Maybe hope is a strategy.

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson

A love letter to the creatives.

I will tell you a secret. Sometimes, I walk into bookshops hoping to find something I am not looking for.

I will come back to that in a minute. But first, let’s be honest, it’s been quite a year. And for some even longer than that. The quote by Churchill that when you are walking through hell, keep walking was dropped into a casual conversation by a friend the other day. The question for a creative is of course how? What is the key ingredient?

Recently, I was fortunate enough to see Richard E. Grant speak for two hours. He is a brilliant storyteller and amongst all the famous names there was this re-occurring thread that he was very grateful and felt lucky for his hard earned career. It was refreshing to see somebody that understood that luck is part and parcel of it all.

(Lucky to meet the great man and tell him what his film meant to me.)

For me though, his posh voice instantly took me back to a great film that changed my life. Withnail and I, was and is a magical film. It is the perfect distillation of humour, anarchy and desperation. I had never seen anything like it before and maybe even since. It was also not a film that fitted into the humid, hazy outpost of Durban in the South African landscape in the the late 80’s. It was the antidote and a way forward. This beautiful piece of indie cinema made me understand there was another world. It gave me hope that there was a place for me somewhere on the planet.

Hope.

It is such a strange word. Right up there with belief. Words that don’t really fit into the matrix but are desperately needed for almost anything of consequence to happen. You have no evidence or proof that something is going to work. You don’t know what is going to happen. But, you believe or hope it will work. So you try.

Without it, creativity is impossible. It is literally impossible to create if you don’t believe in a different reality. If you don’t hope that what doesn’t exist could suddenly appear out of thin air.

The truth is, most creatives are magnificent cynics to protect all that bubbling hope in their heart. And with good reason. It is vital. It is the ingredient that lets you be playful. It is how you can stay a kid in a grown up world. It is the thing that makes you hope things can get better. You hope things can be different. You hope you might do something formerly known as impossible.

That fantastic film gave me hope a long time ago. Hope is also something I have been given along the way by some truly special creatives in my career. And if I think about the other theme Mr Grant spoke about, namely gratitude, I would like to say thanks to each one of you. It’s something we never really say or do in this business. It’s not really done. Fuck it. Thanks to each one of you.

To the creatives. If this year has been tough, hang in there. Hope is what makes you believe you can change things. And that, pretty much, is the superpower of being a creative. That is what you have. A superpower. That is what you can do.

So, keep hoping. Especially for the best. And may I recommend occasionally walking into a book shop for no reason. You might find exactly what you are not looking for.

Merry Xmas.

Dan Wieden and The Imitation Game.

You never think you will meet your heroes. And when you are a creative at the bottom of Africa far from everywhere, you really don’t think you will meet your heroes. But then you do. You meet one of those people that makes you believe. One of those special humans who does work that makes you know it’s possible. They take away your excuses and give you hope at the same time. They make you back yourself because of what they have done. That might be the greatest gift one person can give to another. Their example shows you the way forward.

One thing I never wrote back in 2015 (When I originally wrote this blog) was about me being a weird, embarrassing fanboy and following Dan Wieden out of the hall after he finished his talk. So, this is my 7 seconds with Dan Wieden. I don’t know why, but I had to shake his hand. I just did. And, anybody who knows me, will know I am very bad at this kind of stuff. Dan Wieden was standing on George Street in Sydney and I gingerly walked up to him. I said thanks for the talk, it was bloody great. Not fantastic, but a solid opening. He shook my hand. Probably one of many that day. Then he said the part I really remember. He didn’t say thanks and turn to get back to the hotel to get over his jet-lag as quickly as possible.

He said, what’s your name? I stumbled. I wasn’t expecting him to ask me a question. I eventually said Damon. He smiled. He looked straight at me. And then he said thanks very much Damon. Nice of you to say that. Good to meet you.

Maybe, it’s nothing. I am sure it sounds like nothing. Definitely nothing. You kind of had to be there. Maybe, it’s just how he spoke. But, he gave me a little of his time. He didn’t have to do that. He asked me my name. He treated me like a person. And I still think about that tiny moment today. The idea that a leader can be a leader by being extremely human. By giving you their time when they don’t have to give you anything. I am really glad I shook his hand and jealous of those that got to work with him.  

 This is the blog I wrote 7 years ago.  

Sometimes the Universe helps you out. I was going to see Dan Wieden speak in Sydney. On the plane, I watched The Imitation Game. It is the story of Alan Turing and how he broke Enigma. It was seen as impossible to break. It had 150 000 000 000 000 possible combinations. Turing did it by building Christopher. A machine that today we would call a computer.

