tom martin's q & A

Tom Martin Q&A: Ad exec Kip Cornett talks 'beardvertising' — and Lexington's creative culture

Contributing columnistMay 19, 2014 

Kip Cornett is president, CEO, and namesake of advertising and creative agency Cornett. His firm employs 52 and is just a few months away from its 30th year in business. Major clients include Keeneland, Valvoline, the University of Kentucky, Buffalo Trace and A&W Restaurants.

Today is a big day at Cornett. The firm has won the Webby "People's Choice" Award in the Professional Services category, beating big national brands and creative firms as well as celebrities to score a recognition in what amounts to the Oscars of the Internet. Recipients of these awards range from Jay Z to National Geographic. The award is presented tonight in New York City.

Tom Martin talked with Kip Cornett not only about this distinction, but also about creativity and why he believes Lexington has plenty, but could be doing more to nurture and support this very important asset.

Tom Martin: Cornett has won the People's Choice Webby in the professional services category for "beardvertising." What is that?

Kip Cornett: A couple of our creatives were kicking around the growth of what is called "native advertising" which is very nontraditional. They were exploring how our clients might be a part of it.

So, it started out as kind of a giggle: With all the growth of facial hair these days, what if actual advertising was made available in those epic beards that seemed to be coming up across the country? I think there's a good point to be made here. I thought they'd lost their minds. But we actually recruited and had over 3,000 gentlemen who were wearing mini-billboards, if you will, in their beards as part of a "beardvertising" campaign.

It became an Internet phenomenon in terms of people sharing it, wanting to talk about it. Everything from the BBC to Conan O'Brien was talking about beardvertising. And so, it was an interesting exercise that started with a couple of our younger creatives having some fun, but actually turned into something. Our advertisers included A&W, and the Dollar Shave Club which is another Internet phenomenon. They also came on board and recruited 1,500 different people to wear these billboards in their beards.

The Webbys is hosted by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. And we won the People's Choice award, which we were not only very proud of for our staff, but just as proud, if not more so, for the city of Lexington and that we were in parts of conversations that are normally reserved for the San Franciscos and the Londons and the Atlantas and Chicagos.

Martin: It started off as a giggle. But, in your business setting, are you all more tuned to what might come out of that kind of conversation for something that might actually turn into a concept?

Cornett: Absolutely. We have been fortunate to grow the size of our staff and attract a lot of creative people, not only nurturing the people that may have come out of the local universities, but also some expats that we're trying to bring back here. The whole beardvertising idea was a great exercise for us to understand that creativity cannot be confined to 30 seconds or a 14 x 48 billboard. So, that's something that we're constantly nurturing: encouraging people to explore ways that are very, very nontraditional.

Martin: When we hear the term "creative," I think the first thing that comes to mind is art. I'm betting that in your world it has a lot to do with strategy, as well.

Cornett: Absolutely. In Central Kentucky one of our key products is bourbon. And usually (in the past) what you would do was, 'What cool print ads are we going to do, to go into a Playboy magazine or Time or, you know, Wall Street Journal to sell our product?'

But now, the spectrum is so much wider that the strategies no longer are how do we fit something into a medium, but what is our strategy that may even create a medium of its own, which we did with beardvertising because obviously no one had been crazy enough yet to try to put billboards in beards, but that was, you know, an evolution of an idea.

Martin: What do you look for in the talents you recruit for your agency?

Cornett: A sense of humor always helps, and it's not the sense of humor that is a life-of-a-party type, but it's everywhere from extremely dry wit to the total absurd. We are in a very stressful, productive, and a creative business and I think that starting with a sense of humor is very important. But we're also looking for people that are not necessarily married to a particular background. We have everything from English majors to art history majors to chemical engineers that somehow drifted into this market. It's also people that are extremely passionate and are willing to explore.

Martin: In your conversations with potential major clients, is it ever a challenge to convince them that Lexington has a robust creative community or is it just assumed that this can be done from anywhere?

Cornett: You have struck a nerve. Going back 30 years, there were a lot of people that blazed this path including Mary Ellen Slone, who was the first person in my view to create an agency here. For the last 30 years I've been trying to do some things in this market to convince people that this is a market that has a robust creative community, has the ability to do incredible things. But it has to be nurtured and it also has to be supported at the same time.

I think the one thing that Lexington has progressed mightily in just the last eight to 10 years, and even more so in the last three to five, is that you're really seeing a lot of creativity going on in this market and I don't necessarily mean in the advertising and marketing and communications space.

But if it's not supported in the right way, it will go away. There is a really interesting story about Toyota's migration to Texas, which is costing the state of Kentucky literally thousands of jobs. And the reason they're going to Texas? Yes, there were some tax incentives, but they said the number one reason was to get new creative thinking. They felt in Texas there was a different culture, there was more emphasis placed on creativity.

Here's a company that took millions and millions of dollars (from Kentucky) because they wanted to go where the creative juices were flowing. So what does that tell us? Support those creative juices.

Martin: What in your mind are we not doing right now that we could be doing better to nurture creative talent?

Cornett: Creative people in general march to the beat of a different drummer. But at the end of the day, I think they like recognition and rewards and that recognition doesn't necessarily have to be dollar signs; sometimes it can be a pat on the back.

There are three things: Lexington has a far more creative vibe today than it did five years ago, but we have a long way to go. Then, the second thing is opportunity. When I was 30 there was kind of "founding fathers" at that time. They had everything set and they weren't looking for a lot of new ideas. It was just, 'let's just kind of maintain here.'

But, I think with the new group here, they need the opportunity to show how creative they can be.

The last one is that reward and recognition. I don't think there's anything more deflating to the creative community here than when you see somebody turn their back or don't realize all that we have here. There are so many. Whether it's a communication boutique or a new band or a new artist, they are popping up every day.

And now, we have, I think, a better way to give that vibe opportunity and reward. But we've got such a long way to go.

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