INTERVIEW : JOHN JAY, W+K GX : PART II
Our interview with creative director John Jay, recognized this year among other legendary creatives George Lois, Louise Fili and others. See part one here.
There’s a lot of magic in the client/creative relationship, and sometimes a lot of tension. The typical origin myth for that dynamic comes in the form of assuming business needs and creative needs are fundamentally opposed. But it can’t be that simple.
These days clients are under so much pressure. They’re like baseball managers — they last maybe two years. You have to have empathy for them, put yourself in their shoes. Creatives love to complain about the client but unless you can understand what sort of pressure they’re under you can’t solve their problem. This is why, as a creative, you have to also have a business mind — so you can solve business problems in a way that means something, that has substance.
When you sell a company, or go public, that culture dissipates. This “culture” we keep talking about, it starts with the independents. In the Northwest that’s the secret sauce, that we’re wildly independent. We’re not in the shadow of Madison Avenue, we don’t have the pressure of our immediate surrounding industry and community saying “that’s how everyone does it, this is how it’s done.” Wieden didn’t germinate in a big city, and that allowed us to grow as a team in this independent environment. How do we live up to that responsibility? By standing by a truly creative culture, in an open studio where we encourage the unexpected and that which questions ideas at their core.
What are you looking for when you’re building a team?
With team building we use our own people, we send people all over the globe either to work or to find like-minded and inspired people to work with. Sometimes it’s the influence of a very young person with fresh talent, passion and a unique point of view. Talent combined with craft is a huge deal. The industry pendulum swings so far, so now everything is about the idea — well, of course everything is about the idea, but you have to activate the brain cells that connect your hands to actually make something.
In TV marketing and culture, you have the luxury of hiring the makers, but chefs don’t just sell their recipes, they actually use them and make them and get their hands in it.
Wieden + Kennedy has acted as a sort of unwitting catalyst for a kind of “failure-positive” philosophy and culture in advertising. An emphasis on that which can come out of being willing to fail, by whatever standards, and discover something unexpected — to “show up stupid every morning” as WK12 put forth. It seems like this culture is both a result and source of some of the generative tension between creative and commerce. It involves doing shit that scares you, really, which is not a very traditional business model. How do you seek out stuff that scares you?
Well I’m not sure we actually seek failure or seek what scares us, but you know when the alarm goes off. If an idea seems perfect and just right, like all our work is done — if you can tie a bow on it, that scares me. An alarm goes off. And you have to have the experience to know you’re not pushing it enough.
We pitched a client recently and were watching other agencies leave after their pitches with their envelopes and tubes full of work they were presenting in response to the brand’s brief. And we had to say, you know we don’t really have anything yet because we don’t feel your brief is right. And yeah, maybe you’re going to blow it right there, but you have to lay it on the line: “We don’t believe in your brief. We believe you want to be successful and we don’t think this is the right path.” They’re hiring you for your point of view. There were mostly senior WK members there, but some newish members as well, and they were sort of mortified before we went in, like “You can do that? You can say that?” The newer members had come from other agencies, and after that experience, they were like, “I can see now that this is what WK is all about.”
So it’s a risk, but what if you win an account based on work you don’t feel good about or that’s based on something you don’t believe in, then you have to actually live it out! You know — if we’re going to get fired, let’s just get fired now. You might as well get fired for what you believe in.
There’s a quote by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “What I’m proudest of is having a life where work and love are impossible to tell apart.” In a way, it’s a very old school idea — not very synchronistic with modern day capitalism. But somehow it feels like more of a human birthright that a luxurious form of freedom.
You have to do work you believe in if you’re going to really be able to solve someone’s problem. It has to feel right — you must do work you’re proud of. When people ask me, so John what do you want to see from such and such a photographer or artist, I say, “I don’t even know you! I don’t know what I want to see! Show me work you’re proud of!” Sure, you might have a photograph on the cover of TIME. I don’t care about a TIME cover, I care about a great image. If it happens to be a great image that’s on the cover of TIME, that’s fantastic, but it has to be something I respond to emotionally. I’m not overwhelmed because someone was on the cover of TIME. If I feel their agent has been editing their portfolio or trying to show work that will somehow appeal to me or our team, it’s not what I’m looking for. I want to see what the person is most proud of. If that ends up being vacation pictures of his two-year-old daughter, then so be it.
That’s where the energy comes from. Standing behind good work, always wanting to be better — this is just a part of being a human being. I don’t get off of work and think, “Oh now I get to finally rest, or I guess I’ll go look at something interesting.” If I’m doing my job well, I’m experiencing something inspiring and interesting each day. I’m active and inspired and the boundary between work and not work doesn’t exist. When you can’t tell if you’re working or playing, then you’re onto something.
Life is all about change through an evolution grounded by our values. Change without values and values without a willingness to adapt can both become an emotional and intellectual trap.
This is an exciting time. It is the most creative moment perhaps in our history. Evolution is inevitable, it happens with or without you, so embracing new people and new ideas, all fearless of the future, is actually my job. Embracing this moment of creative opportunity is the first step.
Photos by Wieden’s own, Hope Freeman