POV: Interview with John Elder, President of Heat

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Welcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourself.

I’m John Elder, president of Heat, an independent agency based in San Francisco. I live about two miles from my office. I’ve been working with my partner, Steve Stone, since he called me up with the idea of doing something fresh. I jumped at the opportunity because I feel the vast majority of advertising is invisible, irrelevant or insulting. Before Heat, I was at Goodby for 10 years, and prior I was back in New England, where I’m from, working at Arnold and Leonard/Monahan.

Tell us more about Heat and the type of work you do.

At Heat we believe in the power of surprise. Consumers are inundated with marketing messages, and we think you need something extra that will get their attention and reward them for spending time with your brand and message. We actually study the science of surprise from both a cognitive and business standpoint.

What is the advantage of being an independent agency?

We only have to worry about answering to our clients, not shareholders in France. We have the freedom to try new things and pursue client relationships that will fit, without limitation. Our clients know that there is nothing more important to us than helping them achieve success. Plus, we’ve found being independent is an advantage in recruiting talent.

How does the San Francisco area influence your work or provide Heat with opportunities?

In San Francisco, we are surrounded by startups that continue to redefine the world and the way people conduct business. It’s an exciting, vibrant city where success is defined more by what you do than who you know. It’s an exciting place to be at an exciting time. That said, I’m still partial to Boston sports teams.

How does Heat approach the creative and strategic process differently than other agencies?

We believe if you use the element of surprise in all of your thinking, you have a distinct advantage. We conducted an experiment by putting an Internet search company logo on a coffee maker to gauge brand value. We’ve hired someone to sing the national anthem to begin a creative presentation on a sports account. We also borrowed Donna Karan’s East Village loft and dressed it as a Heat office to conduct a creative work session. We maintain an element of surprise in everything we do.

There is a debate that there is too much “risk-aversion” in the advertising industry, and agencies need to be evolving and innovating in order to remain relevant. What is your take on this debate?

In our current 24/7/365 world, our clients are under more pressure than ever to deliver immediately, and there is no appetite on Wall Street for risk, trial or failure. The only way to be truly innovative is to not only embrace risk, but to look forward to the opportunity to learn why things don’t work. We hired an innovation strategist to work with the venture capital community and evaluate new opportunities for our clients in technology and business beyond messaging. It’s important to keep trying new things.

Heat has been a partner of EA Sports since 2009. What is the most exciting part of creating campaigns for their iconic sports games? Challenging?

We have been the agency of record (AOR) of EA Sports in the US for the past four years, and it’s been a unique experience to work with such a great client who values what we do for them every day. First and foremost we’re sports fans, so there could not be a better fit for Heat than EA Sports. Secondly, despite challenges in the gaming category, EA Sports remains one of the coolest brands to its intended target on the planet. EA pushes us to innovate in every way, and it’s really good for us. We’ve evolved from doing just TV spots and banner ads to more data-driven work and social media innovation. We just learned last week that we’re a finalist for a Jay Chiat Strategy Award for a social program we developed for Madden. The challenge is keeping a franchise like Madden fresh and on the shopping list of a 19-year-old guy who maybe can afford to buy four or five titles a year. It helps that the game is always awesome. We work with our clients to find the emotional territory that makes sports gaming unique and bring that to life in ways that aren’t expected.


With brands changing agencies more frequently than ever, how do you work to maintain a lasting partnership with a company such as EA Sports?

It starts with having the right clients. They are clear on what they expect and hold us accountable. Then, for us, it’s having the right talent to do the job. Adding an element of surprise — whether it’s answering a business question that wasn’t asked or thinking of a different go-to-market strategy — is important. The unexpected goes a long way to keep the relationship fresh. After all, the guy who sends flowers on his anniversary only gets so much credit, but the guy who sends them on a random Tuesday in April really gets noticed.


Heat has also worked with Condé Nast on digital campaigns and has partnered with The Huffington Post and AOL to create tablet magazine editions. What is the biggest challenge facing publishers in the digital era?

Yes, Heat was AOR for Condé Nast for the first four years of our existence and now AOR of the Applications Group of AOL for the past two. Despite the differences, they share a challenge common to publishers: how to deal with change. It really comes down to delivering what your customer wants, the way they want it. They must connect content with an increasingly fragmented audience in a way that they find appetizing, and then ensure that the economics work. AOL has done a nice job of continuous reinvention with how they bring their products to the market, as well as leading in embracing the consumer into the content.

What trends and technologies are you most interested in for 2013?

I’m interested to see how the “Internet of things” impacts the world of marketing. There seems to be an incredible array of options for communicating today, and yet we’re just getting started.

What’s your once piece of advice for agency CEOs?

Trust your gut. There are always many different factors that can influence a decision, but if you stay true to yourself and what you believe in, you can’t go wrong in the long run. It may not make everyone happy, and that’s perfectly OK. A close second would be to take care of your people. Make sure they are feeling supported and rewarded, and it will pay off in spades. People are looking for leadership, and the most important part of the job is to lead.

One reason that you love what you do:

I frequently say to clients that a good idea doesn’t have to cost more than a bad idea, and it can make all the difference. I love to see the power of creativity and how it can have a material impact on business.


Fran Kelly (now vice chairman of Arnold) who hired me for my first job. Then hired me for my second job. I learned so much about the business and how to think about it in my first eight years of working with him that it felt like a graduate degree in marketing.

Must read book:

This year: “Defending Jacob,” by William Landay. Like any good creative idea, it carries a big element of surprise and rewards you for paying attention to the end.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Sure, I’d just like to add that clients at Heat also get a free oil change after 30,000 miles.

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