This January on their journey, their rebrand and the unrelenting optimism that makes them tick
There’s something about the work of This January – whether it is their 50-something seconds film for The International Spy Museum, which follows a dad living the spy life of his dreams, or their potent, typography-forward identity for Khalifa Kush – the ad agency’s work is always packed with personality. Based in the heart of Washington, DC, the team works across brands and industries with equal ease, even taking on the seemingly daunting task of rebranding themselves, and meeting their own brief with a sense of humour. Hot off the heels of the rebrand, we speak to Creative Directors Maggie Winters and Zach Goodwin, as they tell us about founding the agency during the pandemic, their evolution since, and how their refreshed look came to be anchored by a glyph of a rising sun, which has now lovingly been nicknamed the ‘The Sunbutt’ by their team.
RB Hi, Maggie! How has this month been treating you and the team?
MW Ohhh, we are busy this month! We just got back from summer break – we close the whole office a few times a year so everyone can take a break and unwind – and work has just roared back to life. (At least we’re well rested). We’re working on some really exciting things with the International Spy Museum, Swiss and Lufthansa right now…plus a brand-new brand launch! Stay tuned over the next few months 👀
We’re trying to build an ad agency that’s actually fun to work at.
RB Take us back a few years – what led to the founding of the agency in 2020?
MW We spent the first chapter of our careers at a larger agency, working on a mix of experimental campaigns deploying new technologies and traditional mediums, capital-B Big Advertising.
We saw what worked, and what didn’t. We got tired of 20-person meetings and only working with Fortune 100s. So when we started This January, there were a few things we knew we’d want to do.
We aim to keep the team heavily senior, while still providing career opportunities for tomorrow’s best talent.
We’re trying to build an ad agency that’s actually fun to work at. Where we don’t work weekends, and we rarely work late. We only pitch on occasion. And we actually really like each other. The only problem? We’re in-between office dogs.
RB Congratulations on the rebrand! Why did you choose to rename the company?
MW Whew, what a year it’s been thinking about our name! When we started in 2020, the company was called January Third for that fresh-start feeling, that new car smell vibe, when the whole year stretches out in front of you and everything feels possible.
Then, the insurrection happened. As a DC-based agency just a mile from the White House, once it started being called January Sixth, we knew we were in trouble. People would occasionally make the joke that it’s lucky we didn’t name the company three days later…and we figured, the company’s still young, and we’d basically do anything to not be associated with domestic terrorists.
So we renamed! We chose This January for that same optimistic feeling without the commitment to any one specific date. So far, it’s working out great – not a single insurrection joke. (Phew).
The whole vision of the company was that it would be a place of unrelenting optimism.
RB Could you take us through your new look? What led to the choices of the typeface and the symbol, and how do they reflect the spirit of the agency?
ZG This January is anchored in a glyph that we, at least internally, refer to as ‘The Sunbutt.’ (Yep, weird name). It’s an abstracted icon, often rendered in chrome, that represents a sun rising over the horizon. The whole vision of the company was that it would be a place of unrelenting optimism – a company silly enough to start in the middle of the pandemic. A place that believes that craft, ambition and a lot of hard work will result in something that’s more than just commerce. And to us, a sunrise says that even better than we can. (The ‘butt’ part of The Sunbutt came to be when someone suggested that the mark looked vaguely like a butthole if you squinted in just the wrong way).
Design is embedded in everything we do. We’re not the kind of advertising agency that thinks that design is just there to clean up decks. So we've always made an effort to use type in a bold, expressive way that immediately feels different. When we launched, we were one of the first to use Pangram Pangram’s Neue Machina. And to us, it immediately made a statement.
A few years into our adventure, we chose Ivy Ora Display and a custom version of Universal Sans Display. It felt like an appropriate marriage of grown-up sophistication and weirdo cool to us. And after having typeset millions of decks in a sans, it was really fun to use a serif for something.
RB Has your working style and ethos evolved since 2020?
