advertising, Uncategorized

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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advertising, Uncategorized

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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Advertising. The worst laugh is at the back of the room.

 

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“An egg is funny, an orange is not.”

Fred Allen

One of the most painful things you can ever see is a comic bombing. It is like watching somebody else being kicked in the balls but somehow you feel the pain. This was happening to me about a week ago.

It was late at the comedy club. There is a beautiful, opaque, intoxicating sadness about a comedy club. Comics loudly telling stories about past glories. Human beings trying to withstand it all by making other human beings laugh. A boulevard of broken dreams that occasionally glitters so brightly, you are willing to keep walking as the rain falls.

The comic I was watching had been on for a very long nine minutes. He had another six to go. This was when he got his first laugh. It was from the other comics at the back of the room. It was both brutal and merciful. Sort of like having to shoot your horse after it had stumbled into a ravine only a mile from reaching home. At night. And it’s snowing.

The reality was he didn’t have the craft. And without craft, his jokes became vague. His perspective was no longer specific. He stopped connecting with the audience. He had committed the cardinal sin. His point of view was generic. Death for a comic.

An hour earlier, I had watched a great comic in action. Jim Gaffigan. He did an hour. He had the audience in the palm of his hand. He took mundane subjects and made them funny because of his perspective. He has his own voice. He was specific and that’s why he connected.

It was hard not to think of the two comics major differences after seeing them straight after each other. Why one worked and one didn’t. It was also hard not to think of which one is more like our approach in advertising. Of course, we don’t have the luxury of saying whatever we want in our business. However, it struck me that the greatest advertising in the world is normally idiosyncratic and specific. It has a perspective. A point of view.  Whether you like Cadbury Gorilla, Fearless Girl, Volvo’s Epic Split etc there is a strong point of view that gives the work value. And just as importantly, there is a level of craft in the way it is executed that makes it bold, fresh and brave.

This may seem obvious but the reality is the vast amount of advertising does not follow this path. It is often generic and inoffensive. And forgettable.

The advertising process is often about trying to do something everybody will like. It is often a form of risk management. Great advertising is about doing something people will love. The name of the gap between like and love is risk.

Lately, we have been trying to bridge that gap with personalisation, data and information. Relevance is the word you hear a lot in terms of placement. But hardly ever about execution.

A recent stat that came out of America is that 66% of adults don’t want advertising that is tailored to their interests. And when researchers explained how adtech can target ads to them that number hit 80%.

It is a complicated world. On the one hand, if you are generic, you are often forgettable. If you are highly targeted, you are unwelcome and thought of as a little creepy.

However, if you go to a comedy club and watch a great comic, the answer becomes a little clearer.

For a comic to reach an audience and really connect they have to be specific. To be specific, they have to take a risk to get any reward. It can’t just be accurate information, or relevance, there has to be a leap made of hard earned skill and perspective. They have to give the audience something of value and the audience will give the comic their most valuable possession. Their time. This is an exchange that will never change.

Otherwise, the only laughs will be from the back of the room.

And they are not real.

 

 

 

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Advertising. Be somewhere.

 

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 I want you to imagine I am telling you the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. In your head, run it through. Picture all the details, the twists and turns and the big ending.

Right, now take the same story and tell it in half the time. Now halve the time again. And again. Eventually, your story would be something like Girl, bear and porridge. This process happens in advertising a lot these days. You only have to look at the vast majority of advertising to see this. There is a reduction of elements which is why so much online advertising looks like 1950’s print ads. A visual, a headline, a payoff line.

What this often leads to is information with no emotion. We know from the studies of Les Binet and Peter Field this is not the way forward. So, that’s a problem. However, a far larger problem is that the kind of ideas that are now being made are often selected on flexibility rather than impact.

The only thing in advertising that is worse than being invisible is being invisible everywhere.

The criteria for how a great idea is chosen today is often about how many hats it can wear rather than its impact as a single form of communication.

In essence, an integrated campaign today seems to be far more about counting impressions as opposed to making one. I would say that when measurement becomes more important than what is being measured there is a problem.

An integrated campaign, was always supposed to be multiple elements that worked together. It is supposed to be many Lego blocks that build something bigger and better. It was never supposed to be every Lego block and more importantly, it was never supposed to be one Lego block sliced to within an inch of its life. Today, integrated campaigns as a concept are often replaced with a single asset chopped up to be spread across as many communication channels as possible. Every time I go to a conference, there is somebody saying you shouldn’t just put your television ad online. Well, go online and tell me what most brands are doing.

