Why Agencies Should Be Entertainment-First with Al Patton

A highly awarded and independent company in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia, Dagger is a full-service, creative agency with a state-of-the-art, in-house production studio. Albert ‘Al’ Patton is the agency’s chief creative officer and has led the team’s creative direction since joining in early 2019, bringing with him over a decade of experience in the creative direction from his time at prestigious companies such as R/GA and Tribal DDB.

As he approaches his fourth year as CCO, Al sat down with LBB’s Ben Conway to discuss his career journey so far, the philosophies that influence Dagger and its creative output, and how “entertainment thinking” should be a more prominent driving factor in the industry. During the conversation, Al reveals why stand-up comedians are his creative and leadership heroes, he discusses his proudest pieces of work at Dagger, and even teases something that awaits on the horizon for the agency.

LBB> What creative content inspired or interested you most when you were growing up? Do any TV shows, films and ads stand out to you?

Al> I was a child of the ‘80s and a teen of the ‘90s so John Hughes made a lasting impression from a film standpoint. I may actually hold the world record for viewings of the original ‘Weird Science’. SNL was big TV-wise, particularly that incredible cast for the ’86-’87 season. Every Monday at recess my friends and I would rehash the skits from that weekend, doing our best to re-create the characters and master the voices. I was influenced by advertising during those years too but probably less consciously so. ‘Where’s the Beef?’ for Wendy’s, the ‘Speed Talker’ for FedEx, those campaigns were memorable. But honestly, the ads that made the biggest impression on me were ones where something seemed really messed up. Like that Folgers commercial where the kid comes home from college and his parents have slept in so he has to wake them up with the smell of the brewing coffee… your kid’s coming home from college for the first time – set an alarm!

LBB> When did the possibility of working in the advertising world appear to you? How was your journey into this industry?

Al> After college it took about a year’s worth of ‘career experimentation’ before I found my way into the agency world. I didn’t know there was a profession where a 23-year-old could live in New York City, spend their days writing and doing creative things and still not starve. But when I realised such a thing existed… sign me up! A friend of a friend was a copywriter at Saatchi and was nice enough to have me over one day, show me what a creative portfolio was. He offered some advice on how to get my foot in the door at an ad agency, so I followed it pretty much to the letter, and it led to me getting my first job.

Early on, a creative director I greatly admired summed up a career as an agency creative this way: ‘If you have some talent and you try really, really hard, good things tend to follow. Not every time, but you’ll be busy with projects that interest you, and some of those projects may actually be a lot of fun’. I’ve found this to be true of my own career.

I’ve always just tried my hardest and I’ve been lucky that some good things have followed. It’s still how I approach things and it’s what I try to instil in my teams; that the effort you put in is (more often than not) proportional to what you get out of it.

LBB> When did you join Dagger? What were your expectations before you joined? And what were some of your main goals with the agency from the start?

Al> I joined Dagger in February 2019. What excited me as I got to know the agency was that its genetic code felt different, it felt fresh. Equally exciting was that its DNA was still very much in the process of being written. I felt what I could bring would weave well with the strands that already existed here, and over the past four years, it’s been really cool watching our genome take shape. 

We’ve always had pretty ambitious goals and I think if anything those goals have gotten more ambitious over time. Have they been achieved? It depends on how you look at that. We’ve been an AdAge Small Agency of the Year twice in the past three years so I guess it’s been achieved on some level, but our whole mentality is that there’s so much left to do and so many other ways we can grow.

LBB> Who are your creative heroes? And who or what inspires you as a leader?

Al> Stand-up comedians are my creative heroes. Not just the great ones – I mean anybody who does it. With any act of creativity there’s an inherent vulnerability – you create something out of nothing and put it in front of others to either like or dislike. I don’t think you could leave yourself as defenceless as when you’re doing stand-up. It takes real courage because you’re allowing people to judge you directly. If you make a painting, people will judge the painting, but if you’re on stage telling jokes, people aren’t really judging the material, they’re judging you. Very few art forms require the artist to receive the approval or disapproval of their audience so directly or instantaneously like that. 

That kind of courage inspires me as a leader too because so much of being a creative leader is helping your teams find the guts to take chances and put themselves out there. But you have to live it yourself. When your team sees you doing it yourself,  even if you fail – and maybe especially if you fail – hopefully, it inspires them to do the same.

LBB> You say people should ‘start infusing some entertainment thinking’ into their ad-making mentality. Can you elaborate on this? 

Al> Engaging the viewer through humour, emotion or adrenaline is one of the fundamental elements of a good ad. What’s new is the level to which today’s consumer insists that advertisers achieve this, and I think it’s a result of mindset shifts that happened during the pandemic. For a lot of people, the pandemic brought about a great re-prioritisation, not just in the way they spend their time (more time with loved ones, less time in traffic, for example) but also in their attitudes toward media consumption. When people were more isolated than they’d ever been, the importance they placed on their favourite entertainment properties skyrocketed, as the shows, movies and streaming content they love became like lifelines for them during that window of isolation. 

Naturally, people became even more annoyed by the ads that interrupt that entertainment – if people had little patience for ads before the pandemic, now they have even less. So if advertisers want to capture even a sliver of consumer attention, let alone build brand affinity, they’re going to have to meet the consumer closer to where their new bar for engagement is. 

