The 11 occasionally, immutable laws of advertising.

“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.”

Thomas Edison

I have been in advertising for twenty-five years and I swore I would never write a ’Ten rules of’ article. So, I didn’t. I wrote one with eleven laws instead. In my defence, I felt I had to because in the last 8 weeks there have been an endless torrent of articles about how things will change often written by people who have never had to make anything the public saw. Mark Ritson coined the beautiful and very apt phrase ‘change porn’. In advertising, we love anything that changes because it means opportunity and more money. However, if there is anything I have learnt in my time in the business it is that the important things don’t change because they are true. And, some things that are new and are acclaimed as the answer to everything often are not. Anybody remember Vine? How about Google glasses or Pokemon Go? I can remember being in meetings where I was told they were going to be the answers to everything.

While writing this I found some fantastic quotes from Bill Bernbach the founder of DDB. I have used them liberally in this article because they prove that the important stuff really hasn’t changed in 70 years. I also think they are a large dose of common sense. A cure our industry really needs right now.

 Mr. Bernbach said, “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

So, if people don’t change, what about making things for people? Has making really changed? We love the shiny and the new but when it comes to making great work there are certain ingredients, attitudes and obstacles that will always be there. And, they are there because imperfect human beings are involved. A fact, that we really should discuss far more often than we do. People will always be the difference rather than technology or the process. So, here is my list of ingredients. My hard-earned recipe for survival. Things to think about. Things to avoid. Things that have always created great work and things that will always create great work. Enjoy.

1.Nobody cares about advertising.

This is a great first law because it does two things. It keeps egos in check. And I am talking about for both creatives and clients. Ego can do a number of things that are good and bad. It can keep an idea alive. It can kill one stone dead. It can also make the unimportant very important. In our world, ideas and advertising are everything. For the consumer, not so much.  Actually, not at all. Remembering this stops the insanity and keeps you looking at what matters. The second thing this law does is makes creatives try harder. Because, if people don’t care, we must make them care. This is something we should all remember. Often banality is seen as less of a risk than trying something ‘creative’. I disagree. And, it is certainly a waste of money.

2.If no-one notices your advertising, everything else is academic.

Another brilliant and simple observation from Mr. Bernbach. It is also the flip side of law number one. So, how do you get noticed? That leads to a lot of more questions. How much pain can you take? How much do your people go beyond what is required? How much do they want it? How deep are they prepared to dig to get an idea made? How much conflict are they willing to manage, with clients, internally, with the industry, to get an idea made with minimal compromises? Caring is not a choice. And it definitely is not always easy. However, it is the answer and the difference. It should always be your standard operating procedure. It is also how you get noticed.

3.Faith is not just a song by George Michael.

The process of making something new, fresh and exciting has a strange problem. If it is new, it hasn’t been done. So, a large part of the process of making work that gets noticed is trying to eliminate risk. That gets you to a point. And then, there is a moment when you must take the risk. You must trust that it will all work. This is where a great relationship between a client and an agency is worth more than anything. You can have as many zoom calls as you like, if you don’t have trust, the last step will not happen. The work will fall at the last hurdle.

4.Would you sit next to you at dinner?

This is one of my favourite lines from the very famous Economist campaign. To me, it says in the most elegant way that you could be in the right place at the right time but that is not enough. You cannot be boring. You must have something to offer for people to listen. Just staring at the consumer is called stalking and shouting the same thing over and over is called being unpleasant. A bit of charm, a story a little bit of wit is what is required to succeed at dinner parties. Advertising is no different. Seduction is an old-fashioned word. Perhaps, it is time for us to make it modern again.

 5.You will never see a statue of a committee.

If there was ever a law in advertising, it would be the following sentence. The chance of an idea surviving is inversely proportional to how many people are in the room. There is a simple reason for that. More people, more suggestions and more considerations. Invariably, these suggestions are coming from what is important to each individual. That many perspectives just give you a laundry list of things to do, rather than an idea. Or, to put it another way you end up trying to find a needle by building a haystack.

6.Ideas are like goldfish. Easy to kill.

In Silicon Valley, there are companies that have a rule where you must talk an idea up for the first 5 minutes. You are not allowed to say why an idea won’t work; you have to say why it will work. I have always said it is easy to have 100 ideas but it’s hard to care about one. Our business is the ideas business and that is part of the problem. We have lots of ideas so we don’t really look after them as well as we could. We find one thing wrong with an idea and it’s dead. There is no other business in the world that throws away literally millions of ideas away each year. Whoever figures out how to harvest all those banished ideas will make a lot of money.

 7.Never put truffle oil in the microwave

Quality is an actual thing that has value. We are obsessed with quantity over quality but ask yourself what you remember. The number of ads that ran or the impression they made? Cadbury Gorilla first ran 13 years ago. And we still remember it. What is that worth? Making something of quality matters. And I think it matters today more than ever. Quality is a massive factor for the products we sell. It should also be true for the communications we make about those products. Consumers can tell when you have cut corners.

