2 Minutes With … Jon Cook, Global CEO of VML

On transforming Wendy's and tweaking AI for Virgin Voyages

Jon has served for 27 years as chief executive of the company now known as VML. In Oct. 2023, the merger of VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson was announced. The resulting agency—dubbed VML—combines creativity with expertise in data, marketing technology and platforms. VML operates as a global network of 30,000 individuals across more than 65 markets, with Jon as worldwide CEO. Clients include AstraZeneca, Colgate-Palmolive, Dell, Ford, Intel, Microsoft, Mondelez, SC Johnson, Sherwin-Williams, Coca-Cola and Wendy's.

We spent two minutes with Jon to learn more about his background, his creative inspirations and recent work he's admired.

Jon, tell us …

Where you grew up, and where you live now. 

Kansas City is the answer to both questions. I'm grateful to have a global advertising job and remain in the city where I grew up. I suppose that's unique if you weren't born in New York, London or somewhere glamorous like that.

How you first realized you were creative. 

I developed an awareness of brands when I was in junior high school. I appreciated that certain products conveyed a special essence. But unlike most of my friends, I came to realize there were people in the world whose job was to help create those experiences. I knew I had to be part of it.

A person you idolized creatively early on. 

Steve Jobs. I loved everything about Apple, especially its commitment to a higher purpose. Eventually, I also learned about Jony Ive, and the notion that design could be so much broader than a physical consideration.

A moment from high school or college that changed your life. 

I had a great internship at Disney World during college. I learned the ins and outs of customer and user experience, long before they were industry table stakes. Above all, I learned about the power of exceeding expectations. Those who know me well, know about my obsession with bringing "pixie dust" to every opportunity and connection. 

A visual artist or band/musician you admire. 

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. He's an incredible songwriter, humbly observing the world and challenging cultural norms. I respect his courage to share opinions that challenge the genre.

A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring. 

A recent favorite TV show is The Bear. I enjoy the confluence of business, family, psychographics and socioeconomic factors—set against the backdrop of one of my favorite cities: Chicago.

Your favorite fictional character. 

Breaking Bad's Walter White

Someone or something worth following in social media. 

Kara Swisher. She's had her finger on the pulse of contemporary comms forever, yet she remains as relevant today as she was decades ago. We had the pleasure of working with Kara on a VMLY&R-produced program "Re/Imagine Innovation," and she was as challenging, probing and insightful as I hoped she'd be.

One of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on.  

The complete brand transformation of Wendy's is a highlight of my career and one of the most important and successful relationships in our agency's history. In celebration of our 2023 One Show Penta Pencil recognition, we put together a fun highlight reel of VMLY&R and Wendy's greatest hits over the years. We've come a long way from "Where’s the Beef?"

A recent project you're proud of. 

A newer client partner—Virgin Voyages—works with Jennifer Lopez. We leveraged the latest technologies and created Jen AI, J.Lo's "digital twin." We used generative AI to mimic J.Lo's voice and image, providing potential voyagers with a custom tool to invite family and friends to celebrate special occasions. The satirical campaign pokes fun at AI while engaging audiences and driving bookings.

Someone else's work that inspired you years ago.

I've admired the "Keep Walking" campaign for Johnny Walker for a long time, especially the "Dear Brother" spot that launched in 2015. As someone who's very close to two brothers, I appreciate the unexpected emotion in the film. It's masterful storytelling that positions the product in meaningful context. Luckily both of my brothers are alive and well, and whenever I see this work I usually give each of them a call to just say hi.

Someone else's work you admired lately. 

The University of Colorado football program's "Prime Time" branding, driven by the force of nature that is head coach Deion Sanders. Our youngest daughter is a student at CU, so we've witnessed the "prime" mantra spread across the entire university. 

Your main strength as a creative person. 

Envisioning a project, then pouring everything I have into making it come to life. The trick is to realize that the movie comes together in separate yet massively connected stages. Metaphorically—things like initial concept, screenplay, funding, pre-production, production, distribution, promotion and so on. While I'm certainly not an expert about any particular aspect, I'm keenly aware of the various stages and how they relate to one another. You have to have the commitment and drive to advance it forward, and an ability to motivate others to help bring it to life. 

Your biggest weakness. 

Immersing myself too deeply in individual projects or new-business opportunities. We have amazingly talented account leaders and discipline experts who probably cringe when I drop a not-so-subtle hint that I look forward to receiving an invitation to participate in a working session. When you care so much about the work, there's a risk of micro-managing, which can crimp people's style.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising.

I'd proudly accept the role of commissioner of the NFL. Kidding, not kidding.

2 Minutes With is our regular interview series where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

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