the Creative Beast

Londoner Keith Otter has put his world–class advertising skills to work here in Birmingham, in what is just one more unexpected stop in a whirlwind life.

by Rosalind Fournier    Photography by Beau Gustafson

Make-Up by Angela Jones

Five years ago, Keith Otter was working in the upper echelons of London’s advertising world, with a resume comprised of important jobs at internationally renowned agencies. He had a collection of prestigious awards that could make Don Draper cry into his cocktail.

Five years ago, Keith Otter was working in the upper echelons of London’s advertising world, with a resume comprised of important jobs at internationally renowned agencies. He had a collection of prestigious awards that could make Don Draper cry into his cocktail.

A man with that kind of proven talent can write his own ticket, but what Otter wanted was a ticket out of London. Don’t get him wrong. “I was having a jolly time there,” says Otter, who possesses a rare combination of laid–back good nature and contagious energy. But while it might seem unlikely to some that a high-powered London ad man suddenly would pick up and move to Alabama—along with his also–high–powered wife, Melanie, a television producer, and their two young daughters, Rosie and Skye—Otter had his reasons. For one, he didn’t consider London a great place to raise a family. Too many drugs and too much violence in the city. Then there were the work hours: “Both countries get the job done, but in different ways,” he says. “A typical day there, people would come in around 10 a.m., then soon after, head for the pub for a long lunch. By the time we were done for the day it might be 7 or 8 o’clock at night. Our girls were going to grow up fast enough, and I wasn’t spending the time with them that I wanted to.”

Besides, so much of Otter’s life seems straight out of the plot of a Kingsley Amis novel that this particular transformation is no less plausible than the rest. His adventures and misadventures to date include, but are hardly limited to, an early career as a professional soccer player in England; a chance meeting with The Queen Mother while wandering the halls of Windsor Castle; surviving attacks by an elephant, orangutan, humpback whale and troop of monkeys; a post-wedding ride in the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car (with Dick Van Dyke’s actual body double as chauffeur); becoming the “face” of George Harrison’s London Hare Krishna movement; and living with a tribe of headhunting Dayak Bornean tribesmen. In some serpentine way, his experiences in and out of advertising help to feed the creative beast and make Otter a fairly amazing person to be around, for colleagues and clients alike.

An Exceptional Alien

With Otter’s up-for-anything attitude, moving to the United States just seemed like another chapter in his semi-charmed life. “After nearly 20 years of cricket, jellied eels, chimney sweeps, the weather and morris dancing,” he says, “I decided to head for sunnier climes and new challenges on the other side of the pond.”

He was particularly interested in relocating to the South, a region he’d fallen in love with for the foliage, hills and hospitality he found during an earlier vacation. So after considerable research he put out some feelers to top agencies here.

One called him up the same day he emailed out his queries. Intermark Group. Jake McKenzie, Intermark’s CEO, says they seized immediately on the chance to have someone of Otter’s caliber. “Hiring great talent is integral to what we do,” McKenzie says. “So here comes somebody like Keith, who has won quite literally every creative award there is to win, including One Show, D&AD, Clio and several Lions from the Cannes Festival of Creativity, which is kind of like the Oscars for our industry. Without question it was incredibly flattering that he would approach us.”

Intermark struck a deal to hire Otter as creative director for the agency (he is now executive creative director), provided they could jump one major hurdle: To work here, he was going to need an EB2 visa, otherwise known as a visa for “aliens of exceptional ability.”

“You have to demonstrate that whomever you’re bringing in has talents that are not readily available domestically,” McKenzie says. “For the most part that means people like scientists or programmers whose skills are more quantifiable. To bring in someone who’s a creative talent, we had to demonstrate to the government that he was one of a kind.”

Otter’s remarkable collection of advertising awards did the trick. In fact, as he worked to obtain various certified copies of them, he realized he had won even more awards than he remembered, although now they’re packed away again in boxes. It’s old news, really, in Otter’s view. He’s on to new things, having secured the “exceptional” status he needed four years ago in order to begin his career here.

