Bikes, coffee, hockey, tats, drawing with his kid, rock and roll, Basquiat. It’s all in a good, and long, day for Razorfish Health’s executive creative director, John Reid, who slows down for a bit to talk with Chops.
So, what do you do all day?
Way to throw a fastball right down the middle on the first pitch. Where do I even start? The short answer is that I do a lot of things, and no two days are ever the same. My calendar usually looks like the squinty eye chart at the DMV. I wish someone had told me earlier in my career that it’s ok to decline meetings. I do a lot of that now, and try to prioritize my time to focus on the things that really matter.
How would you describe life as a creative to someone who’s not familiar with your job?
I was talking to someone recently about this. They asked me what I did, and after a bit of explanation, they said, “So, you’re like that Don Draper guy from Mad Men?” I know it’s an obvious character people know, but it always makes me cringe and couldn’t be further from reality. No one would understand if I responded to that with: “Actually, I’m more like Lee Clow or Dan Wieden, who have this magical ability to turn nothing into something special… and more importantly, they can convince people who don’t really care about their new something (or worse, really care about someone else’s something) to fall in love with it.”
Did you ever think you’d be doing this? If not, what did you think you’d do?
I grew up in a military family, so we lived all over the world. Very exotic and glamourous locations like Rota, Spain and Holy Loch, Scotland. In an effort to keep me attached to things happening back home, my grandparents would tape the most popular TV shows (A-Team/Knight Rider for the kids, Dallas/Dynasty for the parents), and send them to us on VHS tapes. I loved getting those tapes in the mail. But I remember over time being more excited about the commercials than the actual shows. I didn’t know it was a real job at the time, but I knew that when I grew up I wanted to find a way to do that for a living.
What can you point to in your past and your education that prepared you for this career?
I can think of three very specific points.
The first point was being a waiter in a little Italian restaurant (I wrote a LinkedIn article about it): each table was different, at one you’d have a couple celebrating, at the other, a couple is breaking up, babies screaming, surly cooks, no-show busboys, a surprise lunch rush and you’re the only one working. I learned how to read and react to different situations, keep a cool head and figure out how to get the job done.
The second point was being an athlete. I use that term very loosely, but I did play a very high level of competitive ice hockey growing up. I loved it. It taught me how to be fully dedicated to something and the power of true teamwork. Advertising is no different. You have to fully commit to your ideas and, as cliché as it sounds, you’re only as good as your weakest link. You can have the best idea in the world, but if you have people around that don’t know how to scope the project correctly or don’t understand how to sell or defend it when you’re not in the room, your idea is doomed.
The third point was going to art school in Seattle. I have a bachelor of fine arts with a major in painting and a minor in graphic design. The thinking was that when I graduated, I would get a design job somewhere and get paid enough to buy paints, canvases and brushes and paint on nights and weekends. My sophomore year I interned at a newspaper making ads which got me in the “advertising door.” I was hooked from day one. I never did buy those paints, canvases or brushes, but I learned in school how to handle harsh creative critiques and how to give constructive and specific feedback. I also learned that if you stay true to your original creative vision, much like having a strong creative brief, your work is bulletproof.
Any quirks in your career path? Odd jobs? Bad jobs? Cool jobs?
At the turn of the century, I moved from Seattle to San Francisco. It was the dot-com gold rush and it felt like there were endless possibilities. I found a great job and I also joined a band. The band wasn’t really an “odd job” per se, it was just my escape from the stresses of my day job. The band I joined was already moderately successful, and there was this funny point where we were asked to join a big national touring festival. Being in a band was always something fun for me, but my career in advertising was my real passion, so I left the band and didn’t go out on the tour. I don’t look back and wonder “what if?” I look back with a smile and think about the incredible friends I made and how much fun I had at that moment in time. But then again, the band I left wasn’t Green Day or Metallica. If it were, I might feel a little differently.
What’s the ideal office set up for you to do your best work? Quiet? Music, and if so, what? Open work space or closed door? Home or office?
