Telling Tales – Stories from Semi Permanent Wellington

I’d heard great things about Semi Permanent Auckland so when a one-day Wellington conference was announced it was the perfect opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. Secretly I was a little concerned that I would stand out amongst all the proper creative types. Heading along with three super talented graphic designers I did feel like a bit of an impostor.

Upon arrival I half expected a left brain – right brain quiz at the door. Luckily there weren’t any admittance tests and I wasn’t outted as the only marketer in the room. Semi Permanent Wellington turned out to be well worth the hype and far more relevant to marketing than I’d expected. In fact, the only point I felt out of place was when Jon DRPNZ, Wellington based street artist, used crime scene tape to connect the negative space between a few confused volunteers. I don’t think I was alone in this feeling though!

So here’s some of the wisdom I gleaned from just a couple of the Semi Permanent speakers (and attendees) – hopefully it will encourage you to attend in 2013… 

Joel Gethin Lewis / Hellicar & Lewis

Joel Gethin Lewis of Hellicar & Lewis (on right) kicked off Semi Permanent and gave us a lot to think about. Firstly, Hellicar & Lewis give away everything they develop for free. They subscribe completely to the philosophy of open source creation. This means that whenever a large corporate employs them there is an agreement that everything they develop will be redistributed for free once the project has ben completed. Joel explained that too often work is created for a campaign and then shelved once it’s completed. Open sourcing allows these ideas to be used again and pushed even further.

A lovely example of how open sourcing can work is Hellicar & Lewis’s work on Somantics. Orginally they were commissioned by Coca-Cola to work on the 24-hour music project. A studio session with Maroon 5 was streamed live and the composition of a song was directly influenced by tweets. This also included developing a touchscreen which tweets could be shown and manipulated on in real time. This technology was then re-imagined for the an entirely different purpose. Somantics is a suite of applications that encourages self expression in young people with Autistic Spectrum Conditions and other communication difficulties. Coca-cola was able to present their 24-hour music project in an innovative and unique way while also contributing posivitively to society by allowing this technology to then be freely shared and used to develop Somantics.

Here’s some other tidbits from Joel’s presentation:

Joel on open sourcing:

Joel on creating ‘feedback loops’ and experiences:

Joel on ideas:

Joel on what we all could be doing:

Joel on coding:

Joel recommended Processing.org as a good place to start if you want to learn basic coding.

Michael Ritchie / Revolver Film 

Self effacing and full of humility Michael described how he once considered making commercials as what he would do until getting into real work like feature films. His self depreciation and continual apologies for not being Joel from Hellicar & Lewis weren’t merited at all – his commerical work is beautiful. His commerical for Subaru was described by an attendee as “the best car ad I’ve ever seen” – yet there’s not a car in sight!

It’s worth mentioning that Michael’s humility was mirrored by all the speakers. It was a surprise to hear speakers, whose 2 minute hightlight reels floored me, talk so humbly. Also it helped me feel a little less like in a impostor in a room full of creatives!

You may recognise this recent Revolver work:


The best thing to happen to advertising

For a production company that creates large budget television commercials it may seem bizarre that Michael described the fragmentation of media as the best thing to happen to advertising. In his eyes it’s meant advertising has had to lift it’s game. Closing the gap between ‘commercials’ and ‘content’, as Michael put it:

“you can’t make shit (ads)! They have to be as good as the programming around them if not better”.

It’s no longer enough just to have the money for a TV campaign. Your commercials to be good enough to stand alongside the content they’re placed within. Consumers choose to watch shows, but they’re forced to watch ads. So make them as good as, if not better the, the show. Make them entertainment in themselves.

However, Revolver also understands that not all brands can afford epic TV productions like BNZ. And as media evolves and fragments a commercial isn’t the only way to get your brand on TV. Rather than convincing the industry that they’d learnt a new trick, Revolver created a new company “Will O_Rourke” to allow them work on different projects.

Michael took us through one of Will O_Rourke’s campaigns – a massive undertaking that involved pulling off hundreds of stunts on the same day – and was awarded a Cannes Lion Grand Prix. To change the public perception that the NAB (National Bank of Australia) was in bed with the other major banks they orchestrated a public break up on Valentine’s Day. 

Here’s how it went down…

The campaign created a huge amount of media attention on television, radio, newspaper and online – with much of it centred on how the stunts were pulled off. The results saw $5 million of earned media in a single day, the number 1 most tweeted topic on Twitter in Australia, a huge increase in NAB new accounts and applications, and has seen over 225,000 new customers join NAB.

With all this under his belt Michael Ritchie has finally stopped seeing the commercial industry as a stepping stone to other things, but as part of the entertainment realm.

Jessica Walsh / Sagmeister & Walsh


Graphic designer Jessica Walsh was by far the most anticipated speaker amongst our group and she lived up to all expectations. She started out by describing herself as a ‘player’. Not in the ‘multiple partners’ way but in that she loved to play. She showed a ‘scientific’ graph proving that the more fun she had in the process of creating a campaign, the more people responded to the end result.

Underpinning Jessica’s belief in the importance of play was some sound logic based on Stuart Brown’s book PLAY. Ranging from how playful animals have better survival rates in the wild to how play affects brain size and development. Also included was a particularly scary statistic on the percentage of people who test at creative genius level. While 98% of children under 5 years test as creative geniuses this figure plummets as we age (I will try to get the actual statistic). So the trick is not learning how to be creative, but how to stay creative. Jessica’s advice was to do what you love and the money would follow.  


Jessica showed us a selection of her work and explained how play influenced the end result. Here’s where love of spray painting, red velvet cake and Zentai suits can lead if you play… and convince clients to purchase all of these things for you… 

Photos from Jessica Walsh’s Behance profile – check it out to see more of her creations 

Creativity thrives off constraints
Being as succesful and sought after as Sagmeister & Walsh means that you can pick and choose your clients and projects. This also means you may be given a broader scope as clients are open prepared to offer a blank slate. But Jessica Walsh pointed out that creativity often needs contraints and rules to puch against and work within. So she often creates her own contsraints. This was a case with their work with Lebanese luxury retailer Aishti – the self imposed contraint was that the advertising would always include the distinctive yellow packaging box.

Aishti boxes starring in print advertising as gold bars, works of art and retail therapy

Final Word

Each of the Semi Permanent speakers were clearly creative genuises in their own right, and each knew how to translate their experiences into meaningful stories and lessons.

Despite the wide variety of design disciplines covered the speakers all seemed be on the same wave length: 

    • Each described what they did as story telling
  • Each placed more importance on the idea than the execution
  • Each was involved in a wide range of work from corporate campaigns to hobby projects to unpaid charity work
  • Each speaker advocated doing what you love
  • Each seemed truly grateful that they got to do what they loved everyday  

Given that Semi Permanent Wellington 2012 was a sell out there’s probably a few deisgners who won’t appreciate this suggestion… if you’re in marketing or advertising get along to Semi Permanent Wellingotn 2013 – or any other SP event. It’s never a bad idea to listen to creative people, be inspired, be surprised or be delighted.

Thank you Semi Permanent Wellington – you lived up to all the tales I was told!

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