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Jimmy Smith

jimmysmith2 Jimmy SmithGroup Creative Director
TBWA\Chiat\Day, Los Angeles


The issue of minorities working within the US advertising industry has caused much debate in recent years. Many believe that blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others are underrepresented in the employee rosters of agencies, and feel this is detrimental to creating advertising for a consumer base that grows increasingly diverse. These claims have even led to the possibility of a class action lawsuit filed against Madison Avenue by civil rights lawyer Cyrus Mehri.

Whether or not the lawsuit plays out, many facets of the ad industry have taken steps to improve and promote diversity within the walls of agencies across the country. This week at Advertising Week in New York City, VCU Brandcenter and the American Association of Advertising Agencies will premiere their new documentary. Entitled Pursuit of Passion: Diversity in Advertising, the film seeks to serve as a tool to encourage young people, particularly minorities, to consider advertising as a possible career. The film also does a fantastic job of making everybody in the business — no matter what your background is — to reflect on the very reasons we all got into this crazy industry to begin with.

For those of you not able to get out to Ad Week, we will be showcasing the film on ihaveanidea shortly. But before all of that, we at ihaveanidea had the chance to chat with one of the most renowned creatives — black or white — featured in the film, Jimmy Smith, GCD of TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles.

With a head of long dreadlocks, a hip-hop sensibility and a vernacular not usually found in agency boardrooms, Jimmy does stand out from his peers. But it’s not just his looks and personality that set him apart, there’s also the incredible body of heavily awarded ad work he has created over his long career. From Nike to Snickers to Gatorade, Jimmy has reinvented the game. But it wasn’t always easy, and the journey wasn’t exactly obstacle-free.

Here is that journey.

ihaveanidea: No kid grows up wanting to get into advertising, at least not from your generation. In fact, that’s one of the things the “Pursuit of Passion” project aims to change. So how did you find your way to this business?

Jimmy: Well from the very beginning I wanted to be an NBA star. (laughs) Yeah, stereotypical and proud of it! But my parents wanted to make sure I had something to fall back on, so they badgered the hell out of me until I gave them a Plan B, in case this basketball thing didn’t work out.

Back then I used to watch Bewitched, and I thought Darrin Stephens was living the life; a big house, a beautiful wife, and a cool job in advertising. He’d come to a client and say “beans, beans, they’re great for you, you should eat ‘em, and have more too” or something like that, and the client go “oh that’s great!” If it wasn’t for Endora changing him into a horse or a tree or whatever, Darrin’s life was pretty cool. So I told my parents that I’d go unto advertising. They were okay with that, even though my mom said she’d prefer a lawyer. Really, it didn’t make a difference to me, since in my mind I was headed for the NBA.

Aside from Bewitched, another thing that drove me to say advertising is that I figured out I could write. You know when you’d get money from your aunts, uncles and grandparents for your birthday or Christmas? Well my mom and dad would make me write thank you letters. I never knew that all I had to do was write “Dear Uncle John, thanks for the $20, love Jimmy.” I thought I had to craft some long letter. But every time I did that, they’d come back to my mom and dad, gushing on and on about what a great letter it was. It used to bug me out that they’d carry on about some stupid letter, but as I got older, I realized that I was pretty good at writing.

Anyway, it was still basketball for me. But after getting into Michigan State and getting cut from the team two or three times, I said “Well, they were right, basketball isn’t gonna work,” and I had to make this advertising thing happen.

ihaveanidea: Smart move. How did Michigan State prepare you for that?

Jimmy: It didn’t really. I don’t know how it is now, but back then, advertising meant they were teaching you to become an accounts exec or a media exec, not creative. And of course we didn’t have the internet back then to educate yourself or find out about other schools that might’ve been better. I made a portfolio on my own after reading everything in Maxine Paetro’s book How to Put Your Book Together and Get a Job in Advertising. Maxine advised starting with the big agencies, and listed the names and addresses of many of them in the book, so I did that, but no success.

“ I thought Lee Clow was some Asian dude and Chiat\Day was a Chinese or Korean agency…”

Maxine also said that if the big shops don’t bite, send your book to the mid-sized shops. I started looking at the names of LA shops, and I saw one named Chiat\Day, and the dude I was supposed to send my book to was named Lee Clow. I thought he was some Asian dude and Chiat\Day was a Chinese or Korean agency, which was dope with me! Get some international experience I thought. (laughs) I spoke with him over the phone, and although he didn’t care for my book, he was nice about it. It wasn’t until three years later that I saw a photo of him. Damn, Lee Clow was a white dude in flip-flops and T-shirts! I knew then that this was the kind of guy I wanted to work for!

ihaveanidea: And here you are, many years later, working for the white Asian dude. But Lee didn’t like your book back then, so where’d you try next?

