Lee Nadler with a MINI

Ask Lee Nadler where he's found the most career inspiration on his 25-year-marketing career and he might surprise you.

Nadler is currently marketing communications manager for MINI USA, where he happily leads a bunch of MINIacs, as the car owners like to call themselves. Technically, he is responsible for MINI's multi-channel marketing initiatives and manages the agency relationships.

But dig a little deeper and you'll find his career has spanned numerous innovative and "passion-evoking" companies and initiatives.

Overcoming Obstacles

He worked with Prodigy — back in 1989, when digital marketing was still in its infancy … Snapple, while the company was still run by the founders (Lenny, Hymie, and Arnie) in Long Island, N.Y. … DoubleClick, when the company was young enough to call him employee 17 employee and its first head of marketing.

His clients have included BMW, Yahoo and Gilt Groupe, to name a few.

But Nadler arguably gained his most interesting perspectives from the Sherpa people on two trips to the Himalayas, including a month long trek to Mt. Everest in 2012. He said their principles have become his guideposts, which he embodies on his blog The Sherpa Path.

"Through the lens of the Sherpas, I've formed a perspective that makes the journey through my life and career more enjoyable and fulfilling," he notes. "I am recognizing Sherpa Principles, which inspire me to push passed seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve success (however you chose to define it)."

We caught up with him recently to talk about marketing, MINI and the evolution of digital.

Connecting with Bill Sobel
Sobel: Tell us about those early days at Prodigy and how you launch a product when no one has any idea of what it is?

Nadler: Prodigy was one of the first “interactive service providers.” This was 1989, years before browser interfaces.

I remember sitting in front of a desktop computer in the back of the agency, looking at screens about different topics and trying to understand what this was all about. It was amazing to me that you could see up to the minute sports scores and dynamically be shown a relevant ad for a Wilson baseball mitt.

These were early days for real time contextual targeting. I was intrigued, and could envision what this would become.

No one else at the agency paid much attention.

My interest lead me down a career path to what is now an entire digital infrastructure, which has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives.

My job at the agency was to find ways to promote Prodigy. The packaging (yes, you bought the software and a modem then) was a little yellow box.

We had the idea to promote the service to families on the back of Cheerios, another yellow box, where people could read about Prodigy.

I recall talking with the brand manager of Cheerios and he wondered whether enough people had a home computer to make the reach worthwhile. The answer at that time was, “hum, not yet.”

The original backers of Prodigy (Sears and IBM) had the vision, but they were too early. It taught me great lessons about following an interest, having vision and the importance of timing.

Sobel: You were involved with the launch of Snapple and the introduction of Wendy “The Snapple Lady,” which to many helped launch what is now an iconic brand. Can you talk a bit about that?

Nadler: I worked Kirshenbaum & Bond (now known as Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners) from 1992 to 1996 when the agency had less than 50 people. I was part of the original team to establish an integrated discipline to manage clients beyond pure advertising.

We pitched and won Snapple, which was based on a creative insight that today the industry would call “authentic” marketing.

During the pitch we met Wendy Kaufman, who was working in the shipping department. Back then it was still being run by the founders out of a small office in Long Island.

Snapple drinkers were passionate and would send letters to the company about their love for the product. One person asked for cases to serve at her wedding. Another guy asked for a high-resolution version of the logo to tattoo on his body.

Wendy answered the letters, which she kept in a shoebox under her desk. The team at K&B found these and turned the letters into an award winning campaign and launched one of the first truly word of mouth efforts.

If you think about it, this was an early look into the power of social media fan sharing (back then with paper letters).

I remember a year or so into the campaign we created a Snapple convention at St. John’s University on Long Island. It was meant to be a local, fun way to engage the brand fans.

Thousands of people showed up and Wendy had to be escorted around with body guards!

One woman was wearing a dress made entirely of Snapple bottle caps. I remember thinking how crazy this was but also how amazing it was to work with a brand that people care so much about.

Sobel: Tell us about the early days at DoubleClick and how you and your colleagues sold advertisers on the idea of using the Internet for advertising?

Nadler: I jumped into an area — online advertising — that most people said was silly and a fad. I had seen the future of ad tech from my earlier days launching Prodigy and I saw of the power from great creative with K&B.

I wanted to find out how powerful connecting the two could become.

I joined DoubleClick as the first head of marketing and as part of the original executive team.

My first workspace was a rocking chair at a conference table shared with the co-founder (Kevin O’Connor), CFO (Kevin Ryan) and head of publishing (Wenda Millard).

I learned a lot from them, and was able to bring a lot to the “table.” This was the beginning of the dot-com era. Speed and scale were key.

We set out to build DoubleClick quickly as the “leader in internet advertising” and my job was to proclaim it (before it was realized).

I had us put our mission on the back of our business cards and placed a huge billboard next to the Flatiron building that read “DoubleClick Welcomes You To Silicon Alley.”

We put our flag in the ground. When we decided to expand, I transitioned to business development to establish DoubleClick Japan and DoubleClick Australia.

As the only US representative in the Pacific Rim at the time, this experience became my entry into entrepreneurship. The grit, determination, flexibility and energy needed to successfully launch and build companies was now in my blood. And I learned the importance of building strong mutually beneficial relationships with people.

Sobel: You have described MINI as "irreverent and risqué, but not offensive" as well as "feisty, celebrating our underdog status, our racing heritage and our cheeky British humor.” Can you tell us more?

Nadler: We like to use humor to remind everyone that while we're a small car, we have a big and feisty attitude.

The feistiness has been part of brand since the beginning. It allowed us to shock the world by taking out the big racing giants of the 1960s at places like Monte Carlo. That feistiness and underdog spirit is an important part of our heritage that remains true today when you think about our dominance in the Dakar Rally the last five years.

Sobel: You're a big fan of real time marketing. Why?

Nadler: MINI targets customers by psychographics (versus demographics) so we need to stay fresh to ensure that we are aligning the brand with the MINI mindset.

Because MINI is youthful, optimistic and feisty in its nature, we must offer unique engagement and becomes part of customers’ lifestyles in real time. This was evident in the Final Test Test Drive program that helped launch the new MINI Hardtop 2014, where we made owners a part of the launch.

The brand is committed to delivering an owner experience that goes well beyond sales and service, delivering unique opportunities to engage and develop lifelong memories.