Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Gates of Digital

Q: Introduce us to yourself and your company.
I'm Stephen Gates and I am the Interactive Creative Director for Starwood Hotels & Resorts and I work on the digital creative for our portfolio of 10 brands including Sheraton, Westin, The Luxury Collection, St. Regis, LeMeridien and W Hotels. I am also the designer and author of which houses my portfolio and blog that is a collection of rants, reviews and advice about digital design and all forms of advertising and branding.

Q: Interactive Producers come from all walks of life, they are a hybrid of talents, tell us about your background and how you got interested in digital production?

I was lucky enough to have grown up with two extremely creative parents and a father who worked in advertising so both have been a part of my life from day one. This gave me a huge edge because I grew up around so many creative people and was able to start interning at my dad's agency when I was a teenager. That experience gave me a real understanding of how the real world worked, how idea were created, how to tell a story when you present them and a really solid foundation in design and typography. When I got to college I was struck with the usual teenage angst where I knew I wanted to do something in advertising but I "wasn't going to do what my dad did" so I combined my knowledge of advertising with my love of computers to study Computer Graphics concentrating on 3D animation and visual effects. After graduating I worked as a 3D animator and digital effects artist but I kept being drawn to experiment with interactive design because of the release of Future Splash (Adobe Flash before it was Macromedia or even called Flash) because it was a convergence of my traditional design and typography skills married with my motion sensibility I had from my 3D animation work. I have been off and running in interactive ever since.

Q: How do you stay on top of emerging technologies and keep your team informed and motivated?
I think the only way you can stay on top of or even a little ahead of the constant change is to lead a true digital lifestyle so technology isn't just something you read about. You have to get in there and get your hands dirty to be able to recognize trends and opportunities before the mass market. I don't think you can really understand the power and potential of a blog unless you write one for a while. I don't think you can really get any new insights into e-commerce unless you sell things online, and on and on.

I keep my team informed and motivated by having each member of my team responsible for being the subject matter expert in a different interactive discipline. They are responsible for staying up to date on their chosen area and reporting back to the group in our weekly meeting on any new trend or technology in that area we should know about.

Q: What does your ideal client/project look like?

I have worked on projects of all sizes with clients all over the world and I know that great work can come out of projects of any budget and clients of any size. For me the ideal project is born out of one word - trust. I say that because I could have an idea that would completely re-define a clients market position and create a huge revenue stream but if they don't trust the idea, my ability to execute it and that it will be a success then it will never see the light of day. The more trust you have then the bigger risks you can take the more break through the work can become.

Q: How do you educate your clients and set realistic expectations for a project?
This is one of those areas where I don't think there is an easy or even a consistent answer because no two clients are the same so you constantly have to tailor your communication and education tactics. Before you can education someone you need to get a baseline for how well they understand the creative and production process. I have found success by starting with listening to what the client wants to accomplish and what they think success will be for their project or brand. That gives me that baseline to figure out how much work I have ahead of me in terms of education about the medium and the process which will lead to realistic expectations. I also think it is our job to never blindly accept an assignment or even a potential solution from a client without questioning everything to be sure it is the best solution to the problem and will get them the results that they want.

Q: What was the best project you have ever worked on?

The answer probably isn't what a lot of people may think because it isn't the sexiest or the most recognized work in my portfolio. It was for Subaru North America who came to me right before the Detroit International Auto Show with the news that they were going to launch a new 7 passenger SUV at the show and they needed to create a viral buzz for the launch. The catch was that they couldn't tell me the name of the car or any details or any photos or anything other than it was a 7 passenger SUV. On top of all that, I only had a week to get it all done and $10k budget. We pitched the idea that since Subaru was making a car to hold more passengers then people better get busy making those passengers. The execution was three videos of various Subaru models rocking and back and forth with tango, R&B and 70's porn like background music implying people making more passengers. So I think it is one of my best projects because it was done so quickly, made something compelling out of absolutely nothing and it actually worked really well.

Q: How many projects are you comfortable producing at one given time?

That numbers changes for me all the time because I run my studio with a core creative leadership team that can manage internal and external creative teams and agencies. This way we can scale to meet the workload while maintaining quality and control.

Q: What does your dream production team look like?

I believe in the rule of three's so I always have someone working on the design, writing and user experience. I think if you keep that type of structure and breadth thinking as the core then no matter what the assignment and no how technology changes your work will succeed at communicating to the audience.

Q: How do you ensure that your client's best interests are met?
This is one of those areas where I don't think there is an easy or even a consistent answer. I have found success by starting with listening instead of talking so I can find out what the client wants to accomplish and what they think success will be for the project. With those answers I can craft a strategy and a concept that will bring those challenges to life. The point being that I use my expertise to create the best solution possible by blending what the clients wants with what I know will work and will be best for the project. That way I can make sure their interests are met but doing without simply blindly accepting direction or a solution from the client.

Q: What is your vision of what the next phase of our industry is going to look like?
I keep hoping that the industry will get to a place where campaigns are created out of a media agnostic concepts that are then expressed through all the different mediums. Maybe these rough economic times will finally get that happen as it may force agencies see the power of having a strong concept and a media plan that works together across all channels.

Q: Please share a snippet of wisdom that you would like to impart on our readers.

Technology isn’t an idea. We have fallen into a trap where we are more caught up in the tools we use than the feeling we need to create and the stories we need to tell. Consumers don’t care about the latest version of Flash or what version of CSS a site is built with. Successful work is created from ideas and strategies that express simple human truths we can all connect with.

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