The room is perfectly minimalist. White walled spaces surround us. Naturally, when John C Jay, president of global creative of Fast Retailing, walks into the room, dressed in all black, all eyes are on him. His warm and big personality cut through the crowd.
Jay is a natural star and completely comfortable in front of a camera, and within minutes, the photo shoot comes to a wrap and we find ourselves in a quiet room.
The minimalist décor of the room seems like an extension of Jay’s personality. In a world where everyone is looking to stand out and churn out the next big product, very little time is spent on asking the basic questions, he says.
To him, most companies are often left “chasing their tail” as they rush to constantly create new cutting-edge products.
“We are often rushing for the answers without knowing the question. Brands need to come back to the core question of who they are and why they matter. Only then can you articulate why you exist and the business you are in,” he says.
Fast Retailing's Uniqlo business, as well, is largely basic. Its products are also quite minimalist – a stark contrast in a world where most are looking to label themselves as a niche.
“Niche is for the individual. Basic can be translated in unlimited ways and we are just getting used to that,” Jay says.
“Our products are building blocks for a consumer’s individuality. You can take our clothes and twist and style them. It took us a while to get here. We used to say this a lot, but not show it enough.”
Jay is no stranger to the world of retail and fashion, working with Bloomingdale’s at the start of his marketing and advertising career.
“I came from an in-house creative role from my prehistoric days at Bloomingdale’s. We had a very powerful in-house team at that time.”
As such, joining Fast Retailing in 2014 was almost coming the full circle for him. At school, he studied visual communications under Swiss, German and English professors.
“They were all very conceptual. But I am not a fine artist. I wish I was good enough to be one,” he says.
So instead, he channels his creativity through his professional work and finds ways to solve problems, be it brand or business, all with his creative hat on.
After studying visual communications, he took on a role as a journalist in New York.
“My bosses were editors so words and pictures were primary,” he says.
And that’s where he understood the art of marrying the two together. Soon after, he went into the world of retail and from there he joined Wieden+Kennedy and worked with Nike – two of the greatest names in the marketing and ad industry.
“If a cat has nine different lives, I feel like I am living them all in my lifetime,” he says.
Describing himself as a maverick, he says he has always enjoyed being involved in a range of tasks rather than being stuck doing one single job. Even in his current role as president of global creative, he is involved in a range of duties from creativity to retail to product and HR.
“That’s exactly what I wanted. I have a hard enough time defining myself so I refuse to let other people define me – be it industry, company or people,” he says.
Despite the number of brands under Fast Retailing, Uniqlo is the brand that takes up 80% of his time.
Although having the title of a creative, Jay is heavily involved in the brand’s strategy and execution. He believes every great creative must be able to toggle both.
“At Wieden+Kennedy, I would often say the greatest strategists, the greatest business minds, were the creative people. The greatest business solution providers have been creative people who think strategically and creatively at the same time – this is what I am trying to do internally at Uniqlo,” he says.
But nothing, he says, substitutes for hard work. Growing up with immigrant Chinese parents, he believes working hard is synonymous to breathing.
“It comes naturally to me. It’s like the food you eat. You don’t have to talk to me about working hard. What else would I need to do?”
Recounting a presentation he once gave at Cannes on creativity, he says of the 10 tips he shared, two were about working hard. But later when he saw it shared online by others, it had been cut to eight tips.
“I saw people edit out those two points where I said working hard is a must. I think to many people or creatives, the idea of working hard means diminishing the quality of life.
“But if you can be in a position where you are fortunate to have your vocation and vacation overlap, it would be like feeding this insatiable appetite. Working hard would come naturally.”
Leaving the ad world
Leaving the ad world wasn’t easy for Jay – especially having worked at Wieden+Kennedy since 1997. Japan, he said, had a lot to do with his success.
Jay headed to Japan around the early 2000's when his clients at Nike suggested the agency open up an office in the country. He personally took up the project and wanted to set the wheels in motion. After the first day of pitching the agency to potential hires, he found his perfect candidate.
“I told Dan Wieden I have found the perfect candidate – me. I was sitting there doing the sell story saying this is going to be amazing when I asked myself what was I doing? I wanted that job.”
The dream was then to make the Japan office the hothouse of the agency. The office that could do and build things none of the other offices could. But at the same time, the Amsterdam, London and Portland offices were all doing extraordinary work with clients. Hence, Jay had a huge responsibility to ensure the Japan agency remained experimental.
“Hopefully history will say I lived up to it and I achieved it in the Tokyo office,” he laughs.
But he admits as much as he loved Tokyo, it wasn’t the easiest city to work in. Competition was tough and western competitors were not always viewed to be respectful of Japanese culture. Jay wanted to change that. He wanted Wieden+Kennedy to be the western-owned agency that truly respected Japanese business and culture.
“I didn’t want to be just another company that takes money out of the country and into the mothership,” he says.
As such, his first goal was to get Japanese clients and that’s how he built a relationship with Fast Retailing’s president Tadashi Yanai.
Jay confesses Yanai tipped the balance for him to leave the world of advertising.
Jay’s exit from the ad world was completely hush-hush. Only the top partners of Wieden+Kennedy knew of his impending exit. But when the world finally got to hear of his departure from the company, the news resonated globally.
Recounting the day, Jay says Yanai and the team at Fast Retailing had initially called a press conference to talk about creativity and innovation.
“Most journalists were probably tired of hearing about it and thinking why do we have to go to this,” Jay says.
But this time they were in for a treat. As the day progressed, Yanai in a declaration of making his vision a reality, unveiled the hiring of Jay.
“When he made that announcement, I had already typed out a long email to send to the staff of Wieden+Kennedy. As I stepped onto the stage, I hit the send button and the message was delivered to all the Wieden+Kennedy folks.”
That marked the end of his agency days and his entry back to the world of retail.
But, of course, having had experience on both sides helps him to be a better client. Jay spent the entire of his first year over on the client-side trying to be a better client. He believes it is incredibly important for clients to understand and know great work when they see it.
“As clients, we need to know great work. Don’t ask the agency to do great work when you can’t see it. Being from the agency side I would bite my tongue when my clients were berating me, but I wanted to ask them if they could recognise great work. Agencies should stand up to clients for the right reasons.”
Going back to his agency days, he said one of the most memorable relationships he had was with Mark Parker, CEO of Nike.
“We were known to fight and have rough days. But I said to Mark once that even on our worst days he is still one of the best clients because when his team comes to the table they want great work, they want nothing less than the greatest creativity,” he says.
“Great creatives and clients may disagree over the concept, but they don’t disagree that they want great work. So, don’t be passive aggressive, and put your passion on the table. It is good to argue.”