advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Like chicken soup for a dead man. It can’t hurt.

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 “There’s something about being a comedian that means you have to not be scared of failing because failing is part of the process.”

David Walliams

I have been a creative for 25 years. It is all I have ever done to make a living. First as a photographer and then as a creative in advertising. So, after a quarter of a century I thought this would be a good time to write to my younger creative self about what I believe are the rules for successful creative living. I hope this helps a creative out there. And if it doesn’t, well, let me steal a joke from the great comic Jackie Mason. It’s like giving chicken soup to a dead man. It can’t hurt.

Beginning. How to begin? Where to start? A blank piece of paper or screen. The clean space of potential and the emptiness of beginning. The fear never goes away. The excitement never goes away. What you do in that moment is everything. What is your intention? The truth is without an idea everything that happens afterwards cannot help.

Ideas. You cannot go to an idea; it has to come to you. As you do this more and more, you realise the ideas are right in front of you. They are already there. The problem is the more you look for them the less you can see them. It’s hard to put this process into words. But, the first time you have an effortless idea, and you won’t have many, you will understand this.

Craft. A beautiful, painful and unfortunately necessary circus. Once you have an idea, execution becomes everything. This is the torture a creative loves and nobody else understands. This is what makes the average brilliant. This is what separates the many from the few. This is where talent is not enough and dedication is required.

Energy. Sir John Hegarty said that if you are the Rolling Stones you can still play Brown Sugar and get a standing ovation. That is a 40-year-old idea. We cannot do that. A creative must come up with a brand-new idea every day. Cheeky, but definitely food for thought.

Comparison. Do not compare yourself to others. It is a waste of time. You cannot do what they do. They cannot do what you can do. All this does is breed insecurity and fear. And fear kills ideas and creativity instantly. If you don’t believe me watch a comedian who is afraid. He will always suck.

 “When I was a boy of fourteenmy father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

Mark Twain

Listen. It is how you learn anything. Mr Twain’s quote says it all. If there was a piece of advice I wish I had learnt earlier it would be to listen. There are millions of opinions in our business. But you must listen to hear the answer. Listening, is the first thing you must do to let an idea come to you.

People. You will meet people in this business who will inspire you to jump without a net into the unknown. You will do more than you thought you could because of them. Surround yourself with these people.

You will also meet massive arseholes. They take many forms. Liars, psychopaths, narcissists and those with super nova sized egos. The ones that think that only they can be right. Eventually, you will find out that most are deeply insecure. And hey, aren’t we all.

Kindness. If you can help someone, do it. If you can’t, don’t make it worse. You see it every day on advertising blogs in the comments section. Nastiness masquerading as high standards. My theory is that this is a bit like people who suffer abuse becoming abusers. My life is shit, so I will make yours shit too. Why creatives do this to each other beats me. And I doubt they feel any better afterwards. If there is anybody we should help, it is another creative.

Bravery. An old CD once told a friend of mine, if you have balls you can roll far.

You need bravery in this business. When you are the only person in the room that believes in an idea, those are the moments you must speak up. Speaking up for yourself and what you believe always involves risk. But, the alternative is far riskier.

You begin the creative voyage with enthusiasm and try to acquire wisdom. And later, you must make sure your wisdom doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm.

It is the journey every creative has to take.

It is the riddle we all have to solve.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Listen to the dead man talking.

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“You have to choose the move that feels right sometimes; that’s what intuition is.”
Magnus Carlsen. World Chess Champion. Grandmaster at the age of 13 and 148 days. 
 

On January 17, 1977 Gary Gilmore (pictured above) was executed by firing squad for two murders he committed in Utah. His final words. Let’s do it.

In 1988 Dan Wieden read these final words in a newspaper and said if we changed that to ‘Just Do It’, it would work perfectly for that little running shoe company we have as a client.

Nike. Just Do It. The most famous line in advertising came from a dying man’s final words.

This campaign helped Nike increase its share of the North American sport-shoe business from 18% to 43%, (From $877 million to $9.2 billion in worldwide sales) from 1988 to 1998.

All because a great creative saw something. He saw the connection. For me that is what creativity is. How you connect things. Things, that often don’t make sense.

