A man who has “donned” many hats; Don Pierce knows how to motivate people and challenge them to be their best. From an early background working in his father’s radio and TV stations, to HMH Publishing and creating new magazines for Hugh Hefner, to teaching creativity at Nike, today’s Operations Director at the Houston-based Ferrari dealership has had his hand in journalism, from writing to producing documentaries, for many years.
And he is still learning and mastering new frontiers.
Mr. Magazine™ talked with Don Pierce about all of this and much more in a recent interview…inviting him to share his abundant career and future goals during the conversation.
So a word of caution before you sit back and be introduced to a man who has literally lived his dream and is still searching for more beyond the horizon… This Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Don Pierce is a lengthy one. It may take you more than a glass of wine to finish it. But I will guarantee you that you will learn more about creativity, marketing, management, writing, editing, publishing, branding, and lots of common sense once finished reading the entire interview.
So relax, watch the Mr. Magazine™ Minute first and dive into the story of one’s man race to creativity…
And now for the sound-bites…
On the paths his career has taken over the years: I have had a very eclectic career.
My father owned radio and TV stations in very small towns and I was brought up in broadcasting and radio. I was writing and directing little two-minute segments on television and writing and producing little radio shows by the time I was out of high school.
On developing a relationship with your audience and connecting: Part of your job as an editor is to broaden that conversation as much as possible and expand on the knowledge that you believe the people that you are talking to have.
On starting new magazines and his experience: I got a pretty good reputation as someone who was good at starting magazines and I also got very interested in the business side because I felt it was a form of protection for the creative side.
On his time at Nike: We were brought in to blow things up, we have to be disruptive. Nike respects disruption.
On the personification of branding: The idea is we give the brand a set of characteristics, a personality and attributes. Think of a brand as a person and take it all the way through. How does he (or she) dress, what kind of car does he drive, what sports does he like, what type of music, what are the outside interests?
On what keeps him up at night: I have plenty of responsibilities in the job I have, but I stay up until the wee hours of the morning writing and creating stuff. Writers and journalists have to write and create. It’s not an option.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Don Pierce, operations director of Houston Ferrari…
Samir Husni: You have had a great career; would you share some of your background with me?
Don Pierce: I have had a very eclectic career. I went to school in North Carolina and I was raised in small towns; I think there were 400 people in the high schools that I went to. I basically lived places they modeled Mayberry after. It was fine.
I was brought up in broadcasting and radio. My dad was very good with money, so I was constantly working in the stations because I was cheap labor. I tell people that for eight years, I think from the time I was about 14 until I was 22, I worked at those stations every Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Day because he knew I had to and he wouldn’t have to pay triple overtime like he would if his other employees worked.
At first, I was a little resentful, like any kid would be. Those are big holidays. I would think about all my friends sitting around and having a good time and here I am working on Christmas Day. Then I realized that I was being given a radio station or a TV station to operate or a newscast to do and that was a lot more compelling and lot more interesting to me than hanging around as the only child in my family, talking with my parents for the entire day. Working on those days became great fun and a great learning opportunity. I still miss being in a broadcast station on Christmas Day.
So I was brought up in a media environment and with sensitivity to media and I was also raised in a storytelling and journalism environment. My mother was a librarian and my father was very, very sharp and they always pushed me to read, read and to write. And they were very nurturing in that they let me try stuff even when it didn’t work out. And I had a lot of stuff that didn’t work out.
One point to mention: I am here at Ole Miss today because of the great effect the university on my daughter, who has an undergraduate and Masters Degree from Ole Miss in Accounting and because of the School of Journalism. When she started going to school here (I wanted her to go to a school in the South and Texas is not the South), she said you need to get over here—this place has some very great people in media and journalism and you need to meet them. She was so right.
Samir Husni: What were some of your first experiences as a journalist?
I was writing and directing little two-minute segments on television and writing and producing little radio shows by the time I was out of high school. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. That’s what you do when you’re in that environment. You write and produce and some stuff is horrible and then some stuff starts to get good and then it starts to get sharper and very good. When I went to college I took television courses in RTVMP (Radio, Television and Motion Pictures) and that was interesting, because I knew the business from a different side, I knew it from the way the professionals did it and from the latest equipment and from what is now called “best practices.”
