Sunday, July 24, 2011

What makes a leader a creative vision leader?

Lot's of passion and opinions on the subject but it's all so new!
Our highly convergent media world, is exploding with the rapid growth of new mobile formats, new publishing formats, new gaming formats, flash tribes, persistent tribes, Social everything, hypermediation, transmediation and a list of new concepts and titles that is growing faster than Wikipedia can keep up with.

In the newly emerged Transmedia industry there are new models, ideas and definitions being presented on a daily basis that suggest specific structures and processes that you can build or hire-in (sometimes for very large consulting fees). The creative and commercial results of all this activity, to date, have been occasionally good but generally mixed at best. No one has found the magical secret recipe, if one even exists.

If the rise of the audience is showing us anything its that systems need to be extremely flexible and able to adapt to each IP's unique needs in a way that is authentic to the specifics of its audience.

To be clear, I believe that over time, good insights and best practices will emerge from the tsunami of opinions. Change is ultimately extremely healthy and as long as there are articulate professionals aggressively gaining and sharing their knowledge, successes and failures, the debate will eventually yield "tools"that can be used by those trained to use them.

So who or what can I build my I.P. development program on?
If you are an intellectual property owner or steward, considering how to proceed with development, from a creative standpoint, it can seem like an overwhelming set of choices and decisions.

For today's post, I'm not going to comment or vote on definitions, structures or tools. I'm going to focus on a single role within the swirling possible choices for development. A role I believe needs to be at the center of any creative decision-making on any new Intellectual property.

That role is the Vision Leader.
The Vision leader is the accomplished and trained creative human being whom understands your I.P. on a personal, instinctual, and gut level. A person who cares deeply about every aspect of the narrative because it is personally meaningful to him or her. The vision leader is independent of what specific cross media development model you subscribe to for your I.P. expansion project. He or She will be your creative center no matter how you proceed.

Based on the work I've done across many different I.P. corporations over the past 25 years, I suggest the following broad guidelines in terms of how a vision leader fit into the parent organization and how they interact with partners, consultants and talent:

  • Voice: Vision leaders need to have a seat at the high level management meetings where strategic decisions are being made about "what" to do with the I.P./Franchise. Some corporations and companies don't have creatives at the highest levels or segregate them out of certain strategic planning discussions. The creative/audience voice is critical to have as part of the discussions in a world that has made a paradigm shift to audience empowerment.
  • Authority: Vision leaders need to be the cross-media nexus for high-level creative decision-makers across all media formats. This is easier to do as a licensor than as a corporation with internal divisions/formats. Fundamental structures and issues of Centralized brand management need to be addressed and adjusted.
  • Resources: Vision leaders need to have clear access and a budget to utilize company research efforts and to conduct exploratory creative work if needed. Vision leading is all about excavating creative opportunities that grow the I.P. in authentic ways. Without exploration that is agnostic of single media concerns, the role can become a simple yes/no function that doesn't generate insights into narrative possibilities.

In terms of who the vision leader works for or reports to I think there are lots of different possible combinations that can work. The chart above isn't an org chart. It's about the dialogue and creative decision-making at the highest level.  Broadly, this role is most effective at insuring true creative quality when all questions of a high-level creative nature come to his or her office for input and decision. This in no way disempowers specific media creatives, brand management or transmedia producers from doing a fantastic job however it is defined.
 I don't recommend that the vision leader role get combined in the same person with one of those other roles, or any other roles for one simple reason.

Truth: "You always get the behavior you incentivize for"
You need to have a high level creative authority in the development and franchise expansion mix whose primary job is to advocate for the Narrative, the Art, the quality and connectedness of the experience and...most importantly, the audience. That person is your vision leader.

If that person is also managing schedules, deliverables, talent contracts, or any of the hundreds of other specifics of a single or multiple media execution, then they are being measured or incentivized to place those concerns above others and will change their decisions in subtle and profound ways that will not be the best for your overall creative franchise health. It's also why I believe it's important not to combine the vision leader role with any of the various descriptions of a Transmedia producer.  However you define it, Transmedia Producer is a big job with a great deal of management and coordination duties. Combining the vision leader with that role, I believe, sets up conflicts of advocacy. 

In entertainment, great commerce happens because the audience falls in love with the Narrative and finds it meaningful and empowering. It is the role of the Vision Leader to be the primary voice for all of that and for creative consistency and narratively authentic growth.  The vision leader does not have to be the author or the writer.

