“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”
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.
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.
“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”
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.
“Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What-You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
“Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods”
This polite, and in hindsight, almost quaint exchange happened in January 2017. I will get back to it in a second. But first, let’s visit Wall Street to look for an alternative fact.
At the beginning of the week, Kodak, a once giant company was trading at the lowly price of $2.62. By Wednesday it was trading at close to $60. This boosted Kodak’s market capitalization to 2.6 billion dollars from below $150 million. So, the price skyrocketed 1200% in two days. As I write this, it is now trading at just over 20 dollars. That all happened in a single week.
One of the main reasons this happened is an investing app called Robinhood. On Wednesday alone, almost 79000 of its users had added Kodak to their account. The truth on Monday had changed by Wednesday. Popularity, maybe a little greed and connectivity had created a new reality. People had literally created an alternative fact, if only for a while.
So I asked myself a simple question. If this is happening now, how will we know what the truth is in the future?
Some of you might think that is a dumb question. OK, let me take a shot at convincing you it isn’t with just one example.
Artificial intelligence has now created deep fakes. Deep fakes are essentially synthetic media where the likeness and voice of a person is replaced with somebody else. You can then get that person to say anything you want. You want Obama and Trump in a thrash metal band together. It can be done. Not that it should, but it could. And, the audience can’t tell if it’s real. So, if your eyes, ears and I am sure your other senses can deceive you going forward how do you know what to trust? What exactly is a fact? And if this is true, think of the implications this could have on brands going forward. I mean isn’t the definition of a brand, a promise. What will a brand be able to promise and deliver? How will the consumer know where and what to trust?
Think of having a reputation and making a living from it in the future. Imagine being a very popular influencer or actor that has spent years building up a following. Now, imagine a deep fake is made of you. Let’s say the deep fake is a little more outrageous and entertaining than the real you. The deep fake gets a following and becomes more popular than you. Fake you starts getting large endorsements. So, in summary, a fake person makes real money. Weird? Sure. Impossible? No.
So, if that can happen to a person could that happen to a company, business or perhaps a country?
What can you trust? The simple answer to is would be to try and always have a direct experience of an event. I was there and I saw it with my own eyes. All good. You have the truth Mufasa, now, share it. Oh shit. Suddenly, you have three problems. Context, popularity and connectivity. The three horsemen of the truth apocalypse.
The funny thing about the truth is that it never really had to compete before. Everything revolved around it. It was sacrosanct. It was final. But now, everybody has their own competing and broadcasted truth. There is no ending. The world is having an endless conversation. Context is everything. The story and the way the story is told becomes very valuable. In fact, it often drives the outcome more than just about anything else because that is how you get people to listen.
Popularity is the second horseman of the truth apocalypse. Something can be decided upon extremely quickly and that becomes the truth simply because enough people agreed. The Kodak example shows this. Another example is Jon Ronson’s excellent book ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’. Please read it. It shows just how hard it is to undo the damage once the crowd has decided you must be punished. The truth used to be something you searched for. It was something that needed to be uncovered and tested. These days it would seem if there is enough consensus on an idea then it is true. Popularity has become fact.
Finally, there is connectivity. The saying goes that history is written by the victors. Who is the battle between to control the history that is made each day? Well, when it comes to the truth, these days, speed has become its main adversary. Think of a deep fake Hollywood sex tape that gets sent out. Think of just how quickly it would spread around the world in 24 hours. Now, think of the denial and the fact that it was a deep fake coming out the following day. Which event has done more damage? Which has more power?
Three years ago alternative facts was a phrase that made everybody laugh. The expression, a post truth era has also been thrown about a lot lately. These phrases have come about because nobody is absolutely sure about anything. Is the source real? Is the fact real? Is the medium or channel real? Is the person real?
So, has the truth disappeared? No. In fact, sadly, there is a whole lot more of it. And yes, half of it is horse shit. Unfortunately, the question has become, which half?
The truth is, the truth still exists.
It has just become so much harder to find.
And when things are hard to find, they become very valuable.
“One can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels.”
Sell Harry Potter to kids and their parents.
This didn’t seem to be the hardest brief in the world for a young creative. And to make it even easier, the marketing director informed me that we would be able to sell at 10 bucks cheaper than the competitor. What could go wrong?
