Jake from State Farm spent nearly a decade answering phone calls from customers in the wee hours of the morning. And then he got a promotion.

These days, Jake — his last name has yet to be made public — is a big star. Over the past year, he’s been spotted hobnobbing with Patrick Mahomes and Drake; turning up in the midst of the Super Bowl; and spending time with gamers on Twitch.  He’s not a flesh-and-blood person you can meet on the street. Rather, he’s the latest in a long parade of Madison Avenue “spokes-characters” who date back to Mr. Whipple and Ronald McDonald. At a time when many advertisers are relying on new-era techniques like harvesting consumer data and placing TV commercials via software algorithms, however, Jake has been gaining traction.

“I really just wanted to make a character that was something that felt like I was a guy helping out,” says Kevin Miles, the 30-year-old actor who has been playing the popular advertising figure since last year, during a recent interview. “This is literally the neighbor you can ask, ‘Hey, can you help me jump my car?’”

Jake fans have an opportunity now to watch an advertising icon in its earliest days, at a moment when he’s likely not bound by pages of rules or corporate “bibles” mandating how he can and can’t be used and the exact shade of red that needs to be employed for his shirt. Though the advertising world is moving away from the elements that have made TV commercials successful for decades, it still likes to build Jakes — and others like him. These figures, which can range from the Pillsbury Doughboy to “Lily,” a store clerk who turns up in ads featuring AT&T stores, still have some allure, and can even serve as the base of a storytelling “universe.” During the 2020 broadcast of Super Bowl LIV, for example, Planters ran a spot that featured not only Mr. Peanut, but Mr. Clean and the Kool-Aid Man — even though the floor-polish icon is owned by a rival consumer-products manufacturer.

Chances are Jake would not have gotten to where he is today without working that overnight shift. State Farm, the insurance giant that has for nearly a century been selling the stuff to consumers,  in 2011 started running a funny ad featuring one of its actual call-center employees playing “Jake,” sitting in an office cubicle taking a call at about 3:10 a.m. from a guy asking about insurance. The potential customer’s wife hears the call and assumes her husband is conversing with someone more illicit. “What are you wearing, ‘Jake From State Farm?”” she asks. “Uhh…khakis,” he responds.

The commercial proved so popular that State Farm kept putting it on the air. “People asked us, ‘How many of these ads did you run?’ It was really just the one commercial,” explains Rand Harbert, the company’s chief agency, sales and marketing officer, in an interview.

As 2020 beckoned, Harbert and his team decided they needed to do more with Jake. “We had featured our real agents in our commercials and that served us very well over time. Certainly, our brand is tied to State Farm agents,” says the executive. “But it’s hard to go with a consistent campaign when every single ad features a different agent.”

Indeed, advertising insurance poses a heady challenge.  Insurance is an intangible product that few consumers crave, like an Apple smartphone or shoes from Nike. “Nobody wants to shop for insurance,” says Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University. And yet, the business is growing quite competitive:  upstarts in the field, like Lemonade and SoFi, try to tempt consumers  with the suggestion of better better rates obtained with digital techniques.

Meanwhile, some of the industry’s biggest names continue to pour millions into overwhelming ad efforts. The average consumer likely can’t tell you the ins-and-outs of a current insurance policy, but chances are they can rattle off the details from any number of costly ad campaigns for insurance products. Progressive has spent years building up a team of off-kilter agents led by “Flo.” Liberty Mutual boasts a “LiMu Emu.” Allstate has burnished actor Dennis Haysbert as well as “Mayhem,” a personification of difficult life conditions portrayed by Dean Winters. Farmers Insurance relies on the talents of J.K. Simmons and a jingle for its motto that is hard to get out of one’s head.  Geico finds new ways every year to tell potential customers it can get them better prices after just a 15-minute call.

State Farm isn’t the industry’s biggest spender. The company put approximately $668.6 million into traditional advertising in 2020, according to Kantar. That’s far less than the $1.68 billion spent by Geico or the $1.09 billion unloaded by Progressive (though the figure does outmaneuver Allstate, Liberty Mutual and Farmers). To stand apart, says Craig Miller, who leads creative on the State Farm account for its agency, The Marketing Arm, the company wanted to focus on developing a figure who would have special appeal to younger consumers.

Armed with the knowledge that viewers responded to the first Jake commercial, State Farm set about trying to build something larger. “It was just one spot, but what we discovered was that people were still dressing up like Jake from State Farm for Halloween,” says Miller, in an interview. “There was already something there, so why not embrace it? He’s lived on in popular culture. He’s endured. We thought this was a perfect opportunity to bring him back.”

Rather than use the State Farm employee who had originated the role, however, the company opted to find a new Jake — a process that took weeks of deliberation. The company didn’t deliberately seek a person of color for the role, but rather someone with “high likability,” says Harbert. Miles “had a vibe that was young yet practical.”

The actor had done ads for Hyundai, Slim Jim and Pepsi and made appearances in episodes of the CBS series “SWAT” and “Criminal Minds.” But he had to persevere through a meticulous casting process. “I had to wait maybe a full month or so after I went through test groups, focus groups,” he recalls. State Farm launched the new Jake with a pre-game ad in last year’s Super Bowl broadcast on Fox, waiting until this year to put Jake in primetime.

The company’s ad agency isn’t the one that first came up with the idea for Jake. The guy-on-the-phone concept came from DDB, a large agency specializing in big campaigns that, like Marketing Arm, is owned by Omnicom Group. But the smaller ad company had for years been working for State Farm behind the scenes, doing things like developing relationships with influencers and artists, and weaving State Farm into TV shows and films. Those skills are fast becoming as equally prized as the ability to create traditional ads.

The key has been to show Jake connecting with young consumers by offering them rates tailored to their specific situations. He has dispensed a “Parker Promo,” a “Mya Markdown” and even a “Rodgers Rate” for Aaron Rodgers. While other insurers may greet customers with talking lizards or kooky pitch-people, State Farm was determined to make Jake seem like the “good neighbor” that has been such a big part of the company’s marketing for so many years. “To me, the secret sauce is really to make it as if Jake is real,” says Miller.

Jake has more appeal these days than some big celebrities. According to Marketing Arm research, more people are aware of Jake than they are of Katie Couric or Hilary Swank. More than 80% of people who are aware of him find him appealing — putting him on par with Leslie Jones, Tyler Perry and David Schwimmer, according to Celebrity DBI, a database based on a research panel of five million consumers maintained by the agency. Jake, according to the index, is also seen as more breakthrough than Stephen Colbert, Elizabeth Banks or Ciara.

Getting into character isn’t too much of an ordeal, says Miles. He thinks back to moments when he was able to be a resource for family and friends. “I think of the times that I have been there, either in hard times or in happy times, the feeling I get when I’m around my loved ones.”

He will have ample opportunity to do more of the same. Neither the company nor the agency appear to be contemplating sending Jake back to the basement. They just want to keep putting him out there as a guy who can be anyone’s pal. “I’m definitely going to be here as long as I can,” says Miles. “As long as the people want me.”