It was a moment perhaps akin to the bone-hurling hominid in 2001: A Space Odyssey—an event imbued with great meaning; an event from which there is no turning back.
It was the 1950s, and ad guru Bill Bernbach paired art director with copywriter. And thus the ad industry experienced its big bang. Planetary systems were instantly created—Bernbach’s legendary Volkswagen ads a galaxy unto themselves.
The problem with this world, Nick Law has said, is that the industry never grew beyond it; perhaps unlike our ancestors in 2001, it never evolved.
“I hate the laziness of an industry that is telling stories the same way it was 50 years ago,” Law told AdNews last year. “Netflix and HBO have reinvented TV in the last five years, every teenage kid around the world is reinventing storytelling in their own voice, and yet advertising is incapable of being influenced by these far more progressive advancements of the grandeur of narrative. They are so stuck in bloated metaphors and tropes of advertising it makes me break out in hives.”
Law has always defined his own path. Growing up in his native Australia, his upbringing was defined by two things: rugby and drawing. Seeing career potential somewhere in the latter, he learned about being a designer, skipped a full formal education and hit the field, working for a local eccentric Sydney designer named Anthony Ginns—described by Law as “mad as a … cut snake.” Law entered a world of T-squares, acetate and X-Acto knives, and under the intense eye of Ginns, practiced the craft—eventually pinging around the world and turning up at Pentagram in London under the tutelage of Alan Fletcher, and at shops such as Diefenbach Elkins (the future FutureBrand), DMB&B and FGI. As he went, he absorbed design, advertising and interactive skills, and rode the wave of tech advances and industry developments with zeal.
Perhaps one key moment: Living in New York City, he flicked on a dial-up modem for the first time, and suddenly was able to read his hometown paper, The Sydney Morning Herald. Tech worked its magic: He felt at home.
Law eventually found his way to R/GA—an agency that defies description, thriving on a philosophy of reinvention every nine years, which Law says allows it to avoid falling back on legacy structures. Here, under a philosophy seemingly tailor-made for him, his talent came into focus.
Law seems to be a creative perpetually dissatisfied with the tradition of his industry, the trappings of what was as what will be; he thrives in progress, in its many varied forms.
His provocative perspectives on the industry, to some anarchic, to others heretical, bookend his numerous amazing projects, revealing a mind—whether consciously or subconsciously—deeply attuned to psychology and culture as it pertains to his trade, and perhaps even where it’s all heading.
“If I look back at a play from ancient Greece … it’s sort of opaque to me. What were these bastards doing with these masks? Every piece of art is sort of mediated through the technology of the time and the sort of cultural norms of the time. And we forget that. We forget that when you look at a classic 30-second spot—the arc of it, the over-reliance on metaphor, the sort of texture and the archetypes, the tropes of advertising. I could imagine that being just as opaque to young people in 10 years’ time—that somehow we're using a grammar that doesn't belong anymore. And especially now because the sort of narrative grammar changes so rapidly, because so much content is not only being produced, but being consumed and reacted to, at a pace never seen before.”
—Nick Law Interview with Movidiam
While Law is known for a host of intensely successful campaigns for the likes of Nike+, HBO and others, his pro-bono work has been equally inspired—such at the “Fans of Love” video for the Ad Council’s Love Has No Labels campaign. In the video—shot at the NFL Pro Bowl in Orlando, the same city as the Pulse nightclub shooting a year earlier—a typical sporting event “kiss cam” begins on the jumbotron. It first trains its focus on a white man and woman—but the man turns his right, and kisses the man seated next to him. The crows cheers, and the camera roves on—a multiracial couple kisses. Friends embrace. Special Olympians hug. People of all ages and abilities follow. A Pulse nightclub shooting survivor rises and embraces her partner, and the crowd roars.
“When you collect information, that is, in reality, the past. It doesn’t tell us much about the future but about what people have liked in the past. To see what’s coming, it’s helpful to analyze trends, but those sometimes disappear or are distorted. There’s not much more to go on than intuition. That’s what guides us. They say that creativity is gone, but now like never before, imagination is taking off, because it’s impossible to know what people will want three months down the road.”
—Interview with PulloSocial
We see “Welcome Home, LeBron” signs. Electrified children cheering on the side of the road as a car passes. Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” plays, and LeBron James puts in Beats By Dre earbuds—the advertiser behind the commercial—and begins to train. But what follows does not feel like an ad. It’s something else—and it has emotion. We see James’ old neighborhood. Archival footage of him. James walking through his old high school gym, which he paid to have renovated. The voice of his actual mother—“Don’t ever forget where you came from.”
And then a closing note: Lebron James, Reestablished 2014, marking his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after a few years away at the Miami Heat. An interactive feature appears at the end, inviting viewers to “Uncover the Stories That Made LeBron James”: 439 Hickory Street; Spring Hill; Akron; Mom; Hawkins Court; St. Vincent St. Mary’s.
“Always start from a place of truth. This seems obvious but every strategy I see is a lie.”
