My career in 5 executions: Jay Benjamin

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Saatchi & Saatchi New York's CCO finds success "diving headfirst into the unknown"

Name: Jay Benjamin
Title: Chief Creative Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi New York
Years in ad industry: Just over 20 if you count school and internships
First job in ad industry: Art Direction Intern at Arnold Worldwide in Boston

Jay Benjamin was born in New York, but he first made a name for himself on the other side of the world with activations in Australia and New Zealand that went beyond the 30-second spot. After the better part of a decade, he returned to Manhattan in 2010 to head Leo Burnett New York as executive creative director. In 2014, he was named CCO of Saatchi & Saatchi New York.

"If you are curious, your philosophy evolves every day," Benjamin says. "I don’t think they should ever be set in stone. And if they are, you probably don’t have enough self-doubt."

For right now, he favors taking risks to make the best ideas come to fruition. "Find the truth. Be brave in how you tell it," he says. "Dive headfirst into the unknown."

Here are the executions Benjamin says have been the most meaningful to him throughout his career.

Brand: Thrifty
Client: Thrifty Car Rentals
Agency: JWT Sydney
Work: "Birthday Girl"
Year: 2007

This spot was filmed in half-a-dozen takes, Benjamin says, before the "daughter" lost her voice and the neighbors called the police. But with a script dependent on a single comedic beat, the critical decisions happened in the editing suite. "We spent days stripping it back, putting in the Dad’s reaction, taking it out, putting it back in, until we thought the joke and the timing of it was perfect." 

The lesson was to keep the gag simple — one note is all it needed. "To this day, I still think of this spot every time I see an overwritten script or idea," he says. "If you can’t flip the paper over and just tell someone the idea, it’s probably not that great."

Brand: Canon EOS
Client: Canon Australia
Agency: Leo Burnett Sydney
Work: "Photochains"
Year: 2009

The "Photochains" social media platform won the Media Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010, but it was initially intended to be a straightforward online game. "As we put it together we all thought, ‘This is more than a game, it’s a community.’ So we built it," Benjamin says. "We really didn’t know what we were doing, because it hadn’t been done before, and I think that’s what made it great."

Whether beginner’s luck or confidence born from ignorance of their own limitations, the team created an interactive and addictive phenomenon centered around a business whose market was evaporating. The risk paid off, and the agency also took home the Lion for Media Agency of the Year.

Brand: Earth Hour
Client: WWF
Agency: Leo Burnett Sydney
Work: "Vote Earth"
Year: 2009

The "Earth Hour" campaign, which began in 2007, was one of the reasons Benjamin wanted to join Leo Burnett Sydney in the first place. "It was an idea I really believed in and wanted to help make bigger."

Working on the high-visibility campaign taught him about turning awareness into action. "It had a little problem called apathy," he says. "People were asking, ‘Do I really need to participate? Will it make a difference?’" Casting inaction as a vote for climate change helped motivate a billion people around the world to participate in Earth Hour, in whatever way they and their communities thought was best. "Handing ideas over to the people is incredibly powerful," Benjamin says, "because when people feel they own even just a small part of an idea, they will fight for it. They will spread it."

Brand: New York Writes Itself
Client: The Village Voice
Agency: Leo Burnett New York
Work: 8 Million Protagonists
Year: 2012

Few things are more quintessentially New York than creating an off-Broadway play for the Village Voice. Once again, Benjamin didn’t let a lack of experience kill a good idea. "It was a very easy idea to say no to and a very hard one to say yes to. We knew nothing about theatre, had very little money to make it happen," he says.

The agency had already created a crowdsourced content platform for the paper called "New York Writes Itself," which allowed locals to share their stories of life in the city. "None of us felt we could walk away without making a play," Benjamin says.

The team partnered with a theater in the East Village and helped script the play, design the set and sell tickets. The week of the premiere, Hurricane Sandy flooded the theater and darkened everything below 39th Street. The production bounced back faster than the city.

"A week later, we were up and running to a full house every night," Benjamin says. "Even Sandy couldn’t stop ‘8 Million Protagonists’ from happening."

Brand: Lucky Charms
Client: General Mills
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi New York
Work: Marshmallow Only Sweepstakes
Year: 2015

This online campaign grew out of social listening, not a traditional brief, Benjamin says. "We saw that every 15 minutes, someone mentioned online how much they love the Marshmallows in Lucky Charms."

So General Mills made 10 boxes of marshmallow-only Lucky Charms, and Saatchi "set out to make the internet melt." The idea didn’t require any focus groups or testing, Benjamin says, because the internet came up with it in the first place. "We were just the chefs trying to find the most interesting way to serve it up, which happened to be with the man himself, Biz Markie."


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