He looks like a rebel.
Jonathan Hoffman’s arms are covered with tattoos, including a tiger representing his Eastern birth year and that of his oldest son and the Japanese symbol for truth. His office is wallpapered with rock and movie posters. The largest features Harvey Keitel from Reservoir Dogs giving advice on what to do “if some asshole starts to think he’s Bronson.” A pair of brass knuckles sits on his desk.
Even his work has a maverick tone. A commercial he produced in Poland for EB Beer, which depicted the private lives of the country’s former Communist occupiers, caused great controversy. In the U.S., a Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats spot shows a man losing his arm when a subway stops short, while a print ad for Hallmark’s Fresh Ink line intimates a couple having sex as the dog watches.
He’s not exactly the guy you would expect to be an executive vice president, executive creative director at Leo Burnett. “Jonathan will look at anything,” says Burnett’s chief creative officer Cheryl Berman. “He’s not a worrier or nervous and is open to new ideas.”
Advertising seems a natural career choice for the New York City-born Hoffman. His mother, Arlene, was creative director on Dannon’s famous 1976 “Old Russians” spot. His earliest memories include running around commercial sets. His summer jobs were on Madison Avenue.
But when Hoffman graduated from Vassar in 1984 with degrees in English and film, he went straight to Wall Street. “My form of rebelling was to put on a suit and tie,” jokes the 37-year-old father of two. “Since I had grown up in the business, I just wasn’t interested.”
On Wall Street, Hoffman admits he developed some “self-destructive hobbies” that brought him to Minneapolis to “convalesce.” The move eventually led him back to advertising. It wasn’t long before Hoffman struck a friendship with Fallon McElligott co-founder Tom McElligott, who offered his guidance.
“I would go to him with papers that I would write and art direct myself, and he would throw them back at me,” says Hoffman. “After six or seven months, he’d take one [piece] and put it aside. Eventually, I had enough to put a book together.”
Hoffman circulated his portfolio and soon landed a copywriting job at Campbell Mithun Esty.
“He was confident and streetwise,” recalls CME associate cd George Halvorson. “At the same time, he was very vulnerable.”
His work was quickly noticed. The second spot he wrote, an ad for Sergeant Pet Products showing a dog engrossed in a commercial, was short listed at Cannes. That recognition led him to a yearlong stint on DDB Needham’s Bud Light account. In 1991, he joined Burnett, working on Reebok, McDonald’s, Ameritech, Miller Lite and Nintendo.
Yet in 1997, large account losses and an uncharacteristic management coup meant low agency morale. Hoffman knew it was time for a change. “It had been seven years,” he says. “I think that’s a fair time to start evaluating ways you can grow or change without having to leave a place.”
Cliché as it sounds, Hoffman wanted to see if a principle as simple as putting the work first was truly practical. “Because of the scale of the Chicago office—because of the girth—made it much more difficult,” he says. “[I] just wanted to see if this stuff worked.”
On the advice of worldwide creative director Michael Conrad, Hoffman met with general manager of Leo Burnett Warsaw, Jarik Ziebinski, and explained his interests. In Ziebinski, Hoffman found a partner. Though his agency was growing financially, says Ziebinski, “I was lacking something in the quality of the creative product.”
Hoffman didn’t speak Polish, he knew very little about the culture and there was a sense among his peers that he had angered the wrong person. Still, he was excited to run his own shop. Like his mentor, McElligott, Hoffman passed out award-show books to his staff, so they could see what would be standard for Leo Burnett Warsaw.
He trundled the creative department to Burnett’s Oslo office arguably the network’s most creatively successful office—to “worship at their feet.” He paired young creatives with experienced talent, asked everyone for ideas and removed the internal hierarchy.
They dubbed the outpost the “House of Disruption.” Leo Burnett Warsaw wasn’t afraid of controversy, and its politically charged spot for EB beer was banned. Yet the agency persevered, finding a friendly cinema owner to show the spot before films. The ad found a cult following and built the brand into a top seller.
Hoffman still considers it a favorite. “There was a poignancy to it that was beyond the industry,” he says. “You don’t have to be an ad nerd to see it was significant in a way that I’m not sure I could ever do again.”
The agency won numerous creative awards and was named Media Polska’s Agency of the Year for 1997, 1998 and 1999. The 220-person shop, which had grown from $70 million to $200 million, became a destination for young creatives. “His energy was attractive,” Ziebinski says.
Having proved to himself that strong creative spawns business, Hoffman felt it was time to return to the mothership. “There were some tectonic shifts going on here I wanted to be part of,” he says.
For one, Berman had been named chief creative officer for the U.S. Though their professional paths hadn’t overlapped much, Berman felt Hoffman could be an integral part of the agency’s new direction. “He’s willing to take risks and is in touch with what’s going on in the world,” she says. “That’s the kind of leaders we need.”
Hoffman returned energized and surrounded himself with young creative talent “less prone to indulge in clichés.” He continued to pass out award-show books and, having learned bare-bones production in Poland, espoused simplicity. “It forces you to have a great idea,” he says. “If you don’t, there’s nothing there when you peel everything away.”
In addition to working on Burnett mainstays, such as Kellogg’s and Kraft, Hoffman has been instrumental in landing some high-profile accounts. Shortly after returning to Chicago, he began work on the agency’s successful pitch for the Toys R Us $70 million account. Since then, he has been lead creative on the agency’s successful pitches for the $40 million Showtime and $150 million global Polaroid accounts.
Dan Reid, Polaroid’s vice president of global brand development, says Hoffman demonstrated the ability to mix standout creative with sound strategy. “That’s the combination we were looking for.”
In order to convince Kellogg’s to buy the unusual creative direction for Rice Krispies Treat—a teen makes a floating lifesize doll out of the snack in one spot—the team placed one in a bowl of water to demonstrate the product could be more “fun” than the competition. Such techniques show “where the insight is coming from,” says Hoffman.
Outside the agency, Hoffman has also garnered positive attention. Earlier this year, he was nearly wooed away from Burnett by Euro RSCG Tatham, which offered him the top creative job. Hoffman says though the offer intrigued him, he elected to stay. He wants to see if he can translate his Warsaw success on a larger scale at home.
“I’m here,” he says of his commitment to Burnett. “I really want to make this place the best big agency in the country.”
Armed and Ready
He looks like a rebel.