But college provided the entire arena of knowledge, the big picture that helped tie together all the experiential bits and pieces I had picked up. Also, college was where I started to write a lot.
After I got out of school, I had been nurtured by some of my professors to the point that I felt I was really something special, so I thought well, I’m going to go to New York and I’m going to get a job and I had a list of maybe ten places that I was going to work—all of which were terrific big time firms in advertising, publishing, TV, etc. It was about the most ridiculous set of expectations that you could start with. I knew nothing. I was from Mayberry. New York is New York. It was a shock. But you adapt fast.
I went around and started interviewing with people and I ended up with a job with the artist Peter Max, working in his studio and working with him on a daily basis. He gave me an incredible education and it was all total immersion: licensing, learning about intellectual property, learning about contracts and money, creating with focus, about writing legal documents, putting books together, and how to negotiate situations that had become difficult. Peter was and is the single most supportive person I have ever known. He pushed and he supported. He was very gracious and very positive. His artistic sensibility was embedded into me. And he could produce: he has a reputation for being prodigiously productive and it’s 100% true. He taught me that “real artists ship”, which means you have to create and produce. So many great lessons.
As a journalist and a creative, I will tell you one thing that is needed in the portfolio of new journalists, artists, documentarians is a very acute sense of business, finance, accounting and the legalities of copyrights and IP and other legal issues. Peter Max knew that and he provided the guidance and education. As artists, you’re going to push the envelope and you want to know what your rights are and how to make your endeavors pay off for you. So artists should always be better at business than almost everybody else because people aren’t expecting it from artists; you don’t want to be disadvantaged in some transaction because you don’t have your head 100 percent in the game. Business is an important part of any career so best to learn to do it well. Protect your talent by knowing your business.
After New York, I became a member of a group of guys who started a ski company and built it up over time and eventually sold it. It was fun but it was a start up. That meant tight finances and lots of disappointments as we dialed it in. You learn to re-calibrate, to re-set, to change to something that works, to innovate. After that, I went to Chicago.
Samir Husni: Tell me about your time with Hugh Hefner?
I went to work for HMH Publishing, which is Hugh Hefner’s company, and worked as an editor at OUI, which was a publication, Hefner had started with Publications Filipacci from Paris. While there, I also got the chance to develop new magazines. It seemed right: I was staying up until 2 in the morning creating magazines and article concepts anyway because it was interesting to me. At that time, the company was an absolute publishing powerhouse: they had access to all the great writers and photographers and artists. It was rolling. They had a great editorial style and the company could have produced magazines on different topics, but never did. Hefner liked magazines, but he loved Playboy. So new magazine development became a bit of a think tank inside the company.
Work was done on a whole series of new magazines: a sports magazine, a photography magazine, a clothing magazine, a hi-fi magazine and an automobile magazine. Lots of resources were available. A sports magazine was my big project. It had a very different sensibility than anything else actually in the marketplace. It was about finance and leagues and media, not just scores and personalities. After doing a few prototype outlines and formats, the idea came up about extending the projected editorial inventory for a long period of time, not just the first two or three issues which was the industry standard. So we generated 12 to 18 months of editorial planning. That was a lot at the time. We wanted to avoid the “great first issue/sad second issue” syndrome. We planned the magazine 18 months out because we wanted to see how that editorial voice would develop over time. That’s a very interesting idea and it’s based on editorial voice and reader relationship growth.
A simple idea: What I tell you the first time I meet you and what I tell you the seventh time I meet you will be different because the seventh time we talk, I now have a relationship with you. I know who you are, I know what your interests are and I know what you respond to. The conversation is deeper and more nuanced. These are all things that come into play in journalism, that come into play particularly with periodical publishing; they certainly come into play with video, websites and with digital communications.
