Ep. 3: John Boiler
BY Future of StoryTelling — May 13, 2020

Charlie Melcher speaks with John Boiler, founder and Co-Chair of the global ad agency 72andSunny.


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Charlie Melcher: I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of the Future of StoryTelling. I'd like to welcome you to the third episode of the FoST podcast. Today I'm delighted to sit down with John Boiler, co-founder and CEO of the global ad agency, 72andSunny. Since its founding in 2004, 72andSunny has created groundbreaking campaigns for clients such as Samsung, Adidas, Target and Google, and along the way has racked up a long list of awards and honors. Yet the company's mission reaches beyond world-class brand storytelling, their true goal is to expand and diversify the creative class. Driven by the belief that a plurality of perspectives is crucial to a culture of innovation, 72andSunny has implemented a variety of initiatives to support and amplify the voices of a diverse pool of talent. Through this founding belief in the importance of nurturing creativity, 72andSunny has managed to not only be a world leader in advertising, but also slowly but surely to shift the culture of professional advertising for the better.

John, first of all, thank you so much for doing this with me.

John Boiler: Pleasure, Charlie.

Charlie Melcher: This is really a pleasure. Let me ask you a little bit, can you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to start 72andSunny?

John Boiler: I started my career in advertising in Portland, Oregon. I was not trained as an advertising person, but as an artist, but didn't get a retrospective and so joined advertising early on. I loved ideas and I love communicating ideas to people. Not to make too long a story about this, but 72andSunny was founded on the idea of optimism. In advertising we'd found that it can sometimes be a cynical and egoic business. Honestly, that's not how we wanted to live our lives, so we decided to build a more collaborative, open culture that embraced our client's thoughts and input and those of people across disciplines, not just the creative discipline. Our hunch would be that that would be a more successful way to work and the creative output would be better by embracing all those diverse voices.

Charlie Melcher: The advertising business has been a tough space recently.

John Boiler: It has.

Charlie Melcher: A lot of companies have not been able to thrive in this environment, and yet it seems that 72andSunny continues to do amazing work and to grow and to receive awards. I'm wondering if you could tell me a little bit about why you think you've been able to succeed in the current state of the industry.

John Boiler: Yeah. Well, another reason why we started when we did is all the change that was happening. In 2004, that was the first year of Facebook. It was the dawn of social media. It was the onset of digital media. There was all this change, abundance of change happening and we decided that you could either become excited about change or fear it.

The large companies that we saw failing were those who were ignoring it and fearing it. And so when we started 72andSunny, we identified as our motto that we're born modern. It's not just because we're new, it's because we're inspired by the definition of modern, which is comfort with change. With that as our founding ethos, it makes it easier in times, 15 years later when everything is changing really dramatically again to pivot into that change, to embrace it, to see the possibility and the opportunity in it. I think that's why we're able to thrive somewhat even in these most difficult times for the industry.

Charlie Melcher: Where does the name 72andSunny come from?

John Boiler: Again, going back to what we saw as the anathema to great creative work is the idea of cynicism and egoism. The opposite of those as an impulse to us is optimism, where you see through challenges to the opportunity on the other side, rather than bemoaning your current situation or how hard this is or how impossible this job is, or even saying, "I'm an expert and I know what to do." Seeing the opportunity and things and being curious enough to pursue it, regardless of whether you think you have the answer and using the journey as an opportunity to learn in order to get to the best answer. 72andSunny is purely an expression of optimism.

Charlie Melcher: I think I read that it's also the ideal conditions for humans.

John Boiler: That is another thing as well. When I posed it to my partner Glen, I was like, "I just read that 72andSunny is the optimal living conditions for all hominids.

Charlie Melcher: That's great.

What's your mission at 72andSunny?

John Boiler: Our mission is to expand and diversify the creative class. Now, I know that sounds strange for an ad agency that makes great product and a lot of agencies and marketing companies really through their mission, express their usefulness to a client. But ultimately we are doing that by expressing our mission as expand, diversify in the creative class because we believe the best creative product, the most breakthrough and unignorable creative product that can happen in the marketplace is created by the collision of diverse points of view, diverse voices that spark that moment that just has to be dealt with. That's why that's our mission. It's not just music in the arts, it's people who think in conceptual ideas and bring and manifest them in life through creativity, and that's what's driving the entire economy, the Elon Musk's of the world, the Steve Jobs of the world, the Bezos of the world. These are all creative people. We need to distribute access to this vehicle so that more people can contribute in the economy of the future.

