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Archive for July, 2009

In this business there are certain signs that you’re doing things right. For me, one of the supreme indicators of this is when you’re able to recuit people who make you feel humble. And man, am I feeling humble.

The latest major talent coupe for us is Josh Berger. I’ve known Josh for probably 13 years. Josh was one of the founders of first Plazm magazine, and then Plazm Design Services. He is considered one of the significant designers in this country. And I’ve always known him to be one of the most principled humans out there.

Well, now we can announce that Josh has joined forces with ID Branding as a Creative Director here. No worries, he’ll continue to issue Plazm magazine. But he’ll be working with us to grow rich and enduring brand cultures on behalf of our clients.

As I said, we’ve had a string of humbling hires lately. More on that later. Suffice to say, we feel incredibly lucky.

– Doug

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Interesting article by D.K. Row in today’s Oregonian about the dilemma of artists in Portland. Seems they are having a hard time supporting themselves beyond a minimum wage subsistence level.

Once again, Mr. Row, you are diving into a juicy issue, and God bless you for it.

Linda K Johnson

Linda K Johnson

“There are plenty of hand-to-mouth jobs in Portland for 25-year-old creative types,” painter Linda K Johnson is quoted as saying. “But what if you want to have children and own a house?”

Yeah, no kidding. It’s why a lot of artists leave Portland for New York or LA. Want to be a full-time artist and eat? For many the answer is to get outa town.

In the article local economist Joe Cortright distinguishes between the creative class and arts professionals. The creative class, he points out, is a term coined by Richard Florida and Daniel Pink to describe “a highly-educated twenty and thirtysomething creative work force of right-brained analysts, not traditional, information-based white-collar attorneys and engineers.”

RichardFlorida

Richard Florida

And, goes the Florida theory, where the creative class flourishes so, too, does the city. Yet arts professionals (or artists) aren’t exactly part of the creative class, as Cortright points out. Mostly because they don’t tend to work at Allied Works Architecture, Ziba Design, Wieden + Kennedy, and the other well-known and successful creative businesses in town. They tend to work at galleries, arts organizations, colleges and universities, and the like. And those jobs are few and dwindling.

At the heart of all this we can hear artists like Johnson saying, how come I can’t get a job that pays me enough to buy a house?

To my mind, the fields I’ve worked in, namely graphic design, advertising, interactive and branding, have always held out a chance for artists to get money by serving commerce. Yet these fields frequently fail to realize this potential.

francis-ford-coppola1

Francis Ford Coppola

I remember a great interview a decade or more ago with Francis Ford Coppola. He said, in a nutshell, that you can always tell where the power lies by who’s employing the artists. In medieval days, for instance it was the church. “Today,” he said, “it’s advertising.”

And he was right. Although, with the recent upheavals in advertising, that might be revised to be more inclusive of the branding arts in general. I always imagined this was what Dan Wieden wanted intended when he and David founded Wieden & Kennedy.

After all, Dan was a poet who found himself working at Georgia Pacific, wearing

David Kennedy + Dan Wieden

David Kennedy + Dan Wieden

bell bottoms and burning incense. His Dad was an ad guy (back when Gerber Advertising was a name to be spoken with pride), and Dan didn’t want any of that career. At least this is how I’ve heard the story told most frequently by the people who were around back then. Dan was, well, a bit hippyish. A bohemian. A poet.

It just so happens he and his partner David formed one of the most important creative agencies in the history of advertising.

I always thought that, as a poet, Dan was looking to give artists like himself a job doing way cool stuff. And then, in my fantasy, Dan wanted them to have the time and energy to continue to create art.

Art work by Peter Wegman, former copywriter

Art work by Peter Wegner, former copywriter

After all, why would a culture want to lose the contributions of its artists? What kind of culture would that be? Instead of losing the artists, agencies could give jobs to artists, who would be serving commerce, and in return, commerce would allow the artist to make art.

StormTharp2

Painting by Storm Tharp, current (?) art director

Except it didn’t quite work out that way. Wieden + Kennedy evolved into a place where, if you weren’t working, you were sleeping and eating. Maybe. Sometimes both at your desk. Suddenly Wieden + Kennedy was borrowing artists on behalf of commerce without giving them either the time or energy to produce art.

It then became a choice. Either you worked at W+K or you were an artist. Peter Wegner, copywriter, left the business to go to New York. One of the few exceptions to that has been Storm Tharp, who somehow managed both. But my understanding is that he’s only partly at W+K, now that he’s reached a certain level of success as an artist. (This is just what I’ve heard.)

Sadly, this whole healthy and sustainable arrangement between art and commerce was completely in my head. No, Dan never implied such a promise. I was only being hopeful that this was his intention.

The beat poet Lew Welch worked at Leo Burnett and penned "Raid kills bugs dead"

The beat poet Lew Welch worked at Leo Burnett and penned "Raid kills bugs dead"

But the question remains: why do artists working on behalf of commerce, making significant salaries, have to be completely consumed by their job for the agency to be successful? Why is this the only model? Why can’t arts professionals train to be creative class careerists and take a reduced salary to only work a mere 30 or even 40 hour week, instead of the 60 to 80 typical at W+K?

