A conversation I had with my daughter when she was seven. “I have an idea for a commercial,” said Huan. “Tell me,” I responded. So she did. “Mom’s carrying the groceries into the house. While she’s holding a bag with one hand and trying to unlock the door with another, a ripe red strawberry tumbles out of the top of the bag, bounces over the back porch steps and rolls down the driveway. It picks up speed, going faster and faster. Then it rolls right into the middle of the street. And, are you listening?” “Yes.” “Just as it comes to a stop in the middle of the road, a car runs over it and it gets totally smushed.” (I envision the strawberry as an oversized red cartoon-like pancake lying helplessly in the middle of the road.) “What do you think?” she asks. “I like it, what’s it a commercial for?” “I don’t know, can’t you think of something?” “How about it’s for my client Stop and Shop and there’s a message at the end that says “Don’t worry, we have more. Strawberries in season at Stop and Shop.” “That’s good,” she says. “Can you sell it to them?” “Sure.” “Can it be on the SuperBowl?” “Don’t see why not.” You gotta love concepting with a seven year old.
I recently toured some Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in California and Wisconsin and noticed close up the square red tile that declares everything about the building — from the setting to the approach to the entrance to the materials used — reflects (or at least reflected at the time the building was completed) the totality of Wright’s personal vision. You don’t get a tile if you mess with Frank’s idea. In some cases that meant you couldn’t even question the furniture, light fixtures, flooring and china to be used within that specific dwelling, as Wright often designed all of it. He even went so far as to create wardrobes and gowns for women who lived in his houses so they wouldn’t clash with his interior decoration. Of course, as everyone knows, his designs often sacrificed function for beauty. Stories about their leaking are legendary. So would they have been better or worse if Wright relinquished any of that control?
In almost every creative business (is that an oxymoron?) — advertising, music, film, publishing and architecture — it’s rare that any one person, no matter how brilliant or creative he may be, gets to retain total control over an idea. Creative partners, collaborators, and gatekeepers shape it somehow. Clients approve and alter everything from ad campaigns to architectural plans. Focus groups shape movies. Editors change manuscripts. And in a rapidly changing digital environment where creations, content and ideas are often dependent on the technology that either enables them or distributes them, the group of people collaborating on a project and influencing how it appears and works gets even bigger. Writer, art director, designer, technologist, information architect, composer, editor, animator all find themselves part of one creative team. Sure one person has the initial idea, maybe, or the vision for its finished form. But these days it seems the quality most valued is not the ability to retain control, but rather the talent to inspire and navigate collaboration. So, is control better than collaboration? Or does collaboration improve the idea? Share your thoughts.
One of the most exciting new frontiers in digital creativity is brought to you by something called APIs (application programming interfaces). To a technical person they mean one thing, but to a creative marketer they mean this: you can create an entirely new mashup simply by combining your content with someone else’s. Granted lots of people have taken advantage of Google Earth, or embedded the code for a YouTube video, but the big one was CNN and Facebook allowing you to share the inauguration ceremonies with all of your friends, even though you might have been physically isolated in your cubicle. With streaming video on one side of your screen and your friends’ real time comments on the other, you had the modern day version of a “collective experience” made possible not by either CNN.com or Facebook, but only by putting the two together. You were doing something and were aware of everyone else doing it at the same time. A perfect example of the fastest growing movement in marketing: content strategy. It may be that from now on the most interesting media experiences that any of us create are achieved by simply putting the chocolate and peanut butter together. Which means it’s time for all of us – not just the technology folks – to learn what’s possible and start thinking this way.
* must admit that I stole this phrase from my friend Michael Ancevic
Years ago I had the pleasure of working with Jacques D’Amboise, the great New York City ballet dancer who performed under Balanchine. When his performing days were over, D’Amboise started an organization called National Dance Institute. D’Amboise believed that the arts had a unique power to engage and motivate young kids toward excellence. Initially he was met with skepticism. How many inner city boys would want to learn to dance? Three decades later, however, NDI transforms the lives of 35,000 New York City public school kids every year, teaching them the art, discipline and joy of dance.
While NDI never successfully expanded beyond New York City, it created a model that in some ways is now being replicated by David Eggers and friends. Eggers founded a group known as 826 Valencia in San Francisco to tutor young students in writing and literacy. Now 826 is national, a family of seven nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping students, ages 6-18, with expository and creative writing at seven locations across the country. Its belief is simply that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.
Yousuf Karsh is one of my favorite portrait photographers. Yet until last week I had only seen his images in books and online, never in an actual exhibit. Fortunately I caught the last day of Portraits of Greatness at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. It’s now moving to the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s a great show whether your interest is in photography or in the monumental subjects. Everyone who was anyone — Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso, Nikita Khrushchev, Ernest Hemingway, Audrey Hepburn, Albert Einstein, Fidel Castro, Mohammed Ali, and Jacqueline Kennedy – wanted to sit for Karsh. My two favorite stories: He refused to photograph George W. Bush, not because of political reasons but because George W. said he didn’t care what the image was long as Karsh was the man who pushed the shutter release. Such a comment showed no understanding, respect or appreciation for Karsh’s technique and the time it took to know and capture the essence of his subjects. The second is how he achieved the expression on Churchill’s face in the image above. At the last moment, Karsh plucked Churchill’s cigar from his lips, resulting in this stern expression. Two other things are worth noting for anyone constantly looking for inspiration. Karsh got his idea for controlling light by studying Rembrandt portraits on exhibit in Boston museums during his two years apprenticing in that city between 1928 and 1930. There he realized that the artist could control how light affected a subject. A year later he joined the Ottawa Little Theater, and the spectacle of stage lighting helped him learn how to achieve the intense moods that define his images. They remind us that, among other things, we all need constant exposure to new sources of inspiration if we’re to make something great.