Jimmy: Well then I sent my portfolio to Campbell-Ewald. Now I might talk a lot of “yo dawg, what’s crackin’?”, but my mom was an English teacher, and I am well versed in the Queen’s English, and all my dealings were “yes sir, no sir.”

Anyway, the internal headhunter at Campbell-Ewald called me up. “We love your portfolio, we think it’s fantastic, and we have a job opening for you,” she said. “Now the creative director is going on vacation, so we need you here before he goes away so he can sign off on it.” I hoped to have been able to put the meeting off until next week, as I had just returned from Chicago with my dad’s car and didn’t think I’d be able to borrow it again so soon, but she said I had to be there the next day. Fortunately my dad let me borrow the car again, and I got up at 3 AM to get ready to make the trip from Muskegon, Michigan to our 9:30 AM meeting outside of Detroit.

“… it dawned on me that her change of tone was because she didn’t know I was black.”

So I get there on time, and the headhunter is flipping through my portfolio, but she’s taking an awful long time, especially since she raved about it the day before and was in a hurry to get me in the office before the CD went away. After a while, it looked like the meeting was about to end, so I finally asked when do I get to meet the creative director.

“Creative director?” she asked back.

“Yes, you wanted me to meet the creative director because you had a job opening for me.”

“Job opening? There’s no job opening? I just wanted to meet you.”

I tried to explain to her that no, she wanted me there the next day because of the creative director. Of course she had no recollection of any of this, and it dawned on me that her change of tone was because she didn’t know I was black. I thought back and realized that in all my previous interviews, I never saw a single black person in these offices, and that’s when it first hit me, that I was going to have a harder time than most.

ihaveanidea: That must’ve been a punch in the gut. How did you overcome this?

Jimmy: Well for a number of years, the only places I got into were ones where minorities were doing the hiring. My first gig was at Burrell, the big African-American agency in Chicago, and then I went to Foote Cone & Belding in Chicago, hired by Al Hawkins, one of the first black creative directors I ever knew existed in a general market agency.

It was there at Foote Cone & Belding that I learned another lesson about the ad world. At the time, the San Francisco office was doing hot work for Levi’s, and I thought that in a network, each office would have the same drive for great work. But nope, the environment at the Chicago office was very corporate, and good work was destined to die. Here I was, wanting to do work as good as Chiat\Day or Wieden & Kennedy, but it just wasn’t happening.

Funny story: Al Hawkins had left the agency. So it was rough. One day, Lou Centlivre, the Chief Creative Officer, gave a rousing, agency-wide speech about raising the creative bar, about winning awards. My partner and I were like “shit, we want to do great work too, he just doesn’t know what we’re trying to do in the trenches.” So we made an appointment to show him this campaign idea we had that we thought was bananas. We showed it to him and he said “wow, this is really good! What’s going on down there?” We told him that the creative directors wouldn’t let us present it, and he asked if anybody knew we were showing this to him. We told him no, we just went straight to him, and he said “good, okay, it’s best that you keep quiet about this. Let me handle this and I’ll get back to you.”

The next day we were fired. (laughs)

ihaveanidea: Well so much for raising the bar. The people above must not have got the message.

Jimmy: And that wasn’t the only time I went to a place who didn’t deliver on the desire to do great work. Shortly after Foote Cone & Belding, a headhunter called me about a job at a place called Peck, Sims Mueller in Honolulu, Hawaii. They said they were looking to become the Chiat\Day of the Pacific. Here I was, a wife and kids, no job, and if you know anything about winters in Chicago, Hawaii was looking very, very nice.

Now I saw their reel before I took the job, and it was godawful, but they said they wanted to turn the place around and they wanted me to be an integral part of this , so it fed my ego a bit. But as soon as I got there I learned that if a place does nothing but bad work it’s probably for a reason: the culture.

I knew I was in for a rough ride when one morning my creative director, Stan Moy, said “good morning Jimmy, how are you doing?” and I responded “hey Stan, how you be?” He stopped dead in his tracks and said “no Jimmy, it’s ‘how are you doing?’” like I didn’t know that what I said wasn’t proper English.

I didn’t last much longer there. (laughs)

“…he said to me “at your age, a bad career move is like a bad haircut. It’ll grow back.”

ihaveanidea: Wow, it seems like it was taking you forever to get your stride…

Jimmy: It was, but I received a great piece of advice around that time from a CD in LA named Paul Keye of Keye/Donna/Pearlstein. I was really bummed out about what I thought were bad career moves. He asked me “how old are you?” I was 26 or 27 at the time, and I told him this, and he said to me “at your age, a bad career move is like a bad haircut. It’ll grow back.”

ihaveanidea: Apparently so for you. When did you finally get that big break?

