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How’d You Get In: John Butler

Posted on September 23, 2008 and read 1,856 times

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This week we check in with John Butler, Executive Creative Director of  Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners. The agency which works with MINI, LucasArts and Priceline (yes, the spots with the one and only Mr. William Shatner) recently celebrated its 15 year anniversary. John’s story begins the same year I was born. When I was in diapers, he was bored and drunk.

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johnbutler Howd You Get In: John Butler

In 1981 I was bored, drunk and 21 years old.

I had graduated from high school, spent a few years at RIT in their professional photography program and then took a year off to shoot weddings and work a number of odd jobs.

The best of the bunch was in the bindery of a color printer. I worked the machine that collated and bound magazines. I was a loader; I would literally pick up giant uncut sheets of prepress and load them into the machine that would cut them down and bind them. Sounds awful, until you take into consideration that I was loading Playboy magazine. At 21, working the C-trick midnight to 7 a.m., that wasn’t a bad job to have. After watching a co-worker lose his foot when a forklift driver dropped a skid full of GEO magazines on it, I decided it was time to get serious about my life. So I did what all bored and drunk 21-year-olds do.

I applied to art school.

I applied to Pratt Institute with a portfolio full of photos and some illustrations, answering specific assignments. I was accepted, and a year later I was living at the Willoughby Ave. dormitory in Fort Green, Brooklyn. I was a graphic design major, but took a few advertising classes along the way just out of curiosity. I enjoyed them more than my graphic design classes; in the process I discovered that my true passion was combining art, music, pop culture, type, photography and film to communicate. And, of course, from an early age I was a capitalist. At the time, entry-level design jobs paid about 15K a year, versus 18 to 20K for advertising jobs. I had student loans to pay back, so the choice was clear.

I found myself with a lot of daylight on my hands in my senior year. Most of my classes were at night, so I decided to get a jump on my graduating class and went out to find a job. My mom worked at Eastman Kodak in the advertising department as an executive secretary, and had at one time or another worked with Young & Rubicam, J. Walter Thompson and Rumrill-Hoyt. She told me the people at Rumrill were the nicest, so I went there first. They hired me, and in hindsight I learned two important lessons that day. One, don’t take the first job you are offered, and two, don’t listen to your mother when it comes to dating, employment or fashion advice.

Now, I could continue to write this the safe way and not be honest. Or I could do it the unsafe way and piss off a lot of people I haven’t seen in years.

Screw it, I have enough friends. Lets go with honest.

Many of the folks at Rumrill weren’t very nice. They fired my sorry ass eleven months later and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I wasn’t very good, and I was hired to do work that I didn’t really want to do. It was predominately below-the-line work for Bacardi Rum and it wasn’t conceptual. Getting fired from that place made me realize that I didn’t really get it, and that I had spent four years earning a bachelor’s degree at a fine art school, while only spending a fraction of my studies doing what I ultimately wanted to do. This was long before the ad schools came into being. So I went out, got shellacked at a bar with a few friends who were painters (painters were always handy for a good shellacking) and the next day spent the remaining 100 dollars in my bank account on back issues of CA and One Show annuals at a used bookstore in the city.

That is when my education began. I got hired at McCann-Erickson, worked on Camel and Winston cigarettes, and did a whole bunch of stuff that never saw the light of day, but at least I was doing ads. To put this in context, at this point in time, cigarettes hadn’t really been demonized socially. Sure, the surgeon general warnings were all over them, but the industry hadn’t embarked on a full-fledged campaign making nationwide litigation against the tobacco industry possible. Back then, working on cigarettes was only perceived as death to your career, but as my father used to say, “any port in a storm,” and recalling those loans I took the job and didn’t bitch.

Less than a year later, I walked my book across the street to James Patterson at J. Walter Thompson and spent the next three years there learning my craft.  Jim, who writes suspense novels and has more money than John Butler and Stephen King combined, was in those days a very moody fellow who didn’t suffer fools gladly. I learned a lot from him, and none of it was about making ads. Jim was a huge proponent of working for oneself.  He encouraged his writers and art directors to follow their dreams and aspirations. He wanted art directors who aspired to direct movies, and copywriters who wanted to write novels. For him, ads were just vehicles to get there. When I quit, he played that stuff back to me, thinking it would be a way to keep me. Call me a fool, but I just wanted to write ads.

I took a substantial pay cut and hoofed my ass downtown to Chiat/Day where I met my business partner of 20 years, Mike Shine. So, almost five years to the day later, I had finally wound up someplace that would challenge me, a place that I was proud to say I worked at. In hindsight, I did a smart thing. Had I been fortunate enough to land a job at Chiat/Day right out of school, they would have cut me just enough slack to hang myself with. Luckily, the places I worked at weren’t that demanding. You could hide for a month at any of the bigger shops working on your book and no one would notice. At these places, 4-color print was considered a crummy assignment; everyone wanted to go out and shoot with Ridley Scott. So, I got a lot of great opportunities to experiment and polish my craft at the McCann-Walter Thompsons of the world.  Truthfully, I made a lot of mistakes on their dimes and no one really noticed or seemed to care. At Chiat/Day, they would not only have noticed, they’d have run me out of Dodge with Jay’s boot in my ass.

I spent about two years at Chiat before Mike and I relocated to the Bay Area to work at Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein. But I’ll never forget one night, about a year or so into my tenure at Chiat/Day, as I was walking outside the Cowgirl Hall of Fame on the west side of New York a former co-worker practically ran into me. She was one of those “not talented but didn’t really know it” folks you come across frequently in this business who undoubtedly wind up making bank working on diapers at some massive, long-dead founder’s place in New York.  I’ll never forget this, because she looked at me and said matter of factly, “Butler, how the hell did you get to Chiat/Day?” I replied, “Just lucky, I guess.”

And that is the story of how I got into this business.  Ex-Rumrill-Hoyt employees, feel free to send hate mail to




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