The last Friday of every month, creatives of all sorts gather for free breakfast, free coffee and free advice. Not just here in Atlanta, but all over the world. The inspirational a.m. lectures are called “Creative Mornings.” The man behind the events here in Atlanta is Blake Howard. A designer in his own right, Blake is a partner and creative director at Matchstic, a branding agency here in Atlanta.
After attending a Creative Mornings meeting in Chicago, Blake became acquainted with Tina Roth-Eisenburg, the founder of Creative Mornings. By the end of the event, he had introduced himself as the owner of Matchstic, and inquired about starting Creative Mornings here.
Soon he was in talks with Creative Mornings’ main sponsor, Mailchimp (conveniently Atlanta-based!), who already had a potential Atlantan Creative Mornings series in the works. Eventually the reigns of the speaking series were handed over to Blake and his crew over at Matchstic, with Mailchimp remaining as a financial sponsor. If you’ve attended one of the morning lectures you know that’s no small feat–along with donating the sound equipment, microphones and projectors, Mailchimp also provides breakfast and coffee for patrons of the speaking series. Blake and his Matchsic team take care of most of the other operations.
I met with Blake Howard at his office recently to discuss how he got Creative Mornings off the ground in our fair city.
What inspired you to start Creative Mornings?
I was in Chicago for a conference and was invited to attend a Creative Mornings session there. I had no idea what Creative Mornings was at the time and thought it sounded a little cheesy. When I went though, I loved everything about it–its focus on community, combined with a speaker who had really good stuff to say; I felt really inspired to do something like that in Atlanta.
Part of my conviction in that was wanting to see Atlanta on the map with all of these other great cities: San Francisco, New York, Paris, Milan, all of these really amazing cities known for creativity. I just really wanted Atlanta to be on that map; Atlanta has a ton of amazing creative talent. I wanted to create an environment that would bring creatives together as a community [to be] inspired.
You have a videographer that records all of the speakings, as well as a photographer who’s really great. How did you go about assembling your team? Did people just get passionate and join in?
I think so. I think people love to help out with it, especially because it’s a free event. Also I just knew a lot of really talented, creative people from owning Matchstic. Ron Dawson, the guy who makes all of our videos, I knew him from a couple of past projects and everyone was just really willing to jump on board, which was really cool.
I think from the response in attendance, along with sponsors like that, it just really better illustrated that this was needed–something that people really wanted to be a part of.
Hawkins-Gaar, who works with CNN, was your first female speaker. How do you go about deciding who will speak?
I usually ask previous speakers who they think would be good, but I also look for people that are notable in the design community, who work at a recognized company or brand that comes with a certain amount of credibility, like Coke, Chic-fil-a or CNN.
I also think about who would give a good half-time speech because, at its heart, that is really what Creative Mornings is: a coaching session. That’s what makes us really different than some other events; we don’t want our speakers to just show their work off, we want them to encourage and inspire the creative community. So they need to have some credibility with their work and with what they’re going to say, but be inspirational as well. Can this person be a great coach to this group for twenty minutes?
I’m very excited for Katie’s talk. I really want to get some female speakers, but more importantly she’s just a really young go-getter. She’s definitely the youngest person that we’ve ever had speak in Atlanta. Plus, she’s done some really inspired and great things at CNN. I’m very excited for her to bring something fresh and new with her talk.
How do you feel Atlanta’s design community changed in the past year since you started Creative Mornings?
You know, that’s a tough question, I don’t know. Through my limited exposure to it through Matchstic and Creative Mornings, I feel that people are becoming more aware of Atlanta’s potential. I’ve met a few people recently who have moved to Atlanta from New York and L.A. who were in situations where they were at a big firms and just decided that they liked the South. I feel like we’re attracting more talent to Atlanta, which is great.
I also think that we’re attracting more of a community within our design realm. I’ve never thought of Creative Mornings as a competitor to any other speaking series in Atlanta as much as a partnership. For instance, AIGA–there’s a lot of good collaboration that can happen there, and I feel like we’re really rooting them on as much as they are us.
