“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” W.C. Fields When I got into this business 20 years ago creatives and creative departments where always called the cra…
“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”
When I got into this business 20 years ago creatives and creative departments were always called the crazy ones. We were portrayed as necessary yet unpredictable. We were those long haired, leather jacket types. Apparently, we all had raucous parties, did lots of drugs and were always only seconds away from saying something inappropriate. This B Grade rock star description has stuck and has become the accepted view of Creatives. In fact, it has become something many creatives live up to because they think that is their role.
That is one description.
Recently another has emerged. It is that creatives and creative departments are an old fashioned idea. Somehow, we have gone from being the crazy ones to being old school. Now, we are all creative and everybody has ideas. Just get a banjo player in, or a juggler they are creative. Or maybe Chris from accounts. He does watercolours. I am sure he will give you loads of ideas.
Not all creativity is the same. There is this thing called relevance and experience. There are many that want to make out that we all have this innate creative ability in us. Short answer, bullshit. Especially, when you only have a couple of hours to crack a piece of work.
This is not something I am making up. It is a thread you can see through the countless articles and blogs about how advertising is changing. The fantastic AdContrarian Bob Hoffman recently spoke about this at an Irish Advertising event. This is what he said.
There’s a mantra I hear in agencies back in the States. I don’t know if you hear it here, too. But it goes like this. “We’re all creative” or “Creative ideas can come from anywhere.” In my opinion this is bullshit.
True creative talent is a rare and precious thing.
Have you ever wondered why there are so many shitty songs, and shitty TV shows, and shitty movies? I’ll tell you why. Because it is really fucking hard to do a good one.
The same is true with advertising. No one sits down to write a crappy ad. Mostly they just turn out crappy. Why? Because it’s really fucking hard to do a good one — and there are very few people who can do it.
If you really believe that we are all creative, then you have to believe that it’s just a coincidence that Shakespeare wrote dozens of brilliant plays and Donald Trump didn’t.
“Once you label me you negate me,” is a quote from Soren Kierkegaard that perfectly describes the issue. Creatives tend to be a little odd, perhaps not exactly mainstream. Somebody who might be a little awkward at a social gathering. Somebody who isn’t like you. So, because they are not always understood, they get labelled. I guess categories and definitions make things easier.
I have a very different view of creatives. Do yourself a favour. Break into a decent advertising agency around 8 o’clock at night. Walk into the creative department. I guarantee you will find teams working. Come in on weekends and you will find the same thing. Creatives try very hard and work very hard under a lot of pressure. Is that easy to replace? Great creatives care and will keep going until it’s right. They care more than anybody else. What is that worth? What would advertising look like if they stopped caring?
Maybe you think I am full of it. OK, let’s do a little experiment.
Let’s pretend you are a creative. You are staring at a blank screen early one morning when a brief is handed to you. You have been asked to do a 15 second ad for a product. This particular product has 18 variants. You need to give each variant the same amount of time and there is a logo that has to be up for 3 seconds. So 12 seconds for 18 variants. That is less than a second per variant. What the fuck do you do with that? Also, make sure it’s contemporary, award winning and fresh. Have fun with it. And it has to be done by the end of the day. And there are 5 other very diverse briefs on your desk. And, there will be 5 more tomorrow and the day after that. Easy right?
That scenario is not made up. It happened to me and I suspect it has happened to many other creatives. And that, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Perhaps, you think that is an old fashioned scenario. Maybe you think things have moved on. Advertising is different now. It is another narrative that happens in our business. The new type of work that is happening. I have been hearing about this for a while now. Apparently, there is this work that creative and digital departments can’t do. For this you need other people. The problem is I just can’t find it. Almost every piece of noteworthy work in the last 5 years has had a couple of creatives involved or a creative department behind it. Whatever their job title or description is.
A modern creative is like a swiss army knife in human form. They are useful because they do so many different things and also know how to connect the pieces together. Very few people are good at this. More importantly, creatives have the one thing that makes all the machines work. Ideas. They have the illusive beginning of things. And most importantly, they know how to make them, either on their own or collaborating with others.