We believe the best creative product, the most breakthrough and unignorable creative product that can happen in the marketplace is created by the collision of diverse points of view, diverse voices that spark that moment that just has to be dealt with.

Charlie Melcher: So you really believe that creativity is one of the solutions moving forward. It's one of the things that will help fuel the next generation of labor, of work.

John Boiler: Of labor and of work and also of the world. We're not going to solve the problems of the environment without creativity. We won't solve the problems about geopolitical changes and fluxes in the world without creative thinking. Now more than ever, we need more new possibilities. We need people that are capable of these lateral leaps.

Charlie Melcher: How else is 72andSunny using its skills to make the world a better place?

John Boiler: Something that we began several years ago was a practice called brand citizenship. Now, we met an amazing human by the name of Jim Moriarty, who is the CEO of Surfrider Foundation. Now, although he'd always been engaged in NGOs, he was also an entrepreneur, technology entrepreneur, and had worked in some of the biggest technology companies in the world. He came from the land of commerce, capitalism, but also very hardcore social good, and he's a strategist.

We partnered because we saw this is an opportunity in the future to help companies enhance their business while enhancing their social good initiatives and aligning those more closely to create a better outcome. That outcome is going to be both social good and it's going to be to the bottom line or to the brand line of these companies. A lot of companies will work for are Fortune 100 and some of their biggest challenges are based on the brand perception because they haven't aligned yet their social cause with their business cause. Our brand citizenship practice is meant to pull those together and we're having enormous uptake now.

Charlie Melcher: Can you tell me a little bit about Sunday and how this fits into your mission?

John Boiler: Sunday is basically a performance influencer company that uses the power of creator influencers, makers and their platforms, their social platforms. We deploy these creators on behalf of the brands that we work with to create awareness for campaigns, but they do it through their own creativity, their own assets. We use an algorithm to identify who are the best creators for a given campaign. We will brief them, we will give them creative guidance, but we will not direct what their product is and they will deploy their product into the marketplace. It's also an opportunity for us to give access to the creative economy to people for a very low threshold. You could be a farm girl in Indiana and all you have is a cell phone and a Instagram following, and you can work for this platform. You can give your voice to the world and even through these brands.

Charlie Melcher: What do you need to be able to participate in this?

John Boiler: Like I said, Instagram following, maybe some TikTok, a little bit of Snapchat, maybe you have 10,000 followers, maybe you have 100,000 followers, but you'll probably be in the mix so long as you fit into the demographic criteria of whatever the campaign is that we're doing.

Charlie Melcher: As somebody that runs such a successful creative agency, I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about the benefits that diversity brings to your business, specifically in that creative sense.

John Boiler: Well, our belief is just simply that if you come from more diverse backgrounds, that when you're conceiving for things, first of all, you're giving voice to a wider range of people's experience of a product or a service in the marketplace. But secondly, and more excitingly, if I'm honest, is the collision of those ideas in the concepting process yield some lateral leaps that I don't believe are possible in a homogenous environment.

I think there's so much code and so much unintended bias that even as a creative person you can bring to any given problem, that you have to imbue that with different experiences from the outset so that you get surprising solutions. It's surprising solutions that get attention and that's what we get paid for.

Charlie Melcher: So, more diversity leads to better creative that leads to better business.

John Boiler: Correct.

Charlie Melcher: Tell me a little bit about how that's reflected in the makeup of your employees.

John Boiler: Well, we've made it our initiative here and we're working on it every day with failures and successes and then failures again, to make the composition of our United States offering, being Brooklyn and Los Angeles, mirror the United States of America. We are insistent upon getting female in positions of creative leadership, pay parity, all of these things.

To do that, we had to do measurements, so four or five years ago we did a measurement study. Just frankly, we were appalled. We were better than the industry but not by much, and it was a low bar. Here we are four years later, probably, and some of our clients now also measure progress of their partners. And so we've-

Charlie Melcher: Progress specifically in terms of-

John Boiler: To diversity.

Charlie Melcher: ... makeup diversity inclusion?

John Boiler: Yeah, and we report our numbers faithfully every year to them. This year, one of our clients, our biggest one, we achieved the most diverse success by a long shot among their eight global partners. While some might see that as a success, again, you have to measure it against the accomplishment that we seek to achieve, again, which we're not quite at.

Charlie Melcher: So, your clients are, at least your biggest one you say, is actually measuring this themselves and is now insisting that their agencies also measure it and you're getting work because you're doing better than the average or better than your competition, though obviously not where you want to be yet or you aspire to be yet.

