advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. What if nothing is changing?

“Creativity doesn’t wait for that perfect moment. It fashions its own perfect moments out of ordinary ones.”

Bruce Garrabrandt

There is an advertising urban myth about a company needing to sell more baby powder. Basically, all the brightest and the best would come into a room each day and try and brainstorm how they could sell more baby powder. They would look at communication, distribution and pricing. At the end of each day a cleaner would come in and clean up the room. While she did this she would listen to what they were saying. At the end of 3 days very little progress had been made in selling more baby powder. The cleaner could see everybody was a little crestfallen so she gave them her idea.

Why don’t you just make the holes bigger?

The question is always how you change the game. And the answer is usually made up of two words. Creativity and simplicity. You will find these two qualities in any answer of value.

However, changing the game and talking about change are of course two very different things. One of the funniest things in our industry is to watch people take on the cloak of the grim reaper. One of the safest positions you can take in our industry is that everything is about to die. This has been said every year since I got into the business. Bob Hoffman wrote a brilliant piece about this phenomenon in Cannes recently: https://campaignbrief.com/bob-hoffman-dying-at-cannes/

In it, he shows how speaker after speaker talks about how we are all dying if we don’t adapt. Or, how advertising is dying. Or, that massive change is on the horizon. Run for the hills. For the love of God, we have to change. Otherwise we are all going to die. Now, of course if you get to the end of these talks you will find most are selling something. And nothing sells quite like impending doom.

I guess the real question is what is changing and what isn’t. The idea of change has always fuelled our industry. The restlessness this brings is a good thing. But, it can also be a false prophet. So, I thought I would look at all this through the lens of an excellent article I read recently. For me, it highlights the fact that in the end we always come back to the need for creativity. That is what never changes. It is almost always the solution you return to over and over. And more importantly, it’s how you change the game and make giant leaps when everything else eventually gives you parity.

The article is by Jay Patisall in Forbes magazine called The Cost of Losing Creativity. Please do yourself a favour and read it. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forrester/2019/06/19/the-cost-of-losing-creativity/#2f061d79703a

In it he argues that the industry has commoditised brands and homogenised experiences. Here is what he had to say about how customer experience has become too similar to make a difference.

The issue is that the work looks, feels, and behaves too similar. The industry obsession for meeting every customer need and want for ease and convenience by using technology has left little room for creative differentiation. That has come at a cost. The front door to your brand is a web or app experience that is virtually indistinguishable. Fashion experiences look the same. Quick-service restaurant and coffee apps allow you to order ahead and skip the line. All airline apps allow travelers to check in, manage travel, and use a mobile device as their boarding pass. What can make one brand different from another when the experience is built from the same common technology platform, designed to solve the same user or category need, and programmed for the same two devices? Creativity.

In other words, there comes a point where through technology or just about anything else, you reach an experience plateau where everything becomes the same again. You and your competitors become the same again. And then, you have to differentiate again. For that you need ideas. You need creativity to change the game. It would seem as long as there is competition or choice this will always happen.

Take television and content. Recently, Disney and NBC have taken their content back from Netflix. The game is changing and to be fair there are many scenarios that could play out in the future. But just for fun, let’s take this information and run with it. Disney (I believe the app is called Disney Plus) and many others could soon have their own apps that consumers will be able to access in a variety of ways. This means in the future you could have a multitude of apps or platforms on your screen. And hey presto we are back where we started. Not unlike today with a multitude of television channels to choose from. What was once radically different will become familiar again. This cycle is far more true than radical change.

So, the question becomes how will all these streams of content differentiate from each other? My guess is a few people in a room trying to come up with ideas. No matter what labels are used or what impending doom men in cool trainers tell us is about to visit, this always seems to be the answer.

It is ironic that the one thing that actually creates change, doesn’t change at all. Creativity.

It knows eventually it will get the call after all the talking and posturing is done. It knows it is the only architecture that will let you leap again and again.

Just like the holes in the baby powder, the answer is always staring us in the face.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Talent is never a single malt.

“Everybody has talent, it’s just a matter of moving around until you have discovered what it is.”

George Lucas

Talent. It’s one of those words. Like the word, creativity. Everybody nods and agrees that you need it. These days, everybody, says they need talent desperately. What is also perhaps true, is that the changing structure of our business, from consultants to in-house agencies and everything in between means all sorts of people are perhaps figuring out what this word actually means for the first time.

The question is, what is it?

