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Life on the Client Side – Jordan Goldenberg, VP Brand & Creative – Petco

February 21, 2020

Today on Real-World Branding we welcome back our old/dear friend Jordan Goldenberg! After 18 years as Finch Brands’ Creative Director, Jordan headed west — ultimately landing as VP of Brand & Creative at Petco. Now two years in, he reflects on his accomplishments at Petco so far and the differences between the agency and client sides. If you like our podcast, please subscribe!

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Bill Gullan: Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique brand consultancy. Good afternoon or whenever you’re listening to this, thanks for joining us. And it is a thrill to bring back our old friend and colleague, who’s taking the world or has taken the world by storm, in his role of VP of Brand and Creative at Petco, Jordan Goldenberg. A little bit of backstory, and it was hard for Jordan and I not to descend into inside jokes and stories from our tenure and relationship which has spanned multiple decades, at this point.

Bill: Jordan was an original co-founder of what has become Finch Brands, and for many, many years was our creative director before heading West, I think, for lifestyle and professional reasons a handful of years back, and of course we’ve kept in touch. We’ll be friends forever. He’s one of the best both guys, as well as creatives that I’ve ever had a chance to meet with. And as you’ll hear in this interview, not only is Petco a fascinating story set against a challenging retail landscape, but a business that has really found its purpose and connects deeply with pet parents, as we call them, who are obviously very emotionally involved in the care and feeding of their family members, who may have fur and tails.

Bill: In that role, Jordan has distinguished himself by bringing, what we all know to be, incredibly passionate and capable chops to really the entire stack of what they do around brand communications and all the way through the retail environment, demand generation, omni-channel, commerce. And so he’ll reflect a bit on lessons he’s learned along the way, as well as how he is seeing the world these days from his perch on Hollywood Hills as the VP of Brand and Creative at Petco. Enjoy Jordan Goldenberg.

Bill: I always say how thrilling it is that our guest joins us on Real-World Branding and it’s always true, but it is particularly true today. Old friend and colleague and inspiration, Jordan Goldenberg who’s the VP of Brand and Creative at Petco, calling in from his home in the Hollywood Hills, normally in San Diego professionally, but he’s with us. Jordan, thanks for coming, man.

Jordan Goldenberg: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me. I don’t know why, because I listened to the podcast a lot. I just assumed I would hear the jazz intro.

Bill: Nice. Yeah.

Jordan: Because I assumed you were playing the Rhodes or the Wurlitzer, you know?

Bill: Yeah, it’s true. We do a lot of dulcimer here ,actually. And I appreciate you recognizing that and the fact that you actually listened once and they’re using that as broader knowledge, I think, is a yet another impressive thing about you, my friend.

Jordan: That’s the way I roll.

Bill: So, we wanted to do catch up with Jordan. You were on here. You’ve been on here a couple of times. Jordan is a co-founder of the institution now known as Finch Brands, was our longtime creative director and so much more. But since flying the nest to go West, which rhymes, in 2015… Yeah. We wanted-

Bill: Yeah, right. We wanted tales from the other side here. Certainly want to hear about what you’re up to at Petco and your reflections on the agency world versus sort of a client side brand leadership role in. Why don’t you tell us, when we last left our hero, you were heading West. Talk about Petco and sort of what you’ve been up to. And it’s great to hear your voice.

Jordan: It’s great to hear yours, too. Thanks for having me on. It’s a big story and it’s a lot to sort of unpack because there’s lots of nuance to being on this side of the table that, some of which I think I expected and some of which are surprising to me. But all in all, I would say that Petco, the job and the charter that I have right now at Petco is, it’s big. It’s less about translating creative in terms of who we are and what we stand for, and more about sort of almost changing retail to an extent. I mean, technically, we’ve got 1,600 some brick and mortar stores that we absolutely need to find a credible brand platform that is meaningful for customers, delivers for the pet and also is meaningful for the business. And it’s complicated charter, and it’s certainly the challenge of my career and it’s been a blast, to be honest.

Jordan: And I think those sort of business challenges are part of the game right now and I think a big difference from being on the client’s side versus the agency side.

Bill: Yeah, absolutely. And while having some degree of focus, I guess in terms of sort of one company, one brand, although there’s many different parts of it, I’m sure there are tons of nuances in terms of what you’re doing day to day that may not exactly be the same as that consulting or agency experience, but still keep things pretty fresh.

