When Michael Sheldon first heard Chief Marketing Officer Michael Francis was leaving Target Corp. in 2011, Sheldon's heart sank.

The Minneapolis-based retailer had just hired Sheldon's advertising agency, Deutsch Los Angeles, to work on several campaigns. A new CMO could only mean one thing, Sheldon thought.

"Put on the life preserver," Sheldon said. "We're going overboard."

Several months later, Sheldon sat among 150 other nervous agency types waiting to meet Jeff Jones, the man Target tapped to replace Francis. Spotting a chance to grab Jones for a few minutes alone, Sheldon introduced himself.

"It felt like there was no one else in the room," Sheldon said. "It was utterly refreshing. Jeff was Bill Clinton-esque."

Not only did Target retain Deutsch LA, the agency later created one of the retailer's most successful campaigns of all time: the rollout of Target's exclusive edition of "The 20/20 Experience," Justin Timberlake's first album in six years. The innovative campaign, which fused old media with social media, earned Target an eye-popping 2.2 billion media impressions (the number of times content was viewed), an astonishing figure given today's fragmented media landscape.

It was also vintage Jones, who arrived at Target a year ago to help push the master of the cheap-chic store-based retailing into the digital age. Moreover, the Justin Timberlake campaign demonstrated the tricky tightrope Jones must navigate each day as the new kid in town: how to push change without … well, throwing people overboard.

"As a marketing team, we have this incredible pedigree of really great creative execution," Jones recently told the Star Tribune in an exclusive interview. "We can't go backward on any of these things. But what we have to add to it is to embrace accountability, the modern world of data and technology, the social world of all of the ways we can harness our guests to speak on our behalf."

"If you come into the job and make changes too fast, you're a bad listener," Jones continued. "If you make change too slowly, you're indecisive. There's not a recipe on how to guide that."

Changing big-box mentality

In person, Jones, only the third person to hold the Target CMO job and the first outsider, seems self-assured and even-tempered. With his stylish glasses and preference for pinstriped suits, the youthful looking Jones, 45, bears a passing resemblance to J.J. Abrams, the director behind the reboots of the "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" franchises. That seems fitting since both men were hired to refresh successful franchises clearly in need of fresh blood.

In Target, that need was in full display in fall 2011 when the retailer launched its Missoni collection. The line sold out within minutes, infuriating customers who also complained about Target.com's failure to properly process their orders. The episode left a black mark on what was supposed to be Target's moment of triumph.

But Missoni also laid bare deeper problems within Target. For all of its merchandising and marketing prowess, Target was stuck in a big-box mentality at time when mobile devices and social media were transforming retail.

Retail today "is way more complicated," said Steven Dennis, a consultant and former senior vice president of strategy and marketing for Neiman Marcus. "You have all of these digital channels and consumers can keep going back and forth. The power has really shifted toward the consumers, the speed at which consumers go through their decisionmaking journey."

Jones, an agency veteran and the former top marketing executive at Gap, also faced the daunting task of succeeding Francis, who is widely credited for creating Target's cheap-chic persona and briefly served as president for J.C. Penney. Jones said he was determined to bring a more holistic approach to marketing that required a greater degree of experimentation than Target was used to.

"Target has been an unbelievably healthy place," said Todd Marshall, senior vice president of marketing. "We didn't need to change something for change's sake."

At the same time, "Jeff is amazing at appreciating how all of our departments need to work together to create an integrated brand experience," Marshall said. "His voice at the executive committee level has been really important to innovate in this space."

Like many retailers, Target's corporate hierarchy operated in silos. If the Missoni debacle proved one thing, it was that people weren't operating on the same page.

"It wasn't that there was mistrust," Jones said. "It just was trust was missing."

In the past, Target's marketing teams primarily worked with stores and merchandising. But Jones also worked hard over the past year to develop chemistry with chief information officer Beth Jacob and multichannel president Casey Carl, who oversees digital operations, including mobile and website.

"I absolutely felt I had to reach out and build relationships with them that are the same kind of important relationships that [merchandising chief Kathy Tesija] and I have," Jones said. "That wasn't true three, five years ago. Every day that passes, our worlds get closer."

"I don't know if there is a playbook on how to do it," he said. "But I have a basic principle. You have to give to get."

Mixed results

Target's business performance since Jones' hire has been more of a mixed bag. Although critics generally praised the marketing campaign behind Target's holiday collaboration with Neiman Marcus, the collection itself — 50 products from 24 designers — failed to catch fire with consumers.

"We learned a lot of lessons," Jones said. "We learned about the complexity that comes when you have so many designers at once. I think simple is better."

But Target soon rebounded with its Justin Timberlake efforts, which began in March with a well-received commercial that ran immediately after Timberlake's performance at the Grammy Awards.

"Not only did Target steal the thunder from Budweiser, who also featured [Timberlake] in its own ad, the commercial came off as more humorous and generally entertaining than Timberlake's own performance that had aired just moments prior," Billboard magazine wrote.

Target later followed up with another commercial in which a dozen of hard-core J.T. fans, identified by Target through social media, performed his songs only to be surprised by the artist himself. During a launch party sponsored by Target and iHeartRadio in Los Angeles, Ryan Seacrest's interview with Timberlake was simultaneously broadcast live on Yahoo, the CW network, and 175 radio stations owned by Clear Channel.

"It was well-executed," Dennis, the former Neiman Marcus executive, said. "It generated a lot of positive PR."

Still, Target has a long way to go before it can be truly called a digital multichannel retailer, said Carol Spieckerman, president of the consulting firm Newmarketbuilders. Despite Jones' efforts, Target primarily remains a brick-and-mortar retailer whose stores have yet to be fully integrated with its online efforts.

Still, Spieckerman acknowledges, Jones has a done good job getting to know Target before he launches the kind of bold, risky efforts today's retail industry calls for. Target has offered some possible glimpses into Jones' future plans. To win over foodies, the company recently acquired Cooking.com and Chef's Catalog. Jones also recently hired Rick Gomez, a former beer executive, as senior vice president of brand and category marketing.

In the meantime, Jones said he continues to balance the sometimes conflicting impulses of change and stability.

"You have to look at platform by platform and understand that different platforms play different roles in consumers' lives," Jones said. "We are still learning by platform what are the limits, what are the boundaries, what goes too far."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-4113