Part of the problem is the word. It is all encompassing and generic. Talent may be an ability an individual has. However, it is also a lego block you can connect to other lego blocks to build something far bigger.

The trick is how you put the blocks together. And having an idea of what needs to be built

So what’s the problem? Well, lately I have seen a few car crashes. Certain companies hiring people that are plain wrong simply because they have the word creative on their CV. These companies have done this over and over for the last couple of years. And judging by the turnover of staff, it must have cost them plenty.

The question is, what is it they don’t understand?

The answer is pretty simple. They don’t understand what they need. They also don’t understand that creatives are not all the same. They have different skills which have to be managed and blended together. It doesn’t just work all by itself. Especially, if there is no culture of creativity in the company.

Creatives are like the game Tetris. They fit together in a multitude of ways. And when they do, they unlock far higher levels. They are capable of incredible leaps and doing the impossible. When they are just seen as manpower or resource they unlock far less. And to extend the metaphor, that is how you reach game over.

Bill Bernbach understood the value of connecting creatives over 50 years ago. He was the first to put an art director and a copywriter together. He understood you would get far better work if you got this combination right. He wasn’t looking at individuals but puzzle pieces that fit together. This idea over the last couple of years was often said to be old-fashioned. However, if you go and look at where ideas come from in almost any organisation you will find a couple of people in a room with laptops, or post-its or pads trying to come up with ideas. They might have different titles 50 years on but what they do is not that different.

Bernbach realised that finding a single individual that could have a range of different, brilliant ideas every day, then potentially sell those ideas with exuberance and then make all those different ideas equally well is very rare. More than that, he really understood the power of combinations and what they can unlock. He understood what I call the power of bounce. You see this strange power in improv theatre. The golden rule for actors is no matter what the other actor says you have to say ‘yes and’. You have to build on the idea.

Actually, it’s not a strange power. We have seen it for years. Lennon and McCartney. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Or, modern comedy writing versions. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Or closer to home, Flight of the Conchords. Together these duo’s create what one of them cannot. They fuel each other and support each others ideas. Having ideas can be a lonely business. Another person that gets you and is willing to go on a crazy journey with you is beyond value.

Finding those combinations though takes time and needs to be nurtured. Many right now are not taking the time. They are just hiring the right amount of people for the desks in a room. Even if they are great, they may not be the answer. Imagine the football team Barcelona made up entirely of Lionel Messi clones. He is arguably the greatest player that has ever lived. How many matches would that team win? My guess is not many if he is the goalkeeper.

Raymond Chandler once said there are no bad whiskeys. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.

And in our business, which has always been a team sport, the greatest whiskey of all is talent. And that talent, may begin as a single malt, but if it is to truly succeed, it should always become a blend.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Norah Jones, KFC and forgiveness.

“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”

Oscar Wilde

We had been waiting almost an hour. An hour is a long time to wait. You start playing weird games in your head. I will count to thirty. When the big hands gets to the five, I am definitely out of here. You also silently seethe. Actually, it wasn’t that silent. By now, the crowd had started slow hand clapping. There was no communication. Where was the support band? Where the fuck was the actual band? People had got babysitters who were getting paid by the hour. People who have gotten babysitters are not people you want to mess with.

Suddenly, a tall blonde comedian called Melanie Bracewell walked onstage and said the immortal words, “Hello, I am not Norah Jones.” Now, I am pretty sure she wasn’t the support band. It almost felt like somebody had made phone calls that included the words please get me somebody and I have a problem. The crowd’s silent response was, you’re damn right you are not Norah Jones. Go and bloody get her. We have been waiting an hour.

To Melanie’s credit, she hung in there. In the beginning, it was painful viewing. It was like watching somebody trying to move a cement block of anger. There was this underlying feeling of hostility in the audience. People laughed to be polite. But slowly, she got a few laughs. Genuine laughs. And you could feel the room change. Suddenly, there was a little bit of forgiveness in the crowds heart. She had charmed them with her bravery, creativity and humour. Her humaness (my new word) had won the day.

A couple of minutes later, Norah Jones walked onstage and all the anger evaporated as she began to play. Nobody was thinking about injustice, writing to the papers or worrying about millionaire baby sitters. Everything was forgiven.

Forgiveness. Brands don’t talk about it much. Charm is not a word you hear that often either. Efficiency and effectiveness is where it’s at. The quest for zero defect. We get it 100% right, every time. These are worthy and important goals. Something to always be striving for. A perfect brand. A brand that doesn’t make mistakes. That would be great. But that isn’t how life works is it? Those pesky bloody human beings. Sometimes rock stars are late or the wrong time was printed on the ticket. With many brands you only have to call a call centre to experience imperfection. Endless Pan-pipe music and being put through to the wrong department. Or, being asked for a pin number you didn’t know you had. OK that last one might just be me.

