The Agency Interview: 31 Questions for Michael O’Toole

May 9, 2017

Michael O’Toole has been President, PJA Advertising and Marketing, for 21 years. In this interview, he reflects on the changes he’s seen in those two decades; discusses his podcast, “The Unconventionals;” and laments the current nadir of Notre Dame football. We asked O’Toole 31 questions; here are his 31 answers. 

1. What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Frosted Mini Wheats and a grapefruit juice

2. What’s the last great thing you binge watched and why?

Arrested Development. Hands down funniest sitcom I’ve ever seen. Michael Sera, Will Arnett, David Cross—how can you miss?

3. What’s the industry buzzword that annoys you the most these days?

Digital Transformation

4. Is a 4-8 record acceptable for a Notre Dame football team?

Nope. Not even close. Head Coach Brian Kelly is on the hot seat. Hope he turns it around soon—my son is starting there this fall.

5. What’s the last great book you read?

Why was it great? Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. Intersecting stories about small town Maine. Olive is a great, complex character. The HBO series with Frances McDormand is worth it as well. The Big Data Driven Business is a close second.

6. What’s your favorite vacation spot?

Eagle River, Michigan. Where I went every summer as a kid.

7. What’s the biggest change in the agency business since you started?

Accelerating role of technology: marketing tech stack and programmatic media are two biggest forces

8. How have you (and your agency) adapted?

Invested heavily in media strategy and analytics, and also made a strategic decision to focus on the front of the funnel: brand strategy, creative, and experience. You can’t do everything as an agency.

9. What’s your proudest moment in business?

Becoming President of PJA. We have a great staff who like each other, are fun to be around, and consistently deliver great work for our clients.

10. In life?

Watching my four kids become great young adults

11. How important do you think personalization is in the mobile age?

Personalization by brands (think creative and content) is overrated. Humans personalize their own experiences, brands should focus on delivering something amazing, not creating a million personalized versions of something ordinary.

12. What’s the most important way the rise of social media, from YouTube to Facebook to LinkedIn, has changed the way companies reach their audiences?

Social has restored the focus on great stories, content, and experiences, and diminished the value of promotion. People don’t share promotional stuff, they share what makes them look good and what captures their imaginations.

13. Is content marketing an evolution or a revolution?


14. You ran canvassing for MASSPIRG in the late 1980s: What did you learn there that you still apply to your job today?

I learned how to make a pitch. Fund raising door-to-door in little New England towns armed with nothing but a clipboard and a smile will teach you to sell like nothing else. 

15. How has the availability of data changed marketing (or not)?

Data has changed media utterly—ad inventory is bought and sold like search now.

16. How do you use LinkedIn — for networking? For content marketing? Searching for talent? For sales prospecting? For staying abreast of news?

It is the first place I go for networking—contacts change jobs but they always stay on LinkedIn. It’s always been a huge resource for recruiting…we are currently exploring the social selling functionality. LinkedIn is increasingly a primary distribution channel for our agency IP as well.

17. How do you use LinkedIn advertising for your clients, and what’s working well for them?  

We like LinkedIn Sponsored InMail. They are super-targeted and are much more likely to be opened as a result. We’ve also had good success with in-feed LinkedIn Sponsored Content—we’re currently using to support an account-based marketing (ABM) strategy for a client. The contextual relevance plus the title and function targeting work really well for an account-based approach.

18. What is your top-secret superpower?

I can argue my way out of anything.

19. Who should play you in the movie version of your life?

How about John Cusack? He’s a Chicago guy on the wrong side of 50, just like me.

20. If you weren't at PJA, what would you be doing?

Podcasting full time. Or running a bookstore.

21. What is your favorite cartoon character and why?

Mr. Burns on the Simpsons. He is evil in a sort of endearing way. I also like how he comes up with strange, old-timey names for things. Like calling peanuts “crackleberries.”

22. What do you have an irrational hatred for?


23. Best movies ever. Go:

Michael Clayton. It’s A Wonderful Life. The Big Short. Casablanca.

24. What did you want to be when you grew up?

A writer.

25. What's your most annoying habit?

I’ve been known to Google the truth when people are making stuff up.

26. How long would you survive a zombie apocalypse?

I’m pretty scrappy. I’d be in in for the long haul.

27. What’s not on your LinkedIn profile?

For five years running, I’ve hosted a podcast called “The Unconventionals.” I get to meet companies that have shaken up their markets: Waze, Warby Parker, Shinola, GE. I love it—it’s my creative outlet.

28. You grew up outside of Chicago but have lived in Boston for decades: Cubs or Red Sox? Bulls or Celtics? Bears or Patriots? Blackhawks or Bruins?

White Sox. Bulls. Blackhawks. Are the Bears still playing? My family hails from the South Side. My kids are Red Sox, Pats, and Celtics. They were happy when the White Sox traded their best player to Boston.

29. What’s the best dinner you’ve had in the last week?

Grilled swordfish on my Big Green Egg.

30. What’s the best thing that’s going to happen during the rest of 2017?

Notre Dame will play for the National Championship.

31. What other question should we have asked you?

What are your Summer vacation plans? (Ireland with my family—I can’t wait!)

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