What was fascinating was how Turing, who was clearly a troubled genius, was all about doing. The others at Bletchley Park were about talking or career or ego. They wanted to be seen to be doing things, instead of actually doing them. Turing didn’t care about talk and posturing. He succeeded because he had the ability but more importantly had the balls to try and do something impossible. He was not about the wrapping paper. He was all about the gift.

A couple of hours later I am in the presence of Dan Wieden. His speech is inspirational. It is about bravery and caring about creativity. He speaks about his love for chaos and not selling out.

Great talks in advertising are not always about new ideas. Sometimes they are about the truth. A truth you may have forgotten or have been trying to forget. We all know what we should be doing. Dan Wieden simply reminded us of what that is. He has spent 30 years figuring it out so I would say he is worth listening to about what we do.

So far, so good. Then we have question time. Somebody asks what Wieden’s formula for success is. Formula? There were a few bullshit, look at me, corporate questions like that. Wieden’s answer was something along the lines of there is no fucking formula for chaos. Fantastic.

I suddenly had this strange merging of the film and the speech. In both, people want greatness to be easy. They want the 5 steps to success. They want to appear like they are doing something, when in reality they are not. I have often said our business wants the results of creativity without having to deal with creativity itself. They want it to be neat and tidy.

The problem with that is we are creating a business with very similar perspectives and opinions. We speak about innovation and taking risks constantly at millions of seminars. We talk about how important glitches in the Matrix are. But does advertising still want them? Is it just us bullshitting ourselves?

What I took out of that speech was Dan Wieden is a man who has been passionate about ideas for 30 years. He is comfortable with chaos and risk. He has experienced his fair share of failures and setbacks. Nevertheless, he has always been excited by things that have never been done. He does not have a formula. Because a formula would imply replication. And replication is not what a creative business is about. He also isn’t that interested in the packaging of creativity. He is interested in creativity. And most importantly he has an iron clad belief in the chaotic process of having ideas.

There’s that word again. Belief. It is a word you don’t hear in our industry very much anymore. Dan Wieden was on that stage because he believes in what he is doing. It is that simple. Belief is not a formula, a list or a whole lot of bullet points you put on posters around your agency.

Belief is something, however, that helps you take risks to do something that has not been done.

And there is no formula for that. Or, to put it in Mr Wieden’s own words.

Just Do It.

 

Creativity. To hit the target, you have to go too far.

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativity.”

Pablo Picasso

There is nothing quite like a drag queen singing a Britney Spears number within a false eyelash of your face to make you think very deeply about life.

It has been a beautiful blur. It was The Monkeys Aotearoa 1st Birthday party. And we had a bloody good party. We were all together in a steamy restaurant that seemed tiny but later would miraculously contain a whole show that involved Lady Gaga spilling onto the street. The lights dimmed and Miss Kita Mean appeared in all her vicious eye-watering glamour. Within 15 minutes she had burnt every sacred cow you could think of. And some others in the neighbours paddock.

You would think this would have made some of us uncomfortable. Actually, it had the opposite effect on a room full of strangers. We became galvanised. It became a safe space. We laughed a lot. We relaxed. We realised there were no rules. We were willing to look stupid. We stopped caring. We became one mind. We were free.

It reminded me of a piece of wisdom I was given by a much older creative when I first started in the business. He looked at me after I had presented some work. He bombed the work and said witheringly, sometimes to hit the target you have to go too far. See you tomorrow morning. It was evening.

I understood. I had given the correct answer. But it was boring. I hadn’t surprised him. I hadn’t gone far enough.

In my experience, in really good creative departments or spaces this is absolutely true. There are no sacred cows. You can’t go too far. It is a safe space for any idea.

We always laughed a lot. We realised there were no rules. We were willing to look stupid. We stopped caring. We became one mind. We were free.

Why does this matter? A couple of reasons. To do something that gets noticed you have to at least try and go to where nobody has been. For that, you need a place and people who will back you on that sometimes silly and pointless journey. With Covid and people working from home, as well as many projects taking longer to create because of the multitude of elements that are now included this quality or space will become far more important. Some might think this isn’t required. They are wrong. You have to go too far. And then if you need to, you can come back. It’s just how creativity works.

If you start a project with a laundry list of things you can’t do, you will struggle. If you work with a whole lot of critics that just tell you why something is wrong, you won’t try. You need people that say let’s give it a go. You need people who understand you have to go on a dumb adventure to come back to the correct answer. Our business is full of critics but they don’t solve the problem. Let’s just remember critics are not creatives. Unfortunately, many don’t understand this. Critics measure but can’t make. Creatives make and on a good day can do things beyond measure. One tells you why something is wrong. The other can give you a new type of right. I know which is more valuable.