Both stores were in the same shopping centre in Johannesburg and would open for the special occasion at midnight. The marketing director was convinced this would be his finest hour. As midnight approached a fantastically long queue had formed. The only problem was it was outside the other bookshop. The marketing director started to sweat through his crisp white shirt. He started to have a meltdown in the copier paper section. He made weird noises and kept saying but our books are cheaper over and over. It was like a weird marketing mantra to keep him safe. But, price wasn’t the problem.
You see, one of the stores had leather chairs and had the smell of coffee that wafted through the room. It had very expensive art books that nobody bought but did make you feel a little more sophisticated. You might hear art students droning on about analytical cubism and just for a moment you could pretend you were at the Tate in London. In other words, the place made you believe you were more sophisticated as well as more intelligent. It is a feeling that was worth way more than 10 bucks.
Conversely, our bookstore was just a depot with bad lighting. It screamed East Germany with a dash of Post Office. The simple difference was that one bookstore was a place you had to go to and the other was where you wanted to be because it made you feel a little bit special. If you bought your Harry Potter book from the depot you were essentially a philistine and didn’t care about giving your child a magical experience. With other parents watching and judging of course. So, the book might have been cheaper but so were you. Instantly, you were very unsophisticated and dare I say, a little tacky. You may have looked like a bit of a bogan holding the wrong shopping bag as you walked past those perfect active wear families all lined up smelling of coffee and smugness.
And nobody wants to feel like that. So, feelings won over logic hands down. It was a very good lesson for me.
How things feel. Perhaps, the most dangerous phrase in advertising. We all know people don’t make decisions rationally. There is plenty of scientific evidence to support this. However, in business which is by and large a very rational environment this fact is often a very inconvenient truth. A lot of people don’t know what to do with it. There is a distrust of emotion because it is unpredictable. Yet, the evidence keeps mounting that when it comes to people emotion is very predictable. It is always there. And being rational? Well, let’s just say it often seems to take long holidays in certain situations.
In New Zealand, since Covid-19 try and guess what has grown by almost 30%. Think carefully. What could a pandemic increase the sales of that dramatically? And no, it isn’t toilet paper.
The answer is art.
That might sound weird but think about it for a second. Art makes you feel good. Art also might be what you feel you deserve because you can’t take that holiday or afford a new car. We don’t want to give our life up. We are very resilient when it comes to giving up things we believe make life worth living. We finda new way to feel some satisfaction. We find a new way to feel like it all has meaning.
This is not new either. Just look at the GFC in 2008. What product dramatically sold more because of a global financial crisis? Lipstick.
In fact, this has happened almost every time a global crisis happens. It is so predictable it has become known as the “lipstick effect.” It can be traced all the way back to the Great Depression. In the four years from 1929 to 1933 industrial production in the USA halved, but sales of cosmetics rose. The one product designed to make you feel better about yourself.
How you feel about your choice, yourself and the world is way more powerful in terms of making a decision than something making sense in purely a rational way.
You only have to watch the news or look at social media to see how emotion is driving the world right now. It shows that human beings are remarkably predictable when it comes to making choices driven by emotion. Emotion almost always wins.
Many don’t like that fact. But, it is true.
I have a garage full of Harry Potter novels to prove it .
“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.”
I have been in advertising for twenty-five years and I swore I would never write a ’Ten rules of’ article. So, I didn’t. I wrote one with eleven laws instead. In my defence, I felt I had to because in the last 8 weeks there have been an endless torrent of articles about how things will change often written by people who have never had to make anything the public saw. Mark Ritson coined the beautiful and very apt phrase ‘change porn’. In advertising, we love anything that changes because it means opportunity and more money. However, if there is anything I have learnt in my time in the business it is that the important things don’t change because they are true. And, some things that are new and are acclaimed as the answer to everything often are not. Anybody remember Vine? How about Google glasses or Pokemon Go? I can remember being in meetings where I was told they were going to be the answers to everything.
While writing this I found some fantastic quotes from Bill Bernbach the founder of DDB. I have used them liberally in this article because they prove that the important stuff really hasn’t changed in 70 years. I also think they are a large dose of common sense. A cure our industry really needs right now.
