They’ve won more Cannes Lions than most advertising agencies. They’ve created more impactful viral content than most social media influencers. They’ve got awards from the Grammys, Los Angeles Film Festival, MTV and D&AD. They’ve even been honored by the Smithsonian.
They’re more than just a band, more than just filmmakers and more than just visual artists. They are OK Go – and I think I can make a pretty compelling case that they’re one of the most intriguing creative forces at work in the world right now.
OK Go is a band that creates wildly original visual art. It’s an award-winning filmmaking collective that also lays down soulful and instantly infectious tracks.
Their single-shot music videos are legendary: Here it Goes Again (a spectacular dance routine performed entirely on treadmills), The One Moment (a chaotic four seconds of live video that when played in slow motion reveals four minutes of carefully planned footage perfectly timed to the track), This Too Shall Pass (a combination of extravagant linked machines playing parts of a song) and Upside Down & Inside Out (a spectacular zero-gravity sequence filmed in a plane pulling parabolas).
It’s not just through music and the visual arts that OK Go’s instinct for innovation plays out. At a time when most music acts were struggling to figure out a commercial model for a streaming world, the band formed its own independent label and built brand partnerships around its videos with the likes of State Farm Insurance, Google Chrome and Range Rover.
OK Go used a similar approach to support charities like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Fender Music Foundation. Most recently, they’ve entered the classroom with OK Go Sandbox, a new educational resource that uses OK Go’s video art as the starting point for exploring maths, physics and more.
All of which means that, when OK Go’s guitarist and lead vocalist Damian Kulash paid a visit to ActiveCampaign’s This Just Works Digital Anti-Conference, there was a whole lot to talk about. We had a great time, were treated to live performances of tracks that the band have been working on during lockdown… and talked.
Most of all, we talked about creativity and what it means to OK Go. Here are some of the most compelling ideas that Damian shared. They’re a blueprint for staying innovative, maintaining passion and curiosity – and finding ways to ensure technology, disruption and change lead to more creative thinking, not less.
Whether you work in marketing, music, video or any other area of life, they’re ideas for you.
Find your interstitial space to play in
Depending on how you look at it, OK Go broke into the music industry at just the wrong moment – or exactly the right one. The model that had made money for decades no longer made money – but things that were once tangential to the business of making music suddenly represented opportunities. The time was unbelievably right for a band that’s also a video art collective.
“We were lucky to come along when we did, when all the categories people used got dissolved and all the industries melted into one,” says Damian. “The internet was destroying what the music industry was but also creating this new canvas for stuff – new interstitial places to play in.”
It’s the nature of disruption to close off some competitive spaces and routes to market – but almost inevitably, when one gap closes another opens up. OK Go didn’t arrive with a fixed idea of what being a band should involve. They live in those interstitial spaces between different disciplines – and they’ve made it a very exciting place to be.
Embrace the adjacent
For OK Go, and idea is just as creative if it involves gravity, time, machinery and exploding paint balloons, as if it involves a foot-tapping riff or thought-provoking song lyric. They don’t consider one type of creativity as more important than another.
“The set of things that inspires us poetically and lyrically aligns so much with the things that inspire us in terms of physics, wonder, graphics and film,” says Damian. “The many circles in our Venn Diagram have a big, big, overlapping section in the middle. You can pick anything out of there and it all goes together.”
This leads to a very different approach to developing the concepts for music videos. Rather than starting with a song and then coming up with a promo video idea, OK Go dive into that overlapping space of ideas they’ve already generated and pick two that go together, each of which is a great, creative idea on its own terms.
They’d long wanted to film a video in zero gravity, for example, but had found it almost impossible to fund and organize. When the opportunity came up to go to Russia and get access to a cosmonaut training plane, they started going through their catalogue of songs to find a track that would fit the concept.
“That’s the stuff I like the most – making art when you’re supposed to be making music,” says Damian. “It’s more fun to explore the spaces that are adjacent to the thing you were supposed to be doing in the first place.”
Distinguish between craft and creativity
You don’t get many famous rock stars happily describing themselves as a “passable guitarist” – but Damian Kulash is more than happy to do so. That’s because he recognises that craft and creativity aren’t the same thing. The demand for one changes with technology – the demand for the other is constant.
“I feel bad for people who’ve spent their lives learning to be spectacular guitarists, because at one time a whole industry was built up around celebrating that,” he says. “We may come to a time when that matters again, or matters in a different way – but in the meantime we’ve got people making things with a new set of tools and using those tools becomes its own expertise.”
The process he’s describing for music echoes the ones experienced by those working in design, architecture – and film. When tools such as Adobe’s suite of design software first arrived on the scene, many interpreted them as undermining the value of human creativity. What they were really doing was automating aspects of the crafts that you needed to learn in order to be creative.
