By Jack Feuer
Published Apr 1, 2013 8:00 AM
A program that 45 million people used to digitize themselves as characters on The Simpsons was named one of Advertising Age's Top 10 Ideas of the Decade. Also generating buzz was the world's largest cab stunt in New York, created to promote NBC's rebranding. These are not typical ad agency jobs, and Culver City-based Pitch, co-founded by Jon Banks '95, is not your typical ad agency. The shop has won major ad industry awards for clients like Burger King, Nickelodeon and ASICS.
Q: How'd you get here?
A: A week after I graduated from UCLA, I started as the proverbial "assistant to the assistant" at [promotions agency] Equity Marketing. I ended up being the co-CEO with [Pitch co-principal] Kim Thomsen. But there are restrictions on running a creative-driven agency if you're that big, and we knew that if we wanted to have what we aspired to, we'd have to create it ourselves. So when our contracts were up in 2007, we started Pitch. We had about 12 people. Burger King, with whom we'd worked at Equity, was our first client.
Q: What did you aspire to?
A: We set out with a vision and it's on our wall with 17,000 pushpins: to create ideas worth talking about. To ask the questions no one else is asking. And to come up with solutions that no one else has thought of. There are a lot of agencies that do these big, beautiful brand campaigns that don't amount to anything. We set out to fill a niche of doing big ideas that not only won awards, but also drove real business results.
For instance, one of the first things we did for Burger King was to reinvent the video-game model. We knew that what cost $60 at Target or Walmart shouldn't. You could actually do it for $4. We sat down with the Burger King chief marketing officer and showed him how you can take out this $10 from the cost, and make this $12 cost $1, and so on. And we made three video games that starred the King and other Burger King-brand icons and sold them in the restaurants for $3.99. We sold 3.2 million units in four weeks and their business drove up 40 percent for that quarter. And we won the Titanium Grand Prix at Cannes. That was the proof of concept for our vision. And now we have 50 people.
Q: You create traditional advertising, stunts, events, digital, social media, all sorts of programs and campaigns. How do you find qualified people to do all of that?
A: Los Angeles has a thriving advertising, marketing and entertainment community, so the talent base is huge. Kim and I really believe in intellectual diversity. If you hire the same person over and over again, you're not going to get ideas that no one else has ever thought of, and so our people come from incredibly diverse backgrounds — advertising, entertainment, some from packaged-goods clients, some from the finance side, even traditional artists who have never done anything commercial in their life. We just hired a woman who played Josie Bruin when she was at UCLA.
Q: So that's what makes a modern Mad Man or Woman? Intellectual curiosity and an open environment?
Jon Banks '95 talks about advertising, his agency, and how dogs bring out the best in people.
Video by Aaron Proctor '05
A: I think so. You have to be willing to be daring. There are too many brain messages, too many demands on consumers' attention.
Q: Is there even such a thing as advertising the way we have historically defined it anymore?
A: I don't think so. Every place that the consumer sees your brand, every place that the consumer interacts in their own lives, it's all become one integrated process where we need to be able to point out why our brands are better, why they'll help you achieve what you want to achieve. The medium might be your TV, it might be your iPhone, it might be an event, and it might be one of 50 different things that have existed for 100 years. But the idea drives it. Advertising is just one possible extension. We've created a term called "nowtice," a combination of "now" and notice."
When I got my dog Bernie, the very next day on my way to work there was a pet hospital that just opened up. The park we drove past every day was a dog park. There was a pet-supply shop in the mini mall that I went to every day for lunch. Now either all of those places opened up overnight, or now I was noticing— or nowticing — something that my brain had switched on. That's so fundamental to communications.
Q: We can't let you go without talking about The Simpsonizer, which you created when the movie came out.
A: The Simpsonizer is the most fun we never want to have again. It was so incredibly challenging. The Simpsons had been around for 20 years. They had done every kind of marketing with a ton of different brands. Simpsons characters were the ones that lived in Springfield and celebrities who made cameos. So we said, what if we could give consumers something previously only available to the rich and famous, and that is to download a photo, press a button and immediately you'll be turned into your own Simpsons character.
We actually scoured the globe and found a company in Germany that had KGB software that mapped people. We got a license on that software, used it for this project, created thousands of Simpsonized ears, hairstyles, face shapes, eyes, etc., and went live. We had no idea what would happen. And it crashed the world. It was the number-one search term on Google, more than 1 billion hits and had 45 million people Simpsonize themselves in a four-week period. Because we asked a question no one had ever asked and found a solution that no one had ever thought of.
Q: Your UCLA degree is in history. How did that prepare you for all of this?
A: I love history. If I wasn't doing this, I would be a UCLA history professor. History teaches us how to think critically. The old saying about history repeating itself may or may not be true, but it's definitely a giant warning sign. I came to advertising with the idea to not repeat the same mistakes that we continue to make in marketing and communications.