John Hegarty said, ‘I work in Advertising, I don’t live in Advertising’. I can’t put it any better than that.
James Cooper has been an influential agency side interactive creative director for almost ten years. In that time he has developed work on almost every platform and for a wide range of clients. In June 2012 he picked up a Gold Lion at Cannes for the Band Aid App while at JWT - but has been pushing the relationship between brands and technology since 2000 when he created the first ever commercial game on the palm pilot for IBM while at Ogilvy London.
In between he has been the creative director for two of the most successful digital agencies in London, Dare and Agency Republic. Moving to New York in 2008 he has since written successful digital advertising campaigns for Wheaties and JC Penney. He has created live digital experiences for JWT at SXSW and developed products from scratch such as the Groupee conference app for Social Media Week – both of which won awards. He joins Tool to help brands and agencies create interactive work that is not only talked about in the industry but by real people too.
What do you do for inspiration?
Luckily all the things I like to do - watching movies, listening to music, going to exhibitions - are all relevant to the work I do. The flipside of that is that I’m rarely not thinking about work.
Please list 3 of your favourite sites.
I’m going to go functional (and English) rather than magical here: The Guardian, Arseblog (which is not what it sounds but actually a blog about Arsenal Football Club) and probably Fast Company.
What do you regard as being your biggest achievement?
That’s deep. I’ve been lucky enough to win a lot of awards, but the more you play that game the more you realize it’s just that. Part of my last job at JWT was to look at the global digital work and try to make it more ‘award worthy.’ I won’t lie - it was fun to travel the world and meet so many great people, but it’s a bit of treadmill that all agencies have jumped on. I totally understand why. Awards help win business and attract talent, but I feel like money could be better spent on actually creating fresh work rather than case study films. This isn’t really my achievement because it was the whole agency, but to win Campaign’s Agency of the Decade after running the creative department with Flo Heiss at Dare in London for three years was pretty sweet.
If you weren't working on the internet what would you be doing?
I actually have another business, a ping-pong clothing range called Thompson Punke. I’m into that whole scene but otherwise I would love to make music or movies. I shot a hipster horror movie with a friend over the summer. We’ll see how that turns out.
What's your favourite part of your job? What's the hardest part of your job? What do you do when you get stuck?
I love the ideas process. There is nothing better than taking a blank sheet of paper and trying to crack the problem. It’s a genuine intellectual challenge, and the other great bit is being part of a team that makes something cool. The late nights and the shouting matches are all worth it when a site or project goes live and you get that first piece of positive feedback. I guess all creatives are attention junkies in some way. The hard part is staying positive when clients keep rejecting ideas, but you learn to take it with a pinch of salt. If I get stuck I just go for a walk. It’s a cliché but it’s totally true.
If there are any pivotal experiences/decisions you could point to that helped shape your career, what would they be?
Well, my Dad was in advertising. He worked at CDP in London in the 70’s, which was a very hip agency. He was an account director so I actually started out life as a suit following a few internships. I got fired from my first job and that was great because it forced me to think about what I actually wanted to do – which was be a creative, not an account man. My recent switch from full time agency life – with JWT – to a more freelance unstructured role as an Interactive Director with Tool has been similar. At this point, I know I want to be part of a smaller, digitally focused team that makes things, as opposed to shooting the shit and managing all the process that goes with big agency life.
What software could you not live without?
I think I am on record saying that I can’t code or use Photoshop, and that the only software I am even proficient in is Word. What that means is that I have a huge respect for people that can code and design and leave them alone to work their magic. Looking at my toolbar right now I can see Final Draft there, too, which is a brilliant program for writing screenplays.
What effect on traffic do your new designs have?
I’m not a designer but I noticed something about a recent project I did for the election. With some friends I created GumElection.com. It’s a poster anyone can download so that they can vote for Obama or Romney with their gum. It went viral very quickly, but the nature of how that happened was interesting. It really started with a static image on Instagram that a lot of people saw. Then people started shooting their own versions on Instagram and we got picked up on all the content sites – i.e. Buzzfeed, Reddit, HuffPo, etc. - as well as all the advertising sites. Eventually CNN interviewed us. You would think that being on CNN would give the site a huge spike but it didn’t at all. The spikes came from the buzz sites mentioned above. The notion that you need to be on TV to make it big is simply not true anymore.
Who is your target audience?
It varies by project. Most times I ask teams working on projects to be very honest with themselves. ‘Would you really do this?’ I ask. ‘Would you really create a film about this brand and put it on Facebook, because I sure as hell wouldn’t.”
What area of web design lacks the most?
I like that we are getting sexy microsites back. Everything got a bit too web 2.0 and Facebook tabby there for a while. There are so many more interesting things you can do. Just looking at the last three things Tool put out, “JAM with Chrome,” “Clouds Over Cuba,” and the “Experience Virgin” site for Virgin America shows you there is life in the old dog yet.
