Monday, March 31, 2014

The Thinking Behind Creative Thinking.

My Caffeinated Mornings presentation from December 6, 2013. I walk through the world of creative thinking—offering career advice, providing behind-the-scenes creative tips, and showing side project examples.

The Thinking Behind Creative Thinking from Jennifer Hohn on Vimeo.

Event information:

(Work reel from my agency, Vladimir Jones. Side projects displayed in this video are personal or feature creative partnerships from Ryan Johnson, Matt Ingwalson, Jim Elkin, Bryce Boyer, Ryan Bramwell, David Meijas and production help from a number of talented folks through Ad Club Denver.)

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Welcome to the VJ Collective

Every Friday someone from my agency sends out an email to everyone in the company. Emails that are centered around new learnings, timely advice, profound thoughtfulness, or hilarious entertainment. Last October, I was up. We were at the forefront of a courageous agency-wide restructure for 2014. Here's what I wrote and why I'm ecstatic to be the new Creative Director at Vladimir Jones.


First of all, it’s not about you.

Well okay, actually it is about you.

And him. And her. And everything that makes VJ culture the advertising industry anomaly that it is.

Those who have worked for lesser places know what I’m talking about. (Ad veteran tip: Sometimes the grass seems greener elsewhere because it’s actually AstroTurf. And much like The Brady Bunch backyard…it’s all fun and games until Marcia gets her nose broken.)

What makes VJ different? 
It’s the people. The intelligence. The leadership. The juxtaposition of precision and soul. Oh, and the fact that we’re a seasoned independent agency teetering on the edge of becoming a creative powerhouse.

So, how do we get there? You know, the powerhouse part. Do we all have to embrace Dohan’s relentless training regimen? (Well, not necessarily, but don’t make him show you his disappointment stance.)

We unite forces and work together.
We take our places in the trenches alongside talent, strategy and possibility. When a teammate gets entangled in a client force field or marches into creative battle, we selflessly cover them. We don’t make excuses. But, we do take responsibility. No one is in this alone.

We trade expectation for execution.
Unentitled hard work pays off. And over time, you are the one empowering your own future. If you think you should be involved, prove it. If you want your ideas heard, bring them to the table. If there’s a better way to do things, figure it out.

We value collaboration and humility over ego.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a time for both solitary incubation and group iteration. But, if everyone shares the same passion and connection to what we’re creating, greater things get produced. Better placements get made. And bigger results happen. So what if it wasn’t your idea or your design or your client—make it better. Add value with your expertise…without any expectation of credit. Because we’re all accountable for what comes out of this agency. And that’s our most valuable currency in the powerhouse quest.

We respect and protect the bus.
VJ is a certified mix of eclectic brilliance, unique skill-sets and personality quirks. Everyone here has an important seat on this bus. So, let’s try not to throw anyone under it. Instead, help them back up. Sometimes people just need a different seat or a new view.

We do this.
And by this, I mean the VJ Collective powerhouse thing. Clearly we have many individual rock stars in this agency. But, what would happen if we truly combined forces and legitimately challenged the advertising world? Well, I have no doubt that we’re about to find out.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Dear Me, On My First Day of Advertising.

Part of an end-of-year series originally posted on The Denver Egotist.

