About a year ago, on a trip to my mother’s house, I decided to do some poking around the basement. Down there, hidden from the world, all of my childhood art rested; cobwebbed books leaned neatly against the walls; piles of VHS tapes rose from the floor; and antiquated dvd cases, thankfully, obscured the most lurid thing of all: a CD tower (remember those?). All this stuff—as good as junk.
After assessing my ancient ruins, I began to ponder the well-known Oscar Wilde quote, “All art is quite useless.”
“Wow”, I thought, “maybe all this stuff really is ‘useless.’” That very sentiment is echoed whenever someone requests work but is offering very little or nothing in terms of compensation. And, unfortunately, these asinine requests occur more often than we filmmakers would like to admit.
Was Oscar Wilde right? Is all art “useless?” If, like Wilde, the public perceives art as something containing no utilitywhatsoever, something “useless,” then how or why should artists’ expect remuneration for their hard-work?
The real question then becomes how do we, as artists’, break-up these malignant perceptions surrounding the purpose of art? And how do we adorn our art with an aura of value?
It all goes back to Oscar Wilde’s quote.
We must prove Oscar Wilde wrong!
My approach to Proving Oscar Wilde wrong
In the last year or so, my company, Out of Shot, has done some interesting work: we completed a feature film; were hired to write a screenplay; brought on by producers to work on films; and most recently, we created a National Television commercial.
Everything was fun, but not everything was a success—from a financial standpoint, that is. You see, we simply weren’t receiving the value we felt we were creating.
During this stretch of abundant and interesting work, an obsession arose: How do we increase our perceived value and ultimately live comfortably off of our creations? Thankfully for me, crouched in my mom’s tiny basement—better suited for a hobbit than an adult human—I mused over Wilde’s quote.
In the last six months we’ve watched as, project after project, our perceived value—the amount of dollars being spent on our services—has grown. To do this, we put in place a strategy, one that reinforces utility.
To best demonstrate our Wilde-disproving strategy, I’ll be breaking down our recent commercial work with Philly’s, a Philadelphia-inspired sandwich shop, offering a cheesesteak called “The Bully,” which was voted best sandwich in America by the Travel Channel.
This project most closely embodies the title of my blog post.
So, without further delay, let’s prove Oscar Wilde wrong, shall we.
Discover the problem
The first thing you need to come to terms with: If you’re not a superstar—meaning, you have lots of fans—then you must acquire, like every other business, a customer-base. This means, whether you want to hear it or not, the art you create must serve a greater cause than yourself. Forget personal ambitions—for now, anyway. What can your art do to improve someone else’s standing in life? To figure this out, you need to ask.
Before we shot our National Television commercial for Philly’s, we needed to know why we were making it. No business owner works his or her tail off to spend money on something “cool” or “creative;” they’re not in the media business. Think of the art you create as a messaging tool, penetrating the consciousness of those exposed, ultimately impelling them to spend their hard-earned dollars. In other words (unless you’re in media or entertainment), customers are the fish, and you must think of your art as bait on the end of a fishing-line; the value isn’t created until you reel them in. (Forgive my fishing analogy; I grew up in New-England.)
When I scheduled an interview with Shem Adams, owner and founder of Philly’s, I only cared about one thing: what was Philly’s greatest problem as a business? After a few moments, muted, deep in thought, Shem said he was unable to capture customers that were a few towns removed from Philly’s home-base, Norwich, Connecticut. Business was booming, but it was the same customers. That’s fine if you’re fond of stagnation; not if you’re trying to grow a thriving, profitable empire.
Can you solve the problem?
After discovering what Philly’s needed—acquiring customers from nearby towns—I thought, “Can I create art that solves this very problem?” This is the most important question to ask yourself, because walking into an interview, discovering a problem, then confessing you don’t have the answer doesn’t make you look great. But it doesn’t make you look bad, either. Honesty will always be appreciated, especially in business. In a blog post published on his company website, Michael Maslansky, CEO of Maslansky and Partners, a language strategy firm, said, “We see this so frequently in our work. People and organizations afraid to acknowledge their flaws for fear of projecting weakness or losing an opportunity. But infallibility is a myth. And trying to project a perfect image is itself a sign of weakness.” So, without harping much more about this, just make sure you’re honest about what you can provide.
