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Advertising. How to do impossible things.


“In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.”

Miguel de Cervantes

It has been an interesting week. The world may run out of Guinness. As I write this Ireland have just beaten the All Blacks 40 – 29 in Chicago. It is the first time they have done this in 111 years.  To continue the surreal sporting theme, Andy Murray, has become the number 1 tennis player in the world. And if you want one more, the Chicago Cubs have won the world series for the first time in 108 years. Chicago has had quite a week.

By any measure, all of these feats would be seen as almost impossible things to do. Nobody in the world apart from the most fanatical Irish fan would have given Ireland a chance of beating the All Blacks. They are the World Champions, the best team in the world by some margin and had been on an 18 match winning streak. Andy Murray at 29 is the second oldest player in the world to reach number one and it has taken him just over 7 years to go from number 2 to number 1. For most of his career Murray didn’t look like he would ever surpass Nadal, Federer and the almost invincible Djokovic. If you watched Djokovic take Murray apart at the French Open a couple of months ago, you would have said there was no way Murray would overtake him in the very same year.

While all this was happening globally, I also got to see something that echoed these unlikely events at work on a somewhat smaller scale. A junior team got to see a seemingly impossible idea of theirs happen with the help of many selfless people. It was a very stressful, beautiful couple of days for them. As it all ended I could see in their eyes how much they had learnt in a single, crazy week. They had learnt that impossible is possible.

What they had learnt differed greatly from the strange belief about creativity that all you need is a little inspiration, some talent, you have an idea and off you go.

They had learnt that doing impossible things is almost always about grit rather than just talent. And what is grit? Desire, determination, resilience, persistence and maybe some madness and naivety all mixed in. I have seen creatives obsess about the same idea for years. Everybody will tell them they are mad; it will never happen. They don’t listen, they keep trying and then it does. It then seems like a miracle but actually it happened simply because somebody wouldn’t give up. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s because of the qualities I have already stated. You cannot just have talent.

Impossible ideas are bloody hard to make. Talent might give you the gift but grit will get it to happen. Grit and desire will make the idea real. Grit will help you deal with rejection and that pesky thing called reality. And desire, will help you deal with the time it takes to overcome all those endless obstacles.

I have seen lots of creatives with talent, but the greatest creatives for me have talent mixed with grit. In fact, some of the best creatives I have ever met were not always blessed with huge amounts of talent but had unbelievable amounts of determination and desire. They have taught me that to do the impossible you have to keep showing up, take the knocks and keep trying. It might sound obvious but very few have the ability to do it. It is a strange phenomenon that I have seen over and over. Doing, creates its own rewards. Action finds a way. And, not always in the way you thought.

Andy Murray might not be as naturally talented as Djokovic but he kept fighting. He kept working and showing up. He did not give up. All that grit, energy and doing created the reward that perhaps talent couldn’t give on its own.

Ireland are not a better side than the All Blacks but they were that day at Soldiers Field in Chicago. Their desire, passion and determination overwhelmed the All Blacks talent.

In a week of very improbable events, the lesson for me was talent can show you impossible things, but only grit can get you to impossible things.


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Advertising. Fawlty Towers and the art of prediction.


“Most successful pundits are selected for being opinionated, because it’s interesting, and the penalties for incorrect predictions are negligible. You can make predictions, and a year later people won’t remember them.”

Daniel Kahneman

The legendary comedian John Cleese is being interviewed on the radio. He is explaining how arguably the most successful television series, Fawlty Towers, was liked by very few when it began in 1975. In fact, when the Daily Mirror reviewed the show the headline read “Long John Short On Jokes.”  Cleese says it’s a fallacy that anybody knows anything will be successful in the beginning. There is no certainty. One of the comments from a BBC commissioning editor was apparently that the show might be a lot better if Basil Fawlty got out of the hotel more. Ridiculous right? Except, the creative world is littered with artists getting stupid advice, stories of famous bands like The Beatles and U2 getting rejection letters and great actors or artists being rejected over and over.

