Judging the ADC. Before jargon there was craft.

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After 30 hours of flying nothing wakes you up like your imminent death.

Costa Rica has night colours you feel you have never seen before. And the intoxicating smell of burnt sugar cane turn evenings into a cloak of potential. I was taking this all in as our driver (that’s him in the picture) was going through the Costa Rican jungle in our taxi panel van at speeds that would have given him poll at Monza. It was at this point he decided to fall asleep. As we veered off the road towards oblivion, 5 international creative directors discarded their world weary coolness for shear terror. One of them grabbed the wheel and we lived. I felt incredibly lucky to be judging the ADC the following day.

The ADC is the oldest ad show in the world. It was formed to show commercial art could be beautiful too. At its heart, the show has always been about craft. It has always been about ideas and things being well made. This core philosophy is even more relevant today than it was when the ADC started in 1920. And, I can’t stress this enough, will be critical to our industries survival in the future.

So, what is getting in the way? I think we are choking on our own jargon, packaging, explanation and case studies. We are lost in the description of things. We are constantly giving context and explaining the background. We use a lot of words like innovation, interactive, digital etc. We need to experience things directly. Not the word but the object or idea. Labels are not things.

The truth is simple.

Our future is not just about packaging things or thinking things. It is about making things.

The problem is every person on the planet now has the power to make things and broadcast them. So, there is only one thing that separates a creative from the other 6 billion people on the planet. Craft.

We have to use our craft to be better than anybody else on the planet to remain relevant. We have to care more.

To make an idea beautifully is one of the most satisfying parts of our business. It is through this lens we looked at the work at the ADC. And when we did, we noticed a few things.

Firstly, it is staggering what some agencies enter into ad shows. Absolute shit. What that tells me is some agencies no longer know what great is. There is not just a gap between average agencies and great ones, there is a chasm. When you look at the current advertising landscape this has serious implications to a lot of agencies surviving.

Secondly, I think case studies are the botox of advertising. There are certain entries that have more craft in the case study than the idea or execution. They make rubbish look better. This is going to become a big problem going forward.

Lastly, when you judge you look at a lot of work pretty quickly. You look at work like a consumer. And when you do, great work stands out. The work that’s going to win is pretty obvious. The formula hasn’t changed and never will. Clarity. Surprise. Craft.

In the end, whether you call it television, content, non broadcast, viral film or anything else is irrelevant. What is relevant is that you feel something when you see something memorable.

What has been interesting is looking at how craft is changing. It is reinventing itself. There are whole new sections of craft that didn’t exist 5 years ago which make judging challenging but the future exciting.

Seeing the work and the effort that has been put into it showed me a simple way this business can get it’s self-respect back. Be better than anybody else.

Judging the ADC reminds me of why I got into the business. It rewards people that have tried harder or pushed further. It rewards people that haven’t done things in the fastest way or the most efficient way. They have rewarded people that have done things the right way.

Craft. A simple word that reminds you that creativity is not a thing but a way.

Thanks for showing me that once again ADC.

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Critics don’t make mistakes because they don’t make anything.

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.
Brendan Behan

Mistakes. Lately, many people are asking about mistakes.

It’s funny how this happens. As the world becomes obsessed with data and certainty we all start to crave madness and surprises. Contradiction makes the world go round. The only thing we love more than patterns is breaking them. Critics understand patterns. Creatives understand how to break them. With apologies to Kierkegaard, critics see life backwards, creatives have to live life forwards.

Watch any endeavour and you will see this. Let’s take sport.Take Rugby. The ball goes down the back line. A bad pass happens. The ball misses the player hits the ground and goes to the next player. This mistake freezes the defence and disrupts their pattern. The player goes through to score. A critic will say it was a bad pass. A player will say it was an opportunity. The critic works with the pattern. A great player works with the new. He works with what is. The great ones understand that nothing makes you focus on the present like a mistake.

You will see this over and over in art, science, music, in fact, anywhere you have to get your hands dirty and take a risk. This is where you find the space for random events and combinations to create something new. From the many attempts to create a light bulb, Fijians playing rugby,Bobby Fischer playing chess or the work of Marcel Duchamp or Basquiat you see the flow of working with what is there. Not what should be there but what is right in front of you.

The problem is that it is a messy business and sometimes it doesn’t work. As I said in a previous blog, most people don’t want creativity they want the result of creativity.

This is why a critic is so dangerous. He works with what he thinks should be there. He cuts off the oxygen and kills potential. So, what you get is an acceptable answer but not a new one.

Inside an agency this is very dangerous. I have seen people have entire careers built on being averagely right rather than imaginatively interesting. It is a strong defendable position that can kill the creative space because it creates fear. And fear and true creativity don’t mix.

To use the rugby analogy again, if you are terrified of what the other players will say or what the coach says if you make a mistake, you won’t throw that pass.

