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Graham Fink: “Think About People Who Get Run Over”

He shot a TVC with thousands of extras, created campaigns for Coca-Cola and Persil – and now he draws with his eyes: Graham Fink lives (and breathes) creativity. How does he find his ideas? Does this man have some advice?

Graham Fink is a multimedia artist and at the same time Chief Creative Officer at world-renowned advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. His campaigns have won multiple awards. Fink also has been the youngest ever president of D&AD (the Design and Art Directors Association). He lives and works in Shanghai.

Advertising is loud and disruptive. Graham Fink is neither loud nor disruptive. Thoughtful and well-controlled, he moves through the hotel lobby. Nearly two meters tall, long hair, black jeans, black shirt. He poses his MacBook and his glasses next to each other on a wooden table. He orders a Cappuccino.

Spiegel Online: A lot of people instantly close down advertising when they see it online. Why?

Fink: It shows that our ads need to be more entertaining – and we need to be more creative. The really good ones go viral, most ads however don’t.

Spiegel Online: Is that the ultimate goal – a viral campaign?

Fink: Yes, because a viral success means that people are truly interested. You can’t force them, you can’t buy them and only a very few ads manage to achieve this.

Spiegel Online: Is it possible to predict what goes viral?

Fink: No. There are a lot of essays out there on this and all of them end up with the same trivial conclusion. Basically: “The content needs to be interesting” Of course it has to. One of my favorite campaigns was the ALS ice bucket challenge. It was advertising for donations, but it didn’t look like advertising. I loved it. It was just a funny thing, a silly thing. To empty a bucket of ice and water over your head – it doesn’t get any more ridiculous. However, it was incredibly effective.

Spiegel Online: In the eighties you shot, at that time, the most expensive TVC in the world, for British Airways. Thousands of extras appeared in that ad. What was the reaction when you suggested it?

Fink: Many people thought: This will never work. But that’s what made it even more fun. With the best ideas no one knows: will it work? This is scary, that’s the challenge. If you know exactly what you’re doing, someone else must have already done it before. I am currently working on an art project of drawing people just using the motion of my eyes. I can now draw portraits by looking directly at them. The latest methodology I am using is only a few weeks old. But I want to develop it even further. I prefer to fail, than to repeat the old.

Spiegel Online: How did you end up drawing with your eyes?

Fink: I am very interested in Pareidolia, a phenomenon where, when looking at the moon for example you can see a face. The human brain doesn’t work well in chaos; we’re looking for patterns. I’ve always been fascinated with faces. I believe people look at faces more than anything else. I look at her face. She looks at mine.Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.08.45 PM

This picture reminds me of ‘The Scream” by Edward Munch. The screw on the left of the photo shows you how small the face is. In the fifties they used Eye Tracking for the first time. It was used to track how people perceive an ad. The results were drawings with lines, from a logo, to the headline, to the picture etc. I asked myself: Let’s assume this is a face not an ad. Would the lines then amount to a face? I found a Swedish company that makes Eye Trackers. They sent me a coder, and together we designed some software. Six months later it was ready. Then I had to train my eyes to draw with it. I can show you a few initial drawings. Fink takes his MacBook, moves the screen around and shows a few drawings.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.10.34 PM

You see. The eye doesn’t obey. When you think you focus on one point, it’s actually not the case. Your eye moves so quickly, it’s hard to track one object so precisely. But mistakes are part of the method. Mistakes are OK.

Spiegel Online: At first, you weren’t able to draw humans?

Fink: No. It took a few months, at some point I got calmer. When you are distracted or tired, your eye doesn’t do what you want it to. Here in this picture things go crazy.Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.11.59 PM

Then I got better

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.12.54 PM

Here Fink has drawn a portrait of a model. Every time I looked at them and back to the portrait it creates a line.

Spiegel Online: Could anyone draw with your tool?

Fink: Yes, that’s possible. You have to calibrate it to their eyes. Over Christmas I got my whole family to do it.

Spiegel Online: Your life revolves around creativity. Have you developed a routine, to come up with great ideas?

Fink: Ideas and routines don’t go well together. Ideas always come in unexpected ways. It helps though to relax. Go have a walk or take a shower, or sit in a bar with your friend and a bottle of wine. Alcohol helps. But don’t drink too much. Otherwise you may find an idea is great, but only until the next morning.

Spiegel Online: And if it still doesn’t work?

Fink: We can’t force things and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for it. When I was younger I would always do that, but only makes it worse.

Spiegel Online: There are really no techniques?

Fink: What I really like: When you are stuck. Think the opposite. For example, when you are working on a campaign for road safety: Think about an idea where people keep getting run over. Wait, no that’s a bad idea… Ok, take a soft drink. Then play with the idea for half an hour, that this drink makes people drunker than any alcohol. People really go mental. They are hyper-drunk.

That sounds really silly, but this technique breaks down barriers. And you get a lot of new ideas from a totally different angle. You just need to bend it into the right direction. But be prepared to make mistakes and to fail.

Spiegel Online: Fail?

Fink: The problem is, especially in China, where I live: We are raised to be successful. At school you get told you need to be successful and pass exams. “We can’t fuck up”. That’s wrong. I tell my employees: Rather come to me with something that is totally wrong rather than with something I’ve already seen before.

Spiegel Online: Did you have instances in which you wanted to jack it all?

Fink: All the time. The best ideas come when you stop thinking about it (the problem). All creative breakthroughs come in such moments. It rarely happens when you are thinking too hard, because you start to panic. Your thoughts get in your way. My best ideas probably didn’t come from me, they just fly in.

By Philip Seibt. Translated from original Der Speigel article.

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