How can you solve the problem?
If you’re able to articulate, concisely, coherently, ways in which your art will vanquish the existing problems businesses currently face, congrats, you’ve proven the utility of your art and are on your way to proving Oscar Wilde wrong.
In my case, with Shem, I had to explain what our video will have that will lure people from outside towns—outside states, even— to Philly’s, where they’ll sit down, eat, enjoy, repeat, ultimately garnering huge profits for Philly’s. That became the mission.
Previous to my interview with Shem, I did a little research in the form of asking questions. I found people from Old Saybrook and East Lyme, two of the towns inhabited by the very customers Philly’s was looking to acquire.
First question I had for those people: Why aren’t you eating at Philly’s? I was astonished with their reply; everyone I spoke with had no clue Philly’s even existed, let alone a reason why they weren’t eating there. Once I mentioned a Philly’s sandwich, the “Bully,” had been voted best sandwich in America by the Travel Channel, those same people, people who’d never heard of Philly’s, became frustrated, saying things like, “Why hasn’t anyone told me about this place.” Word of mouth, and proximity to Mohegan Sun, had made Philly’s a local Juggernaut in the restaurant game. But words of Philly’s praise weren’t reaching those across the state. That was my job.
(Interview prep is essential, because if you’re an idiot, you’ll be exposed. With that being said, had I not taken the time to sit down and talk to out-of-towners, how could I have possibly understoodhow to craft a piece of successful, profit earning art?).
How will your artistic solution provide R.O.I?
David Ogilvy, the father of advertising, famously wrote, “In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.” For Philly’s, a relatively nascent business, it didn’t matter if I made the most entertaining, funniest, highest-viewed commercial in the history of advertising; if the commercial doesn’t resonate with viewers and reap a profit, the result is a complete and utter failure. Which brings me to my next point: convincing Shem my art would not only solve his problem but make him money in the process. Luckily for me (as I previously mentioned), I did my homework.
Let me say this, Philly’s is perhaps the most prolific non-corporate restaurant I have ever seen in my entire life. The Philly’s regulars, who refer to themselves as “Philly’s Phanatics,” are known to come in and eat multiple times in a single day. What’s more, Philly’s sells merchandise in the form of shirts and hoodies—and people buy them up with the quickness. It’s not every day you find a business praised by locals and big corporations; Philly’s had both.
With all of that in mind, I wrote my treatment. A typical, old-fashioned, testimonial-style advertisement, full of logos, and narrated with voice over. This wasn’t an attempt to reinvent the wheel. (Heads up: if you’re going to reinvent the wheel, do it with your own money.) But I did add one highly compelling element to the commercial. A 3-D map. What’s cool about working in the Out of Shot collective is the diversity of high-level skill sets. Ron, our Director of Photography, has an uncanny ability to create eye-catching graphics. These graphics would come in handy if we were going to lure the non-aware Nutmegers’ to Philly’s. If our commercial could prove, through the testimonials of locals, and corporate praise, the deliciousness of Philly’s food, and then unleash a call-to-action with a 3-D map giving directions to the restaurant, I knew we could expand Philly’s ever-growing customer-base—and destroy the validity of Oscar Wilde’s once-thought-to-be-intelligent quote.
Shem agreed, too. And gave the green light to production.
This is what we made:
While it’s too early to assess the results—dollars gained—of the Philly’s commercial, one thing is certain: I proved Oscar Wilde wrong. And so can you.
Art—made with intent—is an extremely powerful solution to the growing problems businesses face today. Remember, if your art can solve a specific problem, it has utility. And if yourart has utility, despite what Oscar Wilde said, it is quite “useful.”