2 Minutes With ... John Norman, CCO of Havas Chicago

A designer's journey, from South Dallas to West Garfield Park

Raised in public housing by his grandmother on the south side of Dallas, John Norman earned a degree in fine arts from Texas A&M University and embarked on a career in advertising and design.

After getting his start at The Richards Group, Norman spent time as Nike, and then Wieden + Kennedy, before a stint in Italy at Benetton Group. After running his own agency in Dallas for two years, he spent time at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, W+K Amsterdam, The Martin Agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A. and Translation—before joining Havas Chicago as chief creative officer in March 2019.

Among his lauded creations are "Happiness Factory" for Coca-Cola and "Write the Future" for Nike, both crafted at W+K Amsterdam. We spent two minutes with Norman to learn more about his background, his creative inspirations, and recent work he's admired.

John, tell us... 

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

I was born in South Oak Cliff, Texas, which is basically South Dallas. My career has taken me around the world, and now I've ended up in Chicago.

What you wanted to be when you grew up. 

I grew up loving Julius Erving and wanted to play in the NBA. 

How you discovered you were creative. 

I could always draw. I was raised by my grandmother, who encouraged me to keep drawing, that hopefully I would end up working for Hallmark cards someday.

A person you idolized creatively growing up. 

Growing up, I idolized fine artists. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso.

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

My life changed when I found my long-lost brother. We were raised by different people and connected when we were high school age. The story is pretty wild. All I knew was his last name and city. On a whim, my friend and I went through the phone book and called every household under that name. Sure enough, we found him and he lived in the Dallas area. We met two days later and are still close to this day.

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

My first concert was the Commodores with Lionel Richie. My favorite musician will always be Van Morrison. 

Your favorite visual artist. 

Richard Prince. He takes social currency and changes the perspective of it. He's super clever. There's a social commentary in his work that makes me consider my own perception of reality.

Your favorite hero or heroine in fiction. 

Batman. There's a dark side to him. There's a flaw to every hero, and that's compelling.

Your favorite movie. 

Parasite. 

Your favorite Instagram follow. 

My daughters.

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

I've seen a psychological shift of how people in our industry are working together. In a way, WFH has been liberating—it has allowed us to use technology the right way, by getting closer to each other and putting focus on what we are making together. Since we are in our colleagues' homes every day, all day long, it makes our time more valuable by being respectful to each other.

As a creative, I've also noticed that the crisis has upped our game. I think that's because our clients' business challenges are specific and we have a very clear problem that we're solving for. All great ideas have a tension we are solving against. It hasn't been easy for anyone, but the longer we're in this moment, the more I'm filled with optimism that our industry will re-focus on what makes it great—big creative ideas that are grounded in human truths.

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

One of my favorite design projects was the brand identity for the American Indian College Fund. That was fun because I beat out other top designers in America to work with David Kennedy on the project. It was an idea that 50 native nations agreed on, which is next to impossible. The identity incorporated a universal icon of the flame of knowledge and fire with a feather. Fire and a feather are part of every native nation's culture, connecting them all. It became a symbol that represented hope for the future and is still in use today. 

Another one is Nike "Write the Future," which won an Emmy and the Cannes Film Grand Prix. It was about changing Nike's brand behavior from Brazilian ginga style football to technical football, to go against their competitor, Adidas. The campaign was an invitation for the soccer community and people everywhere to change their destiny through sport. It was arguably the most expensive campaign I've ever worked on, but it wasn't the budget that made it great. The campaign was a true brand repositioning of global football. We changed the game forever.

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

Havas Chicago and Annex did pro bono work for Off the Street Club, Chicago's oldest boys and girls club. OTSC serves thousands of kids living in West Garfield Park, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the U.S. The neighborhood usually makes headlines for its violence, but there's so much more to the story. Positivity and hope pulse through the community every day. We wanted to expose the bigger picture. The campaign challenged and redefined what it means to be "shot" by highlighting the joy and futures of the kids through the lens of legendary photographer, Sandro Miller. 

Off The Street Club | Shot in West Garfield Park
Someone else's creative project that inspired you years ago. 

Reporters Without Borders' Uncensored Playlist on Spotify.

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

I've been admiring the latest work for KFC. It's smart and has a social currency in it.

Your main strength as a creative person. 

Visual storytelling. I love the combination of great design and big ideas that are based in a universal human truth.

Your weakness or blind spot. 

Overthinking an idea. My solution is to always go back to the brief and find the deep human truth and making sure the work adheres to that.

One thing that always makes you happy. 

Cycling. 

One thing that always makes you sad.

Meetings.

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

Building houses. I love working with my hands to create.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards and founding editor of Muse by Clio. Prior to joining Clio in 2018, he was creative editor at Adweek.

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