Max Sollisch, VP Creative Director at Weber Shandwick, Is A Songwriter Turned Wordwriter
Started from the bottom now he's here.
Max Sollisch got a couple of random compliments from Afroman. Producer Mike E. Clark, who’s worked with Kid Rock and the Insane Clown Posse, told him he’s passionate about the kind of music that he makes. Oh yeah, did I mention that Sollisch, currently VP, Creative Director at Weber Shandwick, is a singer? “I started singing around my family and performed my first song for them when I was 14,” he says over Zoom. “To say they were shocked is an understatement; they’d never even heard me sing ‘Happy Birthday’ so their jaws were on the floor when I performed.”
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Initially comparable to the legendary Louis Armstrong, Sollisch hit the road as a songwriter and developed a passionate fanbase for his music. After a while though, he craved for something more. With a father who was already in advertising, Sollisch decided to get into the industry. But instead of forcing his way in with his family ties, he opted to start from the ground up after meeting someone who explained to him how songwriting and being a copywriter were very similar. “I toured for another year then took her offer as a summer intern making $10 an hour,” says Sollisch.
Fast forward nine years and several stints at agencies like Leo Burnett, BBDO Atlanta, and FCB Global later, Sollisch is the guy making grand creative decisions for his team while keeping on philosophy in mind: “I think a good creative director is smart enough to know a good idea regardless of whether it has a medal attached.”
Here’s Sollisch on becoming a singer, living with an advertising dad, and whether awards matter in your creative career.
What’s your history with singing? What’s the story behind that?
Well, I had a funny relationship with it. I grew up with a severe stutter when I was learning how to speak, and that went on for years. Then, on my vocal chords, I had nodules that made my voice sound like Louis Armstrong’s. It was really raspy.
I started playing the piano when I was four years old and used that to scratch my early creative itch. But after a while doing that, playing jazz on it, it
I started singing around my family and performed my first song for them when I was 14. To say they were shocked is an understatement; they’d never even heard me sing “Happy Birthday,” so their jaws were on the floor when I performed.
I had a peculiar voice because of, well, what I mentioned above. But I’ve learned to accept it. It’s like, well, maybe you don’t have to have a radio ready voice. You still have to have your own sound. And I have mine.
It’s awesome that people came to appreciate your voice. As a touring musician, what was the wildest thing you saw in your journeys?
I met Afroman at a show, and he’s huge in underground culture because he’s someone that’s always traveled across genres. We were playing a festival and he was the headliner. I was a side stage artist.
I’d performed my set and he came up to me afterwards and brought a 7’’ vinyl record I was selling. He told me, “You know man, we’re similar.” I thanked him and asked how so. “We sing songs, travel the world, and make people laugh.” The fact that he’d come up to a young songwriter like me at time to drop some respect was unforgettable.
I also met a producer for the Insane Clown Posse. I was playing at a festival in Detroit where he was spectating. He came up to me after I performed and gave me his business card so we could work together, with one simple instruction: “Call me, don’t Google me.” Of course, I googled him and learned his wildly awesome background. He’d produced songs for Kid Rock and was a huge part in Insane Clown Posse’s prominence in the Juggalo movement.
I called him and told him that I’d Googled him. He laughed and told me that while he loved the music he was making with those guys, his passion was for artists like Daniel Johnston, Neil Young, and other stuff I’d classify as psych rock.
How did you go from making music to writing in the advertising industry?
I grew up in an advertising family. My dad was an author until I was born, and then he got into advertising afterwards. He went and started working as a copywriter at an agency in Cleveland. 33 years later, he’s still there.
He’s really, really talented — now an Executive Creative Director. So I was always familiar with it — back when I was touring though, I started thinking of it as a career option. I would always play shows in Cleveland and my dad would bring his coworkers to some of the venues.
I was just always around these people and they intrigued me. All of them had super cool interests and were funny, but not stuck-up to the point that they weren’t enjoyable to be around. Eventually, I’d gotten to a point as a singer where I felt that I was plateauing and not gaining anymore fans.
I spoke with a woman that worked with my dad who suggested that I could become a copywriter. She explained why she thought it would work, saying that a lot of the songs I write are succinct enough to tell entire stories in 60-90 seconds, and that’s exactly what they do in advertising.
