The former marketing director of Progressive, behind many ads for Flo, Baker Mayfield and Aflac Duck, launches his own collective
CLEVELAND, Ohio – It takes courage to make history. And according to Jeff Charney, the marketing director behind characters like Flo, the Aflac Duck and Dr. Rick, it’s also essential for good publicity.
This is why MKHSTRY, its new marketing collectiveasks potential clients to take a 75-question test as a “barometer of bravery” before being invited to hire his new company.
“I want to work with the bravest game changers possible,” Charney said.
Charney, 62, has worked in the advertising industry since he was 17. He was director of marketing at QVC, Aflac and most recently Progressive in the suburb of Mayfield, where he worked for 11 years before outgoing of Progressive.
During his career, he won over 100 awards for disruptive advertising that helped brands stand out.
Although his name was Ad Age’s 2021 CMO Brand of the YearCharney said he wanted to step away from the corporate world to start his own marketing collective based in the Cleveland area.
MKHSTRY is not a normal ad agency or consulting firm, Charney said. The collective is built around accelerating ideas and inspiring brands and agencies to do things in new ways.
Charney announced the new company in late March, and since then hundreds of companies have already tried to become customers, he said.
He only wants to work on ideas that “crack the code” with innovative ways to advertise. Charney also wants people who have the guts to make decisions, which is why clients should be encouraged to hire the collective.
Charney said the best campaigns he’s worked on, whether it’s a motorcycle insurance saleswoman or a noisy duck, worked because they were unusual for the time and because he and his team didn’t treat them like traditional ad campaigns.
He said the best characters were the ones they treated like a Saturday Night Live cast member.
Flo was a character he inherited a year after her creation, but Charney said Progressive kept her relevant and made her a household name because they relied on comedian Stephanie Courtney’s improvisational skills. .
Charney said she told him she was funnier than the writers had imagined. So they banked on those skills and surrounded her with other improv actors. When Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield started doing commercials, Charney said they also made sure he got improv training.
The Aflac Duck, another character he inherited but worked with for many years, was created because the CEO “didn’t care if he needed to shout Aflac out loud”. He would do whatever worked.
So when the writers who created the character came across a loud and obnoxious lunchtime duck, they went with it. Even choosing the bird over actor Ray Romano, who was doing ad campaigns at the time.
One of Progressive’s newer characters, Dr. Rick, is probably best known as the life coach who tries to stop people from becoming their parents. It doesn’t sell insurance directly, but it does try to keep people from hoarding lawn gnomes, cheering at the end of movies, or giving unsolicited grilling tips at barbecues.
Charney said characters like this become memorable because they are authentic and relatable. Progressive announcements on “parentamorphosis” were partly inspired by Charney’s own experiences, such as when he ran after a speeding ticket doing 60 mph in the 30 mph zone near his home.
“I was doing the same thing my dad was doing 30 years earlier,” Charney said.
MKHSTRY’s goal is to help both companies modernize or help them realize an idea. MKHSTRY is not designed to be a long-time brand consultant.
Make ideas take off
When presented with a potentially game-changing idea, Charney said the collective will help companies build a team of experts suited to that industry or task. The goal is to help get this idea off the ground and teach the business to stand on its own two feet.
MKHSTRY will also work with advertising agencies and train them to do things differently and in a modern way. The collective will also be a lifestyle brand, selling clothing and other items.
The traditional advertising model is for brands to buy space, whether in print, television, radio or digital. It’s also slow and often companies play it safe, he said, saying advertising has used the same model for 150 years.
Charney said technologies like blockchain and Web3 are removing gatekeepers and opening up more avenues and fewer rules around advertising. It’s a good time for someone who wants to be bold and “put ideas first,” but must be prepared to act quickly and do things outside of their comfort zone.
Currently, the collective has six core partners outside of Charney, all of whom are working remotely, he said. The company will continue to have no offices, walls or bureaucracy as it is built, he said. But as they begin to attract clients, he will build individual teams for each business or project.
He thinks we are in the Roaring Twenties of marketing and the industry is ready to be turned upside down. As the name suggests, Charney said he wanted to work on ideas that accomplish one main thing, making history and changing the game for publicity.
“I’m not doing this to upset the industry,” Charney said. “I do it because I love the industry.”