Creative Thinking From Amsterdam

Brands should think harder before they speak, according to James Yeats Smith (also known as JYS), a South African creative based in Amsterdam.

By Nils Adriaans

A South African export living in Amsterdam, James Yeats Smith is a creative director with a wealth of international experience, which has shaped his view on the “obligation” brands have to society. Following his recent move from Anomaly to international creative studio Cloudfactory, I caught up with him to unpack why the world needs more thoughtful brands.

Why should brands think harder before they speak?

There’s a lot of terrible advertising in the world. But before there’s terrible advertising, there’s usually a brand adrift without a clear purpose. If a brand doesn’t have an understanding of why it exists, it can’t add value to anyone. And that’s dangerous. That’s when advertising pollutes society. Finding the centre of gravity takes a lot of time, thought and reflection. But once it’s unearthed, meaning always follows.

So when is a brand valuable?

Meaningful brands have a higher order to what they do, a reason for being that transcends the simple exchange of goods and services for compensation. Brands that are able to self-examine and understand the relevance they have in people’s lives are worth having around. Ones that don’t, aren’t.

I respect brands that have a point of view on the Zeitgeist – what it is, what it could be, or where it should go. Political malfeasance has dominated culture of late and truth and trust is in short supply. In that respect, The New York Times has an ironclad purpose and point of view. Danish brand, Bianco, on the other hand holds up a black mirror to the world with this topical take on the status quo. 

That can come across as rather lofty. What if you’re just selling a 50 cent bag of crisps?

You don’t have to save dolphins to have a meaningful purpose. The question is simply why you’re selling crisps. Is it because: a) you love crisps and make the crispiest crisps, b) you hate crisps and want to get rid of them, c) you have mixed feelings about crisps and are re-evaluating your life choices. Any of these reasons can be the beginnings of a brand purpose as long as it’s true.

What’s the role of creative agencies in this equation?

By definition creative agencies act as proxies / connectors for brands, but the best ones act as agents for the public too. They help hone the reason why a brand exists in a way that is true to its origins, but also in a way that is relevant to people right now. Often brands and their agencies get entangled in a web of analysis and circular logic, forgetting that we’re really just speaking to people. People who feel more than they think. Good agencies help brands think, but the best agencies also help them feel.

Give me a few brands that stand for something more…

I love visiting independent brands and meeting the people who make it happen. I was in Detroit last year and Shinola made a big impression on me. Their mission is to restore Detroit’s marginalised workforce to some of its former glory, while making exceptionally crafted watches, bicycles and leathery things.

In a similar trend the Hiut Denim Co. is another beautiful brand that I had the pleasure of experiencing first hand in Cardigan, Wales. They make a damn fine pairs of jeans, while re-tooling local denim craftspeople side-lined by cheap manufacturing. While those brands are both about putting people back to work, something less high-brow caught my eye that reminded me that laziness can be a purpose too.

When we spoke earlier, you said: “To provoke thought in others, I need to do a lot of thinking first.”  What kind of thinking is that, can you elaborate on that?

It’s less a kind of thinking and more a process of distillation. Getting to the essence of something takes time.

You also said the thinking will lead to creativity. How do you actually stimulate creativity within yourself?

I used to think I could stimulate creativity consciously, but I’m not so sure anymore. I’m starting to feel that it’s much more unconscious and mysterious – like a process that doesn’t want to be understood. It’s quite a romantic point of view.

How do you prepare yourself for a brief for example? How do you get your juices flowing, so to speak?

It starts with a good brief. There needs to be tension, a rub, some contrast. I’m looking for drama. If it’s missing, then rewriting the brief is good way to get the synapses firing. 

On a more abstract, higher level: what inspires you?

Music is a profound source of inspiration to me. Interpreting briefs through music helps me disrupt my thought process in unusual ways. For instance, a deep and meaningful problem might require something lo-tech like Mall Grab to shake it up, whereas a sales campaign might benefit from something reflective like Nils Frahm. 

As a creative director, how do you stimulate creativity within your teams?

Creativity is not a chore, nor should it ever feel like one. I try and remove the obstacles that make it seem that way sometimes. In my experience people are much more creative when they’re encouraged to:

1. Be unavailable – Creativity needs room to breathe. Get out of the office and check emails once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

2. Be dramatic – Sometimes that’s the only way to protect the work.

3. Be unrealistic – There are more than enough pragmatists to bring you back to reality.

4. Be an adult – Freedom demands responsibility, so be dependable, be responsible and most importantly be on time for things.

And then there is the whole agency and the client. How do you build a creative culture for everyone to flourish in?

You can’t please everyone. I’ve tried. But, what works well is a culture where people take the work seriously, but not themselves too seriously. It makes the process super fun and when it’s fun, the work always benefits.

What would be the best thing that could or should happen to the industry as a whole?

Treat people intelligently. 

You worked in South Africa, where you had your own boutique agency, in New York, and in Amsterdam at different high-level agencies. This implies you are ambitious and have an entrepreneurial mindset. What drives you?

Being creative is hard. I respect anyone who tries. Even Hemingway called the blank page the white bull. The thrill of facing that white bull and winning every once in a while is what makes it worthwhile.

You recently swapped an international network, Anomaly, for somewhat of a hidden gem in Amsterdam, called Cloudfactory. Why?

Agencies tend to work on things behind closed doors and then reveal the answer. It’s a ‘ta-da’ moment that almost never works first time. At Cloudfactory we foster a much more collaborative approach with our clients as well as the makers, the crafts men and women. To do that we need good chemistry between everyone, and a lot of respect in both directions. But when we get the alchemy right the results are spectacular.

What does your future look like, if it were up to you?

Over the next two years, I want to help Cloudfactory grow in the right way. And by that, I mean scale without compromise. It comes down to choosing clients who want to think with us, create with us, and succeed with us. Clients who embrace co-creation as part of our methodology – not just a buzzword. And, as a matter of course, it also means choosing to work with people who create things, the ones with the dirty hands, those who can’t wait for the ink to dry. By being choosey in these two areas, we keep our creative hearts healthy.

Nils Adriaans writes about creativity for Dutch advertising magazine Adformatie.