Paleo pears and patrons; surviving as a creative in government

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen within the Victorian Public Service (VPS) over the past 15 years has been the ‘rise and rise’ of in-house creative teams.
While a number of government departments have traditionally had a graphic design team, and over the last 7 years a number have built video teams, these teams have often been there to produce the ‘less creative’ outputs (Annual reports, video messages to staff, anything with the phrase ‘Getting to know the new HR portal’ in it, etc), while the creative projects were outsourced to Creative Agencies.
However, over the last five years, the insatiable desire for new and engaging content that social media has delivered, has meant that Departments simply can’t afford to farm out every project that needs some creative flair…and so increasingly, they are looking in-house to deliver these videos, animations, and social tiles.
But if creativity and bureacracy were dogs, they would spend most of their time barking at each other over the fence…so how can you make a career walking along that fence?!
Well here’s what I’ve learnt.

It takes a certain type of person

I’ve been lucky enough to work in an advertising agency with a few creative teams, and watched as they were able to generate multiple ideas and concepts in response to a brief in a matter of hours, when it would have taken me days to generate just one…and I’ve been lucky enough to work with Directors, DOP’s and Designers with both an incredible vision on how things should ‘look and feel’, and the skills to make it happen.
But I doubt they could have dealt with the constant iterative changes and dilution of concept that invariably happens in government work.

Similarly I have worked with a lifelong public servant on a project that required about 10% creativity and 90% number crunching, report writing and briefing into senior people. I knew how time-consuming and boring the non-creative part was going to be and so I offered to go 50%-50% on the work…but the other person said ‘Oh no…I don’t want to do the creative part! You do that and I’ll do the rest!’

Sadly it’s still true that within a bureacracy you can’t get in trouble for doing what has always been done and having it fail…but you can get in trouble for trying something new and having it fail. So the essential drive of creativity; to find new ways of doing things, is anathema to most public servants.

So to survive as a creative in government, you need both a high tolerance for process and procedure, but also a willingess to take risks wherever you can.

The paleo pear predicament

A few years ago a Federal Government department released this video:

The video was pretty widely panned, and a lot of people asked ‘How did this video ever get made, let alone approved?!’
But I could see how it was approved…every individual part of it was fine from a Government perspective!

Script – If a private company makes a video and it fails…then no-one really cares, after all, it was their money they wasted. But when a government department spends money on a video, then that is money provided to it by the public. So you can expect some pretty hefty scrutiny from the media. After all who doesn’t like getting incensed about what the government is wasting your tax dollars on?!!!
The result is that Government departments LOVE videos that are scripted to within an inch of their lives. It doesn’t matter if you can see the soul of the person leaving their body as they say them…so long as the right words are said in the right order and no-one can take offence…then it will be approved.

On screen talent – There are people who can take a dubious script and bring it life as if they really believe it…these people are call ‘actors’. There are also people who can successfully get a briefing note through a variety of sub-committees and eventually get a clause in a piece of legislation changed…these people are called ‘Senior Bureacrats’.
Interestingly, while it is VERY rare that any Logie Award winners or NIDA graduates decide that they could probably be the Deputy Secretary of a Government department, there is no shortage of Senior people within a Government department who are quietly confident that they can give this ‘acting’ thing a shot.
And nothing scoots things through the approval process faster than the person approving the video, seeing themselves in the video, as the Counting Crows sagely sang ‘When I look at the television, I want to see me, staring right back at me’.

The ‘true creative’ will say ‘This script is terrible and the acting unconvincing…there’s clearly nothing in those coffee cups!!!’ and refuse to take part in the project.
The ‘bureacrat’ will say, ‘This said exactly what the script said it would say…and my boss’s boss is happy…so it’s approved!’
But the Creative in Government has to be able to find a compromise that will engage its intended audience…without alienating the people who are going to approve it.
Failing that…just throw in a lot of ‘hawk’ sound effects and get them to walk slowy towards the camera.

A Patron

Just as artists in the Renaissance had patrons like the Medicis to support their work…any creative person working in government needs to find senior people within their organisation to champion their work. When I was starting out in the public service, I was incredibly lucky to have a Secretary (Gill Callister) who not only believed in using video as a comms tool (when a lot of senior execs didn’t), but was also really engaging on camera. But you won’t always have the person at the top of your organisation going in to bat for you, so you need to foster relationships with anyone you can who has some sway.
One of the good things about people automatically wanting the most senior person possible to appear in a video, is that as the person who makes the videos, you get a lot more 1:1 time with people you otherwise wouldn’t. And not just any sort of 1:1, a 1:1 where they are vulnerable and looking to you for advice. These people did not get to where they are by ignoring good advice, so get in there and dazzle them…and then, most importantly, work your arse off to make sure their project is a success! I can look back at my career and identify at least 5 projects, that I knew at the time were really important to a key person in the department and so I worked my guts out to make them work. When they did, the payoff of having someone in the upper echelons of the organisation willing to go in to bat for me made it all worthwhile.

