John Maeda is the Fortune Cookie it says. I had no desire to snap him in half and extract his wisdom on a piece of roughly typed paper. But I did figure it’d be a chance to meet an interesting guy and ask him a question in a strange setting.
I turned up to the Riflemaker gallery and had a look round at a bunch of his tweets and some of his art.
Then I had to decide what kind of artwork I wanted to buy to documenet our consultation. It was part of the rules. I wasn’t really sure, so I thought I’d get him to take a picture of me and sign it. I thought that just getting a tweet would be a little ordinary. The profits are going towards funding scholarships to the Rhode Island School of Design, so I didn’t mind coughing up a few quid.
Once I’d made my choice. I got taken upstairs to meet the man. It’s a dark-ish room. He’s sanding there in a puffer jacket in a sandpit. There’s nothing else in the sandpit apart from a chair and a stick. There’s incense burning. There’s no doubt that an enigmatic air is being manufactured.
He starts out by asking me to sit down. And then he asks who I am and what I do. Turns out he knows John Jay from W+K (hardly surprising, everyone who’s anyone knows John Jay).
So the conversation gets pretty specific about work pretty fast – at some point during the conversation he picks up a Polaroid camera and takes a snap of me. He writes a single word “NO” underneath it and signs it.
During our conversation he paces around the sandpit occasionally making notes in the sand with a long stick. Towards the end of our conversation he pulls out his Canon S90 camera (I only spotted that because I have the same one) and takes a photo of his sand scribblings. I have no idea what he’s going to do with these photos and maybe I never will.
In the gallery notes they say:
“The overall experience being somewhere between McKinsey Consulting going on tour and a visit to the hairdresser. ”
Not an inaccurate description although my experience was somewhere between meeting Yoda, a tutorial with an amazing professor and a careers guidance session.
Oh, and at the end he told me not to worry. So I won’t.
Why did he write “NO” under my photo? I don’t think it was any kind of rejection, I suspect it’s actually connected to an important part of my story that he got me to share. A pivotal moment. Or alternatively he could have just written that on everyone’s photo who he didn’t like much. But I’m not going to worry about that either.
If you give me $10 I will take a photograph of the sky just for you. That means I will go outside, shoot a photograph of the sky, print it as a 8.5″ x 11″ full color laser jet print, write the date on it, fold it into an envelope, and mail it to you. Oh, and I will also delete the file so that you will have the only existing copy of that photograph. It’s just for you.
If you give me $630 I will give it to my landlord for the month’s rent. I won’t work for one month and I’ll send you an email everyday of what I did and why it was important (unless I am away from a computer). Actually, I am going to need some more money for food and utilities. I am going to raise this to $1000. (NOTE: this is one person a month, if you buy this you will be given a specific month). I will also print out the emails I sent you everyday and mail it to you as a small edition of one artist book.
Honestly it might sound a bit odd, but go and have a look at the list. It’s really compelling. The values that he’s given to things and hist notion of ownership and limited-editionness are really interesting.
[I’ve written this post once already. I got to the end of it just as someone phoned me up. I picked up the phone. Fumbled it. And dropped it on my laptop which duly crashed in a spectacular fashion. The second revision is slightly shorter and hopefully more to the point…]
I watched a great documentary on BBC4 on Sunday called The Rise and Fall of the Ad Man. Presented by Peter York it featured a lot of the great ‘ad men’ of the past, and some of the present. There were loads of interesting points worth noting. But I’ve forgotten most of them now (for the next few days you can still catch the whole thing on BBC iPlayer).
The thing that stuck with me mainly was its celebration of the glory days of advertising and specifically the rise of the hot creative shops of the 60s. CDP (Collett Dickenson Pearce) was the poster child of the show and it’s success seemed to be attributed to a few things:
The time was right. The swinging 60s. Post-war gloom moving into a period of rapid cultural innovation.
The existence of a bunch of TV natives. People who had grown up with TV, who knew how to write for it, and to make it work for them.
A media environment where you could create a phenomenon overnight by putting something on the only commercial TV channel and hitting 20m people in one go.
Clients needed help.
The creation of a place where cool creative people just wanted to hang out.
[Forgive me if any of this is woefully incorrect I wasn’t alive at the time and I’m basing all of this on something I saw on the Telly, which is never a good place to start]
Is ‘now’ the time right for something new?
It feels a bit like the time is right for some kind of big shift again. And judging by the fact that there’s about 5 new agencies starting every week it would appear that others do too. Most of these new shops are claiming to be some kind of new new thing.
But if you’re coming out of an agency, trying to hire people who work in other agencies (media, digital, design, whatever), the danger is that you’re going to end up with just another variant of an agency. Sure, it might have better laptops, the structure may have mutated and the working culture might be tweaked slightly. But most of these new agencies seem to be built on well understood principles with well understood types of people working for them. This might give you a temporary moment of interestingness and competitive advantage. But it’ll only take a minor manoeuvre for someone else to catch up.
So assuming that the time is right (and it might not be), what would you do to create a brand new agency, like what they did in the 60s?
Hire Digital Natives?
I’m making the assumption here that digital natives are to today what TV natives were to the 60s.
So hire some digital natives. People like me who think that digital is ‘a thing’ are old-school. We might be able to help get you through the next few years, but unless we become less in awe of a bunch of computery things we could end up making ourselves obsolete.
But right here, right now, I think we’ve got our Hovis opportunity (Hovis make bread, they also got a seminal Ridley Scott ad during the 70s). There’s still a moment when we can do the big huge magical thing before all this digital stuff just becomes ordinary, everyday and expected.
