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Todd Miller, Chief Creative Director at Experian’s in-house agency, The Cooler, talks purple cows, the tenets of a great idea, and the upsides and downsides of in-house life. 

You are CCD at Experian’s in-house agency, The Cooler, where you are responsible for some brilliant and memorable campaigns. Tell us a bit about your journey.

I grew up in New York and went to college at NYU. I got degrees in political theory, religious studies, and film there. Despite all that, I just wanted to be the next Martin Scorsese. 

While in school, I got my first ad agency gig. I was a janitor at Benton & Bowles, one of those storied Madison Avenue agencies from the old days. They had huge accounts. It was the MadMen days, so I spent my time cleaning up vomit, cleaning butt imprints off Xerox machines, and putting the logo in the sand in ashtrays next to the elevators. 

Then, I moved out to Los Angeles with a group of friends from NYU. While waiting for my Scorsese moment, I found that Absolut Vodka was running an ad competition in Spy Magazine. I was sitting on my front lawn in Venice Beach, and I came up with an idea and sent it in. A few months later, I got a call from Absolut. I thought they were going to tell me I’d won a T-shirt or something. Somehow I’d won the competition, out of 5,000 entries.

"I spent my time cleaning up vomit and cleaning butt imprints off Xerox machines"

Absolut flew me to New York for a party in my honor. I spoke with Ad Age and Adweek. That led to me having conversations about advertising, about which I knew nothing. But ultimately, it led to me working at RPA. I’ll never forget my first day there, mainly because it was the day of the Northridge Quake. The office was closed for two weeks. But somehow, I still got paid. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. Anyway, I was incredibly fortunate to start there. I learned so much from Larry Postaer. No one could ask for a better mentor. Or friend.

You’ve been a professor as well?

I taught at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA, arguably one of the best creative schools in the country, if not the world. I was an adjunct professor teaching ad concepts and I loved it. I learned as much from my students as I taught them. Same thing with being a creative leader. I’m always learning. And I now love teaching, helping and watching others succeed even more.

“Celebrate” conceived by The Cooler

What’s your advice for thriving in an ever-evolving creative landscape?

For those of us that have been in the industry for a while, we’ve seen so many glacial changes. I started when the Mac had just become a popular platform, but I remember some people still held onto their markers. They were brilliant creatives, but they weren’t evolving. 

Then, the next huge change. The internet. Some were saying, “Oh, it’s the CB radio of the ’90s,” and they didn’t grow. Back then, we did TV, radio, print, and outdoor. That was it. So, if you just worked on doing great executions, you’re like, “Wait a second, we’re not doing outdoor boards anymore, we’re not doing print, how does this work, what am I going to do?”

But I was fortunate enough to learn from Larry Postaer what’s truly important in this biz: Start with an idea. And a good idea transcends channels. Whether you’re doing a billboard or a completely new online channel doesn’t matter. A good idea works in all of them.  My students and my team make fun of me because I constantly saying, “The test of a good idea is that it works as a Super Bowl spot, a garbage can wrap, and everything in-between.” And that’s what my team does; we do everything from national TV to the smallest tweet. And all of it is tied together by a singular idea.

A good idea, I think, comes from encouraging creatives to push beyond the edges. If an idea fails, that’s okay. Actually, it’s sometimes better. Without the freedom to fail, creative work is doomed to mediocrity. Even a stupid idea can lead to a brilliant one. I want to encourage that. You’ve got to create a culture where people can trust their teammates and feel protected. 

John Cena & the purple cow, Experian Boost

Talking about absurd ideas, a big moment for Experian was when we first introduced a product, Experian Boost, with John Cena and the Purple Cow. The cow says “Booooooost” instead of moo. Some of my team said, “Okay, this is crazy. This is ridiculous. This might be a failure.” It really was nuts. But it was great, on strategy and the kind of truly big idea that was needed. The whole organization saw that. And we went with it. It was huge, and it led to a massive evolution of the brand.