As a communicator, you’re always developing a relationship with people and part of your job as an editor or writer is to broaden that conversation as much as possible and expand on the knowledge that you believe the people that you were talking to have. That’s very important. And, it’s a sign of respect, because you are not starting from scratch every time.
But the point is you’re always building on these relationships and prior communications, every Tweet or post you send out builds on the one you sent out before, every article you publish builds on what people know about you that you previously published. You’re building a media personality. So you’re always building communications. It’s a continuum, a flow.
The nice thing for me at that time was that I got to create a lot of editorial formats. And I got very interested in a concept I call, for lack of better words, editorial components. These are the building blocks that can be used to tell a story or format a publication. Whether it’s a piece of journalism or whether it is a documentary film, editorial components are formats used to tell stories and deliver information in a certain way. There’s an interview, there’s a service piece, there’s reportage, there’s the review, a guide, a diary, a timeline, there’s an economic analysis. When you become fluid with their application, you can see how they apply to a given publication and how they add variety and depth to editorial. And, of course, everything is always being combined, re-combined to create new components. Today, that would be called rapid iteration…
Samir Husni: Your career as a journalist really took off after that and you became known as someone who knew a lot about launching magazines. What happened after you left HMH Publishing?
I left the company, left Chicago, went to Texas and became a writer for Texas Monthly, working in the early days of the publication. Mike Levy, founder and publisher of Texas Monthly went to Wharton School of Business and while he was there he saw a magazine published in the New York Herald Tribune, the original New York Magazine, which was at that time a massively groundbreaking publication and to some extent still is. It’s been one of my favorites for years. They take big chances in print.
Levy decided to take that format and move it to Texas and instead of doing a city magazine, he just decided to do a statewide magazine. That was a concept upgrade. It worked really well in Texas, because first of all, they didn’t have that type of sophistication in publishing there and secondly, Texas really is a different country. It has a different culture. And there were no city magazines. He felt the time was ripe and he took the risk. He felt that people would identify first as Texans, then with their city. He was spot on. Levy also believed very strongly in great editorial, and Texas Monthly has been an exemplary publication in terms of editorial. They get it.
I wrote for Texas Monthly and then I started working on some local, statewide and national publications as a consultant, primarily working on the editorial concepts and article inventories and developing the voice. My great advantage was the training and experiences I had received in New York and Chicago.
At that point in the magazine publication curve, there were two trends that were happening; One was the pure business model, promulgated by MBAs and the CPAs, who created magazine models based on demographics and large scale direct mailings and percentage responses and if they got a certain percentage response at a certain cover cost that would give them an economic background to make the magazine happen. That’s valid business. But where’s the compelling material that pulls readers in? Where’s the passion?
Then there was the other side of the road: the committed writers, editors, and journalists who had something to say and the passion to say it. Like Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine who got a bunch of his friends together and said, yes, we need to start a magazine about rock and roll. The dichotomy was numbers vs. passion. You need a bit of both, but I’m betting on the people who are committing to the project, the people sitting around the kitchen table because they have something to say and they have passion and a voice and they’re in it for a different reason. That energy is palpable.
Today with Mac computers and Adobe software and all of these modern digital makeup components, it is so easy to put a publication together sitting around a room and working with a couple of friends; you have access to things we didn’t have access to 20 or 30 years ago. You can create instantly and you can print, see what you like and if you don’t like the result, you can change it. And, it’s important to realize that speed itself is another editorial element that can now be turned to your advantage.
So I got a pretty decent reputation as someone who was good at starting magazines and I also got very interested in the business side because I felt it was a form of protection. I did not want to be a creative person at the mercy of a business person who was going to tell me these are the numbers and you can’t argue with them. So I had to learn numbers.
To do that, I started writing business plans and annual reports. I learned to deal with numbers at a very high professional level because I didn’t want to be disadvantaged in my conversations with anybody that I worked with. It’s not a bad idea to be fully literate in both words and numbers.
Samir Husni: Your career took another turn after that; can you tell me about it?