This is what Steve Jobs had to say about the subject.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

I had stumbled on the Nike story and the Steve Jobs quote because I was putting a talk together about creativity. For me they show the power and the problem of intuition. The power is the gigantic leap it can make for a business. The problem is it is almost impossible to replicate. Just imagine a shoe company across town from Nike saying we want a ‘Just Do It’ line. And their solution is to try and copy the process. So, they get all the last words from every prisoner executed in America. I think you can see how this is going to end in tears. Yet, this is often what happens in advertising.

This is the problem with being a creative. You don’t always know how you did something. This makes you vulnerable, insecure and a little guilty. Because of this, most creatives I know on some level feel like a fraud. It is also why a great creative environment is so important. It allows creatives to play and most importantly try again.

I also watched a lot of other talks that were less interesting while I put my presentation together.

In many of these talks, given by so called marketing experts, there was a strange theme that ran through them all. They would talk about their process a lot. They would talk about how efficiently and quickly they got to ‘ideas.’ Many of them had foolproof ways and methods to get to these ideas. Step 1 led to step 2. Flowchart. Many people vote on the idea. Everybody agrees on the idea. Many post-its. Everybody high fives because the process worked so well. But here is the kicker. And in my world, it’s a pretty big kicker.

The work was shit.

And I don’t mean in a high-brow get off your high horse creative director way. I mean, in a generic, vanilla, bland, I have seen this a hundred times before kind of way.

I really found that strange. However, what I found even more strange was that nobody seemed to notice. The people at these conferences seemed far more interested in the process than the end result. The work didn’t really seemed to matter, as long as the process could be replicated.

My other thought was where does intuition fit into these processes? And perhaps, that is a stupid question. Intuition should never be inside a process, should it? An idea like ‘Just Do It’ would not survive a 15 step process. You would lose the edges and end up with some drivel like ‘Be all you can be.’ What nobody seems to be noticing is that a factory like process makes things very consistent but also very generic. Everything looks the same. Everything sounds the same.

In advertising not to be different is virtually suicidal.

This is a timeless quote from Bill Bernbach. It was made a long time ago. I believe it still holds true. And, I believe it is far more true than making generic work that looks and sounds like your competitor, putting it everywhere and hoping you get a massive return on your investment.

For creatives, the problem is and has always been that intuition, or that messy spark of inspiration is illusive and almost impossible to replicate.

The alternative is to create a smooth process that can be replicated and leads to something that often looks like everything else. This is a much bigger problem that is growing by the day.

A smooth process and a brilliant product are not the same thing. And despite what many say, one doesn’t lead to the other. Great work needs a space for intuition.

No matter how many people try and turn creativity into a matrix, true creativity will always be the glitch in the matrix.

That’s just how it works.

And why it is so valuable.

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

I don’t care if you read this.

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“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” William Bruce Cameron

I couldn’t buy a camera for about twenty years.

I was a photographer when I was younger. I had done everything from being a photo-journalist in the townships of South Africa as apartheid ended, fashion shoots and portraiture for magazines as well as having to do awful weddings including being mistakenly hired for a right wing wedding and being paid in biltong (A dried meat delicacy). As you can see, it was a pretty mixed bag. But, I had made a living.

Over the years, it was always a scramble to make ends meet. And then, one day, the ends didn’t meet. So, I had to find something else to do. I had to put photography away. It is a strange thing when you make money from being creative. You become professional don’t you. You forget about joy and what it was that made you love your craft in the first place. I had this strange block that taking photographs as a hobby or for fun was a step backwards. Doing something for a living had baked in the idea of measurement and money. I had lost the ability to take a photograph for no reason.

Cut to fifteen years later. I started writing this blog. Just for fun. I enjoyed it. I liked people sending me messages and their stories. I just enjoyed the process. And then, I noticed a change within myself. As it became more successful I started to worry about likes. I started to think about how many blogs were publishing what I was writing. I started to worry about measurement and what other people thought. I started to lose the ability to write for myself.

If creativity and vanity are strange bedfellows, advertising is definitely the bed.

At this point, you may be saying go and see a therapist. An excellent suggestion. However, before I book a standing appointment I will try an make the inkling of a point.

