Category: Interviews


The Role Of The Artist Right Now

September 14, 2020
Cryptic Gaiety art canvas

James sullivan artist portrait


Art and commercial interests intersect in our conversation with James Sullivan, a Southern California based visual artist. His vibrant style, described as “contemporary modern art remixed with street imagery,” has been exhibited in galleries across the country, as well as highly visible public works projects. We took a moment to talk about the responsibility modern artists face in today’s society, and how to pull off a successful brand / artist collaboration, among other topics of interest. Here is the conversation:

DZ: James, what is the role of the artist right now?

JS: Art is playing a bigger role in society than it ever has. It is a primary connection to entertainment, enjoyment and intrigue. Alvin Apetz explained that during the Great Depression, “entertainment was one of the ways to leave behind worries about crops, weather and money.” In the same way, art plays a critical role in being able to get lost in interpretation, momentarily setting aside the weight of the current reality.

the american dream
The American Dream

DZ: Where does creative inspiration come from during uncertain times?

JS: Just like the great athletes, musicians and writers of our time, creating is something that you get better at, the more you do it. You have to trust the process and celebrate past successes to stay consistent and create. Often, this means ignoring the capricious range of emotions in our daily life and finding inspiration in other ways.

For example, I’m always seeking unexpected beauty. In my travels through Africa, Asia, Europe and South America and the US, I’ve gained appreciation for different cultures and grown in my aesthetic understanding. The experience of traveling worldwide, just like my time living in East LA, challenged and enriched my awareness to see art everywhere.

DZ: Should art be a reaction to the world around or an escape from it?

JS: I believe it can be either. As an example, art has always been tied to politics: as commentary, critique, or in solidarity. In the past, I’ve taken an overt political stance in my art, as others have. But I’ve become more centrist in my work, and have tried to make my art an escape, instead of a direct reaction to the world around.

I’ve noticed that art-as-reaction can be a forced attempt to bring the viewer to a preordained conclusion. Instead of intrigue, you have the artist provoking a desired reaction, and it can get heavy handed. What’s more interesting to me is intrigue and subjectivity. Art that comes from a truthful place that is open to interpretation. Everything I work on now I feel is an escape from the from the world at hand, not a reflexive commentary on it.

Cryptic Gaiety art canvas
Cryptic Gaiety

DZ: Big brands are teaming up with artists like you to tell their stories in new and visually engaging ways. Thoughts?

JS: We’re in an amazing time, with artists gaining more traction and getting louder voices than ever before. I think the key to this type of partnership is in the alignment of values, so that final product is authentic and translatable. When done right, this can be very powerful and positive for all involved.

DZ: You’re involved in several public arts programs and initiatives. Why is it important that art be available and accessible to the public?

JS: Having work showcased in public settings promotes introspection. It encourages the pursuit of beauty: writing, reading, going to museums. Traveling. Rehabilitating neighborhoods that need restoration. Creating harmony within the community, even to some small degree.

As an example, I’ve been given an opportunity to work with a long-time friend and developer on a downtown mural, extending 75 feet. If all goes as planned, it’s going to capture and represent “A Day In Downtown San Diego.” The project is expected to be completed the first quarter of 2021, and I want to make the piece relatable. Get people to stop what they are doing and take notice of their environment. Create a meaningful experience out of everyday life.

Night shift art canvas
Night Shift

DZ: You’ve also done permanent works in unusual places, such as the iconic Cardiff Seaside Market. Do you enjoy when art is integrated into unexpected environments?

JS: Seeing my permanent art in public places, hanging in clients’ homes or being worn via my clothing line is almost as satisfying as creating the piece itself. It brings great joy to me to have the public enjoying and talking about my art.

DZ: There is a nostalgic quality to your work, yet it also feels fresh, with a modern aesthetic. How does an artist strike this balance?

JS: Nostalgia is a key emotion in gaining awareness because it’s universal. Everyone comes from different places. But when you represent eras through colors or emotions, the work becomes more personal and less esoteric.

Despotic Propensity canvas
Despotic Propensity

DZ: What else can companies & communities do to support the arts during these times?

JS: With so much of arts funding being taken away from programs in schools and elsewhere, there is a great need to support after-school programs centered around the arts. These programs don’t have to exist in a vacuum – they have real value. In a best case scenario, kids will use their newfound skill sets for beautification projects, concerts, and plays. They will bring art into the community while also building discipline and confidence int themselves.

More than anything, kids need a creative outlet, and arts programs need benefactors to step up and make it happen. Corporate entity or otherwise, anyone that comes forward with pure intentions and helps kids express themselves through art, you have my full support and appreciation.

Check out more of James’ work at his official website.


