Pushing Creative Boundaries
As COVID-19 continues to murder the event industry, we are all watching more television. For me, I’m addicted to two shows: RuPaul’s Drag Race and Project Runway. Both contest-centered shows remind me of my dad’s most important rule of business:
“If they want crap, give them crap.” (I’ve actually changed the quote slightly to make it more family friendly. You can figure out the original, I’m sure.)
Some background. My dad is a freelance writer, and started Gatty Communications when I was very young. We lived outside Washington, DC in the suburbs, and after serving as press secretary for a few members of congress, he struck out on his own. His business provided “today on the hill” type of news to the trade industry: Washington’s lobbyists and associations who had specific interest in legislation moving through congress not covered by mainstream media. Remember: no Internet.
He was successful. Really successful. One day, he needed photographs of Senator Ted Kennedy at a hearing. So, he put a camera in my mom’s hands, pushed her out the door, and the photography side of the business was born.
My mom continued as a Capitol Hill photographer, and still shoots for select clients. Tomorrow, I’ll be 52. I was six when she began.
But it was my dad who conceptualized the business, and who lined up the clients — at least, at first. Like any struggling fledgling business, he went after a variety of clients. One branch of his business centered on graphic design.
A local bank hired him to redesign their marketing material. Very corporate and very plain, their brochures were in tones of whites and grays and they told my dad they wanted something “new, exciting, and dynamic”.
He was creatively thrilled, and pitched idea after idea: multi-colored graphics, newly designed bright logos, and a mix of colors and textures.
They hated it. The last design featured shades of creams and beige. You know, another way of saying grays and tonal whites.
They loved it.
It turns out, the bank didn’t REALLY want to try something new, exciting, colorful and different. They thought they did. But what they actually wanted was a baby step forward with a few tweaks. They didn’t want anything to daring. They had a brand to fit, and conservative was part of that brand.
For many artists, balancing what the client says they want and figuring out what they actually want is a tricky business. It’s like those contest shows. On Project Runway, striking a note between what will sell and what is innovative and dramatic is each designer’s challenge.
RuPaul became uber successful because he figured out how to sanitize drag shows enough to be palatable to mainstream media.
Remember, the first nationally recognized drag queen was Devine — who was famous for eating dog poop on film. Still not a social norm. RuPaul has managed to keep what is great about drag — the humor, mild sexual innuendo, a glimpse into gay subculture — and make it vanilla enough for members of congress to want to be on his show. Imagine that.
Listening to your client and giving them what they want is how your business will thrive.
And, yes, if they want crap — either you give them crap, or you recommend someone who will. But you’ll be even more successful if you can take your most outrageous ideas and mold them into something that is more commercial. John Waters did it with Hairspray, although he says it wasn’t his intention. He managed to show Devine as Devine, but in a way that mainstream Hollywood could embrace. No dog poop was in Hairspray.
Your best clients want your creative spin. But they also need what you produce to be just inside the lines of commercial branding. What I typically do, just like my dad back when he was pitching his designs to the local bank, is show a range of concepts. It’s work intensive, but worth it. Some of the pitches are completely insane, while others narrow down to fit a more corporate brand.
Think: avant-garde Paris runway against ready to wear. Show the client both. Every once in a while, a client will surprise you and pick the artwork that pushes boundaries. More often, they go with something in the middle. Rather than get mad, and think of yourself as an artistic sell out, I’ve learned it’s better to work within the client’s comfort zone. Then, like a drug dealer, slowly push the boundaries. Before you know it, they’ll be in a cold sweat begging for more creative.
Under this philosophy, my dad’s bank would slowly evolve their brand to have a hot pink brochure with drag queen lips kissing the front, a sparkly logo and a tag line, “GIRL! Banking for the fierce bitch!”
Well, maybe not. But I bet a nice sienna becomes an option.