Home > finals > In advertising, Charlie Stephan says: ‘What matters is what works’

In advertising, Charlie Stephan says: ‘What matters is what works’

By Quinlan Gaillard
University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Charlie Stephan, associate creative director at Swanson-Russell

Charlie Stephan is an associate creative director at Swanson-Russell. He started his post-graduate life at Swanson-Russell and has grown into multiple roles in the past 10 years. However, he didn’t always know he wanted to work in advertising. 

Stephan began college at Texas Christian University as a news journalism major, but quickly realized he could not see himself chasing down interviews and working the crazy hours it required. His next major was secondary education with a focus in social studies, but the classes didn’t feel worth the major. Third time’s the charm though, and Stephan graduated with a degree in advertising. He still was able to write and be creative but also have the low-key lifestyle he had wanted. 

In college, Stephan was involved in a fraternity and with new student enrollment. Although TCU’s advertising program didn’t push students to connect with outside resources at the time, Stephan had an internship with a public relations agency in Dallas for a short period. He also worked a few smaller jobs like sports promotion for a local basketball team among other things.

After graduation, Stephan moved back home to Nebraska and found a short term position at Swanson-Russell. He worked as an associate writer-producer under Brian Boesche, now the chief creative officer and one of the owners of Swanson-Russell, who was moving into a management role at the time and need someone to write his day- to-day copy. That’s what Stephan did at the start of his 6-month contract. Throughout those months, Stephan began acquiring more roles. He took over for a writer who left and earned a few accounts. Now he’s an associate creative director who oversees writers and artists. In June, he’ll mark 10 years at Swanson-Russell.

Stephan’s average day involves working with designers, art directors and artists. “When we work on something here it’s not an assembly line,” Stephan said. “It’s not like I write the copy, hand off, the designer designs it, hand off, the client reads it. Everything has a ton of back and forth.”

Everyone’s work affects everyone else, so employees often work together. “So, a lot of it is those quick, 5-minute conversations.” Stephan said. He does spend time sitting at his desk in his office writing but prefers to see how the copy will fit into what he’s working on during the writing process instead of spending his time analyzing every word choice.

For instance, Stephan said, “I’ll write a radio script and read it out loud in here to myself.” That way, he can fix anything awkward sounding through trial and error.

Another part of Stephan’s role at Swanson-Russell is as a broadcast producer. So he not only writes the scripts for broadcast but also finds the right talent, film crews, production companies, and the like to shoot or record what he needs. Overall he spends around 30 percent of his time with production and the other 70 percent writing.

An unexpected part of Stephan’s job is explaining everything he does to his clients. “Everything we do is really subjective. I can’t tell Runza that ‘aw snack’ is a line that tests really well.” Stephan said, “It’s like, here’s our goal. Here’s why we think it accomplishes that goal.”

For Stephan, editing is more stylistic than substantive. He has to meet time or space requirements to meet a designer’s and client’s needs. Also, he has to make sure he’s using that space or time to focus in on what the client wants to be talking about. Editing means balancing the fun fluff with the message that needs delivering. This could be in a television script, a tweet, or anything in between.

“Most of the editing comes in just to get in everything that the client wants to talk about, but trying to do it in a way that design and layout doesn’t hurt,” Stephan said.

Something Stephan really enjoys about his role as an associate creative director is having to think through why he is doing what he’s doing.

“That’s a big part of the appeal for me is I’m not just what people think. That the creative part of an ad agency just sits around coming up with fun stuff all day,” Stephan said “It’s kind of true; we do some of that stuff. But a lot of it is a company comes to an ad agency because they have a problem.”

The first part of solving a client’s problem is defining it and the second part is figuring out how to fix it, which is where Stephan’s role comes in. Writing something cool or funny loses its luster, but getting to explain to a client why and how he’s going to solve their problem is what he likes most.

One of the harder parts of working in the creative part of an advertising agency is people being attached to their work. Clients can veto an idea with the sole reason of not liking it. Or creatives may not like something even though it’s right for the client.

“You have to divorce yourself from what you think is cool or interesting or funny. What matters is what works. What matters is what your target audience is going to respond to.” Stephan said. This can also happen with a client. If they have a product launch they’ve been working on for years, but it’s not going to solve their problem, it doesn’t matter how much work has gone into it. What matters is the best way to reach their goal or solve their problem.

Stephan’s advice for students is to get into the building you want to work in. Do whatever it takes – whether it’s an internship or delivering mail.

When he was in college, he worked summers at his dad’s law office. This gave Stephan information about how the office and industry work — valuable information if Stephan wanted to be a lawyer. Even if your job doesn’t involve what you want to do, it’s useful. “It’s not like you’re going to be practicing your craft, but you need to learn how the place works in order to be able to figure out how to contribute to it,” Stephan said.

It will also give you an idea of the type of people in the area you’re interested in. You can find out you wouldn’t get along with people in that area before you spend years working toward getting a job in that field.

“You’ve got to get in there and it’s like learning a foreign language,” he said. “You can go to Spanish class or you can go to Spain. If you go to Spain for a semester you’ll learn the language and if you go to Spanish class for four years you’ll kind of have an idea.”

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