—Interview with Adobo Magazine
For Valentine’s Day, Law and his team recorded another pro-bono Ad Council Campaign. They deployed a massive “x-ray” screen on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif. In the subsequent video, a crowd looks on as green skeletons dance and kiss behind the screen—and then, slowly, emerge from behind it. First, two women. The crowd is a bit stunned. Love has no gender, the caption reads. Then, more skeletons, and a multicultural couple emerges. Love has no race. More skeletons, and two children emerge. Love has no disability.
Love has no age.
Love has no religion.
An elegant and simple idea, perfectly executed. It subsequently won an Emmy and went viral, and to date has nearly 59 million views.
“More smart, creative people should be thinking about leading agencies, as opposed to just being the creative guy that turns up late in a T-shirt.”
—Feature in Campaign
After 17 years at R/GA, Law surprised the ad world by joining Publicis as global CCO of Publicis Groupe and president of Publicis Communications. Seeking a creative leader with a specific—and rare—blend of skills, Publicis chairman and CEO Arthur Sadoun found Law.
“Nick is a true unicorn in our industry,” Sadoun said when the move was announced earlier this year. “Throughout his career, he has delivered world-class work that builds on what we believe all our clients need: the alchemy of creativity and tech. … His partnership will be a game-changer in our journey to lead the change in our industry.”
In his numerous ongoing travels for work and life, Law peers out from the windows of airplanes and documents the scenes in his #windowseat Instagram series—an array of incredible landscapes that often look lunar, textured, surreal.
Perhaps, for a single frame, we’re seeing the world in the way that only he does.
Debbie Millman: These are just a few of the things I recently learned about Nick Law. He falls asleep in seconds. He doesn't mince words. He met his wife in a bookstore. She thinks he's fair, honest, and funny. He's a father of four, and, as a result, has an amazing capacity to handle pressure.
He has a way with typography and doesn't need or seek praise or approval. His favorite meal out is breakfast. When he wants something, he makes it happen. That makes sense, given his extraordinary career.
For the last 17 years, he's been at R/GA where he has been leading the firm's strategic and creative vision as a Vice Chairman and Chief Creative Officer. His clients have included Nike, Beats by Dre, Samsung, HBO, Johnson & Johnson, IBM, and Google.
During his tenure, R/GA has become one of the most awarded and admired agencies in the world, winning every major creative accolade possible. He's here today to talk with me about his remarkable career and the big changes he has on the horizon. Nick Law, welcome to "Design Matters."
Nick Law: Thank you very much.
Debbie: Nick, I understand you love musicals and you love taking your children to shows. What are some of your favorite? You wouldn't have been the type that I would have pegged as a musical man.
Nick: Yeah, I enjoy going to entertainment with my kids.
Debbie: What was the last show you brought them to?
Nick: I think I took the younger ones to "Into the Woods."
Debbie: Oh, nice.
Nick: Probably, the favorite one was "Mary Poppins" because we went backstage and met Mary Poppins.
Debbie: Oh, that's wonderful. I actually saw that show as well. I took my nephew when we went back and saw the chimney sweeper, not Mary, but the Chimney Sweeper.
Nick: [laughs] Well, you have to earn your way to Mary.
Debbie: [laughs] You said that as you were growing up in Sidney, Australia, you were good at two things ‑‑ rugby, which was your obsession, and drawing. Tell us about the comics you created back then.
Nick: Wow, you've done some research. I drew a lot and I read comics, but mostly I created comics. I had a cast of characters that followed the classic origin stories of superheroes. People like Volcano Man, who had lava shoot out of his hands. Turbulence, who could create strong wind from...
Debbie: It sounds a little bit like "X‑Men" a little bit.
Nick: [laughs] Yeah, and then you had your villains like the Captain Terrors and all that sort of thing. I created these elaborate stories that had multiple issues over time. I don't know where they are now. I should try to find them.
Debbie: Now, I understand that you also used to dress up as your comic characters.
Nick: Oh, yeah. Actually, I was very enthusiastic about the band KISS when I was in my early teens.
Debbie: Weren't we all?
Nick: As you know, they dressed up in elaborate costume. I created a pretend band with, again, invented characters that included fashioning a costumer for myself.
Debbie: Your brother caught you.
Nick: That's right. I was standing in front of the mirror of my bedroom, admiring my handiwork, imagining myself as this member of this band. My brother, I just heard through the keyhole of my door, "You fucking freak!" There you have it. [laughs]
Debbie: Did that prevent you from furthering your career as a costume designer, do you think?
Nick: Yeah, I think so.
Debbie: You described your childhood as feral. In what way was it feral?
Nick: Not a lot of supervision. I was lucky enough to grow up in a beach suburb north of Sydney. You didn't really need a lot of supervision, to be honest. I spent a lot of time at the beach. Single mom, she was a nurse. She worked hard and was often in the city, which was about an hour‑and‑a‑half away and would stay overnight, because she had shifts and stuff.
We'd ‑‑ basically, the three boys ‑‑ look after ourselves. Looking back, I never thought anything of it at the time. If you look at how people parent now, it was sort of extraordinary.
Debbie: You were also rather shy. Is that correct?
Nick: Cripplingly shy, yeah.
Debbie: How did you get over it?
Nick: I had rugby, didn't I? There's nothing that'll beat shyness than a violent sport. My confidence grew through, mostly, playing rugby. I did athletics. I did all sorts of things. It's one of those rare moments where I believe in a Victorian value, which is this Tom Brown muscular Christianity idea of character building sport.