8.You can’t handle the truth.

The most powerful element in advertising is the truth. In my career it is funny just how many people have asked me to mask a bad product or a brand that genuinely had no promise. One of the great delusions in our business is thinking what is truly fantastic in our world is great in the real world. All a good ad does for a bad product is let more people know a bad product exists, far more quickly. Consumers know, trust me, consumers know. Find something true and tell people in an entertaining way will always be the answer.  

9. Jargon. Latin for bullshit.

When people use big words, it is often because they are not saying anything. I have been in meetings that have gone on for hours because people have used complex language masking the fact there is no idea at the centre of the 100-page PowerPoint. Let’s just all remember, if you look up the word pivot, it means turn. And content is just another word for stuff.

10.Focus on the picture, not the frame

“Shit that arrives at the speed of light is still shit.” One of my favourite quotes from the late great David Abbott. We spend huge amounts of time thinking about how something reaches you. The delivery mechanism. But do we spend as much time on what we are delivering? I have always felt advertising is a barter process. Give the consumer something entertaining or informative and they will give you something even more valuable. Their time. The truth is these days you need both the picture and the picture frame. But, a gallery of empty frames is going to sell very little.

11.Have fun underwater.

I always use this phrase with young creatives. It means if you can have fun under pressure you might make it. Because, that is where and how you find the great ideas. That place you find after fear. As things get faster, we have become enamoured with process and formulas. However, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, it’s the cracks that let the light in. You can’t find fun on a balance sheet, but it is priceless. Fun lets you explore unconventional wisdom and what some call stupid ideas. And stupid often becomes genius when you add time. Fun and humour unlock new ways and ideas.  Fun is the one ingredient that makes creativity happen. It is amazing how it puts people into a mindset where anything is possible. Ask yourself why you get better or different ideas from certain agencies. Why are some agencies so much better than other agencies if they have similar ingredients?  The answer is not what the building looks like but how the building feels.

So, there they are, the creative laws of the universe. I guess the reason I called them occasionally immutable laws is that is how creative laws work. There will be moments where they are life and death. Where following them will be the difference between work being made or an idea dying. And the next day, they seem unimportant and you can’t remember why you were worried. I guess creativity on a Monday is different to creativity on a Tuesday. That’s creativity for you. It doesn’t make sense until it does. Which is also why it is so valuable.  

Creativity. How to make scrambled eggs way better.

“Creativity is a gift. It doesn’t come through if the air is cluttered.”

John Lennon

Space. Time. Distance. Pretty big stuff. These are the rules the govern the universe. But not the imagination. That’s tricky because human beings really like rules. They like to know how to measure stuff. They like wrong and right. We like beginning, middle and ends. We want certainty. We want it all to make sense. Well, if 2020 teaches us anything it is that life often doesn’t make sense. And time hardly ever gives us the answers we think it will. So, what are our options? We can create stronger iron-clad rules. We can double down on what we have always done and hope for a different result. Or, we can understand how creativity deals with a problem.

Playfulness is a word you don’t often hear when it comes to solving hard problems. Many think fun should be for weekends or leisure time. Also, many don’t trust it. It doesn’t seem very efficient. It doesn’t seem like a tool. The reason for that is playfulness doesn’t care about rules or the concept of time. Which is exactly why it is such a fantastic tool. It doesn’t care about what is important or what the rules are. This quality allows it to change anything and everything.

The problem playfulness faces of course is time. It is also a big problem when it comes to the value of creativity. When Carolyn Davidson designed the iconic Nike logo in 1971 she was paid $35.That’s what I call a bargain. Today, according to Wikipedia that logo is worth 26 billion dollars. It would seem great creativity becomes more valuable over time. However, that is not the way the world works. We never have time. We want instant solutions and instant value. We want lateral thinking to be instantly logical. But new ideas are only logical in the fullness of time. Logic is based on proof and what has worked. Creativity is based on what could work. One is more reliable. One will take you forward. You need both. But, just to be clear, they are not the same thing.

You always come back to the unanswerable question don’t you? How much is a new idea worth? Or, perhaps more accurately, how much will it be worth in the future.

So, time will always be a problem. Even so, playfulness can still change everything. Here is one of my favourite examples. The original name for the massive global number one hit ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles was going to be ‘Scrambled Eggs’. This is a song according to Guinness World Records that has the most cover versions ever. 1600 to be exact. This is also a song where the entire melody was composed in a dream Paul McCartney had. What box does that fit into? Anyway, the problem was they had the song but not the words. They knew they had something but it wasn’t quite there. The good news was they were smart enough to know the answer was more time and some playfulness.

