Jon Steel, one of advertising's most influential account planners, is back in an agency job after three years. The 41-year-old is reuniting with old friends and colleagues at Berlin Cameron/Red Cell in the new position of vice chairman.
Steel had been a worldwide planning consultant with Berlin Cameron parent WPP Group since February 2002. He worked with Berlin Cameron on positioning and creative for the Classic Coca-Cola "Real" campaign that launched in January, and in July led the New York shop's winning pitch for Pfizer's Zyrtec account. At WPP, Steel also helped J. Walter Thompson pitch Cisco, which the agency did not win, and Sun Microsystems, which it did.
He was involved with projects at other WPP units, including Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam, but it was his experience at Berlin Cameron, overseen by CEO Ewen Cameron and chairman Andy Berlin, that persuaded him to return to a full-time role at an agency.
Steel's latest career move has a symmetrical twist. In 1988, as a planner at Boase Massimi Pollitt—the U.K. shop that gave birth to the account planning discipline—he worked on a pitch for Foster's lager with fellow BMP planner Cameron, a Scotsman, and Berlin, an American. (BMP had just acquired a stake in San Francisco shop Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein.)
"It's a natural fit, working with him," noted Cameron. "We've always been a little triumvirate."
"It seemed like a natural place for me," echoed the British-born Steel, who lives in Somerset, England. "The culture of the agency is very appealing, with an eclectic mix of people: Germans, Israelis, Scots, Brits, Canadians, all of whom bring a different cultural perspective of the world. Ewen's a planner who is a creative director; Andy's a copywriter who runs the agency. It's full of people who wouldn't easily fit into more structured environments and who can offer clients a broader range of skills than you typically find in individuals in our industry."
At Berlin Cameron, whose name remains unchanged, Steel will focus on building the agency and its business. The shop, which claims $800 million in billings, has won accounts worth more than $500 million this year from the likes of Coca-Cola, Pfizer, Glenlivet whiskey, Boost Mobile and Tasty Baking Co. In March, Berlin Cameron hired William Grogan, the former head of Interpublic Group's Coca-Cola business, as agency president, and Steel says he will work closely with Grogan on accounts like Zyrtec.
"I'm so excited," Steel said. "Berlin Cameron has so much buzz, and it's ready to go to the next level."
With a degree in geography, Steel proved a quick study in the ad world, landing on BMP's board at 26. He came to work in the U.S. after Berlin asked the young hot shot to talk about planning "to a bunch of hippies in San Francisco," as Steel recalls. Those hippies were so impressed, they talked Steel, then 27, into becoming their first director of account planning in October 1989.
During the next decade, Steel became one of the most regarded industry thinkers in the country, helping to develop Goodby campaigns such as "Got Milk?" for The California Fluid Milk Processors Advisory Board, as well as work for E*Trade, Nike, Budweiser, Hewlett-Packard, The Wall Street Journal, Porsche, Polaroid, Pepsi, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.
In late 1999, Steel took a sabbatical, returning to England to write a book, Truth, Lies & Advertising: The Art of Account Planning. (He's now trying his hand at a novel.) After a year off, he decided not to return to San Francisco, wanting to remain closer to family.
Steel, his wife and two young children will remain in Somerset, but he said he'll travel to New York often and routinely participate in client meetings, focus groups and new-business pitches. "We don't feel people have to be in the office 9-5," said Cameron of the arrangement, adding that Steel will likely spend at least a week per month at the agency. "I do some of my best thinking out of the office."
While Steel is glad his American-born offspring are now learning English pastimes such as cricket and falconry, he admits he'd consider a return to America at some point. "Almost all of the work I've done for WPP has been in the U.S.," he said. "There's such a sense of possibility in America."