Why I ❤️ Double Zebra

May 15, 2020
double zebra creative agency

by Lyka Ferry

  • 359,000,000 Google results for “Digital marketing best practices.”
  • 290,000,000 different listings for “Creative marketing strategies.”
  • 52,100,000 search responses for “Marketing specialization”

With such an overwhelming volume of ‘helpful’ information, I had no idea where to start. Between the guides, checklists, and free marketing consultation offers I felt buried in no time. Even though I consider myself knowledgeable about the foundational concepts behind marketing, I couldn’t grapple with one mind-numbing page of content after another. All the articles, YouTube videos, and countless email subscriptions snowballed into a compilation of “accumulated knowledge,” and it wasn’t getting me any closer to what I needed.

Fortunately, I connected with an actionable and formidable marketing leader – Aaron Wolpoff, CEO of marketing company Double Zebra.

Starting from our first conversation, he took the time to understand my objectives and challenges, and responded to the kind of questions that Google took thousands of results to answer. In no time, we were off and running. Awed and inspired, I stopped to ask him about his approach and methods, and about how he got started in marketing. Here is our conversation:

Q: How would you describe Double Zebra to someone who is having trouble differentiating one marketing company from another?

Aaron: If a business is at the point of hiring a marketing agency or another internal person, that’s when you would look to bring on Double Zebra. Instead of being limited to one person’s skill sets or committing to an oversized marketing company, you get a fast track to the exact expertise and services needed.

For example, let’s say you need to conceptualize a sophisticated app, design it, roll it out over time, and then promote it to the masses. These are wildly different skill sets. Handing all of it requires advanced technical proficiency and also high-level creative thinking. It also involves discipline, organization, and high-caliber execution. You’re probably not going to find all these skill sets in one person, or even two, since they’re vastly different specialties that require support and guidance.

So what we do is to create a customized ‘mini agency’ for each client based around the exact skills and specializations needed, without the filler. This starts at around the cost of one monthly employee and scales from there.

Q: What experience did you have prior to starting your own marketing company?

Aaron: I ran a creative studio, launched startups, worked in finance, earned an MBA, ran live events, wrote songs. Lots of different pieces to the puzzle that somehow make sense now. I’ve collaborated with some of the best creatives in the business and tackled the analytical, sales-driven side of marketing. I understand technical capabilities and limitations. Taking all these diverse experiences, I decided to create my own company around these strengths, for like-minded people. It has been growing ever since.

Q: What do you tell early-stage companies that say they can’t afford marketing yet?

Aaron: I’d say to push it as far as you can go on your own. Lack of marketing leadership will hold you back, so you have to find a way to press forward and bootstrap it. You will reach a point where your time is better spent elsewhere, like growing your company, and the time/budget equation will make way too much sense. Until then, avoid crowd-sourcing. Don’t let your nephew run your brand as soon as he gets around to that online course. Don’t try to be everywhere at once.

As soon as you can support it, pay talented people to work on your behalf. But do everything with quality, even at the early stage. Otherwise, it’s like getting food delivered from a restaurant where the food isn’t good. It doesn’t matter if there’s a lot of it, no one will want to eat it.

Q: How much advice do you give prospective clients?

Aaron: A lot, advice is very important. But there is a new level of connection and understanding that happens the minute we dig in and start our processes that doesn’t happen in discussions and hypotheticals. Once we are officially hired, something clicks into place, and momentum builds from there.

Now, I love marketing, and I could talk about it all day long. But talking without action is like sitting by the pool; I’d rather jump in and start making waves.

Q: How have your marketing experiences shaped you?

Aaron: Every single one of them rewired my DNA in some way. Back at UCSD, we studied theory. In my radio intern days, I did live remotes at 5AM and handed out thousands of free promotional keychains. In my MBA program, I had the opportunity to partner with the US State Department. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with incredibly interesting and magnetic people who sit atop their field. As well as marketing leaders from the golden age. I’m grateful for every experience, from scrappy early days until now.

Because I was classically trained, and because I spent time in the trenches and put in the work, I am now able to provide perspective and insight across many disciplines. I’m able to think strategically, creatively and technically, and to apply everything I’ve learned.

Q: What is a common intimidation tactic in the field of digital marketing that people shouldn’t really worry about?

Aaron: A lot of marketers will point out the things that your competitors are doing that you’re not doing. With the inference that you should be doing them also. But there is something to be said for charting your own course. For example, if you’re not prepared to outspend the competition exponentially, don’t try to copy what they have already done. Take note of it and then chart your own course. Don’t take it as a sign of weakness that you’re not following the same exact steps as your competitors. Wear it like a badge of honor.

Q: Now that you are a marketing leader and CEO, what advice would you have given yourself in the beginning of your journey into marketing?


  1. Say what you mean with honesty and compassion.
  2. Value and appreciate all forms of talent.
  3. Education is a worthy investment that never goes away.
  4. Think a lot and act fast.
  5. Keep learning and evolving for life.

Aaron was recently profiled in Fiverr’s Industry Leaders & Experts series. You can read the article here.


