Opinion: The art of business

Theo Erasmus

Let’s start with a mea culpa.

I’ve spent most of my career helping companies sell stuff – as creative director and strategist in ad agencies, innovation shops and digital startups, all over the world.

But despite this, I’ve often felt companies have a greater responsibility than just getting people to buy their stuff. I believe they should not just satisfy our material needs, but especially given their dominance in modern American society, also some of our spiritual needs: our need for meaning, truth and beauty.

For many years, at least in the developed world, we have tied social status and happiness to consumerism. This has been particularly acute in America, where a lot of effort and money are spent on getting people to buy things.

Then there is another American trait – a relentless drive to efficiency. Getting workers to do more for less has been a driving force in American business, especially since the ’70s.

In fact, since the 1950s America has been in an ever-accelerating drive for efficiency.

Americans are now 400 percent more productive than in the 1950s.

So you’d think we’d work less and have more leisure time to enrich ourselves in other ways. (Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but the trend is clear.)

We actually work more than ever, according to a recent report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) – 137 hours more per year than the Japanese, who have a deserved reputation for hard work, and at least 500 hours more than the French, who don’t.

Our life has become our work, and that hasn’t made us happy. In fact, it’s had the opposite effect.

According to a 2017 Gallup Poll, about 80 percent of Americans say they’re stressed. Many researchers consider it a symptom of overwork, and a disconnected society where social bonds are frayed and trust has been eroded. And, of course, digital media and its invasive and persistent hijacking of our attention hasn’t helped. (Let’s not even go to politics.)

In the process, it seems to me, we have lost something precious. Our “souls.”

 Not in a religious sense, but in the sense of our most abundant humanity.

But how do we get it back? How do we create more meaning?

The answer, I believe, is art. In a world of efficiency, beauty is a revolutionary act.

And the best vehicle for beauty is art, in all its splendid forms. Not art at the expense of business, but art and creativity that co-exist with business.

I’m part of the House of Beautiful Business, a global community that works to humanize business in an age of machines. We gather once a year in Lisbon to explore how business can be more beautiful. The gathering includes poets, philosophers, musicians, startups and industry heavyweights from the likes of Airbus, Airbnb and big consulting firms.

We love business, but think business can do better.

I believe this matters in three ways:

First, by making the experience of work more meaningful, by infusing it with beauty and truth, so that it nourishes our souls, not just fattens our wallets. Art not just on the fringes of business culture, but at the heart of it.

This usually starts with an intent to treat people as whole, human, soulful beings (not efficient machines) – whether it’s having an artist-in-residence, an art gallery, quiet spaces, gardens, a thoughtful working space, imaginative child care, fun, music, poetry (even just a poetic vision), or tapping in artists’ deep well of creativity as part of business decision-making.

Second, there’s the real tangible value art can bring to businesses, because the competitive advantage is, more than ever, creativity and invention. Art provides this abundantly.

As Richard Branson said in “Business Stripped Bare”:

“Business is creative. It’s like painting. You start with a blank canvas. You can paint anything – anything – and there, right there, is your first problem. For every good painting you might turn out, there are a zillion bad paintings just aching to drip off your brush. You pick a colour. The next colour you choose has to work with the first colour. The third colour has to work with the first and the second…

“People who bad-mouth businessmen and women in general are missing the point. People in business who succeed have swallowed their fear and have set out to create something special, something to make a difference to people’s lives.”

Third, there’s “talent.” Talented people in the modern, connected world go where the meaning is. They’re no longer content with just the security of a salary; they want much more. They want to create meaning; they want lives of balance and beauty.

This will become even more so, as many routine tasks will be done by machines, with artificial intelligence becoming ever more sophisticated. Which will leave us with the question: What would “human work” look like then?

I believe it will be the work of creativity and meaning, of craft and depth.

Efficiency has pushed us to become machine-like. But we’re made of flesh and blood and heart. Our true humanity is in what we feel, and what we create and what we love.

Perhaps rather than just chasing after the wonders of tech and the lure of tech start-ups, we should look at our art and makers’ community to create a truly unique business (and human) culture in Cincinnati.

Creative thinkers and makers give their communities joy, connection, inspiration, and spark thought-provoking critique of our economic, political and social systems – stimulating debate and thinking in communities, spurring them to grapple with ideas, and become engines for social progress.

Cincinnati has a uniquely vibrant art community and many brilliant designers, whose talents have often been used to sell people stuff – rather than for the edification of the human spirit.

It’s obviously not an either/or situation. Art and business need each other. But not as separate entities, as integrated systems for whole humans.

After all, in a time when everything that can be done more efficiently will be done by machines, being human is the ultimate differentiator.

Theo Erasmus is founder at Brand Strategy Consultancy Timbuctoo, a collective think tank committed to the art of business and the business of art.

He has worked in human rights activism, advertising, the original dot-com boom, innovation and as founder of three companies, along with forays into journalism, from the South African crime beat to NY culture.

He’s an adviser/supporter at Wave Pool Art Gallery, a trustee at the Contemporary Art Center, a committee member for This Time Tomorrow Performance Festival and resident of The House of Beautiful Business.

This essay is the first in a series we plan to present in coming months, further exploring the issue of business and the arts, and highlighting some companies, organizations and start-ups that pursue the ideals Mr. Erasmus has outlined.

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