There are many reasons for this happening. A budget that has not grown while the amount of communication channels has. A lazy agency or marketer. The inability to think long term. The lack of a brand platform that allows you to have multiple executions that are relevant to their channels yet all contribute to the same idea. These reasons and many others have resulted in this now often being a blueprint for a modern campaign.

Sadly, you can see the ramifications of this when you look at portfolios of advertising students. You see an average idea repeated across multiple channels with very little thinking about each channel or how the separate assets work together. And the students always say the same thing. You see it’s a great idea, it works everywhere.  This is learnt behaviour and they are learning it from our industry. They are learning, incorrectly, that picture frames are more important and valuable than the picture.

I think we as an industry must be very careful that our quest for flexibility and pragmatism don’t lead us down a road of utilitarian mediocrity.

We need to remember being everywhere, averagely, is just another way of saying you are nowhere.

We have never needed brilliance in our industry more than we do now.  For that you need great ideas. Ideas that blow your mind and demand your attention. Ideas that are exciting, audacious and very unboring. Ideas that have impact. Ideas you won’t forget.

We need to have the kind of ideas that paint a memorable picture people want to look at rather than have ideas that are a frame for an endless procession of bland and instantly forgettable whitewashed walls, we hope, people might remember.

Because hope, is not a strategy.

 

 

 

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Advertising. Respect the Pain.

nike-nothing-beats-a-londoner-index(Image from Nike Nothing beats a Londoner commercial)

‘Jealousy is just love and hate at the same time.’

Drake

I would like to talk about a feeling. A very strange and specific feeling that you can get being a creative in advertising. To explain it I will take you back a few years to a job interview I had in London.

It was at the Ivy. Now, for anybody in London this restaurant is an institution. If London was a restaurant it would be the Ivy. At the time, I didn’t know any of this as I had just arrived from the colonies. I walked past the famous stain-glassed windows, opened the door and with as much fake confidence as I could muster announced to the maitre d’ that I was here for lunch at the Ivy. The maitre d’ that I decided was called Jean-Claude was impeccable. He wore a suit so well that I was convinced it was airbrushed. Neat was not the word. He displayed a level of flawlessness that I am incapable of matching. His faultless hair alone could make you feel like you were wearing brown shoes with a black tuxedo for the rest of your life. It had the allure and symmetry you will only ever see looking down through the clouds at vineyards somewhere in Burgundy. The comb he used was probably handed down in a mystical ceremony, deep in the Black Forest where Europe’s finest headwaiters meet in cloaks exchanging stolen bottles of wine, wheels of cheese and closely guarded neat secrets, that I am sure very few mortals can understand. But I digress.

As I said, I had announced that I was here for lunch at the Ivy.

Jean-Claude without really looking up from a wine list that seemed to list every wine ever made simply and instantly added a word to my sentence.

Club.

I was a bit confused. He informed me the Ivy ‘Club’ was next door and that is where I was having lunch. And to be clear, The Ivy Club might be next door but it is a very long way from The Ivy Restaurant.

This encounter gave me a strange feeling. A mixture of anger, awe and respect. He hadn’t asked my name. He never knew who I was. But, Jean-Claude was so good at his job and knew his customers so well that he was certain I wasn’t eating there that day.

My backpacking attire may also have been a clue.

The reason I mention this story is that I happened to watch a documentary about the refurbishment of The Ivy in the same week I watched the brilliant Nike commercial called ‘Nothing beats a Londoner’. Here is a link https://youtu.be/n0j_CX1S2es

For some reason I didn’t write about it instantly. And, as it happens, I fortuitously saw the Ivy documentary the following day.

I guess for me the connection between my story about The Ivy and the Nike commercial is that feeling that is a mixture of anger or perhaps jealousy, awe and respect. It is a weird feeling you only have as a creative when you experience something great.

I could be a fan-boy and say what I liked about the commercial. What made me laugh, what was slick or what was new or fresh. But, the more I thought about it what made me like the commercial was the pain. The truth is what separates that commercial from many was the sweating of details. The appreciation of craft. The millions of tiny choices that won’t let you sleep. Not taking shortcuts. Trying to make sure every second had some love. And remember, for those who think ads are getting shorter, it’s three minutes long. That is a lot of love.

