Creativity 50 Roundtable

Published on .

Most Popular
Participants: Frank Lantz, CD/Co-founder, Area/Code; Noam Murro, Director, Biscuit Filmworks; Bob Greenberg, CEO of R/GA; David Droga, Creative Chairman of Droga5; Jason Harris, President, Mekanism; Tommy Means., Director/Partner, Mekanism; Ian Kovalik, CD/Partner, Mekanism; Gerry Graf, CCO, Saatchi & Saatchi, N.Y.; Patrick Milling Smith, EP/Co-founder, Smuggler; Eddy Moretti, Director/Co-founder, VBS.tv; Jon Kamen, Chaiman/CEO, @radical.media.

Creativity: Mr. Droga, why start your own agency? And with all that's going on in the industry, what is the agency of 2008 supposed to be doing? How do you define your mandate?

David Droga: As soon as I left to start the agency, everybody assumed that I was anti-"the industry" or traditional advertising, which I'm not. I love advertising. I just wanted to be in an environment where things weren't predetermined. We certainly are a business and have to build a business. I'm not interested in building a boutique, but to have the courage to do what I think is right, as opposed to what I think will facilitate a good meeting. And to work with people that challenge what we do. I don't think that agencies challenge themselves as much. All we wanted to do is to have the freedom to grow a business and to show that a creative business really can influence business. We don't have any philosophies or anything like that, the only thing we bat around the office is that we're in the business of momentum. We'll do whatever we see as necessary for that.

C: Gerry Graf, you started a new job recently. Coming from your previous gig, you had sort of reenergized TBWA, New York, which when you left, had a really great body of new work behind it. Coming into a new job, what are your priorities?

Gerry Graf: The number one thing I guess is to start a relationship with the clients and let them understand that you know what they are trying to do and you understand their business, try to know their business better than they do sometimes. So that's what I'm doing now, meeting everyone I can and learning all of the accounts we have, the people who work on them, just trying to get a feel for their business and their objectives. So when you come in with stuff they wouldn't necessarily buy, you have a reason for doing it. Tony [Granger] opened up a lot of opportunities because of what he accomplished with P&G. So, we have a lot of other clients that are excited about good work. So, we'll work on their businesses and get them going.

C: Bob, there is a lot of talk about new models and different structures for different agencies and bringing different people in. So talk a little about how R/GA fits in the spectrum. Are you an interactive agency? You've got the design heritage and the production heritage. What are you offering now that's different?

Bob Greenberg: When we had R/GA the production company I wanted to move entirely into interactive because I could see that if we moved out of production, we could move into a better position in an agency. I saw a path pretty clearly of going from an interactive boutique to going to an interactive agency, to going to what we consider an agency for the digital age. We have about 650 people now in New York. We also have a lot of tracks—data, mobile, media, branding, retail, R/GA digital studios, for production internally and U.K. I think that we have actually created a model that is a full advertising model. We have major global clients now. I think our model is somewhat unique. Probably the closest to it would be AKQA. And the only other models that I see out there are the ones that are similar to Goodby, Wieden or Crispin—they are more closely connected to today's model of production, where you execute the interactive mainly on the outside. What I don't see really is the third model, which is how you take a very large global agency, like where Gerry is at, and then make a transition. I don't think there has been a model like that yet, but there will be.

C: Talking about new models, Jon and the Mekanism guys, you've taken a very diverse approach to production and you work with both agencies and direct to client. What is it that you guys actually do? How do you define your companies?

Tommy Means: I started Mekanism about seven years ago in San Francisco, literally surrounded by this explosion of new media. We started a company that essentially is doing storytelling for emerging media and at the time it seemed like a novel idea, but we created the company according to what was happening in the market. We're fortunate enough to get invited very early on in the process to act as a sort of strategic and creative partner. Once we produce something we then figure out how to syndicate the content that we create and track it and sort of provide a closed loop. In the future we are looking to create more original properties with partners. We have a film coming out in May that we did with Mark Cuban and we have a couple of properties that we have in development as a joint venture with MTV that we are really excited about.

Jon Kamen: We are a relatively old company and reinvented ourselves in the early '90s because I wanted to make sure we were going to survive. We are in the media business. @radical looks at the business in a pretty broad spectrum. We positioned ourselves to make sure that we were producers of content for all types of media, regardless of platforms and format. We work very closely with agencies and brands, providing solutions for their needs; we work very closely with networks and studios in working on projects that are somewhat different and we've created a couple of projects ourselves. We recently created a channel ourselves and we are developing others like that.

C: I think we have to throw the question over to Patrick. Smuggler is no longer the young, hot start-up, yet it remains one of the most innovative production companies in the industry, but you guys don't talk about all your "capabilities."

