Just because you are a great Blacksmith it doesn’t mean you should make cheese.

Many years ago, I was in Cannes and I was introduced to a very enthusiastic young man. He reminded me of somebody who had been sent to a shopping mall to sell books for a cult he had recently joined.

I asked him what he did and he said without a hint of irony that he had been recently promoted to junior creative director. I asked if that was different to being a group head. He said yes, it was completely different and then described exactly what a group head did. I said nothing because he just seemed so fucking happy.

The reason I mention the story is that our business in the last ten years has become full of labels signifying nothing. I believe we should be a lot prouder of the term Creative and Creative Director. They are difficult and distinctive jobs. Labels have overtaken talent and ability. We have started to believe the advert is the product. And sadly, because of this, the word creative has lost some of its power and honour.

It has happened for a number of reasons. The last couple of years has created so many terms and ways of working that this uncertainty has spawned a weird belief that everybody can be creative. In other words, everybody has it, so it isn’t a talent. I think that is bullshit. Especially, when you only have an hour to crack an idea. Being a creative is not about being creative. It’s about being creative under pressure.

If you are a creative you should be very proud. Here’s why.

Our business has grown dramatically in the last 20 years. Just think what an integrated campaign consisted of in 1995. Now, think what it consists of today. It is literally a different business, yet the label has not changed. Integrated campaign. Of course, the amount of time has also remained the same. This has meant a creative now has to do a lot more than was done before within the same time lines. So, what has happened is a creative has had to learn how to up-skill. We have had to learn how to do a lot of different things very quickly.

A creative has to also work with a lot more people who have fancy titles. Words like technologist, innovator and my favourite, future expert, which was on an actual business card. These titles and vague skills are thrown around like meaningless confetti in our business. The problem is some of these people are brilliant and some are not. Some are snake oil salesman selling fake cures to being dated or irrelevant. And you better not choose one of them because we present on Tuesday.

Add to this, input from research, perspectives from strategy, feedback from the client and a mushrooming Tsunami of media options that all may or may not connect to each other as well as the deep internal desire to be brilliant and you begin to experience the shifting tectonic plates creatives are all dancing on. Sounds easy right?

Now, let’s just say you master this dizzying landscape. You become a successful creative. And then you get promoted. You become a Creative Director. And that is a glorious and scary day. The reason it is scary is because you realise all the skills you have acquired are not enough. You have to learn a whole lot of new ones. Up until now you only had to come up with brilliant ideas.

Now, you have to learn how to manage and motivate creatives. You have to care about their ideas. You have to build them up over and over when their ideas die. You have to fight for great work and understand the commercial realities of the client and the agency. You have to be a great showman. You need to be a consummate politician and part time therapist. You must have impeccable judgement and take calculated risks about the future of many ideas that at this point do not exist. Sounds easy right?

The truth is being a great creative is no guarantee of being a good creative director. And may I say, strangely, being a great creative director is not a guarantee of being a great creative.

They are different jobs. Let me repeat this. They are different jobs.

I was very lucky. I became ECD at 32. I was too young for so much responsibility. But I had great teachers. I had support. I would imagine there are a lot of very stressed Creative Directors today who wish they had somebody to ask what to do.

In fact, I know this is true because many around the world have written to me from around the world and told me so.

Being a Creative Director is a strange job because you can never prepare for it. You spend your career trying to get to it and when you do many only have a vague idea of what the job consists of. We need to think about this. Who will teach the teachers?

The truth is not every creative should be a creative director. And we should be fine with that. More than fine. In fact, we should encourage it. We need to make sure labels do not become more important than talent and ability.

As an industry we conveniently forget this. We think if we give somebody a title it gives them the skills too. It doesn’t.


Muhammad Ali and the Talent Code.

“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”

Muhammad Ali

As a boy I was obsessed with Muhammad Ali’s fights. I watched just about every single one. Frazier, Norton and Foreman were his greatest fights. It is interesting to note that they all happened when his youthful talent had begun to wane.

In his youth, he could do things that no other boxer before or since could do. He had gifts. Pure talent. Timing, speed and power. And then he had something else. A strange kind of confidence and bravery. He would win most of his fights before he even stepped into the ring. A relentless charisma that seemed to hypnotise his opponents.Those old black and white films make him seem like he is glowing and floating. At a press conference in 1964 Ali said Sonny Liston was too ugly to be the champ. He was young and he believed in his gifts. And then, he couldn’t fight for 5 long years for refusing to go to and fight in Vietnam. His prime was taken away from him. When he returned he was a little slower and he lost to Joe Frazier. So some might say he lost his talent. I disagree. I would say he had begun to lose one and gain another.

