John Norman On The Spot

Last month, John Norman experienced a homecoming of sorts, as he took on the position of co-executive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in Amsterdam, where he worked as an art director in the mid-’90s. Norman, 38, has been a designer for Nike and Benetton, and was most recently a creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, where he worked on HP’s “Picture book” campaign, among others. The Dallas native and father of four, together with co-ecd Al Mosely, former cd at Mother in London, will tackle accounts such as Nike, Vodafone and Heineken. Q: Why move to Amsterdam?

A: It sounds like a cliché, but it was just a nice opportunity with a company I really believe in. The European aesthetic is just different than the States. There is a much more design-focused approach to problems. Visual language is a much stronger element here.

What will your biggest challenge be?

Our biggest challenge is to make an entity that’s a true idea company, to solve problems and make it an enticing place for great creative people to come and express themselves—and for Wieden to be top of mind in Europe. I’m not going to say the world. That’s a little ambitious.

What did you learn at Goodby that you can apply to your new post?

Pretty much everything. How to try to keep the work fresh, keep the relationship with creative teams fresh, and find interesting ways to keep the work fresh in their minds, so no one gets burned out. Instead of briefing a team or trying to get to solving the problem, we always tried to do it differently every time. Sometimes we would make brand platform books, sometimes we would say we won’t use the computer and just write out ideas.The process was always interesting to keep the energy fresh.

Do you think the importance of design in advertising in the U.S. is changing?

I do think in the States it is changing, [but] not as fast as I would like. In the ’50s and ’60s you had art directors who were great designers and great writers as well. People did a lot of different things. So many traditional art directors have given up trying to actually design and visualize things. You hear clients always asking, “Where’s my visual language?” Smart ones do. More and more they’re going to keep asking for it.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising?

I’d probably be a builder, a carpenter. At the end of the day, I like to look back and say, “Hey I built that,” or see a result of something you or you and a team of people are working on.

Why did you switch from design to advertising?

As a designer, my mentor who helped start Creative Circus, Rob Lawton, was one of those rare people—though not rare for his time—who did everything, but he really taught us concepts. Concepts were a huge deal. In design, I was more concerned about the content that I was working on being relevant and meaningful, as opposed to being beautiful. I think that’s what got me into advertising. You could expand ideas beyond ink and paper—it could be film, it could be outdoor, it could be stunts, it could be a short film, it could be a street mural.

Who influenced you the most creatively?

My family. Having children has made me a much more creative person. Seeing how they look at the world, and how I have to deal with so much stuff at once and then deal with them has broadened everything.

Name the last ad that made you think, “I wish I’d done that.”

Honda [U.K. “Together”], where it’s about a family, and it’s just the graphic one with the box and the little dots are the people. I love that. It’s telling a story on a children’sbook level, but it’s also very informative. If you saw the brief for that, 99 percent of the people would have turned their heads and said, “No way I’m doing that. It’s mundane, and I’m not going to talk about the benefits of a car, of a wagon.” But what they did is take something, and with just some geometric shapes, entertain people.

What’s the most disappointing creative trend you’ve seen lately?

People trying to do a graphic device just to do a graphic device, and not having any reason for doing it. People are trying to overdo things with special effects. The CGI stuff is getting out of hand a little bit.

What’s your vote for the best agency?

Right now I think Crispin’s doing some of the best stuff. They’ve knocked it out of the park over and over consistently. People do fast food so bad, it’s almost like a cliché. They do it really well. That was the biggest thing for me. They really proved themselves on Burger King.There’s not any worth talking about as a close second.

What’s your dream assignment?

To rebrand our government. I think the image is bad. It would be interesting to redo everything, from our money all the way to the way they dress. It would be the ultimate visual and most content-driven entity brand. I’m not talking about politics. Just image.

What are three words you would use to describe yourself?

Perfectionist, energetic and positive.

What about three words other people would use to describe you?

Maybe three letters, A.D.D. No, energetic, visual (I’m not a wordsmith) and positive.