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Jeff Goodby on Vandalism and Forgiveness

London, UK
“You have to make your own thing. And then throw it away.” Jeff chats to LBB about tearing up the rules.

Everyone should embrace their inner vandal, reckons Jeff Goodby. The creative behind Got Milk? and co-founder of the perennially surprising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners has built a career on creative rule-breaking, so we’re not going to argue with him on that one. On an individual level, we could all stand to switch up our routines and question convention. And businesses – creative or otherwise – could learn a lot from GS&P’s drive to nudge their team members out of their comfort zone.

Jeff was in London to judge and speak at D&AD 2018 and during his keynote he shared his thoughts about how a punkish, puckish attitude had impacted his career. All of which left LBB’s editor in chief Laura Swinton in the mood for a bit of spirited rebellion. She caught up with him afterwards to dig a little deeper into the idea of creative vandalism.

LBB> You spoke at D&AD about embracing your inner vandal and breaking rules. But are there any unbreakable rules?

JG> I think the unbreakable rule is not to make things that are, in the end, unwelcome. That’s the word I use on things because I think a lot of advertising over the year has been really unwelcome in our lives. Our job now is to make things that people want to go towards rather than run away from. Look at the landscape now, it’s just full of shit that’s really unwelcome, and I really don’t want to be part of that. 

LBB> How much of that is due to the proliferation of new digital platforms and the obsession with data and AI? 

JG> I think that everybody expects that if you get a new medium – you get new media every day – you automatically know how to do something great with it. But it takes years to figure it out. Look at websites. Websites existed 25 years ago and look how much better they’ve gotten. Nowadays if you go to a website you get irritated if it’s not immediately terrific and navigable. That’s the way everything is. You can’t expect that something like Snapchat gets invented and everyone immediately knows how to use it. People are going to use it, abuse it, screw up, make boring things. When television was first invented it was just filmed stage plays.

LBB> On the theme of creative vandalism, when your team enacts a profound piece of creative vandalism that misses the mark or fails catastrophically or just personally winds you up – how do you support the spirit of the vandal while also having a sense of quality control?

JG> Well real vandalism is about forgiveness, you have to remember that! People fail all the time. Sometimes they fail in front of the public. Professional golfers have a term when they do really badly: “throwing up all over myself”. Sometimes people throw up all over themselves in public, do really bad work, even the best people. I’ve done a lot of things I don’t particularly want to see again. I think everybody’s like that. We all rely on forgiveness; a vandal has to have that, so that you can come back after a failure and do it all over again.

LBB> So have you developed quite a forgiving nature yourself?

JG> I actually have. I am still dismayed by opportunities blown. What happens to you when you get to my stage of management is that you do see great ideas that you get excited about and the next time you see it it’s like, “…ohhh… I wish it were better… It’s just not funny… I wish I had seen it throughout the process because I could have told him not to do that.” 

LBB> But do you still get the chance to get your hands dirty?

JG> Very much so. I recently directed a suite of commercials.

LBB> I wanted to ask you about your inhouse production team. I know different agencies treat inhouse production differently; for some it’s about the bulk work and versioning, with others it’s social content and others it’s about experimenting…

JG> Our production is not necessarily [about making] something that ends up on TV. Sometimes it is but more often it’s something we use to sell another thing, getting a client to understand how something is going to work. 

Last week we were experimenting with taking someone’s face and putting it on someone else’s body. It’s like sawing a face off and putting it on someone else’s body and seeing if they can mask gestures to what the face is saying. We’re actually going to create a version of Salvador Dali who’s going to welcome you to the Salvador Dali museum and tell you about what you’re going to be seeing that day. There’s a new product Adobe has made called VoCo and we’re going to try and do one of the first things with it. 

 [GS&P’s previous projects for the museum includes an incredible VR experience that takes viewers inside Dali’s paintings.]

LBB> You spoke at D&AD about the time a CMO, who was your client, got fired. You went round to see him and he had an epiphany that given the average CMO tenure is so short that he should have been so much braver. 

JG> Isn’t that such a good story? I’ve got two years, I’m going to go for it next time. 

LBB> I remember walking out of a job and being terrified but then realising that, actually, everything was ok, and the world didn’t end. I felt…

JG> …Free. I think your first reaction is that you’re sad. You end up having to do a lot of rationalisation but in the end, you should celebrate the freedom that comes when you lose your job.

LBB> Have you experienced any memorable firings?

JG> Oh yeah! I’ve gotten fired. One of our two biggest clients fired us over the phone one day while we were in the middle of a partner meeting. They called and said ‘come outside for a minute’, so my partner Rich went out to speak to them. He came back in the room and said, ‘we just got fired by Sprint’. It was amazing; it was a big, big, big account. All kinds of retail, all kinds of film… Brutal.

You know, the worst part is having to announce it to your staff and adjust the size of your company. It’s why nobody should ever look down their nose at someone who’s been fired. This business, I tell people all the time, is like a soccer team or something. You should never feel bad because you had to change teams. I’ve had people who were just not fitting into the program at the moment but it’s not that they’re not good people. 

