An Interview with Gideon Amichay

Amichay FinalGideon Amichay is an award-winning ad man, communication artist, writer and TEDx speaker. He is Founder & Chief Creative Officer of No, No, No, No, No, Yes, a creative boutique based in New York City, focused on creating Ideas That Make News, and author of No, No, No, No, No, Yes: Insights From A Creative Journey, a book on innovation and creativity (you can read our review here). For 18 years he was a partner at Shalmor Avnon Amichay Y&R where, as Chief Creative Officer,  he won hundreds of international awards including 19 Cannes Lions and 9 Clios for advertising and innovation in communication. He also won a Special Award from the United Nations. Amichay is also a cartoonist, publishing in major Israeli newspapers as well as in The New Yorker and displaying his work at The Holon Design Museum in Israel in 2011. A graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design with honors and earned an MBA from the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, Amichay currently lives and works in NYC and you can reach him here.

genesis

Agency Review:
While we thought the book was terrific, we know it began as a Ted Talk. So this question goes in two directions at once. On the one hand, how did the story and insight you wanted to tell change as you moved it from that form to this one. And on the other hand, why did it start as a lecture and why did you decide it needed to exist as a book too?

Amichay:
Well – surprisingly everything did start with a book, but not the one you reviewed.

Agency Review:
Can you send us that one? Perhaps we should review it instead…

Amichay:
That was a book I wrote in Hebrew in 2011.

Agency Review:
Hebrew? Okay, never mind…

Amichay:
It was published after I left my job as the Chief Creative Officer & Joint Managing Partner at Shalmor Avnon Amichay/Y&R, Tel Aviv, Israel. That book was more like a journey and contained more past stories and anecdotes.

When I got a call from the TED people, I had no clue what I was getting into. Maybe that was the reason I instinctively said YES. In order to prepare for my lecture, I decided that watching TED lectures wasn’t enough so I traveled to Palm Springs to see a real life TED Active conference. It was there that I realized I might have said YES too soon…

Agency Review:
We know the feeling

Amichay:
While experiencing one lecture after another, I understood that a story – as good as it might be – wouldn’t be enough. A TED Talk needs much more! I felt the Talk needed to be timeless. I felt I needed an idea – a conclusion, a realization, a moral lesson.

Agency Review:
We would think your book would do that.

 Amichay:
No, not the first one. And it wasn’t easy to realize that my work, my first (and if I may say successful) book, wasn’t good enough for that. Something was missing. And on top of that, I realized that the talk has to be A SHOW.

But looking back now I can tell you that time has an uncanny ability to provide us with proportions. Looking back at your previous work will always make you think “NOW I would have done it way better”. Dealing with the fact that my first book wasn’t good enough was an important lesson for me. Luckily, I got the opportunity to improve it without hesitation and with my TEDx Talk in mind. I wrote it again in English, only this time I wrote it differently, as a narrative book. That’s the version you’ve read.

Agency Review:
So it was a book that became a different book that became a talk?

Amichay:
More or less, yes…

Agency Review:
Okay, so, if we placed the three side by side by side, would we be able to see a progression? And what would that progression be in terms of the content? Because when we asked the question, we were expecting that the forms would have dictated changes (e.g. “I had to make it more visual, because it was a talk”), but it sounds like you’re saying the forms gave you an opportunity to revise and refine your thinking – not just change its format for the different media.

Amichay:
Sure. The English book is led by narrative, while the Hebrew one is led by a journey. The English editing supports the reader’s take. It is shorter and only content in line with the narrative made the cut.

style and voice

Agency Review:
We would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the design of the book itself. For it has a very distinctive style and voice – one that is simple and elegant as a children’s book, as we say in the review. Clearly this was not by accident. But was this a choice that evolved over time, or did you know from the beginning – or from when you decided to turn this into a new book – that this was the way you wanted to write it?

Amichay:
I write and draw as clearly as I think and speak. I think it’s an outcome of my years in advertising – after you have an idea, you have to be extra sharp and choose your copy, the typeface and the total design very carefully. I thought of my book as full-experience journey, exactly like that. Sure the story was a major player along the meaningful narrative, but the text was just the beginning. The design decisions came next. The typeface, the empty white pages and the layout were all a crucial part of the storytelling.

Agency Review:
But that’s not how most people look at writing a book. Not even most people in advertising…

Amichay:
This is just my way of storytelling. I can’t think of a specific moment when I decided to have a specific style and voice; not in my personal life, not during my career and not in my book.

