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The Wizard of Ads Interview – Roy H. Williams (Part 1)

Brand Shorthand

Mark and Lorraine welcome The Wizard of Ads, Roy H. Williams, to the show today. The first 30 minutes of our interview (part 1 of 3) with the wizard covers the genesis of the Wizard Academy, how Roy came up with The Wizards of Ads moniker, and why sound is so critical to human emotion, memory, and memorable advertising. Each word had us sitting on the edge of our chairs and we’re excited to bring this first of three parts to our subscribers.

31 min

Mark Vandegrift
Welcome to the latest episode of the Brand Shorthand Podcast. I'm your host, Mark Vandegrift, and today we have an amazing, very special guest with us, Roy Williams. Many of you know him as the Wizard of Ads. Roy, welcome to the Brand Shorthand Podcast.

Roy H Williams
There for a minute I thought I was I thought I'm looking forward to hearing this guy. I thought it was me so thank you for that very warm introduction, Mark and I look forward to spending some time with you in Lorraine today.

Mark Vandegrift
We appreciate it. And as usual, Lorraine Kessler is with us. Howdy, Lorraine.

Lorraine Kessler
Howdy? I guess, you know, I was recently in the South… South Jersey, so I guess ‘Howdy’ was a good one.

Roy H Williams
I spend most of my time in Bergen County. Weehawken. And I even wrote a chapter about it in one of my books. You can't see New York City from New York City. You can only see New York from the Palisades. And so if you take the ferry across, you can sit there at night and just, there's nothing like looking at New York from the Palisades in Northern Jersey. Southern Jersey I know nothing about.

Lorraine Kessler
That's great. For people in the North, they're always like, it's malls and concrete. But then we do have the shore points, like if you keep going east.

Mark Vandegrift
Very good. Let me provide a quick bio for you, Roy, and then we'll get going with our questions just so our listeners and our viewers understand a little bit about you. If you've read any of Roy's material, you know he breaks the mold of a traditional marketer. In fact, I want to read something here from his second book, and it's very neat to have you phrase an introduction of yourself for yourself.

‘Many of my friends, clients, and associates have asked, why do you tell so many stories that have nothing to do with business? Why don't you talk more about advertising? In truth, I write about life beyond business because your customers have life beyond business. Your employees have life beyond business, and you have a life beyond business. I write in the hope that you will come to see yourself and your staff and your customers real.’ 

I love that. You break the mold of so many traditional marketers. And he really is so many things. He's a psychologist. He's a thinker extraordinaire. He's a provocateur. And he has dedicated his life's work and passion to the question, ‘what makes people do the things they do?’ And then he uses those things to stimulate success for advertisers and for business clients.

Roy teaches and consults on such things as leadership, strategy, copywriting, media buying, among many other things. And he teaches through his books, all of which were voted best business book in the year in which they were published, as well as hitting the New York Times bestseller list. His Monday morning memos are available on his website and through his podcast. And another way he has taught throughout the years is through his Wizard Academy,  and you're located in Austin, Texas, correct? So the institution's goal for that is to provide in-depth teaching of the communication arts, building on the principles first laid out in his book trilogy. Roy, we see you have an upcoming Wizard Academy reunion on the 28th. Do you want to provide a little plug on the background of the Academy or the reunion?

Roy H Williams
Sure, the reunion every year is just alumni that come together to hang out and learn a few new things. But the academy began, golly, in the year 2000, what, 23 years ago. And so, it's a weird story, Mark. It's really weird, a little bit embarrassing. But I had gathered so many clients that I was no longer able to accept new clients. I was just working as hard as I could, didn't have any employees, wasn't getting enough sleep.

My wife is answering the phone all day. And when I founded my company, I decided that I would not be paid according to a percentage of the spend. And I know that all advertising agencies, for the most part, get a percentage of the ad budget. And I said, no, because that would incentivize me to get them to increase their budget. The more they spend, the more I make. I said, that's not a win-win situation.