“We almost had it finished. Paul wrote nearly all of it, but we just couldn’t find the right title. We called it ‘Scrambled Eggs’ and it became a joke between us. We made up our minds that only a one-word title would suit, we just couldn’t find the right one. Then one morning Paul woke up and the song and the title were both there, completed. I was sorry in a way, we’d had so many laughs about it.”

John Lennon

We had so many laughs about it. I love that sentence. The fact they hadn’t solved it was fun for them. No pressure. Just playfulness. They knew they would figure it out if they kept laughing and stayed in their process. And one morning, Paul woke up and he did. Time. Fun. These qualities with a few others essentially make up the creative process. And here’s the thing, you cannot replace them with anything else. In our business, we try to all the time because of what it costs but you can’t. If you don’t have them nothing really changes. And then we enter the strange world of pretend ideas.

Unfortunately, fun is often replaced with huge amounts of fear. And time is often replaced with insane deadlines. If you go down that road long enough you get duplications and replications. You get scrambled eggs. And you get it over and over. You get pretty good. Not bad. Quite nice. That will do. And often nobody notices until it is too late.

It is the flip side of the Carolyn Davidson Nike story. Creativity is often ridiculous value for money as in the design for the Nike swoosh. But, take away the vital ingredients creativity needs and it can be very expensive. It stops being interesting or distinctive. So you shout more and spend more.

It may seem counter intuitive but if Mr Lennon’s quote teaches us anything, it is that enjoying a problem is actually how you solve it. Creating the conditions to enjoy a problem or puzzle is how you get to great work.

Playfulness takes away the importance and the power of a problem. It makes it smaller and more malleable. We underestimate what it can do. And we should value it far more than we do. Because, it can literally change the world.

It is the irreplaceable alchemy that turns that impossible problem into a new song.

Do you believe in The Roaring Twenties brothers and sisters?

“Skate to where the puck is going not where it has been.”

Wayne Gretzky

Creativity: The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.

So, what happens afterwards? What happens after a catastrophe? How do you carry on and what role does creativity play in all this? I started thinking about all this after reading about the end of the First World War and Swine Flu. What happened after that? The roaring 20’s. That has a nice ring to it.

It was a decade of massive growth economically and creatively. Real GNP growth of almost 4.2% every year from 1920 to 1929. Jazz. Silent movies. You find something similar after the Second World War. The 1950’s saw the economy grow in America by 37%. Rock and Roll. The golden age of Hollywood.

Now, before you say you are not an Economist. I know. And before you say a war is not a pandemic, I know. But, I found it an interesting pattern. After catastrophes, there seems to be a collective human need to invent, innovate and create. A need to expand, reach new frontiers and break boundaries. Will that happen globally or will countries that have successfully managed Coronavirus become islands of invention? I guess we will see.

Whatever happens, if history teaches us anything it’s that bad things can keep us down for only so long. Those dark days push the spring down but eventually that pent up energy is unleashed. For every action there is a reaction.

Now, that would have been a neat story. However, while doing this I also read a little about the great depression. In the space of fifteen years you have a global war, a decade long party and then the great depression. Perhaps, those black swan once in a lifetime moments happen more often than we think.

It made me think about what happens to creativity when the world is in good shape? And, perhaps more importantly, what happens to creativity when things suck?

So, let’s take two people you wouldn’t find at the same dinner party. Al Capone and Colonel Sanders. A Chicago mobster and a gentleman from Kentucky. Capone was the poster child of the roaring 20’s. Hedonistic excess. The world was expanding like the big bang had just happened. There was only one boundary. Prohibition. And bootlegging was the creative way around it. It is rumoured Capone’s gang made $100 million annually. That is roughly $1,290,575,000 today. I know. Holy shit.

I guess in good times creativity lets you literally do anything. Capone knew it was a risk worth taking. It was the creativity of possibility. The creativity of expansion and change. It was the creativity of the new. Old rules didn’t apply. To use Mr Gretzky’s quote, I am sure it must have felt like wherever Mr Capone skated the puck was always there.

I would imagine the great depression could not have felt more different for the Colonel and his secret recipe.

Yet, as an interesting side note, while researching this I found multiple sources saying this was the decade that created the most millionaires in America. I haven’t been able to verify this yet. What is undeniable though is a great many people prospered. Having said that, it still wouldn’t seem like a good time to start a business. This did not stop Colonel Harland Sanders opening Sanders Court and Cafe’ at a gas station on March 20, 1930. This would become the KFC of today.

Now, Capone’s story and that of the Colonel from Kentucky sound very different. However, when it comes to matters of creativity there is only one difference. For the Colonel, it was still the creativity of possibility. It was also the creativity of expansion and change. It was the creativity of the new. Old rules did not apply. So, what is that difference? With Capone he knew it was a risk worth taking. He could do no wrong. In the 20’s, the world was in his favour it was firing on all cylinders. With the Colonel, he only believed it was a risk worth taking. He did not and could not know. He could only believe the puck would be there one day.

