Discomfort zone: Jessica Toye's work unsettles for all the right reasons

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Jessica Toye
Jessica Toye

Jessica Toye is still getting used to the spotlight. "I'll be honest, I'm not a huge fan of the attention," she says, sitting in a café in the shadow of New York's Chrysler Building, sipping a warm coffee. A few tattoos pepper her forearms: small sketches of a crown, a heart, a pineapple. "I don't even like my birthday. People coming by, saying, 'Happy birthday! Cake!' " she says, grimacing.

In the last year, Toye—recently named Ad Age's Creative of the Year, an honor shared with McCann New York's Lizzie Wilson and Tali Gumbiner—has made headlines. She won her first Cannes Lions (actually, nine of them, three of each hue) and took home three Pencils from D&AD and a gold at the One Show. The One Club and the 3% Conference called her one of their Next Creative Leaders, and the 4A's named her one of its 100 People Who Make Advertising Great.

As of last week, Toye, who's from Toronto, is a newly minted creative director at Vice Media's in-house agency, Virtue Worldwide—just six years after beginning her advertising career as an intern at Toronto-based Cundari.

"It's crazy to see this happen," she says, "and it's happening so quickly."

If you haven't heard of Toye, you likely know her work. While senior art director at JWT New York she helped create two standout campaigns that brought on the accolades: "Unsafety Check," a provocatively simple tool for Black Lives Matter that inverted Facebook's ubiquitous feature and allowed black Americans and their allies to speak out against police brutality; and "#SeeAllTheAngles," a campaign for the News Literacy Project featuring a nearly indecipherable typeface to help combat fake news by forcing readers to question their information sources.

"Jess is a star," says Brent Choi, president of Canada and chief creative officer for global brands at JWT Worldwide, who oversaw the Black Lives Matter work.

In the feed

The cause-related work, Toye says, grows out of brainstorming sessions that continue off the clock, born of issues she and her coworkers think about anyway. "It's always, 'What's something that we're concerned about? What's something that clouds up our feeds, that we talk about on a regular basis?' " she says.

So in the months before President Trump's inauguration, when he doubled down on rhetoric vilifying immigrants, racial minorities and civil rights protesters, Toye and her colleagues—senior art director Mo Osunbor and senior copywriters Daniel Del Toro and Chris Phillips—dreamed up an unsolicited project for Black Lives Matter. They put together a half-dozen ideas focused on injustice in the black community to show Choi.

"When we got the 'Unsafety Check' idea, I said, 'Stop, we're doing that one,' " Choi says. "So many people were being shot, and Trump was siding with white supremacists."

Backing Black Business
Backing Black Business

When the team reached out to Black Lives Matter through the brother of a friend, the organization liked the idea, but had another priority: a searchable database of black-owned businesses in the U.S. So Toye first helped create the Backing Black Business site.

"It was a good learning experience," she says. "You can't just go in thinking you know exactly what these organizations stand for and what work is right for them. [BLM doesn't] just want to be known as protesters on the ground. ... Usually racial injustice is caused by economic injustice."

That work led to the News Literacy Project team. "I saw what she was doing on Black Lives Matter, and knew if I worked with Jess, we were going to make something good," says Aaron Padin, head of art and design at JWT New York. (The two hadn't previously worked together directly on a project.) He offered her a spot on the team creating the typeface.

"When she commits to something, she'll follow through. She's honest that way and very truthful about herself. She's not your typical ad person," says Padin.

"She's talented and nice and she's fun, rather than someone who's talented and is a total dick," says Raul Garcia, creative director at David & Goliath, who hired Toye for her first internship.

The scenic route

Toye embraces a multidisciplinary approach. Her background is as an art director, but she's also a copywriter and designer, and her influences come from outside traditional creative outlets too—she's dating a guy who competes at a global level in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. "I love seeing people who just go for what they really love," she says.

She took a roundabout path to advertising. She had always painted, oils mostly, and she designed most of her own tattoos. (The first was a matching pair with her sister, inked when she was 16. At last count, she had 14 of them.) But she majored in economics and landed internships at a string of Canadian banks. "Then that left me questioning," she says, "like, what the hell am I doing?"

A photo from Toye's food blog.
A photo from Toye's food blog. Credit: Jessica Toye

She took a media buying job for Johnson & Johnson at McCann Toronto, and attended the Ontario College of Art and Design. In the meantime, she worked odd jobs, threw paid dinner parties for as many as 20 people and started a food blog where she tried out experimental dishes like milk-poached garlic. A cold call with portfolio in hand won her the Cundari internship, where she met both Garcia and Choi. After that, school lost its luster and she dropped out and took a job at Zulu Alpha Kilo.

"That's where I learned how to be really, really fast ... to comp everything up really quickly," she says.

A little over a year later, Garcia, then a creative director at Capital C, offered Toye a job.

"My mantra is go somewhere where you believe in the creative directors or who you're going to be working directly under. The agency name doesn't really matter," says Toye, who took the gig. But she was unhappy there after the agency merged with KBS+, and she looked for another job (with Garcia offering himself as a reference), becoming an art director at BBDO Toronto.

"It's about people learning and growing, and eventually, if everything turns out, we'll all come back together and work together again," says Garcia.

He was right. In 2016, Toye's mentors all wound up in the same place: Choi, now at JWT, became CCO of the New York office and brought in Garcia. He then reached out to Toye.

"Each place she went, I would reach out to her and try to hire her. And she basically said no each time," says Choi. But JWT New York was too good an offer to give up, and Toye, who says she had always wanted to move to New York, said yes.

Another new beginning

Few teams last long in this industry. Garcia's contract ended and, earlier this year, Choi was promoted and now spends most of his time in Toronto. And last week, Toye headed to Virtue, her first creative director position.

"Their goals align with my goals. They have a great roster of clients. And because of the Vice connection, clients expect the work from Virtue to make them uncomfortable. There's a lot of potential," she says.

Cameron Farrelly, CCO at Virtue, says, "Jess' work is as punk rock as it is empathetic and beautiful. She crafts ideas of importance, packed with soul and style."

Toye acknowledges that much of her success is due to strong mentorship, and she wants to mentor others. "I came into this industry and everyone said it's cutthroat, it's a dog-eat-dog world. People work late, people will steal briefs off your desk," she says. "I've had the opposite experience."

It was important to her, she says, that her mentors happened to be people of color. Seeing Asian women in positions of power in the industry, like Leo Burnett's Judy John, is especially inspiring for her, she says. ("I've met her. She probably doesn't remember me," Toye says, a bit sheepishly.) One day she hopes to do the same.

"A lot of people respond to seeing someone in power who looks like you, who you can relate to a bit more," she says. "When you're younger, you don't know what your capabilities are. Just knowing that it's possible is important."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said Raul Garcia was previously an art director at Capital C. He was a creative director there. It also said Aaron Padin oversaw Jessica Toye's department at J. Walter Thompson New York. She was in a different department.

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