Are there any websites that have shone through as being pioneering in the last 5 years or so?
Not consistently. Other than FWA, obviously.
When dealing with major clients, how difficult is it to meet the needs of such wide target audiences?
It’s difficult. And it’s getting more difficult. I feel like clients know they should be doing something different right now - that traditional channels (media, agencies, tactics) are not cutting it - but they just don’t know what to do. There isn’t an obvious path to take so we end up with paralysis a lot of the time, or we just revert back to middle of the road stuff that manages to please no one while attempting to please everyone. It’s tricky for clients. My advice is to spend small amounts of money on a lot of different experiments and see what happens. It’s cheaper to make a prototype or make a rough cut of a film and stick it online than go through all the old-school research groups and feedback loops. But again that’s a conscious decision to break with tradition and put yourself out there. At a time of economic insecurity I can see why that’s tough.
What did your very first site look like? Is it still online?
I worked for an Internet service provider in 1995 as a summer job, so I was online pretty early. I made some crappy HTML page about me, the music I liked, etc. – FTPd it up and let it loose on the world. Fortunately, it’s not still up.
Have you written any books, if not do you plan to?
I wrote a chapter in the Creative Social book about Interactive Advertising that has done pretty well. I have also written a children’s book called The Little Giant Squid, which has just been turned into an app. Available on iTunes now – just in time for Christmas!
Are there things you do OUTSIDE of work to ensure that you are in the right mindset to be creative and/or successful in whatever you are doing?
John Hegarty said, ‘I work in Advertising, I don’t live in Advertising’. I can’t put it any better than that.
What was the last digital effort you saw (or were a part of) that used social media in a way that really made sense. Why?
I think we are still at the beginnings of what Social Media can do from a creative point of view. The only ideas I have liked so far were Whopper Sacrifice and the Ikea tag a product page. I judged the 4A’s Social Media awards this year and the big winner was a Dove campaign that turned all the shitty negative weight loss ads on Facebook into positive messages. I thought that was pretty smart.
The web is getting out of the web. Do you find that thinking in digital solutions alone hinders you? Do you feel the urge to solve the problem using all mediums necessary?
It depends what the brief is. Sometimes a pure digital solution is right. There is a vogue for creating ideas that fuse digital and physical. I think that is a response to all the pixel pushing that happened at the start of the industry, and when people see things like Nike+ and Chalkbot winning a ton of awards they can’t help but follow suit. Most case studies seem to have people connecting wires and soldering things now.
Looking 10 years in to the future, how far can websites go?
Honestly my brain hurts just thinking about that. It’s been the year of the mobile for at least the last five years. I guess at some point that has to come true. I’m really interested to see how TV and the Web play together. I think young people don’t watch TV because it’s too hard to find good stuff to watch. But it’s there, people still want to watch content, look at the whole HBO password thing going on.
Of all the websites you/your company have produced, which one are you most proud of?
I’m not sure I’m necessarily hugely proud of any of them. I mean it’s advertising, it’s not like being a doctor. But I loved the Sony Vaio site I did while at Dare in 2007. We got John Malkovich to write the first scene to a movie and then had people write the next scenes. I got to take the scenes to John who was directing a play in Paris and together we hashed out a script over 4 months. He was a fucking legend and it was in Paris. So, it’s tough to complain too much about that one.
How difficult do you find employing the right people in a world where everyone calls themselves a web designer?
Really hard. Talent is the no.1 issue facing the industry right now. We have a situation where there are so many more options for a young, digitally skilled creative person. They could work for a start up, in-house for an interesting client, or in the marketing business. If I was starting out right now I am not sure I would opt for advertising. It’s up to us to create some really awe inspiring pieces of content that seem as sexy as a start up or animating The Hobbit.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the latest web trends?
Twitter. People are such loudmouths that usually most things turn up there.
There must be a project that you have always dreamed of doing, what is it?
I always wanted to do a banner with a jingle. I know that’s not exactly reaching for the stars but it’s true. It would be a really funny jingle though.
What does the future hold for your company, or you as a person?
Tool is in a great spot right now. The last two years have been about turning out really high-end work that people seem to like. There has been a lot of work done prior to that to get the team really firing. That’s the hard part, laying the foundation. Hopefully we can now keep going and produce some work that really affects culture in the same way that a great movie or song does. For me, I’m expecting my first baby at the end of December so that’s going to be a major change. So long as the Mayan’s weren’t right about 2012 I think 2013 is going to be brilliant.
What are you excited about learning next and is there a long term challenge you are considering tackling?
I’m very excited about getting to know the Tool team better and seeing what we can do together. I have a very open mind about what’s coming up. Inevitably some sort of digital storytelling project will consume my thoughts, but everything moves so quickly it’s unwise to make specific plans. What’s the saying? ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.’