CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER OF HAVAS CHICAGO, JOHN NORMAN, TALKS ABOUT HIS BEGINNINGS IN “THE HEART AND SOUL OF DALLAS”, AND WHY THE HUMAN TRUTH MUST BE AT THE CENTER OF EFFECTIVE STORYTELLING.
As his first anniversary approaches, John Norman reflects on one year in his role of Chief Creative Officer and how Havas Chicago is urgently addressing the “drought” of impactful storytelling.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? What was your first job?
I grew up in Oak Cliff, which is one of the older neighborhoods of Dallas – the heart and soul of Dallas, too. Oak Cliff has a lot of grit and spirit. It’s where Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dennis Rodman, Spud Webb and T-Bone Walker came from.
I was raised an only child by my grandmother. Growing up, I was obsessed with drawing pictures and reading comics. It was an easy way to impress someone or make a friend.
My very first job was at a cheerleader uniform manufacturing company. It was the summer before ninth grade and my grandmother encouraged me to get a job. It turns out there were no cheerleaders to be found anywhere. I worked in the factory and organized items in the supply room, like the thread and fabric for making the uniforms. After a while I got bored and quit but still made drawings for the women that worked there, who were my grandmother’s age.
Basketball was my other passion. I was all-state in high school. I was 6’7” back then (ha ha). My high school coach was a big mentor to me. I played in college for one year before I realized I wasn’t going to make it to the NBA and pursued art and design instead. In college I was introduced to the biggest mentor of my life, Rob Lawton. Rob went on to found the Creative Circus in Atlanta. He has had a lasting impression on me and my life.
What are you passionate about?
I love design and visual storytelling. Great design has the power to draw you in and tell a story in one glance. It’s what separates the best brands from the rest. I love the elegance and impact of great design whether it’s fashion, architecture, interior design, photography or typography.
I also love storytelling. The experience of being emotionally moved by a story – whether it’s a painting, film, song or ad – is unlike any other. Storytelling that’s based in human truth and insights can turn an idea into something meaningful. I feel lucky to get up every day and have the opportunity to do that.
How did you get into the advertising industry?
I worked as a designer for almost ten years before entering advertising. During those ten years, one day I got a call from Nike Design. As an athlete and an artist, Nike was the dream. I ended up working there for nearly five years, creating posters that celebrated the 100-years of basketball and designing Nike footwear identities, many of which are still in use today.
While at Nike, I was the lead designer for an internationally recognized Hooptown complex in Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan. It was an innovative retail basketball environment designed to introduce Nike basketball to Japan. That was a game changer for me. My experience at Nike eventually led me to Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, which is where I got my start in advertising.
The opportunity to use design to create thoughtful and inspiring stories was what got me hooked on the ad business. It was a cool realization that all those years obsessing over comic books as a kid could translate into a career that I really enjoy.
In an interview with Campaign last year, you said you were excited to rid the landscape of a “drought of craft and storytelling.” How important are both those elements to the industry and why do you think they fell to the side?
Creative ideas don’t matter unless they’re executed through the lens of storytelling. Brands must tell great stories that move people just as movies and songs do – the question is how to make those stories provoke and inspire? All of my favorite work takes me on a journey through a meaningful story that’s rooted in human truth. If an ad or movie or song can make me feel something, I’m more willing to do something.
As an industry, we need to re-center our focus on the power of storytelling. It’s increasingly challenging, but also intriguing, to tether all the elements of a narrative together and devise a distribution strategy. Social media has allowed us to exercise storytelling with new digital platforms in unprecedented ways. I think it’s too easy to get caught up in the weeds, but as long as we keep the human truth at the center, we can break through.
It’s been almost a year since you joined Havas Chicago — what changes have you led at the office as part of your overall vision?
The first few months were getting to know our people and understanding how they work. I’ve been meeting our clients to understand our creative opportunities better. Listening is one of the most important things to do in any leadership role.
My time at Havas Chicago has been nothing short of incredible. We have tremendous talent here. I’ve been impressed and inspired by the roll-up-your-sleeves attitude that exists in these halls. That said, we’re bringing more talented people to inspire and influence our culture, and elevate our brands through storytelling with more meaningful impact in a modern world. Finding and recruiting thinkers and doers who solve problems from a media-agnostic approach is always a challenge, no matter what part of the world you live in.
I’ve been focused on structuring our teams in a way that will elevate our overall approach to creativity. We’ve made some changes, which includes staffing, as part of our growth strategy to be nimbler, media agnostic, and better serve our clients through craft and culture.
We’re attracting some of the best talent in the world right now who are masters of their craft and disrupters in our industry. Havas Chicago has the right opportunities to offer these creators. We’re in the heartland of iconic American brands. The client partners I have been fortunate to spend time with all want the same thing – emotional, clever work that speaks to the heart, not just the head.
“BRANDS MUST TELL GREAT STORIES THAT MOVE PEOPLE JUST AS MOVIES AND SONGS DO – THE QUESTION IS HOW TO MAKE THOSE STORIES PROVOKE AND INSPIRE?”
The Chicago office is one of Havas’ creative gems — what is your creative vision? What needs to improve and what direction will you take it in?
Havas Chicago is committed to building meaningful American brands through craft and culture. Our emphasis on advertising craft means we bring creative ideas to life in insightful, unexpected ways that connect with consumers on an emotional level. Culture refers to our ability to provide brands a relevant way in with consumers through their passion points, like music, entertainment, or societal issues.
I believe great ideas are brutally simple and come in all shapes and sizes. Great conceptual thinking is not dead; it’s the heart and soul of our business. Brands deserve thoughtful creative solutions to an ever-changing marketplace.
To me, it’s imperative to make creative work that’s as meaningful and impactful as it is celebrated, and I know Paul and Havas Chicago have the same goal.
My goal is to build on Havas Chicago’s heritage as an unconventional agency—from the art on the walls, to the people in the building, to the work we make —and use human-truth storytelling to bring ideas to life in ways that only Chicago can do through innovative formats and modern platforms.
Our vision is to be a world-class, A-list agency that is famous for creative ideas. That requires building a superior craft culture and that everything we do be in service of creativity, which is the direction this agency is headed. With the right partners, the right attitude, and the right talent, I’m full of optimism that we will achieve greatness.
What would you like the office to have achieved in the next six months?
Reigniting a new era of creativity and meaningfulness at Havas Chicago has been and will continue to be my goal in the next six months and beyond. I’m stoked about the progress we’ve made together so far and know we’ll get there by continuing to focus on great creative work made by exceptional talent for iconic American brands.
Recruiting and retaining the best talent in the business is crucial to delivering on Havas Chicago’s mission. My main goal is to win more new business with great work, while continuing to build a team of folks who are masters of their craft.
What are you good at?
I’m good at building things. I love working with my hands to create. If I were not in advertising, I would build homes. I have the utmost appreciation for the visible cause and effect that comes with concepting and then building the walls, the floor, and the ceiling.
What are you bad at?
Finding quiet time to meditate, to be still and be present. Practicing meditation makes your heart and mind open. It’s hard to find time to do that in the office, on the road, and even at home, but I try whenever possible.
How do you inspire others?
I like to get people out of their typical environment and help them see their jobs in a different context. Great ideas don’t come from looking at other ads. I ask people to bring ideas that inspire them and that come from somewhere outside of the industry. Music, architecture, and fine art all inspire people and influence our craft. Creatives have to get out into the world and experience it, and then bring back ideas that are grounded in real truth.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Always try to have joy in your life, not happiness. Joy comes from within and happiness relies on other variables. There’s no such thing as happiness, really.