Advertising is a notoriously fickle industry. As a workforce we've a tendency to chop-and-change from one company to another and another like a pro sports star with an overzealous agent. But there are the stalwarts that stay put. Joe Baratelli, 33-year veteran of Los Angeles agency RPA, is one of those stalwarts. He joined the agency as an art director and has gradually worked his way up to the chief creative officer role he holds today.
Born and raised in Michigan, his first knowledge of advertising came on Independence Day as a kid. A family friend worked at Y&R Detroit and its office was the best spot to see the fireworks. That office was also cool enough to make Joe realise that a career in advertising existed and was a pretty neat, creative thing to do.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with him to find out more.
LBB> You’ve been with RPA for 33 years! That’s a long time in any industry, but particularly so in the chop-and-change environment of advertising. What is it about the agency that’s kept you for so long?
Joe> Well, there is a lot of trust here. Our founders Larry Postaer and Gerry Rubin had trust in me and I, in turn, have a lot of trust in the people here now. Being an independent agency allows us to invest in the people. Which is really what it’s all about. Quality people.
LBB> How has the agency evolved over those 33 years and what have been the most pivotal or memorable moments for you?
Joe> The digital age and especially social media have sped up how we can reach people. It’s almost instant. But with that, it takes a lot more coordination from a lot of experts. The days of just a copywriter and an art director owning a campaign are long gone. I think it really came into a moment of clarity when we created two different social campaigns: Project Drive In for Honda, which helped save a big part of American culture, and Small Business Big Game for Intuit QuickBooks, where we created a Super Bowl commercial for a small business - Death Wish Coffee. Both of those projects truly changed people’s lives for the better.
LBB> How did you end up in advertising in the first place? You were born and raised in Michigan as part of a Ford family! How did you wind up as a creative? What was your childhood like?
Joe> My mom had a good friend who worked at Y&R. Her office was the best place to see the Independence Day fireworks on the Detroit River. So once a year, at night I’d walk around and see all these crazy offices. I found out that an advertising agency was a creative place. I was always creating something, drawing, painting, etc. My mother, who was trained as a fashion illustrator, always encouraged me. She believed that the arts were a viable way to make a living. I was fortunate that my high school was big into the humanities, too. All students regardless of their major had to study the history of art and music. I knew early on that I wanted to attend art school and study design. I went to the College for Creative Studies and received a BFA in Graphic Communications.
LBB> I can imagine Michigan has changed a lot since your childhood, and when you left for LA 33 years ago… I was wondering if you go back very often now? What are your thoughts on the area at the moment? I’ve heard rumours of a creative revival - is that something you see?
Joe> One of our clients, La-Z-Boy is based outside of Detroit so I do make it back a couple of times a year. There is definitely an air of excitement in Detroit. And when property and rents are low, artists and creative types find their way in and start to create change. I see that happening in Detroit as well as in a lot of cities. Downtown LA is alive again. Thirty years ago, it was the artists who were braving the urban jungle.
LBB> Let’s talk about RPA some more. An important part of the agency’s DNA is its “people first” approach - what does that mean and why is it so important to what you do as an agency?
Joe> It comes from a place of respect - for ourselves, our clients, and our clients’ customers. First and foremost, we have respect for the people viewing our work. But it’s also respect for our clients, what business problems we are solving for, and a respect for ourselves. Giving our associates the tools, guidance and time to be the best they can be. We talk a lot about servant leadership and that’s really the core of ‘People First’ - caring for others, serving each other and empowering our people to help them thrive and make amazing things happen for our clients.
LBB> Which recent pieces of work are you particularly proud of and why?
Joe> The Imaginary Friends Society work we created for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation really broke through this past year. We created 22 animated shorts to help kids diagnosed with cancer cope with all the medical jargon and feelings that these children go through. The campaign has been lauded by hospital staff and industry folks around the world, including double Gold Lions at Cannes. The work we continue to do for Farmers Insurance with JK Simmons surely is some of the most recognisable and effective campaigns out there.
And we keep breaking new ground for Honda. To stand out in the Super Bowl, we wanted to connect with Honda’s belief in and passion for chasing dreams. It’s easy to forget that with every incredible success story, at one point they were just another person with a dream. That’s what inspired our Yearbooks campaign, where we recruited an A-list collection of celebrities and imagined their school yearbook-selves offering advice to the audience.
LBB> You’ve gone from being an art director at RPA and worked your way right up to CCO - in your eyes, what do you think makes for a great creative leader? How do you get the best out of your creative teams?
Joe> Empathy and understanding. Everyone should feel supported in pushing the best ideas forward. Knowing that we are all problem-solving together to make a project the best it can be. Helping the team see the end result of the project. Who are we talking to with this idea? What do you want them to feel? How do you want them to act? If we can all have an understanding of those end goals we can achieve great things together.
LBB> How do you see the scene in LA at the moment? I was in both NY and LA at the start of the year and, creatively, everything seemed super positive and vibrant in LA.
Joe> Los Angeles has a lot of great energy these days. There is an entrepreneurial spirit that is infectious with Snap, Space X, the whole Silicon Beach thing rubbing off on the entire city. Especially downtown. There are so many great areas, restaurants, museums, art galleries and music venues. I just love it. Oh, and the weather’s nice too.
LBB> What do you like to get up to in your free time to recharge your batteries? Any weird hobbies to tell us about?
Joe> No weird hobbies. I like sports. And I love filmmaking. I played hockey growing up and as an adult up till a few years ago. My experience in production led me to start directing. I’ve directed spots for various clients over the years, Acura, ARCO, ampm. I’m a member of the DGA. But the love of Hockey led to a heartwarming spot for Honda’s Sponsorship of the NHL “Outdoor Rink” Having Hall of Famers Pat LaFontaine and Mike Richter playing on an outdoor rink with a bunch of kids. I guess I’m lucky to be able combine what I love to what I do.