Dear 1998 me,
First of all, what the hell is going on with that outfit? Seriously. Do they even make things out of rayon anymore? Between that and the hairspray, pretty sure you’re a walking fire hazard.
Oh hey, if I remember correctly, you’ll get to see Pearl Jam at Fiddler’s Green next month. So that’s cool.
You have no idea who you are yet. And that’s okay. Take the time you need to figure it out. But be aware now, if you really want to be in advertising, you have to love it. So much so, that you can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s very hard to break into this industry, and staying relevant is even harder. However, getting paid to follow your passion is an honor never to be taken for granted.
As you nervously sit in that agency lobby, completely intimidated by everyone walking by, know you deserve to be there. It’s just the beginning. And beginnings are scary.
People are not judging you – because, like you, they are probably also self-conscious. Smile, laugh and relax. You’ll be fine.
Over the course of your career you’ll have many successes and many failures. You’ll learn from them all. I guarantee everyone that does great things had to overcome adversity in some form or another. The defining difference is what you do after a door is closed or a tough card is dealt. Do you pick yourself up and push harder? Or, do you cower behind defeat? Either way, don’t settle for the status quo. Do something.
Don’t try to plan everything, and stay flexible. In 2009 you’ll show up late to your first Ad Club meeting and miss out on volunteering for The Fifty – which was first on the meeting agenda. Instead, you’ll get the opportunity to launch a new intense portfolio program. This, and the talented people you meet through the club will change your career path. And don’t worry; you’ll get to do The Fifty later.
After all those years of getting lost in your own head, you’ll realize your brain’s not wired like most people who can clock in and clock out of a job. You have to create and help others create. There’s not much you can do to change that, but work to balance life better. (If you find your mind wandering when you need to be present, wiggle your toes. Trust me, it works. And it’s only weird if people see you do it.)
These will inspire you in your work and will help you see other perspectives. Never underestimate the power of empathy and divergent thinking. Creativity is simply the ability to combine things in interesting ways. And, without a good idea, the rest is irrelevant. Remember that.
Take great advantage of every small opportunity you get. The more you exceed expectations through seemingly insignificant things, the more credibility will start to stick. And you’ll get bigger opportunities.
You’ll learn on both sides of that equation. These relationships are your quickest route through the creative ranks. Helping others grow will help you grow.
If you’re not getting the experience you need at your day job, find ways to make those opportunities happen through side projects and volunteering. There’s no short cut for experience. Put in your time and never think you’re entitled to anything. You’ll go much further with hustle and humility than with excuses and ego.
In your career, there will be one thing you’ll deeply wish you could have changed. At an award show, you’ll run into one of your favorite young creatives that you mentored years ago. With his quirky smile, he’ll tell you things are going great. His distant eyes will tell another story. This will be the last time you see him. And that final memory will haunt you. The most important thing I can tell you is to always be there for your network.
Well, I’ll let you get back to your meandering path through this treacherous, yet exhilarating advertising adventure you’ve chosen. Good luck out there and I’ll see you down the road.
2013 me
P.S. I really hope this future-self advice doesn’t mess things up in a Back-to-the-Future sort of way. Well, I suppose time will tell, right? (By the way, did you get that winning lottery number list I sent you last month? Judging from my bank account, I’m guessing no.)

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

The 3% Conference Makes the Business Case for More Donna Drapers.

It’s fairly mind blowing. Eighty-percent of all household purchases are determined by women, while only three-percent of our nation’s advertising creative directors are women. (And let’s be honest, women probably practice veto power over the other twenty-percent of purchase decisions anyway.)

But, in a study where female consumers were asked if brands understood them, ninety-percent said no.

So there it is. As advertisers, we’re tasked with marketing to women for much more than the stereotypical lady brands. You know, the spots featuring freshness-challenged women running through flower fields, dancing with mops, or sniffing scent illusions.

In fact, much of our challenge lies in coming to terms with bigger misperceptions.

Believe it or not, women currently out-use men in all social media channels except for LinkedIn. Statistically, they’re also bigger gamers and they watch more television. Women demonstrate more technology usage and more social influence.

Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference said, “It’s not about equal rights, it’s about serving our clients better.” And women are notoriously bad in focus groups. They’ll tell half-lies because they self edit. However, when they’re on the other side of the agency table, they bring unfiltered intuition to the mix.

Let’s rethink how we market to women.

The key is to have people on your team that are not all like you. That’s how you find the uncharted truths. Fear not, marketing with women in mind does not have to alienate men. When positioning a brand – make it human, think collectively, don't sanitize, show diversity, and practice storytelling.

There are inherent differences between how men and women think, and divergent perspective is a good thing.

It shows up in childhood play. Boys enjoy reigning over their toys, and when they destroy things, it’s merely an act of fun and power. Girls empathetically imagine themselves as the toys and become part of the make-believe worlds. So, if a boy comes along and takes out the meticulously arranged princess castle, the girl is devastated. And the boy has no idea why.

So, what is it that’s making it so difficult for women to advance to ACD, CD, or beyond?

Times are changing. This is by no means a pity party for creative industry women. It’s about supporting talent. At all levels, advertising industry women are negotiating for the same salaries as their male counterparts. The biggest difference is that women are unlikely to ask for raises. It’s largely a matter of teaching women to be assertive and confident.

As a creative builds career momentum, this often coincides with family growth. The industry demands full commitment for advancement, and those with young families require more schedule predictability and flexibility. Many struggle with the challenge of work/life balance.

Mentoring enables advancement.