Description of a vision leader's qualities:

  • Understands narrative - preferably, someone who is trained in some form of quality storytelling/creating but can be someone who's life work has proven that they do this on an instinctual level.
  • Communicates and Advocates well - A vision leader's primary job is to advocate for the authenticity of the narrative in all its forms.  He/she is the voice of the audience in the room.
  • Can see and expand on possibilities - A vision leader must be someone capable of engaging with new possibilities and accepting, adjusting or rejecting them based on what is good for the "growth" of the IP, not just for where it has been.
  • Is highly creative - The vision leader is not the source of all ideas in a Transmedia world but must be able to engage with and be additive to those ideas.
  • Is concerned about the commercial success of the property - Though the vision leader's primary role is to be the steward for the creative aspects of the I.P., he/she must be fully engaged in the process of commercial expansion and success as well.
  • Is a member of the community he or she is creating for - My previous post "are you a member of the community you create for?" covers this subject in greater detail. If possible, finding that person who feels the I.P. has deep personal meaning for them, can bring a whole different level of creative management to the project.
  • Ideally, is conversant in development in a number of key formats - This is very additive but not necessarily a price of entry of the individual is very good at all other measures and is collaborative and able to work well with key creatives for each of their own media formats
The thoughts on vision leader I present here are conclusions I have come to from many years of working directly for, and/or helping various large entertainment and entertainment product companies to expand their Intellectual properties to do much more than the single media or product category that birthed the I.P.

There are many points of view on all aspects of this subject and I hope my perspective helps in stimulating the discussion.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Are you a member of the community you create for?

A number of years ago I had the pleasure of working with Bill Rose from Wizards of the Coast. They are the company who created and built Magic the Gathering, the wildly successful Trading Card Game as well as the publishing program, Cons/Tournaments, fan clubs and much more that eventually grew from the original concept. I asked Bill how they constantly seemed to get it right in terms of what their audience wanted from them.  His answer was simple and applicable far beyond card gaming:

"You can't create well for a community unless you are a member of that community!"

Think about this for a moment. What do we know better than anything else? We know what we like and we know what we do. If we are parents, we know exactly what it's like to have and raise kids. Each day is full of thousands of personal observations and insights into being a parent. If we love race cars, maybe our dream job would be to work for Nascar in some form or fashion! If you have the qualifications needed for the job, your passion would add to your value.  If you're developing or marketing fashion, you've got to be in the thick of the right fashion scene to read the nuanced and fast-moving influences and you have to wake up caring deeply about it in a very personal way. Net/net, when you are it, you feel it in your gut.

There is a great deal of real world evidence supporting the practical business application of this principal as well.  As an example, Mattel has made no secret of the fact that they hire designers and marketers who are passionately personally interested in the brands they are developing and marketing.  They have shown remarkable growth across several key categories in part, because a significant percentage of the product and ideas they are coming up with are just plain good and really get the smallest of details just right for their kid and collector audiences. This happens because all decisions, micro and macro, have advocates in key places in the process who are actually the audience themselves!

Movies have long been created and talent signed-on based on passion and affinity. It's how you get depth and true insight in the greatest possible amounts.

Does this fly in the face of the mid to late twentieth century belief that building a good senior manager means you need to keep moving him or her around from category to category, or even company to company? In part, I believe it does. Much of our legacy structures for thinking and managing come from the 20th century's adherence to a military industrial model.  We used to be in the business of making many of the same things over and over again in mass quantitates. Management became a repeatable process somewhat agnostic to the specific product. Change was more metered and success was all about quantity and repeatability. Even our schools are still built on this outdated model, but that's a different discussion for a different blog.

We are now in an age where, for much of the content world, it is about a growing social component, personalization, new mixtures of traditional and mobile, the power of the community and breathtakingly fast technological change. Though there is evolution happening, the rapid changes in connectedness and technology continue to far exceed even analysts predictions.

What does this mean to Transmedia and Meta-story? It means that choosing who works on the Meta-story and who the Transmedia producer will be is anything but one-size fits all. It is critical to identify Senior Creative and Strategic participants:

whose passion and personal connection with the project stem from who they well as what they know. 

This may mean that "The Vision Leader." (the person with that gut-level creative connection to the property...more on this role in a later post) may not be trained in Meta-story development.

Because true cross format narrative development and competencies have been on the scene for all of twenty minutes, there are not legions of fully trained individuals capable of doing this work across all categories of possible content. (Evidence is that there are no, I repeat, no major colleges with Meta-story curricula in place).