1974 Kinshasa. The Rumble in the Jungle. George Foreman. He had something called an all over punch. Basically the concept was it didn’t matter where it hit you, you would go down. Undefeated. 120 kgs and 6 feet 4 inches.Terrifying. He had destroyed Frazier in two rounds. Nobody on the planet thought Ali could beat him.

In eight rounds Ali didn’t just knock Foreman out. He showed that one man can have more than one talent. His physical skills were diminished but he found a way to win. He beat Foreman with his mind. And that is probably the worst beating a man can take. Foreman retired from boxing soon afterwards.

Ali showed me there were two types of talent. There is the innate talent you have. Ali was born to be a boxer. He had all the skills. And on that day in 1974 he showed a much rarer type of talent.This is a talent you have to go and find. It is in you somewhere. It is made up of life’s experiences and the decision not to yield to your fears. It is not the carefree talent you have when you are young but comes from the bottom of an ocean somewhere. It is immensely powerful. It is dark and brooding. It is the talent you use when everything is on the line. It will conquer those voices in your head. It will make you walk forward. It will show you how to do things that have never been done before.

I think talent is a very convenient word. It describes ability, creativity, bravery and honesty. These qualities are all very different. The truth is that there are many, many different types of talent. Sometimes, for a just brief moment, you will glimpse it all in one man like Muhammad Ali. For the rest of us mere mortals, we only have parts of it. It is like a gigantic and endless code that is in us but is impossible to see in its entirety. Yet sometimes when you are with the right people you can see it for a couple of seconds.

This is why it will be hard for machines to replace human beings when it comes to the strange business of having ideas.When the talent of one person meets another the Universe really does become infinite.

The idea code is not just big it is truly endless. Let me explain. Having ideas depends on who is in the room, or what day it is, and what particular talents are combined. This and about a million other factors that range from what your girlfriend said this morning to the music playing in the background will dictate the ideas that are created. It is remarkable what can be created when there is more than one talent in the room bouncing off each others ideas. And the next day will be different. And the one after that. It is like a Rubik’s cube on crack. It is forever evolving without any need to be solved.

Picasso said the problem with computers are they only give you answers. He was right. Ideas come from life and machines don’t have one. Ideas are not about answers but about possibility. And possibility will always come from impossibility. It will come from going to places nobody has ever been or could imagine. It comes from what does not exist. It goes against the odds and conventional wisdom. It comes from what most believe cannot be done.

A man called Muhammad Ali proved that in 1974.IMG_0044-1.JPG

The romance and unhappiness of advertising.

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
J.M Barrie, Peter Pan

If you are not fond of romance and unsubstantiated belief you should probably stop reading now.

This week I have started to notice a wave of articles on how people in advertising are unhappy. I have also recently read an article where Sir John Hegarty said that we as an industry have lost our courage.

Now, every article I read attributes this to less time and how busy we are. They also mention costs being slashed, integrated campaigns and the sheer complexity of advertising today. And I am sure it is all true. And if we go back ten years I bet we would find articles just like it.

However, while I was reading these articles I began to think it might be happening because of something else.

Hegarty spoke about losing courage. Courage doesn’t just appear or disappear. It comes from belief. A belief that perhaps you can surpass yourself. That you can do it. This belief is invisible. It is not on a balance sheet. It is a strange kind of inspiration that comes from within. It allows you to do more than you think you are capable of. An agency only reaches beyond itself when this spark is inside its people. It is also the secret fuel that keeps agencies alive.

Courage and bravery only exist though, if there is a quest or cause you believe in.

So, as much as I agree advertising has become more complex, what strikes me when I talk to creatives around the world is this weariness they have. It’s like a soldier at the front who isn’t sure who or what they are fighting for anymore.

The strange thing about this is that ideas have never been more important. Everybody wants them and needs them. Yet, the people that have them right around the globe are writing blogs about feeling defeated and unhappy. A bit odd don’t you think?

So what is going on? My view is that many creatives don’t know why they are doing what they are doing every day.

Now the bean counters may say the answers a pay cheque. Of course.

However, the reality is that if you want somebody to surpass themselves, work weekends and into the night, to push and to care, do the impossible or create something that nobody has ever thought of, they have to have belief. And courage, will only occur if that person believes in themselves, or at the very least, the flag above their heads.

Look at any great agency. Speak to anybody that worked there. They will tell you they believed in something bigger than themselves. They can’t always explain it or articulate what it was but this belief drove them on. For me, it has always been the agency had a truth at its core. I realise you may be laughing at this. I mean truth in advertising. That’s crazy shit. However, if you are a creative you will know what I mean.