Debbie: Through suffering?
Nick: Yeah, and through confronting your fear and all that sort of stuff.
Debbie: Thinking that getting your head knocked around on a rugby field didn't seem like a sustainable career to you, so I read that you went to visit a friend's father who was a commercial artist. He explained what he did. What did he tell you? What did you think at the time?
Nick: In the absence of any real career advice from parents or teachers, I had this friend whose father was what was called then a commercial artist and I knew I could draw. I thought, "Well, maybe that's what I should do."
He took me into his office, which was in the city, and showed me some logos that he'd done. I thought, "That seems like fun." Then he advised that I apply for a technical college called Randwick Tech, which was right next to the biggest race course in Sydney. Luckily for me, the application didn't involve any academic grades from school. It was all practical tests.
Debbie: Did you do poorly in school?
Nick: Yeah, I was probably the most average student in the history of Pittwater High School. Yeah.
Debbie: You didn't pursue a formal education or go to college?
Nick: No, that's right. It was a technical college that housed students that were learning hair dressing, and plumbing, and graphic design, which was this craft that involved a T‑square and a drafting table back then. It was a true practical course. There was no theory.
Debbie: Knowing what you know now, would you recommend that people that want to go into design or advertising go and get a formal education?
Nick: No, not really. I think that design is a craft. I know that it's fashionable to talk about design thinking, but I started learning the tools of the craft as soon as I left high school, so I was 18. I was in the industry by the time I was 20, and that's when I started to learn.
Debbie: I believe that your first gig as a working designer was as the only employee to a man in Sydney named Anthony Ginns.
Nick: Oh, my God. How'd you find this out?
Debbie: You've described him as an obsessive craftsman, mad as a cut snake, and there was an expletive in there which I took out...
Debbie: ...and bonkers. What kind of work did you do for this bonkers, obsessive craftsman who was mad as a cut snake?
Nick: It was mostly corporate identity. He'd come out of a design agency called Lundiah that was probably most famous for doing the QANTAS identity system, but he was a very erratic, strange man.
Debbie: What made him so bonkers?
Nick: He had a crazy temper, and he disappeared from my life after I'd left and gone to London and come back, when I think the police chased him out of town. I think he probably had some sort of strange pathology.
Debbie: I understand that he was a rather hard man to please, and you would have to build comps old school style by cutting acetate and using rubdowns, but you loved it.
Nick: Yeah, that's right.
Debbie: Do you still do a lot of work with your hands?
Nick: No, not as much as I probably should. I think it would be a nice contrast to work with mostly screen‑based or managing, but I was very particular. There was a time when a useful skill for a young designer was doing layouts and paste‑up.
Debbie: That's how I got my start. That's the only thing I knew how to do.
Nick: Marking up type and doing all that sort of thing, and people would say it's because I'm a Virgo, but I am very particular when it comes to that sort of thing. I enjoyed it. I like doing things like that because they're therapeutic in a way.
It's also what makes design, the practitioners that stay late...Copyrighters have got 26 characters they arrange, and there's usually a pretty good version of it after you've been working it, but you work a design forever.
I was that sort of person where the one thing that I remember from all the places that I've worked from Sydney to Europe to the States is the sound of a trash truck pulling up outside while I'm still working at 3:00 am.
Debbie: With that coffee next to you that's cold.
Nick: Yeah, that's right.
Debbie: Back in the day when we smoked a couple of butts in a dirty ashtray nearby. Aah, the days, those wonderful days.
Nick: Aah, the romance.
Debbie: I think from there you went to Pentagram in London and worked with the legendary Alan Fletcher and John McConnell, who I recently saw.
Nick: That's right.
Debbie: Can you talk about that experience a bit? What were some of the biggest things you learned from Alan and from John, and why you decided to leave? The other question is, you're working for this bonkers guy, how did you go from a bonkers guy to Pentagram, which was, at that time, certainly the number one agency in the world?
Nick: Even though the gentleman I worked for in Sydney was crazy, I did learn a craft because he was very strict and I had a portfolio that was very finished. I did what most Australians do at some point in their young lives, which is you get in the plane with the one way ticket and you go walkabout.
I went through Southeast Asia and parts of Europe and landed in London. Waited for my portfolio to arrive by ship, which took months, so I took a job cleaning dishes. When it finally arrived, the big plastic‑sleeved portfolio, I went around.
The first job I got wasn't actually at Pentagram. It was a small design agency, but then, from there, I got an opportunity to work at Pentagram. Of course, I knew about them and was really excited about working with them, and so I did that.
The thing I learned there is how to have a very consistent culture around the work, and that there wasn't a big difference between the culture and the work. You can't have an agency or a design company that has a culture that's forced without it being expressed in the work.
If you do excellent work like they did, and they're very proud of it, and the partners were slightly competitive, then that created a subculture of excellence, and it was also very like a lot of design companies as opposed to perhaps some of the agencies, the more marketing or advertising agencies.
It was a very gentle culture also, even though people worked hard, very considerate. They fed you. We all thought it was because they didn't want us to leave our desk, but they still fed us, and the work was beautiful.
