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TV is good for you, and other lessons from Twitter creative director

Featured photo
Jayanta Jenkins speaks during the Brandcenter Friday Forum at the University Student Commons Theater.
Photos by Pat Kane/University Public Affairs

When Jayanta Jenkins joined Twitter six weeks ago as its global group creative director — the company’s highest creative role — one thing became immediately clear.

We need to take the hashtag back.

“We need to take the hashtag back,” said Jenkins, a VCU School of the Arts alumnus who delivered the VCU Brandcenter’s Friday Forum lecture last week. “Twitter has some things that it gave to the world that I think brands have taken for granted and other platforms have basically misused. Twitter was the brand that put [the hashtag] into the world.”

Before joining Twitter, Jenkins served as global creative director of advertising at Apple/Beats by Dre. He began his career as an art director at the Martin Agency before going on to senior roles at Wieden & Kennedy and TBWA/Chiat/Day.

As a kid, Jenkins loved cartoons, even though his parents told him that he was rotting his brain.

“But as it turns out, all that stuff that was ‘rotting my brain’ ended up being everything that I’ve used in my career to pull from, in terms of pop culture references or things that I loved,” he said. “It wasn’t a waste.

“How much fun could you possibly have by taking things from your childhood and applying them to your job and putting them into the world to inspire people?”

For instance, Jenkins’ love of The Electric Company shaped his commercial for Nike Shox, Nike’s first shoe to launch since the Air Jordan. The ad introduced the word “boing” to the vernacular in reference to the shoe’s bouncing soles.

As he grew older, TV gave way to museums, which gave way to music. During his teenage years, he wanted to be in Run DMC or Kid ’n Play.

“Back in the ’80s, that’s where I wanted to be,” Jenkins said. “What’s important about this era for me is music and how important music became as a thing that connected me to me growing up. I carried that through to all the work that I’ve done even to this moment.”

When Jenkins came to VCU to study fashion advertising, he took a class taught by Jerry Torchia, then creative director at the Martin Agency. After seeing Jenkins’ photography, Torchia told him he should be an art director. Jenkins had no idea what that was but started studying the industry, which led him to firms such as the Martin Agency, Wieden & Kennedy and TBWA/Chiat/Day.

“And those places became the architects of the places I wanted to work for in this business,” Jenkins said.

He calls working for Twitter “one of the most ridiculously outstanding opportunities” of his entire career, even though the brand is perceived as struggling. Wall Street beats it up all the time, Jenkins said, adding that over the past several years the company has not distinguished itself from either a marketing or product standpoint. It’s argued that Twitter is not as intuitive as Facebook, not as beautiful as Instagram and not as millennial as Snapchat. Getting beyond all that … how do you simplify it down to what it’s actually about, he asked.

“People don’t really understand the ‘why’ of Twitter. How do you start the conversation? … I don’t know of another platform on the planet that’s the nexus for all types of people, all types of conversations, all cultures at one time,” he said. “How do you take the premise of Twitter, which is declarations and questions and really begin to put that into the world in an interesting way?”

To start, Twitter set up a series of teaser billboards about a week ago in New York and Los Angeles that displayed only question marks, hashtags and exclamation points.

On Friday, Twitter unveiled a new billboard featuring glimpses of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In the days leading up to the election, the company will unveil more elaborate billboards that will use the hashtag to inform the conversation at a higher level.

 

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