POV: Interview with John Campanella, Director of Client Services at 160over90

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



John Campanella

Welcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourself.

I’m John Campanella, director of client services at 160over90, a branding agency with offices in Philadelphia and Newport Beach, California.

Prior to moving to Philadelphia, I spent 14 years in New York City, where I worked for a number of large-scale agencies and flipped real estate on the side. Most recently, I was a managing director at mcgarrybowen, running the Marriott International account. My experiences at Ogilvy, Draftfcb and Euro RSCG (now Havas) have led me to champion a number of iconic, global brands, including Samsung, Diet Coke and Motorola.

I’ve also driven marketing across a number of North American packaged goods brands for Kraft, Reckitt Benckiser and Post Cereals (the last of which won two Cannes Lions from 2008 to 2010).

Marketing has always been in my blood. I used to recite Wonderbread commercials when I was 3 years old, and my love for brands hasn’t stopped.

Tell us more about 160over90 and the type of work you do there.

160over90 is a branding agency. We don’t think of ourselves as an ad agency; we develop meaningful stories for brands that provide a visceral reaction in the consumer (hence our name, which is in reference to elevated blood pressure). We’re equal parts think tank and design shop, and we have worked with an array of clients: Mercedes-Benz, American Eagle and Diageo to Yapple Yogurt, Design Within Reach and the YMCA. We also have specialty focuses in sports (Nike Tennis, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins) and higher education (UCLA, The University of Notre Dame, Cornell University and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others).

You’ve worked at large agencies like mcgarrybowen and Ogilvy & Mather. What’s the biggest advantage you’ve found to working at an independent agency like 160over90? What are the biggest challenges?

Well, I think I got the best of both worlds. Working at large agencies gave me a solid backbone in account management, strategic planning and integration.

While that backbone is obviously critical, it’s working at an independent agency like 160over90 that gives you your bite. It’s where you go to sharpen your teeth. When your agency is smaller — and endless possibilities are ahead of you — you think, act and work differently. Your hunger for growth and personal impact on the agency — and passion for your client’s business — means taking more calculated risks, being more invested in the work and ultimately creating a better product and client relationship because of it.

The biggest challenge? Not enough hours in the day. We are always trying to push ourselves and our work further.

Describe the company culture at 160over90. In your opinion, what are the biggest determinants of agency culture?

We’re the happiest, most fluid, fully functioning island of misfit toys you’ve ever seen! I can’t quite explain it, but that’s part of what I like about it. Nothing about our culture has been forced: the vibe is comfortable, and we all come to work as we are. We embrace who each other is and value the thinking associated with that perspective. That attitude comes from our executive team: the partners, Darryl Cilli and Shannon Slusher, our group executive creative director, Jim Walls, and myself. We are also invested in each other beyond our outputs at work, which is important.

At the end of the day, the common denominator across the agency is passion. We all have a fire in our belly to do big things and take the work to the next level. There’s a lot of mutual respect in that.

How is the rise of digital media changing what clients expect from a branding campaign? Do you feel traditional media (print, TV, point-of-purchase, etc.) are becoming less or more important?

I’m a big believer that media channels are all about fit and leverage, and their value and order of importance varies depending on the brand and brand story. No one medium is more or less important than another. Once you craft a story for your brand, what media you use and how they come together will change.

Whenever we work with a client, we develop a brand concept for them. This is media agnostic. We want clients to focus on and be comfortable with the story we’re telling first and foremost. Then we can partner with them on where that storyline gets told.

Clients should expect their campaigns to have ownable stories to them and not rely on a beginning, middle and end. Digital media has the potential to allow every point of engagement — online and offline — to feel like a starting point.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions clients have about social media as it relates to branding? How do you show the value an agency can provide?

Social media is a mafia medium. Once you get in, there’s no pulling out. Not only is identifying and delivering against the proper cadence of community inspiration and brand messaging difficult, but it’s also risky.

Clients often want a social media strategy because they think it rounds out their brand’s communications strategy and is cheap to execute against. The problem is that doing it right can actually be quite expensive and time-consuming.

For example, social media can make issues with your brand difficult to contain (think unhappy customers, hundreds of friends and a microphone perched on top of a soap box). The damage incurred and clean-up associated with such may outweigh the perceived value of your social media presence.