I’ll get back to the hiring thing in a bit.
The Media Environment
Once you’ve got people you’ll need to create a guiding principle that celebrated the media environment that we’re dealing with. Embrace fragmentation and change. Realise that big lumpy unpredictable niches are about as good as its going to get. Or that narrow:deep audiences can become wide:deep audiences very quickly and with tiny media costs.
I’m not sure exactly what that principle is, but it’s the equivalent of knowing that a break in Coronation Street is your playground – then making the right stuff. (Hell if I knew the answer to this I’d be a very valuable and important man).
I loved this from the programme:
I doubt that this would be said by many people nowadays (especially not in the online space).
Clients Needing Help
The show documented the huge improvements that have been made to the marketing function within client organisations. Leading to a suggestion that in lots of places the marketing function is so sophisticated that they’re constantly butting heads with the agency – I can’t believe this could be true ;-).
In the ‘glory days’ it seemed like the agencies who were producing great work were almost unquestionable.
If you’re trying to launch a killer agency right now. Where do you think clients need most help? Where can you command a position of unquestioned god-like genius? On my list marketing and advertising wouldn’t be at the top.
Creating the Place
And now for the big one: creating the place where the cool guys come to hang out and do whatever it is they do.
I don’t think this is about environment it’s about a culture of possibilities and the other people they’re going to have as company/inspiration. And paying people properly – if you want to attract the best people you’re going to have to shell out. As someone in the BBC4 show quoted, CDP knew that if they paid peanuts they’d get monkeys.
In the 60s it was the best artists, writers, film-makers and suchlike who were the people you wanted in your gang. But who are the people you’d want nowadays? Here’s my list:
Entrepreneurs: You’ll be wanting the new Sergey and Larry. Of course. We all would. It’s about finding the people who just want to get stuff done quickly. People that make things happen. And who have a passion for things that they’re making / selling. There’s a big difference between business people and entrepreneurs. At least in my humble experience.
Geeks / Inventors / Designers: I’ll probably get shot for bunching these people together. But for these purposes I am putting them together. It’s the people who conceive of brilliant things. The ones who invent the widget. Or the new way of making something more usable, or more beautiful, or work faster or better. But specifically it’s about finding the ones who don’t have self-imposed limits. The ones who believe that anything is possible.
Super producers: Oh yeah. The people who know how to get things done. The people with the address book you’d kill for. Give them a thing to make or a bridge to build and they’ll know the people to make it happen. And have them on team in a couple of days. I think there’s about 26 of these people in the world (at last count).
Online content creators: People who make things. People who can’t help making things. The ones who are just be out there making videos, or music, or poems, or doodles. People who understand how to create a moment. A piece of online cultural history.
Cyber anthropologists: I didn’t really know what to call these people. They’re the people who have an ungodly fascination with what’s going on ‘out there’ the ones who are living real online lives, and watching and interrogating other people too. So they wouldn’t just be commenting on online dating, they’d be out there getting hooked up. And I’d be particularly looking for the ones who are trying to understand what it all means from a psychological and sociological point of view.
Uber bloggers: Of course I’m just sucking up to bloggers here so that they all link to this post and say nice things ;-) But seriously if you’re a certain type of blogger you know certain types of things that not many other people do. You understand how content and conversation work together. You understand how things get transmitted around the blogosphere. In short you understand some very important things about today’s media landscape.
As I went through this list I sort of sense checked it by seeing if I could put names next to all of these roles. And I could. So they’re not fantasy people. They really do exist.
Then once you’ve got a great place to work and assembled that rag-tag bunch of mistfits you’ll need some hardcore project managers and business people to be able to sell the shit out of the nonsense they’ll come up with.
I forgot. It might be expensive. And it might not work. But if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be worth bothering.
Anything or anyone else you’d chuck in for good measure?
I seem to be witnessing more and more intellectual pissing competitions these days. And it’s not just in planner-land, although that’s where I’ve witnessed some of the ‘best’ ones. I’ve seen a few good technical ones, and even designers seem to be getting in on the act.
So how do you spot when the transition between conversation/discussion and pissing match occurs? Typically the conversation will start to move from being a group thing to being dominated by 2/3 members of the group. These people will become the players.
One the players have been established they take it in turns to metaphorically piss higher up the wall than each other. Most of the games I’ve witnessed have been about rather esoteric matters. I guess there’s no fun in facts.
Pissing competition tips:
As a player you might get be having fun. And it’s fine to play with friends in private. But in public it’s not a great thing to be seen doing. It makes you look like a tit.
If you accidentally get drawn into a match, make your best shot fast and early. If you don’t slay the opposition with your first or second go, realise that they’re involved in a war of attrition and retire to a safe distance to minimise splashback.
Games can span multiple meetings – sometimes you’ll have to endure the same players spraying again and again. If possible try to move their ‘game’ into their own separate environment.
Ultimately everyone ends up covered in urine (even innocent bystanders).
Or maybe I’m imagining it all.
Anyone else got any thoughts on Intellectual Pissings? (If I ever make an album I think I might call it Intellectual Pissings, I quite like it).
Image from Geoff (not sure what the etiquette is about using images from Picassa pubic galleries – hope he doesn’t mind).
I was watching Control the other night (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and Ian Curtis works in the Employment Exchange. I don’t know why, but I really liked the term Employment Exchange. It just sounds so much more two-sided than ‘Job Centre’.
In fact Employment Exchange sounds very 2.0 compared to the Job Centre’s 1.0ness.