Brand Building Tips with James Vincent, Apple Ad Guru (in the Steve Jobs era) and Advisor to Brands like Glossier and Airbnb

If you’ve ever seen the iPod campaigns featuring dancing silhouettes, felt empowered by Glossier’s close-knit community, fallen in love with conscientious organization using Airtable, or essentially started to think of your health insurance app Alan as a friend in sickness and in health; then you’re certainly no stranger to the work of James Vincent and his brand agency FNDR.


There are two types of successful companies in the world: those that people like, others that people love. James Vincent of FNDR helps build the latter type.

James spent over a decade working with Steve Jobs, helping create some of Apple’s most iconic campaigns while building their internal creative agency Media Arts Lab from the ground up. He has since been an advisor to a group of top tech entrepreneurs including Brian Chesky of Airbnb, Emily Weiss of Glossier, Evan Spiegel of Snapchat, and, closer to home, Jean-Charles Samuelian of Alan. 

At FNDR, James and his partners Rebekah Jefferis, Stephen Butler, and Nick Barham – one entrepreneur and two ad industry veterans from Mother and Wieden+Kennedy – help startups build human-centric brands using the power of storytelling. If you take a look at their client list, you will surely recognize many, if not all, companies on top of the big names mentioned above. There’s something about FNDR’s ability to bring voice to vision that feels like a touch of magic. It’s not every day that we come across an agency with such a flair for getting the essence of things right. So, we seized the opportunity to ask its leader James for some of his best branding advice after having helped build what is the biggest brand of our era and what certainly will be some of the most transformative brands tomorrow. 


1. Build a brand that tells a story.

James Vincent: “The brands that tell stories make a dent in culture. You know who they are. You have a sense of them. If they came to dinner, you would have a sense of their personality. ”

Although the partners at FNDR come from the advertising world, FNDR does not operate as a creative agency nor as a traditional strategic consultancy. “We build strategy through story and create an arc that reveals roadmap,” James tells us.

Inspired by the cadence that James had while working with Steve Jobs, the team’s methodology consists of curated weekly brainstorming sessions in a 6-week sprint. The meetings have for objective to provoke conversations with founders, to provide them with a unique and practical perspective of their business, and ultimately to help them build a compelling narrative.

If your startup has the ambition to make a dent in the universe, then you’ll have to build a brand that is capable of inspiring a behaviour change. And, that starts with defining the role of your company in the new world, in a clear and distinct voice. 


2. Relate it to the human condition.

JV: “Some big companies do perfectly well but they don’t touch me. My head might understand it but my heart is not interested. Even if a startup works in a B2B setting, it’s important to build a brand that people care about, that has emotion, that has human centricity to it. When you’re meaningful in culture, you become sustainable in business.

To start exploring a new business, the team at FNDR will undertake a Provocation exercise during which they’ll ask founders to ponder on some key questions like: What’s the consumer journey? How do different people perceive the business? What are other people in the industry doing? What is this business like in other categories that maybe you haven’t yet thought about? What’s going on in culture that makes it relevant or not relevant? How are you the same or different from other people?

It’s important for you as an entrepreneur or as a marketer to stay attuned to the cultural zeitgeist and to understand what your business can bring in the context. What are people interested in? What is currently capturing the collective imagination? 


3. Introduce the new with the familiar.

JV: “Steve gave us a bunch of interesting things to think about but one of them was: when you introduce something new, don’t do new on top of new because no one knows what you’re talking about. Sometimes technologists get very excited about their own technology and they forget to build the stepping stones to bring people on.” 

Back in the early 1990s, a company called General Magic (today dubbed “the greatest startup that you have never heard of”) imagined what would be the first smartphone. The device would be able to grant immediate access to the internet and enable users to send emails (essentially text messages) to each other through a touch screen. As they shipped, the company quickly found out that the existing network infrastructure wasn’t quite ready to support such a concept yet. The product did not sell and the company ended up failing. However, General Magic’s commercial failure wasn’t only due to the fact that they were way ahead of their time technologically. The market simply was not ready for such a product. Their Magic Link device was released back in 1994 when most people were still using pagers and certainly did not have email addresses. So, why would they want a clunky $800 device to send emails? Not only does this question bring us back to the necessity of relating your business to the human condition, but it also points out the importance of introducing new ideas and technologies with familiar concepts so they can be more readily accepted. General Magic’s vision wouldn’t be realized until 2007 with the launch of the first iPhone, which so many of us hold onto so dearly today. 


4. Do the things that don’t scale.

JV: “Do things that don’t scale. This is something that Brian Chesky famously said. Often times, companies have gone straight to speed and efficiency rather than focus on human-centricity.

I would rather have 1000 people that love me than 100,000 people that like me. The 100,000 people that like you will probably like someone else a week from now. But if there are 1000 people that love you, then you’ve got something. That’s the kind of business that we’re excited by; the one that has a human story, that has people, that has affiliation and connection.”

Interview by

Cindy Yang
[email protected]

Photos by

Cara Robbins