Interview With Ryan Gerber

In this Thought Leadership piece, we had the privilege of sitting down with Ryan Gerber, Creative Partner and Executive Creative Director at Hylink Group Americas. With an impressive career spanning over two decades, Ryan has made significant contributions to the industry. His global experience includes stints at renowned agencies such as Wieden + Kennedy, R/GA, 72andSunny, working on iconic brands like Adobe, Converse, Nike, Levi’s, Jeep, Apple, and Pepsi.

In the interview, Gerber delves into his unique approach to creativity, his insights into the creative process, AI considerations and its potential to boost creative output, and his strategies for solving challenges within the dynamic marketing landscape. 

Veronica: What is creativity’s role in marketing? 

Creativity has always been at the forefront of what we’re doing. I think it’s essential for a place like Hylink, where Media is at the forefront, for the creatives to find their rhythm, their own culture, and their way of working that exists in a cohesive state with the rest of the company.

Veronica: That’s fascinating! Can you tell me more about the role of creativity at integrated agencies? 

I think you need to have trust between the disciplines to thrive. What I’m trying to accomplish here is purely creative. I’m trying to create new relationships based on creative work. The opportunities lie in new relationships because if you say: “Here’s a solution for a problem you didn’t even know you had. We want to sell this to you.” Then, however, you sell that, that becomes how you move forward with that client relationship. It’s a lot easier to do something new than it is to reinvent something old. 

From these new relationships, I aim to yield significant work, and the more significant work that you do, the more people will come asking you to do more of that great work. We’re trying to raise the base level of quality in everything we do as creatives. But we’re not trying to make everything into a piece that will win awards or any sort of accolade. Sometimes we’re just solving problems.

You have to figure out where you want to make those paths. It’s always about solutions, finding new answers, and new challenges so that you can readjust to whatever the new thing is, and you’re not held down by whatever baggage comes with doing something the same way for a while.

Veronica: That makes sense. How do you approach old clients who have always been doing Marketing one way?

The idea is that you just offer solutions. You don’t pick apart what you think the problem is with non-creatives or clients because that’s not useful. If something’s been working for 20 years, even if you see it as a challenge. If it ain’t broke, most people don’t want to fix it. There are certain things that we’re just going to have to deal with and move on. Then, there are times when you can carve out opportunities to be recognized. 

We’re not trying to change  the things that work; we’re just looking for multiple answer  to whatever the challenges are. That’s the universal truth. Every time we try to radically change an institution that affects millions and millions of people, it doesn’t always pan out because there are too many people that kind of are okay with it one way. And you need most people to agree that this is what we want to do.

That may ultimately move the wheel a bit for some those older “things “because there are so many new things that are driving the process going forward. From a creative standpoint, there are some methods that yield better results, and then there are particular challenges that creative teams just have to deal with and move forward. I’d rather offer up something new than over-analyze things that already are. It’s important to keep moving forward.

If you have an entirely creatively-driven agency, it’s much easier to make those “creatively-driven” opportunities come forward. In a place like this, it’s a little bit more complicated.

As a creative, what are some of the personal techniques that you use when you hit a creative roadblock? 

It’s hard to quantify the creative process because it sometimes involves going for a walk, taking a shower, or throwing rocks at an abandoned building. You’re not actively trying to come up with an idea. You’re just ingesting the information, and sometimes the idea comes from your subconscious. 

So you have to do what you need to as a creative, and creative brains don’t necessarily work the same way as function-oriented brains that schedule things out.

I’m a filmmaker and a writer. I play music. As a creative person, it’s crucial to do nonwork-related, creative pursuits. Always.

Veronica: Even if you’re swamped with work?

Even if you’re swamped with work. 

You still need to find time to do other things purely motivated by your passions and ideas and have no client who tells you that something is the wrong color or the wrong type or “I don’t like this sentence because.” 

