Meet Bill Thorburn, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Thorburn (formerly The Thorburn Group). Some of us would like to understand what goes on in that big creative brain of his, and how we might harness some of that for our own evil plans. Or, put more simply, learn some cool stuff about a pretty cool guy. Without further ado:
Q: Are you human? After all, you’ve won every conceivable honor known to man or woman in the creative industry including the Cannes Lion and the Gold Pencil.
A: I think I'm human, as a dad, and as a husband. That might be qualified in different ways. But as someone who is leading the creative effort for Thorburn for 21 years, we have been so fortunate for the people who have come through here and the work we've been able to do. The awards are nice – they're a testament to our spirit and culture. But we're really in the business to move our clients forward. Clients come here not to win awards, but to do great work. It's the kind of work that has gotten recognition for us in the past, and it's the kind of work we will continue to do. Our legacy is really in solving problems for our clients and helping to drive their business forward. The rest is icing on the cake, as they say.
Q: When does the creative process start for you?
A: It never stops. Anyone who is a creative knows that you never walk out and shut the door. With that being said, we do have a process. It's simple and probably similar to how other firms approach process. Discovery is absolutely critical. Knowing the audience, knowing the product, the client and the media. All of these things have to be put together before we can go to the next level and answer, "What's the right swagger for the brand?" And I'll be really honest. That point between inspiration and execution is the hardest point that the creatives go through. It's the most vulnerable for the work, and the time when we have the most discussion with the strategic team about whether or not the work has the right "rudder" on it. It's getting through that process – inspiration to execution – when we try to really protect the creative team and let them figure it out in the most impactful, powerful way forward.
Q: How has that process changed – or not – over the past 20+ years?
A: It has changed and evolved as we have. We started out as a "dizag" firm versus a design firm. We were just different from the beginning. We were "dizagging" where everyone else was designing. We felt the way a designer thinks, or design thinking, had a better grasp for how to bring the foundation of a brand to life in a potent way. Since then, with media fragmentation and the needs of our clients changing, we've evolved more into a brand engagement firm. Media is really a jump ball now. With the advent of media, specifically digital media, we have the ability to take the centering idea, that centering point of the brand, and build the foundational language around it – and then bring it into any aspect of media. It's really "green to a blind man" to us. It doesn't matter if it's in-store, packaging, environmental or social media. All of those things come right out of the foundation of the brand. And that's the power of our process. It goes back to our legacy for where we started and what we wanted to achieve. It's been a nice evolution over the last 21 years.
Q: Do you think it’s gotten harder to be truly creative? And by that I mean, for creative to really stand out?
A: What we do is on the leading edge of two critical global trends. One of them is technology. Most of the work that we do happens via technology, and for a digital medium. The other one is the information-communication revolution. So how do you take all of this content, bombardment of information and distill it down into meaningful, powerful, dynamic work that breaks through the clutter? What that’s done is increase the volume of people coming into this business. I think it's exciting. You used to know the great people. You could count them on your hands. Now, it seems there are so many amazing people in the business of creativity. It means we have to be smarter, more influential and more insightful for our clients. That's why media and strategy have become such an important part of our creative process.
Q: What do brands need to do today to get noticed and for that to really mean something to the person who notices?
A: They need to stand for something. So why do you exist? It's an existential question, but what makes you special? What is the most compelling reason for someone to connect with your brand or your product? For us, that has become our mantra.
Q: Who do you admire and why? Maybe that’s a person or a brand. You choose.
A: First and foremost the staff that comes in here everyday to rock the world. It's not easy. It's competitive. It's emotional. It's physical. It's tough to be at the top of your game in this business every day. So I have a great deal of admiration for them. I love the younger generation. I love fresh thoughts and new thinking. I'm inspired by what our younger staff brings to the table. There are so many legacy people in this business. I have a friend named John Jay who was at Bloomingdales for a while, then went out to Wieden + Kennedy. He was an inspiration for many, many years – for how he connects culture to brand. Brian Collins of Collins New York is another person I'm inspired by. He has a very good understanding of the power of brand and the significance of creating an impactful brand.
Q: What’s exciting you the most these days?
A: We've moved into a new category – higher ed – and we're fortunate enough to have incredible partners at Stamats. Stamats is a 90-year old company, it's family run and about 60 years ago they shifted into the higher ed arena. By being involved with them as the thought leader, we bring what we know about branding from the consumer side. We've had the opportunity to brand more than a dozen institutions within the last 18 months. That has been really exciting. There's something so powerful about the decision you make to go to college, and to be part of that journey and multiplicity of the audience (parents, faculty, alumni, students) ... getting them to stand for something, and to plant their flag, is incredible. It's brought a new spirit to this firm.
Q: Where do you see the biggest opportunities looming for you and Thorburn?
A: I think it's finding partners that believe in what we believe in. Whether in consumer, higher ed, B2B and so on, it's really about finding partners who have the capacity to stand for something. Strong, strategic, high-impact creative and communications is essential. And it's finding people we can trust, who respect our culture and people. It seems to me more and more that's exactly what people are looking for. Or, we have the opportunity to awaken this in our partners.
Q: You just moved offices. You are in a cool, hip hangout that appears to be channeling a Tribeca loft. What’s your favorite part about the new place?
A: The light. The openness. Through our growth in the past 18 months we've been in two offices, in multiple rooms and we've tried to hodgepodge ourselves together to make it work. Now we're all in one space, all together and it is beautiful. It's exactly who we are.
Q: I’m channeling Barbara Walters right now, so stay with me. If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
A: I have to tell you, I think I'd be a Christmas tree. I like the idea of somebody putting kitschy stuff on me, with lights and sparkly things. What could be more fun than that? With a star on top.
To connect with Bill, email [email protected].