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Advertising. Enough plankton, and you sir, have a whale.

black and white dolphin on body of water during daytime

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Man is what he believes.”

Anton Chekov

It has been a couple of weeks of belief and varying degrees of success.

From the rescue of the incredibly brave football team in those very dark caves in Thailand to England getting to a semi-final in the World Cup and an unlikely South African hero called Kevin Anderson, who with his dodgy knees beat Roger Federer, the greatest of all time, to make a Wimbledon Final.

Watching all these news stories I noticed something a little strange. Take the cave story in Thailand. The reporters would ask the divers and dive experts massive questions. Would the children in the cave live? How is this all going to end? In other words, what would the outcome be? What will happen in the future?

The divers would always respond to the reporters big questions with small answers. We just have to focus on replenishing the air bottles and continue to follow our plans. In other words, we are just going to focus on right now.

Harry Kane was repeatedly asked if England would win the World Cup. Is it coming home? His answer was always about focusing on what they had to do right now. The small details they have to get right, right now. Their success was based on being granular. It helped them focus on what they could control and deal with the expectations of a nation.

Kevin Anderson in his post match interview after beating Roger Federer in the Wimbledon Quarter Final said that in the fourth set of their marathon long five set match started to think about winning. Of what might be. He admitted he had to quickly banish those thoughts and just focus on the next point. He had to focus on right now.

Success and the future is something everybody speaks about a lot. Doing and the present is always done by the very few.

It would seem success in our minds is made of a giant tomorrow. It is filled with massive ambition and massive results. However, in reality, success seems to happen when you focus on the smallest actions and get them right. And that happens, when you are able to focus on the present.

And that happens, when you believe in your own ability or what you are doing.

So, although belief in our business is slightly unfashionable these days, it would seem success of any kind is literally impossible without it.

Belief has become unfashionable because way too many posters have been put up with snappy slogans on agency walls. This is just window dressing that doesn’t help anybody. It is the easy alternative to creating an agency where you believe you can do something special. And doing something special, normally begins with being in a place that makes you believe you can. So, that is the first part.

The second part for creatives is about craft. It is about doing the small things, that often don’t seem important, correctly. It is about focusing on right now, rather than the outcome. Large belief meets tiny, seemingly unimportant actions and bingo.

These days, the world is often about speed and output. We all just want the outcome rather than looking at the tiny unglamorous steps to get there. This week was a great reminder that if you want to do something properly, there are no shortcuts. You have to have the right ingredients. You have to have belief. You have to be prepared to graft.

A grandiose vision, is the easy part. Everybody has them. In fact, these days, many mistake the vision, for the finished article. It is a big mistake that makes a huge amount of work look the same. I wonder how long it will be before anybody notices?

The truth is for a creative, creating Moby Dick often begins with the tedious, yet essential task, of finding enough plankton right now and having the slightly strange belief that a majestic whale will eventually occur.

However, the world always wants the whale to happen right now.

But, whales don’t happen that way.

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Stranger Things. The Cannes Edition.

“Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony.”

Lou Reed

I had been looking for a sign for a couple of days. And there it was.

I was walking down a little back street in Cannes. I reached one of those fashion outlets that always make me think they are a front for something else. In my head, it was the Marseilles mafia smuggling huge wheels of cheese, fake wine and millions of questionable Moroccan cigarettes. You know those stores. They never have any customers but somehow always remain open. I stared at the faceless and lonely mannequins and on the window was the quote that perfectly summed up Cannes this year.

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For years, Cannes had been a place where for a week, it felt like a million oracles had all been parachuted onto the Carlton Terrace. They would take a sip of their mystical Rose’, adjust their newly bought scarves, look you in the eye and say, I can explain everything.

Now, they normally couldn’t. But, they could vaguely steer you in the right direction. You could get a read of things. I have written before, that for me, Cannes was like a compass and an engine. It could get you through all the waves of opinion with a little inspiration and sometimes it could even point you in the right direction.

That is no longer the case. Cannes is now like that weird swimming pool in Stranger Things. The Upside Down.

Whatever you hear in Cannes, you will also hear and see the exact opposite.

Let me give you what I heard and wrote down from discussions around me in a single Cannes hour to demonstrate what I mean. All this, in one hour. User experience is everything in the future, emotional storytelling is what is really important, why being human is the way forward, the efficiency of programmatic will set you free, consultancies are so much more/less, Agencies, what is the new model, Blockchain is off the chain, dog (Yes, somebody actually said that), television isn’t dying, it’s having babies. I really could go on for a couple of pages.

