"Beware the altar of science: We are more than data and chemicals"
Here, for example, is the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describing in his book This Is Your Brain On Music how our brains can extract audio information from the chaotic collection of air molecules bouncing against our eardrum:
Imagine that you stretch a pillowcase tightly across the opening of a bucket, and different people throw ping-pong balls at it from different distances. Each person can throw as many ping-pong balls as he likes, and as often as he likes. Your job is to figure out — just by looking at how the pillowcase moves up and down — how many people there are, who they are, and whether they are walking toward you, walking away from you, or are standing still. This is analogous to what the auditory system has to contend with in making identifications of auditory objects in the world, using only the movement of the eardrum as a guide.”
And here, in contrast, is the author and poet Diane Ackerman on the human experience of music:
‘Amazing Grace’ is a good example of that lighter-than-air sort of hymn, full of musical striving and stretching, as if one’s spirit itself were being elongated. Think lofty thoughts and sing that elevating tune, and soon enough you will feel uplifted (even despite having to sing such unmelodious words as ‘wretch’)… Like pure emotions, music surges and sighs, rampages or grows quiet, and, in that sense, it behaves so much like our emotions that it seems often to symbolize them, to mirror them, to communicate them to others, and thus free us from the elaborate nuisance and inaccuracy of words.”
Levitin does give us fascinating insight into the mechanics of how we hear music. But Ackerman gives us insight into what that’s like.
We may well be living in an age where our daily lives are mediated by technology, by the outputs of code, by the fruits of science.
And we may well be living in an age where the fruits of science and technology are helping to make our efforts as marketers more efficient, better directed, more useful, more timely, more interactive, more responsive, and so on.
We are right to be entranced and fascinated by what all this offers up.
But we would be well advised not to worship at the altar of science and technology too much, too slavishly, or too uncritically. Or to reduce human nature to the jiggling and wiggling of atoms.
“Just move me, dude”, exhorts Dan Wieden.
If we wish to do that – and the evidence clearly demonstrates that this is the cornerstone of effective advertising – then we must think like artists, not just scientists.
"Well-placed complexity has a place. If only to encourage us to think more deeply and globally about simplicity."
"What complexity does is it acts as a cognitive roadblock. …. If you have a communication that last 30 seconds or a minute or even five minutes, if you know there’s a particular point that you really want people to pay attention to — you’ve already hooked them in, they’re interested and they’re motivated — if you introduce complexity even briefly, that changes the way people think. They go from thinking in this very shallow, very superficial way … to thinking much more deeply about whatever you say next.
You still want to keep the message simple, but if you pick that moment of complexity carefully and appropriately, you can lead people to believe whatever you say after that moment of complexity very deeply. If the message is a complicated one … that’s a really effective technique.” - Adam Alter
"The Piracy Paradox says that copying starts a process called induced obsolescence, that is, making things unfashionable so people feel the need to go out and buy more."
The Piracy Paradox
In a paper titled The Piracy Paradox: Innovation and Intellectual Property in Fashion Design, professors at the University of Virginia and UCLA, Chris Sprigman and Kal Raustiaula, explored the so-called paradox of endless creativity in fashion despite the lack of intellectual property protection, and a culture of constant borrowing.
"The fashion industry itself is surprisingly quiescent on the subject of copying," they wrote in their paper, published in 2006. "Fashion firms take steps to protect the value of their trademarked brands, but appear to accept appropriation of their original designs as a fact of life. Design copying is widely accepted, occasionally complained about, but more often celebrated as ‘homage’ rather than attacked as ‘piracy.’"
Sprigman and Raustiaula’s argument is that copying—while frustrating—isn’t just good for creativity, it’s surprisingly good for business.
Copyright (Or The Lack Thereof) In Fashion
It’s been over 70 years since the design of a garment could be protected under copyright laws in North America. It comes from the rule that denies copyright protection to so-called “useful articles … in which creative expression is compounded with practical utility (Sprigman and Raustiaula, 2006).”
The subject has been revisited recently thanks to the lawsuit brought against French fashion house, Louis Vuitton, regarding a pair of heels featuring a bright red sole—shorthand in the fashion world for the designer shoe brand, Louboutin to any fashionista worth her salt. The judge in the case ruled against Louboutin however, saying that, “because in the fashion industry colour serves ornamental and aesthetic functions vital to robust competition, the court finds that Louboutin is unlikely to be able to prove that its red outsole brand is entitled to trademark protection.”
Compared to music, movies, and publishing, copyright in the fashion industry is almost non-existent* because it applies to a class of items that serve a basic, utilitarian function. Every person needs clothes for very practical reasons, and yet we all own far more than we’ll ever wear. Many times we’ll send a shirt to Goodwill for the simple reason that we don’t think it looks good anymore. Why is this? Sprigman and Raustiaula say it’s because of copying.
Copying Is Great For Business
The Piracy Paradox says that copying starts a process called induced obsolescence, that is, making things unfashionable so people feel the need to go out and buy more.
