Faris Yakob — Founder & Principal, Genius Steals

Faris talks to TheNextGag about his new book Paid Attention, why he loves being a judge at awards shows and why he believes that “talent imitates but genius steals“.

Faris Yakob is the Founder & Principal of Genius Steals, a strategic planning and innovation practice, in the USA.

He has previously been the Chief Innovation Officer at MDC Partners, was a Chief Technology Strategist at McCann Ericksson and also worked as a Global Digital Strategy & Creative Director for Naked.

THENEXTGAG: WHAT EXACTLY IS GENIUS STEALS ?

FARIS YAKOB: Genius Steals is somewhere between a consultancy and an agency. To give it context, I used to work in management consulting and then worked as an advertising strategist. I also worked as a creative director. We attempt to be holistic in our approach in solving problems with creativity, working with brands, advertising agencies, media agencies, media companies, startups. Sometimes the solutions are going to be marketing communications, sometimes they’re not.

I guess you could call us a creative consultancy.

TNG: DO YOU HAVE ANY CONCRETE EXAMPLES OF WHAT YOU PROPOSE ?

FY: Sure. We work in a number of different ways. We work as an agency partner for Gibson Guitars or for FreshPet, which is a pet food company. And for them, we’ll do things like an agency will do. We do brand strategy, communications strategies, social and digital. We develop a framework, we help them with the idea, we help them think about the marketing engine that’s needed to implement. But we don’t go through execution. We don’t develop and produce content in most cases, although we did a branded content project with Marriott and Fast Company, where we did.

TNG: EVEN IF YOU DON’T DO PRODUCTION, DO YOU STILL DO PROJECT MANAGEMENT ?

FY: We don’t do project management usually. We tend to get plugged in to situations where it is existing.

We work in the brand strategy and communication strategy area. We also work as consultants for agencies. With creative agencies, we’ve helped them build social teams or content departments, planning processes or integrated strategic offerings. We come in and do training and inspiration sessions.

We work with a couple of startups as advisors for equity. Usually in the creative technology space. And we do workshops about innovation and strategy for agencies, for brands and for conferences and other events.

TNG: DO YOU WORK FROM THE UK OR DO YOU FOLLOW THE CLIENTS ?

FY: We follow the clients. Part of our proposition is that we wanted to be light. Be agile with a small “A”. We wanted to travel too, to try and get more inspiration. So we have no fixed space. We left New York two years ago. We’ve done projects in Istanbul, in Dubai, in London, in Australia, in America. Some entirely remotely, some with us being in place for meetings, some with us being there the whole time.

We worked with Nestlé, for instance, for six months. And with Nestlé, we were working as a strategic partner with one of their digital agencies to develop a strategy and digital approach for their whole portfolio of products. And we did that, some parts on location, some parts at the agency in New York, some parts from the UK and some parts we flew to LA for meetings.

It depends really. We live on the road.

TNG: DO YOU MISS WORKING IN AN ADVERTISING AGENCY ?

FY: I miss some aspects of the environment around lots of creative people and in agency, from having lots of clients and lots of things coming through.

But I think I am better off for the time being. Because for me, at least, part of what I really wanted was to go and explore again, to travel, to see new things, to be able to take on different kinds of projects, and to take in smaller projects that were just me or just Rosie, or just the two of us. Because at the agency level, when I was working in the agencies in New York, people often approached me about “Can you help me with this little thing? On this thinking or on this idea”. Sure. But there’s no way to take small clients at a big ad agency in New York, especially if the outputs aren’t going to be advertising. It’s just not financially viable because the overheads are too high and they become cost prohibitive.

So, you end up having a part of the market restricted from you in some ways.

I miss some aspects to it but I work with more agencies now than I did when I worked at an agency.

It’s fun to be able to do both I guess.

TNG: I FEEL LIKE IT’S ALWAYS THE SAME JUDGES AT AD AWARDS SHOWS ? DO YOU THINK THAT THEY ARE ABLE TO JUDGE NEW THINGS ?

FY: One reason why it is always the same judges is because they invite their biggest customers. They invite the agencies that enter the most awards. That’s kind of how the business works. Its definitely good to mix up the juries, get a diversity of skills and points of view, otherwise the award shows end upon reflecting structural homogeneity. I think people are able to judge new things, concept and impact more than craft perhaps, assuming a variety of very different crafts are being judged.

TNG: WHAT WILL YOU BE JUDGING THIS YEAR ?

FY: I did the Effies earlier this year, always interesting to see results. I did the One Show Screen, the One Show shorts films contest. Since I don’t work for an ad agency anymore, I am not a great customer for the awards shows anymore. But I am usually quite flexible on timing — I have less meetings than agency folk — so I will still do some. I will be judging on the New jury at the London International Awards again later this year.

TNG: WHAT DO YOU GET FROM JUDGING ALL THESE AWARDS SHOWS ?

FY: I love judging. It’s such a honor. Judging is like having an Advertising MBA forced into your brain every year.

