Committees Are The Cancer Of Creativity


(I believe in lunatics)

“It’s about the struggle between individuals with jagged passion in their work and today’s faceless corporate committees, which claim to understand the needs of the mass audience, and are removing the idiosyncrasies, polishing the jags, creating a thought-free, passion-free, cultural mush that will not be hated nor loved by anyone. By now, virtually all media, architecture, product and graphic design have been freed from ideas, individual passion, and have been relegated to a role of corporate servitude, carrying out corporate strategies and increasing stock prices. Creative people are now working for the bottom line.

Magazine editors have lost their editorial independence, and work for committees of publishers (who work for committees of advertisers). TV scripts are vetted by producers, advertisers, lawyers, research specialists, layers and layers of paid executives who determine whether the scripts are dumb enough to amuse what they call the ‘lowest common denominator’. Film studios out films in front of focus groups to determine whether an ending will please target audiences. All cars look the same. Architectural decisions are made by accountants. Ads are stupid. Theater is dead.

Corporations have become the sole arbiters of cultural ideas and taste in America. Our culture is corporate culture.

Culture used to be the opposite of commerce, not a fast track to ‘content’- derived riches. Not so long ago captains of industry (no angels in the way they acquired wealth) thought that part of their responsibility was to use their millions to support culture. Carnegie built libraries, Rockefeller built art museums, Ford created his global foundation. What do we now get from our billionaires? Gates? Or Eisner? Or Redstone? Sales pitches. Junk mail. Meanwhile, creative people have their work reduced to ‘content’ or ‘intellectual property’. Magazines and films become ‘delivery systems’ for product messages.

But to be fair, the above is only 99 percent true.

I offer a modest solution: Find the cracks in the wall. There are a very few lunatic entrepreneurs who will understand that culture and design are not about fatter wallets, but about creating a future. They will understand that wealth is means, not an end. Under other circumstances they may have turned out to be like you, creative lunatics. Believe me, they’re there and when you find them, treat them well and use their money to change the world.”

Tibor Kalman
New York
June 1998

Adland Seriously Needs To Take Itself A Little Less Seriously

When Jerry Seinfeld accepted an award at the Clio Awards show earlier this month, he delivered a pretty scathing indictment of advertising today.

At one point, Seinfeld professed, “I think spending your lives trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.

The audience, assumedly comprised largely of advertising industry professionals, roared with laugher throughout the 4-minute speech. Which was a strange response. Because the joke was mostly on them.

Stand up comedians have a history of undercutting the ad industry. The late George Carlin once said, “America’s leading industry is still the manufacturing, distribution, packaging and marketing of bullshit.” And perhaps most notably, Bill Hicks now famous rant back in 1992:

You do a commercial – you’re off the artistic roll call. You’re another whore at the capitalist gang bang and if you do a commercial, there’s a price on your head. Everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.

It might be a bit unfair to equate these incriminating comedic bits with the broader public perception around marketing and advertising. But it’s probably not too far off, either:

  • A global consumer survey from Havas Media Lab found that only 1 in 5 brands are seen as capable of making a positive and noticeable contribution to people’s lives [1].
  • 76% of consumers said that ads in general were either “very exaggerated” or “somewhat” exaggerated.” [2]
  • Only 17% of consumers believe that brands today are delivering meaningful interactions [3].
  • And a recent poll on online behaviors found that 28% of people actively try to avoid advertisers online, the second-highest selection only to, get this, hackers or criminals [4].

If data isn’t your thing, take a look at blogs such Things Real People Don’t Say About Advertising or popular online videos like This Is A Generic Brand Video.

Why must I make mention of this?

I don’t mean to summon the cynicism. After all, I work in this industry. But because I work in this industry, I can’t help but notice how this industry tends to be much too self-congratulatory. We dub creative leaders as “rock stars.” We anoint agencies as “gods of Madison Avenue”. We have this ongoing, insidious impulse to overestimate the role we play in people’s lives. Our ambition to create impact is honorable, but our assessment of that impact is, more times than not, a standing ovation inside an echo chamber.

It’s an important thing to remember next time we set out to “create deep social engagement with consumers” or to “inspire advocacy among superfans” or as we fill our creative briefs and case studies and award shows with words like “beloved” and “passion” and “lovemarks” and “pride.”

Jerry Seinfeld started his Clio speech by saying, “I love advertising because I love lying.” And the crowd erupted with laughter. And while it’s most likely that Seinfeld was referring to the time-tested, audience-approved comedic lambaste of how the ad industry perpetuates lies to consumers, it might be just as useful to assume that maybe he was referring to the way in which the ad industry lies to itself.