The solution, for now, is a partnering of the vision leader with a trained Meta-story developer.

This raises another key question however. In moving to a Transmedia model and employing Meta-story development, is the management in the parent company capable of making the decisions and/or recognizing good ideas from not so good ones? If we return to Bill's marvelous insight and apply it to management we get some interesting answers.

Let's use the fast growing and highly audience-influential area of Social media to make the point. Here's an illustration of what appears to be a broad disconnect in the area of social media usage based on income.  Within this report from Kissmetrics (which I became aware of from a Linkedin post by Maciej Fita) one note of interest is the severe plummet in social media users above the $75K per year income level. Executives are in this group.

There may be some execs who use it in a significant way, but from my experience, it is a minority. Blackberry's aren't analogous to social media. Without direct experience or contact with your intended audience, decisionmaking becomes dependant on reports and analysis.  Those can be quite helpful but reduce the likelyhood of intuitive decisions dramatically and certainly slow down making opportunistic moves in a fast moving ecosystem. The best decision-making employs both.

For Meta-story development it also can have a strong tendency to drive management to look for consensus from media stakeholders versus being a strong advocate for the total narrative as the audience will experience it with "input" from media stakeholders.

Here too, the remedy lies in elevating the role and voice of the vision leader. Story and Audience advocacy is fundamentally the most commercially responsible position to take as the corporate world rethinks how it works in this fantastic and quickly evolving environment!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Missing Meta-story management affects toy movie effectiveness

Attached is an interesting article from Toy News online that describes a glut of underperforming movies that haven't driven the toy sales to the level the brand owners expected.  It underscores the need for true Meta-story development for these properties and these formats.

Large organizations like toy companies can make formulaic decisions about story that really have nothing to do with good Meta-story creation. Early success can make a whole industry certain that all they need is their own competencies to move into another form of expression. here's an example of how some of that thinking translates into unsuccessful direction:

"If there is a direct relationship between rating/box office and toy sales, that must mean that the more they see my toys the more they'll buy them!" This leads to "product cramming" and losing the key empowerment and narrative in service of product placement and feature opportunities.

Many of the movies that have failed to perform at box office and in product retail have this particular belief baked-in to the development.

Here's the article. Read it through and below is a few additional things to consider:

Toy movies in 2011 - Has Hollywood gone too far?

Having read the article, several things pop out.

First, as pointed out by the author of the article, it is astonishing just how many of these movies are demographically right on top of each other.  The first transformers was sharing the demographic audience Pie with just a few others.  Now, its a pile-on so naturally, all slices are going to be much more hard won.

 Second, is that not all of these movies are what the toy industry calls "Toyetic." Through Meta-story, we learn how to deeply understand the nuanced but profound needs within each product and media format. Within the toy industry, no one expected John Cameron's Avatar to be a runaway hit for kids. It never contained the right kind of aspirational empowerment for kids to adopt it given where they are in their psychosocial development.  The same is true for Kung Fu Panda, Tron Legacy, Thor and Pirates. Just because a movie has cool things in it doesn't mean that those things translate to sustainable role play for kids. The movies themselves can even be wonderful cinematic triumphs (Kung Fu Panda) but performance in other media and formats is independent of single media success. I'll repeat what I always say to clients about shaping their narratives:

"Stories are like software. If you don't build them to run on their intended platforms from the beginning it is likely they won't perform well."

Third is that in spite of lower box office for Cars 2, it is such a spot-on concept for kids that it will still drive sales of product quite well over time.

Fourth and perhaps the most important, is that in the rush to create huge movies out of toy properties, executives seem to be forgetting that what makes a story become a lifestyle brand is when it becomes so meaningful to it's audience that it become "beloved!" Product doesn't make a story meaningful. At times the play you experienced as a child does but, if you can't excavate what is driving the meaning and empowerment for your audience and move that to the forefront of your development, then you risk doing damage to your narrative and franchise by making it an advertisement.  Cool is not the primary measure of a successful kid's lifestyle and product brand. Kid-Empowerment is.

We seem to be stuck in a whirlwind entertainment trend to spend enormous amounts of money making gigantic special effects movies that are mostly very edgy and full of intensely cool action.  High School and College guys are loving this no doubt but why are we surprised when children of 4 to 11 don't seem to be captivated by the same things we were in love with when we were kids? Because we've turned those stories and themes into entertainment that is mostly out of their reach and/or inappropriate for their aspirations.