Comics legend talks collaboration in advertising

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David Mayo, CEO of Bates CHI&Partners, speaks with Marvel's Larry Hama about what Hollywood can teach the industry

HONG KONG — Along with creativity and innovation, collaboration is one of the core boardroom themes of the post-proto digital age.

As with the first digital age a decade ago, people are scrambling to define the words, systems, skills and processes needed to deliver and thrive in a world where digital writes its own script. There is no longer a digital department, and clients no longer ask for digital campaigns. Media companies do not delineate between online and offline as we predicted all those years ago. The word digital is at last moving from a noun to an adjective.

And it is in this new thriving environment that a new agency needs to define itself. Clients now have a choice between integrated agencies and collaboration agencies and as the marketing world looks to its agencies to collaborate and play nice in the sandbox, I took time after my Spikes panel here to ask Larry Hama what it really takes to collaborate and how collaboration can drive that all-important creativity.

Mayo: Larry, how does collaboration work for multimillion-dollar movie projects? Isn’t Hollywood more famous for megalomaniac, single-minded control freaks?

Hama: Collaboration is the wave of the future; the old model is dying. It was very linear, starting with a writer and then going through the steps — sort of like having a single toll booth on an eight-lane highway. You lose so much by keeping it linear. You need to have a really diverse team of talented people all working together and at the same time.

Mayo: What happens when you bring these really diverse talents and individuals — these teams of rivals — together to develop a creative idea?

Hama: It can get pretty crazy actually. Like with the X-men comics, the way they regulate it is to have a retreat every year. The get everyone who’s working on the comics and put them in a hotel someplace for three days, and you have to live with these people — even though there might be a lot of people who hate each other’s guts — and you have to hammer out everything that was going to happen in that world for the whole next year, in those three days. And if you don’t, well, you don’t go home.

Mayo: That sounds very dramatic, maybe even warranting a screenplay of its own, but how do you manage these teams of rivals through all this chaos and ensure that a product actually gets delivered?

Hama: At the retreat, people were yelling and screaming at each other and pounding on desks, but what saved it all was that they had an editor-In-chief who acted as the referee. So their job was to make sure all this energy and antagonism could be channeled into something creative. You need to have that referee to turn chaos into a creative product.

Mayo: Agencies are looking at different industries — software, startups and of course Hollywood — and discovering that the real money comes from making products, rather than just messages. How do you go about pitching ideas for stories that might turn into products?

Hama: You pitch everything as multiple iterations. Twenty years ago I pitched an idea for a comic book by designing the toy first. Then I designed the comic book character so they would actually match the toy, but also so it could be easily produced with the animation techniques of the day. So I was thinking in terms of the toy, the animated show and the comic book simultaneously. That’s actually a more common approach now, but back then it was ahead of its time.

Mayo: Agencies — and marketers — are famously very risk-averse. We hate failures. We fire the people responsible and then pretend they never happened. What’s Hollywood’s attitude to failure?

Hama: Hollywood is filled with failures. You could say it was built on them. Every successful person in Hollywood has a string of failures to their name. We just accept that as part of the creative process. Most industries are built on consensus, but Hollywood is not afraid to say "scrap it — start again." But the entire act of "scrap it" can trigger new and greater ideas. We often get a very long way in the process of developing an idea and then someone will come in and say "I hate it. Start again." And Hollywood thrives on this stuff. It stopped being scared of this a long time ago … because it realized that starting again with the right people will always get you to a bigger solution.

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