Illustration courtesy Minky Stapleton
With the passing of David Abbott, arguably the greatest copywriter ever, there have been many fitting and glowing tributes. While I was reading them I kept asking myself the same question. If we, as an industry, revere what David Abbott believed in, why do we keep promoting and creating processes that do the exact opposite of those beliefs.
Let me explain. Here was somebody who proved the idea of talent is not some ridiculous myth. Read his Father’s Day Chivas Regal ad. It’s pretty much as good as it gets. Have a look at what he did for The Economist. An entire personality was created with those perfect headlines. When you read his work it may have conveyed sadness or humour but more importantly there was always an underlying feeling of humanity. It wasn’t written by a copywriter, committee, crowd or process. It was written by a human being. You could feel that. His words made you feel something. That is why his work is timeless.
A single talented human being who believed in what he was doing and cared deeply about his craft.
Bill Bernbach said an idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it. An idea needs talent to survive,
There is that word again. Talent. You don’t hear it as much as you used to. In a world where we have become obsessed with how ideas connect, perhaps it’s time we started looking at ideas rather than the connections again. And while we’re at it, encourage the individual talent that is needed to make sure those ideas survive. Ayn Rand said collective thinking is a compromise. We might find connected wisdom is not that far behind. We seemed to have replaced quality with quantity. We think, if we have a lot of ideas one of them has to be good. Or, if we just stick them all together we will have a masterpiece.
Added to this, there seems to be this relentless drive to commoditise creativity. To try and turn ideas into loaves of bread at the lowest price. All this does is keep people in our business who should no longer be there. We are being rewarded for the wrong things. This will not end well. We might create many loaves of bread but not everybody is going to eat.
I saw a commercial the other day for a multi-national company that was made out of consumers vine videos. It was being hyped as the way forward because it is so interactive and cost effective. The truth is, it was shit. There was no idea. It was just a hype tape with a cool soundtrack. I think we are about to see a lot of them. And in time, we will realise the Emperor was wearing no clothes.
Look at the Volvo spot with Jean-Claude van Damme. It is a great piece because it is a beautifully made demonstration ad that happens to be online. It is a strong, simple idea well executed. Something’s never change.
The mistake that is being made is that even if you have thousands of ideas they only work if somebody cares about them. Talent, is not just having the idea. It is caring about the idea. Talent, is not just about putting words on a page. It is about putting yourself on that page too. Talent, is understanding that an idea doesn’t stop. It grows, it changes and it lives. It will get better and it could get worse. And the whole time, you have to stay with it.
Steve Jobs said you can teach people anything except to care. I often think that is what talent is. You care more than anybody else.
David Abbott cared about what he did. He understood his ideas could become dust or magic unless he cared about them. You cannot care about a hundred ideas. More importantly, you cannot believe in a hundred ideas. So, in the end you just have a whole lot of bits and pieces you have to connect. That is not an idea, it is an unrewarding task.
It is feeding the machine using the wrong food.
David Abbott understood caring and believing in one idea was more powerful than having a hundred unloved ones.
If we can learn anything from the great man it is that humanity, judgement, caring and craft cannot be sacrificed on the altar of quantity. Having a lot often can mean having nothing.
If David Abbott taught us anything, it is that a talented individual with a strong belief in a single idea can be far more powerful than any Goliath.
For an industry that always looks to the future, it might be a good idea to learn from those that have created its history.
Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Ray Davies, the weathered, lead singer of the seminal 60′s band The Kinks is on television. He is playing his music and telling stories the way he has done a thousand times. And then he takes questions from the audience. A twenty something girl asks him which band during the 60′s was his greatest competition.
I watched his face. He was genuinely puzzled. You could see he had never thought of that time like that. He was silent for a while. Eventually, he said it wasn’t like that. All the bands supported each other. It was more co-operation than competition. He kept saying this phrase, we were all in it together. You could just see it was this perfect time for him. It was a weird kind of effortlessness. They were all at the right place at the right time doing the right things.
You could see the power of those few special years had fuelled his life.
As he said it, I had this strong flashback without the aid of any acid. Rockey Street.
Rockey Street, was a street in Johannesburg lined with clubs that always smelt of last nights beer. It was as if all the weirdo’s, junkies and people that only came out at night had been captured and parachuted into a single street. It was in the middle of a tumbling suburb called Yeoville. It was the centre for every ageing misfit driving their girlfriends car without a license. You would find wannabe garage bands with a single groupie. And many con men who practiced their stories every night.
