Creative programmes and charitable initiatives: How Amazon art director Jeng Au “fell into” advertising
When Jeng Au graduated with a BA in animation, they realised it was no longer their calling – and sought to alter their creative path. Stumbling upon youth charity A New Direction, Jeng applied for their next available course, which was in advertising. After two years freelancing and searching for a creative partner, they saw a listing on The Dots for an art director role at Amazon, which would be paired with a copywriter. Jeng secured the role and a creative partner, Mahalia Peake – together, they come up with ideas for Amazon’s European advertisements. Beyond Jeng’s day job, they are prolific in personal projects, having organised an arts festival, Camp Trans, and participated in Livity’s In Future List mentorship programme. Here, Jeng talks the importance of leaning on the people around you, as well as the many programmes connecting creatives to the industry.
What I do
How would you describe what you do at Amazon?
My role as creative art director at Amazon sits within the XCM [cross-channel, cross-category marketing] Europe team, which basically means I come up with ideas with my brilliant creative partner, [copywriter] Mahalia Peake, for adverts that go out across Europe. (Honestly, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.)
If I’m lucky and an idea gets bought, I get to sit in a tent at the shoot location watching an actor open a cardboard box on a tiny screen, but most of the time it’s sitting in front of a laptop trying to find the right gif to explain everything.
“As an art director for Amazon, I work with my creative partner, [copywriter] Mahalia Peake, to come up with ideas for adverts that go out across Europe.”
Can you tell us about some of your favourite projects to date?
My favourite project from last year was – hands down – Camp Trans. This was a personal project that came about when my friend Elliot told me he wanted to go camping with his housemate and create an event out of it, so that’s what we did.
Myself, Elliot and Oran – another friend who joined further down the line – ended up producing a sold-out arts and camping festival just outside of London in an idyllic campsite with a lake and willow trees. It was complete with art performances, poetry readings, art exhibition, workshops, a bonfire and more. We managed to pull it all off in less than two months with Arts Council funding, donations and a fundraiser event.
This year, we’re back, bigger and better! With a larger team and festival, we’ve almost doubled our capacity. We’re also hosting more events in the lead-up, including a trans sauna night and an exhibition at the Ugly Duck space. Follow Camp Trans on Instagram for updates and support us if you can.
“Me and my friends produced a sold-out arts and camping festival, pulling it off in under two months with Arts Council funding, donations and a fundraiser event.”
Can you tell us about your experience as a participant of Livity’s In Future List Programme?
I found it pretty chill! I’d wanted to get involved with Livity and the fantastic work they do for a while, so jumped at the chance to apply.
They helped me find a mentor – who is also an art director in advertising – and ran really insightful learning sessions. The team at Livity made sure to ask us what we wanted to get out of the programme as participants, and responded as best they could. The Livity team are sound – the next generations of In Future List are in safe hands, and I’m excited to see what they will bring to the table.
“Livity’s In Future List helped me to find a creative mentor – who is also an art director in advertising – and provided insightful learning sessions.”
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I don’t think there is any specific training required, no. Just creative instinct and your own taste, which can serve as the basis of everything you create.
It’s great because everything [around you] comes in handy – you just need the creative taste to pick it out. The poster you walked past at 2am on a night out? Reference! That Insta post you saw eight years ago about biscuit personality types? Insight! A friend making a typo? Inspiration!
It does help if you can pull together a clear, good-looking deck though.
“I don’t think there is any specific training required. Just creative instinct and your own taste, which can serve as the basis of everything you create.”
How did you go about landing the job at Amazon?
My current role I owe to the wonderful team at The Marketing Academy Foundation. I spent two years struggling with freelancing, trying to work out if advertising was the place for me whilst also searching for a copywriter I’d gel with. When I saw the listing on The Dots saying the role would be paired with a copywriter, I figured: “why not?”
After sending an email, I was connected with Daryl Fielding and Olivia Johnson [CEO and General Manager of The Marketing Academy Foundation] – two of the most lovely people that supported me through the whole process. They got my book through a panel of judges, prepared me for interviews with the group creative director and head of design, then continued checking in with me throughout the year. They’re the sort of people you need on your side in advertising. They still keep in touch now and I know they have my back if I need anything.
What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
Turbulent, and still is sometimes! I would say I’m still finding my feet and possibly always will be; there’s always challenges to face, but that’s part of the fun also.
