The Portland Creative Conference has been going for 25 years.
In the mid 1990s it was a place where you might see the California Raisins guys Will Vinton and Michael Brunsfeld (think wrinkly claymation) or an exclusive, big-screen clip of an unreleased Gus Van Sant film (pretty boys riding a 1960s Volvo through the desert.)
However, in 2015 the tools have become so cheap that any amateur can shoot a 4K video on a phone from a skateboard - and kick off a marketing campaign that evening. So people who are paid to be creative are having to find new ways to make their work stand out.
Portland has seen a boom in successful creative firms in the last five years: names such as Swift, Red & Co, Instrument, Roundhouse, Sq1 and Mutt Industries have joined Sandstrom, Sockeye, R2CGroup, and the huge, pulsating mothership that seemingly begat most of them, Wieden + Kennedy.
Creativity itself is in flux, or at least the creative services industry which tries to churn it out in industrial quantities.
Turn to Jelly
According to Jelly Helm who runs the boutique Studio Jelly in Old Town, the big C of creativity is everywhere now.
“Twenty-five years ago, if you were a creative person and wanted a job in business, advertising was pretty much your only choice. Now creativity is everywhere and seen as a driving economic factor in pretty much every business. Cupcakes, taxi service, hotels, restaurants — it’s hard to think of a sector that doesn’t use creativity as a distinguisher.”
Creative work is now often done in-house.
“Airlines and retailers, all sorts of businesses now employee their own creative directors to consider how their business presents itself to the world.”
In fact, good design and marketing savvy have become standard in most businesses. It’s actually easier to image-unconscious companies than their opposite.
“Every company, every food cart, every small business seems to have a thought-out business name and position and a pretty well-crafted logo. Everyone seems to have a basic understanding of branding. The products used to be commodities. Now branding itself is a commodity.”
But that doesn’t make it easy, it just raises the bar for what stands out.
“It’s a great time to be a creative person in some ways, but I think creative work that is meaningful and has depth and life is as rare as ever. More rare probably.”
Next Friday’s Creative Conference is dubbed “A celebration of inspiration, imagination and innovation.” There will be plenty of media buyers graphic designers, account managers and creative heads in the audience. But the speakers are designed to inspire creatives, not talk shop about CPM and ROI. Mercy Corp is sending five people, Henry V (the events company) is sending a dozen.
Steve Gehlen, Mr. Creative
The speakers include Bibi McGill the Musical Director for Beyoncé’s band; Maya Forbes a director, writer and producer on Infinitely Polar Bear, The Larry Sanders Show and Monsters vs. Aliens; D’Wayne Edwards the founder, Pensole Footware Design Academy; Disney animator Nik Ranieri; and more local talent such as Chris Coleman of Portland Center Stage and China Forbes of Pink Martini.
“It’s all about inspiration, imagination and innovation,” says Steve Gehlen the current Chairman of the Portland Creative Conference and President of the Board of Keeping the Arts, its nonprofit beneficiary.
“It’s about making that human, emotional connection with someone you heard speak on stage and then you talk to one-on-one afterwards.
He tells how he was inspired to commit to writing a screenplay just by hearing someone give he respected give the most basic advice imaginable: “Just sit down and write.”
That just do it mentality seems to run though every motivational seminar, brainstorming session and knock-off TED Talk, in real life or on screen.
But people still pay to hear it.
The Brand of Stanley Hainsworth
The keynote speaker, Stanley Hainsworth, at first seems a caricature of an ad agency creative guy — crazy Bozo hair, bleached skinny jeans, wordy business cards. But he cops to it. He freely admits he has taken the Brand of You thing to the next level.
“Everything about me is carefully crafted. And everyone else is too, whether you just put on jean and T-shirt. We all have a brand, whether we admit it or not. But it’s not until you speak that people can judge you.”
Hainsworth can say all this because he’s a success. He runs Tether, which has a large office in Seattle and a satellite on suddenly busy Northwest 18th Avenue in Portland. When he namedrops the brands he’s been Creative Director of, they have the clout of Ivy league colleges: Nike, Lego, Starbucks. He’s there to talk about his creative journey, how everything he’s done led him to this place.
Tether mostly works with consumer products you’ve heard of, such as BMW, Gatorade, Google, Microsoft, Pepsi, and Red Bull — and some he’s convinced you will soon: Tatcha, a make up blotting paper with a Japanese back story about geishas and gold leaf.