And so I decided I would do infinite hours of work for a flat monthly fee for one year. At the end of the year, we would adjust that monthly fee by the percentage the business had grown or declined. If there's a big mortgage meltdown like there was in 2008 and everybody takes a bit of a haircut, in for a penny, in for a pound. If top line revenues are down, my pay gets cut by the same percentage that they declined. But if they're up, my income is raised once a year by the percentage they were up. And for that reason, in the past 35 years, I've become by several million dollars a year, the most highly paid ad writer on earth. Because instead of chasing big budgets, I chased really smart clients. Really smart, small, hungry, focused clients who were good at what they did. The only thing they were bad at is marketing.

And so, I would partner with those people. I still have clients I've had for 35 years, and I'm paid 60 and 70 times as much money every month. And they can, Mark Lorraine, they can fire me at any time. There's no written contract. It does, remember, you believed in them when no one else believed in them. They didn't have a lot of money to spend. Nobody wanted their business because they didn't really have much ad budget. You believed in them before they even believed in themselves.

Mark Vandegrift
That takes a lot of trust too to make sure they're telling you the right numbers.

Roy H Williams
They stay with you forever. And so think of that as an intimate relationship. We are partners in this business, not on paper, not legally, not contractually, but we are partners. And your family doesn't fire you. Your partner, if you're truly partners, they count on you. And so that worked out just incredibly well for me. Now here's how it began, getting back to the foundation of the academy.

I felt very, very guilty because every day we're getting calls. Please, please, can you take one more client? I heard what you did for my friend and this other person and this other person. And they're all rich and famous. And please, can you do that for me? And I would say, I can't. I just can't. And they would just beg. Please, just one more. Certainly, you can squeeze in one more. And so, what my wife and I decided to do is say, look, if you'll buy a plane ticket to Austin once a month, we're going to host a one-day seminar.

And we're just going to teach you everything in the world we can teach you in one day to help you do better marketing. And it's just a gift. And so, if you'll fly down here, we'll pay for lunch and we'll host you for a day. 

And so, it got so big, we were renting a big ballroom at the Four Seasons. And once a month, we're spending about $20,000 with no hope of revenue, no hope of income from that. Now, I was doing well enough, the $20,000 wasn't that big of a deal, but it was still 20,000 a month. 

And so we're hosting these every month and they're getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And then my wife noticed some people keep coming back every couple of months with more and more team members. And of course, we're buying lunch for all these people and we're going to say, if they bought a plane ticket to Austin, the least we can do is feed them lunch. Well, at the Four Seasons, it charged like $80 for a small pot of coffee, you know, those little, and it's like… Penny goes, you know, at $80 a pot for coffee, 20,000 a month, we could probably, buy our own facility and make our own coffee and have lunch catered in from a restaurant. I said, great, you're in charge of that. And so she went and found some land and bought the land. And Mark, Lorraine, it is on a plateau. Now a plateau is different than a hill, but it's 900 feet above downtown Austin. And we built a tall tower on top of this plateau. And so, we are about 54 feet above the top of the tallest skyscraper in downtown Austin.

And we're looking down on it from about 16 miles away. And so, it will get up on the star deck is what we call it. It's up on the flat roof of the tower and it's hysterical. We're a bunch of ridiculous entrepreneurs who get together to hang out for, you know, three days and four nights. And we start serving wine at eight o'clock in the morning and you sit there, and you listen and you ask questions and hang out with really smart people. You have a big wine cellar, a couple of thousand bottles of wine, and you just sit around and it's very relaxed. 

And if you get really, really smart people hanging out together for three days and four nights, it's like a foxhole buddy in World War II. You know these people and you call them, and you stay in touch with each other. And then you come back for the Academy reunion once a year. And so that's the story of the school. It's a 501c(3) nonprofit. I've never made a penny from it. As a matter of fact, it's cost me many millions of dollars
to buy the land and build the facilities, et cetera. But that is how ridiculous we are.