I remember the first thing I worked on with Alan was an identity for the Tokyo Council. For someone coming from Sydney who'd worked on local clients, being able to work on global work like that was very interesting.
Debbie: You also worked as a senior designer at Diefenbach Elkins, which is now FutureBrand in New York. What did you think of the branding community when you first entered it? It was very...
Nick: I loved it because that's where I started. I broadened that experience in more general graphic design at Pentagram and then at few other places. I worked at DMB&B, which is an advertising agency, so I had a taste of art direction in advertising.
By the time I got to Diefenbach Elkins in New York, I think it was towards the end of the time when you could create an identity, put it in a three ring binder, and give it to the world. The thing that I remember most was how valued certain projects were because most projects you didn't actually get to execute the system. You'd help design the system, but you didn't get...
Airlines was the thing that we wanted to work on, because you'd get to paint the tail of the plane, do some livery, and do stuff like that. I think that, at the time, if I look back, it was the beginning of that industry maybe losing a little bit of relevance from an executional point of view.
You went from a world that was very discreet, where you could hand over a three ring binder and different disciplines would either adhere to it or not, to a world where everything was connected and that you couldn't design an identity without understanding how it lives in the interface, how it lives as verbal design, as gestural design.
It'd be very difficult, I think, to operate like we did back then now, because the world is so connected and because we live in a world that should operate like the Bauhaus, but there's still this legacy disciplines that prevent that.
Debbie: Nick, you went from design to advertising to interactive work in different countries. In doing so, you noted that you accidentally learned along the way. How did you move from discipline to discipline with what seems to be fairly effortless fluidity?
Nick: Here's the good outcome of having a feral childhood. I didn't wait for instruction and was very opportunistic. My initial design experience in London moved into advertising, not because I was desperate to work in advertising, but before an opportunity came up and I thought it was interesting to try something new.
In the case of then going from design to interactive, I was in New York in the mid '90s when the Web came along. I could see that, even though it was a new medium, that at some point it would ingest everything. It just seemed obvious to me at the time.
I started to work on that. Initially, in a way that a lot of designers did, which was like a graphic designer crafting pages and everything, but then to understand the dimensions of the experience design. One of the ways I describe that is that you go from...In flat graphic design, you just deal with the thing in front of you, whereas when you're designing interfaces, you deal in three tenses.
You're dealing in the present, what's in front of me, what do you want me to do; in the past, what does this remind me of, what are the signals that I'm getting that suggest interaction; and the future, which is what are the signals you give me that suggest what I will get when I interact.
It exploded my design craft in a way that was intriguing, in the same way that moving from design to advertising you went from thinking systematically to thinking in a more narrative fashion. In each case, I followed a path where I got to learn something new that was still related to what I was doing, so I brought a craft and then expanded it and broadened it.
You got to remember that when I started to where I am now is when all of these things happened because the Web changed everything, basically. I was lucky in a sense not just to have experienced all of these things, but to be there when they were birthed and when they developed and matured.
Debbie: Tell me about first meeting Bob Greenberg. How did that happen?
Nick: I had been working at a startup based in Atlanta, a startup that had the curious name of BusinessModel.com that, like a lot of businesses at the time, had no model and so it collapsed.
Then I came back to New York, because I was living in Atlanta, and I interviewed with two people ‑‑ R/GA, which I'd known only because I saw an exhibition on the title designs and was in love with the Se7en's titles and remembered the Superman titles, and also Brian Collins, who was then at the Brand Integration Group at Ogilvy.
Bryan and I still joke about this. He doesn't, of course, remember interviewing me.
Debbie: He doesn't remember interviewing you?
Nick: Maybe he does, he pretends he does, but it was a while ago. [laughs] It was '91. There were these two jobs that I interviewed, and R/GA offered me the job first.
I'd met Bob a few times. When I went into his office for him to actually offer me the job, he prefaced it by saying, "You should know that some people don't think you have enough experience in interactive," so he put me out of place immediately.
Debbie: What was your first shot there?
Nick: I was head of visual design.
Debbie: When Bob said that to you, did you have a response, a snarky, cheeky response, or you just...
Nick: No, I didn't care. As you've pointed out, I don't take criticism or flattery too seriously.
Debbie: Why not?
Nick: I think because I had a childhood where I had to be very resourceful, and I had to rely on my own assessment of myself. When you're young and you're not really sure who you are, you can't surrender yourself to being happy when people like you and being sad when people don't like you, because then you lose your sense of center.
Debbie: I think you've described most of the population...
Nick: Yeah. No one is completely ambivalent about what people say. I'm not saying that. It's not like I don't like praise or that criticism can sometimes sting, but I have a good discipline of pulling it back and asking myself the question, not someone else.
I think part of my relationship with Bob was based on not needing great praise, but also being able to be clear‑eyed about what Bob was good at, and what I could learn from him, and what I could contribute.
Debbie: Talk about your promotions. Were they fast and furious, or was it just a slow climb to vice‑chairman?
Nick: It was pretty steady. The creative department was visual design, experience design, and copywriting. Then, after head of visual design, I was the head creative for the ECD on the Nike business, which was a very important piece of business. It was from there that I think I became the chief creative officer.
