‘Have a bit more fun, try things’

Mr. President’s James Cooper shares how curiosity, fun and passion help fuel creativity in the workplace

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


“I see being a Creative as joining dots in interesting ways. So the more dots you have the more interesting those connections can be. Those dots can come from anywhere.”

James Cooper, one half of half of Creative Team ‘Zooperheiss’ at Mr. President, is sharing the importance of combining passion and creative pursuits into every single project.

As Summer comes to a close and September brings with it back to school energy, the importance of embracing inspiration and exploring creativity is a year-round pursuit. No less because it’s proven that curious teams are more creative ones

Cooper is no stranger to unlocking the power of curiosity. At a young age, he was exposed to the monetary rewards of creativity whilst running nights at local clubs at just 16 and 17. “At an age when officially you’re not even allowed to be in a nightclub, I was running one in half term.” he says, “The first one was such a success I had to call my dad because I had too much money on me. That was an early indication that you can do creative things and you can also make money off them. It's not just art for art's sake, it’s combining the two.”

As a creative, you’ve always got to be really optimistic and see the best thing that you can get from every single project, otherwise it becomes self-defeating really quickly.

James Cooper, Creative, Mr. President

This passion for music and entrepreneurial spirit is mirrored by Cooper’s interest in fanzines. “We used to go and use my mum's photocopy to create all our fliers and create fanzines for fun,” he says. This act of making and creating is a channel for Cooper’s passions. An ethos and a spirit that he aims to maintain in his client work today. For in a world where connecting with culture is high on brand agendas, being immersed in a creative scene and in touch with popular culture is a superpower for agencies. There can be no creative output without a creative input. 

Creating within culture 

Looking to the music industry as a pioneer of culture, Cooper is passionate about combining the two and the importance of learning from music. “The music industry is really good at working out all the new mediums, whether that be early on Facebook or now Instagram or TikTok.” says Cooper, “A lot of creatives look at what music artists are doing and try to emulate that.”

Both the cultural currency and the impact of music within popular culture makes it an appealing prospect for brands and a source of inspiration. “Brands can see how music affects culture and they want to do the same with their brands,” says Cooper. “Get fans and culture to spread your message.”

He points to an example of a recent Verizon project the agency is working on at the intersection of music, entertainment and culture using AR to immerse audiences into the world of the brand. Yet, where not all projects will have such a direct link Cooper urges creatives to think differently and consider where this link to culture can come from.

“As a creative, you’ve always got to be really optimistic and see the best thing that you can get from every single project, otherwise it becomes self-defeating really quickly,” says Cooper. “If a brand comes with a thing, you can’t think ‘I don't like it’, you have to think, ‘what's the interesting thing we can pull out here, what's going to resonate?’ It’s your job as a creative to find something interesting.” 

Creativity beyond Cannes 

Whilst award season can act as a source of inspiration, awards culture is often at risk of glossing over the realities of the creative process. In the midst of the glamour, parties and copious amounts of rose wine, Cooper is aware that it is the work and opportunities for genuine connection that should be championed.

Why would you be looking back, you should be looking forward.

James Cooper, Creative, Mr. President

Sharing his experience of Cannes Cooper says: “As a junior creative I would wait, there are loads of PDFs of every single award, time could be better spent going through the work and or getting inspiration from another festival like Glastonbury.” Hustle and bustle can make it hard to see the wood from the trees; no empty beach leaves no breathing space to be creative.

Focusing on the work Cooper is intrigued by the idea and possibilities afforded by AI yet maintains there is a long way to go before the tool is used to its full potential. With many looking back, or scrambling to be the first, Cooper favours a forward-thinking mentality. “Why would you be looking back, you should be looking forward,” he says. Reminiscent of Tim Cook’s famous Apple ethos: ‘We've never set the objective to be first, we've always set the objective to be the best.’ 

Leading with curiosity 

Allowing breathing room to be creative can allow the best work from teams, yet ironing out ways of working in a new hybrid world remains a challenge for leaders. Yet before leaders can help to create good working structures, it is helpful to learn from individuals who know their own unique perfect conditions for creativity.

I don’t think you can force creativity into an agency. I think the leaders either have it or they don’t.

James Cooper, Creative, Mr. President

“I have modes where I work. When I want to write I get up early in the morning, shut myself away and have no distractions to just get on with it,” says Cooper. “Being at home is perfect for that. If you're at an office and need 2 hours of quiet time it can be quite tricky. The other mode is at the start of the brief it's just vital that you're with someone and bouncing off ideas.”

Good leaders play a big part in facilitating such balance and allowing creatives space to do their best work. Cooper points to Mark Collier at Dare as an example of a leader who allowed his creativity to thrive. “I don’t think you can force creativity into an agency. I think the leaders either have it or they don’t.” says Cooper, “[At Dare] everyone knew the management philosophy, so it was actually easy for me and my creative partner, Flo Heiss, to promote creativity. We did some crazy things that would not have flown had it not been for Mark and the rest of the board.” 

Finding fun in the creative process 

The importance of collaboration and fun is essential for the creative process at every stage. “That initial two, three-hour hardcore brainstorm is the most fun bit for sure,” says Cooper, “and 9 times out of 10 it's the idea we had in those first few hours that we end up making or presenting.”

Cooper shares that a recent project for surf brand, Mami Wata has been the source of much fun at the Mr. President offices. “They are a really fun, edgy, culturally vibrant brand from Africa all about spreading the creative force of Africa through surfing and African culture… Whenever we have something from them we open that up to the whole agency, sit around for a while.” Recently the brand collaborated with Vans on a creative concept around one foot in Africa which Cooper shares was the product of a collaborative brainstorm session over lunch. Pulling in ideas from different members of the team and getting excited about the possibilities can result in award-winning work.

In the monotony of the day-to-day, it can be easy to forget the fun elements of creative work and get wrapped up in hitting KPIs or vanity metrics. Fun is an important source of inspiration and results in monetary success too but in a world where the cost of living crisis and the aftermath of the pandemic have resulted in long-term economic turbulence, it's no surprise that clients can be cautious.

“It comes from confidence,” explains Cooper, “A lot of agencies are finding it difficult to make money, getting squeezed but there’s nothing worse than an agency that’s not confident. You start second-guessing, thinking you have to say yes to the client all the time for fear of losing business.”

“If you’re on the front foot, have a good relationship or feel like if the client leaves we can go get another because we are good at what we do, then you have that freedom to explore. Have a bit more fun and try some things,” says Cooper.

Yet taking calculated risks and trying new fun things can pay off as evidenced in the agency's work for Woodsman Whiskey. Shunning category norms to utilize a brand mascot of a beaver and injecting some humour and lightness into the ad has led to System 1 claims that the campaign is the "most effective whisky ad in the world".

If you’re on the front foot, have a good relationship or feel like if the client leaves we can go get another because we are good at what we do, then you have that freedom to explore. Have a bit more fun and try some things.

James Cooper, Creative, Mr. President

Similarly fun can also intersect with purpose, as where audiences are bombarded with bad news on the daily, Cooper has favoured a message of hope for a sustainability-focused campaign for regenerative farming brand, Wildfarmed. “People don’t want to always be told the worlds going to end, everything's going to shit, you’ve got to inspire them and give hope.” says Cooper, “You can't scare someone into liking your brand, you've got to inspire them and make them come along for the ride.”

For Cooper, the power of thinking differently and the importance of passion, inspiration, fun and in the creative process leads to work that is the most effective and ultimately the most rewarding to work on. The challenge for creatives therein lies within finding inspiration in every brief and making every project a passion project.

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