[1] Meaningful Brands For A Sustainable Future, Havas Media Labs, 2011

[2] “Does it really ad up?”,  Lab42 Market Research, 2013

[3] Brandshare: The Unrealized Relationship, Edelman, 2014

[4] Internet Project, Pew Research Center, 2013

Buzzfeed’s Ze Frank on Structuralist vs. Post-Structuralist Media (And How Content Spreads)

Anytime a new article or video or presentation pops up claiming to systematize how or why content goes viral, I tend to tune out. Immediately. It’s too repetitive, too assumptive, excruciatingly vague. But Ze Frank’s recent interview at the Paley Center for Media was refreshing, particularly the way he dissected the differences between structuralist and post-structuralist media. Which is, I assure you, a hell of a lot less academic and incredibly more useful as a construct than it sounds.


This tends to be the traditional view or approach to media, where a sole creator makes media to share with an entire audience. As Frank says, “media as this perfect encapsulation that you can hand to other people and you want them to experience it like you intended it to be experienced.” Media to be consumed. Music, film, print journalism, etc.

Think about going into a movie theater. And the amazing experience you can have, really transformative, to the point where you’re crying and you are in the process of actually saying ‘maybe I should ride a motorcycle through the Andes by myself.’ There’s this moment where you’ve so given yourself over. And then the movie ends. You and the person that you came with shuffle out and you hit that broad daylight and you’re like ‘where the fuck am I?’ — it’s like life hits you and it’s not so beautifully orchestrated. There’s this big disassociation. And you shuffle in silence with this person and then they turn to you and they say ‘did you like it?’ And you say, ‘yeah’. And that’s it. Right?

Structuralist, traditional, consumptive media. It has the power to impart deeply personal or emotional experiences for people. But it can also be tenuous. As Frank explained, “if you think about the mismatch between the experiential component and the way one talks about that experiential component, it’s very much a personal experience… the depth of the experience is very hard and very vulnerable to communicate with other people.”


The post-structuralist view explains how media can be used as a proxy for conversation among people. Think about it this way: a piece of post-structuralist media becomes powerful or gains meaning based on the social dynamics of the people that consume it.

A great example is the popular “All Things Couples Fight About” video on Buzzfeed. As a standalone piece of media, it’s something people can consume and enjoy. But once this video is shared between significant others, it takes on new meaning based on their unique social dynamic. As Frank explained:

Think about how [the couples] provide the complexity and depth. In the exchange, that’s where the complexity and depth actually gets put around the piece. [Content creators] don’t have to put it inside. And each couple, as they share it with each other, the meaning grows around it.

That’s an important distinction of the post-structuralist creative approach. It fundamentally changes the role of storytelling, the role of the audience and the impetuses for sharing (case in point, Spotify’s new “Music Takes You Back” work).

Traditional creatives think that they’re leaning in by saying ‘oh, I can have a conversation with the audience now. There’s a chance now for the audience to speak to me.’ That’s still a very traditional model of one content creator and then there’s an audience. The reality of it is that the content itself takes on life and moves without you and it doesn’t care about you anymore.

So it’s important to note that there is no inherent advantage or disadvantage between structuralist and post-structuralist media. Both can be beloved by audiences. But these two fundamentally different approaches to media have very different ways of impacting people. And two very different ways that content creators can set out to do just that.

The Cautionary Side of “Cool”

It’s pretty simple, really. Nothing makes you seem less cool than trying to make yourself seem cool.

We understand this, intuitively. Yet we keep stepping inside the bear trap. We try hard to be hip (even when we don’t realize it) instead of just trying to be ourselves (because we rarely appreciate it). It’s buffoonery. Boring, too.

It’s time to recalibrate the bullshit barometer. Brands don’t always need to be cool. They just need to be useful and simple and committed to making things that people actually want or need. Anything else, is icing.

 The best way to get approval is not to need it. This is equally true in art and business. And love. And sex. And just about everything else worth having.” – Hugh McLeod

Reflections from Planningness 2014

I recently returned from this year’s Planningness event in Portland, Oregon. It was a great event full of great speakers. And I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to Baldwin& for sending me (by the way, my views shared here are not necessarily endorsed by them, it’s just the byproduct of my own senseless ramblings).

I’m sure there will be no shortage of Planningness recaps making their way around the inter webs in the coming days but I felt as though I had a responsibility to at least share some of my initial thoughts. Although, instead of just recapping all of the sessions I had attended, I decided to outline a few ways that this year’s event will impact my work moving forward. Because I’m selfish. And this is all about me.

Some of this may be blindingly obvious. Maybe not. However, I do think there are some helpful distinctions in here to help improve our discipline of planning moving forward. Feel free to share your feedback or poke around some of the links that I provided below for more context and details.