The first place I ever truly experienced this belief was an advertising agency called TBWA Hunt Lascaris in South Africa. It is hard to explain because I worked there at the worst of times and the best of times. Yet, while I was there I always believed I could surpass what I had done anywhere else. For almost 30 years it has produced creatives who have gone around the world and done great things. And I would venture way beyond anything they thought they could do.

It was like our DNA was injected with courage and belief while we were there. My only explanation is there was this deep commitment to the work. And I don’t mean in a poster on a wall kind of way. The whole place had your back. You felt like you could go to the edge. Once this code is in your DNA it allows you to feel if an agency has a creative truth you can believe in the moment you walk through the door.

This creative centre or truth is the strange ingredient I think many agencies are losing. It has no inherent value apart from being priceless. Not understanding its worth has created many agencies that are now just factories or depots.

A creative director phoned me the other day from overseas to talk because he was fed up.This is the line he said that stuck in my mind. My agency wants me to believe, even when it doesn’t.

This is what is happening. It would seem creatives are losing their belief. And when that happens, why would they have any courage.

Many might read this and think it is rubbish or won’t make a difference. I think you are wrong. Advertising is obsessed with all the threats outside of itself. Yet, the biggest threat it is ignoring, is that it may have simply stopped believing in itself.

We have to change this. Being resigned to an imagined future with a large dollop of word weary cynicism will not fix this. We need to believe again. We need to believe in our stories, our strange quests and most importantly ourselves. We need to love ideas and put on our armour and fight for them. We need to be brave again. We need to believe we can fly again.

You never come all the way back.


“For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

When I was young I detested travel. This was probably because I moved around so much. I went to sixteen schools because my father was a hotel manager. Ok, I may have been expelled once or twice as well. It felt like every term I was the new boy. Growing up and living in hotels also probably didn’t help this feeling of transience. However, on the upside room service is a wonderful thing and I can recite certain spaghetti westerns word for word.

Growing up this way made me associate travel with discomfort and uncertainty. I hadn’t really considered the fact that it had also made me who I am. It might seem obvious but you always think your childhoods normal don’t you.

Recently though, I have started thinking about what travelling has done for me in the last couple of years. I am not sure why. Maybe, it’s the fact that New Zealand is a bloody long way from anywhere or that this is the third country I have worked in as a creative in the last 10 years. I have learned a few lessons.I have seen what travel can teach creatives. Or perhaps, more accurately,what travel has taught me.

Firstly, it made me take a good hard look at myself and this strange thing called ego. Nothing grows an ego faster than being comfortable. No matter who you are, you start to believe all sorts of things about yourself and your ability when things are easy. A little bit of hype, success or maybe just laziness will do it.

This all goes out the window when you travel. There is no safety net. When you are the new boy on that first day your reputation means nothing. You have to prove yourself again. It is about actions and what you do.The blank page is put in front of you and it has to be filled.This is the scariest thing about travel but for me the biggest learning. The lesson for me is simple.When you travel, your ego diminishes. And that, is a very good thing because if there is one thing that gets between you and an idea, it is your ego.

Travel also gives you the gift of stupid questions. No matter what country you are in there are ways things are done. They are not questioned or challenged because over time you are conditioned to accept stuff. In Johannesburg, South Africa, the locals don’t notice the electric fences around homes. If you were a tourist, you would notice them straight away. Seeing the mundane in new ways is probably the greatest gift a creative can receive. When you are new, you don’t know the rules.You can ask stupid questions and make so-called mistakes.It is often these glitches that let the new light in. You might fall on your face or discover something that had been staring everybody else in theirs. The learning for me is the one thing you always take with you is your perspective.When this meets new things and places a strange kind of alchemy happens.

Travelling has also taught me the power of uncertainty. When you are comfortable, a large part of that is based on the illusion of certainty. Of being right and thinking you know how it all works.However, when you travel you are seldom right about anything. So, life doesn’t become about being right, it becomes about finding interesting.

I guess for me that is the largest lesson of all. Growing up I thought travelling took certainty away from me. Now, I understand it was also giving me the gift of interesting. These last couple of years have let me understand the power of movement and momentum. I was once in Brazil and somebody told me that is how Brazilians solve problems whether it was for football or life. Through movement. If you are at a restaurant in Rio and there are no tables they bring you a beer on the steps. And here’s the thing, you still have a great time.

There is no perfect. Only interesting. And when you know this you can never go back.

