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Jason Peterson

jason1 Jason PetersonChief Creative Officer
Euro RSCG Chicago

Not too many of us in the ad world are brought into an agency specifically to make a mark, to get your fingerprints all over the place, to make it yours and set it on an upwards trajectory. But that’s exactly what happened when the Chicago office of Euro RSCG brought in Jason Peterson as the new Chief Creative Officer late last year.

Jason has a storied career, primarily working alongside ad legends Andy Berlin and Ewan Cameron. With 20+ years in the business, Jason has done notable work for brands such as Reebok , McDonald’s and State Farm (“can I get a hot tub?”) and played a major part behind Coca-Cola’s “Real” campaign. And in a move that is certainly off the beaten path for most ad people, Jason served as Co-President and ECD at Translation, the agency founded by hip-hop moguls Jay-Z and Steve Stoute.

ihaveanidea chats with Jason about his punk rock past, his big plans for Euro, and what it’s like to have a rap star signing your paychecks.

ihaveanidea: As I often say in these interviews, very few kids grow up wanting to be copywriters and art directors. There’s just no store-bought Halloween costume for those professions. So how did get to the point where you were interested in this crazy business?

Jason: Well I was born in Cleveland, and I moved to Phoenix when I was about fifteen. Around that time I was really getting into music, specifically the American hardcore punk rock scene. I started writing for music magazines, alternative press, all these small fanzines. I started playing in bands, and I always had a skill and passion for art, so I would be designing the flyers for the shows and whatnot.

In the summer of 1989, my band went on tour across the US and Canada, playing 45 different shows. When I came back home, I realized that this wasn’t a career for me. I knew that music biz was pretty nasty, and I didn’t wanna be poor, playing punk rock for kids. But I still loved the design aspect of things I was doing. Fortunately I had an older sister who was a designer on the fringe of the ad world, and she steered me towards advertising.

I started putting together a portfolio of spec ads and trying to get into a school. Art Center on the west coast was a big school at the time, but also very expensive. Nevertheless I applied to go there. I wasn’t accepted into their advertising program, but rather their graphic design program. I was just about to head out there when somebody told me I should check out the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, so I went out to visit the school. At the time it was this tiny little shack at the end of a dead-end street, but it had the most amazing advertising hung up on the walls. I fell in love with it.

So I sold everything that I had and moved to Atlanta to go to the school. It was incredible, the real communal spirit of all of these kids working together to create the best advertising possible. I took extra classes, I worked with everyone I could, and I made a good portfolio.

ihaveanidea: Now that you were fresh out of school, where did you go?

Jason: I was unsure of where I really wanted to go, but I ended up going to Portland, freelancing at Wieden + Kennedy, Cole & Weber, and others in town. My first actual fulltime job was at a small Chicago agency called Arian, Lowe & Travis, where I had worked for about a year and a half.

“… I said to myself ‘these are the guys I want to work for!’ … for the next seventeen years I worked with Andy and Ewan in some sort of fashion.”

While in Chicago, I met a lot of people in the city’s advertising community, and among them was Scott Burns, perhaps the biggest freelance writer in the country at the time. Scott was very good friends with Andy Berlin, who had recently left Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein. Andy was in New York, getting ready to start a new agency called Berlin Wright Cameron. I flew out to the Big Apple and met Andy and Ewan Cameron and the others. After meeting them I said to myself “these are the guys I want to work for!” So I left Chicago, and for the next seventeen years I worked with Andy and Ewan in some sort of fashion.

ihaveanidea: Some people move on after seventeen months, never mind seventeen years! What were those years like?

Jason: It was pretty phenomenal. They made me head of art on Volkswagen, and in the first year I couldn’t tell you how many TV commercials we did, some crazy amount. We continued like this for a few years, but then the agency lost VW, along with a number of other accounts. Almost everybody got let go, and it appeared that the agency might close. We avoided that by striking a deal with Fallon McElligott and forming Fallon McElligott Berlin.