Mr. Bernbach said, “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”
So, if people don’t change, what about making things for people? Has making really changed? We love the shiny and the new but when it comes to making great work there are certain ingredients, attitudes and obstacles that will always be there. And, they are there because imperfect human beings are involved. A fact, that we really should discuss far more often than we do. People will always be the difference rather than technology or the process. So, here is my list of ingredients. My hard-earned recipe for survival. Things to think about. Things to avoid. Things that have always created great work and things that will always create great work. Enjoy.
1.Nobody cares about advertising.
This is a great first law because it does two things. It keeps egos in check. And I am talking about for both creatives and clients. Ego can do a number of things that are good and bad. It can keep an idea alive. It can kill one stone dead. It can also make the unimportant very important. In our world, ideas and advertising are everything. For the consumer, not so much. Actually, not at all. Remembering this stops the insanity and keeps you looking at what matters. The second thing this law does is makes creatives try harder. Because, if people don’t care, we must make them care. This is something we should all remember. Often banality is seen as less of a risk than trying something ‘creative’. I disagree. And, it is certainly a waste of money.
2.If no-one notices your advertising, everything else is academic.
Another brilliant and simple observation from Mr. Bernbach. It is also the flip side of law number one. So, how do you get noticed? That leads to a lot of more questions. How much pain can you take? How much do your people go beyond what is required? How much do they want it? How deep are they prepared to dig to get an idea made? How much conflict are they willing to manage, with clients, internally, with the industry, to get an idea made with minimal compromises? Caring is not a choice. And it definitely is not always easy. However, it is the answer and the difference. It should always be your standard operating procedure. It is also how you get noticed.
3.Faith is not just a song by George Michael.
The process of making something new, fresh and exciting has a strange problem. If it is new, it hasn’t been done. So, a large part of the process of making work that gets noticed is trying to eliminate risk. That gets you to a point. And then, there is a moment when you must take the risk. You must trust that it will all work. This is where a great relationship between a client and an agency is worth more than anything. You can have as many zoom calls as you like, if you don’t have trust, the last step will not happen. The work will fall at the last hurdle.
4.Would you sit next to you at a dinner party?
This is one of my favourite lines from the very famous Economist campaign. To me, it says in the most elegant way that you could be in the right place at the right time but that is not enough. You cannot be boring. You must have something to offer for people to listen. Just staring at the consumer is called stalking and shouting the same thing over and over is called being unpleasant. A bit of charm, a story a little bit of wit is what is required to succeed at dinner parties. Advertising is no different. Seduction is an old-fashioned word. Perhaps, it is time for us to make it modern again.
5.You will never see a statue of a committee.
If there was ever a law in advertising, it would be the following sentence. The chance of an idea surviving is inversely proportional to how many people are in the room. There is a simple reason for that. More people, more suggestions and more considerations. Invariably, these suggestions are coming from what is important to each individual. That many perspectives just give you a laundry list of things to do, rather than an idea. Or, to put it another way you end up trying to find a needle by building a haystack.
6.Ideas are like goldfish. Easy to kill.
In Silicon Valley, there are companies that have a rule where you must talk an idea up for the first 5 minutes. You are not allowed to say why an idea won’t work; you have to say why it will work. I have always said it is easy to have 100 ideas but it’s hard to care about one. Our business is the ideas business and that is part of the problem. We have lots of ideas so we don’t really look after them as well as we could. We find one thing wrong with an idea and it’s dead. There is no other business in the world that throws away literally millions of ideas away each year. Whoever figures out how to harvest all those banished ideas will make a lot of money.
7.Never put truffle oil in the microwave
Quality is an actual thing that has value. We are obsessed with quantity over quality but ask yourself what you remember. The number of ads that ran or the impression they made? Cadbury Gorilla first ran 13 years ago. And we still remember it. What is that worth? Making something of quality matters. And I think it matters today more than ever. Quality is a massive factor for the products we sell. It should also be true for the communications we make about those products. Consumers can tell when you have cut corners.
8.You can’t handle the truth.
