February 6, 2020

Is crowdsourced branding ever a good choice?

With the advent of increased connectivity, crowdsourcing has been used to accomplish countless goals including branding. But should such an important part of a company be left up to anonymous masses?

At the national level

With crowdsourcing having become a firmly embedded practice for brands, the concept is still being applied to all levels all the way up to and including branding whole countries. For one, the United Arab Emirates recently decided on a new logo and slogan, “Make it happen.”

Thankfully, to do that, it didn’t task citizens of the world with actually submitting new designs, but rather by voting for one of three logos. In the end, the design that won out was a seven-line map of the UAE (representing each of the emirates) in the red, green and black colors of the national flag after scoring the majority of 10.6 million votes cast.

It’s also not the only country to seek out the public in helping to brand itself: Back in 2016, New Zealand got as far as choosing a new design for its flag — one that replaces the Union Jack on it with the silver fern, another strong national symbol — out of a staggering 10,000 designs and then out of a long list of 40. In the end, however, that winning design by Kyle Lockwood didn’t pass the national vote between switching to his flag and keeping the original (his scored 43.1%). The cost to not rebrand in this case? $26 million New Zealand Dollars, or almost $17 million American dollars.

It’s trickier than it seems

We’re no strangers to the notorious design contest and unpaid spec work, but is all crowdsourcing done this way? Looking around the Internet, it doesn’t seem so simple. Taken at face value, crowdsourcing simply means leveraging the resources of a large group of outside parties to achieve a certain goal.

But even when we narrow it down to crowdsourced branding, it’s still not that simple because depending on the context, a brand is sourcing different elements that will eventually contribute to producing something carrying the brand message or image:

  • Opinion: much like the above examples with voting on pre-selected choices, this outsources the decision making power for the voting period depending on whether you agree with the results, or reject it simply because you don’t like the most popular choice.
  • Ideas: similarly with calls for suggestions or responses to prompts (such as asking questions on Instagram), this outsources the creativity and the time to write a suggestion or submit an idea that could be implemented immediately, not at all or far into the future.
  • Content: just like ideas, crowdsourcing content is popular with contests, campaigns and ads, because the participation is once again voluntary and intrinsically motivated, leading to a large number of high quality submissions.
  • Assets: this is where much of the focus on crowdsourced branding lies, particularly with logos and understandably so, because we can clearly see where it results in quantifiable rejected designs, wasted hours and lost compensation.

The Takeaway

We can say right away that for a brand’s defining visual assets like logos, most would recommend the average person doesn’t make their own unless you’re say, MAEKAN founder Alex Maeland, himself a talented designer and photographer. Otherwise, a crowdsourced brand logo or similarly important asset sends a strong message in itself: that the brand didn’t or doesn’t intend to do either the soul-searching of knowing what they represent — or the legwork of sourcing skilled designers to work closely with to execute their vision.

For opinions (including votes) and ideas, where the participation is voluntary and the minimum lift for the crowd in question is assumed to be low, we’d say it’s a valuable way to get feedback and perspective from “outside the box” that smaller pools of talent (say, a start-up team like ours) can find ourselves in.

What we’re left with is the fine line around content, which we need to observe carefully: When is it presenting an enticing prize to a crowd of fans and when is it dangling a carrot to a crowd of people willing to work for free? Large companies that can afford creative teams still use UGC and are praised for the refreshing content produced, but evidently that’s employed as part of a more extensive strategy and toolset.

Maybe the key here is the mix: a test of how much of a brand’s identity is suitable for crowdsourcing hinges on how much participation the brand wants (or how much power to outsource) — and more importantly, how much the crowd cares to contribute.

January 24, 2020

Can next-gen fake meat become a hit in China?

At a time when China’s economic progress has meant more disposable income, the country’s population now tops the world for meat consumption. But with our uncertain resource future, the rise of meat analogues is continuing to gain momentum. Is there room for fake meats in China (and frankly globally)despite its traditionally pork-loving culture?

Fake meats new and old

While the debate on the health aspects of meat consumption rages on, there is less question about the large impact of livestock production on greenhouse gas emissions Together, these two major factors form the drive to reduce the consumption of meat — real meat that is. Enter meat analogues or “fake” meats. These substitutes are actually nothing new, and have existed for centuries, especially to abide by the dietary laws of different religions, but are taking on new meaning in the 21st century:

  • Tofu: made from soybeans and likely the most widely known meat substitute
  • Tempeh: traditional Indonesian soy product made from the fermented beans and pressed into cake form.
  • Wheat Gluten: use to make most of the fake meats (such as duck and bbq pork) derived from the Chinese Buddhist culinary tradition. Also called seitan.
  • Almonds: Used as a meat and dairy substitute, especially during Lent in Medieval Europe.

As for the comparatively new kids on the block, different companies use different proteins and methods to produce their meat:

  • Beyond Meat: uses proteins from peas, mung bean and rice.
  • Impossible Foods: uses a genetically modified soy molecule called heme
  • Quorn: the UK-based company uses fungal protein with egg albumen as a binder.
  • Zhenmeat: the Beijing-based startup uses 3D printers to produce products that contain elements like bones, which Chinese are used to eating the meat off of.
  • Green Monday: Based in Hong Kong, its breakout ground meat product, OmniPork, uses shiitake mushroom, peas, rice and non-GMO soy.
  • Whole Perfect Food: Founded in 1993 in Shenzhen, the manufacturer of over 300 products uses different methods for different products, such as extracting seaweed protein for vegan seafood.

