James Barrow is the Marketing Director at Macquarie University, where he is responsible for leading the university’s brand, content and creative direction.
He is also the founder and host of The B-side with James Barrow podcast, featuring conversations with people from a diverse range of backgrounds and industries.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
I am a creative-turned-marketing director, working at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
I’m responsible for the brand, content and creative outputs of the master brand and its various subbrands, across paid, owned, earned channels, in both domestic and international markets.
Before Macquarie, I spent 16 years as a creative in the advertising industry, where I worked for global agency networks like Leo Burnett, BBDO, Havas, VMLY&R and Droga 5.
I have a degree in graphic design, a master’s degree in communications (Media Arts and Production) and a mini MBA in Marketing – along with a handful of other qualifications, in marketing and business. And like many creatives, I did AWARD school.
I come from a family of teachers and have a deep respect for the power of education. So when I was approached four-and-a-half years ago for the role of a marketing director for a university, I went for it. The timing was right, and it aligned with the direction I was heading in career-wise. It’s not a traditional path for most creatives, but one that made total sense to me.
Creatives live in a nice fenced-off patch of the industry, protected from the broader world of business and marketing. I was always fascinated by the world on the other side, so that’s why I jumped the fence. I love the art and science of marketing, which, to me, is about understanding people and providing value to your market.
2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
I have a 10-month-old baby girl, so my day starts with morning dad duties, and making coffee for my wife, then discussing the plans for the day. My wife works in advertising too (media), but we try not to talk shop at home.
I live in Erskineville, so I spend the hour-long drive to Macquarie Park listening to audiobooks or industry-related podcasts. I listen to Joe Rogan or something less serious on my way home.
Once at work, more coffee, whilst I get onto my emails. I try to sort, action and clear them before getting trapped in meetings.
My window of productivity is sometime between 6:30 am and 2:30 pm. I try and get the cognitively heavy work done by then. I reserve the passive, reflective stuff for the latter half of the day, if possible.
I work in a world where creativity and marketing strategy combine. There’s a left-meets-right brain quality about the role that I find rewarding.
In any one day, I could have a brand health meeting with our research partners, a meeting with my internal team on a research publication, or our ad agency TBWA about our ‘YOU to the power of us’ campaign, a budget-related appointment with one of our finance officers, or a discussion with any of the thousands of stakeholders across the university.
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
I worked with the leadership team on implementing Agile two years ago. The process is similar to the way an ad agency works, which is hard to describe, but it’s close to the Agile model. So it came quite naturally for me. The broader team embraced this transparent, accountable, fluid way of working.
We had a flexible workplace culture in place before COVID-19 hit, so we were pretty well prepared when we all went into lockdown. I’ve always encouraged an outcomes-based approach; it’s easy to do with a professionally mature, experienced team that you know and trust will get the work done.
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
Work-life balance, that’s a profound question. Let’s start by calling it ‘life-work balance’ because ‘life’ should always come first.
We need to understand why we’re working. What purpose our work serves and how it benefits ourselves and our families. If your job doesn’t align with that, then you’ll never find balance.
I’ve always believed in the idea that business should be done within business hours. Set yourself a daily deadline to get your work or a critical portion of it, done within the 8 hours you’ve got to do it. Obviously, it’s not always possible, but the idea is to incentivise the quality of your work over the quantity of hours you spend doing it.
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
My daily routine is so out of whack with a ten-month baby. But one thing I have done is turn a habit I’ve had for as long as I can remember, into a side hustle. I’ve always loved speaking to creative thinkers about their philosophies and approaches to their work.
I decided to turn these conversations, with people from a diverse range of backgrounds and industries, into a podcast called The B-side with James Barrow. Its aim is to help inspire and unlock the dormant creativity in all of us.
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
As mentioned above I listen to heaps of audiobooks.
A few of my recent favourites include Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, and I just finished reading Sandtalk by Tyson Yunkaporta, whom I had on my podcast.
I love cultural anthropology, philosophy, Indigenous cultures, psychology and pop-science. These books tick all the boxes.
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
The idea of travelling an hour to an office to sit at a computer to answer emails all day is preposterous. Pre-COVID-19 I had never used Zoom, but I love it now.
It’s really changed the game and brought many things into question around the very nature and quality of meetings, the role technology plays, and how we communicate professionally.
I love my Apple watch too, but still swimming around in the shallow end of its functionality though.
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
Elon Musk, without a doubt. I’m not sure how he has realised so many world-changing, breakthrough projects in such a short period.
Think about it. In just fifteen years he’s launched Tesla, Space X, Neuralink, The Boring Company. He’s probably already got a Neuralink implanted, maybe that’s his secret.
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
Firstly, and most importantly, find out what matters most to you, what you stand for, and prioritise that, make that the reason you get out of bed in the morning.
Secondly, don’t get sucked into the simplistic tribalism that permeates our cultural discourse.
Life is complicated, but we like it when it’s dumbed down and we can make sense of it all. But it’s not conducive to creativity, or innovation. We live in a complex system, and we are not going to solve any of the challenges we face if we force ourselves into these infantile, ideological binaries.
The right answers will emerge, but only through having rigorous, challenging, open discussions, and embracing the diversity of opinions and people that make up the system. That’s where we’ll find the big ideas that will drive us forward.
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