It would seem, when it comes to creating the future, passion and belief are just as important as the opinions and so called wisdom that created yesterday.

The radio interview continued and Cleese spoke about a man called Philip E. Tetlock. Tetlock is a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He has studied forecasting and the art of prediction for the last 30 years. One of his discoveries came from soliciting opinions from 284 experts that ranged from government officials, professors, journalists, Marxists and free marketeers. This gave him roughly 28000 predictions. The result? These experts were only slightly more accurate than chance. His work also suggested a perverse inverse relationship between fame and accuracy. In other words, the more famous somebody was the less accurate they were likely to be.

In short, his research shows nobody really knows anything about tomorrow with great certainty.

So, the lesson is beware of anybody who tells you they absolutely know anything about the future. And the advertising and marketing industry is full of people who say they know.

As I write this, Vine is being closed down by Twitter. Think about that. Four years ago when Vine was launched our industry was all over it. As late as December of 2015, it still had 200 million users. I remember all sorts of people telling me Vine was the future. The Holy Grail. Very few experts, if any, would have predicted it would die 4 years later because it didn’t move fast enough to differentiate itself from Instagram and Snapchat. Any experts out there want to predict their future?

The other lesson for me, especially from a creative perspective, is that perhaps intuition, chance, luck and belief are far more important than we realise. Great things are very rarely made with absolute certainty. They are often made with diverse, strange and often unintended ingredients. If you ignore them, you will only ever make what already exists.

I will give you one fantastic example. While I was learning about all this stuff I stumbled on an interview with Rowan Atkinson.

He was asked about Blackadder, arguably the second best British comedy series behind Fawlty Towers. He was asked why they had chosen all these historical settings for each series. His answer was that Fawlty Towers was so good they knew anything they wrote they would be compared unfavourably with Fawlty Towers. They decided they didn’t want to compete with a great show that until only recently had been panned by so called experts. So, they decided to set it in Medieval times so it wouldn’t be. This choice made it different. This choice made it great.

In essence, Fawlty Towers success became the essential unintended ingredient that created the genius of Blackadder.

The sad truth is most experts would have looked at the available data and tried to do another Fawlty Towers. It would have been terrible. A pale imitation.

This is why creativity is important. It breaks old successful patterns and creates new ones.

This is something I see in our business. More and more we are trying to create certainty. To do what has worked before. To discard unintended ingredients. Find the middle and follow the pattern. Do not make a mistake. There is no time for that.

Yet, while this conversation is happening there is another conversation that is happening about something just as important as certainty and safety.

Exponential growth.

How will companies grow? By doing what they did yesterday? By following the pattern that exists or trying to create a new one?

Those two conversations eventually smash into each other. They always do.

And, there has only and will only ever be one winner.

Creativity may be seen by some as unpredictable. However, the unfortunate and very predictable results of not using it do not seem to be a viable option when it comes to creating the future.

Many think creativity is always about massive risk.

Many forget, it is also how you create massive reward.


In defence of the often maligned creative.


“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”

W.C. Fields

When I got into this business 20 years ago creatives and creative departments were always called the crazy ones. We were portrayed as necessary yet unpredictable. We were those long haired, leather jacket types. Apparently, we all had raucous parties, did lots of drugs and were always only seconds away from saying something inappropriate. This B Grade rock star description has stuck and has become the accepted view of Creatives. In fact, it has become something many creatives live up to because they think that is their role.

That is one description.

Recently another has emerged. It is that creatives and creative departments are an old fashioned idea. Somehow, we have gone from being the crazy ones to being old school. Now, we are all creative and everybody has ideas. Just get a banjo player in, or a juggler they are creative.  Or maybe Chris from accounts. He does watercolours. I am sure he will give you loads of ideas.

Not all creativity is the same. There is this thing called relevance and experience. There are many that want to make out that we all have this innate creative ability in us. Short answer, bullshit. Especially, when you only have a couple of hours to crack a piece of work.

