Rod Brooks

Rod Brooks • Written September 2016

Rod Brooks, the VP/chief marketing officer of PEMCO Mutual Insurance Co. is the middle child of five and the only boy in a blue-collar family. He was raised in what was then the small rural community of Lake Stevens, 30 miles north of Seattle. It could just as easily have been 300 miles, for all Rod knew. His first trip into the “big city” was when his family spent a day visiting the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962.

The newest inductee developed his work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit and lofty goals at an early age. Rod was just 10 when he first stepped onto the “berry bus” for the early morning ride to Granite Falls, where he picked strawberries for local growers. He hated it and knew there had to be a better way to earn money.

Wanting to grow his income beyond what fruit-picking could produce, Rod found or created a variety of part-time jobs, from splitting cedar shake remnants into kindling, sweeping parking lots and bagging groceries to pumping gas and washing windshields. What those roles had in common was a lot of manual labor. The lesson Rod learned was that “going to work” wasn’t something he wanted to spend a lifetime doing. He’d rather do something he loved and get paid for “going to fun!”

Rod regularly shares that valuable lesson with the students he frequently mentors. “Find your passion, and then find someone who will pay you to use it. Then, you’ll always go to fun!”

He has enjoyed tremendous success during his 41-year career in marketing, advertising and brand management roles since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications from Washington State University in 1975. Within days of graduation, Rod began designing, writing and selling advertising for a local publishing company and community newspaper in Snohomish, just eight miles from his home town. Even very early in his career Rod was often recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for his creative and effective ad designs.

Known as a bit of a marketing maverick, Brooks consistently demonstrates his ability to apply his skills in strategic thinking and innovative merchandising in ways that break through the clutter with cutting-edge tactics, meaningful messages and differentiating partnerships. He developed and honed those traits throughout his career.

Rod’s creativity, leadership and ability to transform vision into effective corporate strategy and unique implementation plans have helped to drive successful start-ups, emerging growth companies and well-established Northwest businesses, such as Schuck’s Auto Supply, QFC, Egghead Software and Coinstar.

In 1999, Rod took the marketing helm at PEMCO. With the role came the opportunity to help transform a successful operations-oriented organization into a dynamic customer-centric, market-driven and results-oriented brand. The now widely recognized and highly regarded PEMCO advertising campaign separated PEMCO and Brooks from competitors and colleagues. Rod says he simply surrounded himself with talented team members and had the courage to run with their recommendations. He calls the insurance business one of the biggest marketing challenges he’s faced, and one of the most rewarding.

Rod is especially proud of his longstanding service to Washington DECA, from which he received its Award of Merit in 2009. He also received the first-ever Cougar Spirit of Education Award from the College of Education at WSU and he serves on the College of Education Advisory Board, the Murrow College of Communication Board and the WSU Board of Trustees. In 2014, he was presented the Marketing Legend Award by the Puget Sound Chapter of the AMA.

He also has been a leader in the Word of Mouth Marketing Association since 2007 and served as WOMMA president in 2011. In 2014 Forbes magazine listed Rod among the Most Influential CMOs on Social Media.

Rod and wife, Cindy, live in Sammamish and have a blended family, including seven children and seven grandchildren.


My journey into the world of advertising began as a college student at WSU. It wasn’t because I was drawn to the advertising sequence or some amazing advertising curriculum (although both were pretty fantastic). No, I was enrolled in what is now the Murrow College of Communication, and with a first name like Murrow (Edward R. Murrow to be precise), students flock to broadcasting.

I was one of them. I learned broadcast principles and techniques from renowned experts like Val Limburg and Don Wells. I ran the board and played the hits of the early ’70s at KUGR Radio and enjoyed occasionally delivering news and information at KWSU Radio.

Then one day the bubble burst, and I began my pursuit of an advertising career.

My advisor, professor, and mentor – Ed Bannister – invited me into his office during the second semester of my junior year. As usual, his style was direct. “Brooks,” he said, “What in the world are you planning to do with all those broadcast credits you’ve been stockpiling?” Intimidated a little, I sheepishly replied, “I’m planning to be a TV sports anchor at one of Seattle’s three network affiliates.” If that path was good enough for the likes of Bruce King, Ray McMackin, and Ron Forsell, it would be good enough for me.

