Columns / Insights

Ads Without the Advertising

Jay  Benjamin
How did you become interested in the advertising industry? I get bored very easily. When I did homework as a kid, I would switch off after getting just two pages into a history textbook. For hours, I would draw, flip through magazines looking at photographs, and cut out Absolut Vodka ads—lots of Absolut ads. I would even write little stories. I’d finish my homework at the last minute and then go to bed, my mind wandering out the window. My father actually kept a fully tattooed childhood night stand that I had covered in drawings, patterns and song lyrics. As I grew older, I got serious about the wandering: drawing classes, design classes. Eventually, I landed in an advertising concept class at Boston University. I was hooked on this life, where my mind could wander and come up with new ideas every day.

What do you keep in mind as you are brainstorming new campaigns? The first thing: Forget everything I’ve done before. Every assignment is different, so repeating the past doesn’t make sense. From there, it’s about the quest for truth. If you look at everything great that’s ever been done, it’s all based on an unassailable and bravely stated truth, going as far back as Avis’s tagline “We Try Harder.” And then I look for simplicity. Culture is pretty good at this. “Shake It off” and “Happy” are pretty good examples of things that stick.

What are some memorable campaigns you’ve worked on? The work we’ve done for Pampers at Saatchi & Saatchi means a lot to me because it’s how I feel as a parent. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my babies. I also love the Marshmallow Only Lucky Charms sweepstakes we created. It came from listening to Lucky Charms marshmallow enthusiasts on Twitter and working with a client brave enough to do something different. And “Greenlight A Vet” genuinely makes a difference in peoples’ lives. When I see the lights in my neighborhood, I feel a tremendous sense of pride and gratitude for our veterans. But nothing beats the experience of creating “New York Writes Itself,” an Off-Broadway play for the Village Voice. It was weird, wonderful and challenging, and I can’t describe the feeling of sitting in the audience with my mom, explaining to her how it all came about.

“Greenlight A Vet” and “New York Writes Itself” both grew through the actions of real people, along with the campaigns “Vote Earth,” “The World Needs More __” and “Photochains.” Why is collective action important for advertising today? Actions are far more intimate and memorable than sitting on your couch and just seeing an ad on TV, whether you change a light bulb to honor veterans in your community or upload something crazy you saw on the streets of New York City—which later gets made into a play or an art exhibit. There is power in feeling you are part of something bigger—feeling connected to other people. Done right, it can be magic for a brand.

But I hate briefs that say, “Let’s start a movement.” For example, with Canon “Photochains,” we simply wanted to “inspire photographers to take their work to another level.” Our answer came in a community where one photographer could inspire another by taking photographs and tagging a bit of inspiration for the next photographer. And then Instagram happened. Damn.

The first thing: Forget everything I’ve done before.

How do brands balance a social mission with profit? The problem here is mixing the two—brands that promote their products, but mask it as a mission to do good. We’ve seen too much of this over the last few years. It’s clumsy and disingenuous. But should a brand like Honey Nut Cheerios, which uses real honey, also work to save the honeybees? Yes, of course it should. Should Walmart, the largest employer of veterans in America, also create and promote a national symbol of veteran support? Absolutely. These genuine acts promote more good in the world. You can’t put a price on the value returned to the brands.

After winning 37 Cannes Lions, how has your work evolved from when you first started in advertising? When I first started, I created good work in controlled environments like print and out of home, but outside of that, my work looked a lot like someone trying to find something in a dark room in the middle of the night—loud and clunky. It was also surface level. Maybe it’s maturity, but I focus much more on the deeper meaning of everything we do now, making sure the work stays true to the vision at every stage of the execution. Attending Cannes, traveling the world and learning from different cultures have all informed me of what it means to be a global—not just American—citizen. It’s made my work more human.

For instance, living in Australia definitely affected my sense of humor. Australia has a self-deprecating culture where tall poppies get chopped down. A good lesson for life, not just advertising.

What is one challenge currently facing the advertising industry that it needs to address? It’s pretty loud and clear: diversity. I’m happy that more women work on our leadership team at Saatchi & Saatchi than men, but there is so much more that needs to be done. Our industry needs to reflect the culture we are trying to connect with.

How do you stay inspired? I don’t look at advertising as much as I used to. It just feels like work to me and puts me back in the same headspace as everyone else.

I spend a lot of time outdoors. Sailing, paddle boarding, playing with my kids, enjoying dates with my wife. Being human. And I listen to a lot of music. I believe nothing stimulates your brain—and heart—quite like music. It all goes back to that kid avoiding his homework. I just want to wander.

Jay Benjamin is the chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi New York, a father to three young girls, a mediocre hockey player and an avid sailor. He was recently listed as one of Adweek’s 50 most vital leaders in technology, media and marketing. Under his creative leadership, Saatchi & Saatchi New York was named Advertising Age’s Creativity Innovators Comeback Agency. Key campaigns include Pampers’ #BetterForBaby platform, Walmart’s “Greenlight A Vet” movement and the Marshmallow Only Lucky Charms sweepstakes featuring rapper Biz Markie. Prior to his time at Saatchi & Saatchi New York, Benjamin spent nearly eight years abroad at Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney and Leo Burnett Sydney, where he won the Cannes Lions Grand Prix for Canon “Photochains” and led the largest mass participation event in history for the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Earth Hour. After his first daughter was born, Benjamin and his young family came home to New York City to open an entrepreneurially driven office for Leo Burnett. There, he produced an Off-Broadway play for the Village Voice and helped grow Chobani into a billion dollar brand. Throughout his career, Benjamin has worked on and led campaigns for many global brands including Heineken, Samsung and Chase. He has served on the Worldwide Creative Boards of both Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi. His work has been accepted into the Museum of Modern Art and recognized at every major award show, including the MTV Video Music Awards, the Clio Hall of Fame, Best of Show at the One Show Entertainment awards, Cannes Lions Agency of the Year and 37 Cannes Lions.



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