WTF is creativity anyway?

Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

Albert Einstein

Have you ever had one of those moments that just stays with you? It might have happened years ago but it will be a normal Wednesday and the moment just pops into your head. Maybe, it’s just me. Well, here is mine.

I was a young creative and we had a client who was not easy. To be honest, he scared the creative department because he had the ability without much reason to make your life very difficult. You could end up working weekend after weekend knowing that what you were doing was a waste of time. This is literally the worst feeling for a creative. He was a bit of a control freak and I remember the strange fact that he would wear full Ducati motorbike leathers to some meetings. He was a bully that loved an audience. His simple technique was to tell you all your ideas were shit. Then, he would watch to see if you took a backward step. For example, if you agreed that any of your ideas could be better he would scream a phrase I still remember with very little fondness. He would say, then why the fuck are you showing them to me.

This happened to everybody and eventually it happened to me. I started the meeting brightly with the words that today I had three very creative ideas to show him. He responded with a kind and gentle question I still think about. What the fuck is creativity anyway? I had prepared for many questions but that wasn’t one of them. It was one of those off the cuff questions that has no pithy answer. Especially, when you are desperately trying to think of one. I tried to think of an answer but I blanked. I had nothing and he smiled. I had another 45 minutes to go. They were super fun.

Over the years, I have thought about this question a lot. In fact, I was going to do a talk through AWARD in Australia about it. Unfortunately, COVID got in the way. The reality is the more you think about it, the trickier it gets. What is creativity? You might say creativity is a way to come up with ideas that have value. But who decides if something has value before it has actually happened? It can be remarkably subjective.

Take the wedding photo above. I would argue as wedding photo’s go its creative and pretty funny. The next person looking at it might argue it’s weird. And, the next person might say it cheapens the sacred ceremony of marriage. Who knows. My point is what we think creativity is can be a very broad landscape. So, perhaps instead of trying to define creativity which of course is the very antithesis of creativity, we should rather look at what it can do. Don’t look at creativity as a thing. Look at it as a way. Instead of being obsessed with what it is, let’s look at what it does and how it does it. When you do this, you see it’s value and potential. It will also give me some great answers I can use if I am ever asked that question again by a nice man in full leather.

Before I begin, let me state I have a belief that we need to make creativity way bigger in this world. However, there is a problem. One of definition. Creativity can do so many things but thanks to language we call it one thing. This makes creativity a very vague concept. So, for the sake of clarity I want to look at the various super powers of creativity. What creativity can do rather than the word itself.

Let’s start with the simple super power of unboring. This is often what creativity is used for and how many seem to understand it. Creativity can get your attention. It can make you look. It make you notice something that you ignored every day. It changed your world by using fun. This is very valuable but creativity can do a lot more than that.

As I just said, fun is the key to the kingdom. It is the secret to everything. It is strange how little value we assign to fun. Fun is how you can solve just about anything. So, it is priceless but we don’t trust it. It’s hard to measure. Yet, you will see it at every creative level. Like Mr Einstein said, creativity is intelligence having fun. Not caring about the rules. Just going what if we did it this way? It is laughing. It is doing something without knowing what is going to happen. It is the opposite of control. It is the opposite of knowing. It is how you make a road when there is no road. No fun. No road.

Next up, when it comes to super powers, creativity can give you what I call impossible duality. Here we have one of my favourite bits of creativity. A see-saw created between the US and Mexican border. It is a simple idea created by architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello. It not only turns a boundary into a bridge, it’s a fun bridge that kids can play on without breaking any rules and a symbol that tells the world that Trump’s way is not the way. Impossible duality. Only creativity can do that.

Then there is the super power of obscure connections. What do smart phones have to do with Olympic medals? At the Tokyo Olympics they are the same thing. A simple idea. A lot of gold and silver is used in electronic devices. What if they were recycled to make Olympic medals? I am sure we all think it makes perfect sense now. Recycling etc. But trust me that leap would have been crazy at some point in a boardroom. I have been in many boardrooms where somebody says we need out of the box thinking or a creative solution. What that means is thinking rationally or logically has got you to a point. But it is a point everybody else can get to as well. Creativity gets you beyond this. What is that leap worth?