Patrick Milling Smith: I don't think that we are driven by a particular advertising model. We are attracted to a certain type of work; there is a certain demographic out there that likes our work. That demographic seems to be using the internet a lot more, so they're spreading it out and we're often doing pieces of work that gets, virally, huge amounts of hits. We are sticking to a very simple model where creative is first and hopefully, someone sends a great "Berries and Cream" Starburst idea and we'll get behind it. It's that simple.

C: Frank, you're doing something way different than a lot of people here. Can you tell us a little about your company?

Frank Lantz: We have a focus on making a particular kind of game experience. We are really interested in games that have some sort of interesting overlap with the real world. We do a lot of stuff about cross media game experiences where there's something happening online and it's synchronized to a TV broadcast. (We did) a game [Discovery's Sharkrunners] that's a persistent, browser based personal world with sharks in it, and the behavior of the sharks is driven by real world sharks that are tagged with location aware devices. We worked with professional marine biologists to get that data. Using that real world data to drive game behavior is another example of what we've done. And we've done alternate reality games. We have a Facebook game which has nothing to do with location or physical space but it's about taking the players' existing social network and mapping a game experience onto that.

C: And marketers are really into it right now?

Frank: I think that people get excited when they think of a game that uses technology that isn't a solitary single player experience, where someone is fantasizing about killing a dragon or being a space marine. There is something about the novelty of what we do, the fact that we are interested in new experimental forms of play that aren't just using these very traditional models of the videogame that would be potentially be newsworthy. When play becomes visible like that it's more appropriate to think about sponsoring something like that as a way to promote your TV show or your product, and it can often generate press.

C: Noam, in terms of making an idea come to life, making something great, how do you know? What's the difference between a pretty good spot and an amazing spot?

Noam Murro: Well, it's tricky. Every time I thought, I'm going out to do something great, it turned out to be shit. And vice versa. I think that it starts with these guys (gesturing to creatives), you know? If on the page it's good, most likely it'll be OK when you shoot it. You cannot take a piece of crap and make it great; throw money at it, put a great director on it. It really is as good as the page is. There is so much talk about evolution and I feel like I'm in business at a grocery store actually versus everything else that has been said here. Essentially I don't really care what it's going to be played on. At the end of the day it all culminates to this human experience—"Can I relate to whatever has been presented to me or not?" And I think that there's so much talk about digital—digital schmigital. Amazon came out with the Kindle, right? But it's still the same Anna Karenina on it. And it's still pretty damn good.

Patrick: It feels like creativity is more necessary now than ever. I don't see many of the good ads on TV, but I see them being emailed. There are all of these different mediums with which to watch a really good idea and connect with it. It's cluttered and the only thing that's going to take something to the top is a really good idea and a really good script. That's all you have to worry about.

Noam: How many movies have you seen that you really remember and like that have had great technical aspects to them? The Graduate probably had a 35mm camera and a freakin' dolly and it's still pretty damn good today. Can you tell a story or can't you tell a story? That's really all there is in my mind.

Bob: But if you've got a situation where 50% of the people are watching TV and multitasking and 50% of the people are online and the spend for media is 95-5 and it's moving this way [away from TV], that's going to change the entire business. I agree, the relevance of storytelling will always be there. The tools have changed, the storytelling hasn't. But technology has had a tremendous impact on the storytelling process.

Ian Kovalik: I would say that the fundamentals of storytelling are still very true. We totally agree that that's never going to change but I think that what is changing, to your technology point Bob, is the way you tell the story. It doesn't stop at the final edit and putting it in the can or sending out to TV or a website. One of the things that we've been doing recently in the last year is, if it's a viral film, not only watching its progress but seeing how people talk about it, how they pass it around and seeing how it does amongst social networks, video blogs. That's helped us to figure out what the next move would be on that piece of creative. The new technologies out there are really forcing us to change the way we think about storytelling.

C: Eddy, you have an amazing magazine that has now become an amazing content-driven site. Can you talk about that transition?

Eddy Moretti: What we are doing now with video on the internet is analogous to what we did when we launched Vice magazine, which was born in the revolution in desktop publishing, when you could buy a PC and publish your own magazine. [With VBS.tv] we started with one camera, one cameraman, one host and one editor. Now we have about 65 people working on VBS, an office in Brooklyn and we put about 15-20 minutes of new video content per day. And we are getting about 2 million people a month. One of our little series was called Heavy Metal in Baghdad, about this heavy metal band from Baghdad that we decided to go visit in the summer of '06. And then the guys escaped Baghdad and went to Syria so we met them in Damascus and shot more there, and we suddenly had a feature film on our hands. The film went to Toronto, to the Berlin film festival, it's going to be out in theaters here in N.Y. and in L.A. and three other cities. Now we go into a meeting and suddenly we have some leverage. For us I guess schmigital also means the age of the pitch is kind of over.

