Relax, reality comes later.

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“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

John Lennon

Imagine you are four guys in Liverpool in the early 60’s. One day you decide you want to be famous. Ringo starts to tell everybody that the 4 lads are a band. This rumour spreads. They dress like a band and go and hang out with other bands. A couple of groupies start to wave at the fab 4 in the streets. After a couple of months they walk into a trendy club. Everybody stops. The girls start screaming. All this recognition gets them noticed and they even get asked to open a local butchery and and a new invention called a shopping centre. A music store starts giving them free instruments for free PR. This minor fame gets the attention of a record company. The men with big cigars leave London and visit Liverpool. As they get out their Bentley the boys are being chased by a throng of crying, screaming teenagers. The men with the big cigars smile at each other. This is going to be big. They sign them immediately.

Ringo and the others decide they should come clean. They mention the very important fact that they can’t play any instruments, can’t sing or write songs and have absolutely no talent. The men with the big cigars laugh and say don’t worry you can fix anything in a studio. You are already famous that’s the hard part. These men would go on to launch another huge band called Milli Vanilli in the 80’s. (Google it).

An alternative reality? Maybe. Maybe not. It is in fact exactly what the internet has done to fame. Let me explain. I have been reading an excellent book called Hype by Gabrielle Bluestone. She looks at all the scam artists in the digital age. From influencers we trust for no reason to Billy McFarland and the Fyre Festival the lesson they teach is always the same. Something doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be real online.

What this means is you can bend time. You will your reality into being by simply saying it. It’s like a glitzy fucked up version of the upside down in Stranger things. What is important is you say something first. By saying it online it can become true in the real world. There is a documentary called Fake Famous on Netflix where they demonstrate this perfectly. In the series they take non-famous people buy them thousands of followers and watch what happens. In one of the episodes, a male influencer takes fake photos pretending to be at a private gym and puts it on Instagram. The next day he gets an offer from a real private gym to workout there. You say its real and it becomes real. My favourite trick is they show how to take a 12 dollar toilet seat and hold it in front of a television screen with the sky on it and hey presto it looks like you are on a private jet on Instagram.

At this point you might say, yes young man but eventually when these people collide with reality it all comes crashing down. And I say, with hope in my heart, you are probably right.

But, just for fun, let me give you another scenario. Ghost kitchens. Some of you may of heard of the term. For those that haven’t they are essentially fake restaurants on Uber Eats and other apps like it. This is how it works. I create a brand. Damon’s Big Texas Steakhouse. I put a couple of fake reviews online and suddenly I am a restaurant. Except I am not. I am a dodgy kitchen away from prying eyes and health inspectors. I can be cheaper than the competition because there are very few overheads as there are no waiters or people to be served in the restaurant. Because, there is no restaurant in reality. Only online. But now, online has become reality. You saw the brand. You imagined a family run steakhouse. You ordered the food. You ate the food. But the restaurant doesn’t exist.

Online has become reality. What a strange sentence.

The great English poet John Keats once said nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.

One of the best definitions of a brand is that a brand is the sum of your experiences. Another is a brand quite simply is a promise.

The question is if those experiences happen in a place where reality has very little meaning what does that mean for a brand? What is a brand? What can a brand promise in a place where time and space can be bent? Where direct experience happens less and less because of convenience. And, a place, where the final product is no guarantee of where it came from or what it actually is.

Maybe we don’t care anymore. If the burger I ordered from a fake restaurant is ok, do I care? Maybe not.

However, if that is the case we are seeing the collision of two worlds. One that we know. A world where people have worked very hard to build great businesses and products. Actual factories exist. Research is done. They care about what their customer gets. They have tried to build trust over years and create a reputation that becomes their brand.

The other world is a far more shadowy world. Time and space mean very little. Popularity and fame are the only currency. Trust feels like a quaint concept. It’s a place where you can say anything because that might make it true in the future. A world where you can bend reality until it is reality. Here, a brand can be built on circumstantial evidence. A world, where for some, the end justifies the means.

In the future, you will find brands in both of these worlds. Only some of them will be real.

Whatever that means.

