Marketer All Star: Jon Raj, Vice President of Online Advertising and Emerging Media Platforms, Visa USA

Talk to Jon Raj, and before long, it's clear that he loves to connect with people and use his skills to improve the world. That fact is evident even in the way Raj began his advertising career 10 years ago.

Back then, Raj was director of marketing for Teach for America, which recruits college graduates to be teachers in low-income neighborhoods. The post left him frustrated because there were no mentors to guide him. So, partly to "learn the ropes" of marketing, he joined Saatchi & Saatchi in his first advertising job. Stints at other agencies, including Ketchum and Tonic360, followed, along with an abiding interest in interactive marketing.

He then moved to the client side, joining Visa in 2000. Raj, who was promoted from director of advertising to his current position in May, was pleased that Visa created a new title for him, one that "makes a statement about where Visa stands [on] emerging technology."

In fact, Raj "champions the validity of digital marketing both internally [within Visa] and externally," says John Durham, vice president of Carat Interactive, who works with Raj on local industry group Bay Area Interactive (big).

Raj's purview includes creating Web extensions of ad campaigns in other media -- most recently the TV campaign for the National Football League called "Metaphors," which launched last month. The spots highlight five NFL linesmen, each of whom represents the different layers of security afforded by Visa cards. Starting Oct. 10, the Internet version of the campaign puts those players in several vignettes not featured in the TV version. This approach "takes the engagement factor much farther than 30 seconds," Raj says.

Such efforts are turning heads not only with consumers, but with corporate management as well. "Jon has provided critical thinking and leadership in developing our online advertising, spearheading the rapid adoption of this new media, and integrating it into our overall marketing efforts," says Susanne Lyons, CMO of Visa USA. Raj's creativity is a plus for his partners, notes Wenda Harris Millard, chief sales officer at Yahoo!, who has worked with Raj on such projects as Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football. "Jon demands great ideas, and he always pushes us to think big and think differently," she says.

Raj is enthusiastic about the part of his job that encompasses advertising on mobile and wireless devices, gaming platforms, digital video recorders, and video on demand. "TV is a fantastic medium, but advertising has evolved and many [new forms of media] are being consumed," says Raj. "If we're not there, we're going to miss the boat. And Visa is not willing to take that risk."

To that end, Visa recently began running a wireless campaign on its Signature card. On the DVR front, last month Visa sponsored an ESPN segment, accessible only to TiVo users, on the "most unexpected" NFL players to shine this football season.

In addition, Raj continues to focus his time and energy on nurturing future generations as education chair for big. He is working on a curriculum to get high school students to think more critically using advertising tools, as well as anchoring a series of podcasts on the Bay Area's interactive industry executives. He believes the podcasts will fuel college students' interest in becoming a part of the advertising world. "I wanted to give them a sense of who the people in this industry are," Raj says.

Reaching young people was a major component of one of Raj's favorite campaigns for Visa, dubbed "Ideas Happen." The online effort, targeted at 18- to 29-year-olds, ran in 2003 and 2004. "We really wanted to be a part of this group, but we wanted them to tell us what was important to them -- and then enable them to make a change." So Visa strategists, working with the company's online agency AKQA, developed a contest in which 12 winners (as judged by their peers and a celebrity panel) each received $25,000 to facilitate their "big ideas" for making the world a better place.

Contestants were invited to create the Web experience themselves on MSN in essay, video, or picture form. "It was a simple concept, yet a breakthrough," says Joanne Bradford, chief media revenue officer at MSN, who worked with Raj on the campaign. "This was user-created content years before the current explosion of blogs."

Raj saw the campaign not only as a successful branding program, but as a chance to promote such winners as a formerly paralyzed man who wanted to make a documentary about the program that helped him to walk again. Another deserving winner created a wedding-registry site, idofoundation.com, that presented charitable donations as gifts.

For Raj, the fact that "Ideas Happen" used the Internet and advertising to connect and do good was golden. "I have great passion for interactive," Raj says. "It's constantly evolving, and it makes me feel like I can develop something that hasn't been done before."