Artistry for the Small Screen
by Patricia Kitchen

Chief Creative Officers apply a flair for the dramatic to multimedia interactive marketing and online display

What do early Hollywood and the Greek god and goddess Hermes and Athena have to do with a hot young software company? Simply everything, if you are Zoe Helene, the chief creative officer for General Interactive, Inc. in Cambridge Mass.

As for her formal training in technology? She has none. In fact, she says, “I was terrified of technology,” but five years ago she started teaching herself when she saw the Internet’s potential for artistic people. What’s most important, she says, is to know how to train yourself because “the tools are always changing, improving, evolving.” (Her formal schooling is an MFA in theatre—both acting and set and costume design.)

Like the boom town days of the early West, so is the interactive media industry of today, with young people like Helene creating more and more sophisticated applications. It’s the industry of the moment, and promises to go further. By 2003, it’s expected there will be more than 156 million people online. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics has included artists and commercial artists on its list of occupations with fast growth, high earnings and low unemployment through 2006, not to mention all those computer wizards.

Helene, who answers most questions through sketching and storytelling, see Hermes, the messenger god, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom, weaving and strategy as the patron saints of the Internet. And, as for early Hollywood – think late ‘20s when silent pictures started to become talkies. “Sound for movies shook the industry,” she says.

And that brings us to her current work. She is developing multimedia interactive campaigns—ads, promotions, other communications that can include music, animation and video—for company clients, who include Nike, Calvin Klein, and JCPenney.

She showed me some of her work when I came to learn what a chief creative officer does. Part of the day, she says, is spent on the computer, designing and directing a team of 17 artists, most of whom are in India. Her first order of the morning is to download the work they have done overnight on the other side of the globe. And she talks of the challenge of trying to explain things like Easter eggs to people who have never seen them.

The day I’m there, we download their renderings of Little Red Riding Hood and the “big bad wolf.” It’s that negative stereotype of wolves that this new campaign is being designed to eliminate. On the drawing boards as a project for the Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C., it is envisioned to help save the Yellowstone National Park wolves. Her success with corporate work, she says, gives her leverage to work also on such causes for which she feels so much passion.

We also look over the shoulder of djkazz—the professional name of Kazuhito Yoshida, 28 – the director of new media, whose background is in fine arts. He is working on a template for a multimedia Web postcard that companies can send to customers, who in turn can send them to their friends. The one we see features a CD cover for the jazz musician Chuck Mangione, complete with the artist’s music and website link.

Helene is called to attend a meeting with potential investors—the company, she says, is on an aggressive IPO track. And during the course of the day, she’s also asked for advice on everything from hanging a velvet curtain in the lobby to how to get the president’s car keys (he’s ensconced in meetings), so lunch can get picked up.

The daughter of an artist and a teacher who taught artists science, she grew up in New Zealand, so she really appreciates the value of email to people in distant locations.

People interested in following in her footsteps need what her grandmother called a “divine spark”—which is raw talent. In addition, it’s wise to study both graphic arts and theatre or film, which will help you, “get a sense of how to play to an audience.” And don’t let people talk you into developing only one expertise – besides theatre, she also worked in the recording arts business. “Focus is great, but I would never have been a director if I had done just one thing.”

September 1999