While the historical meat analogues were created for vegetarians and vegans, they and newer analogues are hoping to sway hardline carnivores and omnivores alike with the promise of the same taste or tastier, better nutrition and the chance to help the planet.

Breaking into the Chinese market

A New York Times article by David Yaffe-Bellany outlines the efforts of American companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that want to break into the Chinese market. they have a few hurdles to overcome:

  • Regulations: there’s a spiderweb of regulatory bodies to get through before it can even be approved.
  • Culture: even though meat-free Buddhist cuisine is thought to to have originated in China, the culture still largely favors tradition and the status associated with meat consumption. This consumption (especially pork) is expected to rise in the next six years.
  • Local Competition: there are already China-based fake meat companies that are ahead of the game in terms of being integrated and localized for that market.

Like all companies trying to enter a tough market, those two will likely have to make serious adjustments to the game plan to integrate successfully.

The KFC Case Study

This isn’t to say they’re doomed to repeat the failures of many US brands in China. For one, KFC had to largely abandon its US model before becoming a the most popular US fast food chain in China:

  • Larger stores: where KFCs in the US favored take out, those in China were doubled in size to welcome groups, extended families and longer stays.
  • Larger menus: the larger menus and rotation of season items are meant to aggressively cater to local tastes (which also required hiring more food prep staff).
  • Smaller cities: Instead of competing with McDonald’s in the largest cities, KFC opted to for the ones with smaller populations where the incomes were rising and the brand’s appeal would still be novel.

In short, success did follow this particular brand, but it meant extensive localization along with a strong business strategy.

The Takeaway

While at least one fast food company managed to find a way to sell fried chicken to a culture that already consumes chicken, it’s going to be a far greater challenge of selling fake meat to an unabashedly carnivorous population. Not unlike the prosperity (and subsequent rise in meat consumption) America enjoyed post-World War II, China’s transition through that war, its own civil war and sharp economic rise mean its appetite for meat will continue to increase.

But it also presents an interesting conundrum with respects to the interaction between established cultures and brands that are new to them. Fake meat spreading into tough markets isn’t going to happen overnight, but it maybe come sooner against the backdrop of wider pushes to change our diets as the planet faces a future with scarcer resources and increasingly more mouths to feed as the population grows roughly 1.05% or 81 million people per year.

It’s an interesting if uneasy intersect between culture, economics and the environment: we could say definitively that because one group is disproportionately impacting the globe with its massive population, they should change. Yet on the other, we might risk dictating that because our current culture or lifestyle of choice is deemed more advanced or “better” than the old one we had, as we come to reckon with its consequences, that a group should move away from it — and toward the product we’re selling — just as they’re starting to enjoy any of the benefits.

What has to happen first to catalyze change? Does a culture have to be catered to above-all or does it depend on the brand’s global recognition, does the brand forcibly re-write the local culture a bit with strong localized imaging and marketing to gain traction — or will more dire circumstances take care of the re-writing?


January 2, 2020

Can AI eventually free us from beauty bias in hiring?

It’s an unfortunate reality, but research provides evidence that employers (and many others) give preferential treatment to people they deem more physically attractive. Could the comparative objectivity of AI actually be a solution to Beauty Bias?

Lookism, The Beauty Bias and the Halo Effect

We’ve found time and time again that a candidate’s “qualifications” for a job do not represent all of the factors for why they are chosen or not. Employment discrimination remains a problem as perfectly qualified candidates might be passed over for gender, race, age and class (or simply because another candidate shares a similar background as the person hiring them).

But in an article for the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic notes one another important bias surrounding selection of candidates, which is lookism. Lookism means that candidates are favored or rejected based on physical attractiveness. Of course, this doesn’t just mean someone’s face and hair but extends to other criteria including tattoos, obesity and attire.And it doesn’t just stop there. Research supports the idea of a “Halo Effect” wherein people with positive qualities such as attractiveness are also assumed to be smarter, more confident, trustworthy and likeable, among other qualities. Here’s how that’s reflected in the studies cited by Chamorro-Premuzic:

  • Higher grades: Due to the Halo Effect. Attractive students are deemed more conscientious and intelligent.
  • More call-backs: attractive candidates got more than unattractive or no-photograph candidates.
  • Higher salaries: 10-15% higher for above-average beauty in the States.
  • Hiring and Firing: Less attractive employees less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired.

Can AI offer a solution?

With all these human biases that are both troubling for us as a society and potentially costly for industries (because good-looking people don’t necessarily mean productive or effective people), could a non-human help us?

We’re actually optimistic that AI could play a role, but with some very important caveats, especially with regard to that system’s training. Otherwise, we risk making the problem even worse. As Chamorro-Premuzic warns: “If we teach AI to imitate human preferences, it will not just replicate, but also augment and exacerbate human biases,” as we’ve seen in the past where discriminatory training data leads to discriminatory outcomes that impact people.

While some more infamous examples of AI used for hiring leave a lot to be desired, Chamorro-Premuzic, together with Frida Polli and Ben Dattner, point out in another article that AI is in many ways more accountable than we are because it’s easier to monitor an AI’s decision making and track its biases: “That’s why it’s easier to ensure that our data and training sets are unbiased than it is to change the behaviors of Sam or Sally, from whom we can neither remove bias nor extract a printout of the variables that influence their decisions.”