The most powerful element in advertising is the truth. In my career it is funny just how many people have asked me to mask a bad product or a brand that genuinely had no promise. One of the great delusions in our business is thinking what is truly fantastic in our world is great in the real world. All a good ad does for a bad product is let more people know a bad product exists, far more quickly. Consumers know, trust me, consumers know. Find something true and tell people in an entertaining way will always be the answer.
9. Jargon. Latin for bullshit.
When people use big words, it is often because they are not saying anything. I have been in meetings that have gone on for hours because people have used complex language masking the fact there is no idea at the centre of the 100-page PowerPoint. Let’s just all remember, if you look up the word pivot, it means turn. And content is just another word for stuff.
10.Focus on the picture, not the frame
“Shit that arrives at the speed of light is still shit.” One of my favourite quotes from the late great David Abbott. We spend huge amounts of time thinking about how something reaches you. The delivery mechanism. But do we spend as much time on what we are delivering? I have always felt advertising is a barter process. Give the consumer something entertaining or informative and they will give you something even more valuable. Their time. The truth is these days you need both the picture and the picture frame. But, a gallery of empty frames is going to sell very little.
11.Have fun underwater.
I always use this phrase with young creatives. It means if you can have fun under pressure you might make it. Because, that is where and how you find the great ideas. That place you find after fear. As things get faster, we have become enamoured with process and formulas. However, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, it’s the cracks that let the light in. You can’t find fun on a balance sheet, but it is priceless. Fun lets you explore unconventional wisdom and what some call stupid ideas. And stupid often becomes genius when you add time. Fun and humour unlock new ways and ideas. Fun is the one ingredient that makes creativity happen. It is amazing how it puts people into a mindset where anything is possible. Ask yourself why you get better or different ideas from certain agencies. Why are some agencies so much better than other agencies if they have similar ingredients? The answer is not what the building looks like but how the building feels.
So, there they are, the creative laws of the universe. I guess the reason I called them occasionally immutable laws is that is how creative laws work. There will be moments where they are life and death. Where following them will be the difference between work being made or an idea dying. And the next day, they seem unimportant and you can’t remember why you were worried. I guess creativity on a Monday is different to creativity on a Tuesday. That’s creativity for you. It doesn’t make sense until it does. Which is also why it is so valuable.
“Creativity is a gift. It doesn’t come through if the air is cluttered.”
Space. Time. Distance. Pretty big stuff. These are the rules the govern the universe. But not the imagination. That’s tricky because human beings really like rules. They like to know how to measure stuff. They like wrong and right. We like beginning, middle and ends. We want certainty. We want it all to make sense. Well, if 2020 teaches us anything it is that life often doesn’t make sense. And time hardly ever gives us the answers we think it will. So, what are our options? We can create stronger iron-clad rules. We can double down on what we have always done and hope for a different result. Or, we can understand how creativity deals with a problem.
Playfulness is a word you don’t often hear when it comes to solving hard problems. Many think fun should be for weekends or leisure time. Also, many don’t trust it. It doesn’t seem very efficient. It doesn’t seem like a tool. The reason for that is playfulness doesn’t care about rules or the concept of time. Which is exactly why it is such a fantastic tool. It doesn’t care about what is important or what the rules are. This quality allows it to change anything and everything.
The problem playfulness faces of course is time. It is also a big problem when it comes to the value of creativity. When Carolyn Davidson designed the iconic Nike logo in 1971 she was paid $35.That’s what I call a bargain. Today, according to Wikipedia that logo is worth 26 billion dollars. It would seem great creativity becomes more valuable over time. However, that is not the way the world works. We never have time. We want instant solutions and instant value. We want lateral thinking to be instantly logical. But new ideas are only logical in the fullness of time. Logic is based on proof and what has worked. Creativity is based on what could work. One is more reliable. One will take you forward. You need both. But, just to be clear, they are not the same thing.
You always come back to the unanswerable question don’t you? How much is a new idea worth? Or, perhaps more accurately, how much will it be worth in the future.
So, time will always be a problem. Even so, playfulness can still change everything. Here is one of my favourite examples. The original name for the massive global number one hit ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles was going to be ‘Scrambled Eggs’. This is a song according to Guinness World Records that has the most cover versions ever. 1600 to be exact. This is also a song where the entire melody was composed in a dream Paul McCartney had. What box does that fit into? Anyway, the problem was they had the song but not the words. They knew they had something but it wasn’t quite there. The good news was they were smart enough to know the answer was more time and some playfulness.
