ep. 61 - Elliot Kotek: Founder & CEO - 'The Nation of Artists'


Elliot Kotek is a social innovator with degrees in Law, Science and Storytelling. His particular obsession is collaborating on harnessing technology and science to produce low-cost solutions for our most vulnerable populations then utilizing the power of film and the strength of brands to amplify those stories for true reach.

Elliot founded and leads the content communications company The Nation of Artists, through which he is currently executive producing two series on the intersection between humanity and technology, as well as producing two feature documentaries and associated action campaigns around social issues such as education and civil rights.

Elliot's honors include 3 Cannes Lion Awards (including the Titanium Lion), 4 One Show Awards, 3 Maggie Awards, 2 AICP Awards for Cause Marketing, 5 Telly Awards, 2 Clios, the SxSW Innovation Award (and back-to-back nominations in 2015 and 2016), TEDMED's The Hive, the Nominet Trust 100, the No Barriers Summit Award, NYU Craft Award, award nominations from the Design Museum, and project archiving in the permanent collection at MoMA. His work has been publicized in Popular Mechanics, Wired, The Los Angeles Times, Forbes, The Daily Beast, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Independent and hundreds of other outlets and he has been a keynote or featured speaker at SxSW, MakerFaire, NxNE, Social Innovation Summit, Nexus Global Summit at the United Nations, Nexus US Summit at the White House and US Institute for Peace, SIGGRAPH, Discovery Education & Siemens Innovation Summit, TEDxYouth, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and many other premier events.


ep. 61 - Elliot Kotek: Founder & CEO - 'The Nation of Artists'

Gail Davis: Today's guest on GDA Podcast is Elliot Kotek. Elliot is a social innovator with degrees in law, science and storytelling. He has a particular addiction for transforming the hard-to-decipher into the inspirational. And [00:01:00] as the CEO and founder of the nation of artists, he believes in using technology for the sake of humanity. He utilizes the power of film and the strength of big brands to amplify meaningful stories for true reach, and as a result, his content has had over a billion media impressions and has been honored with dozens of rewards, including three Cannes Lions, including the Titanium Lion, four One Show [00:01:30] Pencils, three Maggie awards, two AICP awards for cause marketing, five Telly awards, two Clios, the South By Southwest innovation award, and NYU's craft award. So we are looking forward to hearing from this award-winning storyteller. Welcome to GDA Podcast, Elliot.

Kyle Davis: Hey, Elliot.

Elliot Kotek: Thanks, Gail. Good to be here. Hi, Kyle.

Kyle Davis: So you know, for those who maybe aren't familiar with your background or, you know, [00:02:00] may know little to nothing about you, give us the start. You know, who is Elliot and what is your story and where did you come from, because I hear an accent. Elliot Kotek: Yeah, I'm definitely from the south, from the deep south. From the deep south. So I was born in Melbourne, Australia and I moved to the US about 17 years ago, to New York, and then made my way out to LA after that. But yeah, I've got a bit of a mongrel background, a bit of a mix of a whole bunch of stuff which [00:02:30] at the time seemed really unlinked, but in 20/20 hindsight was actually the perfect journey for me to take, which is I have a law degree, I have a science degree in [phonochology 00:02:43] and toxicology, and then I went to theater school in New York and ended up in UCLA doing a screenwriting program there as well. From an educational perspective I've definitely been on both sides of the brain, and last year I got to study at Kellogg for a bit [00:03:00] in Chicago, which was absolutely incredible.

But definitely focused on social impact, social innovation and using storytelling to drive those narratives forward, both for brands and help them with meaningful engagement with their employees, with their consumers, with their marketplace and help breed some of that brand devotion that everyone loves, and also for social entrepreneurs and social projects where we are really trying to put tools into people's hands. Those people probably [00:03:30] haven't had access to them before because [inaudible 00:03:32] of financial, geographic or physical limitations that they've had.

