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5 Minutes With... Jon Jackson



Huge ECD on his love of Vans and an obsession with design

5 Minutes With... Jon Jackson

It sure as hell wasn’t the weather that brought this Vans-loving, sun-kissed Los Angelino to the Big Apple. Jon Jackson was drawn to New York’s attitude to work. Its drive to push that bit harder, do the best work possible and not roll over when you’re told something sucks. 

The designer’s first foray into digital came when he was headhunted out of university during the digital age’s infancy by Disney Online, who were impressed with a portfolio that had nothing to do with online. Since then he hasn’t looked back and is today the ECD at Huge. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to find out what it's like heading up creative at this swiftly growing digital agency. 

LBB> You’re an LA guy working in the hectic New York ad scene. When did you first move Eastwards and what drew you there?

JJ> I think that New York being such a great place to be was the big draw - obviously it wasn’t the weather! I like the energy and the fact that you can do pretty much whatever you want to do. All your favourite bands come here, there’s so much to do, it’s so inspiring… I know that’s the most clichéd answer ever. I think it had another side too, which I really like: I tend to be quite focused and I like to work, and that is a trait that a lot of people in New York have. I’m from LA and I thought it was a lot harder to do good work there. Here there are people who share the goal of wanting to do really good stuff. I’m assuming it’s a New York thing, or maybe it’s just Huge, but the passion people have here is immense and I responded to it right away.

Before in LA people would get their feelings hurt if you’d say ‘that sucks, don’t do that’. Here people totally understand and want to make their work better. They want to push and they don’t get offended if you want to make something as good as it can be.

LBB> And what was it about Huge that attracted you to join?

JJ> I think it was the work. They’re an agency that feels like it has a brand and actually stands for something – almost everybody else was so ‘white label’. The fact that there was a group of people who stood for something and wanted to make great things was something I responded to.

LBB> Huge is on a bit of roll right now when it comes to growth – how has the agency evolved in the time you’ve been there, in terms of the offering, the size of the place, the kind of projects you’re getting involved in?

JJ> In the creative department our growth has been slower than other areas of the agency to make sure we get great talent that everyone wants to work with. We’ve also brought in people who are vastly different. We have a ton of people from Australia right now, we have people from Japan, we have people who have done a ton of print and a ton of digital. I want all of these experiences to be shared among the group. As a creative, when you move to a new place you want to become more valuable – you want to learn more, you want to build more skills, you want to do better work. The only way to do that is to have a culture where everyone is learning from everybody else. You can stay at home and freelance and do your own thing but you won’t grow as much as you will in an environment filled with smart people. 

As we’ve grown, the kind of things people are asking us to do has become slightly different. It used to be a case of ‘we need a mobile site for this product’. That’s totally changed. Now people are saying ‘we need to sell this thing, how do we do it?’ Because we have all these different types of people, we can come up with different ideas from different perspectives. Working with strategy we come to the right solution. For me the only thing I want to keep changing is for the ask to keep getting bigger and bigger. No more ‘we need a banner ad for X’. It’s ‘we’ve got this problem’ or maybe they don’t even know what the problem is, and we can help come at it with all these creative solutions. 

LBB> In terms of projects that you’ve been involved in recently, have there been any that have really resonated with you?

JJ> The things I hate are not projects, they’re timesheets, meetings, things that I do not think are inherent to the creative process. I love it when I can actually solve a problem and make it work. 

We’re working with Google to help them grow awareness of their same day delivery service called Google Shopping Express. Right now we’re launching it in San Francisco and we’re rolling it out to other cities. It was an interesting one because the project wasn’t ‘we need a website, we need a banner ad’. They had low awareness in San Francisco and they wanted more people to understand that the service was out there in such a commoditised space. There are at least six other companies doing the same thing and there’s not a lot of difference in the products they’re selling, so it was about how we could incorporate the Google wink into what we were doing. That’s been fun; we've been working on newspaper ads and outdoor and we’re continuing to push to make it as fun as possible. What’s interesting is that there are people in this industry who have launched a ton of sites and all this stuff; we do one print ad in one SF newspaper and people are all picking it up and looking at it. We’re creating pages that are seen by millions of people a day and then we create a newspaper ad that’s seen by a hundred people and all of a sudden everyone’s excited about it. 

We’ve been working on a project for Vans which was really cool. Growing up in Southern California was really helpful because when I was a kid my mom would take me to where they made Vans. They had sidewalk sales and they would lay out all the boxes and we’d get the shoes super cheap. The colours were atrocious; they weren’t the ones everyone wanted. I’ve been a fan of Vans my entire life – and today [when we meet] is the one day I didn’t wear Vans into the office. That history and legacy of the brand was something that was great to bring to the project. It’s a little bit more grown up, it involves a little bit more storytelling and it’s a giant leap forward for the brand. We know a ton of 13-year-old kids love Vans. We also know that they don’t have credit cards. So we made sure that the favouriting system was easy to do and share with their parents. It’s a beautiful page and everything is laid out really well. We wanted to make sure that the pros could do it to create their own pages too. They’re all publicly shareable right away. We tried to be as smart as we could and be as true as we could to a brand that’s super authentic.  

