Q&A: Firstborn's JoonYong Park on the ins and outs of creativity

The creative leader got his high school diploma at age 13.

JoonYong Park has always been a self-starter. He quit school at 12 years old and taught himself everything he needed to know – and that’s just the beginning of his fascinating career path. In this Q&A, Park doesn’t sugarcoat anything and he has the humility of a junior-level creative in spite of being the CCO at his agency, Firstborn.


How do you get over rough rejections? How do you deal with ideas dying?
It was harder when I was starting out, but as time progressed I understood how businesses are run. And because I understood, it was slightly easier to deal with rejection.

You get so emotionally attached to the idea. You quickly realize that when you start out as a creative that everything that you pitch might not be the right idea for the client. You start learning that it’s a corporation you’re dealing with. Of course, there are always ideas that you hope will see the light of day but if you try as much as you can and they don’t go through, then you just have to suck it up and move on. That’s the business we’re in.

So the most successful way to bring a creative idea to life is to build trust and that trust doesn’t build overnight. It’s a long process

So building the relationship is the way to sell in work?
Relationships are really important. At the end of the day if things don’t go right, then yes, it’s our responsibility, but the client takes responsibility too. They have a lot at stake too. When the client decides to back this really bold idea, they’re putting up their whole career behind it, just like you. I tell this to my team without hesitation. The clients have a goal. If the idea doesn’t meet their goal for that brief then we can’t run with an idea, no matter how much we love it or how much heart went into presenting it.

Speaking of presenting, what’s your style?
I think you have to find your own way of presenting. Everyone is different. English is not my first language. When I first came to this country I didn’t speak one word of English. And I studied the language and got better at presenting. I’ve been in New York for 15 years now. As time went by it got better but it’s really not about the skill, or how you present, I think you have to really believe in your work and you have got to show that to people. It’s not about how fancy your font is or how funny your jokes are but it’s really about how passionate you are about the work. Do you give a damn about it? If that comes through and people see that, then that’s the best presentation.

But that’s my way of doing it. Everyone’s different and every agency is different.

What kind of a creative leader are you?
My management style is simple - I try to lead by doing things, not by staying back and telling people what to do. I try to do most of the grunt work that people might not want to do.

Give me an example. By grunt work, are we talking brochures and emails?
Maybe. I try to take on a boring piece of work or a boring project. Back in the day, that’s what my mentors did. I have learned a lot from them and I wanted to reflect that.

We also try to find the right people. There are a lot of people that would not fit into our organization. I truly believe in teamwork and I try to pick folks like that. Even though they’re rock stars, if they don’t fit into our company culture, we wouldn’t hire them.

Tell us about how you landed at Firstborn and stayed here for 15 years.
I worked at a digital agency in Korea. I dropped out of school at 12, and got my high school diploma at 13. Then I decided to not go to university or college to study. I just messed around with computers and design at home. That’s how I got into the industry.

I worked in Korea for five years. I wanted to extend my career. Then, I came to New York.

It’s all self-taught for me. I was learning from my mistakes. And kept getting better. And that’s always been my style of working and figuring things out.

When I started at FirstBorn we were all of 9 people. It’s been 15 years and I grew with the company.

And you didn’t move.
I got a lot of calls from big companies. But, I never felt like I had to move. They’d offer way more compensation or a better title, when I was starting here. But for me, money didn’t drive me.

Title and money never attracted you, so there must’ve been something else at Firstborn that kept you.
When we worked in Hell’s Kitchen, it wasn’t the most glamorous office. It was the work that kept me. Work was fun. As long as I survived in New York, I always knew money will follow at some point in my life.

Every day I was so eager to go back to the office and prove what my design and direction was going to be. Work was fun. That drove me to be here and stay here.

Speaking of the work. What do you think is your biggest strength?
I’m definitely not the best copywriter. I’m not the best designer but what I’m really good at is consistently trying and keep improving. Consistency and doing more and more. Breaking up my free time and doing it again. And that never feels like work to me.

When I started out, I worked weekends and I worked late nights but I never felt like was giving up on my life. Of course, there were moments when I just wanted to get sleep.  But, consistently pushing myself lead me here. There’s a lot more talented folks out there.

I’m never going to be better than them but I’ll be the best at pushing myself. I set a goal and then go for it.

How do you set these goals?
As a designer, for example, I wanted to be able to express my idea and draw my own storyboard. So I took classes.

Yes, we would have hired someone, but as a designer it felt like it would help me in the long term.

Or I would take writing classes. I wasn’t afraid to do that because English was never my first language and I wanted to get better. Then I studied 3D software. You don’t have to know it as a designer but, I didn’t want any limitations while designing. I wanted to think about something and then just do it.