The designs sent down the runways by high fashion brands each season are drafted by the best in the world, and are deliberately priced to be affordable only for an elite group. With no copyright to protect them however, these designs can be legally borrowed or replicated by mainstream retailers like H&M, who take these looks and produce a more affordable version for the average consumer.
What happens next is “anathema to the fashion conscious,” according to Sprigman and Raustiaula. Once these trends hit the mainstream, fashion-savvy early adopters promptly drop the current look to move on to something new and more exclusive, kicking off a new cycle of innovation in the process.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with the old style, but it’s abandoned, Sprigson and Raustiaula say, because most clothes are purchased for what they call their “positional value.” This is their ability to send a message about the wearer’s status. So apart from loving clothes for their aesthetic value, it could be argued that what fashionistas really want at the end of the day is to establish their position at the front of the pack.
"The fashion cycle is driven faster … by widespread design copying, because copying erodes the positional qualities of fashion goods. Designers in turn respond to this obsolescence with new designs. In short, piracy paradoxically benefits designers by inducing more rapid turnover and additional sales (Sprigson and Raustiaula, 2006)."
Copying And What You Do
Induced obsolescence and the free-for-all in fashion may have some implications for other creative fields, in which copying is considerably less tolerated. We’re more likely to say ideas were “stolen” rather than copied, and that’s because we do feel robbed, thinking that somebody else is enjoying the fruits of our labour, minus the mental expenditure it took us to get there. Perhaps it’s time to consider though whether our work has in fact been stolen, or whether it has a role to play in a larger trend cycle, as in fashion.
Copying As Status
If, like a fashion brand, you have built a name for yourself with an extremely distinctive look or feel—think Yayoi Kusama, The Weeknd or Aerosyn-Lex—and you see your Doppelgänger doing their best imitation of you, before reaching for your lawyer’s phone number, consider the article cited by Sprigman and Raustiala called Shopping For Gucci on Canal Street, by Jonathan Barnett.
"The introduction of copies, provided they are visibly imperfect, may increase the snob premium that elite consumers are willing to pay for a luxury fashion good. Second, the introduction of copies may lead non-elite consumers to adjust upward their estimate of the status benefits to be gained by acquiring the relevant good, thereby possibly translating into purchases of the original." (Barnett, 2005, cited by Sprigman and Raustiaula, 2006).
If your style is clearly recognizable in the work of somebody else, it can give your work a kind of prestige rather than taking away from it. Imitation—although irritating—is the sincerest form of flattery, and if anything, validates how good your creative choices are. And although it may feel that way, rather than steal your thunder, being copied just tends to make the admiring plagiarist seem a little lost in comparison.
People selling exact reproductions of your work should be stopped in their tracks, but drafting a cease-and-desist letter to a college kid who idolizes you just looks miserly.
Whose Idea Is It Anyway?
There’s a chance that elements of your work feel fresh and new because, like the fashionista, you’re an early adopter. So you see similar themes starting to appear in the work of other people. Problem is, it’s not quite distinctive enough or you’re not well enough established to have people trace it back to you. Ego check: perhaps it’s time to consider whether this really is just yours, or whether you’re in tune with a brand new fashion trend.
It’s a common occurrence in fields like advertising or street art to see similar themes crop up around the same time, in the work of people who’ve never even heard of each other. A prime example is Banksy, who was an early adopter of the stencil art form, and among other things is known for his quirky stencilled rats. He claims he had no idea when he started doing them of the existence of Blek Le Rat, the French stencil artist whose motif is also the city rodent, but who pre-dates Banksy by a decade.
Rather than get worked up about it, seeing people copy your work is your sign to make like a fashionista and move on to the next fresh thing. Those who consistently abandon that which has become in style gain a reputation as leaders and tastemakers, and that, for a creative artist, is always good for business.
"…if you had a client that let you do great work, then you could always find a way to pull it off. If they were so blind they didn’t get your idea after hours of argument and pleading, you simply went back to the boards. But you didn’t compromise. You always would come back with something as good, or better. Because you knew you could."
// A few days from starting a new adventure. Thinking, again, about chaos as component of the creative process. We’ve all seen its effect as an exponentially negative multiplier. The ear-popping whooooosh of passionate ideas sucked into a black hole, followed soon by spirit, heart and motivation.
And, yet, there have also been times where after the Nth or Pth round of creative reviews during a pitch, when a corner was turned inside that dark maze and a sliver gradient glimpse of James-Turrell-worthy light appears. On the Qth round, the work is less… slippery… we can hold and mold. The Rth allows us to hold our heads a couple of notches higher. And then, a tired comment triggers a weary joke bounced off a relaxed sigh and the idea shimmers for a moment then snaps into focus. No anthemic music swells in the background. It’s just… better. From that point, the supporting ideas magnetize into orbit. We didn’t realize it but we accelerated down the gravity well of the concept, then slingshot out to the void, gathering *stardust* for the return trip back. //
"We started as a ship of fools. And that, I firmly believe, is why we have succeeded. We were struggling to figure out what an advertising agency actually was. And our one and only client, Nike, was trying to get a grip on what a client was supposed to do with one. We were both incredibly stupid. That was the key. See, when you don’t know, you try desperately to find out. But the minute you think you know, the minute you go – oh, yeah, we’ve been here before, no sense reinventing the wheel – you stop learning, stop questioning, and start believing in your own wisdom, you’re dead. You’re not stupid anymore, you are fucking dead.
