Leaders

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Jake Barrow on greatness from small beginnings

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COVID-19 has pulled everybody's focus out of balance. But the drive of Jake Barrow is unfaltering, which shows how great of a leader he is to his team.

'Sic parvis magna,' as it appeared in a popular video game series. Jake was born in a small Australian town and he has worked his way up the advertising industry with hard work and dedication. Greatness from small beginnings, indeed.

This week we are Getting to Know the executive creative director of VMLY&R Melbourne, peeking into the secret of his professional success. A story about ambition, passion, strong leadership and the desire to be constantly producing groundbreaking work.

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Tell us about your current role!

My current role is executive creative director of VMLY&R Melbourne. Which means I’m in charge of the creative output across the entire agency. It’s a demanding job, but I try to make it fun every day. I love working with everyone in the agency and feed off their drive to get great ideas into the world. 

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CHALK CIRCLE - an animated series developed to break gender stereotypes for young males. 

How did you get to your current position? What was the biggest challenge?

I started out as a traditional graphic designer, but as I started freelancing at advertising agencies, I was exposed more to the conceptual side of advertising. I was hooked instantly. The proposition of coming up with crazy ideas and having them come to life, into the world, for others to experience, was incredibly exciting.

From there, I completed the Australian Writers and Art Directors school and went on to score my first job as an art director. With every job and every agency, I have fought tooth and nail to get good work made, eventually leading me to the position I’m in today at VMLY&R – an agency I’ve been with for nearly 10 years. The biggest challenge was, and still is, making amazing work every day. To be successful you can’t take your foot off the creative accelerator for a second. It’s the fun bit, but it’s also the tough bit.

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

I grew up in a very small, very remote country-town in Australia. On one hand, it made it harder to get into advertising. Coming from a town with 2000 people, I didn’t even know such an industry existed – the town was so remote we only had 1 TV channel!

But I think if it’s helped me in any way, it’s been establishing a strong work ethic from a very young age. Growing up, I’d work on farms or at wineries over the school holidays, often in 35-40 degree heat. It was really hard work and I think, if I could handle that as a teenager, I can handle a few long meetings as an adult.

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CRYPTOLOGIC LINGUIST - a campaign for Navy that uses real mistranslations to demonstrate the need to human translators – the main part of the role of a Cryptologic Linguist. 

What’s your secret to keeping the team inspired and motivated?

One of our biggest successes is making sure all areas of the agency know it’s their job to be champions of creative work. In a sense, we’ve democratised the word 'creativity' and moved it out of the domain of the 'creative' department. All departments here are focused on making ideas – it’s something we instill from day one. When people know everyone else is going to fight just as hard as you at getting great ideas made, it ultimately creates a far more inspiring and motivated agency.

As a leader, you have to be obsessive in your drive to create and maintain this culture – making sure everyone sees you bringing the energy and enthusiasm forces others to embrace it.

And while all this mightn’t be a secret, I find you just have to have a relentless attitude towards it.

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FUTURE WITHOUT CHANGE - an integrated recruitment campaign that brings to life what the future would be if we adapted to problems instead of solving them.

How has COVID-19 affected you as a leader?

It’s shifted the balance of my focus. Beforehand I was always able to rally people, en masse, around making great work – being fulfilled creatively generally made for a happy agency. I find now I’m spending a lot more time just checking in on people in general.

This whole COVID journey affects people differently and as a leader you have to be very mindful that one person’s experience is going to be very different to another. We’ve had a long lockdown here in Melbourne, so sometimes you’ll go a while without speaking with certain people – and there are some who naturally have less contact with loads of people at all. On the odd occasion, I’ve picked up the phone and made sure to call every person in the agency individually, just to say g’day. 

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What is your one advice to aspiring creatives looking to be successful?

It might sound obvious, but I truly believe good work conquers all. It’s the one piece of evidence that everyone has at their disposal to prove how valuable they are. So, focus on your book. Focus on your ideas. Make each project count. Some campaigns can take over 12 months to do, make sure you’re spending that time on an idea you’re proud of. 

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OZFISH – a campaign we did for a fishing organisation who works towards having healthier waterways. 

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

I just hope any young people coming up can get as much out of it as I have. The excitement I felt when I landed my first 'dream gig' is something I hope every person new to the industry gets to feel.

We work with amazing people and bring exciting ideas into the world. We must uphold these standards for the next generation. If we do this now, they’ll be the ones to take the industry to heights we never imagined. 

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