Agency Review:
Why do you think that is?

Amichay:
Interesting you should ask that. These days I’m working on my second book in Hebrew (to be published in September of 2016) and in one of the first chapters I write about the amazing talent kids have, to look for the ‘WHY’ in everything. As I see it, kids are the most creative people you can find, natural born entrepreneurs without even knowing it, they can think up wonderful start-up ideas on a daily basis. Unfortunately, as we grow older we somehow lose these amazing abilities. So if you can see some of my inner kid in my book I’ll take it as a huge compliment.

Agency Review:
We would call that ability to “look for the WHY” as a form of critical thinking – something that many think people in general have lost (or are losing). Why? Why do we lose that skill, or has it always been thus, has each generation complained about the successive one not being able to think adequately and when people like us complain about it, we’re just old men yelling at the kids to get off their lawn?

Amichay:
We lose it because we have an EGO full of confidence suggesting we know everything. And, because of the speed of everything, actually sometimes that seems to be the only way to stay alive…

In a way, the expectation of us – especially executives – is to KNOW. Knowing is a power, while admitting “not knowing” is perceived as a weakness.

Of course it is all wrong. Totally wrong. In my eyes – the real power is to admit that you don’t know, to go back to the drawing board, to explore and only then to come back with a better answer.

the useful no

Agency Review:
This idea of a “useful No” feels at once revolutionary and yet also familiar. And our experience is that these are the ideas that are the hardest to focus on precisely because they have a foot in two camps. So how long did it take you to identify the value of No? Was there a moment that turned the lightbulb on, or was it more of an eventual discovery (or wearing down of resistance)?

Amichay:
You describe it perfectly – revolutionary yet familiar. I guess that’s why sometimes I feel this idea has been walking with me for almost my entire life.

Having said that, I can definitely point a finger to a specific moment which helped turn on the light bulb – It was during my EMBA studies (The Berlin School of Creative Leadership) when I turned 43. I was a part of a not-so-young professionals group that knew (or thought they knew) everything!

Under the wise guidance of Michael Conrad, we were slowly reminded how to ask ‘WHY?’ again. How to be skeptical when needed, disagree with common knowledge and look for new solutions. We found ourselves in a new & exciting area – The Unknown. A place where you should go against all you know to be right and familiar. That was the first time I understood I have a relationship with the word ‘NO’.

This relationship went on for many years in advertising with plenty of clients saying plenty of NOs. Of course, the more that the projects required bravery by the client, the more NOs we got.

Agency Review:
Imagine that…

Amichay:
But after the Berlin School I had more tools I could use to convince clients to go the extra mile. And whenever we did manage to win those fights, a never-done-before project went live and we had huge marketing success and even awards.

Suddenly the idea for a book became so clear. All my career milestones helped me to translate this idea into words.

Agency Review:
This idea of tools is important. That there are tools for helping clients past “no”. Can you elaborate on some of them?

Amichay:
Here are two:

1) Always try to present the work or the idea to the one with the power to decide, the one who is brave enough to go the extra mile. The one who can say YES.

2) Don’t use creative reasons to support your ideas. Marketing explanations are better and executive terms are the best. Generally speaking, Boards of Directors don’t understand design or copy. And while they can enjoy your dream, they will make their decisions based on the idea’s potential in terms of numbers, real expectations, and a clear business plan.

No now

Agency Review:
While we would agree with you that a meaningful use of the word “no” has always been important, we make the case in the review that it’s probably more important in our business right now because so much is changing  – the media, the people, the commerce, everything. And curiously, the one word that clients feel most comfortable using is, in fact No – but sort of for the wrong reasons, because invariably in their minds it is a way of organizing what they perceive as chaos. But is this actually a new phenomenon, or have people always struggled with a “useful no”, and we just feel it’s new because we’re dealing with it this time?

Amichay:
No is not a new thing. It’s human nature to look at things from your perspective and context. After the book was published I was amazed with feedback and comments from readers.

Agency Review:
Like what?

 Amichay:
I realized that this book has so many different audiences – CEOs, creative people, entrepreneurs, students and even sales people – all dealing with different kind of NOs. I’m just happy I could help them (even slightly) to stand firm against their own NOs and identify the opportunities behind them.

I think today we face more NOs than ever. The change is around us (e.g., the internet of things), the need to adapt new behavior and the confusion of clients create a strong NO atmosphere in many fields. We all have to find a way to accept the idea of being challenged by more NOs.