Mark Vandegrift
Wow, I love that story and you had Lorraine at wine. She is a wine connoisseur.

Lorraine Kessler
Yeah. Well, we just, we've enjoyed it for a long time. We just came back from the Finger Lakes, as a matter of fact. So the Finger Lakes in the... Well, our top three are Chemeter, Johannes Riesling, Reinhardt rather, and a good friend. We, Wiemer. Oscar and Fred Thompson. Good friends, and Dr. Costigan Frank, and we had a delightful time with Megan Frank, who I think is fourth generation, who is the most, she's like you, she's like you. She's just naturally a joyful, loving person, and that was quite a great time, so.

Roy H Williams
You find that with wine people. Anybody that loves wine, they have a lot wrong with them.

Lorraine Kessler
Your whole way of approaching the business even before you did the Academy is revolutionary. I mean, it takes guts to do that. And I think most agencies don't do that. Unfortunately, we end up, you know, for what it would be either because we think we have to, right, or that's what we're handed, some very bad clients. And so I think burnout is a big issue in our industry and we don't have the joyful approach that you have.

Roy H Williams
You know, Lorraine, all it comes down to is this. And a lot of people would assume I'm a huge believer in human nature, and in a way I am. I believe that you can always trust a person to do what's in their own best interests. And I know that altruism exists, but I also know you can't count on it. And when push comes to shove, you can only trust a person to do what's in their own best interest. And it was from that somewhat cynical belief system that I said, ‘Okay. My client's not going to trust me if I make more money when they spend more money.’ The only way they're going to trust me is if I only make money when they grow. And I decided I will always go to work for seductively too little money. I will look people in the face and it's what I call the upfront agreement. I'll look them in the face, and I'll say, I'm going to go to work for you too cheap. 

Because by the time you realize that you have a much, much brighter future than you think you do. I believe in you more than you believe in you. And by the time you figure out that I'm right, you're going to realize, huh, I think I'll go ahead and stick with him even though I'm paying him more and more and more money every year. And I said, the reason you're going to trust me is because if I realize that I can do a better job with less ad budget and a better location.

I will beg you to move to a better location and I will fund the excess rent from the ad budget. If I think that your salespeople are running people off faster than I can bring them in, I will fund sales training from the ad budget. If I think I can do more with this ad budget by paying for a better location and some sales training, if I think I can grow the business faster that way, I'm going to urge you to let me do that with the ad budget.

And so, you can see why a client starts thinking of, this is my partner. This is my partner whose job is to grow the business and they don't make more money. And they make, I give them a raise based on the percentage of my top line growth. I double my top line; I doubled his salary. And it's like, they start doing the math and I say, look, I need you to do this. I need you to think when you're 20 times larger than you are today, and you're paying me 20 times as much money as you are today each month, does that still work for you?

And I take them into that and they think about it and they go, sure, if I'm ever doing that volume, I would happily pay you that much per month. And I say, great, please remember you said that because this is going to happen. And I want you to remember, never chase a budget, always chase a smart, hungry, aggressive, intelligent client and you'll keep them forever. We now have 77 branch offices around the world.

Mark Vandegrift
Amen. Preach it, brother.

Lorraine Kessler

Roy H Williams
And this is the one thing I keep pounding, pounding my partners. Never, never chase a budget. It's a bad idea.

Lorraine Kessler
Wow. I led client services in two agencies for the bulk of my career, and I wish I had heard this before.

Roy H Williams
Most people don't have the courage to do it, and you obviously do have the courage, but most people don't. Most advertising people think, you know, just grab the money as long as they'll keep paying it to you, and then when they kick you to the curb, you know, find another sucker. And I'm going, I just never wanted to be in that business.

Mark Vandegrift
Well, obviously the Wizard Academy comes from the Wizard of Ads. Can you give us a little bit of background on what made you come up with the Wizard of Ads? And then I have a little tag on that because I read something on your MondayMorningMemo just a week or so ago.

