Johannes Leonardo’s Julian Cohen finds his best inspiration on his daily commute
This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. It has been edited for length and clarity. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.
You became an associate creative director earlier this year after building a career as a copywriter — what does it mean to you to have “creative director” in your title now?
Before becoming an associate creative director here at Johannes Leonardo I was a senior copywriter for about five years, which was a really important part of my growth. That senior title is something people try and skip over quickly, but you learn so much there, and it’s where you actually get to shine the most as a writer.
For me, now that I have “creative director” in my title, it’s about fostering culture and fostering junior talent. That’s how I view my leadership. If they’re getting recognition for their work, if they’re getting their ideas made, that means I’m doing a good job. It’s on me to pinpoint which of their ideas is good, and help them turn that good into great. Selling ideas is the second part of the job, but that’s easy if the ideas are good. If I can do that, it’s a win for the team, a win for me, a win for the agency, and a win for the client.
In the past, I’ve definitely worked with some creative directors who put their own ideas first. As someone coming into this role for the first time, a primary focus for me is to not do that. If I see a great idea, I won’t touch it. I’ll pitch it as is.
Is there any advice your old creative directors gave you that’s been important as you grow into the role?
Listening is more important than talking. That’s something I try to live by. My first group creative director, Paul Vinod, left a huge impact on me — he’s who I learned this from and his leadership style continues to inspire me every day.
One of the first things I noticed as a young creative was that people in advertising love to hear themselves speak. Paul was the exact opposite, which surprised me. In meetings, he remained silent and appeared to take on the role of an observer. At first I questioned it — but each time he spoke, everyone else stopped, turned, and listened. That’s when I realized there was a lot of needless conversation going on, and that Paul had the finesse to use his words carefully. He chose to speak only when it would move the conversation forward. So when he did speak, everyone listened.
How do you tell when your work is successful?
Creativity is subjective. What I think is successful might not be what someone else thinks is. Every creative director has their own opinion on what is special, which is why it’s important to work with lots of different people, lots of different minds.
For me, a major form of success is when I feel excited about a piece of work, even after I’ve worked on it for like a year. If I’ve put endless hours of blood, sweat, and tears into something, and I’m still excited when it actually comes out…that’s special.
Appreciation from people outside the industry is huge for me, too. For example, we just released a campaign with Volkswagen for the ID. Buzz, the electric version of the classic VW Bus, which we were responsible for launching and introducing to the world.
I remember when the campaign first came out, some of my non-ad friends were sending me screenshots of their friends texting them pictures of these ads on the street saying, “oh my god, this is so funny.” Or, “wow, this is such a clever play on grammar.” To me, that’s the best compliment you could get: catching someone’s eye who doesn’t even work in advertising. After all, isn’t that the goal of advertising?
What is the hardest part of getting work you believe in out the door?
As an Associate Creative Director, it’s about building relationships with your clients based on trust, so when you pitch them an idea you really believe in, they’ll really believe in it too.
Before all of that, though, the hardest and more important part is identifying that great, human insight that forms the foundation of an idea. Without that, you’ve got nothing. For example, if you look at another campaign we produced with Volkswagen, “Those Guys, the insight there is so strong — everyone has seen that guy, and if you haven’t you probably are that guy.
At the end of the day, good ideas ship themselves. As long as you’ve got a great, relatable human insight and you take your clients along for the ride, you’ll be able to sell it.
What are the three things you can't do your job without?
It all boils down to a pen, a commute, and a late night grilled cheese from Sunset Diner.
A pen, because you can write anything on anything. I could write on my hand. I could write on a napkin. I could even write in a notebook.
A commute, to me, is the most important. I'm a big proponent of going into the office, for various reasons, but especially because I believe the commute creates great work. It’s the only time in your life where you're surrounded by people that aren't in your bubble. People who you know nothing about. And that’s where you find the best insights.
I walk to the subway, I get on the train, and I see all these different people — dentists, lawyers, plumbers, electricians. Other creatives. Maybe a coworker. I see kids going to school, I see babysitters, I see performers. And you see human behavior when you're waiting for the train. You see anger, you see happiness, you see sadness. You see people chasing dreams. You see a full range of emotions.
There’s so much life in a commute, and I think it truly breeds creativity. If you take that away, you’re just stuck in your bubble, sitting in your home office, going to the same coffee shop down the block, seeing the same people every day.
And a late night grilled cheese — first of all, I love grilled cheeses and I love Sunset Diner. I usually end up there if I have a late night at work, as a reward. Again, it’s also a great place to come up with ideas because it’s another space where everyone goes. It’s peoplewatching.
Analyzing human behavior like that is extremely important in this career. Going back to the “Those Guys” spot, the inspiration for some of the scenes came from those commuting, late-night-grilled-cheese moments.
All in all, never lose touch with society. If you do, your creativity will eventually suffer.
Is there any advice you’d like to give people just starting a creative career?
When you’re starting out as a writer, focus on understanding why an idea works and why an idea doesn’t work. Then, learn how to explain why those ideas work and why they don’t. After you understand how to explain it, you’ll have to learn how to sell it. Selling your ideas becomes more than half of the job. Sometimes it takes the right presentation for someone else to not only understand good ideas, but get excited about them.
Early is on time. As a junior, I didn’t necessarily get the most exciting briefs. But for the first couple years, I’d come into work every day at 8:45 AM and work until 6:00 PM on those briefs, the ones no one else wanted to work on. From 6:00 PM to midnight, I’d work on stuff that I wanted to work on, for me. And every day, I’d present one of those ideas to my creative director — Paul, the same one I mentioned earlier. Most of those ideas died. But every now and then, he’d say, “That’s really interesting. Let’s pitch it.”
Creativity is about practice. It’s a muscle, and the more you work it out, the stronger it gets.