“Grant, I feel I need to mention that some of the other employees have complained about the meat grinders. It’s making them uncomfortable.”
— The CEO of my former ad agency.
I began collecting meat grinders nearly three years ago after a conversation I had with an account exec I was working with on a new project. He was wondering when we could get some work in front of a client. Like all good AEs, he wanted to show some progress and give the client something to react to. But the work was not ready.
“We need to put this stuff through the meat grinder first,” I threw out.
He was puzzled. I explained that the thoughts and ideas we were messing with needed to be broken down, vetted, and minced — in every sense of the word. We needed to sanity-test every thought and follow every creative lead. We needed to dig for golden insights until one of three things happen: We are exhausted. We strike gold. We burn our hands on the molten mantel at the earth’s core. This satisfied my AE brother and we set a deadline for the outcome of this grind session. Good meeting.
The next day, a Saturday, I was on India Street on Nantucket in the basement of an old home that now served as the local hospital’s thrift shop. I came across a nice looking meat grinder. It was likely as old as I am, give or take a few years. It had that glint of old-world utility. We don’t use these things any more thanks to the blender, the KitchenAid mixer with all of its swell attachments, and the ever-handy food processor. Who needs a hunk of metal that clamps to the countertop or farm table and featured a wooden-handled crank? Who has the time?
Having just talked about meat grinders with my colleague, I bought the piece for $2 and brought it to the office on my trip back to Connecticut that week. A visual aid. There was an exposed I-beam in my workspace that ran from the floor to the ceiling, so I clamped my new hardware to it. I stepped back. It looked good, but something was missing.
More meat grinders.
After that day, I began supplementing my antique cast iron pan purchases with meat grinders. On one trip, I bought nine. On another, four. They seemed to be available in every antique mall and second-hand store I entered. I even crossed state lines on a Wednesday evening to purchase two vintage beauties from a man on craigslist.com — one, a rather rare Griswold №2. On another occasion, I bought a massive grease-black beast of a grinder from a woman I met in an Olive Garden parking lot in Plainville, CT after 10 PM, giggling all the way back to my apartment. Before long, over 20 more hunks of metal and wood joined the original “Universal 1572” grinder on the I-beam.
That’s around the time the meat grinders started to make a few of my fellow teammates uncomfortable. (Which was partially the point.) Comfort is not the goal of the work we do. The goal, instead, is to uncomfortably force ourselves to do the hard work needed to uncover new creative thinking.
After I left that agency and lugged all of those meat grinders home to Nantucket — a good story in and of itself that will have to wait for another time — I installed the collection in my little 10 x 12 studio workspace and there I began to explore the concept even further. I put the concept of the meat grinder through the meat grinder! And the result is the following statement of truths.
The Meat Grinder Manifesto.
As creative professionals, we adhere to the following truths because doing so nets the best work. The most original work. The work that no one can mess with. The work that makes other creative people say, “Shit, I wish I came up with that…” As members of the Order of the Meat Grinder, we believe that the power of an idea comes from the energy we put into uncovering it. We, therefore, adhere to the following axioms.
ONE. Do the hard work. It always pays off. Anyone can buy 80/20 hamburger joylessly extruded onto a flimsy styrofoam tray and covered with plastic wrap in the supermarket. A true culinary artist selects different cuts of meat and finds the time to grind something special. It takes work and time to make a burger with 50% sirloin, 25% brisket, and 25% short rib, but day-um! The results speak for themselves (serve with shaved, raw, sweet onion, pickles, and American cheese on a fresh Something Natural® hamburger bun). In the same way, as creative pros, it’s important to recognize that the work we do is difficult and we can’t, and should not, phone it in.
TWO. The cheap answer is always the wrong answer. Consider the Einstellung Effect which states that the more experience one has, the more likely one is to think that one’s initial, intuitive solution to a problem is the best one. Because it’s worked before. But there’s a term for this in our business: creative malpractice. Truth is, new problems require new, hard-won solutions. Why should a client pay for an idea that easily falls out of your brain during the input session? The first thing that comes to mind should be the answer of last resort.
THREE. The comfort zone is out of bounds. Insights come from getting out of your own head and into the heads of other people in other situations. It’s messy. It’s uncertain. It’s a pain in the ass. You have to get up out of your massive overstuffed chair and dig for novelty and cool. You have to break a sweat. No one ever got six-pack abs by watching Netflix on the couch (unless they started out with eight-pack abs).
FOUR. Break it down before you build it up. A happy post-mortem for a given creative project is often preceded by a healthy pre-mortem weeks before launch. Scrutinizing every moving part of an idea and immunizing your solution against failure results in thinking that’s concentrated, brief and powerful.
FIVE. Crank out more than you need. When you take the time to set up the meat grinder, you wouldn’t then turn the crank three times and be done with it. Generating a full range of solutions means you will be sure the ideas that finally go to the client are the best ones possible because you’ve left no cut of meat unground, so to speak.
SIX. Learn to love the cranking. In our business, the best idea often wins. It might get an award. It might get us a promotion. Or even win us a new client. But, paradoxically, the value of what comes out of the meat grinder is far, far less than the value one gains from turning the crank. Put another way, we learn so much more from the process than we do from the result. Remember that the winning idea is just one arbitrary thing sitting atop an invisible, hard-won mountain of cranked-out possibilities and insights.
Grant Sanders is the founder of SAND which is a Nantucket-based firm that delivers Strategy, Art, Narrative, and Design to brands that move people. One crank at a time.