'To get their attention I started a Tall Irish Leprechaun blog'


Jonathan Cloonan explains why ‘Forbes’ magazine has made him one of its ‘30 Under 30’ young innovators

This week Jonathan Cloonan was named in Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list of young innovators and entrepreneurs. Just a few years ago he would hardly have troubled the switchboard of Forbes magazine, never mind the listmakers. Working as a research analyst for an entertainment magazine in New York, living in a shoebox, with a huge student debt and no money, he had only a misty notion of what he wanted to do.

He had graduated from college in the midst of the recession. Hundreds of applications later, amid great excitement, he accepted an offer of a place on Diageo’s European graduate marketing scheme. Then Diageo deferred the scheme for a year.

Cloonan decided to try his luck in New York. He had “run away” before, as he puts it, to Boston and San Diego. The worst part was having to start all over again. “It wasn’t an easy ride,” he says.

A college friend recalls how he could move alone to new places, where he knew nobody, “yet he managed to get right in there and make fantastic friends and conquer all his fears. Through all that he has been a support and mentor to so many and got a lot of people out of dark times.”

That’s despite a questionable taste for warbling Beyoncé songs and a phase of eating nothing but pasta with ketchup.

In New York he finally identified his “dream job” when he spotted details of the WPP “fellowship program”. There were a few impediments. Every year WPP, the world’s largest marketing communications company, with about 160,000 employees, attracts about 2,000 applicants for its programme, including PhD hotshots from top universities such as Harvard and Princeton. But it accepts just a handful. The chosen few then get to work in responsible jobs on three continents over three years with three agencies.

Cloonan’s strategy is a tale of our time. “To get their attention I started a blog about the company called Tall Irish Leprechaun, and I took the WPP Fellowship Twitter handle.”

You mean you stole the Twitter handle? “Well, no, I borrowed it – because I gave it back,” he says innocently. For eight months he blogged and tweeted about a company to which he had yet to apply for a job. By the time he worked his way into the final 30 shortlist, the panel knew they had a die-hard on their hands.

Now, after two years working in London and Singapore, he is about to head back to New York to work with Ogilvy.

Brokering deals

So what exactly was he doing that attracted the Forbes imprimatur? He worked in “branded content”, which meant brokering deals between clients of GroupM – the acquisitions arm of WPP – who were looking for marketplace exposure, and the rights owners and distributors of hot television shows, such as MasterChef, The Voice and Next Top Model.

He brokered a huge branding deal for MasterChef Thailand. He also created, by the by, his own TV show, called Dr You, a health and wellbeing programme that was number one in the Vietnamese ratings.

“You’re going to hate this,” he says with a grin, “but we call it a ‘medutainment show’.” Then again, Dr You may be about to break into China. Go medutainment!

The next stage of the WPP programme will take him into start-ups in Silicon Valley, deep into digital territory. “The learning curve is extremely steep, so you’re always uncomfortable. But I want to be challenged.”

Money is secondary for now. “My motto is that the 20s are for learning and the 30s for earning. But I’ll forever be learning.”

Despite the manner of his leaving, he has nothing but affection for Ireland. “I’m probably a boomeranger: I’d always planned to leave anyway for a few years, but my ambition is to settle in Ireland. I love Ireland. It’s such a pleasure to see the reaction of people in Asia when I say I’m Irish, because the brand of Ireland is so strong.”

His family ties in Castleknock are powerful. He spent a year on his best man’s speech for his brother and practised mercilessly on friends. He is back in Ireland for Christmas, and the Forbes listing has left him with a permanent toothy smile. Appropriately, he first heard the news on Twitter, although it wasn’t entirely a surprise. Nominated by GroupM’s CEO , he guessed he was a finalist when Forbes contacted him last week to get his social-media links and date of birth.

It had also been doing “due diligence” on him with clients and bosses. “I was working on Asia’s Next Top Model in South Korea and was very, very cold and very, very tired – and then my Twitter feed went nuts. I never thought it would be so big.”

He lives in hope that Forbes will repeat last year’s list bonanza, when it had a gala in New York for the finalists.

“Hey, it’s always good to be at a party with Lady Gaga,” he says dreamily, not quite believing it himself.

Path to success The Cloonan route to the ‘Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list

Be likeable. Are you the kind of person others want to spend time with on an aircraft ? Key question for WPP fellowship applicants.

Show passion. Advertising is an abstract concept. Passion is what sells an idea.

Have quirky, outside interests. You are marketing to people who have real interests.

Chase work experience, internships, shadow days. Get as much exposure as you can. Cloonan phoned Orlaith Blaney, chief executive of McCann Dublin, and asked to shadow her.

Keep an eye on trends. Clients want to know the next big thing, the up-and-coming celeb.

Work hard early on. Cloonan admits to getting the gold medal for the highest grade in Leaving Cert business studies . He was business-studies finalist of the year at Trinity College Dublin and student of the year at Smurfit Business School.

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