Brands must speak less more often — James Yeats Smith [interview]
by Nils Adriaans (@nilsadriaans) A South African export living in creative epicentre Amsterdam, James Yeats Smith (aka JYS) is a creative director with a wealth of international experience that’s shaped his view on the ‘obligation’ brands have to society. Following a recent move from Anomaly to international creative studio, Cloudfactory, in this interview he unpacks why the world needs more thinking brands.
Nils Adriaans: Why should brands think harder before they speak?
James Yeats Smith: There’s a lot of terrible advertising in the world. But, before there’s terrible advertising, there’s usually a brand adrift without a clear purpose. If a brand doesn’t have an understanding of why it exists, it can’t add value to anyone. And that’s dangerous. That’s when advertising pollutes society. Finding the centre of gravity takes a lot of time, thought and reflection. But, once it’s unearthed, meaning always follows.
NA: So when ís a brand valuable?
JYS: Meaningful brands have a higher order to what they do, a reason for being that transcends the simple exchange of goods and services for compensation. Brands that are able to self-examine and understand the relevance they have in people’s lives are worth having around. Ones that don’t, aren’t.
I respect brands that have a point of view on the zeitgeist — what it is, what it could be, or where it should go. Political malfeasance has dominated culture of late, and truth and trust [are] in short supply. In that respect, The New York Times has an ironclad purpose and point of view. Danish brand, Bianco, on the other hand, holds up a black mirror to the world with this topical take on the status quo.
NA: That can come across as rather lofty. What if you’re just selling a 50c bag of crisps?
JYS: You don’t have to save dolphins to have a meaningful purpose. The question is simply why you’re selling crisps. Is it because: a) you love crisps and make the crispiest crisps, b) you hate crisps and want to get rid of them, [or] c) you have mixed feelings about crisps and are re-evaluating your life choices. Any of these reasons can be the beginnings of a brand purpose, as long as it’s true.
NA: What’s the role of creative agencies in this equation?
JYS: By definition, creative agencies act as proxies/connectors for brands, but the best ones act as agents for the public, too. They help hone the reason why a brand exists in a way that is true to its origins, but also in a way that is relevant to people right now. Often brands and their agencies get entangled in a web of analysis and circular logic, forgetting that we’re really just speaking to people. People who feel more than they think. Good agencies help brands think but the best agencies also help them feel.
NA: Give me a few brands that stand for something more…
JYS: I love visiting independent brands and meeting the people who make it happen. I was in Detroit last year and Shinola made a big impression on me. Their mission is to restore Detroit’s marginalised workforce to some of its former glory, while making exceptionally crafted watches, bicycles and leathery things. In a similar trend the Hiut Denim Co. is another beautiful brand that I had the pleasure of experiencing first hand in Cardigan, Wales. They make a damn fine pairs of jeans, while retooling local denim craftspeople sidelined by cheap manufacturing. While those brands are both about putting people back to work, something less high-brow caught my eye that reminded me that laziness can be a purpose, too.
NA: When we spoke earlier, you said: “To provoke thought in others, I need to do a lot of thinking first.” What kind of thinking is that? Can you elaborate on that?
JYS: It’s less a kind of thinking and more a process of distillation. Getting to the essence of something takes time.
NA: How much time?
JYS: How long is a piece of string? It changes brief to brief. Sometimes you need a day, a week, a month (or six), sometimes a year.
NA: You also said the thinking will lead to creativity. How do you actually stimulate creativity within yourself?
JYS: I used to think I could stimulate creativity consciously but I’m not so sure anymore. I’m starting to feel that it’s much more unconscious and mysterious — like a process that doesn’t want to be understood. It’s quite a romantic point of view.
NA: How do you prepare yourself for a brief, for example? How do you get your juices flowing, so to speak?
JYS: It starts with a good brief. There needs to be tension, a rub, some contrast. I’m looking for drama. If it’s missing, then rewriting the brief is good way to get the synapses firing.
NA: On a more abstract, higher level: what inspires you?
JYS: Music is a profound source of inspiration to me. Interpreting briefs through music helps me disrupt my thought process in unusual ways. For instance, a deep and meaningful problem might require something lo-tech like Mall Grab to shake it up, whereas a sales campaign might benefit from something reflective like Nils Frahm.
NA: As a creative director, how do you stimulate creativity within your teams?
JYS: Creativity is not a chore, nor should it ever feel like one. I try and remove the obstacles that make it seem that way sometimes. In my experience, people are much more creative when they’re encouraged to:
- Be unavailable — creativity needs room to breathe. Get out of the office and check emails once in the morning and once in the afternoon
- Be dramatic — sometimes that’s the only way to protect the work
- Be unrealistic — there are more than enough pragmatists to bring you back to reality
- Be an adult — freedom demands responsibility, so be dependable, be responsible and, most importantly, be on time for things.
NA: And then there is the whole agency and the client. How do you, James Yeats Smith (JYS), build a creative culture for everyone to flourish in?
JYS: You can’t please everyone. I’ve tried. [Yet] what works well is a culture where people take the work seriously but not themselves too seriously. It makes the process super-fun and, when it’s fun, the work always benefits.
NA: What would be the best thing that could or should happen to the industry as a whole?
JYS: Treat people intelligently.
NA: Having worked in South Africa (where you had your own boutique agency), in New York and in Amsterdam at different high-level agencies implies you are ambitious and have an entrepreneurial mind-set. What drives JYS?
JYS: Being creative is hard. I respect anyone who tries. Even Hemingway called the blank page the white bull. The thrill of facing that white bull, and winning every once in a while, is what makes it worthwhile.
NA: You recently swapped an international network, Anomaly, for somewhat of a hidden gem in Amsterdam, called Cloudfactory. Why?
JYS: Agencies tend to work on things behind closed doors and then reveal the answer. It’s a ‘ta-da’ moment that almost never works first time. At Cloudfactory, we foster a much more collaborative approach with our clients, as well as the makers, the craftsmen and -women. To do that, we need good chemistry between everyone, and a lot of respect in both directions. But, when we get the alchemy right, the results are spectacular.
NA: What does it mean for the agency, having a new, extra creative leader under their roof?
JYS: In simple terms it allows Jess [Jessice Kersten], Sandrine [Huijgen] and I to divide and conquer, and create more good work, more of the time.
Nils Adriaans: And what does it mean for you, personally? What does your future look like, if it were up to you?
JYS: Over the next tow years, I want to help Cloudfactory grow in the right way. And by that, I mean scale without compromise. It comes down to choosing clients who want to think with us, create with us, and succeed with us. Clients who embrace co-creation as part of our methodology — not just a buzzword. And, as a matter of course, it also means choosing to work with people who create things, the ones with the dirty hands, those who can’t wait for the ink to dry. By being choosey in these two areas, we keep our creative hearts healthy.
Nils Adriaans (@nilsadriaans), once editor-in-chief of Amsterdam-based Creatie magazine, is now ambassador of the (international) creative industry in more than one way: as a writer, as an interviewer, as a connector and as a consultant.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.
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