Creative entrepreneurship as a lifestyle choice

Before 10 October this year, I would have been hard pressed to name the federal Education Minister. Turns out it’s Senator Simon Birmingham of the good state of South Australia. In a press release issued on that day, the Senator outlined the tertiary courses “expected to attract funding support under the new … VET Student Loans program.”

As it turned out, a large clutch of creative industries qualifications had been left off that (draft) list. This list itself is heavy with performing and visual arts and digital media courses, but notably also includes a Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship for Creatives.

Given the media brouhaha which followed, Sen. Birmingham is probably wishing he’s drawn a red line through these sentences, tapped out by an earnest media officer.

We want to ensure that the courses that Australian taxpayers are subsidising and that we are encouraging students to study, will optimise employment outcomes. Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments, or provide ‘lifestyle’ choices, but don’t lead to work.

A number of commentators in the creative industries arced up. Not just in response to suggestion that these courses would not be eligible for student loans (which, after the Government’s unpopular changes to arts funding, they could be forgiven for seeing as another attack on arts and culture). But also to the fact that he described, albeit indirectly, a career in the creative industries as a “lifestyle choice”.

It’s a loaded phrase. In 2015, then Prime Minister Tony Abbot, described people living in remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia as having made a “lifestyle choice”. He said, “what we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices”.  So Sen. Birmingham managed to suggest that the chance of landing a job in photography, fashion, dance or social media marketing, was as remote as a village in the Kimberley. And neither are worth subsidising.

(What is a “lifestyle choice” anyway? At first, it seems to be something of a passive aggressive slight. “You’ve made a choice that benefits your lifestyle, rather than one which builds something worthwhile, like having smashed avocado for breakfast instead of saving for a deposit on a stratospherically overpriced one-bedder in Camperdown”. But it also has an accusatory air suggesting selfishness; “you’ve brattishly chosen a path whereby you can’t contribute to economic good of the nation. You should have made a different choice, a more constructive choice, like getting an MBA and working for a lobby group and a political party, like Sen. Birmingham. We’d have been happy to subsidise that.”)

It’s seems to be the by-product of a policy mindset which sees entrepreneurship in the creative industries as a pipe dream.  Presumably there are other courses which will attract the student loans which encompass entrepreneurship, just not in creative industries.

Is entrepreneurship in some industries a surer bet than others? Surely the innate qualities of a successful entrepreneur mean that they will find a commercial opportunity in whichever field they choose? What this seems to suggest is a hierarchy of entrepreneurship; from those worth subsidising to those which are not.

Subsequently, the Minister went directly to arts industry website ArtHub to pour oil on troubled waters.

Of the 478 courses that will no longer be supported 119 are in management and commerce, 149 are society and culture courses like the Diploma of Life Coaching and 149 are in health-related fields such as veterinary Chinese herbal medicine. In comparison, 57 arts-related courses did not make our proposed list and 29 of those have no students at all… 

Contrary to the impression given by some commentators, VET Student Loans will support studies across a number of different genres and roles related to the arts, including graphic design and visual arts, screen and media, live production, photography and music industry…

The narrative tactics here are clear. You haven’t had it as bad as management and commerce! (Sure in numbers, but what about as a proportion to the total number of courses?) We’re still subsidising lots of creative things! (Just not performing arts, dance, writing or entrepreneurship for creatives) You wouldn’t want us to fund craziness like veterinary Chinese herbal medicine! (But what if my cat just doesn’t respond to Western pharmaceuticals?)

But later on in the same article we get a sense of what the real problem is.

We know there are job opportunities in the arts for current and future students – but the demand for graduates is not significant enough to justify funding every single arts course, just as it isn’t in many other industries.

It’s the demand for graduates which designates whether something’s a lifestyle choice or not. And in a way, the decision to redirect funding makes perfect sense; why oversupply an industry with graduates it cannot support?

But there’s another implication here; that a career in the creative industries means finding a job, not creating that job for yourself. It’s another tacit indication of that mindset which sees creative entrepreneurship as a fanciful dream.

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Don’t call me creative.

Not everyone’s happy about creativity. Lucy Kellaway of the Finanical Times is one of them. In fact, she’s cranky about it.

In this blistering piece, she calls creativity a “plague” which has infected management and recruitment processes to an extraordinary and unnecessary degree. Confronted by scores of job ads which include the word “creative”, she says “being polite and co-operative are vital traits for every job I’ve heard of, whereas most companies have no use for real creativity at all.”

