The Egotist Briefs: Paul Curtin
Founder and Creative Director of Eleven, Inc., Paul Curtin, is widely known as one of the Bay Area's most accomplished designers. While a creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners he received the prestigious Marget Larsen Award as the Bay Area’s preeminent designer. Paul also ran a successful design studio of his own for seven years and his work has won trophies from the Effie Awards, One Show, Type Directors Club, B/PAA West Awards, Western Art Directors Club, and L.A. Art Directors Club.
Paul spoke with The San Francisco Egotist about everything from the state of creativity in the city to how Eleven fosters creativity.
How’s creativity in San Francisco doing these days? Has the economy affected it at all?
It goes without saying that the economy affects the commercial side of creativity. But generally speaking I don't think creativity is tied to economics, it just takes a different form. In this case, the downturn has spawned a new wave of entrepreneurialism, creative self-expression, and a return to craft culture. People have become more resourceful and are taking more personal risk. More people are publishing and experimenting with different media. So we see creativity happening all over the city, both in and outside of agency life.
What is it about SF that sets us apart creatively from other cities?
San Francisco is where the standards for creativity, imagination, and inventiveness are set. There is an intellectual rigor and progressive mindset that I believe are unique to the city. The conversations that happen at places like Eleven and around tables all over the city are unlike those happening anywhere else in the country. Goodby is here. IDEO is here. This is where digital was born, the very first big commercial Web site was built across town. Apple is down the road. Pixar and Lucas Arts are here.Green energy is centered here. And right now there’s somebody splicing genes near the airport.
Does Eleven have a philosophy on how to create great work? Or is it as simple as hiring good people and letting them do their thing?
Yes, the people you hire make all the difference. But talented people need to work together with a common understanding and purpose. We start with the understanding that the average consumer is not looking for more marketing in their life. What they are looking for is something more substantial, more soulful, and more real. That forces us to look at the relationship between brands and consumers a bit differently. And it drives us to create and sell completely original and thoughtful work. But without great people, this would only be theory.
What specific kinds of things does Eleven do to foster creativity?
I think a we've attracted a naturally inquisitive bunch here. We pride ourselves on our creative thinking, so we strive to hire super-talented creative people who have a unique point of view and that want to work in a collaborative culture. Because of that our people usually are the ones who foster creativity within the agency, not any company mandates.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started Eleven?
I wish we would have more deeply understood how quickly digital would transform and clarify our messaging; that clients hire groups of people they want to work with, not case studies; that design and design thinking are fundamental to creating change within an organization or market; and that the role of a lead creative agency is to be problem-solvers first. I am sure I could make an exhaustive list of things I wish that I knew eleven years ago, but these are close to the top.
What do you feel are some of the biggest barriers to great creative work and how do you get over those barriers?
I feel like the biggest barrier to great work is knowing what has worked in the past. I still catch us from time to time thinking in traditional ways and in traditional media, when the world is hungry for inventive solutions.
What inspires you creatively?
All the stuff that isn’t marketing. Traveling, painting, photography, architecture, the movies, finance, science, politics, reading, surfing and what our kids are up to. I have a deep respect for the people out in the world who are creating things, starting things, and expressing themselves. I believe that is why we often work with the founders of organizations or channel their ideology through the new leaders, if the founders are not involved. Typically that is where things are their most pure.
There’s a debate these days about whether advertising is still about the “Big Idea.” What are your thoughts on that?
I think the better question: is advertising still the big idea? We don't think in terms of advertising, at least not in its singular form. To us it's just another medium. We think in problems. We think in relationships. We think in experiences. We think in programs. And we think in conversations. Yes, all of those are centered around a big idea. But big ideas need to be operationalized in products, internal change, and corporate culture in addition to consumer communications.
Where do you think technology fits into the creative process?
I think that technology can help at almost every point in the process except for the thinking. The times that our best digital artists are at their most conceptual are when we ask them to step away from their machines and think a bit about what they actually want to do. And while emotion and human intuition will always drive the tone of the conversation, we live in a data-rich world. And that data is, more and more, directing the content, relevancy, and cadence of the communications we develop.
What are three pieces of advice you’d give any creative?
First, stay awake to the world outside of our industry. Unless you’re very lucky, your life’s work will inevitably serve commerce and your work will only be interesting if you’re interesting. Beyond leading to good work, this will help you to become an amazing storyteller.
Second, work for a lot of different good people. Absolutely everybody who’s any good at all is an original in everything they do, but has learned from the best. And realize, that in this business, if you want to move up, you have to be willing to move.
And last? Ask tough questions about the meaning and role of your work—particularly who is it really serving.