Like I said, things don’t always go according to plan. Ask KFC.

For years, I have had the same conversation. Almost everybody knows what their brand should look like. They also know what they want the brand to do. However, a lot less know how they want their brand to feel. This is what creativity can do. It can give a brand a personality that is interesting, entertaining and resilient. This creates immeasurable value for a brand especially when it makes a mistake or has to have a tough conversation with the world. And, if you think about how brands are having a stronger perspective on the world a la Nike with Colin Kaepernick these days it becomes a necessity.

Creativity understands how to work with tension and vulnerability. It understands how to work with imperfection.

So, whether you start your comedy set with, “Hello, I am not Norah Jones.” Or, you create an ad for a KFC that starts with the line – A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal. Vulnerability, a bit of charm and humour can go a long way. In fact, it is vital. These days a lot of advertising is all about what you’re going to say and how all the bits connect together. A lot of people shouldn’t forget, how you say it is just as important.

It can be the difference between disaster and forgiveness.

It is the difference between being charming and tedious.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Yes, but what about Pablo Escobar’s hippos?

“I don’t understand it, but I feel it.”

Yves Saint Laurent

I will get to the hippos later but first pornography. I know, that sentence surprised me too. Mark Ritson was on stage in Miami and had been telling a story about Veet. You know the hair removal cream. At one point, sales had gone up exponentially and the company had tried to find out why. What was causing it? Packaging? Advertising? Distribution?

No. Not even close. Men watching huge amounts of pornography online. It would seem the vigorous manscaping in these low plot, high involvement films had become a massive trend.

It reminded me of another unlikely story. Pablo Escobar’s Zoo. At the height of his power, Signor Escobar was estimated to be worth 30 billion dollars from controlling all the drug trade out of Colombia. When you have that much money, what do you do? You open a zoo. Obviously.

Now, after Escobar’s death there was the problem of what to do with all the animals at the zoo. Most were shipped away but Escobar’s Cocaine Hippos, as they became known, were left to fend for themselves in a pond. They did way better than that. There are now dozens of them and Colombia has a large hippo problem. Because of a drug lord. Who had a zoo. Obviously.

As strange as those stories might seem, that is actually how life often works. Mad. Unexpected. Surprising. Qualities, that seem a long way from what is pre-occupying our industry at the moment. Maybe we just need to remember some things never get old. They are the cornerstones of telling any great story. And people, you know, the ones we are talking to, like a great story. If you need to check, walk into a pub.

What these stories also tell me is that when it comes to our industry anybody who says they know what’s going to happen is likely to be extremely wrong. We have many false prophets that live in a bubble of certainty that can become incredibly dangerous. If you look at the Fyre Festival debacle or the illusion that is Theranos, we have a whole lot of people who can explain and sell things very well. In fact, for some, the brochure has become the beach. However, their perfect, precise and predictable explanations have very little to do with reality.

We all want to believe in precise, predictability because it is easier. We like the idea of control and efficiency. It is safer. But like I said, life doesn’t work that way. And neither do people. As an industry, whose primary objective is to communicate with human beings it would be wise to never forget this.

It is why creativity matters. It is what creativity understands most of all. That you have to stay open to messiness. That you have to listen to the wrong words. It understands that efficiency doesn’t mean much without ingredients. And for those ingredients, creativity knows you have to go where things don’t make sense but could be interesting. Our industry needs to remember uncertainty is just as important as predictability.

Great stories and ideas are not about control and distance. They happen when you go towards the good stuff. You get closer to the strangeness of life and fallibility of people.

And very occasionally, Cocaine Hippos.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. What is madness worth? Lessons from Vince and Tony.

“Belief is holding on. Faith is letting go.”

Alan Watts

We will get to the painting later. We need to go back 48 hours.

My little obsession with obsession and madness began with a story I had read on the plane to New York. Now, it is important you know that I know very little about skateboarding. Yet, even I know who Tony Hawk is. The story was about him doing the first 900. This happened at the X-Games in 1999. It is a trick that is ridiculously difficult because you cannot see the skateboard twice while performing it. One of those moments is the landing. You kind of have to just know where the board is and hope you land on it. I found an interview where the great man explains it far better than I could. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x62akqy

Photo by Fernando Menezes Jr. on Pexels.com

What I found interesting about the story was the fact that even though time was up in the competition, he kept going. He didn’t care about the trophy. The trick was the prize. He tried to land it over and over and on his tenth attempt, he nailed it. The competition was over but the crowd went nuts. He had done something impossible. He had taken an extra 10 minutes to get to that invisible line in his head and changed the world.

