The E-Mail Interviews: Jon Wagner

Hey folks! We’re happy to introduce our first email interview, a series of interviews with creative professionals where they lend their advice on their experience in the field. But, we do the whole thing via the internet, because, who needs intimate human interaction… :”’-(

Just kidding. Back to business.

This first edition features a bounty of information from Jon Wagner, a Group Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather. He has an amazing portfolio, which can be seen at http://www.jonawagner.com.

We were lucky enough to fit into this talented individual’s busy schedule, thanks to a connection with Amy Clements, Professor of English Writing & Rhetoric at St. Edward’s University. She rocks, big shout out to her as well.

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From: Jon Wagner
To: Command G

I started out as a copywriter at a small shop in the Midwest. I worked my way through agencies of different sizes, in different parts of the country. I’m currently in New York and am a Group Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather, responsible for work both past and present on American Express, IKEA and Time Warner.

But enough of that…onto your questions:

1. What are the best 3 moves you can make as a creative professional to better yourself in the field?

• For your first job, get a job at the best creative shop you can. Take whatever position they offer, for whatever pittance they offer. Just get your foot in the door. Yes, some of your friends will accept bigger jobs for bigger paychecks, but be patient: in the end, you will win. The reason you want this to be your first move is because no one knows or cares who you are. But everyone knows the name of the creative shop you are at. And, in turn, their reputation—is your reputation. You will learn the most, get the most credibility, and be the most desirable when it’s time for you to move to your next job.

• Zig-zag between different kinds of advertising agencies/design firms. Stay at that creative hot shop for a couple years, then move to a bigger place with more mature, sometimes difficult clients. Then, move back to a more creative shop. (Rinse. Repeat.) It’s wise to zig-zag in between both kinds of places because you will be valuable to both companies for different reasons. Generally speaking… stereotypically speaking… smaller creative hot shops have easier clients. There’s less politics, and fewer layers of approvals. The clients also tend to have smaller budgets, and less media presence. Bigger shops have bigger brands…national and global brands. There’s a lot riding on the line, and enough layers of approvals to kill hundreds of your ideas. But they have high-profile names, high-profile budgets, and your work is more likely to be seen.

The ideal is have experience in both kinds of agencies, on both kinds of clients, because both are valuable. If you’re coming from a nimble, creative hot shop—big agencies will love you because of the purity of your ideas and your work. If you’re coming from a big agency with big brands—creative hot shops will love you because you have the maturity, tenacity, and experience of working on high-profile clients.

One word of caution: I’m not suggesting you ever take a job working at a big, fat global agency working on, say, wart medicine. You have to be selective about every move you make. So yes, work at that creative hot shop. And when that big agency calls, work there too—but only on the best accounts the agency has. Every shop—large and small—has great accounts, and stinkers. You will work on a few of the latter, of course. We all do. But keep the ratio in check so that your portfolio is always growing.

• Don’t become the “_________” guy or girl. After about two years on an account, it’s very easy for everyone to look at you as the go-to person on that piece of business. That’s great for a little while, and it’s certainly great for them…there’s less background they have to give, less hassle. But it’s not good for your work. Because before you know it, you’ll have the same subject matter…the same tone of work…over and over again…in your book. Do it for two to four years, master it, and move on to something else more stimulating.

2. Do you have any big regrets from when you were starting out as a professional? Is there anything you wish someone had told you?

I can’t say that I have any regrets because I’m happy with the opportunities I’ve been given, the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met and the mentors I’ve had along the way. But when I read your question I was reminded of when I started out, the age that I was at and the state of advertising at the time. Portfolio schools were not as common as they are today, and I had already gotten both my undergraduate degree and my first job in a small ad agency in Indianapolis, Indiana. For a year, I went back and forth, wondering whether I should go to one of these new portfolio schools.

In the end, I decided not to go to portfolio school and that I would instead work my way up through local shops…regional shops…and national shops. It worked out for me, but I don’t think you can do it these days. If you’re serious about getting into this business on a national level, you need to go to portfolio school. If you want to be a designer, look at Cranbrook. If you want to be an art director or a copywriter, look at the Portfolio Center or the Creative Circus. Few people want to think about tacking on another two years of post-graduate work, but those are the few people who will get the best creative opportunities and command the biggest paychecks.

3. What were the circumstances under which you made the transition from copywriter to creative director? What skills and creative attributes did you find most necessary to do so?

You can be a copywriter, art director or graphic designer for the rest of your career if that’s what you want to do. And some people would rather do the work, or are better at doing the work, than they are at overseeing it. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather spend my time in a coffee shop coming up with ideas than sit in on a three-hour conference call. There are pros and cons, and I am fortunate that my boss, Steve Simpson (a very famous and charming ad guy from Goodby Silverstein) has structured Ogilvy New York so that creative directors still keep their hands in the business. So I oversee some parts of the work, and I still do the work. Doing a little of each keeps you balanced and sane.

I myself made the transition from copywriter to creative director over the course of a couple years. The assignments had greater weight and greater responsibility, and my title changed accordingly. Sometimes, your boss may leave—which will give you the opportunity to step up. And sometimes, you may have to look for a new job if the creative director role is what you’re after. Every situation is unique.

The skills you need? Maturity. You have to detach yourself from the work, and sometimes even the feelings of others. You have to be passionate enough to sell the work, certainly—but you have to swallow it when the client kills it time and time again. It’s not often, especially in quote “these financial times” that an agency will walk away from a piece of business if the client doesn’t buy what you want them to. And although we don’t like to admit it, sometimes the client is right. You have to ask people to stay late, to give up their weekends, their holidays, their girlfriends, boyfriends and spouses—all in the name of producing the best work. That’s not easy. And it doesn’t always make you the most popular person in the room.
But if you reward people, not just financially, but with with
opportunities and with a certain sense of empathy, most people are happy to help out.

4. What was your copywriter/designer relationship like? How did you create the most beneficial creative interaction?

My partner is an art director, not a designer, although there’s a lot of debate on what those titles actually mean. When you’re young I’d recommend working with two different partners at the same time. Stretch yourself, get comfortable and get to know what you like and what you don’t. And when it works, it works brilliantly. Your strengths and weaknesses balance one another out…you have a speed of communicating and working that makes you unbeatable…you can divide up responsibilities, and as you grow in your careers and become creative directors, divide up accounts…you will share the rewarding parts, and divide up the painful parts. I can’t say how I created the most beneficial creative interaction, all I can say is that I looked for a chemistry that just clicked. Look for someone whose aesthetic is similar to yours. And make it someone you like to spend a lot of time with, because you will be with this person more than your significant other. No lie.

5. What qualities do you look for in a designer?

First and foremost, I look for an idea person. Yes, I may be a
copywriter by trade, but I come up with visual ideas. And you may be a designer or an art director, but you can come up with language ideas. It’s about coming up with the best thinking. Together.

Hope this helps. And I hope I haven’t bored you with an overly lengthy reply. I’ll also share a link to my portfolio—if only because ads are a lot more fun to look at than emails.

http://www.jonawagner.com

Best,

Jon

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Wow. This kills it. Another big thanks to Jon again for his time and dedication, and to Professor Clements for the connection. It’s gonna be tough for the next interview to follow this one.

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