How dreams and elbow grease built John Gallegos’ creative empire | How I Made It
John Gallegos, 52, is founder and chief executive of United Collective, a group of creative agencies built to capture the eyeballs, hearts and wallets of diverse communities across America. Born in East Los Angeles to blue-collar Mexican American parents, Gallegos grew the small Latino-focused agency he founded nearly two decades ago into a full-service creative network. Today, Gallegos’ original five-person team has grown into an award-winning business 150 strong with offices on both coasts.
The American dream
Gallegos grew up watching his parents work tirelessly at odd jobs to support their family, including as line workers at manufacturing plants, caterers and program sellers at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“My parents were the epitome of the American dream,” he said. “They dreamt of being able to raise their family in safer neighborhoods than they grew up in, to go to college and have opportunities they never had…. They did what was necessary to give us a better life.”
John Gallegos Sr. and Maria Elena Gallegos worked as a team to make sure their many work commitments never stopped the younger Gallegos and his sister from having a full family life. “They’d always somehow figure out how to make it work,” he said.
“They dreamt of being able to raise their family in safer neighborhoods than they grew up in, to go to college and have opportunities they never had… They did what was necessary to give us a better life.”
— John Gallegos, CEO, United Collective
Dreaming and doing
Despite the family’s busy work schedule, Gallegos’ parents always made sure their son had time to have a childhood — especially when it came to baseball.
“My dad was working so many jobs, but he never missed one of my games,” Gallegos said.
Sports played a central role in the CEO’s young life. He started playing at age 8, was on his high school’s football and baseball teams and went on to join USC’s baseball team. Gallegos says many of the skills that helped make his business a success were gleaned from team sports.
“It teaches you on so many levels, from teamwork to the individual things you need to be a successful entrepreneur,” Gallegos said. “You learn how to be aware of the things you can’t control and how to approach those you can. It also teaches you to deal with pressure because there can be a lot of that.”
Gallegos said the single most important thing he learned from his adolescent sports career was not a skill but a mind-set.
“The bridge between sports and entrepreneurialism is the combination of being a doer and a dreamer,” Gallegos said. “You need both to succeed in sports, just like business. You’ve got to have the imagination to see where you want to be and then do the hard work to get there.”
An unexpected turn
A summer internship landed the then-22-year-old USC business student a job offer at a Spanish-language advertising firm.
“I had never thought of going to work for an ad agency,” Gallegos said. “I had wanted to be a sports manager.”
Gallegos had intended to turn the offer down but was forced to reconsider when one of his professors learned of it.
“She told me, ‘If you don’t take that job, I’m just going to fail you.’” Gallegos recalled. “At the time, people were getting jobs as receptionists [at ad agencies] just to get their foot in the door. So I took a second look at the job — and I never went back. I’ve been in advertising ever since.”
A bumpy takeoff
After spending the 1990s working for two Latino-focused advertising agencies in Los Angeles, Gallegos decided in 2001 that it was time to branch out on his own. “I always felt like the work that was being done for the multicultural or ethnic audiences could be better,” he said.
He partnered with advertising mogul Stan Richards to found Grupo Gallegos in July 2001 — just in time for the pandemonium of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Clients were reevaluating what was going to happen to the whole economy, and here we are trying to start a business.”
He drew on lessons he had learned from his baseball years to push through the rocky start. “I couldn’t control what was going on, but I had to learn how to deal with it,” Gallegos said.
His persistence paid off and soon Grupo Gallegos’ five-person team was winning pitches against agencies 10 times its size. Within three years, Gallegos was able to buy out Richards’ stake in the company. In 2005, the group received its first Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity award and was named multicultural agency of the year by AdAge two years later.
From 2007 to 2016, it more than doubled yearly revenue from less than $9 million to roughly $21 million, according to data from AdAge.
Gallegos said finding “courageous” clients was key to the company’s success.
“They’ve got to value creativity and be willing to invest in it,” he said. “They need to be looking for innovation and be willing to challenge convention.”
In 2017, Gallegos decided it was time to broaden the scope of his agency’s work. Social sea changes such as the push for marriage equality, rise of the millennial generation and evolving demographics of the U.S. convinced him it was time to expand and target diverse audiences.
“We really leaned into the diversity explosion we’d seen going on in the country,” Gallegos said. “We were looking at where the market was going.”
Gallegos bought a New York digital agency and a boutique PR firm while building a production house and business consultancy. Grupo Gallegos rebranded to Gallegos United and the five agencies came together to form a single group called United Collective.
The new collective took on projects beyond the scope of Gallegos’ original agency, including with the Alzheimer’s Assn., Chick-fil-A at the Little League World Series and a chicken makeover with Foster Farms. After 12 years of handling Latino audience marketing for the California Milk Processor Board, best known for its iconic “Got Milk?” branding, the company was awarded the full account in 2017.
Today, Gallegos is following in his father’s footsteps and making sure his busy schedule doesn’t leave his own three children with an absentee dad. Just as his parents did, Gallegos and his wife of 22 years, Palma, work as a team to keep the family machine on track. He handles the morning shift, and she takes over after.
“I’m up by 5 to make them breakfast and lunch every morning, then drive them to school,” he said. “That’s my favorite part of the day.”
The breakfast table is reserved for updates on Alexa’s, John Jr.'s and Matthew’s school and personal lives. If things at the company are particularly busy, however, the family’s car turns into a rolling office and, Gallegos said, a window for his children into his other life.
“There have been times I’ve taken calls on the drive. They love listening in,” he said. “They’ll ask what happened with a project they heard me talking about, or if I hired that last person I spoke to.
“A friend of mine told me a few years ago that I’m the lead actor in my play. I’m trying to be the best supporting actor in theirs.”
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