After Gordon’s keynote, the audience enjoyed mentorship from a truly stellar regional panel consisting of Dave Schiff, Partner/Chief Creative Officer of Made Movement; Charlotte Isoline, Executive Creative Director of Karsh Hagan; Jonathan Shoenberg, Executive Creative Director/Partner of TDA Boulder, Rachael Donaldson, Client Services Director of Made Movement; and Dani Coplen, Vice President/Creative of The Integer Group. Our excellent host Serena Wolf, Founder of Wolf Creative Company, moderated the panel.

"Women have to help other women. The greatest mentors I've had have been a combination of nurturing and badass." – Rachael Donaldson

"It's not about if you're male or female, it's just about who's good." – Dave SchiffHe also hilariously thanked his many mentors that may or may not have been state-appointed. And, he’s convinced that rock star ladies will inevitably phase him out.

Jonathan Shoenberg told us how he rose through the ranks, which involved a former employer liking his “country-ness.” Apparently, he had a great deal of farm experience on his resume back in the day.

Charlotte Isoline advised us to not be the genius in the room, but to maximize the collective genius.

Dani Coplen encouraged women to avoid invisibility. Say what you want to say.

Some of the advice from the panel that really resonated with me was the emphasis on mentoring. It’s crucial for career advancement. And in my mentoring experience, I’ve learned a great deal from those I’ve mentored. Always take time to help the driven ones; it’ll come back to you. The event was a full house, men and women. Everyone left inspired and excited about how they were going to move this knowledge forward. So, let’s empower some future Donna Drapers and keep this moving forward, shall we?

This piece is cross-posted on The Denver Egotistdesign TAXI, and the Vladimir Jones Blog

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The new business battle.

The new business pitch experience is kind of like a slow motion, extended director's cut fight scene. You have no idea where your competition or your breakthrough idea will come from, but you must be ready to defend it. All while maintaining your now business. And maybe some semblance of sanity.

(More specifically, I picture this way over-the-top scene from Boondock Saints II. Although, for what it's worth, I totally would have paired that scene with Conscious Killer from BRMC. I mean, come on, the MacManus brothers were religious vigilantes. It just fits.)

So, you get the new business creative brief. You may or may not have a clear weapon, but you most definitely will be blindfolded. That's the thrill of it though. In most cases, you have no idea who you're up against. What insight will your competition have that you don't? Are they close friends with one of the potential clients? Will they be smarter, or more funny, or find that one thing that the client can't deny?


Don't think about any of that. You have to put all that anxiety aside and work harder to create something undeniably true. Something right. Be certain that everyone will be bringing their best to the table and push yourself and your team harder.

The whole process is a grueling mental spectacle clouded with adrenaline and anticipation. You'll wake up in the middle of the night and send ridiculous emails to your team. (Sorry team, it felt like urgent genius at 4:00 AM. At 8:00 AM, though still entertaining, clearly not genius.) You'll forget to eat. (However, you probably will not forget to drink coffee.) You'll annoy your family and friends who maintain a normal work/life balance. (Yeah, during a pitch, 'work' holds its side of the teeter totter down like a relentless schoolyard bully while 'life' gets stranded in the air. Legs flailing.)

Time stands still, but there's never enough of it. You fill the wall, your sketchbook, and your free-time with conceptual angles. Then, just when everyone has second-guessed themselves to death and almost lost hope, you get the inspiration when you're not looking for it. A big idea effortlessly launches more supporting ideas. And it all starts to make sense. You build it as quickly as you can.

Then, pencils down everyone. You submit the idea. And you wait.

Coming off the high of a pitch is both exhilarating and exhausting. Those of us who seek the thrill of new business will continue to collect our arsenal of randomness and find satisfaction in the delirious aftermath of the pitch. We'll gladly subject ourselves to the uncertain creative smack-down. We'll build our team and hone our plan of attack. Growing from mistakes and briefly relishing victories.

Wait, what's that? There's another new business opportunity? Already? Alright. Cover me, I'm going in.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

How to survive in advertising.

A lot of extremely credible, and no doubt, scientifically-tested rules that apply to horror movie survival can be used to ensure our own advertising industry longevity. 

I'll get back to that in a minute. First, we must be aware of another potentially scary situation…

Years ago, a software program became capable of doing our job. Well, kind of. It produced mass quantities of ad ideas – all in blandly-adequate fashion. Acceptable creativity in ten seconds. About two coffee or martini sips worth of creative team time.