There is no moment in your life as an ad professional that you will spend three days watching the best curated work in your category from around the world.
Because it is hard to do anything for 3 days straight. I am not saying it is not a privilege and an honor. Of course, it is great and it is really a fun experience. And thy are good ones; I think the ADC was in Costa Rica this year … There are definitely perks to it.

But purely practical, part of what I think — and the whole belief behind Genius Steals — is that the best ideas come from the best inspiration. So if I take three days out of my life and I spend three whole days watching 300 case studies videos from the best work in the world, I certainly get a huge palette of new thoughts to put into my ideas.

It is so valuable. It really is. You are not going to do it in your spare time. It is not realistic. And then you will get situations where creatives will not be aware of really famous work. And that seem short-sighted to me.

So, I get a lot out of it. In terms of inspiration, in terms of people you meet, conversations … And also, it is just quite nice to be asked.

TNG: WHAT IS IN THE BOOK THAT YOU JUST WROTE ? IS IT STUFF THAT YOU ALREADY PUBLISHED OR IS IT NEW MATERIAL ?

FY: A combination. It is not entirely new, but then as I point out in the book, nothing is entirely new. Lots of books start out as germs of an idea in a paper.

The interesting thing about books is that they are slow, so they stop at a certain point and they get trapped in time. And that time is ever moving further away.

The book itself is giving me new ideas about the book and about ideas that are in the book, which is kind of interesting.

TNG: WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION IN WRITING “PAID ATTENTION” ?

FY: A combination of things. I spent ten years writing about advertising and I wanted partly to articulate my point of view on advertising. And by articulating, it allowed me to define it a little bit. Because I have lots of thoughts like everybody and they don’t fit together necessarily in the same way. What do I believe ? What do I want to believe about advertising and how it works ? And what do we actually know? So it was partly about me getting myself on paper that way in one place.
And it was partly because young planners and young strategists reach out to me a lot. And I don’t know if I am just more approachable than people in advertising agencies now. But even when I worked in agencies. And they ask me “What should I read in advertising ?” They are lots of things. But if you want to do it like I think about it, then this book will be a good place to start. So that’s a good solution to that problem that I’ve had. “Here’s this book. Here is what I think and see what you think about it.”

And partially, very specifically, in a transparent way, like all business books, it’s part of ongoing content strategy, like speaking, like blogging, like tweeting. It’s the next step in that progression. Trying to explain how I have a point of view about the world and about the industry and how does advertising works and if you like it, then maybe we can work together.

TNG: WHO DO YOU THINK WILL WIN IN THE FUTURE ? AD AGENCIES OR STARTUPS ?

FY: I have a few thoughts about this. George Parker calls them BDA: Big Dumb Agencies. As though dumbness were an inevitable function of size, of institutional calcification. The same reason big companies find innovation difficult in the innovator’s dilemma way. Big agencies that are built on business models that make a lot of money making TV commercials are always going to want to make TV commercials. Why would they not want to make them ? Their business is built on making them. So that’s a challenging part of it.

Do I think that they are doomed? No. Maybe this is a generalisation, but people inside agencies want to make films. A lot. They seem to really like making films in ad agencies. I mean, they really like it. The challenge is that advertising is not a product. Advertising is a lever. Advertising is a means, right, to achieve something else. Whereas a film is a finished thing by itself. And they are different. So, if something is better at achieving the same effect as a TV commercial and is cheaper and more efficient, then we should be doing that thing, whatever that thing is.

I don’t think it’s necessary a technology. I used to think it was just technology. There is a weird kind of arrogance — and I don’t mean everybody — among older creatives in advertising. Because they know how to make ads so well, they think everything else is irrelevant to them. It’s just weird. Because of of the most interesting things in the world right now most of them are not films. Films are a great way to describe those things. Video games are a much bigger industry than films, but a very different one also.

And it’s about skill set as well. It’s hard to understand something when your salary depends on you not understanding it. And if you grew up in a world where you did storyboards on bits of paper and writing tag lines and jokes, if someone ask you go design an experience for a piece of software, it is so far from that skill set, that is has it to be kind of hilarious that they ask the same people. And yet we do. We ask the creative department to fix digital experience problems like he was able to fix writing lines. And they are different things.

TNG: IT SEEMS TO BE THAT THERE IS A SIMILARITY BETWEEN THE DIFFICULTIES OF TRADITIONAL MEDIA COMPANIES SUCH AS THE NYT TO ADJUST TO THE DIGITAL WORLD AND THE AD AGENCIES NOWADAYS. FOR EXAMPLE, ANGRY BIRDS DIDN’T COME FROM AN AD AGENCY BUT IT BELIEVE THAT THIS IS THE STUFF THAT THEY SHOULD BE DOING. WHAT DO YOU THINK ?

FY: I agree with you. I made a company based on exactly that idea when I was in New York, for MDC, trying to bring some of that thinking and practice into agencies.