Of Likes and Lattes

July 30, 2019

It is a bleary-eyed morning, and far too early to be productive, let alone cognizant of the world around. Yet here we are at Communal Coffee in North Park, which holds the distinction of being both a coffee shop and a floral boutique. It’s the kind of spot that should appeal to the mysterious creator of the @cali_coffee Instagram feed. And of course, she already knows it well.

Thanks to her Instagram profile, @cali_coffee has become somewhat of a local coffee guru, amassing a dedicated and growing following who turn to her for the next “it” coffee shop. Her caffeine-fueled sojourns across San Diego County and beyond are well documented and artistically photographed, catapulting her over other similar feeds. The location we’re in is fitting, given that Communal Coffee’s own popular Instagram feed (36.5k followers to date) is itself a haven for coffee addicts.

Cali_coffee and I are two of the day’s first patrons, and likely the only ones here to chat about social media content. During our conversation, we talk about Instagram trends and the joys of social content creation. We also speculate about why a lovingly curated feed about San Diego coffee is outperforming many small businesses when it comes to likes and engagement. Fortunately, there is great coffee to guide our conversation (salted caramel latte), so we are buzzing in no time about the topics at hand.

Double Zebra: What was the initial inspiration behind your Instagram feed?

Cali_Coffee: Well, it just started in April of this year. Because I like trying a lot of different coffee shops, I would post pictures of them on my personal Instagram. And then, friends began asking me for coffee recommendations. And I realized that it was something cool, to have one place for all the best coffee shops in the area. Because I feel like they are always hard to find. So I started with pictures of coffee. And then I figured I’d put them all in one spot, and make them accessible.

DZ: Why did you select Instagram as your social media platform of choice?

CC: Because it’s so widely used, more than other social media platforms. And it’s easy to search, and it’s centered around pictures. I like photography, with the variety and angles and little elements you can incorporate. I like the artistic side of it.

images courtesy cali_coffee

DZ: You have more than 2k followers today on a relatively new feed. You consistently gain 2-4% more followers every time you post. People are turning to you as a coffee expert. Would you consider yourself an influencer, or micro influencer? Micro-micro influencer? Where does this designation even start?

CC: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t think of myself like that at all. I never started it with the intention of becoming anything. It was just kind of a hobby of mine that turned into something.

DZ: Who do you tend to follow on Instagram?

CC: Other pages like mine that highlight places around San Diego, celebrities. A variety.

DZ: Has anything unexpected come from your Instagram activity?

CC: I mean, this interview is pretty unexpected (laughs). I think a lot of my posts were getting 40 to 50 likes, maybe like 30 to 40. And then one of them got 190-something one day. You don’t always know what will get attention, or why.

DZ: Have you experienced any negative reactions to something you’ve posted?

CC: Not really, I think everyone likes coffee. It’s one of those non-controversial topics. If you don’t like coffee, you probably wouldn’t be following me.

image courtesy cali_coffee

DZ: Your posts tend to be lighthearted, and you’re not afraid to break out a pun or two. Do you think Instagram, and social media in general, is taken too seriously?

CC: For sure. Social media brings a lot of good, but there are so many negative things that can happen in this age. I believe in putting something out there that is lighthearted and positive. So people remind themselves that life isn’t always so serious.

DZ: Our Double Zebra team works with clients on their social media strategy and impact. What would you say to a company that puts no effort into their social media, or they barely have a presence?

CC: I’d say they’re kind of asking to fail, because that’s where most people find companies and make decisions. Most of the time it’s through social media, looking at pictures that others have tagged. You can only find so much on Google. Usually, the first thing I do is go on Instagram, and look at photos and posts that match what I’m searching for.

DZ: What about companies that are trying their best, but still have low social engagement? What can they learn from your experiences so far?

CC: I think in order to have people engage with you, you have to engage with them. See what they have posted on their own pages. Get to know the content they are putting out. Then you can start creating content of your own that is meaningful and has value.

DZ: Instagram has recently announced fundamental changes, like hiding the number of public likes. What will the platform look like three years from now?

CC: I think Instagram will be different for sure. But it can’t change that much, because it’s already working pretty well, the way it is right now.

image courtesy cali_coffee

DZ: You’re on a self-proclaimed mission to drink all the coffee in California. Does this include bowling alleys and dive bars that have a coffee pot in the corner somewhere?

CC: Probably not my first choice. Maybe when I run out of all the other options. I never turn down a cup of coffee. So if I’m in a bowling alley, and I want coffee, then yes. Though I probably wouldn’t travel to a bowling alley for the coffee, unless it was really good.

DZ: That sounds incredibly hipster, a bowling alley becoming famous for its coffee.

CC: Yeah!

DZ: Is there a “holy grail” of coffee shops that you’re looking forward to visiting?

CC: I’m headed to Seattle soon, so I’d have to say Starbucks #1. That whole city is like a tribute to coffee shops!

Connect with Double Zebra to learn more about our team’s approach to social media engagement and content production for your business. And be sure to look for cali_coffee on her Instagram feed and at a coffee shop near you.