Jordan: Oh, yeah. I mean, look, don’t get me wrong. It is still about creative expression, but I think on the… And look, this is kudos to Finch and I think ultimately why you guys aren’t an agency but more of a brand consultancy, because I think there’s really three parts to it, right? For a customer or client to understand not only the why they are, but then to understand what they need to do with it and then ultimately how they communicate it, I mean, these are big things to untangle. And typically on the Finch side, I was really focused on the how, right, which was how are we going to communicate this? How are we going to translate this brand strategy into customer facing communications that sort of get noticed and make sense and drive action?

Jordan: And here, it’s a lot deeper than that. I mean, right now, we’re focusing on what is our brand purpose, the vision and mission, stuff who is now on our side called sort of purpose, and then sort of defining what do we do with it and then how do we market it? And so the game is less about just creative and more about creating action based on purpose and then figuring out how to communicate it. And this is something that I guess…

Bill: Oh, we lost you.

Jordan: No, I’m back.

Bill: You’re back?

Jordan: Yeah, sorry. That’s something I think, on the Finch side, was always preeminent, and I think one of the reasons why this idea of… I think you guys being on the client side first and not agency driven first is… It’s huge, and I think I’m learning more important than ever. And in fact, looking back on what I did at Finch and sort of my role and responsibility and ultimate accountability at Finch, I would have been stronger had I spent some time on the client side, because there are many challenges that I didn’t understand from a creative expression standpoint, number one of which I think is what I would call alignment in that any single the thing that you do on the client side takes a lot of alignment, not only from C-suite and understanding that it’s a business priority, but once you have an idea that might be delivered internally or through an agency, there is so much to do with that idea to bring it to life and so many different areas on the client side that need to be aligned before it can launch that I don’t think I ever really, totally appreciated, you know?

Bill: Well, yeah, and I think, first of all, it’s gratifying to hear you say that because you were part of it, that we have always placed a really high premium on leaders who have been operators or at least come of age in brand driven environments where they had those possibilities you’re talking about…

Jordan: It’s huge.

Bill: Yeah. There’s things. I get some agencies in my experience that we’d suggest that some agencies kind of advocate that and stay away from it as best they can, but I would imagine that constrains efficacy.

Jordan: Yeah. Well, I think that there’s… When I was the creative director of the agency, if I came up with a great idea and rallied the team to bring it to life, then you go in, you get nervous and you go in at the end of the day and you go to the client and you present it and it goes well, you walked out of that room feeling really successful. You can’t wait to call back to you guys and say it went awesome to the team and congratulate them. And it’s a funny thing, because now on the other side of it, that’s like such a small part of it.

Bill: Just the beginning, right?

Jordan: It’s the beginning, right. What would be the goal on the agency side is sort of the beginning on the client side, and it’s a fascinating perspective.

Bill: Yeah, no, it is. And I think it’s… That level of recognition from our colleagues here really leans into or helps us lean into the fact that we know the content needs to be great, but the process also does, and in part, if the process is great, whether it’s fueled by insights or whether some degree, whatever an outside partner can do to create alignment before, it just helps things be executable and more efficiently executable. It’s an interesting perspective and I’m sure the way that you interact with agencies and others that you may work with today, you have an appreciation for how they’re seeing things and now you really probably can see it 360 degrees in a way that one never could if you’re coming from one side or the other.

Jordan: Yeah, I think it’s absolutely true and it causes… While it’s great, it also causes some issues because I know some of these ideas that are being presented are creative whims, right? On the creative side and the creative team part of things, and I run a 30-some person creative team right now, internal agency, including the photo and video studio that I built when I came in. Look, there needs to be reality to the ideas and the ability to execute, but you also sort of don’t want to clip the wings to say, “Think huge.” You just know that there’s got to be a balance.

Bill: Yeah, no doubt. So, Petco, you were beginning to say, we all know that the retail world today is challenged in a lot of ways. At the same time, we know that, what we might call, the pet parent landscape is full of very passionate, engaged people here who want to do right. Talk a little bit about the state of… You were beginning to talk about kind of the brick and mortar, I guess, channel, omnichannel, but what’s a little bit of the state of the union of how Petco sees itself today and through your role with brand and creative, how you help to bring it to life or activate its full potential?

Jordan: Yeah, thanks. Ultimately, I think the pet industry, pet specialty in general, had been pretty insulated from the economics of what was going on with retail.

Bill: It’s not Circuit City, right.

