Find Your Voice, Start a Revolution

Portland Creative Conference 2019 Recap

What do you get when you mix a writer with virulent OCD, the “first couple” of comics, an Oscar-winning costume designer, and a handful of other storytelling powerhouses? You get a cauldron full of hearty creative stew, which Bonfire’s creative team was able to sample at this year’s Portland Creative Conference (otherwise known as Cre8con). And boy did the creative juices boil over. The ingredients varied wildly, but one flavor kept rising to the top: voice.

Find the Truth and Nobody Can Poke Holes In It

Clio Lifetime Achievement Award winner and Wieden+Kennedy Executive Creative Director Susan Hoffman opened the conference with her keynote, “The Power of Your Own Voice.” She recalled the story of W+K’s now legendary 1987 Nike Air “Revolution” ad. When the TV spot originally aired, people lost their minds, calling it a music video rather than an ad. It was different. People weren’t ready for different. But it stuck. And it launched a harmonious relationship between W+K and Nike. W+K didn’t want to do what every other ad agency was doing. Nike didn’t want to be like every other sportswear company. Each needed a new voice. Each wanted to start a revolution.

Even though Hoffman’s talk bordered on a 45-minute W+K advertisement, her message resonated throughout the rest of the conference: Whether you’re W+K, Bonfire Marketing, or a young marketer fresh out of college, you have to be true to your voice.

And Ruth Carter, who just won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for her work on “Black Panther” must have had the same bowl of creative oatmeal that morning. Her presentation, “Trust Your Voice,” recalled her experiences in Wakanda. It wasn’t about slapping some fabric on Michael B. Jordan and calling it a day. That’s not how you win Oscars. It was about “learning as much about a place—even if it doesn’t exist.” It was about marrying the ancient with the modern to create a world with one foot planted in reality and another wandering through the unknown.

She recalled her experience creating one costume in particular. Director Ryan Coogler didn’t like the way the piece looked, so Carter and her small team literally set it on fire. Her advice on how to muscle through the creative process will stick with everyone who was in attendance: “Sometimes you have to take a razor, some vodka, and a torch to your project to get it to work the way you want.”

Without Humanity, Our Creative Voice Will Drown

While some speakers chose to stick to their PowerPoints, others—like Native American artist Bill Miller and transmedia demigod Jeff Gomez—chose to shoot from the hip, bringing the audience to tears with a heavy dose of raw storytelling. These were the artists whose creativity is palpable, people who bleed and sweat story from every pore. These are people who’ve gone through hell to find their own voice. Or, as Jeff brilliantly described, crossing the liminal space. 

Jeff struggled as a child more than any child should. But in spite of it all, he crossed the liminal space, taking Gandalf’s message to heart: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Now Jeff gets paid to create worlds. After the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film went viral (for lack of a better word), Disney hired Jeff to figure out how they could build a franchise around a fluke success. Having already taken his “Dinolicto” story—a tale born from a dream about a dinosaur wreaking havoc in New York—and creating the world of the wildly successful “Turok: Dinosaur Hunter” video game, Jeff was more than up to the task. He calls creativity an “artful interpretation of the facts made by those with different perspectives.” Substitute “voices” for “perspectives” and, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve arrived back at our theme.

Shout Your Creative Yawp From the Rooftops

So what does this mean for us? How does this apply to an industry ever-shrouded in autonomy and dictated by data? How can we find our voice as artificial intelligence and its ilk come for our jobs? How can we, as Hoffman asked, avoid talking to customers like they’re just another research statistic?

For starters, it requires reevaluating the script, flipping it on its head, and setting it on fire. It requires a fair amount of introspection and a careful reexamination of our own voice. Do we want to sound like everybody else? Do we want to keep going through the motions in the name of simply throwing “content” into the world and collecting a paycheck? Or do we want to cross the liminal space and become earth-bending creatives with a wholly unique worldview? If it’s the latter—and who wouldn’t want to join that party—it’s going to take commitment, it’s going to take community, and it’s going to take convincing the rest of the world that different is the new normal and normal is the new boring. It’s going to take a revolution.

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