Ross Martin on How to Liberate the Rhyme and Meter of Business

Daina Amorosano by Daina Amorosano, Viacom

If you’ve ever sought to be understood in the rapidly evolving world of media or business or life more generally, Ross Martin’s TED talk “The Poetry of Misunderstanding,” is worth a watch.

At the helm of Scratch, Viacom’s in-house creative agency, Martin – who calls his degree in poetry “surprisingly great preparation” for his life as a media exec – has officiated a marriage between art and commerce. Throughout his presentation, he outlines what that union looks like and how we can use free verse to liberate the rhyme and meter of media and business. According to Martin, by embracing our messy, imperfect genius, letting go of our hopes of being understood, and welcoming creative interpretations, we can tap into “one of the great unheralded fountains of genius.”

And the worlds of poetry and media, he says, overlap much more than you might think. He compares the rules of a sonnet, with its rigorous formal rhyme schemes to television (an hour of TV is 44 minutes of reel, the rest is promo and paid commercial time). But the same way poetry began to break out of its formal constraints a century-plus ago, media’s breaking free and moving toward free verse.

Now, Martin says, a hit can be a 30-minute show, a three-minute video, a 30-second clip, or “a 3-second look on the face of an adorable grasshopper.”

“People will never receive your work exactly as you intend it – but the truth is we don’t want them to – we want them to chew it up, swallow it and reject it – we want it to change them and them to change it. We want them to spit something back out that’s new and original,” he says. “Everyone has a smartphone…and what they’re doing is remixing, mashing up, and then spitting back out into social media whatever they can consume as fast as they can consume it.”

But after your idea is shared and garbled, he says, what rises to the top is something better than your original concept.

“That’s not a happy accident,” he says. “That’s a magical consequence.”

The talk itself is a work of art, too, infused (unpretentiously) with a little Eliot here and a little cummings there.

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