ZG It’s tempting to think that creative work is somehow magical; that it's different from other forms of work. But we believe that great creativity is not mysterious – it’s the product of pairing experience, ambition and the willingness to iterate over and over and over again. Our experience over the last few years has taken that belief and turned it into a structured system.
We always aim to – start wide. In a creative round one presentation, we typically present four to five non-overlapping, wholly different creative solutions to a single strategy statement.
Get quickly to high fidelity. When creating brand and campaign work, we like to worry about the details early on, so that we can feel a direction’s potential as early as possible. That means having a design team that can make a lot of design work at a very high level, very quickly.
Animatic everything. We’ll often go through 10 or 15 versions of an animatic before we shoot something. That means that we know exactly what we’re shooting and why. We try to bring that same philosophy to everything we make. We prototype and print and test and iterate as often as possible – each time trying to bring the mindset that what we thought would work might, in fact, be the thing that is holding us back.
We don’t care what your resume says.
RB A page on your website mentions “We believe in exceptional weirdos.” Could you tell us a bit more about that?
MW We don’t care where (or if) you went to college. We don’t care what your resume says. We look at only one thing when searching for new team members: the portfolio. We’re obsessed with bringing the best, most interesting creative minds together under one (physical) roof to make magic happen for brands.
Many of our team members arrived through surprising or unorthodox paths, whether a unique career path or a literal journey across the world. The wide variation of perspectives at This January makes our work better, and keeps us perpetually entertained (did you know the slang for an Australian traffic cone is a witch's hat?).
RB Who makes up the core team at This January?
MW There are currently 14 of us here in DC, and one woman in Florida (hey Kelly!). We come from all different states, countries, and backgrounds, and prioritise being together in-person three days a week.
Our team is split across creative, accounts, and media teams, but we think of ourselves as one big team that works together to make every project better than the last.
RB Looking back at the past three years, if you had to pick two standout projects that you learnt a lot from, which would those be?
ZG Our holiday campaign for Chatbooks, the mom-focused photobook company, gave us a chance to pair fairly traditional TV-focused: 30 spots and out-of-home with some really funky tactics. We wound up composing a 2-minute long 1980s-inflected ballad about the challenges of the holidays for overworked moms, which lived on Spotify. We used elements of that same song to create TikTok sounds and guide our influencer creative.
The other campaign that immediately comes to mind is our work for The International Spy Museum. This year’s campaign took the form of an ad that – at least for the first 20-ish seconds – looked exactly like a Jason Bourne-style spy thriller. It ran in movie theatres on the East Coast just before the trailers started. A tactic designed to convince dads that the best way to spend their vacation in the nation’s capital was a trip to The Spy Museum.
RB Does the energy and the culture of Washington, DC inform the work you’re making?
MW It’s a funny question – when we worked on the DC tourism account, our campaign was centred around the idea that the world knows ‘Washington’ (the stereotypical political capital), but they haven’t met DC (the actually cool city where we actually live).
That’s pretty true for us too – despite many of us living here fsor decades, we’ve never really been involved in any political work.
We deeply believe that every project will be better than the last one.
RB You’ve worked on a stellar lineup of projects to date – from imagining clever campaigns for The International Spy Museum in Washington to crafting an identity for Khalifa Kush. What keeps you going?
MW We seriously love our jobs. We have so much fun making projects together, and we deeply believe that every project will be better than the last one. Our client partners have been such a big contributor to this feeling: they trust us so deeply to do our jobs, which makes our work really fulfilling.
We’re getting ready to start our third year together with the Spy Museum team (who we adore) and there are some extremely cool things coming to the museum next year. That’s all we can say for now, but…stay tuned. It’s going to be great.
RB Could you tell us about the next project in the pipeline?
MW We’re currently working on a rebrand from the ground up for a company we love and believe in, with an incredible client team. We can’t share much yet, but it’ll be live in late September and we’d love to share it with y’all! We can promise it’s bright, fun, full of life, and brings joy to an industry you probably truly hate.