So You Want My Job? CNNIC Create’s John Malone on the buzz of branded content
Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest jobs about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting.
This week, we talk to John Malone, senior director and chief creative officer of Create at CNN International Commercial.
So You Want My Job? John Malone, senior director and chief creative officer of Create
What did you want to be when you were growing up? Does your job now resemble that in any way?
I wanted to make films, commercials, animations. I was inspired by the way the movies and cartoons and the ads I watched made me feel. The visuals, the music and the way all of this was folded together into a story defined me as a kid. I knew nothing about what making any of these things entailed but I just wanted to be involved. I wanted to be on set for productions and thought there was nothing cooler than being part of a film crew.
We didn’t see many shoots in Atlanta where I grew up, but when we did it was like electricity was flowing through my veins. I wouldn’t sleep for days after; I just went through thousands of set-ups and scenes in my head.
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I was an ’80s kid, we had bicycles and could go pretty much anywhere unsupervised, and that freedom was priceless. Atlanta is in the South and it was 100 degrees outside in the summer so my brother and I would cycle up to Blockbuster and rent and watch and rewatch Star Wars, Goonies, Monty Python, War Games, Karate Kid, Ghostbusters and The Lost Boys. I felt like the best stories in history were being told and I couldn’t wait to get involved when I was old enough. So that gave me some direction in terms of wanting to be close to storytelling.
My time at Turner Classic Movies was most aligned with the film dream, but I would say CNN has allowed me to really stretch my legs in the creation of campaigns and storytelling for brands.
How did you get your job? Tell us the full story.
I had applied to multiple production companies as well as The Daily Show and CNN right out of university and was blown away when I was offered internships at both. I jumped at the chance to work at the global HQ of Turner, home to CNN. CNN Center held infinite possibilities, seemingly inexhaustible resources, a brilliant brand with storytelling at its core, amazing production standards, travel – the total package.
Photojournalism was a passion and I thought maybe I would have more access to cameras, which at that time cost roughly as much as a 911 (lens not included) so I signed up for a three-month stint. I interned on Burden of Proof, a legal show with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack, which taught me to edit, write and produce in a fast-paced environment. It was trial by fire. An extremely patient and tolerant producer took me with him through the briefing, pulling tape (it was all tape), edit sessions, rundowns and how to deliver and produce the show in master control. It was total overstimulation and I loved it.
The job was not without some stress. I admit in the rush to get our third show of the day on air I did forget to cue a tape and sent the network into a hash. I didn’t do it again. Fortunately, my producer extended me as an AP on the show. During the Clinton trial we were doing three shows a day. I was working all day and most of the night, going home for a change of clothes and a shower, and then back to CNN Center, which was a place that never slept. It buzzed.
I never got to touch a camera back then, which was my goal, but I did get to interview Jon Voight, Tony Robbins and Cheryl Ladd.
I worked at CNN for a year, until I heard Turner was launching a new entertainment network and needed producers who were all-rounders. It was a start-up mentality, tiny budgets, and with that came opportunity. I freelanced there for a year and was hired full-time. We called in favors, we used friends’ houses for locations. We worked 14-hour days and we loved it.
By the end of the second year I was shooting and editing promos and creating brand identities for our shows and sponsorships. I had taught myself After Effects, FCP and how to use a camera and lenses, and had brilliant mentors in our CD and senior producers who taught me how to tell a good story. Again, I found myself at work until after midnight, writing scripts, animating and compositing in After Effects, and editing footage I had shot. It felt incredibly free and creative.
The fun lasted for five years and then we were sold to Fox, which was tough. Some of us found new roles in the wider business and sadly some didn’t. It was hard but it was my first of many lessons about how a business operates. I was again incredibly fortunate to be offered a role at Turner Classic Movies. The GM, Tom Karsch, said to me, you’ve been doing spin art – come do some oil painting. How could I turn that down?
TCM was a dream job. We weren’t ad-supported so it was wall-to-wall cinema and storytelling. TCM knew how to speak to its audience. We had a cult following, and access to the best cinema since the zoetrope had been invented in the Turner-owned MGM Library. As art director and DOP, I helped the team of directors and producers to tell our audience about the incredible line-up of the world’s greatest cinema ever. We made promos, and edited mini-documentaries about genres, directors, one fan who wanted (and received on camera) a TCM tattoo, and a team of kids who remade shot-for-shot Raiders of the Lost Ark in their parents’ garage and back garden. It was storytelling at its most authentic and I loved every minute of the five years there.
This was years before we knew it was branded content – we were just telling great stories, the kind our audience was interested in, and sometimes that was enabled by a brand partner. Inevitably the business leadership changed, and with it our structure. I was still part of the Turner team, but the way in which we worked didn’t offer me the same opportunity, so I began looking for AD roles elsewhere.
