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Creativity Squared: James Cowie on the Slightly Unhinged Spirit of Collective Purpose

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DDB Group Melbourne's creative director on being process driven, the importance of coffee and how he honed his craft in New York

Creativity Squared: James Cowie on the Slightly Unhinged Spirit of Collective Purpose

Before he was DDB Group Melbourne's creative director, James Cowie worked at McCann Erickson Melbourne and later moved to New York for a stint as ECD at Deutsch NY. In his career he has run global creative for Budweiser Football  and over the years he's also spent lots of time doing non-beery things, too including working on creative on Green Giant, Siemens, Newman's Own, ACUVUE, and GoDaddy, Epiduo, Outback Steakhouse, Lactaid, Degree, Microsoft, CURE epilepsy, Live Out Loud, Constant Contact, PNC bank and others. 


LBB> What kind of creative person are you?

James> I’ve always loved the day-to-day of advertising, the crossword puzzle of it all, the slightly unhinged spirit of collective purpose that great agencies have. I like the blank page, the pressure, the competition, the triumph and tragedy of ideas living and dying, and being able to see the hope and opportunity in each brief. In the end, I think most good agencies boil down to a group of people all moving in lockstep in the same direction; I’m always looking to work with colleagues who can inspire and motivate me. I’m a very forward-looking person. When I finish a project, I’m very quickly looking for something bigger and better. 

As a creative, I’m quite process driven. Coffee is disturbingly important. And so is writing. Not just writing for advertising. But also writing for its own sake. When I’m writing a lot, as a habit, I’m better at most parts of the job. Sometimes, I have a short story on the go. But mostly, I write in a journal that’s purely a means to an end – somewhere I can go to throw down my observations for the day and swing some sentences around however I want, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. I wish I could say I do it every day. But it’s more like two or three days a week, depending on how busy I am. 


LBB> How do you judge the creativity of a piece of work?

James> There are two parts to this. On the one hand, the way I judge work is sudden and visceral – it’s an emotional, gut reaction that I can’t really control. But somewhere within the process, I have a strong bias towards work that’s genuinely surprising, that punches me right in the face and keeps me guessing, that leaves its hooks in me with tension and counterpoint. The quality of the idea, the level of execution, the complexity of the initiative itself are all things that can make me love a piece of work. 

The other part of the equation comes down to being a big ad-nerd. I like going through award lists. And studying classic ads. Some time ago, I started writing out the scripts of all my favourite film voiceovers to see what great work looked like on a page - from Joe Sedelmaier and Cliff Freeman’s Fedex to the great Nike manifestos. I also spend way too much time looking at the house reels of agencies and production companies whose work inspires me. The hope is that all that ad-nerddom gives me a solid frame of reference for judging new work.


LBB> How do you like to make creative work?

James> At some point, the act of brainstorming and the act of writing become relatively indistinguishable for me. I typically start with a cup of coffee and something instrumental to listen to. And I do my best to switch off my internal editor and attack the problem from as many different and unexpected angles as I can find. 

Of course, most of the time the good ideas come after I’ve first surrounded the problem and then stepped away from it: on the ride home, or the walk to school pickup, or somewhere unexpected. Once I have a few beginnings, I like to bounce ideas with someone else who can see the problem in a totally new way. And I’m lucky that I work with smart and talented people who are good at that. I always try to bring people in who can make an idea stronger as soon as possible. 


LBB> How did you hone your craft?

James> I honed my craft in New York, where I was lucky enough to work with great leaders. Early on, I was in a Super Bowl briefing when I realised that Eric Kallman and Jim LeMaitre – two of my favourite advertising writers of all time - were freelancing on the brief, in addition to the six creative teams at the agency. That scale of resource creates a level of competition that pushes you to work your arse off. 

My old boss Dan Kelleher had a poster in his office that said, “Work hard and be nice to people.” Good words to live by in advertising.

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DDB Melbourne, Mon, 28 Feb 2022 10:55:00 GMT