Debbie: You've described the ad industry as having gone from a system of copywriters and art directors to a creative partnership between stories and systems. Gone are the days of the pipe‑smoking, lone ad genius like Bill Bernbach.
You say the industry as a whole hasn't kept pace, noting, "I hate the laziness of an industry that is telling stories the same way it was 50 years ago. Netflix and HBO have reinvented TV in the last five years.
"Every teenage kid around the world is reinventing storytelling in their own voice, and yet advertising is incapable of being influenced by these far more progressive advancements of the grandeur of narrative."
Nick: Wow, that's pretty harsh.
Debbie: It is harsh. I'm not done.
Debbie: "They are so stuck in bloated metaphors and tropes of advertising it makes me break out in hives." Sorry to create any sort of affliction in you.
Debbie: What do you recommend be done? Why are we living in this old prehistoric trope?
Nick: I think it's hard for anyone to change. The thing about the art director, copywriter team is that it was designed for print mostly. The seminal work that Bernbach did for VW and everything was a great example of that.
There's a wonderful tension between the word and the image that didn't exist before then because, before then, the creative team was a copywriter. Then they sent it downstairs and the art director colored it in. That was an innovation that led to some really interesting work.
Then TV became the engine of the industry and, especially for creatives, the thing they most wanted to work on. I just think that the industry became so self‑referential that they were incapable of being influenced.
Especially since the advent of the Web in the craft because it's been so democratized and changed so rapidly that in many other areas it's just streaked ahead and reinvented itself.
Advertising has ‑‑ not across the board, but largely ‑‑ been stubbornly held to this article of faith that an art director, copywriter is the atomic team despite the fact that we experience most of our media now through an interface. That would suggest that maybe an experienced designer should be included. [laughs]
Also, just the 30‑second template. Even though we see most of the video content now on a screen or in a stream, we're still trying to fill out this template. It has a lot to do also with the fact that creatives have ceded leadership of a lot of the agencies to business people and accountants. That's the way the industry is structured.
There are a few independent agencies that's still by creatives, and they tend to be really good.
Debbie: But there's only a handful.
Nick: Yeah, that's right. Most have been...
Debbie: Instead of the creative revolution of the 1960s, you actually believe that Silicone Valley is the better model to adhere to because of its optimism. You've called that, raging optimism. How do you define raging optimism?
Nick: I think that you can either start from a place of sentimentality or looking at the future. Now is not the time to not be open to change. It's inevitable and it's not just in the creative world. It's in the business world. You can't defend the past. If that's true, you may as well enjoy the future. You may as well be excited by it and excited about being challenged by it.
There is lots of things wrong with the Valley. It can be a little bit of a mono culture, and it can also be hermetically sealed from the outside, but they have a great belief in the next great thing. Also, that they think systematically as opposed to what's happened in the advertising industry business, which is they're still obsessed with narrative.
I'm not saying that narrative isn't really important. It's a very powerful tool, but it sits on top of a suite of behaviors that have been completely changed since the advent of the Internet. Unless you address those changes and think about media experiences through the filter of design, the vernacular of what you're doing is just going to get out of date, and I think that's what's happened.
Debbie: Do you have any hope for the advertising agency that isn't looking at changing that trope of copywriter, art director? Do you think there's any chance that it'll survive?
Nick: I think the art director, copywriter team will survive as a narrative team, which will be one of the spokes, the hub of which will be a core team which will be changing all the time.
Debbie: I don't know if you've been watching the recent reboot of "Will and Grace," the great sitcom of the past that has been reinvigorated. I think they're doing a really good job with it. The real interesting thing is that a great deal of the advertising in that show would be what we'd consider to be native advertising, in that Karen and Jack are in the ads.
Nick: Yeah. [laughs]
Debbie: It's a bit startling to watch them on their stage and their antics, and all the crazy activities they undertake, and then see them driving in a Ford, [laughs] or whatever car it is. Interesting that I don't remember the brand of the car, but I remember they're sitting in a car.
I'm wondering how you feel about that, and if you think that type of native television advertising is where we're going?
Nick: If people are watching scheduled TV, then maybe it works. If those ads are appearing in streaming content that is ad‑sponsored, then maybe...
Debbie: I DVR it, and that's where they're appearing.
Nick: Right, and you can't tell whether you should fast‑forward or not because it looks like content.
Debbie: Right, exactly.
Nick: I think there's going to be lots of experiments. The main thing to recognize is that the consumer of media now is not the same consumer from the '50s. I think coming out of the war there was this burgeoning consumer confidence. People had money. After the austerity of the war, they wanted to spend it.
There were a few brands and a few media channels that played that game. The game was, "Tell me what I should buy and I'll go out and buy it because I'm really excited about that." There was this glossiness to advertising, and it was very singular. There was just a few brands in each category, and you would only see it intermittently through the media that existed.
Now we're at a time where we consume media constantly. The media is very different and attach different context. I don't think we're playing the same game anymore, so when you see an ad like that, even my seven‑year‑old son has decoded what that means.
They know what it is. If it's done in the right spirit, and it's playful, and it's interesting, then he'll play the game, but otherwise, he'll just cut it off. He won't be manipulated by media. He's the one manipulating media.
Debbie: When somebody comes to you and says, "Nick, we want something innovative, we want something that's never been done before," how do you start? How do you start something like that?
