So You Want My Job? James Cross explains how to become a BBC creative director


By John McCarthy | Media editor

November 3, 2020 | 8 min read

Welcome to The Drum’s new series, So You Want My Job? Each week, we’ll be asking the people working in some of the industry’s coolest jobs about how they got where they are. And, along the way, we’ll dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully, our interviewees can help inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting.

With fluctuations in the economy threatening the security of many marketers’ jobs, we have launched a bi-monthly newsletter (Working it Out) to map the trends in the wider jobs market.

Featuring regularly on the newsletter will be our So You Want My Job? series, which launches here with James Cross, a creative director at BBC Creative. The Drum previously spoke with Cross in May about his work on last year’s unmissable Alan Partridge all-staff email. But having only just scratched the surface, we return to the conversation to find out a bit more about his career so far.

James Cross

So You Want My Job? James Cross explains how to become a BBC ECD

What did you want to be when growing up?

I wanted to be Alan McGee of Creation Records from about 15 onwards. Not a rock star like my mates, but a label owner. Weird ambition, but my guitar playing was a bit ropey. Undeterred, I followed that path until I actually got to work for him after University – at Poptones Records (unpaid, nothing changes) and then subsequently at Shifty Disco Records. I realised the music business was actually quite dull. And Napster was just destroying it by then too.

Does your job now resemble that in any way?

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Not really. There are slightly fewer psychopaths in the ad industry.

So how did you get into advertising?

This will piss off everyone who has studied advertising, so I’m sorry, but I had a marketing degree and I was good at writing, so advertising felt like the thing for me to pursue. And it seemed cool. So I searched for agencies on the internet, found one, applied for a job advertised on its site, went to an interview the following day, spoke about Led Zeppelin for an hour, was hired on the spot and was writing my first ad a few days later for Saab.

I pretty much got into the industry because I could talk about bands as my book was full of press releases and some made-up ads. I was also teamed early with Paul Thomas as my first art director. He was 20 years older than me, so I had to be good pretty quickly, and he taught me an awful lot. My business card said ‘senior copywriter’ when I was a junior so that I could be taken seriously by clients. I also wore specs to meetings to look more mature and intellectual. No, really!

Any missteps along the way?

I have only once moved for the money and glamour. I worked at an agency in Shoreditch, which had Coca-Cola, Orange and eBay as clients. I considered this to be amazing, but I didn’t really understand what the term ‘sales promotion agency’ meant until it was too late. I lasted six months. Valuable lesson learned in that fulfilment for me is enjoying what I do first and foremost.

Anything you would do differently?

There’s a couple of jobs I shouldn’t have taken, a few nights out I regret, but the journey here has been the best bit.

OK, what do you actually do?

Quality control, editing, encouragement, a bit of admin, making stuff better, making stuff worse possibly, arguing, presenting, persisting and struggling to keep up with emails. I am an eternal optimist.

And how do you explain that to a taxi driver?

It goes like this: ’You know the BBC, yeah? Well, I do everything that’s not a programme, all the bits in between basically… just drop me here mate, the BBC don’t like me expensing cabs really.”

Do your parents understand what you do?

Sort of. They’re very proud and I think that they have actually heard of the BBC, which helps massively. That doesn’t stop my dad asking ’is that one of yours?’ every time an ad appears. ’No Dad, I had nothing to do with the Cadbury Gorilla.’

What do you love most about your job?

Making things and making a difference. It’s that simple. We create so much more than ‘ads’ – our industry has the power to change the world. I genuinely believe that. It’s a privilege.

How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job?

Be prepared to work harder than everyone else. But I do also think doing an ad course like SCA, Watford, Brixton, Bucks or Lincoln definitely gives you an advantage coming in. But the best thing you can do is be tenacious and interested. Tim [Jones, Cross’s long-time creative partner] and I have had to battle and work harder than everyone else to get to where we have. Being able to recite the contents of every D&AD annual from 1996 onwards isn’t a party trick. In the early days, it gave us an encyclopedic knowledge of what ‘great’ looked like. Read more. Get nerdy.

What other advice would you offer to anyone entering the ad industry at this weird time?

Don’t give up. That’s too easy right now. The world will always need advertising, so make yourself known to every agency, ask for crits, ask for briefs. Don’t take being ignored or rejected personally. I teach some students in Manchester for an initiative called School of Thought and that gives you 12 weeks of crits and briefs. Just work harder than everyone else. Energy beats talent in the early days.

What one trait do you most need for your role?

Tenacity, I think. Being determined and primed to push a good idea through whatever it takes to make it happen is a buzz I’m totally addicted to.

And lastly, what should someone wanting your job be reading or listening to?

You should read The Drum [we didn’t force him to say this], Campaign, blogs, It’s Nice That, Collossal, and listen to all the advertising podcasts you can. But also, follow your passions. Inspiration is everywhere. The amount of scripts we’ve written based on overheard pub conversations and talking to middle-aged women from the north west is considerable!

Come back next week for another interesting job talk, and sign up to our jobs newsletter, Working it Out, here.


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