We met James during the FixFest — ‘the most ambitious copy event of the year’, hosted by Glenn Fisher and Nick O’Connor —, where he took center stage as one of the most prominent UK advertisers. James is the visionary founder and Chief Creative Officer of Meanwhile, a start-up creative agency in Manchester. He was Creative Director of BBC Creative, where together with partner Tim Jones (also a founder at Meanwhile), won a BAFTA for the Tokyo Olympics campaign, along with over 200 creative and effectiveness awards in their 5-year stint. Previous to this James has worked at several McCann Worldgroup offices, and independent agencies.
James, your career has spanned various creative roles, from working at McCann Worldgroup to winning a BAFTA for the BBC’s Tokyo Olympics campaign. Can you share some key experiences or insights from your journey that have shaped your unique approach to creativity and advertising?
There are a few things we live by (that’s me and my long-time creative partner and co-CCO Tim Jones), things that have guided our whole approach, and indeed why Meanwhile is called ‘Meanwhile!’ Most importantly, we simply look for ideas which are something different. Something unexpected and therefore more likely to be noticed and give our clients the edge in the markets. That’s really important. We’re in the business of changing behaviour, and you can’t do that without changing perspective, and you can’t do that without being different or original. We’ve never been in this business to do what’s already be done, or to make 5/10 ad campaigns. We want to make brands famous, and surprising acts are generally what achieves that.
We’ve picked up lots of lessons along the way too. Dave Price (CCO at McCann Manchester) I think taught us the importance of craft, Aidan McClure (now CCO at Wonderhood) showed us to be relentless in our pursuit of making what we wanted, and Steve Henry (co-founder of Decoded) taught us to always push ideas further. We’ve been very lucky, but that sad we’ve also learned probably more from the people that weren’t particularly great and have seen exactly who we don’t want to be.
So, all that cobbled together, and then I think Tim and I are wired to work harder than most, it comes from our upbringings and family backgrounds, and that gives us whatever it is that makes us who we are… which is now embodied at Meanwhile.
Meanwhile, your creative agency in Manchester, emphasizes ‘exceptions to rules’. Could you tell us more about this philosophy and share an example of a project where challenging conventions led to exceptional results?
As I mentioned above, being the exception is the only way to stand out. It really is ride or die for any brands. You can simply exist and slowly lose your relevance, or you can evolve and thrive.
In terms of rules, of which there are an awful lot of rules in commercial creativity which, to me, are merely subjective and will take you only to familiar places, we ignore them. Being different isn’t that hard, you simply need to look at what everyone else is doing, or indeed the rules of the game, and don’t follow them.
There’s been a few examples of this for us. We were the first (pretty confident of this) to suggest drone deliveries for Domino’s Pizza back in around 2013. So, we made a proof-of-concept film to promote it, with the original intention of releasing it on April Fools Day. Realising that everyone does that on April Fools Day, we figured it’d get lost and become irrelevant. So, we waited until June, fooled everyone, and were featured on Jay Leno, Steven Colbert, NBC and many other TV shows, for what was roughly a £3k investment. We broke the rules of the game, if you like.
Similar story for promoting This Time with Alan Partridge for BBC One. We could’ve done the standard 30 second trailer and posters and all would have been fine, but we had zero budget. So rather than accept we could do nothing, we cajoled Neil Gibbons (the Partridge writer) to write an email from a BBC employee email account and sent it to the 20,000 people at the corporation, which then predictably leaked and went viral for a day or two. Restrictions are certainly a creatives power if used in the right way.
Your work at BBC Creative garnered numerous awards and recognition. Particularly the work on the Tokyo Olympics campaign earned you a BAFTA. Can you provide some behind-the-scenes insights into the creative process and collaboration that led to such a prestigious recognition?
We actually found our directors, Factory Fifteen, and our production company, Nexus, before we’d even had an idea. Which went so far to building relationships and trust. Then with the wonderfully talented Rachel Miles and Michael Tsim as our creatives, between us and the directors we started fashioning the idea of taking people from lockdown to Tokyo and built the film as we went. It was quite honestly the most collaborative project I’ve ever worked on. From Ron Chakraborty and James Parry from BBC Sport, through everyone at BBC Creative, the was a collective shared vision that made the whole thing so smooth. The shared ambition for the work was huge.
You started as a copywriter. Is it something that still counts on your career path? Would you share the copywriting project you’re most proud of?
I still consider myself a writer first and foremost, and it’s still something I do at Meanwhile. I guess the lines have been blurred since I’ve been a creative director, as I think bigger than words alone. That said, a headline is usually the first thing I come up with still.
The work I’m most proud of is tricky, as most of the writing was done by Ms Banks for the film! But as campaigns go, from a copywriting point of view, the 2019 Change The Game campaign for women’s sport of the BBC is easily my favourite. It brought out all the haters and inspired a generation at the same time. Delicious.
Meanwhile is known for its commitment to creativity and innovation. Can you share some examples of recent projects that exemplify your agency’s mission to push creative boundaries and challenge norms?
Well, we’re working on a ‘Deliveroo for advertising’ called the MeanMachine. It’s designed to remove admin and layers of people from the agency/client relationship, so we’re pretty excited about that.
I can’t reveal too much but we’re working on a very iconic product for a very famous charity brand that will surprise people and have campaigns coming up for Coventry Building Society and a couple of other brands which will change the way you see them and their collective industries.
I’m contractually bound not to tell you specifics! Sorry.
With your background in both traditional and digital marketing, how do you see the future of advertising and content creation evolving, especially in light of changing consumer behaviors and technological advancements?
The rise of AI is a scary thing for sure, but I think creatives who master it and work out how to use it will thrive. And that’s always been the case with new technologies. You need to sometimes adapt and make it work for you, not you working for it.
I think we have to be conscious of the fight for consumer attention too. It’s never been more vital to entertain and be original. Attention-spans are scientifically proven to be shortening in the wake of so many new technologies, and people are willing to pay money to block advertising. That’s frightening. But luckily, we’re creative and should relish the challenge. The strongest will survive.
Featured image: James Cross, Meanwhile’d founder and CCO