The phrase printed on the plain white coffee cup in David Flanagan’s hand speaks volumes: “Be heard.”
As creative director and chief copywriter for the Crocker/Flanagan advertising agency, David Flanagan is heard by a lot of people. In a little more than four years, his full-service commercial agency (a partnership with Scot Crocker) has won a slew of awards, and his accounts include some of the biggest names around: Kirkwood Mountain Resort, SureWest Communications, Roseville Automall and the California Highway Patrol, to name a few. (Another coup: The agency just bagged the Sacramento River Cats as a client.) In 2003, he was the Sacramento Advertising Club’s Ad Exec of the Year.
Flanagan, 43, is obviously pleased with how things are going, but he’s also remarkably unassuming about it.
A bit less than 6 feet tall, with longish black hair and an untucked pale blue button-down shirt open at the collar, he comes off as a regular Joe, a good guy at the right place at the right time. He exudes an amiable confidence and warmth, with vast yet well-directed stores of energy. His dark eyes suggest someone completely at home, listening acutely and eager to respond.
Flanagan is at the helm of the 18th fastest-growing company in the region (according to the Sacramento Business Journal). He likes to solve problems for his clients, constantly seeking fresh approaches that no one else has thought of before.
“There is so much advertising out there, so much clutter,” he says, “and in my view, so very much of it fails because it doesn’t address the audience in the way the audience would like to be addressed.” Finding the appropriate voice is a primary challenge, which is one reason Flanagan is so successful. As a writer, he respects his audience. “Most people, in this market especially, are reasonably intelligent,” he says, “and they truly appreciate being addressed on that level.”
When he’s developing a campaign, he conducts extensive research about the client and its product or service, then turns his imagination loose, sifting and synthesizing information, fermenting ideas that will become the words and images to drive a message home.
“I don’t see my job as selling a product per se,” says Flanagan. “I want the buyer to think of my client’s name first when thinking of a particular product or service.” In marketing-speak, that’s called “top-of-mind awareness.” Case in point: He worked to make Roseville Automall synonymous with “the first place you think of when you’re buying a car,” rather than just one of a thousand lots out there in an asphalt wilderness.
To get more people to wear seat belts when driving, Flanagan created a campaign for the California Highway Patrol that played to intelligence and common sense. His method: combining quick, brain-tickling verbal strikes with clean, evocative graphics. “Wearing a windshield—now that’s uncomfortable,” reads one print ad, a slam against one sham argument for not wearing a seat belt, on a background that looks like glass that’s been fractured and fissured by someone’s skull. For the same campaign, Flanagan wrote a radio spot that had wit and a keenly crafted punch line.
The CHP wanted to convert 2 percent of the people who do not wear seat belts into wearing them. Flanagan’s campaign moved 4 percent—twice the goal.
For Kirkwood ski resort, Flanagan took a perceived negative (Kirkwood’s location off the beaten path, along Route 88) and turned it into a positive. Instead of joining the madding crowd at the major resorts along the U.S. 50 and Interstate 80 corridors, the campaign implied, you could take Kirkwood’s winding access road for a journey to lesser-inhabited, world-class slopes. The tagline? “Kirkwood: Go Remote.” It signaled an opportunity to go someplace special, excellent and exclusive, to separate from the crowd. “Three years running, Kirkwood’s business is up,” he says.
Flanagan likes to challenge expectations and conventions. In a print ad for Mercy Medical Center in Redding, a man smiling modestly yet with unmistakable pride opens his shirt to reveal the top of a ragged vertical scar on his chest, the result of heart surgery. “This isn’t a scar,” the ad reads. “It’s a starting line.”
The implication: Mercy isn’t just a hospital; it’s a place where people’s lives are transformed for the better. The client, at first afraid the image might be off-putting, came to embrace it after overwhelmingly positive focus-group feedback.
“People love great ads,” Flanagan says. “People even hope for them. Look at the Super Bowl. Everyone generally expects the game to be a dud, but if we see any great new ads, we at least have something new to talk about. But great ads can be important: They can change perceptions, change behavior, change our culture, in fact. It’s a very high mark to shoot for, no doubt.”
Flanagan is a 100-percent Sacramento product, born at Mercy General Hospital and raised in Fair Oaks. His father worked as an airline pilot while his mom remained home to take care of a big family: He has two brothers and three sisters. He attended Jesuit High School, doing pretty well while being “definitely the guy in the back of the classroom drawing pictures. I’ve been art-driven ever since I can remember,” he says.
And by “art,” he means both visual and verbal. Flanagan loves words; in fact, he writes not only ad copy, but also screenplays (including an award-winning, independent feature film, My Sweet Suicide), a comedy CD called “Deadfish: Part of a Balanced Breakfast” and, so far, one-half of a novel. His retirement dream: to live on the coast and write fiction.
It took him a little while to find his way. A self-described “miserable failure” in college, he went to work in his mid-20s at Spilman Printing Company as a pressman and camera operator, dealing with all kinds of design material that poured through the shop each day, avidly absorbing concepts and lessons without really realizing it. Soon he was doing design work himself, finding that “somehow it just wasn’t that difficult for me.” He clearly had a feel and a flair.
In the mid-1980s, he went to the Sacramento Ad Club awards ceremony and thought, “That looks fun.” He attended seminars and workshops to improve his craft while working at local agencies, then became creative director for The Sacramento Bee’s in-house marketing department, a prestigious position he held for five years. He left to open his own studio but discovered he had “no right running my own business.” In the late ’90s, he met up with Scot Crocker, who had more business acumen, and they started their namesake venture.
Besides judging advertising competitions throughout the country, Flanagan teaches copywriting and creative strategy through UC Davis Extension. Outside of work, he enjoys riding motorcycles and playing in a band with his older brother, John—“my best friend,” he says. He also spends time with his children—two boys and two girls. (He and his wife are divorced.)
Perhaps more than anything, Flanagan believes in having fun, keeping things loose, with lots of music and laughter in the mix because they’re so vital to the creative spirit. “In an industry that requires you to be creative around the clock, it is more than easy to reach burnout,” he says. “And if you burn out on a creative level, you’re dead.”
In his case, that hardly seems likely. With any luck, we’ll be hearing lots more from David Flanagan for many years to come.