Here is a good one, the super power of not giving a shit how things have always been done. Conventional wisdom says you open a door with your hand. Covid says no, not anymore. Creativity says no problem by leaning into the problem. Creativity finds a way. A playful way. This is why I think creativity can be so much bigger. Because you can apply it to any problem and you will get somewhere new. You become unstuck.

Next up the super power of perspective and context. Everybody is quite rightly saying get vaccinated. Eventually, it just becomes background noise. How to cut through? You put the exact wrong message out there. Except it’s on a truck. For a funeral home. Job done. Only creativity can do the wrong thing and get the right result. Creativity understands how the same ingredients can give you many different meals.

I could go on. There are many, many more. Here is my last one for today. Perhaps creativity’s greatest super power. The super power of ignoring reality. Above you can see the work of a floral designer called Lewis Miller. He decided to gift flower arrangements to New Yorkers to cheer them up in these gloomy times. Instantly, the reality of an ugly trash can becomes a beautiful vase.

And it has always been like this.The last picture is of the well known Japanese art of Kintsugi which began in the 15th century. It is taking the reality that something is broken and worthless and transforming it by mending it with gold. So, where it is broken becomes the most beautiful and valuable part.

Creativity ignores reality. Creativity decides what reality is. Creativity can make reality.

Kids do this all the time. Because they understand fun. Dad, my bed is now a warp speed inter galactic spaceship being chased by the fire spider, monkey, dragon people. And suddenly it is.

Creativity can do anything and can be everything. Adults just forget.

Especially, assholes in full leather. No fun. No road.

The answer to WTF is creativity is WTF you want it to be.

Starting again. Sometimes nothing is the gift.

“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

Leo Tolstoy

A couple of years ago I was in the middle of Mumbai in a place called Dharavi. It is what the West would call a slum. It is where Slum Dog Millionaire was filmed. It taught me a valuable lesson. It taught me that when you have nothing but you have people you can do anything. Trust me, in Dharavi there is very little wealth, what we call process or technology. But the people move mountains.

The people move mountains.

Fast forward a couple of years and I find myself starting again. We began with nothing. We were starting something brand new. The Monkeys Aotearoa. There was a moment where it was just my partner Justin and I staring at each other in an empty room. I think we were both silently screaming the word fuck. We had both walked away from a truly great agency. A very successful agency that I had put my heart and soul into for 7 years. Sometimes there is no reason, except it’s time.

Having nothing is very scary. Having no shield is pretty terrifying. After 25 years in the business, I asked myself if I was insane on multiple occasions. But, between these moments of fear there were these glimpses of something. That feeling you get on a rollercoaster mixed with seeing a crack of light you didn’t expect to see in a dark room. Freedom, falling, flying, fear and other stuff that doesn’t have words.

It’s funny when you strip it all away. No business cards or fancy furniture. No polish or protection. I found myself discovering something truly beautiful. I walked into a room with a couple of fellow creatives. We had to come up with some ideas. Strange. When you take away the jargon, the bullshit, the egos, the process, the fear and the layers of stuff you collect over the years in this business that is where you always end up. A couple of people in a room trying to come up with something special. It was like my first day in advertising. No time had passed. I was at the beginning again. The truth is always staring you in the face.The people move mountains.

The Buddhists speak about beginners mind. No expectations or pre-conceived ideas. Dropping your so called wisdom and seeing things as they really are. Maybe that’s what those glimpses of something were. Our industry loves labels. It loves to call things fancy words. It loves complexity and analysis. It loves to be right and loves to criticise. What I think it forgets sometimes is where ideas come from. You know in the beginning before all the bullshit.

They come from people.

Starting again has taught me that.You can take away everything except a couple of people in an empty room and you will be alright. Because when you walk out that room, there will be an idea.

It’s not the building. It’s not the motivational posters on walls. It’s not the slick presentations or even slicker trainers. It’s not the bean bags. It’s not the great coffee or the next brief. When you start again you learn what seems an obvious truth but our business forgets.

It’s the people that move mountains.

Why does emotion matter?

“If everything on Earth were rational, nothing would happen.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The 2020 Olympics started on Friday 23 July 2021. As you can tell by that non-sensical sentence the world is dealing with some weird shit. I think we can agree most people thought having a major global sporting event in a city full of Covid was a pretty bad idea. It was also clear many of them lived in Tokyo.