The problem is by no means just a Wieden one. All the truly creative agencies, where an artist could hold on to some shred of dignity, tend to expect a Bataan Death March from their employees each week. Long ago Chiat\Day invented the saying, “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.” At Crispin, Porter, and Bogusky, the standard work day for creatives is 10 am to 5am, Saturday and Sunday included. They point with pride to the futons rolled up in their offices. No exaggeration.

Why? I think it has something to do creating the best work possible, which is certainly noble and right. I’m sure someone will point to the short lead times imposed by clients. (But aren’t we training them to expect that?) There’s some major self-aggrandizing going on. I also think there’s a healthy chunk of machismo in all this. And maybe, just maybe, a bit of avoidance. Or a lot of it.

After all, if you’re an artist working on behalf of commerce and winning accolades left and right and making buckets of ducats, yet your muse is sitting at home feeling pissed off and neglected, it’s sometimes easier to just work harder than to face such a deep-seated conflict. It’s easier to forget yourself in work than to think about how maybe you won’t accomplish what you were put on this earth to do.

I believe there’s an alternative. There has to be.

We need the creative brains of artists as the demands of branding become more multi-faceted and complicated. Much of the communication between a brand and its audience these days resembles installation art more than a print ad or TV spot. Yet our culture also needs art.

I figure that if a branding agency can find a way to make it work so that artists could serve commerce and still serve their muse, there would be a whole lot more highly creative people available to us, and over a much longer career timeline.

Conversely, if artists knew they could both make a living and practice their art, a whole lot more of them would probably be willing to train at VCU Brand Center, Miami Ad School, Creative Circus and other portfolio centers to learn the skills that make them employable.

Just a thought. Personally, I hope ID Branding can be a place for such artists. We’ll see if we can sustain this idealism as we grow. Maybe I’m crazy, but you know what, maybe I’m not.

– Doug

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It appears that our distant cousin, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, is a subject of great interest at the moment. Yesterday we had 112 people reach our blog by searching for the term Neanderthal.

Curious.

Last month it was Isaac Newton.

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Painting by W+K employee Storm Tharp

Painting by W+K employee Storm Tharp

I find myself returning to a comment made by the Portland art critic, D.K. Row, in his review of an art exhibition at Wieden + Kennedy quite a while back. The show features work done by W+K employees, including the very fine painter Storm Tharp.

Row asks, in his review, why Wieden + Kennedy doesn’t get the local respect it deserves as an important cultural force. One of the reasons, he says, is:

“…that in iconoclast-loving Portland, the convention-breaking agency is still, well, an advertising agency.

Call it an existential dilemma. But no matter our culture’s captivation with fame, appearance, the Internet and its transient, twittering pleasures, we have always valued — and will continue to — the notion of authenticity. Wieden+Kennedy, however, practices a form of marketing judo; it makes money on the savvy, insincere business of manipulation and

Manipulated by the evil Dr. Caligari

Manipulated by the evil Dr. Caligari

seduction.”

I am haunted by the phrase “the savvy, insincere business of manipulation and seduction.”

My pondering of Row’s comment dovetails with an internal conversation we had a while ago at an agency brown bag. Someone essentially asked if, in our theory of Brand Culture, we weren’t elevating brands to the level of religion, art, morality, and all the other things that make most human lives meaningful. In other words, were we ridiculously exaggerating the importance of brands?

This is a terribly important question to ask. Because, as a branding agency, we cannot believe anything naively. Every belief we hold must be questioned and challenged in the light of the the average consumer’s doubtfulness and suspicion.

Are we puppets?

Are we puppets?

Not that people want to be doubtful and suspicious, but they’ve leaned to be – taught by decades of advertising. Too many agencies and clients have believed, either naively or cynically, that they could manipulate people into patronizing their brands. So, Row’s accusation of the category is well-founded. I’m just not sure you can accuse all agencies of manipulation.

At the same time, consumption, fueled in part by brands and advertising, has been blamed for replacing spirituality with a false, materialistic idol.

As far as I’m concerned, this last issue has more to do with a form of capitalism that demands, through the stock market and shareholders, continued growth, which leads to continued growth in consumption. But that, as a topic, is too big to tackle in this blog entry. I do, however, want to tackle the words of Row’s phrase.

First, the word “insincere.” Now, in my past I’ve actually worked with one or two clients who were entirely insincere in what they were selling and how they talked to their audiences. But I considered them the evil spawn of Satan and have never worked with such people again.

So, my clients, for the most part, over 20 years in this business, have been deeply

The cheese made me eat cheese.

Did my advertising make you eat cheese?

sincere, whether it’s Sisters of Mercy Health Systems, Tillamook Dairy, Waldenbooks, TriMet, Entertainment Weekly, M3 Snowboards, Allied Works Architecture, Kodak Dental, Integrity Spirits, or so many others.