Our business counts creativity. It measures it. I understand why it happens and the purpose of doing it, however, think about the insanity of trying to measure creativity and creatives. To use an idea from an old Saturday Night Live Skit, it’s a bit like saying you are the World Champion at Meditation. You are missing the point.

Compare that kind of mad measuring tape to the joy and honesty of seeing a young teams book and finding the most insane, unexpected idea. An idea they did because it made them laugh or they thought was beautiful.

In my own life, and the advertising business, I have seen what happens when measurement becomes more important than what is being measured. It makes you professional. It makes you efficient. It gives you a clear goal. However, I think it also makes you think about the wrong things. It makes you think of the picture frame rather than the picture. It makes you think of the outcome not the process. This is a very brittle mindset that seldom gives you anything new.

I can’t quantify or prove the following but I believe it to be true. For real creativity to exist there has to be a space for joy. There has to be a space for randomness and the unproven. There has to be a gap for chance and the unknown. There has to be a place for something intuitively just feeling good.

When it comes to real creativity, the messy and inconvenient truth is it often all begins with doing something for no reason.

So, I tried out my theory. After twenty years I got over myself and bought a camera. The picture above is the first picture I took as I was unwrapping the camera. It is of my dog Scooby. It isn’t great but it made me fucking laugh.

And then, I wrote this blog. And for the first time in a while I really didn’t give a shit if anybody read it. I felt like I was being creative again, rather than being involved in some strange vanity project or inane popularity contest.

I guess that is the problem with trying to mix numbers and creativity. For me, it is an unending lesson I keep trying to learn.

How do you measure the value of freedom?

How do you measure the value of doing something for no reason?

 

 

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The human pattern.

 

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“But, instead of what our imagination makes us suppose and which we worthless try to discover, life gives us something we can hardly imagine.”

Marcel Proust

Saturday night. My wife, Minky, had informed me we were going to a cabaret with some friends. The cabaret was called ‘The Sound of Falling Stars’. It was about the music of rock stars that had died young. A cabaret about dead rock stars. My mind had this swirling vision of a sequinned Jim Morrison or a very theatrical Elvis covered in fishnet stockings. What could go wrong?

Let’s just say I wasn’t expecting much. Actually, I didn’t know what to expect. Here’s the thing though, the show was bloody good. The ability of the main actor to sing like a multitude of stars ranging from Elvis, Kurt Cobain, Syd Vicious and Sam Cooke was truly astounding.

I was left with two thoughts. Firstly, there was this strange novelty in having a direct experience. No screen. No list. No barrier of any kind. Just an actor by the name of Cameron Goodall , singing his heart out and occasionally having to incorporate a drunk patron into the act. This unfortunate occurrence would throw the timing of the performance out and you could see the band working with him to get things back on track. By the end of the show, he was covered in sweat from the effort of making a thousand things look effortless. He deservedly received a standing ovation for a performance that made you feel like time had stopped. We had been there for 90 minutes but it felt like just a couple of minutes. The power of his performance had made you focus. The emotion he had generated had us in the palm of his hand. There was nothing else to look at or connect to, he had our total attention because he demanded we feel something. How many pieces of very expensive communication achieve that these days?

My other thought was that the whole experience had been better because I had no idea of what was going to happen. We had done something pretty random and somehow that had made it better.

Random.

It is not a word people in our business particularly like. Right now, our business is enthralled with personalisation and accuracy. With knowing what you like and when you want it. In essence, the object is to create a curated life. As this happens, you will create data. This will create a pattern. This pattern will give you more of what you like. It will be very efficient at doing this. In theory, this should make human beings very happy.

Except, my Saturday night disproved that.

I did something I wouldn’t have normally done. No bit of data or any algorithm would have suggested I do this based on my previous behaviour or history.

Human beings are weird and quite tricky on a good day and this fact makes me wonder how correct the prevailing beliefs in our business really are. In a couple of years, when everything is effective and efficient will the quirky human beings of Earth value the most unexpected, slightly wrong or the pure joy of surprise more than endless predictability and complete ease?

Life is often about the need for comfort and routine. This is a pattern. A pattern we all desire. However, what makes life worth living is often about surprise and delight. That is what breaks patterns. And, I think we want that more than just about anything.

