Cher Campbell: “We Won’t Let the Opportunity for Change Pass Us By”
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Canadian production company FRANK Content is a proud supporter of Little Black Book as its partner for the Canadian market. As part of the relationship, LBB is sitting down for a chat with the brightest and best minds from across Canada's advertising industry. Here, LBB's Adam Bennett speaks to Cher Campbell, chief creative officer at john st., about the importance of ‘unlearning’, the mid-lockdown work she wishes she’d made, and how john st. is embracing a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change…
Q> Hello, Cher! Thanks for taking the time to chat. Let’s start at the beginning - when did it first dawn on you that you were ‘a creative’?
Cher> I don’t know that it ever dawned on me. I didn’t seek out advertising. I’m dyslexic, and school came hard. I did creative things because I couldn’t do what everyone else could do. Luckily, being ‘creative’ about what a book report could be, avoiding assignments, and making up acronyms and symbols as memory aids were all good training for being ‘a creative’.
Q> And have you always identified a link between creativity and commerce? Did that clear link mean a career in advertising was always going to be your path?
Cher> I quit school when I was 18 to be a street vendor. I bought salt ‘n’ pepper shakers, jewelry boxes, piggy banks, lighters, keychains, whatever I could find from thrift stores and cheap dry goods joints. I repainted them indulgently in flowerchild iconography. Drunken tourists loved my wears, especially the trippy disposable lighters shoved into tiny-cowboy-boot-keychains. Eventually I started making jewelry, refining that craft, learning techniques, and decided to apply to Ontario College of Art and Design’s jewelry design program. Once there, I discovered the advertising and design program. I found the thing I was missing. I liked making things that people wanted - but I wasn’t quite an artist.
Q> If you had never embarked on a career in advertising, what would you be doing today?
Cher> I’d probably be running a restaurant in Turks and Caicos.
Q> john st is a born and bred Canadian agency. Do you think that lends your work a certain edge or characteristic that helps it stand out?
Cher> john st was founded by five partners – four Canadian, one American. Their friendship and personal values are what defined the culture, which in turn defined the work. Those values have not changed, and I hope they never do. Positivity is at the core of that culture. We strive to make a positive impact on everything we do, from the way we hold meetings, to the work we put out in the world, to the way we interact with each other at the microwave. It all informs the work just as much as strategy and creativity. We try to put work out in the world that is additive, it doesn't matter if it’s silly, irreverent, or heartfelt - it just needs to be positively impactful.
Q> And in what ways do you think that Canada’s creative culture has evolved since the time you started your career?
Cher> I left Canada to work abroad in my late 20s. I spent seven years working across Asia on global briefs. I no longer rely on language, inside jokes or spoofs. I had to unlearn Canadian advertising of the time. You know the kind… pasty guy waters his lawn, his neighbour comes out, something vaguely funny or wacky happens, tagline, logo.
Multimarket work needed to be clean and resonant because of its insight into shared traits and feelings. Sometimes this approach sanded the edges too smooth, but it also pushed how I conveyed an idea and what an idea could look like.
These days, a lot of advertising still looks the same. The casting may have changed, especially in the last year, but the shift into telling larger stories with different sorts of narratives – non-linear, abstract ones, ones that make you feel rather than tell you how to feel, narratives that don’t immediately look like advertising – those things are only just beginning to change.
Q> To put it mildly, the past year has been a unique one. Looking at the industry in Canada, how do you think you guys have fared during this turbulent year? Are you feeling positive for the future?
Cher> I can guarantee you that no, none of your emails have ‘found me well’ over the past four hundred and whatever days. Toronto has had one of the longest lockdowns in the world. I can’t downplay how hard that’s been. That said, we’ve been in ‘what’s next’ mode for some time, not wanting to let the opportunity for change pass us by. Which doesn’t mean change for change’s sake. It means holding on tight to what works, while eschewing those things that felt immovable about the ways agencies worked for so long.
We’ve found a sweet spot in co-creation. It embraces the best of john st, i.e. the combination of an amazing culture and smart work. It’s not lip service or a mot du jour, not ‘agile’, though we’ve definitely borrowed many of those principles. Co-creation takes away all the ta-das, the pressure and expected outcomes. When we build things together, we all love that thing way more. We all want it to be the best thing it can be.
Being in people’s living rooms, watching their kid’s meltdowns, seeing their birthday balloons deflate, afforded us all the opportunity to be more ourselves, more empathetic, more likely to be open to working together to solve problems. So, yeah, I’m feeling incredibly optimistic. I love how we’ve evolved and how clients and john streeters have embraced the process.
Q> Your ‘A Cart Apart’ campaign was one of the first post-lockdown pieces of work that we saw really stand out and deviate from traditional pandemic messaging for a brand. Do you think the industry has caught up with you at this point?
Cher> ‘A Cart Apart’ speaks to a few of your earlier questions, I think. Firstly, it doesn’t follow that traditional or expected format of advertising. I’m not even sure that it is advertising. While it has a message, the feeling it gives you is equally important. It leaves you feeling good about following the rules imposed by a pandemic in the only place you’ve been allowed to go for the last year and half. That’s what I love about it. I love that my kids are still singing it in the shower. Secondly, it was absolutely the result of co-creation. Our client didn’t write a brief with a deliverable. They had a problem, people were getting a little aggressive in stores, we talked about it together, and we worked through solutions together. It wasn’t hard to ‘sell’, because there was no sell.
Above: 'A Cart Apart' for the Canadian supermarket No Frills struck a different, more fun-loving (but no less important) tone to much pandemic-era marketing.
Q> What’s one piece of Canadian work you didn't make, but wish you had from the past year?
Cher> I’m just going to pick the one thing I’m most jealous of regardless of provenance. And that was the UK Design Museum’s supermarket of essential items. During lockdown in London, museums were closed but grocery stores were open. The idea to create a grocery store in which each essential item is an ownable piece of art, to skirt covid restrictions is brilliant, but the store itself was a beautiful work of design in and of itself. I’m not sure if Warhol would have loved it or argued that the cans of soup et al need not be redesigned. In any event, I love this idea and admire Bombay Sapphire for backing it, many clients would have shied away from supporting a cause that essentially thumbed its nose at covid restriction regardless of how safe it was.
Q> Finally, there’s understandably a lot of doom and gloom in the world today. But what’s keeping you motivated and inspired day-to-day?
Cher> All those different types of narratives I spoke of earlier. Those keep me inspired. We’re building video games, dropping albums, writing 72-page guides that explain how to be a human on a restaurant patio again, live tweeting the Oscars. These are the ways we’re doing loyalty, promotions, and brand et al. It’s super exciting. It’s amazing to have your phone blow up at 10 p.m. because TikTok decided to love something, or because your campaign just turned into this year’s hottest Halloween costume. Advertising is so much more dynamic than it once was. I love every day of it.
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