What a strange situation. A silly smoke and mirrors game. Everybody goes on about old fashioned creatives and creative departments and how all these other companies are the future. Labels signifying nothing. While this is happening these new companies often hire creatives from these exact old fashioned creative departments. To be clear, these are the same people. So, yesterday you were old fashioned, today you are cutting edge.
Are they the crazy ones? No, they just see our value.
A value that has nothing to do with what somebody is called, but with what they can do.
“You could certainly save money by inviting people to your wedding in an email, but not many people would show up.” Rory Sutherland
I was not designed for the clinical beauty of Singapore. It has the humidity of a Bikram Yoga Studio inside a Turkish Bath House. I have hair that is the opposite of short. Subsequently, whenever I go there I feel like I have a dead octopus on my head.
I am perfectly designed for the temperature you feel at the base of a lone pine tree on the Tundra in the Arctic Circle. So, the relentless moisture of Singapore creates or adds to the fog in my head.
As it turned out, it would be the place that cleared it too.
In advertising, there is a lot of noise. It is easy to start looking at the wrong things.
The great fashion photographer Norman Parkinson once said the purpose of fashion is to change. In many ways, advertising is not that different. We are always looking at what is changing or what is new. Anybody remember Vine or Foursquare? Vine was launched in 2012. Four years ago, it was the biggest thing ever. I was in many meetings about vaguely doing something with it. Remember how it was going to change the advertising world. Anybody remember having conversations a couple of years ago about how all ads in the future would be 10 or 15 seconds long because that would work better on social media platforms? Anybody notice how the latest Kenzo ad Spike Jonze just shot is 3 minutes long. Boy, we talk a lot of shit in this business.
I guess the trick is to remember to look at what doesn’t change.
This fog had been building for a while.
I had been having stupid conversations about ad blocking or what the absolute definition of content actually is. As far as I can tell, content is just another word for stuff right?
Then there was the story about Matthew Mcconaughey becoming a creative director for a big Whiskey brand. I didn’t realise it was that easy to become a creative director. I feel a bit stupid now spending the last 20 years trying to get there. Oh well. In between copy checking shelf wobblers and trying to motivate his creatives with his speech from the Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew used his time to make a violently average ad. The ad had no idea. But it didn’t need one did it? Because the real idea was using Matthew Mcconaughey as the creative director. This is happening more and more. The idea is simply to use a celebrity with a big social media following. Is that an actual idea?
Stuff like that. I was thinking about the wrong things.
While this was going on in my head this I was in the middle of the task of judging about 500 television commercials as well as online content, there’s that word again, for Spikes Asia.
It’s an interesting experience looking at that much work at one time. In the beginning, you might be very analytical about the work, but I think when you judge this much work you become a consumer. You notice it or you don’t. You feel it or you don’t.
When you get to that point all the verbal shrapnel and bullshit confetti we deal with every day disappears and it all becomes so very simple. The fog lifts.
It has to have a great idea. It has to be well made.
Seems obvious and easy right? Well, if that were true there would be far more of that kind of work.
I think many in our business at the moment think there are shortcuts. Concept and quality wise. Do yourself a favour. Go and judge 500 pieces of work. You will see many pieces just like the next piece. Many with no ideas at their heart. Many that are made without the care and quality a good idea needs. They are invisible. Whatever box they ticked, they were a waste of money.
And then, you will see a handful of pieces that are brilliant. They go straight into your heart and head. No explanation or post rationalisation is necessary. They make you laugh and cry. They make you feel. More importantly, they stay in your head. You remember them.
This is what quality and care does. It makes you notice. It makes you give away your most valuable asset. Your time.
On my last night in Singapore our jury president Tony Granger very kindly took us to have a Singapore Sling at the famous Raffles Hotel, the place where it was first made in 1915. We could have gone anywhere to have a Singapore Sling but it wouldn’t have been as special. And it’s special because The Raffles Hotel have invested in an idea. This has created an experience you remember. The tiny fans on the roof. The ingredients they use. The beautiful green lights against the wood panelling. The peanut shells all over the floor. The fact that Ernest Hemingway used to drink there. Details matter. There are no shortcuts. Advertising is no different.
