More than any city in the world, Los Angeles defines creativity. It is shaped by a massive entertainment industry, storied creative agencies and a burgeoning maker and startup culture. But its creative energy also is driven by the powerful intangibles of optimism and renewal. And with digital technology linking it not only to Chicago and New York but also South America and Asia, L.A. will only grow as the world’s creative center. That’s why Adweek last month invited a group at the heart of this business and city to discuss opportunities and challenges of living and working among the most creative doers and dreamers.
We were joined by: Jared Leto, actor, musician and digital entrepreneur; Chris Bruss, vp, brand entertainment, Funny or Die; Jae Goodman, co-chief creative officer/co-head, CAA Marketing; Rob Schwartz, global creative president TBWA\Worldwide; Sibyl Goldman, head of entertainment partnerships, Facebook; Jamie Byrne, director, content strategy, YouTube; and John Boiler, founder and CEO, 72andSunny.
Adweek: Rob, TBWA has a long legacy in Los Angeles, and our motivation for being here today is probably similar to what spurred Jay Chiat to set up shop here in 1968. Do you think his creative manifest destiny has been realized?
Rob Schwartz, global creative president, TBWA\Worldwide (Clio juror ’13): I think, yes. Jay basically said I don’t want to be New York, I don’t want to be Chicago. I want to go to this place Los Angeles. And back then there were movie companies and Dodger Stadium. Nobody was thinking advertising. But slowly and surely, between Jay and Guy Day, they built an agency based on L.A. at its best, and that’s doing things that hadn’t been done.
Jared, with so many creative tools at your disposal, do you have to be more curator than creative?
Jared Leto, actor/musician/digital entrepreneur: No, not really. Thankfully, I don’t have those kind of rules in place. I basically get to do whatever I feel like doing, and that’s my job as an artist. When you think of the greatest things of all time, whether it’s advertising or whether it’s art, the word risk is somewhere in there, right? And if you’re paying attention to the rules, you’re not risking very much. So my job is to not follow rules, that’s the job of the artist.
Sibyl, Facebook is doing interesting work connecting talent with their fan bases.
Sibyl Goldman, head of entertainment partnerships, Facebook: There’s this amazing thing happening now where creative people are connecting directly with their fans in ways that used to have to happen through marketing. I support marketing, of course, but there’s that direct message experience that happens now if you like or follow someone on any of these platforms. There’s a huge opportunity for artists to share what they’re passionate about, whether it’s their own projects or something else they love.
Jamie Byrne, director, content strategy, YouTube: With these open platforms, whether it’s YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, individual creators can reach out and build a fan base all on their own. There’s no longer a gatekeeper that says this person is going to get cast in this and become famous. You have somebody like Bethany Mota post her first video on YouTube at 14. Four years later she’s globally known, has millions of subscribers, and she’s now on Dancing With the Stars. That’s one of the really exciting things that’s happening right now and a lot of it’s being driven by companies here in L.A.
John, how do you create connective tissue among agencies, entertainment, tech and brands?
John Boiler, founder/CEO, 72andSunny: It used to be that whenever you wanted to connect with celebrity or a media channel, it was a transaction. But now you really have to have a creative agenda. The reason why we’ve had some success is because we go with, like, five ideas that might help get everyone’s interest aligned and moving toward an abundance theory approach that we’re not going to fight over the pie, we’re going to make the pie bigger for everyone.
Leto: It is interesting, though, you have this wide-open world and people don’t take more chances. There are a lot of artists and celebrities who probably would want to work with you, but there isn’t the strongest bridge between some of you guys and the talent. People ask me all the time up north in tech for help or connections. I don’t get the sense that you guys are in tune with that how-to process, but there are definitely people out there who would be willing to experiment, and it’s a low, low risk as far as production and accessibility. I mean God, it used to cost a lot of money to do these things, right?
Goldman: And don’t you think there’s an expectation that whether it’s a piece of marketing material or just a piece of content that it will all be good content now because there’s this demand to share, right?
Jae Goodman, co-cco/co-head, CAA Marketing (Clio juror ’13): I don’t think that expectation exists. You have to create it. If there’s one thing we ask even our biggest advertisers to think about—and this actually came from a General Motors client by the name of Steve Tahani and he came to Hollywood and said we’re not about deal flow, we’re about idea flow. Bring an idea. If we like the idea, we’ll get behind it, and the money will come behind it. But if you expect me to walk into the room with a bag of cash, we’re not gonna have a meeting. And it fundamentally changed General Motors’ relationship with this town.
So is the idea as deal point particular to L.A.?
