Salmon Theory Interview with Bruce


While I dislike giving interviews I’ll admit this experience with Rob Estreitinho and his newsletter, The Salmon Theory, was kind of fun. Enjoy. More importantly, subscribe to Rob’s newsletter. Its a quirky intellectually philosophical shortish thought-provoking weekly read.



Welcome to Salmon Theory, a (for now, daily, because of *waves at all the things*) newsletter about philosophy, strategy and hope, now trusted by ~2,400 of you.

One of the greatest joys of this newsletter is the replies I get. And over time, some people become more active and more engaged, to the point where we have actual deep conversations about all things business, life, strategy, philosophy, and so on.

Bruce McTague is one of those people. For 90% of the things I’ve written, he has his own version of that thought on his blog, and I always steal something from his writing because, well, he’s pretty good at stealing from elsewhere too. Gentleman thief.

So I decided that now was a good time to interview Bruce. He’s a business and marketing consultant, has a giant brain for principled thinking, and… look, just read the interview below. I promise it will be worth your time.

I am Rob. You are here. Sit back. Relax. Let’s do this.


Bruce, thanks for doing this. How did you get to where you are?

It was a winding road. After getting an MBA, my father had a swanky job lined up at a big bank therefore I, of course, wrangled a job at the first non-NYC advertising agency to win agency of the year in Greenville, SC. It was in media on P&G. I got an indoctrination in spot media (from Benton & Bowles), network media (from Compton), P&G branding, technology (I was one of five people given a computer – mostly to run onerous crosstabs and analyse data for insights and learning) and female leadership (my first boss was an amazing woman, Polly Goodrich-Reese, who could do a reach/frequency by hand faster than we could on a computer, and yet knew technology was the future).

I spent 50%+ of my days in account management offices picking their brains and 50% of my off hours getting my job done. From there it was into account management (Bloom/Publicis Mid-America, Bozell, JWT). I became (they claimed) the youngest VP Bozell/NY ever had (heady stuff for a 29 year old) then proceeded to quit to go to JWT.

JWT is where I honed my brand planning skills (or whatever skills I have there). Unlike England, the US was slow to embrace brand planning, so if you were a savvy account director who embraced brand planning, and had a good research director in your hip pocket, you could have a hybrid brand planning/account management role. So that’s what I did. Even became a corporate “Thompson Way” trainer.

I eventually was a New Business Director at a $350mm shop, but I’ve also been a brand planning director, COO of a small agency (trying a virtual creative department) and now, having embraced the fact I am more a generalist than I am an advertising person, consult with businesses on, well, everything. I have found that, while businesses think they have one problem, in a complex business world it is actually a multi-faceted problem (or opportunity). And a lot of business people like someone who sees complexity as expansive, not a problem.


What I found was I was always chasing more. More knowledge, more experience, more experiences, more responsibility, ways of looking at things, more books, more. Not more things, just an insatiable interest in learning things. Paradoxically, it has given me more than I have ever dreamed while also giving me less of some fairly important things (never married, don’t really have a place I call home – I’m more of a nomad).

I will also admit chasing more included chasing a space in which there was no politics. Agency politics are a sonuvabitch. All I ever chased was doing the right thing and doing good shit and, well, politics isn’t really conducive to that. I was actually pretty good at navigating client politics, able to weave my way through landmines and bludgeon my way through the Peter Principle management, but was never good at agency politics. That particular chasing did not serve me well the farther I got into my advertising career. On reflection, I am not sure if my stubbornness on this made me reject the advertising world, or if the advertising world rejected me because of my stubbornness.

While I love what I do now, I would be lying if I didn’t say that walking into an advertising agency, any one, feels like coming home.


Why do you do what you do?

Thinking is breathing to me. I’d die if I weren’t thinking.

I imagine the corollary to this is that many of the people around me want me to die because it can make me a pain in the ass.

Regardless. I like turning thinking into a specific type of doing. I imagine, if I am honest, I like to fix things. I like to fine tune things. I always believe something can be better than it is. I believe there is nothing that cannot be fixed. That, by the way, is a path fraught with peril (because some things defy fixing).

I do what I do because I don’t know how to do anything else other than what I am doing. Wow. That last sentence sounds pitiful. But it’s not. I love being ‘in the game.’ I love thinking and learning and, well, ‘the agony of defeat and thrill of victory.’


How do you speed your brain up?

I don’t. It always is running. It may not be fast, but it’s always running. It’s always collecting things. I am a collector of ideas, people, experiences, whatever. I don’t care. I have hundreds of notes scribbled on random pieces of paper which, as Dave Snowden point out in a fabulous video, looks chaotic but I know where almost everything can be found. I like my brain to collect things. On a separate note, this makes me a wonderful conversationalist at parties if anyone wants to invite me.

