As a boy I was obsessed with Muhammad Ali’s fights. I watched just about every single one. Frazier, Norton and Foreman were his greatest fights. It is interesting to note that they all happened when his youthful talent had begun to wain.
In his youth, he could do things that no other boxer before or since could do. He had gifts. Pure talent. Timing, speed and power. And then he had something else. A strange kind of confidence and bravery. He would win most of his fights before he even stepped into the ring. A relentless charisma that seemed to hypnotise his opponents.Those old black and white films make him seem like he is glowing and floating. At a press conference in 1964 Ali said Sonny Liston was too ugly to be the champ. He was young and he believed in his gifts. And then, he couldn’t fight for 5 long years for refusing to go to and fight in Vietnam. His prime was taken away from him. When he returned he was a little slower and he lost to Joe Frazier. So some might say he lost his talent. I disagree. I would say he had begun to lose one and gain another.
1974 Kinshasa. The Rumble in the Jungle. George Foreman. He had something called an all over punch. Basically the concept was it didn’t matter where it hit you, you would go down. Undefeated. 120 kgs and 6 feet 4 inches.Terrifying. He had destroyed Frazier in two rounds. Nobody on the planet thought Ali could beat him.
In eight rounds Ali didn’t just knock Foreman out. He showed that one man can have more than one talent. His physical skills were diminished but he found a way to win. He beat Foreman with his mind. And that is probably the worst beating a man can take. Foreman retired from boxing soon afterwards.
Ali showed me there were two types of talent. There is the innate talent you have. Ali was born to be a boxer. He had all the skills. And on that day in 1974 he showed a much rarer type of talent.This is a talent you have to go and find. It is in you somewhere. It is made up of life’s experiences and the decision not to yield to your fears. It is not the carefree talent you have when you are young but comes from the bottom of an ocean somewhere. It is immensely powerful. It is dark and brooding. It is the talent you use when everything is on the line. It will conquer those voices in your head. It will make you walk forward. It will show you how to do things that have never been done before.
I think talent is a very convenient word. It describes ability, creativity, bravery and honesty. These qualities are all very different. The truth is that there are many, many different types of talent. Sometimes, for a just brief moment, you will glimpse it all in one man like Muhammad Ali. For the rest of us mere mortals, we only have parts of it. It is like a gigantic and endless code that is in us but is impossible to see in its entirety. Yet sometimes when you are with the right people you can see it for a couple of seconds.
This is why it will be hard for machines to replace human beings when it comes to the strange business of having ideas.When the talent of one person meets another the Universe really does become infinite.
The idea code is not just big it is truly endless. Let me explain. Having ideas depends on who is in the room, or what day it is, and what particular talents are combined. This and about a million other factors that range from what your girlfriend said this morning to the music playing in the background will dictate the ideas that are created. It is remarkable what can be created when there is more than one talent in the room bouncing off each others ideas. And the next day will be different. And the one after that. It is like a Rubik’s cube on crack. It is forever evolving without any need to be solved.
Picasso said the problem with computers are they only give you answers. He was right. Ideas come from life and machines don’t have one. Ideas are not about answers but about possibility. And possibility will always come from impossibility. It will come from going to places nobody has ever been or could imagine. It comes from what does not exist. It goes against the odds and conventional wisdom. It comes from what most believe cannot be done.
“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
J.M Barrie, Peter Pan
If you are not fond of romance and unsubstantiated belief you should probably stop reading now.
This week I have started to notice a wave of articles on how people in advertising are unhappy. I have also recently read an article where Sir John Hegarty said that we as an industry have lost our courage.
Now, every article I read attributes this to less time and how busy we are. They also mention costs being slashed, integrated campaigns and the sheer complexity of advertising today. And I am sure it is all true. And if we go back ten years I bet we would find articles just like it.
However, while I was reading these articles I began to think it might be happening because of something else.
Hegarty spoke about losing courage. Courage doesn’t just appear or disappear. It comes from belief. A belief that perhaps you can surpass yourself. That you can do it. This belief is invisible. It is not on a balance sheet. It is a strange kind of inspiration that comes from within. It allows you to do more than you think you are capable of. An agency only reaches beyond itself when this spark is inside its people. It is also the secret fuel that keeps agencies alive.
