I [Still] Want My MTV!
Communication Arts, May 2005
"IT'S A HUGE CREATIVE MONSTER, and a good one." That's how MTV senior vice president and creative director Jeffrey Keyton describes the department he's headed for 18 years.
And now, as everybody who has a TV or a computer or walks down the street in a major urban area knows, that creative monster has spawned a new baby beast, the remade MTV2, with its alpha-male, two-headed dog logo. " It's totally male-centric, pure entertainment," says Tina Exarhos, MTV's executive vice president of marketing. " From the programming grid to promos and network IDs, pacing and flow, every single moment is new. No half-hour shows with commercials at predictable times."
That's good news, it seems, to MTV's viewers, who, judging by their postings, are happy to have more music videos, less everything else. However, according to people with screen names like Pink Fruit and Anonymous Insider, the target audience wasn't as keen on the pre-launch teaser site and stealth marketing campaign that began in mid-January. They figured out pretty quickly who "the mole" was working for, and, if they didn't, posted messages like, "Looks like someone with a big budget is trying to do the viral marketing thing" and "whatever it is, it must be backed by some corporate entity trying to come off as cool."
They weren't wrong. About the corporate-entity part, at least. The campaign emanated from the MTV Networks segment of the Broadcast and Cable Television business of $22.5 billion Viacom Inc. Headquartered in New York's Times Square, Viacom's businesses also include CBS Television, Showtime, Black Entertainment Television, Paramount Pictures, Simon & Schuster, Infinity Broadcasting and Viacom Outdoor; its Broadcast and Cable division, in addition to MTV Networks, owns Nickelodeon, Spike, Comedy Central, Nick at Nite, MegaHits, TV Land and VH1.
It's almost a given that in-house departments at global conglomerates do not bring forth innovative, edgy design. Keaton's 40-person creative monster -- actually two entities -- endeavors to flaunt that convention. On-Air Design, with 19 people, is responsible for show-openers, promos and channel IDs; 21-person Off-Air Creative does the print work and merchandising: ad campaigns, logos for new channels, DVD packaging, consumer products sold in the new MTV Store downstairs. Together, they function as MTV's in-house agency -- set up with creative directors, copywriters, art directors, production people, account people. Keyton calls the work they do "the best stuff delivered anywhere" and "a great pie-in-the-sky thing."
What could be more pie-in-the-sky than the other big project they're working on right now, an enormous high-definition TV screen set in an ornate gold picture frame mounted on the building across the street. It plays MTV programming 24/7: music videos, show promos, commercials, "anything we want to put up there." The baroque frame isn't an artistic conceit; it's a smart way to separate MTV's messages from the myriad other billboards, flashing lights, news and ad feeds and promos for celebrities, movies and Broadway shows screaming for attention in Times Square. "It's huge image opportunity," says Keyton, "and we're working on some twisted stuff." For example, 3D designer Eban Bryne is animating hot dogs, getting them to dance around, curtsey and bow. At a nearby workstation, designer Taseal Cho is trying a few different ways to get live-action footage of a strutting rooster to interact with images of a stuffed toy chicken. "This is all very experimental," she explains.
On another floor, VP for On-Air Design Romy Mann is reviewing Gutter Pups sequences animated by Richard Mather Studios, one of the independent design firms that MTV calls on for freelance work. Mann describes Gutter Pups as naughty little Japanese-inspired cartoon creatures who wreak havoc in their world; in one sequence they throw poop at each other. Down the hall, design director for consumer products Deklah Polansky is finalizing Gutter Pups tee-shirt designs. With Sarah James, project manager for consumer products, Polansky is developing a line of 200 shirts "so cool all urban kids will want to wear them." It seems to be true; the MTV Store is crowded with guys grabbing Pimp My Ride and Viva La Bam and Beavis & Butthead shirts and teen girls considering which pink Gutter Pups shirt to buy.
Keyton calls the space occupied by his department "a church of worship to rock stars and to design." As a church, it's not very solemn or reverend. Standard-issue office-building installations have been ripped out and replaced by loft-like accouterments like exposed ductwork and walls painted ever-changing colors and covered with flowered wallpaper and music posters and artifacts. There's enough electronic equipment to satisfy a bevy of young designers plucked from top design programs, most notably The School of Visual Arts, where Keyton and three other senior people teach, New York University's Interactive Media program, and Parsons School of Design.