This is not something I am making up. It is a thread you can see through the countless articles and blogs about how advertising is changing. The fantastic AdContrarian Bob Hoffman recently spoke about this at an Irish Advertising event. This is what he said.

There’s a mantra I hear in agencies back in the States. I don’t know if you hear it here, too. But it goes like this. “We’re all creative” or “Creative ideas can come from anywhere.” In my opinion this is bullshit.

True creative talent is a rare and precious thing.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many shitty songs, and shitty TV shows, and shitty movies? I’ll tell you why. Because it is really fucking hard to do a good one. 

The same is true with advertising. No one sits down to write a crappy ad. Mostly they just turn out crappy. Why? Because it’s really fucking hard to do a good one — and there are very few people who can do it.

If you really believe that we are all creative, then you have to believe that it’s just a coincidence that Shakespeare wrote dozens of brilliant plays and Donald Trump didn’t.

“Once you label me you negate me,” is a quote from Soren Kierkegaard that perfectly describes the issue. Creatives tend to be a little odd, perhaps not exactly mainstream. Somebody who might be a little awkward at a social gathering. Somebody who isn’t like you. So, because they are not always understood, they get labelled. I guess categories and definitions make things easier.

I have a very different view of creatives. Do yourself a favour. Break into a decent advertising agency around 8 o’clock at night. Walk into the creative department. I guarantee you will find teams working. Come in on weekends and you will find the same thing. Creatives try very hard and work very hard under a lot of pressure. Is that easy to replace? Great creatives care and will keep going until it’s right. They care more than anybody else. What is that worth? What would advertising look like if they stopped caring?

Maybe you think I am full of it. OK, let’s do a little experiment.

Let’s pretend you are a creative. You are staring at a blank screen early one morning when a brief is handed to you. You have been asked to do a 15 second ad for a product. This particular product has 18 variants. You need to give each variant the same amount of time and there is a logo that has to be up for 3 seconds. So 12 seconds for 18 variants. That is less than a second per variant. What the fuck do you do with that? Also, make sure it’s contemporary, award winning and fresh. Have fun with it. And it has to be done by the end of the day. And there are 5 other very diverse briefs on your desk.  And, there will be 5 more tomorrow and the day after that. Easy right?

That scenario is not made up. It happened to me and I suspect it has happened to many other creatives. And that, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps, you think that is an old fashioned scenario. Maybe you think things have moved on. Advertising is different now. It is another narrative that happens in our business. The new type of work that is happening. I have been hearing about this for a while now. Apparently, there is this work that creative and digital departments can’t do. For this you need other people. The problem is I just can’t find it. Almost every piece of noteworthy work in the last 5 years has had a couple of creatives involved or a creative department behind it. Whatever their job title or description is.

A modern creative is like a swiss army knife in human form. They are useful because they do so many different things and also know how to connect the pieces together. Very few people are good at this. More importantly, creatives have the one thing that makes all the machines work. Ideas. They have the illusive beginning of things. And most importantly, they know how to make them, either on their own or collaborating with others.

What a strange situation. A silly smoke and mirrors game. Everybody goes on about old fashioned creatives and creative departments and how all these other companies are the future. Labels signifying nothing. While this is happening these new companies often hire creatives from these exact old fashioned creative departments. To be clear, these are the same people. So, yesterday you were old fashioned, today you are cutting edge.

Are they the crazy ones? No, they just see our value.

A value that has nothing to do with what somebody is called, but with what they can do.













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Advertising. A Singapore Sling lifts the haze.


“You could certainly save money by inviting people to your wedding in an email, but not many people would show up.” Rory Sutherland

I was not designed for the clinical beauty of Singapore. It has the humidity of a Bikram Yoga Studio inside a Turkish Bath House. I have hair that is the opposite of short. Subsequently, whenever I go there I feel like I have a dead octopus on my head.

