LOS ANGELES, USA – Eric Cruz is a creative director, designer, and educator who has over 23 years of broad industry experience. He calls himself a “hybrid creative,” one who melds design, film, moving image, music, art, technology, and innovation to bring a unique perspective to storytelling and design transformation in the connected age.
Eric has held various leadership positions in agencies worldwide, developing a model for the creative network of the future and exploring how creativity can help invent tomorrow today. As Sid Lee USA’s Executive Creative Director for Innovation & Design, he leads the charge to exploring The New, Now and Not Yet, finding new ways of seeing and applying technology into stories, products, platforms and experiences for such clients as Facebook, Journi, The LA Rams and Warner Brothers.
To mentor the next generation of talent, Eric regularly lectures and has taught Design, Advertising and Moving Media at the Center for Creative Studies Detroit, Temple University Tokyo, and The One Academy Kuala Lumpur.
He was a Founding Member of TEDx Shanghai, which aimed to ignite China’s innovation renaissance through creative dialogue, idea exchange and transformative evolution.
His work has been recognized by the Tokyo ADC, Cannes Lions, ADC NY, One Show, D&AD, Spikes, AdFest, AdStars, The Webbys, The FWA, CSS Design Awards and Japan Media Arts Festival.
A Filipino-American “global immigrant,” Eric was born in the Philippines and raised in the USA and Spain. He’s currently back in Los Angeles, CA after a 20-year backpack around the world. In this interview with adobo, he talks about his personal and professional journey, and his place in the future:
adobo magazine: You took time off from the industry. What triggered this and did you achieve what you aimed to achieve during this time off?
ERIC CRUZ: The biggest trigger was family. I wanted to spend more time with them and simply focus on being a father for a little bit. Time waits for no one and I wanted to reprioritize where and how I spent my time and energy. So much of my time was spent building brands and building people, and I wanted to be a bigger part of my daughter’s life and focus on building her and designing who she becomes as a human being. So I decided to be a full-time father for a year.
Tell us about your travel philosophy — how have your journeys influenced who you are and your craft?
Years ago, someone advised me that every seven years you have to reinvent yourself. I believe in numerology, so, after 23 years through my journey of creating and making, I decided to pause once again. It’s like an internal clock. This was my third big pause.
The first was when I backpacked across China for 3.5 months, solo in 2001, soul-searching in my late 20s. That was a big moment of introspection and self-realization which allowed me to pause, think, and open my perspective. Sometimes it’s less about arriving at the answers, but more about asking the right questions that enable you to unravel “this thing called life.” This journey to self-discovery enabled me to ask myself where I should be and in what part of the planet I should contribute my energy to, all roads which pointed me back to Asia. I’m Filipino by birth but grew up in the USA and Spain and had worked in the US and Europe, but somehow, I felt this inexplicable need to reconnect with where I came from and try to add to that conversation.
I ended up in Japan in what would later become “The Golden Age of W+K Tokyo,” the place where I found myself and discovered what I could do and who I could be. These 10 years of my life in Tokyo were instrumental in shaping and forming who I am today. It enabled me to push, explore, and live out my creative curiosities in a city that was defining and shaping global culture at the time. It seems so surreal looking back at those times, the things we did was truly an expression of borderless creative entity, creating iconic work that resonated with and moved youth culture through the Nike Japan and Asia work as well as founding an experimental arm and music label for Wieden+Kennedy – W+K Tokyo Lab, which allowed me to live out my passion for music, experimentation and education. I was lucky to find and be surrounded by people who wanted to make good shit happen and collectively we wanted to see how far we could push things. Mos def a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The second pause came in 2010, after a decade in Japan, thee years into marriage, my wife and I decided to explore and discover the world together on a trip “Around The World in 90 Days.” Physically seeing the world, walking it, feeling its pulse, you begin to understand just how big and expansive the world is. I love seeing the stories hidden behind every corner, every turn, every emotion that plays out in front of you. In these moments, you realize just how little you know, how much more you don’t, and how much there is still yet to see, hear, feel, touch, experience and learn from. This experience opened our world to a wider canvas, bringing us to London, then Kuala Lumpur, then Shanghai. In some ways, it was living the dream and closing the loop of where it all began during that initial trip to China. This second shift in my creative journey allowed me to explore the world, armed with the experience I gained in Japan and the USA. As a Designer / Creative, I grew from “doing and making” into collaborating and leading teams in a bigger way across different countries and continents. The highlight of which was sitting in the driver’s seat, witnessing China step up to redefine the world balance as it became a formidable economy. It’s one of those things… you simply had to find out for yourself… how round the earth is, what’s on the other side? What it was like to live through the global economic shift into Asia. I didn’t want to just read about it. You had to live it. Bring Asian, I consider myself lucky to have lived through the re-emergence of Asia and in a way, my career piggy backed on this global shift and movement, helping fuel the engines of change that swung the pendulum back East.