There is another reason this kind of space is important. In our business, you will hear phrases like ‘this is a massive problem’ or ‘this is the most important brief of your career’. And of course the beautiful ‘don’t fuck this up’. We believe that by making a problem very big and important it will get the attention it deserves.

What this actually does is make the task way harder for a creative.

Look at politicians, look at Donald Trump, every opponent got a nickname. Sleepy Joe and Lying Ted to name a few. He made them smaller. He diminished them with humour. Even if it isn’t your kind of humour. Comedians do the same thing. They prick all the bubbles of pomposity. They make our problems manageable by laughing at them. This makes them smaller. This makes them solvable.

Bad creative environments do the opposite. They shout this is a big problem. This magnifies the issue. It makes them worse and creates more pressure. I believe humour and irreverence is how you diminish a problem and make it manageable. I believe humour is the most important path to a creative solution. It gives you optimism and permission.

We laughed a lot. We relaxed. We realised there were no rules.

Of course metrics and measurement are vital, however, I still believe the ability to laugh is the most important and human ingredient of all. Kids and drag queens show us this all the time. They say what everybody is thinking. They ask awkward questions and they always laugh at farts. Just because farts are very funny. In fact, they laugh a lot. They realise there are no rules. They are willing to look stupid. They are free.

In a world of serious business, some of these qualities might seem frivolous and unimportant. After all, we are often unflatteringly called just the colouring in department. Yet, creativity can be far more than decorative. It can find and create a new reality. It is the antidote to the same or just one answer. But, to do that you have to laugh in the face of adversity. Let’s remember, Einstein once described creativity as intelligence having fun.

A lot of people these days talk about intelligence.

Very few talk about fun.

You really do need both to put on a great show.

If you don’t believe me, I have got somebody I would like you to meet.

It’s not the stars. It’s the spaces between them.

Cool Hand Luke: “I can eat fifty eggs.”
Dragline: “Nobody can eat fifty eggs.”

From the film Cool Hand Luke

In 1992, Cannes only had two categories. Film and print. Today, Cannes has over 30 categories.

In the 30 years between 1992 and today there has been a theme that pops up every year. Advertising is dying. It’s over. It’s just a matter of time. Bob Hoffman wrote a brilliant piece about this.

This is normally fuelled by what the new way will be. I remember being at a talk with Sheryl Sandberg where she predicted that in the future, all ads will be seven seconds long. The following year Nike broadcast a man trying to break the world marathon record for two hours on Facebook Live. I will let you do the maths on that one.

If you look at Cannes today there are roughly 30 categories. So 30 years ago, two categories and today 30. Almost one new category a year. And we say advertising is dying. Perhaps what advertising was might be. And that’s still a very big maybe.

The reality is, advertising is growing and it has now reached a point where it is literally everything.

It has now grown to a point that our own definition of it has become ridiculous. Our own boundaries and lines in the sand have become irrelevant. Think about it, 30 categories. The real challenge now is to understand that the number of categories is not actually large. What is large is navigating the spaces between them. In the future this is going to be vast and potentially treacherous.

While, year after year, we as an industry have tried to deal with our collective self-loathing by eradicating mosquitoes or helping the planet with world first drone ads, we seemed to have missed the fact that our own definitions of our business may no longer be accurate or relevant to our core purpose. And that is to sell things. I know, for some, this may come as a shock.

We have been looking at the wallpaper while the building has been changing.

Ryan Reynolds gave a talk at Cannes this year. At one point he said when he makes an ad he starts with the product and tries to have fun with it. People clapped like they had just discovered what advertising was. Of course he is right, but for some reason such an obvious thought seemed like a revolutionary one. It made me think that we might have got a little lost amongst the stars.

As we go forward I think we need to remember two things. What we actually do, and that just because we can do anything and everything, it doesn’t mean we should.

You only have to go to Cannes to see this. Entertainment, technology, gaming, data, media all are a part of the advertising universe. It’s all there. Advertising has become everything.

So, perhaps in the future instead of saying what are we going to do? We should say what are we not going to do.

At least we know where somewhere is.

On the other hand, everywhere is a hard place to visit.

And just to be clear, fifty eggs is a lot of eggs.

Advertising. Fawlty Towers and the art of prediction.

fawlty-towers-episode-11-sign-flowery-twats

“Most successful pundits are selected for being opinionated, because it’s interesting, and the penalties for incorrect predictions are negligible. You can make predictions, and a year later people won’t remember them.”

