Since leaving Ogilvy China, where he was the chief creative officer for seven years, Graham Fink has been exploring. Exploring the world of robotics and AI. Exploring the borderlines between art and technology, where eyes act as paint brushes. Exploring the bustling worlds beyond the horizon of the advertising industry. And, more recently, exploring Seattle.
He’s moved to the home of Microsoft and Nirvana having hooked up with growing digital design studio This Place, where he’s just been announced as global CCO. He took a while to figure out exactly where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do – though he’s always had ‘an unwillingness to settle for being in the bubble of your industry’, and in This Place he found a team of inquisitive kindred spirits.
Graham spoke to LBB about the move, the relationship between art and advertising and the surprisingly crafty roots of the word ‘technology’. And bears.
LBB> You’re based in Seattle – I’ll admit my knowledge of the city runs to... Starbucks, Nirvana, Frasier and Microsoft. How have you found getting to know the city? And how are you finding the creative side of the city?
Graham> Amazon too, of course. These companies have totally changed the whole infrastructure and nature of the city. The tech giants seem to be hiring people like crazy and it seemed to me a great place to immerse myself in digital whilst being surrounded by lakes, rivers, mountains, ravines and bears. I'm not quite sure what you should do if you happen to meet a bear whilst cycling to work, but I’ll bet that someone here is developing an app for it.
Bears aside, creativity seems to thrive in Seattle: Nirvana introduced us to grunge, but it was also the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and every day you see Hendrix look- and sound-alikes performing on the streets. A few nights ago, I witnessed one of our own designers, Jordan Rundle, perform under the pseudonym of 'Leash' in an underground club. This was a solo performance where he bashed, teased and coaxed a cacophony of cables attached to his home-built synthesiser to create his own inimitable ‘music’. It was pretty impressive. I also got the feeling I was witnessing something right at the cutting edge of Seattleite sound, as there were only about 12 people in the audience.
LBB> It always surprises me (perhaps it shouldn’t) how few industry creatives explore creativity under their own steam... the same can’t be said for you! How do your own creative projects and explorations feed back into your work?
Graham> Art and advertising are a bit like oil and water (although the effects of paper marbling can be quite extraordinary). In my experience it seems that advertising accepts art a lot more readily than the other way around. The clashing of opposites is always an interesting space to play in. Now I’ve added tech and digital design to the mix. Hopefully it will result in something fresh and original rather than a chaotic mess. Although chaotic messes can be fun too.
LBB> And you’ve been playing with and exploring emerging technology recently, particularly with your ‘Eye-drawings’. I think in the industry there can be a lot of hype and buzzwords but I see very little joy or depth in the output – so how do you navigate all that hype to discern what’s worth looking at a little deeper?
Graham> Advertising is very good at creating buzzwords and hype. I think most people can smell this a mile off. But if something is centred around a truth, it gives that project, campaign, design or piece of art a deeper meaning. You’re more engaged with it. It stands out from the rest. I’ve always been wary of technology for technology’s sake, but if it makes an idea manifest then it’s got to be worth a second look. Interestingly enough, the root of the word technology comes from the Greek origin ‘techne’ which means ‘art, craft or craftmanship’ therefore technically tech is a form of art.
LBB> Creatively speaking, is there any medium you’ve not tried that you fancy having a go at?
Graham> I’ve always fancied the idea of welding big pieces of steel together. The noise, the smell and sense of scale. I love the work of Richard Serra. To walk in amongst those huge pieces makes me feel incredibly small and humble. However, if I started bringing in a few tons of steel into my new Seattle apartment, I’m not sure my landlord would be too happy.
LBB> How did the conversation with Ben and the team at This Place get started? And what was it about what they’re doing that pricked your ears up?
Graham> Actually, my introduction at This Place was through the founder and CEO Dusan Hamlin. We met at M&C Saatchi in London about 10 years ago when Maurice Saatchi bought his mobile company. I always admired his entrepreneurial spirit and his ballsiness. We kept saying that one day we would work together. A few months ago, he introduced me to his co-founder, Ben Aldred. I found him to be super smart with a maturity and outlook way beyond his years. I liked the work This Place were doing as it involved tech, digital design and ideas. I also didn’t want to take on another big advertising role. It’s early days, and I am on a very steep learning curve, but I feel there is a lot of potential here.
LBB> As a creative person, how are you finding their very design and strategy-led approach? What sort of new or different opportunities does that open up?
Graham> It’s a very different world to the one I am used to, but there’s a lot of overlap. I trained as a graphic designer at art school and strategy has always been at the heart of good ideas. What I want to explore is the effect of bringing in big ideas that guide the UX and UI. To experiment with new ways of doing things. To start from a place of not knowing rather than having all the answers.
LBB> You took a while to carefully figure out where you wanted to go – what sort of questions and concerns did you have thinking about the state of the industry and what you actually wanted to do?
Graham> After nearly seven years in China I needed a break. I gave myself a year off. I thought there is so much new interesting stuff going on that I wanted to take time off to properly explore what else was out there. I am fascinated by AI, robots and machine learning. In fact, I occasionally work with Hanson Robotics and Sophia
(more on that at a later date). I stepped up my work on the eye drawings and looked at ways to progress the technology. I’ve watched how much digital is affecting everyone and changing the way we live our lives. I think it’s important to learn more about this.
LBB> You talk about not settling inside the industry bubble... why do you think so many are content to stay in that bubble?
Graham> The inside of a bubble can be a great place. You’re sort of cocooned in a world that you know. You can get a sensation of floating your way through everything. It’s a warm, comfortable feeling.
Trouble is, bubbles burst!