Since Otter’s arrival at Intermark, the agency has become the largest hybrid agency in the Southeast and one of the top hybrid agencies in the country, driven equally by brand advertising as well as digital and social media and handling national accounts from coast to coast. Otter says, “I now have the privilege of working at a national caliber agency that just so happens to be blessed to be in Birmingham. Creativity and innovation are no longer departmental distinctions, but a mind set to everything we do across all disciplines. There are so many ways we can talk to people. You no longer have to spend a lot of money to be very effective, you just need to be smart.”

Otter has used this theory with much success. One standout example is the SmartStrand Zoo Challenge for Mohawk Flooring. Over 160 million peoplewatched via 12 live webcams, digital and social platforms as six elephants, three camels and a black rhino lived on SmartStrand carpet at the Dallas Zoo for three weeks. The carpet emerged flawless after a good cleaning. The results? Mohawk sold over 50 million square yards of carpet, leading to a six-month backlog of orders, and the campaign was named one of the eight best integrated campaigns in the world at this year’s Cannes Festival.

Otter concedes achieving this kind of exposure involves a certain degree of luck and serendipity. “What’s going to be the most popular hit on YouTube today?” he muses. “How does that happen? I wish I knew.”

At Intermark, a lot of that happens through synergy—the ability to work in several mediums at once, providing consistent branding and a well-honed message—as well as synergy among the team. McKenzie credits Otter’s winning and disarming personality with helping to create an atmosphere where people are able to build on one another’s ideas.

“We’ve very much seen that,” McKenzie says. “One of the great things about Keith, and you’ll never hear this from him, is how well he works with other people.

“If you’ve been around this industry very long, there’s one thing that’s true, and that’s a lot of great creative people either come with associated egos or personality quirks,” he continues. “This means often they are a single point of success. But to be really successful you have to believe that great ideas can come from anywhere and anybody, and he does believe that. I’ve never met anyone with his own personal ego in check better than Keith Otter.” As a tangible sign of this, Otter—like everyone in the agency—houses his ego in a modest cubicle in the open–format office.

McKenzie credits Otter with a sort of multiplier effect, attracting some of the best and brightest talents from the top posts of the world’s leading agencies, media and high–tech companies thus helping to double the size of the agency in just over a year to just over 200 employees.

Senior agency producer Chris Mann shares McKenzie’s assessment of his colleague. Mann has traveled with Otter on shoots throughout Asia, South America and the U.S. All those long flights and work hours together might put some people at odds, but Mann says Otter contributes a level of camaraderie that stems in no small part from his “lovable” personality, which might not be a word heard with frequency in the cutthroat world of advertising.

“I’ve never seen anybody adapt to his environment from another country better than him,” Mann says. “You talk to him once and you think, I really like that guy. I want to hear more.”

Working to Relax

As hectic as his job is, Otter still has a calmer life in the States and gets to spend more time with his wife and girls. Living outside the city, near the town of Mount Laurel, he enjoys the relative quiet and nature of his new surroundings.

Still, he remains remarkably prolific even in his downtime, and it’s often hard to decipher the difference between his work and pastimes. Otter personally has been named one of Creative Review magazine’s coveted Creatives Behind the Lens winners for his film and photographic work. His photographic work has been exhibited in London, Paris and New York and has been recognized by major international bodies such as Communication Arts and One Show. And last month, three of Otter’s photos were chosen from entries submitted from 35 countries to appear in the Cannes Lions Big Book. There’s even a decent chance you’ve either purchased or received a greeting card featuring one of Otter’s pictures.

He’s also working on a novel, with eight chapters already completed. And the man who much earlier in his career aspired to host a children’s program is taking advantage of the even playing field created by the Internet to finally produce his own show, produced by and starring Otter himself.

So if you don’t work in advertising and haven’t heard of Keith Otter yet, stay tuned. You will soon enough. Even if Otter deadpans, “Nobody really likes me.”•

One Response to “the Creative Beast”

  1. Lily says:

    Good luck to him. Intermark is where advertising careers go to die. I give him 12 months, at the most.

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