My Creative Career: Rob Lenois, chief creative officer at VaynerMedia
As part of our My Creative Career series, Rob Lenois details how being the ‘class clown’ paved the way for a decades-long career pushing the boundaries of advertising.
By his own admission, Rob Lenois was something of a joker at school. “At the time it was problematic, but looking back I think it was probably formative,” he says of his childhood growing up in the outskirts of New Haven, Connecticut. “From an early age, I liked to get a rise out of people, liked to make people laugh.”
With a mother who was a schoolteacher and a father who worked in finance, Lenois sees himself as a strange byproduct of those two professions, something ”different.” In his early school years, he recalls being starkly aware that writing things down on paper was a way to grab his peers’ attention.
In junior high, to get out of doing assignments, he would make films to present to the class instead. “We were doing a book report on King Lear so I got my buddies together and we did an enactment of one of the scenes, making it a parody,” he laughs.
“I added a commercial to the film for snake food, where I dropped a mouse into my brother’s snake tank. I got into a lot of trouble because we played the film for the class and the teacher had no idea that there was going to be this ad for snake food and I had literally a snake attacking the mouse – much to the horror of the class.”
There was a thread of creativity all through Leonis’s school years, but he did more academic subjects and participated in sports. “I didn’t suppress my creativity. But for some wild, weird reason I thought that I wanted a career in finance and banking.”
He laughs that this was either because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father or that he had been influenced by Charlie Sheen in the 1987 movie Wall Street.
Somewhere around his sophomore year at college, he had an epiphany that he would be miserable in that world. “I remember I was at a Chinese restaurant with the person I was dating at the time and I was just like, ‘I think I want to give advertising a go.’ That’s where my passion is, where my heart is.”
That summer, he read Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, as well as Ogilvy on Advertising, just to be sure he was on the right path, then left university in 1993 with a major in economics but no portfolio and no real proof of what he could do creatively.
Having to wing it, he ultimately talked his way into a job as an account manager at NW Ayer while in the evenings he began putting a portfolio of work together at New York’s School of Visual Arts.
At the agency one day, Lenois remembers vividly that they were pitching for Continental Airlines when it became apparent there was no radio element to the campaign. To the confusion of the room, he put himself forward to make the work. “And I did it,“ he says.
“In the late 90s in New York City, there was this horrific recording in all the taxis, this obnoxious voice that would come on and say ‘Thank you for riding this taxi, please get out. Take all your belongings and get a receipt from the driver.’ It was grating.“ Lenois took the message and reworked it to end with the snippy statement: “‘Oh, and another thing, if you live on the west side and you don’t fly Continental out of Newark, you’ve got to be a tourist. Welcome to New York.‘”
He had fun with it and it blew up. Even former mayor Rudi Giuliani took notice, outraged that it wasn’t from the Port Authority. Similar to his formative school years, he got a rise out of people – except this time on a much bigger scale. “And I’ve never looked back. They made me a creative copywriter shortly after that.”
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Since the early 2000s, Lenois has worked for agencies including Saatchi & Saatchi, Grey Group and BBDO New York. “I wanted advertising to try really hard to land with people and move them. I loved it so much that I wanted to be as good as it could possibly be.”
It wasn’t completely plain sailing though; in his early years, he faced some frustrations, hitting walls with clients that weren’t as keen to push boundaries. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of work the creative is proud of, such as a Heineken holiday ad made during his time at D’Arcy-New York that took on corporate misconduct. It was a commentary on the Enron Financial Scandal and ended up winning the team a Bronze Film Lion at Cannes.
The spot depicts a building that is hosting various office Christmas parties. Floor upon floor, from the outside you can see the festivities inside as the snow falls. Cut to the top of the building though and it becomes apparent to the viewers that the ‘snow’ is actually shredded paper that a bunch of banking fat cats are chucking out the window.
“What’s funny is that I remember presenting that internally and I didn’t think it had a chance in hell of ever seeing the light of day. But it went all the way up and Heineken loved it. I think it was at the time a very progressive brand. That was the beginning of me seeing that I could make amazing things and there were clients out there that were into them. It was a bit of an eye-opener.”
Another big hit in his career was for Febreze. For its ‘Breathe Happy’ campaign, Lenois and his team brought a bunch of people into smelly locations and filmed their reactions once the air freshener had been sprayed. Shortly after the global launch, Febreze became one of the fastest-growing brands worldwide with sales surpassing $1bn.
A third is his work for Volvo while at Grey. Tasked with competing with huge car brands and their even bigger budgets during the Super Bowl, Lenois and his team asked people to look away during other car commercials and text someone they would give a Volvo to. The agency won its first-ever Cannes Lions Grand Prix for this work. “You can see a bit of a theme with this,” he laughs. “It’s all designed to really move people; it’s designed to not be invisible, to force you to pay attention.”
It’s a mantra he’s now carried on to his role as chief creative officer at VaynerMedia, where he’s been since 2019. What’s driving him now is reactions on social media. “That is what is so seductive to me about what we do [at VaynerMedia] and about social media because, for the first time ever, we’re accountable to the consumer. There’s no ‘see the above’; there’s no client making the call. It’s us and the consumer, which I find to be absolutely amazing.”
Lenois likens it to a standup comic on stage; if the joke lands, the audience will laugh and the performer will keep going. If it falls flat, then it’s silence. “The industry is very different. The industry will write down a joke then pass it to their boss or ask their client if they think it’s funny, right?”
Looking back on his career so far, Lenois says he was able to find a culture and people that was fulfilling to him and that, unlike many others, he never became jaded about advertising. He also says his 10 years at Grey were some of the best of his career but that he’s found something different in his role at Gary Vaynerchuk’s agency.
“Advertising has been advertising. You can get the work right, you can do it with great people and that is what it is. Here, the work is great and the people are great, but we’re innovating. We’re changing the industry and that has been wildly fulfilling to me.”