advertising, Uncategorized

The Kool-Aid is strong with this one.

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All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.

Mark Twain

It would seem I was beaten to writing about the new Pepsi commercial by about 6 million people. Perhaps that is a good thing. It gave me time to think and look at what everybody has been saying over the last 72 hours. Although for those involved with this commercial it has probably felt far longer.

Now, just about every angle on what is wrong with this commercial has been covered on blogs around the world. There has been much schadenfreude about the fact that it was done by an in-house agency. The narrative is that because it was done in-house there was a lack of perspective. Now, judging by the press release everybody thought they were onto a winner. Nobody internally thought it was offensive.  So, perhaps there is some truth to that. It would seem to me that very few difficult conversations about the concept were had. The Kool-aid had been drunk. Could this have happened in a good, creative advertising agency? Probably. But, the chances would have been far less because the creative voice would have been far stronger. And it would have been far stronger because creatives would have had an issue with the idea and most importantly the context. There would have been push back. However, getting to a commercial like this is far easier than you would think.

I have been in situations like this where an alternative perspective gets squashed because the big boys in the room have decided. I have also experienced meetings where some have believed their product by its sheer magnificent existence will change the world. That kind of environment creates nodding and squashes nuance and subtlety. Two qualities that might have saved this commercial.

But even still, on paper this commercial would have had a lot going for it. They had a big budget. Tick. They had loads of data about their audience. Tick.  They could have the highest production values. Tick. A celebrity and a great track. Tick. So they have a great ad right?

Wrong.

Like I said the commercial had a lot going for it but there are two things it didn’t have. Friction and an idea. This commercial is what keeps us Creative Directors up at night. It’s what gives us nightmares so terrifying we go on to develop an addiction to sleeping tablets just so the bad dreams go away. For a while.

Let me explain.

Firstly friction. Every Creative Director looking at this will know there were no small battles. And if there were, the creatives didn’t win any. Great commercials happen because of many discussions and decisions. The conversation probably went like this. Do we need a celebrity? Yes. Should we really go anywhere near protesting? Yes. Do we really need to start with the Cello player on the roof? Yes. Do we really need a Cello player? Yes. Does he really have to have a massive Pepsi blue Cello case? Yes. Is it weird that there is a fashion shoot right next to a massive protest? No. I could go on.

Yep. You can feel this baby was locked and loaded. They were working to a formula. A series of modern cliches which seem strangely dated. The consequence is there is no humanity or authenticity which ultimately means no connection. Instead of capturing the zeitgeist it gives us a parody of it.

Having friction however is only useful if you have an idea. And fundamentally, there isn’t one anywhere near the blast zone of this commercial.

I think this is what angers the creative community more than anything. For the last couple of years creativity has become this strange thing at the end of the line. Something we will do after all the important stuff. There is also the erroneous and financially driven belief that anybody can do it. We will just get some ideas from the idea factory, right?

I have often said these days the industry thinks the picture frame is more important than the picture. This ad is a perfect example of that.

Creativity, craft but most importantly concept have not been given the respect they deserve.

What this ad proves is that you can have all the money, the data and the insight, even the audience and still make a bad ad.

The simple reason for that is many arrogantly think they just need the ingredients to do it all.

The Pepsi ad proves you may also need a chef.

And, probably one who doesn’t work in your restaurant.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The postcard is never the place.

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“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” Oscar Wilde

“Maybe that’s what life is….a wink of the eye and winking stars.” Jack Kerouac

I had been walking with my new friend Alexander Kalchev through Chinatown in San Francisco. I had visited these streets before in my head.

As a young man I used to read Kerouac on the Greyhound bus between Durban and Johannesburg in South Africa trying to make being broke a romantic pursuit. Today, I was visiting Beatnik Central.  We stumbled onto the City Lights Bookstore where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and all the others had spent a lot of time.

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It is a strange feeling when you see something for real that’s been in your head for years. There are little gems you find in reality. Hidden details that fill in gaps or give you new insight into the stories you have read. Direct experience. There was a time where we got our inspiration from going out there and finding stories, ideas and things. Today, of course those things come to us. They are piped in. The information comes to us on a screen but I am not sure the experience does. And the reason that is important is that information needs experience to become a story. Experience interprets information. Experience transforms information.

We walked down the road and we found the American Zoetrope Building. The Godfather and Apocalypse Now were edited there.