So, there is a business model issue here. Companies that make money like advertising agencies don’t have the capital or the long-term reserves to invest in product design like Angry Birds. Angry Birds was the fiftieth game that company made. Over ten years. And the rest maybe broke even a little bit. Agencies don’t have that kind of business model. We work on a selling of services model.

I would love to fix that model. In our company, because we are small and the way we work is different. We do not sell time. We do not sell hours. We don’t sell retainers. Because I believe it can be part the problem. But of course I know that if you are a large ad agency, there is now way you can shift your clients to a value-based pricing model overnight. Or ever. It’s already too late, because they won’t let you anymore.

So I don’t think that ad agencies will ever be at a place where they can build things like Angry Birds. That said, I do things there are places that are fertile. But, you know how it is. When you have ideas that seem really cool, but as soon as the client gets busy, the idea goes away. There’s no budget. There’s no time. There’s no unallocated resources because that’s against the business model.

TNG: DO YOU THINK THAT HAVING A CREATIVE DIRECTOR RESPONSIBLE OF SUPERVISING FILMS, WEBSITE, MOBILE, CRM, GAMES IS THE RIGHT MODEL FOR THE CURRENT SITUATION ?

FY: I think it’s challenging. I think having a single creative director for an entire ad agency no longer makes sense. I think Nils Leonard at Grey LDN said they had abandoned this single point model for more autonomy and it was working great for them.

When I was working with Crispin a little bit, when I was at MDC, somebody said something that I’ve used a lot since: We get a situation with our digital teams going to our creative director who went to art school and the team shows him an algorithm they’ve written for a piece of software and the art school guy looks at them and says “I can’t even read this. How can I be a creative director when I can’t read this ?” That’s obviously a silly thing. There is no way that that works in that particular way. I do think that a creative sensibility is broad and can spread to some things. But there are certain areas where it’s very different.

And also, when you think about how way ad agencies work. It’s interesting to me that they think they make ads but they don’t make ads. Ad agencies do not make ads most of the time. Production companies make ads, right. They do, that’s true. Everybody knows that in the industry.

So what do they do if you think about it? They have the ideas for the ads. So, if you write a script for a piece like a film, you germinate an idea. Then, you work with a production company, a set company, a director, and a lot of people involved. But a lot of the details of that ad are made in the process of making it.

Having an idea for a game is very different. You can’t write game mechanics as a single page like scripts. Because game mechanics are very complicated and just don’t work if they don’t work. You can’t just write an idea for a game, the idea is you fly a bird at these pigs. Cool. Lots of games may fire birds into pigs but most of them will be terrible and one of them will be Angry Birds. That’s the challenge.

TNG: CAN YOU TELL US A BIT WHERE DOES THE NAME OF YOUR COMPANY “GENIUS STEALS” COME FROM ?

FY: This is in my book actually — I wrote a chapter about Genius Steals.

My blog has been called “Talent Imitates, Genius Steals” for ten years at least. I use the quote because I love modernism. I love the idea of culture made out of pieces. And T. S. Elliot actually apparently said it. The quote itself is attributed to Picasso, to Mark Twain, to Oscar Wilde and to T. S. Elliot at least. And none of them are real, as far as I can tell. It’s a quotation which kind of evolved, and then got appended to people who seemed to be a good fit for. You know, creative people. It’s a fauxtation.

The closest real quotation from an actual piece of document writing is by T. S. Elliot, the poet. And he says that “Immature poets imitate and great poets steal”. That’s the closest to the real thing.

So, the thinking behind it is that you spend a lot of times in brainstorms and with agencies and people are like “Is it original ? Is it a new idea ? Media first ? Originality ? No, it’s been done before.” And the problem with that thinking is that it cripples people, it handcuffs them into things that are not possible, which are original ideas. There are no original ideas. That’s what I believe. An idea can’t be original because it must come from somewhere. And at every level this is true. If you express the idea in words, you didn’t invent words so obviously it is not original. If it was truly original it wouldn’t be comprehensible, it would be a non-word. So that quite of makes sense.

And also, every idea in art looks back at the rest of art and builds on it. All art thinks this way. Our history is the foundation of all arts. Everything is a comment of what came before.

TNG: THIS IS REALLY DEEP.

FY: Well, I try to dig.

But if you don’t know what came before, you are just going to try and do it over and over again. If you do know the best of history, advertising, art or whatever, you can look at the best ideas and how they worked best and steal from them. And the stealing part is in sort of remixing. You take the part that works best, you take the new elements that is around your problem, and then you make something which is new in its arrangement, if not new in its pieces.

That’s why I love awards shows. That’s why I love travel. That’s why I love watching TV. That’s why I love reading stupid stuff. That’s why I love immersing myself in the broadest set of weirdness that I possibly can. Because I believe that at a fundamental level, ideas are new combinations. And to have better ideas, you need to have better components to combine.

Faris Yakob

Genius Steals

Founder & Principal

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