Let’s take stuff that you have read over and over. So, perhaps you think it is true. Take the often said line that advertising is dying. My creative partner Shane Bradnick made the wry observation while we were lining up to register on day one that if advertising is dying there sure are a lot of people at the funeral. Cannes was packed but everybody kept saying or asking if advertising was dying. The weirdness was industrial strength this year.

Or, you will be walking behind two men wearing identical pairs of chinos talking about the genius of A.I between the Martinez and the Carlton. I counted them saying the word optimisation 12 times within the length of a single Dior store. You will then walk into the Palais and hear somebody else in a Panama hat saying A.I is bullshit. It is just this years buzzword like big data was a couple of years ago.

The phrase I remember overhearing at breakfast was somebody saying replace the letters A.I with the words computer programme and it’s not so sexy is it.

And, I am sure both conversations are 100 percent valid, or not. That is how it was every day. Literally, think of any topic or perspective and the opposite was right next to it poking it in the ribs.

This created a type of madness in some people. They were wrestling with an unending anaconda of ambiguity. They developed a strange form of Tourette’s and kept asking what the bloody trends were this year. Like this, would keep them safe and give them a map. There is no map.

Those questions were questions Cannes used to be able to answer. In the past, Cannes could create an order for the coming year and those old buildings could take new ideas and create a pattern we could all see. The reality is there are no more patterns or perhaps there are millions of them. Either way, things are moving too quickly for a compass. Cannes can still give you an engine fuelled with inspiration but you will have to figure out where to go. And that might all change tomorrow.

My friend Ari Weiss and CCO for DDB North America explains the issue very well in his article for Campaign. https://www.campaignlive.com/article/cannes-future-just-unpredictable-future-advertising/1486489.

What has changed is time. We don’t have any. And strangely, I am not even sure how valuable it is anymore. I mean what the hell is a trend in advertising? Two of the biggest winners in the last couple of years were sculptures. Fearless Girl and Graham. Is that a trend? Should we all be taking sculpture classes? I am being facetious but you get the idea. The simple answer Cannes gave me this year is don’t worry about trends and where things are going just deal with what is right in front of you.

Just deal with today because today is far longer than it used to be.

In amongst all the weirdness and confusion, I found that thought quite liberating.

Stop looking for signs.

Do what is in front of you.

It’s going to be O.K.

Just read to the damn pony.

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Advertising. Do you speak creativity?

“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.”

Albert Einstein

Doing stand-up in Poland. This is a phrase that we used to say at an agency I use to work at many years ago. It referred to a bad meeting with a client that involved a creative presentation.

It would feel like you were in the middle of Warsaw in a comedy club trying to do your routine. The only problem was nobody understood what you were saying because nobody in the audience spoke English.

I had always wondered about these meetings. It was like I had done exactly the wrong thing by presenting ideas that had pushed the boat out. Yet, there it was on the brief. Give the client big, bold out of the box ideas.

In these meetings, the general response was like why are you showing us this stuff. It could create a lot of trouble for us.

While I was thinking about all this I stumbled on this interview with Jordan Peterson. Now, I know he polarises opinion but for the moment I would ask you to focus on what he says in this interview. For me, it makes a lot of sense when I think of the experiences I have had in my career. He speaks with real clarity about the problem with creativity inside corporations. Essentially, his point is that creative types are difficult to manage, don’t like routine and hate working inside a system, so they are normally weeded out fairly quickly. They don’t conform, so they don’t rise up the ranks. He then makes a second very important point. Creatives, or if you prefer, entrepreneurial types are desperately needed at the top of businesses because although they are high risk they are also high reward. They are the ones that makes growth happen. Yet, they are often not there.

So, it would seem there is a real disconnect when it comes to creativity and business. On the one hand, you hear how important it is for growth. You hear it is how a business moves forward. Insert Steve Job’s lesson or snappy slogan here.

On the other hand, it would seem it is very hard for a creative person to make it to the top in many businesses.

From a personal perspective, you will never see this more clearly than when you pitch on a piece of business. The brief will say the business wants radical transformation, real out of the box thinking. You will be told they want ideas that scare them.

And sometimes, that is all true. You will have an amazing client who wants creativity. They are open to new ideas. They are trying to go somewhere. They have a vision and are excited by new thinking. They want to go on a journey with you.

And sometimes, it isn’t true. You see pure fear as you begin to present. The client looks at you like you are real trouble. You are speaking a foreign language. You have given them a big headache. Invariably this leads to work that is average.