My search turned up a distant possibility. I had seen on an internal posting that CNN International Commercial, based in London, was looking for a Senior Designer. It was a reach, the pay wasn’t as good and the exchange rate was brutal, but the opportunity I was looking for was there. I believed I could make back the difference in salary in time. What mattered to me was the experience.
So I went all in, asked for multiple recommendations from every VP, MD, and CD I had worked with, and surprisingly got a foot in the door. The agency director and the head of ad sales were lovely guys and gave me a chance. Three months later I was in London and on a shoot, operating camera with a London crew and responsible for designing and compositing everything for a branded content campaign for a global hospitality brand. It felt amazing.
We were a tiny agency of four people working with some of the biggest and most respected brands in the world. I worked like a dog. 4am finishes were not uncommon. One of our sales guys gave me a sleeping bag as a thank you after a deal closed. It was intense but fulfilling. This was 14 years ago. Since then we have grown the agency to over 50 creatives, storytellers and strategists globally.
OK, so what do you actually do? How would you explain your job to a taxi driver?
I love taxi drivers. Before the pandemic I took taxis way too much. I probably have had to explain what I do to half the taxi drivers in London.
I say I work for CNN, they say, “What, as a presenter?“
“No, I am on the commercial side of the business.“
They (looking visibly disappointed) say, “What? CNN makes commercials?“
I say, “Yeah, some darn good ones too.“
We build websites, make documentaries. We make over half the content you see in the commercial space on CNNIC. I lead the agency that makes campaigns for brands that speak to CNN’s audience. When you watch CNN you expect news, right? Our content isn’t always news, but it is always informative and inspiring.
We speak to people in a way they expect to be spoken to on CNN’s platforms. Then I flip the conversation back to them: “Let me ask you, do you watch CNN?” Usually the answer is, “Yes mate, I do, and always when I travel.” I’ve learned taxi drivers travel a lot. And then they tell me about their holiday and I mention one of the many tourism campaigns we have done and they tell me a story about driving Richard Quest or Christiane Amanpour and that’s about how long it takes to get to the office.
Do your parents understand what it is that you do?
Yes and no. They are really just happy I have a job. When I speak to them about work it’s usually around the subject of job security. But they know I’m a creative. In my family we are all creatives. My brother produced music before deciding to leave it behind and make furniture, my mother is an interior decorator and my father – despite being in the corporate world for 30 years – paints, sculpts restores old houses and grows trees.
What do you love most about your job?
Solving a difficult creative problem, and bringing together experts from various disciplines to deliver a campaign people will actually enjoy and remember. Create offers clients the power of CNN’s storytelling in a branded space. We tell stories that create connections between people, brands and the world around them through the experiences of others. Searching for relevant and engaging stories means we need to know the interests of the CNN audience so we can speak to them.
Finding the right person or people to be the focus of that story is an obsessive pursuit for us. I love the research process, the data and insight that sits behind it, but my favorite part is that moment you realize all the work has paid off – something just clicks. A great story takes time and effort to bring to life. It takes a team of strategists, storytellers, designers and researchers to make a campaign, but the pay-off really is seeing all that hard work come together in an experience that people want to engage with over and over. That and being part of a 24-hour news business. I never lost the electricity I feel from the newsroom. I’m continually in awe of our journalists and the work they do around the world.
How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job now? What would be their route?
Be selective about who you work for, but get in the door any way you can. Don’t wait for the perfect job to appear, just narrow down the brands you want to work for, and focus on access. There is incredible lateral freedom in entry-level roles. Don’t go in expecting to be in the right vertical – you will find your way there.
What advice would you offer to others entering the advertising industry, especially at this weird time?
Weird means there are a lot of stories to be told. Weird means rules are being bent, the playing field is being shaken up, and opportunity exists where it might not have before. Good creative is as valuable now and possibly more valuable than pre-pandemic.
What would you say is the trait that best suits you for your role?
I never stopped being curious. I want to know as much about everything as I can. This is helpful when one moment you are speaking to a multi-billion-dollar handset maker about sustainability and the next a matcha master about the process for selecting tea. Every campaign or conversation is an opportunity to expand my understanding on a topic or situation.
Who should those who want your job read or listen to?
Taxi drivers, elderly people, kids, parents – I am a bit of an indiscriminate listener. And reader. I like to look for trends. One recommendation: read news publications from multiple positions of bias and form your own opinion. Books I’ve recently read: I just finished Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey and Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Before that I re-read William Gibson’s Blue Ant Trilogy for the third time and I’ve been working my way through a non-fiction book about marketing by Seth Godin for six months. I’m currently reading Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. I’m currently listening to Prof G, Malcolm Gladwell and lots of music.