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How Personal Projects Can Grow Your Career: A Chat With Chris Luu

// Sebastian Tarrant 2020

Chris Luu is an art director at Johannes Leonardo, a New York City advertising agency. In this article, we’re exploring how Chris’s creative side-projects contributed to putting him where he is today.


Chris is living in many ways, the quintessential creative’s dream.

His Instagram features photography from skateboarding adventures around the world, personal art projects, a vibrant, international friend group and his own advertising work - displayed in bright lights in the centre of Times Square. For many of us going through the university process, this could feel like an idealistic dream, way off in the distance. But there’s so much that Chris has done that we can learn from, to potentially be able to put ourselves in the same position in the future.

When I was investigating Chris’ background, his inherent creativity and passion for art and culture struck me. Not only this, but he took his passion and applied it to his own personal projects. Chris once turned Perth streets into a gallery, by placing photos he’d taken over many years behind the glass of phone-boxes. When NYC was facing the brunt of COVID – 19, Chris and a couple of friends, created signage that would lift people’s spirits and bring people together, and placed them on public bridges on late-night missions. These personal projects have been an ongoing trope throughout Chris’ life and it’s something that I believed needed to be explored.

Chris' personal work in Perth and NYC. Check out more here.

Once I actually got to speak to Chris about the role of these projects in his life, he recalled the negative response he received when undertaking the phone-box project.

He said people would question the motivation for the project, or whether the time invested would pay off monetarily. Chris said these questions actually demotivated him from sharing the work he’d done with the phone-boxes for over a year after the project concluded. I think many creatives are faced with similar questions when they are seeking to develop their creative side and in chatting to Chris I realised this needed to be discussed in public forum because people these projects absolutely can pay off, just not always in a way we can see from the start.

For Chris and the phone-box gallery, Vice Australia eventually found the project and interviewed him about it, which was validating for Chris and encouraged him to share it himself. But the ultimate pay-off was the role these projects played in landing his current job as art director at Johannes Leonardo, an NYC agency known for their work with Adidas, Volkswagen and other billion dollar companies. Chris told me that more time was spent discussing his personal projects than his previous advertising work during the interview process.

Chris' work with Volkswagen displayed in Times Square.

This is obvious motivation for us students to pursue creative projects alongside our uni-work, however I think a key thing to discuss here is WHY Johannes Leonardo was interested in this side of Chris’ work.

Marketing (and advertising and branding) is at its core, a simple process: finding an idea that represents a company and communicating it to the world. Personal projects allow you to show your ability to excel in this process. Whether it’s a series of photos, a podcast, a skateboarding video or any other creative endeavour, they all show how you think and how you manifest ideas into a finished product that communicates a message.

In my discussion with Chris, we touched on the differences and similarities between his process in personal work and with clients. He said that his personal efforts are opportunities for him to fully own the process of creation, which isn’t allowed in client work. In this way, personal projects can actually be better examples of your process and mindset, because you aren’t limited by client-requirements or collaborating with others. Agencies know how to work with clients and instruct their employees, but they hire people for fresh perspectives and creative ideas - and personal work is where these factors shine through.

Personal projects also show a dedication to hard work, and as Chris jokingly remembered, “I couldn’t promise I’d be better than the next guy, but I could promise I’d work harder”. Especially in a market like New York, a commitment to long-hours and tight, hard deadlines is expected. Your own work can be a way to show that you are willing to put in the considerable amount of effort it takes to reach an amazing end product.

Chris is also a skateboarder and documents his international skateboarding trips.

He is sponsored by Vans Australia.

So we understand the importance of creating personal projects, but how exactly could we put them into practice? Here’s a few tips that my discussion with Chris yielded.

  1. Find a simple idea and communicate it well. One thing Chris discussed was the importance of keeping ideas simple. His phone-box project for example was about using space he thought was not being used as well as it could be. The photos he displayed were not consistent and sometimes weren’t even photos, but he stuck to the simple idea of attempting to use the space in a better way than it was.

  2. Maintain creative control. Chris discussed other ways to grow a marketing resumé, such as volunteering with not-for profits or joining post-graduate programs such as AWARD School, but he maintained the importance of keeping control of personal projects. These should be 100% you, and express your ideas, without the constraints that collaboration brings. That’s not to say don’t work with your friends or family, but don’t try to bring in clients to your artistic endeavours.

  3. Display the product in a concise, beautiful way. Chris’ website displays his personal projects proudly alongside pieces of agency work. The pieces have text describing the project, links to any articles about them and images of the work. If you do something that you’re proud of, share it on Instagram or add it to a website so if anyone is interested in you, they’ll see the work you put in for the project.

Chris attended AWARD School here in WA. He finished in the top 3 students of the class.

In summation, never be afraid to pursue a creative project.

You may be questioned on its return in time or money, or even question it yourself. But you need to look inside the project itself for the return. How is it helping you to increase your work ethic? How is it helping you to think more critically about the world? How is teaching you new ways to express your ideas? These are the lessons and growth that people outside of this process can’t see, but fortunately for us, many people working in the marketing industry can instantly recognise.

My chat with Chris was extremely eye-opening and it’s encouraged me to pursue creative projects in my own life and rekindle ones that had died. What do you think? Send us a DM through our Instagram @curtinmarketingassociation with your thoughts on personal projects, or any ideas you’d like to talk about. We’re always ready for a chat.


Follow Chris' Instagram here:

Check out his website here:

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