Well, in 23 days, we are going to leave home. And in 36 days, when we land in the Pearl (new building), much of what we thought we knew – like where the bathrooms are – we won’t for sure. Good luck with the phones, the Xerox, the ability to ship and receive, to get your shirts laundered, to find a pool hall, a pencil, a friend, that approved script, or a moment of peace and quiet. What used to come easy will take work. All the little shit that you weren’t even aware of, but that made your life comfortable, will have vanished. Life will become a little less routine, our actions a little less unconscious. I can’t wait.
See I have this addiction to chaos. I love it when I’m a bit anxious. It’s a sickness, okay. But it works for me. And the older I get, the more I need what upsets me, shocks me, makes me squirm, or get angry. The older I get, the more I value what forces me to take a second look. The more I respect people who don’t automatically respect me. I love this agency the most, when it’s off balance. Moving at 7,000 miles an hour, trying to take a sharp left turn, everybody holding their breath, laughing like hell, occasionally throwing up but smiling, and leaning right to make sure the fucking thing doesn’t trip over.
Chaos does this amazing thing that order can’t: it engages you. It gets right in your face and with freakish breath issues a challenge. It asks stuff of you, order never will. And it shows you stuff, all the weird shit, that order tries to hide.
Chaos is the only thing that honestly wants you to grow. The only friend who really helps you be creative. Demands that you be creative. Now, clearly, there are some disciplines in this organisation that don’t really need to have chaos as their operating policy. I’m thinking finance. I’m thinking traffic. But even in those departments that need to operate with Germanic precision, even there, we need enough uncertainty that we are forced to question how we do what we do so efficiently. And maybe, why we do it all.
The point was for Dan and Dave to create a place where people could come and live up to their full potential. Where they could do the best work of their career. Because that place relished freedom, diversity, and unpredictability. A place with very few rules. In case you haven’t heard ours, here they are. These rules David actually found in an empty file drawer when we were exiting our previous place of employment.
Don’t act big. No sharp stuff. Follow directions. And shut up when someone is talking.
The only other thing essential to know is our priorities. They were arrived at after a fifth of Cutty Sark (we couldn’t afford the good stuff):
1. The work
2. The client/agency relationship
This has been summarised into: The work comes first. And while it served as a great compass for many years, it has become the focus of much discussion and dissent of late. Well, it ain’t the holy writ. If you want to junk it, we can junk it. But here’s what insight the thing is based on.
In big agencies, the client/agency relationship is the most sacred thing. The difficulty seems to be that the work then serves the relationship, and everything becomes political. And when things get political, the work suffers. And when the work suffers, the business suffers, then the client agency relationship suffers, and you suffer.
In creative boutiques, the ego is supreme. The work is there to enhance personal reputations. If I said the work is wonderful, the work is wonderful. Shut up and sell it.
Problem here: again, the work slip is, the client agency relationship goes south. When we say the work comes first, we are saying that things work best when everyone – client and agency alike – are focussed on whether or not this is great damn work. Politics aside. Egos aside. Is this hot shit, or not?
There is this revisionist history that says in the old days, Wieden + Kennedy didn’t compromise on the work. If the client didn’t buy it, we’d say goodbye account exec or goodbye client.
Actually, the idea was that if you had a client that let you do great work, then you could always find a way to pull it off. If they were so blind they didn’t get your idea after hours of argument and pleading, you simply went back to the boards. But you didn’t compromise. You always would come back with something as good, or better. Because you knew you could. Even when you didn’t know, you knew. Or someone knew.
And when we say the client/agency relationship is second to the work, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Because the work is a direct reflection of the quality of that relationship. If it is strained, the work shows it. If people are having fun, it shows. If people are bleeding, it shows. If people are just trying to turn other people on, it shows. And that’s when it’s most effective. And when we put the individual last, it’s simply because of that weird old paradox in life that you serve yourself best when you serve others first.
You might note, that while we say the work comes first, we don’t put it up in our lobby. And we don’t showcase our awards. What we honour are the individuals, in all their wackiness…”
- Dan Weiden
The Premature Burial: Burial the Pallbearer vs Burial the Innovator
2009 full text version here:
What is Burial’s music ‘about’? What does it ‘do’? Come to think of it, what is his music? What does it mean? Of course, all of this is up to the listener’s imagination, but for a while now there’s been a certain degree of consensus on the answers to these questions: Burial ‘mourns the death of rave’, his music is (to paraphrase a handful of commentators) a ‘plaintive echo from a bygone era of collective energy’, ‘a melancholy, ghostly memory of the faded promise of rave, drenched in weathering and mired in urban decay’.