If you’re doing those things, then your brain has a chance to replenish, and what we do as creatives in a marketing environment is that we’re essentially supporting sales.

In one way or another, we can be creative with that and make things that we’re super proud of. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to get people to do something that has some marketing value and is driven by commercial needs. 

So I think it’s essential to paint or write or draw or play music or do anything that isn’t caused by business. That’s often where you’ll find the way through whatever roadblock you’re working on.

Sometimes, the best way to solve a creative problem isn’t with your conscious mind; it’s with your subconscious mind, so you disconnect for a second.

Go play guitar or pan flute or whatever it is that you find your inspiration; go paint something that’s ridiculous. Go write a story that’s super inappropriate for the audience that you’re currently working on but makes you laugh or makes you feel something. And then come back to the problem.

Because the problem will still be there.

But if you just try to work it through the way you would perform a math equation, then you’re probably not going to get the correct answer.

It’s essential to not unplug your creative brain. 

Unplug from the work task, but don’t unplug the creative part of your brain because the other aspect of this job, in whichever regard that you work it at, is craft, and craft is essential.

If you’re writing, you should work on your craft because you won’t get better just writing headlines. Or drawing, some people are inherently good at drawing, but you still need to practice and experiment and learn new techniques to get really good at it. Craft is process and repetition and learning and unlearning so that you truly understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Sure, you can probably do a tutorial o on youtube for a couple of hours and you catch on quick, but there is no substance to that. You should always be trying to get better. 

If you’re an art director, a writer, a designer, a video editor, or an animator, you have to practice that craft because many things that will make you better at your craft are things you might not get asked to do in your daily work. Because they’re too expensive, or they’re too crazy, or clients think, “Why would we ever do something like this?” But you’ve got to do it anyway, get it out of your brain, and move on because sometimes, as a creative, you get stuck on that thing. 

Once you get through an idea, you can make more ideas.

My brain needed to scratch that itch, and now I can let that go, and I can move on to other things, and then it leads to some other new thing. So, that’s why it’s essential to keep doing personal work, to do it because of you. 

That is the best place to evolve as a creative person. I believe you can get better at the craft in your job, and you should, but if you’re doing it personally, you will get even better because you’re not hindered by only what you have to do. 

Veronica: I love to cook. I think it is a great creative outlet. Have you heard of other people in Marketing who use it to enhance their creativity? 

I had an old partner who loved to cook because it was something that he could complete in a few hours. So he would get intricate with it and cook these fancy foods or recipes that required precise ingredients. Because, again, in advertising, sometimes you can work on something for months, and it dies, or it changes so much that it doesn’t look like what you wanted it to look like when you started it.

So his solution to that was he liked to cook meals that were a little complicated, foreign to him, that he didn’t have a lot of reference for, but that he could put a lot of craft into. And then, after a few hours, or if it required prep time, a couple of days, it would be a complete thing that he and his family could enjoy. That would allow him to move on.

Hip-hop dancing is a release, but it’s also a creative process because you’re allowing your brain to do what it needs to do, and you’re not stifling it. That’s the thing about creativity; you just have to let it do its thing.

It’s different for everybody, but ultimately, if you’re allowing your subconscious creative mind to be free, it’s a lot easier to channel it when you need to try to crack something boring or technical because you’ve been practicing and you’re still crafting. 

It’s that adage everybody tries to disprove, which is that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master.

Maybe you don’t need 10,000 hours, but you need a lot of time to do something. Then, the muscle memory kicks in. Your subconscious mind’s also thinking about stuff that you’re not even aware of.

How do you feel about the integration of AI into creative campaigns? 

This is a tough one for me. I’m pragmatic. I see potential, I see a lot of opportunity in the space. If you just scroll through LinkedIn or Instagram, there are a thousand courses on how to write a prompt. Now, for only $39, we got 200 prompts here. That’ll help you be more effective and more efficient.

