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A Chief Creative Officer’s POV: “Unlearning Control”

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Mikon van Gastel Sibling Rivalry

Mikon van Gastel of Sibling Rivalry is creating visceral connections, fusing insight and imagination to drive brands forward

First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times? 

Mikon van Gastel: Thanks for asking, and yes, most importantly, everyone is healthy.

Secondly – it’s been a moment of reflection, which resulted in big changes for all. We realized, as a family, that we were done with the New York chapter of our lives. We lived there for almost 20 years, and it was time for different energy.

My wife is Cuban, and we moved to Miami. A totally different lifestyle, culture, closer to friends and family. As for many others, this crazy time has allowed me personally to take a critical look at my work/life balance and focus on my physical and mental health. 

When life fundamentally challenges us the way COVID did, all you can try to do is to take stock and allow yourself to reinvent or pivot, both personally and professionally, and that’s what we did. If the world is changing around you, your mind can too.

Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Sibling Rivalry.

Mikon van Gastel: I’m from Holland originally, where I studied design. When Postmodernism hit the design world, I left Holland to go to graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the US. I’m quite curious and always looking towards what’s next.

It’s there where I switched from traditional graphic design to Film and Animation. I have an MFA, without a BFA, because I left during my last year in Holland and simply never came back. Radical change can be good.

After grad school, I went to Imaginary Forces in LA and later opened their office in New York. I worked extensively in the Film Industry on film titles and marketing, as well as directing major Advertising campaigns. Another aspect I was particularly proud of was the collaborations with architects, where we used media to bring their spaces to life both externally and internally.

After Imaginary Forces, I opened my own design and production company and have since pivoted to start a hybrid Agency called Sibling Rivalry with my Partner Joe Wright.

How does Sibling Rivalry innovate? 

Mikon van Gastel: As I said, we are a hybrid agency made up of 3 integral parts: Agency x Studio x Films.

The Hybrid model allows us to be involved from the strategic seed of an idea (Agency), all the way to the creation (Studio), filming, and Post-production of it (Films). That full 360 model is what makes us unique. 

As we like to say: we are creatively driven, strategically grounded, and collectively curious. And most importantly – fun to work with!

How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?

Mikon van Gastel: Live-Action production came to a virtual halt, and remote shooting became the new norm. But in some ways, this time of crisis gave us opportunities we’d never have otherwise. It confirms the notion that creativity and innovation can actually blossom in times of crisis.

Two examples of that are for our client HPE.

One was the virtual panels we wrote, directed, and produced for the HPE Discover conferences. Normally they have renowned guests in a physical panel discussion on a live stage. None of this was possible during COVID, which forced us into a radically new perspective in terms of our thinking, and created an opportunity to develop a new mode of expression.

To be able to orchestrate these long-form live interviews with notable people from the world of Business (Toto Wolff from Mercedes F1, Rick Welts from the Golden State Warriors) and Sports (Simone Biles, Lewis Hamilton, and Captain Sully Sullenberger) and STILL create compelling, authentic feeling content was a real eye-opener.

Another example was the remote shoot for HPE Greenlake. 

To direct a crew of 9 people roaming remote locations all over Iceland while the clients were on the West Coast and production was on the East Coast was really exciting and somewhat nerve-wracking. 

With camera feeds through Q-Take and a live communication channel via WhatsApp and ZOOM, we were able to shoot with a regular camera crew on the ground AND a drone in the sky simultaneously. 

Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?

Mikon van Gastel: In the world of Branding, Advertising, and Live-Action Production, we are used to controlling everything. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. During COVID, this simply isn’t possible. 

We had no choice but to let go of full control. Simply put, the borders were closed, there was no way for us to be on set.

What I learned is that with ultra-detailed communication and preparation, combined with real trust in the local professionals, you can have great success. 

This year, by unlearning control, I feel I have gained flexibility… It is an openness to new ideas and new forms of collaboration and, most importantly, transforming it into a creative gain.

What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?

Mikon van Gastel: We migrated the majority of our workflow from local servers to cloud-based systems. So now, remote software like Slack, Zoom, G-Suite, Teamviewer, Dropbox, and Resilio are essential to us. Software that allows desktop sharing, quick feedback, the mark-up on a live screen, and instantly assigns tasks is the closest we can get to mimicking being in a collaborative space together. And it’s gone remarkably well, I must say!

For us, this has been a time of great opportunity. While the live-action business was deeply influenced for obvious reasons, the agency side really bloomed. Never has there been more need for Entertainment Branding and Marketing and brand-building from the ground up.

Because of the multi-dimensional skill level of many of our key people, we were quickly able to refocus our attention to where it was most needed. We didn’t have to fire and hire different people. We protected the core and helped our people pivot towards new opportunities. Adapt rapidly.

During a crisis of this scale, your people’s health and well-being very quickly become a major point of focus. We built internal communication channels on multiple levels to make it more intimate and immediate. We introduced protocols to stop work-life from bleeding into private life. We installed a “small gift” program that shows people we appreciated their efforts greatly.

Also – I learned transparency during times of uncertainty is absolutely key! So we were always honest.

Often it’s the small things that have the greatest impact.

Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?

Mikon van Gastel: We compete with Production companies, Branding Companies, and other Ad Agencies.

We believe the most powerful ideas are born of truths, imagination, and diverse points of view. 

With the incredible push for more diversity in the world at large and our industry, in particular, we are committed to driving and fostering equality, as we ensure that diverse voices are simultaneously heard and elevated within our culture and our work.

We used the time of COVID to set up Mentorship and Internship Programs while inviting in and hiring new people across all company levels that have totally invigorated its culture and injected new voices into our creative processes. This process isn’t easy – but it is well worth it and much needed.

Your final thoughts?

Mikon van Gastel: COVID has been tough for many people and incredibly traumatic for others. I feel incredibly grateful that my family and friends seem to have weathered it fairly well. 

It has made me realize as a Creative and a Business owner that we run on a set of beliefs and assumptions that guide us in our daily lives, and at some point, they start limiting us. Sibling as a company and me as a person both needed change, and in many ways, COVID came at the right time for us both. 

After 9 years of growth, COVID helped my partner Joe, and I realize Sibling indeed needed a new impulse. And for growth and transformation to occur, sometimes a radical event accelerates the rethinking of your belief systems and positions you to pursue new ways of working as well as the pursuit of different creative opportunities. 

Simultaneously – on a personal level – times like these give you a new perspective on what’s really meaningful and refocuses what you invest your time and energy into. It is liberating to allow yourself to change.

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