Jordan: Well, just simply because I think pet specialty hadn’t gone…

Bill: Right, right.

Jordan: And so it was somewhat insulated. I mean, Petco itself never really took time to fundamentally differentiate from some of the other competitors. So, there’s a huge push right now to differentiate with meaning and really start to… And you know, I mean, cause Finch does this a lot with brand strategy, but to really start to understand or to reinvest, I would say, what we really stand for within the pet parent relationship. And I think, ultimately, it used to be about making convenience to sell really great things to you.

Jordan: And now it’s more about leaning heavier into health and wellness and really about making sure that we’re making it easier for pet parents to do what’s right for their pet. I mean, there is a lot of information out there, nutrition and otherwise, that can be very confusing for pet parents, but we all know that they want to do what’s best. There’s a spot a time they don’t know what it is and they’re looking for guidance, and I think part of that is being able to curate an assortment that helps make it easy to do the right thing, but there’s also a lot of services that go into it, which gives us a lot of credibility to play in that space, that expansion as well as training and grooming.

Bill: Grooming, yep.

Jordan: So, right now, we’re focused on really understanding and defining what it is that we stand for, what our purpose as a company is, and then bringing that to life within the next couple of years, not only through the way that we present ourselves, but in the way that we act through all stages.

Bill: No, it’s interesting. And one of the things, I don’t know that we think about a lot here given the stated desire of many businesses to be truly customer centric and to be focused on the experience as well as increasingly to lead with values and be fundamental, one of the traditional challenges I think retailers have had to operationalize that beyond simply the philosophy is, all the moving parts as well as traditional organizational structures that in some ways may not create cohesive customer experiences.

Bill: In a traditional retailer, there’s one group and HR is in charge of hiring and onboarding, and then obviously there’s the brand and the creative piece, and then there’s a store operations and folks who are responsible for real estate and customer experience at the elevated level that you’re talking about requires buy in and consistency across all of these different functions and leaders and budgets. How’s Petco grappling with that as you’re thinking about purpose? How difficult or easy, I guess, is it to enroll… You talk about alignment, but to make some of these things real?

Jordan: Really challenging because while from the heart, everybody wants to be on board. Everybody’s got numbers to hit. At the end of the day, things fall back into promotion, right? I think that’s one of the biggest things that we’re in planning right now for 2020 and beyond, and we’re holding our purpose up to say, how does everyone’s goals align against these and how… And I look at it as a personal mission and my team’s personal mission as sort of the flywheel engine that becomes a funnel where all customer communications go through eventually. Promotions or not, store visuals, everything, we have impact on. And I look at it as an opportunity to create alignment there through communication.

Jordan: For example, let’s take a July 4th promotion that might be happening. The question I always ask now is, as we start to refine and define what our purpose is, what is Petco’s stance on July 4th, right? Why does it matter? What can we do to stand for calm, right? So, we look to dive in and understand a little bit more about why is July 4th relevant besides promotion? What happens to pets on July 4th? What are the unique problems that we can solve from a pet parent sort of centric point of view? And then I’m able to sort of bring that to life through the brief into all the customer touch points.

Jordan: So, I look at my job as a way of aligning a lot of different areas of the business, but part of it is just understanding. I think what happens in a lot of siloed retail organizations is that not everybody’s bought in or aligned, as I would say, to the goal, right? And so they’re running a little bit disconnected. And so right now, we’re really trying to figure out and understand how to socialize the whole company to what we need to be and why we are a company, right?

Bill: Right, right. That’s interesting perspective. I mean, knowing that you’re a communist, I was thinking you were going to come out against July 4th, but understanding… Yes-

Jordan: It’s actually a fresh example for me.

Bill: But to your point, I mean, there are unique challenges that pet parents experience, given the noise and given parties and large gatherings, given all the fireworks and everything else that to see that through the lens is fascinating and important.

Jordan: So, more recently, 2019 was all about nutrition for us, but we’ve done what the CVS stopped selling cigarettes did. And this is action-based positioning, right? So, instead of just marketing nutrition, we exited all food that had artificials. There’s an asterisk there, but you can look into that. Out of our stores. And that was a huge business risk and a huge business and operational decision to go after, and then we marketed it. So, in this world, I think it’s less about want to do or saying this is what we stand for and really about action first, like what are you doing? And so it sort of makes my job a little bit easier from a creative standpoint, because we’re just advertising what we’ve done, and I think that’s truly meaningful.