You will not do what is inside you. You will do what is outside of you. This is the end.

Right now, many believe the answers are out there, somewhere.They are not. The great answers are still inside us.

And they often begin with great mistakes. Go make one.

10 000 bicycles. Why creatives need cults.

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“You can look at anything as a cult. Churches are cults in their own way.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman

Whenever I go to America I always feel like I am in a giant sitcom or film. Everything is familiar. A type of television déjà vu.

San Francisco was no different with our Russian taxi driver wanting to show us where the title sequence of Full House was shot. And neither was the Mountain view Google Campus. They shot The Internship there. A weird feeling of understanding and belonging to a place you have never actually physically seen.

To say the campus is impressive would be a large understatement. It has a cafeteria with unbelievable food. Employee’s have access to dry-cleaning, a world class gym, incredible daycare, a hair salon and over 10 000 multi-coloured Google bicycles to ride from one part of the campus to the other. And I am probably naming only half the amenities. The upside is Google takes care of everything. The downside I guess is that there is not really a reason not to be at work. I guess one man’s safe space is another man’s cult.

So, that is what you can see at Google. But it also has something a little more subtle that you can’t see but definitely feel.

When I walked onto the Google campus it gave me the feeling I used to get at a place I had worked at before. A great agency. What both have in common was this feeling of walking into a different reality. The feeling that this is where somebody is going to change the world. Both have their own language, prophets, rituals and symbols. And everybody has drunk the cool-aid. You could feel a central belief permeating through the people. People, that were misfits, individuals who were searching the world for a home. You could never see any rules but if you worked there you knew what they were. And more importantly, they all believed.

There are many ad agencies that are nothing more than depots. Depots that ask creatives every day to push beyond the known boundaries of what has been done without a net. And many are expected to do this to create profit for companies that no longer remember why they exist.

The company has stopped believing but they want their employees to keep doing so.

With creatives it’s not about working hard. We all do that. It’s about why we are doing it. If your agency doesn’t get that you need to leave.

If creatives don’t believe in a mission, it will fail. Or at best be average. It doesn’t matter what you do, this will be the result. This is why the great agencies have an almost religious or cult like feel to them. It makes creatives feel like they are in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. Something, they have craved their entire lives. This certainty makes creatives feel like they can change the world. And changing the world always begins with being in a place where you feel like you can.

Being a creative is a strange business. Most of us are told from an early age that we are weird or different. Many of us don’t really fit in. And, as you can imagine that can lead to a fair degree of uncertainty. Creativity is about being in the flow of uncertainty and making something to prove what you think doesn’t only have to exist in your imagination. It is a leap of faith every time.

This is why creatives want to work in a place that has certainty. Not routine. Not boring. Certainty. Certainty of purpose. Certainty of belief. When you get this right there is a collective energy. This can take you way beyond anything you can imagine.

So, to the agencies/depots that treat creatives like an endless commodity you are missing a very big trick. You may become successful agencies but you will never be great ones. And considering what could happen in the next couple of years I strongly suggest you try and be great.

I have had the same conversation with creatives for twenty years. They always say the times they did their best work was when they were at an agency that was just different or had something special. And when you say how, the response is always the same. They say it was like it was their home and the people were like family.

For a brief moment, life makes sense, they feel like they belong to something bigger than their uncertainty.

When that happens anything is possible. And nothing is impossible. If you don’t believe me just Google it.

Critics don’t make mistakes because they don’t make anything.

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.
Brendan Behan

Mistakes. Lately, many people are asking about mistakes.

It’s funny how this happens. As the world becomes obsessed with data and certainty we all start to crave madness and surprises. Contradiction makes the world go round. The only thing we love more than patterns is breaking them. Critics understand patterns. Creatives understand how to break them. With apologies to Kierkegaard, critics see life backwards, creatives have to live life forwards.

Watch any endeavour and you will see this. Let’s take sport.Take Rugby. The ball goes down the back line. A bad pass happens. The ball misses the player hits the ground and goes to the next player. This mistake freezes the defence and disrupts their pattern. The player goes through to score. A critic will say it was a bad pass. A player will say it was an opportunity. The critic works with the pattern. A great player works with the new. He works with what is. The great ones understand that nothing makes you focus on the present like a mistake.

You will see this over and over in art, science, music, in fact, anywhere you have to get your hands dirty and take a risk. This is where you find the space for random events and combinations to create something new. From the many attempts to create a light bulb, Fijians playing rugby,Bobby Fischer playing chess or the work of Marcel Duchamp or Basquiat you see the flow of working with what is there. Not what should be there but what is right in front of you.

The problem is that it is a messy business and sometimes it doesn’t work. As I said in a previous blog, most people don’t want creativity they want the result of creativity.

