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Nothing is the New Anything

Posted on January 23, 2012 and read 3,268 times

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jordanatlas Nothing is the New AnythingJordan Atlas
SVP/Group Creative Director
Ignited

I recently read a compelling New York Times Op-Ed piece by Susan Cain entitled, “The Rise of the New Groupthink”. In it, she highlights a dramatic trend in business, education and religion that moves us away from individual thinking to an almost forced collaboration, something she calls “The New Groupthink.” It’s an intriguing comparison between the solitary efforts of “lone geniuses” and the seemingly homogenization of the work that occurs with endless meetings and brainstorms.

The fascinating content of the article led me to apply Ms. Cain’s ideas to the advertising industry. I was surprised and intrigued by how my opinion fluctuated back and forth with each passing paragraph. I was desperately trying to pick a side with which to align my own personal beliefs and behavior within these two extremes. Should we spend more time ideating in solitude? Does true innovation only come from individuals working alone? On the flipside, how can we deny the power of what happens when the right people connect, collaborate and selflessly serve the greater good of the group?

During this process of going back and forth, thinking about the merits of these conflicting ideals, something occurred to me. The question isn’t whether one of these is better than the other. The question is why does one have to be better, and ultimately replace the other? Or, put another way, why can’t we leverage the power of both so they can exist equally and in harmony?

This got me thinking about the bigger phenomenon that we’ve seen time and time again. In the face of the newest and latest trend, we have a tendency to replace rather than repurpose the knowledge that we’ve spent so long accruing. We make grand statements proclaiming the end of this and death of that only to realize that in this day and age the only true certainty is that there are no absolutes. With the rapid speed at which our industry is evolving, it’s counterproductive, if not irresponsible, to categorically abandon elements of what works today with the allure and promise of what tomorrow will bring.

Take digital for example. When our industry first began to shift from traditional to digital, in order to take advantage of (or moderately experiment with) this highly-targeted, easily optimized new frontier, daily eulogies were written for the :30 television spot. While people were definitely consuming media in a radical new way (skipping and/or ignoring commercials), moving entirely from traditional to digital wasn’t the answer. We swung the pendulum too far back to the other side of the spectrum only to find ourselves, as marketers, being ignored in a whole new way. It’s only when digital was able to leverage the power of storytelling and elevate itself above the tactical that we were able to fully realize its extraordinary potential. Replacing traditional with digital risks doing so at the expense of the story and ultimately an emotional connection with consumers. Replacing digital with traditional fails to take advantage of unprecedented access to data which, when used correctly, provides a utility and value rarely seen in traditional advertising.

I believe when moving forward, our success will lie in our ability to shift from a mindset of “this or that” to a behavior of “this and that”. If we can learn to repurpose the suite of tools that have worked in the past and marry them to the emerging platforms of today and tomorrow, we have the best chance of doing the kind of work that we all aspire to do.

Repurposing rather than replacing applies to the teams we assemble as well. Instead of being seduced into hiring people with fancy new titles with buzz words that reflect an ever changing marketplace, let’s repurpose the skill sets of the people that have made us successful in the past and partner them with the folks that we see as having the capabilities of the future. The truth of the matter is, none of us really knows what lies ahead for our industry and I believe that to be exciting, if not a tad scary. In this case, a little fear is a good thing, so long as it doesn’t lead to panic and short-term thinking. To replace rather than repurpose, in an attempt to try and gain temporary footing within these choppy waters of uncertainty seems like an ineffective way forward. Put another way, our understandable tendency to forsake all we know in attempt to align ourselves with what we don’t shows the lack of vision that has made our industry such a formidable entity.