It made me think what those 10 minutes were worth. Imagine, he had stopped because the competition was over. How important were those 10 minutes? How important is time?

In our business, the question is always how long will something take. And these days, there is definitely less time than there used to be.

Here is the strange thing though. Every great piece of work I have ever seen made in an agency had people who pushed and worked way beyond what was required or reasonable. They were trying to get to that invisible line in their head. They disregarded time to make something great. It’s a type of madness that many in our business don’t understand or think is important. But believe me, it is not an ingredient you can do without.

Depending on your point of view, spending that time is either wasteful or very necessary. What I believe is there has to be some level of obsession or unreasonableness to get somewhere new or great. This is why creativity is so difficult to commoditize. It is the antidote to patterns. Its job is not to accept the way things are. This makes people uncomfortable.

In advertising, we are very fond of talking about pushing the work. Go one more round. However, lately, there are other narratives. One is that advertising is dead. The other is that creativity might not be required. Perhaps, it can be replaced. At the root of these narratives are always money and time rather than any concern for the product.

Super Bowl Sunday in New York

While I was thinking all of this, I found myself in the middle of New York. I was lucky enough to have a ticket to the Skittles Commercial Broadway Play. Instead of running a 5 million dollar ad on the Super Bowl, they created a play. The year before, Skittles made an ad for just one person. Both campaigns were very original, a lot of fun and very successful. Some would say they were very risky or a little mad. Well, that night I watched the Super Bowl for the first time in America. I remember about 3 commercials from hundreds. There were a lot of patterns. Celebrities etc. Some ads were genuinely awful. They were boring and facsimile’s of a hundred ads that have come before them. Strangely, those are never seen as a big risk. Yet, for brands they are the biggest risk of all.

Skittles Poster on Broadway

I kept thinking about being unreasonable and where it belongs in the modern advertising landscape. Is there enough time to be unreasonable or is it just too much trouble? What is the value of making an impact versus frequency? My old boss used to say there is never time to do it properly once but there is always enough time to do it averagely twice. He was smart.

The next day I found myself staring at Van Gogh’s hypnotic Starry Night with hundreds of people at the MoMA. He painted it from an asylum through barred windows over 120 years ago, yet it feels modern. He was losing his mind. The scene doesn’t exist. It is made up. The village in the painting was painted from memory. I stared at it for a very long time. I came to three conclusions.

The more I looked at the painting the more beautiful it got and the less I understood it.

There are no colour by numbers paintings in the MoMA.

A lot of people might not like or be comfortable with madness and obsession but it has value that is beyond measure.

Because it can change everything.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Anybody want tickets to Fyre Festival?

Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

“If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”

Bill Bernbach

There is an old adage in advertising that says nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. Of course, that is assuming the product actually exists.

The recent documentary ‘Fyre’ on Netflix is about a music festival that became a slow motion car crash in the Caribbean. It was sold by influencers and models on Instagram as as a baby Coachella on Pablo Escobar’s Island. It turned into Lord of the Flies for rich kids with yoga pants. It is a cautionary tale about what happens when you can no longer tell the difference between the advertising and the product. In fact, in this case, for many, the advertising was the product. One of the telling comments in the documentary was that the real Fyre Festival was the photo shoot that happened before the festival itself.

While watching this, it was easy to laugh. And I did, while covering my eyes from the impending doom. All the ingredients were there. Magnificent stupidity. No appreciation of why you need professionals. People trying to pretend time doesn’t matter. Self-belief and ego on a gargantuan scale. People thinking that talking is the same as doing.

These ingredients are not new in our business. What has changed in the last couple of years is the clear delineation between communication and reality. Which comes first? The Fyre festival is a great example of this but social media is littered with many others. The subject is the object. The communication has become the product. It is what is being sold. It is what is being bought.

It got me thinking about the gap between what brands do and say and where those gaps will be in the future.

One of the strange things about our business is you will meet many people who think advertising is bullshit and is a waste of money. You will also meet people who think it can fix almost anything. And I do mean anything. The crazy part is they are often exactly the same people. It just depends on what they are dealing with when you meet them. How close is reality to biting? How authentic are they prepared to be? What are they prepared to say? Where this all gets interesting is when they have to back up what they say.

