1+1=3: How nothing in common can connect the dots for diversity

Will Chau, creative director at GSD&M and founder of Austin Creative Department

1+1=3. Anyone can tell the actual “math” part is wrong, but coming up with this answer goes so much deeper — and for Will Chau, creative director at GSD&M in Austin, the equation is correct. The idea behind it is that, by bringing two things together that have nothing in common, one can connect the dots to get real ideas happening. At its core, it is creative problem solving, something that Chau is deeply passionate about and will discuss in his presentation at the 3% Conference in New York City next week.

Though the concept started as an idea generator, Chau has put it to good use in the advertising portfolio school, the Austin Creative Department, he founded about five years ago to help solve problems. Some are more within the lines of advertising and marketing, but others veer outside the expected — the “big” problems — and have resulted in some interesting and compelling ideas and work. The program has tackled the gender pay gap, the LGBT community and its suicide issue, bringing down the Confederate flag in the US and child slavery.

One assignment Chau gave to his students, who come from varying backgrounds, was around how, at the end of everyone’s life, we are all the same.

“The problem here was racism,” said Chau. “How do you communicate that we're not different — we’re all the same? If you were to write down the basic problem for that, the basic equation is that you're trying to solve the idea that at the end of our lives, we're all the same. The two things that you're to point out, when you define the problem, the two opposing sides are the end of the lives, and that we're the same.”

The first step involves defining the problem and associating as many words about the problem as possible. The second is pinpointing the tension in the problem — with the divergent ideas coming together after the first step. From there, the next step in the process involved a list of the words related to “death” then “same”. The former resulted in words like “urn” and “ashes” and the former turned out words like “community” and “togetherness.”

The final idea was profound and powerful: The One Memorial, an opportunity where people, at the end of their lives, can opt in to have their ashes shared in a communal memorial and urn.

“It’s the ultimate gesture of humanity and that we're all the same,” noted Chau. “Instead of dying and having our ashes placed in separate little boxes in a place, why not make a gesture and say we are all the same?”

Though this idea goes deep into a societal problem, Chau, who gives full scholarships to the Austin Creative Department to minorities, firmly believes that mashing things together that, empirically, don’t belong together, can be a formula to solve problems. The process and methodology itself is not just the domain of those with the word “creative” in their title.

“I try to believe that problem solving is something anyone can do,” said Chau. “I don't buy the fact that you have to be 'a creative type' to solve problems.”

As it relates to the gender conversation in the industry, Chau hopes that his 3% Conference talk will spark attendees and people in the business to think differently about how to keep building momentum — but he concedes that there is still plenty more work to be done.

“I wish there was a simple answer to it. Otherwise this problem would have been solved a long time ago,” said Chau. “I try to be real objective with this issue, because I truly am trying to understand both sides of it. Everyone attending this conference, their heart's in the right place in terms of diversity. It’s only going to make the world a better place, it's going to help clients, it's going to help agencies, it's going to help our bottom line. That's where America is going.”

Converesly, Chau sees the other side of the conversation.

“I do have conversations with people who feel singled out themselves — to not have a promotion, or to be in a position where they have to hire someone of color or gender,” noted Chau. “[They may have] pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. It wasn't their fault they were born as a white guy with blond hair. I try to see that point as well. Those are two opposing forces there — and there’s a problem there that needs to be solved.”

The term “diversity” can come with all kinds of misinterpretations and, on deeper reflection, may have lost some of its impact and power.

“I'm fascinated by what's going to happen at this conference,” said Chau. “I'd love to hear people's take on it. Is this something that we try to redefine? Is it causing more problems than solutions? Or do we call it what it is and say ‘it's diversity’. We have to solve this thing.”

Semantics are one thing, and Chau feels that bringing in people with different experiences and perspectives could be of real benefit as well.

“I think we have to embrace uneasiness, which means hiring people whose thinking may be very unconventional,” opined Chau. “Being inclusive and hiring people based on their passions and what they bring — I think diversity, hopefully it will eventually take care of itself.”

But there are still several issues that potentially impact progress: time, effort and money.

“My job is to bring the best people to the table to solve problems,” said Chau. “I try to be blind when it comes to hiring. I’m just looking at the work. At the same time, how can we redefine what the rules are in agency as well? A decade ago, we had money, and we had time to have mentorship programs and agencies. We don't have that anymore because there's no time and there's no money.”

To Chau, and plenty of others, agencies could better put their money where their mouths are, step up and make the investment of time and people to help see it through. For his part, through the Austin Creative Department, Chau is making the effort by affording the right training — but also the right access to understanding the industry in the first place — to those willing to work and put the time in.

“When I grew up, I knew nothing about advertising. I was just inheriting my dad's Swedish and Chinese smorgasbord,” noted Chau. “I was lucky enough to have a teacher that exposed it to me. I intentionally assemble classes each semester based upon an eclectic mix. Eclectic backgrounds in terms of profession, definitely make diversity a key part of that.”

One particular student, Oluwatosin Egbeola, who joins the class via Skype from his native Lagos, Nigeria, excites Chau and is testament to his commitment.

“He has dreams of being an art director. He found me on LinkedIn after watching a YouTube video I was in for the Academy of Art and we became friends,” said Chau. “My goal is to make a dent by giving training to people that otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity in the first place.”

Lagos — and becoming an art director via Austin. Likely the epitome of 1+1=3, and an equation certainly worth returning to time and time again.

The Drum is partnering with the 3% Conference, taking place in New York City, November 3rd and 4th.

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