We were all hustling each other but in a strange way we were all helping each other. It was a street you could feel more than see. It was a place where you belonged, whoever you were. No matter how strange your dreams were, you belonged.
For me, the best creative departments I have worked in are a lot like Rockey Street. They are like streets full of dirty potential. They are full of misfits hustling and helping each other. They are glorious places and times we are always trying to get back to.
It reminds me of the The Great Gatsby. That green light at the end of the dock that Jay Gatsby can never quite reach.
Every creative, has those memories of perfection. These moments where you feel you are working on great stuff, in a great place, with great people. It is easy and exhilarating. Ideas just seem to happen. This is when an agency moves to another level.Those moments sustain creatives for years. If you don’t believe me, talk to any creative. When they tell you about their career they will start telling you stories. And those stories will always be about that one special agency that was like their home. And when you listen, you can feel how much they miss it.
There is only one problem with all this though. You only realise they were perfect moments when they are over. Kierkegaard said life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. In essence, creatives are always trying to get back home.
The truth is creatives are always searching for those moments. It is a rhythm that you try to feel. When you feel it, you don’t care how old your mac is, or if your office has a door. The creative department suddenly turns into a time and place. It is something that the bean counters think is not important. If they understood this, really understood this, they would look at creative departments very differently. But they don’t and this is why so many agencies are average.
If they did, they would try and keep creatives together far more. And the strange thing is the most successful creative departments are built like this and nobody notices. Great creative departments are built over time by those that understand that rhythm and searching. They do not see creatives as little interchangeable, disposable building blocks. They see them as a wave that builds over time.
A wave that can take them all the way across the bay to that green light at the end of the dock.
I have been a creative for 25 years. First as a photographer and then as a creative in advertising. So, I thought this would be a good time to write to my younger creative self about what I believe are rules for successful creative living.
Beginning. A blank piece of paper or screen. The clean space of potential and the emptiness of beginning. The fear never goes away. The excitement never goes away. What you do in that moment is everything. What is your intention? The truth is without an idea everything that happens afterwards cannot help.
Ideas. You cannot go to an idea, it has to come to you. As you do this more and more, you realise the ideas are right in front of you. The problem is the more you look for them the less you can see them. It’s hard to put this process into words. But the first time you have an effortless idea you will understand this.
Energy. Sir John Hegarty said that if you are the Rolling Stones you can still play Brown Sugar and get a standing ovation. That is a 40 year old idea. We cannot do that. A creative has to come up with a brand new idea every day. Cheeky, but definitely food for thought.
Comparison. Do not compare yourself to others. It is a waste of time.You cannot do what they do. They cannot do what you can do. All this does is breed insecurity and fear.And fear kills ideas and creativity instantly. If you don’t believe me watch a comedian who is afraid. He will always suck.
Listen. If there was a piece of advice I wish I had learnt earlier it would be to listen.There are millions of opinions in our business. But you have to listen to hear the answer. Listening, is the first thing you have to do to let an idea come to you.
People. You will meet people in this business who will inspire you to jump without a net into the unknown. You will do more than you thought you could because of them. Surround yourself with these people.
You will also meet massive arseholes. They take many forms. Liars, narcissists and those with super nova sized egos. The ones that think that only they can be right. Eventually, you will find out that most are deeply insecure. And hey, aren’t we all.
Kindness. If you can help someone, do it.If you can’t, don’t make it worse. You see it every day on advertising blogs in the comments section. Nastiness masquerading as high standards. My theory is that this is a bit like people who suffer abuse becoming abusers. My life is shit so I will make yours shit too. Why creatives do this to each other beats me. And I doubt they feel any better afterwards.If there is anybody we should help, it is another creative.
Bravery. An old CD once told a friend of mine, if you have balls you can roll far.
You need bravery in this business. When you are the only person in the room that believes in an idea, those are the moments you have to speak up. Speaking up for yourself and what you believe in doesn’t happen as much as it used to.
You begin on this voyage with enthusiasm and try to acquire wisdom. And later, you have to make sure your wisdom doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm.
This is the riddle we all have to solve. And it is the journey we all have to take.
I wish you well on yours.