I write about this because although there is a lot of talk about technology and data and how advertising is changing. However, what hasn’t changed is a ritual that happens every day across the world. People that smell of Red Bull and spray glue, stare with fixed smiles to hide a lack of sleep, at other people across a boardroom table to win their business.

The pitch. The most human moment in advertising. The one thing that has changed very little in our business and depends on one human being understanding the ideas of another.

A pitch is such a simple process but it really is amazing how different each one can be.

There are many reasons for this. Politics, personalities, an agency getting it wrong and the brief not being clear are just a few that I can mention. However, what Professor Peterson says makes a lot of sense and has to be one of the main variables.

The truth is there are many companies where there are not any people across the table who speak creativity. And by definition, don’t actually want any creativity. I get the fact that it may be hard to sell internally. Or, the company won’t buy out there work. The problem is there is still a need for new ideas. You cannot have lateral thinking while being perpendicular. There is always going to be some risk to get any reward.

This is going to become a bigger problem moving forward. Think of how the job landscape will change in the future. Jobs that can be replicated by an algorithm or A.I will disappear.  Creativity is a vocabulary many more people and companies are going to have to learn to understand. And perhaps, more importantly, value.

Yes, creativity may mean risk to many.

However, if you speak the language you can create and shape the world you want.

Or, you can choose not to understand, stand still and wait for the world to shape you.

I think we all know how that one ends.

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Advertising. The illusion of control.

 

 

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Kintsugi. The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold.

 

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”

Carl Jung

Recently, I was in Sydney at an award show conveniently called AWARD. A young creative started chatting to me before the show about good and bad agencies. He asked me what the difference was between a good agency and a bad agency. I had written a piece about this before, so I used what I had written. I said the difference was that most agencies have similar ideas but great agencies make their ideas, average ones don’t.

He sort of nodded and wandered off to get another beer. I felt a bit weird. I had given this nice little answer. A neat little one liner. But, it felt insufficient. Maybe even bullshit.

Now, it is true that average agencies don’t make their best ideas. However, the real question is why don’t they make their best ideas.

So, imagine having an idea. Perhaps, even a great idea. It is precious and fragile. It is not perfect but could be powerful. It is new and you believe in it but have no data to back up your gut instinct.  Now, take that idea and put it into an environment where there is a process. This process has many boxes that all have to be ticked. This means a new thought meets an existing blueprint. This mitigates risk. It also creates work that has been made many times before. So, the idea dies. Also, the idea cannot have any imperfections according to the existing blueprint. So, round after round of alterations occur. We are now no longer looking at the idea because it is interesting, we are trying to make sure it isn’t incorrect. So, the idea dies.

What happens in a bad agency is that the process becomes more important than the idea. Not being wrong is far more important than being right. And by right, I mean interesting.  This is not an earth shattering problem except for the fact that it kills creativity. Stone dead. Although, at a painfully slow pace.

Creativity is used to break patterns and create new ways of moving forward. Whereas a process is a pattern designed to give consistency. You could not have two more fundamentally different ways of thinking if you tried.

Creativity does not happen in a consistent timeline, a process does. Take the Japanese art of Kintsugi pictured above for example. Process would give you the bowl and discard any broken pieces in a timely fashion. Whereas creativity arrives fashionably late and takes the broken pieces and creates something even more beautiful. Creativity has made something new. Something different. Process creates what exists consistently with an unerring accuracy.

Creativity also needs madness and a fair bit of chaos. Process is all about control. One of the strangest phrases in the English language is ‘the creative process.’ In essence, they are opposing forces. Control and chaos.

A great agency has the ability to harness both of these qualities. This balance lets ideas live a little longer.  It is an alchemy that creates a measured madness. They make a space for insanity and instil an unyielding understanding for why discipline is required.

An agency often starts to go into decline when one of these forces overwhelms the other.

When an agency is ruled by chaos the decline is often sadly spectacular and pretty quick. It is literally like somebody jumping off a building.

When an agency is paralysed by control the death is a far stranger one. The agency doesn’t know it is dead. Often for years everything works. Everybody knows what their job is. There is great comfort in the precision of process. This comfort is what is sold to clients. Not the work. And then, one day, the client says the work you are making is boring. It’s kind of a bit shit. Game over.

Average agencies like the comfort of making bowl after consistent bowl until one day they get smashed and nobody knows what to do with the broken pieces.

Great agencies are able to have both structure and chaos. They can make bowls but they can do so much more.

To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, they understand that it’s the cracks that let the light in.

 

 

 

 

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What if you could change the world?

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You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’

George Bernard Shaw

I will get to the picture above a bit later.

