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The University of My Eyeballs, Or Why “Creatives” Should Be Leading Corporations

Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg recently gave the commencement address to graduates of UCLA School of Art and Architecture. It has an important message about creativity in business, and the role of the “creative,” so we’ve reprinted it here.

The University of My Eyeballs, Or Why “Creatives” Should Be Leading Corporations
[Photo: Flickr user Shaun Greiner]

Eric Hirshberg came to his role as CEO of Activision Publishing via an unusual route–he was previously the CEO and chief creative officer of an ad agency, Deutsch. But, as Hirshberg notes in his commencement address to UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture grads, his provenance isn’t just unique for a game company leader. It’s unusual–in fact, vanishingly rare–for a “creative” to rise to the ranks of CEO in any company.

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“The world needs more creative people leading it,” he says in the address, and urges future creatives to change the leadership ranks of the corporate world. We’ve published the address here.

Thank you Dean Waterman for the great introduction. I understand that selecting me to give this speech was one of your last official acts as Dean. I hope that is merely coincidental.

I remember so vividly sitting where you are sitting right now. I remember the mullet and acid-washed jeans I was wearing, and you can laugh, but I thought they were every bit as cool as you think those lumberjack beards are now. And I also remember feeling that weird mix of excitement, hope, uncertainty and fear. Wondering where life was going to take me. Worried about the world I was entering. Worried about living up to the expectations that graduating from someplace like this carries with it. Well guess what. Those feelings never really end. They just change shape. So let’s put them on hold for the next few minutes and just…be…here. It is SO hard to get here. So just feel your moment.

Eric HirshbergPhoto: Todd Cheney

Let’s also acknowledge the people who helped you get here: your family, your friends, your support system. Maybe they have dug into their wallets. Maybe they have dug into their hearts. Maybe they just believed in you. But none of us got here alone. So whomever it is that helped you get here today, let’s hear it for them.

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I’m lucky enough to have my support system here: my parents, my wife, who I met here at UCLA, and my two boys. I’m hopeful one day they will earn the 6.2 grade point average now required to one day become Bruins themselves.

I also hope each of you had a professor or two who really invested in you. I did. They’re names were Tom Leeson and Bill Brown. And I invited them here today so I could thank them along side the professors who have made a difference to you. Let’s hear it for the amazing teachers we’ve all had here at UCLA.

And last, but most, let’s hear it for you, The Class of 2015!

Photo: Flickr user Peter Dutton

Congratulations. As graduates of the School of Art and Architecture, you have just earned the degree that makes you statistically the least likely people to ever be called upon to become leaders of anything, of any scale, ever, other than your own creative process. Unfortunately, I’m not kidding. You are entering a world that has deep seeded bias against the idea of creative people in positions of leadership.

Do you know how many Fortune 500 CEOs there are that went to art school? Zero. In fact, there are more Fortune 500 CEOs with no degree, than an art degree.

So, it seems my journey from where you’re sitting now is fairly unique. And when I was asked to share whatever wisdom I’ve learned with you today, it got me thinking about why it is that so few creative people are called upon to lead things. And more importantly, what your generation can do to go out there and change that. Because I firmly believe that THE WORLD NEEDS MORE CREATIVE PEOPLE LEADING IT.

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I’m just going to share a few of my stories in the hopes that there are some universal truths in there that can be applied to any discipline.

As Dean Waterman told you, I spent most of my career as a creative in advertising, which was a pretty straight line from the degree in graphic design I earned here. But every once in a while, the world will throw a curve ball at you. Mine came when I met Bobby Kotick, the man who built Activision, who started recruiting me. At first it was for the jobs you’d expect, given my background. Creative jobs, marketing jobs. But I was really happy where I was and I kept turning him down. Then one day he called me up and said he’d finally figured out how he was going to get me to come work for him. “How?” I said. He said, “You’re going to come be the CEO.” I said, “Now you’re just talking crazy.”

I told him, “Look, I know I have the letters CEO on my business card now, but let’s be honest. Being the CEO of an ad agency has more in common with being the RA of a dorm floor than being the CEO of a global company the size of Activision.” And he said something that really stuck with me. He said, “What you don’t know, you can learn, and I can surround you with. What you do know is unique, and it’s what the company needs.”

Photo: Flickr user Raphaël Labbé

This represents a massive shift from the way most companies think about creativity. Creativity is usually seen as something you surround leaders with. But in a world where increasingly, creativity is the most valuable, competitive advantage, why not reverse that structure? With creativity at the center, and organizational expertise surrounding it?

So let’s flash forward a few months to the day I found out that Advertising Age magazine had just named me one of the 10 most influential people in marketing. Sounded flattering, until I actually clicked on the link. The blurb said, since so few creative people have ever been tapped for a CEO’s seat on this scale that, “the Eric Hirshberg experiment is worth watching.”

The Eric…Hirshberg…Experiment. That didn’t sound like a good thing.

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Then I realized that whenever I have seen a noun wedged between the words “The” and “Experiment,” it’s usually a very BAD thing. I actually plugged the words “The” and “Experiment” into Google and here were the first three results: “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” “The Philadelphia Experiment.” And “The Russian Sleep Depravation Experiment.” Not the list you want your latest career choice to be on!

So why was it seen as such an experiment? Why is it that when it comes time for a company to replace its CEO, every other department and discipline are routinely considered? Operations, finance, sales, law… It is almost never a creative person. Why?

Well, organizations look for people and processes that provide efficiency, predictability and control. And let’s be honest, those are not words that leap to mind when describing the creative process, which is by nature inefficient, unpredictable and out of control. Companies want to reduce risks. The creative process demands that you take risks.

