Lee was the first head of marketing at DoubleClick, hired by co-founder Kevin O’Connor in 1996 as employee #17 with a mandate to help the other 16 people meet Kevin’s vision-quest to “dominate internet advertising.” The startup had been clicked-off barely two years earlier in the basement of O’Connor’s home in suburban Alpharetta, Georgia.
These days, Lee is a fractional CMO, executive guide and founder of the Sherpa Marketing agency, based in New York. He’s also an ad industry influencer, entwined with the Advertising Club for years, inducted into the AAF Hall of Achievement and named by Ad Age as one of 21 people to watch in the 21st century.
Lee started his career on the account side of New York ad shops, beginning at a small agency in New Jersey that handled the Prodigy account. A joint venture between IBM and Sears, Prodigy was a proto-walled garden and ISP that was able to do some basic banner ad targeting for subscribers. Next stop was KBS&P, where Lee worked on the legendary Snapple account.
“That showed me the power of building a movement,” he tells Jill and Marty in this thoughtful episode.
Lee’s entree into DoubleClick was via a connection at the Ad Club, where he was then a “young pro.” At the time, highly-respected print publishing exec Wenda Harris Millard was a member of the board and was hired by Kevin O’Connor to help legitimize DoubleClick’s proposition to publishers and media buyers in NYC. Millard was DoubleClick employee #16 and she recommended Lee as the start-up’s first professional marketing lead.
Lee recalls the extreme skepticism, even disrespect, that greeted his move into digital, particularly among some high-caste agency creatives.
“You can’t always get validation,” he recalls. “Sometimes you have to kind of put yourself out there … for what you believe.”
When he joined, Lee met a furiously-growing ad network and server with a charismatic co-founder and a lot of new ideas — but no real marketing discipline. Quickly, Lee got to work on a positioning statement, a brand identity, and a flurry of brilliant guerilla-style tactics that were rapidly noticeable even to New Yorkers who didn’t work in media.
Early logos and treatments took full advantage of the click-click DoubleClick gimmick:
The best-known click-click placement was a sign Lee put up by the Flatiron Building at 22nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan that read: “DOUBLECLICK WELCOMES YOU TO SILICON ALLEY.” Despite some gentle skepticism — this time, from his bosses, “the Kevins” O’Connor and Ryan — the sign showed immediate impact and stayed up for five years. (The spot is now taken by Apple.)
Other tactics included providing umbrellas outside agencies during rainy days; dragging banners behind planes over the Hamptons with a sign saying Turn over, DoubleClick is watching your ad campaign; rewarding people at industry events who remembered to click-click their glasses in a particular way … and so on.
As the company grew from 20 to over 1,000 employees in a few years, Lee tried to clarify and preserve the culture. He printed up a mission statement on the back of everyone’s business card:
Building one-to-one relationships millions at a timeDoubleClick business card
And he put together a booklet that summed up the culture of the “Clicker,” or DoubleClick employee. Here are some excerpts:
Most notable was a crisp set of definitions to guide new recruits and those in need of recalibration. Herein — for those who wonder — are the tenets of those who are “Clickers” and those other types:
“We weren’t just a bunch of lunatics kind of running around,” Lee says. “There was a purpose, which was, have fun, work hard and also create a movement.”
In 1998, Lee himself moved from marketing to NYC marketers to helping to build out the international expansion of the company, starting in Japan. He recalls being in Australia when the IPO occurred, and he “took a pause … and went to Nepal for the first time.” So began another phase of the ad-man’s career, as he’s exposed to the Tibetan Sherpa people and “very taken by the whole culture.”
Impressed by the native resilience and grounded optimism of the Sherpas, Lee had a jarring return to dot-com reality at the Biltmore in Arizona for the DoubleClick salesforce conference and IPO celebration.
“In Nepal, in the villages, the kids were saying, ‘Namaste, do you have a pencil?’ And I came back to the Biltmore and the internet sales guys were pounding their fists on the table … saying, ‘Why is the fucking internet so slow?!’ And I was, like, wow, this is the same planet.”
Lee left DoubleClick in 1999, but he didn’t go far. Co-founding an agency called Digital Pulp (which still exists, sans the original founders), he continued to market for DoubleClick and help some of its customers build plans and digital assets. He went on to manage marketing, new product launches and a start-up accelerator for MINI/BMW Group.
And he stays in touch with the Sherpas, after whom he named his agency Sherpa Marketing and his blog called the TheSherpa Path.
Looking back on his time at DoubleClick — when it arguably reinvented advertising for the digital age — Lee remains positive:
“For me, DoubleClick allowed me to be at my best. I think it pushed a lot of other people to be at their best at a pretty early age in their career. … There was an ability to try new things without fear. And we were there, creating something very special. And we knew it.”