Kellaway notes a current trend for “creative worship” which leads to patronising and misleading labels (such as Subway calling its workers sandwich artists) or time wasting team building exercises (such as Lego play sessions for staff). As she goes on, she gets around to talking about creativity’s role in “making things new”. Here she expresses a familiar blurring of the lines between innovation and creativity, the first of which is often seen as essential to business success but without the Lego constructing nonsense associated with creativity. (See also James Dyson’s umbrage with the term “creative industries”, again drawing a defensive line around innovation.)

Kellaway concludes:

To survive, companies need to change from time to time. They need to do things slightly differently from how they were done before – but for that they don’t need creativity. They need people with intelligence and judgment to work out the right variations on existing ideas. More than that they need people with the determination to test those ideas, tweak accordingly and turn them into sales.

Not much to argue with there. But does this mean creativity should be treated with disdain and hostility? There’s also something going on here about identity; Kellaway starts her article with the declaration, “I’m not a creative”. Who is allowed and not allowed to be a creative? Why is it good or bad to be one? And does distinguishing innovation from creativity help  – either with management or with identity?

 

Story as an element of success

So the AFR runs an article about how leaders use storytelling to get their message across. And I imagine it’s a really good match for its readership; there’s an ongoing interest in what business people are doing to succeed. Who has the secret to success and what is they do? Is it mindfulness? Is it design thinking? Do they work four hours a day? Do they work shoeless? (I can’t remember if the working shoeless thing was something I actually read somewhere or a spoof article I threatened to write one day.)

We can add storytelling to that list. And there are a variety of people wanting to help. This article lists three consultancies designed to help business people tell their stories. There’s a market in helping smart, successful people tell stories.

We seem to want leaders who are polymaths. It’s not enough that you’ve excelled in your field or you employ a lot of people, we now expect you to also be able to tell stories which excite and inspire. I can imagine this could be challenging, if there’s been no exposure to storytelling in your training or work experience.

In a marketing sense, this article and the consultants featured in it, are positioning storytelling as an element of success. But they are also manufacturing a problem to solve. If one of the ingredients for success is communication, and you’re rubbish at it, then you should fix that. Immediately! Right after jogging 20km before breakfast, hitting your revenue target for the month and distributing home made muffins around the office.

Storytelling as a corporate must-have.

 

 

 

 

 

Stories: types and purpose

As a consultant, you get used to having a go-to set of examples for a range of different situations. Got an HR problem? Here’s one another client had and how they overcame it. Customers won’t pay? How about trying this which has worked for me. Need to change your organisation’s culture? It’ll be slow and gradual, like turning a big ship around.

Reading this article, about seven types of stories leaders should tell, made me consider this grab bag of examples again. I hadn’t considered them as “stories”. Though, of course, they are. Interestingly, mine mostly fall into the categories outlined in this article.

They are targetted stories. They are designed to illustrate a problem, illuminate a solution, establish credentials, build rapport and yes, sell services.

Perhaps storytelling, at a business level, is intrinsically about selling. Selling a product, or an internal change, or an idea. Even the act of convincing itself is sometimes expressed in terms of selling and storytelling. When a government’s policy agenda is unpopular, you’ll hear commentators say, “they’ve been unable to sell their narrative” or “they couldn’t sell that idea to the public”.

So types of stories, yes. But how they’re deployed – to convince, cajole, entice, reassure. Is it all just selling in the end?

The strategic power of storytelling

“Facts,” I recall Jane Caro once saying on an episode of The Gruen Transfer, “never convinced anyone of anything.” She was pointing out that emotions are much more likely to guide people’s decision making, and in particular decisions about purchasing.

Stories generate emotions. Or at least good stories do. This article from HBR starts out with the example of a Superbowl ad which had no attention grabbing celebrities or special effects, but had farmyard animals and an engaging story which helped sell large quantities of beer. The article attributes the ad’s success to its adoption of the five act structure (Freytag’s Pyramid) and the ability of a story to evoke a strong neurological response.

It’s not just about the manipulation of emotions to sell stuff. There’s also the ability to guide an organisation’s operations through use of storytelling. That is, storytelling as a strategy. This example, for instance, about changing behaviours.

“Penn State College of Medicine researchers found that medical students ‘ attitudes about dementia patients, who are perceived as difficult to treat, improved substantially after students participated in storytelling exercises that made them more sympathetic to their patients’ conditions.”

Behind these examples are, I suppose, leaders who understand when and how to deploy storytelling as a strategy. Leaders in organisations and leaders of the creative teams who put the campaigns/studies together. Is there a struggle of approaches, I wonder? How hard did someone behind the Budweiser ad have to argue to go with a story based approach, than just putting David Beckham on screen drinking Budweiser in front of some explosions?