Q&A with Seth Farbman: Spotify CMO, motivator, frequent flyer

Spotify CMO Seth Farbman
Seth Farbman finds that creativity can happen quickly: in five-minute bursts, on a short deadline, even in the shower. But you have to get the team environment right first, and that can take months. We sat down with Spotify’s CMO to discuss the secrets of the creative process, how he motivates his team, and why the airplane cabin is his favorite space for growing ideas.

When do you feel your most creative?

I need quiet. I don’t need a lot of time, but in the chaotic world, really just brief, intense moments of quiet are hard to find. The cliché of the shower is right—that’s your five minutes.

But I [also] write on planes. I don’t turn on the WiFi. I ignore the email. I’ve seen all the movies. I remove myself from the distractions, and often on my phone, I simply write. And for me, the act of creation starts with writing. For others, it’s a different way, but that’s really where I do the best work: short bursts, 45 minutes at a time, isolation, and probably low oxygen and high altitude has something to do with it.

What’s so important is not the moment of collaboration, but it’s the environment that you created in the days and months and years before then. It’s about safety, and it’s about respect for people.

How do you think about teamwork? How do you think about bringing a team along to a creative vision?

I start with questions, not answers. I find that it’s just a much better way for people to feel open and relaxed. What’s so important is not the moment of collaboration, but it’s the environment that you created in the days and months and years before then. It’s about safety, and it’s about respect for people.

There’s that old saying that “a good idea can come from everywhere,” and “no idea is a bad idea.” and all of that. It’s actually not true, but you have to take all of the judgement away, which is a very difficult thing to do, and then you have to follow your path away from the intellectual and into the emotional.

When we collaborate, often it’s face to face, at first. But then I also think that you need to provide people their process. Mine is seclusion on an airplane, but others may be in a group setting, others may be at home, others whatever. You have to allow people to go away, however they choose, and give them a little bit of time, but not too much time.

That’s, I think, the real key. With our creative team, often I am accused of giving them not enough time, and I accept that, but I also know that if I gave an extra week, they would take exactly the same amount of time to come to the same conclusion. It’s just the process. But I’ve come to realize that the constraints are what leads to better creativity, and the constraints can be time and they can be money and they can be specificity for what you’re trying to say. Good creators respond.

We had this example, the Chainsmokers were on Saturday Night Live. Their brief to us was: “Our music is incredibly popular but maybe we’re not so much. So how do we show the humanity? How do we show who we are?” So we gave the team four days to come up with a 30-second television spot that had to run on Saturday Night Live in whatever the right place was. If it wasn’t done then there would be essentially 30 seconds of dead air.

So the team did an incredible job, and instead of doing a spot with the Chainsmokers, they did a spot with the Chainsmokers’ mothers instead, which really brought some humanity and some sensitivity to these guys. And what was so interesting is there was a little bit of grumbling going into it, but now when I hear the creative team talking about how proud they are of that work, it always starts with, “We had four days to do a Chainsmoker spot.” So you can’t take away the glory of overcoming the restraints and the requirements.

My role is to give permission to be bolder and braver. It’s much easier to pull something back than it is to push it forward.

So then what does it take to bring a big bright idea to life?

It takes constant encouragement. People toggle between wanting to do the right thing and wanting to deliver what is expected of them, and walking out into highly uncomfortable territory. Strangely, I find that my role is to give permission, not just to fail, because I don’t even know what that looks like, but permission to be bolder and braver, and it’s much easier to pull something back than it is to push it forward.

So, big ideas actually don’t come just all at once, they come from an initial kernel where you say, “Make it weirder.” “What if we did it bigger?” “What if it was more controversial?” And we found in our experience, we’ve done some things that could be considered slightly controversial, maybe even slightly political, but you’re creating ideas that come from people through music. So it’s not necessarily what our point of view is, but it’s understanding how people are feeling about the world and how they express it in their own way. It gives you permission to be as bold as you want, because you’re merely, but importantly, holding up a mirror to what people think and what people feel.

It takes many, many people with many diverse backgrounds with many different points of view in order to get something special.

When you think about your creative accomplishments, what comes to mind?

What I’m most proud of is giving people the opportunity to be as creative as possible. That really becomes both my role and my satisfaction. I learned a lesson earlier in life where, if I was driving creativity, then I was actually limiting our ability to be creative. So if I was leading too hard, then we were limiting our abilities to my abilities, which are insufficient. It takes many, many people with many diverse backgrounds with many different points of view in order to get something special. So I started to realize that creating the environment and giving people that space was the most creative thing.

I’m incredibly proud of something that was done just earlier this year called “President of Playlists”. What’s so interesting is creative ideas don’t have to go through marketing. We simply sent a job offer to outgoing President Obama, once he had mentioned that he was interested in a job at Spotify. I think he was kidding, but we [decided to] take him at his word. So we created a job description and put it on our job website for the President of Playlists. And if you read the description, there’s only one man that would be right for the job.

That’s just an idea. The delivery was zero. It was a tweet directly to Barack Obama, and it was a job description sitting on an existing site.

Now, wonderful things happen. [But] I did get an email from our head of recruiting asking us after three days if we would take down the job description, because they had to respond to every applicant, and they already had something like 1,000 applicants in 24 hours!

Next: Hear Seth Farbman and Dropbox CMO Carolyn Feinstein discuss the future of work on Spotify’s podcast, “Upstream.”