“We almost had it finished. Paul wrote nearly all of it, but we just couldn’t find the right title. We called it‘Scrambled Eggs’ and it became a joke between us. We made up our minds that only a one-word title would suit, we just couldn’t find the right one. Then one morning Paul woke up and the song and the title were both there, completed. I was sorry in a way, we’d had so many laughs about it.”
We had so many laughs about it. I love that sentence. The fact they hadn’t solved it was fun for them. No pressure. Just playfulness. They knew they would figure it out if they kept laughing and stayed in their process. And one morning, Paul woke up and he did. Time. Fun. These qualities with a few others essentially make up the creative process. And here’s the thing, you cannot replace them with anything else. In our business, we try to all the time because of what it costs but you can’t. If you don’t have them nothing really changes. And then we enter the strange world of pretend ideas.
Unfortunately, fun is often replaced with huge amounts of fear. And time is often replaced with insane deadlines. If you go down that road long enough you get duplications and replications. You get scrambled eggs. And you get it over and over. You get pretty good. Not bad. Quite nice. That will do. And often nobody notices until it is too late.
It is the flip side of the Carolyn Davidson Nike story. Creativity is often ridiculous value for money as in the design for the Nike swoosh. But, take away the vital ingredients creativity needs and it can be very expensive. It stops being interesting or distinctive. So you shout more and spend more.
It may seem counter intuitive but if Mr Lennon’s quote teaches us anything, it is that enjoying a problem is actually how you solve it. Creating the conditions to enjoy a problem or puzzle is how you get to great work.
Playfulness takes away the importance and the power of a problem. It makes it smaller and more malleable. We underestimate what it can do. And we should value it far more than we do. Because, it can literally change the world.
It is the irreplaceable alchemy that turns that impossible problem into a new song.
“Skate to where the puck is going not where it has been.”
Creativity: The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.
So, what happens afterwards? What happens after a catastrophe? How do you carry on and what role does creativity play in all this? I started thinking about all this after reading about the end of the First World War and Swine Flu. What happened after that? The roaring 20’s. That has a nice ring to it.
It was a decade of massive growth economically and creatively. Real GNP growth of almost 4.2% every year from 1920 to 1929. Jazz. Silent movies. You find something similar after the Second World War. The 1950’s saw the economy grow in America by 37%. Rock and Roll. The golden age of Hollywood.
Now, before you say you are not an Economist. I know. And before you say a war is not a pandemic, I know. But, I found it an interesting pattern. After catastrophes, there seems to be a collective human need to invent, innovate and create. A need to expand, reach new frontiers and break boundaries. Will that happen globally or will countries that have successfully managed Coronavirus become islands of invention? I guess we will see.
Whatever happens, if history teaches us anything it’s that bad things can keep us down for only so long. Those dark days push the spring down but eventually that pent up energy is unleashed. For every action there is a reaction.
Now, that would have been a neat story. However, while doing this I also read a little about the great depression. In the space of fifteen years you have a global war, a decade long party and then the great depression. Perhaps, those black swan once in a lifetime moments happen more often than we think.
It made me think about what happens to creativity when the world is in good shape? And, perhaps more importantly, what happens to creativity when things suck?
So, let’s take two people you wouldn’t find at the same dinner party. Al Capone and Colonel Sanders. A Chicago mobster and a gentleman from Kentucky. Capone was the poster child of the roaring 20’s. Hedonistic excess. The world was expanding like the big bang had just happened. There was only one boundary. Prohibition. And bootlegging was the creative way around it. It is rumoured Capone’s gang made $100 million annually. That is roughly $1,290,575,000 today. I know. Holy shit.
I guess in good times creativity lets you literally do anything. Capone knew it was a risk worth taking. It was the creativity of possibility. The creativity of expansion and change. It was the creativity of the new. Old rules didn’t apply. To use Mr Gretzky’s quote, I am sure it must have felt like wherever Mr Capone skated the puck was always there.
I would imagine the great depression could not have felt more different for the Colonel and his secret recipe.