It’s difficult, not to mention pointless, to argue that this reading of Burial, derived from ‘hauntology’, is invalid. Its validity seems confirmed by interviews with the guy, even if the interviewers sometimes do come across as a bit leading. To dispute this reading would be intolerant, even mean-spirited – it’s as a pallbearer for rave that Burial takes on a powerful meaning for many of his fans, and why argue with that? Of course to see Burial in this way you’d first have to agree that rave is in some sense dead, and that’s a hotly disputed point. It’s a question I won’t try and answer here, largely because at the time rave was in its generally accepted heyday I was just getting into solid foods, but being reluctant to sit down and accept that I’ve arrived at a time when musical culture has declined almost to worthlessness, the ‘death of rave’ angle on Burial doesn’t really have any definitive meaning for me per se.
It’s a reading that’s solidifying into a naturalised collective interpretation of Burial though – his image within culture and history is being covered in six feet of earth. But this fresh, living and newborn voice still has a lot more to offer than the corpse of rave. There’s Burial the Pallbearer, but there are other Burials too…
// It just keeps going… all the way to Whistler’s “Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Westminster Bridge”. Epic. And deserving a bridge to the future. (Whether or not Four Tet = Burial).
So, for now, we loop Jamie’s rmx of “Reconsider”… //
“Some people will disagree, but for me if I’ve written a meaty, delightful, wonderful bunch of scenes and now I have to do the hard, connective, dog’s body work of writing, when I finish the dog’s body work, I’ll have a screenplay that I already love.
I used to write chronologically when I started, from beginning to end. Eventually I went, that’s absurd; my heart is in this one scene, therefore I must follow it.
Obviously, if you know you have a bunch of stuff to do, I have to lay out this, all this dull stuff, and I feel very uncreative but the clock is ticking. Then you do that and you choose to do that.
But I always believe in just have as much fun as you can so that when you’re in the part that you hate there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that you’re close to finished.”
- Joss Whedon, on getting the fun stuff done first…
Refinement + Reduction + Relief : when you start to take away things and concentrate on the essentials.
Yeah, ok, so Achim’s ‘81 SC is a cyborg of kevlar, plastic and the ghosts of missing parts, insulation and trim. And I feel guilty and somewhat disappointed because of my automatic patellar reflex cringe and frown at the effort of erasing images of the questionable attitude auras of SF fixie riders when he mentions the word. But there’s also another reflexive motion, a subtle head nod, at the recognition of, and desire for, a different approach away from high-tech performance and values and [relative] cost.
The latency of culture is a function of the speed of information. Culture can’t change until new information has propagated and this used to take a long time.
When letters took weeks to arrive, that defined the threshold of assumed response. Now, thanks to Twitter, the latency of culture has decreased to almost nothing, as everyone shares news as soon as it might be true. The news media feels it needs to move in step, so it makes mistakes, as we were shown during the Boston bombings. Speed is as important as content, evidenced in the Oreo SuperBowl blackout tweet that went around the world.
Science fiction of the near future, from visionaries like William Gibson, collapsed into alternative versions of now, as we try to decode the increasingly weird present. Kevin Kelly calls this the missing near future.
No-one is laying out plans for how we are to move forward, and so, as an industry, we recycle the oldest idea in advertising – branded content.
Futurology is not about prediction, it’s about mapping possible pathways.
Without it, as Rushkoff suggests in Present Shock, planning gives way to ‘Apocalypto’, the hoping for an end of the ever decreasing circles of now, evinced by the endless, tiring, uses of the ‘death of’ narrative.
The death of the 30-second spot, of strategy, of traditional, of digital, or media.
All are, basically, saying “We give up!”. We can’t find our way to the future and so, like all end-of-days nonsense, it means people give up on trying to find functional solutions for the problems and opportunities of the present.
Perhaps, then, we need to start thinking about the future again and start living up to the promises we made to ourselves and to the industry back when the web was born and manifestos were being made.
Marketing that was useful and beautiful, transparency of people and action that social media can deliver and distribute. Awesomeness created at the intersection of art, copy, Arduino and code,that can come about when we all learn to respect each other, department, silo, agency, client, and start working for the good of the industry and each other, as well as the bottom line.
The browser-based world wide web turned 20 this year. It’s finally ready.
Let’s start mapping out a future for our industry that doesn’t assume declining relevance and margins, but instead lets us help clients create value and make the world we live in, and the industry we work in, a nicer place.
- “The future isn’t what it used to be” - @faris
// What if we’re temporarily walking within the Terminator Line (the illuminated day side and the dark night side of a planetary body) between the current generation of advertising/marketing folks who are 25-45 and the next-next generation who haven’t lived anywhere else besides the paradoxically small-town of Zero-latency Culture?
One group unknowingly walks anti-rotation. Essentially, relatively, sprinting towards the old way, and are rapidly left behind as the future Doppler zooms ahead like the Jetsons car sound.
Others (our youth, for instance, or others, who never really ‘grew up’ and loop iteratively in small eddies of awareness adolescence like a transmigration of the teen soul) are living their lives, floating with the current, barely aware that the sun is at its brightest point in the sky of recent memory and their latent optimism can’t help but drive them to awesomeness.
