A Week of Cannes - Inside The Box

Fear is creative kryptonite. Its proximity alone enough to sap the life force of original intent. 

Put fear in a lead box and throw away the key. Or at least hide it for a few hours every day. The alternative being the status quo. Which as history has proven, is a fool's paradise.

For the last week, Cannes has provided its own lead box. One formed by a combination of conversation, exploration, exhortation, celebration and a good deal of rose. It is a box strong enough to withstand even sleep deprivation - the late night bogeymen being banished to the shadows by the simple practice of staying awake until the dawn. 

Fear’s absence has, for a few days at least, removed the fog, cleared the air and revealed a horizon of possibilities. 

Which makes Cannes the most important catalyst within the communications industry today. 

The truth is those possibilities are always there. Waiting, silently, for those with vision and courage to walk through them armed with simple truths.

That the way forward is not barred by economics or by others.

It is not restricted by rules. It is not determined by rulers.

That the way forward lies within our grasp.

We need only a destination that is important to us and a means of transportation.

Which makes it a pragmatic journey, and a practical one. A journey guided by Purpose, powered by a process and sustained by known practices.

This is not esoteric optimism. Or fanciful philosophizing. 

It is the foundation on which to build a business that sits, as Jeffrey Katzenberg said in his session with Sir Martin Sorrell on Friday, “at the intersection at which Art meets Commerce.”

It is an intersection that offers endless choices. 

And only one wrong one. 

To stay on the current road. 

No matter what discipline you practice, or skill you sell, doing more of what brought you to this point in the journey is the equivalent of putting two feet on the brakes while you drive down the side of a cliff. You might slow how long it takes to reach the bottom, but the final resting place is guaranteed.

We coach a growing number of business owners and business leaders. Our focus is to help them be clear about the future they want and to begin the practical steps to reach it.

In essence, we become their lead box. A place to explore possibilities without fear. And to take the journey best suited to them.

It takes courage to stop what you’re doing. And fear influences us all in ways overt and unseen. 

But as Cannes reminded us this week, what is yet to come is open to our influence. 

And diminished only through the choices we make.

Nine Steps To Attracting and Retaining Creative Talent

Earlier this week I wrote that it takes more than just money to attract creative talent

In fact it takes more than just money to attract anyone capable of making a difference. Whether they have creative in their job description or not. Difference being a frame against which to measure the impact of original thought.

Against that context, here are nine steps that will draw difference-makers to your organization. 

