With a poli-sci college major and a middle school teaching background in tow, Jon Raj would seem the unlikeliest of candidates for a leadership role in advertising and emerging media — especially for one the most globally recognizable brands with annual worldwide sales of $3.4 trillion.
But it’s just this kind of fatalistic and adventurous spirit that whisked Raj away and vaulted him into the seat of VP of Advertising and Emerging Media Platforms at Visa USA. Sometimes, as last week’s Spotlight on TBWA/Chiat/Day’s Carissa Bianchi (also a poli-sci major turned advertising heavy weight) points out, it’s not about how you start out, but where you end up that matters.
“Frankly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated,” the Budapest native explains in his chat with ADOTAS. “I was in Cambridge getting my haircut and I was reading an article in People magazine about a new program that was just coming out called Teach for America and basically the program was recruiting non-education majors to teach in the nation’s most under resourced rural and urban public schools around the country—sort of like the Peace Core, a two year commitment—and I just thought that sounded fascinating. So I applied for the program and I did it and I got shipped off to Houston, TX where I taught middle school kids for two years.”
As if pre-adolescents aren’t tough enough to deal with, add a teaching newbie to the equation and you’d think you’d end up with an even uglier versus of Gangster’s Paradise (sans Michelle Pfeiffer, of course). But during his two year stint, from 1991-1993, as leader of the middle school set, he was voted one of ten teachers of the year by local publication Houstonian Magazine. And oddly enough, not only did this kick open the door to his future in interactive advertising, but if you ask Raj about his experience with the kiddies, he’ll tell you that he learned even more than they did.
“I loved it, I loved the middle school kids and if I were to write a book it’d be a book called ‘Everything I Learned, I Learned in Middle School’,” he raves. “Honestly, the way to communicate with all these kids is understanding [that] there’s no silver bullet to understanding something. Each kid really has his own way and of course you’re not only dealing with the kid, you’re dealing with the parents.”
After doing his time at the front of the classroom, the Teach for America program wasn’t quite ready to loosen its grip on Raj just yet. In fact, his approachability and his ability to lead the flock caught the eye of his program higher-ups who then offered him a spot heading their marketing push. As Raj explains it, “Running marketing for the program really meant coming up with everything from scratch as far as really being in charge of recruitment, going out on to college campuses and talking to students and getting them jazzed up, but also creating mostly brochures and print advertising for the program. That was sort of my first taste into marketing and I really loved it.”
And even though this perked his taste into a whole new field, as Raj tells it, he wasn’t really for the full responsibility of running a marketing department. “I was really looking for some sort of direction,” he said. “I thought if this is the career I want to get into, I need to not start at the top because I was running marketing for this company, but start somewhere a little lower.” The last thing you’d assume Raj would mean by “lower” is a spot at Saatchi & Saatchi, where he inevitably ended up in 1995. Working on the traditional side of Saatchi’s advertising team during a time when the Internet was slowly presenting itself as the advertising medium of the future, Raj got his first taste of interactive advertising working on their Hewlett Packard account.