Is creativity merely an algorithm? Can a machine do that thing that not even strategists can realistically explain with a set formulaic definition? I've actually seen it defined with whimsical hand movements placed mid-sentence.

BETC Euro RSCG Worldwide, creators of the Creative Artificial Intelligence (CAI) technology, determined the software is only so clever. It's built with existing creative connections. Thankfully, enlightened humans are still superior. CAI was an experiment to demonstrate just that. 

...But don't let your guard down quite yet. That's rule number one in advertising survival.

1. The moment you get comfortable and complacent is the moment you become obsolete. Think about it. If your "character" is not contributing to the main plot, you are potential prey. (Especially if you go off on your own, mock someone on the team, or live in Maine.)

2. The junior creatives are always right behind you. Always. They're hungry and they don't sleep. (Encourage them and let them inspire you. Seriously, you really don't want them turning on you.)

3. Anything you think you know about advertising you probably don't. The rules are always changing. Go with it. Arm yourself with current knowledge and collaborate with other creatives. (Whatever you do, do not take that shortcut you heard about from one of the locals. It never ends well.) 

4. If an idea is dead, don't assume it's going to stay dead. An ambitious idea always has one last shot at reality. Theoretically, it could resurface at any time – with more power. Ideas love to avenge their own deaths. And, idea sequels are always in the works. (If the idea has access to a hockey mask, get the hell out of there.)

5. Do not try to unmask creativity. It shows up where it wants, when it wants. It's everywhere and nowhere. It laughs maniacally and probably hangs out in a sweet lair during it's downtime. Whatever it is, it's certainly not a single software program. (Sooner or later, in a shocking orchestra-crescendoed plot twist, you'll realize it was actually you all along.)

Thanks to everyone who voted this October's Post of the Month in Neil Perkin's Think Tank Hall of Fame. 

This piece is cross-posted on The Denver Egotist , Uprising, design TAXI, and the Vladimir Jones Blog. It's also cross-posted throughout the Egotist Network: AustinBostonChicago, Des MoinesDubaiKansas CityLondonLos AngelesMemphisNew YorkOklahoma CityPhoenixPortlandSan FranciscoSt. LouisSydneyTorontoTulsa, and Vancouver 

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Friday, August 31, 2012

Dinner with the grandparents.

In a world where things move fast and everything gets overlooked, I'm endlessly amazed by the lives my grandparents have led. They did not disappoint tonight. Spinning new stories and revisiting many favorites. I've written about them before. They are responsible for my appreciation of travel.

My grandmother threw out philosophical gems like these, "Everyone is like you, if you just let them in." And,  "Respect all religions. They are built on similar beliefs."
The seemingly-amplified prolificness this evening was a bit unnerving. As they both approach 90 years of age, there was a sense that they were telling my sister and I things they wanted to make sure to pass on. Like how very proud of us they were. How much they enjoyed taking us grandchildren on adventures. How lucky they were to have lived through the depression to truly appreciate what they have. How they still remember things from so long ago. Like when my great grandmother carried my grandmother out of their burning house at age four. How happy they were able to take many of us to my father's Cave family castle in England. (I could play princess there if I could foot the back-taxes on that thing. However, with the maintenance bills and my significant lack of a trust fund, holy-woodland-creature-cleaning-assistance-needing hell. Oh, and I can't sing either. Instant princess disqualification.)

My grandmother has broken her hips. She uses a cain with extreme disdain for that unfashionable accessory. At almost 90, my grandfather just finished designing a home for my parents and they're headed to Europe next month (after we discouraged their extended travel adventures years ago.) Other people have even called them recycled teenagers. Do we worry about them with their blend of stubbornness and physical unsteadiness? Yes. Could I take away their crazy zest for living life to its fullest? Never.

If I end up with a fraction of what they've gleaned from life, I'm a very lucky person.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

At the end of the day.

In advertising, it's an overused phrase. For clients and brands, it gives us perspective. But what about our own expectations?

At the end of the day, all you have is... 

your relationships.
your work.
your reputation.


another night to work until failure.
an opportunity to change everything.
a chance to appreciate what you have.


At the end of the day, all you have is tomorrow. 
And, at the end of most days, tomorrow is enough.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Beauty, imagination, and the what if?

I'm not sure what I like most about this spot. The graceful overlapping of reality and surreality. The perfectly-woven dreamlike music. The regretfully-romantic voiceover of a favorite actor. The nostalgic-yet-timeless art direction. The flawless final scene transition, lingering on a fleeting look before taking us to a present day self actualization.

