Monthly Archives: March 2009

Creativity, domain specificity, and sandpaper

Some time ago, I bought a copy of Hoopla, a wonderful book produced by Crispin, Porter + Bogutsky – arguably one of the most creative agencies on the planet. When it arrived I was delighted and disgusted to find it sleeved in fine grained sand paper. This made handling the book an unsettling experience, and resulted in an awareness and engagement I have seen with few books before or since. I think that most people whohave encountered the book will probably have enjoyed similarly strong reactions, and probably discussed it with others. Consensus is that it is another creative idea from CP+B.

I was then, a little surprised to read in Kale Lasn's equally stunning tome Design Anarchy, that "[Guy] Debord had his book Memoires bound in heavy sandpaper so that when it was placed on the shelves of libraries, it woudl destroy other books." My initial reaction was a mixture of delight in Debord's somewhat twisted plan, and disappointment that perhaps CP+B had not been as creative as I thought. Which got me to thinking…

We value originality as a key part of creativity, but is 'domain originality' sufficient for creativity? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that creativity is "any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain". Based on this, as long as we believe that Debord's work (a critical theory tract) and CP+B (an ad industry coffee table book) reside in different domains, then CP+B are 'being creative', even if they do so by transplanting an idea from another domain. in truth, it is through this cross-pollination of ideas across domain boundaries that much interesting creative work is done – but always with the question of 'real originality' hanging over it.

What makes creativity and originality in the end, and are the two the same? Is creativity an observed consequence, in the eye of the beholder, or is it an absolute on which creatives can be judged?

PS. It should be pointed out that since Hoopla is effectively a 'memoir' of the first few years of CP+B's work (which has been a collection of what can only be described as 'spectacle'), and as such borrowing a technique from a work by the author of 'Society of the Spectacle' constitutes a very obscure form of inter-textual reference. Does this make CP+B less guilty of 'idea theft', if such a concept is even relevant? Can they have their high-brow cake and eat it too? Yet again, the bastards demonstrate truly deviously creative depth, damn them!

Harnessing social media flash-fads

Kate @ Stickywood recently invited me to write a guest post for her blog, talking about branded content. Unable to resist any soapbox opportunity (thanks Kate ;), I thought it might be fun to think about the opportunity that transitory digital 'micro-fads' present to brands…

Alright, who's old enough to remember 'All Your Base Are Belong to Us'? Back in 2001, AYBABTU was one of the first 'internet memes', fads based on creating, sharing and remixing content around a specific idea or theme. Since then we've seen everything from dancing hamsters and leet-speaking cats to Diet Coke+Mentos cocktails and the comeback of the most exciting and dynamic musical genius of recent times.
Digital media and the internet have provided us with easy means to make our own digital content and remix content from other sources. The advent of online communities and social networks has dramatically increased the ease with which we can share this material.

These technological facilities have fuelled our passion for participative fads. Driven by the desire to share rituals, to have a sense of belonging and purpose (however transitory and apparently superficial), we seek out new social content and forms of social play. The speed with which we can discover and exploit novelty has increased with each new form of social technology, compressing the adoption curve until we now move from inception through cool to lame in a matter of weeks if not days.

The integration of creative facility with social connection in digital platforms like facebook, MySpace and flickr allows anyone to spark a social fad that might be picked up and spread to social circles far beyond their own. Some time back it became all the rage to tag inanimate objects as your friends in facebook. More recently flickr and facebook have become home to a plethora of fake album covers created based on a simple random process. If you feel the urge to share a little something of yourself, you might alternately like to upload a photo of the books you keep beside the bed.

The important thing about each of these flash-fads is that not only are they interesting to participate in passively (are people actually still reading Nicholas Negroponte, at bedtime no less?), they are almost as easy to participate in actively. Perhaps the most challenging thing is to identify those things that have not yet climbed to the dizzying heights of fad-dom, and predict which have the qualities that will capture the imaginations of thousands of followers. In a recent glimpse into a facebook profile (hi Greer!), I stumbled across a remixed Mr Men graphic where you can tag each character as one of your friends… I'd never seen it before, but watch this space.

These faddish spaces provide a rich, fertile territory that is reminiscent of Barthes' notion of a ‘writerly text’, constantly open to interpretation and engagement. It is little wonder, then, that they are so appealing to communications professionals looking for vectors through which to deliver brand meaning. Those who remember cherishing their Coke yoyo will appreciate how powerful a tool these trend-based vectors can be. But what role can (and should) a brand play, in this environment? Where are brands welcome (and even invited), and where will their involvement be perceived as intrusive and unwanted?

There are perhaps three different points that a brand can become involved in a flash-fad, determined by what point the fad is at when the brand engages. Asking which point a brand should become involved is an important question, as different brands have different appetites for innovation. As Grant McCracken discusses in ’Flock and Flow’, some brands thrive on the cutting edge of trends, others are more at home with the mass consumption of the late majority. Misunderstanding the nature of a brand, or leaping onto a flash-fad at the wrong point can be detrimental to the image of the brand and its relationship with consumers.

For most brands, the most obvious approach with flash-fads is 'jumping on the bandwagon', getting aboard a fad-in-progress, and riding the wave to mass popularity. The challenge here is timing and brand fit – if you can locate a suitable trend, the window of opportunity is often narrower than marketing departments need to deploy a campaign. More ambitious is creating your own fad, wading into the murky social waters and sparking your own outrageously successful participative trend. History does not record the many (many) failures, but examples like Burger King's Simpsonize Me show that it can be done.

