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One-on-One with Jonathan David Lewis

Jonathan Lewis is the new President of McKee Wallwork Visual Opportunity, a marketing advisory firm. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jonathan David Lewis’ first day as an intern for McKee Wallwork + Co. involved a large bull, the large bull’s tail and more than a half-foot of bull – well, you know.

It was a photo shoot for a farm credit company advertisement, and Lewis was playing the role of city slicker, holding the tail as though he thought he were milking a cow. The point was to promote the farm credit company over “bankers who don’t understand farm life (and) might try to milk a bull.”

“I had to hold the tail in the air while standing in about eight inches of bull crap while the bull was unhappy, moving backwards, not OK with this,” says Lewis. “That was a formative experience that taught me if you’re going to make it in advertising, you have to get used to wading through a lot of crap.”

Once Lewis recovered, he embarked on a career at McKee Wallwork and was recently promoted to president. The 20-year-old Albuquerque marketing company specializes in providing “momentum for stalled, stuck and stale industries,” according to its website.

Lewis also is a contributor to Forbes and an author whose book, “Brand vs. Wild,” was published about two years ago. The book compares survival skills needed in the wilderness to those required to survive in today’s rapidly changing business environment.

“The fun part of the book was we learned, through a variety of secondary research into survival psychology, that there’s really no difference between a group of people making tough business decisions in a boardroom and a group of people crash landing on the top of a mountain trying to make survival decisions,” says Lewis, 35.

Before his rise in the marketing and business consulting world, Lewis made his mark as a barista at Starbucks, a cart boy at Target and a golf course shoe-shiner.

“I was a shoe-shiner at Four Hills Country Club,” he says. “I have many weird stories.”

Such as?

“N.S.F.W. – not safe for work,” Lewis says. “Not safe for the Journal, either. Let’s just say shoe-shining taught me to work hard and be humble, because when you’ve spent four hours on a golf course and you hand somebody your shoes, it smells like you’ve spent four hours on a golf course. I worked hard for tips and shined a lot of shoes and appreciated every dollar that I made.”

Lewis also is a talented songwriter who had little musical education but learned the craft “online and in my bedroom.” His favorite project was an effort to accelerate his output by writing one song weekly for 17 weeks, each honoring someone he “knew and loved.”

Although work and family life now keep him too busy to compose, he finds a creative outlet in helping companies make their way through a time of rapid change.

Jonathan David Lewis tries to milk a bull at a northeastern New Mexico ranch as part of a McKee Wallwork + Co. ad campaign for Farm Credit of New Mexico.

“We have a saying in today’s new economy (that) momentum beats perfection,” Lewis says. “The pace of change, the internet, technology (and) barriers to entry of competition are so much lower than they used to be, you have to be on top of your game. You have to move faster and … focus on getting going, shifting, failing, learning. That has been a culture shift that requires a lot of creativity.’

Describe your childhood.

“I grew up on the Makah Indian reservation in Neah Bay, Wash. So, small town experience – one road in, one road out, 1,500 people. My parents were pastoring a small mission church and spent about a decade out there during my formative years. It was a beautiful place, and the closest Walmart and movie theater were about two hours away. Rain was part of the experience. We had an outdoor basketball court in the community, and I have many memories of playing basketball in puddles, which changes the nature of the game.”

When did you move to New Mexico?

“I moved here in high school because (of) my mother’s first battle with cancer and had sort of a culture shock. I went to a high school (Manzano) that was bigger than my hometown. I didn’t know very many people. At that time, I was introduced to the guitar and other instruments and found out I loved it, and it made a little bit of sense to me. I never enjoy playing other people’s music, but boy, did I love writing my own. Someday, I hope to get back to it.”

What’s your favorite Jonathan David Lewis composition?

“‘I’m a Benchwarmer,'” which is the song my children watch and listen to ad nauseam. It not only made me famous here in the office, but it made me famous with my kids.”

What are your favorite places in New Mexico?

“Bandelier, White Sands, any of the pueblos, anywhere you get sort of lost and remind yourself that there’s a much bigger, deeper story happening around you than your own life.”

What are your pet peeves?

“‘More funner.’ Also, pretension without support or backup. And anyone who judges you based on external appearances or geography or anything else.”

What inspired you to write your book?

“My career and much of my generation’s careers have really been marked by change. We grew up through 9/11, multiple wars, the Great Recession and dealing with change in business is sort of the chief challenge for all of our prospects and clients. ‘Brand vs. Wild’ was really an attempt to get our heads around how does a company successfully navigate change in today’s new economy.”

You mentioned that your book compares wilderness survival to business survival. How are they similar?

“The buzzword is ‘alignment.’ You can have a mediocre plan of survival, but if you have full commitment from your organization around that, you have far greater chances of surviving or thriving than if you have a perfect plan and complete misalignment. I have stacks of books on survival psychology and famous, true survival stories and just started to build the research around how group dynamics work in survival situations. They were almost identical. So in every survival situation, when people work together to a common end, they often survive. As soon as they questioned each other, questioned leadership, started infighting, the group often became desperate, and they often died in survival situations.”

What’s a splurge for you?

“Buying new shoes at Nordstrom Rack. But I don’t really splurge – I feel guilty. It’s not my personality. Spending a couple extra dollars on dinner is a splurge for me.”

What makes you laugh?

“I laugh at myself a lot. I do a lot of ridiculous, embarrassing things. I’m sort of a walking slapstick. I walk into a door, or trip over a curb. I spill a lot of drinks on tables. The people around me here (at work) are hilarious, so I’m laughing at them a lot. Probably anything sarcastic will make me giggle.”

What makes you sad?

“Everything. I cry once a day. I feel everything. I’m a very empathetic person. It’s thinking about my kids growing up. Thinking about what they’re missing — my mother’s not here anymore. Anything. Someone will tell a personal story on a podcast on the way to work, and I’ll be weeping in the parking lot.”

Your favorite dessert?

“Cookies and milk. Chocolate chip. Like I said, I’m not complicated.”

Describe yourself in three words:

“It’s all good.”

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