All that said. If I want to force clarity, I don’t speed it up, I actually do something like going for a run, or listening to music. And, all of a sudden, the pieces I have collected rearrange, get pulled off of dusty brain shelves, and fall into place on something I am thinking about.


How do you slow your brain down?

This question made me think. When I was younger, everyone kept on telling me to slow down, take a break, find other things to do. And I tried. I really did try. But I never got it. I couldn’t understand why anyone would ever want to slow their brain down. So I eventually stopped listening to everyone and I actually cram it with things.

What I found was if I keep putting things into it, all of a sudden things fall into place (an intersection of multiple pieces of crap I threw into it). Is that ‘slowing down’? Shit. I don’t know. It may actually be a weird version of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow (a book which I loved) but I imagine a part of ‘slowing it down’ is simply encountering an existing idea, thought or group of words that centre a number of random thoughts that are swirling around in my brain. Maybe I consider ‘slowing down’ as simply clarity.

I will say that I am not sure I recommend this attitude to anyone. It works for me but that may be partially what makes me mad.


Which two fields should talk more to one another? What should they talk about?

I, personally, believe everyone should picture the most opposite of what they do or how they see themselves and then go and spend a week with them. I will make a sweeping ‘talk more’ wish – people should talk more with everyone. The best of the best philosophers have a knack for communicating the abstract in a way that, well, seems tangibly useful. I would note ‘tangibly useful’ is, well, an incredibly useful skill for brand planners, strategists or anyone in the advertising business.

That said. My two fields.

The thinkers should take more to the unseen workers. The janitors, garbage collectors, the landscapers, the maids. They should talk about hopes, dreams and daily fears, wants and needs. They will find they have more in common than in differences. As the new documentary play about West Virginia coal mine country says, “they (people in NYC) think we are stupid, we’re not. We’re just from West Virginia.”

It’s all about perspective. It’s all about context.

I spend a lot of time observing people and always have but it’s a specific type of observing. This may sound odd, but while I always believe everyone has a story (trite I know), more importantly is I believe everyone has a certain gravity. Maybe it’s kind of like carrying a weight. Traditional brand planners may call this ‘a problem to be solved.’ That always seemed to simplify a personal aspect too much to me.

I always felt like if I could identify that weight, that burden, me – as a fixer – could seek to get them unstuck or fixed. The tricky part is many people only give you the superficial weight and it’s up to you to find the gravity.

That may all sound esoteric but, getting back to the question, I believe if the ‘thinkers’, the futurists, the brand planners, the behavioural science wonks, could talk more with the people who truly aren’t unhappy with their life, but are still trying to figure out how to get through each day, maybe we would stop trying to sell people ‘up’ on a way of life, but connect people in ways maybe even they haven’t thought about – and, of course, sell shit as a marketer/advertiser along the way.

On a separate note. That’s why Zach Mercurio’s work with janitors and car wash employees are so interesting to me.


What’s something everyone could do with a bit more of?

Read. Anything. And talk about what they read.

It was Arturo Perez-Revarte, whose first four books are spectacular, who wrote “Everything has to do with everything else. Life is a succession of events that link with each other whether we want them to or not.” If you read a story to your child, there is a moral. If you read someone’s Twitter thread, there is an opinion. If you read Michener, there is perspective. If you read this newsletter, there is intellectual twisting (what I call bending the mind’s perspective). And if you read anything, there are words and combinations of words which always seem to capture your mind’s attention.

I don’t have to agree with everything I read and, yet, love the words that speak to me. So maybe what I am suggesting isn’t really we need a bit more of reading, maybe it’s just we all need to inhale more words. How about that?

In general, I dislike business books and the advertising books are few and far between. Ogilvy, Book of Gossage, a 1915 book How Advertising Pays, Disruption (Dru), loved The Choice Factory, Grant’s Brand Innovation Manifesto and New Marketing Manifesto are essentials, Decoded and my St. Luke’s book is dog eared (but mostly for business consulting thinking) and Hugh McLeod’s How to be Creative/Hughtrain Manifesto are all must reading.

The business books I think advertising folk should read is Tom Peters Thriving on Chaos (his best book by far), Toffler’s books will all make you wonder why we think anything we talk about today as ‘new’, Cluetrain Manifesto and a new book – Mike Walsh’s The Algorithmic Leader. Oh. And Calvin & Hobbes. Perspective.


What’s something everyone could do with a bit less of?

Whining. Complaining seems to be a default these days. This is probably a reflection of the fixer in me. For example, I never understood why an agency said “I don’t want to be measured on sales because I am not responsible for everything that contributes to sales.’ Jesus. What a copout. In for a penny, in for a pound. I would look around the conference room table and say ‘quit making excuses and let’s make some business.’