I have to confess when I heard it was happening I thought this was not going to go well. I had images in my head of a super spreader catastrophe that would no doubt in time have become a made for TV movie. If that is still a thing. At the very least, a binge watch documentary on Netflix. But I digress.

The point is we quite logically didn’t think it was going to go well. And, it was a bit weird in the beginning. The empty stadiums. The infinite amount of masks. The polite yet incredibly firm directions from helpers showing athletes where to walk. It wasn’t ideal. Yet, as the games unfolded we started to see something beautiful occur. Human beings being human beings. The collective world was trapped in their apartments and towns and they watched athletes try, fail, strive, stumble, succeed and win. We saw human beings live again. It was glorious and we forgot that we all thought it was a bad idea.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio once said we are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think. In other words, to a large degree this is what makes us human. Emotion gets a pretty bad rap but it is our fuel. It is one of the things that lets us do more than we thought we could. Yet, watch television any night of the week and there will be somebody apologising for getting emotional. Because you know, crazy, unvarnished, unpredictable stuff can happen if you let those pesky feelings out.

The Olympics showed us the flip side of this. For some, emotion may be a dangerous thing but we all want it so badly don’t we? In a bizarre way, it’s a madness that we strangely trust and love in equal measure. It’s the magical ingredient that makes life bearable and sometimes bloody brilliant.

When Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim decided to share gold we saw a a bloody brilliant moment. A moment of completely insane, deliciously delirious joy and unquestionable authenticity. You knew it was real. And, we could all feel what they were feeling at the same time. We saw this power happen over and over right through the games. Single moments of humanity connected and transcended the reality of our world. Quite simply, emotion creates synchronicity and a new collective reality.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Swimming – Women’s 200m Breaststroke – Final – Tokyo Aquatics Centre – Tokyo, Japan – July 30, 2021. Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa reacts after setting a new World record to win the gold medal REUTERS/Marko Djurica

We can pretend emotion is just irrational or strange or unpredictable. And, yes, it is all of those things. However, if you stopped there you would doing emotion a great injustice. True emotion has a super power. It has the power to create singularity. We see this happen over and over when people experience music and art. For a moment, the world disappears, nothing else matters, everything is exactly as it should be. Your focus and attention is absolute. What else that doesn’t need a prescription can do this?

I don’t know if the Olympics were a good idea but I am glad they happened. Maybe the solution to the madness and sadness of a Covid world was to do something just as mad. To not give up. To carry on. The great poet Robert Frost once said he could sum up life in three words. It goes on. But to go on, we cannot just endure. Living is not just about existence and a period of time.

The last year or so has been about us all trying to stay alive.

The last three weeks reminded us why we live.

Thanks Tokyo.

Relax, reality comes later.

Photo by Jose Francisco Fernandez Saura on

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

John Lennon

Imagine you are four guys in Liverpool in the early 60’s. One day you decide you want to be famous. Ringo starts to tell everybody that the 4 lads are a band. This rumour spreads. They dress like a band and go and hang out with other bands. A couple of groupies start to wave at the fab 4 in the streets. After a couple of months they walk into a trendy club. Everybody stops. The girls start screaming. All this recognition gets them noticed and they even get asked to open a local butchery and and a new invention called a shopping centre. A music store starts giving them free instruments for free PR. This minor fame gets the attention of a record company. The men with big cigars leave London and visit Liverpool. As they get out their Bentley the boys are being chased by a throng of crying, screaming teenagers. The men with the big cigars smile at each other. This is going to be big. They sign them immediately.

Ringo and the others decide they should come clean. They mention the very important fact that they can’t play any instruments, can’t sing or write songs and have absolutely no talent. The men with the big cigars laugh and say don’t worry you can fix anything in a studio. You are already famous that’s the hard part. These men would go on to launch another huge band called Milli Vanilli in the 80’s. (Google it).

An alternative reality? Maybe. Maybe not. It is in fact exactly what the internet has done to fame. Let me explain. I have been reading an excellent book called Hype by Gabrielle Bluestone. She looks at all the scam artists in the digital age. From influencers we trust for no reason to Billy McFarland and the Fyre Festival the lesson they teach is always the same. Something doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be real online.