It sounds like a small difference. But it isn’t. Knowing is when you can trust the past. Knowing happens when there is evidence. Believing happens when there is none. Believing is about trusting the future.

This is what we are facing right now. How do we invent with very little information?

The good news is creativity doesn’t change. But, the tricky part is how we get to it does.

Plan A is believing we know.

Plan B is knowing we believe.

Fasten your seatbelts ladies and gentleman.

2020. A Space Odyssey.

“Music is the silence between the notes.”

Claude Debussy

Just put one fucking word down. It is a strange feeling to start writing without knowing what you are going to write. It is a feeling of absolute uncertainty. It is so powerful that it can cause paralysis. You can’t do what you know you must but you also can’t do anything else either. And, there is also this vague annoying terror mixed with excitement kind of feeling as you stare at the white space in front of you. It is hard to describe and maybe that’s why I have tried to put writing about a weird feeling at the bottom of my to do list. It’s so much easier dealing with facts. Bullet points of complete certainty. The 19 lessons of somethingness. The 7 steps to whatever. Anyway, to stop my brain from killing me I had to go the other way. Apologies in advance. You know what they say. Better out than in.

Maybe, that’s why I am writing this. It is my hushed and very ironic rebellion against filling beautiful empty blank spaces with bullshit. Words are not wisdom. And varnish, is not the wood.

It’s as if explaining something instantly is far more important than actually looking or listening to it. Thousands of opinions online telling us what we should feel and take out of this. All of it taking up space. Toxic positivity, a need to eliminate the whiff of failure and a million plans to feel in control have been woven into a twisted mantra that tells you very little but promises even less. To be clear, a month or two ago this new world didn’t exist. Nobody knows very much. And that blank uncomfortable space is where we have to go to find real answers.

I remember reading a great line somewhere that said there is no such thing as failure. If you fail, you write a book about what you have learnt failing and that becomes a bestseller. There is no failure. Only an unyielding, unstoppable momentum towards your next life affirming success.

And what is success? The notes or the spaces between them?

Space and time. Invisible and priceless. The two most valuable commodities in the world. In life BC (Before Corona), time and space were all we ever wanted. We wished we had had a bit more time to to do the job properly. We dreamed about having a few more gaps in the day. We bitched and moaned about not ever having the time to do the good stuff. This is also true for all the stuff we want. The big boat or next level house costs more because it has a bit more space. Space is the ultimate demonstration of value and luxury. I remember going to a gallery in New York to see Van Gogh’s, The Starry Night. The painting is fantastic but you know what else I noticed? The massive white wall that surrounded the painting. No clutter. No other paintings. Just space. Space to see. Space to focus. Space to show you what is important. Isn’t it odd how you can only see the value of space when there is something right in the middle of it. I remember once doing a meditation exercise where our teacher said we had to imagine a block of space in space. Our brains exploded.

I digress. Right now, we have a lot more time and space on our hands than usual. The two most valuable commodities in the world. Remember? It is all we have ever wanted. And what are we doing? We try to eradicate time and space with stuff, explanations and activity. If you don’t believe me go and have a look online. It is a frenzy of shallow noise pretending it knows where true north really is. And one more time for luck. Nobody knows anything for sure.

The great Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche uses the expression ‘Western laziness’. He describes Eastern laziness as sitting on your porch all day, doing nothing and drinking cups of tea. Western laziness is the opposite. It is cramming your day with compulsive activity so you don’t confront what he calls real issues.

We replace understanding with activity. We create the illusion of certainty. To quote Arthur C. Clarke “If he was indeed mad, his delusions were beautifully organised.”

We tell ourselves we want to spend time on the important things in life, but there is never any time. But, when we have it, what do we do?

I have watched Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey at least a dozen times over a 20 year period. Nobody really knows what it’s about. Even if you research its meaning there are multiple theories including the idea that you are not supposed to understand it because God is beyond our understanding.

What I do know is that it always gives me the same feeling. It is this mixture of awe and fear. It has a beautiful infinite emptiness. Arthur C. Clarke gets closest to it with these words.

“The thing’s hollow – it goes on forever-and-oh my God! – it’s full of stars!

It is the same feeling I get staring at a blank screen before I start writing. And what do I do? I try and fill that space. What a bloody idiot. Well, everybody needs a hobby.

Perhaps, the last month has been a strange and beautiful gift for those of us who are not desperately trying to save millions of lives every day. Unlike those heroes, we have been lucky enough to be given some time and space. That can be scary. And when we are scared, we try to to fill that void, right?

But, for a moment, maybe we shouldn’t.

Because, here’s the thing. That emptiness is where everything comes from. Every answer. Every idea. Every discovery. Every invention. And, all those wonderful invisible things we cannot yet see. Everything.

