From his office in a converted auto dealership

From his office in a converted auto dealership just outside downtown Minneapolis, Dave Peterson utters a phrase rarely spoken by creatives: “I love retail.”

Coming from Peterson, president and creative director of Peterson Milla Hooks, it isn’t surprising. He is, after all, the man behind the engaging work for the nationwide Target Stores, creating the breakout 1999 “Sign of the times” campaign and the recent “Color my world.”

“If you really understand retail, if you get it, it’s fun, exciting and challenging,” Peterson, 46, says. “I get the big-marketing strategy thing, but so much of what we do is [sell] a lifestyle. It’s a little bit more of an emotional sell than an intellectual sell.”

Self-described as an “antsy, type-A” personality, Peterson says he thrives on the immediacy of retail advertising because it doesn’t allow for downtime. Case in point: While awaiting care in the emergency room for a wounded leg after a car accident, Peterson filled his time completing layouts for an upcoming Target campaign.

“He’s so driven and focused on his vision, he wouldn’t let a couple of bumpers crushing his leg get in his way,” says Joe Milla, a creative director and partner at the agency.

Retail advertising has been Peterson’s life from the beginning of his ad career. When he graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, his portfolio was loaded with fashion and retail ads, a medium he dubs fun and exciting since it allows an art director to let loose. “That’s sort of the seed,” he says. “If you look back, it reflects where my heart is.”

His book caught the eye of a small boutique called the Ad Company, which was “a handful of people, all working on retail,” Peterson recalls. After three years, he moved to Campbell Mithun Esty, the largest shop in the Twin Cities, where he became known as “the retail guy.”

During his eight-year tenure there, he concentrated primarily on Dayton Hudson Corp., now Target Corp., and County Seat, though there were chances to work on the shop’s bread-and-butter packaged-goods accounts.

“They would test-fly me on General Mills and other brands to see if I could bring in a more retail flair or flavor to things,” he says.

In time, Peterson realized a big agency wasn’t suited to his retail-oriented world. In 1990, he and CME copywriter Joe Milla, who had been assisting Peterson with freelance Musicland projects, opened their own boutique.

“I’d had it with layers; I think good retail is of the moment,” Peterson says. “There’s processes in large agencies which prevent that energy and speed.”

Like many startups, Peterson and Milla took any work they could find: pro bono, local accounts, such as Southdale Mall, and ancillary projects from Dayton Hudson. (Partner Brian Hooks joined in 1996 to handle client services.) While the shop created a Christmas TV campaign for Dayton Hudson in 1997, most Target work centered around fashion-oriented print projects.

The turning point came in spring 1999. The Minneapolis-based discount retailer called its agencies with a problem. Kmart and Sears, key competitors, were beginning to appropriate its “expect more, pay less” positioning and look. Target needed something distinctly its own.

“Our question was, ‘Is there some kind of campaign that can speak to all of Target?’ ” explains Minda Gralnek, Target’s fashion creative director, who knew Peterson from his art-school days.

Peterson’s solution was “Sign of the times.” With a soundtrack of Petula Clark singing her 1960s hit of the same name, the spot featured hipsters cavorting in a world plastered with Target’s bull’s-eye logo. “The neat thing about ‘Sign of the times’ is that it says Target is everything you need,” Peterson says. “It’s your world.”

The campaign was meant to capitalize on the cheap chic of “Tar-zhay’s” (as the hip call it). In retrospect, the spot was a natural fit. But at the time, the tactic was a huge leap for the retailer and the agency. “We were both kind of nervous because the campaign doesn’t show any Target product,” Peterson says, a giant poster of a Target-eyed bulldog behind him. “We did a whole holiday campaign without showing any product.”

The campaign proved prescient, sparking additional work for the 25-person shop, which now claims $25 million in billings. While PMH has other clients, including and Northwest Athletic Club, Target is its staple account. Last year, the agency created a TV campaign that showcased the range of Target products to the tune of Canned Heat’s “Let’s Get Together.” In one spot, a woman wading in the surf is juxtaposed against a background of Tide logos.

This year witnessed the debut of the “Color my world” campaign, which highlights the color of certain Target products. The most recent ad, “Orange,” depicts orange-clad young adults entering an orange laundromat where they buy Tide, Slim Jims, Sunkist and Motrin to the Divo song “Beautiful World.”

