John Jay helped make the Portland-based advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy a global creative force through work for Nike, Uniqlo and others. With his own spin-off, GX, he plans even bigger coups – by starting small.
“I like to say I’ve successfully worked my way down from the corner office,” says John Jay as he sits in his ground floor hangar-like workspace in Portland, Oregon. His new digs are certainly a change of scene. Jay’s old office commanded a view across Portland’s sparkling Pearl District from the top floor of Wieden 1 Kennedy’s headquarters.
This striking outlook reflected the crucial role Jay played for an ad agency that serves a global array of clients, including Finlandia and Brazil’s Banco Original. For eight years, Jay orchestrated the creative work of WK’s branch offices in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Jay once ran Bloomingdale’s marketing efforts and has been called one of the 10 most influential art directors of the past 50 years. Now he greets a visitor from a desk in a communal black-walled space on WK’s ground floor. The cavernous room is home to Jay’s new venture within WK, a highly personal mini-agency-within-an-agency called GX. The “G” suggests “garage,” evoking both a long heritage of tinkering and invention and the space where he now works. The “X” references collaboration, the heart of the new office’s strategy.
If the change is dramatic, it’s also Jay’s choice. In his old role as the firm’s global executive creative director, Jay oversaw the firm’s global offices – London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Shanghai, São Paulo, New Dehli. “Whatever my title has been I always viewed my job as managing and hopefully inspiring creativity,” he says. But he found himself beset with a feeling shared by many who start out working hands-on but eventually rise to the top. “I missed the action. I wanted to get back to being creative. Or, at the very least, to inspiring creativity, rather than inspiring meetings,” he says. “I needed to start something new.”
That spirit is in keeping with his style throughout his career. “I’d always been the separatist,” he says. “I was the guy who you sent off to open a new office.” He opened the agency’s branches in Tokyo and Shanghai, in each case becoming known for fostering both independence and rigour. “I hire people I trust,” he says.
“And as a manager, I give people a lot of room. But the other side of that is that I expect everyone to contribute.” In the Tokyo office he announced from the start that he would not assume the role of a traditional boss. “I was not going to sit there and tell anyone what to do. Everyone had to step up and show me what they could do,” he recalls.
Jay has always showed a bit of a flair for the grand statement. Two years ago, he issued his “10 lessons for young designers”, not one but two of which prescribed hard work as the ultimate advantage. “I work very late,” he says of his own approach. “I can be here until 02.00 or 03.00. People can talk about working ‘smarter,’ but in some instances there is no substitute for putting in the time.”
Jay now applies those managerial instincts and work ethic to GX, which he sees as a way to land new clients for its parent agency through a radical approach. “We want to work in a way that goes far beyond advertising,” he says. He foresees working directly with clients on every phase of new product design and devising whole new businesses and initiatives, a ground-up philosophy in which traditional advertising is only part of the creative picture.
An entrepreneurial new project suits Jay’s background. The son of Chinese immigrants, he grew up in the back room of a laundry in Ohio, learning English from classic American television. After studying graphic design at Ohio State University he crafted an unorthodox career, moving from magazine design to retail and fashion before WK recruited him.
As global creative director, Jay drew in ideas and people from WK’s outposts –– and the Portland headquarters. He was known as an inexhaustible traveller and a one-man clearing house of influences. “Culture is at the centre of everything,” he says. “People in advertising don’t realise it. They think you can sort of dress up your marketing with a little culture of whatever place and it will work. It doesn’t. You have to immerse yourself in a culture.”
GX’s first client, a new Portland-based chain of small neighbourhood groceries called Green Zebra, offers a glimpse of his plans. Collaborating directly with the start-up’s ceo, Jay helped to devise strategy, design the brand (including a custom typeface), plan construction and develop products. “We’re trying to reinvent the American convenience store – a tall order,” he says. “Sprinkled in there somewhere is advertising.”
As chief garagiste, Jay plans to keep his new shop-within-a-shop light on its feet, recruiting high-quality specialists on a project basis rather than building up staff. That approach implies that he’ll now manage clients and collaborators as much as his own team. “I’m not trying to replicate the scale of WK itself, but at the same time we’ll be global,” he says. “It will be based on relationships. We’ll work directly with our clients’ ceos and the most interesting talent in the world."
If all these plans sound ambitious, that’s perfectly in scale with how Jay sees the world. “This is the most creative moment in the history of the planet,” he says. “To be a creative person right now is magical.”
- What time do you like to be at your desk?
No later than 09.30. What time do I leave? The answer to that can be scary sometimes.
- Are tough decisions best taken by one person, or by a team?
You build your team so it can make strong collective decisions in most cases. But sometimes, things must be done solo.
- Would you rather be liked, or respected?
Respected. No question.
- Describe your management style.
I value curiosity above just about everything else. I look to find and instill that curiosity and passion.
- What technology do you carry?
I have a new iPhone, a BlackBerry and an iPad that goes everywhere with me.
- Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team?
Exercise doesn’t happen in the morning – it happens whenever I can make it happen. Wine with lunch? Only if the client insists. After hours? We’re usually still working.
- Do you read management books?
Yes. I read so many books – right now, I’m reading In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki for the second time.
- Key management advice?
Be more curious and work harder than anyone else.