You Never Know

For John Staffen, the New York State Lottery account was the one that got away. Staffen, who helped create the “Hey, you never know” campaign, took the loss personally when, after 10 years at DDB in New York, the client moved the business to Grey in 1998.

Three years later, DDB’s veteran art director with the near-permanent smile led the pitch that brought back the $60 million account and the original tagline. In October, Staffen was promoted to executive creative director, running DDB’s 32-person creative department. That same month, he helped the agency win the Yankees Entertainment Network business.

Staffen, 40, has reached a professional turning point after an 18-year career spent almost entirely at DDB’s New York headquarters. (He’s done short stints at then-Chiat/Day, New York, and Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto.) “I like John’s ability to rally people,” says DDB New York chairman Bob Kuperman, who joined the agency in January from TBWA. “He has a great sense and ability to sum up people’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Staffen’s work stays true to the agency brand, says Kuperman. Staf fen himself says its strength is in what it lacks—a signature style. His reel ranges from what he calls a “lovely and sentimental” McDonald’s spot involving a coming-of-age story to a hilarious Bud Light ad (Staffen’s team surreptitiously filmed taxicab rides featuring one of the Jerky Boys as a dispatcher harassing the driver to make a beer run).

“We have to know when to give the rah-rah speech, when to make you laugh or cry—and when to use the Jerky Boys,” says Staffen, who credits his “form follows function” approach to his years at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., where an occasional instructor was none other than Kuperman.

Staffen’s personal style is marked by his open, affable demeanor, but also by his tendency to be a tough judge of his staff’s creative. Not a believer in hierarchical management, he prefers the creative department’s common work area to his office. That hands-on style, however, raises questions about whether Staffen can distance himself enough from the work to be an effective leader. “People’s strengths are also sometimes their weaknesses,” says a former colleague. “He gets so wrapped up in the work, he tends not to delegate.”

It’s a fair assessment, says Staffen. “That’s a challenge to any creative director who’s risen through the ranks,” he adds. “It’s something I’ll have to grow into. But I like leading by example, and I expect the people who work for me to push themselves as far as I’m willing to.”

Though he spoke to outside candidates for the ecd job, Kuperman says that after observing Staffen for 10 months, Staffen was clearly his man. For the Lottery business, he says, “John ran the creative almost singlehandedly, and I was impressed with the way he presented the work and understood the strategy.”

DDB’s new campaign, which broke in October, features ordinary people singing the Barenaked Ladies tune “If I Had a Million Dollars.” “I thought of using that song two years ago, after the account was gone,” says Staffen, smiling, with an appreciation for life’s absurdities.