Creativity. The goal that was too interesting.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Pablo Picasso

Some things stay with you don’t they? You ever find that? A piece of film, a painting or some words that you think about over and over. Every couple of days it just pops into your head. Ok, maybe it’s just me. Anyway, here is one of mine. Above is a clip of the great George Best playing for Northern Ireland. He is facing the great English goalkeeper Gordon Banks. Gordon Banks wants to kick the ball. He throws it up into the air and the ball has left his hands. And before he can kick it, George Best in a flash kicks it first. He runs past the keeper and headers it into the net. The ball goes into the net. Goooooooooaaaaaaal.

Except it isn’t. The referee disallows the goal. To this day, nobody knows why. Strangely, nobody really questioned it that much. Years later, in an interview they asked George Best about the goal and why the ref disallowed it. His answer was simple. The ref disallowed it because he had never seen anybody do it before.

Such a simple answer. No rules were broken. But, because it was a new way it’s probably better to say there is something wrong with it. Rather not do it. It might be dangerous. Entire careers have been built on this philosophy. It’s very easy to say why something is wrong. It’s much riskier to fight for something that might be great. I have been in meetings where something is 70% right and very interesting yet what is often chosen may be 99% correct but will go unnoticed. The 1% is that nobody will see it. And that is a very large 1%.

I remember reading about an initiative in Silicon Valley where in the first 5 minutes after an idea is presented you have to say why an idea is right rather than wrong. Whatever the thought you had to talk it up. I think that’s brilliant. Anything that keeps an idea alive for a few more seconds. Because here’s the thing, true creativity breaks patterns and makes new patterns. That is its job. Initially it will challenge or break the existing pattern. So, it might seem wrong if you only compare it to what you know. However, it also might change everything and give you a new way forward. Which is the true power of creative thought. So, take a breath and give it a minute. Fight for the idea rather than against it.

On a personal level, this happened to me as a kid at school in art class. I had this idea to mix two art styles together. Namely, cubism and pointillism. So, I did a painting. Granted, it might have been shit. But, it did have a thought that could have gone somewhere or at the very least discussed. The art teacher took one look at it and said you can’t do that. I asked why. She said because it is not allowed. Apparently, even art has rules and unbreakable patterns.

George Best scored that interesting goal 50 years ago. Northern Ireland ended up losing the match to England 1-0. I doubt anybody remembers the other goal.

Creativity. The truth is not enough.

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“There is nothing as boring as the truth.”

Charles Bukowski

The Oscars used to be about look how good we are at making movies. Now, it’s just look at how good we are. I recently read this line in a story in the New York Times. The fallout in terms of viewers has been astonishing. There has been a 59% drop in viewers since last year according to Nielsen. Or, to put it more plainly, last year just over 23 million viewers watched the Oscars. This year, just under 10 million people watched the same show.

There are probably all sorts of reasons for this. Covid. The changing nature of how, what and where people watch entertainment. Maybe, how the world feels about awards in a difficult world. But, it did get me thinking about how you may have something you want to say but is it what the audience wants to hear? Or perhaps, more accurately, how they want to hear it.

It made me think about about how Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes (a show that is also in jeopardy now) for 5 years in a row. If we are honest, he is all you probably remember from any of those shows. Last years monologue has been watched 35 million times on YouTube alone. So, I am sure he didn’t hurt the ratings but most importantly he was funny while telling a truth his audience wanted to hear. Namely, Hollywood is full of massive egos, dickheads and incredible vanity. The truth we were all thinking and were delighted somebody said out loud with skill, timing and humour. He embodied the phrase many a true word spoken in jest. He didn’t preach. He entertained. This made his truth palatable and interesting. Rather than simply true.

Having a message is one thing but how you deliver it is quite another. People often mistake their truth for the world’s interesting.

Let’s all remember nobody gives a shit and they want to have a good time. Especially the good time part.

It’s the first lesson in advertising. If you want people’s time and attention you better give them something in return. A laugh, a feeling, a perspective, an idea. But you better have something.Without that, you won’t be noticed and what’s worse you could be actively disliked.

Recently, I judged an advertising award show and I saw something quite similar happening. Case study after case study were full of worthy causes. All of these causes were an indictment on the world. They showed unpalatable truths that need to be addressed.

There was just one problem. There was no idea at the centre. The subject had become the idea. It was a documentary without creativity. The story was way stronger than the solution.

It was a good reminder that there is a big difference between saying you are funny and telling a joke. In the latter you have to do the work. You have to have an idea. You have to consider your audience. You have to make people feel what you are saying.

