Creative Lives — Record-breaking tweets and roasting Kanye West: Meet social creative, James Parker
Last year, James Parker penned what would become the most-liked tweet of all time from a brand. The tweet in question was for Burger King, and the message played off Kanye West’s love for rival chain McDonalds to hilarious effect – attracting media attention and comments across the board. This is all part of James’ role as a freelance creative for social media, but even after five years of work in this realm, he’s still not quite sure how to define it. “I don’t think I could have ever imagined [my job], because I’m not really sure what it is,” he says. Working in such a new industry means he’s learnt a lot on his own terms. From writing copy for social posts to creating videos and generating ideas for socially oriented campaigns, James’ work spans a myriad of skills and a big mix of clients. He tells us more, along with the journey that got him to this point – from working in pubs to his days spent dressed in Pudsey and Gruffalo suits.
Creative Freelancer (2018–present)
Head of Social, DRIVETRIBE (2017–2018)
Lead Social Creative, JOE Media (2016–2017)
Social Media Executive, The LADBible (2015–2016)
Social Media Community Manager, AMV BBDO (2014–2015)
PR Executive, The Gym Group (2014–2015)
James (right) working on a comedy sketch with Russell Kane for LADBile, 2016
How would you describe your job?
I currently work on a number of different projects for a range of clients – all of which require various aspects I've picked up from past jobs. For example, I am commissioned to write social content for Burger King, but I also write articles for a few publishers. I also film and edit videos for other clients, so it’s quite a spread, but all focused around content creation.
What does a typical working day look like?
I'll normally be in the office with an agency (Coolr), working with them to manage social calendars for a few brands. I have days were I'm commissioned to write gaming pieces, comedy sketches or even reviews in some cases. Occasionally I'll have to pick up my camera kit and film for some pieces, which can take me all over London.
How collaborative is your role?
Very, the entire role is based around getting client sign-off approval, so unless they are helping me to see what they desire, we aren't going to get anywhere fast. Feedback is vital, though I do try to steer direction towards what I think will work best on social. Normally that's the thought at the forefront of any content creation.
“I try to steer direction towards what I think will work best on social. Normally that's at the forefront of any content creation.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Most enjoyable is the effect certain campaigns have, especially those to do with mental health or issues close to me. People laughing is always great too, don't get me wrong. Oh and getting paid on time, that's great when it happens. Least enjoyable is chasing invoices and people expecting things for free or for ‘exposure’: they can get in the bin.
Do you ever find yourself overwhelmed by work, and if so, how do you manage stress?
For sure, I’d be surprised if there wasn't a point in everyone's life when they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. I've accepted too many contracts at the same time before, and started rushing work to meet deadlines – and it showed.
So I took some time out and worked on a passion project, raising money for Mind and performing stand up comedy. It helped me get my head back together, then I opened my messages again and took one task at a time, making sure the quality was back to a high standard.
The cover photo for the Happy Places campaign, 2017
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Each year the best project I work on is actually a personal one. I try to do at least one campaign each year that combats the stigma of mental health or suicide. The reason this is exciting is because for the first time we have an open social space to talk about these issues in without a stigma.
‘Happy Places’ was an Instagram campaign created in partnership with LADBible and Mind. We asked people to share their happy places on Instagram, in the hope that when people are feeling low they can find others who have felt the same through the hashtag – and maybe even read their stories and reach out. Over two million people got involved and it’s the proudest I’ve ever felt in my life.
You wrote a record-breaking tweet for Burger King. Can you tell us how this came about?
I was in the Coolr office in at the time, when the CEO Adam Clyne saw a Kanye West tweet appear on his Twitter timeline about how McDonald’s is his favourite restaurant. The social team there have various keyword searches and monitoring processes set up to spot opportunities like this.
I made the simple, three-word suggestion [‘Explains a lot’] upon seeing Kanye’s original tweet. This was raised to the client, who signed off whilst laughing. I knew it would do well seeing as it’s such an informal jab coming from a blue-tick account – it stands out in the feed somewhat. But nobody knew it would reach those kind of numbers.
What skills are essential to your job?
I'm sure you've heard it a thousand times before, but you have to be on social media constantly. That isn't hard for this generation, but it’s good to spend time on a number of platforms with different communities, instead of just endlessly watching soap-cutting videos on Instagram.
It’s also great to stay very flexible; clients change their minds a lot and you can't keep pounding your face against a desk when it happens. They are paying you (at some point) so stay calm and listen. As for knowing an audience, you need to run an account for a while. Be it personal or under a publisher, you need to first-hand understand what works and what doesn't on each social platform.