There’s implicit value in AI because it will be able to radically change humans on a scale that’s never been done. This is much bigger than the Industrial Revolution or the Computer Revolution, which destroyed industries and created new ones overnight. AI is that times a thousand. It’s like comparing the invention of TNT to the atomic bomb. They’re very different scales that we’re talking about. 

On one hand, I see a lot of potential; on the other hand, there are inherent fears, and not just inherent. There are warranted fears about how it gets implemented because it’s not just AI that’s happened over the last 10-20 years. We’ve also had social media, which in and of itself has changed. Even in the early 2000s, with the internet, it wasn’t at scale. Now, if somebody uses the wrong color, you will hear about it through social media. 

A journalist could find a narrative they were trying to push, and then they wrote something clickbait-y. Now, AI facilitates that sort of disingenuous narrative in a way that we had already gotten pretty advanced at.

The challenge is not that it’s excellent, but the amount of progress we’ve seen just in a year, for something like mid-journey, is both impressive and creepy.

Veronica: I know we’ve all heard some pretty crazy AI stories in the past few months. Have you heard of any stories that just made you realize how it can affect the creative industry? 

A colleague posted on LinkedIn how he wrote episode 10 of Star Wars using ChatGPT in a couple of hours in the morning, and he was formulaic about how he did it. It wasn’t great. It was pretty terrible, in fact, but it still generated a story. Then he took lines of action that ChatGPT had written, and he plugged those into mid-journey and created images to go with his script. 

If we think about it from the social media standpoint, like TikTok, there’s a proliferation of bad content. 

On TikTok, someone has got the license to four seconds of a song, and then you see thousands of people sing along to that song, and they get millions of views, and we reward that with money. But that lowers the bar of creativity.

20 years ago, we were still going to movie theaters, and we were waiting for and renting movies at a video store. You would rent the DVD because that was great content. But now we have unlimited access to everything online, so we lower the bar on creativity, and AI reaches that bar. 

Anyone can suddenly become a creator, they don’t need to have a point of viewt, or skill, or any creativity to do a lot of this. AI just makes it a lot easier to create more garbage, and most people won’t know the difference between that and Casablanca

With AI, we’ve only scraped the surface of where it will get to. The more exciting stuff is when people who have craft and skill and know how to make things already… use AI. 

Veronica: Could you explain that further? 

A perfect case for this is if you look at how desktop publishing affected hand-lettered signs. There used to be the bottom level of craft required to make a sign, which meant you had to be able to hand paint. It’s a craft that doesn’t exist anymore. As soon as someone could print Comic Sans from Microsoft Word, you started seeing Comic Sans everywhere. 

Photoshop has become a verb. Not everybody knows what Photoshop is, but now everyone uses it as a verb. Even further, the things that you can now do with generative fill in Photoshop are extending that access.

There will be amazing things that come from this, but it’s not going to be without a cost. As we move further into this space, we’ll lose a little bit more of our artistic soul as humans because the machines will get pretty good at mimicking us. And for most people, that will be enough. 

Look at popular music; a lot of the stuff we hear nowadays is just worse versions of songs that came before. There is a robotic-ness to it, and it’ll probably get better and harder to tell the difference eventually, but right now, much of it’s not good.

If you ask ChatGPT to give you ten ideas for a movie, and you’re not an actual writer, you might think given you some good ideas, but actually, it’s the most generic version of storytelling. 

That’s the danger: You have hundreds of people generating this content, and then some end up becoming important players.

I’m a big proponent of learning the technology because you can’t put that cat back in the bag, so you may as well evolve with the times, be aware of where it’s going, and use it for your benefit as well. 

Elon Musk said this thing that was spot on when he was asked about  AI: “It’s a very low possibility that AI can destroy us. But it’s not zero.” 

I’m cautious about it. I don’t like some of the implications that it has for the creative industry because it has killed jobs already, and I only see that trend growing. Still, I do think that if you can harness it as a creative, there’s a lot of possibility and opportunity with it.