W+K’s John Jay on creativity and cultivating a diversity of experience
John C Jay has a list of projects and achievements longer than this article. A partner and trustee of Wieden and Kennedy, he shared the global ECD role with Dan Wieden for nine years.
Before that he worked in fashion retail marketing for 12 years as CD and executive VP of marketing and creative services for Bloomingdale’s in New York City, and maintains his own creative lab, Studio J, through which he is involved in real estate and retail investments, product design, interiors, graphics and editorial projects.
Most recently he’s president and ECD of GX, an independent creative agency within independent agency Wieden and Kennedy. A year old, GX was a return for Jay to the drawing board, having his own set of clients and getting the chance to work on projects that differ from some of the other things Wieden and Kennedy is doing.
Marketing spoke to Jay from his Portland base ahead of his visit to Auckland and Sydney next month for international creative festival, Semi-Permanent.
Marketing: You’re coming to Semi Permanent next month, can you give us a preview of what you’ll be speaking on?
John Jay: There are a couple of things. I’ll been talking about some of my experiences in creativity, because I come from such a diverse background, like agency people. So starting in journalism and design, and editorial design and then going into fashion, and fashion marketing, and then into agency life, and now the Asia offices [of Wieden and Kennedy] in Tokyo and Shanghai, and now opening GX.
I’ve always wanted to use all of those experiences. I want to touch a little bit on all of that, although I’m very wary of going to conferences where people get up there and just show their portfolio, that’s not the point, but I am trying to show the advantages of leading a very diverse life, if I can say that. That it is very good to jump in and out of different industries and experience different things, and while all of those experiences were happening I always had some form of Studio J, which is my personal studio here in Portland. So I’ll talk about that.
But the other motivation for coming – and first of all I haven’t been to Australia in years, and I loved it when I was there, so I need to get back. I’m also very curious about the creative community there. We used to have a one-person office in Australia and I came to visit that way back when – the other thing is that I was invited first to come to this conference by Alex Calderwood, the late founder of Ace Hotel.
Alex passed in January and one of the last conversations we had was, he said, “John, I’ve been invited to come down to Australia to speak at Semi Permanent.” And of course I’ve had conversations with the founders of the conference here in Portland before, and other friends have participated, but Alex said that he would very much enjoy being on stage if I could be there and share so that he could get over his stage fright, and I said, ‘Of course, I would love to do it,’ and so there is going to be a little bit about my admiration of his work and what they do and what makes them so unusual.
I’m not a representative of the Ace, but clearly my original plan to come down for the conference was to be with Alex and be on stage with him, so I would just pay some respect to that.
I was reading on your Tumblr about Alex, and you were saying that he was remarkable for his lack of ego, when we live in an age of ‘celebrating flawed leadership.’ Could you expand on that – how was he different?
Well, first of all he was not trained in school to do this creative director job or this cultural engineering job, he was self-taught, and I think that that gave him a huge advantage, and that advantage was that he developed a different radar, a radar that allowed him to spot raw talent, talent that didn’t come from schools but talent that came from the streets, and people who have strong hints of creative thinking and creative craft, but he was able to spot those people and give them a chance.
And many of those people are responsible, with him, for building of the concept of the Ace Hotel. So I think that, number one, his ability to spot talent and then to use unusual talent to solve the major problems that he had been solving [is what made him different].
Another thing you mention in that blog was that he tackled the greatest enemy of quality and longevity: company growth. Could you explain that a little more?
Well, I think that’s no secret, I’m not the first [to say that], and I think in the end, maybe death is the only guarantee in life, but we would like to see if we could cheat a little bit, and I would like to think that there are ways that you can become bigger and not lose the quality of your work. I would like to think that Wieden and Kennedy is one example of that.
Is that idea, of achieving company growth without losing the original qualities, particular to agencies or is that across the board?
No, it’s across the board, of course, that’s human nature. The older a human gets the more wrinkles you get, so there are certain things that just have to come with age, but the bigger the size the more complex you are as an organisation, the more disconnected you perhaps are. It’s just a lot of things that just happen in human nature, and it’s certainly not an agency issue, it’s something that faces all of us, all industries.
I was trying to make list of everything you’ve done and it was getting way too long, but… but is the idea of having really varied experiences something that doesn’t happen enough?
I have to be careful about how I phrase this because someone here at the agency said that we’ve just gone through this decade, the ‘lost decade’, and I said, ‘What do you mean?’
People were so confused as to what the marketplace needed, and the entire industry of communications and branding and the whole relationship between consumers and brand is just changing so quickly that industries are having a hard time keeping up with it. So no wonder schools are also struggling to understand what is needed out there, and if, of course, you are a liberal arts college that basically wants to just teach knowledge, then that’s fine too.