Roy H Williams
Okay. The Wizard of Ads came from about three simultaneous different things. It was one of those things that was inescapable at first. And it was 1997. We're sitting in a little conference room. I had five or six people working for me at the time. And a fellow named Jim Anderson, who lives in Chicago today, said, you know who you are? I said, well, a lot of things, you know, a lot of many of which are not particularly complimentary. But what are you thinking? And do you remember a little cartoon way back in the day? It was called the Wizard of Id. Okay, the Wizard of Id. He said, you're the Wizard of Ad. And I'm sitting here thinking when he said ad, he said wizard. And I'm thinking Wizard of Oz.

And he said, Ad. And I said, Jim, if we add an S to that, it becomes Wizard of Ads. And it is phonetically, in terms of phonemes, it hearkens to the Wizard of Oz, Wizard of Ads, Wizard of Oz. And I said, I like that. I think that's cool. And so that didn't go anywhere. But he mentioned that in a meeting. And about a week later, one of my earliest clients, Woody Justice, he's passed away now. And Woody and I were dear friends. As a matter of fact, he passed away 12 years ago. And I still have him on my cell phone. And there's a little tiny part of me that believes, because he died very unexpectedly, if I press that number, he would answer. And I would just never delete his number. It just breaks my heart that he's gone. 

But Woody said, he goes, damn, that's a good ad. You're the wizard of ads. And so I remembered what Jim Anderson had said a couple of weeks earlier. I said, man, maybe we should actually grab that name, you know? And so, we did. 

And then for whatever reason. It just caught, it was memorable, something, you know. So, here's what's crazy. This was before the J.K. Rowling book came out. Because right now we have a big mural up when you come to the campus. There's a big mural on the side of a building that says, Wizard Academy, definitely not a cult. Because we have 1100 weddings a year on our campus. And we have a chapel hanging off the edge of a cliff. And it's called Chapel Dulcinea. And it's the...

Well, it was it was named in a magazine, one of the top 10 wedding venues in the world. It's gorgeous. And we just built it as a gift to the world. People have come from lots of nations. They come from all 50 states to get married there because it's free. And so, when people come to get married, they always stop in the visitor center and say, what does this deal this wizard of ads or you worship Harry Potter or what? Ya’ll worship the devil? And it's like so.

The truth is, the truth is, whenever I began to research the word wizard, it actually, the person who always cowers is a coward. A person always is drunk is a drunkard. And the etymology of the word wizard was originally wise-ard. And in Matthew chapter two, where it talks about the wise men, it's the only book that actually talks about the wise men is Matthew.

King James Bible talks about wise men from the East, but in 1629, John Milton wrote a poem called On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, and he said, ‘See how from far upon the eastern road the star-led wizards haste with odor sweet.’ And so, wise-ard or wizard simply meant wise man. And so, we actually have a whole kind of a subculture of every entrepreneur, every business has a guiding light. They have a star, a North Star that they follow. And I said, basically, the wise men said, if we follow this star, we think we'll find something wonderful at the end of the journey. And I said, every entrepreneur does that. And so Wizard Academy, Wise-ard Academy had nothing to do with Harry Potter. If it did, if J.K. Rowling had even written her first book, I would not have been able to buy Wizard Academy. Remember Hogwarts Academy, is it Wizard Academy? I bought it for 10 bucks, okay? So...

Nobody wanted the name Wizard Academy, so we bought it. And everybody keeps thinking that we based the school on the popularity of Harry Potter or something, which is absurd. That was a long answer. I'm sorry. It's a longer answer than the question.

Mark Vandegrift
No, no, no. You took care of my little tag because I had seen that connection to the biblical magi, and I'm a scholar of the Bible and just absolutely loved your connection to that because I wouldn't have made the connection had I not read that just a couple weeks ago.