LBB> I guess that’s the thing about having your own business that you’ve built. On the one hand it’s freeing but it’s also such a responsibility.

JG> It is a big responsibility. While I’m immensely proud of people who have met their future mates and had kids and dogs and everything at my company, I do feel the responsibility of having a reproduceable programme for them every year.

LBB> And going back to the question of CMOs, you said you should get your CMO onside. Do you find that most CMOs have, at least, a chink in their armour that allows you to bring them on or are there some people that one just can’t work with?

JG> Certainly there are people you can’t work with. There are some people that have suspicions about you or preconceptions about you that make it impossible for them to work with you. Especially if you get a new person in the job and they didn’t select you personally. Or maybe it’s because I’ve got long hair and I’m from San Francisco, for whatever reason they don’t trust us. “You guys will never understand our business because you’re in San Francisco.” Well… I’ve got clients in Texas and New York and San Francisco. I think I can understand your business.

LBB> Well, talking about breaking rules, you set up in San Francisco and New York was traditionally the American capital of advertising. But it’s quite prescient because these days technology means that we’re less tied to a particular location.

JG> I tell people that in 1981 Fallon McElligot opened in Minneapolis. In 1982 Wieden+Kennedy opened in Portland. In 1983 we opened in San Francisco. All in three successive years and, not to be obnoxious, but we were the three hottest things in the country at that time. And I think that was because we celebrated not being in New York. New York were like ‘wow these guys are pretty good and they’re not in New York’. They wrote about us. We were very lucky. But now having grown up a bit I realise that in order to maintain that magical feeling of being in Portland or Minneapolis we’ve had to fly a lot!

LBB> So these days it feels like the industry is having a bit of an identity crisis. Some people go out of there way not to describe what they do as advertising. Where do you stand on this? 

JG> I very much don’t think we are an advertising agency. I think we’re makers of things that change people’s minds about stuff. I was just saying to Scott Nowell from The Monkeys in Australia, you know I really think of our jobs as being a corporate-funded exploration of human emotions, in a weird way. When you think about it that way and make things that really resonate with people, you make better things.

LBB> The recent projects you shared, they all had a life beyond being ‘an ad’. There’s the Cheetos museum, which got so much cultural traction. And even the Super Bowl Mountain Dew vs. Doritos campaign was an ad… but it was also so much more than that.

JG> I had to show that one, it’s a commercial I know but it’s a little bit of a project too. That’s a really important realisation – that there’s no such thing as a commercial in a vacuum anymore. Even if you make a commercial, thinking it’s going to be in a vacuum, you should study social media and see what people are saying about it. Sometimes you see it and think ‘holy shit, they think it’s this.” .

LBB> When you choose an avenue to go down, you think it’s going to resonate… what have been the projects you’ve worked on that have surpassed even your most optimistic hopes?

JG> I’m very lucky to have had a lot of those over my career. The Got Milk? thing certainly did. It went crazy and it’s been translated into other languages and it’s not just a TV commercial or a bunch of posters.  A lot of the things that we do go places and we don’t even realise they’ve gone that far.

The Cheetos activation we did where you could take a picture of your face and turn it into Cheetos… that’s been used in so many weird ways. People have sent us visual things that are landscapes made of Cheetos. They’re beautiful; people are making art out of that thing. And it’s hilarious. You should try it, it’s that good. People have sent us the ‘Cheetos vision version of a bowl of Cheetos’.

LBB> I wanted to round up by asking, outside of advertising, who were the creative vandals you admire the most?

JG> You’re going to think I’m a nerd. But I really think that what we emulate is not advertising people but you try to make things that are inspired by Andy Warhol and people like that. I went to Dr Samuel Johnson’s house in London, the 18th century writer who is one of my heroes. I’m kind of a groupie. I actually went to the room that he wrote the dictionary in. I’m a real nerd.

And music. Here’s an important thing. When we started out a lot of the things that we thought about were Manchester bands at the time. Off-the-beaten track punk stuff we really loved. We wanted to be that way. We shot a lot of stuff on video, made our own music. A lot of other agencies waited until they had big enough budgets to shoot things beautifully, but we just shot things on video. Nobody did things like that at the time, but now it’s commonplace, especially with the devices we have now. 

LBB> It’s always surprising how many people you meet in the industry who don’t seem to spend much time outside the office and with few outside interests…

JG> There are a lot of people who are like, ‘I’m really looking forward to the chance to work with Spike Jonze’ or something like that. No, that’s not what you should be looking for. You have to make your own thing. And then throw it away. I think that’s important. I think one of the secrets of my agency is that we haven’t had a style. We’ve done all kinds of stuff. There are lot of agencies that are famous for one thing, and we’ve never had a dominant client who’s like that. We worked with Nike for three years and we struggled to make things that were not like the typical Nike commercials and then they fired us – because we didn’t!

It’s good to have people know you and like you – but I don’t think they should be able to predict what you’ll do next.

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