And then you went into a year-long sabbatical.
The third pause. Unplugging and re-centering myself, based between Seoul, Philippines, and Tokyo. I traveled through the Philippines solo, 36 years since I left, reconnecting with the place I was born. It was a life-long dream, walking through Luzon, pushing myself to the max to conquer Banaue and experience the back roads of Vigan, Laoag and Batangas. That trip was a gift to myself. Over the course of a year, I explored South Korea, home to my other half – discovering the old, the hidden, the culture, the vein, the future. Over the summer, I took my daughter on A Walk Across Japan — Sora Sampo, just the two of us. We gave mommy time off for 2.5 months and backpacked here, there and the spaces in between Sapporo and Miyajima. She was eight yrs old and was beginning to gain a deeper understanding of the world. So, I wanted to re-introduce her to the beautiful land that inspired and gave me so much, the land where she was made and named after. We come from such different times. The world she is growing up in today is so different from the world I was born into yesterday. She learns life mostly “by the book” and from the internet, increasingly becoming more and more sheltered from making real-life mistakes and learning from them. I wanted to expose her to the real world by going on a trip, just her and I. This father daughter trip enabled me to introduce the trajectory of how life happened for me. The daily walks, conversations, spontaneous adventures, being lost, even the mishaps, hopefully opens her mind to exploring, and learning how to negotiate life on-the-go. That no matter how much you plan, life has a way of throwing curve balls at you. So you have to make decisions on the fly, know how to cope with the unforeseen, and pivot, based on which way the dice rolls. Real life skills you can’t learn from books.
What have you understood about your daughter and her generation through that trip?
It’s a new world that she will grow into. Generation Alpha will be the “Next Wave” digital natives, a generation of youth who will grow up amplified by quantum computing. They will learn from a far richer, more advanced “New Internet” and the possibilities in The Age of Consciousness. Their way of understanding and mediating the world will intuitively be far more connected. The life skills she learns now, in these formative years, will hopefully give her a better sense of judgment, understanding, and compassion towards life, a moral compass to go from and knowing when to trust intuition. All things you can only learn from life experience itself and trusting your innate sense and being.
The time out allowed me time, to think, breathe and question which path to take next. Seeing technology continue to transform life, how AI is being implemented into the daily social fabric, and thinking of where new innovation epicenters are happening, drew me back to LA. I jumped from Hollywood to Tokyo in 2001, the Film and Entertainment capital of the world. Not immune to digital transformation, technology took over LA like a tsunami, reinventing it in its wake and re-emerging as Silicon Beach. In some ways, my 20-year backpack around the world came full circle and led me back home, gifting me with a wider point of view that allows me to see things both from the inside out and the outside in, allowing me to see things with a global lens.
How’s LA treating you?
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to take a look once in a while, you could miss it. In some respects, I did watch it pass by, in other ways, I lived out what I wanted to do. And now is the time for what’s next. It’s been five months, since February 2020, when we began our new adventure back home in La La Land. And it was a somewhat of a weird homecoming, landing into a National State of Emergency during the onset of COVID-19. The national lockdown was personally for me a step forward and a step back. A step forward in that it accelerated our digital future, which was closer than we thought possible, that WFH, remote schooling, and virtual collaboration can be a reality now if we chose to embrace it. Necessity is the mother and COVID forced us to become more globally connected, virtually collaborative, and rethink the world with a digital first lens, which is bringing us closer to our own evolution faster than we anticipated. Ready or not the future swept in like a tidal wave, flipping everything on its head. But in its wake is our next world. That is what excites me.
In many ways the things drawing me back to the USA are the same things I want my daughter to experience and grow up with… an open mindset, self-discovery, and a pioneering spirit, which is deeply embedded within American culture. On the flip side, it’s a step back in that virtual work enabled me to reconnect with my youth, moving back in with my father for two months to spend time with him in the High Desert, the root of my humble beginnings as an immigrant to the USA. It’s forced everyone to compress time, space, and personal needs, as work and life co-existed in the same place. It made me realize just how much I missed the wide expanse and open mind space that is California. The sun just shines differently here in LA and somehow that always makes me happy. Here is where ‘I Feel – Me’ and I look forward to meeting and reconnecting with LA once again, post-COVID, this time with my family.
