In any creative business, the deeply personal nature of aesthetics makes judging ideas highly subjective. Worse, typical corporate structures layered with levels of administrators each empowered with a small share of specialized brand responsibility creates a highly-contentious approval process where narrow interests, task-specific wants, and individual egos sublimate well-intentioned cooperation into contentious compromise. And along the way, ever fragile aesthetics collapse as these forces stretch ideas into tortured, accommodation-driven forms.
“Nibbled to death by ducks,” “Pissing on the tree”: this process raises the cynical hackles of any designer who strives for the exceptional, which explains how last week, a user interface designer named Dustin Curtis generated a dust up among creative thinkers on Twitter and online message boards that far exceeded the usual grumbling.
Mr. Curtis published and promoted this site along with an open letter to American Airlines. Essentially, he takes extraordinary offense at their website, despising the online experience so much that he vows “never to fly your airline again.”
However, unlike other irritated consumers, Mr. Curtis took the unusual but relatively easily-realized step of taking his beef public. With high dudgeon, he openly questions how the otherwise respectable AA could tolerate such a ‘terrible’ customer experience, taking personal aim at CEO Gerard Arpey and their board of directors for tolerating such an assault on their brand and its image. He went so far as to spend ‘six hours’ redesigning their landing page, and his design definitely features a clean, streamlined look compared to the Nascar-esque clutter of the existing AA page.
His indignant ranting vitriol at this perceived confederacy of dunces makes wonderful vicarious reading for creative professionals, but that was not particularly fascinating.
What was incredible was that an actual user experience architect from AA.com responded to his complaint, albeit somewhat anonymously. Even Mr. Curtis seemed amazed, more so by the fact that this designer’s portfolio featured some great work.
In his response “Mr. X” sets the blame for their underwhelming site squarely on American’s corporate structure and culture: large, far-flunged and heavily, heavily siloed. Many people touch the site, each with their own vested interests and many with autonomous authority, which results in the eventual dog’s breakfast that is aa.com.
In the end, I bet “Mr. X” vetted his letter with his bosses, providing a response to this challenge that simultaneously sought to explain, excuse and even pre-sell coming improvements. It was a thoroughly contemporary version of corporate mea culpa: highly-targeted, highly-specific, tolerably supplicating and forward looking.
Mr. Curtis chalks this up to the permeation of bad taste in large organizations, but that’s a bit hysterical. The real issue is empowerment. With notably few exceptions, CMO’s lack any real authority in serious businesses. They may be C-level, but they sit at the child’s table; easily replaced, ignored and overruled.
But its no coincidence that some of the consistently best run marketing organizations have adapted this structure to streamline the process and limit the amount of people with license to effect creative ideas. The irony of the short-lived CMO tenure is how one individual with the remarkably rare balance of skills that makes them both strategic, sales-focused, and artistically discerning can radically influence a company’s image and their brands’ success. For years at PepsiCo, that job fell to the legendary Alan Pottasch, who never touched an idea he didn’t improve. Phil Knight’s role in the creative vision of Nike stands very well documented. And ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin’s recent emphasis on creative champions in marketing roles signals a powerful new resurgence for his collection of exceptional brands.
In a corporation, just as in society, an individual with vision can make a difference. Corporations that choose and empower these kinds of exceptional individuals always win. Those that don’t, inevitably spend too much on their advertising, forced to run more of it since it is of lower quality, and spending more to produce it due to overruns in editing, keylining, and approval.
In the end, not every creative idea or site can be as brilliant as this one, but they can all be better. And the decision to be better has always been and always will be a personal choice.