Bill: Yeah. There are… I mean, we of course stay in touch and follow all the things you’re doing, and certain campaigns and sort of pieces of creative work are particularly memorable. The one… I don’t know if it was Claymation, but that one amazing one around the holidays that was so emotional, we’ll put that in the show notes so people can click on it. But to your point, though, there is maybe a moment and an opportunity for brand anthems like that or large sweeping ideas, but day in and day out, there’s all kinds of levels from promotions all the way up to that kind of brand content. Could you talk a little bit about, given that your team has a hand in all of it, just the various sort of levels of creative deliverables and the roles that they’re expected to play and how they do or do not ladder up to larger brand beliefs, and sort of do you get through just the inventory of stuff that you need to do it in a way that’s kind of cohesive and powerful?

Jordan: Yeah. I mean, it’s a tremendous challenge. I think to answer part of your question first, it’s sort of like I looked at success on making sure that every piece of creative that goes out does have a nod to what we stand for. It’s not always possible because some of it’s just straight up promotion, and part of that has to do with what the merchant levels are pushing. But my job is to try to impact each one of those customer touch points in a way that does connect with the overall brand position, right. And this is a huge work in progress because we’re actually working on the brand positioning now, but we do everything internally from all of the photography and video for the website through to our CRM communications, tons of emails, probably too many emails. Sorry.

Jordan: All of the customer care sheets, all of the work with store visuals to do all of the store signage and launches, seasonal promotions. And so some of these don’t all ladder up to the positioning, but they all are bricks to it. They’re all pieces to it and they all definitely need to relate, but I mean, it’s a… Yeah, there is the brand campaign, but all of the doing business items that drive sales all underneath it, right?

Bill: Yeah. Yeah, totally. We need to be mindful of your time. Talk a little bit about… And so just a couple more quick things. Culturally, you’re from this area around Philly, Penn State guy, now out in the West. Can you talk a little bit about just the vibe and aesthetic differences in terms of the people you meet and how folks communicate and just what your experience has been in your four years, San Diego and LA, obviously? How are things a little different other than the weather?

Jordan: That’s a good question. I think out here, well, there’s a lot of transplants, especially down in San Diego where Petco is. I think that there’s a great energy out here. I think that there is a… And I don’t know if it’s always been like this, but it seems like at least since I’ve been out, that I’ve noticed a great passion for creative. I think that whoever you meet here, not whoever, but many of the people I need in my circles, while they have a job and they’re working hard, they always seem to be able to find time for a creative outlet, something else they’re working on. And this isn’t about, I think, a lack of focus on their job or a sense of unhappiness, but there’s a creative energy, at least in LA, that is really focused on expression, and I think that there’s a great allowance for it and it’s really inspiring.

Jordan: The people that I work with at Petco, while a lot or transplants and a lot are coming from other large organizations, I think that there is an impatience to push hard and to really make fundamental change. So, the culture of Petco right now is one of camaraderie, but also there’s a tremendous amount of aggression to push forward and create some massive changes pretty quickly. So, in that way, it feels a little East coast down there as a …and like a surf environment.

Bill: Right, right.

Jordan: I mean, having said that, every time I’m in there and we’re all in this hardcore meeting and we’re figuring out how to escalate and accelerate change, some of these people had been up at 5:00 AM surfing.

Bill: Yeah, right.

Jordan: So, I’m just blown away by the ability of balancing sort of lifestyle, Southern California lifestyle with sort of just, in my mind, this East coast mentality of driving, driving change, and I’m impressed by the balance that I’ve found out here. I always imagined it to be sort of laid back, and I wouldn’t say it laid back. I just think people deeply care about their lifestyle, and I think it’s healthy, you know?

Bill: Yeah. Excellent. I know we have two more minutes. Any other… I mean, you’ve shared some really interesting insights about the difference between sort of being in house. Whether related to specific kind of job or functionally related differences or just the journey you’ve taken, any reflections, just like I am, we’re… What are we 22, 23 years in to our careers?

Jordan: I thought you were going to say years old.

Bill: Yeah. Well, we acted. We look at, but you more than me. But what’s… We’re halfway through. So, what’s at the turn? Yeah.

