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Why did you decide to start Minneapolis-based ad agency Peterson Milla Hooks (PMH)? I was lucky. I found huge opportunities in my own backyard in Minneapolis. Prince was my first client. I worked with then-eighteen-year-old Prince on promotional materials before his debut album, For You, dropped in 1978. We created mailers, which included a demo of his music on tape, superglued into boom boxes, then sent to the likes of Berry Gordy and labels like A&M Records, Columbia Records and Warner Bros. Totally grass root—but it worked. Then there was Target. It was an indescribable opportunity to help build and shape the Target brand for 20-plus years.

Was there a turning point when you realized that PMH had come into its own as an agency? Honestly, we were so thrilled with the opportunities that we were thinking more about our clients than ourselves. For years, we worked under the radar and were totally immersed in the creativity and elevating the brands we worked with. We loved it! It wasn’t until we were featured in Adweek that we really felt the world knew who we were.

PMH specializes in creating campaigns for retail brands. What misconceptions do people have about the retail industry? You are either good at retail marketing or not. To do retail well, you need to check a lot of boxes: great design, great strategy, great execution and that unique intuition that just makes people love the messaging. With retail, you’re often playing to people’s desires. There is an art to creating that desire, and you just have it or you don’t.

A great idea is a great idea, and we should be open to where those ideas come from.”

What are the particular challenges of creating advertising campaigns for retail brands today? In retail especially, it can’t just be a transaction. To succeed, it has to be an experience. You have to build a relationship way beyond the product. You also need to look at all available channels to discover the ones that are going to deliver. Retail can’t rely on the traditional channels of print, TV and outdoor.

Is data a good way to learn about a brand? Data can tell us all sorts of things about the customer base. Depending on how the brand has used A/B testing in the market, we can learn how consumers receive communications, prototyping and new products. Social media listening has also given us a way to learn about our brands in real time, but hasn’t yet—in our experience—been able to glean any real actionable insights that we weren’t already onto; it helps validate. Data is a good way for brands to learn and to optimize, especially if they have all of their data streams working together—it is a big job to manage and ensure they’re working seamlessly. Oftentimes, the data we have is so quickly outdated or is not being cross-referenced with other data streams and marketing teams that it gives us a very narrow view.

How has the role of the creative director changed since your early days in the advertising industry? The classic model of the creative director overseeing the creative team is outdated. I like to initially start projects with a broader approach by including the copywriter, art director, designer, content creator, content producer, account manager, project manager, strategist and media/channel strategist. Also, it can be invaluable to include the client and consumers at the right point. There needs to be a discovery phase where this group interacts as a team. The creative director’s job is to facilitate the conversation between everyone and to help chart the strongest course, letting the appropriate people lead the way.

Is experiential advertising where it’s at now? Yes. We all know that the world has changed and continues to change. With all of the technology and communication channels available today, you have to provide way more than just a transaction.

What emergent technology or platform should retailers start taking advantage of?

1) Drone delivery, voice activation and virtual assistants, which can all be related to the connected home.

2) Using beacons, eye tracking and heat mapping in stores enables retailers to connect the data they can get from e-commerce, but in the physical space.

3) Security technology. Every retailer needs to be upping its game to protect consumers’ personal information and data.

Depending on what study you look at, 50 percent of purchases still take place in a physical space, so technology cannot ignore that entirely.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out? I have two things. The first is that people shouldn’t be so worried about staying in their lane. A great idea is a great idea, and we should be open to where those ideas come from. The second is to enjoy the climb. This should be a fun, creative business. If you enjoy it, the work will be better.

Dave Peterson founded Minneapolis, Minnesota–based ad agency Peterson Milla Hooks (PMH) in 1989. Peterson made his mark working for Target over the course of 22 years, helping the retailer become one of the most iconic brands in the country and earning the creative industry’s highest accolades in the process. More recently, he has led creative campaigns for a blue-chip roster of clients, including Athleta, Gap, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Kmart, Sephora, Mattel, Nine West and White House Black Market.


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