Kyle Davis: So let's start with helping brands, big brands, because I think that helps to, at least for me and for the audience maybe have a better fundamental understanding of who you are and what you've done, and then we can kind of pivot that into how social entrepreneurs, to use your [verbage 00:03:55], can use your insights and ideas. So when you're trying to help [00:04:00] these big brands build something, you know, what is it that you're doing, and how are you helping to shine a light on what it is that their cause is?

Elliot Kotek: Well there's a couple of things that I think are really interesting about where big brands are in today's marketplace, and one is that they still have to attract employees and talent. And there's a lot of, obviously, complaints and complaining going on about millennials and how they're transitionary, [00:04:30] and Gen Z is looking for something meaningful from the workplace, but I think that what brands now have the opportunity to do is provide a workplace that is really exciting for the people that come into it. And if they can have a meaningful dialog and a meaningful exchange with the people who work there, they're actually going to keep them longer and have them be more engaged and more excited about the opportunities that are in that framework.

So for us it's like one of those conversations is, "Okay, do you [00:05:00] know what the people in your business want out of life?" Right? So if you know that they want something that's a little bit more meaningful than what you've been doing in the past, then how can you engage them, or how can you engage what the company stands for to create something positive that not only your team is going to respond well to, but your customers are going to respond well to it as well? So if a company like Qualcomm or Intel or HP or Sony, all [00:05:30] of whom I've had the privilege of working for in the last few years, are really good at working with technology, then let's not just show that technology being used as a product and making your or my life more convenient. Let's show what happens when you take that product and that technology to a place where it doesn't normally reach and let's see what the potential is and let's see what the impact of that company can be in different environment and for [00:06:00] the underserved or for the underprivileged, or however you want to frame that, and give people pride in that company and how it's able to bridge that divide.

And for us it's been really exciting to see that when you do a short documentary that's branded for an Intel that they come back and tell you that it's increased employee morale, or that in their talent acquisition interviews and their entry interviews, that people have referenced the material and that makes them want to work for a company like Intel. [00:06:30] So we've seen that as being really kind of a positive shift in the marketplace, where if you listen to what the passions of the people who work for you are, then you can really tailor the marketing efforts and the corporate social responsibility efforts of the company to maximize the kind of feedback and the return on investment that your employees are putting into the company.

Kyle Davis: So one of the phrases that you used prior to us going to record was that [00:07:00] your whole aim is to create content that crates impact, and with what you were just saying now, the impact that your making is one that reinforces the passions that employees may have in the brand and reengaging them in a way that shows a socially positive way that their technology or their services can be put forth. So when you start [00:07:30] to build these campaigns, what does that process look like to find what the company is trying to elicit?

Elliot Kotek: No, well that exactly right. What is the company trying to elicit and what does the company stand for? If a company stands for brilliant engineering, then why not have your corporate social responsibility efforts not be something just philanthropic, but also something where the engineers get to showoff their skills at solving problems and being artistic [00:08:00] and creative. So for us it's like, let's look at the company and let's look at what it's good at, and then have your marketing and your corporate social responsibility efforts mirror those skills.

Instead of you just handing over a check to an arts hall or something like that, it's like, is arts in your DNA? Is that what you want to represent? Or is engineering in your DNA? Is local community in your DNA? Where are your buildings? Where are your people? Where do they come from? And so when you [00:08:30] then look at the efforts of what you should be doing in your outreach in order to create that kind of meaningful engagement between the company and the community around it, where is it best served? So we'll really look at the company and say, "Well what do you stand for and what are your pillars and what do you tell people internally?"

Because a lot of companies, especially big companies, they lose the association between what they were founded upon and what they do on a daily basis. And if you can remind [00:09:00] your teams what your company stands for and place it in the context of where the company is in the world, then that kind of reinforces and gives them pride back into that system and pride back into the company. And so not just for employees, we think that it's a world of collaboration right now. It used to be the case that there were conglomerates that could do a little bit of everything, but we're finding more and more companies that are being heralded for their specialization. And in a world of specialization, if you want to do something that has [00:09:30] impact, you have to collaborate with other companies.

