On Top Of The World

John Jay spoke the language of advertising almost before any other. “I didn’t learn English until I was 6,” recalls Jay, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, the son of a Chinese immigrant. “I learned to speak English from advertising on television. My mother says my first words were names of automobiles. I’d walk down the streets saying, ‘That’s a Ford. That’s a Chevrolet. That’s a Chrysler. That’s a Bel Air—no, that’s a Thunderbird.’ ”

After five years in Asia, working at Wieden + Kennedy in Tokyo and opening an office in Shanghai, Jay returned to Portland, Ore., headquarters in October as executive creative director, teaming with Dan Wieden. “There is a bigger picture than Asia which is Wieden’s potential globally,” Jay says. “That’s what really brought me back.”

Achieving that potential means leveraging the creative assets of all six offices (New York, London and Amsterdam are the other three), which topped $1 billion in worldwide billings last year from clients including Nike, Sharp Electronics, Electronic Arts and Starbucks. “I am back to open more creative opportunities for our talent,” explains Jay. “We haven’t fully realized our creative potential by any means.”

Among the first tasks upon his return: serve as ecd with Wieden on a global project for Nike. Teams from the various offices will converge in Portland to work on the assignment. This fluid movement of talent among the offices is part of what makes the network unique, says Wieden. “What is interesting in our approach to the network is how holistic it is—not through acquisition but through the starter dough, if you will,” explains Wieden. “Moving people around the agency is the concept.”

Jay knew he’d be back. He never sold his Portland home, a 1936 landmark of “Northwest style” designed by Frank Lloyd Wright contemporary Pietro Belluschi that required years of renovation while Jay, his wife and two sons were conveniently abroad. Jay, now 54, joined Wieden in 1993 as a creative director on Nike, Coca-Cola and Microsoft, among other accounts. Soft-spoken and cerebral, he is passionate about almost any act of creation, from artistic craft to intellectual argument. He has an explorer’s sensibility; one senses he sees advertising as an excuse for cultural adventures. “From the beginning I knew he would stretch the concept of what an agency and an art director does creatively,” says Wieden. “What is unique about the man defies categorization.”

Wieden first met Jay at the San Francisco Art Directors Club in the 1980s. At the time, Jay was marketing and creative director at Bloomingdale’s in New York, working under then chairman and CEO Marvin Traub; Wieden was soon to give a talk to Bloomie’s creative department. Jay’s Bloomingdale’s work had already begun to get him noticed, from exotic photo shoots turned into elaborate New York Times Magazine ad campaigns to buzz-inducing collateral window treatments and bag designs. One campaign was improvised out of fabric swaths and models’ body parts, recalls Todd Waterbury, co-creative director at Wieden in New York, whom Jay recruited from Fallon McElligott in 1993 to run Bloomingdale’s design department and who later joined him at Wieden in Portland. “He was pretty innovative in the thought that retail is theatre; it was about language, communicating ideas,” says Waterbury. “His influences are as limitless as his ambition and his energy.”

Quoting his friend, designer Naoki Takizawa, Jay believes that “inspiration begins with conversation.” He says the lessons he learned in 13 years of working in Bloomingdale’s basement, from 1980 to 1993, still apply to his work today. “It’s how I learned about global culture,” he says. “I had to travel all over the world, and that’s when I learned about product development. It’s where I learned to create hybrids—using the native skills of the Philippines, for example, with the marketing and product design we had in New York, and combining that to create something fresh for the world.”

Jay’s impact was felt immediately upon his arrival in Portland. A Nike NYC campaign from 1993 payed homage to the street legends of New York City blacktop basketball with street-art-flavored advertising. The work was inspired, Jay remembers, by a conversation about Nike’s street cred with Nike founder Phil Knight’s son. Jay was playing “limbo with the markers of established culture,” says Horacio Silva, fashion news/features director at The New York Times Magazine. He had been “instrumental in teaching Nike to pay attention to style, as well as technology,” Silva adds. “He recognizes that visual culture doesn’t exist inside a vacuum—that there is a cross-pollination between cultures, whether they be street or corporate.”