Daniel Kahneman

The legendary comedian John Cleese is being interviewed on the radio. He is explaining how arguably the most successful television series, Fawlty Towers, was liked by very few when it began in 1975. In fact, when the Daily Mirror reviewed the show the headline read “Long John Short On Jokes.”  Cleese says it’s a fallacy that anybody knows anything will be successful in the beginning. There is no certainty. One of the comments from a BBC commissioning editor was apparently that the show might be a lot better if Basil Fawlty got out of the hotel more. Ridiculous right? Except, the creative world is littered with artists getting stupid advice, stories of famous bands like The Beatles and U2 getting rejection letters and great actors or artists being rejected over and over.

It would seem, when it comes to creating the future, passion and belief are just as important as the opinions and so called wisdom that created yesterday.

The radio interview continued and Cleese spoke about a man called Philip E. Tetlock. Tetlock is a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He has studied forecasting and the art of prediction for the last 30 years. One of his discoveries came from soliciting opinions from 284 experts that ranged from government officials, professors, journalists, Marxists and free marketeers. This gave him roughly 28000 predictions. The result? These experts were only slightly more accurate than chance. His work also suggested a perverse inverse relationship between fame and accuracy. In other words, the more famous somebody was the less accurate they were likely to be.

In short, his research shows nobody really knows anything about tomorrow with great certainty.

So, the lesson is beware of anybody who tells you they absolutely know anything about the future. And the advertising and marketing industry is full of people who say they know.

As I write this, Vine is being closed down by Twitter. Think about that. Four years ago when Vine was launched our industry was all over it. As late as December of 2015, it still had 200 million users. ( Yep, I wrote this 7 years ago but I feel like we are having these discussions). I remember all sorts of people telling me Vine was the future. The Holy Grail. Very few experts, if any, would have predicted it would die 4 years later because it didn’t move fast enough to differentiate itself from Instagram and Snapchat. Any experts out there want to predict their future?

The other lesson for me, especially from a creative perspective, is that perhaps intuition, chance, luck and belief are far more important than we realise. Great things are very rarely made with absolute certainty. They are often made with diverse, strange and often unintended ingredients. If you ignore them, you will only ever make what already exists.

I will give you one fantastic example. While I was learning about all this stuff I stumbled on an interview with Rowan Atkinson.

He was asked about Blackadder, arguably the second best British comedy series behind Fawlty Towers. He was asked why they had chosen all these historical settings for each series. His answer was that Fawlty Towers was so good they knew anything they wrote they would be compared unfavourably with Fawlty Towers. They decided they didn’t want to compete with a great show that until only recently had been panned by so called experts. So, they decided to set it in Medieval times so it wouldn’t be. This choice made it different. This choice made it great.

In essence, Fawlty Towers success became the essential unintended ingredient that created the genius of Blackadder.

The sad truth is most experts would have looked at the available data and tried to do another Fawlty Towers. It would have been terrible. A pale imitation.

This is why creativity is important. It breaks old successful patterns and creates new ones.

This is something I see in our business. More and more we are trying to create certainty. To do what has worked before. To discard unintended ingredients. Find the middle and follow the pattern. Do not make a mistake. There is no time for that.

Yet, while this conversation is happening there is another conversation that is happening about something just as important as certainty and safety.

Exponential growth.

How will companies grow? By doing what they did yesterday? By following the pattern that exists or trying to create a new one?

Those two conversations eventually smash into each other. They always do.

And, there has only and will only ever be one winner.

Creativity may be seen by some as unpredictable. However, the unfortunate and very predictable results of not using it do not seem to be a viable option when it comes to creating the future.

Many think creativity is always about massive risk.

Many forget, it is also how you create massive reward.

The chess player in Brick Lane and the joy of Cannes.

Glamour meets joy

“The French Riviera. A sunny place for shady people.”

Somerset Maughan

When it comes to Cannes and advertising, people often start with what’s wrong with it. I don’t want to do that after a million zoom calls over the last couple of years. I would rather write about the joy of Cannes. And the joy comes from those mad people you see so fleetingly in a little back lane every couple of years or so. People.

So, if you don’t mind, I would like to start in another lane full of people. To be specific, Brick Lane in London.

In the middle of a mile-long market I found a beret-wearing cigar-smoking man who could have been from a variety of European countries, playing chess against all comers. He was doing it for free. He was doing it because it made him happy. He reminded me how important it is to do things simply because they are fun.