Complaining, to me, seems to have an unhealthy underbelly – fear of risk, fear of failure, fear of, well, fear. I will never control everything. Shit. Control is an illusion. Get on with getting on and be accountable to what you do. Complaining is wasted energy. Maybe worse, complaining is really fear of doing what is right.


What’s the last thing you changed your mind on?

I chuckled. I bet I just changed my mind as I wrote this. Because I am permanently collecting ideas, words and thoughts, I constantly renovate ideas and my thoughts. I imagine I have some unchanging laws, axioms, postulates (I get them all mixed up) but, in general, the only unchanging belief I have is with regard to gravity, thoughts and attitudes.

I believe most things have a natural arc (a sense of gravity) and while some ideas fight that gravity for a bit, over time things will progress in a better way. I think thoughts and attitudes work the same way. The Cluetrain Manifesto, Herd, Toffler’s 3 books (Future Shock, Third Wave, Powershift) all are about gravity and how to fight gravity (or change its formula) if you want to view trends and societal waves.

I imagine, thinking about this, this could appear like I have no gravity. I do. Integrity, dignity, doing what’s right, optimal risk. My gravity bends my behaviour and thoughts (for good or for bad). Maybe those are my unchanging laws. I tend to believe people should (seriously) think about that shit maybe more than they do.


Everyone’s a bit mad. How are you mad?

I’m perpetually dissatisfied with what I know.

It’s odd. Years ago, I wrote a white paper about early age learning where I pointed that the education system needs to be careful because if they do education properly young people, students, will constantly be frustrated (because the more you learn the more you learn how much you don’t know). My madness possibly resides in my embrace of always being ignorant.

I deal with it in a variety of ways. It’s like Taleb said: “clever people become more clever by being with people cleverer than they are.” I constantly, and have always, sought out the smartest, most skilled/qualified, people and placed myself as close to them as possible. I want to be at the same table as these people.

Oddly, some people have seen this as arrogance that I see myself ‘as smart as they’ or I belong in their sphere worthy of debating/discussing things with them. It’s odd to me because all it ever does is showcase, to me, how ignorant or how ‘lesser than’ I am. I imagine I am slightly mad to always seek to be in situations where you never know the most or constantly feel behind intellectually, but I salve my madness by judging myself on “better today than I was yesterday, better tomorrow than I am today.”

Yeah. I’ll die mad, but happy.


What gives you hope?

Well. People. Mostly the everyday people who have little (the ‘have nots’ if you want to label them). Despite being a privileged white male with two college degrees, I was lucky enough early in my career to, through work, visit rural West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Minnesota and more. Inner cities in a number of cities. I’ve also visited rural France, Ukraine, and seen and heard the same.

There is no ‘give’ or ‘give up’ in these people. They have the same hopes and dreams for their families and children. They aren’t stupid. They just live in different places doing different things. This is true in any business you work at or with. There is a person working in the shipping department, accounting, cleaning crew, and so on, who know shit I will never know, see things in ways I will never see, and, yet, have similar hopes and dreams as I do.

I owe them listening because sometimes I can make things happen, and they cannot. And sometimes I cannot do things and, yet, they give me hope I can the next time.

Anyway. Personally, I don’t understand the whole ‘people don’t change their minds’ rhetoric. I have only seen people, addressed respectfully with well-articulated thoughts, who listen closely, are curious, and hungry for a better way of not only thinking about things but doing things. These people give me hope.

Just to note. I am a hope guy. I believe taking people’s hope away from them is one of the most heinous crimes one could commit. On the other hand, I also believe hope is one of the most resilient characteristics in existence. It’s like a super Kevlar to a world constantly trying to dent people.


One final thought.

I feel like I was one of the luckiest people in business. I was never the smartest nor the most ambitious, but I was always surrounded by incredibly smart mentors who saw that the more freedom they gave me the better I would be. Throughout my career I found ‘herders’ not dictators. That was lucky.

When people ask me my favourite boss, I cannot answer one. From the account director who laid on his back on the floor under his desk, with a world map taped to it, who said “I just want to see the world differently”, to Polly, a woman in a man’s world, who tirelessly explained why things mattered. I had dozens, all of whom taught me something a little bit different, and I have ended up an accumulation of all of them.

When people ask me about my best job, I cannot answer one. My first agency was a cauldron brimming with Burnett, JWT, Bates, Dancer, BBDO, Benton & Bowles trained talent. Bloom in Dallas (then Publicis Mid America) was a place where talent jostled each other everyday and then played together at night. JWT was, well, JWT and the office I was at spawned numerous independent agencies. Even the agency with a world class brand consulting group intersected me with some of the smartest business consultants I have ever run across.

I have hated leaving almost every place I worked. It’s the people, not the work. I think everyone should remember that.


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Written by Bruce