But we suddenly have, what my friend was talking about, a generation of people who kind of did a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but they couldn’t do anything really well because they didn’t understand what was needed, and I think we’ve fallen victim to some of that. I think if you look at The Art Directors Club, whether you like their program or not in New York, there is a clear and conscious decision to return people to the idea of craft, because the pendulum has swung too far, and suddenly people with craft weren’t as important, perhaps.
If you look at the Lost Tapes of Steve Jobs when they asked him to summarise what makes him great, or what makes Apple great, he says at the end, “Well, I guess it’s just a matter of taste.”
Well, taste can’t just happen in thin air, there has to be great craft in the making of that taste, so I think there is a clear return to the importance of making, that thinking alone is not enough. So, [while] I’m a very strong proponent of having diverse skills, you can’t just be average over a lot of things, you have to do something well.
So does the old ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ figure of speech hold true?
Well, I came through design originally, and ironically I came through Swiss design, a very specific, very narrow. I joke about this but there’s a lot of truth in it, and after four years of Swiss design, using Helvetica, I moved to New York City and my first discovery was a thing called the serif, and you go, ‘Oh my God, that looks fancy,’ and I say that in jest but there’s a little bit of truth in that.
I think I did come through design and that the kind of design I came through was really interesting, I didn’t realise the importance of it, but we spent most of our time identifying the problem and having to research everything in order to get to the solution. So that’s not unlike in advertising where strategy is so important and the best creative people tend to be great strategists as well.
If you give me a blank sheet of paper and nothing – and this is a favourite task of mine – I think I can still design. So hopefully I can still call upon that as my craft.
Even without a problem to solve?
No, no, you need a problem to solve or else you’re an artist.
You mentioned earlier about talent and finding the right talent. How difficult is that or does talent tend to find you?
It’s the hardest job in the world, it’s our toughest thing that we have to go through every day. There is research, and I can’t give you exactly who said it now, but there was research done about a year ago over global recruiters, and 60% of them said they couldn’t find the talent that their clients needed. It’s the biggest conundrum right now, and maybe it’s always been the conundrum, you know, but today it’s the biggest conundrum right now.
Is that partly – in marketing – due to the changing environment and the changing skills?
Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly part of it.
What sort of people does Wieden and Kennedy look for?
Do you look for a diversity of experience, or the ability to do one thing really well?
There’s a balance. So how I think may be different from another executive creative director, and obviously you have to balance the whole team, so you can’t have all the same kind of talents, so you have to look at the team, the number of people that you have, and balance those resources. Sometimes you need just straight up great advertising talent because there is a real skill in that, and if you have all neophytes it’s just going to take you too long to get to the answer.
In your personal projects at Studio J, what are you working on at the moment?
I’m kind of a little bit dormant at the moment, because of GX, but right now I would say the key things the Studio’s involved in is actually in new product development that my wife Janet is working on. We supply all the special organic soaps that are made for the Ace Hotels, so we supply all the hotels except for London at this point, simply because of capacity, and we are involved in some new services, developing new products and some of it is for Ace right now, and there is some ongoing real estate development projects that we’re working on out of Studio J.
Tell me about GX.
Well, it’s a year old, and it’s the start of an independent agency inside the largest independent agency, so it’s kind of given me a chance to get back on the drawing board and just to get back to being creative and having my own set of clients and actually work on different projects that perhaps are different from some of the other things that Wieden and Kennedy is doing. So I’m very involved in product development and in the making of new products or the ‘concepting’ of new products in the company. Basically what I’m doing now is helping either redirect established companies or helping to develop new companies and new products.
Establishing not just brands but new companies?
Can you give any examples of those?
There are two that are kind of counter balancing to each other, and the first one is The Green Zebra, which is a local start-up. In the beginning the brief was ‘reinventing the American convenience store.’ They’ve opened one store so far, the second store is opening in the middle of this year, so that’s one on a local scale.
Then there is another company in Japan that’s 85 years old, and clearly is not a new company, but I’m involved in working with the management team on the future direction of the company and the future product, the future of retail, just the future: how does that North Star manifest itself into things that consumers can enjoy? They are an 85 year old stationery company and also a paper manufacturer.
Last question, and you probably get asked this all the time, but are there particular things you do to stay creative?
Gosh, I don’t know. I mean, it’s the air you breathe. I think I can speak for Alex, too, it’s like when you’re able to merge – and this is a phrase that came from a famous architect, he said, ‘To merge vocation with vacation,’ and that’s exactly the point. He said that when what you do for a living is so fun and so inspiring that you can’t separate what is fun on your personal side and what is fun on your professional side, that is a very powerful thing.
More info on John Jay and Semi-Permanent can be found here.