There was a small crowd that began to grow as he played a young woman who had evidently been there the weekend before. She had been practicing all week and in a beautiful twist she beat our possibly French hero. There was applause and laughter. There was clapping of hands. Grumpy Londoners were delighted to be there. There was joy.

Joy. For a few years we were trapped in our own worlds. And then we were all in the same one.

There is a beautiful line in the Lawrence Kasdan 1991 movie Grand Canyon which is, “Never go to the Grand Canyon alone”. Perhaps, this is what Cannes was about this year. The festival was great but being with all those crazy people you hadn’t seen for years was really special. The tribe found itself. And then we carry on for another year.

Cannes is not perfect by any means. I have been going for more than a decade. It has made me very angry and very happy and probably everything else. There is work that wins that I believe shouldn’t. There is work I have done that I think should have done better. And I am sure every creative in the world feels that way. With at least 30,000 entries that will never change.

Cannes has also become massive. It is now a festival that encompasses a multitude of industries and channels. I hear gaming will be introduced next year. So if you think it’s big now, hold onto your hats. This is of course the problem. If advertising is everything and everywhere, how do you have a finite festival for it? Where is the centre of creativity? Maybe a topic for another blog.

More than a few people have said to me it’s lost its centre or soul. People complain about the size of the boats, how much rosé is consumed and the kind of work that wins. This kind of criticism has happened ever since I first landed on that scary runway in Nice 15 years ago. All of this may or may not be true depending on your point of view. The truth is, each time I go I either have a brilliant time or a terrible time. There is no in between. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that it has far more to do with me and where I am at in my career than the place itself. Cannes is a strange mirror. It is always just what is happening right now. Good and bad.

So what did the mirror show me this time? It showed me that despite technology there is simply no substitute for being there. It showed me there is no substitute for seeing all those crazy people that make advertising fantastic. Something we should be way prouder of than we are. The people are the place.

Like that cheering crowd in Brick Lane watching chess. It didn’t make sense but it made sense to us. Isn’t that what living is? People were excited again. Just because we were there. It made us happy because it was fun.

I saw junior teams in Cannes who were there for the first time with wide eyes and wider smiles. They were inspired. They realised how big their universe truly was. You could see nothing was going to stop them. I don’t think there is a value or price you can put on that feeling. Our industry should not take it for granted. Especially if you are trying to do difficult things.

Perhaps I, like many of us, have become a little jaded by the passing parade over the years. But this Cannes I remembered what it felt like the first time I went to the South of France. I loved the ideas. I loved the adventure of it all. I loved the people. I saw the potential.

I was a creative not a critic.

This year, after a two year winter the sun came out. I think we all needed this. It felt like normality again. It felt like life and living. The world felt open again. And that felt joyous.

My shady people had found their sunny place once again.

How to make Norwegian curry.

“The film is made in the editing room. The shooting of the film is about shopping, almost. It’s like going to get all the ingredients together and you’ve got to make sure before you leave the store that you got all the ingredients. And then you can make a good cake – or not.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Many years ago, as a very skinny and intense student there was a ritual I used to partake in. It went like this. Towards the end of the week, my flatmates and I would normally be broke. Yet, we needed to eat. The solution was ingenious. We would go to supermarkets. We would try to look casual, relaxed and unhungry. We would descend on those happy, friendly samplers like a pack of wafer thin wolves. We would take as many samples of sauces or biscuits as we could from those now sad empty handed samplers who had mistakenly thought they might be able to sell something to a malnourished frenzy of students. We would combine this glorious haul with our one friend who could always get his hands on what seemed to be an unending supply of Scandinavian sardines from his doting mother. We called this culinary triumph Norwegian Curry.

I am sure if you opened the cupboard in your kitchen you would find some weird shit. Look right at the back and there will be a bottle of dry leaves or granules with a name you can’t pronounce. You don’t remember buying it. But you don’t chuck it out do you? Because deep down, you know that one day you might just need it to make your very own Norwegian Curry.

Ingredients are funny things. Try eat a bottle of cinnamon and you will have a really shit afternoon. Put them on pancakes. Way better. Try make custard without vanilla. I am sure it is possible but it won’t be as good. The question is, does that really matter? Do you need great custard or will average suffice? This question is what drives thousands of creatives mad around the world every day.

The longer I am in this business, the more I think that we are always wrestling with three possibilities or challenges. Make the same recipe, but with less ingredients. Use ingredients we don’t always like to make something we do. And very occasionally, you get all the ingredients to try and surpass the existing recipe. These three possibilities are the number one reason you need creativity and lateral thinking. Because the truth is, if you are a creative you are always trying to make a better Norwegian curry (something new or something that doesn’t yet exist) no matter how few ingredients you have. And, for me, the key to doing this was learning that like garlic on your breath some ingredients will always be there. Some are ingredients you may not like but will always need.