And, feeling the truth is way more powerful than the truth just being said. Because, that is when the truth becomes yours. That is when it starts to matter.

It is also the difference between reaching millions and talking to nobody.

It is understanding that your truth becomes the truth only when somebody is listening.

Advertising. Queen’s Gambit versus the robots.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Joan Didion

Well, here I go. This is the advertising equivalent of the charge of the light brigade. I am going to ride my horse of belief right at the cannons of coolness. I am about to fight for a word even I hate. Tally ho.

For a little while storytelling was a good word in advertising. Then it became lame because everybody used the term. Because of this, it lost its meaning. It was a bit like one of those clubs that suddenly everybody started to visit. It used to be interesting and special. And then suddenly it became shit.

I mention it because I read two interesting titbits this week. The first was an article that stated that creative directors could be replaced by robots. And at the very least, AI will become a massive tool for creatives. The reason given is that with the ability to tailor messaging going forward you will have to have multiple executions. So, for example, as the weather changes the headlines on your billboard may change to make the message relevant to the environment. The author seemed to think this was revolutionary. He also seemed to have very little idea what creative directors do these days. Actually, I have noticed lately that people that are not creatives who write about creatives seem to have the strangest and most outdated ideas about what we do. But I digress.

I have no doubt that AI will become a massive tool for advertising in the future. Messages will have to be pumped out at a blinding speed, with unerring accuracy across multiple channels. The question is, is this the only way and should it be the only way to do things? Going forward many of the discussions will of course be about cost, relevance and the ability to personalise the message for the consumer. Remember this sentence.

The other piece I read is an article written last year in the New York Times by Marie Fazio. It is about the incredibly popular Netflix series Queen’s Gambit and how it has made chess ridiculously popular across America again. Just as an example of how popular chess has become the article gives two stats. Goliath Games a company that sells chess sets has seen sales increase by 1000 percent over the year before. And on eBay, sales of chess sets have increased by 215 percent. Holy shit.

Changing behaviour is always the gold standard in our business. Think about if you had received that as a brief. In a world of infinite and exciting games, full of people who have no time, we want you to get these people to play a very old unfashionable game very few of them understand. Good luck. Show me ideas on Wednesday. And you know have fun with it.

If there is a lesson we should not forget, it is that to persuade people to do anything they have to care about it. When people care about something they don’t have to be told very often. Remember that sentence. Cost, personalisation and relevance. Well, not needing to be told very often takes care of cost. And when you have a truly great yarn, it goes way beyond relevance and personalisation for the viewer. It becomes a part of them. The story is them even when it isn’t about them. Think how crazy it is that a story about a chess genius in the 50’s makes multitudes of people go out and buy chess sets today. But it did. Because the story made the world care about something they didn’t care about. It made them look for something nobody could have predicted they would look for.

Here’s another example based on my dipstick research. I am seeing something similar with a documentary series called Drive to Survive. It is a giant advert for Formula 1. I have had multiple conversations with friends that start with the following words. I never liked Formula 1 but shit since I watched that series it changed how I look at it.

The storytelling changed their mind about something they didn’t give a shit about. Advertising would do well to remember very few care about our messages. Accuracy will not be enough.

I guess my feeling is I am always dubious when somebody says the future of advertising will be like this or like that. Nobody knows and most predictions come with a vested interest. At best, most predictions are partly right. So, here is my inaccurate prediction.

I think advertising will still be a blend rather than a single malt. For me, how time works in our business will be the greatest challenge we face. What will an ad be going forward? That is a whole blog in of itself. There are going to be many levels rather than one platform no matter how inconvenient that is. Advertising will be about relevance and accuracy on one level. A personalised billboard, sure. But, that will not be enough. Remember, storytelling can make you care about things you didn’t care or know about. I agree that AI will play a major role and it will do a lot of heavy lifting for a certain level of the business. I also think creativity and AI will do a whole lot of amazing things we cannot imagine. So, done right that is pretty exciting. And right means letting these two powerful things dance together without deciding what the music should be. If it just becomes about cost, speed and volume the work will get worse. Guaranteed.

Here is the other side of the coin. I think accuracy is not the same thing as distinctiveness. Being there is not the same as being noticed. I also think personalisation is not as powerful as internalising a tale that makes your life more interesting or more exciting. Can advertising do that consistently? A good question we will find the answer to in the next couple of years. What I do know is I think that will be the benchmark going forward as the boundaries blur.