Ads that don’t entertain in a legitimate way are basically invisible now. They weren’t super visible before the pandemic but now they’re just vapour.

LBB> How do you suggest people go about infusing this entertainment thinking into their ad making?

Al> I think the quickest and most direct way for agencies to do it is to hire creatives who have an entertain-first mentality. Historically, agency creatives have started with a product message and then they find a way to wrap a story, or a joke, or something inspiring around it. Creatives with an entertain-first mentality start more from a place of engagement. The task becomes making the product message work within something that grabs the consumer’s attention in a more effective way. Instead of ‘this dishwashing liquid cuts through grease, what kind of jokes could fall out of that?’ it’s ‘what from an engagement standpoint is going to make this dishwashing liquid ad cut through the clutter, and how is the message then going to come through?’. When you ask the latter question the answer tends to be informed by culture and, generally, that means you’re in the right space.

‘Let’s not come up with the usual ad agency stuff’ is a thing my teams hear me say a lot. Brainstorms are less about trying to pull jokes out of product features and more about what’s happening in culture, what people are talking about and what’s going to feel fresh. I’m not saying an idea never starts with the product at Dagger, but more frequently it’ll start with how that product relates to something or someone in culture. When you come at it from these angles, it tends to yield a lot more (and more interesting) ways to deliver information about a product. 

LBB> What projects have Dagger created recently that lean into this entertainment thinking?

Aflac – ‘Aflac Duck vs Gap Goat’

The target audience is college football fans so we’ve got the most entertaining person in football, Deion Sanders, paired with the biggest name in college football coaching, Nick Saban. That dynamic of two football GOATs playing opposite each other is pretty engaging, but we also saw an opportunity to freshen up the way the duck entertains in Aflac’s advertising. By introducing a new animal character, an actual goat, the Aflac duck now has a rival and that’s a construct we can draw a lot of humour from. The question wasn’t what’s funny about supplemental insurance, but rather who our audience is interested in, and what it would take from an entertainment standpoint to bring newness to the iconic Aflac duck.

Holiday Inn Express – Breakfast Any Way You Like It

Another example is a campaign we have running right now for Holiday Inn Express which promotes their free breakfast. The breakfast itself offers lots of options so we leaned into the insight that everyone does breakfast in their own way. Creatively, the driver here is a song – a modern remix of the familiar classic, ‘Express Yourself’. The song provides a framework that’s inherently entertaining, allowing us to be very focused on product and customer experience with our film, and very focused on insight with our VO. 

LBB> What work are you most proud of across your whole career? 

Al> On the agency side, whenever you get a chance to work with non-profits and charitable foundations, that work tends to hold a special place. We’ve done some nice work with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the American Cancer Society at Dagger and I’m proud of that. We’ve also had a great partnership with an organisation here in Atlanta called Love Beyond Walls. Back in New York, I used to work with organisations like City Harvest which feeds the hungry and Safe Horizon which supports victims of domestic abuse and other types of violence. Being able to apply your skillset to help people directly is a gift and I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity to partner with groups like that.

LBB> What is a recent project in your new role that has been particularly exciting, momentous, or a good learning experience? 

Al> What has me extra excited these days is an obvious answer for me, but it’s going to be a tease. We’ve had something in the lab at Dagger for a little bit now, a new division of the company that I’m super excited about launching. I can’t say too much about it yet other than it also exists in the entertainment space and it’s a really, really different kind of thing for an agency to do. I know that’s vague but we’re planning to launch it publicly before the end of the year – so stay tuned on that one.

LBB> What is something from wider society and culture right now that you talk with people about a lot? Do you have a pet peeve that you find yourself ranting about or perhaps a new-found interest? What do you take from that into your work?

Al> This isn’t all that removed from my work life but as far as a new-found interest, I’m pretty obsessed with these AI-powered image generators everyone’s learning how to use. I don’t think a day has passed in a month where I didn’t have at least one conversation with someone about DALL-E, Midjourney or Stable Diffusion. As a writer, it’s pretty mind-blowing to have this whole new way to use language and have it produce something you never thought you’d be able to make. 

I never thought I‘d be able to produce a portrait of Gary Busey where his hair has been replaced by squid ink linguine, but now I can! There’s something very exciting about that to me. The industry is just starting to get its head around the impact this technology is going to have which is probably why it makes for such interesting conversation.

LBB> And finally, what do you do to unwind and inspire your work creatively?

Al> I like taking on DIY home improvement projects that require at least nine years to complete. I have a few of those going on. And I don’t really do anything specific to seek out creative inspiration, I just keep the receptors open and the world usually has a way of providing it. 

For example (and this is not a bit), last week I was stopped at a red light and on the car in front of me there were two magnets – one said ‘Please Be Patient – Student Driver’ and the other said ‘Baby On Board’. Something like that will get my mind turning for hours. My first thought of course is: ‘brave baby!’. But then I think, could it possibly mean that the baby is the student driver? (Conjuring images of a baby executing a perfect parallel park.) Or that the baby is the driving instructor? (More images of baby with clipboard, clip-on tie and coffee thermos.) Or has this particular driving school made the colossally irresponsible decision to have a take your child to work day? What was the meeting like where that idea was greenlit? Anyway, things like that tend to keep the creative parts of the brain turned on.

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