2 Minutes With … Jason Xenopoulos, CCO of VMLY&R North America

His creative journey from South Africa to NYC

Jason Xenopoulos grew up in South Africa, and after studying film at NYU, returned to his native land, where he embarked on a long and storied career in advertising.

In 2010, he co-founded NATIVE, which grew to be Africa's leading digital marketing agency, and was eventually acquired by VML. In 2018, Xenopoulos was promoted to chief creative officer of VML EMEA. Soon after, he moved to New York to lead the newly formed VMLY&R office there. He is currently CEO of VMLY&R New York and CCO of VMLY&R North America.

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

Jason, tell us... 

The town where you were born, and where you live now.

I was born in Johannesburg but I found my home in New York while I was studying film at NYU. I fell in love with the city during that time, but it took me 25 years to get back here. I now live in a little river town 40 minutes north of Manhattan called Dobbs Ferry. I know, it sounds like something from a Dr. Seuss story, but it is awesome.

What you wanted to be when you grew up.

I always wanted to be a writer. It was my dream from the age of 9 or 10. As a teenager, my desire to write novels evolved into an ambition to write and direct movies.

How you discovered you were creative.

I spent most of my childhood dreaming. About stuff I wanted to do. Things I wanted to make. Crazy experiences that might occur. Literally anything. I was permanently lost in my imagination. I am still happiest when I am there.

A person you idolized creatively growing up.

Bruce Lee. That may sound like a strange creative reference, but he was an incredibly creative martial artist. A true innovator. A philosopher. A visionary. And of course, a great actor and filmmaker.

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

Having my Prefect badge taken away. I was a fairly rebellious kid at school, so it surprised everyone when I was selected to be a Prefect in my final year. But the honor was short-lived because it was taken away when I punched one of the actors I was directing in the school play. It was a formative experience for me because it confirmed my distrust of authority!

The first concert you saw, and your favorite band or musician today.

The first concert I ever attended was in Swaziland, a tiny African kingdom about three and a half hours from Johannesburg, in 1983. It was the height of apartheid, the time of the cultural boycott, when no international acts would perform in South Africa. But Peter Tosh, who was my favorite reggae musician after Bob Marley, agreed to play in Swaziland. I was only 13, but I moved heaven and earth to get there. It was an incredible show that ended with Peter Tosh forcing the event organizers to open the gates to throngs of fans who could not afford to pay. That concert has become the stuff of legend, and I am hugely grateful to have been there.

My favorite musical artist today is an old friend and colleague, the late great Johnny Clegg.

Your favorite visual artist.

Basquiat. When I look at his work, I see the soul of New York. Not the New York I can see with my eyes, but the one I feel in my heart.

Your favorite hero or heroine in fiction.

The original version of Elektra, a comic book character created by Frank Miller. She is a highly trained assassin whose weapon of choice is the "Sai." I have a pair in my martial arts weapons collection. 

The best book you've read lately.

We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Your favorite movie.

Taxi Driver. It's still one of the greatest cinematic character studies of all time.

Your favorite Instagram follow.

My teenage triplets, including my son's music account (Mickey Is Scared). He posts a new song that he has written, performed and produced every week. I wish I was that prolific!

How the Covid-19 crisis has changed your life, personally or professionally, in recent weeks.

I feel guilty because I am actually happier living this way. Without the need to commute, I have been gifted an extra three hours every day. I have had the chance to personalize my workspace. I have started to carve out new routines that ensure a greater sense of balance despite working harder than ever before. We cannot forget the terrible hardships, both physical and financial, that this pandemic has unleashed on millions of people around the world. But we should not ignore the revelations that it has unveiled, either. 

Your favorite creative project you've ever worked on, and why.

Absolut One Source. This project is incredibly close to my heart because it wasn't just advertising. In the process of revitalizing the brand, we also managed to bolster the career of a great South African hip hop artist, Khuli Chana, and launch an album that became the war-cry for Africa's creative revolution.

Your favorite creative project from the past year, and why.

The Rolex Oscar campaign from 2019. Apart from the privilege of collaborating on this incredible brand, the opportunity to work with personal heroes of mine such as Martin Scorsese and James Cameron was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Rolex and cinema
Someone else's creative project that inspired you years ago.

There have been so many. One that comes to mind is the Johnny Cash Project by Chris Milk. It is still one of the greatest examples of creative collaboration at scale. It is instructive in the way it uses freedom within a framework to facilitate a large-scale collaboration between a filmmaker, a dead musician, and thousands of fans.

Someone else's creative project that you've been envious of lately.

Someone recently told me that there has been a resurgence of drive-in cinemas. Why didn't I think of that?! I love drive-ins, and who could have predicted that they would get a second life?

Your main strength as a creative person.

I'd say my greatest strength is my ability to recognize the pattern in things. 

Your weakness or blind spot.

My inner critic has a very loud mouth. Strangely, he seems to keep quiet when it comes to advertising—which may be why I have made this my profession—but when it comes to my own writing, he doesn't shut up for a second. Just thinking about it makes me want to punch him in the nose.

One thing that always makes you happy.

Spending time with my wife and children.

One thing that always makes you sad.

Wasting valuable time worrying about unimportant things.

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

I'd be a writer.

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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