My career in 5 executions: RPA's Joe Baratelli

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From Keith Richards to J.K. Simmons, RPA's CCO tries to treat clients and their customers with respect.

Name: Joe Baratelli
Title: EVP/Chief Creative Officer
Years in ad industry: 32
First job in ad industry: Art Director/Young & Rubicam, Detroit

Joe Baratelli grew up in Detroit, in the shadow of Ford. Small wonder that the automaker was his first client in an agency job. After college, Baratelli took a freelance job as an art director at Y&R in Detroit. But a chance vacation to California changed his trajectory.

A family friend worked in the San Diego office of Needham Harper and suggested Baratelli meet with Larry Postaer, then the agency’s chief creative in LA. Baratelli brought some slides—mostly student work, and a few days later he had an offer to move out west. That was in 1985.

The next year, BBDO Worldwide, Doyle Dane Bernbach and Needham Harper Worldwide merged to form Omnicom. But DDB’s Volkswagen account conflicted with Needham’s Honda. So Postaer and Gerry Rubin bought out the office during the merger, renamed it Rubin Postaer & Associates and kept Honda on, and Baratelli found himself at an independent agency.

Over the years, Baratelli says the agency always afforded him the opportunity to do something new and different that kept him from needing to leave in order to move up the corporate ladder. He took on more marketing and business responsibilities, and tried his hand at directing. He went from art director to creative director, eventually taking over the chief creative role in 2012.

Creativity is about respect, Baratelli says—for the customer, the clients and their business problems, the creatives who solve them and the ideas themselves. "We don’t want to preach. We need to nurture and cajole, and respect the effort involved," Baratelli adds, "making sure the message stays true no matter the platform."

Here are the 5 executions Baratelli says define his career.

Client: Ford Motor Company
Brand: Motorcraft
Agency: Young & Rubicam
Work: "Follow the Yellow Book Road"
Year: 1984

These days Baratelli is best known for TV commercials, but he started off in print, "building mechanicals, before desktop publishing. T-squares, X-ACTO knives, and rubber cement. Spec’ing type," he recalls. This was the first project he ever produced, while he was still an intern in the studio at Y&R.

"The big thing I remember is all the different groups and people that were involved to make things happen," he says. "Account folks, illustrators, typesetters, stat-camera operators, print production, traffic, all in service of this little project," a campaign for Lincoln Mercury and Ford meant to convince Motorcraft dealer service departments to chip in for Yellow Pages ads.

Now he sees things he’d change if a junior brought this work to him. "If we were to critique it today, we’d look at the leading, the widows, the paragraph breaks. Is an ellipsis needed?"

Client: ARCO Products Company
Brand: ampm
Agency: RPA
Work: "Two Cokes"
Year: 1996

RPA won the account for this chain of gas station convenience stores with the tagline "Too much good stuff," which this spot introduced. The agency used (and still uses) hidden cameras to uncover insights about how customers act in the store. "What we discovered was that guys were using the store to find their true wants. But with all that came the need for willpower," Baratelli says.

This first spot was directed by Phil Morrison, who had at that point done mostly music videos and went on to shoot Apple’s "Get a Mac" campaign. In 1997, the campaign won a Gold Effie for increasing same-store sales. Eventually, the client asked Baratelli to direct some spots himself, and he found that he enjoyed it. "Ended up directing dozens of spots," he says.

Client: Viacom
Brand: VH1
Agency: RPA
Work: "Keith Richards"
Year: 1998

VH1 went to RPA because the network needed to remind people of its music roots. These spots for "Behind the Music" were shot on black-and-white 8mm, mimicking the gritty style of concert footage. "We wanted a raw feel, didn’t want it to look too produced," Baratelli says, which ironically, required a lot of production. Some viewers and even awards shows thought the series was made from found footage.

The team did heavy research before each interview to help them coax out recollections that hadn’t already been covered in the biopic. As the series grew in popularity, celebrities began to volunteer. "When Mick Jagger heard Keith Richards did one, he wanted to do one too," Baratelli says.

In 1999, Gwyneth Paltrow parodied the series on "Saturday Night Live," and other skits followed. "When SNL spoofs your campaign," Baratelli says, "you know you’ve created something that’s resonated in culture."

Client: American Honda Motor Co. Inc.
Brand: Honda
Agency: RPA
Work: "Faces"
Year: 2003

For years, Honda’s selling point was "simplicity," Baratelli says. But car technology was becoming more complicated, and Honda wanted to showcase its full lineup of cars and trucks.

One day, Baratelli doodled on his sketchpad: the front of a car and a face next to it. A week later, his creative partner mused that if people looked like their pets, did they also look like their cars? He pulled out his sketchpad, and they got to work. "Out of all the things I’ve ever produced, this was the toughest to sell to the client," he says. "They liked the idea but didn’t know if we could pull it off."

The team set up the cars on a turntable, so they could rotate both the vehicle and the people, and ran two cameras at the same time. They experimented with lens length and hundreds of different angles to find the shot that made the car look the most like the person.

Honda also solicited photos from car owners. They were included in a direct mailer, the last page of which was a mirror. But "the real impact," Baratelli said, "was that this spot set the course for Honda marketing for years."

Client: Farmers Group, Inc.
Brand: Farmers Insurance
Agency: RPA
Work: "Dryer Fire"
Year: 2011

RPA had pitched Farmers Insurance, but they didn’t land the account. "Eighteen months later, they came back to us," Baratelli says. "’We made a mistake, can you help us?’"

Farmers had realized that every time they ran an ad, State Farm was getting the credit. So RPA set about creating memorable things: a jingle and a character. "A little research discovered Farmers has a world-class training program known as the University of Farmers, and Professor Nathaniel J. Burke was born."

When creating Burke, the team had J.K. Simmons in mind from the start. "We thought he had the right character and demeanor and gravitas, but also a wry sense of humor," Baratelli said. The campaign evolved over the next few years under his leadership, and once again, pop culture proved the work's effectiveness. When Simmons won an Oscar in 2015, host Neil Patrick Harris sang the Farmers mnemonic—a gag that only worked because it was already ubiquitous.