My career in 5 executions: Translation's John Norman

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From HP picture frames to Nike's World Cup anthem, Translation's CCO never tires of thinking about the human condition.

Name: John Norman
Title: Partner/Chief Creative Officer at Translation
Years in ad industry: 20+
First job in ad industry: Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam

John Norman has always made things—drawing to impress other kids or working his way through college as a carpenter. At university in Texas, he studied fine art with legendary professor Rob Lawton, who later founded The Creative Circus and was inducted into the One Club Hall of Fame the same day as Steve Jobs. "I owe my approach to problem-solving and the transformative power of typography to him," Norman says.

After school, Norman worked as a graphic designer in Dallas. This was the ‘80s, so "we had to draw our ideas freehand," he says. "Brain to paper usually captures more humanity than brain to pixel."

He spent time working in-house for brands like Benneton and Nike. But agency life began at Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, which he’d gotten to know while working at the sneaker company. A gig at Hewlett-Packard led to a position at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, before he took the chief creative officer position at The Martin Agency in 2009.

The next five years were hectic. In 2012, Norman became CCO of TBWA\Chiat\Day LA, and two years later, he joined Translation, after a year of being recruited by founder and CEO Steve Stoute.

"I think art in advertising, particularly the art of telling a good story, is crucial," Norman says. "When you are telling me about your brand—whether it’s razors or sneakers or beer—make me laugh, let me see myself in the product, make me cry. We are humans, and we never get tired of thinking about the human condition—even when we interact with the brands we favor."

Here are the 5 executions Norman says define his career.

Client: Nike
Brand: Air Huarache
Agency: Nike Design
Work: "Air Huarache logo"
Year: 1992

In the four years he spent at Nike Design, Norman created the original logo for the typically Swoosh-less Air Huarache, as well as several other shoes. Inspired by the woven sandal from Mexico, the technology and style Nike created has lasted more than 20 years, and the Huarache is still in production, and popular. "I learned a lifelong principle that every great idea, no matter the medium or industry, should resonate from a cultural, human, or product truth," Norman says. "If that is right, all the disciplines can serve one creative idea with one consistent message."

The Nike team presented Dan Wieden and David Kennedy with the assets they had created, so the agency could use them in the ad campaign, Norman notes wryly. "They said ‘no.’"

Client: HP
Brand: Hewlett-Packard Enterprise
Agency: Goodby Silverstein & Partners
Work: "Picture Book"
Year: 2000-04

Norman landed a gig as a permalancer for Hewlett-Packard before joining GS&P as a creative director. The agency team, which included Rich Silverstein, was looking to position HP as a challenger to the dominant IBM, and that gave Norman the opportunity to apply his design training—visual storytelling and conceptual thinking.

"I learned that a creative environment requires fostering the freedom to fail, raw uninhibited imagination to nurture the thing someone is great at doing, and welcoming an environment for entrepreneurial behavior to breathe," he says.

The campaign ran for several years, and the "Picture Book" spot won the NY Art Directors Club Vision Award, thanks in large part to the visuals François Vogel had created from a simple board explaining the concept of the spot. "I still have the CD of his tests," Norman says. "Mindblowing at the time."

Client: Coca-Cola
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam
Work: "Happiness Factory"
Year: 2006

Coca-Cola was Norman’s first-ever pitch at an agency—as ECD at W+K Amsterdam—and it became his first big win. The idea the team came up with was so adaptable that it turned into a long-term asset. "You could keep creating contextual stories ad infinitum because it was an imaginary world that lived inside the Coke machine," he says. "The main lesson here was to keep it simple, and stay true to the brand: a cold Coke can make you happy for a few minutes and give you a little bit of joy in a long afternoon, which might allow you to be a little more optimistic about your life."

Like with HP, creating a spot for Coca-Cola afforded Norman a global stage, and that second win proved the first hadn’t been a fluke.

Client: Nike
Brand: Nike World Cup football
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam
Work: "Write the Future"
Year: 2010

Nike’s World Cup campaign was two-and-a-half years in the making. The brand was up against Adidas, during an event guaranteed to draw one of the largest audiences in history. "To win the long game," Norman says, "they had to beat them at their own game—technical football, true performance-style football."

As usual, Norman sought out the human truth in the story they were trying to tell. "In a football game you want the best shoe and gear, because on this stage, in a split-second you can be a hero or zero." Taglines evolved from "Be the Difference" to "Make the Difference" and finally to "Write the Future."

"Your first idea is not always your best," Norman says. "If it does not work, change it."

Client: NBA
Agency: Translation
Work: "Breaking Barriers"
Year: 2015-16

Now at Translation, formerly a multicultural agency turned general market shop, Norman was tasked with showing how the NBA had been a change maker throughout history. The resulting spot spanned from the integration of the league to firsts from African-American, female and LGBT players, coaches, owners and referees, and was timed for Martin Luther King Day.

"In the end, it always comes down to sports for me," Norman says. Basketball helped him focus his energies as a child growing up in poverty, raised by his grandmother in Texas. "The relationship between athletes, the majesty of sport—whether it's the Olympic Games or NBA basketball—and the human condition, remains the perfect venue to capture people's attention and tell great brand truths."