Well, some people noticed me and helped me and I ended up doing work for Disney, developing a special magazine for them, which was very interesting but like lots of those types of projects, they didn’t go forward with it. Another friend brought me up to Nike where I worked on a whole series of sports books for Nike, each one a very high-level guide to the specific sports that Nike was involved in. Great project, terrific editorial, but…ultimately, not necessarily what was expected from the Nike brand, so Nike shelved it. It happens.
One of my very best assignments was going to London to start a publication for Rupert Murdoch, basically a TV Guide for London built around Murdoch’s BSkyB satellite broadcasting franchise there. I was brought in by a friend of mine named Michael Brock, who is a terrific art director; we’d worked together on different projects for about 20 years. By the way, if you’re a journalist, make friends with the best art directors, designers, photographers and video editors you can find. They can enlarge your communications vocabulary to an amazing extent.
Michael Brock has perfect pitch in publication design. He always surprises. He’s got great style and solves problems very efficiently. We went to London and met with the existing development team. Their work was professional—the British do magazines really, really well– but it was pretty safe. We’d seen it before.
We had a break at lunch told the team, look we have to go in and push these guys back. We were not brought in to say yes. We have to come up with enough ideas in a short enough period of time to bring them over to our side. We’re not here to bless what they do. Someone brought us to stir it up.
We finished lunch and started the meeting and I knew it would be difficult. We took them through our ideas of the publication and those ideas were quite opposite to the way they had looked at it. But even though there was some natural emotional reticence to buy in—we all have emotional attachment to our ideas– intellectually the British team realized the value, and by the end of the day we had everybody talking together and everybody was excited. It was a bit scary and then it was exhilarating. Starting out, we were at a huge disadvantage—everything sounds better with an English accent and that was one of the communication advantages that the British team had. So we just had to have better ideas, more breakthroughs in editorial, that American energy.
One of the things that I’ve learned doing creative work and as a journalist, writer, director, is that no matter what you’re doing, bring everyone in and let them contribute.
If you’re really good at creative work, don’t let it all be about you. Be the catalyst.
Put a board up and tell everybody who’s working on it to write down their ideas and story concepts and headlines and hang them up. Everybody: the non-creatives and the support staff. Please share your thoughts. Do not be embarrassed, do not be afraid, put everything up there. We don’t know who’s going to come up with the next great idea but we know somebody is going to come up with it. But you have to give people a chance.
When everybody is involved, you have a totally different type of approach to something, than when only one or two people are involved.
Samir Husni: That’s a good perspective. Do you think that increases creativity by opening up the conversation to more people?
The whole idea of creative work is to include as many people as you possibly can so you can get as many good ideas as you can. Then you have a totally different set of priorities. Which is to sort through a whole bunch of good concepts to find exactly what you need that fits. The great safety net in creative work is to have lots of good ideas to select from.
If you’re generating ideas or story concepts and you have a great one, don’t stop there. Keep going… the next one could be even better.
One other thing, keep records, keep lists and keep your article ideas. Artists and journalists and writers should always archive their ideas. Jot it down. Take a photo with your phone. Make a recording. Whatever. You never know when you’re going to be in that particular mood again, you may not be in that mood again for two or three years or maybe never. The time you spend when you generate ideas and create is precious: when you get in the zone, stay there as long as possible, write it down, keep it some place, and refer to it from time to time. That’s your work product, that’s your life’s work and it should be important to you. You never know when you might find the right time and place to use them or when they might send you off in a new direction. Ideas are like chains—each idea is a link that can lead you to a new idea. .
Samir Husni: So what happened with the magazine?
Well, that publication ended up being the No. 1 circulation magazine in the UK from what we were told. It was a great experience because once it got rolling, everything was up for re-calibration. We had the magazine editors and the magazine sales people go out together. We wanted the editors to see what the sales people had to go through to sell an ad so they would have an appreciation for what the sales team was facing in the market. They got to hear advertisers comments. Valuable stuff. Then we did exactly the opposite and asked the sales people come in to work with the editors to physically bolt it together. It’s not breaking down the editorial/advertising wall so much as having each side understand what’s on the other side of the wall. We wanted each side to see what the other side had to face in terms of challenges and professional discipline. We wanted everybody to be complete. And once again you never know who is going to have the great idea, who’s going to blossom with a little support.
