Mambo and Halfbrick: two versions of Australian creative entrepreneurship

mambofruitnin

Arts programming on ABC TV has long been characterised by one major factor; its ability to be reliably dull. Though lately there seems to be an effort to liven it up. In recent weeks, two documentaries in particular have shown the ups and downs of creative entrepreneurship in Australia.

The first is Mambo: Art Irritates Life (Dir. Paul Clarke, 2016) which tells the story of the famous fashion brand which seemed to be everywhere in the 1990s. Through interviews with the business’s founder, Dare Jennings, and the artists who contributed the brand’s anarchic designs (plastered on t-shirts, board shorts and assorted paraphernalia), it tells the story of how, almost entirely without planning or strategy, the clothing line grew in popularity and cultural significance.

As the company’s financial success accumulates year after year, a handy graphic shows sales revenue climbing like one side of giddyingly steep mountain. Mambo seems to grow through a series of intuitive leaps, celebrity endorsement and cross category infiltration, but if Jennings had a systematic plan which led to the brand’s success, the documentary doesn’t detail it. Instead there are pleasing tales of how the stable of contributing artists benefited from their designs suddenly bringing in truckloads of cash, and how an inter-group rivalry developed which pushed them to deliver edgier and more striking images.

It’s all very nostalgic, not just for a time when everyone was wearing farting dog t-shirts, but for a time when you could build a world-conquering fashion brand in Australia, something that a combination of high production costs and a cash hungry business model seems to have extinguished for good. The documentary’s main point seems to be that Mambo’s crude and brazen designs had an outspoken, rebellious ethos that was the secret of its appeal. That appeal dissipated when the brand went mainstream, which the film pinpoints to when the Mambo creative team provided giant inflatable kangaroos at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics. From then it descended into ‘dadwear’ and forever lost its cool.

It’s this decline that the film shies away from. There’s no handy chart showing the slide down the other side of that mountain. Instead, the brand’s sale to overseas interests and journey onto the clothing racks at Big W goes undocumented. That’s a shame because it feels like we got half the story. But the half we got tells the story of creative entrepreneurship is familiarly Australian terms – outsiders, larrikins, iconoclasts, schoolboy humour.

Then there’s Play to Win (Dirs. Sue Swinburne and Michael Angus, 2016), the story of Brisbane games studio Halfbrick. Halfbrick was a struggling games development company which struck gold in 2010 with Fruit Ninja, a fun, colourful time eater for various iDevices. The game’s success was almost instant and stratospheric. The money started pouring in at rate which makes Mambo’s climb up that mountain look sedate.

The documentary focuses on CEO Shainiel Deo, a smart, personable and highly driven man who worked hard to engender a laidback and fraternal culture at Halfbrick. As the company’s success grows so does Deo’s ambition, and he looks to access the massive games market in China. But his closeknit band of buds at Halfbrick are fracturing. One of the critical issues is an ideological shift; mobile games are moving to a freemium model – free to buy, but requiring in-app purchases to progress through the game. Some of Deo’s compadres yearn for the days when you just paid for a game once and played it to exhaustion.

This is a story about leadership and the pitfalls of switching business models. It’s a truism that companies which are unable to innovate are destined to fail. Deo can see that the business model underlying games is changing, but is unable – as much to his regret as anyone else’s – to bring his key people along with him. Advocates of business model innovation as a road to growth will probably have some sympathy with Deo, rather than his likeable co-workers who want to hang onto the (admittedly pretty recent) past.

The company has trouble replicating the success of Fruit Ninja and its attempts to develop a movie franchise of the title seem to breed only resentment and confusion from those who put the game together in the first place. Deo spends much time overseas and looks enviously while a business colleague lists his company on the NASDAQ. Sadly, his family life suffers as does his surrogate family life at Halfbrick. Senior staff/old friends leave, one after another.

This is a far more personal view of entrepreneurship than the Mambo documentary presented. There, business success was presented as a kind of happy accident, and business decline glossed over. In Deo’s case, business success was his consuming goal and its decline a deeply personal failure. (Even so, this is the polite version of Halfbrick’s troubles. A more scurrilous version is here.)

Mambo’s fall from favour was years ago now (and, it should be said, tempered by a successful exit via trade sale for the founder). Its art is celebrated and exhibited in major public galleries. Its key creative minds look back fondly on wild, heady days. Halfbrick’s journey is not yet over, but its tribulations are raw, the raised voices and angry words still fresh in Deo’s mind. Two distinctly different narratives on creative entrepreneurship; one comfortable and nostalgic, the other raw and painful.

Advertisements

The polished image and the messy reality

In a lifestyle magazine, casually discarded about our house, I came across an article about a person who runs a company. It’s an a-day-in-the-life piece. It starts with breakfast with the kids. Then a meeting with the sales manager. Then a review of a product in the workshop. Then exercise and walking the dog before dinner and bedtime and catching up on admin on the iPad and so it goes. Calm, elegant, controlled. Idyllic.

I’m in a privileged position, getting to see inside businesses. I’ve seen inside that one and met that person. The difference between the article (the polished prose, the conversational tone, the carefully styled photos)… and the tense, uncertain, fraught, it’s-my-house-that’s-on-the-line reality is what sticks in my mind.

