January 30, 2014
Is a book by a very nice chap called David Passiak. He kindly asked to interview me for a chapter, and has graciously allowed me to post extracts from that chapter here.
Faris Yakob is incredibly ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the significance of trends, and yet he makes them easily accessible through concise examples and clearly articulated strategies. This rare combination of insights and ability allows him to bring the future into the present in a way that is actionable for brands and agencies:
- What the agency of the future might look like
- How media is technology, and technology is media
- Tools and experiences can be similar to traditional advertising
- Why being awesome—inspiring awe—leads to success
As former Chief Innovation Officer of MDC and now head of his own planning and innovation consultancy Genius Steals LLC, Faris has a deep understanding of the process and workflow required in the production of scalable solutions. I consider him the best in the world at innovation in advertising, and I was super excited to conduct this super geeky interview.
DP: What does a Chief Innovation Officer do within advertising?
FY: Well, there has been a lot of debate since that role manifested a few years ago. The first key responsibility is to keep looking at the assumptions that underlie the operations of the agency, and trying to unpack those embedded assumptions so that you can encourage people to do more than what they did yesterday. It involves innovating for the agency itself—understanding that the needs of clients are evolving, disruption is becoming ongoing and iterative, and thinking about product developments in the same way as an innovation person at an enterprise company thinks about products and services.
In an agency environment such as New York, that might be creating a content group as opposed to an advertising supply chain, or a social or software group, and at the same time facilitating new types of processes and ideation. For example, I did a lot of work with workshop processes so that the agency process didn't just assume that advertising is the answer to every question.
DP: Imagine that a billionaire wants to start a new global holding company and brings you in. What does the agency of the future look like and how might you approach building one if given unlimited resources?
FY: That's an interesting question—the fresh start is always appealing, the idea that you can start with a new beginning.
The agency by its nature doesn't make anything. What I mean by that is agencies are kind of intermediaries that germinate and broker the production of solutions. In a sense, the agency model is really robust because you can make any kind of solution. The challenge is that they are used to making specific kinds of content units as solutions to all problems, and so a lot of the thinking gets kind of linear that way.
You want to start with a group of people that have a relevant set of diversities, bringing all types of things to the table without an inherent creative hierarchy. One of the challenges of agencies is that the creative department has a large amount of weight purely based on their opinions. You want to start with a group of relevant people that have different elements of content and solution-development—tools, utilities, software-type thinkers as well—and then I wouldn't segregate them out necessarily into different tribes of production specializations.
I think the model we're moving towards in terms of an “agency of the future” is two-sided, and you can look at it through the lens of experiences and stories. The campaign model is a certain kind of solution to certain types of problems and it is still very relevant in lots of situations, but advertising and content are two sides of the same idea. Advertising tends to be by its nature very promotional. Content tends to be something that people choose to engage with, so thinking about the allocation of attention and how you either apply it or earn depending on the needs is quite important.
On the other side, there are what might be called actions and tools—brands have massive scale and can provide solutions to people above and beyond what their products can do, and it is into that space that I think we are moving. So, brands create massive actions that function like advertising—actions like sending a man into space and getting him to jump out of a satellite with a parachute. And then tools. People tend to think of tools as software and utilities. I think tools can be all kinds of things. Anything that helps make anyone's life a little bit better can function to create attention and function like advertising historically did, but in a different type of way.
DP: Your blog and consulting practice has a tagline "Talent imitates, genius steals," based on this belief that ideas are new combinations, and nothing comes from nothing. On your site, you have a great line about innovation that is worth sharing (or stealing)—“the best way to innovate fast is to select the best of that which came before and combine those elements into new solutions.” Can you tell us a little bit about that?
FY: Yes, this is part of the innovation process that I've been trying to develop and my work is based on this thinking. Originality is a romantic notion and in some sense is also a handcuff—nothing is truly original, nor is originality necessarily important. Innovation just needs to be effective. The best way to get to ideas faster is to have the right stimulus, because ideas are new combinations.