This is why a critic is so dangerous. He works with what he thinks should be there. He cuts off the oxygen and kills potential. So, what you get is an acceptable answer but not a new one.

Inside an agency this is very dangerous. I have seen people have entire careers built on being averagely right rather than imaginatively interesting. It is a strong defendable position that can kill the creative space because it creates fear. And fear and true creativity don’t mix.

If we look at the rugby analogy again. If you are terrified of what the other players will say or what the coach says if you make a mistake, you won’t throw that pass.

You will not do what is inside you. You will do what is outside of you. This is the end.

Right now, many believe the answers are out there, somewhere.They are not. The great answers are still inside us.

And they often begin with great mistakes. Go make one.

I am going to tell you how to make a lot of money.

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Right now we are an industry that is in flux. There are many people who are trying to figure out where things are going. What to do next. We constantly read articles about what advertising will look like in the next 5 years.

There are many who claim they know.

Well, to quote Dan Weiden, nobody knows what’s going to happen next.

And I am with Dan on that one.

The problem with that is it creates a vacuum of uncertainty. And when you get uncertainty you get snake oil salesman.

And what are they selling? The future. Selling the future is the best business to be in because you are never wrong.

Workshops, masterclasses, weekends, ideation, brainstorms and talks. There are loads of them every day. All about the future of advertising. And in the next five years it’s only going to get worse. If you want to make millions this is the business to be in.

To start off, use words like storytelling and content. After that, add meaningless words like digital and future to make it sound important. The digital future of storytelling.

Shit, just writing it down I feel like I should go on that course.

I have been on a few of these courses. Some of them have been very good. Some have been terrible.

They are terrible because they are vague. A couple of post-its on the wall and some buzz words. Maybe an interesting speaker. Some good food, entertainment and a high dosage of motivation. The problem is they don’t show you how to make anything. That’s because many that speak have never had to make anything. They have the luxury of never having to apply their theories. The future for creatives is going to be about learning how to make stuff. This is what we need to learn.

Strangely, most courses don’t focus on making stuff. They focus on thinking conceptually.

The thing creatives do every day.

The thing that still has to be done no matter what crowd sourced think tank jargon you wrap around it. All these new words and labels that are about old things. A couple of people in a room saying what if. In the end, you need what happens when you get those brains that have the rhythm to get you to the algorithm.You still need to begin with an idea.

So, here is what I find odd.

While a fearful industry overdoses on workshops. While many creatives try and figure a way forward by learning everything they can. A strange thing is happening.

Creatives are getting hired by all sorts of future facing companies. And companies that have never hired creatives before.

Media companies. Google. Apple. Facebook. Tech companies. PR and experiential companies and all sorts of new hybrid models.

Why would that be?

Perhaps, we should replace the word uncertain with the word exciting. It would seem the one thing everybody still needs is creativity and ideas. These days a lot of people have the ending but not many have the beginning. This is what we can do. And, if you add making and distribution to that you have something very strong. Something very valuable.

Being a creative in the future could be something beyond our collective imaginations. The broadest canvas. No line on the horizon. Unlimited.

And if I am completely wrong?

Well, I am sure we could run a few workshops on how to think creatively.

Bounce. What does a score mean if there is no game?

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I was watching Tina Fey the other night and she was talking about the two main rules of improvisation on stage.

The first is that if there are two of you on stage, you have to agree. In other words, if I say I am holding an imaginary apple, you don’t say no you’re not. You have to agree.

The second rule is yes and. This means that you build on what has been said or created to move the scene forward. For example, I say I am holding an apple. And you say yes and I will inject it with poison to kill the king. Yes and.

Two simple rules to create something out of nothing. This is how great comics create.

Strangely, it is also how children create. I have been watching mine over the holidays. One of them will say, hey we are Batman and Robin. The other kid says yes and I have an invisible suit with special powers.

With both of these examples there is flow. There is support. And there is no concept of right and wrong. There is no mistake. As Tina Fey said in the interview, you can’t really have mistakes in improv.

It would seem creativity whether you are a child or a genius comic is about flow. It is about outrageous possibilities and unlimited potential.

Now, compare that with the process of many creative teams and ad agencies in general.

I have watched many creative teams in my career. The great ones have two qualities. One is an almost telepathic ability to finish each other’s sentences. It’s what I call bounce. It is a combination of both rules of improv. You support the other guy by going with his idea and then you build on it. The second quality is a massive amount of curiosity mixed with fearlesness. What you get is the perfect blend of comedic timing and childlike wonder. Cynicism and naiviety perfectly balanced.

The bad teams are the exact opposite. Ego. My ideas are always the best. Fear. They cannot open up to the flow of collaboration. Endless hours debating how the process of having ideas should work rather than just having them. And always this obsession of right and wrong becomes very important. These are all toxic layers that will kill an idea long before it is born.