  1. Pay Fairly. It’s true that it takes more than just money. But it does take money. Beating the market being neither an attractive nor sustainable practice when it comes to compensation. Many companies ignore this truth and apply a famine and feast mentality to paying talent. Under-paying early when the company has the leverage. Then over-paying later, in order to attract or keep talent from the competition. This builds suspicion and destroys loyalty. Instead be relentlessly pro-active in maintaining market parity at every position, with bonuses for extraordinary results. This creates an environment in which financial resentment is not a motivation for your talent to look for new opportunities. Desperate competitors may still over-pay. But when talent feels valued, the premium required to convince them to leave gives you an immediate competitive advantage.
  2. Understand The Deflationary Value of Money. In Dan Pink’s excellent book, Drive, the author describes research that shows that many original thinkers are not only un-motivated by incentive based rewards, they actually perform worse. In part this is because when a task becomes ‘work’, talented people tend to feel more constrained. Organizations that tie creativity to money usually have less financial success than those that focus first on defining the intrinsic benefits of solving a client’s problem and frame the challenge in more valuable ways. When you are doing it just for the money - an economic reality in virtually every business - be clear about the impact that has on your most talented people’s satisfaction, and balance how often that is their only reward.
  3. Build An Evangelical Business. As a species we are united by our instinct to create. We want to make things. Especially a difference. Google’s success is driven by a simple premise. They want to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful. A  goal that has attracted, informed and unified some of the most original thinking of the last ten years. Define the change your company wants to make in the world. No matter how local. Nothing attracts like a clearly defined vision of a better future. And the opportunity to be part of making it come true.
  4. Measure Progress. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, measuring progress is one of the keys to harnessing creativity. A study in the Harvard Business Review showed that a sense of progress is the attribute which people value most in their day. Progress can only be measured on a continuum that has a beginning and an end. Defining the difference you want your business to make provides the latter. The former comes from individual reviews  - a subject worthy of its own post. And annual reminders of how far the organization has come. Celebrating the company’s anniversary with a retrospective comparison of where you were a year ago is simple and powerful. And offers the chance to re-present the vision as a reminder of where the future lies.
  5. Engineer Engagement. Gallup Organization research has shown that most people become less engaged with an organization over time. Maintaining inititial levels of enthusiasm is a two part process. The first is staying engaged with your best thinkers. Easier said than done given the temptation to focus energy on solving problems rather than building on successes. The second is being willing to clear the dead wood from the organization. Nothing de-motivates people more than an organization’s willingness to support under-performers. Be relentless about raising standards and expectations. It attracts and provokes greatness. 
  6. Invest in Individuality. Google's success is driven by the fact that the discipline required to create some of the most sophisticated software code ever written, has been balanced by a commitment to allow those same engineers to express themselves individually. Organizationally this means that eighty percent of their time is devoted to meeting the demands of keeping Google running. The other twenty percent must be used for solving problems of the engineers own choosing. An investment in individuality that Google attributes for all of their major innovations. Creative companies that charge by the hour have a systemic inability to match this level of investment. But deciding to invest not at all in your talent’s ability to create new forms of value suggests you think either they are not capable of that kind of original thinking, or your organization is not capable of taking advantage of it.
  7. Provide Boundaries.  Original thinking requires room to explore new possibilities. It also requires boundaries that focus its capacity to solve relevant problems. In the 1990s, Whirlpool’s CEO, Jeff Fettig, took the company's 25 most revered thinkers and assigned them to a dedicated innovation think-tank in Switzerland. 12 months later they came back with a single idea. A web-based game that linked stationary exercise bikes around the world in virtual races. Exactly. Since then, Whirlpool has invested significantly in training key talent to build and manage a defined and measurable innovation pipeline. Over the last ten years, the revenue generated by products the company defines as innovative has risen from $10 million to over $3 billion, funding further its investment in training, teaching and mentoring its employees. And Whirlpool’s ability to turn original thinking into practical differences has earned it Fast Company’s ranking as the 5th most innovative consumer goods company in the world. And put it on BusinessWeek’s list of, “Best places to start a career.” 
  8. Be Open. Be Honest. Transparency is the most over-worked word in the English language at the moment. Which does not make it less essential to attracting and retaining great people. Usually, it’s more effective to think of transparency as a commitment to open honesty, which we have had success applying as: telling what you can, and explaining what you can’t. You can draw the line between them wherever you are comfortable - with the caveat being that comfort is usually a poor measurement of what is in your best interest. Sharing more encourages others to do the same. And to give you the benefit of the doubt. Valuable assets in building loyalty.
  9. Say Thank You. The artist in all of us needs to be recognized. So does the human being. And yet most companies are slow to praise. Or even to thank. Which is strange since each of us make a choice where we work every day. It need not, after all, be here. Saying thank you at the end of every day has always seemed to me to be a small acknowledgement that you take neither their talent nor their choice for granted

These steps require investment. Of time. And a little money. The ROI on which will exceed any scale you care to choose today.

Each will make an organization more compelling.

Collectively they will make your company irresistible. And invaluable.

To ‘Win The Future’, American Business Must Unlock Its Creativity

“The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.” 

Barack Obama. State of the Union. January 25, 2011.

It's been almost a month and as yet there are few signs that the President's call to action has resulted in any, well, action.

Innovation is often presented as the silver bullet for a damaged economy or a dying business. But even now America produces more talk about innovation than action. No surprise there because this is a long-term problem to which few people offer practical solutions.

In part because of the Siren call of the status quo - an illusory sanctuary in an economic storm. 

And in part because the practice of innovation is fueled by creativity - an energy source that most business owners view as random and unmanageable. 

But creativity is the greenest energy known to man, producing limitless supplies of possibilities and, when managed wisely, turning ideas into action. The definition of innovation.

The challenge - and now the need - is to unlock the power of creativity every day, and focus its energy by designing the capacity for innovation into the organizational architecture of our businesses.

For innovation does not happen by chance. Like any other business process it is one that requires systems and disciplines, encouragement and environment, measurement and management. 

And it requires investment. Not of capital or profit. But of faith. That a process which can not predict what it will produce, is as valuable as one that can. For only when you have built an organization in which the known and unknown sit comfortably alongside each other, can you be confident that you have a business that is viable today and will be relevant tomorrow. 

This is an architectural feat for which there is a clear and proven blueprint. Applied sensitively to the individual culture of an organization, there are practical steps on which to unlock the latent creativity in your company and embed the capacity for innovation.

