It has been a busy week. Drove down to Rotorua to speak at the conference for New Zealand's high school career and guidance councellors. An introduction to the creative economy.
Here's my talk:Creating a future
Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today.
As a business person and an educator I believe the work that you is amongst the most challenging and important roles in education.
In this presentation I want to introduce you to some of the lessons I have learned in developing my career. I hope you’ll forgive me for the very personal nature of my talk. I don’t assume my experience is the same as anyone else’s and it doesn’t stem from ego (failure and adaption are recurring themes).
In my experience , as kids look forward to their working life they will probably fall into one of two types. The utterly certain and the terrified.
Both are in for a surpise.
That’s how life goes.
If you had asked me as a teenager what I would be doing in 2006 I would have told you with utter conviction that I would be A GRAPHIC DESIGNER.
My entire focus at high school was art. Not only because it allowed me to neglect mathematics and science but also because it was a native talent. Something I could simply do.Today I am not a graphic designer.
I was declined a place in the only graphic design course available back in 1982. Everything I imagined would unfold for me unravelled in an instant.
Luckily I had a plan B.
Lesson 1: You will always need a plan B
In my case it was advertising and marketing. I don’t know why, but I figured there would be a call for graphic designers in advertising agencies.
I was right, but I was wrong about the course.
I spent the time studying social psychology, consumer behaviour, marketing, business management, advertising management, economics and accounting.
No design. Though I recall spending a half an hour or so on creative techniques (Osbourne’s assembly line, if my memory serves me).
Was I disappointed?
Not for a moment.
The wide ranging course opened my eyes (and mind) in ways that a specialised course in design would not have done.
Lesson 2: Start with a wide focus before narrowing down to a field.
When I emerged from ATI I was not entirely convinced that I would find a place in an ad agency. In the strange way that teenagers have of latching onto a tribe I found mine in the punk scene. I felt that people with Mohican haircuts wouldn’t be very welcome in the business world.
So I worked on a labour gang on building sites for a year.
Finally I sent out some CVs.
I had a job in a week.Lesson 3: Hard work never killed anyone, but don’t make things harder than they have to be.
My start in advertising was in the production department – production assistant. The work was menial but important to support other functions.
I showed up early, watched, listened, learned.
At night I would create ideas for ads and draw them up. I would pester art directors and copywriters to critique the work. I was unbelievably irritating.
After a year or so the owner of the company offered to allow me to become a conceptualiser. No one in the company had a similar job description. The reason for the title was that, back in the 80’s there were still clear delineations about job function. Had I been made an art director it would have offended experienced pro’s who had been trained at design school and served their apprenticeships…Lesson 4: The job might have to be created for you
Over the years I persevered in advertising, ultimately reaching my goal of being the youngest creative director for a multi-national advertising agency in the country. I won awards and had a high profile in the industry.
Over time I became dissatisfied with how the company who employed me to create innovative advertising didn’t support the process. I became a malcontent and was vocal in my criticism. It didn’t take long before we reached an agreement that I should leave. I was, effectively, fired. The company wasn’t ready for the changes I felt were essential.Lesson 5: To stand out you still have to fit in
Having worked in a string of agencies, some of them amongst the best in the country, at the grand old age of 28 it was time to set up my own company and put my money where my mouth was.
I gathered a small group of like minds around me. Won some client business and set about expressing my ideal of a creative company without boundaries. The answer to a client’s problems wouldn’t always be an ad. My company, Milk Moustache – (branded communications, since quarter past two), won awards, attracted attention and was bought by a larger company. Naturally, after a year or so I was unsettled and left to start another business, which went through the same cycle.
Lesson 6: You have to back yourself
In the last 10 years I have created businesses that have broken moulds. After a couple of years in Europe, where I had gone on a whim to get some international perspective, I returned to New Zealand and started a business called BrandWorld. My partners and I developed Family Health Diary, which is now the biggest single advertiser on New Zealand televison, then Eating Well. Both products, though quiet and conservative in execution, were disruptive business models that served consumer’s unmet needs for information, rather than hype.
I sold my stake in Brandworld, restless to learn about the Internet. I set up an internet division for an advertising agency and was recruited by Lion Nathan as creative director for their online marketing company, responsible for their portfolio of brands in New Zealand and Australia.
My career had evolved from developing one-off prize fighter executions to creating brands and campaigns in new media.Lesson 7: Make friends with change. You might as well.
In last couple of years I have become an evangelist for developing New Zealand’s creative economy. With some clever partners in publishing I launched Idealog
, a magazine on the topic. It is now the second biggest business magazine in the country and, as far as I can tell, the only one in the world entirely focused on the creative economy.