Slowly I got better at writing, I got better at designing, I got better at sketching and it all paid off. And all these little things just accumulated and I got better and better in the environment.

It feels like you’re going backward and you really wonder if you need this for your career but for me, it was never really about my career. I needed to do all those things to be a better creative.

Going back to your point of consistently learning, did it get overwhelming at times when you were working for 14 hours straight and a giant file took forever to render?
Of course. There are moments when you want to give up. At that point, you just have to stop and take a break. You don’t have to burn yourself out. There might be a family issue, there might be a personal issue. Life happens but you have to shake it off and come back to it.

It all depends on how bad you want it.

I recommend that my creatives take classes. But only if they want to. If you have no willingness to do it, then don’t do it. You could be happy where you’re at. But don’t expect your company to pave the way for you.

If you’re comfortable where you are now, don’t complain to your boss or your company that you’re not getting better because no one’s teaching you.

You’re going to have to figure out your own way. This is not a school. You’re getting paid to work here. If you’re willing to learn, there’s a lot of people who’re going to teach you but if you’re not willing to learn, then you’re going to hit a plateau. Simple as that.

What did you hate doing that you got better at?
Presenting to c-level executives or the board members. Again I was young. I needed to learn the business side of our industry. I needed to present with a business mind in perspective. For example: I can’t say this is a prettier design, that’s why you should pick this. It was all about how my design or the work can move your business.

Your clients are smart. You don’t need to complicate things. If you can explain your rationale as to why you did something, there’s no reason for them to say no. For me to understand that concept took a while.

Do you ever want to start your own agency?
Firstborn is like my agency. It was acquired by Dentsu and I’ve sold all my shares, but I’m happy here. I never dream of running my own agency because this is like my own baby. Nine people growing into this size. If I do something on my own, it’ll be in design and technology.

A lot of chief creative officers struggle with the emotional aspect of people moving on and leaving their agencies. How do you deal with such news?
It’s always sad. We’re a relatively small agency by design. We’re a little over 115 people. I’m very close to the people here. I’m still good friends with a lot of people who left us and a lot of them have come back. It’s always good to leave with a really good relationship. You never know. You might come back again as a client or you might end up meeting your old colleagues at a different agency. But, it’s always sad seeing friends leave.

Creatives are generally not big schmoozers or networkers. How did you build relationships?
Yes. I was a very shy designer. I liked to wear my headphones and not go to meetings. I hated meetings but I realized that if there is a real connection with your client, the work sells faster. It goes back to understanding their needs. If you don’t listen to them and if you just do what you think is right, it might not work. When you get briefed with the client, or if you have a meeting with the client the answer is always at the first meeting.

I always believe that first meeting when you talk to the client, they really tell you the answer and exactly what they want and you have to work in that sandbox.

I always like to go back to the brief and read it again and again until I really understand where they’re coming from and making that connection makes you a better creative.

It’s important to understand their perspective. There’s no design director title where they don’t work with the clients. Speaking and writing and all these things are so important. Selling the idea is more important than the idea itself because if you don’t sell the idea, there’s no idea. It’s more important in a weird, weird way.

How do you manage to run an agency and spend time with family?Obviously, when I was young, I worked late nights and crazy hours. And I realized at some point in my career that it’s not about how long you’re sitting in front of your desk. I learned that the hard way. Sometimes you have to separate yourself from all the screens and think. That will make you more productive. And as you progress in your career you become a better designer and you become a better writer and you find a way to be more efficient.

I still have to be a good dad and still run an agency and still be a good friend to people so, I think everyone is different. But I learned how to focus on work. I try to block out a couple of hours a day and just get stuff done in that time and I really try to focus. I don’t reply to any emails or chat messages. If I replied to all these things I could never get things done. And again you’ll be amazed at how much you could get done in a short period of time if there are no distractions.

From a managerial standpoint, is it important to have a work-life balance, with people having a life outside these four walls?Absolutely. We’re in the office 9am to 6pm every day, and the weekend is the only time we have some time with our families. I’m flexible with people. You’re all adults. Figure it out. We trust you. If you’re better at work at home, do your work at home. If that’s your expression of creativity. People have different ways of ideating. Some people like to go for a walk. Some people like to take a shower. Some people go in a brainstorm room and write ideas for five hours and I cannot do that. I don’t like to contain myself in a room.

So, what do you do?
I like to go for a walk. My brain feels more stimulated when I walk and I really talk to myself a lot when I do that. It’s my ritual. Whenever I have a big presentation to do, I like to go for a walk and memorize all my slides in my brain. I don’t like to read off scripts.

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