This article first appeared on Creativepool as part of its 'getting to know' series.
James Keane is a man with some serious acumen in the world of advertising. With a background working for top flight agencies like J Walter Thomson and The & Partnership (CHI) as well as digital shops like Skive and design studios like Stylorouge, his experience in the creative industries is certainly not to be sniffed at.
According to the man himself in Creativepool’s #GettingToKnow he’s also an incredibly patient man that wears many hats in his current role as Creative Director at Imagination.
Creativepool caught up with James to discuss a little about his work at Imagination, his proudest moments, how the 11th of September changed his life and the power of asking questions.
Tell us a bit about your role. Is there a “typical” day?
Today, my role is more diverse than at any other point in my career. As a Creative Director at Imagination, I predominantly work with one of our largest clients - Ford Motor Company, in a role that has seen me fly around the world working on more varied projects than you can imagine.
No day is typical. I can be doing anything from creating concepts for massive media reveal shows launching a new product to the world, developing a consumer-facing experience that turns you into a movie star getaway driver or most recently working with technologists on a cutting edge platform that takes brands from the physical to the virtual world.
What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?
Patience. I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, along my journey to where I am now that it takes time to progress in this weird old industry of ours. There were points along the way where I felt ready to take the next step, where the decision-makers haven’t. They were often right.
What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?
A lifetime ago in 6th form at school, I was convinced I was going to be in I.T. So much so that I studied for, and gained, a Cisco networking qualification in evening classes during my A-Levels. Then on September 11th, 2001 as I was about to hit the I.T jobs market fresh faced with my new qualification, of course, everything changed.
Fast forward a year later, working in retail, I’d woken up to the fact that I had mostly been messing around in photoshop at school creating digital artwork. I managed to pull something of a portfolio together and found myself with a place on a digital media production degree course at the London College of Printing which at the time was starting its diversification into digital.
The split of the digital technical and creative sides of me are still, to this day, vital in what I do. They allow me to see things in different ways, push boundaries and be the bridge between the two worlds.
What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?
My biggest career-related win was realising I actually enjoy the people side of what we do. I worked as a designer for ad agencies for years across their whole roster of clients. I was always chasing the next brief and the next brand.
Later in my tenure at J Walter Thompson I focused on one or two brands, got to know the clients, and what made them tick. Up until then, it was all about the craft. Craft matters, but it’s the people talking to other people about ideas that comes first.
I’m still waiting for my biggest loss I suspect. It’s not like every day of my working life has been a bed of roses - there have been mistakes I've learned from along the way - but I consider myself fortunate that none have been earth shattering.
Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?
I’ve never met him, but Martin Lorraine’s ad for an updated VW Golf GTI that featured a remixed Gene Kelly Singing in the Rain hit the nation’s ad breaks in 2005. From DDB, it was one of the reasons I got into advertising. To me, it’s genius. It has everything. Intelligent but simple. Retro yet cutting edge modern. Entertaining and unexpected. Just brilliant.
If you could go back to your teenage years, would you have done things differently? Do you have any regrets?
I’ve never been the life and soul of a party and I’d be kidding myself if I thought I could convince my teenage self to do otherwise. But, I would tell my younger self to stop taking myself so bloody seriously and to take opportunities when they were presented to me. In my twenties I had the chance to go and work for Saatchi and Saatchi in Auckland, New Zealand and I’ve always regretted turning it down.
If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?
Recently I’ve taken up a hobby in the form of woodworking. Not sure I’d become an off-grid spoon whittler, but I’d love to make furniture. I’m a big mid-century modern fan and I’d like to think I’ve got an incredibly cool coffee table in my future, or maybe yours if I could turn it into a paid job!
What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?
My one big dream is that clients stay brave. In a world of decks, data and artificial intelligence, losing the gut feel and human intuition can be easily done.
What are your top tips for aspiring creative professionals?
Have a point of view on things. No brand manager or marketing client ever bought work, or stayed with an agency that didn’t have one. And if you’re lucky enough to get an interview somewhere, please read up on the agency and the work they do before you get there!
What are your top tips for other creative leaders?
The power of simply asking questions. Challenge your team over solving it for them. And when it comes to clients I’ve learned there’s nothing worse than assuming you know what they want when you could have asked.
Surround yourself with experts. You’ll never know everything. We aren’t the finished article. There’s no creative leadership school, we’re all learning on the job. Be humble.
When you think about your team, what is the thing that matters to you the most?
Obviously helping them to achieve their potential, but the thing that matters most is simply remembering they are people.
One of the few positives of the pandemic has been a near two year look into my team’s homes through the rectangles on my screen. It’s been an excellent reminder that they have families, troubles, and real lives - things that matter more than the work ever should.
Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?
For me, staying up to date with current affairs is vital for the media side of what I do, so it sounds simple but my Apple News subscription is invaluable. Podcasts wise I thoroughly recommend How I Built This with Guy Raz. The list of inspiring world-class entrepreneurs he talks to is extensive.
I’m currently watching Anna Wintour’s Masterclass from masterclass.com. Like every series on that platform it’s incredibly insightful. I regularly check in on tech sites like The Verge or WIRED, and on my favourite digital artists like Beeple, Dlew and Gmunk.
Lastly my YouTube subscriptions include plenty of automotive media outlets as you’d expect from someone who works with Ford a lot. Rory Reid has done amazing things for Autotrader and Fully Charged has carved out a real space for itself.