Instead of having an obsessive hair trigger need to explain the world to ourselves, what if we listened to it for once? Imagine, instead of endless motion, the whole planet was still.

What if we, just for a moment, stopped trying to explain and looked into that perfect emptiness. That flawless uncertainty.

What would we see?

What would we understand?

Creativity. Bill Withers vs Joe Exotic.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 8: Singer and songwriter Bill Withers poses for a portrait on February 8, 1974 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ed Caraeff/Getty Images)

“Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.” – Peter Strople

It is always going to be a strange week when Tiger King appears and Bill Withers disappears.

If we put the global pandemic to one side (now there are words I never thought I would write) I felt the universe was sending us all a message. Also, I am in lockdown. I need to write about something different to stay reasonably sane.

Let’s start with Joe Exotic. If you haven’t watched Tiger King on Netflix do yourself a favour, watch it. It really does defy explanation. Here we have a human car crash who would do anything and I mean anything to be famous. Whether he was a close facsimile of a country and western star, a sequinned zoo keeper or a vastly unsuitable nominee to be President of the United States, he just wanted fame. In fact, if he had any talent it was constantly spotting an opportunity to be famous. I would say this quote sums him up perfectly.

“People don’t come to see the tigers, they come to see me.” – Joe Exotic

And the sadness in all this was you recognise that old story you have seen a thousand times. Somebody thinking that fame is a substitute for love. Our obsession with it all is because even though it is a crazy, warped, insane mirror, it is a mirror where we recognise our darker selves. We say he is crazy and don’t understand him. But we sort of do. And maybe, we even like him a little for his brutal, honest, relentless ambition.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend. It was about his teenage daughter. His daughter had told him she wanted to study drama after school. He asked her if it was because she wanted to be an actress. She replied, no, I just want to be famous. This is the mantra of Joe Exotic. You don’t need talent you just need to be famous and everything will be fine. This has become our culture. Strangely, that all changed with the pandemic. All of a sudden what your talent is has become way more important than your fame. What you can do is how you are judged.

Which brings me nicely to Bill Withers. This is a man who was born in a small coal mining town called Slab Fork in West Virginia in 1938. I think the name alone tells you the odds he faced. Dirt poor and born with a stutter his father died when he was just 13 years old. He joined the navy when he was just 17 and served for 9 years and this is where his interest in writing songs began. He would go on to write some of the greatest songs ever written. ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, ‘Lovely Day’, ‘Lean On Me’ and ‘Just The Two Of Us’ just to name a few. And then, in 1985 at the age of 47 he refused to re-sign a record label deal. He had become disillusioned with record executives that he termed ‘blaxperts’ who kept telling him how he should sing and what he should do. He never sang or performed again. He ended his career on his terms and walked away.

I read an article the other day where somebody was quoted as saying that she didn’t know who Bill Withers was but she knew all his songs. And that says it all doesn’t it? We will remember Joe Exotic for a while. Maybe 6 months or a year. And then he will be gone. But, almost 50 years later, we still remember ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ from a man who made himself disappear 35 years ago. A man who didn’t need fame but had talent.

Perhaps, that’s difference. Fame is about what you need and take. Talent is about what you give to others. Fame is about what others said. Talent is about what you did. One should follow the other. But, humans like short cuts don’t they?

What I do know is which one lasts.

Thanks for the songs Bill.

Creativity. The answer to every question on TV.

Photo by Burak K on

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Mike Tyson

Day 10. I am in lockdown and I have been eating a shit load of Pringles and watching a fair amount of television. As I watched, I noticed this weird phenomenon. Whenever an expert was interviewed about face masks, or how to make more ventilators, keep social distancing and all the other questions that get asked repeatedly every single fucking day, there would be a moment in the interview. The moment was when they were asked what should be done to make things better.

Invariably, almost none of them had an actual answer. You know what they all said? Ready for the phrase?

We need to get creative.

Do me a favour. After reading this, go and watch CNN for an hour. Now, every time an expert uses the word ‘creative’ in an interview about COVID-19, have a Pringle. You are about to get very fat.

These are experts in all sorts of different fields with years of experience and degrees coming out of their ears. Yet, they all keep saying the same thing when pushed for an answer. We just need some creativity.

A week ago, I wrote a blog about how creativity keeps us human in the middle of this tragedy. I wrote about the human spirit. I said creativity is about defiance. It is about fun in the face of adversity. An Italian man singing opera for no reason on his balcony creates joy and makes life worth living in the most difficult of circumstances. Creativity can make something out of nothing.

Think about that for a second. What else can do that?

According to the endless cavalcade of pundits on CNN, nothing.

What a strange thing creativity is.

On the one hand, creativity is all that extra stuff. Singing from the balcony and making puppet shows out of old socks. It’s all about smiling and fun. It’s not serious. It just adds a bit of sunlight to our monochromatic lives.