John Boiler: Actually, I can't say for certain that there's a correlation there. We have to do what's right, we believe, for the creative product and we believe for the social environment. So far it's been right, our business continues to grow as we continue to pilot these initiatives. We've got a playbook of all the experiments that we've tried, some of which are succeeding and some of which are failing, available to everyone on our website, on the homepage of our website. People can download that.

Charlie Melcher: Are there any examples from your playbook that have been successful? Are there things you're proud that you do?

John Boiler: Our high school initiative with Da Vinci Schools. It's a charter school that pulls from tons of different zip codes in our area and does afford them experience with creative thinking and creative ideas. That's yielded a lot of great positive results. 72U, our in-house training and residency program, we hire around 20 or 30% from each class for five years. It's changed the composition of our company. A couple of these seemingly small things, if you remain committed to them for a long period of time... That's the other thing that we've learned. You cannot be in and out. You have to dedicate yourself strategically to an initiative and hope for change to come over longterm.

Charlie Melcher: This is a problem in a lot of the creative industries, particularly in advertising I would say. You've been a founding member of the Creative Alliance.

John Boiler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charlie Melcher: Can you tell me a little bit about that?

John Boiler: We got engaged with Civic Nation and therefore got engaged with Civic Alliance, again, as a platform to expand this message. Creative Alliance is offering a lot of creative education and opportunities to people in the creative class. We did what we could to help them, so we built a program with them that we're deploying.

Charlie Melcher: Do you think that the trend is going in the right direction? Are other agencies waking up to the value of having a diverse workforce?

John Boiler: I believe it is. Because we're first movers in this thing and we've been recruiting and developing talent for years in this thing, we've become a feeding ground.

Charlie Melcher: They're picking talent, yeah.

John Boiler: They're trying to pick talent from us. You know what? I think what we have to do is become comfortable with the fact that we might be creating a legacy that outstrips our daily economics, and I think that that's important. I think it's important to contribute to that legacy of changing an industry. And so far it's not hurting the bottom line because we're able to retain and replace, to grow, commit to and send off into the industry amazing talent.

Charlie Melcher: What's an example of some creative work you're proud of that is a reflection of the diversity of your team?

John Boiler: Oh, there was a thing that we just did that I'm just so proud of and I think it's a great reflection, it was, of all things, a Tinder campaign. It really broke all the norms of what you think you would do as a campaign. First of all, we hacked the platform of Tinder. We created episodic content that happened once a week and we did a tune-in campaign to it. The campaign itself was a manifestation of diversity because it needed to be global or be able to go global. It started with a U.S. story about the end of the world. I think it was effortless example of portraying what would happen in America if the world was ending, how would we all behave. And we'll behave differently because we come up differently. Diversity, I don't just think as just race and sex, it's difference of experience. You might be a scientist or a data scientist and want to deploy your creative skills in a different way. This was an exercise where we saw this amalgamation of a lot of creative weirdos from different sectors come together, make something mind-boggling, spectacular and culture stop. That's a great example of like when that works best.

Charlie Melcher: I loved that episodic series you did. It was Swipe Night, right?

John Boiler: Yeah.

Charlie Melcher: Is that the name of it?

John Boiler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charlie Melcher: One of the things that was so fun about that was how you used the data from the moral choices that people were making as they were choosing the path of the story to then help generate date recommendations for them through the algorithm, through Tinder. I loved that.

John Boiler: That's right. It was a choose-your-own-adventure thing and other people, like you, choosing the same adventure you got hooked up with.

Charlie Melcher: Yeah. Those choices you made could actually have an impact in your real life. Super creative campaign. I'm really interested in your take on how advertising is evolving and also particularly from a perspective of storytellers.

John Boiler: Well, advertising is evolving in a way that, I think, is really exciting because you don't tell stories, you create them in the marketplace. The idea of a top-down narrative does not yield the results or the engagement that we all expect as people now. I want to be part of the story. I don't want you to tell me the beginning and the middle and the end. Show me my on-ramp to participation and then you got me. I think that's the future of storytelling, is participatory, it's not one way.

Charlie Melcher: Do you find that companies are getting behind this? It's such a shift from the traditional model of top-down messaging?

John Boiler: Absolutely. I mean, if you go to Cannes or any of the award shows, yes, you will have the films, but the stuff that wins the awards or the integrated campaigns that might have a film, but it's part of an engagement funnel. It's just like it's a delight along the way with a finger pointing at the end of it to where you go next, or in the middle of creating sub-stories and Easter eggs and environments and immersive stories. People expect that from brands now where they used to only expect that from the last Star Wars launch.