Later this week, we'll talk specifically about what those are.

A Christmas To Remember

I love Christmas. Passionately.

About the only thing I won’t do is pray for it. It’s against my religion. That is, I have none. Which makes the Christmas spirit, perversely, even more essential to me.

In every other way I am its disciple. A commitment that manifests itself practically and philosophically.

Three years ago I put together the definitive Christmas playlist. Uninterrupted, it lasts 24 hours. From Bing to Sting, from the Partridge Family to pear trees, it contains the entire spectrum of Christmas musical styles and sentiments. Plus the delicious irony that comes with including songs from the Carpenters’ Christmas collection. The power of the aspostrophe.

But Christmas is a visual luxury as well. And my Christmas tree lighting methodology is legendary in certain circles. Indeed, attempts to replicate it without sufficient guidance have resulted in disaster. The key is to start with the trunk. And never to use less than 1500 lights per tree - a recommendation your electrician may take exception to. Ours did.

1500 lights takes some time. About seven hours. Enough to watch the four movies that exemplify Christmas. Which, I suspect, explains why lighting our tree takes exactly seven hours every year. A classic example of work expanding to fit the time available. Or required.

It’s A Wonderful Life. The power of context.

Miracle on 34th Street - the Edmund Gwen version. Sentiment and business strategy in a single sitting.

White Christmas. When the day comes that I open the barn doors to find a foot of snow and a horse drawn sleigh passing by, every breath thereafter will be a bonus. First, we need a barn.

And finally, A Christmas Carol. The 1951 version with Alistair Sim.

I grew up with the story of Scrooge. A man lost. A man reclaimed. A man saved. A hope that we each carry with us. For ourselves. And for our species. In many ways it is nothing less than a biographical account of the history of mankind.

It may also be the most widely and broadly interpreted story in the history of literature. Among my favorite versions is BlackAdder's Christmas Carol in which Ebenezer BlackAdder, the kindest man in all of England, is visited by three spirits. I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say, this is not how Dickens saw it turning out.

Of all the film versions, Alistair Sim’s portrayal remains truest to the spirit and original words. Artful, beautiful and evocative. It offers the most sympathetic and skilled depiction of Dickens’ story.

Depiction, however, is an important word. And infers interpretation. Assistance that Dickens, of all writers, seldom requires.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge. A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self contained and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

The film incorporates many of Dickens’ words. And for many years satisfied me hugely. On many levels it still does.

But in 1994, its place in my heart was taken by another.

Truthfully, I don’t know how I learned that year that Patrick Stewart was performing a one-man version of A Christmas Carol for four weeks on Broadway. Christmas 1994 were the earliest days of the internet. And at 14.4 dial-up speeds, browsing and Google did not yet exist. Google, in fact, is still only 11 years old today. Which seems like saying air and water have only been around for a decade or so.

Chris and I had been together for not quite a year when we arrived in Manhattan that Christmas Eve. We were in the initial throes of starting our new company and life was filled with extraordinary promise. And uncertainty. Not until this year have I experienced the same range of possibilities. Hope and fear. Powerful forces when applied purposefully.

Hope and fear are foundations of A Christmas Carol. Base emotions that are behind almost all achievements of significance. And if there is a medium that evokes either more powerfully than Mr Stewart alone on a stage, I have yet to experience it. He played 41 characters, each as separate as if he were joined by a full cast.

Things that become important to our lives do so at different speeds. Some introductions provide instant reward and value. Other relationships develop less obviously, surprising us with their significance later. And often only once they have disappeared. A price for not living in the present. And a higher one than we realize at the time.

The opening line of A Christmas Carol - which until that night I had never heard spoken - belongs in my life to the former, instantly taking me to a world I have no wish to leave until the story is complete.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

For the next two hours that night Mr Stewart took us on the ride of a lifetime. Scrooge’s lifetime. It touches every emotion. Pulls at every heart-string. Is comedic and tragic in the same breath. And by the time, in the voice of a six year old boy, he delivered Tiny Tim’s immortal last line, every one of us was standing, applauding and weeping. It was as though we had swallowed Christmas whole. And the light came pouring from us as we floated home, the soundtrack safely in our possession.

The following year, we began a tradition of driving ourselves, Harry and Maya to Christmas on the east coast.