Jimmy: Well after Hawaii, which is way too expensive a place to live with growing kids to feed and no job, we moved back to Chicago and I went back to Burrell to freelance. I was set to become fulltime when I got a call from Jo Muse of Muse Cordero Chen in LA. Jo had heard about me from Larry Postaer, and was interested in hiring me on, saying they just got a piece of the Nike business. You see, Jesse Jackson and some other guys were pressuring Nike for not using any black agencies or media companies, so Nike gave Muse —who’s black — Cordero —who’s Hispanic — and Chen —who is Asian — a tiny, tiny sliver of their business. I remember going in to tell Tom Burrell that I was leaving. He tried to dissuade me, saying “Jimmy! You’re only going to do maybe one Nike ad a year!” But really, that’s all I needed. One Swoosh in the portfolio and I’m good. Tom was right, I only did about two Nike print ads a year, but I won awards with those ads.

So my next step was to get into Wieden & Kennedy. I had sent my book to Dan Wieden a few times, but nothing really happened. But one day, Muse Cordero Chen had a joint project with Wieden & Kennedy, and Jo and I flew up to Portland to present work and whatnot. After all the presentations, while Jo’s back was turned, Dan started making these “call me” hand signals to me. One of Wieden’s head account people got to me and said that I should stay behind to talk to Dan about hiring me. I was blown away with joy, but at the same time, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go back on the plane with Jo, my boss.

“… at the same time I was scared shitless. You know, you’ve been dreaming of something for so long, and when you finally get there, you think “now what?”

So Jo and I got back on the plane, and on the flight home, I tested the waters a bit, saying “hey, they wanted me to stay behind to… um… go over some of the work.” And Jo goes “so why didn’t you stay? You should’ve stayed, I would’ve been fine with that!” It turned out that Dan had already been talking to Jo about me wanting to be there. I was the only one who didn’t know that everyone else knew.

ihaveanidea: Finally! You must’ve been happy to make it after all these years.

Jimmy: I was, but at the same time I was scared shitless. You know, you’ve been dreaming of something for so long, and when you finally get there, you think “now what?” I only thought about getting to Wieden & Kennedy, not about what I’d do there. But I was thrown right into the mix on my very first day, and Dan and Susan Hoffman were my CDs, so I was reporting to two legends. It was off the skillet there. I was at Wieden & Kennedy for over ten years, and I learned a whole lot while I was there.

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I think I learned the most stuff from John Jay, who I like to call Dr. Jay. John taught me about outlets outside of advertising. He has a restaurant, he has a record label, he has all sorts of things going on — don’t ask me where he finds the time. Anyway, we were working on a project, and somehow it grew into an opportunity to make a book, and John brought me in on this book, Soul of the Game. And that got the ball rolling for other dope projects. I got to be the Creative Director for NBA Street 2 and 3 for EA Sports. I’m talking the actual games, not the ads. I got to create documentaries with Billy Davenport, I created a comic book, which Dan hooked me up and paid for. It was all a way to make my mark. (laughs) Because you can never top the legendary Jim Riswold when it comes to ads at Wieden & Kennedy!

ihaveanidea: Yes, Jim has quite the track record. (laughs) You eventually moved on from Wieden & Kennedy. Were you restless?

Jimmy: Not exactly. My two sons were growing up trying to live the hoop dream, and we lived in a place called Lake Oswego. Let’s just say that there was a reason Portlanders called it ‘Lake No-Negro.’ I really wanted to get my sons back into an environment where they could see and experience much more diversity than what was there in Oregon.

Thankfully an opportunity presented itself in the form of David Lubars at BBDO. He hooked a brotha up. He allowed me to live and work for BBDO in Los Angeles, yet report to him in New York. So I hooked up with Jesse Dylan, Bob Dylan’s son, and that was our office in LA.

At the time, and still today, David was really interested in long format branded content. We worked on a number of these, my favorite was Instant Def, an online webisode experience for Snickers, which starred the Black Eyed Peas. That was a huge hit, and we had deals on the table to turn it into a clothing line, a collection of action figures, an animated series for MTV, but we couldn’t get the client to do it, even though they didn’t even have to put any money on it. I mean, they were cool, and were really stepping out of the box with the webisodes, but the clients said no.

instantdef Jimmy Smith

This is a code that one day, so help me, I will crack, to get clients to really look beyond ads on the regular. It reminded me of Wieden & Kennedy, Nike and Space Jam. Jim Riswold created those insanely popular Bugs Bunny ‘Hare Jordan’ spots, and Warner Bros. really thought there was an opportunity to turn them into a feature film, but Nike wasn’t interested. Warner Bros. went on to do the movie without Nike or Wieden & Kennedy and it blow up at the box office. All it was was a 90 minute commercial. I won’t fault Nike too much, because it was a risk, but it made me realize how hard it is to get clients comfortable with truly non-traditional concepts. And I will crack that. (laughs)

ihaveanidea: So how did you end up finally working for that Asian dude Lee Clow?