The creative and collateral that Jay developed for OK soda, the short-lived Coke brand for Gen X, lives on to this day in despondent tribute Web sites. The gray cans with forlorn twentysomething faces and quasi-existential bromides (“Don’t think there has to be a reason for everything”) set a youth-marketing standard. “Wieden’s work hit all the right notes, and the [packaging and marketing] really had a strong influence on the product,” says Tom Pirko, president of Santa Barbara, Calif., consultancy Bevmark. “Here you had a can that could speak to consumers.”

Jay—whose anecdotes often involve being in exotic locations with other artists —has a broad view of creativity, which makes his role at the agency all the more critical as the importance of nontraditional advertising grows. Because he is known for his eclectic talent and broad-ranging interests, says Wieden COO Dave Luhr, Jay’s creative reach extends to all clients. “There is more to life than 30-second spots, and Jay’s ability should help,” says Luhr. “All our clients have enormous retail issues.” Mike Byrne, a Portland-based creative director on Nike, says Jay’s influence is already helping to shape the next generation of Nike work. “His criticism really exposes weaknesses that encourage you to grow,” says Byrne.

Much of Jay’s experience in Asia points to his broad approach to communication. A campaign for Tokyo fast-food client Lotteria allowed consumers to vote via cell phone for their favorite milkshake flavors. Jay also became a musical impresario when Wieden started its own music label, Wieden Tokyo Lab, in 2003—its releases often include a visual component on DVD. “The label forces us to work within youth culture from the inside out, not through research,” says Jay. “It keeps us honest.”

For Sapporo, Wieden developed a new beer, Namashibori, from scratch (“We came up with the concept of the beer’s taste itself,” says Jay), then designed the packaging and launched it as a limited-edition exclusive. The agency created a documentary on the making of the beer, “did very unusual television and so forth,” explains Jay, “but where we really started was in creating a geodesic dome and putting it in the middle of Tokyo.” The place became the “home” of the brand, where visitors could come in for a taste and watch the commercials being made. For a year, Wieden transmitted a broadband broadcast from the dome, using the space as “a gathering place for influential people—friends, musicians, actors, chefs, poets, artists,” says Jay.

“He didn’t let the conventions and the language of the category determine the thinking,” Waterbury says of the Sapporo effort. “He saw beer as integral to social activity and expressed the human motive for the product with the invitation, the hospitality. Those are real human drivers.”

Wieden Tokyo created a similar “event” for the relaunch of Travail, a magazine targeted to career-minded young women. The agency built a Travail Café in a highly trafficked shopping area. Designed as a traditional bath house, the cafe lured women in with a career aptitude test they could take on their laptops. Once inside, they were wined and dined, entertained, instructed and inspired by a roster of presenters. “We want to broaden the definition of what advertising is,” says Jay. “That café is advertising. The music we’ve created for Nike, some of the albums that are selling for $300-500 to collectors, that’s advertising. A traditional campaign ends after eight weeks? That hip-hop album we did for Nike five years ago [Player’s Delight] is still being played in clubs today. That’s advertising.”

China represents a special challenge for Wieden, Jay says, because of the vast potential for new opportunities, balanced against the danger of commercial exploitation. “Here you have this amazing country that is coming into its own, that doesn’t even have a national [or international] brand yet,” Jay says. “I want to make sure we are doing good things for the people of China and the brands of China.”

The big Nike assignment is also under way. “Suffice it to say, it’s not a traditional advertising project,” says Jay. “It’s not about a product launch, it’s about adding value to the brand.” Whatever its eventual form, it’s likely to be as groundbreaking as everything else Jay has touched in his time in the business.

“We are sometimes trapped by our own industry,” Jay concludes. “The very word industry means a bunch of people with like-minded ideas, and like-minded silos. We should do everything we can to go against the industry. Hopefully, people don’t hire Wieden + Kennedy to simply become part of the industry. We’re here to help solve business problems.”