A Priceless Promotion

Joyce King Thomas is saying no—politely but firmly. Sitting in her corner office at McCann Erickson in New York, she cocks her head, furrows her brow and listens as two young creatives read her script after script for a new MasterCard commercial for early next year, touting an internship program. After several run-throughs, she asks how many more scripts they have. “Pick your best ones [to read to me]. I lose focus,” she says.

In a black suit with sleeves long enough to partly cover her hands, a ruffled black shirt and long dangling blue bauble earrings, King Thomas nods intently, but doesn’t smile. “I feel like we need to back up and find a bigger idea, a place for the internship,” she says. “Maybe there’s a completely different way to look at it.”

She suggests they consider a poster or something else other than a 30-second spot, to think of the idea less as a small story and more about the value of an internship. She tells the team to keep working and come back in a few days. She tells the next pair the same thing. She will probably repeat the sentiment many times over the course of the next week, as she searches for the idea that will give birth to the next great MasterCard ad.

It’s this patience and determined focus that colleagues say King Thomas brings to McCann’s 150-person creative department. Currently transitioning from executive creative director, by year’s end she will inherit the role of chief creative officer in New York from Nina DiSesa, who will remain chairman through next year.

“I knew I wanted to be the creative director here or somewhere,” says King Thomas, 48, who began her career 26 years ago writing help-wanted ads at a recruitment-ad agency in Missouri. “And it worked out that what I wanted to do, and what Nina wanted to do, synched up.”

While one senior creative woman passing the torch to another is unusual in a predominately male-dominated business, King Thomas’ ascension was natural, says DiSesa. “I had said I was going to do this job for 10 years,” she says. (DiSesa joined McCann as ecd in 1994 from J. Walter Thompson.) “I had always wanted Joyce to be my next cd. Not only is she totally capable of doing this job, emotionally and creatively she’s the choice the rest of the agency would follow.”

DiSesa, 58, points to King Thomas’ “impeccable judgement” as one of the reasons she deemed her the heir. “She’s thoughtful when she makes a decision,” she says. “Her creative judgement is flawless.”

Sallie Mars, director of creative services, adds, “She’s very decisive. That’s a great trait in a creative. It’s hard to be equal parts great creative and great manager.”

Steve Dickstein, president of Partizan, points out King Thomas’ ability to empathize with those around her. During the production of a MasterCard spot starring the Cat in the Hat, for example, Partizan director Juame kept running into technical problems, but King Thomas, who, like DiSesa, has been described as a nurturing yet opinionated manager, took it in stride. “She was so respectful of Juame and how he did the problem solving,” Dickstein recalls. “She called out of the blue to heap praise on this young director. We were all so flattered.”

Worldwide cd Jonathan Cranin says King Thomas can be critical without being nasty. “No one can be mean so nicely as Joyce,” he says. “Being a cd, you have to basically tell people their work isn’t good enough. [With Joyce], you leave the room feeling OK about the decision—even good.”

DiSesa says she didn’t want to shake things up too much by bringing someone in from the outside. “There was no reason to change,” she says. “The momentum was good. We wanted to take the agency creatively to the next plateau, and the person to do that was Joyce.”

For King Thomas, that means finding the next big campaign, like “Priceless,” to hang McCann’s creative reputation on. “I’d love to be talking about another famous campaign that everyone knows, everyone anticipates, and that makes a huge difference for a company,” she says.

Her goal for the creative product, she says, is to create work that speaks to a mass audience without being condescending. “We work with a lot of clients that are talking to everybody. We’re not necessarily talking to the elite or the trendsetters,” she says. “And I really believe that you can do work that’s inspiring to that target. It doesn’t have to be the lowest common denominator. You can have big, smart ideas that really compel the average person.”

