5 Minutes with… Cedric Devitt
Digital agency Big Spaceship is known for its flat organisational structure and its democratic approach to creativity – so impressive that even the Harvard Business Review published a 37-page case study on the set up. So when they announced that Cedric Devitt would be heading their office in Dumbo, New York, as the agency’s first CCO, it stirred up quite a bit of curiosity.
Cedric works with Big Spaceship’s CEO and founder, Michael Lebowitz, to help steer the creative direction of the agency and to nurture the potential of the developers, designers, UX specialists, writers and project managers within the agency who are all hired on the basis of their inherent creativity, as well as the hard skills they possess.
Cedric moved to New York from Ireland in 1994, straight after graduating university. Following a stint as a copywriter at Grey, he was a creative director at Tribal DDB, ECD at LBi and CCO at MRY (following its merger with LBi in 2013). His career has taken him to the pioneers of the digital space – but with his love of wordplay, he remains very much a copywriter at heart. After all, he did set up an online competition, Schmedlines.com, dedicated to crafty, punning news headlines. Having had some time to get used to Big Spaceship’s orbit, LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to find out more.
LBB> Before I ask you anything else… you co-founded the US Air Guitar Championships… how did that come about – and why?
CD> Yes, I’m the co-founder of the US Air Guitar Championships. What happened was that in the year 2000 or 2001, Pop Idol in America was about to blow up and we’d been pitching a bunch of reality TV shows at the time. We were wondering if there happened to be a no-talent search show and then we thought ‘ah, air guitar! That’ doesn’t require any talent’. We then went on to discover that there was a World Air Guitar Championship but that America had never entered. How can you have a World Championship of anything without America? We thought that was very un-American.
We decided to start up the US Air Guitar Championships… essentially that’s my gift back to America.
LBB> What makes a good air guitarist?
CD> The air guitar is really an empty vessel. What you put into it is what you get out of it. You’ve got to have stage presence, that’s the most important thing. You need to have a well-choreographed act, you need to have a strong opening. It’s very much about storytelling – you need those three acts. Those who could act really well, engage the crowd and tell a story tend to do well.
LBB> You also produced a documentary on air guitar (it has a pretty respectable 85 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, I noticed) – what was that experience like?
CD> A respectable 85 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes? I didn’t know that. What happened was that we pitched a TV show idea to VH1, they bought it for twelve episodes. We were on track to set up a competition and at the 11th hour VH1 cancelled the programme and we were left having to do the competition. We had been working with a production company called Magical Elves – they’re behind Project Runway and they’ve sort of blown up now – and they loved it. We geared the project around non-shooting days that they had and they would turn up with some cameras and a bunch of people to film. They didn’t turn the cameras off and we were left with a lot of footage that we had to edit down to tell the story. It was good.
LBB> Another pet project that I love is the Schmedlines competition that you ran, encouraging people to come up with punning headlines for the news of the day. What inspired that?
CD> I share your enjoyment around Sun headlines. It’s a cultural institution. The Post in New York are pretty good too. We thought there was an opportunity to use the Twitter engine – 140 characters are all you have to work with – to beat The Post’s headlines. We would serve up five stories a day on Schmedlines.com and people would try to beat the headline. Readers could vote them up or down and every day we’d have five winners. It kind of ended up becoming, when we analysed the email addresses of the people who registered, essentially copywriters from agencies who were playing around, bored, trying to beat the system.
LBB> And what’s your favourite headline ever?
CD> The best one was when the guy who founded Segway road his Segway off a cliff…. The winning headline that day was ‘Segway to Heaven’.
LBB> Right, now that’s out the way – to business! You joined Big Spaceship in March as their first CCO – what was it about Big Spaceship and the role that tempted you over?
CD> I’m the first CCO, which is weird because that seems to have been the main headline when I joined. I guess it is kind of interesting because they’d never had a CCO before, we don’t have any creative directors and the way Michael has structured the agency is that everybody is, first and foremost, creative. That’s the criteria by which we judge people and then we wonder if they would be good project managers or art directors or good at client services. Do they have creativity coursing through their veins?
I think that’s a really nice way to organise and structure an agency. Ultimately, when everybody is creative everybody has responsibility for the work and the outcome for the agency. As a result of that, you don’t walk into meeting rooms with a bunch of people on the other side of the table saying, ‘what have you got?’ Everybody knows where they’re at. It’s very refreshing and a much more realistic way of working in this day and age.