In short, AI can help to find the right people for the job more efficiently assuming it’s properly trained and used ethically by the hiring organization. Those factors considered, we wonder if it then becomes as simple as just not teaching AI to recognize certain physical attributes as attractive or not — or maybe teaching AI without any images at all (though that might be too simplistic).

But perhaps the biggest impact AI could have isn’t just solving the beauty bias, but the entire Halo Effect that bias generates. Chamorro-Premuzic suggests AI could function as “a diagnostic tool to predict someone’s likelihood of being deemed more effective in the business based on their perceived attractiveness.” Given that the Halo Effect unduly influences certain metrics that could throw off an AI (such as performance reviews, salary history etc.), accounting for someone’s physical attractiveness could help the hiring process a bit more.

The Takeaway

We’re only just scratching the surface of how the comparative teachability and objectivity of AI offers another solution we could defer to when we still fail to get things right. Still, a start-up might not have a mountain of applications to need hiring AI to sift through (and it might never), but that doesn’t mean those AIs and the problems they’re meant to solve won’t involve us later.

Lookism is easy to think of as benign compared to other discrimination based on other federally protected categories like race, sex, national origin or religion. After all “you got it, or you don’t,” right? But in giving this type of bias a free pass, we unwittingly permit similar prejudicial mechanics that draw false equivalencies between a person’s character or competence and a factor that they have little to no control over be it age, race, gender, or sexual orientation, for instance.

Even in the creative industries, where we might assume a “natural” respect for diversity and tolerance, we can still see instances where we’d assume the best or worst of someone based on their looks — the only difference is we might be cool with their tattoos (or lack thereof) but not the brands in their outfit.

In the past, many of our analyses covering AI have been of the cautionary type, where we warn about the dangers of AI threatening our way of life from its impact on the veracity of our media to its ability to displace us and other creative workers.

But we’d posit a more optimistic way for AI to be involved in shaping the lives of people being hired for massive companies where applications have to processed at scale. In this scenario, people with nearly identical qualifications and experiences are given a shot at a job without being rejected for something as arbitrary as a name, much less what they look like.

December 19, 2019

How the new gig economy law impacts other freelancers

The future of work is in the process of being defined with a new series of developments in California. The flexibility of freelancing (naturally with all of its downsides) is now being rewritten and redefined, which may limit those who are somewhere between being free enough to contribute a substantial amount but aren’t considered valuable enough to some companies to go full time.

What happened?

Vox Media recently let go hundreds of California-based freelance writers and editors that used to cover sports for its SB Nation blog network. The reason? Compliance with California Assembly Bill 5 ( commonly known as AB 5). The law, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020 was originally meant to target ride-share giants such as Uber and Lyft, forcing them to treat their contracted drivers as employees with the appropriate benefits.

The bill does have larger ramifications beyond drivers, however: It would also apply to writers and potentially affects other knowledge and culture workers, according to Jori Finkel. “The law already carves out many exceptions for particular professions, including accountants, real estate agents, insurance brokers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, private investigators, salespeople and commercial fishermen,” she explains. “In the cultural sphere, architects, graphic designers, grant writers, and fine artists are identified as exempt, as are photojournalists and journalists who contribute fewer than 35 times a year to a particular company or publication.”

The gist of AB 5

AB5 is meant to give protections to contracted workers who don’t receive the same benefits for the amount of work they do relative to regular employees, such as minimum wage, worker compensation, insurance, paid vacation and sick leave.

In 2018, the Supreme Court of California ruled to impose stricter requirements for the classification employees, which gig workers were previously excluded from. The court made a 3-part test (known as the ABC test) where employers had to prove that their workers were properly classified as independent contractors under these conditions:

  • The worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of such work and in fact
  • The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business
  • The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity

This newer test doesn’t apply to jobs falling within a select number of categories. That said, even after passing ABC, the hiring party might have to demonstrate they’re classified properly under the Borello test, an older standard.

Flexible Freedom vs. Structured Protection

Some supporters say that aside from the protections offered above, the bill would prevent the state from losing billions from payroll taxes the contractors and companies hiring them do not pay. Comparatively, opponents say it would increase labor costs by 30%, which would be passed on to customers while reducing service and flexibility for workers.

Some believe that the bill signals “the death of the gig economy.” Brittany Hunter, for one, emphasizes the difference between employment and contracting, the backbone of the highly developed gig economy, which was never meant to be a traditionally structured sector.

Ultimately, it’s challenging to assess whether the bill is good or bad because it depends on how we think the parameters should lie with respects to work:

Protection versus Exploitation: Similar to how tax avoidance is legal and tax evasion is illegal, many companies will likewise try to legally limit how much they have to pay to benefit from the services of a worker. But of course, the sometimes ambiguous nature of contract work, especially how it unfolds in the relatively recent gig economy, means there’s room for exploitation, which is what drove some of the need for the legal protections offered by AB 5.

Structure versus Flexibility: Arguably one of the big draws to remaining a contractor is the flexibility that the over one-third of Americans have used to build or supplement their incomes. For some, the lack of commitment of a formal employment contract means a lack of the same benefits and protections, but also the lack of obligations like minimum working hours or for some, the need to even work at all.