Charlie Melcher: Where do you go for inspiration?

John Boiler: It's hard to say. I don't operate in a way that I can rattle off the top inspirations because I find it in little moments. I find a moment of inspiration for a soda company watching the impeachment hearing, and so I can't rely on news or creative outlet to give me what I want. I find it best to create it out of the hodgepodge rummage sale of what culture serves every day.

Charlie Melcher: Can I ask you to tell me a story about something that was very informative for you in terms of becoming the person you are today?

John Boiler: So many moments. When you're a learner you're traumatized by new information incessantly through your life. It's like, "What? Is that true? Shit, must change entire everything." Oh, a few things. I mean, one of the things was the decision to stop and reconsider what I was doing. I was an Apex Creative person at one of the best agencies in the world. Thought I could do wrong. We were taught to wield that power. It's great, except it's lonely. It's great when you're succeeding, a couple of missteps and it's isolation. So, having a little bit of a purview of that was useful when my wife came and said to me she didn't like to see what I was becoming. She's the most generous person in the world, most loving best person in the world. Never heard anything like that before, but it was a great wake-up call.

When you become cynical and you start to believe that you do have all the answers or that you believe that you are the expert and you've seen this before, and let me tell you how this is going to play out. You should maybe take pause and think about what is the environment that you're in that is making you feel like you're so certain of any outcome, in a world and a universe that proves to us every day that anything is possible. I'm not saying that everyone is in that place. I was in that place and I got called out on it and I hit a hard stop and a reset and gave birth to 72andSunny with my partners. I think we created something of a positive manifestation as a result.

Charlie Melcher: It's not lost on me that we are two middle-aged, white guys sitting here having this conversation about the benefit of diversity. Perhaps that sense of privilege and maybe some bit of prejudice or just self-confidence, arrogance, whatever it is that we all can find ourselves having by being able to confront that and maybe open up to new things, new ideas, new people, new opinions, I feel like these two stories, these two conversations actually come together? That realization maybe opened you up a bit to thinking differently about the role of different voices and opinions and...

John Boiler: Absolutely. And then but not just opening up to it, pursuing and embracing it. I fail every other day, every day. Honestly, I think we all do because I know that I've got things I can't see, biases that I can't see. I'm trying to see and I'm trying to see by helping to create a culture that helps me see. And so you've got to see it as a personal benefit to do these things. You're not doing anybody a fucking favor. They are doing you the favor, you are asking them to do it. You are making a request. I'm loving the disruption right now, as painful as it is, even for us. In this mix, we are changing. We are forcing radical change within how we organize, within how we approach work.

I think that shows up as more accountability for individual people, less hierarchy, more of an organism structure, where people are allowed to show their best, do their best with enough autonomy and understanding of both opportunity and consequence, to really perform and grow.

Charlie Melcher: It makes total sense, particularly given how consumers want to be purchasing from companies that they feel in alignment with, that they feel there's a bigger mission and particularly people's decisions about where they work.

John Boiler: Consumers these days, I think there's crazy stats on this, 80% will only buy from brands that they understand are doing social good in the world. 80% of centennials. That is a big deal. Heads up marketers, you don't want to be in that 20% that isn't in a consideration set for the biggest spending generation that's coming your way.

Charlie Melcher: What's the future hold for 72andSunny? Is it 72 and sunny?

John Boiler: It is 72 and sunny.

Charlie Melcher: I think we're done.

John Boiler: Okay.

Charlie Melcher: Thank you, sir. This is great.

John Boiler: Cheers.

Charlie Melcher: This is really great. Cheers. Thank you for the wine that helped.

John Boiler: Oh great, good. Yeah, I always find it helps.

Charlie Melcher: Thank you for joining us, and a special thanks to John Boiler for this wonderful conversation. If you enjoyed this discussion and would like to hear more, we'd really appreciate it if you would subscribe to and rate our podcast. If you know a friend, a colleague, or a family member who enjoy our show, please be sure to pass it along. The more people who follow us, the more we can do, so please help spread the word. Thanks again for your time and a big thank you to our talented production partner Charts and Leisure. Join us next week for a conversation with Brian MacDonald, master storyteller and teacher, who shares with us how and why stories evolved to help us survive. Certainly an important topic in a time of global pandemic. Until then, please be safe, be strong and story on. For more information about Future of StoryTelling and to subscribe to our newsletter, visit us at fost.org.