How do we solve that problem? Maybe we don’t. Or shouldn’t. One group is left behind. They don’t know any better, they’re unaware. That’s life. The other, continues forward. And… that’s OK. Let’s help them go even faster, with purpose. We invest in their progress. Guide gently. Shove firmly. All the while being open to discovery ourselves. Specially when the Snapchats, the Twitterz and the Tumblrz come to life and we’re caught flat-footed. Scratching heads in paroxysms of surprise and delight. Stoked to witness the future arriving. At peace with our fears and insecurities.
"…clever people know that you don’t learn by inserting yourself. If you are inspired by the world, and open to it, it is sometimes essential to utilize your own innocence, your own lack of an ability to interpret or judge others, in order to read them properly.”
- Rachel Kushner, describing Reno, in “The Flamethrowers”
My narrator, who speaks in the first person, is not intent on thinking about her past. To relate to her, a reader doesn’t need to know much about her childhood beyond a few key details (she was a tomboy who rode motorcycles, is from a small Western town, is working class but educated). Early in the novel, the narrator recounts how she was hired to be a China girl. She got a job in a film lab on the Bowery, and the technicians needed photographs of a woman’s face in order to process film so that the flesh tones were consistent and looked appropriately like skin (white skin, that is—flesh calibrations in the movie industry have always been aimed at Caucasian skin). Around the time I started working on this novel, I had become interested in the China girl you see on old film leaders (up through the nineteen-eighties). She holds up a Kodak color bar, or a photograph of her is placed next to a Kodak color bar. I knew these women were mostly secretaries in the film labs, which seemed to me to be central to their allure. The idea that they are just random women asked to pose, and not professional models, makes them mysterious. They are “real” people who come to function as archetypes; they are anonymous-real. There is no way to find out who they are and no reason to, either. The idea of a girl posing on film seems to encapsulate something about how women are treated, and how they think of themselves: women are often judging themselves, and being judged, according to standards of beauty and femininity. Archetypes of what women look like are basically inescapable: women either conform to them, refuse to conform to them, or set them. They don’t ever escape completely from the realm of standards.
Reno begins the book moving east, racing a bike, trying to complete a project. Then she shifts and begins to slow down and watch, like a passive observer, or like a camera, witnessing conflicts where she only intermittently takes sides. How did you think about Reno’s agency as you wrote this?
It’s true that she’s much more strong and active in the long opening scene, when she goes to the salt flats alone. She knows the landscape and she knows motorcycles, so it’s a world where she’s comfortable. In the art scene in downtown New York, she’s an outsider, not yet an initiate. And, in my humble opinion, she’s also clever: clever people know that you don’t learn by inserting yourself. If you are inspired by the world, and open to it, it is sometimes essential to utilize your own innocence, your own lack of an ability to interpret or judge others, in order to read them properly.
In regard to agency, I was determined not to have the narrator ride off into the horizon in a blaze of triumph at the end. The plotline where the main character overcomes a weakness and acts with new empowerment is a form of narrative compression I usually find cheap and don’t much relate to. In any case, to have all the agency can be tragic. I love the end of the 1969 movie “Downhill Racer,” where Robert Redford gets the gold medal and yet winning seems like this empty question mark. I wanted my narrator to arrive at some kind of open moment, a blank, in whiteness—figuratively and actually—in snow, at the bottom of Mont Blanc, a setting that for me has a poetic resonance (Wordsworth, Shelley), and a personal resonance, too (an entire childhood spend skiing alone, dealing with cold, blizzards, high winds). I have learned a lot waiting for people who don’t show. It’s about what you do in that situation: I mean, what you do next.
Among the inevitable copycats and also-rans, Tokyo is positively overflowing with exciting, well-made niche labels that are competitively priced and persuasively merchandised. They may be ripe for the picking but unless you have a talented and well-connected ‘madoguchi’ (‘point person’) at your disposal, your chances of doing business with them are slim at best. And even then, any number of obstacles can conspire against would-be exporters.
In Japanese business culture, the ‘madoguchi’ (literally, ‘window opening’) was traditionally someone who sat as the designated contact person funnelling all dialogue between two companies. Over time, it has also come to refer to a host of independent specialists who – to varying degrees – act as scout, market researcher, mediator, cultural ambassador, interpreter and deal broker between Japanese and international markets. As in most other sectors, they are usually bicultural and bilingual but ‘fashion hunters’, as they’re sometimes playfully cast in our industry, are an especially diverse, valuable and enigmatic bunch.
“There are so many Japanese brands at the moment. They come and go, so it may be difficult to understand what’s relevant and what’s not, if your ‘madoguchi’ isn’t based here in Tokyo,” says Hidetaka Furuya, chief editor of The Fashion Post, a rare online source of fashion and lifestyle news published both in English and Japanese.
Furuya himself has operated as a ‘madoguchi’ – or “Japanese ambassador” as he prefers to call it – for LN-CC, an East London concept store which has since become one of the few places outside Japan to buy cult labels like SASQUATCHfabrix, Blackmeans, Nonnative, Unused and Sunsea.
