Archive for October, 2009
Last Thursday, I attended Vancouver’s CREATIVEMIX conference. In addition to some excellent catering (a true rarity at these kind of events), standouts included speakers Terry McBride of Nettwerk Music Group, Cowie & Fox ad agency director Noel Fox, and Steven Cox of design and consulting studio Cause+Affect.
I wanted to focus on Steven Cox for a moment, because I was struck by one key point from his talk. As a former architect, Cox launched his career in the UK with Alison Brooks Architects and SOFTROOM. He’s worked on housing developments, retail interiors and brand campaigns for clients like Virgin Atlantic Airways, Volkswagen, Selfridges and Volkswagen. He had a rising career in a wildly vibrant international city.
But when Cox and his equally accomplished partner (in life and work), Jane Cox, returned to Vancouver and launched Cause+Affect in 2004, they were struck by how many people complained about life in Lotusland. From the tired “no-fun city” tag to an apparent obsession with polar fleece and strumming Jack Johnson riffs by the sea, Vancouver had a bad rap as a no-go destination for edgy fun. As Steven told the crowd of creatives last Thursday, the pair decided to “make Vancouver their project.”
I love this attitude. Unhappy with the cultural and artistic climate in your city? Change it. Stretch your creativity to enrich your community and develop new ways to talk, think, share and celebrate.
Cause+Affect certainly has. In just five years, their cultural resume now includes Pecha Kucha nights, the hugely popular Fuse events at the Vancouver Art Gallery (just try to snag a spot to watch zombies dance the Thriller), the Movers & Shapers exhibit, the Cheaper Show (cheap! art!), and the EPIC sustainable living exhibition. If it’s fun and buzzy in Vancouver, Jane and Steven Cox have probably had their hands in it. They’re making this city a more interesting place to live, while building a stronger brand for their own business.
The lesson for entrepreneurs of every stripe: Tackle something close to your heart. Figure out how to excite people and cause a stir. Do it because you see a need and you’ll naturally attract the clients, customers and artistic collaborators who speak your language.
I’m a longtime reader of Fast Company magazine. I love its engaging, entrepreneurial take on business — and how it breaks down those old boys’ club notions of success.
Part of my inspiration to launch this blog came from the June 2009 issue, featuring “The 100 Most Creative People in Business.” It’s a diverse list, from fashion designers Stella McCartney, Hussein Chalayan and Marc Jacobs, to artist Damien Hirst and music mogul Pharrell Williams, through to execs from Twitter, Red Bull, Target, Apple, Elephant Design and beyond. The gorgeous cover girl, Neri Oxman of MIT’s Media Lab, is #43. You can see the full list here.
The profiles provide some serious creative motivation, but I couldn’t help thinking about what lies beyond the mainstream radar. There are thousands and thousands of people who are doing amazing work, while still making their lives work. I want to learn from all the artists and innovators who don’t have the backing of big corporations or major studios.
But then again, even the Fast Company editors admit that selecting their top 100 was a risky task:
“We looked for dazzling new thinkers, rising stars, and boldface names who couldn’t be ignored. We avoided people we’ve profiled in the recent past. We emphasized those whose creativity addresses a larger issue — from the future of our energy infrastructure to the evolution of philanthropy to next-generation media.”
Inspired Outsiders is on a similar mission — minus the boldface-only names.
Who’s on your top 100?
“…all the greats did it from the outside. And that’s a very, very inspiring thing.”
In a 2008 article for the Independent, Johnny Marr explored the roots of his illustrious music career – first as a hungry Manchester teenager queuing up in the snow to hear Slaughter and the Dogs and T-Rex, then as the guitarist and driving creative force behind The Smiths. In subsequent years, he’s refused to be pinned down, working as a sessional musician and collaborator for top acts including The Pretenders, Billy Bragg, Talking Heads, The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs.
Marr explained how the most innovative music always bursts in from the edges – from talented outsiders who are utterly driven to tell their stories and make new sounds. They write and perform for their tribe, and for the sheer thrill of it.
“The Beatles are the most obvious example – rejected by Decca for their four-piece guitar line-up. No one invented Bob Marley, no one invented the Sex Pistols or Kurt Cobain or Jay-Z – they all invented themselves and were rejected. They were outsiders and they were necessary.”
Marr’s philosophy isn’t new, but it might be the most compelling argument for pure, unfettered creativity that I’ve heard in a long while. He’s also one of my most revered musical icons, so I could be a little biased on that front.
Marr is no longer an outsider. Any industry exec would take his calls in a heartbeat. But, that’s not the point. Art, writing, fashion, design, cooking and music that shakes your very core will always originate at the periphery. It’s brave and different. It might be driven by ideas or emotions or just sheer beauty. It doesn’t matter.
But what happens when the show is over, the manuscript is finished or the dishes are cleared? How do creative people pay the bills? Where do you draw the line between selling your work and selling out – or is that a retro, rusty dilemma?
Inspired Outsiders digs down into the business of creativity. The Internet has spawned a wealth of online resources, tools and markets that have changed the game for artists of every stripe. Punk bands from Winnipeg can now make a decent living without major label backing. Photographers can sell limited edition prints online while accepting only the assignments that make them sweat.
It’s now possible to remain independent without getting stuck. And even when outsiders become insiders – attracting fans, opportunities, and maybe some serious money – they can still stay hungry and, most importantly, inspired.
How? That’s what this blog is all about. Thanks for reading along.