John Follis began his career working for major advertising agencies such as FCB/Chicago and DDB Worldwide in New York. In the mid-1980s, his entrepreneurial career began with freelance work for such major New York shops as Chiat/Day, Della Femina and Kirshenbaum & Bond. His work on the Kenneth Cole account resulted in awards and national press.
In 1988, Follis co-founded Follis&Verdi, with clients such as The American Stock Exchange, No Excuses Jeans, Solgar Vitamins and Sorrell Ridge Fruit Spreads—a case taught at the Harvard Business School and featured in Forbes. In ‘93, Follis/DeVito/Verdi won 9 ADDY Awards making it the second most awarded agency in New York. That same year Follis formed Follis Inc to include a focus on non-traditional and online marketing. In 2003, in response to the shifting media landscape and to provide an alternative to the traditional ad agency model, Follis created “Follis Marketing Therapy”. And, in 2006, Follis created “The Follis Marketing Report” blog and “The Marketing Show with John Follis” podcast syndicated on iTunes.
How did you get started in advertising and marketing all those years ago?
Well, first of all, thank you for having me on your show. Yeah, I’m looking forward to this. So yeah, I started a while ago and I was always good creatively growing up as a kid. The question was how to question was how do I apply that creative talent to a career? And I was probably halfway through college when I got pulled aside by an instructor who was teaching a graphic design class and she asked me what I wanted to do with my life. And when I said I wasn’t sure if she said, Well, I think you are to really seriously consider pursuing something either in advertising or communication arts or some kind of media because you’re really really talented. So had it not been for that instructor? I’m not sure I would have pursued that. But you know, that helped a lot. And after she gave me that idea, I transferred to a university Syracuse University which had one of the best advertising programs in the country. So that’s how I started on that track.
Where are you in Chicago first or New York first?
So I grew up in Connecticut, and I was going to school in upstate New York and Syracuse and then after graduation, I didn’t feel I was ready for New York City, even though that is the mecca of advertising as some of your listeners may know. They call it Madison Avenue. But I was a little intimidated by New York so did not go there. Like many of my classmates did I started out my career in Atlanta, Georgia, for two years in Atlanta. Then I got felt that wasn’t fast enough for me. So I moved up to Chicago, spent three years there and after that, I felt like I was ready for the big leagues and moved to New York
The Google search on you. I have found you have won many awards in not only in New York but also in Chicago.
I didn’t really hit my stride. Michael until I moved to New York. So I may have one, one or two in Chicago, but it really wasn’t until I started my own agency in New York, that I started winning a bunch of awards.
Of course when we mentioned that you had worked with some of the really big names out there. One of the stuck to my mind was Kenneth Cole. What was it like having them as a client?
That’s interesting that you mentioned that because certainly, Kenneth Cole was still an unknown designer in the mid-80s. When I knew who Kenneth Cole was including me because he was he was just like a 25 year old kid who didn’t want to go into his father’s shoe business and had some arguments with his father over marketing. And felt that he would be better off starting his own shoe business because he couldn’t get his father to do the kinds of things with advertising and marketing that he felt were really important. So when I had the opportunity to work on the Kenneth Cole campaign, that was when I was freelancing in New York in the mid-80s, and I stumbled upon a couple of guys who had a relationship with Kenneth they had met him they’ve done a couple of ads for candidates at the time. And they brought me in because they felt like they needed some creative help. So I, I, I was, I was on the creative side, one of the two guys was the client contact guy so he was the one that was dealing directly with Kenneth. But I had the opportunity, to work on the account for the first couple of years that really helped establish Kenneth Cole as an iconic designer, the iconic designer that he is now at the time, he just had three stores. And after I guess, the first few years of the ad campaign, he had over 100 stores so certainly, I think that the ads that we did, were very different. And I think that’s what helped increase his awareness because I don’t know if you remember any of the ads. But in New York, they were really getting a lot is because they were running every couple of months in New York Magazine, so everyone in New York was seeing them and they really stood out because they really didn’t. They didn’t show pictures of shoes. They didn’t show a big logo. They weren’t like most fashion as it had a model, you know, featured in the ad. They were just very edgy. Quotes and perspectives from Kenneth Cole on whatever current event was happening at the time. And people who saw those ads assume that those quotes came directly from Kenneth but the reality is, is that my partner and I were the creative teams behind those quotes that that kind of agreed to run the ads for so that quote that campaign really helped turn my career around because it eventually attracted a guy who became my business partner. Awesome. When you’re associated, you know, it’s rare. A lot of advertising people work on big-name brands, but it’s very rare that any of them work on campaigns, that they can claim that has really created a buzz or have people talking. So again, my only perspective of that was what it was like in New York, but when we were running those ads in New York in the 80s, everyone was talking about that campaign and wondering who was behind it. So again, that really grease the wheels for my freelance business and eventually is what attracted my business partner.