What’s your favorite moment from Creative Mornings past?
Well, my favorite moment is probably different than for most people who attend to hear the speakers, because I’m thinking about audio issues, keeping track of time and operations. Before this I had never really hosted events, so I’ve learned a lot of that throughout this process.
At the very first Creative Mornings we had Ben Chestnut, the founder of Mailchimp, speak. Tina Roth-Eisenburg flew in for that event, and ten minutes before the speech was supposed to start, the audio in the venue we were using just crashed. We were super stressed, running around trying to figure it out with the video and audio guys. At the very last second we were able to work out the issue–a great behind-the-scenes victory. Ben’s talk ended up being an amazing presentation, one of my favorites.
Then two months ago, when Dwain Cox from Chick-fil-a spoke, we had a similar moment. He was amazing, but we had some serious audio issues and actually ended up losing the audio feed for the video. But then Ron, our video guy, was inspired to do the first ever documentary about Creative Mornings, and ended up using a lot of it to his advantage. So it ended up being that this mishap in the audio became a really awesome story about that specific talk. It’s wonderful when you’re able to take what could be a bad situation and turn it into a good thing.
How do you want Creative Mornings to grow in the next year?
I want to continue to get really interesting people and have it hosted in really interesting places so we can keep it growing. We’re forced to work with whatever size restrictions of the given venue we’re in, so if we could have a few that are hosted in, say, the High Museum of Art and are able to have 400 people come… that would be great. I really think we could get there too. We usually have about 200 to 225 that get to come, with about 50 to 80 people on the waiting list who aren’t able to come because there just isn’t the space. I’d love to see bigger venues start hosting us by donating their spaces.
I’d love to continue to have people who do really influential work. People who are working on the Olympics or doing really important things in the city of Atlanta. That’s something that’s very important about our speakers–having worked in Atlanta. We’ve had a couple of opportunities with people who are traveling through Atlanta who would like to speak, but I think it’s important to me that the speakers are from the city.
Is that how you would differentiate Creative Mornings from, say for instance, a TED Talk?
I think TED is awesome, I love it. Ours is more focused on Atlantan creatives and designers. We try to keep it local–it’s Atlanta vendors who are serving the coffee and the pastries at Creative Mornings. It’s Atlanta design firms and buisnesses who are hosting us. I really love the local aspects of Creative Mornings.
How does Creative Mornings influence your work at Matchstic?
It’s been great. Most of the people who help host Creative Mornings are Matchstic people. The greeters, ticket holders, sound–it’s all Matchstic’s designers and project managers. It’s cool for us to come together and do something creative outside of normal Matchstic stuff. It gives most of our team a broader view of the work that’s going on. We’re part of the audience, so it’s great for us to hear the talks–we’re creative people, and we need inspiration too.
Has it changed your actual work?
I think so, but it’s hard to track something that’s not tangible like inspiration. I feel that it has broadened our sense of purpose. We’re not just trying to do great work for Matchstic anymore, we’re trying to do great work for Atlanta. The more we can do great brand work, the better we represent Atlanta as the creative outlet that it is.
How would you like to see Atlanta’s design community evolve in the future and what role would you like to have in that process?
I would like to see Atlanta continue to produce really dynamic and original work. Whether it’s architecture, graphic design, photography, animation, whatever. There’s this great perception that a lot of other cities in the U.S. like New York or L.A. are just the best: they get all the big brands, and they get all the big campaigns. There’s an ongoing perception that all the great design work is coming from those two cities alone. I would love to see Atlanta perceived as their equal. Right now, I wouldn’t say it is. People perceive it as a creative city… for the South. I would love to see it as more than just that.
In that same vein, at Matchstic, we have that same responsibility to aid in that. We need to do great work for Atlanta. I feel challenged to push our team to demonstrate what we want to see happen in the design community.
Creative Mornings meets the last Friday of every month at 9 a.m.; registration opens via Eventbrite the Monday prior to the reading. For more information about registration and speakers follow Creative Mornings Atlanta @atlanta_cm
Photo Credit: Victor Protasio