The pace can be furious. Yet it can also feel incongruously serene, as if there's more than enough time to experiment, to fool around with design ideas. "We create, we bounce, we rock, we work for our audience," says Keyton. On the On-Air floor, dozens of screens flicker in subdued light; designers in headphones bop to silent soundtracks, hands floating over Wacom tablets. The adjoining machine room is wall-to-wall hard drives, routers, digi beta decks and monitors. The in-house casting department is on a nonstop talent search, looking for performers like the "Intro Guy" dweeb who break-dances on a psychiatrist's couch and to the beat of a car alarm. On the Off-Air floor, each office houses one or two "creatives," who, not exactly rockers in leather and full-sleeve tattoos, are definitely not pinstriped suits, either.
Keyton calls them all "kids." As in: "The kids here are living and breathing youth culture." Unlike ad agencies that spend vast sums on research to figure out what 12- to-21 year-olds are doing and thinking and buying, these designers are the target audience themselves. "They're going to clubs, being it, living it, feeling it," says Keyton. Which, he points out, is an authentic way to connect with viewers. "If someone knows they're being analyzed under a microscope, they avoid the product. This is a more genuine relationship." That's perhaps why, over the years, some viewers have found MTV's graphics and promos more compelling than the music videos themselves. Techno-songwriter Moby wrote that MTV's cool visuals were the best thing about 2002 Video Music Awards, not the bands. It's praise like that, a slew of awards (including being named the National Design Award Finalist in Communication Design for 2004 by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum), and passion for what they do that fuel Keaton and his crew.
A Pratt Institute graduate, Jeffrey Keyton studied with legendary graphic design and illustration instructor Charles Goslin, who taught him that "it's all about concept," and to whom he declares he "I owe it all." He got his start in the business at upscale lifestyle magazines, then moved to corporate identity firms where he worked on mainstream consumer brands and learned "what not to do." As a senior vice president, Keyton sees his role at MTV as more than creative director or art director; he's the one who finds the young talent and gives it space to blossom. "They haven't been beaten up by clients yet," is one way he describes his staff. "We pluck them right out of school, but these kids are empowered. This is their world. A totally creative world."
Some of them are plucked while still in school. Hitomi Watanabi, in her last year in the School of Visual Arts, is working on SexyMama T-shirts, pens and lanyards. For others, life at MTV just feels like they're still in school. "It's like you never left," says Taseal Cho, an SVA graduate. "My teachers are here." And most of them say they don't want to leave. "I'll stay as long as they'll have me," states Jim deBarros, a Pratt graduate who is now senior design director for Off-Air. And from the look of some of the work, a few of them never graduated -- or at least they know how to make it appear that way. Doodles on binder covers and notebook margins are part of the identity of MTVU, the college channel. Christopher Truch, a graduate of Alberta College of Art and Design who came to MTV from Paper magazine, has been incorporating scribbles drawn with ballpoint pen into print projects and storyboards. Another MTVU icon is a square-serif "U" lifted from a college sweatshirt. But now it's cut out of the back of a stuffy professor's tweed jacket. In one spot it turns into a tattoo that sprouts hair. Almost nothing is too weird, or too juvenile. Not surprisingly, fascination with scatological humor is going strong here: cartoon characters on the MTV2 site split open and drop little pellets; on-air they are apt to say things like, "He's kind of cute. I like his poop. It's not like it's ass poop or anything." In a promo for best male video, a meat grinder turns out pink, nicely curved sausages.
Although a martian who spent a few hours watching videos by such artists as Green Day, 50 Cent and The Killers might not agree -- and might have difficulty separating fantasy from reality on earth -- MTV can take its responsibility to educate its audience as seriously as it takes its mandate to entertain them. AIDS awareness, for example, is treated believably in a gutsy spot that looks and feels like a Brittney Spears fantasy-sex perfume ad, but admonishes young viewers to "DISCUSS." "NEGOTIATE." "PROTECT YOURSELF," "FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS."