What this means is you can bend time. You will your reality into being by simply saying it. It’s like a glitzy fucked up version of the upside down in Stranger things. What is important is you say something first. By saying it online it can become true in the real world. There is a documentary called Fake Famous on Netflix where they demonstrate this perfectly. In the series they take non-famous people buy them thousands of followers and watch what happens. In one of the episodes, a male influencer takes fake photos pretending to be at a private gym and puts it on Instagram. The next day he gets an offer from a real private gym to workout there. You say its real and it becomes real. My favourite trick is they show how to take a 12 dollar toilet seat and hold it in front of a television screen with the sky on it and hey presto it looks like you are on a private jet on Instagram.

At this point you might say, yes young man but eventually when these people collide with reality it all comes crashing down. And I say, with hope in my heart, you are probably right.

But, just for fun, let me give you another scenario. Ghost kitchens. Some of you may of heard of the term. For those that haven’t they are essentially fake restaurants on Uber Eats and other apps like it. This is how it works. I create a brand. Damon’s Big Texas Steakhouse. I put a couple of fake reviews online and suddenly I am a restaurant. Except I am not. I am a dodgy kitchen away from prying eyes and health inspectors. I can be cheaper than the competition because there are very few overheads as there are no waiters or people to be served in the restaurant. Because, there is no restaurant in reality. Only online. But now, online has become reality. You saw the brand. You imagined a family run steakhouse. You ordered the food. You ate the food. But the restaurant doesn’t exist.

Online has become reality. What a strange sentence.

The great English poet John Keats once said nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.

One of the best definitions of a brand is that a brand is the sum of your experiences. Another is a brand quite simply is a promise.

The question is if those experiences happen in a place where reality has very little meaning what does that mean for a brand? What is a brand? What can a brand promise in a place where time and space can be bent? Where direct experience happens less and less because of convenience. And, a place, where the final product is no guarantee of where it came from or what it actually is.

Maybe we don’t care anymore. If the burger I ordered from a fake restaurant is ok, do I care? Maybe not.

However, if that is the case we are seeing the collision of two worlds. One that we know. A world where people have worked very hard to build great businesses and products. Actual factories exist. Research is done. They care about what their customer gets. They have tried to build trust over years and create a reputation that becomes their brand.

The other world is a far more shadowy world. Time and space mean very little. Popularity and fame are the only currency. Trust feels like a quaint concept. It’s a place where you can say anything because that might make it true in the future. A world where you can bend reality until it is reality. Here, a brand can be built on circumstantial evidence. A world, where for some, the end justifies the means.

In the future, you will find brands in both of these worlds. Only some of them will be real.

Whatever that means.

Creativity. The goal that was too interesting.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Pablo Picasso

Some things stay with you don’t they? You ever find that? A piece of film, a painting or some words that you think about over and over. Every couple of days it just pops into your head. Ok, maybe it’s just me. Anyway, here is one of mine. Above is a clip of the great George Best playing for Northern Ireland. He is facing the great English goalkeeper Gordon Banks. Gordon Banks wants to kick the ball. He throws it up into the air and the ball has left his hands. And before he can kick it, George Best in a flash kicks it first. He runs past the keeper and headers it into the net. The ball goes into the net. Goooooooooaaaaaaal.

Except it isn’t. The referee disallows the goal. To this day, nobody knows why. Strangely, nobody really questioned it that much. Years later, in an interview they asked George Best about the goal and why the ref disallowed it. His answer was simple. The ref disallowed it because he had never seen anybody do it before.

Such a simple answer. No rules were broken. But, because it was a new way it’s probably better to say there is something wrong with it. Rather not do it. It might be dangerous. Entire careers have been built on this philosophy. It’s very easy to say why something is wrong. It’s much riskier to fight for something that might be great. I have been in meetings where something is 70% right and very interesting yet what is often chosen may be 99% correct but will go unnoticed. The 1% is that nobody will see it. And that is a very large 1%.