But the irony is, for anyone who hasn’t gotten the memo on the 21st century, perhaps the riskiest thing any organization can do is to not put creativity at the center of its strategy and culture.

When I got to Activision, it was already a very well run company filled with smart, capable people. But I was brought there to make the culture more creative.

Photo: Flickr user Davidlohr Bueso

So in my first couple of days, I kept hearing this one phrase in almost every meeting: “The Take Rate.” What was the take rate? 32. Oh, good take rate. What was the take rate? 22. Oh, bad take rate. I had no idea what The Take Rate was but it was clear to me that it figured prominently into how the company made decisions. So I asked someone what it was. He said it was a research term that referred to how many people said they’d “take it.” Meaning, buy the product. “But the product doesn’t exist,” I said. So, what are they responding to?

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It turned out, the research team was reading people a paragraph describing a video game. Now, video games are highly visual, highly immersive and take place in an imaginary, interactive world and can take a hundred hours to fully experience.

I looked at them and said, “I don’t know much, but I do know that we’re not doing this anymore.” It was my first sort of “CEO-y” decision.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-research. These games are expensive to make, and before one gets funded, there is rightfully a lot of scrutiny.

But research should be used to feed our guts, not to replace our guts.

So at my first big greenlight meeting, one of the top finance people at the company looked up and asked, “What was the take rate?” And every head at the table turned to look at me. And I said, “Uh, well, we didn’t do that research this time.” And he said, “Oh. Okay. What research did we do?” And I said, “Well, we did a study at The University of My Eyeballs. And the results were conclusive.”

And everyone laughed. But more important, the answer was accepted. And that phrase, “The University of My Eyeballs,” caught on within the company. People appropriated it. And it became an accepted, legitimate way to make big decisions.

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When it comes to creative matters, I would argue it is perhaps the most accurate way to make big decisions.

Sometimes, all the research in the world will not bring you a conclusive answer. And someone’s got to put his or her ass on the line for an idea they believe in. And that is something that creative people are very used to doing. We have all been doing it for most of our lives.

And great things can happen when you do.

But you can be sure of this: nothing great is ever going to happen if you don’t. We live in a world where avoiding the blame for failure is as, if not more rewarded than getting the credit for success.

Photo: Flickr user Justin Ennis

Don’t go out there and avoid blame for a living. Go out there and put your ass on the line for the ideas you believe in.

You won’t always be right. But if you’re not willing to provide an organization with the courage it needs to do bold things, trust me, there will be plenty of people who will happily provide the organization with the fear it needs to NOT do bold things.

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You’re going to leave here and start a creative career. And as soon as you do, you’ll see. There will be a department, or sometimes an entire industry who’s job it is to handle you, to manage you, to coddle you. They’re going to call you things like “The Creatives” or “The Developers” or “The Talent.” They’re going to give you a creative club-house to work in. And it’s great in there. They’ve got M&Ms in there. There are beanbags in there. You get to wear your flip-flops in there. It’s awesome. But it’s also marginalizing.

Don’t take the bait. Don’t hide behind your creativity. Don’t spend your whole life in the creative clubhouse. Because what’s happening on the other side of that wall is that all of the really big decisions that have the most impact on your ability to do something amazing are being made without your voice, or most times ANY creative person’s voice at the table.

And by the way, it’s not enough to just BE at that table. You also have to belong at that table. You need to do the work to be prepared and informed. Because arguments made purely from a place of passion are easy to dismiss. But rigorous, well-informed arguments plus passion, are impossible to ignore. Passionate is the least you should be.

And trust me, there is no more unlikely candidate to be delivering this message to you than me. I grew up with the entire suite of creative ailments: dyslexia, learning disabilities, ADD. I am not some exception to the rule. I’m you. If I can do it, anyone can. You can. And we need you to.

And just in case you’re sitting there thinking, “I didn’t come here to learn to be a CEO and I don’t want to be a CEO.” First of all, know that most days, I’d agree with you. Secondly, know that leadership comes in many shapes and sizes. Whether you’re part of a big company, a dance company or in your own studio, you’re going to have to deal with other people–who will have very different points of view than you do–to make your art.

Because no matter what you’re going to do with your lives, someone needs to lead. Someone needs to lead the project. Someone needs to lead the team. Someone needs to lead the organization. Someone needs to lead the world. And I want it to be you. And I’m here to tell you that it can and should be you.

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Photo: Flickr user Anna Hanks

I started by telling you what the degrees you’re earning today make you unlikely candidates for, and what you can do to change that. But let me end by telling you what the degrees you’re earning today make you the most likely candidates for. You are the ones who will look at the problems, and see the solutions. You are the ones that will stare at the blank page, canvas, screen or stage and imagine what could be. You are the ones who will make those unexpected connections, that lead to the breakthrough ideas that can change someone’s mind, or change an industry, or change the world. And in a world that is moving so fast, with problems that are so entrenched, those are the kind of leaders we need now, more than ever. You have learned more here than how to make things look pretty. Whether you know it yet or not yet, you have learned how to lead.

But if more creative people are going to lead, it’s not just about changing the way the world thinks about creative people, but how creative people think about themselves.

That’s what it takes. Or at least, that’s what it’s taken for me.

Remember, What you don’t know, you can learn, and you can surround yourself with. What you do know is unique. And it’s what the world needs.

Congratulations to the class of 2015. You are officially all graduates of both the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, and more importantly, The University of Your Eyeballs.