At that time, we started doing a lot of project work for Coca-Cola, and I ended up working quite a bit on Coca-Cola Japan. But after about two years we hit a stopping point with Fallon. We wanted to buy ourselves out of our arrangement, and they wouldn’t sell, so we quit. The very next day we started Berlin Cameron. I was a founding partner at the age of 27.

ihaveanidea: Not too shabby. What were the goals and challenges of this new agency, especially now that, as a partner, these were your challenges?

Jason: Well our mission from the vary beginning was to be really smart senior level creatives and strategists with very low overhead. Our goal was to target great big agencies that we thought weren’t servicing their clients with the best strategies and creativity.

And so, with this goal, we built the agency up from five people in a little room to a staff of about 200 at its peak. We won the Coca-Cola account, taking it from McCann Erickson, who had had it since WWII. We won Heineken, we won Reebok, and we launched Boost Mobile nationally, which at that time was a cell phone company in southern California.

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In 2001, we sold Berlin Cameron to WPP, who merged us with some other agencies to form this small global network. Andy went off to run this network, leaving Ewan and I behind to take care of the New York operation.

Things continued going smoothly until the economy started to teeter around 2007 and 2008. I decided to leave Berlin Cameron and take a few months off to think about things. It was at this time that I was approached by Steve Stoute to join Translation, where I came aboard as Co-President and Executive Creative Director.

ihaveanidea: Now that right there seems like a massive jump, to join an agency/branding company run by the likes of Steve Stoute and Jay-Z. How different was it? How easy was it to adjust to this, as someone from a traditional agency background?

Jason: While there are some similarities, there are also some big differences. Both obviously want to create advertising in and around big, blue-chip brands, but they do it in different ways. Traditionally, ad agencies think about how great and creative a particular piece of communication is. There’s nothing wrong with this, but Jay-Z and Steve Stoute don’t value, say a TV spot in the same way. What I took from them is that first and foremost, they care about cultural relevance. What is going on within the brand that can fit and meld within the culture you are talking about? How do you convert a brand into an icon, into a piece of culture? It could be a T-shirt, it could be designing new uniforms for McDonald’s employees, it could be a jingle for a gum commercial that is released as a hit song. It could also be a TV spot, but most of the time it probably isn’t.

As far as adjusting, it wasn’t difficult at all. I think it’s because I came from that music background, more specifically a music background where you are judged on whether or not you fit in.

All of my favorite work that I’ve done throughout my career, it’s not work that would necessarily do well at the One Show or D&AD. Not to knock those shows, because I love them, but I always judge the success of my work by how it fits within the culture or how it is reflected by the culture. For instance, when I did Boost Mobile, we created this anthem using Kanye West, Ludicris and The Game before most people knew of them. The tagline “Where You At?” was a part of the culture. I’m really into street basketball, and I’d be hanging out at courts around New York City, and to hear kids on the court using the tagline or referencing the commercials, that was like my own award show. So adjusting to Translation’s way of thinking made total sense to me.

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ihaveanidea: Any crazy, blinged out stories from your time at Translation?

Jason: (laughs) Nothing really. I just loved it there. I know that Steve Stoute has a bit of a bad reputation for being some crazy asshole, but he’s one of the smartest strategists I’ve ever worked with.

I guess the craziest thing would simply be the difference. In the ad world, you have a chance to run into a legend like Pat Fallon or Jay Chiat in the halls. At Translation you had a chance to run into Lady Gaga or Rhianna.

ihaveanidea: Last November you were tapped to become Chief Creative Officer of Euro RSCG Chicago. What attracted you to this new role?

Jason: I think I was at a point in my career where I wanted the challenge of running a big shop. In the past I’ve usually been the quiet creative who’d want to let the work do all the talking, but now I wanted to see if I could make my mark in a different way. I wanted to take on a role where I could spend the next five or ten years creating a place where people would say “oh shit, I didn’t expect that!”

