[RISING STAR

The interview has gone on much longer than initially promised. Jonathan Haber hadn’t planned on devoting this much time to it but, as account manager for the new Innovations and Entertainment departments at Interpublic Group’s Initiative media agency, he has a lot to say.

Even as the interview wraps and Haber, Mediaweek’s 2006 Rising Star, is finally able to escape the confines of the conference room to attend to his work, he starts on the subject of Second Life, the 3-D digital world where users create alternative lives for themselves by building virtual environments and buying and selling virtual goods. He stops and stands at the door, talking animatedly about how users build virtual representations of themselves, called avatars, and interact with other avatars. He muses excitedly about the possible business opportunities. After all, he notes, clothing company American Apparel opened up a virtual outlet on Secondlife.com this summer. “I may not necessarily play Second Life myself, but I love the concept,” Haber says. “I love thinking about what it can do and talking about it and bringing it to the client.”

At Initiative, Haber devotes his days to conceiving creative marketing strategies across all media, and aims to put a new twist on old media and find new formats—Bluetooth, cell phones, podcasts or gaming—to create integrated campaigns for his clients’ brands. His knowledge of cutting-edge digital platforms and technologies, and his enthusiasm for exploring possible marriages for his client, have made him a star player at Initiative, all at the age of 26.

“I have been in the business for 25 years, so I am sitting here going, ‘Here’s a kid telling me what to do,’ but then he started talking and I was so impressed,” says George DeBolt, vp of media promotion and partnership marketing at Showtime. “Jon has been instrumental in educating us about how to distribute our content in different ways. I call him our emerging technology guy.”

This tech guru is young, but his age is one reason Haber is so good at what he does. “He grew up in a time when there was no difference between new and old media,” says his supervisor, Alan Cohen, executive vp and managing director of Initiative Innovations and Entertainment. “It’s all just media.”

Haber and his job couldn’t be a better fit, and it only took him a few years and brief detour through law school to find it. After realizing a suit and tie and the courts weren’t for him, Haber went in search of a more creative outlet and started working for Rogers & Cowan, also an IPG agency. Then, in 2004, he took a job in the communications department at Initiative. It was there that he heard about the new Innovations group that Alan Cohen was starting, and he immediately started suggesting ideas. “He took the initiative to say, ‘What are you working on and can I help?’ I never met anyone that had the attitude, poise and good judgment at such a young age,” says Cohen. “I don’t think anyone was surprised when we hired him.”

Haber was actually the first person to be hired by Cohen and, a year later, he was promoted to account manager of both the Innovations and Entertainment departments. Earlier this year, he participated in the pitch to CBS and Showtime when the networks were looking for a new agency. “Jon was instrumental in our selection of Initiative,” said George Schweitzer, president of CBS Marketing Group.

The campaigns Haber has helped launch span the media landscape. For CBS, he and his team designed a promotion for the comedy The Class by creating an online community within the alumni-networking Web site classmates.com. They also negotiated a sneak preview of the show on Tivo. For Showtime, they created an instant messaging “bot” named for the title character of the network’s new drama Dexter. Fans write Dexter questions to which he is programmed to respond to through an algorithm. “It’s a cool, fun thing that people can do, from engaging to interacting,” Haber says. “It builds loyalty and spreads virally, so if I think it is fun enough I’ll tell you to go check it out.”

But probably his biggest claim to fame so far is his work with Initiative’s award-winning Pod-Puncher. He came up with the name, which is now trademarked. It is a 5-second spot inserted strategically before content resumes after a commercial break, but right after the network’s own billboard promoting the show. It cannot be skipped by a DVR: The idea is that it will also help viewers better recall the 30-second spot that airs later. “It is a commercial pod and it is punching it up in two ways,” Haber explains.

Perhaps Haber is so good at thinking of ways to outsmart new technology because he lives and breathes it. For example, it is typical for Haber to get episodes of his favorite TV shows from four different media platforms. For example, when he missed the first season of Lost on TV, he rented the DVD. Then, while watching the first season on his laptop, he taped the second season on his DVR. But he only recorded the second half of the season so he went online to watch the episodes he missed. “I love TV and I love pop culture and I am tuned into what is new and what is next naturally—it is part of my interests,” Haber says.

He surfs the Web and reads blogs. He talks with people in chat rooms and with his colleagues overseas to learn what new tech trends are bubbling up in Asia. He looks at YouTube every day to check out the most downloaded video of the day, the week and the month. “I keep track of that stuff,” he says. “I like it and it’s fun.”

Says Showtime’s DeBolt: “It is so important for Initiative’s clients to interact with someone who has this vast knowledge. We are looking at a couple of different ideas with mobile technology that he brought to our attention and, I’ll tell you, a year ago that technology wasn’t even on our radar.”

“People generally want to try the new thing … they want it to make sense for their marketing goals, but at the same time they want to be experimenting and learning and getting ahead,” Haber says. His clients “have a lot of fun because we are bringing a lot of these ideas to them and we are happy to do it.”