However, it is not just teams that are guilty of not allowing this process to unfold.

Agencies and clients often do not understand the value of bounce. In essence, if creativity was a tennis match, there are many in our business who don’t want the game, they just want the result. And here lies the problem.

When people say they want out of the box thinking or innovation this is not actually what they want. What they want is the result of creativity without the hassle of creativity itself.

We are in a world that is obsessed with the result. The world now values answers far more than how you get to them.

This is important because when you stop caring about the process you normally get to answers you have seen before. You begin to watch the same Wimbledon final every year but pretend it’s a different game.

For creatives to reach and create the result we cannot care about the result as much as we care about the game. This is one of the great misunderstandings about how creatives work.

A punchline is nothing without a joke. The score means very little without the game before it. And a dance is not an answer but it can get your feet to go somewhere new.

You can play the same game over and over. But don’t expect the same results.

Slowly, they will get worse.

So, be brave my friends. Always bounce.

11 seconds with Madiba

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I met Nelson Mandela twice. Each time it was fleeting but those 11 seconds have stayed with me. The second time was about 4 seconds long and we were completely alone. I was working at an agency called TBWA Gavin Reddy in Houghton in Johannesburg. Houghton was the suburb where Mandela lived.

I was walking to work early one morning because my Beetle had broken down for the third time that month. I was walking down a road and not really looking up. I sensed somebody in front of me. About 10 metres away stood Nelson Mandela. His bodyguards were a little way back. He was going for a walk. I was going for a walk. We were walking. We were alone on an empty street. Fuck. What do I do?

You get this stupid shit eating grin on your face when you meet famous people don’t you? And Mandela is much more than that. My grin must have been especially shit eating that day. You just don’t know what to do. I couldn’t speak. I put out my hand, he shook it. I said good morning in that voice you have before coffee. You know raspy and high pitched. Ridiculous. He had that massive smile. He could see this was weird and saw the humour. He said good morning and looked into my eyes when he spoke. And then he was gone. And I was standing there alone on a beautiful Tuesday morning. It had all happened in about 4 seconds.

But I had met him before.

In 1990 I was a photographer in Durban. At the time I was 20 years old and politically naive. I was asked to take some pictures of Nelson Mandela at the book launch of Fatima Meer at the University of Natal. I was near the stage. We used film in those days, so I was loading my camera with my back to the entrance.

Suddenly, there was a sound that I hadn’t heard before or haven’t heard since.

It was a mixture of roaring and intake of breath. It is the sound you make when language cannot help you. It was very human. It was the crowd. Up until that moment I don’t think I really understood what Nelson Mandela meant to people. As he walked in people collapsed. They were rolling on the floor. People were ululating. Women and men were crying. Collective, pure, raw emotion. In a single second a normal university auditorium had been turned into the most powerful gospel revival you have ever seen.

In that instant, I realised that I knew nothing about the country I lived in.

I had to get pictures of him speaking, which I did. But I wanted to try and get a picture of him. It became this burning need as I listened to him speak. A portrait as opposed to something for a PR release. I didn’t want to just take a photograph I wanted to make some sort of connection. I thought the only chance would be on the way to his car afterwards. He finished his speech and I followed him through the crowd until we were both outside. I was completely inexperienced. I didn’t know what to do. I was beginning to panic. As he got into his car I remembered him giving an ANC salute (raised fist) when he walked into the auditorium.

For a brief moment everything fell into place. He was sitting in the backseat and looked at me through the window. I lifted my arm and did probably the worst, uncool ANC salute in history. I didn’t understand its significance or its meaning. I was out of my depth. He looked at me and my fist. He understood everything. I was a dumb, shy, white kid who really needed a picture and was trying to connect but didn’t know how.

He didn’t look at the camera, he looked at me. And when I say me, straight into my eyes. This single second felt like an hour. He started to laugh and raised his arm. He gave me the picture. He waited until I shot it and then told the driver to go. 7 seconds. 7 seconds, that tell you everything about his greatness.

His incredible strength and power never got in the way of his humour and his ability to make time for everybody. His humanity was on the outside. For most of us it is on the inside.

I handed the pictures over and I don’t know where they are today. Strangely, I don’t feel sad about the loss. The memory for me is so strong and personal it has become more valuable than the photograph. And trust me coming from a photographer that is saying something. There is just this lingering memory of potential. Of what we all could be if we were a little kinder to each other.

In 7 seconds he made me feel like it was going to be OK. He gave me some of his humaness. He could have looked away and told the driver to go but he didn’t. He understood my situation and accepted me as I was. There was no judgement or irritation. He solved it with humour and time.

He had the greatest gift of all. In that moment, he showed me what true greatness is. To simply be human. And he did it with the world on his shoulders.

It was only eleven seconds but I am grateful for each one. I will never meet a man like Nelson Mandela again.