150 miles from Washington DC we hit play on disc one and heard, as though for the first time, Mr Stewart begin again.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

We have done this, without exception every year since. And for two and a half hours we are anchored, connected and reminded of all that is important in our small corner of the world. Perspective is easily lost, even by those fully conscious of its value. And touchstones imbued with objectivity become increasingly important as the world becomes more strident and complex.

We have hoped since 1994 to spend another evening in Mr Stewart’s company. But except for one near miss in 2002 - the last time he performed the production - we have come to see that particular Christmas Eve as our visit to Brigadoon. A magical world, accessible only once in every lifetime through an enchanted door.

Last week, however, it is possible I found a rusty key.

In Barneys.

It’s been a busy month, and the Christmas spirit has been elusive. Goodwill is a mindset, but exhibiting it or absorbing it in anything more than passing amounts requires time. And physical presence. Social media has yet to find a substitute for either.

With a week left before Christmas I decided some of both was in order. Besides which I needed a present for Chris. A stroll down Fifth Avenue on a freezing cold day later and I arrived at Barney’s.

Wandering the departments I soon found myself on the top floor. Christmas decorations and the restaurant. As I headed for the down escalator I hesitated for a moment so that a couple leaving after lunch could step on first. The man was bald.

He turned slightly as the escalator re-built itself, leaving me one step closer to him than I intended.

It was Patrick Stewart.

The ride to the floor below lasted less than fifteen seconds. It passed in an instant and lasted an eternity.

As we stepped off, I decided.

There is great risk in meeting those we admire. In those few moments they hold sway over foundations of our lives. Kindness, and our judgement is validated. Irritation, and another piece of our innocence is fractured. Like pavement ice on a thawing morning.

I interrupted him in mid-pause, as he and his companion were considering their immediate next step. He was slightly startled by my approach, his reaction that of a man un-used to intrusion, not tired by it. He is not tall but has great presence. One that allows him to fill any space he occupies.

I spoke quickly. Nervous excitement, and anxiety to get the words A Christmas Carol across my lips. An instinct that they provided a connection.

Instincts are high risk. But they need to take flight if we are to learn about ourselves. Strategically sound judgement is crucial. In business. Or life. But magic comes from exploration. And the unknown.

“Do you think you’ll ever perform A Christmas Carol again?” I asked breathlessly. “We saw your performance on Christmas Eve 1994, here in New York. It’s become an important part of our Christmas.”

I stopped. 

He smiled. Gently. Shyly.

“There’s a question.” He paused and glanced away. “It gets harder.” He said it as though to himself.

I nodded. And mumbled understanding.

Suddenly he turned back towards me, “I would like to. It’s very important to me personally.”

I looked at him with sudden confidence. “I know,” I said. “It’s what makes it great.”

The shyness had left him. He put his hand across his heart. “Thank you for stopping and saying something. It means a lot to me.”

I held out my hand and he took it firmly. “Merry Christmas.” I stopped abruptly, choking off his name, suddenly conscious that I wasn’t sure which one would emerge.

“Merry Christmas to you.” He smiled. Openly and warmly.

As he turned and walked away, I heard, I am sure, the voice of a six year old boy from somewhere close by.

Merry Christmas.

The Starving Artist Strategy

I attended an advertising industry event in Hollywood last night. An incongruous juxtaposition for a business a long way away from the glamorous days of Mad Men.

We frequently work with companies that sell creativity. Their success depends on balancing art and commerce. A recipe that requires sensitive scales. Too much of the first. You’re brilliant but broke. Too much of the second. You’re irrelevant. Or unsatisfied. Or both.

Creative companies that have been around for any length of time are rarely run by the artists. If they’re talented, they don’t have time. And the insecurity that often drives great creativity is a bad foundation from which to negotiate fair payment.

Insecurity makes most of us act in a way that works against our self interest. And does much to undermine the inherent value of whatever we produce. A confident salesman sells more than the nervous one. Even if the merchandise is inferior. And though great work can speak for itself, it does better in the spotlight offered by the assured than in the shadows of self doubt.

When what you sell is subjective, the value is defined not only by the market but by how  well you frame the market’s perception. Exclusivity and aspiration are perceptions first and last.

I have watched, for some time, the systematic commoditization of many creative services. The failure of those industries to first value what they do, and then to present that value cogently and powerfully to their respective markets results always in the same conditions. Reduced prices. Lower margins. And the perceptions of product parity.

When individual companies then accept - or worse, establish - short-term business practices aimed only at bolstering revenue and profitability, they add their own high pressured hoses to the erosion.