Courage and bravery only exist though, if there is a quest or cause you believe in.
So, as much as I agree advertising has become more complex, what strikes me when I talk to creatives around the world is this weariness they have. It’s like a soldier at the front who isn’t sure who or what they are fighting for anymore.
The strange thing about this is that ideas have never been more important. Everybody wants them and needs them. Yet, the people that have them right around the globe are writing blogs about feeling defeated and unhappy. A bit odd don’t you think?
So what is going on? My view is that many creatives don’t know why they are doing what they are doing every day.
Now the bean counters may say the answers a pay cheque. Of course.
However, the reality is that if you want somebody to surpass themselves, work weekends and into the night, to push and to care, do the impossible or create something that nobody has ever thought of, they have to have believe. And courage, will only occur if that person believes in themselves, or at the very least, the flag above their heads.
Look at any great agency. Speak to anybody that worked there. They will tell you they believed in something bigger than themselves. They can’t always explain it or articulate what it was but this belief drove them on. For me, it has always been the agency had a truth at its core. I realise you may be laughing at this. I mean truth in advertising. That’s crazy shit. However, if you are a creative you will know what I mean.
The first place I ever truly experienced this belief was an advertising agency called TBWA Hunt Lascaris in South Africa. It is hard to explain because I worked there at the worst of times and the best of times. Yet, while I was there I always believed I could surpass what I had done anywhere else. For almost 30 years it has produced creatives who have gone around the world and done great things. And I would venture way beyond anything they thought they could do.
It was like our DNA was injected with courage and belief while we were there. My only explanation is there was this deep commitment to the work. And I don’t mean in a poster on a wall kind of way. The whole place had your back. You felt like you could go to the edge. Once this code is in your DNA it allows you to feel if an agency has a creative truth you can believe in the moment you walk through the door. The day I walked into DDB Auckland I felt the very same way. I knew I would be able to surpass myself as I walked in. It makes no sense, but it does to me.
This creative centre or truth is the strange ingredient I think many agencies are losing. It has no inherent value apart from being priceless. Not understanding its worth has created many agencies that are now just factories or depots.
A creative director phoned me the other day from overseas to talk because he was fed up.This is the line he said that stuck in my mind. My agency wants me to believe, even when it doesn’t.
This is what is happening. It would seem creatives are losing their belief. And when that happens, why would they have any courage.
Many might read this and think it is rubbish or won’t make a difference. I think you are wrong. Advertising is obsessed with all the threats outside of itself. Yet, the biggest threat it is ignoring, is that it may have simply stopped believing in itself.
We have to change this. Being resigned to an imagined future with a large dollop of word weary cynicism will not fix this. We need to believe again. We need to believe in our stories, our strange quests and most importantly ourselves. We need to love ideas and put on our armour and fight for them. We need to be brave again. We need to believe we can fly again.
“For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
When I was young I detested travel. This was probably because I moved around so much. I went to sixteen schools because my father was a hotel manager. Ok, I may have been expelled once or twice as well. It felt like every term I was the new boy.Growing up and living in hotels also probably didn’t help this feeling of transience. However, on the upside room service is a wonderful thing and I can recite certain spaghetti westerns word for word.
Growing up this way made me associate travel with discomfort and uncertainty. I hadn’t really considered the fact that it had also made me who I am. It might seem obvious but you always think your childhoods normal don’t you.
Recently though, I have started thinking about what travelling has done for me in the last couple of years. I am not sure why. Maybe, it’s the fact that New Zealand is a bloody long way from anywhere or it’s that this is the third country I have worked in as a creative in the last 10 years. I have learned a few lessons.I have seen what travel can teach creatives. Or perhaps, more accurately,what travel has taught me.
Firstly, it’s made me take a good hard look at myself and this strange thing called ego. Nothing grows an ego faster than being comfortable. No matter who you are, you start to believe all sorts of things about yourself and your ability when things are easy.A little bit of hype, success or maybe just laziness will do it.
This all goes out the window when you travel. There is no safety net. When you are the new boy on that first day your reputation means nothing. You have to prove yourself again. It is about actions and what you do.The blank page is put in front of you and it has to be filled.This is the scariest thing about travel but for me the biggest learning. The lesson for me is simple.When you travel, your ego diminishes. And that, is a very good thing because if there is one thing that gets between you and an idea, it is your ego.
