John Jay is no stranger to taking a leap. When he left Bloomingdale's in 1993, he was not just leaving the department store where he worked for 14 years, he was leaving New York for a city he had never visited.
Three years after arriving in Portland at Wieden+Kennedy as co-creative director on Nike, Coca-Cola and Micros oft accounts, Jay became a partner at the agency. Now, he is the agency's global executive creative director, and Fast Company named him one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business this year.
Jay grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the first son of Chinese immigrants. He graduated from Ohio State University's industrial design program in 1971, then moved to New York to pursue a career in editorial design. While serving as group art director of four monthly magazines at a publishing firm called MBA Communications he decided to make a huge career "leapfrog," he said. Having always loved fashion, he joined Bloomingdale's Inc. as senior art director for mens and home departments in 1979.
Jay spoke with FINS about career changes, taking risks and how working harder than everyone else brought him to the top.
Chris Prentice: What was your first big break?
John Jay: There are so many. I started in editorial. I was a group director of four magazines at MBA Communications, and there was a young intern there named James Traub. His fa ther was Marvin Traub, the legendary chair of Bloomingdale's. I'd always had an interest in fashion and retail. On Jimmy's last day of work, he and I walked up Third Avenue toge ther. I got brave enough at 59th Street to say, "Jimmy, isn't your fa ther the CEO of Bloomingdale's? Who does their work? Do they have an agency? Is it in-house?"
Jimmy tells his fa ther about me that night, and his fa ther called the SVP of marketing Gordon Cooke, who called me into his office. The next thing I know, that evening I get a call that Mr. Traub wants to see me at 7:30 a.m. a week later. I put toge ther a special presentation on my concepts and my vision for fashion marketing. Mr. Traub had the president in the room and they offer me a job. That walk up Third Avenue was one big break.
CP: How did you meet Dan Wieden, who later recruited you to his agency?
JJ: Working for the Bloomingdale's brand, we were very high pr ofile. I was invited to be a judge at the San Francisco Art Directors Club. I was the only non-agency person there. I met Dan at that judging, and we exchanged addresses and stayed in touch over the years.
CP: Do you believe luck drives success?
JJ: Working hard is the best way to have luck. You make your own luck, of course. Even if you don't know exactly where it's going to end up, you want to create this Karma where something good will happen to you.
CP: In 1993, you made ano ther career leap. What made you decide to leave Bloomingdale's for Wieden+Kennedy?
JJ: All of this tough talk about risk-taking and creative risk was often coming from creative people to clients, but never from creative people to ourselves. My little core of people, we were very resistant to taking personal risks and living creatively. I decided not to fall into that trap. So I wrote myself a brief and I said, "Go where you can do the best work of your life."
CP: Tell me about how you made a name for yourself at the agency.
JJ: In my first week, Phil Knight calls Dan and says, "My son tells me we're in danger of losing relevancy on the streets of New York." Dan says, "Well, John Jay is from New York."
That was a huge opportunity. It led to one of the most important contributions to that brand and this agency for me. For the next three years, the "NYC" campaign was only shown in New York. The TV spots were only in New York. The billboards were in certain neighborhoods, near certain [basketball] courts. It was celebrating those people who play the game on the streets and in playgrounds. I ran the commercials without a logo. They were hidden in the spot. It defied all case studies about marketing.
CP: How important were mentors?
JJ: Look at my track record. It was Marvin Traub at Bloomingdale's who said, "I have the feeling you can make the jump over here." Dan Wieden did the same. He had the pick of the litter at W+K and yet he chose someone from a department store. You have to have that intersection with someone who will appreciate your hard work. That's really important to find. You have to put yourself in a position to be found.
CP: How do you achieve a work-life balance?
JJ: Here's where I'm very fortunate. Recently, I was in Milan with the CEO of Nike. We were there at the Milane Salone. So I'm at the museum, I'm standing there and I'm thinking, "Am I working or am I playing?" If you can say you're doing both, then you're in good shape.
CP: What lesson would you pass on to o thers as they develop their careers?
JJ: It's very popular today to talk about the current generation being all about diversity and having multiple experiences. However, I still would say that it's important to focus on one thing, to prove to the world that you have expertise in one area. When I interview a lot of young people, they say they want to do everything. I had to walk my way up that ladder.
CP: What advice do you have on how to have a successful career?
JJ: Just worker harder than anyone else. That's my answer to everything. That says a ton about you.
Write to Chris Prentice at firstname.lastname@example.org