Jimmy: To this day I’m not sure how it happened, but I’m believe Lee, Andrew Robertson — the CEO of BBDO — and Tom Carroll — the CEO of Chiat — had something to do with it. One day I got a call from David Lubars, and David said “look, there’s an opportunity for you at TBWA\Chiat\Day to lead Gatorade, and I’d feel like a total douchebag if I didn’t let you know about it.”

And so here I am. I finally got to work with Lee, who I like to call Yoda. He and Rob Schwartz let me put together my own team, and I deliberately put together a very ethnically diverse group. Black, white, Latino, a hodgepodge of every race, color and creed. It’s a very powerful mix, and you can see it in the work that we’ve done.

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ihaveanidea: You’ve done a lot with Gatorade, including sorta rebranding it as ‘G’. How did that come about?

Jimmy: Well that was very controversial, but we were lucky to have very brave clients to allow us to do that. At the time we did it, everybody was pooh-poohing it, but what those people didn’t understand is that it was the vernacular of kids. You see, the problem at the time was that Gatorade had an older consumer base that weren’t really athletic. The kids would come home and see Dad sitting there with his pot belly, sipping a Gatorade with his feet up on the couch. And that’s not cool to kids, so young people were moving on to other brands, and Gatorade was getting hammered. So with “G,” we were telling teens, look, Gatorade understands you, we’re athletic and we’re cool. And what’s cool to a teenager isn’t necessarily going to be cool to an adult.

“… older consumers didn’t know what the fuck was going on with this ‘G’ stuff, but their kids sure did.”

Gatorade took a hit in the beginning, when older consumers didn’t know what the fuck was going on with this ‘G’ stuff, but their kids sure did. They allowed us to do a whole bunch of dope stuff, like the ‘Replay’ work by Brent Anderson and Steve Howard. Donna Lamar and Javier Castillo ran a project where we created this sports and entertainment website called missionG, with everybody on the team, including Jayanta Jenkins, Brent and Steve, coming up with cool shit to put on this site. It was an incredible battle to get Gatorade to do things they’ve never even thought about before, but to their credit, they did it and it has been a success.

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ihaveanidea: Looking back on your career, and on your struggles to break into the business and be accepted, it doesn’t seem like the business has evolved a great deal from those days. It’s still an industry that’s not as diverse as the public it communicates with. Why do you think change has been slow?

Jimmy: Well I’ve been fortunate enough to build a very diverse team here at TBWA\Chiat\Day, and had all the support in the world to do it. I mean Lee was down for the cause from day one. And I don’t think I would’ve done it without the experience I had working at Muse Cordero Chen. You’d walk down the halls at that agency and somebody would be speaking Spanish, somebody else would be speaking Mandarin, someone else would be speaking Japanese. It was incredible.

But it’s a very complex issue. I don’t know for sure, but here’s my take on it. You know you always here about ‘silos’ in advertising? Traditional, digital and so on? There are also racial silos. When I was at Burrell, I could present an ad, and the response would be “that’s nice, but what’s black about it?” And I’m thinking “Ummm, the person who made the ad?” And they’d complain that I made a general market ad instead of a black ad. I remember one time I did an ad for some Texas style sandwich at McDonald’s, and the ad featured black cowboys. The client couldn’t fathom the idea that there were black cowboys in real life, and so they thought it was just a general market ad.

On the flipside, when I was at Foote Cone & Belding, I could present an ad and everybody would think it was too black. And I’d be thinking “no it’s not, your kids listen to Run DMC and they live in the suburbs.” It was always a struggle between too black and not black enough. I remember hearing that before I got to Burrell, they had suggested using Michael Jackson to Coke. Coke was unsure, and thought that maybe he might at some point be right for the black consumer market, but eventually passed on it. Along came Pepsi, and you know what happened there.

Throughout much of my career, I had to help convince agencies and clients that what they perceive as a ‘black thing’ was really a ‘sports thing’ or a ‘teen thing’. I think that many general market agencies today don’t value this because they don’t know this. And when they realize that they should know this, they get scared.

But that said, things are changing in this world. Obama is President, and hip-hop is thirty years old. People who grew up with those cultural shifts are now getting into positions where they make the decisions and the hiring choices. So – God willing – whoever is hiring at Campbell-Ewald today doesn’t see a black person or a Latino person or an Asian person or a white person, they just see a valuable person.

ihaveanidea: Does it seem kinda silly to look all the way back at your basketball dreams, knowing where you are today?

Jimmy: (laughs) I used to tell my mom, “hey, I get to play in the NBA everyday, and I’m not even in the NBA!” And Lee is my team’s Phil Jackson!

Interview by:

brettcreditpic Jimmy Smith

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2
ihaveanidea

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