JWT North America has lured two well-known digital creatives to join the WPP shop's leadership team: Jeff Benjamin, who is a partner at MDC Partners' CP&B and Mike Geiger, chief digital officer and associate partner at Omnicom Group's Goodby Silverstein & Partners.
Mr. Benjamin will become the WPP shop's new North American chief creative officer, while Mr. Geiger's new title will be president-chief integration officer at JWT North America. It's a bit of a reunion; they worked together years ago at Goodby. The duo is expected to begin in their new roles in late February, after Mssrs. Benjamin and Geiger relocate to New York from Boulder and San Francisco, respectively.
The moves, which come after months of on-and-off talks, mean that just a little over a year after hiring back Peter Nicholson as chief creative officer in New York, he'll be out seeking a new gig. JWT intends to replace his position, but it appears the agency wants to ensure it hires an individual who has Mr. Benjamin's blessing.
New York is the largest branch of JWT's network of 200 global offices.
By kicking 2012 off with a major creative change, JWT hopes it can reenergize its business and strengthen its North American leadership team. Messrs. Benjamin and Geiger join North America CEO David Eastman, Chief Strategy Officer Robin Bardolia, and Chief Marketing Officer Beth Waxman. Last year was rocky for the agency, which lost major pieces of business from Microsoft and Kraft Foods, but in the second half managed to land a significant win with the U.S. Corporation for Travel Promotion.
JWT has also lacked a North American creative leader since the departure of Ty Montague, who left with former co-president Rosemarie Ryan in 2010 to form New York-based firm Co.
"We didn't want to just fill in the blanks, so to speak," JWT Worldwide Chairman-CEO Bob Jeffrey said. "Jeff Benjamin was somebody that we had on our list for awhile. The reason why we couldn't talk to Jeff when we wanted to is that we had Microsoft as a client and they had a strict policy [about poaching talent]. It was only after this year that we could start opening up the door." He added: "The fact that they've both done groundbreaking work for legitimately big clients was very important to David and I."
Mr. Eastman has known Mr. Geiger since 2005, when the two worked at Omnicom. "Part of the appeal for the two of them is the two of them working together again, and there's something nice about getting the band back together for them."
Messrs. Benjamin and Geiger spent nearly a year working together at Goodby on the Hewlett-Packard account (which recently exited the agency) but then Mr. Benjamin moved on to CP&B. There, he was behind some of the agency's biggest hits, such as Burger King's Whopper Sacrifice, which saw thousands of Facebook friends traded in for Whoppers, as well as Best Buy's customer-service swat team, Twelpforce. He's also credited with the agency's digital integration -- it rid itself of titles such as "digital creative director" years ago, and has been a darling on award juries.
"I'd hoped at some point we would come together again but I didn't really think that was a possibility until recently," said Mr. Benjamin about his new partner, Mr. Geiger, who at Goodby was responsible for work on the Sprint's "Now Network" campaign and virtual "Adobe Museum," among other things. "There was something special about him in the way that he fought for the creative idea. He would do whatever it took to make that idea come to life. We were on the cusp of doing something special and since then we stayed in touch."
Said Mr. Benjamin: "There's not a lot wrong with my job at CPB, so the thought of me leaving never really crossed my mind," but "that feeling of being scared and trying something new is something that advertising teaches you. It was time to try a new challenge, and maybe do it on a different scale as well."
"JWT is this old-school big agency but they are actually taking a risk in reinventing themselves, and that to me was very exciting," said Mr. Geiger.
It's certainly not the only big network that's looking for a major overhaul, and the endeavor is coming up with mixed results so far. Ogilvy hired Lars Bastholm from AKQA to serve as a top creative a couple of years ago. That didn't pan out, and he's now relocated to Cheil USA Worldwide. But at Grey, Tor Myhren has infused a new standard of creativity. Meanwhile McCann Worldgroup has placed a big bet on former Mother top creative Linus Karlsson to help turn the network's New York and London offices around.
For their part, the two newcomers to JWT say they are committed to spending time with their new coworkers, hearing what works and doesn't work at the agency before making a slew of wholesale changes. "We don't want to come off like dicks," said Mr. Geiger. "We don't want to piss people off right away."
You could say that's sound advice for anyone starting a new job.
The loss of Mr. Benjamin for CP&B means more restructuring at the top, as it follows other high-profile departures such as Winston Binch departing for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, Los Angeles and of course, the departure of Alex Bogusky.
Rob Reilly, CP&B's global chief creative officer, had this to say about Mr. Benjamin: "He had a pretty awesome gig here ... he did digital but really moved over into the innovation space. He's the kind of person that wants everybody to be good at digital. He's such a great teacher to people and that's the legacy he'll leave. Hopefully he's going to do the same at JWT ."
The agency has no plans to hire a replacement. "My focus is more looking for mid-level talent of people that have grown up in the digital world that don't have to be taught as much, that have been learning it throughout their careers."