In all these cases, I believe we helped them communicate their passion for what they do and helped them build stronger relationships with their audiences. Maybe I’ve just taken jobs at agencies which carefully choose their clients, but I have faced only a few cases of insincerity on either the clients’ or the agency’s part in my entire career.

Pollack's No. 5 sold for $140 million.

Pollack's No. 5 sold for $140 million.

Now for the word “business.” Yes, unlike art, we operate a business. On the other hand, in what way is art not connected to and dependent upon commerce – specifically the buying and selling of art? I’m not so sure that art can claim to be separate from business. As to whether art IS a business, well, that’s a question for others to answer. But art certainly conducts business. My business is in helping other businesses build relationships with customers.

Peter Moore, the brilliant past creative director at Nike and then adidas, once told me that the difference between art and what we do is that art is about solving your own problems, while design and advertising are about solving your client’s problems.

The word “manipulation” is one which, as an industry, we need to recognize and own the way Germans must own the word holocaust. It has, indeed, been a part of advertising and branding, and still is in some places. I consider it a question of intention. And integrity.

We, as a branding firm, are tasked with deepening the relationship between a brand and its customers. Like any relationship, that can either be manipulative or not, depending upon the people in the relationship. But a relationship, per say, does not require manipulation, except in the most cynical and paranoid

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner

worldviews.

I remember getting into an argument with a post-grad at the Skinner lab when I was visiting my stepbrother at Harvard. This guy was absolutely certain people’s behavior can all be predicted. I stubbornly believed humans were capable of being unpredictable. He countered that our unpredictability could be predicted. So I smacked him. (Not really.)

I guess I’ve never believed that is was that easy to manipulate people. I associate this view of branding with the Hidden Persuaders hoax where the author tried to get people to believe there were naked ladies in the ice of the Scotch ads – intentionally put there to titillate audiences. Talk about paranoid. The book was a bestseller and many VPackardpeople still believe this is what happens in advertising.

It’s kind of an anti-business anti-Big Brother romanticism. Yes, there are people who want to manipulate the masses. But the masses are not that easy to manipulate. And those who say otherwise always seem to exclude themselves, if you’ve noticed. It’s all those other people who are being manipulated.

The goal of manipulation is the lowest aspiration of our field, which, at least from our perspective, is a field that can, at its best, help people find brands which share their value systems. That’s the whole premise behind our theory of Brand Culture.

That said, we just recently hired someone who worked on a multi-national account at a very creative agency where the client didn’t really care about values or relationships, they just wanted his agency to make people buy more of their product. This new employee is excited that our clients are interested in developing a deeper relationship with their customers.

So Row’s accusation, which bugged me so much, is something which still haunts this industry. And, despite our own attempts at ID Branding to do things differently, some people in this industry still dream of manipulation. I don’t think they’ll be effective, but that won’t stop them from trying.

Sad. Somehow I thought we were way beyond this.

But, as with our client, the Sisters of Mercy Health Systems, who are out to change the way people experience healthcare, we can’t change the whole field, we can only change how we operate within it.

Onward, Sisters.

– Doug

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AmazonZappos

The recent announcement of Amazon acquiring Zappos certainly caught my eye as I have been following Zappos closely over the past year to further my understanding of what it takes to create enduring brand cultures. I have to admit the first thing that came to mind was that this acquisition was the beginning of the end for Zappos’ culture as we know it.

And for good reason: it is typical for acquired organizations to be assimilated into the acquiring entity without much care or attention to the values and culture of the acquired organization. I’ve certainly witnessed this first hand many times over with clients I have worked with over the years. Look what happened to Saturn when it was brought back into the GM fold. Sure, GM adopted Saturn’s core values as their own, but their culture broke poor Saturn’s spirit until they became… GM.

As I read the letter from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to all of their employees, I began to recognize all of the typical corporate speak about this union: “…accelerate the growth of our brand, …we plan to continue to run Zappos as an independent entity, …opportunities to tap into their knowledge, expertise, and resources.”

I have to say I felt a little skeptical. Until that is I came across this statement in the Q+A portion:

Q: Do we keep our core values? Yes, we will keep our core values, and Amazon will keep their core values.

This statement, while on the surface seems very unassuming, gives me hope that they might actually pull it off. It’s because they recognize that for each brand to thrive under common ownership, each must operate from its own distinct set of core values. From these values, each organization can attract both employees and consumers that choose to join its unique brand culture.

Well, I’m rooting for you Zappos. And you too Amazon. You have each created something special for your respective brands, and I’d hate to see you lose what makes you… you. Best of luck.

–Dennis

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trillium_frontThanks to my old pal Marc Sobier, I found out that we made the shortlist in the Cannes Design Lions award show recently. Marc himself got a Gold Cyber Lion for his work at Goodby on the Doritos Hotel 626 web site. Thanks for the heads up, Marc.

It was our package design for Trillium Absinthe Superieure which made the shortlist in the Alcoholic Drinks category (apparently we were the only US entry to get into the category). Thank you, Cannes. Obviously we would have preferred to have won, but we appreciate your appreciation.

Most importantly, thank you, Rich and everyone at Integrity Spirits for the great work we were able to do together.

– Doug

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