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I looked at the building with it’s bright green facade created by time. I saw a younger George Lucas drinking coffee on the street and Francis Ford Coppola with a half smoked cigar in his mouth looking out of one of the windows with a very harassed editor behind him drowning in the pieces of Apocalypse Now still to be edited. The place and the building had given me a feeling. A feeling I would not have had if I had just Googled the address. A feeling and a story that information alone would not have supplied. The direct experience of things it would seem has a strange side-effect. Inspiration.
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 Inspiration was something I had experienced the day before. Keith Reinhard is Chairman Emeritus of DDB and has been in advertising for six decades. Let’s just say he has forgotten stuff you will never know. He had been kind enough to come and speak to a few of us about advertising and his journey through it. There was a joy in his stories and I found his talk really inspirational. And, I believe I felt the way I did because I was in the same room as him. If I had watched him on a screen I would not have experienced his gentle warmth, intelligence and sense of humour. I got a sense of him as a person and that made what he said better.
Inspiration and direct experience of life are vital ingredients for creativity. We need both to do anything interesting. Advertising is taking these qualities for granted. Without them, you will reach the sea of sameness very quickly.
Fortunately, over a two day period I was given two very large doses to point me in the right direction. First from a great man who had better stories than me. Second from a great place that had better stories than me. And now, their stories have become my story.
The lesson I learnt from San Francisco and Keith Reinhard is that being there is everything. It is how inspiration happens. That’s how stories begin. The postcard is never the place.
It’s a lesson our business should never forget.
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Advertising. We need to leave the gardens of Versailles.

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“I know where there is more wisdom than is found in Napoleon, Voltaire, or all the ministers present and to come – in public opinion.”
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. French Foreign Minister.
 
Talleyrand is a fascinating character. Depending on how you look at him he was a womaniser, liar and utterly immoral or he cared far more about France than the people he served. One thing you can say about him was that he was a survivor. Here was a man who managed to survive and thrive  through the reigns of Louis the XIV, Napoleon and the madness of the French Revolution.
He did this by being incredibly shrewd, a master of diplomacy and knowing what people were saying on the streets. While the Sun King and his court were entertaining each other in the insular gardens of Versailles, Talleyrand was listening to the streets. This fact certainly would have helped in him escaping to England days before the efficiency of the guillotine became more popular than sliced baguette.
This might seem like a non sequitur but stay with me. Last year, I was invited to enter my agencies work into thirty award shows. Thirty. That is over two a month. Think about that for a second. Should creativity be a numbers game?
I think creativity is far more important than awards. Dave Trott speaks about advertising people doing ads for other advertising people. Thirty shows a year I think proves this.
Now, I am not here to bash awards. I have tried just as hard as the next man or woman to win them. They have helped me in my career. They have helped me get noticed and often pushed me forward. And there are some that mean a lot to me. So, you could level the accusation I am being a hypocrite for writing this now. I’ll take that on the chin.  However, when you start to find it hard to remember what won last year because there were so many, there is an issue.
If you think I am being ridiculous name what won the Grand Prix in either film, outdoor or digital in any of the main ad shows last year? And, if you can miraculously do that, try the year before.
Rarity creates value. Abundance in our world creates endless publicity. So much publicity. But how much substance or memorability?
It feels like we are inside a walled shiny garden entertaining each other. This is making awards have less value, not more. If everybody is a multi-award winning creative, then nobody is a multi-award winning creative. Perhaps awards should stop being a numbers game and become a creative game again. If the industry asked creatives, and perhaps it should, what awards they truly value there would only be a handful. Certainly not 30 shows a year. So, ask yourself, why are there so many? Who really benefits?
I think it was Mr Trott who said we are talking about ourselves to ourselves. I couldn’t agree more.
We need to walk out of this endless garden and find a new one. Ridiculously, as an industry, we need to remember what we do is not for us.
It’s for the consumer.
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advertising, Uncategorized

Has advertising lost its sense of humour?

hello

“When humour goes, there goes civilisation.”

Erma Bombeck

There is a saying in Hollywood that comedies never win at the Oscars. It would seem the stats back it up. Guess how long it has been since a comedy won best picture at the Oscars? 40 years. Annie Hall won in 1977 and that was the very last time. In total, comedies have only ever won Best Picture 6 times in 88 years.

It’s a very strange fact. It’s almost like we cannot reward or acknowledge humour. It’s as if it is not a deep enough emotion to be rewarded. We need tears, angst or deep meaning to say a film is truly great. It has to be worthy of our praise. The problem with worthy however is that it is a very serious business

The truth is to make something funny is one of the hardest things you can do. And if you are honest about the films you love or the Youtube clips you show to your mates, comedy wins every time.