So, I thought I would jot down a few ingredients that you find in almost every creative endeavour. I don’t like all of them but in just the right amount it can get you that Michelin Star, Silver Bear, Bronze Guava or just remain gainfully employed. I call them them the 5C’s, or to extend my culinary metaphor, the spice rack of advertising.

First up criticism. The cayenne pepper of advertising. Too much of it and it will destroy everything. Agencies, people, work you name it. Often, it can be ego masquerading as high standards. However, if you have none of it, your dish could be bland or completely shit. If there is way to be better we should open to it. The trick is to find somebody who will tell you the truth. And here is the important part, find somebody who is trying to make your work better rather than make you feel worse. If you can’t take criticism you won’t make it in this business. I think the hardest lesson I had to learn was trying to use criticism to be better than I was yesterday rather than trying to be better than everybody else. I know, that’s easy to say.

Second C. Being a car salesman. It has become pretty unfashionable to talk about selling in this business. Which is why I am using the very sexy term car salesman to describe the task. Our job is to make ideas that sell and sell ideas that we can make. Every day. You can have the best idea in the world but if nobody else can see that, it’s game over. We deal with large sums of money and things that are yet to be made. There is a lot of fear baked into that process. Persuade, paint a picture, seduce, present a strong argument, convince or any other term you might like is needed to get the curry made. If there is one thing I would say to young creatives it is learn to sell the idea as much as have the idea. It can literally save you years in your career. I don’t always feel this is addressed in ad-schools but it should be.

Next up, curation. There is a saying that you think the stars are big until you look at the spaces between them. Having a great idea is awesome but seeing the potential between many of them is more important today than it ever was. There are very few campaigns today that are not integrated. There are very few that don’t use multiple channels. This means you are either looking for what I call a Swiss-army knife idea. That is, an idea that can work across multiple channels. Or, you have to develop the ability to look at a wall full of disparate ideas and see the connection or possibilities between them. You then have to pull those ingredients together. This is a skill that is not always understood and it is often how work suddenly magically happens. This will become even more important in the future because the ideas can no longer just be stars but have to also be the spaces between them. The orchestration of ideas will become as important as the ideas themselves.

Here’s a fun one, catastrophe. A dangerous spice, that’s for sure. In just about every piece of work I have done it has appeared somewhere in the process. Something changes. Somebody makes a mistake. The timings have changed. You can’t use a certain colour or word. There was information you didn’t know. Or there is something you can no longer get. For reasons beyond your control, it all just fucks out. It’s in those moments where you have to have great people around you that just won’t give up. Courage is another spice. As is tenacity. There is no shortcut. Sometimes you just have to stay in the kitchen. Without being able to hang in there, you almost never do anything great. One other strange point about catastrophe. In the middle of it, lies opportunity. I have found that if you can just keep cooking through the madness there will be something that makes the work better lying in the middle of the problem. I don’t know why, it just seems to always happen.

And finally, creativity. It is the one thing that lets you take the same ingredients and make something new. In fact, it is the only thing. There are only 12 notes in music. But how many songs are there? Without it, the other ingredients don’t really matter. It is the only thing that has the power to transform, re-interpret and change the mundane and the same old same old. It is what can help you make leaps you didn’t know you could make. It is what can change everything. It is the strongest glue and the brightest light. It is not a formula and the more you try and explain it the dumber you will sound. It is a mystery you need but can’t solve. It is this strange power that says the world was like that and now it is like this. And it can do it instantly. It is not just an ingredient, it is every ingredient and every food. Without it, you can literally make nothing worth eating.

And this is coming from somebody who has made way too much Norwegian curry.

Creativity. Intelligence is not enough.

Creativity is intelligence having fun.

Albert Einstein

I will get back to this brilliant quote in a minute.

Jerry Seinfeld is standing on stage. Actually, he is leaning on the stool provided. The stage is small, smoky and I imagine dank. It’s one of the those rooms that you always find at the bottom of some dark stairs. Jerry is sweating. He has a piece of paper with some jokes on it. He has lost his train of thought. He is bombing badly and it is very painful to watch. While he is grasping and scrambling somebody in the late night audience heckles the great comic. They shout out, is this your first time?