I am perfectly designed for the temperature you feel at the base of a lone pine tree on the Tundra in the Arctic Circle. So, the relentless moisture of Singapore creates or adds to the fog in my head.

As it turned out, it would be the place that cleared it too.

In advertising, there is a lot of noise. It is easy to start looking at the wrong things.

The great fashion photographer Norman Parkinson once said the purpose of fashion is to change. In many ways, advertising is not that different. We are always looking at what is changing or what is new. Anybody remember Vine or Foursquare? Vine was launched in 2012. Four years ago, it was the biggest thing ever. I was in many meetings about vaguely doing something with it. Remember how it was going to change the advertising world. Anybody remember having conversations a couple of years ago about how all ads in the future would be 10 or 15 seconds long because that would work better on social media platforms? Anybody notice how the latest Kenzo ad Spike Jonze just shot is 3 minutes long. Boy, we talk a lot of shit in this business.

I guess the trick is to remember to look at what doesn’t change.

This fog had been building for a while.

I had been having stupid conversations about ad blocking or what the absolute definition of content actually is. As far as I can tell, content is just another word for stuff right?

Then there was the story about Matthew Mcconaughey becoming a creative director for a big Whiskey brand. I didn’t realise it was that easy to become a creative director. I feel a bit stupid now spending the last 20 years trying to get there. Oh well. In between copy checking shelf wobblers and trying to motivate his creatives with his speech from the Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew used his time to make a violently average ad. The ad had no idea. But it didn’t need one did it? Because the real idea was using Matthew Mcconaughey as the creative director. This is happening more and more. The idea is simply to use a celebrity with a big social media following. Is that an actual idea?

Stuff like that. I was thinking about the wrong things.

While this was going on in my head this I was in the middle of the task of judging about 500 television commercials as well as online content, there’s that word again, for Spikes Asia.

It’s an interesting experience looking at that much work at one time. In the beginning, you might be very analytical about the work, but I think when you judge this much work you become a consumer. You notice it or you don’t. You feel it or you don’t.

When you get to that point all the verbal shrapnel and bullshit confetti we deal with every day disappears and it all becomes so very simple. The fog lifts.

It has to have a great idea. It has to be well made.

Seems obvious and easy right? Well, if that were true there would be far more of that kind of work.

I think many in our business at the moment think there are shortcuts. Concept and quality wise. Do yourself a favour. Go and judge 500 pieces of work. You will see many pieces just like the next piece. Many with no ideas at their heart. Many that are made without the care and quality a good idea needs. They are invisible. Whatever box they ticked, they were a waste of money.

And then, you will see a handful of pieces that are brilliant. They go straight into your heart and head. No explanation or post rationalisation is necessary. They make you laugh and cry. They make you feel. More importantly, they stay in your head. You remember them.

This is what quality and care does. It makes you notice. It makes you give away your most valuable asset. Your time.

On my last night in Singapore our jury president Tony Granger very kindly took us to have a Singapore Sling at the famous Raffles Hotel, the place where it was first made in 1915. We could have gone anywhere to have a Singapore Sling but it wouldn’t have been as special. And it’s special because The Raffles Hotel have invested in an idea. This has created an experience you remember. The tiny fans on the roof. The ingredients they use. The beautiful green lights against the wood panelling. The peanut shells all over the floor. The fact that Ernest Hemingway used to drink there. Details matter. There are no shortcuts. Advertising is no different.

It’s funny we want consumers to believe and invest in our brand or product, but I think part of their belief comes from them seeing that we believe and are investing in the brand or product too. In a sense, they are saying, you first. And we show them we are doing these things by investing in how we communicate with them. (Rory Sutherland wrote a great piece in the Spectator about this idea and the value of experts).

Look at a great piece of work. A piece of work somebody really cared about. It says to the consumer, I care about what I am selling you. I care about your time. I will try not waste it.

A lot of things may be changing but these things will never change.

Thanks to Singapore for reminding me there are no shortcuts.

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Advertising. Mavericks in the echo chamber.