The idea that you could put an ad like this out into an audience that has previously been treated to humor, hijinks, and shallowness is impressive. Sure, they're supporting the concept in funny and less epic ways through social media. But still, they've hit on something that not only speaks to the AXE-drenched teenage kid who just wants to get laid. It speaks to anyone who's ever been in love. Or in high school. So, will guys in their forties be buying more AXE? Well, hopefully not.

Of everything, the copywriting gets me the most. It's the hopeless romantic in me. Every word is heavy-hearted, yet quirky. A man poetically lamenting about an intriguing girl next door. Not the cheerleader, but the universal girl who got away. Not a girl, the girl. BBH New York has crafted an unexpected masterpiece that plays to our own sense of what if.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Combinatorial creativity, experienced.

Experience is more important than we think. But, it doesn't start with that shiny new internship. It starts well before that. When you first become aware of the world around you and begin collecting insights. 

They say creativity is combinatorial. It's a remix of what came before. Originality builds from the existing and grows through recombination. It's the culmination of all your experiences.

For example, here's a quote from one of my favorite posts capturing the value of experience:
Picasso is sitting in the park, sketching. A woman walks by, recognizes him, runs up to him and pleads with him to draw her portrait. He’s in a good mood, so he agrees and starts sketching. A few minutes later, he hands her the portrait. The lady is ecstatic, she gushes about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful, beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him. “$5,000, madam,” says Picasso. The lady is taken aback, outraged, and asks how that’s even possible given it only took him 5 minutes. Picasso looks up and, without missing a beat, says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”
Everything you've done influences everything you'll do. Take as much in as you can. The more eclectic, the better. Then, someday, see what you can laterally combine.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Change is hard, but it's a great thing.

When you leave an agency, it's not like clocking out from a factory job. Your coworkers become your close friends and family. A safe little world where you can unleash crazy ideas at will. You're surrounded by young talent who you've helped mentor and by creative incumbents who have influenced what you are today. It's always harder than you think to say goodbye.

No matter how busy things get over the years, you take the good times and the small victories with you. Like the time I was nominated to sell our suggestive app and disruptive ideas to a large group of conservative older women because, apparently, I was the only one who could pull if off without offending them. We built an elaborate presentation to repetitively remind them that they were not the target audience. We found examples that like-minded thinking had been successful within their intended audience of collegiate men and women. Believe it or not, and in spite of my inevitable blushing, I sold it. The work changed the organization's stodgy preconceptions and the executions generated positive awareness for their cause. It was the beginning of an evolution they needed to make to stay relevant.

So, after five eventful years at my last agency, I find myself at the forefront of change. Filled with excitement and anticipation, I hope to grow with a great new team of people in a brand new space. Opportunities are everywhere. I can't wait to see where we will go and what we will create.

Wherever you are, when you find visionaries willing to take chances and support innovation, find a way to keep that momentum going. Put your heart and soul into the projects that you want to attract more of. Find the people driven to do great things. And no matter where change takes you, always stay connected to them.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Storytelling and advertising.

People ask why I'm drawn to advertising over design alone. Without a doubt, it's the focus on copy first. Storytelling is the difference between decoration and intentional visual meaning. And here's what George Louis said about that:

Even though the synergy between words and images is crucial, Lois always tells people just starting out in advertising that when concocting a great ad, the words must come first. "They look at me stunned," he says. "They say, 'No, no, you create these powerful visual images. Why would you think of copy first?' I say, 'Because, a line, a slogan should be famous."
One powerful idea or headline can spawn an instant visual direction. If you have a strong idea, you don't have to retroactively search for connections in the visuals. Art and copy ignite each other. And the idea's media road map goes from there. You're not forcing anything.

Whatever the application, we should approach every project with storytelling in mind. Build the brand's character and create what drives it.

For fellow fans of storytelling, this TED talk by Andrew Stanton is a must see. Here are some of his storytelling insights applied to an advertising audience:

1. Make them care. Emotionally and aesthetically.
2. Promise that the brand experience is worth their time. And always deliver on that.
3. Sometimes it's the absence of information that draws them in.
4. Give them 2 + 2, not 4. Let them participate.
5. An evolving brand experience should be inevitable, not predictable.
6. Find what drives your audience, then encourage them to take the wheel and steer it.
7. Remember, change is fundamental.
8. Evoke wonder.

Video discovered from this post.

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