That’s what the Springfield, Mo., native has strived to do since joining McCann in 1995 after nine years at Young & Rubicam, where she left as an associate cd. (Before that she was a copywriter at Wells Rich Greene in Dallas and New York.) She had notable work for Sheraton and Holiday Inn on her reel, and DiSesa recruited her to work on Marriott International.

Her first campaign for Marriott, tagged, “When you’re comfortable, you can do anything,” showed travelers succeeding in various situations with the help of their hotel stay. But her most significant victory came in 1997, when she helped win the MasterCard business. She worked on the pitch with Cranin and her partner at the time, art director Jeroen Bours.

A story both parties tell involves Cranin calling King Thomas into his office and telling her a line he came up with: “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s MasterCard.” “Her face lit up,” he says. “She goes, ‘That’s amazing.’ She came back in two hours with ‘Priceless.’ She knows when something’s great, and then she knows how to make it better.”

Larry Flanagan, chief marketing officer of MasterCard, says King Thomas “understands the essence of the brand, how we need to differentiate ourselves. We’ve done I don’t know how many ‘Priceless’ commercials. We test everything we do. We’ve gotten to the point now that Joyce’s point of view, her position on any particular piece of creative, we give that more credence than the research result.”

King Thomas was named deputy cd in 1998 and ecd in 2001. In her new role, she, will step back from accounts she runs now—MasterCard, Staples, Verizon and Nikon—to oversee creative on all clients at the $3 billion Interpublic Group shop, including L’Oréal, Cadbury and Nestlé Waters.

Her first move as chief creative officer has been to add more talent. Two weeks ago, she hired Bill Oberlander from Ogilvy & Mather in New York as ecd on accounts to be determined next month. “I wanted to quickly bring in a real creative leader who has his amazing style,” King Thomas says. She points out Oberlander’s “smart” work on Motorola and AT&T while at Ogilvy.

“MasterCard has a famous reputation, and she’s going to bring that sensibility to a lot of other pieces of business,” Oberlander says.

King Thomas also promoted Craig Markus, group cd of McCann’s youth-oriented TAG unit, to ecd. She says she plans to make more hires and is looking for creatives “with a distinctive point of view” who are strong leaders. “Assholes don’t do well here,” she says. “But tough people with high standards, definitely.”

While the usually emotionally-driven MasterCard campaign carries her reel, King Thomas’ work ranges from the humorous (Verizon Wireless’ “Can you hear me now?” guy, a Nikon ad showing a rhinoceros charging though a neighborhood) to the understated (Lucent ads showing words being typed on a screen).

One of her personal favorites is the MasterCard ad that won the business in 1997: a spot about a father and son enjoying a baseball game together. “Jeroen and I both had 11-year-old sons, so it was pretty personal,” she says.

Besides work, family has always been a main priority. The daughter of a jewelry saleswoman and a policeman, she studied journalism at the University of Missouri. She has two sons, Aidan, 18, and Jackson, 14. Her husband, Michael Thomas, whom she met at an ad agency in Tulsa, Okla., is a freelance art director. They live in Brooklyn Heights. “Working and having kids has pretty much taken over most of my time,” King Thomas says when asked if she has any hobbies.

She downplays the significance of being a woman in a top agency role. Though she notes that nearly half of the 10 creative teams who worked under her when she was ecd were pairs of women, she says she feels the business is becoming more “gender neutral.” “I like a lot of different kinds of voices in advertising. Historically, at least in award shows, the voice is a little masculine,” she says. “I think it’s really your book that gets you a job. At least here, I do not think it’s about whether you’re male or female.”

An avid reader (and fan of Faulkner in particular), King Thomas will face classic creative growing pains as she transitions into her new role at McCann. “It’s very hard when your whole career is right-brain to suddenly have to worry about the numbers,” says DiSesa.

But King Thomas’ toughest job, says DiSesa, may be finding her own replacement. “I told her a year ago, ‘When you take over, you gotta find somebody to do for you what you always did for me,’ ” she says. “She needs to have that person watching her back, too.”