“The thing is, I sometimes get the impression that Tokyo streetwear brands are consciously trying to be less visible on the scene [while others ] are not as visible as they should be because they’re shy, anti-mainstream or too-cool-for-school,” he continues. “Their attitude kind of reminds me of this Japanese proverb that means ‘a skilled hawk hides its talons.’ They often say they’re just making what they want to wear, producing really well-made things in Japan. They present their collections when they are ready; not during the Japan Fashion Week period. However, all this makes it difficult for foreign buyers to visit Tokyo to buy good Japanese labels.”
Tokyo-based Martin Webb, director of marketing and communications at Marc Jacobs Japan, understands well the complex role that ‘madoguchis’ play in the fashion industry. ”It’s very difficult to turn mediatory, introductory jobs like this into a steady source of income, so I think most people in [the ‘madoguchi’] category are moonlighting or multi-tasking in one way or another. But when brands reach a certain level of resources, they tend to hire a bicultural person to handle overseas relations. Sacai has Daisuke Gemma who also works for Lane Crawford; Mastermind Japan has Etsuko Meaux, and so on. Recently, I think Lubo Lakic from Lakic Showroom has a great grip on the scene and especially for the kind of brands that overseas retailers are most interested in.”
While in previous positions as fashion editor of The Japan Times and as publicist for PR firm WAG, Webb also often found himself called upon for informal advice and ad-hoc matchmaking for industry peers abroad. Thanks to Webb’s and others’ ‘friendly introductions’, now-famous Japanese brand names like N. Hoolywood and John Lawrence Sullivan first began to gain an international following.
Nicole Bargwanna, like Webb, is one of only a few truly fluent Japanese-speakers working extensively in the fashion industry. As a result, she has also contributed in similar ways over the years. More recently, a younger generation of Japanese PR professionals including Yoshiko Edström (Edström Office) and Tatsuya Takahashi (Dune) have returned to Japan after working abroad and assumed the role of ‘madoguchi’ in addition to their main activities.
“Because Japan is so impenetrable, it is very important to gain the trust of the people you will be working with. In order to survive long-term here, you have to show you know your stuff, that you’re serious, that you’re here for the long stretch, and are willing to put yourself 100 percent behind whatever it is you’re endorsing,” says Bargwanna, a serial entrepreneur who, after building an import showroom business, opened her PR agency CPR Tokyo four years ago.
In the decades before the arrival of Bargwanna and Webb, there were a handful of cosmopolitan trailblazers who championed their favourite Japanese brands by connecting them internationally in one way or another. From Tokyo, Comme des Garçons’ CEO Adrian Joffe and United Arrows’ co-founder Hirofumi Kurino did their part. Meanwhile, the distributor Stella Ishii of New York-based showroom The News and media coordinators like Mina Wakatsuki in London and Yuko Arakawa in New York joined then upstart stylists Kanako B. Koga in Paris and Nicola Formichetti who worked with Yuko Yabiku for the now defunct but groundbreaking London retailer The Pineal Eye.
Among this pioneering group with valuable local access and insight was Tiffany Godoy. Since 1997 Godoy has carved out an impressive place for herself in Tokyo as editor, consultant, TV personality and author of two books on Japanese street fashion and subcultures. Today, she is one half of Japanese fashion entertainment branding duo Erotyka and chief editor of The Reality Show Magazine.
“One reason we haven’t seen a lot more womenswear brands break the international market is that the feminine ideal is so different here. Also, today’s Japanese designers aren’t pumping out the sort of complicated, intellectual, shocking clothing that fashion critics abroad got used to looking for from Japan,” says Godoy.
Putting aside the outsider’s perennial challenges in Japan – such as its exceptionally puzzling business culture and the constant threat of misunderstanding from a population with shockingly low levels of English language abilities – there are many serious operational barriers too.
“It’s true that most brands still don’t have English-speaking staff and won’t try to hire a translator for your appointment unless you’re a buyer from a super famous store. And I hear some use Google Translate to reply to emails,” says Furuya. “But I know of more tragic stories [around other issues].
For most domestic brands to transition into international business, they would need create a new sample collection and at least double the number of production sizes on offer from the narrow range which fit the majority of Japanese consumers. Not to mention the fact that domestic manufacturing cycles and seasons still aren’t completely in-sync with international standards and that marketing to non-Japanese would require a serious cultural leap of faith. Together, this all adds up to substantial long-term investment.
Yet the same issues which have kept many of Japan’s highly covetable fashion brands off the international market for so long also go a long way toward explaining why they represent a trump card for many international retailers looking for a point of differentiation in an increasingly homogenized marketplace. And why many are willing to invest hiring Japanese-speaking market experts and spending more than their competitors by adding an extra buying trip to Tokyo at the end of the long season in Europe.
“[Hong Kong’s] I.T. pretty much built their business on Japanese brands – especially A-net brands. They invested in a team to do intensive research and tough negotiations for exclusivity with Tokyo brands and that gave them a huge advantage over their competitors,” says Webb. “And I’d say Lorenzo Hadar of H. Lorenzo in LA is worthy of ‘legend’ status as his stores have been the first overseas retailers to buy many Japanese brands and without his investment many smaller labels might never have even bothered to enter the export business. Amazingly, he’s still at the bleeding edge of the scene visiting Japan more frequently than any other buyer I know and is very patient with designers who aren’t used to dealing with overseas clients.”