You can see this moment for yourself in a documentary called ‘Comedian’. It is about what Jerry Seinfeld did after Seinfeld ended. The answer is he went back on the road and sucked for a while. In fact, it took 3 months to get enough new material. He understood that to do this he would have to go through a very painful public process. Because that is how you create something new. There is no shortcut. He understood that the stage was not the joke. His reputation was not the joke. His process was not the joke. The audience and the drinks were not the joke. The joke was the joke and he had to find it in a fumbling, naked way. He has to find the fun. Because that’s how it’s done.

I think our business could learn a lot from this example. Swop the word joke for creativity. We talk a lot about what creativity is. Let’s talk about what creativity is not. Many of these things surround creativity. Ideas might actually need these things. But to be clear they are not the joke. The joke is the joke. Creativity is not an iron clad formula. Unfortunately, it’s not predictable but on the upside this is also why it is valuable. Measurement is not creativity. It is not post rationalisation and explaining. It is always a leap and it is not lots and lots of meetings. If that were true, a lot more advertising would be great. But it’s not. We should probably talk about that. Maybe in the next blog.

Anyway, this in a round about way, brings me back to the quote. The first half uses the word intelligence. I would imagine very few people would argue that intelligence is required to find elegant solutions or answers. The second part uses a much shorter word that we don’t really talk about. Fun.

Now, fun might seem frivolous. Maybe a bit silly? But, without it you just have intelligence. And according to Einstein that is not enough to form creativity. Simply put, there is no leap. You do what has always been done. Here is a perfect example of why intelligence is not enough. Below is Sir Ken Robinson’s brilliant talk where he tells the story of a little girl in class who never paid attention until she got to art class. Please watch it.

What is fun? It is pure potential and belief. And a large lack of fear. This is how you get somewhere new. A 6 year old girl reminds us that to do something impossible like draw what God looks like you need more than intelligence. Intelligence is not enough. That is what the teacher has. You need innocence, belief and a few other things that make that secret sauce. Human, messy things. Seinfeld understands this completely. To create new work, he knows he has to believe in something that does not exist. Not what he already knows. He has to believe in his potential and talent and quite frankly hope for the best and go through a very painful couple of months. That’s just how creativity works. Creativity is a line not a dot. You have to follow that line and let it show you where to go. Not where you are, or where you have been. That creativity has very little value.

Our industry should always remember and protect the second part of Mr Einstein’s quote because the first part will never be enough.

Mind your language.

Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.

Martin Heidegger

I have been thinking about language a lot lately. I have a saying which is let’s not get lost in the forest of maybe. It is the place where a lot of advertising ends up before it is made. The simple reason it often happens is the imprecision of language. Let me give you an example. Take the word real. In your mind, think what the word means to you. Whatever you thought, it can mean many other things. Real can mean authentic. It can mean gritty. It can mean a documentary. It can mean unvarnished. From the streets. Full of unrestrained emotion. It can mean showing things as they are. My point is whatever you think it means it can mean other things. This is the path to the forest of maybe. But there are other ways to get there.

Take the word Metaverse. What does it actually mean? 6 months ago, it didn’t exist. Then it did. If you listen to any conversations in the marketing world at the moment you will hear terms like blockchain and NFT’s sprinkled into sentences like confetti from the future. The power of the new. It is something our industry does to create energy and possibilities. It is not that any of these terms are wrong but just that they can mean many things and that normally involves very different levels of investment. Never let anybody tell you money is not important when it comes to creativity. Ideas might cost nothing. Making them real does not.

In the past, we have had other words and phrases. Pokemon Go, data is the new oil, Google Glasses, Vine, VR and AR just to mention a few. They were the things creating excitement and energy. They were also used to seem contemporary and of the moment. And then this weekend a company made a television commercial that consisted of a QR code for the Super Bowl and our industry got very excited. To be clear, this is a technology that nobody gave any love to for a decade. I guess there is a big difference between words and ideas.

The great photographer Sir Norman Parkinson once said the purpose of fashion is to change. I often think that same need lies inside advertising. And that can often be wrapping paper without a gift. Language can impress but in the end you better have an idea. While thinking about this I bumped into the picture above. It sums up everything in a single image.

The old saying is that words have power. But, perhaps there is a flip side. Words lose their power. They lose meaning and feeling. This occurs when words are used over and over. Or, it happens when what those words mean do not suit your purpose and you begin to stretch the truth using language. When this happens we start saying things like brands are religions. Sounds good, but what does it mean? We have just entered the forest.

Why does this matter and why does it happen? The simple answer is the familiar becomes less and less noticed. The familiar becomes boring. Language loses its charge and there is an understandable desire to make those words powerful again. It is the battle between accuracy and intensity.