A business person, an entrepreneur, is a prized label. Like sports stars or rock stars, a handful of them with profiles and media exposure become household names. To be a business leader is in some senses to be a pin-up. It has its own celebrity.

This dichotomy between the truth about being a leader and the narrative told about leaders, is what this journal article is about. It’s a critique of ‘authentic leadership’, a management theory which suggests that there is an individual’s adherence to closely held values and beliefs is the basis for good leadership. I won’t pretend to have gotten to the essence of the article, but a couple of things jumped out at me.

One is that to have an authentic self suggests the existence of an inauthentic self. So the supremacy of one necessarily means the other has to be supressed. Which calls into question the authenticity of those qualities which make up the authentic self.

Then there’s the idea that this tension between the two requires the invention of a narrative about the authentic self. That in fact for leaders to behave in an authentic way, there has to be a story for them to project onto themselves about being a leader. As it says:

The telling of life stories is concerned with the management of the reproduction of meaning. To project oneself outwards as a leader, to position oneself within a narrative as a recognizable leader in a recognizable leader ship narrative, one must construct oneself within existing frameworks of characterizations and narratives of leader ship.

We could easy replace ‘leader’ with ‘entrepreneur’ in that quote. And that article, showing the idealised, Real Living version of the messy, stressful, high stakes game of running a small creative business, is surely one of those ‘existing frameworks of characterizations’ within which ‘one must construct oneself.’

 

The creative process and The Code

Film and TV production is a practice I’ve been close to for many years. In particular, I’ve seen plenty of films and TV programs in production, and I’ve worked with a number of filmmakers to help achieve business sustainability. One part of the lifecycle of a production that I haven’t had much exposure to is the commissioning and development stages where many key creative decisions are taken.

This journal article reports on interviews held with some of the key creative personnel behind The Code, a well regarded tech conspiracy drama from Playmaker which aired in 2014. By talking to the producers, the commissioners at ABC, a lead actor, the writer and director, the authors identify a set of practices which contributed to the success of the series: wise partnering, collective visioning and stakeholder empowerment, underpinned by a set of common social values.

The authors pick out these traits as aspects of creative leadership which emerges through a collective process. Two thoughts occur to me about this. Firstly, it seems that the process of commissioning and developing  The Code was a fairly harmonious process (the interviewees are quick to praise each other and their respective contributions). What might the authors have found on a production where the personalities of the key creatives didn’t mesh as well?

Secondly, the collective collaboration model is necessary during the commissioning and development stage; not only because such projects must take into account the creative input of many contributors, but also because these contributors often control the finance to produce the work. But when a film or TV series moves into production, a much more hierarchical leadership structure exerts itself (from my observations).

The nature of production (technically complex, and involving many people working to tight deadlines and with limited budgets) mean that leadership power shifts to a different collective – the producer, the director and their key staff – and a more traditional ‘command and control’ structure moves in. It would be interesting to interview some of the crew of The Code to see how their experience of working under that model of creative leadership worked, and how it contrasted with the commissioning/development stage.

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?

A work already in progress

Here’s an interesting find. Kim Goodwin, a PhD candidate at UTS, is looking at “the concepts of leadership, development and identity within Australian creative industries”.

A key part of the methodology employed is a narrative analysis of the interviews of creative leaders, and how the subjects “impose order and construct their meaning of leadership”.

This is clearly a work in progress, and one which is changing as it goes along. This observation caught my attention:

The complex relationship subjects have to leadership prompted the inclusion of identity within this study. Of the three emerging leaders interviewed to date, two rejected the title of leader.

It will be interesting to read if any conclusions are drawn about why these interviewees didn’t self-identify as leaders. This paper also notes that leadership training and self-confidence are emerging as key themes, suggesting that the final piece of work is going to have a focus on personal or professional development ‘gaps’ amongst the interview cohort.

Watching this space.

Stereotypes and skills gaps

This study from CreativeSkillSet (a skills and training organisation) is about leadership and management skills gaps among workers in the UK’s creative industries. It also talks about development needs and learning preferences among creative workers.

It’s got some interesting if not particularly ground breaking observations in it, and its sample group is dominated by participants in the TV industry.

I notice a couple of unstated underlying assumptions. Both are included in this sentence:”It was widely reported that the transition from a creative role to a leadership position [assumption 1: the two are mutually exclusive, which is something I’ve written about here] involved the development of new skills and the management of creative professionals presents different challenges to managing in other sectors [assumption 2: creatives are a special and tricky breed].”

These seem to be to be stereotypes of a creative professional. In story terms, the character’s traits. It’s a narrative structure about leadership within creative industries which starts from the point of view that it’s a problem; almost antithetical to the sort of person you find working in a creative business.

Still, I liked this bit, from a focus group participant:

“You wouldn’t say to a finance person or to a legal person, ‘actually, now, you’ve just got to go off and write a script and be creative,’ because it would be an absolute nightmare. They would all sit there for about a day, write two lines, and then throw it in the bin. But you do it the other way around. People make assumptions that because people have got this title, that somewhere along the lines someone has sat down and shown them a P&L account and explained it to them.” 

Sounds a bit like what I do!