02 May 2014

Book Review: Creativity, Inc.


Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
By Ed Catmull
Random House, 340 pages

I hate business books because they are usually very long memos that could have been written in 14 pages.  You suspect they started as memos or even power point slides.

I love books that tell good stories.  Creativity, Inc., by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, tells a good story and in the process teaches us a lot about how to tell a good story.

Not Just a Story about Toys

Ed Catmull was a kid with a dream, to produce animated movies using computer technology.  He wanted to work at Walt Disney.  They turned him down at first, but he kept on following his passions. 

Catmull’s path led through some interesting places and people.  He studied computer technology at University of Utah, one of the four original institutions on ARPANET, the precursor to what we now know as the Internet.  His early, groundbreaking computer animation work led to a job offer from George Lucas.  While at Lucasfilm, Catmull hired Pixar’s other co-founder, the animator John Lasseter, and what they built was spun off to Steve Jobs in 1985.  The new company’s main business was selling the Pixar Image Computer.  They were in the hardware business. 

As we all know, they eventually joined forces with Disney and became the animation studio that produced Toy Story and many hit films since.  Like those films, the book tells compelling stories.  Inner-circle, name-dropping – jaw dropping – stories of how these hit films made it through the creative process and the business process. 

And as this story unfolds, you see Catmull evolve from a technologist to the head of one of the most creative organizations ever built.  Every chapter illustrates a Pixar mantra, “Story Is King.”

Trust the Process.  Not!

Pixar had another mantra, “Trust the Process”, which meant Pixar’s process, very different from the corporate one at most Hollywood studios:  “Pixar was a place that gave artists running room, that gave directors control, that trusted its people to solve problems.”  To me, this sounded more like “Trust the Culture”, not “Trust the Process”, but it seemed to work for Pixar.

Indeed, it served them well making Toy Story, but not so well when simultaneously working on A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2.  They had grown.  Suddenly more people were involved and Catmull and Lasseter were pulled in different directions.  The mantra lost meaning; it “morphed into ‘Assume that the Process Will Fix Things for Us’.”  Unfortunately, Toy Story 2 lost meaning, too, and they realized they had to rewrite it just nine months before theatrical release.

What did they learn from that experience?  The process only works if the people are working well together, and while that was Pixar’s biggest superpower, they weren’t using it at this critical, early stage of their maturation as a company.  They got back on track by establishing a “Braintrust” that regularly reviewed how a story – a film – was coming together.  They didn’t go back to Process so much as they went back to Culture.

They also learned that words can be empty.  “People glom onto words and stories that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning,” he writes.  Tellingly, he uses this occasion to criticize our industry:  “Advertisers look for words that imply a product’s value and use that as a substitute for value itself.”  Ouch.

So is process good or bad?  When we think of “process” in Ad Land, it’s often a linear, stage-driven timeline, which isn’t how creativity really works.  You need a process, of course, because the alternative is chaos, but how to let it roll?  The Toy Story 2 experience taught them how to strike a balance by returning to their natural strength in collaboration.  It makes sense to “trust people to solve problems” when they’re doing it in a group, not in separate silos.

Three Lessons Advertising, Inc. Can Learn from Creativity, Inc.

Although this book can teach a few things to any creative enterprise, here are three lessons for Ad Land.
  • Story trumps Technology.  Catmull’s childhood dream wasn’t to bring new technology to animation; it was to make animated movies using technology.  Everything he invented was in service of telling the story.  His biggest satisfaction in the success of Toy Story was how audiences and critics loved the story so much they barely mentioned the use of computers to tell it. 
  • Feedback diagnoses, not prescribes.  You’ll appreciate the many vignettes of Pixar’s “Braintrust” meetings to discuss films in development.  They built such a strong culture of mutual respect and focus on the work that every session was about what to address – not how to address it.  (In the last chapter, “Notes Day”, we see how this culture improved the company as a whole.)  In contrast, they discovered that Disney’s Michael Eisner didn’t even discuss; he just issued lists of “mandatory notes”.
  • People create Ideas.  This sounds obvious but Catmull points out that many leaders confuse the need for Great Ideas with the need for Great People.  He concludes:  “Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.”  (This reminded me of the only business book I ever liked, Good to Great, which made exactly the same point in its first chapter.)

Which brings us to Steve Jobs, the deus ex machina in this story.  Jobs was smart enough not to push his way into scripts, storyboards and edits, though he certainly had that right.  He invested heavily in Pixar – and he believed in it and he stayed loyal to it.  Catmull mentions Steve when he’s relevant to the story, and that was often enough that I planned to mention it in this review.  Then I got to the end of the book, and saw Afterword: The Steve We Knew.  It’s a beautiful tribute to Jobs and an appraisal of his impact on Pixar.

Read this book, people.  At minimum it’s a good story you won’t want to put down.  But it also teaches us a lot about how advertising people can work together and tell a good story.

30 April 2014

Greetings from Startup Land


Which one delivers results?

This past month on Ad Majorem I've described in a series of posts how I went from Ad Land to Startup Land.  My hope is that you found it interesting or helpful or both.

There are a lot of differences between the two worlds.  I'd argue that one big thing Startup Land can teach Ad Land is how Technology and Marketing can work together.

One big similarity?  I've seen that whether you're in Ad Land or Startup Land, the only way to create real value is to focus on delivering results.

Here's an index to the whole series.  Thanks for reading.

