Collaborate or Die

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Some years ago I was engaged in a conversation about art and artists with Neil Kleinman, at that time the Dean of the College of Media & Communication at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. And Dean Kleinman explained something to me about artists that I had never understood before, though I had spent a lot of my time around writers and painters and musicians and actors. It was this:

Because writers and painters tended to work alone, their world, in a sense, was divided into two groups – themselves and an “audience”. You were either one or the other – and by and large you were the “other” because they were, well, themselves.

Musicians, actors, and dancers, however, divided the world into three groups – themselves, the audience to be sure, and also other artists with whom they created the work. And that the existence of that third group fundamentally altered their entire worldview and actually made collaboration more possible.

Of course, these are generalizations and there are wonderful communities of writers and painters just as there are lone wolf actors and musicians. But I think the basic idea is valid because it reveals that how you work reflects – and is a reflection of – how you engage with and organize the world around you.

I was reminded of this as I read Brett Craig’s brief exploration of the idea of collaboration – especially as it relates to those of us in advertising – Collaborate or Die. For who among us has not struggled with the admonition by superiors to “be a team player” even as one sees one’s ideas stolen, mangled or discarded – by co-workers, clients, and even those very self-same superiors who admonished you.

Mr. Craig’s slim volume attempts to address this common conundrum in two ways. First, by making the case that collaboration actually yields better results. And second, by discussing how to actually achieve it.

For the former, he by and large points to the successes of his own fruitful career. This not only provides useful examples, but also gives readers something of an inside-look at advertising among the higher levels of some of America’s more prestigious shops (Mr. Craig is currently Executive Creative Director at Deutsch LA and cut his teeth at TBWA/Chiat/Day).

And for the latter, Mr. Craig’s approach is summed up early:

“You need to believe that your idea can always be better, and understand that the key to making it better is sharing it with other smart, collaborative people.”

Which in itself articulates exactly the problem we face in advertising.

IF you have other smart collaborative people in the room, people who ALSO believe that their ideas are not inextricably chained to their own self worth, who believe that ideas can be made BETTER, and who above all are SMART, so the actual ideas they’re bringing forth, or soldering onto yours, don’t actually, you know, suck – THEN you can have success.

And how often does THAT happen?

Mr. Craig of course is right. The trouble is finding those people and then building relationships with them. A challenge made more difficult not only by the fact that we are, by and large, dealing with artists and writers (exactly the kind of loners Dean Kleinman described to me all those years ago), but dealing with them in a business where, quite frankly you ARE judged by your ideas. You stop coming up with great work, or are unable to convince the powers-that-be that those brilliant layouts or headlines or concepts were yours, and you’ll soon find yourself in the parking lot with a box full of awards and resume full of broken links.

Thus the challenge. Though the payoffs are great, as Mr. Craig explains:

“Usually, when people are working with high-levels of mutual respect between each other, the ideas just flow and get better and better. Your confidence to speak from your gut goes up. Your willingness to throw out even stupid, half-baked thoughts goes up because you feel it’s safe to do so. And it’s these half-baked, intuitive thoughts that are often where some brilliance is hiding.”

Curiously for a work about collaboration, however, Collaborate or Die is remarkably devoid of it. And more’s the pity. Had Mr. Craig engaged some of the people he’d worked for, with, or above, to get their thoughts about the ideas he puts forth, not only would a useful element of variety been added, but the form of the book would have actually echoed the content, making his message substantially more persuasive.

That he didn’t, while disappointing, negates neither the value of his observations about collaboration, nor his suggestions about how to achieve it.

But that’s just one writer’s opinion.

Collaborate or Die by Brett Craig was published by Brett Craig on 01/04/16 – order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).