Jen Lu Pushes Past Big Egos In Advertising With A. Human

After nearly 10 years of experience at ad giants such as Deutsch, BBDO, and most recently Droga5, Jen Lu attributes her success to listening to her own gut and doing what she think feels right. Jen’s journey in advertising was anything but conventional. Her self-proclaimed role as a “non-traditional creative thinker” can clearly be seen through her unique and sometimes outlandish work. Her most recent project A. Human disrupts the fashion industry with strikingly beautiful body modifications. Here, Jen gives her two cents on the industry and how A. Human came to be.

Photographer: Flo Ngala

Photographer: Flo Ngala

How did you start your career?

The economy was shit and the only thing that called was advertising. I took my first advertising job in 2008. I started as a designer. I animated and designed flash banners and websites.

How did you transition from a designer to an art director?

I wasn't involved in big conceptual brainstorms no matter how hard I tried. I was told by a copywriter that "designers can't be art directors". I learned about campaign concepts by reading all the decks that I designed, and I knew I could do better. I worked on side projects regardless of long agency hours. I took a chance on a freelance job during my two week vacation. It was probably illegal, but I finally made something that I was proud of.

I was already perceived as the go-to for everything the art directors didn't want to work on. Getting laid off was a fresh start and the best thing that ever happened to me. I found a job as an art director, but I had to play dumb. I had a second less designed portfolio, so I wouldn't get hired as a designer. It worked.

"I found a job as an art director, but I had to play dumb."

How did that turn out?

I was really unhappy with my role as an art director, and I regret having to dumb down my work for the sake of a silly title. The environment was also competitive, and it was a lot of who you know and hung out with. Creative teams treated designers and developers like production monkeys. The egos got bigger with the fancy titles. I just wanted to make good work, but there were all these other layers.

How did you get by and what did you learn?

After a few years and a few gigs, I found a place that accepted me. My soon to be creative director at the time saw potential in side projects, and how it could translate into branded commercial work. No dumbing down required. I took everything I learned from previous experiences and provided mentorship and guidance to creative teams and ensured a level playing field. I treated others like how I wanted to be treated. Everyone had fun even if the client was shit. Some of our best late nights were jamming to pop music and flooding the halls with loud cackling laughter and good puns.

What motivates you to keep working in advertising?

I love what I do, and I got to work with the smartest people on the craziest ideas. It felt more like art than advertising. I hope one day, I'll get to this full time, all the time, forever.

What is it that you want to do?

Big integrated ideas that span across all media that are physical and digital.

Is this what A. Human is? Can you tell me about it?

A. Human was a theatrical pop-up art experience during NY Fashion Week for a fashion brand from the future called A. Human. However, instead of designing clothing, A. Human creates body modifications.

A. Human was a collaborative effort with a group of amazingly smart people. Simon Huck presented themes and rough thoughts that inspired Spencer LaVallee and I to come up with a conceptual wrapper. The name A. Human came from our narrative designer, Caitlin Starling.

It was a dream project and the perfect combination of conceptual thinking and design. Simon gave us full creative freedom. Every inch of my creative noggin was stimulated. The four of of us worked very closely to expand the narrative, to set the tone, to give the visitors something to talk and think about. We wrote the briefs for the set designers, special effects artists, influencer partners etc. We wore many hats, and titles didn't matter either. It was a big integrated project with many moving parts, and every detail mattered.

What do you look for in student portfolios and what are they lacking nowadays?

Most of the student portfolios are lacking personality. It looks like a homework assignment and not something they had fun working on. I also look for side projects. There's nothing in a side project that could restrict the brain. You can do whatever you want. I'd like to see if they understood the traditional side of advertising. Making cool shit is not going to sell without a narrative and a reason for it to exist. If you have the best of both worlds and also do a little bit of everything like animation, 3D modeling, coding, design, etc., I'll want to work with you immediately. A fancy school is not a prerequisite.


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Sabrina Lau is a senior at The University of Texas at Austin studying Advertising and Art History. She firmly believes that cilantro, parsley, and bell peppers are among the Three Evils of the Universe and cannot be convinced otherwise.