You could see the creatives had given everything. You could see how hard it must have been. They bled to make something look easy and effortless. They endured pain, lost battles and did not give up.

I don’t know if the ad is perfect. I do know however that the creatives could not have tried harder.

Perhaps, that is what real perfection is.

It made me think of Jean-Claude. The millions of hours learning. The infinite detail. The crazy fucking chefs. The stupid requests and impossible guests. Smiling through the pain. Taking it, pushing through and winning. You have to respect that pain because that is how great work happens.

You have to respect that pain because it is what makes you better. It is what separates you from the rest.

Anyway, I like to think when Jean-Claude told me to go to the Ivy Club his feet were hurting from yesterday’s service. And, it was just the beginning of today’s shift. But, I also know, you could be bloody sure he would there tomorrow with perfect hair.

Nothing beats a Londoner or Jean-Claude. They both respect the pain and painfully, yet happily, remind me to do the same.

(Image Nike Nothing beats a Londoner).

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Advertising was never supposed to be a generic medicine.

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

Pablo Picasso

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The first thing advertising has to do is be noticed. It would seem right now many are forgetting this. If an ad isn’t noticed the rest doesn’t matter, does it?

Making an impact is the job. Which is why I have always thought it odd that creatives will take a hit if they do something that is deemed strange. However, if a piece work is vanilla, boring and unnoticed there are often very few consequences.

I am often asked why so much advertising is so shit. This tends to happen at barbecues where I smile sheepishly, shrug my shoulders and have some more lamb. However, when I saw the new Leeds logo and the new Diet Coke work I started to think about it a bit more. If you think about how much time and process is involved in advertising why is the output often so banal?

The first reason I would put out there is that many brands have literally no clear or unique perspective and vision. With brands like this, there is often a fear of emotion and new ideas and a reliance on generic information that is singlehandedly supposed to create impact. When this happens the internal processes can often be an obsessive attempt at making sure the information is correct rather than interesting. This happens a lot and there are certain brands that have made the same ineffective ad over and over for the last 20 years. And just to be clear, I didn’t say the same idea, I said the same ad.

The second reason I would put out there is that many of these processes are about mitigation of risk as opposed to magnification of impact. Once again, this is about being correct rather than being interesting. And, when you look at what is happening in advertising right now most advances are all about being correct rather than impactful.

All this can often lead to the strategy becoming the actual work as is the case in the new Diet Coke work. It is work without any leap. No risk, no magic, no point of view, just platitudes and generalities that mean nothing and have very little impact. Ask any creative if a manifesto in a pitch has ended up becoming the ad and you will see them sadly nod their heads. The reason this happens is information very rarely causes trouble internally. What always causes trouble is emotion, execution and ideas because they cannot be measured empirically. The moment somebody says that’s not how I pictured it, you have problems inside a company. This is why there are so many vignette ads that show every demographic doing all sorts of lifestyle type things with a stirring voiceover. There is no risk in this approach apart from nobody remembering the work.

There are a couple of other reasons I think work can be poor. They are the usual suspects but worth mentioning. Time and money. You get what you pay for. Many people in our industry don’t believe this. They think talent is a myth. And craft, makes no difference to the bottom line. This line of thinking is one of the easiest ways to absolutely guarantee your brand looks and sounds just like your competitors. The Leeds logo is a great example of this. The work looks like something you would see in a stock library if you searched for football badge. It is generic, corporate, cold and has no meaning. It the antithesis of what a badge over your heart should be. This is something 50 000 fans made very clear to management the day after the logo was released by signing a petition. The management responded by saying they consulted 10 000 people. For me, this proves there is not much wisdom or vision in crowds. What crowds do is make things safe, inoffensive and generic. They find the middle not the edge.

As I said, what causes all the trouble is not information but ideas, emotion and execution. Ideas, emotion and execution are dangerous things. It is understandable for some to try to steer clear of them and just stick to the certainty of information.

The problem with that is we live in an age of information. All we are surrounded with is information. Doing that, is like pouring salt water into the sea. It doesn’t make much difference.

Advertising has always been about breaking through. To make a huge impact. To be fucking noticed. When they zig, we zag. Emotion, ideas and execution are our medicine and we should never stop taking it.

Otherwise, the patient might become very boring.

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