Roy H Williams
Well, being a scholar, you'll know that I was careful not to say there were three wise men because Scripture does not say there were three wise men. It says that there were three gifts. And so the number of wise men is not known, but it's okay if people assume there were three. We just… there's a thing called explanation point just past the chapel. It's two big bronze plaques on a big stone pillar. And one of them is the Scripture from Matthew chapter 2.

‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? We've seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.’ And the next one is that one stanza from John Milton's poem written in 1629. And it just juxtaposes these two things written 18 years apart. In 1611, they called it wizards. In 1629, it was the wise-ards. And it's basically the same word in the Oxford English Dictionary. We'll explain that to you.

And so what most people think of as wizard, it was a bad translation of King James or his scholars. They should have used the word necromancer, people that talk to the dead. And so, you know, Bible people very often say, haven't you read Leviticus, you know, ‘thou shalt not suffer a wizard to live, stone them with stones, let their blood be upon them.’ And I'm going, yeah, they meant to say necromancer. Okay, calm down.

Mark Vandegrift
Well, if you ever want to do a deeper study, and I know we're not on a biblical podcast here, but making the connection of those particular wise men back to Daniel in Babylon, that's the fantastic study that I find is so neat that they knew what to look for.

Roy H Williams 
Yeah, done it. It's another whole conversation we'll have to have. But I'm with you on that.

Lorraine Kessler
Hey, before I start, I do want to make a correction. One of the owners of Vemur is Fred Merwage, not Thompson. I don't know why Thompson popped in my head. 

I'm gonna bring this a little more down to earth and kind of go back to the beginning in your career as I understand it, that you started your career in radio and maybe a little AM station, I think you said in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

So tell us how the experience of radio, which has been called ‘the theater of the mind,’ has helped to shape your thinking about advertising.

Roy H Williams
You know, that's a really fair question in the sense that one would assume it did shape my thoughts, but my thoughts were already shaped and it was those thoughts that led me to radio instead of a different media. But...

One of the core things I believe is that if you win the heart, the mind will follow. The mind will always create logic to justify what the heart has already decided. And we are creatures of words. You're familiar, I'm sure, with Steven Pinker. And Steven Pinker was named by Time Magazine just a few years ago as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

And he's currently the head of brain and cognitive science at Harvard. And he's written a number of books, one of which was The Language Instinct. Another one is Steven Pinker on writing. He's a cognitive neuroscientist. And about 15 years ago, he had that same position at MIT. And he left MIT to take that position at Harvard. He's very celebrated. And he says that the greatest gift of the human creature is our ability to attach complex meanings to sounds. 

Did you know the written word has no meaning until it has been translated into the spoken word it represents? Only the spoken word has meaning. Do babies learn to read first, or do they learn to speak first? They learn to speak by listening and then imitating those sounds. The sounds have meaning. How many times, Lorraine, have you been lying in bed reading a book?

It occurs to you, you've been scanning the same paragraph over and over and over, and you have absolutely no idea what it says. Because as you're falling asleep, your brain has disconnected the written symbols. You're still taking in, but those written symbols no longer have meaning because you're no longer translating those words into the sounds they represent. It takes the average reader 38% longer to understand the written word than to understand the same word when spoken, which is why people can understand a person speaking incredibly quickly. And if you speak too slowly, people will lo…se interest in what you're saying. And so when you realize we are creatures of sound, and if you look at a map of the brain, the temporal lobe, which is auditory memory, all the other parts of the brain fan out from it in the human, like the tail feathers of a peacock, and you realize anatomically, human beings are creatures of sound. 

And the greatest lie ever told, some knucklehead. I'm not Richard Bandler if you want to know the truth. Richard Bandler was a psychologist who decided that we remember more of what we see than what we hear, and he made up a bunch of crap. And then a lot of people have sat in seminars and watched somebody write crap on a whiteboard and because it was written on a whiteboard, and somebody spoke authoritatively, they thought it was true. There is not a cognitive neuroscientist on the face of the earth.