Quality versus Quantity: By making it more expensive to employ people, in theory, fewer people will create output for the media industry, this means less content, and perhaps worse content if freelancers played a crucial role in driving certain facets of a business. Alternatively, this could increase a reliance on passionate but unpaid workers, which of course, isn’t a good look for any industry.

The Takeaway

Vox’s move to cut writers showcases how compliance with new laws largely meant for one segment of an industry (the ride-sharing and maybe food delivery aspect of the gig economy) spills over into creative work.

The law offers protections in the form of structures that both employer and contractor (or employee) have to abide by. But when companies that benefit from the gig economy “take it out” on contracted workers to adhere to laws, it can mean less freedom (and work) for those who don’t want or need the protections of those regulations. But more crucially, it puts yet another stressor on workers who can’t secure more permanent jobs and are in the gig economy out of necessity.

This is bound to raise questions as to how much or little intervention is needed in the free market that produced the colossal gig economy we see today, especially depending on whether we view gigs as a symptom of today’s widespread job insecurity and the need to work for life at all costs or the key to being our own bosses and shaping our own careers free from bureaucratic corporate jobs.

December 16, 2019

A Creative's Dilemma: To Declare Multi-Hyphenate or Not?

Now that our side-hustle(s) have gone full-time, what meaning does “multi-hyphenate” have for creative careers? We look at how several titles could indicate both an interest in building a career in a lot of things or the need to cling to several lifelines at once.

Moving away from specialization

In her article for The Outline, Nikki Shaner-Bradford summarizes the transition away from assembly line-style specialization (“Fordism,” in honor of Henry Ford) as aligning with our transition towards an economy based around knowledge, information and the production of content.

As to whether being a multi-hyphenate is a good or bad thing, let’s look at some possibilities as to what the term implies:

  • Specificity: By including fields that capture the scope of your capability and expertise, being a multi-hyphenate provides another branding differentiator that can help prospective clients immediately understand the breadth of your skills. In an era that emphasizes the personal brand, embracing being a multi-hyphenate communicates exactly what you’re good at and who you are — a three-word resume for the 280-character world.
  • Survival: The flipside is that, depending on who sees the title, being a multi-hyphenate could be seen as both an outcome and symptom of the gig economy, one where people need multiple side hustles to make ends meet. In this case, the forward-facing image of an assured multi-hyphenate rests on an undeclared base of useful and interconnected talents, but which are all rigidly aligned towards getting paid work.
  • Ownership: Where you’re able to make a living from your talents and assuming your strike that much sought-after work-life rhythm, the best case scenario for a multi-hyphenate creative is being able to make enough money from something you love without burning out.
  • Insecurity: Because there are just so many “full stack creatives” (remember that word?) the catchall multi-hyphenate identity may be a means of compensating for the fact that when we all do largely the same type of work, we might not have a particularly unique selling point.

As Shaner-Bradford puts it: “The rise of the “multi-hyphenate” has ironically eliminated the need for any specificity at all, instead implying a complex creative identity grounded in a jack-of-all trades ideal that conflates production potential with individual worth.”

Employability and passion entangled

The reality of the multi-hyphenate is complicated because the prevalence of the term alone is the product of a culture that both encourages multi-hyphenates to do what they love and penalizes them for doing it by under-recognizing and under-valuing their work.

Furthermore, not all multi-hyphenates get to benefit from the term, as Shaner-Bradford points out: “the term inherently privileges certain skills over others, particularly those of knowledge workers who often hold secondary degrees, and idealizes a form of labor that becomes absorbed into personal identity, diminishing work-life balance and generating further barriers to worker solidarity.”

This is true when you take a look at the litany of plausible multi-hyphenate titles you could see nowadays where the aforementioned “three-word resume” tells a story but doesn’t give a complete picture of a person. Compare terms like photographer-neuroscientist-writer, DJ-model-yoga instructor, and filmmaker-blogger-podcaster — the combination of titles, the order and the fields they stem from all give a different impression depending on who reads it.

The Takeaway

Financial insecurity and uncertain futures mean that many creatives are constantly evaluating and preparing for near eternal employability. Granted, upgrading skill-sets and constant training are a reality in any profession, even a specialized one, but it’s a question of whether monetizing certain skill-sets is out of desire or survival.

It’s up to the the multi-hyphenates themselves (which include a lot of creatives) to define what the term means to them and the rest of society. One way to see how much the multi-hyphenate title is weighted toward your personal identity, your career or both is to ask yourself: would I still call myself this even if weren’t working on a project at the moment or didn’t have a client lined up?

For those who don’t want to  declare themselves multi-hyphenate, what’s the alternative? MAEKAN’s Charis Poon finds usefulness in describing the nature of your work in actions as opposed to titles, which allows you to factually and specifically communicate what you do (regardless if you’re being paid to do it or not) without limiting yourself to the connotations of a given role.


November 11, 2019

Complex gets more complex with foray into product development

Digiday’s Tim Peterson explores media company Complex’s foray into product development that includes helping companies to reach its audience. We look at how this move fits into the bigger picture of connecting media, product and paying customers.

Complex gets more complex

In 2002, Complex started as a menswear magazine founded by Marc Ecko, founder of streetwear brand Eckō Unltd, known for its silhouetted red rhino logo. Over the years, it’s grown beyond its print origins to become a multifaceted media company that’s helped to popularize street culture and fashion. As can be expected of most media companies, there’s a lot of branches to it, all which are named after and tie back into the master brand.

