Thoughts on the Integrity of Your Personal Brand

» Meeting Room

It is rather fun to live in our time, the condition of which has been described on numerous occasions as one dominated by simulacra. The logic of representation referring to nothing behind it but representation itself goes well with the dominance of immaterial labor in the capital of the everyday.  Thus we can presuppose that the real virtuoso of our times is the one who is able to perform immaterial labor in a relevant way. Medium is a phantom; an object is a phantom, and the boundaries between them are blurred.  If there were any at all.

The following diagnosis has been mentioned several times before: it is not the material manifestation of objects that counts, but the act of performing that manifestation.

Intrigued by the particularities of the Zeitgeist, Legwork invited immaterial labor virtuoso Doug Popovich, a brand and marketing communications geek and artwife based in NYC, for a chat.

Speaking of boundaries being blurred: throughout the talk we curated images of Economy of Dissonance, a recent work by artist Alex Auriema, which is now on exhibit at Transient Spaces (a project organized by Uqbar art space) in Berlin.

As if you were an artist in Berlin

“After the wall fell it provided a place for Germany to become a center point again. It provided a place to recreate and reinvent itself. Berlin was the perfect example, the influx of available real estate from the former East making it very easy for someone to come over and start something. So that is what Berlin still feels like to me. People can start something here.”

“So it attracts artists and creators who want the space and time to create. But how do they survive in the sluggish economy of Berlin? They can help in the creative industries.”

“The reality is mobile now. The quality of hand-held access is exploding, with phones are getting better, internet speed getting faster. There is more access to 3G and 4G networks and consumer adoption of more sophisticated handsets is happening. Which means that what was primarily computer-focused and at-home interaction with the web has migrated to laptops and is now migrating to hand-held mobile and smart devices. This migration to a technology that is related to but evolved from original web technology means marketing people need creatives in order to re-contextualize what works on a laptop screen to a mobile device that is tiny. And in another different way you have to re-contextualize it for an iPad device that is not keyboard but touch-based. This is a triple perfect storm for advanced design for our three-screen world. The hand, the lap, the livingroom.”

“The amount of screens that people are managing everyday and the size to which they have access to content is changing and for that they need people who can change that content and make it look great. Artists can do that. Artists can learn how to program.”

“At parties we’ve met people who are building their own applications, whether for iPad or mobile smart phones. And that is how they are already working in marketing.”

“What are artists doing here? They want time and space to make things possible and see their art happen: Berlin is a great place for that. If they have to work six-, eight- or ten-hour days on a job to make their money, then telecommuting for these industries is a great option .That is what attracts them: Berlin is a community of arts and possibility.”

As if there were no division between art practice and the world

“I think that such a division — like anything — is installed, created. There are always people who want to live the life of the bohemian. But the bohemians of today need to pay for their tattoos and their beer. They are willing to sacrifice for their art. But also they are still very interested in living in this new connected world of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. Of course there are still artists who are not linked in or connected. But they are less and less, because artists like to have a community where they can have a dialogue.”

“But there will always be a struggle. I call myself an art wife. I am not an artist. I work in creative services, production management, and marketing communications. But my partner of 16 years is an artist. I’ve seen his struggle first hand. What is it to take a job that he feels overqualified for or that he feels is a waste because it does not really add anything to or even harm the art dialogue moving forward. That is the other struggle: how do you end up spending a third of your life working for a business and what does that take away from your potential as an artist? This struggle will always be that way.”

“If you look up why they call artists bohemians you will find that in Paris in the ’20s, artists used to live in the same areas as the gypsies. It was the cheapest. (Historically, gypsies originating in India migrated through Bohemia to enter Europe.) There they could live on as little as possible to be able to afford to practice their art. Now there is all this luscious, sexy technology, but that mentality is still there. The mentality of willing to spend less on rent, and sometimes even food, to be in a community of artists and to have a better chance of manifesting their lives the way they want them to be. It is not about not having money. It is about being in a place where one can be an artist.”

And to treat your creative practice as if it were business? After all, as the Financial Times has recently stated, “We are all marketers now.”

“Oh absolutely. It is all about your own brand. Andy Warhol talked about 15 minutes of fame. But the real frightening success stories are people who continue that lime light over a lifetime, so much so that the brand eclipses the art. Take for example the Damien Hirst brand. He started as a bad boy artist, got picked up, and people now for whatever reason align themselves emotionally to that brand.”

“You can call it collecting, but it is all business. Saatchi calls it collecting and he loves art, but it’s all business. No surprise he comes from/made his money in advertising and branding. All he is doing is pure capitalism: buy low, sell high.”