It’s funny we want consumers to believe and invest in our brand or product, but I think part of their belief comes from them seeing that we believe and are investing in the brand or product too. In a sense, they are saying, you first. And we show them we are doing these things by investing in how we communicate with them. (Rory Sutherland wrote a great piece in the Spectator about this idea and the value of experts).
Look at a great piece of work. A piece of work somebody really cared about. It says to the consumer, I care about what I am selling you. I care about your time. I will try not waste it.
A lot of things may be changing but these things will never change.
Thanks to Singapore for reminding me there are no shortcuts.
“We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.” “We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, co…
“We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”
“We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
The last couple of weeks I have struggled to write anything. I have even contemplated stopping this blog. I had this feeling of dread that all I was doing was contributing to the pollution. Yet one more fucking opinion. I have found myself with glazed eyes scrolling through the echo chamber that is Linkedin. Hundreds of posts where everybody has some new definition or answer. Jargon and 5 point plans that claim to be radical but are in fact the exact opposite. More than that though, there seems to be this overwhelming feeling of trying to get to some sort of collective consensus. A sea of sameness. We should conform. Nobody really steps out of the square. A hall of mirrors desperately trying to create a single, politically correct, inoffensive reflection.
Advertising seems to be trying to have one generally accepted opinion, rather than many. I have seen people online get smashed because they have a different opinion to the mob. This is dangerous for a business that needs to take calculated risks. Dangerous for a business that is built on having an opinion. Dangerous for a business that needs emotion, difference and that tricky thing called humour
I am pretty sure Communism had very few stand-up comedians that didn’t end up in Siberia.
While I was thinking about this I started reading a book by Jon Ronson. It’s called ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.’
It’s about how social media has destroyed people’s lives. It shows their mistakes and how in some cases their lives were destroyed by a giving their dumb opinion or making a stupid comment. Something none of us have ever done right? It is a very interesting read that humanises these people and makes you realise how the punishment often doesn’t fit the crime.
I thought about how this applied to advertising. I started to think about how this fits with advertising blogs. What kind of environment have we created to make creatives feel like they can take risks? I can tell you from personal experience, if you stick your neck out with an opinion or work that is perhaps controversial you can experience an advertising version of public shaming that can be pretty brutal. I know of some instances where people have left the industry or had breakdowns and, if you do a little research online, far worse.
As creatives, we should support each other far more than we do. Far more. And, by not doing it, are we slowly creating a virus that will create an industry where the work inch by inch gets worse? We always speak about having fun. We talk about playfulness and the importance of being able to make mistakes. But do we really believe that? Does our behaviour to each other show that?
Perhaps it’s just me but this all feels incongruous with the bravery and courage creativity needs. Now, I know critics and criticism have always been a part of any creative endeavour. However, as creatives we should be all for pushing the envelope and supporting those that try and fail. There are enough people to pull us back. We shouldn’t do it ourselves. We are often guilty of being the critics that create a kingdom of fear that we have to live in. Less time, less mistakes, less free thinking and more critics creates an environment where the opposite of creativity is created. Fear.
In my career, the people that have pushed me forward were mavericks. I am not sure there are many left. And I am not sure they are that wanted. The ones I learnt from were brave and had the courage of their convictions. They were people that had your back and you would follow into battle. They didn’t care what everybody thought. They cared about what they believed or could feel. If they believed or felt something they were passionate and persuasive about that point of view. They knew if they felt it, they could make others feel it too.
I have been in a room where one of the world’s most legendary creative directors listened to an entire room of senior people for an hour. All of them totally disagreed with him. He didn’t care, he stuck to what he believed and in the end he was right. He didn’t care if he was popular. He cared about the idea. And of course, that is the real secret.
It’s strange how out of date that paragraph sounds. It shouldn’t but it does. Today, many would call that Creative Director difficult and not a team player.
To quote G.K Chesterton. “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statue of committees.”
Consensus and agreement are what happens at the end with many. Vision and belief happen at the beginning with very few.
Great work takes courage and bravery. It doesn’t just happen. If you think you just need lots of ideas you are in for a big surprise. Great work happens because somebody believes in it. The more we as a creative industry take away the conditions for belief by destroying each other, the more we end up with something vanilla and unremarkable. Our industry cannot afford to do this to itself right now.