“With creativity, since the 1990s, everything’s changed and nothing’s changed,” says Hainsworth. “You still have to have a good idea. Good ideas are not found by browsing the Internet.”
And the hair? He was always into his lovely locks. Hainsworth pulls up a collage of headshots from when he was an actor and had an Axl Rose look, which caused Gus Van Sant to cast him in a minor role, Dirtman, in “My Own Private Idaho.”
As a Nike staffer from 1989 to 2001, Hainsworth went from copywriter to creative director to starting Nike Entertainment.
“That was our MBA, working at Nike, we learned how to brand. I would hire sight-unseen, anyone who worked at Nike during that magical period.”
AC Dickson, Apple copywriter
Few ad men have as many strings to their bow as Andrew Dickson. He has worked his way up from indie movie maker to Andy Kaufman-type performance artist, to teaching at the Wieden + Kennedy 12 school, to being a respected copywriter: even notoriously-controlling Apple wants his work while allowing him to live a balanced life in Portland with his young family.
Dickson told the Tribune in an email what it is about Portland that keeps him happy professionally.
“What continually impresses me about Portland is how new creative communities form and thrive. The comedy scene has exploded recently, the storytelling scene has grown from strong but small to one of the biggest and most supported in the country. Despite how much Portland has grown and changed, it’s still a place where a few people can create something new, and if it’s good or interesting or exciting, there will be an audience. I think that’s important to recognize, the appreciation for creativity here is enormous.”
JD Hooge, a Partner and Chief Creative Officer of Instrument, says that as the Portland creative scene grows, “The offerings of a progressive agency over a traditional one will triumph, and if the industry wakes up to see the light, that’s when they’ll also see how Portland is winning in that aspect.”
Brands like Portland.
“Most brands are excited and curious that we’re here. People recognize that something special, and different, is going on
in Portland. Technology is changing all the time, and brands who come to us are looking for partners to push their thinking and build collaboratively. Our only limitation is what we can think of.”
They Might Be Giants
Two more W+K alumni formed an agency called Must Be Something two years ago.
Jed Alger worked at Wieden + Kennedy for 13 years as a writer and creative director, Andrew Schafer spent nine years there as an account director, They can both rattle off brands that give them credibility, and the work they did is on their website (wearembs.com) to back it up. Nike, Miller Brewing, Microsoft, Starbucks, Target, EA Games, Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Dodge/Chrysler and P&G. Even unwieldy megabrands can have some facet that is creatively cool.
Alger attributes the Portland agency boom in the last five years to Wieden + Kennedy. “It’s been a magnet to creative from out of town and a little factory for pumping out creatives in town.”
He adds, “They made the town in a way, there’s nothing like that place.
It draws the best and challenges them to do better. I wouldn’t call it a machine. It’s an amazing animal.”
There are now enough talented people locally to put together a team to solve any marketing or creative problem: designers, illustrators, producers, writers.
He points out that while there have always been great design firms in Portland, such as Johnson + Wolverton and Ziba, right now it’s a lot easier to work as a individual, or in small companies (such as his) of one or two people.
They struck out on their own knowing there was enough freelance talent around them to tackle any job, while being nimbler than a big agency. Could they take clients with them? “Dan [Wieden] would hunt you down and kill you if you did,” says Schafer. But their first job was with old contacts at the Los Angeles agency 72andSunny.
One early success was working for Nike Skateboarding.
“They were like this amazing, Wild West team within Nike to work with. We did the project from soup to nuts. It led to a shooting a huge, global TV project for a Nike Running campaign.” They prefer to get to know the client rather than pitch. “Pitching is like a speed dating,” says Alger with a laugh. “We’d rather work for free then have to pitch.”
Clients, he says, usually want the same thing. “They just want problems solved. Things like, ‘I have no idea what’s the north star for our brand. How do we launch this? Is our voice right? We need a new logo…’ ”
Could a Portland firm ever get just as big as W+K? They agree it’s possible, although Shafer qualifies this: “Look at Sockeye: they’ve been around for 15 years, and they do what they want without getting huge.”
Alger adds “We got some wonderful advice from the Chief Financial Officer of Wieden when we went out on our own. He said ‘The day you hire is the day you have to fire, and if you don’t grow you die.’” No pressure then.
Schafer says of W+K “No one walks the walk the way Wieden does in terms of great work, having that willingness and to risk damaging the relationship with clients, pushing employees to the screaming edge of madness all in the name of getting the work better.”