You position yourself as a creative hybrid. Do explain this concept and where are you today in this new and evolved stage in your career?
We are the sum of all our experiences, so I tend to look at myself as a pluralist who is interested in many aspects of creativity and curiosity nudges me to explore those. Never stop exploring and evolving or that’s the end of you. Stagnation is the death of progress. I never imposed borders on what I was interested in. Instead, I wanted to see how interconnected they all are. The blurrier the lines the better, because it forces you not to label yourself. I’m simply the sum of all that interests me and the people who pave, inspire, and help me see along the way in this journey. I will always be a “work in progress.” And that’s the way I like to be. Never Done. Always iterating and “in beta.” There’s always something new out there, in the periphery, the next horizon, waiting to be discovered.
What drew you in to take on the role at Sid Lee? What is your role and what are your personal expectations in the role?
I recently joined Sid Lee USA as its Executive Creative Director for Innovation and Design tasked with helping steer the agency into a forward-thinking creative studio built for the future. Within this new role, I get to wear two different hats… at Sid Lee, I work with a team of collaborators driven by the spirit of ‘unreasonable creativity’, who aim to make brave Brand Connections, Comms and Storytelling built for the connected age for clients like The North Face, Dickies, TikTok and Journi, a digital healthcare platform. The goal is to ignite and catalyze the team’s collective superpowers and guide our clients on a journey through creative evolution, building and fostering an ‘innovation mindset’ and inspiring them to seek new, more relevant, and effective ways of connecting with their audience. It’s brand building amplified by technology, culture and community.
My second gig is with Digital Kitchen, Sid Lee’s experimental arm, where I help imagine The New, Now and Not Yet, in search of What’s Next? Digital Kitchen is a pedigreed band of thinkers, makers and tinkerers. It’s a creative shop that designs, crafts, and produces the ideas it creates, known for its Narcos, True Blood, Dexter, and Six Feet Under main titles as well as digital experiences for LAX, Canada Goose and West World. DK allows me to get my hands dirty and feet wet, knee-deep into the making. Here, I get to invent, break, and shape future worlds – real, virtual and beyond – that explore the edge of possibilities. You make the stuff happen, not just think of it. The projects lean towards Innovation and Design, applied to Platforms, Products, Digital Transformation, and Experiences for brands such as Facebook, The LA Rams and Warner Brothers. It’s where technology meets storytelling. DK is about engineering ‘Worlds Beyond Belief.’
The last 23 years of exploration is what led me to today, blending ideas with innovation and crafting those into real products and experiences with technology as the backbone to propel these ideas to life. So, this new gig is a fusion of my collective experience all rolled into one. From Web to Agency to Music Label to Production Company to Digital Innovation, it combines all of the things that interest me into one… Studio Archetype [ branding and web ] + Imaginary Forces [ animation, storytelling titles, production ] + Wieden+Kennedy and LBKL [ advertising, branding, storytelling ] + W+K Tokyo Lab [ music, directing, experimentation, production, experiences ] + AKQA [ ideas, innovation, digital, experiential ] = SidLee / DK.
Where do you want to take Sid Lee as ECD?
Our collective goal is to evolve Sid Lee from what was formerly an “agency” into a new kind of creative company that thinks, makes and invents things with greater meaning and purpose, armed with the spirit of pushing the envelope. Through Sid Lee & DK, we bridge the gap between thinking and making the work, using technology to amplify ways of working, connecting, collaborating and pushing our craft into new territories. It’s asking deeper questions in the now and building dream teams of change that will help shape our tomorrow, today.
LA itself is evolving beyond Hollywood, experiencing a reinvention from the film and entertainment capital into a tech x digital content x creative hub with “New Tech” fueling this change. As creative architects, we want to help initiate and catalyze this transformation and add to the conversation. This opportunity puts me back in touch with one of the most influential cultural epicenters in the world that is undergoing a seismic shift and creative renaissance.
Where do you see the ad industry succeeding during these transformative times? What are we facing and how can we win this over?
I’m excited to see how creative entities will evolve in the near future, where an agency, design, digital, production, and innovation all become one, because it’s what’s needed to be more fluid in our approach to building the world of tomorrow. That to me is only possible through a more organic “creative network” of thinkers, makers and shapers with a common goal and shared value of reimagining the world. We become infinitely and exponentially more powerful when we amplify each other’s abilities.