An interestingly post-modern twist is the option of critically re-interpreting (or remixing) a trend that has already moved through the innovation cycle. Public imagination was captured by Improv Everywhere's mass performance happening Frozen Grand Central. The act was clearly the inspiration for the less-than-inspiring promotional stunt for the launch of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening in Australia. That effort felt derivative, and in every way 'less' than the original. A much more engaging spin was T-Mobile's tongue-in-cheek dance commercial which remixed and responded to the original in an innovative and imaginative way.

With the creative and connective power of digital technology only likely to increase, it seems inevitable that flash-fads will become more common, faster, and more highly refined. The rewards for brand successfully engaging with these trends are real, but they are limited by the difficulty of meshing with unpredictable social mass behaviour, and ultimately by the speed with which such fads will fade from social consciousness.

How Much to Pay for Digital, Where to Spend it and Who to Get for the Job

I can'te believe it – I was in Marketing magazine last month and I didn't pick up a copy. My mother is going to be mortified! Interesting article with some interesting opinions – very broad overview of the digital agency space.

Here's an excerpt from the article, by Kylie Flavell (Marketing, March 2009, p.26)

Kylie Flavell: What types of things should a marketer be wary about and question from a digital agency?

Brett Rolfe: Everything. It’s sad, but the complex nature of the technology combined with the occasionally cowboy nature of the industry has meant that many clients feel they can’t be expected to understand what the agency is doing, and fear they will look foolish for asking and challenging. If that is the atmosphere an agency has created, you are working with the wrong agency. If you are struggling with an agency, bring in someone you trust – internal or external – to sense check what the agency is saying, to act as a digital translator. Sometimes the problem will simply be that many smaller digital agencies may not have the skills to explain things in marketing-centric language. Other times, the lack of communication may be more malicious.

KF: Marketers are faced with the option of going in-house, using boutique agencies, larger creative agencies, or even some 17-year-old freelancer who works from their bedroom. Are any of these options better or riskier than others?

BR: The difficulty is that it is often the niche agencies and 17-year-olds who can deliver the most innovative and surprising work. For that reason, many clients are exploring the idea of using agencies that can own the strategy and the big idea, but then bring in the best skills to fit any particular problem.

KF: In 2008 Online spend did not match eyeballs in the space – where do you see things heading in 2009?

BR: Eyeballs is a misleading term – it suggests that digital is a big broadcast channel just waiting for us to shove advertising into it. Eyeballs reading their emails, eyeballs playing video games, eyeballs reading their friends’ Facebook status – these aren’t the same as eyeballs sitting in front of primetime TV. One of the things holding back digital marketing is our insistence on viewing it through the lens of media that has gone before it, as Marshall McLuhan warned. Things are heading into ever-stranger territory – from social media and collaborative creativity to augmented reality and mobile gaming. Understanding how these technologies can be harnessed will require marketers and agencies to bring together diverse technical and cultural insight with sound communication strategy – but then, that’s the way it’s always been, really. 

Fight the Power! A Letter to Sydney City Councilors

It's been an awfully long time since I have actually bothered to write to any form of governing body (must be the cynic in me. But thought I'd better pull my finger out when we found out about some unfortunate changes to plans to reforest the Orphan School Creek woodland behind our house. Such a pity to see such progressive environmental approaches to urban planning being derailed.

So it went something like this…

Dear (Councilors),

I am writing regarding current discussion of THE REDEVELOPMENT OF THE ORPHAN SCHOOL CREEK PUBLIC SPACE.

My wife and I are relatively new residents, having moved to Annandale last year. WE LIVE IN ONE OF THE HOUSES THAT BACKS DIRECTLY ONTO WHAT WAS THE DENSELY WOODED AREA OF THAT SPACE. Once of the biggest things that attracted us to the property was the way that the house had been architected to make use of the location through an extensive glass face onto the park. It provided both a sense of living within a natural habitat and a degree of privacy that made it a rare find in the inner city.

We were understandably disappointed when work began, and the forest behind our property was cut down. We did, however, console ourselves that with patience our wonderful natural vista would be returned – the superb native reforestation of the earlier stages of the Orphan School Creek project left us optimistic as to the result on our side of the creekbed.

You can imagine our concern, then, when we learned that changes to the plan were to result in dramatically choices to reforest the area. RATHER THAN AN OUTLOOK OF RARE NATURAL BEAUTY, WE WILL HAVE LOW-GROWTH SPECIES THAT LEAVE US COMPLETELY EXPOSED TO A CHILDREN'S PLAYGROUND, AN AD HOC SWITCH-BACK SKATE RAMP, AND THE MANY HUNDREDS OF BALCONIES THAT MAKE UP THE CITY QUARTER, directly across the park from us.

In short, the proposed changes to the reforestation will completely invalidate the innovative design of our wonderful new home within its intended natural habitat, and we believe WILL MOST LIKELY RESULT IN US MOVING AGAIN, LEAVING A PROPERTY SIGNIFICANTLY REDUCED IN AESTHETIC AND FINANCIAL VALUE.

Brett Rolfe – 230 Hereford Street