6 Key Lessons for Young Creatives by Joji Jacob

We’ve recently attended The Crowbar Seminar held at Nanyang Polytechnic and got so inspired by one of the presentations that we had to share it with everyone else.

an initiative by CuriousCore, featuring Creative Professionals in Singapore


Executive Creative Director, DDB & RAPP Singapore

As the Executive Creative Director of DDB and RAPP Singapore, Joji Jacob runs the country’s largest creative department. Since he took over the creative helm in late 2009, the agency has gone on to become Singapore’s most awarded at every award show, including Cannes Lions.

Joji has made digital an integral part of what the agency does. In 2010, DDB won more awards in digital award categories than most other digital agencies in Singapore. The agency was voted Agency of the Year at both the Creative Circle Awards and the Hall of Fame Awards. Joji was named Singapore’s most influential creative director in 2010.

Before becoming an ECD, Joji was a successful creative director and copywriter with wins at Cannes Lions, D&AD, The One Show and a host of other international, regional and local awards. He also won the Creative Circle Awards’ Grand Prix twice.

Key lessons a young creative should know through an introspective look into the success achieved and mistakes committed during Joji’s 16 years in the advertising industry.

Follow your heart
“Get into advertising, design, or any other kind of commercial art business only if it’s the only thing you want to do with your life. You know, there are easier ways of making money. Making ads, especially good ones, is very hard work. It’s stressful. It’s a soul and ego destroying activity.

On one hand you’re an artist. You’re sensitive. Well, at least you’re supposed to be. If you care about your work, you pour your life into it. Each piece of work that you create is a reflection of you, your tastes, your life experience. So its does your ego and confidence a lot of damage when first your creative partner, then your creative director, then the planner, the account director and finally the client tells you that it sucks. And this happens on a daily basis.

And then you have to pick yourself up, pretend nothing happened and go back to the drawing board and give it your very best shot all over again.

So it’s hard work.

But every once every while, your stars will align. You will get the perfect brief. You will crack the perfect idea, your creative partner will craft it to perfection, the client will buy it, there will be enough money to do the idea up well, and it will win awards and sell products. And when that happens it’s magic. It makes all the pain worthwhile.

Ask yourself if this is what you want to do? Does this get you out of bed every morning? If you follow your heart and love what you do, success will follow.”

Choose learning over earning
“At 26, I started out as a copy trainee with a small agency in South India for the princely sum of 800 ruppees, which is exactly 48.67 Singapore dollars. But I didn’t really care, because I was doing what I loved. I was consumed. I used to work 18, 19 hours a day. Things that nobody else wanted to do, I’d do with pleasure.

With a lot of luck, after 6 years I ended up as an associate creative director at Ogilvy in India. I was having a good time. I had a fancy title. I was making fairly decent money. But I realised there was something missing. My ads were looking like shit.

In the late 90s, I was seeing all this amazing work coming out of Singapore. Exquisitely crafted work with razor-sharp focus on the message. Work created by people like Pann and Thomas Yang and Maurice Wee. So one Friday, I quit, paid for my notice period myself and came to Singapore with a 10-day visa.

This was in 2001, not many Singaporean Creative Directors were on email and all that jazz. So I started cold-calling agencies with not much success.

I eventually got through to Norman Tan, the Executive Creative director (ECD) of JWT Singapore, he was looking for writers and he offered me a writer’s position. I told him, I’ll take it. We didn’t even discuss money.

When he finally got back to me about the money, it was almost half of what I was making in India. But I took the job. The first year was really tough. Yet I was working with some of the best art directors in the world. That to me, was enough.

My work was getting better. I was learning a lot. I was getting good stuff into my book. And soon enough, because I was working with really good people my work started winning awards. And within a year, I started getting fair compensation for my efforts.”

Screw talent. Just outwork everyone else.
“I’ve seen many rising stars whom I thought would change the face of advertising, yet after a couple of years they sort of vanish down the black hole of advertising. These are people who buy into the advertising lifestyle. A little success and they acquire the trappings of the advertising life. They start to live their lives like they were in an episode of Mad Men.

But I’ve also seen a lot of solid people with half the talent but double the hunger and passion for their work.

When I first came to Singapore I heard a lot of stories about David Droga who now runs his own set up called Droga5, easily one of the best agencies in the world.

David Droga, applied a disciplined approach in coming up with ideas using the 60 boxes rule. His rationale was that if you had filled up the sheet with 60 ideas, at least one of them won’t suck so much.

And I know that some of the most successful people in advertising do that. I remember when Thomas and I were working together at JWT, we were doing a campaign for Listerine and we did these three ads, and I was ready to go home. But Thomas Yang said we must do at least six. At that time I was like are you fucking crazy? But in hindsight 6 ads gave the campaign a lot of body and it ended up winning best of show at the Singapore Creative Circle Awards.

Keep referring back to the brief, don’t strive for perfection. The brain is a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets. Discipline and consistency is key.”

Have a life outside advertising
“If there’s no life outside advertising, there will be no life in your advertising. You must have a rich and varied life if your work is to be rich and varied. At DDB, we’ve set up something called Degree. Degree is an online shop that allows our people to create ideas and products that have nothing to do with their daily work.

But after that you must do one very important thing.”

Keep a notebook
“Have a place to record all these interesting things that life throws at you.

Most creative people I know have a place to store all these memories. Keep a notebook. There’s only so much your brain can store.

Collect quotes and stuff that inspires you. Draw random stuff.”

Be nice to ordinary people. You’re still one of them.
“And finally, don’t be a jerk. No matter how successful you are, know that relationships, friendships are the most important things in life. You get into an agency, you do a great campaign, you win some awards, you get a raise and a fancy title and then something strange happens. You stop greeting the taxi driver, you become nasty to the servicing people, you screw over your partners, you start calling the clients dumb. You go from a young, talented, hungry, nice kid to a prima donna that nobody wants to work with.

So pick a great agency, work your ass off, be nice to people, try to stay happy and everything else will follow.”

I’ve enjoyed Joji’s sense of humour throughout the talk and the lesson that resonates the strongest with me is having a life outside your field of work.

Personally, as an entrepreneur, it’s easy to get caught up on the grind and hustle of steering your company to the next level. However, I also find it immensely rewarding to work on personal projects with other like-minded individuals such as in the field of photography.

I believe that when you constantly immerse yourself in new experiences and challenges, you open doors to new opportunities and become a creative with stronger ideas.

  • Aditya Kripalani

    The insights not only of an artist but also an introspective human being. Great read.

  • deathray

    the article is perfect! most of all I love the final key lesson!!

  • creative

    he’s such a hypocrite…typical of an ad guy up there who needs to sound “deep” and “wise”. i laughed when he said “be nice to ordinary people” because he certainly wasn’t when i was a junior creative.

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