AdForum Exclusive: An Interview with Max Pfennighaus, ECD at VSA

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VSA's Executive Creative Director Max Pfennighaus answers questions from AdForum's James Thompson about the creative impact of New York City, the many levels of storytelling, and how brands can connect with people.

AdForum: New York City is renowned for being a difficult but inspiring place to make a living – especially if you're commuting from New Jersey. How has the City influenced you as a creative person – both as the Executive Creative Director at VSA and as an artist on a personal level? How have those influences become manifested in your thinking and your creative work?

Max: Working in New York City is like working inside the Internet—there's a little (or a lot) of absolutely everything. I chose to live in Jersey because the chaos and complexity of the city would have driven me crazy from Fear of Missing Out. I would have been constantly waking up in the middle of the night terrified that there was a 72nd Annual Gourmet Crossfit Poutine Festival happening somewhere that I was missing.

Through the years, the process of both elimination and contemplation has caused the FOMO to fade. Today, I'm more focused on what I like to do and what I want to accomplish, personally and professionally. I enjoy NYC now because it's an insanely, beautifully immersive lesson in the value of focus. I try to always stop and smell the roses. But when there are a bazillion roses, I need to work to pick the right ones, the most meaningful ones, whether for myself or for my clients.

AdForum: Storytelling is a critical part of advertising and branding. How do you approach brands that have a familiar, and even renowned, place in our cultural narrative and identify unique and compelling ways to convey the brand's story to a new generation of consumers?

Max: I'm a big fan of starting with the Method acting approach (the training technique for actors to achieve better characterizations of the characters they play) to finding the heart of a brand. When I dive in and live the life of an organization, no matter how old or established they are, there are always surprises and new stories to tell.

When I was at NPR, I spent time with journalists and master storytellers, and they taught me that every subject, no matter how established, has an unexplored, fresh angle. For example, you think yet another wildfire story is a snoozefest? Think again. Or, a story about police officers investigating a call about a squirrel in the attic—Obscure and boring? Actually an opportunity for a brilliant, hilarious meditation about the wonder and magic of first days on the job.

The key for me is listening to as many people, from as many corners of an organization as I possibly can. The more I get people talking—whether it is an executive, marketer, doorman, or librarian—the more common threads emerge.

One of the most iconic, poignant examples of the deep legacy of The New York Times brand is hidden in a third floor basement near Port Authority. It's an amazing photo archive—a historical treasure trove Times reporters lovingly call, "The Morgue." In its heyday, the photo archive used to have a staff of dozens, and now there's one, Jeff Roth. Experiencing The Morgue firsthand made me realize the mind-boggling heritage of The New York Times as the definitive chronicle for humanity, and that it's tended to by deeply talented, dedicated people.

At VSA, I see the same opportunity for some of our clients here. There are many heritage and design thinking stories, waiting to bubble over and be shared, that are inspiring examples of brands evolving. It's an embarrassment of riches. We just need to pick the best roses.

Once I have stories, it's then about putting them in front of people in ways they want to experience them. I put on my UX hat and do some user-centric fieldwork, looking at the audience's behavior and finding respectful and thoughtful ways to engage them with stories. People want to connect with and be introduced to brands that resonate with them. If you spend time up front, find the right people to talk to, then the relationship is easy to build.

AdForum: Let's talk about Timber Lord, your Twitter comic composed entirely on a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Right now @theTimberLord has 7 Twitter followers (including AdForum!). Can you explain to our readers why they should follow Timber Lord? What can we expect from this nascent project?

Max: Ha! @theTimberLord has 15 followers now!

In all transparency, I just started it last week. I have had stops and starts with webcomics, mostly because of the difficulty in finding time to really focus with the kids running around at home. During my commute last week, I was drawing using the stylus that came with my phone, and I thought, "Well, I have two hours of alone time messing around with phone every day, let's make the most of them."

Without giving too much away (mostly because I don't know where things are headed myself), Timber Lord is a story about the thin line people walk between hope and despair, particularly when the world is falling apart. If I do it right, it'll also be a bit of a commentary on the role mythology and religion plays in making sense of the world. So in short, it's a real pick me up.

AdForum: What about the creative culture at VSA attracted you? How do those qualities and sensibilities fit with your talents and vision, and what do you see as your main challenge in your role as Executive Creative Director?

Max: I haven't encountered many places that approach work the way VSA does. VSA has a blend of talent that can take the work end-to-end—from the clouds down to the pavement—using a thoughtful, collaborative, egoless process driven by design thinking. It's a way I've always wanted to be able to work—it's like they read my diary.

Jumping from a life as an advertising creative to a product designer at NPR (where we practiced a deep Agile and Lean UX-driven system) was a pivotal moment for my creative process. I realized how much more was possible when a truly multidisciplinary team could be brought to bear on a design problem. I love that VSA has fully embraced the Agile approach. It's a very flat structure, which only works when the caliber and maturity of the talent is high. When that type of structure is combined with a strong set of guiding principles for hiring and nurturing talent, like you see at orgs like Valve or Pixar, great things are possible. 

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