5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with... Michael Ventura

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
Sub Rosa's Chief Creative Officer and CEO, Michael Ventura gives us 5 minutes into his mind.


Interviewed by LBB editor, Gabrielle Lott 

LBB: It's difficult to describe Sub Rosa as you're so unique. Can you explain your company to us - what you do and who you are?
MV: Sub Rosa is a diverse team of thinkers, creators, and builders. We operate like one part think tank, one part design studio, and one part innovation laboratory. At the end of the day, our goal is to make awe-inspiring, creative work that helps companies, brands, and organizations have more meaningful relationships with people and the world around them.

LBB: What was your inspiration in setting up Sub Rosa? Did you have a plan or has the company organically grown?
MV: Sub Rosa was first set up to be an ecosystem to let good ideas thrive. We thought about what types of people we might need - Swiss Army knife type people; generalists with specialties. And then we set out to find them. The company has grown organically in the sense that every person who joins us brings something entirely new and different to the environment. I feel like we learn new things from each other and our little experimental petri dish keeps growing every day.

LBB: You've recently collaborated with TED 2011 developing a variety of installation spaces. How did this partnership occur, what was the brief and how did it come about?
MV: TED approached us because of our ability to translate. There is a spirit and lexicon (both conceptually and physically) that TED embodies. At the same time, corporate brands that sponsor TED have their own lexicon. Our job is to know both and to create a singular experience that feels decidedly branded and yet translated for the TED audience. Every opportunity we've had to work with the TED team has yielded exciting results and we're really looking forward to unveiling three new spaces this year at the conference.

LBB: During NYC fashion week you created work for Levi's. How was it to promote such an iconic fashion brand during such an important week?
MV: It's a funny question because we rarely think about projects in those terms until they're completed. Our job is totally surreal. In the beginning it's so very conceptual, then it moves to intensely and viscerally tactical, and then before you know it, it's over and we can look back and realize we just did something amazing. In the heat of the moment, the grandeur of what we are getting ourselves into is often overlooked. For us it's more important to focus on the assignment, the idea, and the results we want to achieve on behalf of our clients. Everything else is a side-effect of that.

LBB: Your work for Levi's is becoming legendary with events such as Print and Photograph Shop enticing audiences such as REM's Michael Stipe. Can you explain the work to us? Will there be more events occurring? Will there be any chance of any events in Europe?
MV: The Workshops have a special place in our hearts. We created these spaces with Levi's to be environments we all wanted to exist in the world. We sat in a room with the Levi's team (who are honestly some of the best creative and strategic thinkers we've ever collaborated with) and basically said "Wouldn't it be cool if we opened the most bad-ass print/photo/film shops in the world?" And we asked the best people in their field to come and play with us. And we made it free and open to anyone who wants to learn.
We all smiled and knew we had a big idea on our hands.

There are more to come. 2012 will unveil a few in the US and overseas. Can't say much more than that at this point, but be prepared to get your hands dirty.

LBB: How do you select and find talent for Sub Rosa?
MV: Recruiting talent is, surprisingly, one of the hardest things we do. Because of our size we have to be extremely selective and scrutinize all aspects of a potential hire. Everyone here is great at what they do and we expect the same out of anyone else who joins the fray. Then, throw in the fact that we work hard, hang out together, and have a very eclectic mix of personalities, the process gets really complicated. The good thing is, we often find that a lot of people know they aren't a good fit for us after they have a meeting or two. We're a bit Darwinian in that regard.

We find that the people who thrive here the most are ones who have a solid mix of focus and curiosity. We've got MBAs, MFAs, CPAs, PhDs, lawyers, entrepreneurs, hackers, artists and even a notary public in our midsts. We're like the land of misfit toys.

LBB: Current trends see many agencies creating their own brands and businesses. Is this something that happens at Sub Rosa and do you think it works?
MV: We have a variety of businesses, projects, and brands being incubated within our walls. I think the big difference for us is that we're not doing it to raise the profile of the firm or to use as a marketing ploy to get more clients. We're doing it because we love the ideas, we have the capabilities, and we want to bring them to life. As I look around the office right now I see three people each with their own sub-projects (no pun intended) and two who have thriving businesses in other fields. This is what keeps everything here fresh and the competition steep.

LBB: What value do you put on awards and accolades and how important is winning to you? Which are more important, creativity or effectiveness?
MV: We don't put too much value on awards. It's a shitty thing to say in an industry that values them so highly so I don't mean to sound pejorative. It's simply that there are a lot of awards shows and there are a lot of different things that go into selection. Winning does not define success and losing certainly does not define failure. I tend to think we're the hardest on ourselves and the first to point out when something isn't up to our standards.

As for creativity versus effectiveness - they are one and the same. We are plying commercial art, not fine art. If you want to be creative without effectiveness, you're going to have to do it on your own dime. This business is built on being creatively EFFECTIVE and making sure that you're using all of the tools, ideas, and execution capabilities at your disposal to not just come up with a creative idea, but to ensure that it is a commercially and culturally viable one. Everything else is peacocking.

LBB: What do you perceive as the biggest challenges facing advertising?
MV: The biggest challenge for advertising is learning what advertising means for this new era. The old guard still thinks that the stuff that worked three decades ago works today. People are different. Hell, three decades ago there were no computers, there were no mobile phones, there was no internet. The world is light years different from the way it used to be and the industry, despite best efforts from many, still remains highly concentrated in old media. For us, we're glad to sit on the periphery of the industry and have an opportunity to work with brands as strategic stewards, as collaborators and marketers, as product designers and cultural communicators. This is what makes our brand of work different.

LBB: How did you get into advertising?
MV: I am, and have always been, a lover of ideas and dreaming about what's possible. This is an industry that pays you for your dreams and helps you realize them. Once I realized that was the nature of this business, I was hooked.

LBB: Do you enjoy what you do and if so, what is it about your job that sparks you?
MV: I enjoy my life. Implicit in that is my work. When your life and your work-life are as blurred as mine, it's hard to separate the two. I have the privilege of spending my days and nights with amazing, wonderful, creative people (including my wife who also shares a studio with me) and I have an amazing time doing it. This business is full of opportunities to bring people impact, knowledge, significance, and joy. Will I be doing "advertising" forever? No. But I will never stop bringing my dreams to life.

Work from Sub Rosa