CHICAGO – As the head of R/GA Chicago, a 6-year-old outpost of the cutting-edge digital ad agency, Jeff Brecker understands the power of reinvention.
Founded in 1977 as a computer-assisted filmmaking company, R/GA created the opening title sequence for the movie “Superman” in 1978 and went on to do work in films like “Alien,” “Altered States” and “Ghostbusters” before rebooting.
The company evolved into a digital ad agency whose game-changing work includes developing an online platform for Nike in 2006 for runners to record, track and share data, leading to the Nike+ FuelBand, a mass appeal fitness product.
More recently, R/GA helped Beats grow from a headphone company into a music streaming service and cultural icon, culminating in its $3 billion acquisition by Apple in 2014. R/GA also created the 2014 Super Bowl spot for Beats.
A Chicago ad agency veteran, Brecker, 41, was previously managing director at Digital Kitchen. Before that, he spent three years as director of digital strategy at Leo Burnett. He became vice president and managing director of R/GA Chicago in the spring of 2013.
Two years ago, R/GA Chicago was named the agency of record for Beef Checkoff, the advertising program funded by cattle ranchers that spawned the tagline “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” R/GA Chicago added beer to the menu last summer as lead social media agency for Constellation Brands, working with Corona Extra, Pacifico and Tocayo, as well as the company’s recently acquired tequila, Casa Noble. Another signature win is the UFC, the mixed martial arts empire, which tapped R/GA Chicago to design its subscription digital video product.
Brecker grew up in a Baltimore suburb and is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate. R/GA Chicago has about 50 employees.
The Chicago Tribune recently interviewed Brecker. What follows is an edited transcript.
Q: Dropping TV and print for digital is a huge leap for advertisers. Was it hard to convince the Beef folks to take their messaging online?
A: That was a huge challenge. In the past it was all about baby boomers, and baby boomers watched TV, they read magazines. Millennial parents consume media differently. A lot of the ranchers are saying we don’t see what we’re paying for. If they see the advertising they’re paying for, we’re doing our job wrong.
Q: Have you changed the message as well as the medium?
A: We kept the core “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” as their tagline, but we changed how it looked and felt online. It was less about advertising a big piece of steak and more about showing you how to use beef in everyday meals with recipe videos.
Q: What is the best mistake you ever made? What did you learn from it?
A: I don’t believe in mistakes, I believe in decisions. There’s some good, some bad. But if I could reframe the question I would say, what’s the best decision that I’ve made that people thought was a mistake? That was, five or six years ago, I was a senior vice president at Leo Burnett and I decided that I wanted to leave to become the managing director of a small production company. I was a new father, I was doing award-winning work within that agency, but what I really wanted to do was get out of the traditional ad agency and focus on a new type of company that was out there doing very innovative work. So I joined Digital Kitchen here in Chicago that I ran for three years, and professionally it was probably the greatest growth that I had because I learned how to run a business.
Q: The company or exec whose work you admire most? Why?
A: It’s hard not to look at … Bob Greenberg, who is the founder and my boss and the current CEO of the company, and not say R/GA. This is a company that was founded in 1977 as a Hollywood production company and has reinvented itself four times, always looking at what was happening in culture, how people were consuming media, and innovating and adapting. And looking at that body of work from 1977 until now, I can’t think of another company that can even compare.
Q: What is your greatest fear? Why?
A: I would say my greatest fear is to become disconnected from culture and stop innovating. I think the one thing that I’ve always prided myself on is keeping myself relevant, and I think a lot of times once people have success or succeed, they feel that that one way of doing certain things is the way to always achieve success, when in fact it’s not. Most of the time you need to continually change, you need to continually stay on top of what’s happening culturally to stay relevant and stay successful.
You don’t want to become Blockbuster, you don’t want to not see Airbnb or Facebook or Uber coming. Because once you stop seeing what’s happening out in the world, life passes you by.
Q: What would you do differently, if given a second chance?
A: I wouldn’t have sold my Apple stock in 2004.