My career in 5 executions: JWT's Brent Choi

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Choi has made his mark by making himself indispensable and never settling for less.

Name: Brent Choi
Title: Chief Creative Officer, J. Walter Thompson New York and Canada
Years in ad industry: 22
First job in ad industry: Junior Account Executive, McCann Erickson

Thanks to mergers, natural disasters and just plain bad luck, Brent Choi lost four of his first five jobs in advertising. In 2002, he landed on his feet at Lowe Roche, a time he describes as a crucible. "Geoff Roche, my creative director, pushed me so hard and taught me I was capable of greatness when I didn’t settle," he says. Choi worked his way up the ranks at Saatchi & Saatchi and Cundari in Toronto before joining JWT Canada as chief creative and integration officer in 2013. Three years later, he was appointed CCO of New York as well.

His early agency experiences taught him to make himself indispensible. "It formed a belief that guides me and my teams still to this day," he says. "Doing what’s expected of you is not enough."

Here are the 5 executions Choi says have meant the most to his career.

Brand: Alcohol & Drug Concerns Canada
Client: Alcohol & Drug Concerns Canada
Agency: Vickers & Benson
Work: "Last Night"
Year: 1999

Alcohol & Drugs Canada - Last night from Brent Choi on Vimeo.

Choi came up with this idea with a director he met at a party. They were both eager to do something to get noticed and decided to collaborate. "I was a 20-something writer with only government accounts to work on," he says, "so I knew I had to do more."

They shot the spot on their own and found a client by cold calling listings in the phone book. That got the agency behind the spot, and it ended up getting enough airplay in Canada that Choi began to overhear strangers in public discussing it. "Once, I was standing in line at the movies and two girls in front of me starting talking about it," he says. "That’s when you know you did something that made an impact."

Brand: BMW 1M
Client: BMW
Agency: Cundari
Work: "Walls"
Year: 2011

As soon as Choi arrived at Cundari in his first CCO job, BMW Canada—the agency’s largest client—put the account in review.

"We pitched our faces off and after an entire summer, against all odds, we defended it," he says, an effort that united the agency. Then they needed to come up with an amazing idea to prove BMW had made the right choice—on a budget of only $120,000 CAD.

Choi found the driver and production company while browsing stunt videos on YouTube. Much of the footage was shot on bikes or cameras strapped to cars borrowed from BMW. And in an age before clients could pay for videos to go "viral," the stunt racked up 3 million views in its first week, and more than 5 million to date.

Brand: Pain Squad
Client: Hospital for Sick Children
Agency: Cundari
Work: "Pain Squad App"
Year: 2012

This Cannes Lion-winning pro bono campaign was another "all-agency effort," Choi says. The opportunity to pitch came through someone in IT, who also shot the films on the agency’s roof. The PR director enlisted the stars of one of Canada’s biggest police dramas. The creative team also did the illustrations for the app and served as crew for the shoot. And the dev team built the app in-house. "Part of being from a smaller market means you know how to make the most use of what you have," he says.

Brand: Dark Roast
Client: Tim Hortons
Agency: J. Walter Thompson Canada
Work: "Dark Store"
Year: 2014

Tim Hortons, Canada’s largest restaurant chain and one of JWT Canada’s long-standing clients, had a new CMO. That often means "an agency review isn’t far behind," Choi says, and the agency knew "we had to do something amazing to keep the business."

At the time, the chain was introducing its Dark Roast coffee, the biggest addition to its menu in 50 years. The "Dark Store" cemented the relationship with the new CMO and sparked industry buzz. "We heard from many creatives that their clients are asking for their ‘Dark Store,’" Choi says.

Brand: Tribeca Film Festival
Client: Tribeca Enterprises
Agency: J. Walter Thompson New York 
Work: "Tribeca Film Festival ReActor"
Year: 2016

Tribeca Film Festival ReActor from Brent Choi on Vimeo.

The agency pitched the Tribeca Film Festival in Choi’s first month as CCO of the New York office. All of the available creatives were working on other projects, so the team came up with a data-focused pitch instead. "It was a gamble, but we sensed their brief and recent history had misguided them over recent years," Choi says. "They were targeting the wrong people with the wrong message."

After JWT won, festival CEO Andrew Essex (formerly of Droga5) gave the agency a simple brief: "Do something amazing. We’ll figure out the rest after."

Choi’s team came up with five different ideas, and Essex said the festival was interested in all of them. But they selected the "ReActor," Choi says, because "a great film is awesome, but having something people can touch and feel and interact with goes further, especially if it can then be shared online."

It was the NY office’s first fully experiential work, and the three Lions it won contributed to the agency’s best Cannes showing since 1971.

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