  • Complex Networks: The video-centric network of creators and brands that includes other publications and shows.
  • ComplexCon: The multi-day event that is normally hosted in Long Beach, but recently hosted its first edition in Chicago.
  • Complex Collective: A research product that gives companies access to a panel of individuals signed on to provide feedback on any number of things including products and media.

What is Climate?

As Peterson writes, ComplexCon saw the company launch its first NextFront event, which helped the company to pitch its content and commerce business to over a hundred companies. It was here that Complex announced both Complex Collective and Climate.

Climate is a new division of Complex that will help use its expertise with working with both advertisers and audiences to develop products for other companies — and targeted at Complex’s discerning audience. Under Climate, this type of consulting work would become more formalized, where they’d already done so on an ad-hoc basis. For example, earlier this year, they connected Anwar Carrots and PepsiCo.’s Brisk to produce a line of special-edition beverages).

Hot Sauce, anyone?

This isn’t quite the first time Complex has worked with developing successful products. First We Feast is itself an online food-culture magazine and YouTube channel owned by Complex Media. Its channel produces several video series including The Burger Show, The Curry Shop and most notably, Hot Ones.

Hot Ones has host Sean Evans grill his celebrity guests as they dine on increasingly spicier chicken wings. What seems like a simple if entertaining concept has helped Complex to produce its own line of hot sauces, including Last Dab XXX, which generated $500,000 in sales within 48-hours of its October 17 launch.

As further proof of the company’s ability to leverage its properties to create opportunities elsewhere, that series is also being adapted into a 20-episode game show hosted by WarnerMedia Entertainment-owned TV network truTV (and shot in Atlanta in case you were wondering).

The Takeaway

Complex Networks isn’t the only media company to head in this direction and joins BuzzFeed and Clique Brands (formerly Clique Media Group). The basic idea is to use all of that experience gained from engaging a given audience and creating media products for them to form a profile other brands can use to then produce physical products that speak to that same audience. Done properly, this ensures a win-win-win situation for the original brand, the brand crafting the product, and the end buyer.

In the same vein, we recognize the benefit — and for a primarily digital media company, the importance — of having tangible connections between people and a brand. It’s not always about trying to sell merch (though our upcoming web store will certainly do that). Rather, it’s sharing with our supporters and audience the same experience we’d like to physically hold in our own hands. This means working with brands we either already respect and whose products we’d eagerly integrate into our lives anyways or those we know would be a good fit for our audience.

October 31, 2019

Smart Brevity & "Dumbing Down"

We look at how Dr. Ian Bogost views the misplaced academic fear of needing to dumb down ideas for wider audiences and how to reframe that perspective. We also break down how to approach gaps in knowledge in situations where we assume the role of educator or expert.

Smart Brevity vs. Dumbing Down

Speaking about academics lamenting the need to dumb down their work to reach broader audiences, editor for The Atlantic Ian Bogost (and scholar himself), argues that if you write from a place of contempt, your information might not be so valuable and you might not be so smart after all: “Doing that work—showing someone why a topic you know a lot about is interesting and important—is not “dumb”; it’s smart,” he says. “If information is vital to human flourishing but withheld by experts, then those experts are either overestimating its importance or hoarding it.”

We can’t ignore the fact that we have unprecedented access to information and people have a need to know — whether out of genuine curiosity or anxiety out of not knowing. As such it’s become equally important for audiences to be able to absorb large amounts of complex information and media to process that for them, especially on relevant if specialized topics.

We previously wrote about the importance of slow journalism, the long-form content it tends to produce and the need for audiences to make time to actually process information again. Axios, for one, was launched with both the intention of sharing important (and accurate) information efficiently. In fact, this very Analysis series was inspired by Axios’ approach to “smart brevity” with the aim of helping readers make sense of the world around them.

In short, if you’re frequently in a position where people turn to you for knowledge, it’s less that you have to deign to “dumb down” your ideas — not too far off from the fear of “watering down” the craft for exposure that many creatives have — but rather, you have to get creative with how you package them if you deem them important enough to share.

Dumbing down is not as big a threat as imagined

To debunk the myth of dumbing down as being necessary to impart knowledge (especially if coming from a more formal context of expertise like academia), Bogost says scholars need to keep two key things in mind:

  • Context is Key: Where scholars need to write and publish a means of gaining the reputational currency to fund their careers, writing outside of the academic context is for different purposes. Similarly, what you do as an artist (title or not) will differ what you do if and when you do client work or collaborations.
  • We’re All in the Same Boat: Bogost notes that unlike other experts, academics are often teachers and as such, are involved in careers that emphasize helping people anyways. He also points out that writers and journalists write with the same core intention as well, even if yes, their work does also serve double-duty for career advancement.

We personally recall some professors in junior courses that would instruct us to write as if we were talking to non-experts and others in later courses emphasizing the need to speak directly to the expert grading them. It’s less about which approach is correct, but that the audience — the very people listening to our message — should be at the center. So in the context of creatives, we’d add another special point:

  • Don’t Throw Them Into the Deep End: As creatives, you need to communicate ideas of varying complexity to all types of people. Thinking of how to move the narrative (or production) along begins with something shallow but progressively, you’re bringing them deeper into the story, opportunity, or workflow. This isn’t a hard-fast rule because naturally, some things are common knowledge and others can be inferred, especially if you work with someone closely and regularly.

The Takeaway

When it comes to different contexts where knowledge is exchanged, whether it be in a public talk, in a private meeting or on set, there will always be scenarios where someone doesn’t get it or wants to know more. It simply comes with the diverse territory we work in.

Yet in all cases, sharing of knowledge — assuming it’s that it’s true to the name and not flaunting how much you know — has to come from a place of sincerity that takes effort to:

  • Get to the point intelligently: to render the most helpful amount of knowledge and in the most helpful terms necessary for a person to understand its importance if not do something with that information.
  • Reserve judgment: not everyone is a serial Googler (or reader of decks and briefs, sadly). You will always encounter situations where there will be a gap in up-to-date knowledge, expertise or understanding, and you will be on either side at some point. There’s no certificate or badge of honor for you to rattle off what you casually absorb on Reddit, in your news feed or anecdotally and yet be unable to actually explain that information to the uninitiated.
  • Reach understanding: means actively and dare we say, creatively, searching for new angles or means of communicating ideas, intents, and emotions so that we reach understanding — even if we don’t reach consensus.
  • Direct frustration: We aim to keep anger and frustration to a minimum projects in a way that’s distinct from pointing out gross errors or maintaining a sense of urgency on tight deadlines. Try as we may, we still might not reach understanding, however. But if you’re redirecting frustration at the situation rather than people, you’re more likely to focus your limited energies on immediate problem-solving as opposed to “hunting for the screw-up.” Save that for the debrief.

The final caveat is, of course, if you’re creating as an act of expression and less of communication or if you’re doing so for a niche audience. If you as an expert in your style or your work isn’t intended to be understood or engaged with by a broad range of people, then by all means, stay true to your vision and don’t let the need for greater exposure cloud that.

October 21, 2019

On Compromise: The Difference Between Renting Out and Selling Out


The fourth edition of Career Myths, a WeTransfer series, asks the question: is it possible to sell out on your own terms? We take a look at what selling out means in today’s creative landscape and how that differs from renting out.

Examples from the Past

The article points to the success of painter Salvador Dalí, whose estate ended up being worth $87 million by the time he died. His name is synonymous with surrealist painting, yet many considered him a complete sell-out for his work on projects ranging from designing the Chupa Chups lollipop brand logo to appearing in commercials for all sorts of household products.

Other examples include hard rock bands like Metallica who changed their sound for mainstream consumption and any number of celebrities that were once popular but took on any number of projects to bring in more money as their fame dried up.

Things Have Changed

Today, the distance between brands and creatives (and the public) has never been smaller such that more and more people are working together. Companies are looking to broaden their image and creatives are trying to expand the portfolio, meaning the chances of these two sides interacting are higher than ever. And in the process, the ability to create our own future has become as easy as the idea of “staying true to the cause” has become murky.

Refinery 29 calls it “Generation Sell-Out” because of how we’re encouraged to monetize our hobbies and turn side hustles into businesses. Whether it’s out of genuine desire to “do what we love” as a career or an obligation borne out of economic hardship,

If we were to frame the above examples today, we’d actually see some parallels between rockstar artists and us influencers-in-waiting: we need money at different points in our lives and assuming we’ve committed to non-traditional career paths, how else do we make bank? The only real difference is the amounts needed to support our respective lifestyles and how much we can get.

Renting Versus Selling Out

When we traditionally think of “selling out” in the negative sense, we see it as compromising on some sort of moral high ground, maybe the one embodied by the themes of our work, for a chunk of cash. Before, we viewed it as giving up on some sort of greater cause, succumbing to the demands of something lesser or even directly opposed to us. What we once thought of as “sticking it to The Man” only to be working for him later.

Yet today, we might be quicker to judge each other for the products we buy or the type of media we consume over the big company we just landed a contract with. Why is that? There seems to be a tacit agreement that comes with the “hustle culture” that acknowledges everyone’s need to make money, and that renting out their services allows them to pay rent or debt or prepare for the next move.

So what are your terms?

The WePresent article cites the practical example of French illustrator Matthieu Bessudo, better known as Mcbess (aka Matthieu Bessudo). For him, commercial work is simply a fact of his career and his calendar, but he does this work within a few parameters:

  • Maintains personal style: He does not compromise on his trademark monochrome style.
  • Chooses clients: he only works for brands he likes or for products he actually uses.
  • Exposure optional: He doesn’t post commercial work on social media unless contractually bound to do so.

Despite being established in his career, McBess treats commercial work as a reality he doesn’t necessarily plan to escape from or eliminate because it allows him the room to create work he’s truly passionate about: “I’m not that interested in working for clients, but I have to do it because I have rent to pay. I have to support myself.”

If you’re in this game for the long term, it does help to be pragmatic and readjust your parameters depending on what phase you’re in or plan to be in.

The Takeaway

We know that no two creatives or careers are the same. That said, we think it’s important to identify our parameters and our red zone, lest they pop-up when we least expect. The trick is knowing when you’re just renting out and when you might be really selling out.

On Renting out: We view renting out as offering services, skills, and talents for hire for a specific time frame. That said, we might run into conflicts that relate to the valuation of those things (for more on this, check out our Money Moves series).

  • Identify the work you’re fine with: Unless you’re able to get paid for one skill (say, just shooting photos without having to edit or retouch), you might consider picking up other skills you’re okay to learn and develop to stay hired and competitive.
  • Do the calculus: Regardless of whether you’re just starting out or not, ask yourself if this job or relationship will provide meaningful compensation in terms of money, satisfaction, practical experience, “exposure,” portfolio or network?
  • Plan Ahead: If you need to rent your services either more often than you’d like or doing work you’d prefer not to, then you will have to plan ahead so you can use the money you gain to build towards the next phase instead of getting stuck on the hustle treadmill.

On Selling Out: We treat selling out as a compromise, whether it uses our talents or not, that conflicts with our core being or dignity (think being paid to act like your most despised person for the day).

  • Where do you stand: What are your strong preferences and what are your deep-seated beliefs? Do you actually equate working for Client A with selling your soul, or is that client just currently taking a lot of flak from the media or your peers?
  • Consider Two Styles: Sometimes, the nature of client work can mean you end up working in a style that’s distinct from your own personal style as an artist. Make sure you don’t neglect the latter and be extra protective of it.
  • “Sell out now, go clean later”: If you really need to sell out to pay the bills, will it be worth it? How often are you going to need to do this? Again, plan to get out of this phase as soon as you’re able and especially before you have a strong following.

To conclude things, there’s one particular thing to be aware of, and it certainly doesn’t make the idea of monetizing hobbies any easier: Realize that when money is on the line, the rules of engagement change. Taken from experiences around us, playing a sport or taking photos for money can fundamentally alter your relationship with what was once a source of joy. Once we start to think transactionally, the dynamic changes and there’s almost always unwanted pressure that gets added on. So consider it perfectly fine to do something you’re decent at purely for your own therapy and enjoyment — not another skill to add to the “package.”

Whether you have to rent out or sell out to survive and make it to a better place, this is not an invitation to do anything morally wrong, no question there. But by recognizing that the “high ground” of the starving artist is romantic but outdated and unhealthy, you can start finding ways to build toward a healthy and sustainable creative career.

September 26, 2019

How Luxury Fashion Was Reduced to Mediocre Logos


Luxury brands used to be held in high regard as much for their craftsmanship as their lofty price points. But now we’re awash in comparatively average products with questionable price tags. How did luxury brands get to this point where their extensive history has been reduced to a big logo on a pool slide and will they take a step back?

The Timeline in Decades

Throughout the past 40 years, luxury brands have experienced cycles where they dilute and re-strengthen their brands under different models.

’80s: Luxury brands went crazy on licensing under the notion that every time they licensed their brand to a different company, they’d create a different product category. This meant they could collect royalties on the licenses without having to deal with the manufacturing and distribution processes.

’90s: With that stint of brand dilution (and the loss of luxury brands’ wealthy customer base), licensing was dialed down and brands shifted to diffusion brands such as Versus by Versace, D&G by Dolce & Gabbana, and Moschino Cheap & Chic. The idea here was brands could retain the prestige of and minimize the risk to their main high-end label but differentiate just enough to attract middle-class wealth.

’00s: As expected, brands started to fear brand dilution after more people started to access their products, so they cut down on licenses yet again. Building on their experiences in the past two decades, many luxury brands followed a similar strategy of maintaining just a few very tightly-controlled licenses across different regions (most notably, Japan) and product categories such Burberry and Armani’s partnerships with Fossil for watches. Some newer brands at the time like Tom Ford, were also able to leverage strong licenses to grow quickly, showing they were still a highly relevant part of the strategy.

’10s: By this point, brands are risking it all with their main labels: Dolce & Gabbana re-absorbed D&G in 2011, while Marc Jacobs followed suit with Marc by Marc Jacobs in 2015. Their strategy since has been to tap into new millennial and Gen-Z markets by offering luxury goods at lower, more accessible price points: Gucci pool slides, anyone? Either that or they’ve fully embraced collaborations with sports or streetwear brands they wouldn’t have designed to be in the same room with last generation.

Brand Dilution

Compared with the previous decades, luxury brands have gone through a fundamental shift in direction: No one seems to care about how watered down brand image is now — especially where there’s profit to be had. There are many possible factors that intersect to produce the current trend in increased “premium mediocrity”:

  • Loss of traditional market: luxury brands lost the traditional wealthy customer they used to cater to, both in the literal sense and in terms of support as brands shift direction.
  • Real wealth goes “stealth”: This generation hasn’t necessarily filled the loss of the previous market. Millennials, even the wealthy ones, are emphasizing other signifiers of affluence and they don’t include logos, experience and travel being the big ones.
  • But some are eager to flex: Millennials and Gen Z represent a profitable market that now has the spending power to access the lower limits of the brand — and wants to show that off.
  • Money needs to be made: Main luxury players like LVMH and Kering are now publicly listed conglomerates, which means they have to keep driving profits up in order to lift the price of their stock. Diluting some of the brand to achieve this is straightforward.
  • Money needs to be protected: Especially to prepare for the sudden loss of other lucrative if fickle markets (such as in China).
  • The “drop” model plays nicely: Drops, as in non-seasonal and limited-edition releases that were popularized by streetwear brands like Supreme, help generate attention and shuttle customers into stores. It goes without saying the rarity factor works very well for both streetwear and luxury brands when they collaborate.

