My most recent full time job was with Digital Kitchen, a motion graphics production company.
For a number of years now, I’ve spent the Monday after the Super Bowl talking about the ads from the big game with my friends Bill Leff and Wendy Snyder of WGN Radio.
It is always a hill of fun. And no, Bill is nowhere near as serious as he appears in the photo above.
The H&R Block ad is visually stunning, combining live installations, motion graphics, and a generally artful eye to some hardworking visualizations of abstract concepts. In the party context of a Super Bowl, it was probably less successful than it will be elsewhere but the conceit of the cube and all the data it contained hinted at a smarter, deeper story for the brand and this alliance.
LifeWater on the other hand, was purely visual with no purpose beyond style. Without a narrative, it stumbled early and never recovered. Yes, there’s a link to the art that appears in the city and the art on their plastic bottles, but that is an awfully thin link. Art does make life more inspired, but this just felt flat. Because art without story is less.
I mention these two pieces because so much of our work involves creating experiences around imagery. For us to be truly exceptional in this discipline and stay ahead of the ever-growing pack of competitors, we can’t ignore the underlying narratives critical to imbuing our work with meaning. It is the story behind the visuals that keep audiences paying attention for the second, third and hundredth time they’ve seen something.
While I’m not a big New England Patriots fan, you have to respect Tom Brady. This year, he led the AFC in passer rating, yards per attempt, and passing yards per game, leading his team to 11 wins on 12 starts…yet he’s the NFL’s oldest starting player.
This is not an accident. Brady follows an extreme practice, diet, and wellness regimen. He focuses obsessively on his own performance which is why he’s the only quarterback whose numbers have improved with age. His singular focus makes him a force to be respected.
And that’s exactly what’s demanded in this ever changing business. There can be no resting on laurels; the great things we’ve done in the past break no new ground for us. Instead, every day we must build our legacy. Every day, we either add to or subtract from our market reputation.
Truly elevating above the fray today requires differentiation and specialization, not to mention an obsessive focus on delivering those specialties. We must know our competition and what they do better than us. We must know the state of the art or preferably, create it. Simply put, we must own our specialties by putting in the time, effort, and focus required of a champion. You don’t expect greatness, you earn it.
And when you do, great things happen.
See this? This is a hack Ryan Summers developed for the CGI team working on the Dolby job. It’s a GPU cluster: a series of five $600 boxes that could soon disrupt the world of render farms. A standard motion graphics render farm has roughly 60 nodes, each with one processor and four cores, for a total of 240 cores. In contrast, each of these five GPU’s contains around 2500 cores. They don’t need cooling, they require far less power, and they’re infinitely scalable; all huge advantages over current render farm technology. GPU’s like this were developed by the gaming industry to process heavy math. Ryan’s repurposed them for our needs to generate more renders, quicker and cheaper
As an industry solution, these types of GPU’s are not entirely ready today, but in a few months, they could be. And that’s the point; until the industry generates software to catch up to these processor speeds, Digital Kitchen can leverage this technological advantage to make us more competitive in the marketplace. While others have lower cost margins based on how they’re structured, getting more done more quickly helps us to close that gap.
Innovative thinking like this doesn’t only relate to hardware. As technology reinvents itself on increasingly shorter cycles, all sorts of opportunities will become available to anyone paying attention. Most of us recognize we no longer need to build websites from scratch; we can customize existing platforms already coded for security and responsiveness. We no longer need to settle for a stock shot or set up our own second unit shoots; we can access a community of DP’s on something like https://genero.tv/ and get a bespoke shot reasonably quickly and for a fraction of the cost. Hacks like these won’t work for everything, but in the right situation, they lend DK a real advantage.
But that advantage relies on embracing change and innovation. As it does for any company. After all, it’s at the heart of no less than Steve Jobs’ famous mantra: stay hungry, stay foolish, stay curious.”
Digital Kitchen makes main title sequences. We install remarkable digital environments. We create content, programming, and marketing. Oh, and we’re a production company.
All of this is true. But none of it is as critical to why we exist. What matters is not what we make, but its purpose.
Our most lasting and meaningful work serves as solutions, as strategic, creative answers to a real business needs.
Carnival came to DK with wearable Bluetooth technology they hoped would change shipboard commerce; we showed them how it could change the entire cruising experience and helped them garner a $2b investment from their board.
Second & Seneca was a tired old office building left behind by the new tech startup rental market; our lobby installation with its animations from a wide variety of local graphic artists gives the property modern relevance.
Narcos was an unknown Netflix series set during the early 80’s rise of drug lord Pablo Escobar; our main title condensed ten dense episodes of characters and storylines into an accessible, minute-long reflection of the era’s wealth, violence, and vintage glamour.
This is how we will talk about DK moving forward; as an organization that applies experience design to transform businesses through creative experiences. By doing this, we take away the distracting, and ultimately fruitless debate around what we do and instead focus on the far more meaningful why we do it. We focus on our purpose.
Because people always want to know ‘why?’