Over the last couple of years this question has become far more important. Building brands that have a purpose has become a big discussion in our industry. Take Nike, Pepsi and Gillette as examples of work that have had varying degrees of success using this idea. I am sure there is a wide range of opinions on the idea of brand purpose and the specific work I have mentioned. However, I just want to make two points about this direction with regards to authenticity and the range of emotions marketers will have to deal with going forward from the public.

Firstly, brands that actually live their purpose will have far more success. And purpose, is not something you can just manufacture. It is a behaviour. Done well it can make the brand distinctive and connect with the community it is in. Think about what Nike did with Colin Kaepernick. It was a risk that was mitigated by the brand itself. Very few brands could do this because they don’t have the track record. Are they really doing it and have they always done it, will always be the questions to answer.

It might seem obvious but there are still brands out there doing exactly what the Fyre Festival did. With social media, the danger in doing this is considerable. The world is watching. Communications about purpose without any authentic experience is not an option. For the brands doing this, welcome to the island, the people are pissed off and they are telling their friends.

The other point is that to do this successfully you have to be comfortable with a little hatred or perhaps quite a bit. This is going to get weird for a lot of brands and I think some won’t be prepared for what could happen. To have a purpose, you have to have a point of view. That point of view will not be universally liked. That is almost certainly guaranteed. Nike and Gillette experienced this in fairly extreme ways ranging from shoes being burnt to razor blades being flushed down the toilet. All online of course. How a brand can backup what it says will allow it to absorb this kind of pressure and hold the line. If you are not authentic, welcome to the island, have a Pepsi.

The world is changing but then again maybe not. It would seem in a fractured media landscape that has both social influencers and big brands trying to shape reality, albeit in very different ways, one thing will always holds true.

If you say it, you better bloody do it.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Anybody fancy building a dangerous cathedral?

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

Anais Nin

There is a story about three men who spent their lives quarrying rocks. When asked what they were doing, one replied, “Breaking rocks.” The second said, “Earning a living.” The third said, “Building a cathedral.”

Perception. In advertising, it is often aimed or focussed at the client or the project we are working on. We are always looking outward. It is very seldom that we have a clear point of view about ourselves. I remember once being told by a friend the main reason ad agencies make such bad ads about themselves is because an eye finds it very difficult to look at itself.

This lack of depth and understanding is never more obvious than at the beginning of the year when people in the industry are asked what is important for the year ahead.

The answers I read were in a trade mag and what struck me was how similar the answers were. Almost everybody answered that creativity was the way forward. Initially that made me happy but then I got this weird feeling of dread. Really? These people all passionately believe in creativity? Half these people wouldn’t know what creativity was if it kicked them in the nuts. It was like some publicist had told them that creativity was the right answer. It was like they were going through the motions in a glitterless pantomime. They had made creativity just a word. And what’s worse, they had made it sound boring and unimportant.

This year it felt like these people were treading water in a pool of corporate correctness. They were waiting for something. Doing only what was required. There was no danger or audaciousness. It felt like they had no confidence or point of view.

There have been many that have said advertising needs to get its confidence back. The question is always how?

Before I answer that, lets look at the industry landscape. In the last 6 months, some of the greatest advertising agencies that have ever been have disappeared. Poof. Gone forever. Insert Kodak story.

Now, did they disappear because of what we all say is the most important thing in advertising. Creativity? No. Perhaps the work got worse in the end but I can promise you it wasn’t because the creatives didn’t try. I know, I spoke to them.

These agencies disappeared because people cared about the wrong things. These agencies disappeared because they became boring. These agencies disappeared because they stopped having a point of view. And creativity, became just a word. It stopped meaning anything. When that happens, no process, delivery mechanism or structure can save you. The centre cannot hold because you have nothing of value anymore. There is nothing to sell.

To answer the original question, confidence in our industry has always come from doing, not talking. That will never change. Turning creativity into a verb. Making shit. Astounding the world. Doing what has never been done. Doing what others won’t or can’t. Being brave and trying very hard to create a little magic. Doing will give us our confidence and in turn begin to change the way we see ourselves.

2019 is not the year where we have the luxury of simply going through the motions. We cannot give the same boring answers. We need to remember what we are capable of. We need to fight. We have to believe in creativity again. It cannot just be a word. We have to make it mean something. There is no other way.

As an industry, we need to remember that our confidence has always come from building dangerous cathedrals.

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