Sometimes pivotal career moments teach us something about our craft, and sometimes they teach us something about ourselves. That’s exactly what Rob Lambrechts discovered when he wrote Intel’s short film, “What Lives Inside” in 2015.

“The whole experience made me realize, maybe the issue is not with the industry, maybe the issue is with me,” Rob told us. “I need to stop worrying about what people think, start developing what I think is interesting, and make it personal.”

As the Chief Creative Officer for Pereira O’Dell, Rob and his team have been fundamental in bringing the personal into long-form advertising. The agency has produced massive campaigns for Stella Artois, The Ad Council, Adobe, and many more. But, Rob is living proof that no matter how celebrated your work is, it’s even more important to find a sustainable way to be creative.

In our interview, we discuss his career-defining moment, how he makes the personal universal, and how he saved his career by not caring.

Filmsupply: Did you always know you wanted to be in advertising?

Rob Lambrechts: It’s funny. People ask that question and when I tell them, they think I’m joking. Advertising was the only industry that would give me a job coming out of school [laughs]. I graduated college with history, English literature, and creative writing degrees—my mom used to say I graduated with a degree in Trivial Pursuit.

I graduated in 2001 and there weren’t many jobs. Then, 9/11 happened and there really weren’t any jobs. I was interning at a PR firm for a while in Boston but didn’t love PR. I packed up my car, drove to Chicago, slept on some friend’s floor, and ended up getting a job as an account executive for an agency. I was a very bad account person. I liked the industry, but I was not good at my job.

Thankfully, a guy who worked there said, “You need to go to an ad school.” So, I ended up at a portfolio school called Creative Circus. And then from there, PJ, who owns Pereira O’Dell, hired me at AKQA. That was my first creative job. I worked at AKQA and then went to an agency in New York called BBH. A few years later, I got a call from PJ saying they’re going to start their own agency. I’ve been here ever since. That was in 2008.

Did your creative writing influence your approach to advertising?

It definitely had an influence, but not the most obvious one. I’m a pretty shy person. It forced me, the creative writing part of it, to just do something and put it out there. Experiences like that taught me how to write and convey ideas that were compelling to people. But, they also taught me that once you’ve created something and put it out there, it’s no longer yours. It belongs to everyone else, which is I think the more valuable of the two experiences, truthfully.

Just being able to be vulnerable with your ideas is a huge lesson.

You realize in working that nine out of 10 ideas are bad. Even the ones that are good sometimes end up being bad. It’s important to be okay with having a bad idea. That should happen in an agency or any creative environment. Take something that’s interesting, even if it’s a bad idea, and build upon it and change it, and then it becomes a good idea. Then, it becomes a great idea when you work together in that environment.

If you’re not willing to ever share that bad idea, you never know what’s going to happen, right? That’s a huge thing. I tell the younger people when they start working, “Don’t worry about having the perfect idea. You’re not going to have the perfect idea. Have a lot of ideas.” If you’re so worried about having the perfect idea, especially when you get started, you’re never going to get anything out.

When you asked me about one impactful project, it got me thinking. I’ve done a lot of different stuff, a lot of different kinds of things, which is a big reason why I actually like working in advertising. We get to make ideas. My friends who work in entertainment, they spend 10 years on an idea and it ends up going nowhere. But, we get to make ideas all the time. I’ve made a ton of different stuff. The one that actually seemed pivotal to me, both personally and professionally, was the long-form series with Intel, specifically the fourth installment “What Lives Inside,” which I wrote.

Why was it so pivotal?

I don’t think I’ve told many people about this, but I was considering leaving advertising during that time. In a lot of ways, I’d made up my mind that I was done. I wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t in a great place mentally to do the job, so I decided I was done. So, when I wrote this piece, I almost gave up in a good way—I didn’t really care what anybody thought.

So, I wrote the story that became the film. I honestly didn’t care. I wrote it because it was personal to me and I liked the story. I thought, “I’m going to write this and if people like it, cool. If they don’t, I don’t care because I’m leaving.” 

But, people did like it, thankfully, and then the story became the film. The whole experience made me realize, maybe the issue is not with the industry, maybe the issue is with me. I need to stop worrying about what people think, start developing what I think is interesting, and make it personal. That has helped me quite a bit since and, in a lot of ways, revived my passion for the industry and my career in it.