On the other hand, it is the last thing you turn to in the most dire of situations. Like, you know, when there is a global pandemic. When you have run out of all your answers, you turn to creativity. Why?

Because, creativity can change the rules. It is real magic. It is alchemy that works.

We seem to only see creativity through two prisms. The first is when you have nothing to lose. There is no risk. It is just a bit of fun that makes life worth living. The second is when there is so much to lose you have no choice. It is your last chance saloon. It becomes a serious business that saves the living, so they can have a life. A paradox where something that is frivolous is also momentous.

We make creativity only an option when there is no risk or too much risk to bare. I think the world needs creativity far more often than that. It can do so much more than we think it can. Creativity can make something out of nothing. It can solve impossible problems. Something with that kind of power shouldn’t be our last resort. It should be our first option.

And don’t just take my word for it. Listen to those experts on TV.

To be human. Don't worry there's a happy ending.

We are very, very small, but we are profoundly capable of very, very big things.

Stephen Hawking

What is it to be human?

A week before the Coronavirus infected the world I was trying to answer this question in a discussion with my 16 year old son Jake. It was a discussion all about the great film Blade Runner. It covered replicants, robots and AI. The question asked was could machines ever get human rights? Could something created in a lab one day in the future be so similar to us they deserve human rights? If a machine could think and feel just like a human, would that make them human? If you take Descartes philosophical proposition, I think, therefore I am, this leads you to all sorts of difficult possibilities if machines were able to think like us. And, if your instinctual answer is no, you always end up back at that very difficult question.

What is it to be human?

I am sure you all have answers of a kind. I find myself moving very quickly away from logic. Being human for me is a weird mish-mash of feelings, a strange sense of being here, consciousness, kindness, defiance, creativity, courage, humour, mistakes and some stuff where words don’t really do the job.

A week ago this was just a fun conversation. Yet, it was a conversation that stuck in my head as the pandemic hit. I kind of knew it was a puzzle I would never solve. Perhaps, more importantly, a puzzle I don’t want to solve.

The question stayed in my head as the world watched the scary shouty news headlines on repeat. I had gone from a fantastic Thursday night where my company had won agency of the year to the next day making sure nobody was at work. It was all so fast.Within 24 hours, frightened people were trying to buy and build a wall of toilet paper to keep the virus out.

My local supermarket sans toilet paper

It was as if we were all living in our own dystopian-zombie-apocalypse Netflix series. Panic buying, dirty looks when somebody coughs in a lift and trying very hard not to touch your face or anything else. And, the waiting for something to happen. Cue ominous piano music.

So, against this strange backdrop the question popped into my head again. What is it to be human? I answered the question by saying, you will know it when you see it.

Nessun Dorma means let no-one sleep. Especially the neighbours.

An opera singer stands on his balcony and sings Nessun Dorma. Italy has been hit just about harder than any other country and this man uses his talent to show defiance. He is saying we will not be defeated. It logically makes very little sense. But as a human being I completely understand it.

Sock puppet makes world better

A person in self-isolation is bored shitless and lonely. Obviously, the answer is to make a sock puppet that eats cars. It amuses them and makes the world laugh. They used creativity to transform their situation. However, that single act also probably made thousands of people across the planet smile.

We come to you live from a Zebra crossing

And then, I found this. Nick Heath is a professional sports commentator. Obviously, right now there is very little sport to commentate on. So, he decided to commentate on real life for the hell of it.. It made me laugh out loud. I think it is brilliant. He used what he had to make a difference. He turned his talent into a gift for all of us.

Perhaps that is what being human is. The extra stuff. Doing more than necessary. Or, what isn’t necessary at all.

Maybe it’s simply not giving up. Using whatever creativity you have to be defiant. Sharing what you can. Laughing when things are shit. Staying in the fight. And, most importantly, remembering being human is not a singular pursuit.

All of these fantastic people started off by saying I will not give up. They are saying it to themselves but also to me. To every one of us. That lifts us and we keep fighting. So, we go from I will not give up to we will not give up. They are making the world a bit better by just being themselves.

What an awesome fucking super power.

However, they are also saying something else. Something, we forget way too often these days.

They answer the question of what it is to be human with a simple word.


Advertising. I hope this doesn’t go viral.

Photo by Marianna OLE on

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

Jonathan Swift

For the last 10 years, I feel like advertising has tried make an argument. The argument is one of precision.

If you have enough knowledge about the customer and you are in the right place magical things can happen. This of course is all based on data and patterns of behaviour. The word predictability comes to mind. Now, I am not here to dispute this narrative. I am sure it is often true. However, I am here to say there is another one we seem to forget. We all know it but we seem to keep forgetting it.

I am not exactly sure why. Maybe it is not fashionable or it feels a little unpredictable for certain stakeholders in the industry. Perhaps certain types of channels and kinds of work are pushed for all sorts of reasons.

