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#GettingToKnow a London transplant with a bold imagination

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Imagination is a wonderful thing. Without it, the creative industries would cease to exist and we’d be living in a world full of blank concrete slabs and beige uniforms. It’s also the name of a rather exciting agency with offices around the world. 

Today, we’re talking to Jess Black, Strategy Director for Imagination now working out of their UK office after transferring from New York. We spoke to Jess about everything from growing up in Seattle to her former life as an independent film producer and how creatives can combat the pandemic of loneliness..

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Tell us a bit about your role! Is there a “typical” day?

I’m a strategy director at Imagination, for the last three years I’ve been part of the team in New York but I’ve just moved to London to work with our UK office. I’ve worked on everything from innovation centres to pop-ups to spirits destinations – and I absolutely love it.

There’s no typical day for me, but I can say research, writing, talking, listening, and coffee are key components. 

What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?

Discovering what I wanted to do was the biggest challenge. Strategy is like real estate – it’s almost never your first career

In college, I modelled for drawing classes, sang opera (poorly), wrote for the school paper, and briefly worked as a mascot for a smoothie cafe in a giant banana costume. (I told fruit-based knock-knock jokes to encourage patronage). 

I worked in hospitality, finance, journalism, event management, marketing, and video production before landing in strategy. 

What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?

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I grew up outside Seattle. Our house was packed with six kids, an endless carnival of neighbourhood friends, and two exhausted parents.

We were surrounded by a rich music culture (grunge) and an exploding tech scene (Microsoft). I’m pretty sure my class of fourth graders was the only one using Powerpoint to learn the bassline of "Come As You Are" by Nirvana in 1999. 

I suspect this cultural clash encouraged curiosity, and maybe a whiff of anti-establishment energy that led me to my career. 

What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?

Win: I once presented to one of my favourite all-time musicians, who chuckled when I referenced ‘mansplaining’ 

Loss: In my first job I accidentally triggered a spam email to our database of 400,000 contacts. After realising what happened I panicked, walked into a door, and had a black eye for a month.  

Silver Lining: When I tearfully confessed to my boss,  sure he was going to fire me, he said, “No one died and no one got pregnant.” A great lesson in maintaining perspective. 

Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

My sister Charlotte. She is 13  -–  by far the most relevant culture critic I know. 

I’m a big admirer of Paula Scher, the mind behind so much of the visual language we speak without realising. She’s designed everything from the Shake Shack and Citi Bank logos to some of the most famous posters of the last century. 

Cindy Gallop, (advertising exec/sex activist) continues to do amazing work, plus how can you not love someone who calls themselves the “Michael Bay of Business”. 

I love Priya Parker’s work on gathering and is thoughtful and empathetic, a great resource for anyone who plans meetings or events. 

If you could go back to your teenage years, would you have done things differently? Do you have any regrets?

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Less eyeliner. 

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

Treasure Hunter. 

What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?

1. Combat loneliness: ⅓ of adults report feelings of loneliness globally. In creating brand experiences, there is an opportunity to shift the focus from the individual to collective experiences that bring people together and heal divisions. In both physical and digital environments.

2. Be more ethical: Advancements in technology (AI, Metaverse, etc) require answers to the philosophical questions we’ve wrestled with for centuries. It’s on all of us, even advertising professionals, to build safe, inclusive, ethical spaces in our emerging digital landscape. 

What are your top tips for aspiring creative professionals?

1. Become a better listener.

2. Spend time with people who think differently than you.

3. Pay attention to what bores you, and then don’t make it.

4. Never plan to get anything done on a plane.  

What are your top tips for other creative leaders?

Some of the best advice I got was from a mentor who told me that if I wasn’t a little embarrassed by my first draft I probably waited too long. Bringing people into your creative process as early as possible always makes the work better. Plus, it’s more fun. 

When you think about your team, what is the thing that matters to you the most?

Weirdness and punctuality. I love odd ducks; people who see things differently and show up on time. 

Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

AEON: Magazine of ideas and culture with a strong philosophical bent. An exceptional addition to your media diet 

ThinkOlio: A treasure trove of unexpected lectures on any topic imaginable. Check out How the Past Stays With Us: The Big Lebowski and the Legacy of the 1960s 

Humankind: This is a fascinating read by Rutger Bretman who poses the provocative idea that maybe people aren’t evil after all. Required reading for anyone who knows a human

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