State

He’s been called ‘the most talented creative in America.’ Meet Kentucky’s Whit Hiler.

‘Kentucky Kicks Ass’ — and a whole lot more

Kentucky for Kentucky partner Whit Hiler describers the origins of the brand, and how it has capitalized on Kentuckians' sense of state pride.
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Kentucky for Kentucky partner Whit Hiler describers the origins of the brand, and how it has capitalized on Kentuckians' sense of state pride.

What does Kentucky for Kentucky’s Whit Hiler have in common with stars Olivia Wilde, Ryan Reynolds and Lebron James? All four are on Adweek’s 2019 Creative 100 list.

Hiler is the first Kentuckian to make the list, which features other celebrities and business leaders, including the CMO of Buzzfeed, the co-founders of Refinery29 and ESPN’s “30 for 30” host.

Where did the Kentucky for Kentucky co-founder start in order to end up on a list alongside such influential and prominent faces?Before being featured in publications such as The New York Times, Business Insider and Adweek as one of America’s most creative advertisers, Hiler started, fittingly, in Kentucky.

Hiler spent most of his 20s working in the automotive business. He worked for a car dealership in Nicholasville as a salesman, and then moved his way up to sales manager.

After that, he started a clothing brand, marketing the brand himself. Hiler said this was the first time he really had a chance to flex his “creative muscle” and do more with his “entrepreneurial spirit.”

He did a few stunts that got national attention, including being mentioned in The New York Times. But as the 2008 recession took a toll , the brand he had created, Attus, fizzled out.

Not being the type to stay still for long, he moved on to selling Vespa Scooters. “That was a really fun business,” he said. “But it wasn’t a business that was sustainable....”

Hiler left the Vespa shop, but needed money after he and his wife found out they had a baby on the way.

In 2010, he heard of a crowd-sourcing ad agency called Victors and Spoils. The company was based in Boulder, Colo., and would submit briefs for people from all over to work on advertisements for companies. If your bid was selected, you could be paid anywhere between $2,000 to $5,000 at a time for the advertisement idea.

“I started responding to these briefs,” he said. “But then I started winning a lot of these briefs. It was awesome because they were getting like 5,000 submissions on some of them, but I started winning them.”

Similar to the Vespa shop, the money was decent, but it wasn’t sustainable, Hiler said.

After he started winning these briefs, his wife, Christy, who is now the president of the Lexington-based advertising agency, Cornett, suggested he come work there. He has been there since 2011 as a creative director.

With Cornett, he has created unique advertisements for large companies such as A&W, the Dollar Shave Club and Sealy.

“Whit thinks about things really different,” Christy said. “He’s not your traditional creative director. With the media landscape today, his thinking is really fitting for it... You never know what he’s going to come up with, and that’s creativity.”

His creativity and advertising stunts didn’t end with Cornett, however. When he started working for Cornett, Whit promised Christy that he “would not start anymore businesses.” But the lure got to him, and the Kentucky for Kentucky brand was born from a Super Bowl commercial idea.

“This wasn’t a business though,” Whit said. “This was just something we wanted to do to give back to Kentucky.”

About six months into his time at Cornett, he and Kentucky for Kentucky co-founder, Griffin VanMeter, had the idea to crowd-fund a Super Bowl advertisement that would promote Kentucky. They attempted to raise $3.5 million to create the commercial. The campaign received a lot of attention, but only ended up raising $100,000.

Though their Super Bowl commercial dreams never came to fruition, they got a glimpse of Kentuckians’ strong sense of state pride. They wanted to do something with it and the money they had raised. Mix in some epic trolling of the state tourism cabinet, and “Kentucky Kicks Ass” was born.

The pair decided they were going to rebrand Kentucky with the money and attention they had gathered from the Super Bowl stunt. They took it upon themselves to change the state slogan from “Unbridled spirit,” to “Kentucky Kicks Ass,” without the Kentucky Tourism Cabinet’s permission.

They sent out fake press releases telling multiple agencies they were designated with the task of rebranding Kentucky. When pressed by USA Today about who gave them the authority to do this, the two revealed they designated themselves with the task, VanMeter said.

They started a Facebook page that spring to get people talking about how great Kentucky is. He had a friend create a Kentucky for Kentucky logo that was featured on the page.

“Still, our mission statement is to promote Kentucky people, places and things,” he said. “We started doing that on Facebook. At the time, there was not really anyone else doing anything like that. We knew there was a lot of state pride, but no one was doing anything with that pride.”

Hiler and VanMeter began making t-shirts with the “new” Kentucky slogan printed across it, which is where the retail portion of Kentucky for Kentucky began. The store is known today for the soft, Kentucky-positive shirts it sells.

“We really never intended this to be a business,” Hiler said.

With Kentucky for Kentucky, Hiler and VanMeter have come up with interesting, Kentucky-related merchandise to sell outside of just clothing. Think preserved KFC chicken legs in mason jars, preserved horse manure from Derby-winning thoroughbreds and gold plated fried chicken bones as jewelry.

On his website, Hiler describes himself as a “trouble maker.” The site also showcases much of his work, ranging from ads that take people down in the depths of Mammoth Cave to ASMR videos of horses eating.

“He wants people to feel something and have a reaction,” Christy said.

Hiler now works closely with Lexington’s tourism agency. VisitLex Vice President of Marketing Gathan Borden saw his ideas as a way to transform how Lexington is branded for tourists.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Borden said. “Some creatives try to put parameters on their ideas, but Whit doesn’t have parameters. He’s always been super helpful in that regard. He just throws out as many ideas as he can until one works.”

Borden said he wanted to create content that would get people talking about Lexington.

Borden said one of his favorite projects he’s worked on with Hiler was called “NeighSMR,” a sensory-focused ASMR video of a horse eating.

In his latest for VisitLex, Hiler dressed a horse up like Mr. Rogers, saying, “It’s a beautiful day in the Neighhhborhood,” and “Won’t you be my Neighhhbor?”

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In his latest advertising adventure, Whit Hiler decided to dress a horse as Mr. Rodgers for an ad that will run with VisitLex in late summer of this year. Photo provided.

Among his other achievements, Hiler was rated number 13 in Business Insider’s 2014 “24 Most Creative People in Advertising.” In that same year he won a Webby Award, which honors “excellence on the Internet.” Digiday also wrote an article about Hiler titled, “Is this man the most talented creative in America?”

So how does someone dubbed as one of the most creative people in the nation come up with his ideas? Jokes, he said.

“Whit is really loud,” VanMeter said. “He’s extremely loud. If you like pranks, and office pranks, he’s the type of person you want working for you. He lives for laughter and mischief.”

Some of his most popular ideas started as jokes.

“We’ve thrown out something that was funny and we all laughed about it,” Hiler said. “But then it was like, oh damn. Well if we think it’s funny, I bet everyone else thinks it’s funny, so we should do that.”

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