Joel Davis is the executive creative director at Dell Blue, the in-house agency for Dell. Prior to his life within the inner workings of one of the world's foremost computer companies, Joel held positions at the likes of GSD&M, Hill Holliday and WestWayne (which these days you'll know as 22squared).
But life almost worked out differently for Joel. As a young student he had aspirations to be the next Warren Buffett until he discovered advertising and realised that he could apply creativity to the business world all at once. Outside of work, he's into the analogue sensation of a magazine and runs a BBQ food truck that raises money for a bunch of charities.
LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Joel to find out more.
LBB> As a youth, you wanted to be the next Warren Buffett! Firstly, where did that aspiration for business stem from? And how the hell did you end up in advertising?
Joel> Haha, the switch from business to marketing is seemingly a big change until you realise that my ‘insight’ into stock buying really came down to branding. My self-declared ‘million dollar formula’ wasn’t based on financial metrics but was simply based on my insight that when a brand becomes a verb (Netflix, Google, Uber, etc.) - buy it. What I was really reacting to was branding that was executed so well that the brand name entered popular culture and became a part of our lexicon.
I lucked into advertising in college. While I was still a finance major, a friend of mine asked me to take an ‘Intro to Advertising’ course as an elective with her. And, once I took it, my eyes were opened up to this career by a great professor - Professor Murphy at the University of Texas (UT) - as a better fit for me as it was applying creativity to the business world.
LBB> Were you quite creative as a kid? How so?
Joel> I was and to be totally transparent, at first, it was mainly used for nefarious purposes (getting out of trouble) but then I discovered more positive outlets. I took art camps, frequently drew as a hobby, played musical instruments, and wrote short stories and songs.
LBB> What was your first job in advertising and what lessons did you learn during that time that have stayed with you to today?
Joel> My first job in advertising was over the summer while I was still in the portfolio program at UT. I had graduated, and was looking for a creative internship but was hired for the summer as a junior art director at a small agency in Houston. At the end of the summer, the owner offered me a full-time job to sway me from going back to college but I decided to go back and complete the Creative Sequence at UT.
At that age, it was really hard to turn down the money but, ultimately, it taught me that the creative opportunity offered at an agency was more important than just following the money. That’s something I’ve followed my entire career - judging each opportunity more by the clients and creative directors I would be working with than the salary offered. And that strategy served me really well for the first half of my career. But I’ve learned that later in your career, you need a balance of creative opportunity, salary, and mutual respect. Without all three, it’s really hard to create a culture that provides the space for creatives to grow into creative leaders. Without that culture, an agency becomes more of a job than a career.
LBB> You've worked at agencies like GSD&M, Hill Holliday and WestWayne but now you're in-house at Dell Blue. How do you find the challenge of focusing all of your creative energy on one brand? How does it differ from your previous roles?
Joel> Luckily, Dell Technologies has a nice mix of products and thought leadership campaigns to offer, so it’s similar to overseeing multiple brands. In essence, we still develop campaigns for three to five different ‘brands’ every year with the added benefit of working with the same stakeholders. So, that really provides the creative variety we need but also enables trust to be built faster with our stakeholders than in an external agency.
LBB> Which projects at Dell Blue have you been particularly proud of and why?
Joel> There are quite a few that come to mind but the biggest one would have to be the launch work we did for the OptiPlex 7071, which was recently shortlisted at AICP Post Awards. This was the first international recognition Dell Blue’s work has received, so that definitely merits mentioning. I think our latest work debuting the Dell Optimizer also came out really well. I’m also particularly proud of some of the scrappier shoots that we’ve pulled off completely in-house that don’t look that way. A few of our creatives learned CG and produced a spot for us, and with our capabilities to shoot and edit internally, it’s great that we can work with lower budgets without compromising the quality and look of the final product.
LBB> In-house agencies can get a bit of a bad rap among some adlanders - what do you say to them? And what are the tricks to building a brilliant, creative in-house agency?
Joel> I get it. And for 15 to 20 years, I, too, had my reservations about in-house agencies. I do think the stigma has lessened but my biggest realisation is that the bad rep is really more a product of ego rather than being based on reality. The truth is there’s talent everywhere - not just at external agencies. And the creative opportunity provided by the client - and the guidance and creative taste of the creative director you are working for - has a far greater effect on your career and the type of work you produce.
The greatest challenges to creating a strong internal agency is the same as external - it comes down to recruiting, cultivating, and retaining the best talent. Working day-to-day to win and maintain the trust of your clients/stakeholders and creatives. Without that, you can not produce great work.
LBB> Your method of finding creative inspiration is to trawl through the magazines at your local bookshop, which I find refreshingly analogue in this overly digital world (I also enjoy the beauty of a well put together magazine!). What is it about magazines that fuel your creativity so much?
Joel> Ha! Is this a nice way to call me analogue in a digital world? The tactile experience that comes from holding a magazine in your hands seems to take me to a different headspace than online; it’s more intimate and focused. But more importantly, I find that the magazine rack offers views into many different worlds that I wouldn’t normally be able to peek into as easily. Over one cup of coffee, I can absorb myself in anything from cat lovers to hunting/fishing to the latest in art/design to drag racing to crocheting. And I find it inspiring to compare and contrast the voice and design used to relate to each of these groups. It opens my mind to other ways of solving a problem from different viewpoints.
LBB> With that in mind, how do you go about inspiring creativity in your creatives?
Joel> By nature, I’m a quiet guy who likes to avoid the spotlight, so I tend to do things more on a one-on-one basis. The answer usually comes out of a dialogue with each creative and what they need. For example, some teams ask that I sit with them while they’re concepting as a third wheel (not as a creative director) while others prefer chatting about my thinking and creative direction in detail. But overall, working with creative professionals doesn’t require a lot of pushing to inspire creativity as we all have that innate drive in us and that’s why we chose this career.
LBB> You run a food truck - please tell me more! What do you cook and why is it an outlet you're keen on?
Joel> I grew up in the kitchen helping my mom and also watching as she started a catering company to help make ends meet. So, on its base level, it is an example of history repeating itself a bit. But the genesis of this idea - a BBQ food truck for charity - stemmed from the encouragement from numerous people after eating BBQ in my backyard and wanting to give back. After the hundredth time I was told I should open a restaurant, my mind was open to it. And after my dad’s passing, I decided to do it for philanthropic reasons as that sounded more fun than just writing checks. So, I use it as a way to generate donations for charities and allow my customers to pick which charity (out of the handful I support) to donate proceeds towards.
LBB> What else do you get up to outside of work? Have you discovered any quirks or hobbies during lockdown that you're keen on?
Joel> Quarantine really hasn’t taught me too much in terms of new quirks/hobbies but it has definitively proven that I am an introvert. It’s funny because I had a slew of things that I wanted to spend time developing and learning during lockdown but between being a dad and work, there really hasn’t been that much extra time. However, I have stopped shaving my head for the first time in a decade - so I guess discovering the full extent of the progression of my male-pattern baldness could be considered a quirk! It started out as a challenge to go ‘full Larry David’ but now, I think I’m going to see if I can keep at it until I achieve combover status. At the very least, I’ve got a jumpstart on a Halloween costume for next year as I’m starting to resemble the boss from Dilbert.