“Smart Question, Dumb Question” with WHM’s new Chief Creative Officer, Jonathan “JB” Byrne
JB spills on his past, WHM’s future,
and some silly fun facts to boot.
WHM is growing by leaps and bounds, so we can do even more to help brands lose the blah and start really connecting with people. Our goal is to grow our creative team by 30% this year – but we need someone to find, lead, and wrangle all that talent. Enter JB.
We just scored a major coup in hiring Jonathan “JB” Byrne as our first-ever Chief Creative Officer. With over 20 years’ experience at agencies like Venables Bell & Partners, DDB San Francisco, and Deloitte Digital’s Heat, JB is going to help us keep building momentum – with new support, new capabilities, and new perspective.
Before he dives in, though, we’ve got a few questions for him – some serious, some not so much…
So, how’d you get started as a creative?
JB: There was a billboard for a local burger chain on the highway near my hometown that was up for decades. It touted that its location was the last one for 24,337 miles – the total circumference of Earth. The contextual copy was really ahead of its time, but back then, I just thought it was witty and wondered how you got to do stuff like that.
Flash-forward to college. I started out as a film major, but during a journalism class, this guest lecturer, Brett Robbs, started talking about advertising. His passion for it really gave me the bug – it wasn’t just art; there was a strategic side that scratched a different kind of itch for me. And maybe it felt a little more justifiable to my parents than film – who’d obviously support me no matter what! (Hi, you guys!)
I got started on the design side, but my school didn’t really make you choose – everyone learned both copy and design, and over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with really collaborative partners who didn’t put up fences. So I’ve always had a foot in both camps.
How many times in your life have you heard the song “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies? Just an estimate is fine.
JB: There was a short period of time when that song was just unavoidable.
So, probably 412 times – but all in a period of 8 months.
How’d you wind up at WHM, anyway?
JB: After a bunch of internships and lucking into a stint at TDA_Boulder, this amazing small agency in Colorado, my writing partner and I got the attention of Paul Venables in San Francisco. He eventually reached out to us on the spur of the moment like, “How quickly can you get out here?” (I should note that we were cheap-ish.)
That led to over a decade at Venables Bell & Partners, helping them grow into the shop they are today. We were only around 20 people when I started – and over 200 just a few years later, with our creative team tripling in size. It was a tremendous learning experience, figuring out how do more work, with a bigger team, while making sure it was all just as brilliant. And ensuring our agency culture was as warm and magnetic as ever.
After Venables, I found, somewhat surprisingly, that I was enjoying managing creativity as much I was doing it myself. I got the same sense of pride helping shape and improve and pitch other people’s ideas as coming up with my own.
So, after spreading my wings at DDB SF for a time, I ended up at Heat, a big independent shop in San Francisco looking for its next generation of creative leadership. About a year in, we were acquired by Deloitte, and over the next 5 years, I helped us figure out how we would work under this new banner. And I discovered that what really excites me is growth and trajectory and being part of those rocket ships.
Do you have a nemesis?
JB: My nemesis is anyone standing still on a moving walkway at the airport – particularly if they’re taking up more than half of said walkway.
What made you decide to join WHM?
JB: JB: I didn’t know much about WHM at first, but once I started to meet with the team and look at the work, I started to get that same sort of rocket ship feeling.
Looking at the website, the story WHM was telling was really clear and refreshing for B2B tech. The tone, the style, the focus on being human – it really aligned with what I was trying to do. Smart, simple, really getting to the root of things.
And then, as I started to meet with the team… Well, it was like a great first date, where time just seemed to disappear. I met with Audrey, and our 45-minute meeting somehow became 2 hours. And, as I met Dodie and Thomas and others, I felt that family atmosphere I’ve always been attracted to – where people care and take things seriously but have a lot of heart and have a lot of fun. It’s always going to be people-first for me.
What’s your favorite element on the Periodic Table?
JB: Don’t judge, but I actually have a heartfelt answer for this one. Titanium. My dad worked at several companies that made parts from titanium, so whenever titanium showed up somewhere, I always felt proud and pumped about him.