Travel also gives you the gift of stupid questions. No matter what country you are in there are ways things are done. They are not questioned or challenged because over time you are conditioned to accept stuff. In Johannesburg, South Africa, the locals don’t notice the electric fences around homes. If you were a tourist, you would notice them straight away. Seeing the mundane in new ways is probably the greatest gift a creative can receive. When you are new, you don’t know the rules.You can ask stupid question and make so-called mistakes.It is often these glitches that let the new light in. You might fall on your face or discover something that had been staring everybody else in theirs. The learning for me is the one thing you always take with you is your perspective.When this meets new things and places a strange kind of alchemy happens.
Travelling has also taught me the power of uncertainty. When you are comfortable, a large part of that is based on the illusion of certainty. Of being right and thinking you know how it all works.However, when you travel you are seldom right about anything. So, life doesn’t become about being right, it becomes about finding interesting.
I guess for me that is the largest lesson of all. Growing up I thought travelling took certainty away from me. Now, I understand it was also giving me the gift of interesting. These last couple of years have let me understand the power of movement and momentum. I was once in Brazil and somebody told me that is how Brazilians solve problems whether it was for football or life. Through movement. If you are at a restaurant in Rio and there are no tables they bring you a beer on the steps. And here’s the thing, you still have a great time.
There is no perfect. Only interesting. And when you know this you can never go back.
“You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.”
Cannes is a magnificent car crash of creativity. This is my tenth visit and every time that car crash gets a little bigger and a little more spectacular.
I was lucky enough to be invited to judge this year. So, for the first few days I got to look at 5500 entries. That’s over 2500 ads a day. You are separated from the crowds and live in neon rooms with tiny biscuits for a while. So it is a bit of the shock to the senses to walk outside and see Kanye West, Jared Leto and the occasional Delorean. You are also confronted by about a million ridiculously stylish people in mirrored Ray-bans. They do this so they can look over your shoulder while they talk to you to see if there is anybody else more worthy of their attention. Add to this, enough finger food and Rose to feed every Kardashian for the rest of their lives and you get the reality show that is Cannes.
As shocking though as this all is, it is a sideshow compared to what is truly shocking for somebody who has been visiting for a decade. For me what is shocking is the fact that Cannes seems to be wrestling with itself trying to figure out what it is. And this is simply because of the sheer volume of disciplines and avenues that collide in the South of France.
Let me explain. While I am judging thousands of texting and driving press ads (it has to be the biggest problem facing humanity if you look at the amount of entries) outside you have celebs like Kanye West talking about content, talks from a man called Chris Dancy who is apparently the most digitally connected man on Earth, HBO giving clues to storytelling and a host of tech start ups peddling their wares. Facebook, Google, product design and mobile apps that link to drones that bring you a pizza and turn into an Oculus Rift so you can game while you check God knows what on the microchip that has been implanted in your brain (I am kidding, sort of). And everybody continuously drinks espressos and talks about how they are going to re-invent themselves by being braver than they were in the last 12 months. And that is before lunch.
So, it all might sound bewildering. And it is. Until you see the work. And then it all makes sense. Look at the Volvo trucks stuff. It is a simple idea. Harvey Nichols. An idea. And it isn’t hidden by anything. It is simple and staring you in the face. That is why it wins. In a sea of jargon, connectedness and puffery a great idea floats above it all. The truth is whether you are looking at an elegant press ad or a mobile technology that makes children in Cancer wards in South America feel less lonely they are just beautiful ideas. A lot of the noise and shiny things you see at Cannes happen after the idea. But in the beginning there is the idea. That hasn’t changed. And it never will.
When you remember this, things become simple. You stop being distracted by all the pretty wrapping paper and remember the gift. The reality is no matter how elaborate, big or clever the wrapping paper gets somebody has to have an idea. I think many people are forgetting this.
The difference today is once you have the idea it can travel in a million different directions. It can build, divide and live forever. The fact that an idea can do all this is exciting, powerful and valid. But, and this is a big fucking but, you have to have one in the first place. Bill Bernbach said 50 years ago if you can’t write your idea on the back of a business card it probably isn’t an idea. When you remember this, things are not so confusing, scary or overwhelming. They become very simple.