Profile: Robert Rasmussen

The best way to succeed in advertising, says Robert Rasmussen, newly named ecd innovation at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, is to never get too comfortable. He learned this, unfortunately, during a performance review.

The agency was Wieden + Kennedy, which Rasmussen had joined as a senior designer in 1994 (and was subsequently promoted to art director). Waiting for Hal Curtis, then-cd on Nike, Rasmussen proudly spread his work out. With a couple of spots and 25 or so print ads under his belt, he says he was expecting some positive feedback.

“He looked at my stuff and said, ‘I never want to come into a review and see this again.’ I was flabbergasted,” recalls the 40-year-old, who also counts Wieden co-founder David Kennedy and former Wieden cds Gary Koepke and Chuck McBride as early mentors. “He said, ‘You’re completely comfortable with everything you’re doing. You’re not pushing yourself to evolve.”’
Curtis helped him grow in extraordinary ways, Rasmussen says, from giving him exercises — such as hand sketching rather than photographing a collection of Nike shoes to prep an assignment — of encouraging him to explore all aspects of his craft. This eventually led him into the digital arena where, in 2004, he led the team that produced Sega’s award-winning “Beta-7” project, an alternate-reality game that promoted an ESPN football game using blogs, viral video and traditional media. While at Wieden, he also worked on brands including Miller, Microsoft and Coca-Cola.

In 2005, when former Wieden co-cd Ty Montague left Wieden to lead JWT in New York, Rasmussen followed as cd to test whether he could produce “great creative” within a large agency structure. He helped JWT pitch and win JetBlue and led creative on the account until summer 2007.

Challenging media conventions yet again, he produced a JetBlue campaign that invested most of the brand’s TV budget into a traveling story booth where consumers could record their experiences.

Later in 2007, Rasmussen, wanting to dive deeper into digital, became ecd on Nike at R/GA, an agency intent on bringing traditional principles such as account planning into a culture built around production.

At R/GA, he says, every day was a learning experience. “Just by going in and representing traditional at that level I think I did good,” says Rasmussen. In some cases, he put writers in charge of businesses to encourage more conceptual thinking. Visual types tend to offer visual solutions, he explains, and “it kind of leaves out writing and storytelling.”

The main difference between a digital and traditional shop, he suggests, is structure. The average creative process on a traditional assignment, he notes, often has a beginning, middle and end. But “people who work in a digital environment live in chaos and don’t have a problem with that,” he says. “You never know how long or how deep the conversation [with the consumer] will be. It can be 20 seconds or it can [last] years.”

This week, Rasmussen begins his new job at BBH. Of his decision to return to the traditional agency fold, Rasmussen points to one of BBH’s strongest client case histories, Johnnie Walker. When the agency pitched and won the business in 1999, he says, it distilled the brand’s essence into the idea of it having forward momentum, leading to the long-running tagline, “Keep walking.” “They didn’t say, ‘Here are a bunch of executions,'” he says. “They said, ‘Here is our POV and everything we do will play off this starting point.’ [Digital creatives] need that type of focus. … I think it’s a mistake to say that there’s this great technology and I’m just going to connect it to different clients. If you start with a core truth, you can take it anywhere.”

BBH has also driven media-inventive projects for clients such as Oasis, he says, for which it taught street musicians to play the band’s new album, Dig Out Your Soul, and then shot a documentary about it.

“[My role at BBH] is to … help them grow,” says Rasmussen, who in addition to participating in new business efforts takes creative oversight of the agency’s GMAC Bank account.

“Digital is still about possibility,” he adds. “The best things are going to be done between now and two to three years from now, and they’re going to be big. [BBH] is a good place to get myself in front of these ideas and … contribute to them.”