With his impish grin and trumpet-like laugh, DJ Carey, chief creative officer at Firewood, is usually very easy to spot in the home office. That’s not to be confused with being easy to find. He’s rarely at his desk—which, with its three-plus screens, is more mission control than workstation. Instead, he can be found bouncing around the office, gazing over designers’ shoulders, and geeking out over what’s coming together on-screen. If the Tasmanian Devil of Looney Tunes fame had a caffeine problem, he might match the kinetic energy that pulses off DJ like the deep bass thump of an all-night rave. The guy is boundless, effervescent, and wildly engaging.
He’s also a top-notch designer, creative thinker, and team leader. I caught up with him to get his thoughts on the changes in the agency world, the direction Firewood is headed, and what excites him most about where the creative communications field is going.
A: Starting out with the easy stuff I see. The word that immediately comes to mind is spirit. To me, spirit represents the additive component of our culture—what each person contributes to the above and beyond of what we offer as an agency. I think that’s really important because even in the agency world, creativity is still highly subjective. It’s incumbent upon us not only to be great from a skills-and-delivery perspective, but also to bring a little passion to the party to make the work unique and impactful.
I wouldn’t limit this to creative, of course. I think everyone at Firewood has this sense of spirit in one form or another. Artistry and creative expression demand that bit of fire as an inherent part of the process. We have a responsibility to listen, digest, learn, create, deliver, and repeat. But the path you take to go from a brief to a finished project doesn’t have to be linear or proscriptive. Innovation and self-challenge are imperatives for great creative. So spirit in our world means bringing all of yourself to everything you do—consistently. Simple, right?
I’d say my role in all of this is to facilitate the safe and open spaces for Creativity with a capital C to be leveraged and applied to the greatest extent possible. A space where pushing yourself artistically, growing, and embracing change are natural and encouraged parts of your path. In other words, I’m here to open the doors to Creativity and keep them open as much as possible. And that extends to all of our teams and clients. I work with the creative leads to ensure the lines of communication are open, the teams are well informed, and everyone is working synergistically to carry that spirit across all the work we do.
A: We’re not a small company anymore. When I started four years ago, we were just over 30 people. Now we’re 10 times that size, global, scaling rapidly, and still adding new talent, clients, and services. It’s a fantastic time for us as a company, but it’s a challenge to stay on top of things. The quintessential question on my mind is, How do you set and maintain a high bar for creative excellence across the board when you have far fewer opportunities to find solutions in person and on the fly? For example, how our Dublin team works with a local client and tackles a project in Europe is going to differ from how our New York team pairs with the team in San Francisco to get work done as a cohesive, remote group. We’ve lost some of the opportunities to just get in a room and work things out so our mindset has had to shift to a more distributed model.
That said, we’ve also benefited from this change in that we now have access to greater across-the-board insights due to the larger and more diverse workload. This has allowed us to be much more strategic about the decisions we make. On the creative front, this has been hugely helpful. One tiny insight can have a big impact on the quality and performance of even a single piece of work, and how we handle that together can be pretty eye-opening. For example, we have teams in pretty much every Firewood office that are doing work for Google. Some projects are small and compartmentalized. Others are huge campaigns that are split across teams and time zones. Managing all those projects together provides everyone with more exposure and more knowledge of the overall brand, audience, and goals, which leads to more informed and performant output. It’s a tough process to wrangle, but I think we’re heading in the right direction and learning every day.
I’d also say that maintaining our trademark flexibility as we continue to grow has been an interesting challenge. We have a reputation for getting sh*t done, and that’s definitely harder at our current size. One of the ways we’ve adapted over the years is by building out specialized service departments in production, presentation design, user experience, illustration, animation, and others. This has helped us maintain proper focus across the core disciplines with our clients in each of the regions, while also giving us the ability to dial up or down services and resources as needed. Flexibility is the name of the game, and if it’s managed well, it empowers our teams—no matter where they are or what challenges they face. In other words, it makes us better partners, which is at the very core of who we are as a company.
A: Every new capability we add is another open door to possibility, but it’s the sum total of what we can offer that makes me giddy. As we evolve with our clients, we’re provided with opportunities to reach new audiences and tell deeper, more relevant stories. From a creative standpoint, that makes the palette richer and more diverse, which facilitates bigger thinking.
