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Sunday, September 02, 2012

Dinner of a lifetime

During our annual family crayfish party I got an idea after drinking a blackcurrant wine made by a guy that my father used to work with. Let create a re-union of the advertising and graphic design gurus that shaped Finland in the decades of rapid growth, from the 60’s to the early 90’s. (I keep this post anonymous, in the spirit of this blog.)

During the dinner a single question was asked: What was the spark that got you into advertising and design. Amazing tales were told. At one point I was wiping tears from my eyes.

What was telling was all of them started out with no formal training. One of them got told that he should go into advertising by some priest’s wife when he was 10. At the age of 14 he moved away from home with no money no plan. In some ways these were the classic rags to richness stories. But as an avid fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I saw a bunch of outliers, a bunch of geniuses. In Gladwells view; I saw support systems, I saw environments of creativity.

The clearest outliers in the groups and probably the ones making the biggest impact, had clearly started earlier. Initially by typesetting and decorating windows in shops. They had their 10.000 hours together in these supporting or fundamental topics way before others selecting an academic route had even started.

They all were of the opinion that they were not exceptional at art. They were of mixed success in school from poor grades to excellent grades. They were a mixed group of extroverts and introverts.

The support systems that stimulated these young men were competitions in typesetting, layouts and stuff like that. This enabled them to build their self-esteem and get awareness early on. This seemed crucial for their progress. There is thus a merit of competitions in design.

After a few years of working they got an opportunity to get a formal education at Ateneum, the premier art school. They had a day programme and an evening programme. These gents started in the evening programme, it was cheaper and they could not afford to be full-time students. Here they performed well as they had the empirical education to back them up. They went to school to get better, not to learn the basics.

Later they all aspired to work a one specific agency, where they all eventually worked. This was their growth platform. It was the epi-center of creativity, best jobs, biggest accounts were all there. They worked hard and prospered. When wanting to move on or when headhunted they were typically offered a double salary and perks. No-one stayed, but self-esteem was hurt and the feelings toward the past employer were destroyed. One of them had asked their employers how could my value suddenly double in two weeks.

My father was entry to the business was different. My grandfather had an academic education and was the head of marketing at one of the biggest ironworks in Finland, he and my grandmother were able to stretch and send my father to be educated in London, where he also met my Danish mother. As he then moved to Finland and set up his studio in our home, the place became a continental breath of fresh air in the local advertising community. They said it shaped the type of advertising that they made, and as advertising was something sexy and cool it collected artist, models.

On the other hand the big money and power was aggregated at the advertising agencies, but there the money men were ruled, so dynamic was somehow different. Eventually these all set up own agencies.

 In one of the closing speeches an anecdote of the power of advertising was told. My father wanted to build a library of ordinary people to use in picture depicting life, for example countless car adverts. For example my current wife, her sister and mother-in law were car models for Honda. Many of my friends featured in soda ads. A single add was crafted and placed in Helsingin Sanomat’s looking for people section. During the next three weeks there was a steady flow of people arriving at the studio. A total of 5000 people showed up, in a city with a population of 500.000, so this single ad mobilized 1% of the population. The creators of called it their most successful advert. It was a hilarious story as at some point they ran out of film, but the show had to go on. I guess those people never got a career as a model.

 It was interesting as these gents were the last pre-computer generation. Their relationship to Internet is very different from mine. For example some of them could write in Times, Helvetica or other classic typefaces.

We also touched on the future of advertising and graphic design. They seemed to all note that advertising needs to be close to the product and that advertising should be a bridge from the product to the consumer. With Internet this bridge is shorter or even non existent. They clearly acknowledged that that will change everything, but a challenge for the next generation to grapple with.

Lessons learned:

1. Once you discover a life-work passion pursue it relentlessly.

2. Raw talent can be compensated by hard work and persistence.

3. Get yourself into places where you can learn.



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