Creative: Dead Sure

Creative chief Jim White infuses CME with spirit and energy
When Jim White was growing up in New Buffalo, Mich., sports was everything to him. His father was the athletic director at the local high school and his older brother went to West Point on a basketball scholarship. “Sports was my life; art and drawing were recreation,” says White, who played basketball and football in high school.
In fact, he talks like the coach of a team down 20 points at halftime. He always comes back to the importance of teamwork, how the success of the group is dependent on the individual. He uses phrases like “Refuse to lose” and “Check your ego at the door.” He even calls his controversial creative process “jump ball.” The metaphor is apt.
To creatives in the Twin Cities, Campbell Mithun Esty is the underdog. Even insiders admit the shop has a personality befitting Chicago, not the creative mecca that is Minneapolis. But White, who joined CME as chief creative officer last July, says he’s committed to turning the $900 million agency into a place where “any creative would be proud to work.”
While it’s too soon to tell whether White will succeed, there’s no doubt he is making his mark. Since his arrival, CME has won creative projects worth an estimated $150 million. Most notably, the agency was awarded creative duties on AirTouch’s $100 million consumer ad account, besting BBDO in Minneapolis; Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners in New York; and Bozell Worldwide in Costa Mesa, Calif.
For White, the task is clear: Improve the creative output. While CME boasts clients such as Kmart, Andersen Windows, Borden, General Mills, Domino’s and Celestial Seasonings, and has steadily increased its billings over the past four years, its creative work is described as “good” or “solid.”
White’s move to CME last summer was designed to upgrade creative output. In January ’98, the agency’s top brass held a meeting to discuss the company’s future. David Tree, 57, who had been serving as vice chairman and chief creative officer, said it was time to turn the agency over to the next generation. “Youth is good,” Tree says. “You need a lot of energy to be creative director of an agency.”
During the six-month search, CME found the laid-back White, 40, who in just three years turned Long Haymes Carr in Winston-Salem, N.C., from a $93 million upstart into a $310 million player. More importantly, he revamped LHC from a “sleepy print shop to a bruising broadcast [agency],” says Frank Campion, LHC’s executive creative director.
White, whose background includes tenures at Backer Spielvogel Bates, New York, DMB&B, St. Louis, and Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, was familiar to CME. When Tree wanted to bolster the agency’s New York office in 1995, he interviewed White. But White’s reel, which included work for Coors Light and Miller Genuine Draft, “wasn’t right” for what the agency needed at the time, Tree says.
But after three years as LHC’s top creative and with a reel featuring Sara Lee, Champion and BellSouth. White was perfectly positioned, says CEO Howard Liszt. “Jim has made the work better everywhere he’s been,” Liszt says. “He brings an excitement that’s important.”
“When I started talking to Howard, he said all I had to do was make the work better,” White remembers. “The clients were happy; they weren’t losing business I thought, ‘I can do that.'”
Improving CME’s work hinges on White’s “jump ball” strategy, which he conceived at Backer Spielvogel and brought to LHC. The strategy, which Campion calls “creative socialism,” requires every creative in the department to pitch ideas to every new client. (Indeed, the process extends beyond clients. White solicited ideas from creative staffers for the photo accompanying this story.)
Some critics have described the strategy as a “creative free-for-all,” but White insists the concept liberates the entire shop. Whenever the agency readies a new-business pitch, or a client needs a new campaign, the creatives get briefed at the same time with the same information. They’re told to develop their ideas and then present them to each other, with White offering critiques of the work.
“I’ve got the final say, but I try to involve everyone as much as possible,” he explains. “If you can get creatives to believe it’s in their best interest to have great work happen and build the agency, then it works.”
With his strategy in place, the 60-person creative staff works on 20 campaigns. After initial presentations, half the ideas are thrown out. But they continue on the remaining 10, then the remaining five, and, finally, the last one.
“When you’re approaching stuff as a group of minds, as opposed to individual minds, you’ll do great work,” White says. “I’ve got 60 people on my side, and we’re going to do better than you.”
The new process has met with mixed reaction inside the agency. Soon after he signed on, the workaholic White reportedly made bed checks on his creative department, seeing who was putting in the extra time and who was leaving at 5 p.m. White knows “jump ball” hasn’t been popular with everybody. “People are reluctant to change,” he says, “especially creative people.” But he’s convinced the process succeeds. “It was uncomfortable at first, [but] there is great work presented in those meetings,” says creative director Kelly Gothier. “He’s brought more enthusiasm to the place.”
Some critics claim the strategy can hurt clients that may require a nurturing staff dedicated to their needs. But White counters he can maintain a consistent brand message by leaving the executive creative directors and creative directors to manage the brand, while the copywriters and art directors dance in the creative mosh pit.
“I didn’t change an ECD or a CD. All I did was break down these pillars,” says White, who studied advertising at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I didn’t change anything other than the way resources were used.”
For all the criticism, White’s strategy has its advocates. He’s already brought in six people who worked with him before. Though it may seem chaotic to some, jump ball makes sense, proponents say. “On the outside, it may look like a madman’s circus; but on the inside, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m getting better,'” Campion says.
Most telling, CME’s clients are supportive. Patrick Doyle, senior vice president of marketing at Domino’s, says White’s approach is “a great way to bring a breadth of thinking and different ideas” to the table.
The agency’s work has shown signs of change. A new spot for Chex cereals uses retro music and an attractive woman who mimics the cereal’s shape–a far cry from moms, kids and overall nutrition. A spot for the American Academy of Dermatology graphically tells the story of a man who lost his nose to skin cancer. Add its ethereal work for Kmart’s Route 66 jeans (pre-White) and it looks like CME is beginning to take some creative risks.
Still, the shop may never hit the creative stride of crosstown rival Fallon McElligott–not that White wants to. He says his job is to improve the agency’s creative product while maintaining its Midwestern values.
“If we want our clients to be here 10 years from now, we have to produce work they can’t get anywhere else,” White says. “Our strength will always be that we can connect with the average American better than anyone.” n