Yet, as an interesting side note, while researching this I found multiple sources saying this was the decade that created the most millionaires in America. I haven’t been able to verify this yet. What is undeniable though is a great many people prospered. Having said that, it still wouldn’t seem like a good time to start a business. This did not stop Colonel Harland Sanders opening Sanders Court and Cafe’ at a gas station on March 20, 1930. This would become the KFC of today.
Now, Capone’s story and that of the Colonel from Kentucky sound very different. However, when it comes to matters of creativity there is only one difference. For the Colonel, it was still the creativity of possibility. It was also the creativity of expansion and change. It was the creativity of the new. Old rules did not apply. So, what is that difference? With Capone he knew it was a risk worth taking. He could do no wrong. In the 20’s, the world was in his favour it was firing on all cylinders. With the Colonel, he only believed it was a risk worth taking. He did not and could not know. He could only believe the puck would be there one day.
It sounds like a small difference. But it isn’t. Knowing is when you can trust the past. Knowing happens when there is evidence. Believing happens when there is none. Believing is about trusting the future.
This is what we are facing right now. How do we invent with very little information?
The good news is creativity doesn’t change. But, the tricky part is how we get to it does.
Just put one fucking word down. It is a strange feeling to start writing without knowing what you are going to write. It is a feeling of absolute uncertainty. It is so powerful that it can cause paralysis. You can’t do what you know you must but you also can’t do anything else either. And, there is also this vague annoying terror mixed with excitement kind of feeling as you stare at the white space in front of you. It is hard to describe and maybe that’s why I have tried to put writing about a weird feeling at the bottom of my to do list. It’s so much easier dealing with facts. Bullet points of complete certainty. The 19 lessons of somethingness. The 7 steps to whatever. Anyway, to stop my brain from killing me I had to go the other way. Apologies in advance. You know what they say. Better out than in.
Maybe, that’s why I am writing this. It is my hushed and very ironic rebellion against filling beautiful empty blank spaces with bullshit. Words are not wisdom. And varnish, is not the wood.
It’s as if explaining something instantly is far more important than actually looking or listening to it. Thousands of opinions online telling us what we should feel and take out of this. All of it taking up space. Toxic positivity, a need to eliminate the whiff of failure and a million plans to feel in control have been woven into a twisted mantra that tells you very little but promises even less. To be clear, a month or two ago this new world didn’t exist. Nobody knows very much. And that blank uncomfortable space is where we have to go to find real answers.
I remember reading a great line somewhere that said there is no such thing as failure. If you fail, you write a book about what you have learnt failing and that becomes a bestseller. There is no failure. Only an unyielding, unstoppable momentum towards your next life affirming success.
And what is success? The notes or the spaces between them?
Space and time. Invisible and priceless. The two most valuable commodities in the world. In life BC (Before Corona), time and space were all we ever wanted. We wished we had had a bit more time to to do the job properly. We dreamed about having a few more gaps in the day. We bitched and moaned about not ever having the time to do the good stuff. This is also true for all the stuff we want. The big boat or next level house costs more because it has a bit more space. Space is the ultimate demonstration of value and luxury. I remember going to a gallery in New York to see Van Gogh’s, The Starry Night. The painting is fantastic but you know what else I noticed? The massive white wall that surrounded the painting. No clutter. No other paintings. Just space. Space to see. Space to focus. Space to show you what is important. Isn’t it odd how you can only see the value of space when there is something right in the middle of it. I remember once doing a meditation exercise where our teacher said we had to imagine a block of space in space. Our brains exploded.
I digress. Right now, we have a lot more time and space on our hands than usual. The two most valuable commodities in the world. Remember? It is all we have ever wanted. And what are we doing? We try to eradicate time and space with stuff, explanations and activity. If you don’t believe me go and have a look online. It is a frenzy of shallow noise pretending it knows where true north really is. And one more time for luck. Nobody knows anything for sure.
The great Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche uses the expression ‘Western laziness’. He describes Eastern laziness as sitting on your porch all day, doing nothing and drinking cups of tea. Western laziness is the opposite. It is cramming your day with compulsive activity so you don’t confront what he calls real issues.
We replace understanding with activity. We create the illusion of certainty. To quote Arthur C. Clarke “If he was indeed mad, his delusions were beautifully organised.”