VCU Student: I think "storytelling" has been mentioned at least 18 times, which is very reassuring because I'm a writer. I also accept how technology has to come into play in all of this. How will we make sure that our storytelling stays relevant when we go to these new things?

Bob: I personally believe that the third screen will become the first screen. It's very difficult to think about something once and then bring it across all of the different formats. So, you have to write very specifically for the format. You have to produce things differently for the small screen than you would for something very big.

From Left: Creativity's Ann-Christine Diaz, @radical Media's Jon Kamen, Area Code's Frank Lantz and R/GA's Bob Greenberg
From Left: Creativity's Ann-Christine Diaz, @radical Media's Jon Kamen, Area Code's Frank Lantz and R/GA's Bob Greenberg
Noam: Or call it moishe. You're still going to watch it on a screen this big, or this big or this big, or put it in my eyeball, whatever the fuck they're going to do. If I'm this interested after 35 seconds, I'm going to go thank you so much for making it technically advanced?

Frank: Conversely, the DVD box sets have changed TV drama right? Shows like The Wire, which are constructed with the idea that people are going to consume them as these long 13-hour cinematic experiences, they can have a much different pace. It does effect the story-telling; it's not the screen size, but there are other aspects as well.

Bob: It's not all about story, that's absolutely wrong. Who says it's about story, everything about advertising, marketing, communications? That's bullshit. It's about information as much as it is about story. I really believe that.

Tommy: I disagree totally. When you're inviting somebody to spend time with advertising, that's the important thing to remember, this is fucking advertising. You have to be really really smart about how you weave the branding into the storyline. I think that is the biggest challenge right now for directors that are working outside of the 30-second spot. At the end of the day you still have to deliver a message and if you're not making them laugh, if there's no drama, if there's not crisis, conflict, resolution, you are going to lose them. Period.

From Left: Mekanism's Tommy Means, Patrick Milling Smith and Ian Kovalik
From Left: Mekanism's Tommy Means, Patrick Milling Smith and Ian Kovalik
Gerry: When I look at work, I always ask myself, "Why would I give a shit about this?" And story is a big part, I love a good story. But tracking sharks on a game on GPS seems cool as hell; if I'm a runner I'm going to go to the website you [R/GA] designed because it's a great idea that I can track were I've been running and I can see where other people have been running. It's about a great idea.

Eddy: That gorilla on the drums for Cadbury commercial to the Phil Collins song, there ain't much story there, right? But it's a great idea and it's a bit of information. Storytelling in the traditional sense with conflict, resolutions etc., isn't necessarily part of modern advertising anymore. It's not necessarily like writing a complete song, it might just be a note.

Frank: This notion of where the ideas are going to come from, that's not something that you can teach or even talk about, I think we should pass over it in silence. I think the important thing is approaching every possibility as if this could be the one and getting as many at bats as you can and swinging as hard as you can at each at bat. Like this could be the one. And I think that is the essential secret key to coming up with something that works.

VCU Student: As student about to graduate you if you were to give us one piece of advice, what would it be?

Jon: One really important thing to remember is it's true that brands want to sell people things, but they also want to build an emotional connection. We've lost that concept, especially with all this technology we're talking about. More and more devices are becoming part of out lives and as an industry, we have to make sure we figure out a way to restore the ability to create that emotional bond.

VCU Brand Center Students
VCU Brand Center Students
Gerry: After getting a portfolio, it took about two years before I got a job. I went back and looked at that portfolio and it was horrible. If I brought me that book I'd kick me out of my office. The only reason I got a job was because I didn't stop. I called everybody, I didn't care if I annoyed them. You won't get a job if you stop trying to get a job. You will get a job if you don't stop trying. You guys are lucky. Back in the day the place to do advertising was at an advertising agency. And if you look at this panel here, there are a lot more places you can go and use your creativity.

Bob: The one word I would use is exactly the same as Gerry. I never knew we had so much in common. It's relentless. You have to be relentless, that's the only way you'll get in. And once you're in you have to learn as much as you can and either grow with that organization or take what you have and move to another. Get experience, one way or another.

Jason Harris: It seems like everyone is evolving on this panel. People at our company have to be fluent in writing and art direction and understanding interactive and how film and animation work. How is that changing with students, how are you teaching these guys?

Rick Boyko: I've talked with many people about creating a program where they had a potential client, the creative brand managers sitting at the table with communications strategists who understood both strategic planning and media, and art directors and writers. We are starting a fifth track called creative technology which is highly informed by Bob and Jon, talking about how are we going to add somebody who can actually create for that digital space. The dialogue has changed. The school used to be called The Adcenter. And we changed it to Brandcenter because we no longer have students solve problems with just ads. That's not what we do anymore.