There is not a clinical study that's ever been done in history that did not demonstrate the superiority of long-term memory based upon what you hear rather than what you see. We remember a startling small percentage of what we see. As a matter of fact, what's called iconic memory, the memory of things that came through your eyes are in your brain less than eight-tenths of one second and they disappear. This is why eyewitnesses very often disagree and cannot be trusted.

But everybody agrees on what they heard. Because echoic memory, the sounds that are coming in your ears, you can close your eyes, but you cannot close your ears. How else would you know there's a prowler in the house when you're asleep? And so, you don't see unless you're looking, but you hear even when you're not listening. You hear even when you're fast asleep. And so, this idea of being… as a matter of fact, Voltaire said, anything too stupid to be spoken is something. And that's true because when the language of music, rhythm, meter, when the language of music collides with the language of words, the language of music determines your feelings about the words.

And that can easily be demonstrated. This way, it's a three-day class at the Academy called the Mindful Worlds Communications Workshop. We can prove that to you by showing you, here's all the studies. Now, let's actually experience that for ourselves. And we will play songs for people that they can sing along with, but they never knew that's what it said. They don't know that's what it says until you put the lyrics on the screen, and they have to read them and understand them intellectually in the left hemisphere of the brain instead of emotionally in the right hemisphere. Because music is a language of the right hemisphere of the brain, and words are processed only in the left hemisphere. And this goes back to 1981, and Dr. Roger Sperry won the freaking Nobel Prize for documenting this. This is not speculation of Richard Bandler or some other person with a whiteboard in front of a room full of gullible people. And so no, no, anybody who says that we remember more of what we see than what we hear is woefully and tragically misinformed.

Forgive me for my bluntness.

Lorraine Kessler
How many times have we heard, you know, in education or whatever that people are visual today in our society, and so you need to make things more visual. But I can assign a lot of meanings to visuals too, depending what those are. And that doesn't mean I'm going to enhance my memory. I think you're making a great point.

And it reminds me of Tolkien's great lament that, I forget how many, but thousands of languages have been eradicated, as we globalize, if that's true and happening, but it certainly has. And he thought that was the death of meaning and culture. So, there's this, I think you're just saying the same thing. I think that's super interesting.

Roy H Williams
You know, there are a lot of things in the English language for which we have no word. There are things that can be said in any of the romantic languages, anything based on Latin. There's a huge number of ideas for which they have a word, for which we have no word in English because we reject the very idea. The idea we reject. Yet they don't reject it in other cultures, and they actually have a word for it. And so it's very telling.

One example is the idea that something can be absolutely real. It's not imaginary. It's real. It is a real thing, but you cannot detect it with your five senses. You cannot see it, hear it, taste it, touch it, or smell it. Now, the word in ancient Greek was mysterion, and the word in Latin is sacramentum. And so a sacrament is something that is real, but you cannot detect it with any of your five senses, but it's real nonetheless. We have no word for that idea in English. We have no idea for a word for something that is real that cannot be detected with your senses. Because in this culture, in the West, if it cannot be frozen, scratched, or painted blue, it doesn't exist. It's not real. It's imaginary. It's emotional. Am I right?

Mark Vandegrift
Well, to that point, if you ever try to explain the mystery church or mystery Babylon in scripture, we have to use a lot more words to explain to people that it's a ‘previous truth yet undisclosed up to that point in time.’ Well, I just used about 15 words to use mysterion as the Greek word used. Excellent point. Love it.

Lorraine Kessler
It's the physicality, yeah, it's the physicality and the materialism, if you wanna say that we've erred on that side of things, which of course then, I think expunges any kind of real belief in something spiritual, what we might call spiritual, but that is a reality too. 

Mark Vandegrift
Hey, Brand Shorthand listeners. That’s it for today. We had an amazing 90-minute interview with The Wizard of Ads and we’ll be back next week to share part 2 of three parts of the interview. Until then, remember the words of Mr. Williams and go tell the story that is uniquely and wonderfully your own.

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