Mr. Steel's parents were British kindergarten teachers, and classmates scolded by them took revenge on young Jon during recess.
"I learned to fight dirty," he says. "That explains it all."
At Goodby, Mr. Steel has made his own rules in account planning and helped turn a creative boutique with $30 million in billings when he arrived in 1989 into a $350 million shop today.
He eschews focus groups, saying they're designed more for the comfort of the people behind the glass than for the consumer in front of it. To get a better feel for a client's target consumer, Mr. Steel, 32, goes into the field.
For Sega, Goodby conducted research in teens' bedrooms. For Porsche, agency planners rode in the passenger seat during test drives. Most recently, online research helped snag the $35 million Pacific Bell account. For the $10 million Haggar Apparel Co., Mr. Steel sent a videotape of consumers showing off their wardrobes.
"To elicit true and honest responses, you need to locate the consumers in a natural habitat," he says.
In one instance, Mr. Steel turned a negative consumer reaction into a positive. In its pitch to PacBell, the agency created several campaign ideas and showed how consumers didn't like the shop's own favorite selection. The result was an on-site illustration of the agency's honesty and openess, as well as how the agency operated.
Goodby has 10 planners on its 130-employee staff, which is a higher-than-average ratio. And planners have been elevated to the level of account executives. Each account has one planner and a planner has no more than two or three clients-a smaller load than at most other shops.
Mr. Steel also began a planner training program, so Goodby will "not have to go to Britain or other agencies to steal them," he says.
Mr. Steel and Goodby have come a long way since October 1989-the month he joined the shop and the San Francisco Bay area earthquake hit. Originally, Mr. Steel, who considers himself a born planner, was to come to San Francisco three days before the quake, but he decided to take a week off. "Now, that's my definition of a planner," he says.