3 Lessons Learned From Our Conversation with DDB’s John Carstens

Author: Andrew Gall

Here are three standout lessons from our recent “How I F*cked Up” podcast featuring John Carstens. John’s role as Chief Creative Officer at Team DDB is as important as the title sounds. He’s in charge of overseeing the U.S. Army creative, leading over a dozen disparate agencies. There’s plenty more knowledge where these three key lessons came from, so make sure you listen to the full episode.

LESSON: As always, failure abounds. And that’s OK!

John dives into the nitty-gritty of his career mishaps with a refreshing openness, starting from the very beginning when his dry wit was taken the wrong way, resulting in alienating himself from the rest of his ridiculously talented creative department at Chiat/Day after an agency PR mishap early on.

This is far from the only f*ck up discussed in the episode, but the fact that it happened right at the beginning of John’s career helped him very quickly realize that careers in advertising are messy–and whether you’re a Junior Copywriter or Executive Creative Director, there’s always a chance to learn and grow right around the corner.

LESSON: Never underestimate the importance of being uncomfortable. BONUS LESSON: Use your adaptability as a superpower.

John’s seamless navigation through diverse companies, markets, and roles—from Chicago to LA, from Leo Burnett to SapientNitro to Apple—demonstrates the fact that now, more than ever, adaptability is a non-negotiable skill in advertising. John’s ability to embrace the uncomfortable serves as an excellent reminder that creatives should continuously seek out varied experiences to stay relevant and resilient in an ever-evolving industry.

John was open about being a fish out of water at Sapient in particular. The takeaway here demonstrates the importance of understanding departments and disciplines beyond yours on a deeper level. Because when you do it right, the levels of trust, efficiency, and better work that can result from everyone being on the same page across departments is amplified a thousandfold.

LESSON: Pitch with passion and precision. But don’t forget to read the room.

John’s recount of pitch presentations—his enthusiasm, bombast, and willingness to commit to a bit—is a compelling listen on its own. But even so, there are examples in which his presentations have gone awry. His boisterous impression of a legal department monster in a small hotel room, for example. The takeaway? When presenting, always bring your performance A-game. But don’t forget to read the room and be ready to adjust if things aren’t just landing. And especially when you don’t know your audience, it’s often better to hold your tongue than go for the joke.