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james cross

he/him | Site | LinkedIn | Meanwhile

Hey James, how’s things?

Hey Megan, things are very busy, very fulfilling, and we’re all loving life at Meanwhile right now.

For those that don’t know tell us about yourself

I am CCO and founder at Meanwhile, a creative agency in Manchester for ‘those who would rather set agendas than follow them.’ We’re 4 months old, working with Iceland and Chester Zoo, and we have some new business wins to announce shortly. Prior to that, my creative partner, Tim, and I ran BBC Creative in the North. We were creative directors on BBC Sport, Childrens, charities and BBC One, which was an amazing job which won us a BAFTA for our Tokyo Olympics work. Before that we worked on Aldi at McCann Manchester, Domino’s Pizza and Harley Davidson at Big, Vauxhall at McCann Birmingham, and a few other gigs in London, Berlin and Prague. I started as a copywriter, and I still love it, despite rarely getting to do it these days amongst running the agency and CDing projects.

From copywriter to Creative Director at BBC Creative to CCO and Founder at Meanwhile its fair to say you’ve been hugely successful. What could you put that success down to?

First, thanks! It’s lovely of you to say. I think I’ve always been very single-minded on where we wanted to be, I’ve had a vision of being a CD, winning the awards and running our own place, and I’ve worked hard to seize every opportunity. I’m also genuinely passionate about the industry and I love it, so have always been on top of what’s going on. I think it’s important to be up to date on what agencies are doing what, and what new work is out, who are the best new animators, designers and directors. It’s about being a master of your subject. And the passion, you can’t fake it.

Let’s take a step back, was this a route you knew you would always go down?

In terms of the creative industry, no. At school I wanted to be a rock star and work in the music industry. I didn’t really have any clue as to how you got a job in the creative industry. And being from a small, uneventful working-class town in the Midlands, it never felt like an real option. However, stars aligned and I left the unfulfilling world of music behind and really found myself in an industry I felt I belonged in. Once in it however, I think within weeks of starting at an ad agency in 2003, I knew I wanted to be the best at it, win the awards, change the fortunes of our clients, run departments and my own shop eventually.

What was the best bit advice you received at the beginning of your career?

“If you’ve got to eat shit, don’t chew.” Gary Setchell used to tell Tim and I that all the time. If a job is boring, or if there’s no real opportunity, get it done and out the way because the next thing could be the game changer.

Has there been any moments where you wanted to give up?

Often. I felt insanely jealous of the council gardeners the other day mowing the lawn in the park, it felt so alluring as to how easy and simple their world seemed to be. That sounds incredibly patronising I’m sure, but self-doubt is something I get from time to time, you’ve just got to have a word with yourself, and remember the times when you’d give your right arm to be in the position you’re in now. Quick story, I was shouted at for making a mistake about a month into my career and I was ready to quit and go back to pushing trolleys at Sainsburys. I wrote my resignation and was adamant this wasn’t for me, then I gained some perspective I guess. Shit times pass, as do the good, so I try to keep that in mind, that keeps me grounded and grateful.

How did you overcome these moments?

I take stock. Talk it through. Get some perspective and remind myself that I can. I’m also determined and that helps. I come from a world where you have to fight to survive, and where you make your own luck. I was once told “if you don’t shoot, you don’t score”, and that’s something I regularly remind myself of. Meanwhile existing, my partner Emma and I being together, and several notable bits of work, are all down to that attitude.

You’ve worked in lot of different departments within McCann what was your experience like there?

I loved McCann and it taught me so much. In many ways Tim and I probably learned the most there. Good and bad. But the opportunities and moving around Europe forced us to believe in ourselves first and foremost. It gave us kudos, confidence and a reputation to achieve much more in advertising.

You’re a copywriter by trade what drew you too this?

I’ve always enjoyed writing but perhaps without realising it. I find it relatively easy really, and couldn’t believe someone was willing to pay me to do it. But essentially I have a marketing degree, a bit of journalistic experience from doing band reviews and a desire to be in a job that was creative, so copywriting was the natural route for me.

It is a part of the creative industry that gets overlooked but how important is being a copywriter?

Vital. Wow, it’s so important. Good writers are the reason good agencies exist. Without them, your product is going to blend into the background. I think it’s an art that gets taken for granted and so many people neglect it, but like a good art director, I think their absence is obvious. Copywriters are more often where the best ideas come from, let’s be honest! The reason you notice and recall advertising is because of the idea, the writing and the art direction. In that order.

You’ve worked on some big, important campaigns throughout your career. Is there one that stands out to you?

There are many, and I have been fortunate. I think The Tapestry for BBC Sport’s 2018 World Cup campaign is my favourite. It cemented our reputation as individuals and as an agency at BBC Creative.

Leading on from this is there a campaign that has had the biggest impact?

The most famous work we’ve done, I believe is ‘The Alan Partridge Email’ we did for This Time With Alan Partridge. We had no budget, Steve Coogan was unavailable, so we just used what we had at our disposal. Good writers and 20,000 BBC email addresses. The all-staff email felt very Partridge anyway, and it was written about by every major newspaper and won us a lot of awards too.

You’ve won and judged many different awards, how important is this recognition for your career?

I think it’s a great marker of where you are, but awards are best for attracting talent in my opinion. As creatives we want to work at the best agencies, so awards are a sign of that. They also do you career no harm, of course. I’m all for them and think we should all try and win them.

So lets talk about Meanwhile. What influenced you to start your own creative company.

I’ve never really liked working for other people frankly, but it felt a necessary thing to do to gain experience and learn. And of course, it was. However, the main motivator, since the very start of my career, is the (possibly deluded) idea that I can do it better. Al and Tim, my co-founders believe this too. It’s the self-belief I mentioned earlier.

Has there been any lessons you didnt expect when starting Meanwhile?

It’s a massive learning curve. I’ve been surprised at how much your outlook changes on the industry, the contentment I feel is unexpected also - it’s the happiest I’ve ever been professionally speaking. The politics of new business I guess has been the biggest surprise, it’s far from straight-forward or predictable.

What has been the best advice you’ve received?

Probably to not neglect family and your own health, and I’ve been guilty of that in the past. Health is far more important to me these days than years ago when I’d work every waking hour. Balance is a big part of Meanwhile for all of us.

Who are your standout creatives?

My favourite people in advertising are not just talented, but people I’m lucky enough to call friends too. So this talented bunch would be whom I’d recommend; Nathalie Gordon, Reuben Dangoor, Edward Usher and Xander Hart, Tim Jones, Rachel Miles and Michael Tsim, Nicos Livesy, and Yoni Weisberg.

For my final question, whats next?

Coffee, and a pitch meeting, I need to crack on! Busy times!

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