First, let me give you a scenario. Imagine there is a job you have dreamed of your whole life. It is all you have ever wanted to do. You spend every day trying to make it happen. You are passionate and diligent. You work hard. This job is all you care about.

And then one day, a couple of years later, you realise something fairly bleak. You are not good enough. And what’s worse is that in your heart you know that you will never be good enough. You have the dedication but you don’t have the ability. You have limitations that you can’t conquer. You have to give up the dream. Think about how you would feel and what you would do if you were in that situation. What do you think the solution could be?

Now, what if I told you the solution and the way forward for you was in the fact that you were limited. That this limitation would make you incredibly successful and a worldwide phenomenon.

I know it sounds far-fetched. Except it is true.

I am with my wife, son Jamie and 2000 screaming kids at the Auckland Writers Festival. Jeff Kinney is the author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and he telling his story. He has sold over 150 million copies of his books. There has been 4 movies. And he has his own bookstore in his hometown which has the perfect name. Plainville, Massachusetts.

The scenario I painted earlier was Jeff Kinney’s story. He wanted to be a cartoonist for a daily paper. He wanted to have a strip like Calvin and Hobbes. But, after trying for a long time he realised he wasn’t good enough. He was not a fine artist, he didn’t have the skills.

I would imagine that was a dark day. For most of us we would have given up, right? Jeff did something different.

He said to himself, perhaps I am not good enough to be an adult cartoonist but what if I re-imagine myself as a 12-year-old boy who likes to draw.

This simple thought changed Jeff Kinney’s life and millions of children’s lives forever.

People often ask me what creativity can do. If this example is anything to go by, the answer is it can change the world.

Jeff was faced by limitations and obstacles. He used them to create a new reality for himself and the world. There are very few things that can change the world and create a different reality. In fact, creativity might be the only thing that can do this. And to be clear, not measure reality, or confirm reality, but alter reality. It is a form of alchemy that is as close as we can get to magic. It can create opportunities beyond all measure. It is also something we should value far more.

You are probably wondering about the photograph. Jeff Kinney’s story reminded me of it. I took it on a street corner in Chicago a week before I saw him speak.

Here is how it happened. There was a slightly unenthusiastic band going through the motions being watched by an equally unenthusiastic crowd. The gentleman with his feet in the air appeared from nowhere. And like Jeff Kinney, he asked himself a simple question.

His question was what if I wasn’t a homeless guy but I became James Brown and this band was here to support me and make me look like a star?

Now granted, he may have been high. But, by asking this one question he changed his reality. He began to dance and perform. He began to play with and to the crowd. He became Mr Entertainment. This made his pasty backing band look boring as hell. What’s more he made a lot of cash. The now backing band wasn’t happy but he was. He had in a small way changed the, or at least his, world.

This is what creativity does. It does not accept what is. It pays no attention to limitations or rules. Because of this it makes a leap. This is what makes creativity different from all other things. The leap. Almost everything else is an orderly process or at least has some steps. There are rules. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is a pattern.

Creativity says bullshit. It breaks the pattern. That is why it is priceless. It just comes along and says reality was like this and now it is like this. And off we go.

In a single moment, the world can be changed forever.

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A Priest and a Psychic walk into a New York Bar.

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“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Steve Martin

This is one of my favourite pictures of New York. It shows the density of the place. As I am taking a picture of the graffiti, in that split second of focusing, a yellow cab and a man on a motorised wheelchair drifted into frame. A lot happens here. There is a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense. I can imagine life can be overwhelming.

It might explain a strange phenomenon I noticed on the streets. Almost every second block I found a practicing psychic in some tiny store or room.

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I had to go see one. I walked in and a lady with an impressive amount of make-up and an accent that could only be described as a car crash between Brooklyn and Budapest told me my life was going to great. Awesome.

Well, I think she did. It was hard to tell.

Predicting the future is a business advertising seems to be obsessed with these days. While I was in New York everybody was talking about Sir Martin Sorrell and what his sudden departure meant. I spoke to a lot of creatives from all sorts of companies who all said things were tough. A few had been retrenched and there was general uncertainty in the air. I guess at times like this you start to look for confidence. Perhaps, that is why I visited the incomprehensible psychic.

The truth is it is at times like this it is good to remember a lesson I have learnt many times and should stop forgetting. I was reminded of it not by a psychic but a priest. Ben Priest founder of DDB Adam&Eve.

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I was in a meeting with Ben and a few others and one of the reasons we were there was to thank Ben for all he has achieved and say goodbye.

His lesson was simple. Confidence happens when you define your own success.

