Bryan Christian, Advertising Executive
Christian, who grew up in Waco and majored in English at Baylor University, is the senior vice president and general manager of Kolar Advertising and Marketing, in Austin, whose clients include Dell, 3M, and Subway.
All during college, I thought I would graduate and go to seminary or something like that. Either that or law school or advertising. In a strange way, they all seemed like forms of the same thing: evangelism. Through a college friend’s dad, I ended up getting a job at McCann-Erickson Event Marketing working on something called the Sports Illustrated Sports Festival. It was a traveling sports show, and I’d help set up 100,000 square feet of basketball courts and batting cages and football fields at Six Flags parks and other locations around the country. I was one of ten people who traveled with the show. We set it up, tore it down, and hired 100-plus local staff in every city. We had 8,000 to 10,000 people come through the show a day. The whole idea of event marketing was to put experiential activities in people’s paths and connect them directly to brands like Spalding, Sega, Nintendo, General Motors, and Coke. We put teams of event managers on the road in eighteen-wheelers and did the spring breaks in Daytona, the bike weeks in Daytona, NCAA tournaments, and we showed up at Wal-Mart parking lots all across the country. To help launch the twenty-ounce bottles for Coke, we bought four Harley-Davidson bikes and attached sidecars that looked like bottles but were actually coolers, and we guerrilla-marketed the Pepsi 400 NASCAR race. It was like joining the circus. I did that for four years.
After that, I got a job in an ad agency in Dallas called Publicis/Bloom. I didn’t know anything about “traditional” advertising. What I knew was how to build million-dollar show trucks and reach consumers one-to-one. Well, I worked on the La Quinta Inn & Suites account—handling print ads to launch new hotels, summer promotions, radio advertising, things like that—and as it turned out, La Quinta had just spent $100 million to redo all of its 30,000 rooms. The creative department came up with the idea of building a life-size room on a truck and taking it around the country and filming commercials out of it. So once again, I built a truck. We put it on the road, and it was an immediate hit. I found this four-hundred-pound gentleman named Big C to drive it. He became the star of the commercials. We sent him on the road for a year and a half.
By the time I was thirty, I was working as the director of new business at McCann-Erickson’s 1,700-person New York office, and a year or so later, in 2002, I landed the job of general manager at Kolar, in Austin, running the day-to-day operations of the place. At Kolar we do advertising and marketing for lots of different companies, including clients as varied as Dell, 3M, Subway, Baylor University, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, Amarillo National Bank, and the U.S. Army. We get as deep into a company as we can, practically embedding ourselves to help grow their business wherever possible. My job as general manager is to create an environment that allows art directors and writers to be strategically on target and generate whatever will drive the emotional connection to a client. But I also encourage our account people to contribute, because a creative idea can come from anywhere. The receptionist can have one—and we’d better be listening.
Let me try to explain how we work. For 3M, our founding client, we do everything from advertising and direct mail to e-marketing, packaging, and trade shows. For Subway, we support some 1,300 stores in fifteen markets, overseeing more than $25 million worth of ads in broadcast and print media. We’ve produced TV ads that run nationally, as well as local ads that just run in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Detroit, Michigan; or Yuma, Arizona. For the Army, we handle recruitment advertising below the national level; the idea is to take the national advertising that the Army’s lead agency does and localize it for recruiters. That means coordinating several hundred versions of the national ads as well as the materials that go to the 1,800 recruitment centers—from posters and brochures to videos and Internet links—to help enable that crucial, sensitive discussion about whether someone should be a soldier or not. Then you’ve got Amarillo National Bank, for whom we recently launched a new brand campaign, complete with TV, radio, and in-bank ads. We’ve even redesigned their Web site, which will launch this month. And for Baylor University, we’ve done all their recruitment advertising for the past three years. They’ve had record recruiting during that time.
I love my job, but I should note that I have never experienced a nine-to-five world. It is more like eight to eight. Probably eleven- to twelve-hour days. Within the first four hours before lunch, we may be talking about how to sell $3 sandwiches. The next meeting may be about how to attract a student to spend $16,000 in tuition or how to sell a $2,000 computer. The next meeting, how to sell electrical tape to an electrician. I travel a good deal. Some of it is for accounts like Subway. A lot of it is to make pitches for new business. Often we’ll have about two hours with the prospective client. We walk through how we work—that we roll up our sleeves, that we get our fingers dirty. We show examples of work we’ve done for existing clients and what it has done for their business. We typically have done research on the company’s behalf that they are not aware of, so we surprise them with something they did not know about themselves or their customers. And then we close each meeting with our expectations for who we work with: Treat us with respect, be a partner, communicate openly and honestly. Because it is a two-way relationship.
My view of my work is that it is a hobby that I luckily get paid for. If it was a job, I would probably have to quit. Starting salary may be $26,000, to work sixty to seventy hours a week and to not be sure if you are ever doing a good job. My first job paid $18,000. It is a pretty competitive occupation. Everything is subjective: Is that a good idea or bad idea? Is the ad good or bad? Whose opinion is determining that? You have to fight for ideas, which is an uncomfortable place for a lot of people because there is really no proper, official yes or no answer. That is the hard part for some and the exciting part for others.