2 Minutes With … John Carstens of Team DDB

On the resiliency gained from difficult projects

John is the creative lead at Team DDB, the 11-agency entity he helped build to serve the U.S. Army. With over three decades of experience, he has worked across multiple categories, from luxury cars and software to ketchup. John began his career at TBWA\Chiat\Day in L.A. Other stints include Cramer-Krasselt, SapientNitro (now Publicis Sapient) and Apple's in-house marketing group. 

We spent two minutes with John to learn more about his background, his creative inspirations and recent work he's admired.

John, tell us …

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I'm born and raised in Oshkosh, Wis., and I've lived in Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York before landing in Chicago two decades ago. Still a Packers fan.

How you first realized you were creative.

From the moment I developed fine motor skills, I was obsessed with drawing, and apparently was pretty good at it. My illustrations ranged from satirical family portraits to spaceships. So, the adults around me speculated I'd be a cartoonist or an engineer when I grew up. I suppose I'm both now. 

A person you idolized creatively early on.

I gravitated toward both the flamboyant and minimalism: T.C. Boyle for words, Salvador Dalí for pictures, Eero Saarinen for architecture and Braun (the company) for design. 

A moment from high school or college that changed your life.

This, from my high school basketball coach: “Boys, for the first time in three years, we have not been named by the Milwaukee Journal as one of the 10 worst teams in the state of Wisconsin!” We were supposed to be happy about that, but we didn't know such a list even existed. And it finally sank in that my jump shot wasn't going to be the ticket to my success.  

A visual artist or band/musician you admire.

I once asked graphic novelist Chris Ware how he picks colors that capture nuanced moods, eras and climates—like the ambivalent cold of early spring in 1980s suburban Chicago. He told me he breaks down everything into process colors. He's a sophisticated writer too. So, suffice it to say, his work makes me feel like a hack.

A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring.

The latest season of Fargo. It's a delicious blend of quirky, scary and maddening. As in previous seasons, I'm particularly taken with the audio craft—sound design, sound editing and music supervision. 

One of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on.

Back in the day, we did some stupid fun work for AirTran, a discount airline that's now defunct (not our fault.) In one of the spots, I choreographed a restaurant manager's dorky "Hottie Jalapeño" moves.  

A recent project you're proud of. 

I tend to be proudest of the things that were hardest to pull off. By that measure, it's hard to beat the recent launch of "Be All You Can Be" for the Army. 

Someone else's work that inspired you years ago. 

About 15 years ago, this Folgers' "Happy Mornings" weirdness made its way to my computer screen, and it's been stuck in my consciousness ever since. I love every creepy frame. And I love that some people don't get why I love it.

Someone else's work you admired lately. 

"A British Original" for British Airways. So economical, yet so emotional. It scores higher on CQPC (chin quiver per character) than anything I've seen. 

Your main strength as a creative person.

I'm anal.

Your biggest weakness.

I'm anal.

A mentor who helped you navigate the industry.

Marshall Ross, CCO at Cramer-Krasselt, was the boss who taught me how to be a boss. He had a hyper-articulate style that I tried to emulate—in presentations and in giving feedback. And he proved to me that clients respond better to active listening than petulance. 

How you're paying it forward with the next generation of creatives.

It starts with the people who work for me, helping them map out their careers. It's been gratifying to see some of these people go on to become CCOs and agency founders. With aspiring creatives, I try to be as generous with my time as possible without becoming a stranger to my family. I come from a family of teachers—even my doctor and lawyer siblings went into academia—so I predict I'll be teaching this stuff at a university one day.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising.

Writing novels, designing buildings and running my own product company. 

2 Minutes With is our regular interview series where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

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