Nick: I don't think doing something that's never been done before by itself is a good idea. [laughs]
Debbie: Fair enough.
Nick: In fact, the best innovations are a bridge from what people are already doing to something they might want to do. You have to make it recognizable. It needs to be familiar enough that there's a doorway into it.
It can't be so far out that people don't even know how to approach it, or understand it, or interact with it. There's always this balancing between the habit and the new behavior.
Debbie: Somebody recently told me that the job now, as a creative person, is to somehow straddle the continuum between surprise and recognition, and figure out where on that continuum you better launch from. I want to talk to you a little bit about ambition. I have another fairly lengthy quote that I'd like to share with you that you said.
"The best way is the most obvious way to realize ambition. It is to just work hard. It seems obvious, but part of working hard and committing to something is being able to ride through disappointments and failures. I see people in our industry all the time who are distracted by shiny things, take the next job because it's better paying without thinking about what's going to happen in two years.
"I see it with young creators that do well here, and then all of a sudden realize they can get 50 grand more elsewhere. All it takes is for them to get pissed off about something at work, someone says something to them, or they get a bad review, or a piece of work is not received like they think it should, and then they're off.
"There's this sort of strange impatience. It doesn't line up with ambition. It lines up with something else. Ambition is deeper, and it's a longer vision, and it's hard to do, and I find that to be the single biggest Achilles heel of the millennials, the Gen Zers who, as I have often put it, feel that life is, basically, they're living in a 140‑character culture where everything has to happen quickly."
How do you encourage people to see the long game? How do you give them the sense that things that are really worthwhile do take time, and, yet, it's not even in anybody's best interest to go from place to place just for that extra 50 grand or the title change?
People seem now to get a title, and then they're immediately thinking about the next title, as opposed to working in that title.
Nick: You can only tell 'em what we just talked about, and maybe explain the disappointments you've had, and that on the other side there were achievements. The other thing, we're in this transition between a local creativity to a global creativity.
This democratization and access to the tools of creativity globally, I think, is going to mean that pendulum will swing back because it's all very well having that impatience and those opportunities at the tail end of having exclusive opportunities because you're in a wealthy country to a world where you're competing against some brilliant kid in Bangalore, or in Manila, or whatever.
You can't put that genie back in the bottle. If you want to achieve, then you're going to be up against people that maybe have a different expectation, different motivations because they've only just been afforded the opportunity. I think a lot of that will bring it back.
I actually work with a lot of young creatives that do work hard, that don't think that things should come easy. It's not a blanket statement that young people are feckless and lazy. Maybe I...
Debbie: There are some that aren't.
Nick: Yeah, and I think R/GA probably attracts a particular sort of creative, but I'm still hopeful. The truth is that the market will sort it out. [laughs] I hate to sound like a raging libertarian, but it will.
Debbie: You've had projects that have failed, like the Baller's network for Nike. How do you personally overcome if you do feel any sort of natural fear that many would have when working on highly visible client projects that might fail or fail back on you?
Nick: In the case of Paula's network, which is an interesting social network before the advent with the big platforms, we learned something from it. We learned what didn't work. We learned later that, actually, it was going to work.
Debbie: Was it on the verge of...?
Nick: It would've worked, or we would have built on top of a different platform that already had the qualities that we were trying to build from scratch. In some ways, you got to think of your work as a portfolio of experiments, some of a high risk, some of them not. Some of the high risk ones will not work, but you'll learn from them.
Not everything we do is like that. Some things are more obvious than others. You might build on something that's already existing out there that you're pretty sure it's going to work. Then other things are more of a stretch, and you're expecting people to change their behavior a little bit too much.
Debbie: On quora.com someone asked, "Why did the Ballers Network fail?" This was the way someone named Ben Williams responded. Did Ben Williams work there?
Nick: Ben Williams is ECD at R/GA.
Debbie: He's still there.
Debbie: This is the way he responded, "It did not achieve its intended longevity goal, sadly, partly because the architect and visionary of its design was not part of its continuing evolution. It seems like it was treated like a short‑term campaign rather than a growing organic tool for sincere athletes who want to train and play against one another.
"I helped to draft the blueprint for the Ballers Network, and I'm honored and happy to see it come to light. This is an excellent digital learning lesson, and I will always cite this example for clients moving forward." Would you agree with that assessment, and what would you cite to clients about that experience?
Nick: I agree with the overarching point, which is that the agency world, and particularly on the client‑side marketers, are very short‑term thinkers because they're thinking campaigns. Campaigns generally get attention because you buy media around them. Then they tail off when you buy less media or when you stop buying media.
Platforms are different. They're not like a bell curve that you pay for. They're an incline that you earn. You can't buy for someone to interact with the interface. You can buy to get a video in front of someone, so you have to earn this use. Over time it accretes value because most of these networks have things called network effects. They become more valuable the more people are on it.
The point that Ben's making there, which is that you need to build it over time, it's not a short‑term investment, that it will become more valuable over time. Narrative is an interesting contrast there. When you see a video or read a story, it's based on a collection of revealed moments.
Once those moments are revealed, it's very powerful when they're revealed, but once they're revealed once, they lose their power. You can only watch a narrative of video a certain amount of times ‑‑ unless you're obsessed with "Gone with the Wind" or something ‑‑ before it just loses its power.
