Before Nate Sutter worked in advertising, he was a professional yo-yo-er. Sponsored by Duncan Yo-Yo, he traveled the country performing tricks at toy stores, children's hospitals and schools. He then spent a year and a half apprenticing as a body-piercing artist, and after that worked as a bartender in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood. That is where, in 2012, he met someone from GumboLive, a creative think tank that had recently opened in town.
An ad job sounded interesting, recalls Sutter, 27, "so I just applied." Sutter's twisting career path represents just the kind of unconventional background GumboLive was designed to attract. Owned by Interpublic Group's Momentum Worldwide, the initiative has quietly operated for the past three years with the mission of drawing fresh, millennial talent from beyond conventional sources like portfolio schools.
"The market is changing so dramatically if you look at how we as marketers and advertisers communicate … but if you look at agencies, the way we recruit is still pretty much the same way it's always been," says Chris Weil, CEO of Momentum. "We trade people back and forth from agency to agency. And then when we need some new talent, we hire somebody, a junior copywriter or a junior account person, and we put them on a small account in the corner and then have them fight their way up."
As chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A's) from 2012 to 2014, Weil was involved with talent research at both the trade group and Momentum, putting him in a prime position to diagnose why more people don't put advertising at the top of the list when picking a career path. "Part of it is just the pure pressure or the monotony as you come up," he says. "You're jamming it out and trying to bill the hours so that you can then move up and get to the point of what this industry is all about, which is creativity and ideas."
GumboLive has turned that problem on its head. Staffers don't have to worry about time sheets or account management. Instead, they focus on cranking out big-picture ideas on a wide range of fast-turnaround briefs for brands forwarded on from Momentum and sometimes its sibling agencies. "It could be anybody from Coca-Cola to American Express to United Airlines," notes Weil. "And the client may not even know that these guys are working on it."
Momentum isn't the only agency going outside the industry for talent. In 2011, 72andSunny launched 72U, a 12-week creative residency designed for non-ad professionals (recent participants included an architect, an audio engineer and a Ph.D. who'd studied gender roles in remote fishing villages in Spain). The agency has gone on to hire 21 full-time staffers and six freelancers out of the program's 48 graduates. Maria Scileppi, 72U's director, says the larger mission is to help participants grow creatively and professionally, emphasizing collaboration, experimentation and "creating a safe place" for what she calls, affectionately, "wonderful weirdos."
GumboLive's 15 or so staffers (who get "competitive compensation," according to Momentum) tend to rotate on 18- to 24-month cycles—though three years in, Sutter is the notable exception. In addition to being an ideation resource for the entire Momentum network (Weil recalls one quarter in which they turned around 85 briefs), GumboLive staffers are plugged firmly into its new-business machine. Sometimes, that means producing spec ideas to pitch to clients. Others, it means Momentum execs fly down to New Orleans for blue-sky brainstorming sessions. Prospective clients can buy sessions, too. New York-based Westfield Corp., which operates shopping centers in eight states, bought one, reports Weil, "and they're a client now."
To be fair, GumboLive, co-run by executive creative director and Momentum veteran Mark Masterson, doesn't discriminate against those with formal ad training or experience—the current class includes a couple of art directors and Miami Ad School grads. But it does skew toward the eclectic. To land his job there, Sutter cooked up an elaborate sample strategy to rebrand a wine company around Gen Y consumers. A colleague, Ben Johnson, 26, joined the shop this past May after bootstrapping Big Charity, a feature-length documentary about the controversial closing of Charity Hospital following Hurricane Katrina. One of three co-producers on the film, Johnson also composed the score. Earlier, he worked on HBO's Treme for two seasons, helping source, sign and manage musicians.
And before she landed at GumboLive in March of this year, Sophia Osella, 24, studied philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, where she produced a concert series featuring musicians like Rosanne Cash at Elvis Presley's pre-Graceland residence, which is owned by the school. Osella thought she would end up in politics, law or video production, but now hopes to pursue a career in market research.
As for GumboLive's first class (2012-14), half moved on to jobs in the industry. Call it millennial wanderlust, but Sutter—even with his other boss, GumboLive managing director and former NBC integrations exec Ann Egelhoff, sitting in on this telephone interview—won't commit to the advertising business for the long haul. "Totally, totally something I'm considering," he says. "I feel it's a field where there's a lot of really good work to be done."
This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.