[I will continue to post here as they become available]

Ian Fitzpatrick, “Low Fidelity Data Mining”

Jess Seilheimer, “How To Launch a Crowdfunded Product”

Jamie Davidson, “How To Raise Venture Capital”

James Brown, “How To Maximize Flow”

Nitin Khana, “How To Grow Your Startup”

Robert Gallup, “How To Hack Electronics”

JWT’s “Cultural Muscle Index” (Planningness Grant)


[not all of these are verbatim but as well as memory serves]

“We forget that you can capture someone’s attention for half a second without actually impacting them.” – Megan Averell

“When the consumer is diminished, so too are planners and our role.” – Megan Averell

“You have the ability to choose your response.” – Jeff George

“You are not a human doing. You are a human being.” – James Brown

“The saddest life is an irrelevant one.” – James Brown

“To be creative, one must be comfortable with their areas of ignorance or completely changing their opinions and perspectives.” – Lisa Azziz-Zadeh

“Derivation is an art.” – Ian Fitzpatrick

“Don’t fall in love with the numbers. Fall in love with the people that those numbers point you toward.” – Ian Fitzpatrick

“Whenever you use a tool in order to examine something, you are limited in what you see based on the capabilities of that tool.” – Alexandra Horowitz


Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Howard Gossage, The Book of Gossage

Stanley Pollitt, Stanley Pollit on Planning

David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish

The Brutalization Will Be Televised

There’s been a very disturbing thing happening with very disturbing frequency lately. Take a look at just a few of the popular headlines from last month:

NASCAR driver Tony Stewart’s car struck and killed a foot-bound Kevin Ward Jr. during a Sprint Cup race in upstate New York.

A nine-year-old girl accidentally killed an instructor after losing control of an Uzzi at a gun range.

The St. Louis Police Department shot and killed 25-year-old Kajieme Powell for stealing a few drinks and powdered donuts from a nearby store.

Terrorist organization and international alliance of assholes, ISIS, savagely beheaded American journalist James Foley in Iraq.

Of course, the tragedy of human death is not new news. Sadly. But what is a bit different today is the degree to which the deaths of others have become increasingly experiential. All of the headlines above were not just news stories — they were videos. Recorded, posted online, ready for viewing and shared. News networks linked to it. Social media networks spread it.

In a way, this demonstrates the duality of media and technology in modern culture today. It can provide people with unprecedented access to new information, but it can also initiate people to new experiences. Turns out, coming face-to-face with real-world death is one of them. What used to be an experience limited to just a few physically-present bystanders is now available to anyone with an internet connection. Death has gone mainstream.

That’s an important distinction for the sake of historical context. After all, the idea of humans dying is as old as humans are. And death has long been a central storytelling element throughout media for millennia (oral tradition, written text, sculpture, painting, etc.). But today, it’s more than just confronting the brutal realities of death — it’s the fact that we now have the capability to witness the moment of death itself. It’s a monstrous shift, in every sense of the word.

In 1969 Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer Prize award for a photograph taken only seconds before the execution of a Viet Cong [1]. Drew Richard’s The Falling Man captured the horrific moments of September 11th. These photographs (and many others like them) have become some of the most enduring images of the past century. But there’s something even more grotesque about the filming of death on video. It’s more immediate, more undeniable. It transforms passive audiences into afflicted eyewitnesses.

There’s probably a great opportunity here to reassess the role of ethics in media today. Or we could underline the explosive popularity of video in regards to web traffic, media monetization and advertising initiatives. But it seems as though the most important piece of this present day phenomenon is the realization that, plain and simple, our technological capabilities have eclipsed our emotional capabilities to cope with them.

In the mid-1960s, Marshall McLuhan prophetically described technology as a “global village” where “electronics and automation make mandatory that everybody adjust to the vast global environment as if it were his little home town [2]“. It’s a poignant metaphor for the present day. And it’s probably pretty accurate, too. It’s just that, now, it’s all starting to hit a little too close to home.


[1] The New York Times, 2011

[2] War and Peace In the Global Village, Marshall McLuhan, 2001

The Triumph of Soul

It’s always a peculiar thing when a beloved comedian dies too soon. To know that someone capable of making us feel so carefree, so joyful had been living a life such the opposite. 

This scene from The Dead Poets Society is one of my all-time favorites from Robin William’s illustrious career. It’s not a riotously funny scene, a la The Birdcage or Mrs. Doubtfire. But it’s an important one.

It teaches us that soul counts for something.

And it teaches us that despite our incessant human need to always understand the world, to prove, to substantiate, to reason, to quantify, to uncover incontrovertible empirical truths, to theorize, to validate, to justify, to know — sometimes it’s just as good to stop thinking, and to feel. Rather than always needing to explain things, can’t we just appreciate them sometimes, instead?

Soul. It’s hard to describe. It defies logic. It never needs a footnote. Yet it does something to us. It moves us. It changes us. And the world feels a little emptier without it.

Surely, this is no more obvious, than now.

creds: Peggy Sirota