Story time: Frank Gehry and the reluctant muse of advertising

Gehry_iiSeveral years ago, I visited the Venice Beach offices of Chiat Day.  I was there with a client from Coke.  We had come with the crazy idea that Chiat Day could help us work on a new product concept.  (For the outcome, see the post for last Friday: New agencies, new clients.)

The building had been designed by Frank Gehry and while we were there it appeared to be under reconstruction.  I can’t tell you whether what I am about to describe was deliberate or an artifact of the construction process.

When the client and I entered the building, we found ourselves in a perfect cipher of a lobby.  There were no signs, no welcome, no instructions.  Just a very large plant and a bank of elevators. 

As I pushed for the elevator, I said to the client “Hmm, so what floor, do you think?” 

A disembodied voice replied, “Main reception is on 2.” 

Behind the very large plant was a women sitting at a desk.  She didn’t smile.  She didn’t want to establish eye contact.  She seemed to want us to leave her alone.  So we did.

The day was frustrating (see post for last Friday), but we got to know Gehry’s building a little.  Our meeting with the Chiat Day “team” was conducted in a large board room.  There were the famous Gehry chairs, the ones made of compressed cardboard.  The tables were made of thick sheets of plate glass, driven through by metal bolts. 

We were there most of the day, and I had occasion to come and go several times.  This meant swinging open a large, impressive set of plate glass doors, and passing through.  The third or fourth time I did so, I was stunned to discover that beside these doors was a simple passage way.  It was taped and spackled for painting, so I guess it had just been installed.  It was narrow, low, and it had no door at either end. 

It was the most imaginative thing we were to see all day.  It seemed to say, “Listen, if you must, you can make your way by means of these magnificent doors, heavy with the majesty of Chiat Day.  Or, if you’d prefer, you can just come and go by means of this little passage.  You decide.” 

Oh perfect.  The world is filled with books about creativity, systems for idea generation, elaborate theories of brand building, the 7, 12, 15 secrets of marketing.  (I know this because I have written one or two of them.)  But we all know the real secret of great marketing.  Smart, articulate people who share a mission and a room. 

It is astounding how many people in marketing thing that it’s more complicated than this.  (And for story time next Friday, I’ll tell you about the time I was doing idea generation at a big Madison Avenue agency and there was this guy, see, who…) 

We dress idea generation up in various kinds of mumbo jumbo.  We insist on filling out those pads of paper and covering the walls with “insights,” “mission statements,” “values,” and “objectives.”  But all of these are really just large plate glass doors that claim transparency but do not, finally, aid in it, that give free passage but actually exact an effort and distraction tax in the process, that frame and mediate access when the point of good marketing is deframing, demediating and stripping away the method and the chatter till we have one, or two, really good ideas.  (I think there’s a Van Morrison song that applies here.) 

As to the woman in the lobby.  I think of her now as a reluctant muse, the one who is prepared to supply knowledge if (and only if) we ask for it, and who then wishes to be left alone.  Because, well, really, it’s up to us.  As Van Morrison would say, no method, no teacher, no guru.  The muse, c’est nous.

(As posted from the Starbucks’ parking lot, July 8, 2005)

4 thoughts on “Story time: Frank Gehry and the reluctant muse of advertising

  1. Steve Portigal

    Thanks, Grant, for a really inspiring, enlightened/enlightening, and encouraging post. This is one my faves to date!

    (since I can’t ever comment without adding some personal experience, I’ll mention that a couple of weeks ago I was doing ethnographic fieldwork in NYC banks (like upstairs in office buildings) and I so wanted to do an ethnography of the lobby security process since each one was a fascinating variation of processes, with different equipment, ID, output, screening, etc. and I wondered what it was all about, really. My fave is described at )

  2. Grant

    Steve, thanks for the praise. Much appreciated. And thanks for the link to that weird machine now installed in the lobbies of NYC office buildings. As I noted in my comment at chittahchattah, when I “participated” in same, I felt a little as if I should give them a quarter or something. As if I had just participated in speaker’s corner. I forget what I shouted. Thanks, Grant

  3. Sharon

    Why are great ideas so hard to come by? Just pay attention for 1 hour, you’ll see so many bad ads and promotions. It’s everywhere, like birds in a Hitchcock film. Agencies and marketers are working really hard to come up with this crap and spending a lot of money to get it out there.

    The 30 second ad, near death perhaps. Product placement is our brilliant solution. It is just a matter of time before consumers respond badly to television programming flogging another product. At least I could get a snack and drink during commercials, product placement serves no purpose to the viewer.

    When brands are like he annoying neighbour, who hangs out in your driveway until you invite them in for a drink, we’re in trouble.

    It is time for brands to add some value to the lives of the people they serve. If transit advertising can give me something entertaining or interesting to read, bring it on. If a billboard for the Weather Network gives me tomorrow’s weather, then they are on to something. It’s even ok, if it just makes me laugh. Just do something other than droning on about yourself, about your new Oxygen Bubbles that I don’t care about.

    By the way, I have been asked to speak about Marketing to Moms. Isn’t Mom many things? A woman, a doctor, a wife or partner, a Yoga instructor, a person. It seems like the first mistake in Marketing to Moms, is Marketing to Moms. Thoughts?

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