I am also bloody sure that when everybody starts doing the same shit there will be a sweaty meeting about trying to be different from the competition. Or, the other late night round table with post-its about how we connect with actual human beings who don’t seem to be noticing our very accurate messages.

And to solve that, you will always need a bloody good story.

Charge.

Advertising. A restaurant without a kitchen.

To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”

Francois De La Rochefoucauld

When I was growing up I never lived in a house. I lived in many hotels because my father was a hotel manager. This gave me a unique perspective on the chaos that is needed to create order and desirability. I would watch coffee-fuelled staff rush to clean rooms before the next guests arrived. Every weekend there were sweaty porters stumbling up stairs with mountains of luggage desperately trying to get the suitcases in the rooms before the guests got there. The chaos needed for the illusion of order. The effort needed to create the illusion of effortlessness.

However, there were two parts of every hotel that especially fascinated me. Kitchens and restaurants. Restaurants. The white table cloths. The dulcet tones of the maitre d’. Clinking glasses, soft music and even softer lighting. A feeling of tranquility perfumed the air.

Walk twenty steps through a swinging door that was designed to knock plates out of every waiter’s hands and you reached the kitchen. Let me paint you a rosy picture. Welcome to hell. Smoke, steam and shouting. Plates breaking. There always seemed to be a mad German head chef throwing something at somebody. A waiter crying because their order was lost. Somebody hiding in the cold room because of the stress. A heated conversation about a menu change because somebody forgot to order fucking asparagus. A feeling of unreasonable effort singed the nostrils. But the food made it all worth it.

I used to see the customers taste the food and look at each other with a knowing look. In that moment, the taste, the smell, the lighting, the sound, the service and all the ingredients swirled into a type of fleeting perfection. In short, a moment that is memorable. A moment you would remember. I have always understood that to create this kind of perfection some chaos, effort, blood, sweat and tears is required. There is no shortcut.

But, when it comes to advertising I am not sure everybody agrees with me.

After all chaos is unpleasant. It would be nice if we could eliminate it. It would be great if you could just get to the perfection part without the making, sweating, bleeding part. No more innovation or creation. I mean how important is the food? The taste. What if the restaurant was just about the restaurant and the kitchen did not matter? What if the kitchen was just one guy in the back with a microwave oven. Three minutes every time. Perfection, right?

Lately, there are quite a few stories circulating about global brands realising they have wasted a hundred million dollars or so on ads that nobody saw. Many of them have started looking at brand advertising again. I am sure we will see a lot more of this. Now, I know a lot of the arguments are about where these ads were placed and should they have used different channels. However, what nobody talks about is the creativity and quality of the ads that are pumped out. Most of them look like they were made in the 1950’s. Pack-shot. Headline. They look cheap. They look like nobody gave a fuck. Think about what a cheap looking ad says about a product to the consumer. Thousands of microwave meals spewing into the dining room spoiling a great night out. There is no caring or specialness here. Nothing distinctive. People are going to notice how bad or bland these ads are. Or, ironically, in the case of these global brands, consumers didn’t notice thousands of them at all. Oh well, 100 million dollars down the drain.

To extend my cooking theme, the saying goes the proof is in the pudding. Our industry should remember that. You have to give the consumer something for their time. Let’s not pretend a microwave meal is the same thing as a Michelin star meal. There is nothing wrong with wanting either option. But there is something wrong with pretending they are the same thing. Maybe some reading this think craft or caring is just a nice to have. Or, it isn’t that important. Just do lots of stuff and everything will be fine. The product doesn’t matter just the amount of product.

To those people, let me ask you three questions. How many times would you go to a restaurant where the meal wasn’t special or memorable in any way. I would venture not very often.

Or, how about a restaurant that has no caring, passionate chef and just serves thousands of bland, monotonous microwave meals over and over?

Finally, how excited would you feel about a restaurant with superb service, fantastic menu’s and no kitchen or food at all?

Why would your answers be any different for advertising?

Bon appetit.

Creativity. A dangerous ingredient from two old men.

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”

Oscar Wilde

There are a lot of ideas in the world today. It is what fuels the world. We always say how we need ideas. But we don’t really value them. In our business, thousands get thrown away every day. Over the last couple of years I have noticed what I call Swiss-Army knife ideas. They work in many places. People like them because they tick a lot of boxes. They are useful. They are nice. They do the job. But, and this is a big but, they lack one very vital ingredient. Two great men on both sides of the Atlantic reminded me what that very special ingredient should always be.