“You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.”

Paul Theroux

Remembering the gift not the wrapping paper.

Cannes is a magnificent car crash of creativity. This is my tenth visit and every time that car crash gets a little bigger and a little more spectacular.

I was lucky enough to be invited to judge this year. So, for the first few days I got to look at 5500 entries. That’s over 2500 ads a day. You are separated from the crowds and live in neon rooms with tiny biscuits for a while. So it is a bit of the shock to the senses to walk outside and see Kanye West, Jared Leto and the occasional Delorean. You are also confronted by about a million ridiculously stylish people in mirrored Ray-bans. They do this so they can look over your shoulder while they talk to you to see if there is anybody else more worthy of their attention. Add to this, enough finger food and Rose to feed every Kardashian for the rest of their lives and you get the reality show that is Cannes.

As shocking though as this all is, it is a sideshow compared to what is truly shocking for somebody who has been visiting for a decade. For me what is shocking is the fact that Cannes seems to be wrestling with itself trying to figure out what it is. And this is simply because of the sheer volume of disciplines and avenues that collide in the South of France.

Let me explain. While I am judging thousands of texting and driving press ads (it has to be the biggest problem facing humanity if you look at the amount of entries) outside you have celebs like Kanye West talking about content, talks from a man called Chris Dancy who is apparently the most digitally connected man on Earth, HBO giving clues to storytelling and a host of tech start ups peddling their wares. Facebook, Google, product design and mobile apps that link to drones that bring you a pizza and turn into an Oculus Rift so you can game while you check God knows what on the microchip that has been implanted in your brain (I am kidding, sort of). And everybody continuously drinks espressos and talks about how they are going to re-invent themselves by being braver than they were in the last 12 months. And that is before lunch.

So, it all might sound bewildering. And it is. Until you see the work. And then it all makes sense. Look at the Volvo trucks stuff. It is a simple idea. Harvey Nichols. An idea. And it isn’t hidden by anything. It is simple and staring you in the face. That is why it wins. In a sea of jargon, connectedness and puffery a great idea floats above it all. The truth is whether you are looking at an elegant press ad or a mobile technology that makes children in Cancer wards in South America feel less lonely they are just beautiful ideas. A lot of the noise and shiny things you see at Cannes happen after the idea. But in the beginning there is the idea. That hasn’t changed. And it never will.

When you remember this, things become simple. You stop being distracted by all the pretty wrapping paper and remember the gift. The reality is no matter how elaborate, big or clever the wrapping paper gets somebody has to have an idea. I think many people are forgetting this.

The difference today is once you have the idea it can travel in a million different directions. It can build, divide and live forever. The fact that an idea can do all this is exciting, powerful and valid. But, and this is a big fucking but, you have to have one in the first place. Bill Bernbach said 50 years ago if you can’t write your idea on the back of a business card it probably isn’t an idea. When you remember this, things are not so confusing, scary or overwhelming. They become very simple.


David Abbott versus Goliath


Illustration courtesy Minky Stapleton

With the passing of David Abbott, arguably the greatest copywriter ever, there have been many fitting and glowing tributes. While I was reading them I kept asking myself the same question. If we, as an industry, revere what David Abbott believed in, why do we keep promoting and creating processes that do the exact opposite of those beliefs.

Let me explain. Here was somebody who proved the idea of talent is not some ridiculous myth. Read his Father’s Day Chivas Regal ad. It’s pretty much as good as it gets. Have a look at what he did for The Economist. An entire personality was created with those perfect headlines. When you read his work it may have conveyed sadness or humour but more importantly there was always an underlying feeling of humanity. It wasn’t written by a copywriter, committee, crowd or process. It was written by a human being. You could feel that. His words made you feel something. That is why his work is timeless.

A single talented human being who believed in what he was doing and cared deeply about his craft.

Bill Bernbach said an idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it. An idea needs talent to survive,

There is that word again. Talent. You don’t hear it as much as you used to. In a world where we have become obsessed with how ideas connect, perhaps it’s time we started looking at ideas rather than the connections again. And while we’re at it, encourage the individual talent that is needed to make sure those ideas survive. Ayn Rand said collective thinking is a compromise. We might find connected wisdom is not that far behind. We seemed to have replaced quality with quantity. We think, if we have a lot of ideas one of them has to be good. Or, if we just stick them all together we will have a masterpiece.

Added to this, there seems to be this relentless drive to commoditise creativity. To try and turn ideas into loaves of bread at the lowest price. All this does is keep people in our business who should no longer be there. We are being rewarded for the wrong things. This will not end well. We might create many loaves of bread but not everybody is going to eat.

