[I’ve known Geoff Rogers since he first started showing his book around town back in 1995. His book was so good that Austin Howe, my mentor, kept a copy of Geoff’s book to show young copywriters how good their books should be. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Geoff on several occasions. Happily for Portland, Geoff always came back when he moved away. – Doug]
As anyone in advertising can tell you, there is always a gap between what you produce and what you wanted to produce. If you’re lucky, it’s a small gap, but it’s always there. So I should not have been surprised, when I had the good fortune of being asked to interview John Jay for a magazine article, that the magazine wanted a different, more biographical angle than I’d been intending to write.
It’s out there now, but I was more interested in finding out what makes John Jay tick. So, here. Be a fly on the wall.
It took a bit of canceling and rescheduling before I finally sat down with the man, but when I did, he gave me way more time than we’d allotted.
John Jay is insanely busy, and that makes his easy, cordial nature all the more surprising.
John Jay has a gift of focus that’s almost contagious. While we’re talking, his cell phone rings on a table behind me. Eleven separate times. But we’re talking. We’re into a conversation, telling stories. And stories are sacrosanct to John Jay.
“Stories are at the heart of what we do – what Wieden + Kennedy does so well,” he says.
Having produced Japanese hip-hop albums, dabbled in architecture, clothing design, photography and organizing Chinese beat box concerts, John Jay is comfortable in just about any medium.
Somewhere between his stories about the unique challenges of opening a Wieden + Kennedy office in Shanghai and his opinions on the importance of tangible art in an increasingly digital world, I thread-jack our conversation and ask him to name his favorite Porsche. I know he’s a fan. I know he’s owned a few. I also know it’s a totally irrelevant question but the answer is revealing. “The one I don’t have,” he says, laughing.
And that’s just it. Most people, if they’d been blessed with John Jay’s creative chops –or certainly with his resume– would feel quite sure they’d arrived. But not Jay. He has two assistants scouring Chinese and Japanese websites for trends and designs every day while he pores over art books, creates art, and plows through websites, himself, all to find something he “doesn’t already have.”
He’s thirsty for new designs, in any medium.
“I love the 993,” he continues. “You can stand on a corner with your eyes closed, and when any 911-based car drives by, you can hear the DNA of a Volkswagen in it.”
The advertising world is full of Porsche enthusiasts, but not too many of them feel the whole design continuum back to Ferdinand Porsche’s original VW Beetles when one drives past.
This penchant for contextualization is something that sets John Jay apart, and it serves him well. His office walls are lined with enough art books to fill a small library, no doubt helping him maintain the kind of historical perspective that allows him to see art and culture as things in flux. He knows where we’ve been. He knows where we are. And his guesses about where we’re going are more valid than most.
Of China, he says, “There’s a lot we can learn from a 5,000-year-old culture. That’s why we opened the
Shanghai office without clients. We wanted to acclimate. I told all the people in that office, ‘look out the window. That’s not traffic; that’s history passing by out there.’ Everything is happening at hyper-speed in China. Advertising as we think of it is only 15 or 20 years old in China. There will be a normal crawling-before-walking process, but China will stand upright, and they will do it much faster than we did.”
We were having this conversation in April of 2008, months before the rest of the world would see vivid High-Def proof of China’s creative chops at the Opening Ceremonies to the Olympics. With thousands of people choreographed to perfection atop a giant LED screen and ’84 Olympic hero Li Ning running gracefully in midair above the scene like some odd hybrid of a mythical kung fu master and a shoe pitch man, China did not look like a country in the infancy of modern communication.
There’s a sign in one of the 6th floor windows at Wieden + Kennedy. It faces outward, so for a long time, the man it was gently poking fun at didn’t know it was there. It reads, “John Jay is working harder than you are.”
It might just be that when one loves his work as much as John Jay seems to, the line between work and hobby blurs or disappears.
Recently, when the Japanese architect Masamichi Katayama visited Portland, Jay showed Katayama and a
group of artists, architects and toy designers around the Pearl district in a train of pedicabs, touring the Ace Hotel, Chinatown and Studio J. The day ended with a trip to a Wieden conference room that Jay had filled with 100 out-of-print books on art, architecture and design.
“It has nothing to do with making money…nothing to do with Wieden + Kennedy getting work, he says. “It’s about being a conduit for culture and information. It’s the kind of thing that if I went to a country, I’d want done for me.”
And it’s the kind of thing that keeps him in the office long after everyone not pushing a vacuum cleaner has gone home.
But don’t all of those long hours feel like work? “It’s still fun,” he says, “or I wouldn’t do it.” Listen to him for an hour, and you’ll believe him when he says that. His anecdotes range from working on Star Wars films to hanging out with rock stars, but even more remarkably, his stories are peppered with phrases like “they let us” and “we got to…” These are things that most ad creatives try to strike from their vocabularies. And that’s part of the reason most ad creatives sound a lot more jaded than John Jay. He still appreciates things. He still wants to discover more. He even dared to say “there’s a lot I can learn from them” when referring to the artists and businesspeople he hosts at his art salons.
His ever-evolving Studio J remains as important as it is low-profile. “I’ve always had a Studio J. It’s whatever I’m not doing for work at the moment,” Jay explains. In the past, that’s been everything from books to architecture. And as soon as he smacks a home run with one of those projects, it’s time for Studio J to morph into something new. Even (or especially) at the height of its popularity.
Because John Jay seems Teflon-coated when it comes to hype. He’s already looking for the next big thing.
“Popularity hurts everything,” he says. “You just can’t stay still.”
– Geoff Rogers