LBB> Big Spaceship is organised a little differently to other agencies – it seems to be all about mixing up people with different skill sets and operating with a pretty flat hierarchy. How have you found that way of working? How does your role as CCO fit into that?
CD> I think the two ways it has changed things are that I’ve devolved into more heavy campaign work. That’s where you need to have a bit more experience around those sorts of things, packaging off work, making things feel like ideas that clients can buy. I think there are tons of ideas coursing round the agency, and ideas can come from anywhere, but it’s about how you package them up to a client. That’s a big part of my role. I think another part of it is to steer people in the right direction.
LBB> I met Michael about a year and a half ago and I’ve noticed that, from speaking to smaller, independent agencies, particularly those with their roots in digital, Big Spaceship is an agency that they all talk about as a place they respect and look up to. What’s it been like coming to an agency with this kind of cult following?
CD> I don’t know that it was that strange or anything like that, but kudos to Michael and the people who were here before me for taking their culture very seriously. They protect it and they nurture it. That is one of the most important things in any agency and I think when you look at any agency that have had their heyday, those golden moments where they’re producing great work are driven by a great culture. It’s about a core set of beliefs and people really looking after each other and motivating each other. They do it as a group rather than a set of individuals.
LBB> I’m really curious about Big Spaceship’s satellite office in Seoul. How long has that been going and have you been over to visit yet? What’s the plan for Big Spaceship in South Korea?
CD> I’ve been to Korea before but not as part of Big Spaceship but we’ll be heading out soon to spend some time with our folks there. As far as plans for South Korea go, the office is essentially there to serve Samsung, our clients, and plans beyond that… I wouldn’t like to reveal too much!
LBB> You started off your career as a copywriter and have since worked at some very digital-forward places – Tribal DDB, LBi, MRY, and now Big Spaceship. How does the role of copywriter fit into the modern agency? Is it still a relevant job title when what’s required is more than just ‘copy’ and ideas can theoretically come from anywhere? Or, alternatively, are these traditional skills more important than ever?
CD> I still find myself writing a lot of copy, writing ideas and nuancing them through – hopefully – great copy. If your question is ‘is the role of the copywriter still alive and well?’ then I think so. I think good copy is still incredibly important, obviously. The idea of good copywriters and art directors sitting in a room together crafting a big idea… I think those days are fading away a little bit. It seems to be that people are spending more time working with people from more disciplines and once that idea is ‘cracked’ it’s up to the copywriter to apply their trade and the designer to do his or her thing, and the UX designers and technologists and art directors all get to play a role too.
LBB> Which projects across your career have you been proudest of and why?
CD> We did all the work for Coca-Cola for the London Olympics – I was pretty proud of that work just because of the global nature of it and the idea of using the Olympics and Coca Cola to have this massive global party, allowing people from all over the world to come in and participate. Also I worked with Americans Elect for the 2012 presidential election, which was all about creating an online platform. It wasn’t about Democrats or Republicans, it allowed people to put themselves forward to be nominated to run on that ticket for the presidential election.
LBB> And looking back at your career, is there any advice that you wish you’d had when you started out?
CD> I think one of the things I see young creatives doing is that they get kind of stuck on some of the smaller things that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t matter. I think when you come out of a client meeting thinking ‘ugh, I really don’t want to make this blue’… you have to ask yourself ‘would you rather keep the idea alive and have it not-blue or do you want to fall on your sword because of the blue thing?’ I think over time you begin to see that these things don’t necessarily matter as much as you think you do.
I guess I think that agencies can be kind of political places and I think people get stuck on weird political issues that are really unhelpful if you want to be a great creative person who does great creative work. I guess we all have to navigate our ways through those moments.
LBB> What do you think the most frustrating thing about the ad industry today is? And conversely, what’s the most exciting?
CD> I don’t know if there’s any one thing that’s ‘the’ most frustrating, I think there are frustrations with every aspect of every industry! But I think what excites me the most is that it never stays the same. It’s always changing. Technology and media and culture is constantly fuelling it. You get to work on so many different things and think about so many different people’s lives and cultures and experience that, as opposed to other industries where you don’t get that opportunity.