Let’s start with a little humour that shows the power of authenticity. The picture above appeared as a meme on the internet 24 hours after Bernie Sanders wore some beautiful mittens to the inauguration of Joe Biden. The Bernie Meme has become a phenomenon with thousands of them now. The question is why? What is the connection this made with the world? Let me take a shot. If you start with Senator Sanders fashion choices, they say two things. This is who I am and I don’t give a fuck. Honesty and a little danger. Ingredients that matter when it comes to what people find funny. Ingredients that make people believe in a person and an idea.

Let’s never forget without those ingredients you don’t really reach people. You don’t get noticed because what you have isn’t rare or exciting. At best, you have something that is quite nice and probably a little bland. Let’s always remember the words from ‘Here’s To The Crazy Ones.’

“They have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.”

You can’t ignore them because you know they are telling their truth. And in a split second, they change the world. We all want to see that.

The World: Bernie, when you go to a Presidential inauguration you dress a certain way.

Bernie: Hold my beer.

The world has changed.

Captain Sir Tom Moore

And now to something truly grand. In the same week, Bernie did this, Captain Sir Tom Moore sadly passed away. He is a hero of mine. This great man had a simple, beautiful idea. Walk 100 lengths of his garden by the time he reached his 100th birthday. He wanted to raise 1000 pounds. He ended up raising closed to 33 million pounds. Very similar ingredients. I know who I am. I will do what I want to do. Honesty. Bravery. Kindness.

The World: When you are almost a hundred you can’t do a hundred lengths of your garden.

Captain Tom: Hold my sherry.

The world has now changed

Both Bernie and Tom’s examples remind us to be honest and authentic. To follow your own path. Listen to yourself first. Do it your own way. When you do, the world finds you and your ideas.

But, Captain Tom. Well, for me that is on another level. Selfless. Pure love. What a bloody great human. I think his example teaches us in the most compassionate way of a simple fact. When it comes to ideas, or life if you prefer, you can only get 90% of the way safely. You can avoid the risks and the pitfalls with intellect and knowledge. But, there comes a dark valley in your voyage . The last 10%. Here you have to go where you don’t know the outcome of your journey. You have to risk. You have to commit. I have an idea and I am all in. You have to say fuck it, I am giving it a go. There are a few ways you can get through to the other side. Determination, authenticity, maybe a little pigheadedness and a dash of madness. Without it, you don’t reach the shore where you find the one vital ingredient all great ideas must have.

Audacity.

Creativity. Listen to Motown and the Lion Rock.

Lion Rock. Piha.

“Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life.”

Werner Herzog

I have been staring at this rock for three days. It may have hypnotised me. I have become convinced it is trying to tell me something. I have smiled at it. I have photographed it. Once or twice, I have turned quickly trying to catch it unawares. But nothing. On the third day, however, I started to understand. Nothing was the message. A fact has time on its side. And a rock, is a big fact. A fact doesn’t have to say anything. It can just listen.

Let me take a step back. For a month or so I couldn’t write anything. Towards the end of 2020 I felt like there was a strange frenzy happening. An orgy of explanation and opinions. Everybody had something to say. Everybody had an answer or a process. Experts were all talking about how it was all going to change. It was understandable. In a year of having no control we were all trying to find some pattern in the chaos. Make sense of it all. I get it. However, the deluge of opinions made me not want to add anything. So I didn’t. I just listened. I was looking for my own big fact. A rock. I was looking for what was not going to change.

There is a phrase. The serendipity of ideas. How ideas happen. It has become a reoccurring mantra in my head. It is a little at odds with powerful and fashionable themes like efficiency and how in the future we can all work from home. There are many types of work you can do from home. There are many meetings you can have from home. And probably should. There are many things that should be on that list.

Having ideas under pressure on a daily basis isn’t one of them.

These days a creative department feels like a very unfashionable description. But, rather than come up with a new sexy name like idea navy or the innovation cloud, I would like to make a beautiful, yet possibly doomed attempt at arguing why ideas will always need a couple of people in a room. Whatever you call them.

