Control in an age of collaboration: or it’s good to be Ricky Gervais

I had a great conversation with a client today who willingly agreed to undertake the development of a new digital platform without knowing what it would be. (She knows what she wants to accomplish, but not how to get there.) So we’re hoping to embark on a truly iterative journey: get our initial strategy, early ideas and preliminary prototypes online and in front of users as quickly as possible in hopes of learning what works, letting users guide us, and receiving feedback in as close to real time as possible.

It’s not typically an ad agency approach to things — more how a software developer might develop — but with a service/platform/utility that depends on users using it the process makes a lot of sense.

A few minutes ago I read a short interview with Ricky Gervais in the April issue of the Harvard Business Review (of all places). One question probed at Gervais’s reputation for complete and total control — the dream of many creative people (presumably those who deserve it, though more often than not they don’t) but one that rarely comes true in a collaborative business such as advertising or entertainment for that matter.

Gervais:  “I am a complete fascist and you should be in art. I don’t think I’m the best producer or director or actor in the world, but I know how I want it done. I don’t try to please anyone but myself.  And if people like what I do, fantastic.”

He goes on to explain that if you want things lots of people like, chances are no one will love them.  To his credit, Gervais would rather move a million people than wash over 10 million.

Collaboration versus control. So are these two approaches contradictory? Can you listen to consumers and users and still have Gervais-like authority?  What do you think?  Is there a right time for both? Is it the difference between interactive and advertising? Utility and message? Platform and content? How about you? Would you rather collaborate or be like Ricky?

Go ahead. You can take either approach in the comments below.

photo by Nadja von Massow

18 comments
EricWilliamson
EricWilliamson

I think the "agile Ricky Gervais" is the right path.

You need the central Gervaislike control to be able to be FF-You bold and innovative and create new markets/ products/ etc and not just build a faster horse. With that said, once you have a general destination in mind for your innovative "thing" I think it is absolutely crucial that you co-create in order to get their. Your client has to be an inner-circle part of the team (share early/ share often) from the start -- and you need to be prototyping and learning from your audience from as early a stage as possible and then prototype/learn/iterate from that point forward.

KeithBorshak
KeithBorshak

Absolute, unreasonable control.

I shutter to think of where ideas would be, or not be if it were not for the unreasonable people who have the vision and spine to see their thoughts manifest the way they want them executed. without them, everything is a sea of grey.

fdfallon
fdfallon

He is 100% right. (Well, in a way.)

Collaboration should occur after the art has been decided upon...been created. (This CAN be created by one or more persons.)

Essentially, the artist's job (or business') is to say,"This is who I am, this is what I am about, this is how I see the world, this is what I have to SAY...COMMUNICATE" and then to find like minded people to share that with (people who in turn may say back, "Oh cool, OK, thanks for that...nice to meet you...well, this is who I AM....maybe we can get along....maybe we can date."

What you don't do is base who you are upon who other people are. In life we get this.

If I want to get married, I don't decide on who I am after I meet the woman I want. I AM who I am (hopefully), and then if she is who she is, and it is right, then we'll marry. Otherwise, it's doomed. We know this. Moreover, you CAN'T marry everyone.

Collaboration is the marriage (and that can be arranged in a million ways, as we know-it can even be between two fascists!). Nevertheless, as Gervais hints, it is specific and not a shotgun blast. Knowing who you are does not make it any less collaborative. (And Gervais on a set, whether he wants to admit it or not, is always collaborating. It is just that he has the final say to pick and choose what ideas win out in the end. He doesn't live in vacuum.)

The old model of selling (or sleeping) indiscriminately to anything that walks will not cut it in the future. Consumers are too sophisticated these days and they know the value of a home-cooked meal vs. something cooked minus love. WE want a relationship that is specific and custom tailored to US. (Unless we are buying a commodity-like nails or paper towels-and, even there, there is always an opportunity!)

Which is why the term STRATEGY is bothersome in this day and age. It's a little dated. You would never use that word when you are courting a woman, hanging with a bro, etc. Rather, collaboration should be about building mutual relationships that grow and evolve.

To Richard DeVeau (if done properly with the horse in front of the cart)-

Art IS the reason for it's existence.

Selling is the by-product. Steve Jobs is an artist, Apple is a reflection of who he is, how he sees the world, and it is an extension of himself and the others at Apple.

Businesses that thrive today and will in the future are the ones that get this. That's why it is so exciting to be involved in business today. Because for the first time, business (some at least) is behaving like artists.

However, like in art, there are never guarantees that your business will be successful if you follow what I am saying. There are more failed artists than we can count. Monetizing art or a product/brand is a whole other ball of wax. And clearly it cannot be done alone.

Edward's example at the top sounds like the "iterative journey" is for the medium, the tool/interface and not the business model itself. But hey, like I said, we can marry anybody and arrange our marriages however we want. Just know who you are FIRST.

Richard DeVeau
Richard DeVeau like.author.displayName 1 Like

Edward,

We’re not creating art, we’re creating commerce. And while what we create can become art if we do it well, art is not the reason for its existence, selling something is.

Which means that we are all collaborator/fascists by necessity.

As you’re doing with your new project, there is a collaborative aspect to its creation and feedback. But at some point, when all is said and done, whomever is in control will dictate the final outcome.

