New leader at Northlich: “Advertising no longer resembles advertising”

Northlich, now in its 70th year as a Cincinnati marketing and advertising agency, just named Pat Pujolas as its executive creative director, a spot held by only three other creative leads at Northlich in the last 30 years. His creative career includes work at heavyweight agencies J. Walter Thompson and McCann (formerly McCann Erickson), as well as at a small, Cleveland-based agency, Brokaw.

Pujolas is a 49-year-old who grew up in Cleveland and studied creative writing and English literature at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A couple of days after he was announced, we interviewed him about the state of advertising today, Cincinnati’s place in the marketing universe, Cincinnati chili, and football in Ohio.

Soapbox: What does an executive creative director do?

Pujolas: A lot of it is inspiring the agency, sharing examples of great advertising and saying this is the level we need to be playing at in order to succeed. The other thing that separates a creative director from an executive creative director is defining how we go to market, how Northlich is going to sell itself against its competitors, what are its key strengths, because things like that shift over time.

Soapbox: How so?

Pujolas: We’re evolving toward this new model where we provide the strategy and the creative and we either execute that on all the platforms, or, it seems the way the industry is evolving is, we come up with the big picture, the broad ideas and then the client will already have partners. They may have a social person, they may have a digital agency, they may have a PR agency. We can come in and be the main voice of the campaign and then we guide their partners.

Soapbox: What’s your hot take on the advertising and marketing scene here?

Pujolas: My initial experience in advertising was in Cleveland. I got a job as a copywriter at an agency called Brokaw. Following that I went out to the West Coast, worked for McCann in San Francisco and J. Walter Thompson in Seattle and even had a string working for MTV on an animated comedy show. I’ve had a chance to see what advertising is like in all those cities and I’m surprised at how vibrant the ad community is here in Cincinnati. There are many, many more agencies here (than in Cleveland) and they’re all doing great work. I’ve been continually surprised by the number and quality of the agencies and how different they are.

Soapbox: Big picture, what’s the state of consumer marketing today and how do you want to impact that?

Pujolas: Advertising no longer resembles advertising. Nowadays, an agency has to help its clients provide content and entertainment that doesn’t necessarily resemble traditional advertising. Do you remember the brave girl statue they put on Wall Street? (It was commissioned by a Wall Street financial firm.) A statue is not an ad. It’s an invention. Everyone knows we’re jaded by advertising. You can skip commercials. So you have to come up with advertising content that doesn’t resemble advertising.

Soapbox: What has to happen for Cincinnati to be the capital of consumer advertising in the country?

Pujolas: I think it’s already happening. Adweek did a two- or three-page article on the city of Cincinnati and Brandemonium (a four day conference that launched in 2017). It talked in very flattering terms about advertising in Cincinnati and where it’s headed. Things like that, being recognized at a national level by places like Adweek, will only contribute to that and help us get there faster.

Soapbox: What should Cincinnati do to attract and keep talent here?

Pujolas: It’s a challenge. Throughout Ohio and the Midwest there’s always going to be this tension. People who are great at creative tend to want to migrate to Chicago, New York and the West Coast. There’s a tendency for people early in their careers to want to leave Cincinnati, but once they realize that, hey, it’s a little expensive here in New York City, they tend to migrate back. There will always be an influx of great talent, but what I’m finding is it’s a lot easier to get those people who are higher in their career or who have more experience to take a job here in Cincinnati.

Soapbox: You’ve published a book of fiction? (Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World was published in 2012.)

Pujolas: It is my fifth book but the only that’s been published. I was executive creative director at Brokaw for seven years and decided I wanted to write a book, so I shifted to freelance, and would write advertising half the day and fiction half the day. It probably took me a year and a half to write the novel.

Soapbox: What’s it about?

Pujolas: It’s about a murder trial and it’s told from the point of view of witnesses, jury members and even the accused himself. It’s loosely based on one of my experiences in jury duty, adding some creative license.

Soapbox: Do you still write fiction?

Pujolas: I still write short stories. I’m working on another novel but it’s very much in pieces and parts.

Soapbox: One of your clients is Gold Star. How do you break through the chili clutter in Cincinnati to promote your client?

Pujolas: It’s been a blast to study this category, and what I mean by that is eating a lot of chili. Part of the fun of this project was getting in with the CEO and hashing out where the white space was. Meaning, what are we going to talk about? The one that the CEO liked best was focusing on the chili itself. Strip away everything else, no spaghetti, no cheese, no buns, no hot dogs — let’s focus on the chili itself. If you just taste the chili unadorned, people will consistently say, “I like this one better.” It’s more flavorful, it’s more complex, it’s meatier.

Another thing that helped was touring the commissary at Gold Star where they make the chili. Every person took their role very seriously, even down to the thousandths of a gram they measure to get the spices right. It felt very much like a craft brewery. That’s how we landed on “small batch chili,” which is the current campaign.

Soapbox: Final question, Cleveland Browns or Cincinnati Bengals?

Pujolas: I grew up on the Cleveland Browns; my Dad took me to games. It’s hard for me to completely switch. But I do enjoy following both.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.