Creative Director of Betaworks talks about why not to give up on boundary-pushing projects.
Why The Force Of A Good Idea Is Unstoppable
Text by Dory Carr-Harris
James Cooper believes all that is needed for great work to be created is to find other inspiring minds to feed off of. “I think most good creative people, if they sit in a room with three or four other interesting people, find that the ideas start flying and sparking.” So when he began at Betaworks, Cooper had a very clear idea of how he wanted to approach working for the company.
“I knew that if I was going to take a full time position, I wanted to freelance there first. So many places out there right now are trying to figure out what they do and how that works. Then you get there and you realize they don’t have a clue.”
Having worked in the advertising and creative marketing industry for many years, with stints at Google, 72andSunny, Anomaly and Dare London, Cooper knew what kind of environment was going to be the right one for him.
The Betaworks office sits in a cobblestoned corner of New York’s Meatpacking district directly across from tourist mecca, The Chelsea Market. The atmosphere is laid back but busy, the vibe-du-jour at most startups and tech-centric companies.
“I think Betaworks is probably rightly or wrongly known for investing,” James comments, and given their track record it is seemingly the former. They were the original investor in Tumblr and their initial $50K check brought them a dividend almost one hundred and twenty-five times that amount. They also designed and created Tweetdeck—a popular Twitter organization and posting tool—and sold it to the social network for stock. Betaworks bills themselves as “a company that builds essential products,” and they are responsible for creating many successful startups including Instapaper, Dots, Giphy, Bitly, Chartbeat, and also for the successful resuscitation of content aggregator, Digg.
This eclectic but strategic mix was incredibly intriguing to Cooper when thinking about whether to take a permanent job at the company. “I said to the CEO John Borthwick, ‘you’ve got this really interesting group of people that actually any modern ad agency would kill for, but that they couldn’t hire because these people would never go work for them.’”
Having an agency-type staff yet existing outside of the agency world, Betaworks seemed like the perfect fit for Cooper who signed on to be their Head of Creative just a month ago—responsible for exploring and creating the company’s narrative as a brand, after working for them on a part-time basis for just over a year.
Cooper believes that the easiest way to stifle individual creativity is to choose the wrong work environment and surround yourself with the wrong people. “If you want to do great creative work, then I think you just have to look at the top and say, ‘Are these people known for being creative?’”
“To me, the obstacles have always been, ‘I’m not on the same page as whoever’s running this piece of business,’ or, ‘I’m not on the same page as the client,’ and that comes from whether your business philosophy is ‘We’re going to do creative work,’ or, ‘We’re just going to do stuff to make money.’”
Having a group of like-minded people around is also crucial for its ability help you access your own creativity, which Copper defines as: memory, connection and gut. “I don’t think of it as this flash of inspiration. That’s not how my mind works. I have a really good memory, so I store stuff.” The creative process begins with seizing a thread as it comes to you and acting on it without over-thinking. “As a Creative Director,” he asserts, “the only thing you really have is your gut instinct.”
Luckily, Cooper believes the more work that you do the easier the creative process will become: “As you get older you have more connections to make and you make them a little quicker. I think your mental trashcan works a lot faster. You know immediately why an idea won’t work.”
This instinctual element is extremely important for Cooper who cites running as one of his main sources of inspiration: “It’s basically reading, running and travel—those are my three. I was going to put dreams but then actually I don’t believe in dreams, I believe in half marathons.”
“Running for me is a time where your brain switches off. It’s similar to dreaming, but slightly better because you can allow an idea to come in and then you can actually investigate it a little bit further.”
Cooper is incredibly disciplined and balances his intense physical exercise with equally diligent mental exercise. “I’m pretty regimented about my reading. I read on the subway. I purposely take the 30 minute subway ride to read. This is nerdy but I read fiction and then non fiction. I try to swap every time.”
While Cooper’s work life is very organized, he believes that it is important to counteract the strictness of his running and reading schedules with a healthy dose of wonder and wandering.
“Travel is the other big source of inspiration for me. My wife and I took two big trips in 2001. We went to China, Tibet, Nepal, India for four months, then we lived in Sicily for another four months. There’s probably not a brief that goes by without something bubbling up from one of those two trips.”
Cooper attributes this to the fact that when you are traveling your brain switches off, in a different way than when out on a run, where your mind is not analyzing, but rather calmly processing the stimulus around you and taking everything in. This openness allows the mind time to gather the fodder that will become part of the web of connections that he terms “creativity.”
Copper refers to himself as more of an ideas man, but is cautiously optimistic in a post-crash America. “I don’t think it’s hard to come up with ideas, I think it’s hard to get ideas made. I think nowadays, stuff’s just not getting made as frequently as it was.”
This is because in a 2013 New York, there is a lot at stake. “People are very nervous about losing their jobs, and spending money when perhaps they don’t need to. This idea of, ‘Let’s just throw a little bit of money at an experiment and see what happens,’ becomes harder for a client to justify.”
But while this may sound discouraging, Cooper is undoubtedly optimistic about the direction that he will be taking at Betaworks.
“I do think that the majority of those common agency relationships are just broken, and are not going to foster any kind of meaningful work. You have to look outside of the system to some of that more interesting stuff.”
One of Cooper’s most famous projects, ‘Help I have the Flu’—a Facebook app that tells you who in your network is sick, and may have infected you, based on their status updates—started out as an idea that just couldn’t get made. After pitching it at Saatchi, and to clients in London and the States, Cooper was forced to table the idea, but it never left him.
A good idea never truly disappears and when Cooper made it to Tool of North America, it was the first project that he spearheaded.
“We did it, and the day it launched, it was on every single news channel. I was being interviewed on the radio, and by ABC. It was on Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno, and it won a ton of awards.”
The simplicity of the idea and the low-budget of the project were theoretically points that could have worked against it, but according to Cooper the secret to getting ahead in the ad business is to find the projects that no one else wants. “If you want to win an award, search for the shittiest brief in the agency, because that’s the way that you cut through.”
Even though Cooper is wise to the ways of the ad world, he is still enthralled by it: “When I joined Betaworks, a couple of people were like, ‘Oh, you finally got out of advertising.’ But that’s not the case at all, because I’m still working within advertising, just in a different way, and I love advertising, and I love ideas.”
Images by Catalina Kulczar
Explore the image gallery inspired by the conversation with James on Moodboard by iStock.