I have also begun teaching, graphic design students (as it happens) - marketing communications and research methods.
Lesson 8 : Making a difference makes a difference
I might have taken a circuitous path before coming to the topic of The Creative Economy but my own experience relates to the kinds of skills that I believe are crucial for kids to develop.
John Lennon said “life is what happens when your making other plans”.
I could have resigned myself to failure the day I received my notice from graphic design school that I had not been accepted into the programme.
Flexibility is essential - possibly more so in New Zealand than in other markets. Our small population means the call for specialisation is limited. I am not a big fan of the No8 wire mentality (it confuses improvisation, making do, with innovation), but our kiwi can-do attitude is invaluable.
With exception of emptying rubbish bins, none of the jobs I preformed as a production assistant exist any more. The arrival of the digital age saw to that.
I have always felt that been prepared to move to the next challenge. Not always meeting success. I started some web ventures as the 20th Century came to an end which, in hindsight were doomed from the start (I went to Hong Kong to promote a virtual grave/shrine where people could customise a place they could visit while at the office, light a virtual candle or some virtual incense, see pictures/movies of the departed – premised on the chinese cultural relationship with death and honouring ancestors…luckily the Dot.Com bubble burst during my visit and my investors suddenly lost their nerve).
The creative economy needs new ideas. We rely on agriculture and primary produce for the majority of our export receipts. But things are shifting. I believe we have to develop businesses that create income from ideas – that is the essence of innovation.
It is not simply about creativity, but applied creativity.
The film and video business in New Zealand is now as big as the lumber industry. But, unlike logging, film and video create the potential for royalties and ongoing income for their creators after the job is done.
Kids are quick to adapt to the new world, though they may not even understand the significance of what is happening. Most of you will be familiar with YouTube (Time magazine’s invention of the year for ’06) and MySpace.
They give us clues for the potential to reach massive audiences for our ideas.
In Australia the teenage band, the sick puppies, release a home made video on YouTube. It was viewed by 7 million people. Within two weeks they were in Los Angeles and had a recording deal.
There are two parts to the creative economy.
The first is the organization as an industry grouping: film and televison, advertising, design, cultural arts etc
The other is a more general approach to innovation and creativity that applies regardless of industry grouping. A soldier on patrol in Afghanistan may find that a creative solution is required in a situation – bringing to bear their training and expertise to overcome a new problem in a new way.
It’s not all tutus and paintbrushes.
Both require attitudes and approaches that would not have applied in to old world of work.
To wrap up let me suggest what some of the attitudes that will make a difference are:
1. Be distinctive and have a clear sense of purpose.
To find out what to do with your life you need to know what matters to you.
2. Don’t let short term thinking distract you from the big picture
Whether it is a taking a failure personally or the chance to earn good money now in a job you hate, short term thinking can divert you from the way forward. Neither will be the end of the world.
3. Be proactive and provocative (but watch out for the backlash)
Looking for 100% approval and acceptance is a mission that is doomed to fail. Helen Clark may not appeal to everybody, but her style is distinctive and she only needs 51% of the vote to win the big job.
4. If you weren’t here tomorrow would you be missed?
This has to be the ultimate measure of the contribution you make. When you are innovating, inventing new ideas, will they enrich people’s lives or simply be another choice in a world overpopulated with choice.
5. Believe in your ideas, stay focussed and get them done
If you have clarity of purpose you’re on the road. How you react to negativity and competition will be the critical success factors.
Even the most experienced people in the world might find it hard to understand your ideas, or be threatened by them. Stay on track, do the work. Get it done.
6. Develop networks of people to help you achieve your goals
None of us is as smart as all of us. The idea of the rugged individual, going it alone can work, but forging networks can help you solve problems faster. To compete in the 21st Century speed is the key.
The more you give the more you get.
8. Challenge yourself to be open to new ideas
Change is scary but inevitable. If you don’t like change you will like irrelevance even less.
9. Keep learning
We will never have all the answers. I teach design research methods at Massey University and the most important construct I hope I get across is that purpose of research is not to reach conclusions. Every question we ask should reveal two more worth pursuing. I thought, when I left school at 15 that I was done with it. Next year I plan to complete a masters degree. Our education never ends, either formally or informally. Enquiring minds are essential in every occupation.
10. Have fun
Whether you become a lawyer, a teacher, or a graphic designer there will always be an opportunity to make things work better. Never assume that how things are done today is how they will be done tomorrow. The magic words are….what if…..