Goodman: It certainly is the key export of this city and why we all came here, whether it’s Jay Chiat to set up shop here or Jared, who came here to follow a bunch of different dreams. But yes, the infrastructure of Los Angeles is such that every day people can show up here with an idea, whether it’s Roy Choi born here who’s reinvented food or an artist who’s moving here from London, New York or Paris—and they really are doing that. Or a bunch of advertising, I’ll speak for myself, hacks who actually want to create stuff that audiences like. This is the place to do it.
Rob Schwartz, global creative president, TBWA\Worldwide: What I’ve always thought was powerful about L.A. is that it’s a dream town and it’s a make town. When you walk around this lot here, people are making things and that’s unique to other cities, ’cause I think there’s a lot of dreaming in New York, but there’s not a conspicuous culture of now we’re going to make it too.
Goodman: You just pissed off a bunch of New Yorkers.
John, you were pretty firm that you do not want to create another typical New York advertising agency.
Boiler: I do think that some of the DNA from starting in L.A.—being fast and loose, and make the prototype and then run it and see if people like it and then maybe do a second one—that’s new math to some corners of our industry. I’m not saying New York is one because there’s a lot of progressive agencies there. But I’m really interested in our New York office operating under the same principles of embrace making, move forward and partner with people, keep their interests at heart and make great stuff.
Byrne: It’s a tech mind-set, this idea of launch and iterate. And particularly for brands, I mean you have to be brave and you have to take risk now and put things out there and see how people respond to them. You know, we were talking earlier that it’s like a lot of what happens—you know, creativity today is death by focus group, right? There’s a huge opportunity to use Facebook or YouTube to put something out there, see how the consumers respond and then build on it from there.
Goodman: I love that, but there’s also the act of crafting, and I do think sometimes that the rapid prototype way of working flies in the face of actually going to your office, shutting the door and writing a great idea down, sharing it with somebody you trust, sleeping on it, taking it to the client, everybody going away for a week and not talking and thinking about it—and sometimes it takes a year. How long did it take to make that Dallas Buyers Club? They didn’t rapid prototype it.
Leto: Two years.
Goodman: We do live in an era where you can rapid prototype, but I don’t like the idea that you make five ads, put one online and see which one people like the best and the best one becomes your Superbowl ad.
Schwartz: That’s vapid prototype, not rapid prototype.
Leto: Well, I guess the issue is it’s so cheap to do some of this stuff now, you can just shit out a 3-D-printed version of your dream, quick and easy.
Goodman: But is it gonna look like your dream?
Leto: No, it won’t, and it’ll smell a lot worse, too.
Chris, you guys work super fast.
Chris Bruss, vp, branded entertainment, Funny or Die (Clio juror ’14): If we’re the Saturday Night Live of the Internet, we don’t have to wait until Saturday. We’ve got the soundstage downstairs, or we can just shoot it over here in the office and put it up the next day.
Leto: But while some of that stuff may be turned around quickly, it’s also based on the hard work and talent of writers and artists and actors and comedians who have been developing their craft for decades.
Bruss: Yeah, of course it is, but [Funny or Die co-founders] Will Ferrell and Adam McKay started it as a sandbox for people to be creative and brave. When we have actors and musicians and athletes come in, they say great, but what if it’s not good or what if people don’t like it? For the most part, on the Web, if people don’t like it, it just doesn’t go anywhere. People don’t share it or push it through other channels.
Leto: Or they crucify you.
Bruss: Very rare, but yes. Maybe for brands more than for actors and celebrity talent.
Goldman: But don’t you think that in one of the things you have done on Funny or Die is that you have a brand that people understand? A lot of digital brands have done that. BuzzFeed’s another example where you know what kind of content you’re getting when you see something from BuzzFeed.
Goodman: They built a brand. Funny or Die could exist without the Internet. Funny or Die does not need the Internet to do great comedy.
Schwartz: I'm feelin’ a Broadway thing happening right now. Funny or Die Broadway.
Goodman: You doing anything for six months? Wanna be on Broadway?
Jared, at Cannes this past summer you spoke about how commercials can transcend into art.
Leto: I think it goes back to risk. When commercials stop being advertising, they can be art. And really at the end of the day if you’re making a great commercial selling a product that’s going to revolutionize our lives, that’s pretty fucking cool and amazing. And that’s 1984, that’s Apple, that’s the work of incredible minds and incredible craftsman, dreamers and technologists. So I’ve always loved advertising. When a lot of people were watching music videos, I was watching commercials and studying the cinematography and the care that was put into the editing and art direction. If we turn on the television or scroll through the Internet right now and we see banner ads and we look at commercials on YouTube or Facebook, we’d wanna puke our guts out because most of them are so bad because they take such little risk.