“So what happens when an artist has to make T-shirts and sell them at Mauerpark? They get to experience generating some business. They go out there every Sunday and work there. If it is successful, they need to buy more T-shirts and to hire some assistants. So all of a sudden they are no longer making art. They are in the business of selling T-shirts. This can be a sad outcome for an artist. And how is this really different from Murakami paying minions in his factory to make his work?”

“At one point you step away from the creative process into a reality that is commoditized and you have to sell. So the business of art – the art world as it were — is really a sad, frightening reality.”

“The danger is once you’ve built your brand, how do you maintain the integrity of your brand as an artist? I know people who will do a job or will sell a certain type of work, but not really sign their name to it because it’s a bread and butter job. It’s not the art they want to be doing, their brand per se. Their name isn’t associated with some of the work they execute.”

“Look how many brands overextended themselves into licensing agreements in the ‘80s and ‘90s that now don’t have the luster they used to have. Because they were everywhere. It is one thing to do high-end eye glasses and high-end perfume, but Martha Stewart, for example, is very sophisticated and savvy because she developed multiple levels of her brand. It holds a high level in K-mart (a low-level big box mega-store), but it still has the high authority recipe for living at the magazine/omnimedia level.”

Integrity through multiplicity? Not a textbook example.

“That multiplicity happens everywhere in American business.”

“On the one hand there is your name and your brand; on the other there is trust in your integrity. You have to guard those.”

“You are describing the way businesses have been historically dealt with or brands have been built, as opposed to how it could be done now. For example, people were building buildings, some of which were falling down. As a response designers and engineers analyzed causes of these problems, and created standards, and formed guilds and professional licensing organizations. Those were the best solutions at that time, but it doesn’t mean one cannot come up with a better one now.”

“Collaborations are happening everywhere. We see collaborations in brands. We see cross-promotional licenses all the time, and not only in sports where they started. Annie Leibovitz collaborates with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Oh, and he has a foundation now, which means that of course he wants to maintain his brand and to keep his brand vibrant enough to help support his dance center. Annie Leibovitz needs more money because of her financial/legal drama. She’s not only in that LV ad, but doing HP printers, too. At what point does the brand take over and need to be fed?”

That Louis Vuitton ad is amazing. It articulates two artists and their faux relation/reverence to the bag as art. Where as actually they show two brands on one line with the third one. No coincidence here — if I’m not mistaken, LV after all was the first one to pull their logo out of the inside of their products, to multiply it and to serve as an added value in itself. Faces are yet another brand, aren’t they?

“You know, ironically I take labels off their jars before I put them into the refrigerator. I don’t like to be inundated with brands and their request for a dialogue. A few years ago, it was said that an average person receives about 3000 requests for a dialogue on a daily basis. I’m sure that’s doubled by now with internet and with smart phones.”

“Acknowledging that people are getting overloaded with the request for dialogue, one needs to make sure that their requests for dialogue are ever more relevant.”

“Going back to your collaboration, I think it was interesting that you had this function where a lot of people showed up. And that you interacted with them. So you kept it very relevant and personal. They were a part of the function and they were a part of the energy of the collaboration. If I had to explain what Legwork is, I’d say I have some friends who are artists, they come from completely different fields and they collaborate on experiential pieces and on dialogue. They ask what a dialogue is. Some of them might include dance, some of them might include art, some might include performance, some of them writing.”

“You don’t have to be so regimented to say two brands work together to produce something. We see it all the time. Ice cream with M&M’s. So you guys are different fun things mixed together.”

A little bit of Ben & Jerry’s, a little bit of Oreo cookies.

“And a bit of Martha Graham, and a little bit of Martha Stewart. There was some cake, and the balloon wall was definitely Martha Stewart. Knowing some of the backstory, I really liked the assistance on the web on how to make the balloon wall, make the forms, how to blow up all the balloons…”

A recipe for success

“Consistently communicate who you are as an artist and who you want to be. True, the flavor of your art can change. But you should be supporting it with all collateral touchpoints that are appropriate. And always have cards. If you had a good dialogue with someone, cement it with a take-away. Just continue that dialogue.”

“You can do many different things and work with different media. But you shouldn’t do different things in the way you communicate your work to somebody. If you have an event it can have its own stuff. But if you tell someone about the event you want to make sure that you are projecting the elements of it that move your brand. Make sure you are singing on key for whatever your brand song is. By the way ‘brand songbooks’ are the big thing now in all the agencies I work with.”

Can a postcard or a business card become an art piece?

“Of course it can. You have ten thousand business cards, one thousand announcement postcards, hundreds or tens of prints, all in support of the singular painting/art object. But all those touchpoints — from selling your painting to giving away a postcard or a business card — are on the spectrum of communicating your art. So technically, yes, if you have ten thousand business cards they are ten thousand pieces of representation of your brand. They all could be art, their design could be art, and people could want that business card because it is so beautiful.”