Julia Neumann joined Johannes Leonardo as its first ever chief creative officer, working closely with founders Jan Jacobs and Leo Premutico, in June of last year. The move marked somewhat of a full circle for the trio - Julia's first job in advertising was as an intern and eventual creative at Saatchi & Saatchi New York, where Jan and Leo ran the creative department before leaving to launch Johannes Leonardo.
Prior to Johannes Leonardo, Julia was executive creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, where she spent three years leading creative for brands like Mtn Dew, working on Super Bowl ads like 'Major Melon' and adidas, for whom she launched 'Billie Jean King Your Shoes'.
In her free time, Julia also directed a documentary short called ‘Deporting Myself’. The film premiered at the Berkshire International Film Festival and was part of the official selection at the Marfa Film Festival 2021. It won best short documentary at the Coney Island Film Festival and was featured at the NBC News’ Meet the Press Film Festival.
As a direct partner of both Jan and Leo, Julia's task is to lead Johannes Leonardo's creative and design department and play a role in cultivating a brave creative culture across its growing roster of clients. With Julia’s appointment, Jan and Leo became creative chairs of the agency. The award-winning industry veterans founded the agency in 2007 on the ‘consumer is the medium’ philosophy which saw them become one of the first agencies on Google’s roster. Since then, Jan and Leo have made a reputation for themselves by creating long-standing brand platforms that have led to significant growth for companies like adidas Originals and Volkswagen.
But we're here to find out more about Julia. LBB's Addison Capper caught up with her to find out about how she's been shaping the new role, offsetting her advertising footprint, and feeding her inner curious monster.
LBB> You are Johannes Leonardo’s first ever CCO aside from Jan and Leo. Did that cross your mind when taking the job? What pressure but also opportunities do you think that created?
Julia> Of course that crossed my mind! But there has never been a better time to embrace this sort of opportunity. There is a legacy at this agency that Jan and Leo have created that has reached a tipping point. The founding philosophy of the agency - The Consumer Is The Medium - has never been more relevant than it is today. With more than 4.2 billion social media users around the world, it is a principle that we are now seeing permeate every single facet of our daily lives. With the rise of TikTok and the metaverse, power in the hands of people has never been more powerful.
We have a roster of incredible clients like Instagram and Kraft Heinz, and more coming in that I can't mention at the moment, and across all, we are doubling down on our proven creative abilities in helping them meet consumers where they are now and ten years from now. I have massive shoes to fill. It's a big role, and I have a lot of respect for the task in front of me.
Whenever I think about my current role right now, I always think back to the Danny Myers book ‘Setting The Table’ that was given to me by my old boss Chris Beresford Hill and the Saltshaker Theory. As a leader, you're required to ‘set the table’ - you put the salt and pepper shaker in the middle. People are going to try and move it, question why you put it there and overcomplicate. My job as a leader is to move the salt and pepper back each time, and refocus people on the vision and task at hand, bringing everyone back to centre.
LBB> As a CCO, I imagine a chunk of your responsibilities involve nurturing talent and listening to your teams to ensure they're able to work to the best of their abilities. What is your approach to this side of the job?
Julia> A former colleague of mine named Evelyn uses an analogy that I also like to steal. I think the author was Lewis Thomas, and he wrote this wonderful essay on biology where he talks about how if you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue memoranda on solar navigation protocols. What you do is arrange an environment around the hive and when the air is right, the science will come. And I think that's very true for advertising agencies as well. It's encouraging creativity not led by fear. It's creating an environment where people can thrive. And that's kind of my approach.
LBB> Which projects that you’ve been involved in at Johannes Leonardo are you proudest of and why?
Julia> The latest example I can mention is the Oscar Mayer ‘Meat Mask
’. To come up with an idea that resonates within culture like this and shows up on CNN and Washington Post is pretty incredible. When was the last time you thought about bologna, you know? That was just an incredible project that really hit the nerve of culture and made its course around the world wide web, and it comes from a true insight which is what I love about it. And it goes across borders. I remember going to the store and getting a slice of bologna and biting into it and pretending it was a facemask. It's the kind of idea that my dad understands. Actually, I showed it to him and he was like, “Oh, that's funny. That's cool."
LBB> How did you end up in advertising in the first place? You've been in New York for quite a while - were you working in the industry already when you moved to New York?
Julia> No, I wasn't. My first job was in New York. Where do I begin? I come from a small town in Austria; picture the Sound of Music. That's exactly it, including the twirl. I always knew that I was inherently creative, but didn't quite feel like taking the obvious path of going to art school - I'm a terrible drawer - or studying journalism, which I tried for three semesters before throwing in the towel on that. I found Miami Ad School and that was an incredible experience. I had so much fun and it kind of checked off all the boxes for me. I got an internship at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and was able to produce some work
(below) that was recognised at Cannes [in the same year that Saatchi & Saatchi New York won Agency of the Year] and then boom, I got my first job in advertising which was with Jan and Leo.