The other branding misconception lies in intentions. If I pass along a Gilt.com link or Groupon deal on Facebook, it’s not because I like Gilt or Groupon — it’s because I like my friends. There is a difference there, and brands need to understand the roles that they play in social media to positively affect their overarching relationships with consumers.

Agencies can provide value by showing where the connective tissue lies between “the big idea” and social media. The more those two things are intrinsically linked, the easier it is to maintain an authentic brand experience and proper cadence of messaging, and the more consumers will engage with you because of it.

Do you think the pitch process is broken or needs to be changed? How would you change it?

The pitch process is what you make of it. I think the biggest part of the process that is broken actually lies with agencies. Agencies are gluttons for punishment and often pitch an absurd amount of work in hopes of growing their business. What ends up happening is they do none of it well. They don’t impress potential clients and strike out in new business. They create an environment where current clients become frustrated (wondering who’s minding the store on their account) and — most importantly — the agency exhausts their talent as a result.

We rarely pitch business. We believe that the proof is in the pudding and that our current work speaks for itself. It’s also very important to us that our focus remains on doing great work for our current clients. Our organic growth is bordering on ridiculous because of it — and that’s a good thing.

If we truly are passionate about a brand and believe in it — and our ability to take it to the next level – of course we’ll pitch it. We’ll give it 110 percent. But we’re picky. We don’t chase after new business. We’re fortunate not to have to.

How has the account services role evolved? What skills and knowledge do account executives need in order to make the role relevant in the future?

Account services is more important today than ever before, and remaining a solid, relevant account person means playing two roles perfectly: casting agent and Broadway swing performer.

Casting Agent: When a client calls with a business challenge or opportunity, it’s absolutely critical to understand what they need (which, at times, is different than what they say they’re looking for), who the right players are within the agency to tackle that issue (which is often easier said than done) and how to hustle. Getting the job done perfectly not only means client success, but it also means agency success — and more casting opportunities.

Swing: A great account person is not a one-trick pony. He or she must have a significant amount of strategic, creative and production bench strength to bring to the table. Sometimes, being a great swing means casting yourself in one or more roles; often, it’s in the role of the client to truly understand what their appetite is for work and what avenue will be most successful at delivering against such.

It goes without saying that account people must have business acumen. Clients are responsible for a brand’s growth, but account services is responsible for both the client’s growth and the agency’s growth.

In my experience, cross-pollinating ideas and learnings between industries and clients has been extremely helpful in growing the client’s business and our agency. I think that’s one of the reasons why 160over90 has been so successful; we’re aces at it. We’ve been leading the charge in higher education marketing for years — our psychographic understanding of millenials and their parents is unparalleled and widely applicable to consumer advertising. Conversely, we’ve had colleges like UCLA come to us because of our experience with American Eagle, And1, Delonghi and the like. We understand people, culture and motivations, and we do it authentically.


What is the secret to a long-lasting, mutually beneficial client relationship?

Treat the client relationship like a marriage. Trust, respect, dedication and shared passion are key to a healthy, long-lasting relationship. Accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and don’t try to force “normalcy.” Find a way of working together that benefits both of you equally.

What trends in advertising is 160over90 most interested in for 2013? What have your clients been interested in?

I believe the trend for 2013 should be to stop following trends! We’re too stuck on “me too” and should be focused on “me first.”

Whenever I see something that makes me say “I wish I had thought of that,” I don’t go and replicate it. I search harder for the next thing I can own to achieve that same feeling of success. It’s the new stuff that emerges out of nowhere (like a bat out of hell) that piques my interest most — and is worth being most proud of.`

One reason you love what you do: I love getting to exercise all parts of my brain all day long. The business side, the strategic side and the creative side are constantly at work – often in tandem with one another — to get the job done. Working with like-minded people makes it even better.

Mentor: Hands down, my dad, who passed away when I was 17. While his life was way too short, he taught me several things: how to be a strong and upstanding individual, the importance of relationships/never taking people for granted and that doing anything less than 110 percent might as well mean not doing anything at all. I hope that I can be half of the man that he was.

Must read book: I would be remiss if i didn’t say 160over90’s new book, “Three and a Tree.” It’s a fun, provocative read that debunks a number of higher education marketing techniques and showcases the agency’s approach to unlocking meaningful, iconic university brands through real world examples and current clients, like the University of Notre Dame.


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