After graduating from high school in his hometown of Phoenix, Jason Peterson, creative director at Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, didn't have enough money for the two-year program at Atlanta's Portfolio Center. So he maxed out his credit card, worked full time, and finished the program in just one year—with an eye toward retiring by 35. A driving force behind Coke Classic's "Real" campaign, Peterson is now 36 and enjoying the business so much that he may stick around until he's 40. After that, the former punk-rocker says he may open a record store back home. —Q: How did you get into advertising?
A: I was really into art in high school and designed and promoted punk rock shows in Arizona for bands coming through town. I'd book the band in a club and do all the promotions. Design all the fliers and stuff. That got me into the music world. Playing in bands.
What was the band?
The band was called Wind of Change. It doesn't exist anymore. I played guitar. I started when I was 15 and we got pretty big, playing around Arizona. It got to be where we could draw 1,500 to 2,000 people. We put out our own record independently. We toured the U.S. in 1989. It was amazing. The second we got home I quit.
Why did you quit?
I came from nothing. I've had a job since I was 13 years old. I knew I didn't want to be poor my whole life and I knew I had to do something with myself so I that I'm not some poor white trash kid. And I knew I didn't want to make money off of music, which is really, really hard.
How do you get past a creative block?
Get someone else to work on it. I'm immediate with my thinking and ideas. I think of an idea within the first 20 minutes or it's not going to come.
Is that how you came up with "Real"?
Yeah. I was on a shoot in Colorado. I was on the phone with Ewen [Cameron], going back and forth and the idea for "Real" came within the first 20 minutes. I started writing scripts immediately. To me, Coke is the coolest thing in the world and I couldn't understand why its ads weren't. Show it in a way that kids and people really use it. Don't make it overtly funny like Pepsi does. It could be funny but in an honest sort of way.
Talk about your fixation on Coke. Is that from childhood?
Totally. It's weird because my dad is a Pepsi drinker. He'd tell me stories about him and my grandfather drinking Pepsi and stuff. But I was always a hard-line Coke drinker. I'm in love with '50s nostalgic Americana. And Coke is that. I love that stuff.
What is your dream assignment?
Kids' breakfast cereals. I love classic, Chicago, Leo Burnett, P&G type characters. Cap'n Crunch would be the best to do a realistic animated campaign. I have two kids who are 5 and 3. I watch how they react to the commercials. They love funny, outrageous things.
Who's had the greatest influence on your career?
Since I've worked for Andy Berlin for about 13 years it would have to be Andy. Not that I want to sound like I'm kissing his ass but he's an advertising icon. I have a funny relationship with him. It's love-hate. It's definitely like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. It's like evil fighting each other. But still, I find out he's my father.
What work are you the most proud of?
The stuff we did in '96-97 for the NBA with Bill Murray. You have to remember this is pre-ESPN SportsCenter and pre-reality TV. We tried to do it as a hoax. It ran during a national football game. They broke away and said, "We have an important announcement." That Bill Murray was retiring from entertainment to join the NBA. The next day, all the sports shows were talking about it: "Is it real? Is it a spoof?"
If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
I would have less people. [Berlin Cameron] is perfectly understaffed compared to other agencies I've worked for. Half the people in ad agencies don't do work, they just hang out. I think the industry as a whole is fat.
What do you think is the most underrated agency?
Other than us? Gyro in Philadelphia. The dude who runs it is a little weird, but I like that about him. And I like that he hates award shows because I find award shows completely creepy. It's like the AV nerds from high school are getting their revenge. And I like some of Gyro's alternate media ideas.
What's your personal motto?
Straight Edge revenge [in reference to the punk-rock movement that touts no drinking, smoking or using drugs].
Give me three words to describe yourself.
How about three words that describe how others perceive you?
Loud, arrogant, cocky.
What is your biggest fear?
Being old. It scares the shit out of me. I've based so much of myself on knowing what's going on. Being on the edge of culture. Being old freaks me out.
What's your biggest professional accomplishment?
Starting the agency and selling it [to WPP].