Bargwanna believes that more retailers like this are now braving the opaque market in order to penetrate what many still consider to be an insular domestic fashion industry.
“There are quite a few of them [now] coming to Japan Fashion Week buying underground Japanese brands. Most of them have someone on the ground to scout them out and communicate for them, or someone in the team who speaks Japanese. I think it would be near impossible without one or the other,” she says.
Akiko Shinoda, director of international affairs for Japan Fashion Week suggests that this is a sign of positive changes at the organisation which has long been blamed for being too old-fashioned, bureaucratic and inefficient – holding back the very Japanese brands they were supposed to be promoting. Or as one scathing insider puts it, “an office full of out-of-touch bureaucrats in boring grey suits.”
“In response to not being modern, maybe that was sometimes the case 4 or 5 years ago but not anymore as I see it. We have many recent success stories of selling abroad. Some brands are gradually becoming more used to overseas business and others that were once satisfied with operating only in Japan because of the country’s big market size now realise they have to look abroad for growth,” she says.
Godoy believes that although such institutions have their place and that the old infrastructure around the ‘madoguchi’ system is still highly influential, they are beginning to wane slightly in the digital age.
“There are countless [Japanese brands to discover] that are being pumped out through street style images by foreign trend agency sites and domestic fashion sites that end up appealing to an international audience,” she says. “Since we’re now living in a world driven more by visual content, I don’t believe being bilingual is such an important factor as it once was.”
Nevertheless, centuries of tradition don’t disappear in a digital instant. Furuya believes that, “the right ‘madoguchi’ by which I mean someone honest, unbiased and trustworthy,” can in certain cases make or break a deal.
“‘Shoukai’ [‘introductions’] is an extremely important concept in Japan and many business interactions in Japan are based around it. This makes the presence of a ‘madoguchi’ even more important.”
// Thankful [in an embarassingly teen-like secret hoarding flush of emotion] that the large, predatory retailers won’t yet exploit the tiny labels that we love: [more] expensive, [higher] quality materials, [mostly] small runs and, best of all, unknown = the antithesis of disposable fast-fashion. They will copy but the aesthetic doesn’t map so well to American shoppers.
Related, and working in our favour, is the innate tendencies of VC’s to overcapitalize and force unnatural, unsupported expansion of fashion companies. How often do you find yourself giving thanks to greed? //
“We live in a world where we are never satisfied unless we become the next Google. Why can’t we be satisfied with creating something incredibly beautiful that connects with its customers in a way that enriches their lives and generates a great return for everyone involved?
That’s probably a question better saved for a long discussion after a couple of cocktails, but it strikes at how potentially great companies are being ruined by not understanding their market, ignoring the revenue curve that is inherent to the market they have chosen and creating an unsustainable operating cost structure that results in disaster for everyone rather than the certain victory it would have been otherwise.
Rather than understanding that the revenue curve begins to flatten as it approaches its maximum market size, we assume it can scale forever. We build an expense structure to support this theoretically multi-billion dollar business and we raise a ton of money to fund it. But no matter how much money we spend, sales will not grow enough to support this more ‘modest’ sized (at least relative to our wide-eyed expectations) business. It will collapse, founders will leave or be fired, there will be an employee exodus and investors will lose a lot of money. Same company, two different outcomes because we only recognised the opportunity presented by the Internet, not the constraints.”
"Can the best talent ultimately be retained within large legacy institutions, or post acquisition in a culture and vision they did not sign up for or post acqui-hire at a tech giant where they may work on only one product? Will the shift towards digital product as the leading edge make the focused product players the most appealing proposition for the best talent and fuel opportunity? Again, the next few years will answer these questions."
" …the opportunity to become truly great is about more than just financial reward. It’s about the chance to become a recognised design leader and partner to the brands whose digital products and services shape our world. It’s about the experiences and opportunities presented, which cannot be bought. The one shot you might be lucky enough to have at all this is however all too easily sold."
The “real” opportunity [?]
The discussion so far has centered around the agency/client model for digital product design, where one is paid for services rendered. This work can be truly inspiring and provides the opportunity to help deﬁne experiences for millions of people through client’s products. Where do you go from there? A proven track record in digital product will allow you to extend the traditional model by negotiating alternative commercial terms with companies, for example leveraging expertise for equity payment or under a JV arrangement. However, if you have that capability and spend the next three years only working for clients, you will have missed a far greater trick.
Real success in this area creates a far greater opportunity, which is to fundamentally reshape the the studio model. It has never been easier to build and distribute and market a digital product and those with a capability in digital product design who have been successful in delivering for clients, can and should aim to build capacity to explore their own digital product initiatives. Success here will generate passive revenue streams from the licensing or selling of a digital product or service as well the opportunity to augment the unscalable client service model. That in turn opens up remuneration models for the people that made it all happen which others cannot come close to.
The future, truly great digital product design company will have a stellar client service division, be running successful own product initiatives and will have equity stakes in select ventures where their skills can be leveraged best. Lots of legs on the table and one hell of an adventure.
