Pick Two

More than a few years back, Lowell Williams became a partner at Pentagram and came back to his old stomping grounds in Houston to give a presentation about his experiences to the local AIGA chapter.

He opened his presentation with an idea that has since stuck in my mind. How do you decide if you should take on a new project? He had a very simple method.

To take on a new project, it must meet at least two of the following criteria:

Outrageous fees.
Compelling work.
Fun people.

That simple. Now let’s look at the logic.

You cannot have just one. No one is going to give you a bucket full of money and not expect something in return, like maybe doing a little work for them. Nor are there projects lying around on the ground just waiting for someone to bring them to life. And “fun people” are, well, generally called “friends”. So, at a minimum you have to have two.

The fees are straight-forward. If you’re not going to get paid, why bother. Wait a second … if the work is really interesting, there’s a chance to learn or grow, or the finished piece will look great in your book, maybe you’ll want to take the project on. And it the client is a fun and lively group that you’ll want to hang out with after the project wraps … alright, let’s do this! See, his method works.

Another angle: The project is super interesting, a real challenge that will stretch you, but the client is going to be equally challenging. Charge them out the wah-zoo. It’s amazing how a hefty check in your bank account can ease the pain of the 75th round of revisions at 3 o’clock in the morning.

On the flip side, the work isn’t all that interesting but you really like the client, use this as an opportunity to make a little money. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Of course, the Holy Grail is a project meeting all three criteria. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have had a few such projects. They’re golden: the opportunity to do some amazing work that I am especially proud of, while making some new friends and money along the way.

Mr. Williams is right; a project must meet two points, but in my mind, strive for meeting all three.

High Touch Over High Tech

Long Tail marketing refers to the strategy of targeting a large number of niche markets with a product or service. It’s mainly used by businesses that are dominated by a huge market leader. Facing a battle to grow, a company can shift their focus to multiple niche markets that have less demand.

I love the Long Tail  because I’ve always had an affinity for very obscure things. Whether I’m looking for a bone-folder, a custom-made popper, a hand-painted Italian racing bicycle or some long out-of-print book, riding the long tail is both a privilege and a pleasure. Thank you Internet, for making this possible.

Lately I have hit on two instances where the Long Tail has been taken to the next level. Finding things is great, but when you can actually connect with warm-blooded people who also share your passion, that makes the experience all the richer. In both cases, this connection led to something I did not expect: Not only did I want to buy something, but I want to buy more, more often. This is not like me at all. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m as big a spend-thrift as old Uncle Scrooge.

A warning as you read the two examples below carefully; they might be cleverly disguised adverts for the respective company.

First example: For the past year or so I have suffered from a low-aching soreness in the ball of my right foot. Nothing debilitating, but enough to keep me from my morning runs. After a visit to a podiatrist earlier this year, my foot started feeling better so I went to visit a specialty running shoe store. It happened to be locally owned, not a chain. The shop is called Good Times Running Company and it is quietly tucked away in a suburb west of Houston.

Now, you may say that running is a mainstream sport, how is this a trip down the Long Tail? This is an example of the Long Tail in that I had a very specific need that a mass market retailer could not be unable to meet.

I went into the shop and met with Mary Ann, the owner. Although my brand loyalty has been with Altra for years, I went in my few preconceived notions of want I wanted; rather I would rely 100% on her experience and knowledge to help guide me to a shoe that would keep me running regularly, but more importantly, safely.

Mary Ann spent a solid 45 minutes with me on a busy Saturday afternoon. We talked about my issues, past experiences and preferences. She evaluated me gate (I’m neutral) and tried on a half a dozen different shoes in various sizes until I found one pair that offered me the comfort and protection I needed: The Hoka One One Bondi.

The experience was phenomenal, and I have recommended Good Times to several friends, all of whom had the same level of service and satisfaction.

From now till doomsday, I will only buy my trainers from Mary Ann. It would be cheaper, faster and more convenient to go online, grab my next pair, but why would I when I have the opportunity to engage with a fellow runner, talk with an expert and get exactly what I need. As an added benefit, I get to support a small local businesses, which I love being able to do.

It did not occur to me that this story was worth sharing until it happened recently when I wanted to ride down the Long Tail again. Like before, it would have been much easier and more convenient to have gone to Amazon, but I really wanted to talk with someone before making my purchase.