If the studio-offices are the church of worship, the original MTV logo is the totemic icon. Graphic designer/ illustrator Frank Olinsky's 1981 chunky, drop-shadowed "M" with its overlapping crayon-stroke "TV" may have done as much for the art and practice of brand identity as it did for MTV itself. No more, "The corporate identifier shall be 9/16 of an inch wide and placed 7/8-inch from the left-hand margin." For more than two decades, this logo has been gyrating and singing, bending, warping, peeking around corners, changing colors, getting filled with images, cast in stone, and cut in half -- and inspiring other organizations to commission logos that do more than sit on a page. "As long as we don't mutilate it beyond recognition," says Keyton, "almost anything goes. There are no static logos around here. No static anything." Certainly the MTV2 two-headed dog, designed by Stacy Drummond, Keyton's wife, former creative director of Tommy Boy Music, and now principal of Look Here, is anything but static. It's bigger and more in your face than any station ID on TV. It changes color. It flashes. People write essays on its relationship to mythical beasts of antiquity. Google "mtv 2-headed dog" and you'll get about 600 passionate responses to what it means and says about our culture.
It's kind of always been that way at MTV. "The heritage of the brand" is a phrase that's thrown around by every marketer today, whether the brand is a car or a beer. If the brand is MTV, the heritage is brash, self-confident. So it's only fitting that in 1982 the then-fledgling cable channel hired brash adman George Lois. And it's only fitting that Lois borrowed his own "I want my Maypo!" headline. It was a great headline, and perhaps maple-flavored instant oatmeal wasn't a great enough product to do it justice. And perhaps MTV was. Famed for his use of celebrity pitchmen, Lois got none other than Mick Jagger to stick out his tongue and urge thousands of kids to call their cable operators, yelling, "I want my MTV!" Within months, it was reported, MTV, at the time a "a visual jukebox with images," according to Tina Exarhos, was in 80% of households nationwide. Nearly 25 years later, a second MTV generation of more than 400 million people in 164 countries watch MTV affiliates; more than 60 million people in the U.S. watch MTV's 60 shows, from The Ashlee Simpson Show to Wildboyz. Each has its own target audience, logos, promos, merchandise -- and design team..
Some of the new work is even more "I don't get it" than the work MTV has traditionally been known for. However, "I don't get it" is considered a good thing around MTV headquarters. Enigmatic teaser ads for MTV2 blew up the dog to illustration-size, under headlines that seemed to have so many letters missing (NE W TR [line break] ICK S), you might have given up on reading them -- until you realized that nothing was missing..
Enigmatic could also be used to described the book series MTV publishes. With titles like Brave and Crooked and Thin Skin; Keyton calls them image pieces for celebrities and music executives. "We're got a little photo-book fetish going on, and we're also working with solid young fiction writers," he says. His own book, Not Teflon (Universe Publishing/Rizzoli, 2003), is a compendium of MTV design and promos, most notably the MTV Video Music Awards program books that printers have been bringing around for years, showing off pink fur covers and such. Also featured are award-winning campaigns like the "itchy" ads ("Can I Get MTV From Kissing," "3 our of 4 People Have MTV and Don't Even Know It"). Not Teflon, reads the jacket copy, is "about ideas that stick, unlike the Teflon approach of most pop culture today.".
In the book's introduction, Keyton lists all the things "we don't want to be." They are: "Routine, trite, anemic, safe, humdrum, derivative, indistinct, dull, tasteless, expected, defanged, average, lifeless, dull, trifling, insipid, staid, prudish, garden-variety, trivial, cautious, toothless, vapid, shoddy, bourgeois (!), quaint, bland, timid, standard, slipshod, banal, mediocre, passé, corny, unendurable, overly sentimental, typical (and in really big type) IRRELEVANT,".
Well, if you work at MTV, you don't have to be any of those things. In-house at the nation's 64th largest corporation, as Viacom was ranked in the 2004 Fortune 500, designers can be what they do want to be. By the looks of things, they love it. And so does most of the target audience, stealth launch notwithstanding. And, we can surmise, so do the guys up in finance. Everybody is happy (well, maybe not your old violin teacher who thought that all music after Rachmanoff was crap). Thus, it continues to be true, as the award-winning promo advises: "Many People With MTV Still Lead Happy and Productive Lives.".
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