global in my choices. Which is funny because in the beginning the blog was written in French. I realized that I had a lot of people following from other parts of the world, so I switched to English.
How did you find the people you wanted to interview and how would you conduct them?
I did an interview every week. I’d do 10 questions in 15 minutes. I’d find people that I liked, and I’d send them an email asking if they would talk with me. Some people said yes, so I got started. I’d interview people in person if they were from France. For others, I would Skype or interview by email. I was lucky enough to go to Cannes five times in a row, so I was able to interview many people while I was there.
Doing the interviews was the part that I enjoyed the most. I don’t know why, but people seem to talk a lot to me and say more than they would in a basic Q and A. In the beginning, I interviewed a lot of creatives in ad agencies, but then I added clients, strategists, graphic designers and digital creatives. I tried to mix it up and have a lot of fun. I didn’t want to repeat myself, so I focused on discussing something new all the time.
Was there any particular characteristic that the people that you interview shared? Did you have something specific in mind when you chose them?
I’d like to say that I was doing the blog just for me. I wasn’t trying to please a crowd. It was basically me talking to myself and publishing what I liked. The common theme for the people I chose was my curiosity — if I was curious about the way that they worked, the way they came up with ideas, how they managed, if they had shortcomings. Sometimes it was simply a piece of work they’d done. If you read all of the questions, it will give you a little bit of insight into who I am and how I think.
My motivation for my blog is similar. When I became ECD, I wanted to become a student of the industry again. But like you, I also wanted to find a more intimate side of the person I was interviewing. We offer a different perspective than industry press does because we’re in the trenches doing work. Did you feel this way too or was this purely a personal project?
Yes. I absolutely agree with everything you just said. It was me being a student, too. For example, I was speaking to someone who’d launched a virtual reality company, and he was telling me how he’d sold the idea to his investors and what he sees as the future of VR. Essentially, I was learning from the best.
After doing that for four years I’m a bit more equipped to do my job than before. I can bring things up in a meeting that I’ve learned. Because my answers came from an ECD or the founder of a great company, it carries more weight. I agree that sometimes the publications don’t really do their job when talking about people behind the work.
Even if you watch a spot and you don’t like it, you can still appreciate the choices those who made it made — why they chose a specific director or shot or song. Hearing people talking about how they work on the project and why they did what they did is fascinating, at least to me.
Your blog has quite a following. I know initially you would contact people to interview, but later their PR reps started reaching out to you to be interviewed. What was the turning point?
In the beginning, my subjects were people who were in France. I didn’t have anyone from the U.S. I reached out to a really, really, really small agency in Brooklyn called Franklyn because they’d just been shortlisted for an award. I tried to find out a bit about them then thought, “You know what? I’m just going to ask them.” I think this was the turning point: when I had my first interviewee from the USA.
A PR company reached out to me to ask if I would like to interview one of their clients. Of course, I said, “Yeah. Sure.” After that, I received a lot of other requests, so I could become a bit pickier. PR companies would send me their list of clients, and I would tell them I would talk to an agency on their list only if I could talk to the ECD or the president. I had a lot of nice choices. It made my job easier because they would arrange the meeting and provide me with backgrounds. When I was able to be in this position, it changed everything.
I know you are no longer doing interviews for the blog. Why did you stop?
I think I was done. I did it for four years, and I managed to get a lot people that I never thought I could. I interviewed a lot of creative agencies, production companies, design agencies, some clients, some students, some directors, strategists and award organizations. I think I’ve covered everything.
Was there anybody you didn’t get to interview that you wish you could have?
I made like a wish list when I started of people that I wanted to interview. There was one ECD I really wanted to interview that I didn’t get to. Her name is Jaime Robinson, and she’s the co-founder of Joan Creative in NYC. I saw her in Cannes speak on the beach, and I really liked the way that she was expressing herself. She had authority, and she commanded the room when she was speaking. I reached out to her and her PR firm. Maybe I should have called.
After looking at the long list of men you’d interviewed, you dedicated a year to only talking with women. How did that go?