Agency Review:
But we think that sort of sells your insight short, makes it sound like you’re saying “gee whiz there’s a lot of negativity out there; let’s all try to be more positive” – when in fact, what’s really intriguing about the book is the idea that No is actually a fundamental part of the creative – or often any – process. That’s the thing most people don’t understand and when they do, are uncomfortable with. So across all those different audiences you’ve found yourself engaged with, how are you helping them see No this way?

Amichay:
It is always by self-example. It’s very important that your creative team will see how you handle the truth, and in this case, the truth is that you still get NO’s from clients. It doesn’t matter how many great projects you’ve done in the past. You still get new NO’s. When you do, that’s a crucial point in your behavior. It’s money time for your attitude and your energy to embrace that NO, to see that there is a comma after it and not an exclamation point. They need to see that now it’s the time to come up and shape the project again and again.

improvisation

Agency Review:
As we read your exegesis of “no” we were reminded of the classic direction from improv – “never just NO; instead YES AND” – which we recently heard expanded to “NO AND”. In other words, no dead ends, always a path towards something, even if that something is the unknown. The more we think about this, the more we believe it’s really about, in a sense, a turning the conversation from thinking in purely executional terms to thinking in terms of ideas. Do you see No this way?

Amichay:
Of course. I even believe this is the main issue. The hard truth is that even after you’ve read this book you will still hear lots of NOs – simple, short NOs. Not a ‘NO AND’ and defiantly not a ‘YES AND’.  Just NO!

That’s where the idea of No Comma comes in: No comma, “we don’t have the time”. No comma, “we don’t have the budget”. No comma, “it’s too classic” No comma, “it’s too digital”. No comma, “it’s too sophisticated” …

By discovering which No Comma we are confronted with, ‘No’s’ in fact led us to eventual ‘Yes’s’ — including the waiting, the rejections and the revisions. ‘No,’ forces us to reexamine, to explore more, to rethink, to change directions and to improve.

This is not an easy process, but it’s essential. In order to go forward and move from brave ideas into brave actions you must go through some hard phases.

Agency Review:
We understand that – and agree with it – but actually our question was a little different and we’d like to bring you back to it. We’re intrigued by the different relationship you’re describing as a result of your thoughts on No. One that is more like that between improv actors creating something together and less like one worker executing for another. Are you seeing this change in creative relationships in the work your agency is doing as a result of this thinking?

Amichay:
Sure I do. The main reason for that is because more than ever, you have to work with new talents from new fields. You’re not the only expert any more. Thus it is not smart to see them as executers only. Today, it’s better to be a good listener.

the ultimate takeaway

Agency Review:
We’d like to continue that part of the conversation about relationships, because for us the most important thing about your book – which didn’t really make it into the review – is that your discussion of No, really comes down to a fundamental shift from using people as finite tools, to truly collaborating with them.

Amichay:
Absolutely!

Agency Review:
And further, the understanding that collaboration is not simply an option, it is the only real path. No – with a comma, No with an “and”, is about engaging not simply the hands of the person you’re working with, but their brains as well. Is about the idea that the person you’re working with – on ANYTHING – is not there merely to make what’s in your head come true; but instead to be a part of accomplishing something that neither of you could accomplish on your own. Does that sound reasonable or have we gone completely off the rails?

Amichay:
Collaboration is the main key to success. Today, there is no way to create meaningful projects alone. You – or your company – cannot have all the needed skills any more. It’s a multi skills industry more than ever, especially if you’re trying to create game-changer projects.

Working in collaboration with different talents, partners and other companies can make your idea smarter, stronger and better. Like never before.

Agency Review:
Yes, but we think you’re on to something deeper than that. Something about the nature of creative direction that we think has mostly been lost (and to be clear, we distinguish creative direction from simple order giving). That this dissection of the different kinds of no’s is really about giving direction in a way that actually creates space in the direction for the other person to bring their expertise to the collaboration, so the two of you wind up with something better than either of you could have come up with on your own. Again, do you think that’s a reasonable interpretation, or do you think we’re projecting our own frustrations with the business a bit too much?

Amichay:
It’s hard to be a leader. No one said it’s easy.

Agency Review:
No?

You can read our review of Gideon’s book here, or order it from Amazon here  – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Illustration of Gideon Amichay by the brilliant Mike Caplanis