“We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”

“We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”

Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

The last couple of weeks I have struggled to write anything. I have even contemplated stopping this blog. I had this feeling of dread that all I was doing was contributing to the pollution. Yet one more fucking opinion. I have found myself with glazed eyes scrolling through the echo chamber that is Linkedin. Hundreds of posts where everybody has some new definition or answer. Jargon and 5 point plans that claim to be radical but are in fact the exact opposite. More than that though, there seems to be this overwhelming feeling of trying to get to some sort of collective consensus. A sea of sameness. We should conform. Nobody really steps out of the square. A hall of mirrors desperately trying to create a single, politically correct, inoffensive reflection.

Advertising seems to be trying to have one generally accepted opinion, rather than many. I have seen people online get smashed because they have a different opinion to the mob. This is dangerous for a business that needs to take calculated risks. Dangerous for a business that is built on having an opinion. Dangerous for a business that needs emotion, difference and that tricky thing called humour 

I am pretty sure Communism had very few stand-up comedians that didn’t end up in Siberia.

While I was thinking about this I started reading a book by Jon Ronson. It’s called ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.’

It’s about how social media has destroyed people’s lives. It shows their mistakes and how in some cases their lives were destroyed by a giving their dumb opinion or making a stupid comment. Something none of us have ever done right? It is a very interesting read that humanises these people and makes you realise how the punishment often doesn’t fit the crime.

I thought about how this applied to advertising. I started to think about how this fits with advertising blogs. What kind of environment have we created to make creatives feel like they can take risks? I can tell you from personal experience, if you stick your neck out with an opinion or work that is perhaps controversial you can experience an advertising version of public shaming that can be pretty brutal. I know of some instances where people have left the industry or had breakdowns and, if you do a little research online, far worse.

As creatives, we should support each other far more than we do. Far more. And, by not doing it, are we slowly creating a virus that will create an industry where the work inch by inch gets worse? We always speak about having fun. We talk about playfulness and the importance of being able to make mistakes. But do we really believe that? Does our behaviour to each other show that?

Perhaps it’s just me but this all feels incongruous with the bravery and courage creativity needs. Now, I know critics and criticism have always been a part of any creative endeavour. However, as creatives we should be all for pushing the envelope and supporting those that try and fail. There are enough people to pull us back. We shouldn’t do it ourselves. We are often guilty of being the critics that create a kingdom of fear that we have to live in. Less time, less mistakes, less free thinking and more critics creates an environment where the opposite of creativity is created. Fear.

In my career, the people that have pushed me forward were mavericks. I am not sure there are many left. And I am not sure they are that wanted. The ones I learnt from were brave and had the courage of their convictions. They were people that had your back and you would follow into battle. They didn’t care what everybody thought. They cared about what they believed or could feel. If they believed or felt something they were passionate and persuasive about that point of view. They knew if they felt it, they could make others feel it too.

I have been in a room where one of the world’s most legendary creative directors listened to an entire room of senior people for an hour. All of them totally disagreed with him. He didn’t care, he stuck to what he believed and in the end he was right. He didn’t care if he was popular. He cared about the idea. And of course, that is the real secret.

It’s strange how out of date that paragraph sounds. It shouldn’t but it does. Today, many would call that Creative Director difficult and not a team player.

To quote G.K Chesterton. “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statue of committees.”

Consensus and agreement are what happens at the end with many. Vision and belief happen at the beginning with very few.

Great work takes courage and bravery. It doesn’t just happen. If you think you just need lots of ideas you are in for a big surprise. Great work happens because somebody believes in it. The more we as a creative industry take away the conditions for belief by destroying each other, the more we end up with something vanilla and unremarkable. Our industry cannot afford to do this to itself right now.

If ever there was ever a time to celebrate and support the mavericks and real diversity of thought, it is now.

Strong, singular opinions won’t always give you the answer you’re looking for. But, they will often give you the answer you can’t find. And that, is often the answer you need the most.

If that isn’t valuable, I don’t know what is.