We also worked on the Huge rebrand. It was fun but doing stuff for yourself is easy in a way and hard in a way. There are a lot of stakeholders and you’re very close to it and getting all the teams on board can be challenging. For us it was about making sure that what came out of the site was core to what we do - simple, graphic, and easy to use. Another thing we’re doing is hosting a portfolio night for the Art Directors Club. It’s the first time it’s ever been in Brooklyn. The thing that was important to me is that we get to craft our story about why it’s important to be hosting it there. We made a motion piece and a print piece. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about yourself in a way that’s not cheesy, but we had a lot of fun doing that. Hopefully it doesn’t feel like everybody else. We stayed away from the review panel and just talked about our culture and said ‘we like to make stuff, if you like to make stuff come and do it with us. Bring your portfolio and we’ll talk about it’. It was done in a very unthreatening way, and in a way that celebrates creativity. We’re not the ones to pick someone’s work apart but if they ask some questions and we can help them do better, so be it. What’s nice is that we built up a piece that feels really inclusive and fun.


LBB> As a designer, how did you get into the digital area? Was digital and technology something that always appealed to you?

JJ> When I went to design school after high school, my first project didn’t even use computers. I got into it purely for the design aspect. I didn’t even have an email address, had never created a website. Disney Online came to my school to present and my school asked me to present my work. I had just finished my portfolio – it was made of metal, it was huge, it would be super embarrassing to look at today. But I showed it and they hired me without ever having created a website or doing anything digital. It was a crazy experience. The first thing I designed was a website for Hercules the TV series. It was all done and then they said ‘now you have to cut it apart’. Back then you wouldn’t just hand over a PSD to a developer, you had to cut apart all the assets yourself and hand all the jpegs to the developers. During the first few I made a ton of wrong decisions and I did some stuff with type that you still can’t do on the internet. But once I got into it I loved the speed of it, getting stuff up very quickly, trying to experiment and stuff like that. I went through the same phase that a lot of designers do – played with Flash and animation and stuff like that. As that died out I was more interested in doing great design. It wasn’t a conscious decision but it couldn’t have worked out any better.

LBB> Getting into the industry the way you did, it must be interesting working with younger people just coming into it with a whole different experience of digital, taking it for granted. How do you find working with them?

JJ> For me there are two things. One is the side of knowing it so well that things become second nature, which is great. But then on the flip side you can sometimes miss the broader things. For me people who have grown up can come up with great solutions straight away but sometimes they miss out on the simplest ways to do things. I love it though. It’s inspiring and challenging. 

At Huge, the last thing you design is the most important thing you do. That immediacy is great for us. In that culture, the young people just want to move onto the next project rather than reliving glory days and I love that. It is so perfect for what we do – you’re always as good as your last project.

LBB> Being in the position you’re in now and looking back, which piece of advice would you have given yourself?

JJ> Yes. So this is the advice that I wish I would have had: no one knows what they’re doing and if you approach things that way you can do great things. Sometimes you get caught up as a junior designer and you listen to everybody. You think that because that one guy is the boss he knows what he’s talking about. Everything changes, especially in this industry. You’re always doing something for the first time. If I had had that advice I think I would have been able to reach out and grab some things that I didn’t. When the creative process is different every time, as a creative person you can be really self-conscious and nervous and worried about sharing things. But just think about everyone else feeling like that too. If open up about your thoughts I think you can grow and do better work, faster.

LBB> And outside of working, what do you get up to?

JJ> I still love making stuff. I just bought a new camera and I love taking photos. It’s a creative outlet for me. It’s funny because the way I take pictures is the way I design; very graphic. I’m not the best with people, I like shapes. If they don’t move I can do a better job. I just got married last year and designing and branding a wedding was super fun. I did a giant silk screen poster for it. 

In my downtime I collect things that are interesting, resource material. I knew a creative director a long time ago who would physically do it with everything. Everything was organised. Literally, he invented Pinterest before Pinterest existed - but it was all in folders in his house. He would take photocopies of everything. I would take the books that he had and photocopy them, so I had a ton of manila folders with a bunch of swipe he had collected. That was the only way to do it. I still have that ingrained in me – anytime you see something good, hold onto it and make sure you’re aware of all the things that are happening around you.

And then spending time with the wife and the dog rounds out all the free time that I have.

LBB> Looking ahead to the rest of the year, what does the rest of 2014 hold? Any exciting projects you’re looking forward to working with or plans for the team?

JJ> I just like celebrating the things that the team’s doing. Last year there was a lot of pitching going on, a lot of work going on but probably not a lot that was getting out the door, so I think this year the switch is flipped and a lot of these things will be coming out. I’m excited about people seeing them and making them better. When you put it out there, you get feedback and can make it better. We’re actually seeing that timelines are getting shorter, clients are wanting to work more in a more agile way and see things faster. I think we’re going to see stuff out in the market faster going forward too.  It’s good to see people using it or seeing if they like it or hate it and fix it. And hopefully people like it.

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HUGE USA, Wed, 23 Apr 2014 17:29:50 GMT