There is a certain space in which ideas are appropriate—what Stephen Johnson refers to as the adjacent possible. This is where good ideas come from, or kind of an idea space. Now, within the limits of that space there are ideas that are wrong—ideas that don’t solve the problem—but within that space the further you get from the most obvious, the more interesting things tend to be. Finding more diverse elements to recombine becomes the challenge—looking beyond just traditional sources of inspiration such as film, music, and other kinds of content families.
It's this notion of combined elements that leads you much faster to new kinds of ideas. This is to some extent what all creative processes are about. You find inspiration and apply that inspiration to the problem at hand. Sometimes that moment of fusion happens at a subconscious level, but I think you can do that in a very practical way with people by providing the stimulus and direction around the right kinds of ideas.
DP: You use a lot of historical examples in your talks and writing. If you were a historian looking back on the present, what are the fundamental shifts that you would outline that are going on right now?
FY: I think each generation has a similar response to new technologies. Every time something new happens that increases the speed of communication and/or changes the way that people interact, people get frightened about it, starting with the ancient fear of writing destroying memory and so forth. Everyone kind of worries about media in a certain way, and you can kind of see this on a continuum throughout history.
Right now, the big piece is twofold. The latency issue is really interesting. Speed has become this weird sort of determinant, which you can see in how news is functioning. Everyone is trying to keep up with the speed of Twitter. Peer reviewed news stations are making massive mistakes because they can't compete at the speed level. But I think that results from a misunderstanding of what journalism is about—news and journalism are two different ideas.
I also think there is going to be an increasing drive towards literacy of computing. I’m not so sure it is absolute. There are people who talk about how coding will become a new form of literacy, the way that writing previously was only done by scribes and became universal, and perhaps coding will be the same thing. I'm not sure that is entirely the case, but understanding computing at a deeper and conceptual level will be a huge shift. Douglas Rushkoff says program or be programmed—that may be extreme, but unless you understand how a machine works, you never will really be able to use it outside the constraints that it has given to you.
DP: Speaking of brand gestures and experiences, you touched on this earlier—what does it mean to move beyond a model of advertising that is ad based?
FY: Well, it makes things more complicated. Previously, when there were only 4-5 units that you could create, it was hard to make great work, but the type of unit you created was clearly defined. For example, can you afford TV or not? If so, then you would make TV and go from there because those were the mass-market channels available that were efficient to use at scale.
The challenge now is that the decisions up front—the strategic process—get far more complicated because it's no longer about can I afford TV. It's trying to understand from a huge infinite gamut of things you could do what is the right thing to do. So, the decision is strategic up front—what type of solution will solve this best, most efficiently and most effectively?
Even in terms of content, there are no pre-determined restrictions. For example, because YouTube is infinite, 30 seconds or 30 hours of content could be appropriate, but so could music or pieces of software. There are equally appropriate things in digital spaces. The evolution that is required in some spaces at the strategic/function level is providing a solutions-architecture rather than just a set of insights that leads to a brief for advertising. It’s also about trying to understand the business needs and the audience you're trying to help vs. jumping right into ad production.
DP: This has been really great, and in moving towards wrapping up why don't we end on a fun note. On your blog, Twitter, and LinkedIn profile, you say that you're in search of the awesome and the future belongs to the most awesome.
Tell me a little bit about how the future belongs to the most awesome.
FY: (laughs) I use the word awesome in its original or traditional sense—something that inspires or creates awe. I think human beings are fundamentally emotional beings and emotional resonance is the driver of communication. We want to share things that make us feel. So, in a world where there is an infinite body of content, there are algorithms that use people's engagement with content to optimize how it is shared and viewed.
The metaphor of the website has given way to the metaphor of the constantly flowing stream, so the algorithms that dictate what we end up seeing are dependent upon sharing. Now the things that are shared the most are the things that create the feeling of awe—the most shareable, spreadable emotion is awe, because it's inherently something that you want to show people.
Things that are awesome are massive in scale and change the way you think about reality. The Cro-Magnon man who experiences the Northern Lights for the first time experiences awe: "Wow, that's amazing. I need to go find someone and show them." Being awesome is that kind of shareable quality. So, the future belongs to the most awesome because if people aren't collectively sharing the things that brands create, then eventually nobody is going to see them.