Eddy: To add to what Gerry and Robert said, you have to be relentless, but you should be relentless if you really believe in something and you should know when to walk away from something. You can get into so much needless heartache and pain and end up losing a lot of money if you don't pick your projects and partners carefully. It's going to make you career a lot more enjoyable if you learn how to say no to some people. Conversely, if you find the client or project that's really awesome, you got to stick to it like glue.

VCU Student: I know there is a problem with advertising and diversity. Can any of you tell me what ideas you might have to try and solve that problem and if you have any programs within your company to implement something?

Bob: We have a big program on diversity and a full time person on staff just looking for diverse talent. In the U.S. having an agency that understands how to talk to diverse audiences is just part of what you need to do. We just brought back a guy that used to work for me that was running the social media part of Black Planet. He's African American and we are so happy to have him back and he's going to be the creative director for our mobile group. You really have to track the people that are talented and you have to figure out how to get them out of the universities or high school. We have high school programs that we bring into R/GA. I sit on five school boards, that's another way.

Ian Kovalik of Mekanism and Saatchi/N.Y.'s Gerry Graf
Ian Kovalik of Mekanism and Saatchi/N.Y.'s Gerry Graf
VCU Student: You don't see advertising agencies recruiting at colleges, period, compared to other corporations.

Bob: I think that's a big mistake. I think Rick knows how involved we are with recruiting, both of our recruiters were down at VCU recently. It's something that all agencies are going to have to do. I don't think that advertising has been particularly good at this.

Rick: Talking to colleges, at least what I've found is by the time you get there to talk to them they have already found a path. So, we've started a program talking to high schools because they don't even know about it. Imagine if we can just hit inner city high schools and get a pretty diverse ethnic group to really think about what we do, whether its film or digital or advertising in general, we can excite them.

Bob: I think the biggest problem is that many of the diverse communities, the parents don't even view advertising as a profession. We found that at the Art Directors Club they had a lecture specifically on that issue of creativity in a diverse community.

Gerry: There might be a lot of discrimination involved too, but not as much because if you're getting a job as a creative, you're hired on your portfolio.

The Mekanism Trio
The Mekanism Trio
VCU Student: In school we have certain liberties that we wouldn't have in most agencies where we can make the big idea king. In a lot of agencies there are a lot more layers to that and big ideas can sometimes die because of that. How do we make sure that the big idea gets made?

David: If it's grounded in their business needs then it genuinely is a big idea and you have more of a chance to sell it. But when we try to sell stuff that you just think is just incredibly creative, all of those layers are going to kill it. I've always found that the things that I like producing the most were probably the easiest to sell through because they came from a real need for the business. You solved it before you actually went into executions. When you stand up and think you're going to win a client over by reading a really funny script, clients smell that.

Gerry: But [ideas] are precious. You have to learn to take care of them. Because there are people out there on the agency side and the client side whose job pretty much seems to be to kill a good idea. It's really how you present it, who you present it to. You have to be very careful, because it seems, even if you have the best idea in the world people aren't going to bow down and give you money and say, go do it.

David: And you have to be prepared to walk away from it. It's a weird thing, sometimes you start out with something that you love, but when it does get compromised along the way, you're so in love with it you're blinded to how much it's been compromised along the way and you just want to see it through. You have to have the courage as an agency to say, we understand your issues and we'll take this off the table and come back with something new.

Bob: I again think that the big idea is changing. And I think the key is that it's not going to be one or two people that go off and solve a problem and come back with a big idea. I do think that the big idea can be many small , medium and different sized ideas that actually do something to engage a consumer. And it's becoming more and more global. I personally don't want to open up places like I mentioned, all over the place. I hate air travel. The point is that we will not be able to sustain our clients without a global footprint. [Also] if you don't understand technology and the impact on communications and design and creativity, I really think you're going to get left on the sidelines going forward. And if you are the best at whatever you are doing you are always going to do well.

Smuggler's Patrick Milling Smith
Smuggler's Patrick Milling Smith
VCU Student: If you had to give up your spot on the Creativity 50, who would you want to replace you? Is there anyone that didn't get recognized that you were inspired by?

Tommy: I'm definitely not giving up my spot.

David: I wish Ricky Gervais was on it. I think he influenced more writing and comedy. But I think Patrick should have been kicked off.

Frank: Erik Wolpaw, the writer for the game Portal. Storytelling through games is this incredibly complicated and fascinating question that a lot of people feel really passionate about, and Portal is a small masterpiece largely due to the work of this guy.

Tommy: Whoever did that interactive video for The Arcade Fire. Mysterious, weird and cool. Just a really simple idea that I was pretty blown away by.

Jon: Richard Branson. There's a guy who has created more incredible brands and who is a showman, but at the same time has shown incredible insight in terms of environmental concerns, philanthropic areas.

Gerry: Whoever created Guitar Hero has done the most to destroy creatives in their thinking. Do not get it for your agency.

In this article: