On Advertising, Gaming and iPhones as a Proper Noun, with PrettyLittleHead’s Farrah Bostic

Farrah Bostic has done a little bit of it all when it comes to the creative industries. Self-described as a “strategist, thinker and maker,” Farrah perhaps uses that description because to list her accomplishments into a succinct three-word headline would be damn near impossible. She has worked in some of the best creative shops in the world, including Wieden+Kennedy, TBWAChiatDay and Mad Dogs & Englishmen, she’s worked inside media properties, hosted panels and salons and lobbied for women in creative fields, most recently with Clay Shirky in the studio on BBC’s World Have Your Say. Her strategizing, thinking and making have benefited clients in TV, media and music, technology, retail and CPG, sports and spirits. See what I mean? A little bit – or perhaps more aptly, a lot – of it all.

Pausing from a busy schedule of doing it all, Farrah took a few moments to tell me about who she is, her amazing ability to shoot bad guys in the head in Call of Duty, and by extension, a few things we could all learn from the world of gaming.

The Art Directors Club (ADC): You seem to have worked the full gamut of the faces of advertising and the creative industries. How did you initially tumble into the crazy worlds of advertising, content, web, media, strategy and research?

Farrah: My dad set up the network at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland. He told me he was setting up one of the founder’s computers and a creative director— a woman— came into the office, flopped down on the couch and yelled, “F&^K!” He seemed to think that this was the perfect kind of place for me. Not coincidentally, I’d been clipping ads whose copy I really loved out of magazines and hanging them in my locker or taping them onto my notebooks. One was a really beautiful magazine ad for Norwegian Cruise Line, black and white, a woman standing beneath a waterfall, her bare back exposed from her hips up, with a tiny piece of italicized, serif type that read, “I will be naked more.” I loved it. I even got the Polish exchange student to teach me how to say that in Polish.

The next stop was University of Oregon who had— behold!— an advertising program in their journalism & communications school. My first class in the program was an intro to copywriting class. At the mid-term, just when I felt like I was in the weeds, the instructor invited us all in for a ‘check-in’ and she told me that I should be a copywriter. I remember looking around her office, seeing all her awards and deciding to trust her. She obviously knew what she was talking about, even if I had no clue what it all meant.

So I started as a copywriter. For various reasons, I then became a planner. Those reasons included but were, I’m sure, not limited to: getting work as a junior copywriter is a Herculean feat; being a female copywriter is hard when unfortunately there is the belief that women aren’t funny; I’d worked in a web start-up with some people I knew in college and was therefore a digital creative when (in 2000) that was not seen as being a ‘real’ creative; I decided if I wanted to continue to love to write, I should not write ads; and maybe I wasn’t that great. I actually think I would have been a pretty awesome copywriter, but I find business-level problem solving and making things out of the internet to be way more interesting.

Research was an accident. I worked for Robin Hafitz at Mad Dogs & Englishmen and she believed in talking to consumers to find ideas. When Mad Dogs closed and I graduated from law school (yes, I’m educated as a lawyer, never practiced, that’s a conversation for another day), I joined Hall & Partners because I didn’t want to work in an agency, and because my head hunters told me that I’d get three years of experience for every year I worked there. That was definitely true. I still don’t really consider myself to be a researcher, but I think planners who don’t talk to real customers and prospects are charlatans.

ADC: What has motivated you to stay immersed in these worlds, in one facet of the business or another?

Farrah: For one thing, I like solving complex problems. I love the gooey center – the stuff that isn’t ‘rational’ or is hard to predict or is difficult to define. For another, I like getting people to tell me their stories, and I like transforming their stories into a bigger story – one that forces brands to behave humanely toward their customers and advocates. I love being slightly on the outside of the industry at all times – I’m neither one thing nor another – so I get to poke at approaches that have always traditionally been embraced and sometimes just point and say, “That’s stupid, let’s do something else.” Lately, I’ve fallen in love with the notion of creating real value instead of shifting perceptions or extracting value. The simplest thing all business could do, from its operations to its product development to its marketing, is to make good things and be nice to people. I like helping businesses do that.

ADC: You have worked in some of the top agencies in the world. If you could name one gripe with the ad and creative industries, what would that be?

Farrah: That traditionally, they did not demand payment for thinking and solving problems. The ad industry is hamstrung chiefly by a hidebound business model that they created and is now being shoved down their throats by clients looking to trim “non-productive” fees. Non-productive fees mean strategy, research, creative development, while productive fees are for production and media placement. Until the ad biz figures out how to get clients to see the value in investing in an agency’s expertise in the client’s business model and context, it will continue to have its lunch money stolen by smaller, faster, more nimble groups of strategists and makers. Clients lie. They say they want a print campaign or a Pinterest board, but they really need a solution to a fundamental business problem. As long as agencies aren’t paid to do much more than take orders for ads, they’re going to constantly disappoint their clients.

ADC: Shifting topics a bit, what attracted you to the world of gaming?

Farrah: Games are awesome! I grew up in an early adopter, tech-nerd household. There were always games. I missed out on a lot of the console game world (too busy playing adventure games on PCs and teaching myself HTML), and came back to it a couple of years ago thanks to Kill Screen Magazine and my partner, who very kindly taught me to play Call of Duty: Black Ops. I like to shoot stuff, and I love that somehow in the middle of all that carnage, or silliness, or complexity, or whatever, the game designers will be weaving a story that can surprise you, touch you, impress you. Games are a form of communication – a way to tell stories, a way to discover yourself and what matters to you, and to play with the edges of your comfort-zone. I used to love fantasy, sci-fi, choose-your-own-adventure novels, and daytime soap operas for the same reason: the ability to play with possibilities through allegory and role-playing.

I happened to meet Jamin Warren, the founder of Kill Screen Magazine, at ROFLcon in Boston in 2010. I was intrigued by a magazine that treated games as objects of culture. I subscribed, I helped them out from time to time on the business end, and now we have a partnership where we apply all their expertise in games and culture to how people interact with environments, experiences, and brands. It’s a new endeavor and we’re just getting it off the ground, but it’s gonna be awesome.

ADC: Is there a certain type of person that is most attracted to gaming and if so, what makes them such a person?

Farrah: All humans play games. Chess, checkers, cards, sports, Farmville, shooters, etc. It’s fun, it engages your brain and sometimes your dexterity and your hand-eye coordination. But I feel the most affinity for people who love gaming because they have a love of story and character, and of make-believe. They enjoy pretending to be Batman, or a police detective in the 1940s in LA, or a Marine, or a woman doing battle against machines. They’re the people who come out of the movie theater having just seen Mission: Impossible, temporarily convinced that they are also spies, tempted to dart between the cars in the parking lot, seeking cover from imaginary villains.

But there are many archetypes of players – some are people who need to see how it ends, some are people who seek a sense of achievement, some just want to explore a world, others like to observe, and so on. There is a game for everyone, and a gamer inside all of us, to borrow from the Call of Duty campaign.

ADC: For those in the creative industries who may not be immersed enough in the world of gaming to know the in’s and out’s, what are the top three opportunities and benefits that they are missing out on?

Farrah: First, understanding incentives. The ad business reduces incentives to prizes and coupons, so it’s no wonder they reduce ‘ramification’ to badges and points. But there are many motivations for people to interact with an environment, an experience, a community or a brand. When you understand what kinds of incentives trigger those motivations, you can make better experiences for people.

Secondly, designing better interactions. Just as an example, I’m really proud of my ability to shoot bad guys in the head when I play Call of Duty; likewise my favorite thing about Netflix on the AppleTV is it takes 2 clicks to get a show to play, while it drives me *insane* that it takes as many as 4 clicks to get the iTunes app on AppleTV to play a show. Some people love to explore, so IKEA’s floor layout is perfect for them because they get to see everything. I, on the other hand, love driving through alleys and taking shortcuts, so I love discovering the little cut-throughs in an IKEA. Everything around us has game-like qualities and if we understand how those work, we can make more enjoyable interactive experiences… and not just online but in-store or at events, too.

Last, experiencing truly immersive storytelling. Marketing is a lot of talking at people – people plural. David Ogilvy said he wrote from one person to another in the second person singular. When you play a game it is sometimes just you holding the controller, but you are not alone. The other characters, the environment, the story all envelop you, pull you along, involve you and enlist your help. You don’t need a script because the story creates natural constraints. And even when you are not alone in the room, when someone is watching you play, they are often rooting for you, helping you navigate, warning you of coming dangers, or pointing out artifacts you may have missed. Being immersed in an experience is never truly solitary, when done well, and it’s never a waste of time.

ADC: If you were an app, what app would you be and why?

Farrah: I don’t even really love this app, but Storify, or the new ITV news site. I’m a story in progress, who is occasionally ready to package a coherent thought in a really beautiful and meaningful way. And I like to share.

ADC: What is the number one thing that inspires you to get out of bed each morning?

Farrah: The fear of boredom.

ADC: What is the number one gadget you cannot live without?

Farrah: iPhone. I address it as iPhone, a proper noun. Where is iPhone? Come on, iPhone, show me the pictures from the party. Oh iPhone, what are people talking about on Twitter? Hey iPhone let’s go shopping! Ooh, iPhone isn’t that pretty. Let’s go, iPhone!

Catch Farrah on June 15th at the Art Directors Club in New York, where she will kick off an afternoon called SCAMP, a conference presented by SheSays that features more women speakers than not and intends to be “a playground when inspiration and actions collide.” It’s the first year SCAMP has graced the Big Apple, though it sold out the past two years in London. Farrah and her fellow presenters will present germs of ideas to get attendees thinking – Farrah’s being the topic of gaming dynamics and how they influence people. Check out SCAMP’s site – all done via Pinterest – for more information on other speakers, schedule and tickets at http://pinterest.com/scampconference/ or get your tickets at http://scampconferenceny.eventbrite.com/.

Interview by: Brianna Graves, Director of Content & Communications