Envision the Art of the Possible: John Elder, Supernatural

by India Fizer , AdForum

New York, United States
See Profile
John Elder
CEO Supernatural


We spoke with Supernatural CEO, John Elder, about embracing technology for more creative work and leveraging power tools such as AI and Machine Learning technology to give insights and accelerate processes for creatives.


Tell us about your role and how long you been working in the world of advertising.

I’m CEO of Supernatural, a new but mighty agency based in NYC and San Francisco. I’ve been working in the world of advertising since the mid-80s, or in other words, forever (though, I was very good in the 80s). I’ve worked at creative agencies on the east coast, was at Goodby, Silverstein in San Francisco for a decade, started Heat with a partner in 2005 and sold to Deloitte in 2016 and then spent 5 years as a management consultant.


Are there some common staples or tropes that have developed in recent years within the industry? How do these compare to the ones of 10 or even 20 years ago? 

When I returned to Goodby in the late 90s after a year away, I was charged with helping to figure out how to approach digital advertising because clients like HP were demanding it. To me it seemed like a great opportunity to have the best people in advertising apply their creativity to this new medium. While there was curiosity and interest, it was a challenge to get people past their prejudices about what was possible or not, to really get interesting, highly creative work made in the early days.

One of the early people we hired was incredibly talented, but to our chagrin we never were able to harness his thinking and he left. That was Jeff Benjamin who went to Crispin where he worked with my current creative partner, Paul Caiozzo, on Whopper Freakout. That creative masterstroke was an early catalyst for people realizing they could do some amazing things in the digital sphere with the right idea. 

It feels like over the past 5 years or so, the red flags could not be more visible for creative advertising, and yet there is similar resistance to embracing technology, and the information available in service of creativity. For whatever reason, time and again things start in a resistant, borderline adversarial manner before a breakthrough idea helps others envision the art of the possible. Perhaps we need another Whopper Freakout that harnesses modern technology in a brand-new way in order to get people inspired.


What were some aspects or qualities about ads from the past that you feel modern advertising could benefit from adopting? 

“The consumer is not a moron, she’s your wife,” is as applicable today as when David Ogilvy first said it, and yet, marketers have spent more time focused on getting better performance (which is important) many have lost sight of relevance in the process. Sure, you can interrupt people with your ads, but then you have an annoyed customer, not someone who is interested in hearing what your brand has to say. 

The numbers bear this out, as ad spending for the top 100 advertisers has increased by close to 30% over the past 5 years, ad recall has declined by a similar amount. As an industry, we’re requiring clients to spend more and get less every year, so clearly something has to change.

I’ve always worked at agencies that believed in rewarding the people who see the ads. Sure, everyone says they don’t like advertising, but then something strikes them that they talk about and when done right, can influence culture. It’s powerful when it works, but challenging to align everything from client to brief, to idea to execution.


Was the work approached differently or have the methods remained the same?

When you look at the process of creating advertising, it fundamentally hasn’t changed since the Mad Men era. Perhaps there’s less drinking and smoking in the office, but if you watch the show, you see essentially the same dynamics at play today. Not too many industries have survived, let alone thrived, by being so resistant to change. Doing things differently is hard, and not everyone is up for it. 

This was a driving force for why my partners (Paul Caiozzo and Mike Barrett) and I got together. We knew that for this industry to thrive, we had to be agents for doing things differently, but what did that mean? We looked at other industries, where technology has been leveraged to accelerate processes, such as what Lemonade has brought to the insurance industry. Technology adoption has happened on the media side of the business, but we haven’t seen the same in the creative area. That's where deepening our exploration of AI and ML as a service to creativity came into play.


How have ads evolved to keep up with technological and cultural advancements such as smartphones and the internet?

As with digital marketing at the beginning of web 1.0 the media channels and media placements have evolved far faster than the creativity that fills those channels. In the face of declining effectiveness, advertisers have responded by increasing pressure. Today, US consumers see approximately 2000 ads per day, and most don’t remember. And a couple decades in, the shoes you buy online continue to follow you around the internet for days, despite the advertiser knowing you already own them. Surely as an industry we can do better.

At Supernatural we believe in leveraging technology that helps accelerate the process and provide more real-time, consistent, and accurate insights and combine that with human brain power to pull together a strong brief in a fraction of the time the process typically takes. Speeding up the start of the process allows for more time for creatives who need to think up the ideas. Then we leverage AI and Machine Learning technology to populate the creative deliverables which allows us to execute quicker as well. We do the same thing with optimization. The result is that our clients’ brands get to stay closer to what their targets are interested in and participate accordingly.


Do you feel as though ageism is a problem in the advertising industry?

I feel that all the -isms facing the rest of the business world (sexism, racism, ageism) are just as prevalent in advertising. We certainly are not immune. As we’re learning, people come at these issues with their own biases, backgrounds and perspectives so it’s difficult to be truly objective. Youth has always been valued of course, with new approaches and ideas.

It’s a complex, nuanced issue to be sure, and is a problem that bears consideration. When you look at the success of programs calling attention to these issues, like the 3% conference and 600 and Rising, it’s impressive to see what some organization and awareness can do.


What advertisements do you remember seeing when you were younger that left an impression on you and why do you think they stayed with you?

I’ve always loved cars, especially Porsche, and I loved all the Fallon work for that brand. It was a thrill when I went to Goodby and ended up working on the account.

I was in college trying to figure out what I was going to do when I grew up, when 1984 came out and that was a watershed moment. To be part of something so new and different (and relevant to me!) that also drove business seemed like a fantastic combination for a career, and I’m glad I found it.


Looking to the future, where do you think the advertisement industry is heading?

If I learned one thing in my 5 years at Deloitte, it’s how to see opportunity in industries in transition and I’m optimistic that we’ll find a much better way. Perhaps we’ll need a few new “Whopper Freakout” moments that demonstrate to creative types that all this data and technology can be thought of as power tools for people who create. Tools that give you insights in what your target wants from your brand right now. I see a future where we get back to striving to create advertising that rewards people for paying attention to our message, showing up in places that people want to see it.