Beautiful Thinkers: Tony Ambroza, Chief Brand Officer, Carhartt

On In-House Creative, Outside Perspective and the Meaning of Brand

One of the biggest takeaways from last year’s Creative Leaders Retreats put on by One Club was a trend of creatives choosing to leave the agency world for client side creative posts. Not because they have to, but because they want to. Especially when it’s for iconic brands like Apple, Nickelodeon and Mattel. As a longtime fan of the Carhartt brand, I wanted to find out why Tony Ambroza, the SVP of Marketing for the brand since 2010, would find this arrangement not only beneficial but preferable.

Tony and his counterpart at Carhartt, Brian Bennett work together to tell the stories of hardworking people that wear Carhartt.

What is the benefit of having creative talent in house?
With a brand like Carhartt, marketing is in partnership with sales and product creation. We are involved in every element from the product name to the branding of the product. The amount of products we introduce to the market on an annual basis makes it fundamentally difficult to operate with an outside agency. We’d quickly burn through retained hours and we’d lose the opportunities that exist organically internally by living and breathing the rhythms of the business together. I’ve always been a big believer that creatives should have a seat at the table too. Creative horsepower can have a significant impact on cutting through and reducing the amount of challenges you run into through interpretation by having the creative thought leadership at the thought leadership table.

Do your creatives benefit from having a closer link to the end consumer?
100%. Right now, our creative leadership is in the field filming and shooting Spring 2018 in Texas. They, along with the product team, are working one on one with real people. We only work with people who have these rugged lifestyles. Having that direct connection keeps all of us grounded in reality and is a powerful piece of the approach. We witness the emotional connection that people have, and the challenges they have. Many creative ideas have come from these interactions.

How do you decide where to take the brand?
We have a lot of iterative conversations. If you look at the way we’ve operated over the last 6 years, it’s not hard to figure out where we’re going next because it’s writing chapters in a story. We’re very fortunate that we have a strengthening and growing brand and business. It’s not like we’re scrapping the script and starting over. Quite honestly we’re just tapping into the history and heritage and then bringing it to life to serve the needs of those doing the hardest jobs in today’s world.

What role does innovation play in product development for a heritage brand?
Our customer leads a very active, rugged outdoor-oriented lifestyle, whether they’re working or playing in the outdoors. We understand they put a lot of demands on their gear, whether it’s the tools that they need for the job, the toys they enjoy after work or the clothing that’s on their back. The idea of stretch, the idea of breathability, the protecting from the elements are ideas that have been around for a while, but they haven’t been prioritized for someone who’s working in a difficult and challenging job. The world loves to build a lot of amazing things for athletes. We’ve been studying what folks need that are on the most rugged work sites around the country and how does that bleed over into the rest of their life? Our customers find value in the products we make whether they have the job that inspires that product, or not.

How does marketing interact with product design?
We all have to align with where we’re going with the brand and the stories we want to tell. Our product team builds those stories into the product and then we develop and build experiences that bring those stories to life.

What advice would you give to other CMOs who are looking to build an in-house creative agency?
I’ve read about some people doing it cold turkey, where they’ve internalized and walked away from agencies. We were fortunate in that we were able to step it over time. The other key is to think long and hard about how you want to operate. Are you creating an in-house creative agency or positioning creative as part of the team? It comes down to culture. If you treat them like an agency, you have to create processes and approaches that mirror a traditional agency that bill you by the hour and prioritize projects. We found it better to make creative part of our team. One of the number one things we’d do if we had it to do all over again is to paint a clearer picture of the end destination for everyone involved. This includes your peers in leadership who are used to seeing a lot of different line items on the budget vs. the line items you create when you’re building it in house. The key is to do a strong job of laying out the vision in a clear way for right brained and left brained oriented folks who are looking at the bottom line black and white numbers and asking questions of why we need to do this. It’s important to identify how much more you can do, at a quicker speed, if you have the infrastructure in place. In a world that’s demanding more and more content and more quick strike activities, it’s critical to manage scope with all parties — creative, production and brand so we’re not asking too much of ourselves, or taking on more than we should.It’s not about saving cost. It’s about speed to market. When you don’t have to go through a filter or translation because you’re working alongside people who work in the same environment, it saves time and ultimately results in a better product that delivers solid return on advertising.

What advice would you give to agencies on how to work with in-house creatives?
Don’t subscribe to the classic stereotype that the in-house team just does corporate signs and letterhead and in-house videos and manuals because that is an old paradigm. We have a lot of folks who’ve been on the agency side themselves. The number one thing agencies can do is embrace the opportunity to get to work with a creative directly and not have to deal with a non creative sitting in a room having a creative conversation with creatives. The agencies that do that will do really well. Also, recognize there is a benefit of creatives working with creatives. And strategic people working with strategic people. It helps cut through a lot of red tape and get to good work faster.

Does Carhartt do 100% of their creative work in-house?
No. We work with a number of boutique agencies on project or specialty work for PR, media or event planning. We make the decision based on scalability of execution. We also want to make sure we have an outside voice once in a while to make sure we’re not breathing too much of our own air. There’s value in working with outside people who know our brand and the people, but who work on other things and stay in tune with shifts or changes we need to consider.

What does brand mean to you?
That’s funny. It’s a question I ask a lot of folks too. Without getting overly philosophical, I’d say brand isn’t just a logo, or a product. It’s a set of values and promises. To be a brand that people are willing to wear on their forehead, on their chest, to proudly display that brand, it has to have an emotional connection that speaks to and speaks for you as a person. The greatest brands embrace that and they understand that it’s about standing for things people truly care about and building and developing and fighting for those beliefs every step of the way consistently and through time. That’s something we’re lucky to be in service to because we have been celebrating since 1889 a way of life and belief in hard work and we look forward to doing that for many years to come.