I’m also not so sure your statement about this not being a typical ad agency approach to things is quite accurate, particularly when you consider the role testing has played in our business. (Don’t mistake this as a plug for testing, it is not.)

Personally, I would prefer a Gravis-like fascist approach to our business. I’d be a lot happier and I’d have a lot less gray hair. But the reality is otherwise.

And this is the very reason I took up painting. In my studio or when I’m hanging a gallery show, you won’t find a more dictatorial fascist.

But I’m still nice about it.

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

Cool post, cool discussion.

For what it's worth, Gervais specifically called out art as the place you want total control; I'm sure he would agree that in product development, some collaboration and compromise is probably necessary. Then again, there's Jobs...

For me, total control is irrelevant if you are bad at getting others to do what you want. There are plenty of control freaks who get their day in the sun, only to get burned because the people they need (and we always need people) say, "screw this." Sometimes it's because the vision isn't that great, sometimes it's because the guy running things is just a full-on jerk. My sense is that Gervais is interesting to work with and inspiring.

Always comes down to good management...

fairminder
fairminder

@JeffShattuck Yes. Art, and not so much commerce, allows for total control and self-expression and it gets rewarded and earns respect. Maybe Jobs is creating works of art. ;-). That would explain the fly in the ointment that he is.

brookerandel
brookerandel like.author.displayName 1 Like

I agree with my fellow commenters. The difference is in how you view your audience. Are they users or consumers? Users interact with your work. Consumers absorb it. Considering that we all use and consume on a daily basis, I don't see why brands can't create within both these spaces. Brands must know when to listen and when to stand up and speak.

fairminder
fairminder like.author.displayName 1 Like

A few thoughts:

Compared to a client relationship a show or performance is a passive experience . You buy a ticket or tune in and watch. In business engagements it can be wise to listen, follow and develop a trust in those you hire. Not sure it should be passive. After all look where a lack of adult supervision got JC Penney. Flipping it around you don't hire a bigot and expect to collaborate.

I think what you experienced is the joy of a client trusting you. Would that have come about if the client didn't feel like they were being listened to and "heard"? There are certainly times to be firm with a client and provide leadership and direction. But, I don't want to hire or work with someone with the extreme egotism or hubris of a fascist. I doubt that kind of individual attracts quality people either. More likely sheep that want others to think for them.

Listening to customers is invaluable, except when they are wrong. SteveJobs certainly produced products that no one knew they needed.

This would be easier if I didn't think Gervais acts like an unprovoked attack dog ravaging everything in site, based on the Golden Globes. When your genius is hurtful it is no longer genius.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@fairminder Also good points. But, you could argue that Gervais is like a creative director, deciding the content, staging, performance and experience. You could also argue that he could choose to listen or get reactions from others and still stay in control by making the decision he wants to make. And you could, perhaps, find people good enough to do the same in the digital or experiential space. The question is whether or not one approach or another guarantees a better outcome or whether our motives are in fact honest. (BTW, I am for the collaboration and iteration; the learning is too valuable.)

dweingrod
dweingrod like.author.displayName 1 Like

Thinking a lot about these topics after the great day at the LEAN startup in Austin, but let me throw out one potential difference. Gervais, who is great, is working within a world where consumer feedback and collaboration is limited to purchasing tickets and applauding. Software companies and, hopefully, smart marketers and enterprises know that they have to deal with feedback that is far more active, intense and collaborative than the type Gervais experiences. When you go out into the world of creating usable products and services you have to develop a different relationship with your audience, or consumer, than a great performer on a stage. The performer's role is in many cases to validate who she is, the software enterprise or lean startup has to validate their customers at the same time they validate their product.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@dweingrod No doubt. But it can be easier being in control. Providing you make good decisions.

dweingrod
dweingrod

@edwardboches Ultimately making good decisions is the crucial point. LEAN provides a framework that came out of the idea of, among other things, less wasted effort and better decision making in a collaborative environment. Single source control makes for quicker decisions, but not necessarily the right ones. Also, have you noticed how Gervais is, in many senses an iterative performer? He has never repeated anything more than twice. Didn't allow the brilliant, original "The Office" to go past 2 seasons, same thing with "Extras". Maybe that level of control has a time stamp on it in order to be successful.

timisbusy
timisbusy like.author.displayName 1 Like

I think the difference is exactly what you pointed out in your second paragraph. This approach makes sense when you're building a platform/utility/service. You need customer feedback to make it work and to make it great.

In Gervais's case, he's got to create something once and then release it. In those cases, probably especially in the film industry, "collaboration" more often means creating by committee. We all know how terribly that can go.

I tend to agree with Gervais that art needs a strong singular vision (fascist) to create something impactful and real.

There's a more subtle art that arises from group thinking and interaction, but that's another issue.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@timisbusy Interesting to think about having control (after listening and engaging) but being the one person who makes final decisions. Suppose we could have replaced Gervais with Steve Jobs and then our argument would be moot. We would then be talking about whether or not control is acceptable when the person exerting it stands above any of his or her collaborators. Or arguing that the need for collaboration and iteration is an expression of limited talent. I know I'm baiting you here, but just a thought.

timisbusy
timisbusy

@edwardboches I think you will find that you'll have more suggestions for things to change, features to add, and things you should be doing but aren't than you'll want to execute on. Somebody will have to have a vision and get ready to say "no" a lot.