Over the next few years there’s everything to play for. It’s game on.
/ I have no idea how to credit the little girl in the top image. It was a chilly, grey Saturday night in The Tenderloin. Very early in the evening. Only the geriatrics were eating at restaurants. Similar pattern happening at the gallery opening (dunno if this is a San Francisco thing.) The glitter car is a leftover piece being offered for free by the gallery to anyone able and willing to take it away. She was asked to pose and immediately jacked up and started Vogueing, bless her little heart.
There’s an allegory there somewhere…
The problem we all face is “The physical fallacy”. All of us, even those [in] the social sciences, have an innate bias where we are happier fixing problems with stuff, rather than with psychological solutions – building faster trains rather than putting wifi on existing trains, to use my oft cited example.
But as Benjamin Franklin (no mean decision scientist himself) remarked “There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do. The result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier.”
There is no reason to prefer one solution over another simply because it involves solid matter rather than grey matter. This is an interesting area where the advertising industry and the environmental movement (rarely seen as natural bedfellows) sometimes find common ground. Intangible value is the best kind of value – since the materials needed to create it are not in short supply.
// There is a third way: embrace your wants while augmenting your means. Ben lived in a pre-Kobayashi Maru world.
[Amazon] keeps a running list of the most highlighted Kindle passages of all time.
Instead of a cozy tete-a-tete with the idiosyncratic mind of a stranger, you get the reading equivalent of a giant rave, a warehouse pulsing with usually private emotions turned into shared public expressions. It’s a glimpse into our collective, most interior, and most embarrassing preoccupations.
The most immediately noticeable thing about the list is how Hunger Games-heavy it is. Nineteen of the top 25 most-highlighted passages are written by Suzanne Collins, who is not exactly known for a glittering prose style. That breakdown would suggest that Americans are mostly obsessed with teenagers and dystopias, which, while not entirely untrue, is also useful reminder that this is a numbers game. Bestsellers will naturally have the greatest number of underlines, and there are certain kinds of bestsellers that are more likely to be read digitally. These include books aimed at teenagers that a massive number of adults have embraced (potentially embarrassing), books in the public domain (free), and self-help books (potentially embarrassing). Taken together, they suggest that your average Kindle reader is a creature caught in permanent adolescence, but yearning to improve. Oh, and he’s cheap.
On the young-adult front, some of the most-liked Hunger Games lines don’t have much resonance beyond the tales themselves—descriptions of places and events in the novels. I can’t explain why a critical mass of Americans were intensely interested in the sentence “‘I just want to spend every possible minute of the rest of my life with you,’” Peeta replies.” (Actually, I can explain, but Team Peeta is a whole different essay.) Other passages, though, are more obvious candidates for underlining. After all, the thing that makes you pick up the pen is something that you recognize from your own life, or that makes you recognize something about your own life.
The most-noted line on all of Amazon is from the Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and it reads like something from the prologue to a self-help book: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” The Eeyore-ish affirmation is echoed by No. 4 on the list, another Collins special. “It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart.” In terms of existential despair, however, those are topped by No. 12 on the list, also from the trilogy. “We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.”
The bleakness of the worldview suggested by those passages is striking. It’s no surprise then, to find self-help passages appearing alongside them: They help us cope with our inherently flawed human selves. Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People appears several times—“It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us”—as does Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. Quotes about the healing power of God also make a strong showing, as do musings on the nature of marriage, and work, and leadership, and white carbohydrates.
// It’s good to be reminded of our youth. And not just when acquisitions like tumblr happen.
The snarkiness of these furtive, over-the-shoulder quantitative glances at the assumed collective of pre-teens/teens/proto-millenials is disappointing. What’s wrong with longing, uncertainty, despair, unrequited feelings, affirmations, hope…? Subtract emotion and life’s equation reduces to zero every single time.
"Who knew what objects would be required for any act of sorcery? It was, by its very definition, an irrational art. Many sorcerers were magpies, since one could not tell what physical item - if any - would be required for a Work."
Replace sorcery -> creativity.
Sorcerers -> designers.
Or on bright, first-day-of-spring kinds of days, sorcerers -> artists.
Objects -> ideas.
Our profession is ever an act of improvisation — sometimes rushed, sometimes languorous rehearsals (with our creative teams) and performance theater (with our clients, and, eventually our customers/users).
So if gathering ideas and saving them for use in ideally unexpected future uses, defines me as magpie, then wings spread without conscious thought, flicking in anticipation for the joy of collecting.
"It is so much easier to take pictures in a place that is strange. You are relieved of the burden of knowing anything, of having to distinguish between the obvious and the intimate.There is an openness in which you discover yourself and where you imaginatively are. That sense of discovery…”
Corollary: I love eating in restaurants where I don’t understand the language(s) being spoken around me. Conversations are soothing radiators of warm, comforting human companionship - absent the high-frequency buzzing irritant of everyday complaints, banal observations and uncomfortable glimpses into screeching, sadness and boredom.
I’m secretly hoping for a future Google Glass plug-in that performs real-time language translation from English to any dialect of my choosing (that I don’t understand, of course).