Shooting themselves would be faster and less painful. But the net result is the same. And accompanied always by the complaints of company owners that the conditions in which they work are unfair.

As a business strategy, playing the victim creates neither sympathy nor success. And ignores the responsibility inherent in every industry that sells subjectivity.

The need first to take responsibility for how your customers perceive your value.

Which means establishing business practices that inherently command respect.

That requires confidence. A trait in short supply at the moment. But one that returns quickly with small victories.

The alternative is to sell cheap, pray hard and prepare for poverty.

It’s a strategy known as The Starving Artist.

Practiced by people who want everyone else to value their work more than they do.

Pay? Who, Me?

Any industry that sells creativity on demand dances a tightrope between art and expediency. In this economy, that rope is not only frayed but one-sided. Expediency 1. Art nil. Except, of course, we’ve never been in greater need of the creative spirit if we’re really to innovate our way out of this mess.

My friend Jerry Solomon runs a film production company and blogged about an issue this morning that exemplifies why we’re shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to fueling innovation in this country. 

Innovation requires creativity. Every year the advertising industry - one of the economy's creative drivers - meets in Cannes and offers an award for ‘the most innovative idea of the year’ - the Titanium Lion.

Which makes me wonder why so many advertisers and their agencies are now advocating a policy that would put out anyone’s creative fire.

Meet Sequential Liability - the art of commissioning work while shunning responsibility for its cost.

As advertisers and agencies race for the safety of the ‘hire now - pay much later or maybe never’ high ground, those left behind - the suppliers - are being asked to play today’s game by yesterday’s rules. ‘Hold the film negative’ is the new old cry.

But, as anyone who’s run their own business will tell you, that’s not a payment policy. It’s a time bomb from which the pin has already been pulled. Because in a world without credit, the cost of one uncollectible, one million dollar receivable can put a ten year old service company under - no matter how much film negative is in their vault.

If as a society we are going to create and innovate our way out of this, we need a model that encourages creativity and innovation.

And in this economy, expecting the smallest companies to do the work, provide the credit and take the risk is not that model.

In terms of the advertising industry, I like Jerry's first solution best. Have the advertiser put the money in escrow, draw it down as the job progresses and hold five percent until everyone signs off. Simple. Cheap. Effective.

And if an advertiser can’t afford to do that. Well, isn’t that how we all got here in the first place?

Dream Big

Now is the time for big dreams. We are living in what will seen to be an Epoch. A time so distinctive that history will be measured by what happened before and after it.

So if you were ever going to change the world, this is the moment.

I had dinner last night with two people who are.

Sir Ken Robinson is passionate about transforming the education system so that instead of measuring our ability to conform, it provides an environment in which our individual talents are encouraged and applied. He says it far better than I can here  and here .

The other person is Barbara Royal, DVM who will revolutionize how we take care of animals. I have never met anyone more in their element than Barb, who combines Eastern and Western philosophies to treat animals holistically and, crucially, respectfully. 

Ken and Barb - you will not be surprised to learn - have a lot in common. First, they have incredible energy and razor sharp wit. Second, their entire lives have been devoted to the causes they now articulate.

And lastly, and I think most importantly they are willing to see the world entirely differently from the one we live in today. They want to transform - not reform. And they do not fear the process or the outcome or the change itself.

To quote Michelangelo, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and we miss it, but we aim too low and reach it.”

Being Wrong is Right

We need new answers like never before. ‘Original thoughts that have value.’

That description is not mine. It belongs to Sir Ken Robinson who believes that we are all born with immense capacity for originality. In his TED talk ( ) he makes this case powerfully and memorably. If you haven’t seen it you should, because he provides many of the principles by which we can begin to construct a new future from the ashes of the old one.

New answers from old. Innovation. A much over-used and mis-understood term but one we need to come face to face with.

At the core of innovation is the ability to be original - to be creative. Without that fuel, innovation disappears. Repetition is its enemy. Fear is its foe. And the tighter we cling to the past, the more we eliminate its possibility.

Ken describes one of the conditions for originality as a willingness to be wrong. I agree. An environment in which ‘right is good’ and ‘wrong is bad’ over-simplifies every proposition and reduces the chance of achieving anything great - however you define ‘great’. Ideas themselves are not right or wrong. What do you do with them is what matters.

Whatever business you’re in, it will be improved if you think again about what you mean by being ‘wrong’.

And about why being ‘right’ is so important to you.