Ben Weeks preaches compassion towards clients. “You have to have empathy for people who work in corporations, ad agencies and marketing departments. You need to understand the pressures on them.”
You look at the face of the 34-year-old Toronto illustrator for signs that he is putting you on.
But the compassion seems genuine. If you can’t grumble about clients, then that quickly takes away fodder for chitchat at your meeting in the Members Lounge of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
It’s not what you expected. The street art sensibility of his illustrations – carried over to his murals and videos – makes you think underground subversive. By day he does his work for the New York Times, Bloomberg Business Week, Microsoft, Staples and others, and by evening he hangs with friends, kills a few brain cells and rants against those who feed him. Right?
Wrong. Weeks makes sure evenings and weekends are spent with his wife and young daughter. Usually such an admirable work-life balance only comes after years of burning the candle at both ends, wondering if the ulcer or the bottle will bring you down first. But he has got it right early.
Perhaps his admirable approach to life and business has something to do with his schooling. He took his BA in illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville. “I remember reading the No Logo book by Naomi Klein, which is harshly critical of brands like Nike. It made me very judgmental of corporations as evil things,” he recalls.
“But I discovered they’re very human. Sometimes they do things that are good. Sometimes they do things that are evil. They’re like the rest of us.”
Weeks’ insight into clients came after Sheridan when he applied to take an MA in design at the University of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, England. Its Creative Imaging program was run by the ATTIK Group a hot brand communications company.
“I learned to see the world in a different way,” recalls Weeks. “Marketing people aren’t artists. They just want results. I can understand things from their point of view. I can even wear their hat myself at times. I can understand why that great piece of art won’t get me new business. How an I be effective as my own marketing department?”
Weeks has become effective by turning into a strategic thinker who is valued by creative agency creative directors, art directors and designers. “He’s an idea guy and a great collaborator,” says designer Jim Ryce, who worked with Weeks on a couple of PEN annual reports when he was a partner at Soapbox Design. “He can be whimsical and playful while thinking conceptually. He comes up with some amazing stuff.”
A graphic example of his thinking can be seen in a graphic example. In showing how exceptional the winners of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada are, Weeks created illustrations for the Directory annual, with a Where’s Waldo appeal. One shows 38 black sheep with one white one in their midst. Or 176 stones have one diamond in the field.
Weeks loves to work for clients whose thinking he admires, such as Underline or Concrete, and who return the respect, drawing on his strong conceptual ability and execution. He also isn’t shy about speaking his mind when he sees a “strategic gap” in a client’s thinking. If the client is willing, Weeks will patiently work with them to help define its brand and build a strategic framework for it. “You can’t hit the ball out of the park unless you know where the fences are,” he says.
Weeks’ ability to hit home runs has won the confidence of agencies and the chance to try his hand at other creative pursuits. Barry Quinn, for example, a partner at Juniper Park, hired him to do his first mural, in the agency’s office, which has led to a lot of work in this vein. Other agencies have let him direct the animation in videos and commercials. Weeks is now considering taking the step some to become a full commercial director, working with live actors.
His interest in directing and film goes back to his days as teenager growing up in Markham, Ont., where his family moved from Ireland. Fascinated by the work of James Cameron, he’d read the director’s screenplays for fun and subscribed to visual effects magazines.
His parents were supportive of his creative ways, just as they supported his brother, the policeman, and his other brother, the pilot in China. In fact, you can see that his father might well serve as a role model for Weeks’ high-flying success as an illustrator. Before becoming a corporate pilot and airport inspector, his dad, Gary Weeks, unleashed his creative side as one half of a Canadian pop duo, Gary & Dave. Their 1973 song, “Could You Ever Love Me Again,” became a hit, released in 22 countries.
But then Gary’s life took an abrupt turn after meeting his wife on Aegean cruise. He rediscovered the spiritual life, became a pastor, went to Ireland to serve as a missionary and lived there with his young family.
“My dad gives me a lot of encouraging wisdom. He reminds me to be thankful for everything I have, including family,” says the young illustrator, who is an active churchgoer himself and spends times with his wife in bible study groups dedicated to understanding, tolerance and gaining insight into life’s mysteries.
In fact, it’s safe to say that his faith underpins just about everything he does and believes – including his charitable attitude towards his clients.
“We’re all on a journey,” says Weeks. “I try not to judge anyone.”