Peter McHugh On the Spot

The partner and ecd at 180 in Amsterdam says he studied advertising because it was the only thing at Arizona State’s business school he was any good at. The move from Minneapolis (where he worked on accounts such as Holiday Inn and Nordstrom at Fallon) to Amsterdam, where porn shops flank McDonald’s franchises, was quite a change, but McHugh, 47, says he’s not leaving anytime soon. For its biggest client, Adidas, 180 recently broke the global “Impossible is nothing” campaign with Muhammad and Laila Ali (at right), and a FIFA/ Women’s World Cup ad.

Interviewed by Mae Anderson

What was the biggest challenge you faced with Adidas?

Before I came on board, I think they had 20-30 agencies working around the world. And though 180 had written “Forever sport” as the tagline, some countries didn’t think it worked. In the United States it became “Long live sport.” It’s hard to remain consistent and have a brand mean something when there are different shadings of it all over the world, based on what are perceived to be local needs.

Why Muhammad Ali?

What we needed first of all was somebody who embodied the spirit of what is great about sport and what Adidas stands for. And there probably is not another sports icon in the world who is as recognized in every part of the globe.

In the U.S., he’s in ads for several other brands. Does that take away from Adidas?

I hope not. I like to think that the association with Adidas, who made the boots he actually wore when he was the world champion, is a stronger connection to the brand than IBM or Gillette.

How do you compare the ad industry in Europe with the U.S.?

I thought I’d see a lot more outlandish advertising on television, but that’s not necessarily true. There are cultural differences. I have two children, and the rating system for movies here tends to think that it’s more appropriate for kids to see sex than violence, which is interesting coming from an American standpoint.

How is your life as a creative different?

Because you’re working across so many different cultures, you tend to not be able to use cultural references—like a line from Seinfeld or Saturday Night Live or a TV show that airs in one country—and use that as a basis of an idea. So I think you tend to be more visual than verbal.

Can you give an example?

The Women’s World Cup [ad] had to air in China and the U.S., which are very different cultures. We ended up tapping into the fact that there is a rivalry between the U.S. and China—the two best soccer teams in the world—and then tell that in a cool visual style that works across both cultures, which is difficult but not insurmountable.

Why did you decide to move to Amsterdam?

Adidas seemed to be at a point where if ever anyone were going to help define this great global brand, now would be the time. And then family reasons as well. I’d like to think [my kids have] become more interesting people because they go to an international school. All their classmates are not from a four-square-mile area of Minnesota but from the world.

What was the biggest culture shock?

In the States, they have zoning laws. If they have hookers in Nevada, they put them 75 miles out in the desert. Here, everything is more on top of each other. It’s up to you to make the choices that matter to you. People tend to not legislate your choices for you.

Who has influenced your career the most?

I’d probably go back to those guys I worked with at Fallon—Dean Hanson, Bob Barrie, Dean Buckhorn, Bruce Bildsten, David Lubars, Pat Fallon—people who had a lot of talent but also a really good work ethic and a sense of duty and prove that you don’t have to be an asshole to be good at what you do.

What’s the most disappointing creative trend you’ve seen lately?

Consistently the most disappointing creative trend is commercials that derive from other commercials, not from literature, things that happen in real life, even things you see in film sometimes. It takes something that was part of a much more interesting concept and applies it to a tight shot of a steaming hamburger or something.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

I hope it was coming here. It’s kind of a long way to go to screw up.

How do you get past a creative block?

I’m not a big horoscope guy, but I am a Taurus, and you know there’s a certain level of persistence that goes along with that. You just don’t give up.

What’s your dream assignment?

I’d like to be a writer for The Daily Show. I have to watch it on the Internet. Every night they have Jon Stewart’s opening monologue. That’s kind of how I stay up on the news in the U.S.

Who’s one person you’re dying to work with?

Well, we did Buddy Lee with Spike Jonze five years ago now, and I haven’t had a chance to work with him again. He pushes you and makes you feel uncomfortable, and it all ends up being good in the end. He’s uncompromising, and he has a point of view.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Laid-back control freak.