As I read all these stats about the Oscars I started to think about if this is true for advertising. Are we any different? How often does funny win best in show these days? And, I stress these days. Innovative, sure. Helping the planet or others, check. A story that makes you feel deeply, that’s a yes. Something that makes you laugh your ass off, not so much. So, does advertising still have a sense of humour?

One of advertisings greatest weapons was the ability to make people laugh. We shouldn’t underestimate or throw away its power.

While I was thinking about this I stumbled on a brilliant SNL skit that perfectly explains where advertising is at right now and the problems we are creating. And, it uses humour to do it.

Do yourself a favour and watch it. It’s worth 4 minutes of your time.

If you are in the USA you can watch it here.

Or, if you are not in the USA it apparently exists on metatube.com. Search for ‘pitch meeting.’

What this fantastic skit highlights is the real danger for advertising right now. Everybody is jumping on a cause. Should every brand have a deep purpose or meaning? If you are a corn chip called Cheetohs like the one in the SNL skit, should you really be trying to save the world?

Now, having said that, I think there are some brands that have walked the talk and have used this type of advertising or way of behaving to great effect. What you will normally find though is there is some sort of natural fit and it makes sense for the brand. These brands normally back up what they say. And, most importantly because of this the consumer doesn’t think it is all just bullshit and puffery.

However, without mentioning names, look at the Super Bowl work from this year and you will see many brands jumping on very generic trends that really have nothing to do with their brand or past behaviour. Somebody told them that people care about these issues and they just smashed their brand into a cause or purpose with very little truth, humour, charm or most importantly relevance. This is advertising’s version of alternative facts.

It’s like meeting somebody at a dinner party who just keeps saying I am a good person, I care about the world, love me. I am a good person, I care about the world, love me. I am a good person…it’s pretty weird right. A little intense. You would move to another part of the table desperately looking for someone who has a good story that will make you smile.

For me the lesson is simple. A trend is not an idea. Information is not a story. And sometimes, you don’t have to be worthy, or save the world.

Just make me laugh.

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The Value of a Pencil

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I have been lucky enough to be invited to judge D&AD this year. They asked me to write a story about the value of a pencil. This is what I wrote.

 

“Price is what you pay, value is what you get.”

Warren Buffet

I apologise in advance for the unnecessary use of nostalgia and being a little romantic about it all. Actually, I don’t.

It was ten years ago that I first saw it.

I had flown fifteen hours on an Airline that didn’t offer Chicken or Beef. Or, any comfort for that matter. You know those flights you get when you desperately hope there will be a little screen in front of you and instead all you find is the back of a chair. It was one of those flights.

Yet, I was very happy. I had landed in London and I was here to judge D&AD. For me and many others in South Africa, D&AD had an almost mythical status. You heard how hard it was. At the time, I think South Africa had only had one Yellow Pencil winner.

And winning the Black Pencil? Well, that was impossible. A ridiculous pipe dream.

So, winning a Yellow Pencil and then being asked to judge the following year all seemed a little surreal and quite unlikely. When you live in a small country (South Africa or New Zealand as I do now) far from the centre it seems like a long shot anybody is going to notice what you are doing. But, they had and here I was.

I remember getting out of the cab and instantly realising the jacket that kept me warm in Johannesburg was less than useless in London. This fact made me run into the hall and my eyes had to adjust to see what was in front of me. That’s when I gasped. Seriously, it’s one of the few times in my life that I have made a strange strangled breathy involuntary noise because of what I was looking at. In front of me, was a hall the size of two football fields. It was filled with 30 000 actual pieces of work. It was too much to take in. Row upon row. Table upon table. 30 000 ideas saying pick me.

Something changed for me that day.

I realised I was looking at the most beautiful level playing field. It didn’t matter what country the work came from. Budget didn’t matter. Reputation didn’t matter. All that mattered was if the work was any good. Every idea had an equal chance.

That day, D&AD was not just a hall of ideas for me, it became a repository of belief.

I instantly believed and understood that ideas were far more powerful than geography, language, money and the barriers in my own head and all the ones out there.

For me this is what D&AD does. In an industry that kills thousands of ideas a day, D&AD gives those ideas the chance to survive and succeed. And, perhaps more importantly, it lets the people that have those ideas believe in their power again. And creating belief, is the first step to doing anything of consequence.

Three years later, I found myself in a bad suit on stage in the middle of London. I was standing with four truly special creatives and an editor by the name of Wilf Mbanga. We were slightly drunk holding a South African flag.