Your employees engaged in whatever programs you have going on, but you also want to get your supply chain members, your partners in or distribution chain, your customers, you can like look at every step of the corporate process from conception of an idea to production of a platform and getting that product into the hands of the consumer, and use all those steps along the way as potential partner points. And I think that [00:10:00] you'll get more impact done that way, but you'll also have stronger relationships along the food chain for your business. And if you could do something meaningful together, whether that's volunteering on something together or bringing brains together from across those different industries to solve a problem that is meaningful for both you and your supplier or your distributor, then you can really create some kind of beautiful alliances that are collaborative and problem-solving and world-changing.

Kyle Davis: I remember having conversation recently about [00:10:30] this topic of specialization and how a lot of that larger companies are starting to find their niche, and you're starting to see a lot more partnerships and companies very proud of these partnerships. I'm trying to think of some of the top of my head, but I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

Elliot Kotek: Yeah, and even from a marketing perspective too, it used to be cool to show off that you heralded or spearheaded a campaign or an effort, for example to bring water [00:11:00] to a place that didn't have any drinking water. But now it's becoming, because of our tolerance for what's authentic and what's inauthentic, we're looking more for company to say, "We believed in this so much that we were willing to partner with these three other companies," and potentially a competitor, "in order to bring about change in this space, because we believe in this space and we want to be a player in this space for a long time to come." So that sort of spirit of collaboration that is authentic [00:11:30] I think is a key differentiator in the marketplace these days that it wasn't ten years ago.

Kyle Davis: Yeah. Now I'm coming to mind with one. One of the more salient examples is GM and Ford. They teamed up together to produce a brand new, hyper-efficient transmission for american automobiles, specifically large trucks and SUVs. And it's interesting to hear them talk about it in their corresponding different things, because they're very proud of the partnership that produced this transmission that now [00:12:00] allows for very ... Relatively, I guess, very efficient large trucks and SUVs. And I find that interesting. I find that, like you said, more authentic and delightful.

Elliot Kotek: Yeah, absolutely, and AT&T were really good about doing that with Version and others when it came to texting when driving campaigns. It was such a big issue, that instead of one of them just owning that campaign, they invited all the telcos to participate in that so that they could benefit from it [00:12:30] together, because it was important enough and they're going to be players in that space for a long time.

Kyle Davis: So a question that I have for you is, when a company brings you in and you have to start that process of reminding them what it is that they were founded for or what their principles are, what are some of the reactions that you get from these companies when you become so intimate with them?

Elliot Kotek: Yeah. They really appreciate it. Like, imagine any relationship [00:13:00] you've ever been in when you find out that someone's actually listening or that someone knows your history or that someone's take the time out to get to know you a little better. You know, it really is, it kind of defines a relationship. It makes you want to proceed with someone, because you're like, "Oh, they're actually listening they're actually taking the time out." I have a term that I use. I call it "idle worshiping," and it's I-D-L-E, where when I look at a company, I look [00:13:30] at what isn't being utilized to the fullest extent. So rather than think of marketing or social enterprise or things like that being a cost or an expense for the business, I look at, "Okay, that isn't currently being utilized?" Because you may not have to throw a whole lot of money at something. You might just be able to reappropriate some resources that aren't being maximized yet.

So if it's a logistics company, what are the trucks doing that aren't on the road right now? Can they be reappropriated for something [00:14:00] local in the community? What about people who are engineers who are coders, but who want to be doing some other things? What if they have any downtime? Can you let them kind of volunteer on some other projects or find that spark of something in the community that they could represent the company at? You know, so it's looking at that infrastructure. What does the company have and what does the company stand for, and how do you take what the company has and allow it to reinforce what the company stands for?

Kyle Davis: So to tie this all back [00:14:30] together, because I was asking all these questions because I've picked up something that you've said, that it's finding kind of what the passions are of the employees and what the company is based off of, which then creates more of like a sounding board that then goes out into the market place, increases client retention, customer acquisition and the likes.