In the end, Mike Brock produced all the design templates on his Apple and when we turned the project over, they had about 18 months of publications planned out. Now—of course, we knew that the cultural landscape on which the magazine was based (television) was going to change over time because TV would change over time, but…the attitude, the angles of editorial coverage laid out in the editorial plan, would provide guidance going forward in terms of developing and extending that editorial voice
Monthly magazines are either looking ahead at something or they’re looking back, but it’s hard for a monthly magazine to be spot on, especially today with all the media and the speed and accessibility of digital communication and the speed of television. This situation specifically applies to magazines that are based on cultural currents and time sensitive topics —sports, news, finance, etc.—but it’s getting harder than ever for even a non time- sensitive magazine, like a shelter publication, to avoid the cultural/news/digital cycle we all exist in now. You have to factor it in. It’s speed vs. depth.
It’s good to have working knowledge of all forms of media today. Somewhere along the line, I got involved in making documentary films; it was a very natural thing as I grew up doing television. To improve my understanding of the theory of documentary films, after I had already done a couple in clueless mode, I went to Rice University and a professor there named James Blue, who was a film professor, gave me basically Oxford-style tutoring for about a month, three, four times a week where he would show films and he would discuss them. I was assigned outside reading so I could develop a theory of how it worked. He provided the intellectual framework for me to more fully understand the medium and what I was going.
Whereas before, I was more of a broadcast journalist. Run and gun ENG style. Show up with a camera and shoot everything in sight and then edit it all into some coherent story. Blue wanted a little less energy and lot more thought. He talked about time compression and had a drill: show the totality of an event by shooting the beginning, middle, and end of a circular process, and then cutting out everything until, if you cut out one more scene, no one can figure out what it was you were shooting.
I’ve since done a lot of television shows as writer, producer, and director. TV specials. Short-form video. Product videos. Sports films. Probably the best one I did was on Earl Campbell; it won the gold medal in the Houston film festival for best documentary but that could have been because it was about Earl Campbell and it was in Houston, where Earl was a legend. No doubt the voters were friendly. Friends tell me that it actually was pretty good. And it was a massive editing job, all documentaries are, because of the high shooting ratios. Creative work is glamorous from a distance but everyone who does it has a story to tell about very long hours spent in an editing suite perfecting five minutes of film or the long, lonely, deep nights writing a piece or editing an interview. Amazing—people who communicate ultimately spend a lot of time by themselves creating the communications. Personally, I like working on tight deadlines. There’s energy in the deadlines. You get decisive in a hurry when the clock is ticking.
All of the modern media can be produced/created through one consciousness. If you can do journalism, you can do documentary films, you can do magazines, you can do books, you can do television shows, you can do podcasts, you can build your website and you can develop a tweet personality. Recalibrate to the requirements of the media and do it. All of this starts with the ability to communicate and tell stories.
I think it’s important if you’re going to be a communicator and you’re going to be a journalist that you produce something every day. Whether or not you put it up on your site or if it never gets published, that’s OK. You should be in the habit of writing or producing something every day. It’s very important. It’s the intellectual equivalent of the morning jog.
Samir Husni: You told me the story about your days at Nike and working with your team; can you tell me a little more about that branding?
One of the things that I learned to do and one of the things that I did when I worked with Nike was to teach people how to become more creative. I have a theory: if creativity is a 100 percent scale with 100 being the top and a zero being the bottom, I can train/help/educate most people to develop a professional degree of creativity; I can get them to about 80 percent out of a 100. The last 20 percent is God’s gift, I can’t do that. But I can get you to 80, maybe 85 percent by teaching you certain techniques and showing how to generate ideas, how to prep to generate ideas, and how to trust your instincts. It just requires thinking in slightly different ways. Most people are far more creative than they think.