I remember reading about an initiative in Silicon Valley where in the first 5 minutes after an idea is presented you have to say why an idea is right rather than wrong. Whatever the thought you had to talk it up. I think that’s brilliant. Anything that keeps an idea alive for a few more seconds. Because here’s the thing, true creativity breaks patterns and makes new patterns. That is its job. Initially it will challenge or break the existing pattern. So, it might seem wrong if you only compare it to what you know. However, it also might change everything and give you a new way forward. Which is the true power of creative thought. So, take a breath and give it a minute. Fight for the idea rather than against it.

On a personal level, this happened to me as a kid at school in art class. I had this idea to mix two art styles together. Namely, cubism and pointillism. So, I did a painting. Granted, it might have been shit. But, it did have a thought that could have gone somewhere or at the very least discussed. The art teacher took one look at it and said you can’t do that. I asked why. She said because it is not allowed. Apparently, even art has rules and unbreakable patterns.

George Best scored that interesting goal 50 years ago. Northern Ireland ended up losing the match to England 1-0. I doubt anybody remembers the other goal.

Creativity. The truth is not enough.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on

“There is nothing as boring as the truth.”

Charles Bukowski

The Oscars used to be about look how good we are at making movies. Now, it’s just look at how good we are. I recently read this line in a story in the New York Times. The fallout in terms of viewers has been astonishing. There has been a 59% drop in viewers since last year according to Nielsen. Or, to put it more plainly, last year just over 23 million viewers watched the Oscars. This year, just under 10 million people watched the same show.

There are probably all sorts of reasons for this. Covid. The changing nature of how, what and where people watch entertainment. Maybe, how the world feels about awards in a difficult world. But, it did get me thinking about how you may have something you want to say but is it what the audience wants to hear? Or perhaps, more accurately, how they want to hear it.

It made me think about about how Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes (a show that is also in jeopardy now) for 5 years in a row. If we are honest, he is all you probably remember from any of those shows. Last years monologue has been watched 35 million times on YouTube alone. So, I am sure he didn’t hurt the ratings but most importantly he was funny while telling a truth his audience wanted to hear. Namely, Hollywood is full of massive egos, dickheads and incredible vanity. The truth we were all thinking and were delighted somebody said out loud with skill, timing and humour. He embodied the phrase many a true word spoken in jest. He didn’t preach. He entertained. This made his truth palatable and interesting. Rather than simply true.

Having a message is one thing but how you deliver it is quite another. People often mistake their truth for the world’s interesting.

Let’s all remember nobody gives a shit and they want to have a good time. Especially the good time part.

It’s the first lesson in advertising. If you want people’s time and attention you better give them something in return. A laugh, a feeling, a perspective, an idea. But you better have something.Without that, you won’t be noticed and what’s worse you could be actively disliked.

Recently, I judged an advertising award show and I saw something quite similar happening. Case study after case study were full of worthy causes. All of these causes were an indictment on the world. They showed unpalatable truths that need to be addressed.

There was just one problem. There was no idea at the centre. The subject had become the idea. It was a documentary without creativity. The story was way stronger than the solution.

It was a good reminder that there is a big difference between saying you are funny and telling a joke. In the latter you have to do the work. You have to have an idea. You have to consider your audience. You have to make people feel what you are saying.

And, feeling the truth is way more powerful than the truth just being said. Because, that is when the truth becomes yours. That is when it starts to matter.

It is also the difference between reaching millions and talking to nobody.

It is understanding that your truth becomes the truth only when somebody is listening.

Advertising. Queen’s Gambit versus the robots.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Joan Didion

Well, here I go. This is the advertising equivalent of the charge of the light brigade. I am going to ride my horse of belief right at the cannons of coolness. I am about to fight for a word even I hate. Tally ho.

For a little while storytelling was a good word in advertising. Then it became lame because everybody used the term. Because of this, it lost its meaning. It was a bit like one of those clubs that suddenly everybody started to visit. It used to be interesting and special. And then suddenly it became shit.

I mention it because I read two interesting titbits this week. The first was an article that stated that creative directors could be replaced by robots. And at the very least, AI will become a massive tool for creatives. The reason given is that with the ability to tailor messaging going forward you will have to have multiple executions. So, for example, as the weather changes the headlines on your billboard may change to make the message relevant to the environment. The author seemed to think this was revolutionary. He also seemed to have very little idea what creative directors do these days. Actually, I have noticed lately that people that are not creatives who write about creatives seem to have the strangest and most outdated ideas about what we do. But I digress.