I saw a commercial the other day for a multi-national company that was made out of consumers vine videos. It was being hyped as the way forward because it is so interactive and cost effective. The truth is, it was shit. There was no idea. It was just a hype tape with a cool soundtrack. I think we are about to see a lot of them. And in time, we will realise the Emperor was wearing no clothes.

Look at the Volvo spot with Jean-Claude van Damme. It is a great piece because it is a beautifully made demonstration ad that happens to be online. It is a strong, simple idea well executed. Something’s never change.

The mistake that is being made is that even if you have thousands of ideas they only work if somebody cares about them. Talent, is not just having the idea. It is caring about the idea. Talent, is not just about putting words on a page. It is about putting yourself on that page too. Talent, is understanding that an idea doesn’t stop. It grows, it changes and it lives. It will get better and it could get worse. And the whole time, you have to stay with it.

Steve Jobs said you can teach people anything except to care. I often think that is what talent is. You care more than anybody else.

David Abbott cared about what he did. He understood his ideas could become dust or magic unless he cared about them. You cannot care about a hundred ideas. More importantly, you cannot believe in a hundred ideas. So, in the end you just have a whole lot of bits and pieces you have to connect. That is not an idea, it is an unrewarding task.

It is feeding the machine using the wrong food.

David Abbott understood caring and believing in one idea was more powerful than having a hundred unloved ones.

If we can learn anything from the great man it is that humanity, judgement, caring and craft cannot be sacrificed on the altar of quantity. Having a lot often can mean having nothing.

If David Abbott taught us anything, it is that a talented individual with a strong belief in a single idea can be far more powerful than any Goliath.

For an industry that always looks to the future, it might be a good idea to learn from those that have created its history.

The Kinks. Rockey Street. And the green light at the end of the dock.


Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Ray Davies, the weathered, lead singer of the seminal 60’s band The Kinks is on television. He is playing his music and telling stories the way he has done a thousand times. And then he takes questions from the audience. A twenty something girl asks him which band during the 60’s was his greatest competition.

I watched his face. He was genuinely puzzled. You could see he had never thought of that time like that. He was silent for a while. Eventually, he said it wasn’t like that. All the bands supported each other. It was more co-operation than competition. He kept saying this phrase, we were all in it together. You could just see it was this perfect time for him. It was a weird kind of effortlessness. They were all at the right place at the right time doing the right things.

You could see the power of those few special years had fuelled his life.

As he said it, I had this strong flashback without the aid of any acid. Rockey Street.

Rockey Street, was a street in Johannesburg lined with clubs that always smelt of last nights beer. It was as if all the weirdo’s, junkies and people that only came out at night had been captured and parachuted into a single street. It was in the middle of a tumbling suburb called Yeoville. It was the centre for every ageing misfit driving their girlfriends car without a license. You would find wannabe garage bands with a single groupie. And many con men who practiced their stories every night.

We were all hustling each other but in a strange way we were all helping each other. It was a street you could feel more than see. It was a place where you belonged, whoever you were. No matter how strange your dreams were, you belonged.

For me, the best creative departments I have worked in are a lot like Rockey Street. They are like streets full of dirty potential. They are full of misfits hustling and helping each other. They are glorious places and times we are always trying to get back to.

It reminds me of the The Great Gatsby. That green light at the end of the dock that Jay Gatsby can never quite reach.

Every creative, has those memories of perfection. These moments where you feel you are working on great stuff, in a great place, with great people. It is easy and exhilarating. Ideas just seem to happen. This is when an agency moves to another level.Those moments sustain creatives for years. If you don’t believe me, talk to any creative. When they tell you about their career they will start telling you stories. And those stories will always be about that one special agency that was like their home. And when you listen, you can feel how much they miss it.

There is only one problem with all this though. You only realise they were perfect moments when they are over. Kierkegaard said life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. In essence, creatives are always trying to get back home.

The truth is creatives are always searching for those moments. It is a rhythm that you try to feel. When you feel it, you don’t care how old your mac is, or if your office has a door. The creative department suddenly turns into a time and place. It is something that the bean counters think is not important. If they understood this, really understood this, they would look at creative departments very differently. But they don’t and this is why so many agencies are average.

If they did, they would try and keep creatives together far more. And the strange thing is the most successful creative departments are built like this and nobody notices. Great creative departments are built over time by those that understand that rhythm and searching. They do not see creatives as little interchangeable, disposable building blocks. They see them as a wave that builds over time.

A wave that can take them all the way across the bay to that green light at the end of the dock.