Elliot Kotek: Yeah. That's right.

Kyle Davis: That's a short and great answer, isn't it.

Gail Davis: Yep.

Kyle Davis: Yep. Okay, cool. Podcast done. Bye.

Gail Davis: [00:15:00] That's awesome.

Elliot Kotek: That's right. That's what you're looking for. You're looking for meaningfulness in your relationships, both from within the company and outside the company, and you're looking to see, why was this company founded? Most companies were founded because someone wanted to solve some sort of problem, right? They wanted to provide some sort of service that they thought that they could do just as well or better than anyone else, or some sort of product that they thought that was as good or better than anyone else's. So there's a natural tendency [00:15:30] for companies to want to solve problems, and so why not do it based in the framework of why you were originally created, or the vision of the founder or the vision of the current CEO and team, or the vision of the employees and the whole team that is all working together on a daily basis, and make that as enjoyable and meaningful as possible.

Gail Davis: Good. I was just going to shift to South By, which takes place every year in Austin, and I know that you've been there three years. And I [00:16:00] was curious what your focus has been when you've been there and why you've gone back three years, and just if you could share a little bit about that. We're here in Dallas and that's right down the road and something I'm really interested in.

Elliot Kotek: Yeah, South By Southwest has been a really big supporter of my work. I've been there a number of years, probably six or seven years in a row, but as a speaker the last three years. I was a featured speaker a few years ago and I spoke about this idea of technology for the sake of humanity, that [00:16:30] technology is great, but its ultimate purpose is helping people, right? We get new cellphones, we get new computers and they make our lives more convenient, but what if we gave it to someone who didn't have access to it before? What is that ultimate purpose for it? So there was this kind of movement a few years ago where there were a lot of devices like 3D printers and laser centering machines and all these other tools of innovation that had previously only existed in academic [00:17:00] institutions and large companies. So if you didn't work at Microsoft or Boeing or GE or at the University of Oregon or any sort of large kind of place that had a lot of resources, then you didn't have these tools available to you.

So just a few years ago, when these kind of tools like 3D printers and these laser machines and wire [cutters 00:17:27] and other things started becoming much more consumer [00:17:30] friendly and consumer available, it really opened up the world to innovators. And what was cool was really, if you were an innovator and you had an idea, then you could go on Amazon, order a 3d printer and it would be at your house within a couple of days. If you didn't even know how to turn it on, you could go to YouTube and watch a video on how to turn on your 3D printer, and if you had any questions about it you could go on Facebook and ask your own community, or you could [00:18:00] find chat rooms on other pages where you could discuss what you wanted to build and find peers to help you build it. So what evolution world became was a world of permissionless innovation where you didn't need to be part of some bigger company or bigger entity in order to innovate. You only needed the world to do so, and you could be located anywhere.

And as a result of that, you had kids in San Jose and Santa Clara who were building, at age 12, a printer [00:18:30] that could print in braille using their Lego system. You had kids in basements in Florida who were building bionic limbs with these 3D printers that enabled them to become a consultant to NASA at age 16 and 17. And then you had all these people that were already engineers and already had experience who were using them to design and build mechanical limbs and all sorts of other things. They were building baby incubators [00:19:00] out of spare car parts so that when the baby incubator failed, you didn't need an incubator specialist, you just needed a mechanic. So there was just this movement, and some people call it the maker movement as well, just this movement towards DIY problem solving that really empowered the individual, and it was really exciting.