My argument is that despite all this precision we really need emotion. Perhaps, we need it now more than ever to cut through the endless channels filled with shit content. To bolster my argument, let me show you a story.

This week it was reported that Corona Beer suffered a 455 million dollar loss. The obvious theory is that human beings stopped liking the enjoyable beverage because it has the same name as a deadly virus.

I guess it proves two things. The power of language and word association. And more importantly, how irrational and emotional people are. A Mexican beer is not a virus. Makes no sense. Total madness. But it does to those people. You can hear their weird thoughts. I am not drinking a beer called Corona. You know, just in case. It is a crazy way to think. Insanity. Very unfair to Corona, the beer. Yet, there it is.

I think we often forget this in our industry or perhaps some don’t like this because of the kind of work it dictates. But, the simple fact is when big emotions are at play they over ride pretty much everything. And as the story above demonstrates, this includes facts and logic.

There is almost endless evidence to support this. Yet, in my experience when the pressure is on, there is very often a large reluctance to rely on emotion to get the job done. We seem to fear emotion because of its power. It is not something we entirely trust because it has our number.

However, if this week proves anything, it is that there is strange paradox when it comes to emotion. It may be unpredictable but it is almost the only thing that can make human beings do the same things at scale very quickly. In other words, something quite unpredictable makes human beings more predictable than just about anything else.

It makes no sense, until it does.

Advertising. Lessons from the second last Blockbuster in the world.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on

“I think there is just one kind of folks. Folks.”

Harper Lee

Dargaville, a small town on the banks of the Wairoa River in the North Island of New Zealand with a population of approximately 4500 people lost the second last ‘Blockbuster’ Movie store on Earth this week. The last one is in the town of Bend, Oregon in the USA.

It would be easy to say well that’s show business. And, I suppose it is. There are plenty of businesses and industries that have disappeared without the faintest hint of romance.

However, I thought I would make an argument for Blockbusters. Just going with the flow and accepting the inevitability of the future seemed too easy. What the hell, it’s my blog. Let’s give it a go.

I felt this strange pang that this little store in a tiny town had a lesson I should try and find. I found it while reading about the store. I stumbled on this question from a journalist to the owner Chris Cucurullo. The question was how did you stay open for so long? I mean it’s 2020. We have Netflix, Amazon Prime and all the rest. You have to say that’s a pretty good run.

The last Blockbuster in New Zealand

His simple answer was the relationships and conversations he had with his customers kept the store open. His customers came to see him and chat about the films just as much as watch the films themselves.

In short, new DVD’s would come in and he would have a chat with regular customers about what the new releases were. Sounds obvious, but think about that for a moment. What modern companies do this well? Through this, Chris built relationships that have obviously lasted a long time. 26 years, in fact. Every time those customers walked into the store there would be a little bit of excitement and delight. They didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know what would be waiting for them. The randomness is what made people go back. They didn’t know what they were going to find. It made search exciting. There was happiness when you walked in.

Today, we have an algorithm that suggests what you might like based on what you have watched before.

In essence, you find more of what you already like. And that becomes more defined over time. You become your history. But there is very little excitement about finding new things. It made me think that perhaps accuracy makes discovery boring. How do you find what you are not looking for? Will randomness have to play a bigger role in keeping things interesting?

Who hasn’t scrolled mindlessly through oceans of content and found nothing to watch? And then somebody tells you the series ‘Succession’ is amazing at work and you watch that. A human recommended it. Humans watch things, machines don’t. The simple truth is we trust other human beings because they actually care about things. What will a human being recommending a product be worth in the future? With endless amounts of content will that be how we choose what to watch tomorrow? Will other human beings be the ultimate search engines in the future?

Here is another thought. Last year, Apple shipped over 30 million watches to the world. That is almost 10 million watches more than all the Swiss watches combined. It would seem usefulness could be the new luxury? Will the terms handmade or bespoke lose their value. Or, will human hands make a product more valuable?

I keep thinking about the human factor going forward. How will it fit into the endless automated solutions of customer service? Think about how long we wait on the line to speak to a call centre. We seem to value talking to people over anything else. We want people even if they are not always the best or easiest option.

Here is a great example of this. Boeing and other companies already have pilotless planes. They would eliminate the main reason for plane crashes, pilot error, and if this idea became mainstream it would make flying way cheaper. The Swiss bank UBS did research and surveyed 8000 people asking if they would consider flying in a plane without a pilot. 83% said no. Even though it is safer and cheaper. Now, I am sure this will eventually happen purely because of cost. The view is it could save airlines $30 billion dollars. But be honest, would you still want a pilot?

How much extra would you pay to have a pilot on board? Could having actual pilots be a new type of luxury? Economy, business, first class and now, ladies and gentleman, introducing pilot class.

