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Creativity Squared: Jess Willis on Why Creativity in Any Form Is Alchemy

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Group creative director and writer at Performance Art Canada on turning 'Nos' into 'Yeses'

Creativity Squared: Jess Willis on Why Creativity in Any Form Is Alchemy

With over 20 years of applying her unique combination of versatile skills and agnostic thinking to a diverse portfolio of clients, Jess is group creative director and writer at one of the fastest growing, and most awarded agencies in North America, Performance Art. With a rich educational background focusing on the arts and deep-rooted family history of artistic innovation (including a great uncle being the head animator at Disney) there’s no doubt Jess has creative DNA running through her veins. 

A true industry anomaly and multi-hyphenated creative dynamite who thinks big and executes across any and every medium, Jess’s Midas touch has brought home just about every industry award – including the Pencil at the world’s most prestigious non-profit advertising and design association: D&AD, and has been recognized at Cannes, Clios, ADC, One Show, Cassies, and ADCC (just to mention a few).

Jess has also worked at the forefront of the experiential industry, embedding brands authentically into cultural moments. In 2013, she was Associate Creative Director for Jack Daniels concert series “Live at the Landmark” that saw legendary bands play at legendary landmarks, solidifying the brand’s stronghold on music. And in 2018, she led her team in a year-long celebration for Bank of Montreal’s 200th birthday where she took part in leading the creation of a 17-foot-tall kinetic sculptural fountain while collaborating with Canadian Artists.

Her experiential background later saw her pushing the boundaries of experience design as VP  executive creative director at Mosaic North America in 2019. This included completely re-tooling the creative team, production processes and re-branding the agency North America wide. The agency jumped over seventy spots on the Creative Report Card, landing at 24 in 2021, and saw unprecedented organic growth on clients like Coca-Cola, Labatt, Weston Foods, BMO and Google.

Jess’s creative mind doesn’t halt at work, she has also played integral roles in art scenes like Slideluck Potshow – a global event that combines photography exhibitions with potlucks. As Curator and Creative Director, she led the event, inclusive of the overall theme, visual identity, and curation of photographers.  


Person

I think creativity in any form is alchemy. It doesn’t matter where you sit at an agency, because it’s not a department, but rather a practiced behaviour. To me, it’s seeing a problem differently and finding an unexpected way to solve it.

So I guess if I had to define what kind of creative person I am, I’d say I’m a little bit Mickey Mouse from Fantasia… a little bit MacGyver; and a little bit of my first executive creative director and mentor, Janet Kestin – minus the dancing broomsticks, mullet and legendary advertising-hall-of-fame status.  

I’m an only child (insert your tiny violins here), so when I was growing up, creativity wasn’t second nature but survival. I built my own worlds, imagined my own friends and taught myself chess against invisible opponents at the age of six. I guess that explains how I got here and that I’m pretty much the world’s sorest loser. 


Product 

Creativity is ultimately subjective. I don’t think there’s a secret code or repeatable method to it, despite what you’ve heard on a Cannes stage or some podcast. There’s no magic in that. No fun. No mischief. No failures to learn from. 

Sure, open an annual and you’ll see year-over-year trends, but ultimately I think the best work is based on a real cultural truth or tension, and has the power to move people to actionable behaviour. 

I tend to boil creative reviews down to a few simple questions. Do I care? Would I share, post or tweet this? Does this make me think differently about the brand? Does this answer the problem we set out to solve? 

If an idea doesn’t answer any of these with a resounding “fuck yes,” then we’re not there yet. 


Process 

I hate computers. I love the blank page. I hate boxes. I love smart strategy. Unlike most writers, I tend to think in visuals first, so I scribble and sketch. Walk around. Scribble and sketch some more. Sit. Have wine. Have more wine. Scribble and sketch. Then do it all again. 

Growing up in this business, we’re rarely taught that creativity isn’t a tap. It seems so easy for those we look up to, but I think even the Drogas and DeCourcys of the world would attest that some days it’s more than hard - it’s debilitating. And that feeling has only been exacerbated by the pandemic as we work in claustrophobic squares on Zoom or in 30-minute calendar slots. 

I think that now, more than ever, it’s crucial to build a safe space for iteration. Process should never be about perfection, but rather… progress. To me, that’s how nothing can truly become something. 

And don’t let your CCO/ECD/GCD/CD or any other acronym-d person fool you. Sometimes your first idea will be your best idea.


Press

I’m constantly inspired by those around me, specifically my husband Graham Roumieu, who’s an illustrator and author. He’s helped me see the world differently and reminds me that a sense of humour trumps all. 

But nothing has shaped my career more than two little letters, n-o. 

No, you can’t do that. 

No, that’s impossible. 

No, the client will never buy it.  

No, there’s not enough money. 

No, stay in your lane.  

No, a digital agency doesn’t do that.  

No, an experiential agency could never do that. 

No, you can’t have a robotic raccoon. 

I’ve never met a “no” I didn’t want to turn into a “yes,” and along the way have made some really great work with some even better humans who think the same way. 





Illustrator Graham Roumieu, Kissies, c/o @graaaham on Instagram. Nos turned yeses: You can’t turn a banana into a video game controller, The Frill Blaster Pro. You can’t remake the most famous Superbowl ad of all time, Whassup Again for Budweiser, a frame-by-frame retelling to curb drunk driving. You can’t make a fountain without water, The BMO200 Fountain. 

 

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Performance Art Canada, Mon, 13 Jun 2022 13:25:00 GMT