If you watch or read the work of Salim Ismail, you understand that today’s biggest business challenge is adapting our linear mindsets to an environment of exponential change. The pace of change is so fast that our assumptions of what’s known and valid are continually questioned, debunked, and reset. Which can be disorienting.
Consider content. As advertisers migrated from television to digital platforms, the demand for content exploded. Yet many clients’ mindsets remain stuck in TV-era thinking; if we make it, people will watch it.
Today’s media landscape is awash in content. Last July, YouTube’s CEO announced people upload 400 hours of content every minute of every day. That’s over THREE YEARS of video every hour. And that’s just YouTube. Facebook claims to generate 8 billion video views every day, Snapchat does six billion.
Clearly, the game has changed. And keeps changing.
Combine this new reality with the dropping price of computing power and ubiquity of motion graphics software which allows people all over the world to create the same beautiful 3D work that built DK’s reputation, and it begins to hit home how much we must keep evolving.
The world isn’t waiting for our work. Our every project must earn attention, drawing audiences to our exceptional ideas and amazing executions. And that’s just part of it.
Today, technology enables people down the street or across the ocean to produce similar work at a lower cost, so we must also provide our clients a superior experience. We must make working with Digital Kitchen more rewarding, more profitable, and more fun. We must continually find ways to add value and make working with us the best part of our clients’ days.
Yes, we make content. But we can never be content.
Back in the waning days of TV agency dominance, Kurt Karlenzig — a smart digital co-worker — discussed the ideal posture for anyone trying to drive digital adoption among clients:
“You don’t want to be too far ahead, they’ll lose interest. But you can’t be behind them; they’ll resent or ignore you. The best position is just slightly ahead, leading but still accessible.”
That’s great advice for any relationship with a client. Clients hire us to add value, to provide informed, experienced points of view that they lack. In today’s hyper-fragmented media environment, the best clients realize they can’t be experts in all things, so they turn to partners like us to advice and educate them.
This is why we must agree upon a recommendation in every creative meeting.
When we leave that decision to the client, we position ourselves as vendors, just selling whatever they’ll buy. That’s irresponsible. Instead, we must be the experts, the advisors who have lived with the challenge, developing various solutions and a more informed perspective.
If we want to sell the best solution to clients, we must tell them what we think it is.
Change challenges all of us. It brings the unknown front and center, pushing us out of our comfort zone and demanding we rethink our expectations. Digital Kitchen has gone through a lot of change lately—as founder Don McNeil puts it “we’ve had more change in the last eighteen months than we did in our first eighteen years.” That can definitely be disorienting.
Still, change is the way of the world. It’s a constant. And the pace of change will only increase…
Here’s the future we are working toward: we will build on our unique legacy of high-impact, largely film-based, visual creativity as we embrace new disciplines and new types of client relationships. We will recalibrate our thinking and approach from one-and-done project work to ongoing, agency or resource of record creative relationships. That’s a different posture. That’s why we’re pushing for Group Account Directors and bringing more strategic rigor to our work.
Some have asked if we’re becoming a marketing firm and yes, we are definitely moving that way. The days of us being able to grow—or even sustain—our business solely as a production company are over. We need to embrace these changes.
Because all that said, I genuinely believe Digital Kitchen’s best days lie ahead of us.
I believe we will re-inspire the market with Social Impact work that changes expectations around how to build a brand.
I believe we can innovate to redefine, once again, what a marketing idea is today.
Because I believe in the fundamental Digital Kitchen belief that Every Brand Deserves a Main Title. And I want us to give it to them.
Creative enterprises develop business three ways: through personal relationships, by expanding existing relationships, and by attracting new clients. And the best way to attract new clients is with great, noticed work.
Digital Kitchen has a considerable creative legacy, but like anything of value, it requires constant maintenance and upkeep. So when we’re not producing a lot of work, our reputation dims.
Great, ambitious work must always be our focus because it attracts great, ambitious clients, the ones looking to innovate beyond expectations.
In 1996, Phil Dusenberry the late Chairman of BBDO, famously coined the phrase “The work, the work, the work.”
His mantra still guides that agency, because no matter the medium, a manic focus on creative is critical. Nothing attracts great work like great work. This is particularly germane to Digital Kitchen today.
I’ve spent hours poring over our website these past few weeks. It is packed with amazing work, some of which I knew, much of it I didn’t. The range and breadth of Digital Kitchen’s creativity is something everyone here should take amazing pride in having helped bring to life.
But pride alone won’t sustain us. Which brings to mind a second quote, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “The past is prologue” (no, that didn’t originate in Oliver Stone’s JFK).
As the marketing world continues to change at an exponential rate, clients need partners to guide and inspire them as they find the older brand building methods no longer work like they once did. Our work in emerging disciplines like Content, Programming, Experiential Spaces and Social Responsibility present new ways forward for advertisers, exciting new possibilities fueled by creativity and the innovations technology empowers.
I hope you share the belief that our best work lies before us. Because as Dusenberry recognized, making a habit of great work only attracts more and ever greater work.
As Digital Kitchen continues evolving to stay relevant, embrace change. The new holds the promise of inspiring clients and audiences through the power of great work.
That is our legacy. And our future.