The premature death of persuasion.

It was a Tuesday morning and as I walked into the creative department. Three or four creatives were huddled around a Mac.You know straight away if you have worked in a creative department that there are only two reasons for this. They have found something very funny or they have seen a piece of work they really like.

I walked over. They were watching believe it or not a television commercial. It was Nike’s new piece of work from Wieden and Kennedy where they celebrate a woman that finishes last in a Marathon. It is beautifully shot. The music is great and the voiceover makes the ad. It is a simple idea well executed. It is also 60 seconds long. You could tell it was a great piece of communication by one simple fact. The creatives were jealous.

Later that day, I read yet again that advertising was dead. This seems to be the blog everybody is writing these days. Invariably, there will be commentary about programmatic buying and the need to make communication no longer than 15 seconds. There is this demand for a new model of advertising. We have to find innovative solutions.

Here is my question. Will innovative tech and digital solutions work for brands and products that are not that innovative and perhaps have no need to be? Does what works for Airbnb work for every other brand?

Intention and vision are just as important as innovation.

 I have a lot of conversations with creative directors around the globe and many feel that their job is just to fill holes with content. Nobody seems that interested in the quality, just the quantity. You know 4000 pieces of content at 20 000 dollars a pop that will be perfectly curated by already overworked marketing departments. 

There is also one comment that has stuck with me. A friend of mine who is a creative director said his clients often feel that because something works for a cool tech brand it will work for their brand no matter what it is. It made me start to think about this new structure. 
I started to think about these ideas that are being thrown around. I also started to think about why advertising even exists. Its purpose has always been to persuade. Another reason it exists is to either magnify or often create a point of difference between a brand and its competitors. The Nike commercial is a good example of this. It connects with the consumer. The tone of the commercial is actually the main difference. You like that brand because it gets you. So, why is that important?

It’s important because there are many brands out there that are not very different from their competitors. In fact many are identical. So, how does that fact stack up against innovative and digital solutions that are being sold at the moment to these marketers as a panacea for all their brands challenges? In my opinion, not very well.

If you are a company like Uber or Airbnb this current environment works well because they are differentiated from their competitors. The truth is those products sell themselves. The new solutions in our brave new digital world rely not on persuasion but the brilliance of the product. If you don’t have a brilliant product these digital solutions will simply magnify that fact. The truth is there are about a billion products and services that will never be as sexy, different or new as Uber.

So, what happens to them?

Some are probably going to die. Some can innovate to a point, perhaps some can re-invent themselves but these are very expensive and risky undertakings. And, some might need to use the art of persuasion.

Here is another thought. There is this idea that you have to be everywhere in small 15 second bursts. As a creative, I can tell you a 15 second piece of communication in a crowded world essentially becomes the digital equivalent of a billboard on the side of a fast moving highway.

And, if you think that’s not that bad, let’s do an experiment. What billboards do you remember on the way to work this morning?

In fact, this kind of communication reminds me of advertising in the 50’s where you had a slogan and a pack shot. So, on the one hand there are many not really supporting their brands but at the same time hoping it does the job for them. Dangerous. 50’s advertising was never designed for 2015. 

A brand as tech savvy as Nike understands that you have to tell stories that set you apart. They understand they have to connect as well as serve. They created Nike Fuel Band almost 5 years ago but they are still making beautiful persuasive stories today. Why? I think the answer is simple. In a cluttered digital world full of brands shouting at you very quickly, this might be still what gets you noticed. And that doesn’t have to ever be a television commercial. But it does have to be something of value as opposed to just a fast moving logo. Red Bull is a good example.

My belief is that in a world that has become very fractured don’t try and be everywhere badly, try and be somewhere persuasively. If you do, you become the destination people look for, rather than the billboards they drive past without a second glance.

4 young creatives huddled around a laptop on a Tuesday morning watching a simple, insightful and very long Nike television commercial taught me this.


Would you sit next to you at a dinner party?

This is a piece I recently wrote as a Convener of Axis 2016, New Zealand’s largest advertising show.

This is one of my favourite Economist headlines. The line isn’t about being correct, it is about charm, wit and having a good story. It is about being interesting. This is a quality that seems to have been forgotten about lately. As an industry we are seduced by the idea of accuracy. Well, as the late, great David Abbott once said, it doesn’t matter how fast shit reaches you, it’s still shit.

This pretty much sums up my feeling about where advertising is today. As the convener of Axis I thought it would be worth writing about the crossroads advertising is at and the value awards have in this brave, new world we are entering.

How will it be interesting? What is its purpose? Why are we putting it there? These are the three questions that have always driven our business. And lately, two of the questions, what and why, seem to be getting far more attention than the other one. How?