That is definitely a win win, right?
You know, they worked really well for Kenneth and it was you know, it was very exciting.
So, you’ve worked with, with with a lot of big names, with with with those big names Did, did you do have larger budgets anything with with like, say smaller businesses.
So you know, just just to reiterate what I said, when you mentioned Kenneth Cole Now that sounds like a big name, right? Right. When we were walking working with with Kenneth, there was no name. No one knew who Kenneth Cole was he had no name. So it was the campaign that we created for him that ran for several years that created helped create that brand. So you know, contrary to what you said, Yes, I have worked on some big accounts, but that was just the first few years of my career when I worked at the big agencies when I was freelancing. The accounts that I worked on were small accounts. With small business owners and entrepreneurs like Kenneth Cole, who was trying to build his brand he had no name he had no persona so that was one of the things that the work that we did for him helped create. That’s, that’s what I like to do for smaller clients that are kind of struggling to create their own brand. You know, whether or not I can make them an iconic international brand, I can’t say but I certainly have had the experience of working you know, on a couple of accounts that were like that, you know, like kind of coral that started out, basically, unknown as unknown. People, and eventually because of the work that we did for them became known as Big brands.
So as a freelancer. How do you help guide people into the idea that they need invest into their marketing and invest in making that brand grow?
So you know, by New York advertising standards, kind of Cole at the time did not have a big budget, but it was big enough to run full-page ads in New York Magazine. Every three months. So you know, budgets are relative, you know, to us, and maybe to you that doesn’t seem like a big budget to some of the people who are listening to this. That can sound like a huge budget. I can’t tell you exactly what a full-page ad in New York Magazine cost in the mid-80s, but it’s probably 10 grand, something like that. You know, so you know, running that several times a year is is not cheap. But, you know, he was smart enough to realize that it was a good investment. I mean, the bottom line comes down to this. If marketing is done wisely, then it doesn’t become an expense, it becomes a wise investment. And likewise within the investment. The idea is that not only do you get back what you spend what you get back more than what you spend on you get back you know, ideally, twice, three times what you spend so that’s the theory behind marketing, but only if it’s done wisely. So, with anyone who is listening to this and says well gee, I don’t I don’t really have a budget. That’s okay because there are a lot of things that big tech can be done with social media that don’t cost little or nothing. The thing that’s really important is that you just use you just do your market you use your, your marketing effectively, you do effective marketing, and if it stood well, you can still do a lot with very little.
How important is it to do when you say why is the I’m assuming you mean to plan things and to lay things out to do to do you have a direction right?
That’s that’s the problem is that. First of all, small business owners have two options they can either to try to figure out everything themselves or if they’re smart enough to realize that their time is probably better spent doing what they know and love and find experts to help them with the other things. You know, whether it be an attorney for their legal issues, whether it be a good bookkeeper an accountant for their accounting issues, you know, whatever it might be, you seek to try to find someone who’s really good at those things. The problem, of course, is that, especially with marketing people, there are so many marketing people out there who kind of present themselves as experts and you and I were talking about this earlier. It’s a very confusing landscape for the small business owner to really be able to determine exactly who was good and who was not good because you don’t know what you don’t know. You know, it’s kind of like trying to find a car mechanic right? Most people don’t know a lot about car mechanics. And so it’s hard for them to turn to determine whether someone’s a good car mechanic or not, but when you do find a good car mechanic, they’re worth their weight in gold. And so the same thing is true with with with marketing. I think that’s that becomes the big challenge for a lot of small business owners and I actually just recently wrote an article that I can share with you later if you’re interested Michael, with a share you the link and it’s how do you find the best marketing help? So that article, there’s like an eight-step method that your listeners could go through to help them determine the best marketing help so but that becomes the challenge because it’s very, very difficult.
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