Bannister shook his head and peered over the top of his reading glasses. “Have you ever noticed that the people who do that have hair?” he asked rhetorically. “How do you enjoy places like Bozeman, Montana? You’ve got a great face for radio, you know.”

His point was sharp and painful, but Professor Bannister didn’t leave me hanging without an option. He said I had a knack for advertising, strategy, and writing good copy. He told me I should be the guy who sells the time or creates the ads, that I should leave news reporting to the classmates who didn’t have receding hairlines at age 21.

And what a class it was. We had lots of talent and great hair in the room, including future broadcast stars like Peter Van Sant, Enrique Cerna, and Lou Gellos to name just a few.

I crossed the bridge to advertising and, after a semester-long internship with Ken Cornett and Austin Dwyer at Cornett-Dwyer Advertising in Everett, I mastered the skill of laying out print retail ads and writing sales radio spots for some of the city’s most successful hardware, appliance, and fast food chains.

I liked my first taste of the advertising world and soon began searching for a more permanent place to start a glamorous agency career. I’d seen enough of Larry Tate and Darin Stevens on “Bewitched” to know that an agency career was the way to go. No longer seeking to be a sports or news anchor, I set my sights on becoming a creative director. One of Seattle’s prominent agencies certainly would want to add me to their team, right?

Wrong again.

After searching everywhere and submitting more resumes than I care to remember, all I had to show for my effort was a stack of rejection letters from agencies up and down the West Coast, piled high on the corner of an old hand-me-down desk.

I shifted my search from agencies to television and radio stations, and then from broadcast properties to regional and local newspapers. On a whim, just weeks before graduation and months before getting married – and still unemployed – I decided to visit some weekly newspapers near my hometown of Lake Stevens.

I never made it past Snohomish. The Snohomish Publishing Company and Snohomish Tribune sought an advertising sales representative. Owners Bill Bates, Don Wlazlak, and Ed Wise told me to come back after graduation and continue the conversation. That simply wouldn’t do. I needed to know now that I had the job, and told them so. If they wanted me, they would need to commit.

Twenty-four hours later the phone rang and Don made an offer. They’d try me out for 90 days, and if all went well I’d become a member of the Tribune staff. It wasn’t an agency and it was far from glamorous, but I felt elated just the same. But only for a moment, until I heard the rest of the offer: I’d earn a $500 monthly salary. No commission. No incentives. Just $500 a month. Take it or leave it.

I took it … and wiped away tears of disappointment after hanging up the phone. I hadn’t expected such a paltry salary after being the first member of my family to earn a college degree. Especially after having earned $750 a month the previous summer for inspecting attics and assessing heat loss for the Snohomish County PUD. Lesson learned. Life isn’t fair, and opportunity is what you make of it.

I hustled up and down the quiet hometown streets of Snohomish and Monroe for three3-4 years. Selling ads in a small town is all about relationships, and learning how to create and nurture them is one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned. I focused first on relationships, sharing many cups of coffee with local shop owners and managers. And the newspaper grew. Local advertisers were happy, and my bosses recognized and appreciated my work. Some of it even earned awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, led by Jerry Zubrod at the time. 

After leaving Snohomish to accept a slightly larger role for a slightly larger family of community newspapers owned by John Fournier, I found myself managing advertising sales and promotion for Southcenter Mall. The newspapers served the surrounding communities of Renton, Kent, Auburn and Federal Way. My territory was the mall, calling on local and national tenants. I applied my experience, adding value that exceeded the retail managers’ expectations. I built a partnership with the mall management and promotions director, and together we created unique events, special sections, and traffic-building promotions. It was a win for the mall, the tenants, and the newspaper. 