Surround yourself with good people

Over 10 years ago I started a group called ‘The Secret Society of Government Video Editors’, which as the name suggests, was a collective of the people doing video work within the VPS. While there were of course advantages in terms of being able to share equipment and expertise…the real reason it has existed for over a decade is that it’s really nice to have a group of people you can chat to and say ‘Have you noticed the way that everyone who isn’t us is really annoying and doesn’t recognise our genius?!’ A sympathetic ear is one of the most appealing physical attributes for a creative! After all, only a creative will know the pain involved in any file named ‘Videomessage_final_V11_revised_newmusic_approved_FINAL.mp4’ or the horror of a design brief that requests a diagram that is “clean and simple, but that works in these 17 processes and 4 thesuaruses worth of words, and represents the circular basis of the main process, but DOES NOT feature any curves or arrows, and really shows how great this new project is but without being celebratory…and we needed it in 10 minutes ago.”
So surround yourself with other creative people whenever you can. Look for people who challenge you. Try to work with people with different genders, and cultural backgrounds, and life experiences…and make sure that the work you produce reflects these differences, as that’s what’s going to make content that really connects with an audience as diverse as the Victorian public.

But most of all, revel in the fact that the demand for creative content within Government is only going to increase, and you have the chance to be part of this bold new world. Plus any job that offers both creativity and relative job-security, is pretty awesome.

Making video content – the 3 essentials

15 years ago I joined the public service.
I know this, because my eldest child is now 15 and I joined the public service when he was born, because I was sick of being made redundant in the video production world.
In 2009 I was lucky enough to start the video team at DHS…and by ‘team’ I mean ‘me trying to teach myself how to shoot and edit videos, while desperately pretending that I knew what I was doing’ (full disclosure, my time in video production had been as a Producer…so I was really good at organising things, but not so good at the actual making of things).
11 years and one department change later, I’m now the manager of a creative team with three visual designers and two videographers.
A LOT has changed in this time for video. In 2009 only a few government departments had internal video people…now pretty much every deparment has a video team. Video used to be the high-end tool that was wheeled out to launch only the biggest and most prestigous projects…now videos are part of a daily social media content plan.
But some things have stayed the same, and so I thought I’d share the three essential ingredients I believe every video should have…so essential, that my team won’t work on projects that don’t contain all three!

Essential 1 – A Story

The days of people watching a video simply because it’s there, are gone…nowadays your videos need to engage and retain your audience. The best way to do this is with a story.
You can list the benefits of your new project or initiative as much as you like, but people don’t connect with projects and initiatives…they connect with people. So if you want to connect with your audience, you need to tell a story about how your project or initiative has benefited a person, or a family or a community.
So for example, training and apprenticeships are a great idea and you can talk a lot about the levels of funding and courses available…but that’s not going to make for an interesting video.
Or you can show the story of someone who grew up watching motorsport with her Dad and asking what things were and how they worked…and who has now done training in motorsport and has her Dad asking her what things are and how they work

Or someone who was originally a florist, and is now driving heavy machinery on major projects:

Never underestimate the power of a story!

Essential 2 – A Storyteller

Once you have your story, you also need someone who can tell the story in a way that will engage with your audience.
Now I know that the first option most people think of is to get the head of the organisation, or the CEO, or anyone in a senior role to do the talking on camera. After all, these people can say ‘This agile project will deliver key outcomes to our stakeholders and offer synergies with the sector’ without even flinching!
Plus, nothing helps get a video approved quickly, quite like having the person approving it, also being the star.
But I can promise you that it will not resonate with an audience, as it just won’t feel authentic. What you need is someone with an actual experience of what your video is focussing on…and if they’re too nervous or shy to talk on camera, then you need one of their peers, or a frontline worker who has seen how they’ve changed. In short, you need someone who your audience is going to like and want to listen to.
If you go with the boss, you will get all the right words in the right order…but if you go with someone who is actually telling their story, you’ll get a little piece of unscripted magic that people will genuinely engage with.

Let your story teller tell their story in their own language

Essential 3 – A Visual Element

Video is a visual medium. So you need to tell your story visually, and you need to engage people visually. If you look at any of the videos above you will see that only about 10-15% of the footage is the person talking to camera, that vast majority is footage that tells the story and engages the viewer.
So before you commit to a project, ask what is the visual element of this video. If the project is a consultation, or a roundtable or a mentorship…just be aware that the footage of people talking to each other will be engaging for about 6 seconds…after that, you’re going to be in struggle town. If you absolutely have to make a video about something that is ostensibly about peope talking to each other, then it may be better to keep your powder dry and make a video about what the consultation/roundtable/mentorship actually resulted in (as that’s much more likely to feature people actually doing something…rather than discussing the many somethings they may or may not do!)
Also, the reality is that if you’re posting your content on social media, there is a VERY strong chance that the video will start playing without any audio, so you will need some REALLY engaging visuals if you want to convince people to unmute the audio and keep watching.

Even if your footage is just people talking…you can still make it visually engaging.
Dance = easy to show visually,
Farming = easy to show visually
Psychology = not so easy to show visually

So there you go, the three things we demand are part of any video project we commit to creating.
Next week I’m going to talk about the challenges of getting a video approved…especially in a Government context.