David Redhill, Chief Marketing Officer, Deloitte, and UNSW Art & Design Advisory Council member explains in his graduating address that UNSW Art & Design graduates going into the workforce have never had it so good. But good for what, he asks?
I work in the world’s largest and oldest professional services firm, one hundred and seventy years young: a two-hundred-thousand person, thirty-two billion dollar global behemoth. My role there as chief marketing officer continues a narrative stretching back 35 years, to a time when I was jamming with avant-garde industrial music anarchists in inner city squats, painting abstract portraits in oils, taking black and white photographs of urban streetscapes and writing feature articles critical of 1980’s political apathy, while studying a Bachelor of Arts.
My Communications degree was split between theory – music and mass culture, comparative religion, psychology and semiology – and pragmatic technical skills: radio and video production, print journalism, and professional writing.
And where have those skills taken me?
They’ve taken me to over 50 countries: to Senegal, where I spent an afternoon interviewing and jamming with musician Youssou N’dour; to Spain, where I was the only foreign photographer at the burial of Salvador Dali, and to London and New York where I worked with some of the world’s best creative minds on campaigns seen in every corner of the planet.
They took me through San Francisco’s dotcom rollercoaster, to see the new economy rise, fall and rise again. They took me way out of my comfort zone, once or twice into places of danger and potential harm.
And after leaving Australia in 1985 with a guitar and a suitcase, they brought me home 20 years later with a wife and three children. A major upgrade!
I owe some of those experiences to my stupidity and ignorance about situations of personal safety and career risk, and others to the luck of someone who looks back gratefully at opportunities that opened up when they did. But most I owe to a tertiary education that was my ticket to play. It’s a ticket that’s taken me wherever I’ve wanted to go. It’s still valid, and it always will be.
For almost forty years, I’ve used the skills that I learned during the four years of my degree. The essential ruthlessness of journalism in determining what is important and what is discardable, frames everything I craft and deliver. The aesthetic instinct I developed in sizing photos, text and graphics for publications shaped my ability to design in Keynote, PowerPoint, InDesign or Photoshop. Radio mixing skills drawn from cutting and splicing tapes by hand, today help me create compelling video animations on websites.
So with that in mind, I’d like to talk for a few minutes about two ideas.
The first is the relationship between apprenticeship and failure. In his graduation address at Stanford, Steve Jobs talked about failure in the context of love and loss – that being fired by Apple and losing the company he loved filled him with the lightness of being a beginner again, and led to the most creative period of his life. In her Harvard speech, JK Rowling talked of failure’s fringe benefits; as a jobless single parent, failure meant a stripping away of the inessential; it stopped her pretending to herself that she was anything other than what she was.
My own take on failure is shaped by a popular definition of career success. As CMO for a big company, I receive a lot of applications for jobs. Many are from people in their early 30s with descriptions of up to 10 previous roles on their resumes. This is not remarkable. Nor is it to read of successful campaigns, restructurings, change management programs and other initiatives they’ve led while in positions held for an average of between 12 and 18 months.
Now, they may well have actually done those things – but I just don’t believe their versions of them. Why? Because unless you’re a freak, you’re rarely any good at something the first time you do it.
In my simplistic view, you learn how to do a job in the first year, you make your first big mistakes in year 2, and by the third you’re improving fast while seeing the impact of your early work. As you apply the lessons of this long-term feedback loop, you get closer to feeling like an expert in something. Author Malcolm Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, and I think that’s about right; to get to the point where a skill is instinctive, it doesn’t take months. It takes years, even decades.
In each of my five-year stints in journalism, PR, branding, digital, and marketing, I started out by failing, and I kept failing until I figured out how to make it work.
My higher degree beyond University was a Masters in Rejection from the School of Hard Knocks, with majors in ‘not good enough’, and ‘try again’. Some of you are about to enter that institution, and I can only implore you to stay long enough to fail. Really fail. Because when you’ve weathered the mind-numbing disappointment of getting it wrong, big time, and having to start again, and when you’ve experienced the four-in-the-morning exhilaration of painstakingly retracing your steps, approaching it differently, and getting it right, you’ll know that you won’t ever get it that wrong again – and that you’re on your way to realizing your potential.
I’ll close with my second idea: why I’m so excited and optimistic for you.
Throughout my three decades working in Barcelona, London, San Francisco and Sydney, as a creative or a suit for telecoms or media companies, newspapers, financial players, creative agencies and professional services firms, I’ve seen consistent evidence not just of the growing importance of innovation, design and creative thinking – that’s old news – but of people’s understanding of why it matters.
As a result, misfits are becoming mainstream. Contrary to creatives looking for opportunities to ply their trade, institutions are now coming looking for them. Those whom the left-brain corporate masters tolerated as an interesting distraction but not really relevant to the main game, are now not only becoming the main game, they’re rewriting its rules. We who were once the barbarians at the gates now have the keys to the kingdom.
Now, why is that?
It may be that creative and inspiring ways of cutting through the noise, and connecting people in communities, businesses, and governments to good outcomes, are now being seen as the best opportunity to effect positive change. And in contrast to financial investments, acquisitions and currencies whose value is neither static nor certain, the currency of ideas is our most certain, bankable bet for the future.
And their value will continue, inexorably, to rise. As we move into a world increasingly characterized by automation and data-driven decisions, it will be the ideas which reframe accepted wisdoms, and provoke a rethink of what is possible, that are valued most highly by society.
The power of art to strip away artifice is a compelling notion – one that Salman Rushdie articulated last September at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. In his speech “Freedom to Write”, Rushdie asked why the dictators and the juntas and the mullahs and the jihadists and the fascist leaders with their goon squads and secret police and bombs and armies and guns are so threatened by artists. It’s because, he said, no one can own an idea: Not a government, nor a regime, nor an ayatollah. Not even the idea’s creator. Once it’s out of the bottle, it belongs to everybody; it can go anywhere and do anything.
Ultimately, as designers, artists, filmmakers, animators, sculptors, illustrators, photographers and digital media specialists, you will have to decide how you use the power of your ideas.
To that point, I’ll close with a memory of a conversation that a starry eyed, younger version of myself had with the American writer Tom Wolfe some decades ago. I had travelled to a hotel in Arizona to hear him talk about his novels The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Electric Cool Aid Acid Test, and somehow, after the speech, I ran into him in the hotel bar, bought him a drink and had one of the more memorable conversations of my life. Just before we parted, I asked him what he thought about the unprecedented wealth America was then generating. He fixed me with a stare and growled. “America has never had it so good. But good for what?”
I wonder: to what end will you turn your talents in the years to come? In a world where ideas are the strongest currency, artists and designers have never had it so good. But good for what?
For whatever noble cause you enhance, and whatever benefit you bring to humanity, I wish you great joy in your work, and leave you optimistic, with no doubt in my mind that you will make your creative talents matter.