If ever there was ever a time to celebrate and support the mavericks and real diversity of thought, it is now.
Strong, singular opinions won’t always give you the answer you’re looking for. But, they will often give you the answer you can’t find. And that, is often the answer you need the most.
If that isn’t valuable, I don’t know what is.
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be at a talk given by Ross Clarke-Jones in Cannes. This …
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be at a talk given by Ross Clarke-Jones in Cannes. This is a man that gets into a boat that takes him a couple of kilometres off shore. He then gets into the water with a surfboard a little larger than him. He is then pulled by jet ski into the path of rolling, roaring terrifying 10 storey buildings. He then surfs on them. For a living.
To this day, I still remember watching the video at the talk of him going down a wave. There is a particular moment I remember. He is bouncing down the face of this wall. There is a ripple in the face of the wave. If I had to guess it must stretch 6 feet away from the wave. The board goes over the ripple and Ross Clarke-Jones free falls about 10 feet, lands and by some miracle keeps dancing down the side of the ocean’s version of the death star. You could tell the whole room was scared because as Mr Clarke-Jones was free falling we all crossed our legs at the same time. Ball tightening fear is an expression that comes to mind.
After his talk, somebody asked him what he did for living. How would he describe his job? His answer surprised me and stayed with me.
He said his job was to control his fear. He was in the business of fear management.
Fear. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of fear. What can it give us? What is the role of uncertainty? And, can creativity and anything original exist in a space with absolute certainty?
As luck would have it, I was about to get two very different answers to these questions.
William Trubridge is the world’s greatest free diver. This truly remarkable New Zealander has broken the world record 17 times.Think about that. Think about that slow descent to a line where uncertainty begins. Where, what you don’t know, starts. You are alone 102 metres under the water on a single breath. And, you are only halfway. There are no guarantees. This is something Trubridge learnt two years ago in dramatic fashion.
Our agency was lucky enough to be working with him on a campaign with one of our clients. He would try and break the world record and we would broadcast his attempt live on breakfast television. He would dive 102 metres. He reached the bottom and seemed like he was going to make it. About 20 metres from the surface he started to get into difficulty. The safety divers had to intervene. He had missed the record by 10 metres. He was interviewed afterwards. He was incredibly humble and upbeat but you could see how much this had hurt. He had prepared for this for years. He promised New Zealand he would come back and break the world record.
Last week, William Trubridge free dived to 102 metres. Just longer than Big Ben. The deepest any man has ever been. Not forgetting the 102 metres back up. He kept his promise. He had felt the fear and continued to swim towards uncertainty. And he did something no man had done before.
In stark contrast, this week I watched a fascinating documentary about a place called Gloriavale. This is a community in New Zealand that has strong religious beliefs and I suppose is reminiscent of the Amish. By all accounts, they are very happy living their life the way they do. They are certain about what is going to happen. There is no fear. There is no uncertainty. There is also no change, creativity or innovation. There is a system. You believe in the system. You follow the system. In a way it’s quite seductive. It is all so simple.
Certainty may remove fear but it also removes innovation and creativity. It removes the opportunity to do anything new or to change. That would break the system and the certainty.
You could not get two more different stories.
Advertising is a bit like this at the moment. Parts of our industry seem very enamoured with process and certainty. It has become a panacea for every affliction. There seems to be a craving of straight, flat lines. Things that are certain. Create a system. Follow the system and it will give us the answer.
Perhaps it will. And perhaps, it won’t. I hope that the pendulum swings again. It will begin to move when the linear and efficient process starts to give the same average answers to the same comfortable questions. When we create so much more disposable work that starts to all look the same. When questions start being asked about the value and quality of what is being made. When somebody starts talking about what, instead of how many and where.
When we all decide to get in the business of fear management, rather than risk elimination.
If Ross-Clarke Jones and William Trubridge teach us anything, it is that uncertainty, risk and fear are a part of pushing yourself beyond the mediocre. They are necessary ingredients when it comes to doing something great. They are what you have to harness if you are ever going to attempt to do something new. And those risks, today, are not great compared to the greatest risk of all.
Doing something average, that nobody noticed.