Do you have a favorite piece of creative?
Leto: I love Chris Cunningham. I think he’s a person who’s brought art to the few commercials that he’s done. When artists work with companies and they get a chance to do what they do and shine a light on a product to reinvent or rediscover, redefine, it’s pretty exciting. I mean you guys do that here [Funny or Die] all the time, right? Young creative or old creatives—give ’em a camera and an idea and go for it.
Bruss: Yes, it’s been very cool to be able to start working with brands in that way and to be able to have them trust us and take risks. We’re not an ad agency; we’re a group of content creators—young, emerging filmmakers. So yes, it’s taking a risk, but the brands that we’ve worked with seem to have a pretty good time doing it.
Schwartz: I think that’s Chipotle too. You need the craft married to narrative, especially in Los Angeles which is a town built on the power of people’s ability to tell stories.
Goodman:The Chipotle stuff, though, they’re not obsessed with metrics; they’re obsessed with telling their story of creating a better food supply chain, period.
Schwartz: And to me this is a uniquely Hollywood story. It’s CAA. We can talk about storied agencies and then suddenly there’s this other power here. As a person who runs an agency here, knowing that CAA is out there makes all of us work a little harder because those guys have a lot of good storytellers they have access to. So you’d better get your game up.
Goodman: Well, that was the idea. We just wanted to get closer to the creators. If we could just push aside all the layers and sit across from great creatives and say, we’ve got this idea and it happens to have something to do with a brand and they may be the funding behind it, but we just wanna talk about whether you like the idea or not, and if you do, then let’s go make it together.
Leto: As long as we gamify the pivot. [Laughter]
Jared, what cues do you take from your music that inform your other creative pursuits?
Leto: I think working with record companies taught me a lot in general. To be in the midst of that epic failure was a great opportunity to learn and learn. It’s interesting that a makeup tutorial artist will make more money month to month than a band will make on YouTube—even if the band has 10 times as many views on YouTube. So the system for artists is broken.
Goldman: Well, for us the great thing is that they’re still great artists making tons of music and I think they’re trying to market and promote it differently. Beyoncé’s a great example of doing her own thing and releasing her album using Instagram. So you see a lot of direct communication between the artist and their fans in terms of marketing and promotion.
Leto: Let me just interject for second. If I look at my Instagram right now, I get maybe 150,000 likes a photo, right? I’ve never been approached by a brand to do anything creative with my Instagram feed. Why? I’m a big believer that for platforms, whether it’s Spotify or Apple or Facebook or the coolest agency in the world, relationships with artists are always beneficial. But there is a conversation that’s not being had by lots of people.
Rob, can you share your horizontal theory about L.A.?
Schwartz: I came from New York over 20 years ago, and one of the first things you notice is that L.A. is very horizontal. The landscape itself is wide. In New York there is someone on top of someone, on top of someone. Tapping that sense of openness and easy collaboration hopefully yields better ideas.
Goodman: For all this conversation here, we could do a better job of actually creating community around the ad agencies, the distribution platforms, the talent and having conversations like this. We don’t do it enough.
John, what new creative levers are you pulling to push back against ad blindness and do authentic advertising?
Boiler: I find a lot of inspiration in the corporate social responsibility space. You know, like some of the work that we’ve been doing with Starbucks lately is, to me, what our audience is increasingly going to expect from big brands. OK, so Starbucks wants to give everyone who works at Starbucks an education. I would love to see initiatives like that create lasting, trusting relationships between the audience and the brands that are not tied to a product launch or a brand campaign. The way a company behaves needs to be shown and you should say what you want to do right out in front and be held accountable for making progress toward that. And that’s the role of content to me—tell the story of progress the brand is making for people.
Goodman: There’s a book from 100 years ago that gets more relevant every day called The Cluetrain Manifesto, and the basic premise is that all brands are a conversation. You can no longer control the conversation, so your best bet is to be a part of it, yet brands ignore that all the time.
Chris, why are your offices here in West Hollywood instead of the beach or Playa Vista?
Bruss: The life blood of our company is our creative team, our writers and our directors, and they live on this side of town because this is where UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] and Groundlings are, and the places that Will and Adam came up through are the same places that these guys are coming up through, too. Comedy, obviously, has always been an important part of a lot of different brand campaigns. But one of the reasons why it’s so important right now is because when you talk about having a conversation, nobody likes somebody who takes themselves too seriously. And if there are brands out there that can understand that if they’re laughing, they’re listening, and really strong connections with the consumer can be made.
Schwartz: Funny is money.
Bruss: That’s a better answer. Use that one.