Mary Warlick, in a One Show category of her own

Needless to say, our industry is changing pretty rapidly. Which got me thinking about creative people who were big names when I first entered the business and have somehow managed to remain relevant today. Like any creative profession, it’s not easy to maintain a career for more than a decade. Much less two. So hats off to the likes of Jeff Goodby, Dan Wieden, Gerry Graf, Dave Lubars, John Butler and others who are as vital to the business today as they were in early nineties.
What’s interesting though, is that the person who has remained at the creative forefront more than any other during this period, is not a copywriter or art director. It’s the head of the One Show, Mary Warlick. I first met Mary in 1988, when I tried to coax her into telling me which form of metal was used to cast my first One Show Pencil. (She never told me by the way.) Since then, I’ve spent countless hours with her in different hotel ballrooms in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and LA staring at ads, attended the premier of her film, Art & Copy and become very good friends. Those of you who’ve met Mary along the way, either as part of a judging staff or through a handshake following a walk across the Lincoln Center stage, know she always carries herself with grace, humility and an unwavering appreciation for the creative product and the people charged with developing it.

So I decided I was going to interview Mary. Which I did, poorly. So I redid the interview, this time, asking questions that had less to do with what she’s accomplished and more to do with what she thinks. Here are the results. As always, I’ll just have to wait to discover whether the piece earns gold, silver, bronze or merit.

Court: How long have you been with The One Club and how did you come into this job?

Mary: I’ve been with the One Club since 1989. I was working as a creative manager with Levine, Huntley, Schmidt and Beaver – the late great agency that did a lot of creative work for Subaru and Maidenform and Citizen’s watch. And Allan Beaver was president of The One Club at the time. The position of director opened up and he asked me if I’d be interested in it. I went and met Angela Dominguez, who was then the current director, and you know, asked about the job, and well, I said, “It has a gallery, it’s advertising and its in New York and I think I could do something with this.”

Court: How has the organization changed over the years?

Mary: The organization is what I am most proud of. We have embraced content. We were able to with the support of the board of directors to make a film, Art & Copy documentary that premiered in Sundance in 2009 and then we later sold the film to Independent Lens and it aired on PBS and we were awarded an Emmy that year in 2010. So that was pretty exciting. We have developed a whole education department in the years past. They would do the occasional portfolio reviews but now we have a whole scholarship program built in and really fostering the next generation of advertising professional. Then a couple of years ago, we really upgraded our diversity initiative – a diversity outreach. And we’ve done, I mean, our signature event is Where Are All The Black People like in it’s 5th year now or 4th year. Which is specifically a Create A Job fair for people of multi-cultural backgrounds. And were also doing a creative boot camps around the country– reaching out to young people in community colleges that may not have thought about advertising or design as a career.

Court: How have you changed?

Mary: I hope I’ve gotten a little mellower. I know I still obsess about details, how things are done. I want everything to be done stylishly. I want everything to be top shelf. But I hope that I don’t sweat the small stuff sometimes. I have been able to let go and delegate. I’ve got Emily Isovitsch as managing director of The One Show, and she and her staff pretty much organize the logistics of judging. We have a whole computerized digital judging system which has been developed under Kevin Swanepoel and the other people working here. So I’ve been able to let go of things like that. But I still, I guess, I haven’t changed. I still believe in the work, I still believe in the integrity of the judging process and they always complain and want to like change things. And I said, well, this is The One Show, this is the way we do it. This is the One Show that you’ve all come to fall in love and this is the way we do it. In a sense, do it with a bit of a firm hand. But I want to say, I hope I’ve become mellower.

Court: I think all of us hopefully feel like we’ve become mellower.

Mary: Court, you’ve judged from the very beginning and you’ve also judged just this past year. So you have had a good eye on the evolution of the show. And I think that you’ll see that some things are very similar than what they used to be and other things have changed.

Court: Speaking of which, I heard rumor that one time you were both annoyed that I rallied Mike Shine, Ty Montague and some other judges to stay out drinking little later than we should have and impressed I sent you a thank you note after the judging. Do you confirm or deny theses allegations?

Mary: I think I can confirm both of them. Back to how have I changed and how I have not changed, Court, I would get livid when judges would stay out too late and then show up next day hungover. The reason why, is that these same judges would not show up for a new business pitch hungover. And I ask them to give the same sort of respect to what I do for a living that they would to their client.

Court: That’s good insight.

Mary: I don’t mean to be prudish, but people have invested a tremendous amount of creative energy, financial resources and staff time into entering The One Show. And The One Show is respected for certain reasons—above all, the integrity of our judging.

Court: So who’s your favorite judge of all time?

Mary: You!

Court: Present company excluded.

Mary: Well, I have to think about that and get back to you. And this is the truth, Court, just in general, without naming names. When it used to be a lot of young hotshots who’d come from young hotshot agencies in the US, they had a sense of entitlement. Where, when you would invite European judges, they were very respectful of The One Show. And very often, I did get thank you notes – handwritten thank you notes from European or South American judges. And that’s why I was so impressed when you wrote your thank you note. Because the European’s tend to be a little more – “I’m judging The One Show, this is really important.” As opposed to a lot of Americans who have thought – “I finally get to judge The One Show, it’s way overdue.”

Court: You worked with a lot of creative people through the years. What is your favorite thing about creative people?