This evolution has also helped us uncover new and interesting ways to deepen the relationships between our internal teams. For example, our creative and performance media teams have been working more closely together to build some really interesting dynamic, data-driven ads and websites that have pushed the limits of what’s possible. That’s priceless, because it exposes more of our people to a larger world and stretches the limits of what’s possible beyond the immediate requirements of their craft. So our clients’ evolution has had a positive impact on our own evolution as well.
It’s really interesting how one channel can have an impact on another, too. Our motion graphics team got off the ground due to the need to tell more immersive, multichannel stories. We’re doing live-action and green-screen videos, testimonials, product featurettes, 3D animation, and more as a result. A key part of the motion work is injected back into email marketing in the form of animated GIFs to enhance the medium and bridge the gap from inbox to interactive more fluidly.
Speaking of interactive, another really interesting facet of our growth is our technology practice, which grew up alongside the extensive event management and creative work we’ve been doing for years. The team has been deep in platform development, management, and optimization to streamline and automate massive undertakings and it’s growing like crazy. We’re now exploring Google AMP technology that adds dynamic elements to emails, making them behave more like websites or connect to databases to do some funky stuff. So all the pieces are connecting naturally, and we’re finding lots of great ways to reduce friction and add value for the audiences that we’re helping our clients connect with.
A: Yeah, that’s a big one for me. Personally, I’m interested in any and all conceivable ways to integrate creative and technology. Professionally, it’s about the best, most relevant fit. Earlier in my career, I spent a lot of my agency time in New York doing really tech-heavy work. I was a senior art director at a small agency called Visual Goodness at the time. We were a tight guerrilla crew that did a lot of the heavy lifting for larger agencies’ big campaigns. We’d handle 3D, video production, Flash, and innovative interactive work across loads of channels. It was the kind of cutting-edge stuff that rounds out campaigns. We were all multidisciplinarians. I would art direct a green-screen shoot in the morning, jump into a huge After Effects piece that would be cut up into interactive elements for a large website in the afternoon, and then wrap up the day by writing some code to bring it all together. It gave me a great perspective on how all the pieces fit together. It was also crazy fun.
What I learned was just how powerful the technology landscape could be. Some of the most creative people I’ve ever met have been developers. We’d get in a room and slam our heads together over a big, technical challenge, exploring beyond the boundaries of what we thought was possible. Lots of times when I thought we were reaching the end of what could be accomplished, I’d get a, “Yeah, we can do that” from one of the devs. Boom! Mind-set expanded. Limits pushed. So working with developers makes you critically aware of where the actual guardrails are, and it pushes you to constantly test to see if you can go further.
Bringing it back to Firewood, we’re just now charting that path. I’m jazzed for opportunities to delve into emerging mediums like AR, VR, and Google AMP technology in Gmail. The industry’s going to hit a point when those mediums will become viable as channels, and that will give us a larger canvas to paint on. In the meantime, we get to play around in the sandbox to see what’s possible, and that’s great fun.
A: If I had to pick one key driver, I’d say it’s ownership—as in how you show up and what you bring to the table. Dealing with limitations, tight timelines and budgets, and sometimes difficult clients is the reality of what we do. To be truly great creatives in the agency space, we have to recognize that not everything we’re required to do will fit within the realm of our personal vision or values. How well we respond in those situations depends on how much we’re able to empathize and contribute our own gifts to the most appropriate solution, regardless of perceived friction. It’s not always easy. But, to me, that’s what makes it exciting.
A simple lesson that I learned back in art school involved recognizing the impermanence of elements in the physical world. We don’t truly own the things we create, only the processes by which they’re created and how we choose to experience them. You create something, you release it, and then you don’t own it anymore and it’s on to the next thing. Life is replete with opportunities to rethink and refresh. You just have to stay alert enough to observe and act. I think that level of mindfulness is where youth resides and real innovation can happen. Staying fresh and seeing things not just for what they are but for what they could be is key. And bringing that mind-set into what you do professionally, while acting with genuine intention, is where the magic happens. So the goal should be to invest your whole self into what you do, make it as enjoyable as possible, and share the fruits of your journey with your peers at every opportunity.