Jeff Greenspan has gained professional fame by being Buzzfeed’s first Chief Creative Officer, a Creative Strategist at Facebook and a Creative Director at BBDO. Now he splits his time between helping brands connect with people and his own self-directed projects. These provocative projects have attracted extensive media coverage, the most recent being an illegally erected 4-foot bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden atop a POW memorial in Brooklyn, NY, and his highly controversial offensive against NSA’s eavesdropping program.
From building The World’s Most Exclusive Website to setting “hipster traps” around Brooklyn, Jeff is developing his own activist art form.
We had a chance to speak with Jeff about how creatives can build their own personal brands and the tremendous growth that follows when you leave victim mentality behind and develop your own independent, self-directed projects.
Life Priorities When Held Up At Gunpoint
Q. Tell us about your creative journey.
A. “My journey towards having the creative career that I have right now actually started with me as an account guy in the advertising industry. I didn’t even know back then that there were two sides: a business side and a creative side. I just wanted to get into the building of an ad agency, and I figured I’d figure it out from there. And I quickly figured out I really was not cut out to be an account person.”
Q. What helped you choose the creative path?
A. “By getting held up at gunpoint I was really forced to think about what do I want to do with my life. I was very young, but I was really struck by how short life can be, and I knew that I really wanted to commit myself to having my income come from being creative. Where you draw your income from is generally where you invest most of your time.”
Stop Being A Victim!
Q. Tell us about your talk at How Design Live.
A. “I gave a lecture on ‘Be Your Own Brand, Be Your Own Buzz,’ and I felt that a lot of people would be showing up to that talk expecting some words of wisdom about how to go viral or how to be buzzworthy or become a brand that was in demand as far as being a freelancer or a creative. And I didn’t want to do a talk like that.”
Jeff is a huge proponent of designers and creatives moving away from so-called ‘victimhood’ in how they pitch projects and ideas to clients. Instead, his philosophy promotes a self-motivated and self-controlled approach to the workflow.
“To me being a brand or having buzz around you is about the style in which you contact the world, and I feel a lot of creative people contact the world in the style of being a victim because they feel they need to get a brief or a project from a client where they can move forward with an idea. Or if their ideas are subverted or not ‘bought’ by the client, then they don’t have some creative success. I found that the way out of victimhood as a creative person, is moving out of the brand of being put upon and to do work that was self-directed, self-motivated and self-controlled.”
Don’t Make Excuses, Make Things
Q. How have your self-directed projects impacted your life?
A. “Not only did I develop a body of work that brought new collaborators and new opportunities into my life, but it made me feel different about myself. I found that, instead of making excuses, I could be making things, and people respond a lot better to things than excuses. So I became a happier person. I became a person with a circle of collaborators and opportunities that I never would have had access to if I’d stayed waiting for things to happen or waiting for projects to be offered to me.”
Another helpful point Jeff offers is that designers can take a cue from the method employed by companies in solving brand problems and apply this to their own personal branding strategy.
“If you’re at an agency or a design firm or in the business of being a creative thinker, a great exercise is solving those problems for your own brand – and I’m not suggesting self-promotion.”
“The goal behind a creative project is to connect to people, whether it be connecting to people so they can get a message that I feel is important or a message I think is funny or disruptive in a way that gets them to think about something differently—that’s my way, but…someone else might want to do a project to connect with someone over a very different reason.”
Don’t Pursue Attention, Pursue Intention
Jeff discovered that working on self-directed projects can get you great exposure, but stresses that the overall goal should be sticking with your intention to do something meaningful in the world:
“I found out that when you don’t really pursue attention, but you pursue intention instead, you might wind up getting attention. And it’s okay if you don’t get a million hits. I discovered that it’s more important sometimes to bring five people into my life, rather than five million, because some of those five people that I met through projects that weren’t well-loved or well-received became collaborators on projects that were.”
The Most Exclusive Website in the World
Q. How do you use the web as a medium for your art?
A. “The World’s Most Exclusive Website is a project I did with a few creative people including Chris Baker, Michael Lacker and Doug Lafredo, who helped with design work on the site.”
Only individuals with a certain level of ‘fame’ could enter the website, passing door after door to increasingly exclusive rooms. Jeff explains that this unique project – essentially a social experiment – explored the duality of fame; the paradox inherent in fame being such that the elusive nature of stardom breeds a great sense of loneliness.
“The project explored ideas of fame and what it means to be followed in a culture in which you’re very famous with lots of followers. But are you also very alone? So it was a website that you needed to have a verified Twitter account in order to enter. Right away, a verified Twitter account denotes a certain level of ‘well-knownness’, because you have to be someone who is either personable or someone from the press in order to become a verified Twitter member.
But once you got into the site—if you were able to get access in the first place—you found deeper rooms that required more and more followers for you to access, and ultimately fewer and fewer people were in those rooms, where ultimately, there’s only one person in that room: the person with the most Twitter followers ever. So it was an interesting play on what it means to compare fame as we know it, being backstage at a concert, to being backstage on the Internet.”
I Like To Complain
Q. Where do you find inspiration?
A. “I try to be curious and alert wherever I go. So everything is a form of inspiration.”
Believe it or not, Jeff discovered ‘complaining’ as a prime source of inspiration in his creative pursuits. Harnessing these complaints helped develop his awareness and ability to vocalize what was actually important and decisive.
“I really do like to complain. I spent many, many years—especially when I was back in that victim mode—of pointing blame all around the world except at me. And that was actually very useful training because it helped me to be hyper-aware of what I don’t like, of which there are many things. But when I find something I don’t like I very quickly start to kind of make fun of it. That’s my process. Maybe write jokes about it or riff on it with friends in a funny way, and then I think well how can some of those jokes or some of that way of framing the issue be packaged, and the packaging then becomes the project.”
“When I used to do stand up or improv, some of those points of view would come through in a stage show. But now my way of trying to share these ideas is with projects: some of them on the Internet, some of them on the street, some of them in ways I haven’t figured out yet.”
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