Will Smith at AdWeek: 'Planning is a hindrance; listen to your gut'

"The greatest thing you can do for success, for business, for your family is to be a better you. Focus to expand yourself is a way to create better stories."

Be more human, confront your fears every day and don’t fool yourself into thinking metrics are God.

This is the advice Will Smith gave to an audience of marketers during an impassioned talk at Advertising Week in New York City on Wednesday.

"Finding the way to the success and the win and the creation is much more a spiritual endeavor today than it was for me 30 years ago," he said. "I have to pay way more attention."

"The best way I can describe it is planning and grinding were the things to do to succeed 20 years ago; get this flag to the top of this hill and you put your horse blinders on and you go and you put your team together and you’re a cog in the machine.

"What I’m experiencing today that’s much more different is a plan can be a hindrance -- you have to be paying attention. It’s much more about attention than it is about grinding and dragging yourself to a target."

Smith admitted that it used to be all about nailing a good trailer, even if the movie was a complete failure. He said Hollywood used to joke that it was in the trailer business, not the movie business.

Social media changed everything. It made the business more accountable. Smith recalled a meeting in which a Hollywood executive branded the tectonic shift "bullshit," and bemoaned the fact that they’d "have to make fucking good movies now."

"It was actually a revelation," said Smith. "More than ever because of technology it has to be great."

The actor, who recently launched his own YouTube channel to explore a new type of creative storytelling away from big movies, said his content must fulfill two categorie: joy and life expansion.

"Whenever I’m looking at something, I always challenge my team; why is it fun, why is it awe-inspiring, why will it create joy? And then, what is the seed of expansion -- why are we putting this out into the world now and how does it improve lives? If you can find those two elements in the story it’s something you can be pretty confident that somebody’s going to need it."

His latest video, entitled "The Jump," showed him bungee-jumping from a helicopter over the Grand Canyon after he was dared by the Yes Theory. The eight-minute clip was shot with no preparation. Everything the viewer sees, Smith is experiencing for the first time. It’s raw and authentic, and the strategy paid off. The video has garnered more than 16 million views since it was published in late September.

The actor, producer and musician warned of living and dying by metrics and comments. He knows that a video of him dancing on a Saturday night will be his most-viewed video of the week, but sticking to such content "narrows artistry." The dangerous strategy risks a disconnect with the audience, he said.

"Nothing is more valuable than your gut," Smith stressed. "The metrics are there to help you train your gut because at the end of the day you have to make the call on the extraordinary. The metrics keep you in the ordinary and keep you from failing more than they help you succeed.

"The thing that succeeds is going to be way outside of what anybody even thought was possible. You use the metrics so you don’t get fired. Then, in that moment, you’ve got to make a call that everyone is like, ‘no’ -- that’s the one that makes you a legend.

"Use the metrics but be careful of thinking they’re God -- they’re not -- the God connection is in you."

Hand-in-hand with gut instincts is fear. Smith offered the challenge to confront our most terrifying scenarios at every opportunity. He’s embraced this over the past year and said it’s made him more confident than ever and more willing to take a chance and say something in a meeting that might sound a little crazy.

"That fear thing is so constricting," he said. "It stops you from exploring and experiencing. And the problem is because it’s inside our head it even constricts our thinking. A constant confrontation with fear and your edges is hugely important to maintain creativity.

"I would encourage everybody to embrace any sort of confrontation with your fears as much as possible because it opens you up to be able to live and love and taste the flavors of life in a way that you just can’t trapped in your box."

Smith said his content is working and enjoyable because it’s the first time he’s been in the world with no agenda: "I’m not selling anything. I don’t have any movies to promote. I’m just having fun."

He said advertisers should be "tapping into your role as a human-being over a marketer and business person and your contribution to the human family with the question of how do my products and services improve lives -- and then find a joyous way to let people know why your product and services improve lives."

He added: "The greatest thing you can do for success, for business, for your family is to be a better you. Focus to expand yourself is a way to create better stories."


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