So the first year at South By I spoke about that off the back of a project that we did called Not Impossible's Project Daniel, where we sent people [00:19:30] with 3D printers to Sudan, where they 3D printed a limb for a boy who'd had both his arms blown off in a bomb blast, and it enabled him to feed himself for the first time in two years. What was then kind of so incredible about that project is but it was funded by Intel and a company called Precipart. We didn't need to charge for the technology either, so we posted the files, this guy Richard Van [Arz 00:20:00], who [00:20:00] was the original designer, we posted these files online and so anybody anywhere in the world could download this file and 3D print a prosthetic limb. And that was pretty revolutionary at the time, it was part of the kind of nascent rise of this movement, and it's just ... That was kind of the premise for the original talk at South By, and since then I've gone back and I did a panel where I brought these kids up who are just incredible, who are taking advantage [00:20:30] of that society and the society we live in now to create some incredible solutions for things.

This year I went back there with brands. I went there with some friends from Walmart's health and wellness division who are doing some incredible things with collaboration and offering free screenings to people, blood pressure and glucose levels, the key indicators for heart disease and diabetes, and with a company called Health Effect, which is an online platform [00:21:00] for healthcare technology. And so we've gone back time and time again to show that with technology and collaboration and a sense of community, you really can have an impact in this world. And South By has been incredible in terms out its support and recognizing that they believe in the same thing, that the power of the community and the power of access to these technologies ... You know, as long as people are aware of these technologies, then you really can have an impact.

Gail Davis: That's great. [00:21:30] I think also right because we recorded, I believe you mentioned some congressional recognition that you had just received.

Elliot Kotek: Yeah, that was really nice, and something that mu mom really liked. South By Southwest game us two honors back to back, the innovation awards at South By Southwest, which was really incredible, and then yeah, just recently I was down in San Diego talking about purposeful content and providing [00:22:00] a meaningful workplace. And at the end of it I was presented with these certificates from congress and from the house of representatives and also from the California state senate, just as special recognition for my work in terms of civic engagement and bridging communities. So that was a really nice honor, especially for someone who is an immigrant to this country, with a funny accent.

Kyle Davis: We [00:22:30] like funny accents, though. So one of the things that you were just kind of touching on, but more of like these social entrepreneurs who want to go out and have a sense of community. I think you were hinting at this, but I just want to make sure. When you're showcasing these individuals, and even if somebody wants to start something that is socially driven and socially focused, what is it that you're looking for and how can they [00:23:00] better build their brand or better build awareness?

Elliot Kotek: Yeah, for social entrepreneurs I kind of came across something by accident. I noticed that I was using a lot of words that started with the letter P, and when I was a kid I was always looking that didn't have the letter P in it because I thought it was funny when I went over to someone's swimming pool and it had a sign on it that said, "Welcome to our ool. Notice there is no P in it. Please keep it that way." So in the contrast to that, marketing [00:23:30] has always been driven by four Ps, and modern contemporary businesses are looking for three Ps, which is people, planet and profit. Can we satisfy all those three Ps, you know, be good to our people, make a profit and be kind to the planet simultaneously? And what I found is that when I was looking at those words in my journey through media is that for me, I was really passionate about something. I was passionate about [00:24:00] talking to people about they were good at, I was passionate about social impact and social awareness, about delivering a difference, and then when I started telling people about that passion because I got involved in a couple of different projects, that was when I started to define the purpose.

So I was applying that passion to a purpose. And then once I declared that purpose, I found that I was getting calls from everywhere, "Oh, you have to speak to so-and-so. They're trying to do something similar," or, "I've got a friend who's trying to do something [00:24:30] meaningful. Can they come and speak to you about potentially helping you?" And so as soon as I had that passion defined and applied it towards a purpose, people started coming out of the woodwork from everywhere. And then when you had people that were aligned around that purpose, then it really felt like anything was possible, because you basically had all these people that had the same sort of sense of what needed to be done and that were banding together to get it done. So from me it was like anyone who is a social entrepreneur has already defined that their passion [00:25:00] is about something, and they're finding a purpose, whether they want to work on causes related to the environment or water safety or just people's meaningfulness and health and wellness, or any of the issues, whether it's water supply and arsenic levels. You know, you don't have to take a political angle to want to do something about homelessness, or any of the social sectors.

