Born To Be Creative
RJ Hagel discovered his marketing talent in the toy store aisle
Creative problem-solving has always come naturally to RJ Hagel. From his first job at Toys “R” Us (at age 15) to his current role as marketing manager for Goldstar (UPIC: GLDSTAR), Hagel’s ability to think outside the box has allowed him to help the companies he works for market their products more effectively.
Growing up, “my favorite toys were Legos and blocks,” Hagel says. “I was always building things.” So working at a Toys “R” Us was like working at a candy shop.
“We worked hard, but we also had fun, especially when doing timed trials around the store on pallet jacks! I learned a lot there by doing a little bit of everything, but my passion was to set store layouts and redesign aisles to meet the ever-changing need for new products. Although I didn’t know it then, that job was really my start in marketing,” Hagel says. “Since then, I have worked in multiple roles where I was responsible for helping to create merchandising, signage and POS programs, and I have often thought back to my experiences at Toys “R” Us. It was a great time in my life and it still makes me smile.”
Hagel’s innate creativity has fueled his ability to help distributors solve their clients’ problems. “Creativity is not just about making things. It’s about problem solving. When there are lean budgets, you have to get creative with how to spend money. You have to do things differently to be more effective.”
With two kids of his own now—seven-year-old Maddi and 10-year-old Dylan—Hagel has plenty of opportunity to be a role model and pass on his creativity, as well as his passion for his job.
“I approach life as if it is my No. 1 goal to leave this world a little better than when I came into it. I want to be a great coworker as much as I want to be a great father, an aspirational leader and a good friend. I try to give my life balance and I hold integrity as my most important asset,” he says.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
First and foremost, I am a car guy. I’ve loved them since I was little and they still fascinate me today. I enjoy vintage cars, but I am also enamored with technology and how it affects performance and design. Elon Musk (founder of Tesla Motors) is one of my biggest influences. I am also a foodie and craft beer geek. I have a wine fridge that I’ve converted to a beer fridge and I’m in the process of aging 35 craft beers. I also love working with my hands, being outdoors and exercising. I go to the gym a few times a week and do yoga. I live about 12 minutes from Laguna Beach [his office is in San Diego, California]. It is a beautiful place with amazing sunsets. It’s one of the places I go to clear my mind.
Who or what has had the greatest influence on your career and why?
My parents have been the biggest part of shaping the person I am today, both personally and professionally. They taught me about the value of hard work, perseverance, integrity, open-mindedness and discipline. When I worked for the family business, my father taught me about the importance of building relationships and the need to pay it forward by supporting the people and the environment around me. I try and approach life with an open mind and that with every page you turn, there is something new to learn. I give a shout out to all my managers, co-workers, colleagues and friends who have supported me throughout my career.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Like many people, I left high school not really sure what I wanted to do. I started off at a local community college with a goal to major in psychology. After a few courses, I realized that while interesting, psychology didn’t really fit in with what I wanted to do professionally. So I moved to architecture and interior design. Fun and creative, but nope. How about graphic design? Errr … not that one either.
Then I came to marketing. It gave me the ability to apply psychology through brand influence and market strategy while also affording the ability to be creative through design and development of interactive media. Being a marketer in this industry is great. Not only do I get to practice marketing myself, but I get the ability to sell marketing services too. I enjoy knowing that my work will help others find success.
What was your first job in promotional products and how did it come about?
At 19, I got a job as an assistant store manager for Things Remembered, a store that sells personalized/engraved gifts. It was cool because it was creative and I got to have the word ‘manager’ in my title. After nine months, I was approached by a guy who had just bought a trophy shop. He needed some help and was willing to pay me more and be flexible with my school schedule.
Over the next five years, I ended up working for a second trophy shop, a local printer doing design and also selling laser engraving equipment focused on the awards and sign market. Then my parents decided to open a trophy and sign business. After a few years, they purchased a local competitor and I went to work for them creating sand-etched awards, glass signage and a bunch of other cool stuff. This is when I was introduced to the promotional side of the industry.
What motivates you in business and in life?
Creativity is a must for me, and I love that life is a journey that we get to steer the way we want it. I enjoy being part of a team, working and surrounding myself with good people who influence my life in positive ways. I enjoy managing people and truly like helping them realize their potential and work towards goals. The same goes for my children. I enjoy seeing them grow up and see how my influence has helped them make good decisions (and certainly bad ones sometimes!).
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
In the past few years I have had the experiences of managing people, maintaining a sizable budget and helping to rethink and reshape a good part of an organization, from marketing to product development, sales and even customer support. I am very proud of where I am, and I hope that the next chapter in my life reveals that next “great accomplishment.”
What advice would you give to an industry newcomer?
This is a fun industry; have fun yourself and be creative. Understand that as an industry we sell creative services, not just products. There is so much potential ahead of us. Branding is of such growing importance in marketing and that is exactly what we do. Don’t be a product peddler, be a creative problem solver.
Julie Richie is associate editor for PPB.