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First Mover: Jeff Benjamin

JWT's new creative chief knows a good Justin Bieber spot when he sees one

Photo: Elizabeth Lippman

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What did you learn from being on the debate team at the University of Connecticut?
The types of debates I did in college were called parliamentary debates. You would come up with these cases and usually they were funny. One was, “You are Rudolph. Don’t take Santa up on his offer.” They were funny and creative, and certainly persuasion was a big part of it. The other part of this debate was that you would get a resolution 10 minutes before the round. [It was] a statement, and you would have to build your case off that statement. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of advertising now because you have these creative ideas but you have to tie them back to a brand—and a real brand, right?

Who has had the most influence on you?
Alex [Bogusky] had a lot of influence on me. He just had a way of believing in himself and believing in you.

Who else?
Andrew [Keller], Rob [Reilly] and Chuck [Porter]. I feel like this is one of those parts where you start naming names and get into trouble. Certainly, Lino Ribolla at Modem Media [from 1997 to 2000]. He was a guy who first took a chance with me.

What did you learn from him?
There was a moment when I saw a lot of my colleagues getting promoted, becoming art directors. And he was, like, “Jeff, I don’t think you’re ready yet.” He sort of held me back a year. I remember being really upset about it because I, of course, thought I was better than everybody, like any creative. [Laughs] I remember just being really disappointed and angry, almost. But I look back at it now and I think, had he not done that, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now. He made sure that it wasn’t going to be that I was going to be an art director. It was going to be that I was going to be a great art director.

Describe your management style.
It’s management through inspiration. Being great starts with believing that you’re great. I also think you want to lead through the work. I’m pretty hands-on, and I’ll be working on all of this stuff along with people.

What are the biggest challenges in joining a global agency like JWT?
You can get caught up in the size. The key for me is: How do you simplify things? How can we remove layers, and how can we just start working?

What work on JWT’s reel stands out to you?
You know, when I was talking to these guys, it was around Christmas. I was in a store [in Denver]. They knew me in the store and knew I worked in advertising. And they were, like, “Jeff, have you seen that Justin Bieber Macy’s spot?” I was, like, “Oh my god, they know that I’m talking to [JWT].” [Laughs] They were asking me because they thought the spot was so funny and they wanted my affirmation that it was OK to laugh. That it was a good ad, and it was funny. And so, it was that Justin Bieber spot for Macy’s. I remember seeing that. I laughed, and I thought, “This could really work.”

What kind of grade would you give the reel?
I have no idea. I haven’t seen all the work, but I love that Justin Bieber spot. I will tell you this: There is some really great work with some really great insights. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I wasn’t coming here and thinking, “Wow, this is going to be, not scary, but this is making me nervous.” Two things: One, it’s a good nervous. And two, in the time that I’ve been here and talked to people, I can’t help but think, “Wow, this is going to maybe be easier than I thought.”