What was the personal cost of not having that perspective all along? 

For all the good things about advertising, it does burn people out. You do a ton of work. You have to put out 20 ideas for every one that might get made. You’re churning, churning, churning, churning, churning, churning, churning, churning ideas out. 

For me, maybe I lost sight of why I was doing it. Everything we do is for our clients, right? It has to work for them, and it has to drive their business. But, a lot of the most universal and best stories are personal. They start as a personal thing and become more universal. I had lost that viewpoint. This project was a vivid reminder that it’s still possible to make stories personal, and it needs to be a part of what I’m doing.

How was this story personal for you?

The story is essentially about a father and a son. The father is extremely creative and the son doesn’t see himself necessarily as creative. It’s basically the story of my childhood. My dad was an extremely creative person, a very visual artist. I cannot do visual art. I’m terrible. I can’t draw and, for a long time, I just decided I wasn’t a creator. 

It took me a long time to figure out that I was creative, but in my own way. That came through writing and stories. It was personal for that reason. It explored what it’s like to grow up in the shadow of someone creatively. You think you can’t accomplish anything, but it’s actually that you’re just not doing the thing that you’re suited to.

How do you apply that mindset to a story that’s not your own?

To me, personal work doesn’t have to be something that’s personal specifically to me. Something in the idea just needs to spark something within me. It could be very simple. It could just make me laugh. It could just be an insight into how I associate with my kids. There’s something in the genesis of great ideas that feels personal but can also be a universal feeling. It’s not about taking the idea and making it personal. It’s about starting from a place that feels personal and making it universal.

At what point did you know you wanted to stick with advertising?

It was probably somewhere in the process. I decided I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself. I remember thinking, You have the ability and the opportunity to make incredible things like this. That is a very fortunate place to be in. Stop crying because it’s hard. Everything good is hard. 

I just became more appreciative of the opportunity. It was a wake-up call. There are a lot of people out there who might have a great story to tell and the opportunity never presents itself. I’m in a fortunate position where I get the opportunity to make things. And now, I’m in a fortunate opportunity where I get to help other people make things, share their vision, and tell their story.

And working in long-form advertising is an even more unique opportunity, right?

Oh yeah, that’s Pereira O’Dell’s sweet spot. The genesis of the agency started as a mockumentary we put together for Red Bull. We literally made it before YouTube [laughs]. It launched six months after we released this video. That project started this idea that advertising can be a lot of different things and the digital medium allows for more stories to connect with more people.

Brand entertainment has always been, in a lot of ways, at the heart of what we do—whether that’s long-form films or music videos or songs or books or whatever. Paid advertising is going away because we’re not all sitting around watching Friends anymore. You can’t run an ad in that block and 20 million people are going to see it. It doesn’t exist anymore.

Instead of people buying an audience, brands really need to start building an audience. One of the best ways to do that is through entertainment. Entertainment brings people in. Traditional paid media will continue to decline in relevance and efficiency, and entertainment will continue to rise.

Does it create a deeper connection, too?

If you look at the way entertainment works, it has to provide a return. People’s time is an investment, and that piece of entertainment has to provide a return on their investment. So, they choose to watch it, and they choose to engage with it. Anything that anyone chooses to do is a more valuable experience as opposed to, “Hey, stop the thing you’re interested in watching and watch this”  By its very nature, entertainment is a more valuable experience for the consumer and for the brand as well.

Now that you’re re-energized, what’s on the horizon for you?

Truthfully, and I say this in all seriousness—I don’t know. I don’t really want to know. As soon as I figure it out, I’m screwed [laughs]. One of the reasons I love our agency and advertising, in general, is because it’s constantly new and presenting different challenges. 

I’m hoping I won’t have to tell my story as much, or even people who look like me. I want to give other people the platform to tell their stories. I hope that is going to be the next part of my career. I want people to have the experience I’ve had. That moment where you realize, “Holy shit, I can’t believe I got to do this.”

Hear another perspective on the creative process by reading our conversation with VMLY&R’s CCO Noel Cottrell.

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