Today, making exciting music isn’t limited to the most technically proficient guitarists – and making thrilling design doesn’t require the same technical artistic skills as it once did. However, the value of original ideas and creative expression has only increased. It’s what differentiates you. The space in which you can be creative changes as a result of technology – but that space is growing rather than narrowing.
You can balance art and shareability
Artists of all types struggle with the concept of selling out – the idea that you inevitably have to compromise creativity for commercial success. In an age of viral media, marketers often find themselves with a similar dilemma – to what extent they should optimize their activity around what’s most likely to be shared.
On the one hand, they need the reach that comes from marketing and content that people pass on – but they also need marketing that’s true to their brand and consistent to their message and narrative.
It’s therefore good news for marketers that Damian insists you can balance art and shareability. However, you can’t do it by simply following a formula, or trying to fit creative ideas into a predetermined structure designed to take something viral.
“The things that we try to make to fit into an existing puzzle… that never works for us,” he says. “We start with the ideas that excite us the most, and then check that those ideas are exciting us for the same set of reasons that we know people like us for.”
Coming up with creative ideas is independent of concerns about shareability – but it’s then vital to be able to put those ideas in context, and acknowledge which serve different purposes.
“You need to know which ideas are broad and which are not,” says Damian. “This is the one that touched me most, but this is the one that will go on the pop charts.”
Trust your emotional response
In one sense, there’s nothing new in music. All of the notes already exist – and most of the combinations of them have been tried before. It’s a process of appreciation rather than discovery – and that’s why it’s so important for a songwriter to be in tune with his or her emotional response. It’s the way that a chord resonates with you emotionally that brings its potential to life.
“Every time song-writing goes really right, it feels like cheating,” says Damian. “Those chords and melodies are all out there waiting for you to stumble on a solution to a particular thing. Two notes together don’t just make a chord but an emotion – it does something to your brain.”
It’s this capacity for an emotional response that’s the real creative power of the human brain. It’s something machines can’t easily imitate, because they don’t have the same store of shared experiences and the same instinct for what people feel.
Human empathy, the recognition of what resonates, is a real superpower. It’s key to designing everything from music to videos, to advertising campaigns to customer experience.
Throw lots of things and see what looks good
Creative experimentation is a big part of OK Go’s modus operandi, and there’s no better example of this than that hugely ambitious zero-gravity video for Upside Down & Inside Out. Given the complicated logistics involved in getting the band onto a gravity-defying plane in the skies near Moscow, you’d expect them to have a script and storyboard all carefully set down before they took off – to make sure that not a moment was wasted.
From the sound of it, OK Go didn’t waste a moment – but not through tightly scripting everything. They took 21 flights over three weeks, but those three weeks didn’t run back-to-back.
During the first one, they spent their time gathering material on what worked, throwing everything from cans of beans to paint, to eggs, to see what created the most interesting visuals in zero gravity. Then they went home, pored over the footage, and put their plans together.
It was an extreme example of creative experimentation in action – testing everything you can think of and having an open mind as to what will deliver results. And it was something that everyone involved in the project instinctively responded to.
“When we went back, all of these hard-man pilots and zero-gravity trainers understood what we were doing and bought into it,” says Damian. “They’d be yelling at our guitarist Andy for hitting a pinada with the wrong hand during a take. It was really fun to see everyone finding the art in their souls.”
Know which metrics matter – and why
After producing their unique music videos for a while, OK Go started hearing from physics and maths teachers about how they were using the films to introduce concepts around mechanics and time – and create problems for students to solve.
It led to the band launching OK Go Sandbox, a collaboration with the Playful Learning Lab of the University of St Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Creating educational resources introduced them to a new form of creative channel, a new purpose and a new type of audience.
It also introduced them to a new set of metrics – because the success of educational content can’t be measured through views alone.
“In this world, it really matters who’s paying attention and why,” says Damian. “Inside a classroom, a single view could represent around 30 kids. We were also aware that it’s not necessarily about trying to get to every teacher – but about making sure the ones who are open to this are getting what they want.
Views don’t matter, but teacher responses do – and so we’re sending out questionnaires and paying a little more attention to the anecdotal evidence.”
As someone who’s passionate about customer experience, it’s inspiring to hear how people with really creative minds (and people who are very comfortable with technology) are always ready to look beyond simple numbers. It’s the human experiences those numbers relate to that really matter. That’s the essence of effective marketing, of running a successful business – and of thinking creatively. OK Go are an inspiration for all three.
Watch this session and more with This Just Works On Demand.