“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth.”
There is probably a weird German word for it. A word for that strange feeling you get when you see an idea and it makes you happy and jealous at the same time. I looked at my phone screen and saw this picture. It is a picture of a see-saw that goes between the Mexican and American Border. This simple idea lets children play with each other even though they are separated by an impenetrable steel barrier. Think of the anger. Think of the pain that exists on either side of that steel line in the sand. Think about the intelligence and heart that creates an idea that lets people have fun in that barren and unforgiving environment. An idea, that does not break the law, but simply overcomes the law. An idea, that proves just how limited rules can be.
It was created by two architects, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello. Their beautiful intention was to bring people together through design. As you may have guessed, I really like this idea. It has power, playfulness, humanity, humour and simplicity in equal measure. But most importantly, it has a gentle anarchy at its core. Great ideas like these have this essential creative point of view. There are no rules. Reject the world as it is or how others tell you to see it. Realise you have the ability to make the world the way you want it to be. And, it will be fun or at the very least, unboring. Gentle anarchy. This point of view can be scary for many. But without it, almost nothing will change or move forward.
Think of that famous 60’s photograph of the the anti-Vietnam war protester putting a carnation into the barrel of a military policeman’s gun. Gentle anarchy. It’s a gun. No it’s a vase. The power you thought you had is gone. It’s a wall. Nope, it’s a children’s playground. The power you thought you had is gone.
Transformation. Fundamentally, this is the super power creativity has. This was how the world was and, hey presto, now, this is how the world will be. It breaks patterns. It changes boundaries. It gives us new pictures. Instantly.
Nothing else does this. This is why creativity is so important. Many strong and brutal things can change the world but invariably there are casualties. Creativity takes the fear out of change. It can shift power effortlessly and elegantly. It can also make you smile in the middle of all the madness.
Creativity can change the world and nobody has to get hurt.
“Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.”
After Cannes, I found it difficult to write anything. It felt like everything had been said. It had been dissected in a million different ways. There is a frenzy after Cannes to explain what it all means. And normally, I would be right there. This year, I needed a moment. I tried to move on and ignore it all but something kept gnawing away at me. I felt I needed a rant but I didn’t know what I wanted to rant about.
While this itchy-scratchy feeling was happening I walked into an old camera shop my son Jake had found. He had bought an old 70’s 8mm film camera for 35 dollars. As a smug former photographer, I told him he would never find film or batteries for a camera that old. He proved me wrong – in a single morning. Walking into the store was like walking into my past. Kodak, Ilford, Nikon F3’s on the wall. I don’t know why it amazed me but it did. It was like finding a beautiful old Ford Mustang in amongst a whole lot of bland Ford Mondeo’s.
I asked Barry the owner if he ever sold anything. He said he was selling two film cameras a day and processing about 20 rolls a day. And, he said with a smile, all to young people. I asked him why he thought that was. He eloquently said you can shoot 300 photos with a smart phone, but it’s too easy. It all looks the same. He laughed and said it becomes meaningless. You don’t think. So you don’t care about what you have done. People want it to mean something. They want it to be a bit hard. And, most of all, they don’t want to be like everybody else.
Maybe it’s because I was in this strange back to the future store but his words stuck in my head.
So here goes. Here is my rant.
Firstly, there was a lot of great work at Cannes, as there always is. And having a purpose as a brand can be a powerful force when done authentically.
But there was a term I heard recently: Woke washing. Another was Sadvertising. You will see a huge amount of this work is winning these days. But that wasn’t the itch for me. The itch that needed to be scratched was the attempt to use purpose (often tenuously with very little connection to the product) to evoke the same sad emotions over and over again. And yes, I understand the world is not a happy place right now and that brands can play a massive role in changing it for the better. If they are being authentic. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if Volvo’s Epic Split would still win a Grand Prix these days. You know, just something funny, clever and well made. Something that is designed to sell stuff. I mean that is the business we are in, right? Selling. I wondered if we as an industry are painting ourselves into a very narrow corner where having a purpose is rewarded far more than building a brand. (I know some will say that can be the same thing but I think that it is only true for certain companies). I wondered if the advertising of a company whose only purpose is to make great cheese could win anything of consequence. I wondered if we now have a very set pattern of success? A pattern that will be broken. Because, mark my words, that is what creatives do.
Or, in the words of Barry. “It all looks the same and feels the same. He laughed and said, it becomes meaningless. People want it to mean something. They want it to be a bit hard. And, most of all, they don’t want to be like everybody else.
I think I am going back to the store to buy some film.
“Creativity doesn’t wait for that perfect moment. It fashions its own perfect moments out of ordinary ones.”
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.
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.
“Everybody has talent, it’s just a matter of moving around until you have discovered what it is.”
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.
“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.