When I graduated with an animation degree no longer wanting to animate, I had to work out an alternate path in the creative industries. I found A New Direction – a youth employment charity – through an Insta post, and applied for the next course they had available. It just so happened to be in advertising.
The course helped boost my confidence and understanding of the advertising industry – that’s where it all began. I tell people I fell into advertising, because I think that, if A New Direction had a different course available at the time, I’d probably be living a completely different life now.
Maybe I’d be a tailor, a cinematographer or a stage manager – all of which would be fun, I’m sure – but no regrets at all about this journey I’m on now.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Everything and anything. Finding inspiration all around you is just a fun part of being a creative – before you take it and see how it comes through in the work. I especially believe in making art accessible and recognising that the everyday is art: gum on the floor, mushrooms in the woods, traffic – that’s all art.
My home. I live in A House for Artists, an artist residency programme based in Barking. It’s been a journey building the space from the ground up with the other creative residents, stakeholders and our local community. It’s currently a work in progress and there’s a lot more to do, but I’m looking forward to seeing how we all bring it together to provide a robust creative programme for the Barking and Dagenham area.
Lastly, is it cliché to say the people around me? I’ll say it anyway. They motivate me to do better and I could not do it without them.
“I believe in making art accessible and recognising that the everyday is art: gum on the floor, mushrooms in the woods, traffic – that’s all art.”
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Perfectionism. Sometimes I don’t even notice I’m slipping into it until I’m freezing up, deep in procrastination mode – it’s dangerous. I know it stems from feeling like I have to represent something bigger than myself, being the only person who looks like me in most spaces I go into – but I’m trying to think less about what I’m saying about myself through my work now and just focus on making good work.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
To be honest, I am terrible at being consistent on social media – my ADHD brain just cannot handle it!
At some point, I was posting regularly, but now I just use [my accounts] as platforms to stay in touch with friends, update myself on what’s going on, and when I’m able to, share some photography or other bits. I keep an account for fish illustrations I’ve spotted, though, so it’s a useful diary tool. My advice would be to not worry about it too much. Post what you want, or don’t.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Generally, I take on extra work where I can, not just for the money (though it helps) but because I want to learn and experience new things. It keeps my mind active and my motivation high, making me a better creative at the end of the day.
I’ve learnt to manage my time better as a result. It could always be even better, of course – as my partner and creative partner remind me – but I would say it’s better than before. It also helps having great people around you. I wouldn’t be able to hold down a full-time role, organise a festival, plan and facilitate creative workshops, build community spaces, volunteer with community groups, work on my own projects and pick up other bits if I didn’t have others to work alongside. So if you can, work with people who motivate and support you.
Have you benefited from any other access schemes, initiatives or mentorships you’d like to share?
I’m a fiend for a good scheme or initiative and I’m always sharing the ones I find, especially now that I can’t apply myself as an ex-“young person” – RIP.
I’ve already named a few great ones which have benefited me: Livity’s In Future List, The Marketing Academy Foundation, A New Direction and Create Jobs.
There’s also [Wieden+Kennedy’s] The Kennedys, Outvertising’s Mentoring Programme, Creative Mentor Network and Media Trust. And keep an eye on opportunities boards like the one on Creative Lives in Progress, for sure; there’s loads out there.
Apply for everything you can, even if you don’t get it or even necessarily want it. You’ll learn about yourself and what you want in the process.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
Make it happen, one way or another. Your goals may seem far away but if you want to do it, you will – not by keeping it hidden in your head or putting it on a pedestal, but by making it happen. So apply, apply, apply – develop that idea, break down the tasks, pitch it to people you know, write that funding application, make it with your own hands, or just start by speaking it into existence.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar career?
Keep an eye on the resources out there – there are so many useful ones. And when in doubt, just ask; people are more willing to help than you think. Some of my favourite places to find opportunities include Creative Lives in Progress, I Like Networking, Run the Check, The Guestlist, The Dots and LinkedIn. (If you have any others, send them to me!)
Jeng Au was part of Livity’s 2022 In Future List cohort.
To find out more about the mentorship and workshop programme – including how to apply for this year’s intake – check out their Opportunities Board listing here. Deadline 12th February.
Interview by Frankie Faccion
Mention Jeng Au