Of course, I didn't have an immediate answer but she told me to think about it because her agency was always open for interns. id, have you ever thought about being a copywriter? And I was like, no, not really. I was like, I don't really even know what they do. I toured for another year then took her offer as a summer intern making $10 an hour.
Man. What was it like growing up in a family that understood advertising? Did you look at ads differently?
That's the funny thing, man. My dad didn’t really talk about what he did much. He was really good, and still is, at job. His passion is, really, writing in general. He’s been published in USA Today, the New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He’d talk about things like that.
But when it came to advertising, he wouldn’t talk much about it — even though he was doing some really cool shit and winning awards. I knew of things like him going to spring training for the Cleveland Indians, of him filming stuff and being behind the camera. I knew that he wrote scripts and sold things through clients.
It's such an interesting field because I'll tell my parents what I do and she’s convinced it’s a scam.
Explaining what we do can make it sound like one! Sometimes I'm naming products and other times I’m coming up with stunts to make people write about clients without them having to pay for it. Other times, I'm making an app for the sake of solving a problem or getting press. So if your parents say, what does a copywriter do? You're like, I solve problems.
I genuinely love every day of it. There are days where you're banging your head against the wall trying to solve a brief or, but I love what we do. I genuinely get stoked about it all the time. I think you either love it and you're gonna get really good at it, or you know it's just going to be a job that you do and clock out.
What's the most important lesson you think you've learned over the years?
How to present, anticipate problems with an idea, and how to think from the standpoint of a client. Another thing I've picked up is how to protect your ideas once holes start getting shot through them. It’s like you think of an idea with your partner that you both want to move forward with, but first you’ve got to keep pushing it. By that, I mean look at it with a fresh pair of eyes and ask “what is gonna scare the crap out of your client about this?” As long as you do this, you’ll be avoiding hard conversations later on.
If you can coordinate that and get the account executives, strategists, and planners all on the same page, you can make that piece of work that you desperately want to make. I think that’s the thing that I didn’t know when I was younger. Back then, it was just about “look at this sick idea I have.” Then after years of watching ideas die (some of mine, others around me) I had that epiphany. “Oh shit. I think I’ve figured out how to give the idea a chance at life in the first place.”
How long were you in the biz before your ideas started making it from pitch to completion?
That's a good question. I don't know. I think, as I mentioned earlier, I had a bit of an unfair advantage because of my dad, so I probably absorbed some of his creative thinking via osmosis. Even if he wasn't talking about it a lot, I was still around it. It felt pretty natural to me. And then I think, coming from being a songwriter that’s mostly focused on lyrics and avoiding cliches, I picked up the craft pretty easily.
My dad kind of helped me with this before, having me cross a line off a notepad that I’d written. I can’t put “your love is a river” in a song. He said to me, “You don’t need to use that as a metaphor man, that’s boring as hell.” I tried to use “sorrow” in a line somewhere else; he told me to toss that out too. “Why are you saying sorrow? I’ve never heard you say it in a sentence.n Why put it in a song?” I guess that was his major note. If, when I talk, I don’t use certain words, why would I put them in a song?
I read a recent post where you mentioned being nominated for awards. How do you feel they have, or can, shape your career?
I have such a love-hate relationship with them like most of us do. I had a lot of successes in my career that came with no awards. This is my first year that any of my work has entered major award shows because back in Cleveland, we just didn’t enter campaigns to be considered. Sometimes, I look back at some of the pieces in my book that now part of me goes, damn if that idea was at another agency, we would have had a beautiful case study and I might have a shot at a D&AD Pencil.
We were just trying to do great work for our clients. We had high standards of creativity, but they weren't really for the purpose of awards. When I became a freelancer and I worked remotely for agencies in Chicago, Atlanta, and New York, what I found was that even though I didn’t have any awards, a lot of creative directors decided to give me a shot because I had some award-worthy ideas. I think a good creative director is smart enough to know a good idea regardless of whether it has a medal attached.
What do you think makes a good idea good, based on your experiences so far? How do you know if you’ve met that internal threshold?
I think every good idea is just surprising, you know? And if you think the solution is expected in some way, you should stay away. I personally get excited about those ideas that run counter to what you think.
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