Our business has become about certainty. There is an idea that you can find the exact answer at the exact time. From data to programmatic buying, we are entering an age of precision. So what is the role of creativity in all of this?

Imagine you are a trout fisherman. And imagine you always come to my store. You walk in and I tell you a story about another trout fisherman. Let’s call him Chris. Imagine I told you the same story every day. I tell you about him buying bait and casting into a clear blue lake. In the beginning maybe that would be a good story. But eventually that would become very boring. You would probably find another store. So, to stop that from happening I add to the story. I tell you Chris doesn’t really like trout fishing, he actually has a rubber fetish and just likes walking around in rubber waders. The story just got interesting again. We went from generic and correct to specific and interesting.

Creativity is not about perfection. It is about perspective. Einstein once said that creativity is intelligence having fun. And fun always starts with the how. How do you make something interesting? How do you tell a story? How do you look at a problem? How do you come up with a solution that is not the same as all the others? ‘How’ is what takes something from being generic and boring to something interesting. And, I am sure you will agree if you were at a dinner party you would far rather listen to someone who is interesting than someone who just spews out fact after fact.

So why is that important? Well, for one, I would say that if everyone has very similar data and algorithms we will have to have something more interesting to say than the next guy, when you’re reaching the same people.

I am not here today to bash data. In fact, I believe it could be the single biggest ally of creativity. The future of our business is going to be about how these disciplines merge. All I am saying is that I don’t think it is enough to just be correct. You have to be interesting too.

The data tells us not to live in Los Angeles because of earthquakes. Yet, 20 million people live there because they love the sunshine. Humans are tricky.
This is why creativity is so important. It makes information an experience. In the end, knowing what to say is only half the battle. The other 80% with apologies to Sir John Hegarty, is knowing how to say it.

That is what Axis is celebrating. Perspective. This is what creativity does. This is what creativity gives us. It creates a point of view. Brands today need this more than ever to stand out from the crowd. Being interesting is not just a nice to have.

Today, it is the best chance of success.

In this new world we are entering, we need to remember that if anybody can reach somebody, they will only listen to somebody who doesn’t sound like everybody.

The people that can do this are the people that can create. They create something out of nothing. The world is a little bigger or a little different because of them. Leonard Cohen said it’s the cracks that let the light in. We have never needed those cracks more than we do now.

So, here’s to the ones that find them and make them. Here’s to the crazy ones. If there was ever a time to acknowledge great ideas and the people that have them, it is now. So, for me, Axis is a moment in time to look at these ideas that can change everything. And then, we take a breath and we go again. I look forward to seeing you all there.


How do you keep an idea alive?

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Nelson Mandela

Ideas. Endlessly swimming against the tide of opinion, trying to survive.

Keith Reinhard, Chairman Emeritus of DDB recently wrote about a 5 minute rule they have in a company in Silicon Valley. Basically, the way it works is after an idea is expressed you spend the next 5 minutes supporting it and being positive about it. In other words, you try and let the idea live. Actually, even more than that you actively try and keep it alive. I have always believed ideas are like babies. They are beautiful beyond measure. So precious. Yet, at the same time vulnerable, innocent and always facing a world that could hurt them very easily. Ideas are just like babies. Hard to keep alive.

So, that first 5 minutes is very important. I have seen it happen over and over where an idea dies for no good reason. Someone will say it’s weird or they think something isn’t right without offering an alternative solution. It’s gone. Think how many ideas are generated across the world in advertising agencies in a year. It must at least be at least a couple of million a year.

And that is the problem. We don’t value them enough, if at all. I don’t think there can be that many industries that generate so many ideas, so quickly, every single day and then throw them away. There is also this strange phenomenon in our business where if the idea dies you can never speak about it again. So, constantly millions of ideas die every day in our business never to be heard of again. Madness.

And it has always been like this. So what is changing?

Well, for one, the length an idea can now take. We often talk about realtime and fast turn around work in our business. And that is a big part of it. However, if you look at a lot of the great work that is being made today, and I am specifically talking about creating products, experiences and large, complex, integrated campaigns you realise how much time was involved. These kinds of pieces of work can take up to two years before they come to fruition. Think about the moving parts in something like Nike Fuel Band. Take Volvo’s Epic split. That was just one piece of work in a very large campaign that had been going on for a couple of years. Ideas of this size are often not disposable and sometimes very difficult to replace. So, the next time you are about to kill an idea take a breath and ask, can I make it better.

Now, just letting an idea live is only the first part. The second part is even more arduous.

An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that it rubs against. Bill Bernbach said this 50 years ago but it is still true today. Perhaps, more true.

As I have said in a previous blog, having ideas is not the hard part, caring about them is.