When Ben spoke I could hear that confidence. That thing. He spoke about when they started they didn’t have a mantra or posters on walls. They all just decided to be an agency that did the best work in the world. And Ben never said this, but I got the feeling he meant work that the people inside DDB Adam&Eve thought was world-class. They created the benchmark and nothing left the building unless you surpassed that level. This creates a common language and goal. It creates unity and resilience. It creates difference. It creates value. It creates confidence.

The question is where does confidence come from?

I have worked at a few great agencies in their prime. What they all have in common is they find a way of defining their own success. Of course, what the client thinks matter. What the public thinks matter. Awards matter. But, what people in the agency think really matters. It is a standard that breeds an internal confidence that gives an agency power like nothing else. When it happens it’s like being on a planet that creates its own gravity. It’s hard to explain but vital for life to exist.

As a friend said to me the other day, a great agency is where nobody tells you the rules but you always know what they are.

When you work in a space like that, the confidence of the place pushes you forward. You make more stuff and better stuff.

And, if there is a great comfort in being a creative, it is that in the end you get to make something. So, we may as well make it fucking great.

The simple truth is when a great piece of work is made nobody asks any questions.

That is always the answer. This is how you get rid of the noise and the bullshit.

This is where our confidence as an industry will always come from. It is also where it should always come from. Nobody else has the answer. What’s the old mantra, go within or go without.

And I don’t need a bad New York psychic to tell me that.

Just the occasional priest.

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Two Lessons From The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge.

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“Man, if you gotta ask you’ll never know.”

Louis Armstrong

Chicago. It’s almost midnight and it’s cold. But not too cold. It’s the kind of cold that makes you alert. It gives the evening a crispness and makes the neon signs a little sharper.

I stepped out of the cab onto the green glowing pavement with my partner in crime for the evening, Mr Justin Mowday. He is the CEO of DDB New Zealand and, this is just hearsay and vicious rumour, might like the occasional party. He had come up with the fine idea to find a jazz club and by chance we had found Al Capone’s favourite haunt, now called the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Later on, by sheer good fortune, we would also sit in his favourite booth. However, this gangster themed evening would take a gentler turn because of two events.

As we sat down with our very weak beers, the band was about to be introduced. The clubs owner was an older, slightly balding gentleman in what looked like a Hawaiian shirt. He looked like somebody who had flown helicopters in Vietnam or had to leave Florida very quickly. Either way, somebody who was wearing a thin Hawaiian garment in less than tropical conditions was not to be trifled with under any circumstances.

This was confirmed when he explained the house rules. When the band plays you shut up. You listen. You don’t use your phone. You listen. You don’t use flash photography. You listen.

And then, the band came out. Most of them were at least 75. The lead singer was Sheila Jordan. She is 89 years old.

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Charlie Parker described her as the singer with the million dollar ears. She was fantastic. She was funny. She could tell a story with her songs. Her age and frailty somehow amplified her talent. Her phrasing was surprising and the band that supported her knew each other so well, that you felt safe inside the beautiful, improvised experiment that is jazz.

About halfway through the set, a couple started talking. They were almost in the front row. Now this is a club. There is going to be a bit of background noise right? Wrong. Hawaiian shirt man gets up from his booth. We watch from the safety of Al Capone’s booth as he in about ten seconds eviscerated them. I imagined him saying something along the lines of if you value your life and don’t want to die in a nameless Chicago alley you will shut the fuck up. They stopped talking. I also noticed a bouncer the size of a large land mass, say Madagascar, gliding like a supertanker through the club looking for people who were talking. They were not joking around. They were saying shut the fuck up and listen. They were saying respect the artists. There was a reverence for the musicians that I had never really seen before.

So, Justin and I really started to listen. Now, if I am honest I don’t know if I really have ever understood jazz. And I suspect, there are many more like me. Sure, I know the names and have listened to a few albums. But perhaps, I have never really listened.

The drummer began to do a solo. I realised as he started his improvised journey that the whole club was listening the way I was. It’s a strange concept to feel other human beings listening. We were all giving our whole attention to what he was doing. We were in sync with him. We went on the journey with him. Every variation, or new rhythm he created was a joy for the whole club.

We were able to hear ideas being born. And maybe, for a moment, we kind of understood the jazz thing.

We were witnessing the absolute freedom to create. However, what’s more important is the audience had created the space and the understanding for the drummer to be that free simply by listening.

Learn to listen, so the artist can do what they do. Learn to listen, so that you can hear something new.

Two lessons from The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge.

Photo: Source allaboutjazz.com

 

 

 

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