John Carstens has served as a consultant, creative director and writer with traditional agencies, digital agencies, tech companies, start-ups and non-profits. His work includes creating and articulating brand fundamentals (purpose, values, mission), concepting integrated campaigns, leading pitch teams, planning launch strategies, structuring websites and writing all sorts of content and experiences. Based in Chicago, but working nationally, John jumped into freelance a year and a half ago to see what autonomy and variety tastes like. In his free time, you can find him drawing, designing and writing fiction.
SHOCASE: John, you have worked as both a creative director and a writer. What advice do you have for up-and-coming advertising professionals?
JOHN CARSTENS: Like the Golden State Warriors, play the position-less game. Develop multiple talents and learn extra-credit skills. Be a writer who can illustrate, an art director who can code or a developer who can concept. The future of this business belongs to the multi-dimensional ones. The more insanely versatile you are, the more you can expect a bidding war for your services.
S: What do you tell young professionals looking to improve their skill set?
JC: This one is for writers. Avoid ad speak and expand your range of voice. A simple trick is to read a passage, listen to a lyric or watch a monologue, then copy that style. A brand is a lot more compelling when it sounds less like a brand, and more like, say, Jonathan Safran Foer, Kendrick Lamar or Amy Schumer. The same goes for your portfolio.
S: As both a creative director and writer, where do you start when launching into a new project?
JC: For the platform idea, I start with an insight—a cultural observation, a social trend, a pattern of behavior, etc. I recommend spending some time with a strategist, maybe read a Forrester report or two. When it comes to execution, I peruse this thing called the World Wide Web for the latest in art, design, music, film, culture, technology, experience, etc., looking for things that can veer me off in different directions. One of my favorites is Vice’s The Creators Project, which is full of inspiring weirdos.
S: As a freelancer, what is your top tip for staying productive?
JC: Own your calendar. Block off chunks of time for thinking and creating, every day, before status meetings and TPS reports swallow up all your time. And keep a journal for jotting down the stuff that really matters.
S: Any recommendations on must-read books for people interested in writing or the creative field?
JC: I’ve got some books for you: How to See by George Nelson; The Idea Writers by Teressa Iezzi or any of the books by IDEO’s Tom Kelley. Whether you like his stories or not, Stephen King’s On Writing will embolden you to be more fearless and prolific. And look at how Chris Ware, Oliver Jeffers and David Wiesner marry words and pictures— or leave the words out entirely.