Patrick O’Neill

Patrick O’Neill can talk about almost anything. During a nearly two-hour conversation, the TBWA\Chiat\Day group creative director touches on Excedrin headaches, former boss Donny Deutsch and Christina Aguilera. An art director, O’Neill, 38, joined the New York agency in 2000. His best-known work includes the 1994 Ikea spot “Dining Room” and last year’s dancing Joe Boxer spot for Kmart. “I’m a scattered person,” says O’Neill. “And I’m chaotic, which is fine, because I’m a creative.”

Interviewed by Andrew McMains

Q: How did you get into advertising?

A: This is going to sound really cheesy. My first fully formed sentence was, “I’ve got an Excedrin headache.” I was probably 2. It’s a classic story of my family. I even did the hand movements on the tension temples.

Where did you go to school?

I was a premed major at Washington State University for two years. I was doing well with grades in chemistry and statistics, but I wasn’t happy. There were people up all night with it, loving it. What kept me up all night? MTV. Then my family moved back to Southern California, and I discovered Art Center. My grandmother went there—she was a Disney animator. So there’s this creative style that was always part of my upbringing.

What have you learned from Lee Clow?

His wisdom, his consistency and his resilience in a business that’s constantly changing is ultimately very reassuring. And his ability to recognize really powerful, big simple ideas all the time.

What do you think is the secret to Donny Deutsch’s success?

You say his name and there’s always a reaction. That is success. I’ve never seen anyone so instinctive. He knows how to read the situation, he’s really smart, and he sees things coming. He’s unique, charismatic, with a life of his own.

You and Dallas Itzen were co-creative chiefs for about a year and a half. Why do you think that didn’t work out?

We knew going into it that it was going to be the biggest challenge of our careers. All the other changes in the office also have an effect on the success of any creative here. The expectation of the office being a global leader—were we really ready to take that on? Probably not. I’ll admit it.

What do you think will be the key to John Hunt being successful in New York?

John Hunt knows better than anyone how to make something work in a difficult environment. South Africa is not the easiest market, given all that goes on there to distract people from advertising. Because he has had so much success as a global leader, I can see him having impact in New York.

What advice do you have for a creative entering the business today?

Be closely in tune with what motivated you in school, and be connected to the feeling you had when you have a piece of creative—whether it’s a radio spot, a billboard, a business idea—that has everyone talking and thinking it can have some impact. Know that that’s going to make you happy and successful. Nothing else.

What’s the biggest challenge working on the Kmart account?

The conventional wisdom on Kmart is that they’re in Chapter 11, they’ve got all these problems, they’ve had them for a long time. What’s marketing going to do? Yet my job is to focus on turning Kmart into a brand that people like and change the topic and the energy around. With Joe Boxer, it’s starting to happen. It’s a sign of how a simple idea that people love can completely alter how you feel about something.

Vaughn Lowery’s dancing for the Joe Boxer spot was impromptu, wasn’t it?

In casting he started doing that. If you’re open to the unscripted, the unprepared for, the unplanned, the unstrategized—a lot of times that’s the most fun. If you try to make everything formulaic, you’re not thinking like a consumer. The spirit of it is infectious. You could never have planned for that. Never. We’re going to continue to do stuff with him.

What do you think of Crispin’s Ikea work?

Like it. Unböring. The lamp one. Because people are familiar with the brand, they’re able to do some things that tap into those furniture-replacement truths. It’s sort of disposable furniture. You make a lot of change. What they’ve done really well is make it seem progressive and fun and surprising and cool to shop there.

Do you have any ad heroes?

The agency Mother in London is an ad hero to me. They were able to turn nothing into something everyone’s talking about in a very short time. They created a culture out of being true to what they love about life, business, brands, products, and rallied a whole group of people to create this huge, potent force in London. In a really tough city, in a really cynical business, they were able to rise above without compromising. And I love come-from-behind, underestimated-people agency stories.

What inspires you creatively?

My producers gave me a life-sized cardboard cutout of Christina Aguilera. It’s from a shop on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s known that I love her, and I’m always championing the underdog. And Christina kicks ass over Britney. As far as refueling, there’s no real way of doing it. I have a hard time turning off.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Looking not one day older, at my 30-year high-school reunion, with a flat stomach.