“The best advertising isn’t advertising.”

by Mia Rossi

April 16, 2018

Ryan Parkhurst ‘06 explains the importance of customer connection in advertising

Ryan Parkhurst '06
Ryan Parkhurst '06

Ryan Parkhurst, according to associate professor of advertising Edward Russell, was always passionate about the work. In a video played before Parkhurst spoke to Newhouse students on April 9, Russell fondly remembered a national advertising competition in which Parkhurst’s team was ready to quit, but Parkhurst talked them into seeing it through.

“Ryan sat back and gave the locker room speech of his life,” said Russell, who was the team’s supervisor at the time. “Even if he was the only one presenting, he wanted to win it for Newhouse.”

They won.

Parkhurst is now a general manager at AKQA, an “innovation and experience design agency” with 23 studios around the world. At his talk, he shared the agency’s secret to success: the best advertising isn’t advertising.

“Advertising is the interaction with the brands,” Parkhurst said. He explained this idea through sharing AKQA’s four objectives: customers over campaigns, democracy over exclusivity, story making over story-telling and hunters over gatherers.

He said that AKQA has been able to connect customers with the brands they interact with. This is the idea behind their “customers over campaigns” objective.

“We thought about what really bothered people about travel,” Parkhurst said, talking about helping a client, Delta Airlines, build an app. “Advertising is about how the purpose of the brand is connected to the service that we provide to the customers.”

The Delta app allows travelers to check in automatically on their phones and provides them with all of the information they need. “We knew that people didn’t want to interact with other people at the airport, so we fixed that,” said Parkhurst. “The right thing to do was to focus on the customer and not just the messaging.”

Another tenet for Parkhurst is democracy over exclusivity. “We try to democratize celebrity and give everyone the chance to be on the world’s biggest stage,” said Parkhurst, pointing to the YouTube series “The Cut.”

“’The Cut’ was an open call, in partnership with YouTube, for people to submit treatments and scripts for three of Elton John’s songs that didn’t have music videos,” said Parkhurst. The submissions were judged by John and other big names in music and film, including Barry Jenkins and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Giving people the opportunity to make their own stories, rather being told stories, is another important idea, Parkhurst said. The Jordan 30th Anniversary Experience included technology that allowed people to experience one of Michael Jordan’s best moments and feel like they were in his shoes. Through a 3D augmented reality lens, people could physically walk around in on the court as Jordan finished his 1998 NBA All-Star Dunk Contest free-throw line dunk.

“It gave people a story for themselves, and not just for the brand,” said Parkhurst.

Finally, Parkhurst spoke of “hunters over gatherers” and stressed to students the importance of actively pursuing their goals.

“This is about talent for me,” he said. “On the teams we create, people are ambitious and want to define something. They don’t wait for briefs. We have most of our successful relationships with clients because we are always pitching them.” Parkhurst said he wants to not just recruit ambitious people, but also foster a good working environment for them. “It’s really important for me to create environments where people can do their best work.”

And, for Parkhurst, his greatest work comes when he feels it is having a positive impact on someone’s life. “The idea of genuinely helping humans out of a point of passion is the best part of working.”

Mia Rossi is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.