Adobe's Corporate Culture Through The Lens Of A Documentary Filmmaker

As Creative Director for Video at Adobe, 51-year-old Dan Cowles brings a documentary filmmaking style--and indie-budget frugality--to visual marketing for the leading maker of software for creatives.

Dan Cowles supervises a team of 10, creating a wide array of video content for the Adobe marketing department. It's a job that lets him indulge a wide-ranging curiosity and a lifelong passion for learning that led him away from college and through the disparate worlds of data analytics, alternative newsweeklies, and independent filmmaking. Here, he reflects on the unique skill set he's acquired, and how creative companies can benefit from "relatively functional" autodidacts like himself.

FAST COMPANY: Is college over-rated?

DAN COWLES: Not finishing college has never been an issue for me. I started at City College in San Francisco, with the plan to finish there and transfer somewhere else. I love to learn stuff, but sometimes I was just bored and wanted to do something else. I think the same thing that makes people have a diversity of interests makes them have a hard time focusing. My sister worked at Sybase and got me a job there, and I learned some basics. I ended up learning all about data modeling and did really cool stuff with data, research, and analytics, which is huge now--but this was 20 years ago. In parallel with my day job, I went to film school for a couple of years and would work on different film projects on the weekend and on vacations. I still take classes just because I want to learn things.

How did the job at Adobe come about?

I wanted to make film my job, but I also was really interested in technology and wanted to use my tech skills. I had gotten a job at Macromedia doing data warehousing and analytics, including some early Flash data visualization, and an opportunity came up to become the in-house video guy. I thought that would just be a stepping stone to the next thing, which would be making my own films. In the beginning of this job, I would do everything myself. The job morphed over time after Macromedia was acquired by Adobe, and now I run a pretty big, strong department full of talented folks.

What kinds of projects have you worked on?

One of the projects I'm pretty happy with was a piece called "A Day in the Life of Adobe," where we took a really small crew and shot in eight locations all around the world, capturing Adobe employees as they went about their day. Another one was for the upcoming launch of Adobe CS6--we did profiles of the six artists who are creating the art for the upcoming Creative Suite launch. It was less marketing, more pure documentary. The pieces, which we shot in Sardinia, Moscow, Berlin, Oslo, and L.A., are gorgeous, but totally real and character-filled. We have a creative audience that is super-visual, and it's a constant struggle to keep clear what the voice is. A lot of corporate "customer story" stuff at this point has become kind of a joke. What we try to do that's different is let people tell their own story--I'm really a slave to making it as real as it can be.

Another really cool project I was involved in was directing John Mayer in what was supposedly the first augmented-reality rock video for his song "Heartbreak Warfare." One of the craziest moments in my career was launching that video at our developer conference with John, and then leaving the L.A. Convention Center to go fly to Stockholm and Oslo for the Nobel Prize announcements, which were streamed using our technology. I was one of only about five Americans in the room in Oslo when they announced that Obama won. That was really pretty crazy.

How has your earlier work experience carried over into your job now?

My bread and butter is what we've coined "guerilla corporate"--doing quality stuff with little crew and incredibly cheaply. We almost operate as a little agency inside Adobe, and our marketing budget is way less than a company like Apple. So my independent film experience really helps, being able to visualize a story ahead of time and being flexible. The ability to interview people is super-important to my job here, and that's a skill I refined from working for five years as a journalist at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. At Sybase I learned how to operate in the corporate world. That can be a really big shift for an artist, so that made it easier for me coming into an environment like this. I had experience in not getting flustered with deadlines and dealing with politics in an environment filled with landmines--all these real-world things. But I've realized that if there's a theme through everything I've done, it's that it's all storytelling. Whether it's analytics and data visualization, writing newspaper stories, or making video, it's all about telling a story.

With such a varied career, how do you measure your own success?

I'm always just trying to do the job at hand. There's been a lot of "fake it till you make it" in my life, but I've always been able to make it. That's the difference between being a dilettante who is interested in a lot of things and being someone who has proven to be successful in multiple fields. You must be almost obsessive about what you're doing.

I remember working at a car dealership doing auto detailing in my early 20s. I thought if I could just make $30,000 a year for the rest of my life, I would be sitting pretty. I feel like "success" for me here is less about climbing the corporate ladder than being exposed to art and ideas all over the world and all the cool people I've got to meet, interview, and work with, including working on projects with some great filmmakers. That's really the high point of my job and what's kept it interesting. And it's really cool now to be sharing that experience with the people who are working with me. The most surprising thing for me about my career is that I've landed in a place where I've been doing same thing for nine years now.

Has your tolerance for risk changed?

It's easier to be Fluxer when you're young. When I went from a safe data-analyst job to become an in-house filmmaker, it felt risky at time. I had to talk my way into the job, and I had a lot of learning to do once I got it. It's always scary to dive into the next thing if you're not completely qualified, but the challenge of learning things gets me really psyched. If you can really pull it off, it's awesome. But it's still dangerous, and it gets harder to do as you get older. It's much easier to sit there and be satisfied with a job you're comfortable in, but it's intellectual death in a way.

Does your average workplace appreciate people with diverse resumes like yours?

I'm a big believer that people who are curious and excited about learning and passionate about what they do can succeed in a whole lot of areas. There have always been people like this, but the world has changed in important ways. For one, we have access to information like never before, so you can learn anything you want to. And because the workforce is in such flux, more people are recognizing the value of folks that are good at what they do instead of experts in a specific subject area. It's partly a generational thing--people younger than me who are hiring get this more than older people, I think. It used to be that a resume that jumped all over the place meant you never got hired. Now that's changed.

Read about other members of Generation Flux:

MyEnergy CEO Ben Bixby's Eureka Moment Literally Involved A Light Bulb
How IBM's Big Data Guy Found A Career In Chaos
How An IT Guy Led UVM's Catamounts To An America East B-Ball Championship

[Image: Flickr user Bob Bekian]

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