As I’ve said before, the power lies, not within the extremes of “this or that” but within the powerful combination and assembly of many different pieces. There has been plenty of memorable work over the past few years, and when I think of an example to demonstrate my point of repurposing in an effort to create something new, there is one pretty clear example.  The Wilderness Downtown was an interactive HTML5 short created with data and images related to the user’s own personal childhood. Set to Arcade Fire’s song “We Used to Wait,” the experience takes place through choreographed browser windows. For me, it kicked open the door and sent a wake up call letting everyone know what was possible when you combine elements of what we’ve seen and showcase them in a way we haven’t. Perhaps the most important element of this project, beyond the magical integration of video, HTML5, music, and nostalgia was the inspiration it ignited in its wake. An awesome TV spot will leave you saying; ‘I wish I’d done that.’ The Wilderness Downtown left you saying; “I can’t wait to do something like that”.

In my opinion, the future belongs to our industry’s artisans and craftspeople with the unique ability to lean forward and innovate without ever abandoning the undeniable core principles of what has gotten us this far.





  • Mike Bayfield

    Really interesting, thought-provoking piece, which helps articulate why we’re moving away from the traditional two-person creative team. On the one hand this has always worked well, compared to larger group brainstorms. These often can tend to inhibit creativity, as Nick Bailey expressed in his article ‘Beware certainty’ a couple of weeks back.

    However, with the digital environment there are so many more parts to the equation than with the old media. The lines between the creators of ideas and those who develop them have become blurred.

    I’m constantly playing catch-up with all things digital, but one of the joys of working in this field is collaborating with colleagues who have these amazing new skillsets and bringing ideas to life in new ways. Like The Wilderness Downtown. 

    I’m learning so much from them, a new sense of wonder and how nothing is impossible.

  • Richard McQuillen

    “solitary efforts of “lone geniuses” and the seemingly homogenization of the work that occurs with endless meetings and brainstorms.”
    – Real work happens when you’re alone.  Inspiration happens when you’re talking to others.  Even if you are the genius, talking to “the wrong person”, enables you to organize your thoughts, in order to explain it.  Talk to somebody, always.  Besides, it’s more fun. :)

    “replace rather than repurpose the knowledge that we’ve spent so long accruing.”
    – Absolute genius.  There is a tendancy to start over, and re-invent the wheel.  Oftentimes, upgrading is the answer.

    “Replacing digital with traditional”
    – Transitions take a long time.  With cameras, they say say in 5 years, the cameras will have 200 lenses, meaning 200 focus points in a picture.  A $20 chip with perfect focus on every part of every picture.  5 years is a long time from now.

    “Repurposing rather than replacing applies to the teams we assemble as well.”
    – I work for a company replacing rather repurposing.  This wasn’t always the case.  We had a CEO for 30 years who said… you better not fire that person… find something else for them to do.  In 1983, we have an annual profit of $20,000, in a dying industry.  Last year our profit was $400 Million.  A company is only as good as its people, and training takes a while.  Always put people first.  If you care about them, they’ll care about you.

    “In my opinion, the future belongs to our industry’s artisans and craftspeople with the unique ability to lean forward and innovate without ever abandoning the undeniable core principles of what has gotten us this far.”
    – Experience matters.

    Jordan, 
    Keep the great articles coming.  I really enjoy your writing. :)
    Warmest Regards,
    Rich

  • http://twitter.com/JordanAtlas23 Jordan Atlas

    Hey Mike, thanks so much for commenting. It’s definitely an exciting time of innovation and learning. I agree, collaborating with amazing people is what makes things really interesting. Thanks again.

  • Mike Bayfield

    A pleasure. Keep them coming.

  • http://twitter.com/mikepweiss michael weiss

    “Repurpose Rather Than Replace” - a great tagline for 2012! From content, to ideas, to skills, we need to look within and see what we have before we just give up and throw in the towel. At my agency we used to keep a directory on the server of ALL design comps that clients did not choose. I often used that directory for inspiration when working on a new project or client. Just because a design was not chosen did not mean it was bad – it just wasn’t right for that particular client. So we would repurpose it for another client….

    Great stuff Jordan!


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