The underwhelming garage that became Motown

So, let’s go back in time and look at another creative department. Motown. It was started in 1959 by the brilliant Berry Gordy. It all began, as most success stories do, in a garage. 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit to be exact. An unfashionable address that would become the most successful independent recording label in history. I won’t go into the glittering history and the incredible success of Motown. But, let’s just say 25 number 1 hits means they had the right ingredients. So, what were they? What did they have that great creative departments have? How did they improve ideas and ensure they always became real?

For ideas to happen and improve you need interesting people that are interested all in one place. Or, to put it another way, ideas need a home where they can incubate. Some ideas happen instantly and some can take years. Output comes from input. A great creative home gives you that time and space. You can sit in a room and have very efficient zoom calls day after day but speak to any creative who has been doing this and they will tell you eventually they struggle. You start to have the same ideas. As I said, output comes from input. It comes from listening to a conversation in a lift or overhearing a chord progression when somebody is making coffee. Ideas come from the unexpected fragments life gives you. Ideas are also unending. One tiny thread or strange hallway chat can change everything. This would have happened at Motown and I have seen it happen in creative departments

Ideas need competition. I am pretty sure Marvin Gaye would want his album to be better than Stevie Wonder’s next record. They would have pushed each other. I am sure they all did. And helped each other out too. A weird mix of competition and co-operation you see in creative environments. Stevie and Marvin would care more about what their peers thought of an idea more than anybody else out there. Creative departments are no different. You can have an idea but it still needs polishing. If you think obsession isn’t part of making something great you are not a creative. The invisible line that lives in creatives minds and in a creative department is what creates magical things. I would argue that has enormous value and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Ideas need belief and momentum. Motown succeeded because they had a great product. But it also succeeded because it had enough people pushing in the same direction. That created a very unique sound, style and a standard. An idea that has a unique tone and flavour is distinctive. Ideas that are distinctive are the holy grail if you are in the business of being noticed. This happens with great agencies. When enough creatives tune into the same frequency but retain their own wavelength. A strange type of idea telepathy. I would venture that would be almost impossible to replicate on your own. Also, ideas don’t just happen. Most great ideas have quite a few people that fought very hard to make them happen. It really can take a village to keep an idea alive.

I have always said having a 100 ideas is easy but caring about one is the hard bit. Coming up with ideas is a messy business. It is not a straight line and often doesn’t make sense. Until it does. To do it you need people. Strange people that care too much. Weirdos that believe when others don’t. Madmen that listen to funny conversations on a bus and remember naughty words written on a wall. Maybe that was what 2020 was all about. The human factor. Reminding us that there is no substitute for us all being there. Together. In the same place.

So, viva the creative department. Or, whatever you want to call it.

Because when we listen to each other, impossible things happen.

That’s what the rock said anyway.

Happy New Year.

Creativity. Let’s remember there are never just two choices.

“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”

Pablo Picasso

I am writing this on a day where most people have now accepted Joe Biden is the next President of the United States. For the last 4 days we have been in a weird binary hell. It is either Trump or Biden. For days, the airbrushed News Channel anchors who seem to never sleep and must be on a cocktail of Red Bull and cocaine have said the same thing over and over. It’s either him or him. There are only two choices.

Stay with me here. Now, I may have been hypnotised by the endless news cycle but it got me thinking about how often I hear or am told something has to be this way or that way. You can only go left or right. It can only be like this or like that. It made me think of entrenched positions and what creativity can do to find options and other answers. How do you break out of only two choices?

While I was thinking about this I stumbled on the photograph above.

It is a photograph of a Soviet War memorial in the middle of Bulgaria. I am sure you can imagine how much Bulgarians love Russian War memorials in their country. It reminded me of a lot of the arguments this year about statues in a very divided United States. Binary. This statue is historically important, it has to stay. It is deeply offensive, it has to go. Those are the only two options that exist. End of story.

Or, perhaps, there is another way.

Bulgarians certainly found it. Instead of getting rid of the statue or keeping the statue, they changed the statue. They made it their own by painting super heroes and western icons over the existing Russian ones. They used creativity and a little audacity to take away its power and change its meaning. They gave it a new life. They took away its history and gave it a future.

Whenever you think there are only two options, creativity has the power to give you another. I think if we really understood its power we would use creativity far more than we do for problem solving.

Take travel. Many people miss it desperately. But, we can’t go anywhere. Well, creativity comes along and says, who said you had to go anywhere to travel?