For years, I have made a practice of Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. I find the act of writing a form of active meditation, and often time find answers to tough problems while relaxing at the same time. A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a Tim Ferriss interview with Neil Gaiman. Although I have read a ton of Gaiman’s books, I do not care for them but still find him terribly interesting, so I was excited to listen to the interview.

A shiny new Pilot Metropolitan

One key topic discussed was that he begins writing his novels by hand, not on a keyboard, and he uses a fountain pen. Gaiman went on extolling the virtues of writing with an elegant pen. Such a pleasurable experience. Years ago I had a fountain pen my grandfather gave me but misplaced it — I am sure it is tucked away in a box somewhere in the house. After listening to Gaiman, I wanted one.

I found a shop in Rice Village that deals in specialty writing instruments called Dromgoole’s. I drove into town early Saturday morning to beat the afternoon rush that overtakes the Village on the weekends. I pulled up, walked in, and understood how Harry Potter felt when he walked into the shop to buy his first wand. The place was magical.

I was way, way down the Long Tail. I entered into a world where people value the simplicity of making letters and words by hand. Adding meaning and personality to the words they write. People who slow down long enough to absorb all that is good in the world, including the simple and pleasure of writing.

As I entered the store, Larry Dromgoole introduced himself to me and asked what brought me in.

“I’m looking for a starter fountain pen”, I replied. Larry asked for a a price range and jumped right into showing me an array of pens. Holding each pens, dipping the tips into a jar of ink to see how it looked and felt as I wrote – the experience was wonderful.

I felt like Harry Potter leaving the store – equipped to perform magic.

And isn’t that what traveling down the Long Tail is all about after all. Yes, the Long Tail is about choice and economics. It worked in spades for both of these examples because there is no doubt in my mind both these shops just got a customer for life. The added benefit is this journey is that you not only have the opportunity to connect with new things, by finding exactly the things you want, but there now exists an unforeseen opportunity that pushes the idea even further, to be able to explore more of the things that make you happy but also dive more into who you are.

Inside Out or Outside In

I’ve started this essay a number to times, writing it various different ways but kept scrapping each iteration because in the end it was much too negative. What I want to talk about is uncomfortable.

It’s hard when you work inside a large machine to not get caught up in the gears some days. But a good tact for the essay finally materialized and my hope is that you not only glean something from it, but find it valuable.

Enough of the pre-ramble.

I spent a large part of my career on the agency/studio side of the fence, but over the past nine years I have been working in-house, riding the wave so many creative folk have been on after the financial meltdown in 2008. In-house used to be the place good creatives would go to die, giving up fighting the good fight out in the agency world to settle in for comfort, security and a steady paycheck.

There was a cycle to it: The economy goes south, people run for cover in big corporations to shield them from whatever hardships were coming their way, but as soon as the economy picked back up again, they bolt for the nearest agency to get the hell out of the machine before they got chewed up.

Not so much anymore.

The cycle broke over the past decade. For any number of reasons, creatives with some serious chops are choosing to stay in-house rather than jumping back into the agency world. According to The Drum, Campaign and other industry pubs, this is being felt all over the world. Business has indeed come around to the idea of having top talent inside the borg. They are willing to pay the good salaries and often times contend with issues brought about by creative types because they recognize the value these individuals bring to the company. I won’t belabor any of this here; you can read about elsewhere as this subject all over the interweb.

What I want to dive into are things I have noticed, learned and even acted upon on after years being in-house. Again, enough rambling, just get on with it:

Starting on a positive note: The business world has caught up the Mr Watson’s quip from 60 or so years ago and finally agreed that Good Design is Good for Business. This is a game-changer for those of us who create for a living. Another thought that spurred me to write this essay was something else I read recently. I’ll paraphrase Mr Bill Bernbach:

Creativity is the last advantage a corporation can legally use over the competition. 

A little more cut-throat than Mr Watson’s much kinder, gentler thought, but true. I think you see it more in the UX/UI side of the design business, but it is prevalent everywhere, even in the old, dusty marketing department of your favorite Fortune 500. Good work for good companies is there to be had by good creatives, all under one roof.