What really sold me on Euro is that I feel that I have become much less focused on television. True, just about every agency is going that route, upping their digital and social media work, but I really like Euro’s model. They want to have the best of everything under one roof, the best of traditional advertising, digital, media, design, all working together to solve the client’s problems. Throughout most of my career I’ve worked in small to medium sized agencies that would do work in partnership with other companies, where we’d do the traditional work, somebody else would do digital and so on. I’m not sure if I agree with that model anymore. No matter how collaborative the companies are, people are going to be more loyal to the company they represent than to the client’s problems.

“The reality of the business is that there is no more time or money to do things the old way…”

Because Euro’s model attempts to keep everything under one roof, we can get at a business problem with whatever medium is best. I can’t say that Euro has always lived up to that model, but since I arrived, we’ve been focused on communal problem solving. On every assignment, even if it winds up being a very traditional one, everybody from all disciplines sit around a big table and we all solve it together. There’s no more art directors and copywriters getting the brief from the planner and locking themselves in a room until they present some great idea. The reality of the business is that there is no more time or money to do things the old way, and I was glad to see that Euro is thinking this way.

ihaveanidea: What sorts of changes do you have in store for the agency?

Jason: One thing I needed to get used to was the size of the place. Euro RSCG Chicago has nearly 500 people working here, with almost 125 in the creative department. alone. I’m used to being in creative departments of fifteen or sixteen people. But rather than that be a daunting number, I feel it can be a strength. I intend to truly employ that communal problem solving I mentioned earlier, so that everybody is involved with all of our clients and part of the process.

By no means am I naïve to the task at hand in implementing these changes. Euro RSCG Chicago doesn’t have the reputation of being a creative powerhouse. The agency has done some amazing, smart things, but it’s been suffering from the stigma of everyone thinking they’re a direct mail agency. But I know in my heart that it can be done, that we can be not just a great agency, but the best creative company in the city.

“I love playing the role of that educational bridge between old and new.”

ihaveanidea: Who are the greatest influencers and inspirations over your career?

Jason: On my wall I have photos of Malcolm McLaren, George Lois, Helmut Krone and Tibor Kalman. I had this sign outside my door that said “What would Tibor do?” and I was blown away by half of the creative department asking “who’s Tibor?” I was shocked, asking how could they not know who Tibor Kalman or M&Co. were. I went out and bought a bunch of copies of his book and left them stacked by the elevator, telling everyone to take one. Tibor, Helmut, all those old guys are my influences, and I love playing the role of that educational bridge between old and new.

ihaveanidea: The advertising industry in Chicago seems to be going through a bit of a Renaissance lately. What is your take on the Chicago scene, as someone who is returning after a lifetime in New York City?

Jason: (laughs) I’m still adjusting, but I love Chicago, and I love Chicago advertising. The heritage of places like Leo Burnett is the reason why so many people want to get into the business, and I am humbled by some of the work from this city. Coming from New York, I do sense a bit of a “second city” mentality, like the city is a beautiful woman who has been told she’s ugly her whole life. But I am starting to see a little of New York’s confidence here.

Outside of the ad industry, Chicago is phenomenal. In the short time I’ve been back I’ve seen lots of incredible street art exhibits and fantastic music shows that really reflect a creative culture in this city. Companies like Groupon and Threadless are based here, and if you go into their offices you see lots of young, creative people working together to come up with cool stuff. So it’s not just the ad agencies with this vibe. In fact, I think the agencies could use a little more of this vibe to shake up the old guard.

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Interview by:

brettcreditpic Jason Peterson

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

  • Patrick Pope

    I used to love punk show flyers. When I was in 4th, 5th and 6th grade I would design my own for bands I wanted to see play together like NOFX, Lagwagon, Strung Out & Bad Religion. You never see flyers for shows anymore.

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