Right now, in Australia, Qantas has something called ‘flight to nowhere’. You can book a ticket for $2765. Go to the airport. Get on a plane. Fly for 7 hours. Have some airline food, watch a film on a tiny screen and then land at the same airport you left. By the way, those tickets sold out in 10 minutes. This proves two things. Firstly, I think we can agree people are very weird and definitely rely on emotion rather than logic to make decisions. Secondly, creativity can solve problems that nothing else can.

The reason is simple. Creativity disregards boundaries. It doesn’t care about how things are supposed to be. It creates a new reality. A reality that didn’t exist a couple of seconds ago.

Creativity changes the rules.

When you change the rules, you can change anything.

And everything.

Advertising. Why do bad ads happen?

“We are our choices.”

Jean-Paul Satre

It was a question I should have been able to answer. I have been in the business a while and I have made a few ads. But maybe the simplicity or the clarity of the question blindsided me and left me saying nothing. A friend who wasn’t in the industry had asked the question. It is a very good question and I have been thinking about the answer for about two weeks. I have boiled it down to three answers. Fear, language and human beings. Unfortunately, they are also the ingredients for great advertising. Tricky. And yes, I am sure there are many other valid answers like there is no bloody idea or insight. And the creative was boring or shit. However, I feel these three ingredients are the biggest culprits.

Let me tell you a story. Actually, this story has happened to me twice. The first time was on a car account at the start of my career. The second time was for a global FMCG account about 10 years ago. On both occasions, we had worked on the project for about a year. We had presented multiple rounds of creative where the brief changed at least 4 times. Creatives call it deckvertising. You make decks to present but you don’t make any work. Anyway, let’s just say there were a lot of politics and many hoops to jump through. However, by some miracle the work survived and it went into research. Amazingly, the work sailed through with flying colours. In fact, the research house on the car campaign said it was the highest they had ever seen. I was very happy. One more hurdle. We need to present to the board. 24 hours before the presentation I get told the work has been pulled. I am also told we have a day to come up with another idea. I am sure this has happened to many creatives.

When it happened I was beyond angry. A year down the fucking drain. However, in both cases I still had to do the meeting. And that’s when I understood. I walked in and could feel the fear. The people we had been working with were terrified of their boss. I instantly understood they were too scared to present something new and different because they knew he would annihilate them. In one of the meetings, one of the marketers presenting couldn’t make the clicker work because her hand was shaking. To this day that company hasn’t made any advertising worth mentioning. Creativity and fear cannot live in the same place. This is just as true inside agencies as well. I have seen control freak CEO’s and ECD’s destroy agencies by creating fear rather than good work. Because fear stops progress, innovation or new ideas. You start doing the same thing over and over. Fear stops the truth. And believe it or not, the truth is vital to good advertising. We are in the business of advertising but we are also in the business of fear management.

Next up would be vague language because it leads to complexity and uncertainty. Let’s take a word you see on briefs a lot.Take the word authentic. Or real, if you like. It’s a perfectly good word. Now, in your head think what it means. I could give you at least 5 definitions. Real could mean salt of the earth. Real could mean seeing the unvarnished truth. Real could mean a documentary. Real could be an unflinching look at raw emotion. Real could also be what is cool in popular culture right now. But when it was said in the meeting everybody was nodding like they all understood and had the same definition. That is not always the case. What you think something means and what somebody else thinks it means is often the problem. The reason this matters is that when you make something that is meant to communicate, tone and context are everything. Take humour. What makes me laugh could offend you. But now, we both want an ad to be funny. Not an easy task. Add to that the imprecision of language and you can have all sorts of when he said this I thought he meant that conversations. If you are imprecise or slightly off at the beginning you will be a very long way off at the end. It’s a bit like building a skyscraper. You start building and one day while you are pouring concrete for the ninth floor you get told that skyscraper now means petrol station. Whatever you do from there will look very odd.

As a bonus feature I would also add jargon and marketing speak to this. If there is anything that creates a barrier to understanding or caring for the average consumer it is words they don’t understand. Because when you don’t understand something you don’t feel anything either. Jargon makes a brand invisible.

So, fear, language and lastly my favourite. Human beings. Early in my career, I was told to never write a script with a horse in it for one of the clients. I asked why. I was told the client hated horses. Weird but that is how people are. We all have quirks and idiosyncrasies. Which also happen to be the ingredients for great stories and great advertising. People are irrational, emotional and quite often ego-driven. That is what is so weird about trying to make advertising a science or a full-proof process. In the end, people still make the choices in this business. If the data told that client to make an ad with a horse in it there is a pretty good chance it wouldn’t happen.

