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Uprising: Geno Schellenberger on ‘Breaking & Entering’ Adland


Havas Chicago’s communications account executive talks about the passion and podcast that led him to a childhood dream by age 24, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

Uprising: Geno Schellenberger on ‘Breaking & Entering’ Adland

Growing up with an “eccentric and brilliant older brother,” Geno Schellenberger never had to do much talking. In fact, the now communications account executive of Havas Chicago, didn't even speak for the first two years of his life. Confirmed by his mother, who describes his child-self as “a great listener”, Geno spent much of his youth listening to and observing others - a skill that would serve him well.

He was, however, eventually coaxed from his shell by participating in team sports, which exposed him to a variety of different personalities while teaching him all-important lessons about how to succeed (and fail gracefully) as a group. But little league sports like softball weren’t his only pastime. He also tapped into his creative side from early on, expressing a desire to make things, and even a prophetic attraction to commercial creativity.

“I would flip through newspapers and magazines, physically cutting out my favourite images and gluing them into large collages on poster boards,” he says. “At the time - and still now - I considered advertisements art. My parents might have been concerned that I was clipping Absolut Vodka ads at a young age.”

Perhaps unusually for someone in middle school, Geno also fell in love with entrepreneurship and marketing. He learnt to design, construct and sell duct tape wallets for $5 a piece to his friends and family - even innovating his product to gain competitive advantages over fellow playground hustlers who sprouted up to challenge his arts and crafts empire.

This push to pursue creativity was only furthered after an unfortunate sports injury took any hopes of an athletic career away before he had entered high school. Geno followed in his brother’s footsteps and pursued their shared passion for theatre. Speaking of this time in the performing arts, he says, “[It] gave me the courage and the love to speak in public. I attribute a lot of my communication skills to those four years of acting.” In addition to observing his free-spirited brother and learning teamwork skills through sports, he says that public speaking on stage drew a clear pathway to a career in creative communications. 

Given his experiences and interests, advertising was always an obvious landing point for Geno. Growing up in Chicago, Leo Burnett and other agencies had helped make the city an industry hub, and during his school years, adults had frequently suggested to him that this was an option. By the end of high school, he was “researching the heck out of” advertising, and had his sights firmly set. “I am incredibly grateful that I knew I wanted to pursue advertising before college. Working backwards, I knew I wanted to be an assistant account executive right out of college.” 

The young creative secured a place in the University of Illinois’ advertising department, initially unaware of how strong and respected its reputation was. That changed very quickly. Now fully cognizant after an eye-opening education at the esteemed institution, Geno sings the praises of its extensive, successful advertising alumni base and advanced curriculum, describing it as easy to become immersed in the programme, and with the knowledgeable faculty. “Professors such as Peter Sheldon, Shachar Meron, Steve Hall, Steve Raquel and Marisa Peacock facilitated getting internships,” he adds. “Along with professors, my peers were, and still are, amazing. For example, Buchun Jiang is one of the best junior art directors in the industry, and he plays a big part in my story.”  

Right as the pandemic hit in March 2020, Geno and Buchun - college seniors at the time - were staring into a nine-month-long abyss, as the start dates for their internships and work were delayed by a covid-induced hiring freeze. Whilst the job market vanished before their very eyes, an opportunity arose - one which they grasped with all four hands (later to become six).

“The idea of a podcast came to mind. Helping my peers with their forthcoming careers seemed like a worthy cause, and the best way I thought I could help would be to share advice - not from myself, but from much brighter people. [Geno’s little league teammate, long-time friend and audio engineer] Mikey Melarkey agreed to handle the audio, and Buchun Jiang crafted the visual experience within days.” Posting the first episode from his hometown bedroom in Lombard, Illinois - which turned into something of a therapy session, talking about graduating and finding work with his friend Steph Maurer - the ‘Breaking & Entering’ podcast was born.