One way we put this theory to work was with some product development work for Nike. Nike has product teams for tennis with designers, engineers, marketing people, etc. Each team creates a product group for a specific Nike tennis line. They produce complete lines four times a year and the introduction to coincide with the big tennis tournaments. A new line consists of shoes, warm-ups, shirts, shorts, hats, jackets, bags; the whole deal, even the wristbands. The work is on a 90-day cycle to develop the line. And that’s a cycle that they’re comfortable with, but for some in upper management, it was maybe not frequent enough to push out lots of new ideas. Frequency creates opportunities—that’s why weekly magazines seem to take more chances than monthlies.
We took the design teams down to the Oregon coast and rented condos. We went down on a morning, got comfortable and played some tennis, did some pre-creative programming (looking at new ideas, films, photos etc.) and then it was show time.
Here’s what we did: At 6 o’clock or so, the groups were told they had until midnight to develop a product line, everything, shoe designs…all of it. Present at midnight. Let’s see what you come up with.
No one was expecting anything super, so there was no pressure. Just wanted them to get used to the process. It was a warm up.
Presentations at midnight and some of the stuff were good, but they weren’t really dialed in yet. Good and we’ll see you in the morning.
The next morning we cut the time frame down, so instead of having six hours, they had four hours. Full presentation. By noon they had to do it again. Then you could see this coming. We put all that stuff in the corner and said, OK, you have three hours, so we cut it down again. Then after that, we said you have an hour and a half and that was their final exam.
What we did was ask them to go through five or six cycles, which would have normally taken a year and a half; we pushed it down to a day and a half. It wasn’t as tightly detailed as a full-scale line presentation but it was ideas and new directions that were being developed. And by the time we got to the fifth cycle, the work was a lot more creative and the ideas were farther out there and so was the technology they were using, they were a lot more relaxed with taking chances. They were so conversant with the elements they had to play with; they became highly fluent in combining ideas and pushing things out. I think that was the meeting that the Nike custom-designed shoe project came out of although it was years before the infrastructure to make it real was developed.
The work got better through every cycle and by the end it was just exhilarating to watch. Why did this happen? There were a couple of reasons? They were in competition. It’s Nike. These are competitive people. Secondly, this is very important, they didn’t overthink what they were doing. They worked past assignment requirements and into instinct mode and it was terrific to see. By pulling time away, we actually gave them more freedom.
Samir Husni: You believe in personification of the brand; can you explain that a little?
I’ve done a lot of work in branding at different companies and for different products. Branding has become a bit of a conversation starter these days with so much emphasis on “personal brands”. It’s a word that’s bandied about a lot. It’s certainly been watered-down from the classic definition that came out of P&G.
But branding is a depth process, not just a width process. One way we approach branding projects is to personalize the brand.
The idea is we give the brand a set of characteristics, personality and attributes that you would find in a human. How does he dress, what kind of car does he drive, what sports does he like, where does he eat and what kind of music does he listen to. Who is this brand if this brand is a person? That really provides some great starting points for developing a brand.
In a less personal environment you’re going to call these demographics. But demographics are just numbers. I’m interested in people. If I have everyone in a room write down one thing they really like to talk about and I see it, that’s really different from someone telling me that there are five women and four guys in that room between the ages of 21-23. One data group is a set of non-personal statistics and the other is entry points for communication.
One way you think about branding and communicating is to imagine you’re at a cocktail party. You walk into a giant cocktail party and there are a hundred people there; you might hear 15 or 20 conversations that you could jump into and fit right in. There are different personalities in each conversation, different topics. And then you go on to the next conversation. And that is a lot of what marketing and communication is all about. Picking up on what’s going and using those entry points to establish communication.
And you always want to have your conversation with people at the highest possible level. That’s a sign of respect for their intelligence. It’s also more fun.
Samir Husni: What keeps you up at night?
Work of any kind today is 24/7. No one is immune. Everyone is on call. But late at night is when I like to write and do creative work, in any form. Got to. I like to create stuff and connect with people. I like everything from photography to video to magazines and websites. I like the whole spectrum. I feel very lucky, very blessed, that so many opportunities have been opened up for everyone who writes or produces.
Samir Husni: Thank you.