LBB> So it all came full circle.
Julia> They are my first experience in advertising. They taught me the foundations of what a good idea is. I was pretty mad when they left Saatchi to open Johannes Leonardo. I always watched them from afar and admired what they did. I really think it's a tough ask as foreigners to start an agency in New York. So I have respect for that. I watched them from afar and I rooted for them. And eventually, we had a conversation and here we are.
LBB> You directed a short film in the last couple of years, right? I also read in a recent interview of yours with Muse where you said that as a kid you had a cassette recorder and would record and narrate random stories. Is directing a short film somehow a bit like that but in a more adult way, or am I just putting two and two together to make five?
Julia> That's such a nice way of putting it. I like that. In this case, the film was called 'Deporting Myself'. It was a short documentary. I like to apply creativity outside of my job to other things. We're taught such valuable lessons so I like to apply them in different instances. Also, there's this element of offsetting my advertising footprint. It's interesting because when doing a commercial, everything is super planned out and storyboarded. But doing a documentary was a lot more about being able to react to situations that you can't control, and that was a really interesting experience. Directing it was definitely a creative challenge for me too, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
This fell into my lap. I think the challenge was to figure out, like "what are the pieces that I need to be able to create the story?" And the best way to tell the story was to do a short documentary, so I put together a team and made it happen. Directing was an amazing experience but I'm not on the trajectory of becoming a director. That's not to say that I wouldn't pursue it, but that's not why I did this. It wasn't an exercise in having a piece of film to show everybody that I can direct, it was more of a proof of concept and a way to be creative outside of the company.
LBB> You said that you enjoy applying creativity outside of your job. Do you think this is important for all creatives or that to be quite an old fashioned viewpoint?
Julia> Just because someone doesn't do it doesn't mean they're not creative. But I do think that creative people always look for outlets and they can show up in many different shapes and sizes. I just heard about a designer of ours who has found a new passion for making carpets. Amazing, right?! You know, why wouldn't he express himself in that way? And I think looking at the young generation, that is definitely something that they're doing. They don't just focus on one thing. They're good at many different things and really fast at it too. I enjoy the fearlessness that they bring to the table and the experimentation that they're willing to do. That fresh thinking is cool.
LBB> What's the most exciting thing in advertising right now?
Julia> I typically look outside the advertising landscape to find ideas that are exceptional. There's this company called MSCHF. They call themselves an internet company and they release an idea every two weeks. They do incredible stuff. One of the ideas they've come up with is ‘everyone gets a car’. Basically, you could buy a Lamborghini for $35. I don't know how many they sold, but there were like five real Lamborghinis in the mix and you didn't know which one you'd get. They also did an entire season of 'The Office' on Slack and they would only play it from nine to five. It's stuff like that. It is just inherently creative. They also did something where you could send in your gun and they would make a sword out of it. They're just really interesting ideas that resonate with culture. They did Birkenstocks which were hilarious. You could buy a Birkenstock made out of Birkin bags and sold them for like $70,000. It is so fun and entertaining. They always tap into a truth or an insight. And they have a mission statement; it's very clear, it's very straightforward. I just have a lot of respect for their ability to churn out ideas on a two-week basis that always resonate with culture and talk to people in a really interesting way.
They had their office literally a block and a half away from me, and I am a superfan. For me to go in was impossible - I am the most awkward person when it comes to stuff like this. I told [Wieden+Kennedy’s] Susan Hofmann about them, so she knew I was a fan. One day she came by and we maybe had half a bottle of wine - maybe an entire bottle - and then we walked down and knocked on the door. She made me do it and she was like, "Hi, this is Julia and Susan". And the founder, Gabriel, was like "Yeah, I know you guys. I tried to get a job in advertising and I applied to both of your agencies and I didn't get in." But that's what I mean. Creativity can come to life in many different ways.
LBB> Outside of work what keeps you happy / relaxed / sane / busy?
Julia> This is a tricky question because I feel like a lot of the input that I used to have was from just exposing myself to different things. Honestly, I love to go to battle raps and concerts and plays. That's kind of my thing. Or just walking through a different neighbourhood and getting input. I am definitely a person that needs outside stimulation. So I've been a little starved of that, I'm not going to lie.
LBB> But generally, in more normal times, you must live in one of the best cities to do that…
Julia> It's super exciting. There's always stuff where I'm like, "Wait, what are people doing?" I like to watch that and I like to be nosy and curious and just feed that inner curious monster of mine with weird things to do.
Additional reporting by Josh Neufeldt