Mary: My favorite thing about creative people, is that they are smart. They get it. They are not one-dimensional. Creative people– whether they are art directors or copywriters, from Argentina, London or Minneapolis or Los Angeles–are quick on the uptake. They are well-versed. To me, that’s what the industry is about. And that’s why I love the creative side of the industry. Because of the people and the relationship you build over the years and I think they are really a super, super bunch of people.

Court: Do you think creative people are treated with the same level of respect by clients these days they were previously?

Mary: I couldn’t say that, because I am not in on the client meetings. I don’t know if anybody is treated as well as they were 20 years ago. Whether it’s politics or anything. There has been a kind of a lowering of gentility almost. I don’t know if it’s reality shows that has lowered the bar of what’s acceptable to say to people. I don’t know. It’s a good question though.

Court: That’s an interesting observation, because clients need the breakthrough creative more than they ever have. And yet there is this sense of commoditization and people just kind of dismissing what goes into producing that sort of work.

Mary: It’s hard to do good creative. I mean, I remember hearing Cliff Freeman say very seriously, “It’s hard to be funny. It’s really hard.” They do need breakthrough creative. And because there has been such lowering of the bar, breakthrough creative is more difficult to do now than it ever was. But it’s what I love when we produce The One Show– that small 6% of the work that we see that rises to the top. It really rises to the top.

Court: So, if there was any one piece of work you’ve seen through all the One Shows you could put your name on, what would it be?

Mary: Well, some of the Nike work. The Nike print campaign with Janet Champ and Charlotte Moore. Certainly, that Keep Walking campaign for Johnny Walker Scotch done by BBH a couple of years ago. The Guinness work from London and the “Back to the farm” piece Chipotle produced last year. There’s some wonderful stuff. You know, wonderful stuff.

Court: It’s interesting because you span quite a range of time just in that description of work. And I was thinking that it’s so difficult to stay relevant in this business for any extended period of time, and yet, you’ve managed to on the cutting edge for a series of decades.

Mary: Thank you. It’s the juries. You’ve got to keep the juries fresh. You’ve got to keep people that have perspective who’ve been in the business for a while and mix them with people doing cutting edge stuff. Everybody has equal voice. We generally don’t have the chairman of the jury for One Show. I mean, we do in Design and we do in Interactive because that work has to be so the judging has to be kind of managed. But in One Show, we generally haven’t had a jury chair, because everybody has an equal vote and that’s what keeps it relevant.

Court: Tell me a little about Art &Copy and what it represented not just as film but as a statement about The One Club.

Mary: Art & Copy, I have to say that was my – what is the moment? That was my “AHA!” moment in The One Club. It started out as a series of interviews with people in the creative Hall of Fame. I mean, the people who worked on it, Doug Pray, the director, Kirk Souder, Michael Nadeau Jimmy Greenway– they were able to pull this series of interviews together into a magical narrative of creative work from the 60’s creative revolution up until 2009. That is sort of what The One Club is about—art and copy. It’s creative excellence. It’s exciting. It’s, “When you do it right, it can really be great.”

Court: Having dabbled a bit in the entertainment world myself, I’m always telling anyone who’ll listen that I believe ad people are exceedingly well-suited to write features, TV shows and other long-form content. Do you feel the same way?

Mary: Absolutely. We have a couple content projects in the works right now. One of them we’ve been given a green light from PBS for a 3-part television series that we are working on about creative solutions to bigger worldwide problems. I think advertising people are trained to be quick, in the sense that they can communicate an idea in an elevator pitch. I mean, that’s what creative people do in advertising industry and they know how to bring in different resources, too. And that’s exciting.

Court: I find that they also think about the audience a lot more than typical entertainment writers, who think first and foremost about their projects and what they want to say.

Mary: Oh, of course, that’s a very good point. Because people in advertising can sculpt projects and fashion projects to suit the audience without pandering to them. That’s what happens in entertainment today– A lot of pandering going on. And in advertising, you don’t have the luxury of pandering. You’ve got to be on point.

Court: Over the years, my attitude toward creative directing has changed, to where I now feel like my job is to provide inspiration at least as much as it is to evaluate work. What would you say to inspire this next generation of advertising?

Mary: I think this is an industry where you can really produce some good work and you could have some fun and you can work with good people. And you can come away from the end of the day saying, “I made this.” You can have a product at the end of the day. You’re not just pushing numbers. You are creating. I mean, if you are creative, you have to make some things. Whether that something is a 90-minute full feature film or a 90-second long format or if it’s a killer app. I mean, it’s making things that keeps people going. I think as far as creative people, go—and, granted, this sort of validates the One Show—they need to hear the applause. They need reinforcement. Because you can work year after year, but unless somebody acknowledges you and says that’s really great, I want to share that with somebody else, you can’t flourish. I remember interviewing Rich Silverstein talking about making Billy Balls for Hal Riney. And the first time he saw it in a big stadium – a baseball stadium with several thousand people raising their hands. He said that was the first time I understood that I could affect thousands of people at one time. And people whose commercials run on the Super Bowl experience the same sort of group excitement.

Court: You’re right, as a creative person, I find I have this almost guttural need to make things and put them out into the world. It’s integrally tied to my personal happiness.

Mary: Sharing it with other people. A part of you that’s connecting with humanity. And if it’s associated with a product, it’s okay. That’s helping the society that’s moving the economy forward and that’s okay.