Reprinted from Spring 2012 InterCom
By Brittney Shull
Photos courtesy of Progressive
Journalism alumnus Jeff Charney's life and times are
as eclectic as Oprah, The Simpsons, QVC, Sundance Film
Festival and Flo. Flo? She's the sassy spokeswoman for
Progressive who may have enticed you to switch insurers.
Over the past three decades, Charney has earned a reputation as a forerunner in nontraditional marketing for companies around the US. His creativity has accumulated more than 50 awards, including his most recent, Brand Genius: Marketer of the Year award from Adweek for Progressive Insurance.
Charney is chief marketing officer at Progressive where he leads marketing and communications efforts. His department's goal is to "out-create rather than out-spend in a corporate environment."
Even in high school, Charney saw life and opportunities differently from his peers. When running for student government, Charney took an unusual approach. On the walls of Palmetto High School in Williamston, S.C., posters read "Keep Charney off the streets!" He captivated his classmates and realized the power of a creative, organized campaign.
Charney knew his next step was to attend USC and study journalism. "USC was a blank canvas for me and I was involved in everything." He was entertainment editor for The
Gamecock, joined PRSSA, served in student government, and participated in intramurals — pretty much everything USC had to offer.
He also connected with faculty members including Jerry Jewler, who taught him Creative Strategy in Advertising. Charney said, "Jerry knew I had something special and made me feel like I was something special." Charney often could be found at family functions with Jewler, his wife, Belle, and their children.
"More than his academic work — which was impressive — I think of Jeff as one of the most outgoing and faithful students I've ever had," Jewler said, "Jeff was always — and still is — full of ideas. He drew friends like a magnet with his friendly nature and enthusiasm."
When he graduated from USC in 1981, Charney began a master's program in
journalism at The Ohio State University. After graduating a Buckeye, Charney
began revolutionizing companies both large and small with his inventive marketing
strategies. "People have always taken chances on me," he said. And
he has delivered remarkable results to the people who have taken those chances.
Charney worked as senior vice president of marketing and communications at Los Angeles-based Kaufman & Broad, now KB Home. During his stint, Charney flexed his creative muscle and received national acclaim when he commissioned the building of a life-sized replica of The Simpsons cartoon house in Las Vegas to generate traffic and sales for the company.
Charney said, "People believed in my wild ideas and gave me latitude at a young age." The Simpsons house garnered national media attention with more than 2,000 press reports and nearly 40,000 visitors.
Charney later joined Homestore (now MOVE.com) as vice president of marketing and communications and QVC as senior vice president and CMO. At Homestore, he helped produce Home Movie, the first film by a private company to be accepted at Sundance Film Festival. The film received national critical acclaim from The
New York Times, Los Angeles Times and New Yorker.
At QVC, Charney revitalized the multimedia retailer with a brand overhaul and a distinctive partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Show to search for "America's Next Big Idea." He also attracted dozens of celebrities to assist QVC's revamp, including Paula Abdul, Heidi Klum, Martha Stewart and Donald Trump — all of whom appeared on the network.
Then came the duck. Charney joined Aflac in 2008 where he served as senior vice president and CMO. Charney led initiatives to reposition the Aflac brand. He did so to the tune of a 250 percent increase in company understanding.
He moved to Progressive to lead its marketing and communications departments in 2010.
Arnold Worldwide, Progressive's agency of record, launched the Superstore
concept in 2008, and Flo, the spokeswoman, was simply a clerk. In the past
two years, however, Charney, Arnold and their teams have invigorated Flo with
extensive character development, incorporating new plots and characters with
her. Now Flo has a cult-like following with more than 3.6 million fans on Facebook,
Flo Halloween costumes and Flo bobble-head dolls.
Charney also has been involved in the creation and development of The Messenger, the newest character in Progressive advertising. While Flo holds down the home office, The Messenger evangelizes on the road for Progressive. The juxtaposition between Flo and The Messenger is key for the campaign.
"Flo is nicely produced. The Messenger is raw and in-your-face. The concept is that he is coming at you randomly. Both characters are disruptive, in a positive way." In fact, this is how Charney describes himself — a "positively disruptive marketer."
His self-professed goal is to live close to the edge, but not to cross it.
Charney purposefully surrounded himself with smart, quick people during his days at USC. The way he develops his teams today is no different. Another goal he says he has for his team is to be "pound-for-pound the best."
If national awards and honors equal success, then Charney and the Progressive team are quickly joining the ranks of marketing elite. In 2011, Charney received the Adweek Brand Genius award. "You have to be creatively aggressive in this market and the Brand Genius award shows the power of a team. My team now walks with more swagger because of the award," Charney explains.