And for that, you need a special type of person. For an idea to survive, it needs a friend. Somebody who is going fight to keep that idea alive. They have talent. But they also have something that takes the idea from dust to magic. Perseverance. Talent lets you begin. Perseverance is what makes sure you finish.

I have been lucky enough to work with quite a few great creatives in my career at TBWA Hunt Lascaris, Saatchis in Sydney and now DDB New Zealand. They have this strange quality of being able to create a slow, relentless, metronomic momentum towards their target. They are working bloody hard but they always seem like they are in the zone. They have an effortlessness to their industry. They are like great sportsmen. Watch Roger Federer play tennis. It doesn’t look like he is trying. You know he is. But he seems to be playing in slow motion while the other guy runs around like a waiter who keeps forgetting your drinks order.

My wife Minky is the best example I know of this slow, relentless, powerful quality. In her career she has been an art director, creative director and then later on became an illustrator. She is a truly great art director. But what sets her apart is her ability to lock into a project. She will find a way. I have often seen her work 36 hours in a row to get something done right. And that is often on a personal project. It is a beautiful talent made of dedication.

Steve Jobs said you can teach people anything except to care. For the great ones, caring is what drives them beyond reason. And beyond reason is where you find magic.

In the end, the spark of an idea that survives those first moments in the world is eventually protected by the slow burn of dedication and caring.That is how you go from dust to magic. And there are no shortcuts. Believe me, I have looked for them.

So how do you keep an idea alive?

Let it live for 5 minutes and then care about it forever.


Don’t worry, I can explain everything.

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”

Kurt Vonnegut

Apologies. But I have to do this. It’s time for a rant.

There is a book by Tom Wolfe called The Painted Word. It a slim volume of about a 100 pages first published in 1975. When it came out it was hated by most art critics. The reason it was disliked was that it argued that most twentieth century art needs to have a manifesto, theory or explanation first and the art would simply confirm the belief. Art had moved away from being a visual experience and become an illustration of an art critics theory.

I was reminded of this because of an ad I saw this week. It came from an agency overseas that is very popular. It has very polished PR skills and has one or two smooth talkers that lead the agency. They are the darlings of the media. Great sound bytes and cool theories are served up at an astonishing rate. They really do understand the news cycle very well. They portray themselves as an answer for the future. Where advertising is going. And to be fair to them every agency on some level does this, so no problem. Well actually there is. Just one. Their work is shit. It is corporate drivel.

So, why does this make me angry? Is it because they PR themselves shamelessly? No, I have been in the business long enough to know that is par for the course. What pisses me off is the fact that the work has become less important than the theories they pedal at every conference they can get their hands on. I have the strangest feeling that unbelievably the work has become incidental to them. Packaging has become everything. If you keep saying the right things, what you do can be average. The truth is this work is literally the exact opposite of the theories they espouse. It is not interesting. Every agency makes work like this. However they don’t go and PR it at every juncture. And then a frightening thought dawned on me, maybe they didn’t know it was shit. And then a second thought dawned on me that was even more frightening, maybe they did.

So, are we in an age where good enough has become great? The industry keeps saying work is going to have to get better to be noticed. Take a look around and ask yourself if the work is getting better or just a whole lot faster.

Why does this happen? Of course, the simple answer is time. Great work is usually a little messy and takes time. A Creative Director friend who works in New York phoned me the other day and told me he had been asked to do something fresh and original but also find a case study to prove that the idea has worked before. Do something new. Prove it has worked before. The first sentence is in danger of losing its power to the second sentence because of time. It is an interesting debate. How important is originality versus certainty in our business today? Do we have time for true originality?

Fuck. I hate everything about those last two sentences.

My angry friend also said something that stayed with me. He said he finds there is no longer any time to argue, he has to just keep moving. In other words, be creative, but don’t have a perspective. Tricky. I found that such a strange thought for a creative department or as I like to call them, the idea navy. Arguing and debate are the most important ingredients to push the work forward. Friction makes fire. Being able to care and struggle makes the work better.

Anybody remember here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. I think you know the rest. So, I guess I just wanted to check that we still want those people right?

Just going with your first idea is sometimes necessary. However, if that is your modus operandi, it is highly improbable you are going to be doing anything of value or worth. And, just because you can explain why you did it and have a colourful PowerPoint presentation to prove your theory, this doesn’t change the fact it might be shit. Creativity is not a thing, it is a way.

Perhaps, we should remember what we do. We make stuff. We make the picture, not the frame. Let’s not pretend they are the same thing. In the end, a beautiful frame only amplifies the banality of an average painting.

Let’s give those precious seconds to making great work rather than listening to slick explanations after the fact that defend the mediocre.

Quite frankly, we don’t have the time.