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.

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