The most powerful narrative is the first time you saw it, and systems like these platforms are the opposite. They become more valuable over time. The more you use it, the more people are connected to it, and so you have a very different dynamic there.
Most marketing departments aren't built on this idea of platforms. They're built on this idea of campaigns. I would argue that the success of something like that is probably not going to be led by a marketing client. It'll probably be led by a product client, or a technical client, or a business client because I have the expertise and I had to manage a product as opposed to release a campaign.
Debbie: You've stated to, "Always start from a place of truth, and that might seem obvious, but every strategy you see is a lie."
Nick: I wouldn't know every strategy. [laughs]
Debbie: I'm just quoting you, Nick, but let's say some of the strategies. You don't have to specifically say unless you want to, which strategies or kind of strategies do you see that are lies, and why are there so many strategies that are lies?
Nick: I think because a lot of our clients create myths around what their brand is. They're like brand moonies. Often this is a result of them being sealed off from the...They could be on a campus, so they face each other and talk to each other about their brand.
They might think, for example, that their brand stands for something because that's what they've taking about in their boardroom, but it wouldn't take much to realize that that doesn't stand for that. Then, agencies will pile on and burnish that. I just think that it's the biggest mistake that happens. I've got this four‑step from thinking to making touch thing.
Debbie: Can you share that?
Nick: Yeah. It's like you go from truth to relevant to interesting to clear. The first two are strategy ‑‑ Is it true? Out of all those things that are true about your company, what's relevant, what will people care about? That's strategy.
From a creative point of view, it's got to be interesting, and it's interesting either because it's useful, or it's entertaining, or whatever. It's got to be clear ‑‑ What is it you're trying to say? You can enjoy a piece of communications or a piece of design and not understand, or you can understand something and think it's boring.
That's what you need to straddle there. If you don't start from a place of truth, then that whole string of contingencies unravel.
Debbie: Don't there need to be exercises before you get to what that truth is? You have to start at truth.
Nick: Yeah, yeah. That's right, but there's often confirmation bias there.
Debbie: Yeah. Most of the time, when I've met with clients, their truth is so internally driven that it's not interesting, or relevant, or clear. It's just internally driven and everybody nods. How do you...
Nick: It could also be an internal truth that no one else knows about, that they didn't think that is important that it might be important. The truth can come from anywhere, but it needs to be true.
Debbie: Yeah, I guess so. It's just so hard to find it and create consensus around that in a way that feels sincere and not created or manipulated.
Nick: Yeah, yeah. Especially if it's consensus driven. You end up with those mission statements that you see on the walls of all these big corporations, and they're like fridge magnets ‑‑ "Integrity," "Transparency," "Leadership."
Debbie: It could apply to any company anywhere in the world.
Nick: It could be anything, yeah.
Debbie: You recently made a big change in your life. You have taken a new position. You made waves by announcing that you were leaving R/GA after 17 years to join Publicis as the global CCO of Publicis Groupe and President of Publicis Communications, which you're starting in several months.
In 2016 you told "Adweek" upon your promotion to vice chairman at R/GA that you were looking forward to the next 15 years at R/GA. First, congratulations.
Nick: Thank you.
Debbie: Second, what made you decide to ultimately accept this new gig? It's a pretty big deal.
Nick: The decision was not based on anything that I wasn't enjoying at R/GA. I still love R/GA and would have been happy to continue. It is a very different job. It's a job that has a different view of the industry, has a scale that is very different from R/GA, and has to face the problems of the industry head‑on.
I go back to what I was saying before. I do think that these holding companies need creative people at that level that have positions of power that can help make decisions with a team, so that was what intrigued me.
Debbie: You've said that more smart creative people should be thinking about running agencies as opposed to just being the creative guy that turns up late in a T‑shirt. Not that I could imagine you doing that, but you really are now being put in a position where you can not only transform one of the largest holding groups in the world, but really change the industry.
Nick: If you think that creativity can help business, then you need to take business seriously, the advertising industry, but it's true of most creative industries. They set up structures that infantilize their creatives.
In the case of the advertising industry, the award shows are important because you get recognition from your peers, but you shouldn't distract them from the fact that we are trying to help our clients make money. That's what we're doing. It's no less noble than Renaissance art in Italy, which was sponsored by the church and the diocese.
There's always a sponsor for art and, I think, in many cases the greatest campus now is sponsored by the big corporations, and so you need to understand that and not be so disconnected from what your creativity's driving that it becomes a personal pursuit.
It's not. It's a collective pursuit, and creative people need to understand how it contributes to business for themselves and for their clients. Anything less than that, I think, is, as I say, you become an infant.
Debbie: In being a creative person that is leading an agency, you not only have to think about the creative and the staff, you also have to think about the margin, and about billing, and about collection, and so forth. Is that something that you find interesting?
Nick: Yeah. I also see the relationship between those things. One of the things that I learned from Bob is that they aren't mutually exclusive. If you do good work, then you get paid well. You don't want to get into that spiral of just worrying about the money and letting the work degrade so much that it becomes a commodity and then your margins become smaller, and you go down.
