Before joining the corporate ranks at the age of 36,he talked his way into a job as a cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker; peddled fake Italian leather goods to unsuspecting tourists, ran a rock-and- roll record company, started a service chauffeuring drunks home from bars; worked as a doorman at a five-star hotel; substitute-taught in Los Angeles’s worst schools; and winged it as a novice tour guide. Fred Cook believes that at the beginning, he lacked all of the customary credentials associated with being a CEO. He barely graduated from college, never took a business course, had no corporate connections, didn’t own a suit and rode a motorcycle. But along the way, he picked up skills—in people-management, problem-solving, and most importantly, improvising — that ultimately led to a surprisingly rewarding career. I had the honour of meeting and interviewing him after the Romanian launch of his book “Improvise — Unorthodox Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO”, that shares the wisdom he has accumulated through his unconventional life experiences. Talking with him was one of those moments when you really enjoy your job and career.
AdH: What differences do you see between the PR and USA and the one in Europe and Asia?
Fred Cook: I think that America in terms of communications and industry is at the cutting edge of the trends. The changes we see happening in US we see happening afterwards in Europe and Asia. We were able to apply the things we’ve learnt in Chicago, New York or San Francisco, we can share those with our offices around the world and keep them ahead of the curve, ahead of the competition.
For example the social media that was first popular in the United States. And I saw someone from Facebook speaking the other day and he said that 80 % of the Facebook users live now outside the United States. So, these things tend to start in US and then they role globally. We have an advantage of knowing that thing first and then sharing it with the rest of the world.
AdH: What do you think that are the most important trends in the world right now in the PR market?
F. C.: People are bombarded by information today. So, if you want to break through that you have to be relevant. You have to be talking about something that is important to them and that they care about. Secondly, you have to be fast. I think that speed is one of the things that is changing the most The idea that you can plan a communication campaign 6 months from now is not practical anymore. Companies have to be fast, they only have a couple of hours to react to an issue or an event and I think that is a huge difference for corporations, brands and us. This is why in all our offices we have a real-time engagement platform that is called The Bridge, where people are sitting there all day and are watching what is happening in the media and then interacting in behalf our clients. The future of communication is going to be more and more about communicating in real time.
The third thing is the blurring of lines. It used to be a clear separating between the ad agency, the PR agency, the direct marketing agency. Now, with the social media rising, everybody is sort of doing the same thing or trying to do the same thing. So I think the distinction between all this agencies will fade. 10 years from now I don’t know if we will still use the terms of PR or ad agency anymore, there will just be integrated agencies that will communicate across a lot of platforms.
AdH: You were talking about the constant pressure young people have to face every day, being forced to be better and better all the time and not being able to find their true way and road into the world. Where do you find your inspiration for the new projects or when you are stucked into a difficult and very demanding work?
F. C.: I find inspiration by trying new things. There is an example in my book: by just reading a different magazine. When you go to the newsstand people just always tend to grab the same magazine or newspaper that they are used to. And I just say: read a different one! Read a magazine about tattoos! Grab a magazine about flower arrangements! Something that you are just not even interested in. Just open it and you will find new ideas, new people, new ways of looking at a certain thing or approaching a situation. I try to do that in my own life. I try to watch different television shows, go to see new movies, I read books that kids read, I try to stay fresh. A few months ago I had my first tattoo, at the age of 65 and I made a video while getting tattooed. I am always trying to encourage people not to be afraid to try or do something different.
I am in all the social media platforms and I am willing to try anything that I can do.
AdH: In Romania, starting while we are little we are afraid of failing, of disappointing, especially our parents. Nowadays more and more specialists are encouraging people not to be afraid of failing, especially if they are entrepreneurs. What would you say to someone who is afraid of failing and therefore not trying something new and staying in the same job or situation?
F. C.: Start with small things and experiment with them! Try with something that won’t kill you. You gain courage by experiencing! A little bit at a time. You don’t have to take a giant risk the first time you decide to do something different.
I failed miserably at different businesses, but I have learnt a lot from those experiences. So, even if it’s not your main job, do something on the side, have a little company on the side with some friends. If you are a college student start a business selling t-shirts or an internet company, or create something to sell. And if that doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world because you still have your main job, or university to attend, etc. It’s probably the best learning experience: you can go on and do something else, it’s not the end of the world.
AdH: As shown in your book, you had many jobs and lots of interesting experiences before deciding to choose the PR World. What made you decide you want you do PR as a long-term job?
F. C.: Many of the jobs that I’ve done, had a PR component to them and I didn’t know it. I had a record company and I promoted all the artists of that record company, I did all the promotion and the publicity. I was a school teacher and in my spear time I did all the promotion and the publicity for the school. I didn’t get paid to do it. I really liked that aspect of it, but I decided I have to have a more substantial career and I know the direction that I wanted to go in. While being a teacher in Los Angeles, I went back to night school to learn PR and have the fundamentals in order to put all that experience to use.
AdH: What was your last creative project you worked on and you were happy by it?
F. C.: I think that one of the most exciting projects we are doing right now is for McDonald’s and it’s called “Our food, your questions”. It’s an online program in US, we are engaging in social media with consumers all over United States of America. Everybody that talks about McDonald’s online, we, in our Chicago office, have a conversation with him/her. We have 25 people working on that program, talking about hamburgers, French Fries, fish sandwiches, etc. And that for me has been one of the most revolutionary things we have done in a long time. No other company has created that one-on-one conversation with their costumers, about their products. It’s creative, but not in the idea of a wild, crazy stunt, but in a way that is using technology to have this conversation with the costumers and it’s been very interesting for us and McDonald’s to try something new like that.