Now a negative to the trend: The downside for creative professionals is that corporations are not set up to address the career of a creative. For example: At Schlumberger, my title was Creative Director, a plumb-sounding gig. But if you looked at the back-end of the HR system, my title was actually Marketing Specialist 3. I’ve never been one to get hung up on job titles, but what this actually tells you is that a CD doesn’t  truly have a place in that particular machine. They recognized they needed the work creatives provide, but do not understand how to get it out of people and help them sustain their careers. Notice I am no longer working there.

This leads me to career progression, which most companies struggle with, especially with creative types. Once you have succeeded, where do you go? How do you reward creatives for all the good work they do to move the sales needle or save the company some money? Or both, in some instances.

Marketing organizations, even at large corporations, are relatively flat management structures and there is not much room to maneuver. This is a particularly tough issue when dealing with the Millennial generation who thrive under praise. (That is not a critique of the generation, just an observation, mind you.) The bigger the company the slower they move to change, and trying to get creatives shoe-horned into nice, neat career paths is quite an undertaking. One of which I tried and failed. Career development was not an issue when designers left companies and went back to the agency world when the economy picked up, as mentioned earlier, but this is a critical issue to address as creatives look to have longer careers inside big business. The situation creates a unique opportunity for change.

One plus and one minus. What is a big plus for keeping creative in-house?

I grokked on this and it led me to writing this mad ramble. The one benefit that a good creative brings to the job everyday that is extraordinarily beneficial to their company: Objectivity.

A good creative-type from the agency world brings this outsider’s attitude with them wherever they go. Their training and experience has them always keeping a sharp eye not on the company, but the company’s customers. But it can be a double-edged sword.

Even though objectivity is the most important thing a creative can bring to the in-house table, it is often times the hardest thing to maintain. When you are part of the organization, you have to be able to strike that delicate balance between being responsive to what your boss (or her boss!) is asking for yet still be able to stretch your imagination to push the company forward. It’s kind of like saying “conceptual PowerPoint” — it is an oxymoron. It is tough but it is possible.

Keeping yourself at arm’s length from the company while being inside is your superpower, allowing you to see things how they are, and more importantly, how things can become. The only way to do that is to not be totally immersed in the company culture. Not drinking the Kool-Aid can be very hard to do. And it can cause you problems, as noted above. Being at odds with the prevailing winds can make your life in the office difficult. But remember this:

Conformity kills creativity. 

If there is any one take away from this long piece, it is that. One last story:

I got in hot water with the VP of Marketing at PULSE when I worked there. In full transparency, he gave me a project and I totally misunderstood what he was asking for. So much so that two other people sided with me on this matter. But he was angry with me for NOT delivering what he desired. He called me into his office to scold me. While berating about willfully disobeying his direction, he called me “subversive”. He did not mean it as a compliment, but that was exactly how I took it. I said “thank you” and thought I might get fired.

I always strive to create positive change in all the things I do, trying make situations better for the company and its customers.

If you plan to work inside a large corporation, be subversive. Stay objective in all your creative work while you look to push the company forward. Fight for that change. Maybe that’s why so many creatives are staying in-house?

There are Only Two Kinds of Design

I discovered a podcast called My Favorite Album that is about music critics, or other smarty pants-types in the industry, talking about albums that had a huge impact on their lives — the records they go back to time and time again. Being a self-proclaimed music snob, I’ve been choosey about which episodes I’ll listen to, but the other day I listened to the episode of Scott Sharrard discussing Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

Sharrard played in the Allman Brothers Band, and in his view, Kind of Blue had huge influence on the direction Gregg and Duane took the group.  What?

How do you get that? This southern jam band’s biggest influence is the modal, cool qualities of one of the most signifiant jazz recordings of all time? How is that possible?

Sharrard went on to explain how this cosmic duality is possible with an amazing quote from Duke Ellington. As Duke elegantly put it… There are only two kinds of music — good and bad. Let that soak in for a minute.

When I heard Sharrard relay the quote, a revelation hit me almost immediately. There are only two kinds of Design, good and bad. What’s the difference a print ad, a package, a sign system, an app, a website or anything else that a designer would make? The only differences are the tools used or skills needed to execute the design, but the underlying concepts and principles of greta design are fundamentally identical. For all you specialists out there, let that soak in.

I’ve spoken about this elsewhere in the site, extolled the virtues and praised the benefits of being a generalist. Looks like I have Duke Ellington to back me up on this one.

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