Debbie: A chain spiral. [laughs]
Nick: Yeah. Smart creative work is not just work that appeals to you. It's a work that works out in the world, and creativity is really hard to create in a mechanical way. Right now, humans are still the best way [laughs] to get to that.
Debbie: You told the Webby Awards that when it comes to what you're most excited about for the future, it's VR and AR, and specifically how heads‑up displays will change the way we interact with the world. Is that something you're looking to pursue in your new position?
Nick: I think everyone will be pursuing this.
Debbie: When we talk about AR, we're talking about Augmented Reality.
Nick: Yeah, that's right. AR, as opposed to VR, is a more sealed off from the world experience. You can be connected to other people through VR, of course. There could be a social light to that, but you're physically transported, whereas AR actually superimposes things on the real world that helps you, informs you about the...I just think the applications for that are broader.
They're not just about entertainment. They're practical. They're about learning. They're about understanding things. There isn't a brand in the world that doesn't need to demonstrate something or help you do a task, so I can just see the application being broad.
Debbie: In your 17 years at R/GA, what are you most proud of?
Nick: I'm proud of creating and organizing principle around creativity that is inclusive, but also respected, what I think of as the two hemispheres of a creative brain. I talk about stories and systems, but, basically, it's creativity through time, which is storytelling, and creativity in space, which is design, systematic thinking.
Those two things need to work together in the way I think that Bernbach wanted art and copy to work together, but he did that in the service of a narrative craft. I think this is a large organizing principle, and we didn't just talk about it as a philosophy. We were very practical about it, and we structured our creative teams around that.
Debbie: How did you do that?
Nick: The people that run the groups and the offices, they tend to be two people ‑‑ a systematic thinker and a narrative thinker. In the case of New York, Chloe Gottlieb's background is experience design. She's a systematic thinker. She's a creative, designer, systematic thinker. Taras Wayner is a copywriter, so he's a narrative thinker.
When they work together ‑‑ and this is not about divide and conquering ‑‑ it's not about Chloe looking after the interface design and Taras looking after TV. It's about them working together because what happens is something similar to what I think Bernbach wanted to happen between art and copy ‑‑ that they work with each other, they're symbiotic.
If I'm Chloe and I'm used to designing interfaces, what Taras can add to that is, as a narrative thinker he's a subtractive thinker because it comes down to these revealed moments, and so he understands how to present a brand in a really simple coherent way. Often, interface designers suffer from feature creep, and they create these sprawling interfaces.
They don't ladder up to a brand feeling. They just add more because they tend to be additive. In the other direction, I think Taras learns that the function of storytelling in that world is not just to make you feel something, but make you understand something, and in some cases demonstrate something, something that maybe we've already built, a behavior or a service that experiences on this build.
Narrative leads more to action as opposed to just feeling, which is why metaphors become less relevant. Metaphors are good at making you feel something, but not very good at making you understand a product or understanding what to do.
The influence of those two, and we have that model office by office, a systematic thinker working with a narrative thinker as a leadership team, and as an organizing principle of how we should be creative. It's like a lateralized brain, these two hemispheres working together.
Underneath that, you can then curate teams that are specific to the task. It could be an art director/copywriter, but it also could be an experienced designer and a visual designer. It could be an animator, and a data scientist. It could be whatever exotic talent you might want to put against that problem.
Of course, that equals innovation because innovation does not come from the same datasets being put together over and over again. It comes from different people with different backgrounds working together to try to solve a problem.
They have enough literacy between them that they can communicate and try to solve problems, but have divergent enough capabilities that canvas that they work on is broader and you can mix‑and‑match things in a more interesting way.
Debbie: I have one last question for you. I know it's hard to predict one's future, but what do you imagine will be the first thing you explore at Publicis in your new role?
Nick: Since this is a design podcast, and I believe that design is a foundation of all of this ‑‑ and I came from design ‑‑ I think it's to look at the design of the company. From what I can tell, all of these holding companies have got amazing assets and very talented people.
How you put them together, combine them, and design the organization is a discipline that I think we're all going to be working on in the next few years.
Debbie: Do you see the long‑term success of the holding company model, or is that something you also want to shake up?
Nick: I think not only do I want to shake it up, I think that Arthur at Publicis wants to. Obviously, that's what R/GA's been doing at a different scale, but in a very pure way for a long time, so I don't think you want to shake things up just for the sake of it.
I think shaking things up comes from looking at the world in a clear way, and not looking at the world as someone who's a practitioner in a particular industry. The borders between all of these industries, and these capabilities, and these disciplines are blurred to such an extent that you have to step back and stop thinking about the way that they've been done.
You've got to start thinking about the possibilities, and that's interesting and exciting. As long as the holding companies keep that in mind, then I think they've got a good chance. They have the talent. That's a thing. There's no other organizations in the world that have such a bunch of freaks that are making money and have a livelihood.
You certainly won't find those sort of people in other corporations, either on the client side or in the consultancies. Advertising agencies, and design companies, and creative companies have always been a great place for people like me that have not much of a formal education and was raised by wolves.
Debbie: [laughs] Peace be with you.
Debbie: Nick, thank you so much for creating such groundbreaking work and pushing our industry forward, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Nick: Thank you very much.
Debbie: This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.