“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”
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.
“You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
There seems to be a belief that we are about to find an answer in our business. Our industry is looking for certainty even perhaps comfort. There is a tendency to hold onto the latest technology or system like it is some sort of panacea for all our ills. This is something that happens in an uncertain world. It is natural to crave certainty. Certainty and creativity however are not a great mix.
So I thought with the help of a Tinder, Tesla and a 15 year old physics genius I would try to demonstrate my belief in embracing uncertainty.
My belief has always been creativity is not a thing, it is a way. Or to put it another way, creativity is not an answer it is an endless series of answers. In an uncertain world that is forever changing, the solution is to replace the word fear with opportunity. If we lean into the fear perhaps we can move forward.
Leonard Cohen once said it’s the cracks that let the light in. Let’s see if that is still true.
This week I read an article about Tinder in New York. When Tinder came out it was a cool fun way to meet people. It was an app that made it easier to meet someone than hang out in a bar all night. In the article the author Nancy Jo Sales talks about how we are in an age of emotional alienation and how apps like Tinder have contributed to this. Her argument is emotion and sex have become totally divorced in the hook up culture apps have created. And according to the article it has become a big problem for many in New York. The Tinderellas as they are called are no longer enjoying the ball.
So, what you have is technology solving one problem and creating a new one. You could solve this by creating a swanky club in New York called No-Fi where cellphones don’t work and you go on old fashion dates. Or, perhaps a new app where you have to spend a week getting to know someone before you can swipe on. Not the greatest solutions I know, but you get the idea. Creativity lives in the cracks and problems. That is where the opportunities are.
Here is another. It was recently revealed hackers were able to hack into a Tesla motor car. What you have is an amazing solution to the global fuel problem creating a new unexpected problem. Potentially, somebody can steal your car or make it unsafe with a lap top. So, perhaps in the future there will be parking spaces that can block hackers attempts or perhaps road signs that can detect if somebody is trying to hack into your vehicle.
Once again, problem, solution, problem, new opportunity. There is no single solution but a series of them. And they don’t come from reams of information or data but rather something we should do more often. Thinking.
Meet somebody who’s good at thinking. Jacob Barnett. He was diagnosed as autistic when he was young and was sent to special ed classes. Due to his mother’s bravery and intuition she realised this was not helping. She decided to take a different course. She let him focus on what he was interested in. There was a dramatic change. Today, he is 15 and is doing his doctorate in physics.
I mention him because he is a great example of the experts trying to find an easy answer. Or, certainty if you like. And because he recently did a TED talk. He spoke about about Newton and Einstein and how their greatest discoveries happened a certain way. When both men made their greatest discoveries they were unable to learn for various reasons. So, they had to think.
When Newton discovered his multitude of laws he was confined to his rooms because of the great plague. And there was period of time Einstein couldn’t go to University so he took a boring job in a patents office which let him do one thing. Think. And this is where he thought of his theory of relativity. Barnett’s point with both examples is they were not learning at the time. They were thinking.
Learning is about what exists. And that is important and has a role. However, it is thinking that gets you somewhere new. Learning is about the past and certainty. Thinking is about the future and uncertainty.
Creativity is no different. It is about getting somewhere new. It is about understanding the way things are, throwing it out and starting again. Creativity is abandoning certainty. It is a beautiful dance between problem and solution.
When the world is shifting and changing I think many believe storing up on knowledge and having a lot of information will be the solution. It will give you an exact answer. The truth is that even great answers ultimately give you more new problems to solve. And tomorrow the answers will have changed again. That is why we need thinking and creativity. These are the abilities that not only keep up with time but let us travel ahead of it. And time is not a single answer. It is an endless story.
That is why there is no right. Only interesting.
Illustration. Minky Stapleton
“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.”
There is a great contradiction in the communications business. It can be found in two words. Communications business. Communications are by their very purpose designed to be clear and simple. Free from jargon and cloudiness. They cut to the heart of the matter. There is no confusion. We know what to do. We have clarity and understanding. In essence, we are talking about what needs to be done simply and with focus. We know what the problem is, which is half the problem.
The world of business though is anything but clear. This is because business is often about the future. And there is often very little clarity about the future. It is where logic meets vision.There is insufficient data. There is fear and ego. Which in my experience are the two biggest reasons for confusion. And this often leads to jargon. Which in our business both on agency and client side is an attempt to give the impression of certainty. You are now only mere moments away from doing shit work.
Whether you are a client or an agency there is a simple truth that we should all remember. When you care more about using the right words in your world as opposed to how you communicate with the rest of the world you are going to reach a very small audience.
I have met a man who had future expert on his business card. I imagine his job is pretty safe. In meetings over the years I have heard words like transclusion, pivot, paradigm shift, optimisation, sense check and snackable content thrown into sentences like shiny confetti in a ticker tape parade where the cavalcade takes a horrible wrong turn.
Now, I know what some of those words mean. The problem is when you put them all together. I like this example from Ollie Latham. I’m going to have to circle back synergistically to cascade a holistic response to this pain point. Translation. I am going to find an answer to the problem.
This is happening in millions of meetings across the world every day. And, the problem is our business is becoming more complex every day. Jargon use to be funny. It is now a problem. And not just because it creates confusion, which it does. Not speaking plainly does something far worse. Simple words have clarity. Simple words have another quality. Power. Jargon is a sickness that is very capable of making what we produce confusing. However, what’s far worse is that it can also create a process that is designed to create products that are bland and boring.
This for me is the real problem with jargon. It is a masquerade of vague, vanilla politeness. It is accuracy without a target. It is a cancer that kills perspective. And without perspective, you are not interesting. The one thing a brand has to be to survive.
So, I thought I would give you two examples of plain speaking that have clarity and power. One happened this week. And one is personal.
This week Kim Kardashian was put on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. This is what Sinead O’Connor said.
“What is this c**t doing on the cover of Rolling Stone? Music has officially died. Who knew it would be Rolling Stone that murdered it?”
Clarity. Honesty. Passion. Perspective. Interesting. Simplicity. It is a lesson. Imagine if conversations and communications where this simple and precise in our business. You might not like what she is saying but you sure as hell understand it. And more importantly, you feel something. Also, you instantly have a point of view.
Here is one more. My grandfather’s name was Gerald Basil Stapleton DFC, DFC. He was a Squadron Leader in the Battle of Britain. He was shot down twice and shot down thirteen enemy planes. He was tough as nails and a little crazy.
He only ever phoned me once. Strangely, I was in Cannes. He was in England. I had had a shit week and the agency I was running hadn’t done that well. I was sitting at the end of a pier feeling sorry for myself. The phone rang. I answered. Slightly startled, I told him about my week and the pressure I was feeling.
And then he said just three things.
I was seventeen when I went to war.
Most of my squadron died in the Battle of Britain but we had a saying.
Keep pulling the trigger until you see the fuckers smoke.
And then he said goodbye. I understood. And I have never felt more pathetic or more grateful to be alive on a pier in the South of France.
Simple, honest words can change everything. At best, complicated, unclear words normally keep things the way they are.
I am not sure we as an industry have that option open to us anymore.