People have a mysterious, priceless value. It made me think about the surprise and delight those customers would have felt in little old Dargaville. One human being turned a chore into an event. An experience that customers looked forward to every week.

The human factor is a contradiction. Even though people make mistakes and often are the reason an error occurs we want them over machines. That humaness (my word) is what what we trust. You don’t like a stand-up comedian because he tells a joke accurately. You like him because you trust his humanity. The laughter comes from connecting with another human being.

Perhaps that is the lesson from the last Blockbuster in New Zealand. Yes it died. However, a video store stayed open until fucking 2020 because its owner Chris understood one thing. In the end, sadly, it is all he had and it wasn’t enough to fight the future.

What he understood was that consistency and accuracy are a service. A service that can become boring, expected and invisible. Service should just happen. It often doesn’t but it should.

However, surprise and delight are an experience. People want them. They need them. They want to connect. Humans want to feel special. They want something to talk about the next day. That is why they come back. Not because you made their life correct or accurate.

Because you gave them something they didn’t expect. Because you made their life a little bit more interesting. You made their day better.

Human beings will always be the difference, simply because we can be.

People will always be the ultimate luxury.

After 26 years the last Blockbuster in New Zealand is gone. Yet, its lesson will always remain.

Advertising. Sometimes a yacht needs a horse.

“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start winning a game.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In my head, I went through all the answers I thought he could give. But I was way off.

I was in a hotel room with jet lag watching an odd documentary with sub-titles. It was about building super yachts in Monaco. I wouldn’t call it riveting. However, as it got towards the end, one of the boatbuilders was asked a simple question.

What is the craziest thing you have ever been asked to build on a yacht?

Now, in my head I went through what I thought was opulent. A gym, gold plated toilets, massive bedrooms maybe a full sized movie theatre.

His answer. A stable for a thoroughbred stallion. And a riding track.

He explained that everything had been done and super yachts were a strange arms race for the rich. You had to have something the other rich guy didn’t. It was an insane idea whether horses get sea sick or not. Apparently they do. But they can’t throw up. So that sucks. And it is an idea years later I can’t forget. There is one simple reason for this. I would never have thought of it.

So, the question is how much is a stupid idea I would never ever think of worth?

I would say it could be very valuable. Invariably, any disruptive thinking starts with what many called mad or stupid ideas. All of a sudden, we launch super yachts that now come with stables standard. Horse riding holidays pop up on inaccessible unridden islands across the globe and hey presto you have the next big thing every billionaire has to do this summer. I can see it now, two billionaires racing their yachts on a reality show to some tiny Greek island to be the first to ride a horse on its miniscule beach. Crazy idea? Maybe. But not as crazy as it was 60 seconds ago.

The trick of course is to allow these ideas in the creative process. And more importantly survive. What kills these kinds of ideas? Intransigence. Thinking you know what has always worked and being unwilling to change. Fear. In many corporate structures ideas like these are killed because they can get you into trouble. There is no real space for this kind of madness to be considered in some companies. And usually they are the companies that need them the most. A single or insular perspective is also tricky. When everybody in the room has the same point of view it is very unlikely you will get anywhere new or better. And finally, bravery. The bravery to say the idea out loud and the bravery to truly listen and think about its possibilities. Many times I have been asked for disruptive thinking from people that are incapable of buying it and in their entire careers, never have. And, if they were honest didn’t really want it in the first place.

So why does this matter? The simple answer is these crazy ideas make companies grow. Especially when business models change. Which seems to be happening more and more these days. We need to make sure these ideas are able to live. Even if it’s for an extra 60 seconds. Because that can make all the difference.

Let me try and give you an example of a crazy idea that might one day be very valuable.

How do you think the band U2 makes most of its money?

In 2017, they made $54.4 million. $52.2 million was from touring. Music sales $1.1 million. Publishing $705,200. Streaming $624,500. In 2018, this number doubled from being on the road touring with the Joshua Tree tour. I am pretty sure when iTunes launched in 2001 very few in the music industry thought bands in 2019 would be making the majority of their money from touring. Would they have believed a live experience would be making way more money than the ease of downloading or streaming?

Here is another interesting stat. Fortune magazine makes 40% of its revenue from events. So that’s kind of interesting. Almost half its revenue. It would seem their business model is definitely changing. People seem to like live events and live experiences and are prepared to pay. OK, what if you applied that that to something that isn’t a live experience like television. Something that doesn’t really want it or need to change their business model. That would be disruptive. What if Netflix decided to build theatres around the world? Where plays of their shows could be put on. Maybe on Broadway. Where Game of Thrones, or whatever was cool that season, would become a live experience. A place where you could develop a loyal community out of promiscuous viewers. Could live events be the thing that creates a valuable difference between all the streaming services?


Building a stable on a yacht is a stupid idea.

A streaming service opening a theatre on Broadway is a stupid idea.

But not as stupid as it was 60 seconds ago.