We tell ourselves we want to spend time on the important things in life, but there is never any time. But, when we have it, what do we do?
I have watched Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey at least a dozen times over a 20 year period. Nobody really knows what it’s about. Even if you research its meaning there are multiple theories including the idea that you are not supposed to understand it because God is beyond our understanding.
What I do know is that it always gives me the same feeling. It is this mixture of awe and fear. It has a beautiful infinite emptiness. Arthur C. Clarke gets closest to it with these words.
“The thing’s hollow – it goes on forever-and-oh my God! – it’s full of stars!
It is the same feeling I get staring at a blank screen before I start writing. And what do I do? I try and fill that space. What a bloody idiot. Well, everybody needs a hobby.
Perhaps, the last month has been a strange and beautiful gift for those of us who are not desperately trying to save millions of lives every day. Unlike those heroes, we have been lucky enough to be given some time and space. That can be scary. And when we are scared, we try to to fill that void, right?
But, for a moment, maybe we shouldn’t.
Because, here’s the thing. That emptiness is where everything comes from. Every answer. Every idea. Every discovery. Every invention. And, all those wonderful invisible things we cannot yet see. Everything.
Instead of having an obsessive hair trigger need to explain the world to ourselves, what if we listened to it for once? Imagine, instead of endless motion, the whole planet was still.
What if we, just for a moment, stopped trying to explain and looked into that perfect emptiness. That flawless uncertainty.
“Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.” – Peter Strople
It is always going to be a strange week when Tiger King appears and Bill Withers disappears.
If we put the global pandemic to one side (now there are words I never thought I would write) I felt the universe was sending us all a message. Also, I am in lockdown. I need to write about something different to stay reasonably sane.
Let’s start with Joe Exotic. If you haven’t watched Tiger King on Netflix do yourself a favour, watch it. It really does defy explanation. Here we have a human car crash who would do anything and I mean anything to be famous. Whether he was a close facsimile of a country and western star, a sequinned zoo keeper or a vastly unsuitable nominee to be President of the United States, he just wanted fame. In fact, if he had any talent it was constantly spotting an opportunity to be famous. I would say this quote sums him up perfectly.
“People don’t come to see the tigers, they come to see me.” – Joe Exotic
And the sadness in all this was you recognise that old story you have seen a thousand times. Somebody thinking that fame is a substitute for love. Our obsession with it all is because even though it is a crazy, warped, insane mirror, it is a mirror where we recognise our darker selves. We say he is crazy and don’t understand him. But we sort of do. And maybe, we even like him a little for his brutal, honest, relentless ambition.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend. It was about his teenage daughter. His daughter had told him she wanted to study drama after school. He asked her if it was because she wanted to be an actress. She replied, no, I just want to be famous. This is the mantra of Joe Exotic. You don’t need talent you just need to be famous and everything will be fine. This has become our culture. Strangely, that all changed with the pandemic. All of a sudden what your talent is has become way more important than your fame. What you can do is how you are judged.
Which brings me nicely to Bill Withers. This is a man who was born in a small coal mining town called Slab Fork in West Virginia in 1938. I think the name alone tells you the odds he faced. Dirt poor and born with a stutter his father died when he was just 13 years old. He joined the navy when he was just 17 and served for 9 years and this is where his interest in writing songs began. He would go on to write some of the greatest songs ever written. ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, ‘Lovely Day’, ‘Lean On Me’ and ‘Just The Two Of Us’ just to name a few. And then, in 1985 at the age of 47 he refused to re-sign a record label deal. He had become disillusioned with record executives that he termed ‘blaxperts’ who kept telling him how he should sing and what he should do. He never sang or performed again. He ended his career on his terms and walked away.
I read an article the other day where somebody was quoted as saying that she didn’t know who Bill Withers was but she knew all his songs. And that says it all doesn’t it? We will remember Joe Exotic for a while. Maybe 6 months or a year. And then he will be gone. But, almost 50 years later, we still remember ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ from a man who made himself disappear 35 years ago. A man who didn’t need fame but had talent.
Perhaps, that’s difference. Fame is about what you need and take. Talent is about what you give to others. Fame is about what others said. Talent is about what you did. One should follow the other. But, humans like short cuts don’t they?