Relationships have nourished my entire career. Rapport that I developed at the Tribune in Snohomish led to an invitation to apply for and land the senior advertising manager role for Al’s Auto Supply in Everett. Looking back, I see that growing a seven-store retail auto parts chain was pivotal in how my career would ultimately unfold. Not only did I form long-term relationships with media representatives like Phelps Fisher, Shirley Thom, Greg Borher, Tyrone Nobel, Gary Franklin, Tim Turner, and many more, I also developed a business partnership that has thrived for nearly 40 years.

When I hired Tim Scanlan and Sam Lee – founding partners of Evergreen Media – to help plan and buy media for Al’s, I didn’t foresee that I would continue the client/agency relationship with Tim and Evergreen through every twist and turn in my career.  Now, decades later – including stops at Al’s, Schuck’s Auto Supply, Northern Automotive, Egghead Software, Coinstar, and nearly 18 years at PEMCO Insurance – Evergreen Media has placed $75 million for the brands I’ve guided. Loyalty matters.

And speaking of loyalty, this diatribe wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the core group of partners who have helped to make PEMCO the single biggest marketing success of my career. Their staunch support and differentiated approach has made a significant difference for PEMCO since 1999. Thank you, Lea Knight (FBK Research), Dan Gross and Alan Brown (DNA Seattle), and Mark Firmani (Firmani + Associates). You are remarkable partners who have become exceptional friends.

I’d like to leave you with a story that changed my career and life.

A Lesson with an Edge

This is a story as much about a mentoring relationship as it is about a mentoring lesson. I was about 30, working in the automotive aftermarket for the Northwest’s leading retail auto supply chain. I was hired as the company’s advertising manager. Through a series of events, I later was asked to also serve as the senior accessories buyer. My boss was the company’s executive vice president. He commanded respect from his suppliers, vendors, partners, and employees like no one else I’d ever met. Retired now, he’s a master negotiator, brilliant merchant, and innovative marketer. But more than that, he’s a captivating storyteller, an engaging teacher, a shrewd businessman, and a wonderful human being. Ron Weinstein has enriched the lives of many. And yes, I’m one of those lucky ones.

One day Ron called me into his office for a spontaneous conversation or coaching session. You never knew which it would be until after you sat across the desk from him and nervously looked for a clue early in the dialog. This happened often for all of us because Ron was always thinking about business opportunities and advantages. It was rare for the buyers or me to think of something Ron hadn’t already considered. But he gave us room to grow, opportunities to make decisions, and he encouraged us to try new things while allowing us to learn from our mistakes.

The conversation that day was different. Ron pulled a coin from his pocket and put it in the palm of my hand. He asked me what I saw. I answered quickly, confidently, and without hesitation, “a quarter.” Ron peered over the top of his dark-framed reading glasses, oozing with disappointment. He calmly asked me what else I could see.

I looked more carefully.

“Heads”, I said.


“President Washington?”


“Minted in Denver?”


“The date?”

No again.

Ron flipped the quarter over and I went through the same drill with guesses like “tails” and “eagle.” Wrong. I felt like a huge failure.

Ron slipped the quarter back in his pocket and began to dismiss me, muttering to himself, “I was wrong.” But I didn't leave. I asked him what he was wrong about.

“Oh, I thought you were one of the rare ones – one who has what it takes to be a merchant. But I was wrong. You're a buyer. A merchant can see beyond the obvious. Merchants play chess while buyers play checkers. A merchant is always thinking at least three steps ahead of his competition. A merchant looks beyond the obvious to see what others don't.” He added, “A merchant would have seen the edge of the coin when buyers saw heads, tails, and all of the rest.”

WHOA! A life-changing revelation had struck, demonstrated with a plain, ordinary quarter. From that day forward I began to look for the edge in what I strive for and the opportunities that I seize. It’s true in business and it’s true in life. And it’s made all the difference in what could have been a very ordinary career.

Again, this is a story about a relationship and a lesson. The lesson? Don’t be limited by the obvious. Examine opportunities carefully. And when you’ve made a discovery, when you see the edge, remember how you found it. The more you repeat the process and the more you pay it forward, the better your chance of becoming a Marketing Immortal. Or so it seems.

It’s been a great run.

So what do you see?