The clients featured in the ads love the association. Damon Jones, a Procter & Gamble representative, says the company’s greatest benefit from being prominently featured in Target’s campaign is the “more relevant” connection it makes with Target’s market. “Sometimes when you think of hip and cool, you don’t necessarily think of commodity products,” he says. “It’s thinking about our products the way our shoppers think about them.”

All three campaigns reflect Peterson’s signature style: bold, simple imagery that’s strong on visuals, light on copy. “My style and Target’s branding strategy is, ‘Show me and excite me in a minimal and impactful way,’ ” says the 6-foot-tall Peterson, a snappy dresser who boasts a baseball hat collection on his office wall.

That the client and its creative director are artistically linked is no accident, Milla says. “If you looked at [Peterson’s] blood sample, he’d have little bull’s-eyes in it.”

“He is passionately in love with our brand,” admits Gralnek. “He understands it the way we do.”

While Target says it doesn’t keep track of ad results, Gralnek notes that Peterson’s enthusiasm for Target is palpable. “It’s like playing for him,” she says.

“If I could simplify my life, I would be an art director every day,” Peterson says. “It’s my favorite thing to do.” That desire is especially noticeable in the Target executions, which one agency executive called fashion advertising for a retailer.

“I guess you could describe a lot of things I like—things I do—as visually driven,” he says. “It’s a cluttered world out there; our job is to simplify it.” Minimalism is a concept preached by many, but practiced by few, Peterson says. The key, he adds, is encouraging the dozen or so creatives dedicated to Target, including the copywriters, to approach the work visually.

“I have writers here who are as much art directors as anyone,” he says. “They’re visual thinkers; they’re visual problem solvers. Even if there aren’t words, the writer has a tremendous role.”

Milla, a copywriter by trade, says the approach is refreshing. “It allows us to flex another part of our creative muscle,” he says. Just as important as a visual style is knowing when enough is enough. That means focusing and prioritizing to ensure you are only making one point, he adds.

“I think visual people need to be accountable for things that don’t junk up the world,” Peterson says. “Be true to your client’s brand, and be true to what you would react to on the street. Don’t put a bunch of crap up there that doesn’t matter.” Equally important, Gralnek says, is making sure the point is on message. “He’s not just going to make a pretty picture,” she says. “He really understands that retail advertising is a visual medium.”

Recently, Peterson has transferred that strategy beyond retail. PMH is set to break an estimated $20 million global branding campaign for Radisson Hotels & Resorts this summer. PMH has also completed consumer print and trade ads for Mattel that move Barbie beyond the valley of the dolls, expanding the brand into clothing and accessories. “We’re trying to make it a part of people’s lives,” Peterson says. “How does Barbie become a part of your world? It’s more than a doll, she’s an entity.”

But most of Peterson’s time is devoted to Target. Though the company regularly portions out projects among its stable of roster shops, PMH has lately handled the majority of the brand work, much to the envy of other agencies. While praising the “Sign of the times” campaign as breakthrough, James Hitchcock, ECD at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners subsidiary Frierson Mee + Partners, says PMH needs to add substance to future work to keep it relevant.

“After a while, there’s no message,” says Hitchcock, who developed Kirshenbaum’s print campaign depicting people using Target products in unconventional ways. “They have to bring in strong concepts in their fast, fun and friendly way.”

The 2000 “Pop Art” campaign, which contrasted hard and soft goods through music and Warhol-style visuals, did just that, Peterson says. Same with this year’s “Color my world” work. “We’re trying to set an emotional mind-set,” he says. “The Tide is the same at Wal-Mart or Kmart or whatever. [Target] is that extra thing that can accompany it.”

Being identified with a large and visible client is a double-edged sword. Many doors have opened for the creative-only boutique since the “Sign of the times” campaign debuted—the Mattel and Radisson wins are direct results. But there’s always the danger that another, hungrier roster agency will swoop in and steal Target away. Peterson takes it all in stride.

“It’s not like we want to get huge. We’re about doing really good work,” he says. “Target is a great part of that equation today; we’d love it to be for a long time.”