Jordan: There’s something that hasn’t changed for me. And I think I’m applying it differently right now, but this idea of purpose-driven companies is everything. It’s truly what will make brand… Look, it’s what makes companies brands, but I think that it will differentiate who survives and who doesn’t. And I don’t think it’s just retail, but very importantly in retail right now because you need to create reason. and I think on the agency side, I’ve been very lucky to have worked at a company and helped to create a company that was driven by creating vision and mission before positioning and strategy.

Jordan: And on the client side, I’m doing the same thing. I mean, my wife’s always said that when she’s explains what I do, she says, “Well, he helps give companies souls,” right? And when I was on the side, I did it in one way, but it’s the same thing. And I think, for me, it still is everything to me, and it’s what I fight for every day. And I find that all of the complications of alignment, like I mentioned and what you were pushing at about how to get everybody singing on the same song sheet, a lot of it comes down to making sure that people understand who they are, why they are, why they’re better, and why they’re different, and are able to do that in a consistent way.

Jordan: Branding comes from the inside out, then the company needs to define and understand it before they’re able to communicate it and be understood. And some of those things just are universal. And whether you’re on the client side or the agency side, everybody’s got to believe it. And so some things haven’t changed.

Bill: Yeah. Well, it’s funny. To your point, and then we’ll wrap it here because I know you got to run. I do remember, over the veil of years, meetings that we were in a decade ago, let’s say, together where the client would respond to some of the more mission-driven, what they might regard as the softer stuff and say, “Okay, great, great, great, but move on to the how are we going to sell this or that.” There is some degree of, I think, satisfaction, at least for me. And then this level of satisfaction plus $3, I can get a small coffee, but there is some degree of satisfaction that the world has moved, the branding and the business world has moved in a direction of a place where in some ways we were all along about the role of purpose and the sort of fundamental building blocks of how to build great companies and great brands.

Jordan: Absolutely. I mean, if there’s been a huge learning about what we were up to together since I’ve been on this side is that we were right.

Bill: There you go. I mean, we’re not quite sure Churchill in the ’30s, but still. Yeah, there is some satisfaction in that.

Jordan: Look, we’re not the only people, right? I mean, I’m just saying that the role of purpose to drive the company, to create the engine of a company that is meaningful not only internally, but for customers is crucial to anything that it creates. And that’s the road and the journey that Petco is on right now, and we’re getting there and I’m really proud of the team, and it’s been a huge change in point of view for the company. And you know, that’s the road, but it certainly creates a gravitational pull that’s holding everything together right now.

Bill: Excellent. Great place to leave it. Well, we’re proud of you, man, and we’re grateful for your time and friendship, and it’s so much fun to watch, even 3,000 miles away, all this stuff that you churn out and to see you in it and to know little touches of it that that doubtlessly came from your mouth or your head or your heart, but let’s make sure we have you every X number of months on here just to keep us sane and-

Jordan: Yeah. Look. What’s cool is that we’re undergoing the transition right now, so I’ll have lots more to report. And thank you so much for having me on, and I hope you can see that the things that we learned and built together are having a tremendous impact still on what I do every day.

Bill: Wow, that’s gratifying and we’ll be watching, and you are hired as our official Petco correspondent.

Jordan: Well, thank you.

Bill: We’ll definitely be checking back in, but say hi to Lauren and Mars, and look forward to seeing you when you come back East or vice versa.

Jordan: All right. Sure. Say hi to the Finch Team for me. Thank you for having me.

Bill: Pleasure.

Bill: Not much more needs to be said. Jordan’s the best. He is a great friend and has been a tremendous colleague over the years, and it is fun just to watch what comes from his mind and pen and pixel or however it is that we do these things these days, but Jordan’s a Jordan’s a keeper and his perspectives on just that that journey from the agency world into the consulting world is so compelling, and those of you who’ve followed Finch at all know that we really place a high premium on folks who have been operators in brand-driven environments. We think it makes them better and more instinctive when it comes to being consultants or agency personnel. And Jordan’s a perfect example of that, although going the other way. And maybe one day the door will revolve back, but anyway, we can’t wait to stay in touch with him and watch him as time goes on.

Bill: Always, as always, three ways to support us. Rate and review, give us the benefit of a subscribe click or tap, which makes sure you don’t miss a single episode, as well as she shared some feedback and some comments, ideas for future guests or topics. Those are the three ways to make sure we’re found and that this medium is of great value. It’s always greatly enjoyable for us. We want to make sure that our listeners find value in it too, and so that feedback really helps us make sure that we deliver against that commitment. So, we’ll sign off on Cradle of Liberty.

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