Always music playing. As far as spaces go, with the rise of the open floor plan and activity-based seating, no one has an office anymore. I like to create war rooms, which are really communal creative spaces designed for folks to hang, create and think. They usually have huge black boards where we can pin up ideas, briefs, scraps of inspiration and the like. It’s a living space that evolves over time. I’m not a secretive person, so I like when people stop by and ask questions about the work. The boards become a bit like an episode of Survivor, at the end of the week the best ideas are still hanging on.
Name five things that help you do your job better.
Bravery. Fear. Collaboration. Empathy. Persistence. Coffee. Oh wait, that’s 6.
Black t-shirt, jeans and adidas. How cliché is that?
What piece of work/project/campaign/creation are you most proud of?
The Changing Minds Ad Council campaign I created with the Obama administration. And Futures without Violence is some of the best work of my career. It was an amazing little campaign to bring awareness to how badly kids are affected by witnessing continual acts of violence in their communities. We shot these two beautiful little films with the documentary film maker Eliot Rasch in which we reunited kids with a mentor who helped them through their tough times. I’m so proud of this work and the teens who were brave enough to be featured in our films. The spots give me goose bumps to this day.
What’s your favorite color right now?
Which individual has had the most influence on you as a creative?
Rob Bagot was my executive creative director when I was at McCann in San Francisco and my first real mentor. He was the first person to take me under his wing and show me how it all really worked. Up to that point, I was an art director who was skilled at the craft, but Rob taught me about having a smart strategy and the art of creating complete conceptual ideas, not just beautifully executed ones. Rob is humble, inclusive, wickedly smart and very approachable, which is something I’ve tried to emulate in my career. Rob is a gifted storyteller, who recently left advertising to become a full-time director. He started an awesome little production company called “story machine films.”
Do you create on your own time? If so, what do you do and why?
I have a seven-year-old son, Milo, so my “own time” isn’t my own these days if you know what I’m saying. Luckily, Milo loves to create as much as I do, so we spend a lot of time creating together. We’ll have these little drawing contests where we each take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. We each have two minutes to draw something on one side of the piece of paper, then we switch and try to copy what the other has drawn. We’ll do that for hours. Milo’s imagination is inspiring, and his creativity blows me away.
Name a single piece of work, in any medium, that gives you the greatest pleasure.
Jean Michel Basquiat has a few, like “The Irony of the Negro Policeman” or “Hollywood Africans.” He had so much to say, just wish we had had a bit more time with him.
Name a single piece of work, in any medium, that leaves you thinking, I wish I had done that.
The No More domestic violence PSA that aired at the 2015 Super bowl. So powerful. It’s rare to see something you’ve never seen before. “Is there someone in the room with you?” still sends shivers down my spine. And what a genius media placement to stick it in between all of the loud, over the top fart jokes and computer-generated Clydesdale spots. It’s calm, quite tone really broke through.
Name a single work, in any medium, that leaves you wondering, How the hell did they do that?
“Self-portrait with cigarette” by Chuck Close. I actually have a life-sized version of it in my living room. The scale and detail of his work is amazing.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
My wife, Claire, used to work in advertising as well. She told me that there are only two types of people in our industry: “the ones trying to get in, and the ones trying to get out.” She thought I was a complete weirdo for loving my job and not having an exit strategy. Fast forward 15 years and it’s the same now, but I have to admit that the older I get the idea of opening a little cycling café in the south of France has its appeal.
How do you recharge?
I live in Manhattan, so I like to escape the city to recharge. I’m passionate about cycling, so my Zen is usually found on two wheels, climbing a mountain somewhere.
What’s your happy place?
If we’re still talking bikes, it’s that place where you’ve pushed yourself up a hill to the point of physical exhaustion and it feels like your lungs are on the outside of your body, but you push on and over the crest to feel the road drop under your pedals as you start your decent.
Pastel or oil? Is spray paint an option?
Sound or vision? Hard for me to separate these.
Strings or horns? Guitars!
Clear or cluttered? Clear. I can’t think in clutter.
Morning or night? The early bird wins the Lions, so I’d say morning. Coffee helps.
Design school or liberal arts? Oh boy. The 25-year-old me would say design school, 45-year-old me says liberal arts. Guessing 65-year-old me will ask why I even bothered.
For more from John Reid, take a look at his Instagram.