The simple truth is you can have all the information. You can have a very accurate blueprint. There might be a clear plan. But that is only half the story.

You still need people. They need to make a million difficult choices. They need to make what is on the page come to life.

That is always when it gets interesting. It is how bad ads happen. And strangely, how the great ones happen too.

Creativity. Maybe Kanye isn’t crazy.

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”

Coco Chanel

If I have learnt anything in this business it is that every couple of years somebody comes along with something that is seen as the new answer.

I can remember it really beginning more than a decade ago. It would almost always happen at Cannes. You would see all these badly designed flyers being handed out by teenagers who had been paid in t-shirts. You would see a word or a phrase over and over. And this would be the new answer. This is where it was all going. This is it. This is the holy grail. If you did this it was all going to make sense.

In the good old days, it began with some classics. Words like mobile, digital, apps and then we moved on to the incomprehensible ‘content’. Of course there was Vine and Google Glasses. After that, we got blindsided with ‘purpose’. Let’s not forget VR and AR. And in the last couple of years, there was Big Data, AI, programmatic and this years favourite e-commerce.

Now, let me just say I am a much bigger fan of lego than communism. You could argue lego and communism are both systems. But I know which one is more creative and lets you come up with new ideas. We should see the lego blocks in the above paragraph as brilliant building blocks rather one of them ever being a complete answer or solution. Doing that lets us get to different answers rather than the same one over and over.

This then begs the question, with all these massive innovations how radically different is the work compared to 10 years ago? Have great ideas been replaced by anything else? Are they perhaps even more important because they are the glue for all these options and channels? It feels ridiculous to have to say this but the idea will always come first.

I mean a silly old print ad of a mouldy burger would never win a D&AD Black Pencil in 2020 surely. And yes, I know many marketers hate this work. But it does give us a little clue as to the issue with all these new solutions. And that is, without a distinctive point of view or an idea many of these buzzword saviours are generic and powerless. It would seem our industry often mistakes the car for the road.

But I digress. Ladies and gentleman, Kanye West.

Kanye West famously hates the colour blue.

That’s why he decided to use it instead of his favourite colours for his new e-commerce platform Yeezy Supply. He and his creative director Nick Night used a counter intuitive process where they put down everything they thought was in bad taste and used that to create a new online shopping experience.

In a recent interview with Fast Company Nick Night gave this explanation. “We were trying to make the internet a more humane place, we’ve gotten used to the internet being a flat, two-dimensional place. But the internet is also this amazing tool that connects everybody in the world: What if we could use it to get to know the people we are looking at on the screen?”

Now, some of you may think this all sounds a little pretentious. Perhaps. But, in the middle of this lies the reason why creativity matters.

Kanye and Nick Night understand that most e-commerce platforms are generic. They are devoid of emotion and do very little to build a brand. In short, they are very boring. They might be efficient but they are still boring and functional. And they are very similar. Creativity can change that.

In a recent panel discussion I had with Professor Byron Sharp and Fatima Saliu from Facebook we spoke about e-commerce.https://www.adnews.com.au/news/watch-now-future-now-heart-or-head What was said could be summed up in these few sentences. Sales don’t mean brand building. E-commerce is a lot like a retail store. It might be where you get a product but it isn’t where you build the brand.

In other words, inside e-commerce platforms there is a problem that needs to be solved. They are efficient but have very little personality. Creativity and Kanye come along and go maybe they can have a personality and build a brand. They ask what I call stupid, important questions. They say the word maybe. And maybe is an important word because it can change everything. Maybe an e-commerce platform that is interesting and fun could do a brand building job? It’s a risk. They might be wrong. But, it’s also how you change the game. You go where there is no data.

You may think Future President West is a little crazy. And you might be right. But, what isn’t crazy is you can be damn sure at the very least his Yeezy Supply platform will be better and more memorable than 99% of the platforms out there. And that is the real issue, right?

What happens when everybody has what you have? What happens when everybody is extremely efficient? What do you do then? How do you get noticed? Where do you go?

You may have a great car. But you still have to find a different road.

Creativity is how you find that road.

Crazy is thinking you don’t have to look for it.