What do you think you’re best at?
JB: JB: I’d have to say resilience.
Don’t get me wrong – I can write and art direct and strategize and present with the best of them. But, the thing I hear most that’s most helpful to other people is my relentless optimism, for whatever comes our way.
Change is the one constant in this industry – you get surprise feedback, the client’s need evolves, something big happens in the market. I remember being on a commercial shoot once, and on the second day, the legal department was like, “Oh, we can’t say any of what we’re saying here.” The whole claim the spot was based on – poof.
And stuff like that will always happen on some level. There’s always something new. But I find it exciting. And that helps me rally the team and rally myself.
Is there a particular style of hat you’re suited for? Is there a hat that definitively does not work for you?
JB: So, my head is rather large. And, while I wear beanies a lot, I’m always a little uncomfortable with them. I look like the robbers in Home Alone.
I will say I just got a legit Stetson – like the kind LBJ would wear – and I think I’m pulling it off. It’s kind of a statement piece, though, so I’m still wearing it out sparingly.
What’s your favorite type of project to work on?
JB: It’s less about the project, really, and more about the category. I like working with brands and products that people think are boring or hard or tricky.
As fun as it is to work on sneakers and soda – and I’ve done that – the challenge of The Client No One Wants to Touch has always been enticing to me. I like tackling the puzzle no one else can crack and really digging in and figuring it out with your team – and actually creating something fun or surprising or beautiful with it.
If you were one of those pull-string dolls like Woody in Toy Story, what would your pull-string catchphrases be?
JB: This is probably best answered by others. But I think it would be “awesome,” though. Which, I hate how much I say that. I need better catchphrases.
Oh! Maybe it’s animal noises. As a father of 4, I’ve gotten really good at certain animal noises. Cows. Chickens. Elephants. And my pièce de resistance – the cricket.
[JB makes a pretty good cricket sound.]
What is your creative pet peeve?
JB: Sometimes, working in this field, brainstorming for hours, round after round, it can feel like you’ve scraped the edge of your skull – that there are no more ideas left. I always hated it, then, when you sat down with a CD to show them your concepts, and they just said, “Hmm… Keep going…” That was it. No advice. No support. No guidance.
That’s so demoralizing. I’ve got no go left in me!
I’ve tried to remember that feeling, so today, I see my role as being energizing to the creative team. Even when you feel tapped out, there really is always something new. And I want you to leave any meeting with me feeling motivated and inspired with a whole bunch of new directions.
Without naming names, what’s the silliest thing you’ve ever worked on?
JB: Very early in my career, we had this vodka client who were all reportedly ex-KGB agents. They came out with this new product, a hangover cure, which supposedly had been developed as a drug for spies. You’d take it while you were drinking with a mark, and you could consume as much as you want, without getting drunk, while the mark would be totally messed up and spill all their secrets.
Our team all gave it a shot one night, and we were definitely still able to get drunk. It might have helped a little with the hangover, but we were all retaining water and super bloated. So, at what cost, you know?
Where would you like to guide WHM as an agency?
JB: Well, I feel really good that the creative department and the work here is already at such a high level. We’ve got a really solid foundation to build on.
So, my top-of-mind goal is growth. And I mean that in a few ways. The size of our team. Our capabilities. Our perspective. But also the work we do.
We’re already set up in the agency to take on more and bigger opportunities. Our approach has been traditionally applied to B2B and tech clients, but what we’re really special at doesn’t have to be limited to any particular industry. We’ve got a lot of potential to enter some new categories and spaces – the fundamentals of what we do will be just as powerful there.
Beyond that, I want to bring a real sense of support and leadership to the creative team. To really be an advocate for the creatives. To add new energy and insight and ideas. And to make it all as fun as possible while we do it.
OK, here’s the biggie: What’s your favorite kind of bird and why?
JB: Right now, it’s the flamingo, because my daughter is currently gaga about them.
We actually just booked a trip to Curaçao to see flamingos in the wild.
Want to work with JB and the rest of our amazing team?