I have no doubt that AI will become a massive tool for advertising in the future. Messages will have to be pumped out at a blinding speed, with unerring accuracy across multiple channels. The question is, is this the only way and should it be the only way to do things? Going forward many of the discussions will of course be about cost, relevance and the ability to personalise the message for the consumer. Remember this sentence.

The other piece I read is an article written last year in the New York Times by Marie Fazio. It is about the incredibly popular Netflix series Queen’s Gambit and how it has made chess ridiculously popular across America again. Just as an example of how popular chess has become the article gives two stats. Goliath Games a company that sells chess sets has seen sales increase by 1000 percent over the year before. And on eBay, sales of chess sets have increased by 215 percent. Holy shit.

Changing behaviour is always the gold standard in our business. Think about if you had received that as a brief. In a world of infinite and exciting games, full of people who have no time, we want you to get these people to play a very old unfashionable game very few of them understand. Good luck. Show me ideas on Wednesday. And you know have fun with it.

If there is a lesson we should not forget, it is that to persuade people to do anything they have to care about it. When people care about something they don’t have to be told very often. Remember that sentence. Cost, personalisation and relevance. Well, not needing to be told very often takes care of cost. And when you have a truly great yarn, it goes way beyond relevance and personalisation for the viewer. It becomes a part of them. The story is them even when it isn’t about them. Think how crazy it is that a story about a chess genius in the 50’s makes multitudes of people go out and buy chess sets today. But it did. Because the story made the world care about something they didn’t care about. It made them look for something nobody could have predicted they would look for.

Here’s another example based on my dipstick research. I am seeing something similar with a documentary series called Drive to Survive. It is a giant advert for Formula 1. I have had multiple conversations with friends that start with the following words. I never liked Formula 1 but shit since I watched that series it changed how I look at it.

The storytelling changed their mind about something they didn’t give a shit about. Advertising would do well to remember very few care about our messages. Accuracy will not be enough.

I guess my feeling is I am always dubious when somebody says the future of advertising will be like this or like that. Nobody knows and most predictions come with a vested interest. At best, most predictions are partly right. So, here is my inaccurate prediction.

I think advertising will still be a blend rather than a single malt. For me, how time works in our business will be the greatest challenge we face. What will an ad be going forward? That is a whole blog in of itself. There are going to be many levels rather than one platform no matter how inconvenient that is. Advertising will be about relevance and accuracy on one level. A personalised billboard, sure. But, that will not be enough. Remember, storytelling can make you care about things you didn’t care or know about. I agree that AI will play a major role and it will do a lot of heavy lifting for a certain level of the business. I also think creativity and AI will do a whole lot of amazing things we cannot imagine. So, done right that is pretty exciting. And right means letting these two powerful things dance together without deciding what the music should be. If it just becomes about cost, speed and volume the work will get worse. Guaranteed.

Here is the other side of the coin. I think accuracy is not the same thing as distinctiveness. Being there is not the same as being noticed. I also think personalisation is not as powerful as internalising a tale that makes your life more interesting or more exciting. Can advertising do that consistently? A good question we will find the answer to in the next couple of years. What I do know is I think that will be the benchmark going forward as the boundaries blur.

I am also bloody sure that when everybody starts doing the same shit there will be a sweaty meeting about trying to be different from the competition. Or, the other late night round table with post-its about how we connect with actual human beings who don’t seem to be noticing our very accurate messages.

And to solve that, you will always need a bloody good story.


Advertising. A restaurant without a kitchen.

To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”

Francois De La Rochefoucauld

When I was growing up I never lived in a house. I lived in many hotels because my father was a hotel manager. This gave me a unique perspective on the chaos that is needed to create order and desirability. I would watch coffee-fuelled staff rush to clean rooms before the next guests arrived. Every weekend there were sweaty porters stumbling up stairs with mountains of luggage desperately trying to get the suitcases in the rooms before the guests got there. The chaos needed for the illusion of order. The effort needed to create the illusion of effortlessness.

However, there were two parts of every hotel that especially fascinated me. Kitchens and restaurants. Restaurants. The white table cloths. The dulcet tones of the maitre d’. Clinking glasses, soft music and even softer lighting. A feeling of tranquility perfumed the air.

