Yesterday, JWT New York announced that Ben James has joined the agency as an Executive Creative Director. It’s the first senior appointment for Ryan Kutscher and Matt MacDonald since they took on their co-CCO roles in May. Ben has an interesting background, with experience in both entertainment and advertising, so we wanted to get to know him a little better. Check out the highlights from our chat about work, life and joining JWT.
What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on so far, and why?
At CAA (Creative Artists Agency), I helped Mitchum Anti-Perspirant create a TV special on Sundance, and a user-generated content sweepstakes that was a search for the Hardest Working Person in America. We got the chance to award $100,000 to a man from the Quad Cities, Illinois area for his work cleaning up the Mississippi. And…we got to film a live cow birth in South Dakota, which was almost as cool as the helping the world part.
You’ve called yourself a “solution designer” in the past. What’s the story with that title?
Marketers try to categorize everything. This is digital. This is media- agnostic. This is media-neutral. This is traditional. This is branded content. Categorizing is a trap. Our clients have problems. We need to provide them with solutions. And we are good at designing them. So let’s do that. Solution Design. Everyone will be happier with the result. Because, problem solved.
What are the characteristics of great creative work?
I like stuff that acts helpful to the people watching it. Helpful in a broad sense. Sometimes that means it actually does something to help them. Sometimes it means it lifts their day a bit with humor. Sometimes it helps them look cool to their friends when they pass it on. I think people appreciate that, and they tend to be more appreciative of the entity that produced it. Great work makes people pause, and hopefully makes them seek it out.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I think now, more than ever, we are in a position to have an effect on the way that big businesses and corporations are run. A lot of these businesses are realizing that they need creative solutions not only in marketing, but also for larger-scale business problems. There’s this weird Mad Men nostalgia thing about tricking people into liking brands and products. I hate Mad Men. I think those are the days that set us up to look like assholes. I hope that the work we do encourages business to act better. I don’t want to pollute pop culture as much as I don’t want to pollute the Earth. And more often we are finding ourselves in positions where we get to have meaningful conversations with people that want to make business better.
What’s it like to work with Matt MacDonald, as well as Ryan Kutscher and Jeff Benjamin again?
Matt was the guy everyone wanted to work with in school, so it’s nice to be around him. Many years ago Ryan and I went out to a bar in a Category 2 hurricane…and that kind of works as a metaphor for now. And Jeff continues to ask “Why not?” until we come up with a good solution to achieve the task at hand. I have always appreciated that about him. I like working with my friends.
Who were the greatest influencers and inspirations during your career?
Every creative working in the Miami office in May 2002. That kicked things into overdrive for me. They taught me everything from top to bottom. From big picture umbrella campaign thinking, all the way down to turning out-of-home boards upside down to check the kerning. I was fortunate to have that learning experience.
After all these years in Austin, Miami, Boulder, Chicago, LA, San Francisco — what’s it like to be in NYC?
Finally. It feels like “Finally.” I first came here to search for jobs right out of school at the beginning of 2001. And I think the dot com bubble actually burst three days before I got here. And then of course, things got way worse. My mom says she has never seen me so energized by planning the future. I got home to Dallas and announced, “I’m going to live there.” So 11 years later, I’m thrilled to be on to what feels like a fresh start here with my girlfriend and our cat. We think the cat will kick pigeon-ass.
What’s your best trick for breaking a creative block?
I’d like to say “I take a walk and all is well” or something. But the truth is, I draw in my sketchbook for hours. I bounce ideas off anyone who might understand the problem that is sitting in the vicinity. I watch documentary after documentary about anything remotely related to what I am working on. I look at what’s been done before and try to innovate on that. I try to exhaust every avenue. It is a painful, terrible, defeating process that I love.
What’s the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this week?
iPad Facetime with my identical twin nephews, J-Bob and Rerun. My sister does not like me calling them that.