Creating a culture where the team is free to bring those absurd ideas, where we can just be friggin’ silly, that’s where the excitement happens. I love that; that’s my favorite part of this whole enterprise.

You’ve been at Experian for more than eight years…

This is the longest job I’ve ever had. I feel that more than 18 months to two years is almost too long in traditional advertising. Because you’ve got to get category experience, you’ve got to move around, you’ve got to get raises, you learn about cars, then banks, then tech, finance and cars again.

I’m sure there are upsides and downsides to staying in one place for so long, but certainly, The Cooler has been great for my team and me. I am constantly stunned by how much I enjoy it and how this fulfills me. I mean, we’re doing some pretty heavy-duty stuff, so I don’t feel we’re missing out. I also appreciate our relationship with the broader Experian team – the marketing team, my leadership team, and the entire consumer division. Everyone is genuinely great.

"The Cooler has been great for my team and me. I am constantly stunned by how much I enjoy it and how this fulfills me."

What would you say to a young, talented creative who is faced with the choice of agency life versus working with an in-house team?

I would say that there’s no right answer. It’s based on personal priorities.

For me, I had twins when I was working in the agency world. I was lucky if I saw them Sunday night for dinner. I was running around, whether it be on shoots or working weekends – I mean, that’s life in advertising. The kids were eight years old when my dad passed away. And on his deathbed, he actually said that movie thing, “I wish I would’ve spent more time with you.” And I thought, “Wait, this is a mess. Maybe my priorities are a little twisted.”

I try to protect my team’s quality of life, a balance I never had. So, to answer your question,  I guess it’s a personal choice. There are benefits to both in-house and outhouse.

Travis Kelce for the Experian Smart Money Checking Account

What has been your proudest creative moment?

There was a campaign that I was fortunate to be assigned very early in my career at RPA. It was racing for Honda, an assignment no one seemed particularly excited about. Everyone said, “Oh, just do a spot with cars turning left, forget about it, and move on.” 

My writing partner Chad and I ignored that. We were too green and too excited. We shot for a new big idea. People seem more interested in the car and its technology in open-wheel racing. With their helmets on, no one meets the drivers. (Keep in mind this was years before the great Netflix show.) So, we created a campaign that introduced these drivers as humans. We told stories based on their lives. You finally met them.

Larry Postaer, one of the most important people in my life, career, everything, saw something different in this. And so did the client.  It became a wild success and put my partner and me on the map. It became the best assignment at the agency. The idea was clear and simple, as every idea should be. The campaign included some fantastic print, outdoor & broadcast. I’m still proud of that work.

I’m also proud of the stuff we just did with Travis Kelce. And the work with Cena and the purple cow is still one of my greatest moments. John Cena, who is, incidentally, one of the nicest guys ever, told me kids would walk up to him and just say, “Booooost.” He’d be like, “Wait, what about me? I was in the ad, too.” All they wanted to do was ask him about the cow. He loved it.

It truly was transformative in evolving the consumer brand. I owe a lot to Experian for seeing that and letting us pursue it. It was one of those times where it was like, “This is ridiculous, this is stupid, this is absurd,” and they went for it. It was a big gamble for a revolutionary product. And I’m proud because it had such a significant effect on changing how the consumer sees the brand.

On your personal website, there’s an ad with the headline “MUTATION LESSONS”. Can you explain?

This is what we’re calling out? Okay. It’s in the “Out of Home” section. People usually call it Billboards. I was at DDB, where we had Atari. My partner Melanie and I were assigned to launch Atari’s new game for Men In Black. We did loads of great work.

We also made some letter-sized ads that looked like crappy want ads. You know, people can rip off a phone number, like applying for a job or buying something. We posted them across colleges all over the country. It was another absolutely idiotic effort – I think I’m seeing a trend here – and I’m insanely proud of all of them.

Image credit: Todd Miller