We had just won Africa’s first D&AD Black Pencil for The Zimbabwean Newspaper.

It was impossible. And then, it wasn’t.

Impossible. Belief. What you are trying to do. What you need to do it. Those things are very seldom found in the same place.

Advertising Award shows often get a bad rap and some deservedly so.

However, on a cold London day in 2007, D&AD showed me the impossible and gave me a large dose of belief. Magically, both happened in the same place.

I think that’s about as good as it gets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The great comfort of bad Super Bowl ads.

Damon's Brain

“I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.”
Gilbert K. Chesterton

Quick, name your top 10 Super Bowl ads from this year. I know, it’s a struggle. I am asking you to remember 10 out of a 100 or so ads whose sole purpose is to be memorable.

Each 30 second spot costs 5 million dollars to run. Each spot would have cost at least a million dollars to make. These numbers are considered a bargain because of the massive audience the Super Bowl attracts.

These numbers also do something else. They create enormous pressure to deliver a great ad. And the truth is, year in and year out only about 10 percent are any good. As hit rates go, that isn’t great.

Now, the easy explanation is the creative was no good. Well, I will take you a billion dollar bet that…

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Advertising. Are rules more important than ideas?

IMG_0296“It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we’re legally allowed to take over our competitors.”

Bill Bernbach

This isn’t scientific. Just a hunch. A feeling. Remember those?

It is a new year, so I decided to do a new little experiment. In a single day, I would observe what all the articles and blogs on my various feeds where about with regards to advertising. Was there an overall narrative? What are we talking about as an industry and more importantly what are we not talking about?

I had done this because I had begun to have an uneasy feeling that had begun to grow.

To explain, let me go back a bit. Advertising has always been about using creativity to create an unfair advantage for your client. In essence, creativity was how you broke the rules. You tried to find a new way, a more memorable way of communicating or getting noticed. You did not do what everybody else was doing. You looked for an angle or a spark. You broke the rules and created new possibilities. 

This has always been the magic of advertising. Advertising has a kind of alchemy at its heart and when practiced well it can create the impossible out of nothing.

You would think something that precious would be important as a cornerstone of what we do. You would think as an industry we would protect it all costs. But lately, it feels like the end product, ideas and even creativity have been lost in the noise.

Back to my very unscientific experiment. In a single day, I counted about 40 articles on my various feeds. They were about many topics but often they were about rules. Rules about optimisation, speed, efficiency, big data, cost and structures for the new models of advertising. Five were about diversity and only two were about the importance of creativity. Two. The first piece was about the lack of creativity in our industry today and in this particular blog the writer argued that advertising was getting worse. Awesome.

The second piece was from a planner called Craig McLeod who was arguing that art trumps numbers. Here is a paragraph I really liked.

“The decision to use a subservient chicken to sell burgers ain’t easy. Nor using hatred to sell diesel cars. Van Damme doing the splits to sell trucks. These ideas owe far more to immeasurable and inspired serendipity than numerical logic. In short, creativity gets you what money can’t buy.” 

So, 33 out of 40 articles were about the rules and direction of advertising. Almost none of the thinking was about ideas, the end product or creativity. What we actually make. What we do to create value. Rules, however, were everywhere.

Now, you could argue this is happening because we are changing rapidly as an industry. We need direction and parameters. Yes, we do. However, we also need inspiration and creativity. We need to remember we have always broken the rules. We still need magic and new ways of doing things. Now more than ever. If you don’t have these things, you create an imbalance in our industry that moves us away from magic to mediocrity. Perhaps, as an industry we have had creativity for so long we have begun to take it for granted.

I would argue if the prevailing narrative in our industry is predominantly about rules we could begin to stop loving ideas and begin to care far more about other things. We might start to think the process is as important as the outcome.

I tried to think of analogy to explain my uneasy feeling. I will try and be topical. It’s a bit like advertising is a country that is obsessed with the theory, structures and processes of democracy, but often is not really bothered about who ends up becoming president. In short, we are talking about everything except the end product.

The danger going forward is we will value only what is certain, measured, proven and has been done before. We will begin to forget that ideas can get you what money can’t buy.

Ideas and creativity are beyond definition. They don’t fit into boxes or processes because they are a magnificent leap. That is their purpose. And that is why they are so valuable. There was nothing and then there was something. We should hold onto doing impossible things with both hands. Advertising should not give up on uncertainty so easily because that is how ideas are created. That is how ideas work.

And, advertising having lots of rules but no ideas, well, I am not even sure what that is.

 

 

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