“The film is made in the editing room. The shooting of the film is about shopping, almost. It’s like going to get all the ingredients together and you’ve got to make sure before you leave the store that you got all the ingredients. And then you can make a good cake – or not.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Many years ago, as a very skinny and intense student there was a ritual I used to partake in. It went like this. Towards the end of the week, my flatmates and I would normally be broke. Yet, we needed to eat. The solution was ingenious. We would go to supermarkets. We would try to look casual, relaxed and unhungry. We would descend on those happy, friendly samplers like a pack of wafer thin wolves. We would take as many samples of sauces or biscuits as we could from those now sad empty handed samplers who had mistakenly thought they might be able to sell something to a malnourished frenzy of students. We would combine this glorious haul with our one friend who could always get his hands on what seemed to be an unending supply of Scandinavian sardines from his doting mother. We called this culinary triumph Norwegian Curry.
I am sure if you opened the cupboard in your kitchen you would find some weird shit. Look right at the back and there will be a bottle of dry leaves or granules with a name you can’t pronounce. You don’t remember buying it. But you don’t chuck it out do you? Because deep down, you know that one day you might just need it to make your very own Norwegian Curry.
Ingredients are funny things. Try eat a bottle of cinnamon and you will have a really shit afternoon. Put them on pancakes. Way better. Try make custard without vanilla. I am sure it is possible but it won’t be as good. The question is, does that really matter? Do you need great custard or will average suffice? This question is what drives thousands of creatives mad around the world every day.
The longer I am in this business, the more I think that we are always wrestling with three possibilities or challenges. Make the same recipe, but with less ingredients. Use ingredients we don’t always like to make something we do. And very occasionally, you get all the ingredients to try and surpass the existing recipe. These three possibilities are the number one reason you need creativity and lateral thinking. Because the truth is, if you are a creative you are always trying to make a better Norwegian curry (something new or something that doesn’t yet exist) no matter how few ingredients you have. And, for me, the key to doing this was learning that like garlic on your breath some ingredients will always be there. Some are ingredients you may not like but will always need.
So, I thought I would jot down a few ingredients that you find in almost every creative endeavour. I don’t like all of them but in just the right amount it can get you that Michelin Star, Silver Bear, Bronze Guava or just remain gainfully employed. I call them them the 5C’s, or to extend my culinary metaphor, the spice rack of advertising.
First up criticism. The cayenne pepper of advertising. Too much of it and it will destroy everything. Agencies, people, work you name it. Often, it can be ego masquerading as high standards. However, if you have none of it, your dish could be bland or completely shit. If there is way to be better we should open to it. The trick is to find somebody who will tell you the truth. And here is the important part, find somebody who is trying to make your work better rather than make you feel worse. If you can’t take criticism you won’t make it in this business. I think the hardest lesson I had to learn was trying to use criticism to be better than I was yesterday rather than trying to be better than everybody else. I know, that’s easy to say.
Second C. Being a car salesman. It has become pretty unfashionable to talk about selling in this business. Which is why I am using the very sexy term car salesman to describe the task. Our job is to make ideas that sell and sell ideas that we can make. Every day. You can have the best idea in the world but if nobody else can see that, it’s game over. We deal with large sums of money and things that are yet to be made. There is a lot of fear baked into that process. Persuade, paint a picture, seduce, present a strong argument, convince or any other term you might like is needed to get the curry made. If there is one thing I would say to young creatives it is learn to sell the idea as much as have the idea. It can literally save you years in your career. I don’t always feel this is addressed in ad-schools but it should be.
Next up, curation. There is a saying that you think the stars are big until you look at the spaces between them. Having a great idea is awesome but seeing the potential between many of them is more important today than it ever was. There are very few campaigns today that are not integrated. There are very few that don’t use multiple channels. This means you are either looking for what I call a Swiss-army knife idea. That is, an idea that can work across multiple channels. Or, you have to develop the ability to look at a wall full of disparate ideas and see the connection or possibilities between them. You then have to pull those ingredients together. This is a skill that is not always understood and it is often how work suddenly magically happens. This will become even more important in the future because the ideas can no longer just be stars but have to also be the spaces between them. The orchestration of ideas will become as important as the ideas themselves.
Here’s a fun one, catastrophe. A dangerous spice, that’s for sure. In just about every piece of work I have done it has appeared somewhere in the process. Something changes. Somebody makes a mistake. The timings have changed. You can’t use a certain colour or word. There was information you didn’t know. Or there is something you can no longer get. For reasons beyond your control, it all just fucks out. It’s in those moments where you have to have great people around you that just won’t give up. Courage is another spice. As is tenacity. There is no shortcut. Sometimes you just have to stay in the kitchen. Without being able to hang in there, you almost never do anything great. One other strange point about catastrophe. In the middle of it, lies opportunity. I have found that if you can just keep cooking through the madness there will be something that makes the work better lying in the middle of the problem. I don’t know why, it just seems to always happen.
And finally, creativity. It is the one thing that lets you take the same ingredients and make something new. In fact, it is the only thing. There are only 12 notes in music. But how many songs are there? Without it, the other ingredients don’t really matter. It is the only thing that has the power to transform, re-interpret and change the mundane and the same old same old. It is what can help you make leaps you didn’t know you could make. It is what can change everything. It is the strongest glue and the brightest light. It is not a formula and the more you try and explain it the dumber you will sound. It is a mystery you need but can’t solve. It is this strange power that says the world was like that and now it is like this. And it can do it instantly. It is not just an ingredient, it is every ingredient and every food. Without it, you can literally make nothing worth eating.
And this is coming from somebody who has made way too much Norwegian curry.