It is a schism that exists in our business. On the one hand we want clarity. We want it all to make sense. On the other hand, we want to sell things, concepts and ideas. We want human beings to do stuff. The solution is to create emotion. Emotion drives behaviour far more than clarity on its own. So, we get weird phrases like turning customers into fanatics. And you don’t have to look far to see how weird it can get. If you look at companies like WeWork or Theranos at their core there was a religious fervour. When you tell people what they are doing is special and deeply important they will go to ridiculous lengths to make that true. I mean WeWork sells space in buildings but to the people that worked there it came across like it was a cure for cancer.

If you read Amanda Montell’s excellent book Cultish you realise this way of speaking has become far more prevalent than we think. She looks at modern exercise programmes like Peloton and F45, Jim Jones and Donald Trump and everything in between to try and define what a cult is. It turns out it’s way more difficult than we think. The main ingredient seems to be language and how it is used. If you know secret words or phrases you feel part of something. You feel special. Another is measurement gives meaning to people. When you can see progress you can see movement in your life. Many tech brands understand this very well. Another secret ingredient is conviction. And it might very well be the most underrated ingredient of all. It also just happens to rely on language for success. Conviction gives people a solid path. It creates direction. This is incredibly powerful. And this normally starts with people believing that something is better than something else. I said believe rather than know.

Which brings us back to language. Which brings us back to selling.

Watch a documentary like the Tinder Swindler on Netflix and you can see just how dangerous absolute conviction and use of language in the wrong hands can be.

The question is in a world that loves the rational and the measurable how much is selling still about conviction and persuasion?

If the examples above prove anything, it is that people desperately want language to create a path of simplicity and understanding. But, language can do a lot more. It can also create conviction. A certainty of feeling. In a word, belief. This seems to be how you get people do just about anything. And I do mean anything.

Let’s choose our words carefully.


Creativity. Choose your certainty wisely.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

William Butler Yeats

Ahead of me on the street were two late 20 somethings talking very passionately. They were on vacation. T-shirts, cargo shorts, sandals and a farmers tan. They were very excitedly talking about crypto, blockchain and NFT’s. It was the future and it was a sure fire way to get filthy rich. They were dead certain about this. For them this was a pattern that would never change. They hadn’t ever considered the possibility they could lose money. I think they even gave each other a high five which made me feel like I was in a teenage Disney film with bad acting and way too much styling.

Maybe it was because it was the beginning of the year. Or, perhaps it was the strangeness of last year but it got me thinking about the word certainty. The first observation I would make is that being certain about the future is a dangerous game. Last year proved that. I started to think about the different types of certainty that lead to actions and ideas. There is the certainty of what you perceive as fact. You believe this solidity will never change. It is the kind of certainty the two crypto bro’s had in front of me. It is the certainty you find at the beginning of things. You don’t know for sure, but you definitely believe. It is the certainty that lets you take crazy and occasionally brilliant risks.

The second type of certainty is about established patterns. Some time in the holidays I saw a fantastic documentary called Sour Grapes. It is about a fraudster called Rudy Kurniawan and the wine collecting industry. Essentially, he conned the wine industry by creating fake bottles of wine. The wine industry was an established pattern. Everybody understood the pattern and the rules of the game. Rudy came along and broke the pattern. He was creative. He would create fake labels on the bottles and mix cheaper wine to approximate the original expensive stuff. It was almost the perfect crime. If you are buying wine for investment purposes you store it and never see it. If you actually drink it, the evidence is gone. If Rudy hadn’t made a spelling mistake on one of the bottles he might never have been caught. The damage he has done to the industry is incalculable. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. All because somebody came along and said I don’t accept your version of reality.

Create patterns and break patterns. This is the dance. Being certain at the beginning is good. Using certainty to your advantage is better. Being certain as things change is the best of all.

This is the third type of certainty. What I call creative certainty. I would define this as trusting and working with change. You are not certain about the outcome but you are certain about the process. You know the pattern will change and you know it will still work out.

Here is a fantastic example.When Bridge over Troubled Water was originally written by Paul Simon he wrote it on guitar. They went into the studio and he realised the song needed to be played on piano rather than guitar. Paul trusted and was certain about his instinct. This meant the song had to be changed and they needed a piano player. The piano players name was Larry Knechtel. He had a very strong gospel background and had played with Elvis Presley fairly often. This of course influenced how he played the song. Because of the way he played, Paul Simon realised the song needed a much bigger third verse which he went and wrote. This is what made the song iconic. Paul Simon was not certain about the outcome but he was certain about the process.

This certainty allows you to break patterns rather than cling on to old ones.

It is the most valuable of all. I am almost certain of it.