When José Cabaço spoke on stage at D&AD Festival in London last week, he didn’t have time to run through his CV, but it’s impressive and collective. Born in Mozambique, he studied to become an industrial designer in Portugal, working across products as diverse as furniture, cars and ceramics before moving on to the world of advertising. Before too long he’d founded his own agency, Home - where he did his first work for Nike - and soon a stint at Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam followed, before José took up the role as Nike’s brand creative director for sportswear 15 years later. In 2016 he defected to another sportswear giant and these days he works as global creative concept and storytelling director at adidas Group, based in the sports brand’s Brooklyn Creator Farm.
The Farm was the subject of his D&AD talk and, specifically, how it functions on a principle of the ‘random collective’ - the idea that by bringing together disciplines and backgrounds from way beyond the traditional boundaries of design, serendipity can take place and the Farm can create ideas that will help adidas define the culture of the future.
Intrigued by the philosophy behind the place that’s been described as “Disneyland for designers,” Alex Reeves caught up with José.
LBB> Can you quickly sum up what the message of your presentation was?
José> Allowing the random to be a part of your creative journey. If you are a creative person and have some sense of your authorship role, you know what you want to do. You know what you want to say. And if you want to say it alone then you are an artist. And that’s cool. If you’re in the business of communication for brands then I think you need to embrace the collective. That will be a part of helping you have that conversation.
You need to let go of your ego. You need to let go of how you think you want to do this. Not to abandon, but be open to surrounding yourself with talented people that are in a multitude of disciplines that are either directly relevant to execute what you are looking at, but as well from other fields that are supposedly unrelated but can provide critical insights to positively transform your idea. You need to be open to that and feel as good in executing something that is, from an execution standpoint, fundamentally different from how it was going to be, but the essence of the story you want to tell is still true. And you need to be OK with it.
I think in advertising that’s a very tough place to be. It’s a very rare thing to see.
LBB> Why does advertising have that mentality, do you think?
José> I think it comes from the culture of how its been and how it’s evolved into a world where you have a lot more exchange happening in real time in how we communicate.
Advertising still feels a little bit too commission based and hierarchical. This is the person who writes the brief, this is the recipient of the brief and so on. So you have a relay and when you pass on to another function, you’re passing on to another equally heightened sense of authorship.
The openness of directors or photographers to have someone else shooting, contributing other angles - B-roll stuff that may end up being more genuine or spontaneous to use in the final cut. ‘Check this angle that you hadn’t seen. Maybe you could shoot it this way.’ ‘You’re getting into my territory now.’ There’s a lot of this still happening. It’s not a constant thing, but it still happens a lot.
LBB> How do you get people out of that old mindset?
José> I think one of the things that I’ve probably benefited from and that has allowed me to be OK to drive myself through my career, attempting to execute in this way, is the fact that I don’t come from an advertising background. I started as an industrial designer that was working on furniture. I was highly dependent on engineers, very technical people around injection molding. And then in the car industry - mechanics, aerodynamicists, materials people. Then I moved into ceramics - a whole new roster of knowledge that you need to pay attention to if you want to evolve and grow. So my journey until I stumbled into advertising, art direction and then creative direction, when I jumped into those territories I didn’t abandon the acknowledgement I have of how valuable it is to bring in the unlikely ones and not just the ones sitting in existing functions.
And how can you use this knowledge to change structures and agency models? I was always going after things this way. A little bit like a neo-renaissance. You need to be a pluralist and be OK not to dominate everything. You’re not an expert on all of the things. But at least you have the ability to recognise the value and bring it in.
LBB> adidas is obviously a massive global brand. Does that make it easier or harder to create this kind of space and mentality in your work?
José> I look at adidas as a benchmark when it comes to collaboration, just because of the nature of what the brand is. It’s a brand born out of a designer who made a difference through collaboration. Adi Dassler’s engagement with athletes, his proximity to them: ‘What do you think? I’ll change. What do you think about this now?’ This constant back and forth is what made it the sports brand that it is.
Then at some point we see this brand being the first to acknowledge that sport is not just about sports itself. It’s about the lifestyle and culture around it. I’m talking to kids that love basketball as much as they love music. So why wouldn’t we celebrate those things? So we moved from being a sports brand to being the first brand to trigger collaborations as we know them these days - with the Kanyes, the Pharrells, the Raf Simons, the roster of people with whom we create products out of collaborations that broaden our relevancy beyond just those who love sport. That shows the value of collaboration and how intrinsic it is to who we are.
LBB> The Brooklyn Creator Farm sounds like a very cool, creative place. What’s the atmosphere like there?
José> The Brooklyn Creator Farm is an R&D creation centre. As a brand we have some key strategy drivers - open source, key city and speed. And we are sitting at the convergence of these three. A fast-paced, key city - the uber city, New York - a destination that is about bringing all these unlikely creative people together to be a part of determining what we do. We do a rotation programme where ten designers come every quarter from all over the world and then go back out there and hopefully pollinate this approach to design, storytelling and narrative building.
LBB> How do you make sure that the people you are bringing together at the Farm are from a broad enough range of disciplines and backgrounds for this random collective effect to happen?
José> We curate it. Even on the hiring. We have the rotation programme of ten floating people who are always different every three months. Then we have the core team that’s fixed. In that team we have people who come from companies who worked on projects with NASA. We have an engineer who worked in the medical field creating knitted scaffolds for organ transplants. As a designer, you just need to pay attention to who’s innovating in areas where you identify a possibility to borrow what they’ve learned. That forces you to look at more than just available footwear designers in the marketplace and start looking at deep innovation companies, material innovation, sport science, or science in general. We don’t just look for graphic designers, we look for artists, sculptors, coders. We try to pay attention to what surrounds us.
LBB> Finally, I wanted to ask about your Instagram feed. You’re really active. And it seems to encapsulate this idea of being open to random insights, I think.
José> My Instagram is a brutal endeavour. It doesn’t take a lot of time from my life. It’s very spontaneous - click, add it, post. I photograph a lot more than I post, which is a lot. Sometimes I keep stuff and create stories that I post later on, but mostly it’s real time, what I see on that day.
In advertising, where I was when Instagram started, because the nature of advertising is 90% of your ideas being killed by the client, this became an outlet where there’s no client and I was able to tell whatever stories I wanted.
It’s part of who I am. I document my life tremendously. Not just through photography. I sketch every day. I write every day. In coffee shops I’m paying attention to conversations. I listen to what people say, take notes, capture quotes, take them from magazines or online. I’m always aggregating, collecting and registering.