We want the unexpected. We want what we cannot imagine. And yes, we want safety and routine. But, we also want things that will blow our minds.

In the end, we want things we didn’t know we wanted.

I suppose you could call that a very human pattern.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

The preachers and the busker.

 

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

Bob Marley

A couple of days ago I was walking down a windy Queen Street, the main street in Auckland. It is a street every port city has. It is heady mix of high-end fashion stores, tourists that have just stumbled off a massive, impossibly white cruise liner plus a few people from the streets that are so high, they are angrily arguing with a bus stop.

It was a Saturday afternoon and the street wasn’t that busy. As I made my way through the shuffling shoppers, I began to notice different religious groups every hundred metres or so. They had many pamphlets and a variety of magnificent beards. Cheap megaphones were distorting the precious words coming from a strange combination of angry, smiling mouths just below unflinching, unfocused eyes. To me, the information did not match the delivery. The what had nothing to do with the how.

Each group was stridently espousing their beliefs. Strangely, there was even an anti-religious group doing exactly the same thing as the religious groups next to them. They even looked the same. The people passing by would noticeably increase their pace as they were verbally assaulted by each torrent of vital information. It became comical to watch. The speed of the walking would increase as the preachers volume increased.

I kept walking and I noticed a small crowd. I thought perhaps it would be another preacher. It wasn’t.

It was a young busker. He was singing and playing a bashed up guitar and had his guitar case open. He was relaxed and looked pretty happy. He was having a good time. There were a couple of notes and coins from his playing. The difference was stark. Quite a few people stopped but even those who didn’t, slowed down. And they listened. And they laughed. And they gave that busker their time.

In the space of a couple of hundred metres, I had seen a fantastic argument as to why creativity makes all the difference. In a single city block, I saw how it can take information and transform it into a gift. A gift, that makes you want to listen and understand.

The fire and brimstone preachers and remarkably similar anti-preachers incorrectly thought people would listen to their messages because they thought the message was important. They thought the very important information they had would be enough. If they spoke, everybody would listen. But they didn’t. They walked faster.

On the other hand, the busker didn’t say you have to listen to me. He said, would you like to feel something. He said, can we share something together. He said, would you like to dance. And then, those windswept shoppers listened to every word.

The preachers were saying what they felt was important.

The busker was saying that what you felt was important.

It might explain why you find so much music in churches.

 

 

 

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Creativity. How to make a Neo-Nazi sad.

“Are you a communist?”
“No I am an anti-fascist”
“For a long time?”
“Since I have understood fascism.” 

Ernest Hemingway. For whom the bell tolls.

With the tragedy of Charlottesville only a couple of days old I came across something from all that sadness that made me smile.

Some KKK members were marching down a street. On the sidewalk was a man keeping pace with them. In the video below he has a large tuba. Perhaps, the most humorous of instruments in the brass section. He is playing musical themes from cartoons and films that are in time with their marching. I particularly like the Star Wars Stormtrooper theme. So, there you have all these angry men with shaved heads trying to intimidate and look threatening being rendered ridiculous and powerless by one man playing a cartoon theme tune. This is what creativity can do.

 

Here is another fantastic example of what creativity can do to change the game. A couple of years ago, I remember seeing a case study from Germany (Video below) about a town of around 10 000 people called Wunsiedel.  The residents were fed up with Neo-Nazis marching through their town. You see, it was the birth place of Rudolf Hess, the deputy to Adolf Hitler. And because of this, the Neo-Nazis had been making an annual pilgrimage to the burial site for over 25 years.

The towns solution was ingenious. In 2014, Wunsiedel residents created Germany’s most involuntary charity walk. The idea of the walk, labeled “Nazis against Nazis,” was to make the neo-Nazis’ march the trigger for an anti-Nazi fundraiser. For every meter the Neo-Nazis walked, donors agreed to give €10 to an organisation that helps Neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists escape radicalism. In essence, the Neo-Nazis were marching against themselves. So simple, so perfect.

