After nearly 20 years at the helm of brand experience agency Jack Morton, Josh McCall recently announced his transition to ‘chairman emeritus’ at the start of 2023. The Drum sat down with McCall to talk the past, the present and the future of experiential marketing.
First there was Jack Morton himself, then Jack’s son Bill. In 2003, Josh McCall became brand experience agency Jack Morton’s third chief executive officer. Now the agency is 83 years old and McCall is stepping back into a ‘chairman emeritus’ role. Bill Davies and Craig Millon, both veterans of the agency, take on chief exec duties as joint co-chairmen. The Drum spoke exclusively with McCall about his highlights, regrets and hopes for the future.
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Hi Josh. Your agency has a rich history of brand experience… I’ve heard that ‘experiential marketing’ was coined by Jack Morton?
In our 83rd year in business, we’ve certainly been a pioneer in this industry. Experiential goes back to somewhere in the late 80s. We were at the forefront of that, in the early days of our agency, producing music and entertainment events for industry and trade associations, then defining ‘corporate theater’ in the 60s and 70s, and moving into events and experiential in the 80s.
I’ve got to ask – what’s corporate theater?
Corporate theater was engaging actors and actresses to put on what we called ‘book shows’ for corporate audiences, parodying the environment in which their business took place, and creating an entertaining experience for those audiences to hear from executives and understand the priorities of those companies. It was a fun way to engage live audiences with experiences that help move them forward.
Your own history at Jack Morton goes back almost 40 years. What are your highlights?
I’m very proud of preserving and protecting the legacy of this great agency in my tenure of almost 20 years as CEO. We’re often told by those who work for us, those who leave and those who come back that we have a very special culture. I’m tremendously proud that I’ve been able to preserve and protect that.
I also think about expanding our brand globally, outside of the US, which we didn’t have before I became president and chief operating officer in 2000. Now we’re in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. I think about the great movement we’ve made in accelerating the category of experiential marketing and delivering meaningful business results to our clients through broader and deeper strategy and creative capability.
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What are your proudest pieces of work?
We had the opportunity to produce the opening and closing ceremonies for the Athens Summer Olympic Games in 2004: an experience that kicked off an extraordinary games for Greece, and was viewed by a couple of billion people live on television. To have created that experience from what was, back in 1939, a little agency headquartered in Washington, DC.
I think about what we did for Meta this year: a terrific experience on the shores of Cannes, helping showcase its technologies – most notably the expansion of what it is doing in the metaverse.
I think about an experience we created in New York City for an organization called Unfinished, a phenomenal display of technology in 3D. Also, helping Cadillac become the sponsor of the US Open tennis experience at the National Tennis Center in Manhattan, and the 3,000-square-foot exhibit we created that showcases the future of electric vehicle technology.
As you begin to step back, what do you hope to see from Jack Morton over the next 20 years?
When I joined the agency, I was sent a letter in which Bill Morton, my predecessor, wrote that I was “joining an agency in an exciting and new category, and that I was joining the leader in the category.” Here we are all these years later, and that still holds true. My hope for my successors, and I have every confidence in them, is that they will carry on this great legacy.
You mentioned the metaverse. In 20 years’ time, will brands be transacting all their experiences on the metaverse, or are we all getting a bit carried away?
I’m a big believer in live. Live will be a very important piece of our future and the future of experiential marketing. You see the thirst in the post-pandemic era of people wanting to be together.
That said, all through our 80+ years, technology has played a part and it will continue to do so. Will it take the place of live? I don’t think so. I think it will augment and enhance the live experiences that we’re creating. The metaverse and other yet-to-be-tapped technologies: they’ll all be a part of it.
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Do you have any regrets?
My only regret is that I never had the opportunity to work internationally. I saw and experienced our work and met many of our clients and team members all over the world, which I’m so grateful for. But if I could rewind time, I would have liked to have spent some time living and working in the UK, because the work that comes out of the UK is some of the greatest, best-executed creative work I’ve seen.
How will you spend your time now?
I’m going to be available to advise and support Bill and Craig and our leadership as we go forward, with a particular emphasis on supporting key clients, both existing and new, and supporting and recruiting where I can. Those are things that I’m most passionate about and enjoy doing the most. Hopefully I can continue to be a creative and additive to the organization.
I’m also actively involved in board positions of two not-for-profit organizations that I’m able to now lend a little bit more time to: Harlem Lacrosse, an inner-city youth lacrosse program, and the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which protects and preserves some of the most iconic buildings on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, including a whaling captain’s church and the oldest active carousel in operation in the United States.
Finally, I’m the proud grandfather of two young children with a third on the way. I look forward to spending more time with them while continuing to be connected to this organization that has been so much a part of my life.
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To sign off, what does this industry mean to you?
It’s a tremendously exciting business. You have to work very, very hard. It takes nights, weekends and extra time; it’s not a nine-to-five job. But the thrill and the excitement of the end product is unmatched. That combination of passion and commitment ends up in the experiences we create.
Also the opportunity to work with creative, talented people who are so extraordinarily passionate, who face enormous obstacles and challenges: it takes a village. That’s maybe a long answer; the short answer is that it’s all been grounded in passion and excitement, and the thrill of delivery.
This interview has been edited for brevity and readability.