Friction and Meaning

From the very beginning of MAEKAN we’ve always maintained that there has to be a need for even a small degree of friction to access a brand (and continue to do so). This is because we saw first-hand what happens culturally to a brand and the meaning behind what we do if it becomes as simple as “paying to play.”

We’re certainly not a luxury brand, but we recognize the reason why such brands gained the respect they did in the past was because of the high level of friction people needed to overcome to access them.

The friction is still there for luxury brands, albeit a bit less of it thanks to lower price points, but what has changed fundamentally is the meaning behind the labels. For one, priorities have done a 180 from exclusivity to inclusivity, but the verbiage needs to be nuanced. The introduction of new modern luxury brands that operate first has opened up the field to new options that are giving luxury a run for its money. Quality (in its nuanced definition) need not be expensive anymore.

Eugene Rabkin, in his op-ed for Highsnob, summarizes it best: “The conundrum that luxury brands face today is that democratization is automatically considered ‘good,’ and elitism is automatically considered ‘bad.’ For luxury this is a paradox, but for streetwear it’s not, and that’s one of the reasons why streetwear has been so successful. Arguably, Supreme is the most elitist brand out there, because its releases are so limited, but who would ever even consider calling it elitist? Meanwhile, in some circles, luxury is still a dirty word because of its connotations with exclusivity and classism.”

As we saw in the past, luxury brands are very robust and adaptable to keep themselves afloat and are masters of controlling both accessibility and scarcity: their latest moves are just part of those necessary adaptations to changing times. But now that they’ve snagged some new customers (whose long-term loyalty remains to be seen) it remains to be seen what they’ll do this time, if anything, once their brand names become even more widespread.

September 5, 2019

Companies are not investing in creativity — even when it translates into business value


Companies agree that creativity is the most important factor for sustained commercial success. In spite of that, companies are putting their money into other drivers and unsurprisingly feel the latter aren’t delivering the creativity they need to move forward.

By the numbers

  • Correlation between creativity and financial performance: Top companies in terms of creative score were 67% more likely to have better Organic Revenue Growth, 70% more likely to have better TRS (total return swap) and 74% more likely to have higher EBITDA. (Creativity’s Bottom Line, McKinsey)
  • Creativity as predictor of success: 85% of surveyed CMOs believe creativity and big ideas that build the brand and create emotional connections are the single most important factor for future success. Yet, only 54% of CMOs believe they’re actually delivering on that creativity. (Network CMO survey 2019, Dentsu Aegis)
  • Tech and data trumping creativity: According to Forrester, spending on Data and Analytics, Advertising Technology and Marketing Automation grew 33% between 2017-2019 —twice as fast as overall budgets and five times the rate of spending on creativity.
  • AI to feature heavily: Marketing leaders surveyed reported a 27% increase in incorporating AI and machine learning over 2018 levels. This will increase another 60% within three years, and will be even higher for bigger companies and those that conduct more of their sales via the internet. (The CMO Survey, Duke University Fuqua School of Business)
  • ROI on Creativity: Under one model, shifting tech investments back into creativity would create an 18% ROI over six years. (The Cost of Losing Creativity, Forrester)

Why priorities need to shift

There’s a lot more at stake down the line if companies don’t start re-investing in creativity—that is, allocating more spending towards projects, tools and people that generate fresh ideas, which in turn make them stand out, emotionally connect with their market and get ahead. For one, brands aren’t wowing people anymore: despite the recent emphasis on customer experiences, those have plateaued, especially when it comes to improving brand loyalty and stickiness.

Another issue is “digital sameness.” Whether it’s being able to conveniently book flights or pay in advance for services, functional experiences are now the same. Brand apps and websites both perform and look similar and all serve the exact same customer needs or use cases in the same way. In short, brands are losing their edges and corners, their “intangible” elements in our parlance.


We should note that investing in creativity doesn’t mean putting more money into our accounts, nor does it just apply to large companies. It means valuing creativity as a concept and resource that produces a foundation for future results. This applies to whether you run a small company, run a team within one, or work for yourself.

  • Freedom and head space: At the company level, this could translate into putting time, effort and yes, money, into the infrastructure and culture that spawns new ideas while attracting and retaining talent. This includes supporting amenities and policies that give employees freedom, which result in that much needed head space to both come up with and execute new ideas. We might have the occasional grievance with their buggy updates, but word has it that  the people working for Adobe are living in line with the brand’s vision of promoting creativity through their company culture.
  • A better relationship with technology: Today, creatives and companies have access to a litany of powerful technologies. However, if we can take some learnings from companies splurging on expensive tech to solve all their problems, it’s that we need to consider how these new technologies actually help to support creativity and the brand vision. For instance, does that new app you want to subscribe to save time and energy in the long run, even after an extensive first set up? Is it effective as is out of the box, or can it be adapted to better suit your creative needs? Even more importantly: is there future value for you in the experience of learning to do something rather than leaving it up to tech?
  • Shifting the culture: Arguably, we stumble upon a fork in the road with regards to which side makes the first big moves: do companies realize that they need to keep feeding the Golden Goose and start allocating more money, or does the market (i.e. paying customers) start looking for things they want or haven’t seen yet? Either way, if we want to see changes, we can always be proactive by making our voices heard and taking a firmer stance in regulating the value we offer, thereby increasing it and our leverage.
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