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Visionary Ad Veteran Shares Stories and Surprises at EPICS Event

Digging into her three decades of ad agency experience working with high-profile brands, Jeanie Caggiano shared a jam-packed hour of stories from her creative process as well as advice on breaking into – and thriving in – the advertising industry to a room full of creatively inclined Northwestern students at Scott Hall on November 4.

Caggiano, who is executive vice president and creative director at Chicago advertising giant Leo Burnett, showed ad clips from McDonald’s, Hallmark, Chevy, Allstate, and Miller High Life, and talked about how a voracious newspaper-reading habit and a good ear for stories with emotional authenticity helped lead those campaigns to such high visibility and share rates.

“Maya Angelou wrote that people may forget what you said and what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” Caggiano says at the EPICS-sponsored event. The mission of advertising, she says, is to make people feel something as well as give people something they want to share.

There were more than enough examples from her long dossier of clients.

The UnitedHealthcare spot that has come to be known as the “Dirty Dancing” ad highlights a husband and wife preparing dinner at home who stop to reenact one of the dance scenes in the film “Dirty Dancing.” The woman takes a flying fall, crashing into the dining room table, breaking it and bringing them both to the floor.

“I read in the New York Times that there are medical codes that classify diseases and accidents,” Caggiano says. “They are hilariously specific. These codes became the basis of the campaign.”

The Mayhem campaign for Allstate’s auto insurance highlights a character called “Mayhem,” played by Dean Winters, who represents disaster in myriad forms. The idea came from Caggiano’s desire to take on the challenging product and do something different.

“No one wanted to take on that brief,” Caggiano says, recalling the day her team received the assignment. “Auto insurance is super unsexy. But the gold is where everyone else isn’t.”

From the lectern at Guild Lounge, it was as if Caggiano, one of few people in any field to be at the same job for 30 years, stood at the intersection of her past, present, and future.

In 1982, as a School of Communication senior, Caggiano took a course in advertising. She loved it. “I said, ‘that’s it!’ That’s what I want to do.” A year later, she earned her master’s degree in advertising at Medill (what would now be IMC).

“When I heard that Leo Burnett was coming to this very building — Scott Hall —  to interview students, I was the first one in line,” she recalls.

How does she feel about her job 30 years later?

“I’m never bored,” she offers. “There’s always something new to learn.”

Caggiano shared seven tenets in her creative canon:

  1. Do the thing no one else wants to do.
  2. Write down your ideas.
  3. Dig for the facts.
  4. Don’t be afraid of the obvious.
  5. Use objects and opposites.
  6. Go for humor or tears.
  7. Have a life outside of work.

Though Caggiano says she wasn’t on campus to sell anything, her passion for the industry, resource-rich handouts, and one-to-one conversations with students after her presentation may have sold a new generation on a career in advertising.