How I Went from Ad Land to Startup Land

Startup Land Has No Boundaries

Startup Land, Where Technology and Marketing Work Together

In Startup Land, Management Really Is Nimble

Results Also Matter in Startup Land

Book Review:  Quick and Nimble

28 April 2014

Book Review: Quick and Nimble


Quick and Nimble:  Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation
By Adam Bryant
Henry Holt & Co., 264 pages

While writing the series Greetings from Startup Land, I noticed this new book by Adam Bryant, the Corner Office columnist at the New York Times, titled Quick and Nimble.  So, as a bonus extra to the Startup Land series, here’s a nimble version of the Ad Majorem Book Review.  (Slightly less nimble book reviews here, here and here.)

Bryant starts on the premise that big companies can learn from startups how to be quick and nimble.  A competing theme is that companies in general can learn from so-called innovative companies how to be more innovative.  The book doesn’t really deliver on either of these promises.  Instead, it’s a collection of Things Big Company CEOs Have Learned.  Which probably makes sense, because the source material is Bryant’s weekly profiles of Big Company CEOs Who Have Learned Things.

In fairness, much of what emerges from these interviews is a response to the generally bureaucratic nature of big companies in an era when technology has made interpersonal communication much more instantaneous.  In other words, communication has been democratized and corporations are still catching up.

So if you are currently in a leadership position, or wish to be, this book requires two hours for a speed-read, or four to six hours for more careful consideration.  Either way, you’ll probably take away a couple of techniques worth emulating.  But it won’t make your company more nimble.

23 April 2014

Results Also Matter in Startup Land


Decades ago the Ad Land pioneer Rosser Reeves asked, “What do you want from me?  Fine writing?  Or do you want to see the sales curve start moving up?”  We may argue, half a century later, as to how widely Ad Land holds that sentiment.  Startup Land depends on it – or at least depends on the sales curve rising fast enough to beat the burn rate.  

Or does it?

Years ago, Eric Schmidt described Google's business strategy as “URL” -- Ubiquity first, Revenue Later.  That worked for Google, but many venture capitalists who invest in technology seem to take it literally.  There is a lot of money poured into companies that may still be in the red for years, like Amazon, Pinterest and many others.

Dollars and Cents

Sadly, most people in Ad Land are insulated from business results until the moment when agency layoffs are unavoidable.  Agencies have been slow to embrace results and accountability.  One pundit says clients are complicit.

Last of a series
Because Startup Land is for the most part small and nimble, it’s impossible to be insulated from business results.  Everything is very out in the open.  If your company hasn’t gone public, you’re still accountable to your investors, whose money you’re spending to grow the business.  Our investors hold us accountable, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

Traveling in these circles, however, I am struck by how few investors really do their homework on the day-to-day operations of the companies they invest in.  Some are far more interested in financial instruments – credit facilities, warrants and the like – than in what makes the sales curve go up.  Many investors love seeing stock prices rise on the possibility of future results.  (Today's news suggests that caution is order.)

Kiss a Lot of Frogs

There’s an old saying, repeated often in Startup Land, that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before getting to the prince.  It applies both to raising capital (which we recently did) and raising the sales curve (which we are always doing).  As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this series, it’s easy to get impatient.

Impatience may be a virtue, but don’t lose focus.  Whether you’re in Ad Land or Startup Land, focus on delivering results, not just the promise of them.  It's the only way to create real value.


15 April 2014

In Startup Land, Management Really Is Nimble


Maybe it’s just because startup companies are small by definition, but management really is nimble.  In our company, “management” is three people:  the CEO, the CTO and the CMO.

I’m still not sure if we’re nimble because we can be (there are just three of us) or if we have to be (market forces move so quickly these days).  Maybe a little bit of both.  I do know that big companies want to be nimble.  When Google founder Larry Page took over as CEO, he said he wanted “the nimbleness and soul and passion and speed of a startup.”

Interestingly, that quote lists four characteristics that form a sine qua non daisy chain of Startup Land merit badges.  You can’t have any of these without the others.  In other words, you’re not nimble if you don’t have soul or you lack passion or speed.

Dance, Startup Boy, Dance!

Happily, things in Startup Land move much faster than things at a big holding company in Ad Land.  When we took over our little company, it was clear we had to put costs in line with revenue, modify the business model and clean up the code.

Fourth of a series
Coming from Ad Land, “costs in line with revenue” is usually a synonym for “employee layoffs” but that wasn’t the case here.  As in many startups, the company was just burning through too much investor cash on things that didn’t really drive the business.  You see those things quickly when there’s no bureaucracy hiding them.

We also very decisively focused the company’s business model.  We’re winding down a legacy business in managing proprietary hardware – call it “owned media” – for institutional advertisers.  We stopped licensing software to clients, which yielded very little revenue and more than a few operational issues.

We inherited an excellent software platform, but like any such platform it needed regular updating.  The CTO started a project, working closely with Marketing, to release new versions every four to six weeks.  This allowed us to prioritize what we needed and get it to market faster, rather than waiting for One Big Release that might come months later.

Some things just can’t get done right away.  You only have so much time and talent available.  For example, we are only just now revising the website.  But we made that decision ourselves versus being held hostage to a corporate process.

Impatience Can Be a Virtue

In the first post of this series we mentioned that Startup Land requires patience, and that’s still true.  Impatience, however, drives nimbleness.  You want to make things happen quickly, so you do. 

To resolve this apparent paradox:  Be impatient with what you can control, and patient with what you can’t.  Which leads to our next post.