What do you have to keep in mind when working on behalf of different brands?
Their tone – each brand wants to come across differently on social media. Change your plan based on their needs, don't just stick to your vanilla posts.
For other clients, I might be filling in on a video-editing role for a day. Or sometimes, others will be looking for a video plan for the year ahead. The jobs are very different, so it's important to remember that the smallest work with a client can lead to future projects.
“It’s important to remember that the smallest work with a client can lead to future projects.”
Do you take on any additional work to support your creative work? If so, how have you found this balance?
Currently I just take on a wider spread of creative work instead of picking a particular field or anchoring down with a certain agency. It can be crazy at times, though there's a few upside to avoiding the 9-to-5 lifestyle. Being your own boss is nice, just remember that you proactively have to keep yourself afloat.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Software wise? Premier Pro and Photosho. Social wise? All platforms, Twitter being a personal favourite. Video wise? Twitch and YouTube. Tools to beat stress? Beer.
Filming with Big Narstie for a series James directed at JOE, 2017
How I Got Here
Do you remember what you wanted to be growing up?
A comedian or an actor. I guess some of those aspects tie into my work occasionally so I'll take that.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I grew up living above pubs as my mum was a landlady, so I spent a lot of time entertaining myself. The majority of my childhood was spent playing video games, watching films or filming skating videos. I'd safely say that led to my obsession with media.
Did you study? And how (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I took six A-levels back in the day, and two were media-related. Though I always found the hands-on segments of the courses were the most applicable to what I'm currently doing now.
Back when James used to read to kids dressed as the Gruffalo, 2012
James was Pudsey for Children in Need in 2014. "They retired the suit after what critics are calling 'the performance of a lifetime'."
What were your first jobs?
My first-ever job was washing up in the pubs my mum ran. Then I got a job reading to kids in libraries dressed up as book characters (yeah, really) to get some money during college. Then one of my comedy videos got noticed by Metro, and I was put onto their creative apprenticeship scheme. After a year, I had the job at AMV BBDO.
Was there a particular project or person that particularly helped your development?
My mum, (love that little Irish woman with all my heart). Dad wasn't around too much when I was young so I can't praise her enough for putting the time in with me and my two brothers whilst running a pub.
As for the media side of things, I managed to pick up the majority by myself as I went along, though I've always looked up to Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker. Watching and reading their content as I grew up helped shaped me into the sarcastic piece of work I am now. Someone who gave me the confidence to go freelance was Andy Edmondson who is the outstanding head of video at JOE Media. It was a genuine pleasure to watch him turn my ideas into video. That man never said no to anything, he would always make a request happen, no matter how ludicrous it was. Which is kind of how my career is shaping up currently.
“I don't think I could ever have imagined this job because I'm not really sure what it is.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Taking the dive into freelancing, a common fear I'm sure. It's great when the work is flowing, but very scary when it dries up. So the day I decided to make that jump out of full-time employment I was rather nervous.
I also suffer from certain aspects of mental illness, which have played into many factors such as interviews or speeches, and evening performing sometimes.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
No, I don't think I could ever have imagined this job because I'm not really sure what it is. It's only a role created within the last ten years and we are all still learning in this industry.
Which resources would you say have inspired you or helped your development?
Things that I’ve drawn inspiration from in the past include: Hip-hop Saved My Life (podcast); Brass Eye, Black Mirror, Inside No.9 (TV); Death Note (Anime); and anything by Wes Anderson.
Kevin Hart, Ice Cube and Stormzy taking part in an interview James wrote for LADBible, 2016.
What would you like to do next?
Put more time into stand up comedy. Maybe after starting some form of social agency or service of my own with a few friends I've made along the way.
Could you do this job forever?
No, social media isn't good for your health. Trust me. Going to try and get to a place where I don't need to be switched on every day.
What does the future of industry look like in your mind?
A lot more informal. Agencies are starting to get it. You can rely on this generation to run some huge social accounts and do well because they understand the tone best. I think this industry will continue to grow rapidly as it becomes much more approachable.
Filming James May and Richard Hammond on a garage tour for DRIVETRIBE
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Focus on building a showcase. Find what parts of content creation you're good at and stick to them. Look at the YouTubers who started gaming channels five years ago – only now are they doing well and sitting with millions of subscribers.
Keep plenty of hobbies, don't just waste your creativity on endless scrolling. Ask questions, lots of them. At every stage of a career, there will be at least one person in the team who actually knows what they are doing. Find them and learn from them.