When you create something that invites people, they have a lot of interesting things to say.

Ji Lee, a former ad man and current Facebook communication designer, recently gave a talk at J. Walter Thompson New York on personal projects and bringing playfulness to work. Lee found his professional calling in subverting the industry he was working in—sticking speech bubbles onto ads for passersby to comment on. The Bubble Project became something of a movement, with people around the world talking back to ads and creating a public dialogue. Lee has since worked on a number of cool projects, from clownifying ads to transforming typography into images.

We caught up with Lee about creative collaboration, making ads better and the power of humor.

You said your favorite thing to do is to subvert—why is that so tempting, and what is it about advertising that needs to be subverted?

I think creativity in general is a form of subversion because creative minds are always looking to subvert things. When you look at painters, filmmakers, writers, creatives in advertising, one of their similarities is subversion because creatives don’t look at things in the same way. Creative minds are always trying to look at things from a different angle. I think subversion is part of being creative, and when it comes to advertising, we’re trying to draw people from what they’re doing and deliver something that could be helpful, interesting and engaging. And by doing so, we in advertising need to really do something different. If we do the formulaic advertising time after time after time, it not only gets repetitive and boring, but it turns people off.

Digital really opens up possibilities of how to connect with people in a meaningful way. So we have the traditional channels of television and print available, which are extremely valuable, but also now we have whole new ways of communicating, through social channels, websites, etc. There’s a new era of transparency and sharing information, and people have access to a lot of information that they didn’t have before. So every consumer has this super power of having access to every bit of information and content, any time, on any device, which brings a lot of responsibility to those who are creating ads. I think the idea of subverting for me is really rethinking the traditional way of doing things to create something that is truly meaningful and helpful and engaging to consumers.

How can marketers be subversive while genuinely touting their products?

One thing that became evident for me when I did The Bubble Project was the profound disconnect between what many advertisers wanted to communicate and how their audience perceived their messages. The Bubble Project enabled people to talk back to advertisers. Some advertisers tend to speak to themselves, but now with the Internet and social channels, there is a vast transparency of information. People can easily comment on ads, talk back to advertisers and call out bullshit. There’s power now for the consumers to speak up, which I think is great for everyone, because this will force everyone to be more transparent and offer better products and services. Every brand has a great story to tell. There’s also an amazing opportunity for brands to better connect with their consumers by listening to them more and by providing what is really meaningful for them.

What is the benefit of creating work that invites viewers to participate?

One thing that I learned from The Bubble Project is when you create something that invites people, they have a lot of interesting things to say. There’s also the element of the speech bubble from comic strips that people associate with humor. Humor for me was a big part of this project, because when you smile, your barrier goes down immediately and you’re more receptive to the messaging, and you’re more receptive to your own thoughts and imagination.

Yeah, a lot of your projects are really participatory and fun.

The participatory aspect is really important to me. Many years ago, when I used to work in the agency world, there was a sense of protecting your idea and not sharing with others. There was this fear that people will take your idea and make their own. I take the exact opposite approach with my work—I want to share it as much as I can with others, because when you share, good things happen. People take that idea and make it better. Also, when I work with other people I learn so much. They bring different ways of thinking about the project that I hadn’t seen before; problems get solved a lot easier when you’re working in collaboration. So I’m really not worried about protecting my idea. I’m a lot more interested in making my ideas shareable and participatory and open-source.

And you know, even without asking, people give credit to the person who initiated the project. I think that’s the really wonderful thing about the new Internet culture, that there is this mutual trust and respect. When you’re bringing a genuinely positive attitude to the people you’re working with, I think people feel that, and they give the respect back to you. So that’s why I realize the power of sharing ideas and making projects collaborative. Also, things are so open and transparent on the Internet that you’d make a fool of yourself if you tried to steal someone else’s idea.

Any examples of brands that have used the medium of Facebook really well?

There are so many brands that have used Facebook as a medium well. I don’t want to give specific names, because I think it’s unfair to others that aren’t mentioned, but I think in general it’s brands that understand the power of connecting with people in a meaningful way. It’s not just posting a piece of advertising and shouting at people just for the sake of disrupting them and showing them something. Then advertising gets annoying and spammy. But brands that understand the power of connecting with their consumers—really speaking the truth about their story and understanding their consumers—people are very receptive to that. Not every brand gets that, but a lot of brands that are doing it are being successful on Facebook.

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