How I stopped being a jerk and became more creative
like what I was becoming. God, to have somebody you love tell you that—it turns you inside out. But she was right. It was 16 years ago, I was 35, and I’d been running the Amsterdam office of Wieden + Kennedy, the ad agency. That night we were drinking wine—probably a lot—and discussing my next career move.
I had adopted this fixed mindset that I was really awesome and I didn’t need to learn—like, I’m not interested in your input, Mr. Client, I’m here to protect my idea because you’re going to screw it up. I was doing better and better, but that cynicism had begun to creep into every part of my life.
It took me a while to examine what needed to change. I decided everything did. We moved to Los Angeles, where I’d try to become a commercial director with Glenn Cole, my creative partner from the ad agency. We had a friend who ran a production company and he started putting us forward for small jobs—little art projects, surf videos, and some commercial work.
I was a shitty director. Our producer friend said to me one time, “You know, people who do well in this business have return customers. The way you get return customers is by not telling them their ideas are lame.” It’s funny, when you own your own company, it’s like you’re running around naked every day. You can’t maintain the front of being a creative genius when your survival is in the balance. All of a sudden, clients’ ideas seem much smarter because you depend on them. Most important, it changes your outlook from one of having employees to one of having partners. If anyone was good enough to work with us for the little pay we could offer, I felt committed to making them happy. Because there were so few of us, we had to embrace everyone’s creativity.
That was the first big lesson for me. Once you start treating employees as more than a job description, suddenly they go, “Oh, wow! Maybe I should bring my whole self to work today!” Our secretary would be making comments on all the work. That secretary, Evin Shutt, is now partner and chief operating officer. Everyone got much more engaged. And it got way more fun. If you don’t welcome input from all your people, you narrow your creative product. Eyes dim. When you get people with diverse backgrounds and experiences together, you get surprises. That’s when really good things happen.
In a past life, John Boiler was a revered creative director at Wieden + Kennedy, the West Coast advertising agency that helped put Nike on the map with iconic campaigns such as “Just Do It.” He was also a cynical egotist. So he hit the reset button. Years later, he’s the co-founder and creative cochair, with Glenn Cole, of 72andSunny, an ad agency “built on optimism” that works for the likes of Google and Adidas. –As told to Burt Helm
GOT YOUR ATTENTION? Clockwise from top left: For Axe, 72andSunny has replaced testosterone-driven campaigns with more product-focused yet humorous themes. The agency’s work for previous clients such as Benetton continues to make it a hot shop. Other...