Everything changed when I started interviewing women, to be honest with you. It might not be a surprise for you, but as a man, it was a little bit surprising to find that women don’t really like to be featured. I wouldn’t say that they’re shy, but they often don’t feel that they deserve to be featured as much as men do. It was kind of a grind at the beginning to get women to do an interview.
I would check out lineups of women speakers at conferences and identify women to talk with because I knew they wanted to speak out and had something interesting to say. I knew I had to keep talking with women because it’s not normal to have to dig really, really deep to find a woman on a list of 50 speakers.
How did they feel about you specifically wanting to talk with them because they were a woman?
I don’t know. The aim of the interviews was not to speak about being a woman. It was basically to talk about their point of view about creativity. So I didn’t ask questions that I would never ask a man like “How do you balance your work life?” or “Was it hard to go back to work after having kids?” So, no. I treat every subject the same.
That’s good because one of the reasons that women are gun-shy is because when somebody approaches them just because they’re a woman they already feel pigeonholed. Diversity is a big part of the advertising conversation now, too. Did you focus on finding different ages, geographies and ethnicities?
No. Okay, so this is me speaking as the French guy. In France, they don’t talk about diversity. It’s not because they don’t see it. It’s because they feel every person living in France is French, so their background doesn’t matter. We don’t have the same history as in the U.S., so no one will ask you to refer to yourself by your ethnicity or where you come from.
You talk about doing the blog for you — an audience of one. Did the places you worked at know you were doing this? Was it a positive thing for them?
It’s funny because many employers didn’t know I was doing it because I was doing it on the side, so I wasn’t really talking about it at work. Sometimes it would come up. I remember one day I did an interview with the managing director of UNIT9, a big digital agency in London. They also have offices in the U.S. A coworker was checking Twitter and found my interview. I was like, “Yeah, that’s me.” Another time, someone talked about contacting a particular company. I said I knew the CEO because I interviewed him. For my employers, the value of having the blog was more about the connections I was making.
How have you seen the industry change in the four years you did the blog?
The big thing that’s changed is the how agencies classify themselves. Many agencies of note aren’t calling themselves advertising agencies. They all want to be something else — as if advertising is becoming a dirty word. So, this is new.
Obviously social media is a big, big thing. Also, many brands are doing their own stuff in-house. Production companies are now going straight to clients. In the beginning, when I started, they were relying on agencies. Now they’ve eliminated the middleman. North Kingdom, Media Monks and UNIT9 all now go straight to clients.
But the biggest change might be the way people work. With Slack and all these co-working platforms, people don’t have to come to the office to work. So you have a lot of remote people working from different cities. There are more freelancers, which means it’s easier to get great talent from all over the world or all over the country without being in a metropolitan city.
I know you started at an agency but have spent the bulk of your career at PR agencies. What would you say is the biggest role PR can play in developing a brand?
When you insert yourself into a controlled moment, you have to either be lucky or create your own luck. Take, for example, the IHOP stunt when they said they were becoming IHOB. It was covered extensively in the press. There was a mystique to it. It could have gone unnoticed, but it blew up. Changing their logo was the thing that got everybody talking about it.
A more recent example is when Skittles did a Broadway show as their Super Bowl ad. Super Bowl coverage is normally about the ads that run in commercial breaks, but Skittles wasn’t in the commercial breaks. They controlled the moment. PR agencies can insert themselves into a controlled moment. That is huge.
The second thing that PR can help with in terms of branding is creating strong relationships with the journalists, bloggers and influencers — to be there to help when you have something to say. The editor of Adweek receives hundreds of emails every day and it’s really, really hard for them to navigate so they go back to the people they know. If you’re not top of mind, it’s really, really hard to be noticed.
Okay, last question. What do you read to stay inspired and to keep up?
Number one is Twitter. I’ve been on the platform for more than 10 years now. I have my own list of people I rely on for what’s happening. If someone posts a link on something, I’m not going to read the article right away. I’m going to wait for three to four people in my timelines to read through it before I look at it. Twitter is big for me. It saves me a lot of time. I have my go-to guys and girls I follow because I enjoy what they post. I would say, if you want to be informed, just check out the people I follow and then you’ll be the most fun person in the room.