By Fabio Gratton, Innovation Catalyst for Sonic Health
When I first started in this industry 17 years ago I was just as naive, ignorant, and arrogant as I am now.
I was originally hired as temp to act as the typist for one of the partners of a small, southern California boutique healthcare agency that had just been acquired by Bozell Healthcare, which eventually became what is now Draft FCB. The only real typing I had done up until that point was committing characters and stories to paper for the screenplays I was writing while living and working in Hollywood.
The story of how I went from Hollywood to Healthcare is better left for another day — as Lemony Snicket would say, it came to be through a series of unfortunate events.
The specific task I was hired to perform at the agency was rather mindless. The partner had just sold a six-figure "game-changing" idea to one of the agency's biggest clients, a diagnostic imaging company. The revolutionary concept involved doing away with every booth graphic at the company's biggest yearly trade-show and replace everything with twenty-five 42" state-of-the-art Fujitsu gas-plasma screens. While it wasn't the first time a company had used flat-screens at a trade-show, most had used it to show product demos via videos and animations. That wasn't the plan here. They would be projecting content from an interactive CD-ROM that would be controlled by a prospective client visiting the booth, allowing them to navigate the company's wide array of products and services in a multimedia extravaganza.
In 1997, this was the bleeding edge of innovation. It was the kind of work that could land a company on the front page of “Ad Age”, before digital was a premium vertical. But there was one problem: The agency had never done this before. In fact, at the time, no one in healthcare had gone "all in" on digital. What eventually became "Flash" was still a year away, and HTML was for browsers, not kiosks. Macromedia Director was the tool du jour, but only hard-core technology companies had the experience and training to compose within its austere authoring tools. Fortunately, the agency's IT team had found a company that would be responsible for stitching the interactive experience together.
As my 2 week secretarial stint was coming to an end, and after having typed in hundreds of hand-scrawled pages that were thrown at me each morning by the partner — pages that identified "headline", "image", and "body copy" — I turned to him and said, "So, what are you going to do next?".
He looked at my quizzically for a moment, then replied "The art dudes are going to lay these out in Photoshop and then we'll give them to the interactive dudes that will put them all together on a CD-ROM".
"But how exactly is someone going to go from one page to the next?" I asked. It wasn't meant as a challenge. I have always been an intellectually curious bird, but that bird can sometimes come off as belonging to the assholeius specie.
"They will point their mouse and click," the partner said as though he were instructing a child at how to turn on a light.
“I get that," the woodpecker-me persisted, "But how will the interactive dudes know where someone is supposed to go when that person clicks?"
The partner paused, confused. "I'm not sure I follow."
"I just think it might help everyone if there's some kind of outline, like a map or storyboard. You know, something that helps everyone know how the whole thing hangs together? And then if there's something missing, it might be easier to spot it."
The partner slowly nodded, then his eyes lit up like something I said had finally flipped a switch. "That sounds like a pretty good idea. Is that something you think you could help with?”
He probably never caught my moment of hesitation, which is good because the half-lie I went on to tell is probably responsible for what has now become my entire career.
"Yeah, sure. No problem. I can do that."
Of course, I didn't know the first thing about how CD-ROMs worked, how they were programmed, or even what "Information Architecture" was. But I did understand narrative, scenes, sets, characters, and other fundamentals of storytelling. Was this really any different? I had no idea — but I had a sense that neither did anyone else. I thought to myself: I'm sure I can figure this out. And I did, and it worked out famously. I went on to get hired, create an interactive division for the firm, and ultimately the partner — my boss — and I went on to become partners in a new agency, which we eventually sold, and the rest is… Well, history still in the making.
Seventeen years later, my approach to life hasn't changed that much. To be honest, I think I’m really lucky. I’m not referring to the luck that comes from being in the right place at the right time — which I certainly was — but I think I’m most lucky because I grew up in a world before Google — a world where I was allowed to have an idea and not immediately discover that thousands of others had thought it before. This was a world where I could believe I was original just long enough until perhaps I actually became so.
These days I meet people smarter than me all the time, and I feel sad for them — because they have access to tools that have allowed them to fully study the statistics of failure, making them far too smart to take the uncalculated cliff-diving risks that people like me blindly take every day. We’re not courageous, we’re just poor listeners — and we’re positively not good at statistics.
While we ignored much, we didn’t miss this: some of the greatest discoveries were accidents, some of the most successful companies were flukes, and some of the greatest minds of our times are people that, in their lifetimes, were considered the "crazies.”
So if it’s possible that no one really knows anything, then why should we let the apparent foolishness of our ideas stop us from pursuing them? Or more to the point: Why should we quit when we fail — if maybe all we did was trip?
I think much of how we live our lives is about having perspective on both the life we’re living, and the world in which we’re living that life. And I think no one had a better appreciation of these complimentary and competing factors than the late and great Steve Jobs, who deliberately warped the reality of his world to align with his vision of how that world should be. In 1994, when he was only 39 years old and had yet to achieve the monumental accomplishments that would go on to define his legacy, he eloquently articulated a philosophy that I believe captures the sentiment of everything I have attempted to express, but in far fewer words: "Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”
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