Over 130 guests later, varying from recent advertising graduates to some of the industry’s biggest names and executives, the weekly podcast has grown into one of adland’s largest - and still, the mission remains the same. Geno says, “[It’s] to help aspiring advertisers get careers by sharing stories of people with much more knowledge than me. As a result, we’ve helped tens of thousands of listeners with advice.” 

He continues, “One of the most important episodes of the podcast is episode 100. I was so fortunate to have interviewed Myra Nussbaum, president and chief creative officer at Havas Chicago - and a wonderfully creative and compassionate leader. After Myra’s interview, she contacted me and asked if I would help run their communications at Havas Chicago. I had to take this dream role. About two years after graduating, I had finally broken into a creative advertising agency - and an amazing one at that!”

After learning valuable insights from hundreds of the most knowledgeable experts in advertising, one lesson that Geno likes to preach is directed at  those who are, like he was in 2020, looking to break into the industry. “Start a hobby or project that expresses your creativity,” he advises. “Consistent creativity might seem oxymoronic, but when you force yourself to be creative, that discipline will help you grow in your work. Writers, write frequently to perfect your craft. Art directors, practice layouts and designs to perfect your craft. For other advice on breaking into advertising, find an episode title of someone with your dream career and listen to them here.” 

He explains that “documenting your progress” is also key to opening doors in the scene, as well as positioning yourself to be surrounded by great minds and influences to learn from. After speaking with the likes of Myra Nussbaum, Greg Hahn (founder of Mischief), Rob Schwartz (chair at TBWA New York Group) or Seth Gaffney (founder of Preacher), Geno has seen his confidence and career progression grow - which of course contributed to achieving his role at Havas Chicago.

As an account executive, Geno manages internal and external communications for the agency, spreading word of the company and its projects far and wide. Under the guidance of Myra, Jamie McGarry (head of new business), and Lance Koenig (head of strategy), he says the agency is catching momentum. “It is for sure an agency everyone should be on the lookout for. There is a buzz of new work and new clients, and I am here to spread that excitement to our employees and the trade publications.”

Interacting with all his colleagues and understanding their ideas for the agency has been his favourite component thus far - although working with leadership at just 24 years old can be an intimidating task at times. Driven on by the support of Myra and Havas Chicago’s other leaders, Geno  also loves creating mutually beneficial external relationships - with journalists for example - to help spread the word about the agency. He says, “Our work and people make the job easy to communicate the good news of Havas Chicago, and I am grateful for that.”

Already during his short time at Havas, a project that has significantly impacted him is senior art director TTK Harris’ film ‘Just Like Me’. The film spotlights Black creatives’ contributions to the advertising and design industries, and simultaneously exposes the challenges that many of them face due to racial inequality and discriminatory practices. ‘Just Like Me’ reinforces the importance of representation and shares the stories of eight visionary Black creatives who have made it to the top and are helping the next generation - a message that Geno is excited to help share with the wider advertising community.

“Havas and TTK Harris worked on this film way before I got here. It’s my goal to get the documentary to as many people as possible,” says Geno. “We’ve held in-person screenings and we’re going to local Chicago schools to showcase the film and inspire the next generation of advertising talent. This directly aligns with my passion for helping people break in and thrive in advertising.”

When he’s not spreading the good word about Havas Chicago, or assisting with internal communications, the account executive likes to return to his sporty roots and plays 16-inch softball with the agency’s own team, cheekily named ‘Pitch Please’. Just starting his first innings in adland, Geno’s learning to establish boundaries between work and life - and despite loving to stay busy, he recharges his batteries with friends and family when possible.

So, whether he’s helping to build relationships and make the agency’s environment more fun through his work - and through his efforts with ‘Pitch Please’ - or maintaining his social connections and relaxing in his free time, Geno has cultivated his passion and talent for communication, and begun to forge a promising career in this very field.

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Havas North America, Fri, 02 Sep 2022 15:47:00 GMT