For [00:25:30] all these people that are kind of finding what they want to set their agendas around, I just tell them to declare that purpose really loudly, because as soon as they do that they'll be surprised at how may people come out of the woodwork, and what that theme of people they can kind of band together and get stuff done. No matter how old you are, no matter how experienced you are, there's always people at your peer level that can help you get across the line and get things started. And with the power of social media and all these social tools that we have available, you can connect with people [00:26:00] physically in your community, through your faith, through your community, through sporting groups, doesn't really matter how you find your community. You can find them in person or you can find them online, but there's no time like the present that you're able to get things done.

Kyle Davis: You know, I like the fact that you said very modestly that you just started talking to a lot of people. Pulling from your bio, here's what it says, "Elliot has interviewed everyone from Elmo to Elon Musk and over 1000 other global thought leaders, who include [00:26:30] winners of more than 100 Oscars and a Nobel peace prize." So you didn't just talk to like a few people, you talked to a lot of people.

Elliot Kotek: I talked to a lot of people. You know, and that's the thing. I found actually, I was on this trip recently and the guy who hired me to direct this documentary, he was telling me how he, when he finds something interesting, whether it's a scientist or an academic or he's heard a speaker at a conference and he wants to know more from that person, he just contacts them and invites them out to lunch. [00:27:00] And I said, "I've been doing that years too." There's just something in some people that they just need to connect and need to find out more. Brian Grazer has a book called "Curiosity", which I think is also awesome, and he also admits that as a young buck in Hollywood, he used to ring people up and book lunches, like get lunches put on their calendar and he would show up and ask them a whole bunch of questions. I can't hesitate to do that. [00:27:30] When I have people who are so passionate about all these different issues and I want to know so much about what's going on, I needed to find that out.

So whether it was as a journalist, and I've been fortunate that I've written for a lot of publications, whether it's the Hollywood Reporter or GQ [and details 00:27:52], style.com and all these different publications. A lot of the times what I was doing is I was finding [00:28:00] an excuse so that I could go and talk to somebody, and sometimes that excuse was having an outlet to write about it for. Other times it was just you know, I just really wanted to have lunch with someone so I could tap their brain. And Elmo was just as insightful as some of the other kind of award winners you've mentioned. But yeah, Elon Musk, obviously what an incredible individual.

Kyle Davis: So once you've found these hyper-passionate people, [00:28:30] what are some of the commonalities that you find that reinforce their passion that they have or really motivate them to keep doing what it is that they are doing?

Elliot Kotek: Yeah, I think there is a few things. One is the willingness to be collaborative. There's a level of security or insecurity that I think drives everybody. When you're insecure, either with who you are or what you're doing, you're less inclined to share what you're up to [00:29:00] and as a result you're less inclined to get help for it. So there's no one who's able to help you along your journey if they don't know that you need that help. And if you're insecure, you often fail to announce that you need that help or want it. And the people that I see as being super successful at what they do, they've communicated to other people what they need and when they need it, and they've allowed people to step up and help collaborate on that process [00:29:30] to get them across that line.

And being secure enough in yourself and knowing that you're going to continue to play a role in that project going forward, I think is the big difference. If you're secure in who you are, what you know and what you need to know, then you're secure enough to share what you know because you don't see any other person as a threat to your business and you're also secure enough to [00:30:00] be quiet and listen to others and absorb their information. I think that's a big one, I think is just that security of essence and security on a personal level.

Kyle Davis: Well I think that is a good place for us to wrap up. If you would like to have Elliot come and speak for your next event, you can do so by contacting GDA speakers at 214-420-1999 or by going to gdaspeakers.com. For today's transcript, and I'm going to post some clips [00:30:30] from the YouTube's, from some of Elliot's work on GDA Podcast as well as the transcript, and you can find that, like I said, at gdapodcast.com. That being said, Elliot, thank you.

Gail Davis: Thank you, Elliot. Was great. Very inspiring.

Elliot Kotek: Thanks then.