Startland News and the Kansas City Star have partnered to publish content as part of the Star’s new special section, “Spirit.” This story is in the Star’s Nov. 13 Sunday edition.
Behind VML’s savvy ad campaigns, awe-inducing technology and global ambitions is a maker mindset that permeates the 2,500-person company.
And thanks to CEO Jon Cook, the creative ethos trickles down from the top, touching each aspect of the digital advertising agency’s work with big brands like Netflix, Gatorade and MasterCard. A modest, ever-grinning Kansas City native, Cook was among the first few dozen employees at VML, working his way up from a systems account manager in 1996 to chief executive over a 21-year tenure.
“If you hang around long enough,” the 46-year-old said, “somebody’s got to be the CEO.”
Now at its helm, Cook is guiding VML’s 28 global offices and its massive expansion in Kansas City. Located at Kansas City’s Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, VML is adding about 30,000 square feet of space to its headquarters — pushing its footprint to about 98,000 square feet — to accommodate up to 376 new employees.
We visited Cook at his sunlit office to discuss his own maker mentality and how his desk hosts a trove of innovative inspiration.
Airplane wing desk
Silver and shimmering, Cook’s desk itself is a symbol of VML’s soaring aspirations.
Upcycled from an old airplane and accented with rivets, the aluminum desk is not only a badge of the company’s goals and location at an airport but also an homage to its past. Twenty-five years ago, VML’s first client was Northwest Airlines, which was acquired by Delta Airlines in 2008.
“(VML’s founders) chose the Downtown Airport as the most appropriate location for an agency with an airline client,” Cook said. “It’s a good reminder of how VML started.”
Plush stuffed lion
VML cleaned up at the 2016 Cannes Lions, the world’s largest and most-prestigious awards ceremony for advertising agencies. The company yielded its best showing to date with 11 Lions — two gold, four silver and five bronze awards.
As a congratulatory gift, Facebook sent VML a basket of goodies, including a pride of plush lions. Cook snatched one by the scruff to recall his team’s achievements with such work as Gatorade’s “Super Bowl Dunk,” PASSOP’s “I Am Muslim” campaign and others.
“The chances of winning are so slim,” he said. “It’s really cool for an agency from Kansas City to be represented.”
A lifelong Royals fan, Cook and VML wanted to create something special to not only benefit the Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy, but also to help Kansas City commemorate its 2015 World Series win.
The digital time capsule contains a tiny computer and hundreds of messages of what baseball means to Royals fans. While the original rests at Kauffman Stadium, the backup ball basks in the sun on Cook’s desk.
“A normal agency would’ve made an ad,” he said. “But we said, ‘If we want to drive the most amount of awareness and funding for this, we have to do something big.’ … And technology helps deliver that, but the bigger part is not the technology but human insight and human truth. Technology is just a way for us to accelerate getting to the human truth of something.”
A photo of him and his wife
Generally a casually dressed pursuit, advertising has afforded Cook few occasions for which to don dapper attire.
But on a 2014 trip to the Emmys, Cook and his wife, Lisa Cook, got snazzy to celebrate. The photo sits next to his laptop.
A creative advertising director, Lisa Cook helps keep Jon grounded in his career.
“She helped influence me to stay out of the creative side of our business and keep a business leadership focus,” he said.
A global company necessitates travel — and often a lot of it.
It’s why VML gives each new employee a reminder that she has a new family and home: a brass-clipped lanyard with the geographic coordinates to the employee’s office embossed on dark brown leather. In Kansas City’s case it’s N 39° 7’ 14.25”, W 94° 35’ 26.07”.
As Cook travels the world visiting with clients, his own lanyard helps remind him of home.
“It’s a symbol that, at VML, you’re getting ready to go on a great journey, but you’ll always have a home base,” he said. “We’ve always liked the idea of a journey that’s going to take you to fantastic places, but you’re always rooted in home. … I feel like I’m traveling a lot, so it’s nice to come back to that.”