This is why creativity is so powerful. Creativity is made up of many things but at its core lies humour and humanity. This allows you to change the rules of the game without confrontation. In both examples, nobody asked the Neo-Nazis to do anything different. And there was no opposition or violence.  Creativity simply changed the context and the purpose. This mischief and alchemy gives you the ability to create the reality you want rather than one others want to impose on you. It lets you write the script no matter what the circumstances.

This is the power creativity has. It loves difference and every reality. It laughs at life and uncertainty.  It celebrates mischief and imperfection. It is made of freedom and the ability to change.

It is what those marchers will never understand and if you look at history, it is what often becomes an authoritarian movements achilles heel.

A group of people with a narrow, dogmatic set of rules can and will always eventually be beaten by a single human being who can create his or her own.

And has a tuba.

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Ideas. They are not for everyone.

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“Ideas are easy. It’s the execution that really separates the sheep from the goats.”

Sue Grafton

Narratives that don’t make sense. If you have been in advertising for more than 10 minutes you will have seen this before.

Invariably over time you find these narratives have far more to do with making or saving money than anything coming close to the truth. Look what was said 5 years ago about digital advertising and you will see what I mean.

Right now, there are two narratives floating around advertising that are diametrically opposed to each other.

The first one goes like this. Nothing is more important than creativity. It is our secret weapon. We need it. It is what separates us from the rest.

The other is creative should not be left up to the creatives. Ideas can come from anywhere. Anybody can come up with an idea. We should be open to everybody having ideas.

Now, I would agree that anybody can have an idea. Any Creative Director worth his salt will look at the idea, not where it came from. I also understand that a lot of these conversations come from dealing with how many puzzle pieces there are these days. And, how little time exists to make that pretty picture on the box.

However, when I look at these competing narratives I have some issues about the misconceptions many in our industry have about creatives and why they are so necessary. For me, these problems begin with two words. Creative and idea.

Creative is not a job description it a vague, undefined ability. I have told people I am a creative and they have responded by saying they are also creative, they love to cook or are quite keen on gardening.

So, what you often have is the erroneous thought by many in our industry that anybody can be a creative because the job description of being an advertising creative is undefined. This description also erodes the value of what we do. However, there is a far bigger problem.

The second word I mentioned is the word idea. What is an idea? Seriously, think about it for a second. For those that aren’t sure I can put your mind at rest by telling you it is far more than a couple of words on a bloody post-it.

For many, the perception exists that having an idea is hard. The truth is that the hard part is actually caring about an idea. Everybody can have an idea but, selling, making and caring about an idea that leads to potentially hundreds of executions often over a couple of years needs a person with special qualities. That blend of talent and dedication is very hard to find.

Creatives are often described as rock stars but the truth is really great creatives are far more like shepherds . They are there when an idea is born. They try to keep it safe and moving in the right direction. They try and make sure it doesn’t die. To use a comparison from the other end of the job spectrum, I often think it feels similar to being an actor in L.A. going to auditions every day and being rejected for being too short, too tall, too fat, too boring etc. Talent is important but so is toughness. It’s not for everyone.

The other tricky thing about ideas is that everybody thinks their own ideas are great. This is fine if you don’t have to make one. It can just be a nice theory. Nobody gets hurt. But, if you are actually making an idea which can often cost millions of dollars somebody has to be responsible for the end product. Who decides? And to be clear, if it is a committee or involves brainstorming you are already in deep shit. Somebody has to make a call. And not just one decision but hundreds of tiny unglamorous decisions.

Paul Klee once said that a line is a dot that went for a walk. It is one of my favourite quotes because it perfectly describes the difference between having an idea and the endless process of making an idea.

Many at the moment are making the mistake of thinking that having an idea is the same as making an idea. Whether it is the disaster of an event like the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, the infamous Pepsi ad or the hundreds of ads that all look like each other because people have cut corners, we need to remember in the end it is the making that matters. This is why creatives matter, they make ideas real. They understand more than anybody that an idea means nothing if it isn’t made. It is what drives them. It is why they push further. It is why they are different. It is why they are valuable.

The truth is having an average idea is pretty painless and can be done by many. On the other hand, making a truly great idea needs a person or people that have a lot of courage, passion and a very high pain threshold.

Despite what some may think, it’s not for everyone.

 

 

 

 

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