The New Middleman by Phil Chang
Editor’s Note: Phil Chang is a strategic creative at Wieden + Kennedy New York and a member of the agency’s multidisciplinary solutions team, Attack. Attack ensures that Wieden stays active as a creative participant in the culture of our beautiful city, while also freaking the good shit out for the agency’s primary clients. Prior to co-founding Attack with the design empire Grand Army (Larry Pipitone, Eric Collins, Joey Ellis) and the artist formerly known as Keiji, Phil worked at W + K NY as a brand strategist for Nike and Jordan Brand. You can follow Phil on both Twitter and Tumblr.
Disclaimer: The opinions seen here reflect those of the author and are not necessarily representative of the beliefs and interests of this site.
About a month ago, my friend Sky Gellatly tweeted, “At this point in my life, I thought I’d have done more creating.” Being that Sky and I are in similar lines of employ, that got me thinking about what I have or haven’t created since the beginning of my professional life, and, more fundamentally, what it is people like us do.
To sum it up in a word, you could call us middlemen. As technology (specifically, the internet) continues to facilitate tenable careers in creative industries, the number of professional participants in fields like fashion, art, music and design continues to proliferate at an exponential rate. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a moot point – the useful fact to be gleaned is that this phenomenon makes it difficult to distinguish exceptional talent from the rest of the mix. Effectively, this is why you see countless corporate brands get ‘influencer marketing’ so communicatively and tactically wrong. Recognizing who has the potential for permanent, dynamic relevance is an art in its own right, and while it might seem like anyone could easily train themselves to do that, I ask the same question that I imagine the oft-maligned Damien Hirst constantly positing to his detractors, “Why haven’t you already, then?”
“Why the fuck would I want to?” You could easily reply (touché, douche), and in all fairness, you’d have a point. There’s a lot of stigma that is historically associated with the word ‘middleman.’ When the gallery system caught graffiti fever in the 1970s, it set off a chain reaction of well-financed enablers encouraging artists to ‘become brands,’ to seize this crossover opportunity, etc., all the way through the early 2000s when that bubble largely (and finally) popped from tired overextension. We witnessed a similar scenario as countless new firms set up shop in Silicon Valley during the dot com race between 1995 and 2000, fueled by the speculation of investors and brokers who all but guaranteed them game-changing fortunes for, in some cases, simply adding an ‘e’ as a prefix to their business’s name. Streetwear has been quietly weathering similar trials for some time now, as holding companies pressure the fastest-growing brands into dubious equity deals contradictory to the independent spirit that made those labels rad in the first place. Ultimately, after feeling like they’ve been blindsided by this particular variety of scumbag for decades, it’s easy to see why today’s creatives are more protective of their work than ever and leery of talking to anyone outside of their circles.
Let’s loop back to the first point I made about the internet. In addition to propelling creative careers forward, our increasingly online world has also made everything immediately accessible to the latter half of the producer-consumer dynamic. You’re likely reading this article at Hypebeast directly or through an RSS feed, so said accessibility is second nature to you. Before finding this post, you might have cruised through Hypebeast’s main page, tweeted at Charlie Sheen, stalked someone on Facebook, semi-committed to some porn, read about something vague going on in the Middle East and North Africa, and so on and so forth – all within the span of, say, two hours. The point is, while critics are quick to bemoan our generation’s apparent attention deficit and need for instant gratification, many of us who have always been fascinated with new experiences, perspectives, lifestyles and work have really only experienced our curiosity intensify from knowing the limitlessness of the information available at our fingertips.
This is the mentality the middlemen I’m referring to come from. We are fans of creativity before anything else, and are united in the idealistic conviction that the greatest creative work emerges when people build together to offset their weaknesses, see the angles they single-handedly can’t, and ultimately amplify their strengths through this process. For us, there are few things more fulfilling than connecting the dots between potentially coadjutant people…if only to witness what the chemistry yields.
I do this daily at the New York office of an advertising agency called Wieden + Kennedy (pro tip: it’s pronounced WHY-den). Here’s a short case study to solidify the heretofore abstract point I’m making. One of the more strategically-driven projects the team I’m part of, Attack, has ever executed was a video piece for the debut of our friend Marc’s brand, ISAORA. Check them out if you haven’t already, they’re awesome. At the time we were putting the video together, we were also releasing the first issue of our magazine, Day Trip. One of the people we featured in that issue (besides Marc) was Shinichi Maruyama, a photographer based in Long Island City who is known for continually redefining what can be accomplished with Phantom cameras.
Knowing that Shinichi and ISAORA’s aesthetics had a lot in common, we went over to Maruyama-san’s studio with Marc, a bunch of pieces from the collection in hand, and introduced everyone to each other. Thankfully, Shinichi was an immediate fan of the brand and went to work capturing the outerwear in motion at that crazy frame rate Phantoms are famous for. He sent us the raw footage with an email the next day that said, “I’m not the best editor, so could you guys give it a shot?” After cutting the film with our dude Jamie Carreiro, who had then just joined the W+K ranks, we realized that none of our music choices were clicking. Luckily, several days prior, we had met MNDR, an unbelievably talented musician who you should also get hip to if you aren’t yet. She gave us her song, “I Go Away,” to weave over the visuals and the pieces quickly fell into place thereafter.
We delivered the final video to the venue for ISAORA’s launch party in under 48 hours from start to finish, and it only turned out so well because we were able to organize a group of rad people who were happy and able to contribute to the effort. Marc, Shinichi, and MNDR didn’t know each other before that project, but in the year since that video was made they’ve continued to collaborate with Attack and amongst themselves.
I don’t think any of us, whether we be curators, editors, producers, bloggers or even ‘people who know people,’ deliberately decided to adopt these emergent professional roles as our full-time jobs, let alone for the money. It’s awesome that the greater forces in the creative industry (in my case, an ad agency) have begun to invest in us, but I know that bringing creative talent together is something we’d be compelled to do anyways. Hanging out and making things on our own terms is what yielded so many of the exciting subcultures all of us love, and I hope this article helps everyone (particularly in high school or college) understand that there’s real professional value in being the person who brings innovators society identifies as ‘creatives’ together. Just remember that our medium simply happens to be people, and, like in any other creative pursuit, there are only a few of us who can do the craft justice.
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Image: Letterpressed by GrandArmy (Eric Collins, Joey Ellis, Larry Pipitone), 2010