Image and products from Nike Asia’s Flow Campaign
“Hello, John Jay?” It being 3am on a Tuesday in Tokyo, I was a little surprised by the cheery tone of voice. “It’s good to talk to you again.”
It’s been several years since I’ve spoken with John C Jay, but he still remembers meeting me in ’96, which astounds me. I was a lowly designer called in by my friend Ritsu, who was a producer at Wieden + Kennedy in Tokyo at the time, to help work on some Nike layouts. I recall the meeting distinctly. He was charming and very well-spoken. He wore a well-designed button-down shirt, white. And he wore comfortable looking leather shoes. He was also the Creative Director of one of the most influential and powerful advertising companies in the world.
“All we’re doing is putting down text on an image in an artful way,” he said. He makes everything sound so simple, and so matter of fact, one has trouble remembering a time when it wasn’t so simple.
Portrait by Dylan Griffin
John C Jay graduated from Ohio State University, majoring in Visual Communications, and cut his teeth on editorial design. He freelanced for many years and one day found himself as Group Art Director for a company that oversees multiple titles. His big break came when Bloomingdale’s pegged him for the role of Creative Director. He was creative director and EVP of marketing for the boom years of Bloomies from 1980–1993. In the ’80s he was voted one of the most influential people in photography. He worked with the best. “We were one of the largest advertisers in The New York Times. We used some of the best talent, people like Horst [Diekgerdes], [Steven] Meisel, there were so many.” Great names, as well as new names in photography worked with John as collaborators in “using The New York Times as a major canvas for the brand.” Success for him and his employers was inevitable.
In ’93 he left New York for a spot with Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Oregon. “I was a diehard New Yorker [at the time]. I saw Steven [Meisel] at an industry gathering, and I told him that I was moving from New York to work in Portland, Oregon. I saw the blood drain out of his face— it was that sort of reaction!” he joked. John was offered a job working on a brand that would have a profound effect on his career and on the modern landscape of advertising as we know it today. (Advertising Age named Nike the 1996 “Marketer of the Year,” writing the “ubiquitous swoosh...was more recognized and coveted by consumers than any other sports brand.") “It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life,” he recalls.
Images from Soul of the Game
His tenure at Wieden saw almost immediate results. If the ’80s were the boom years for Bloomingdale’s, the ’90s were the years where John’s branding vision was lethal for Nike’s competitors. (“Nike managed the deftest of marketing tricks: To be both anti-establishment and mass market, to the tune of $9.2 billion dollars in sales in 1997.”-Newsweek) Nike dominated, with the advent of Michael Jordan’s best years, and the legendary status of products like the now omnipresent Nike Dunk sneakers. Clearly one of their most standout campaigns was the “NYC!” campaign, where legends like Darius “Hook” Mitchell were thrust into a spotlight that brought international acclaim. John Jay brought with him an understanding and a respect for the soul of the game that was catching. “The people in the campaign were indivuduals that hadn’t gotten the respect that they properly deserved. [The campaign] still resonates with me. I’m very proud of that campaign.”
Asked if he has evolved in the past ten years, he laughed. “If I didn’t evolve, I’d be a sad case. If you don’t evolve in a city like Tokyo, you’re in trouble.” I asked him how he has evolved. “I think I’ve become more culturally sensitive. I am more aware of the cultural differences of places like Shanghai and Tokyo, as well as being more appreciative of the commonalities.”
“It’s interesting watching the Asian involvement in media. It used to be rare to find any Asian names in our field. I once came across the name of Barney Wan, who worked for British Vogue. What was interesting was that I wasn’t even aware that there was a British Vogue.” He laughed. “I made it a point later to meet Barney, and he was very nice. Then I heard of Hiro (Yasuhiro Wakabayashi), and I met him. And then I heard about this guy Jimmy Moore. I met Jimmy and I was surprised. He was just like me: Chinese. He was very influential to me.”
We’ve become a bit of a cliché. We’ve become an easy minority to borrow ‘cool’ from.
He mentions that after an article that featured his achievements was published a while back, he received some unusual mail from mostly Chinese students. They were envious of his success and influence, and awed by the fact that he was able to pursue a career in the arts. John Jay’s story was outside the realms of their reality. “They said they were going to be excommunicated from their families if they pursued the arts.” This prompted John to set up the Jay Scholarship Fund. “I just wanted to pay my respects to my parents for supporting my career choice.” The fund helps students who ordinarily would not have access to pursue a career in the arts, and is available to students at the College for the Arts at Ohio State University. “The reason why that article got so much mail was that back then you didn’t see many Asian faces in any kind of media.”
“Move that clock forward, and Asians are prominent everywhere. We’ve become a bit of a cliché. We’ve become an easy minority to borrow ‘cool’ from.” I wholeheartedly concur.
I asked him if he thought the world takes design too seriously. “Our crowd takes it too seriously. Design has been democratized. People like Target, the Gap, Mickey Drexler ( J.Crew) help to elevate [design in general] in America. People are much more aware of design. Whether it’s Isaac Mizrahi designing limited products for Target, or Karl Lagerfeld for H&M, there is a whole redefinition of what luxury is. Companies like Banana have brought luxury to the masses.”
“Our goal is to bring value to our client’s brand, by a variety of means.We’re constantly trying to redefine what advertising means. We challenge ourselves every day to try and not limit media either—it’s always changing.”
Nakata from Nike Japan’s 5 Heroes soccer campaign
John Jay was promoted in October of 2004 to Executive Creative Director of Wieden + Kennedy. That essentially means that aside from Dan Wieden, John Jay is the man. I asked him how this would change what he does. “One of the main things is that I’ll be partnering with Dan to oversee strategies for Creative, globally. I’ll be working with our offices in Europe, the Americas, etc., but with a special focus on Asia. We just opened our Shanghai office last year. As Dan put it, the Tokyo office has been the most experimental, and I think the same will hold true for Shanghai. I believe one of the key things is that we adapt very well to local culture. 95% of our staff in Tokyo is Japanese, and Nike is our only non-Japanese account.” Some of W+K Tokyo’s clients include Nike Japan, Nike Asia, Nike’s Design Pod, Kumon (educational products), Takata (luxury automobile safety products), Sapporo Beer ( John’s team just helped launch a new brand called Namashibori), the relaunch of Recruit magazine, and the launch of Sharp’s Aquos line of products. There are also a number of projects which John asked me not to mention.
John and his team approach brands holistically: their unique blend of strategy and powerful creative teams has brought them near cult status. They have fun. They create. They get results. I know art directors around the world who would give their mouse-clicking finger to go work for the venerable John Jay. People respect him. He’s likable. He puts down text on an image in an artful way. Simple. Now why didn’t I think of that?