This is the latest in a monthly series in which industry leaders describe the projects and products that give them the most joy and pride. This month, artist and agency leader Michael Davis reveals his personal account of the transformation and tension felt as purpose and career growth collide.
After my 28th night of nearly no sleep, I caught a glimpse in the mirror of a familiar-looking troubled artist I haven’t seen in decades. I sarcastically sniped to myself, “After working for 25 years as a creative, have you lost your purpose?” On that same day, a call came from Shutterstock: Tell us the best thing you’ve created. I nearly declined.
It forced me into the precarious position of choosing a moment that was best, more meaningful than another. I knew I couldn’t ignore it, in spite of being consumed with (not) identifying with my purpose. My right brain started to relive the work created with friends and collaborators — our best moments trying ourselves to put a ding in the world. My left brain traveled directly to work that had the widest commercial success.
My father took me to a neighborhood camera store when I was eight years old. Together, we chose my first Olympus 35mm SLR film camera and a complete old-school darkroom. I can still recall the taste of the chemicals.
I have been jumping in and out of visual mediums since then. My career began as a journalistic cinematographer for NBC News, then I was off to documentary television for PBS. As the millennium transitioned, I found myself building a media channel with Time Warner, and then I pivoted to advertising agencies.
Clip from Vietnam, Lam Goes Home, 1988
The common artistic expression that defined my purpose for so many years was a visual connection to motion. I’ll have to agree with Stefan Sagmeister here — it makes my skin crawl when people ask if I’m a storyteller. I was a cinematographer wrapped up in other people’s stories. I was never satisfied with just one image. With every sequential frame that I captured, there was a path to happiness, sorrow, joy, pain, and a thousand other emotions that I could see and feel — all ending up on one type of screen or another.
Except for solitude as an eight year old in a basement darkroom, how do I define my best work when my career was spent working closely with others? I am fully capable of transitioning the literal statement “best I ever created” into a metaphor that showcases work on a branded social movement, a thesis written for my MBA that helped young people around the world, or one of the personal achievement Emmys I was fortunate to win. But that feels uncomfortable, as it mirrors my LinkedIn profile.
Our movement: Diana Nyad campaign led by Jen Handline & Jake Lambert
I started this post recalling not sleeping for a month. Living with sleep deprivation came on the heels of starting a new job with Conversant, a media company that has the energy of a tech company. Data and marketing drives about 1,700 people across the US and Europe. I know the most insightful creative briefs start with a planner interpreting data; it helps them create their best work. It occurs to me I haven’t done it yet. I’m just too stubborn to pick one and too emotional to believe I know the best. This essay is giving me agita.
I finally had a great rest as I met other artists at Conversant who wanted to interpret data with a narrative. Everyone loves a great story. While motion is core to how information is sent and received, there’s no stretch to visualize data as art — specifically when it’s tied to human interaction. Many artists have done it. The challenge to my new team is to find another way that’s relevant to our business. I was even able to secure the URL TheColorofData.com — It’s just a seed. I guess my purpose hasn’t changed that much after all these years.
Chicago, International Olympic Committee at The Field Museum
Thanks for reading this. I can’t decide on the best thing I ever created, but I can show you the biggest. (Thank you, left brain.) The City of Chicago challenged us to create a spectacle connecting boxing and the greatest athletes of a generation to the history of the city. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) sent luminaries from around the globe to attend as they considered Chicago for the 2016 summer games.
We created one of the largest outdoor projections in the world — directly onto Chicago’s most iconic architectural facade, The Field Museum. Along with the building blueprints, we digitally mapped every inch of the two-football-field-long stone and concrete screen. The backdrop was the Chicago skyline. I suppose I’ll never have this large a palette again.