Walk twenty steps through a swinging door that was designed to knock plates out of every waiter’s hands and you reached the kitchen. Let me paint you a rosy picture. Welcome to hell. Smoke, steam and shouting. Plates breaking. There always seemed to be a mad German head chef throwing something at somebody. A waiter crying because their order was lost. Somebody hiding in the cold room because of the stress. A heated conversation about a menu change because somebody forgot to order fucking asparagus. A feeling of unreasonable effort singed the nostrils. But the food made it all worth it.

I used to see the customers taste the food and look at each other with a knowing look. In that moment, the taste, the smell, the lighting, the sound, the service and all the ingredients swirled into a type of fleeting perfection. In short, a moment that is memorable. A moment you would remember. I have always understood that to create this kind of perfection some chaos, effort, blood, sweat and tears is required. There is no shortcut.

But, when it comes to advertising I am not sure everybody agrees with me.

After all chaos is unpleasant. It would be nice if we could eliminate it. It would be great if you could just get to the perfection part without the making, sweating, bleeding part. No more innovation or creation. I mean how important is the food? The taste. What if the restaurant was just about the restaurant and the kitchen did not matter? What if the kitchen was just one guy in the back with a microwave oven. Three minutes every time. Perfection, right?

Lately, there are quite a few stories circulating about global brands realising they have wasted a hundred million dollars or so on ads that nobody saw. Many of them have started looking at brand advertising again. I am sure we will see a lot more of this. Now, I know a lot of the arguments are about where these ads were placed and should they have used different channels. However, what nobody talks about is the creativity and quality of the ads that are pumped out. Most of them look like they were made in the 1950’s. Pack-shot. Headline. They look cheap. They look like nobody gave a fuck. Think about what a cheap looking ad says about a product to the consumer. Thousands of microwave meals spewing into the dining room spoiling a great night out. There is no caring or specialness here. Nothing distinctive. People are going to notice how bad or bland these ads are. Or, ironically, in the case of these global brands, consumers didn’t notice thousands of them at all. Oh well, 100 million dollars down the drain.

To extend my cooking theme, the saying goes the proof is in the pudding. Our industry should remember that. You have to give the consumer something for their time. Let’s not pretend a microwave meal is the same thing as a Michelin star meal. There is nothing wrong with wanting either option. But there is something wrong with pretending they are the same thing. Maybe some reading this think craft or caring is just a nice to have. Or, it isn’t that important. Just do lots of stuff and everything will be fine. The product doesn’t matter just the amount of product.

To those people, let me ask you three questions. How many times would you go to a restaurant where the meal wasn’t special or memorable in any way. I would venture not very often.

Or, how about a restaurant that has no caring, passionate chef and just serves thousands of bland, monotonous microwave meals over and over?

Finally, how excited would you feel about a restaurant with superb service, fantastic menu’s and no kitchen or food at all?

Why would your answers be any different for advertising?

Bon appetit.

Creativity. A dangerous ingredient from two old men.

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”

Oscar Wilde

There are a lot of ideas in the world today. It is what fuels the world. We always say how we need ideas. But we don’t really value them. In our business, thousands get thrown away every day. Over the last couple of years I have noticed what I call Swiss-Army knife ideas. They work in many places. People like them because they tick a lot of boxes. They are useful. They are nice. They do the job. But, and this is a big but, they lack one very vital ingredient. Two great men on both sides of the Atlantic reminded me what that very special ingredient should always be.

Let’s start with a little humour that shows the power of authenticity. The picture above appeared as a meme on the internet 24 hours after Bernie Sanders wore some beautiful mittens to the inauguration of Joe Biden. The Bernie Meme has become a phenomenon with thousands of them now. The question is why? What is the connection this made with the world? Let me take a shot. If you start with Senator Sanders fashion choices, they say two things. This is who I am and I don’t give a fuck. Honesty and a little danger. Ingredients that matter when it comes to what people find funny. Ingredients that make people believe in a person and an idea.

Let’s never forget without those ingredients you don’t really reach people. You don’t get noticed because what you have isn’t rare or exciting. At best, you have something that is quite nice and probably a little bland. Let’s always remember the words from ‘Here’s To The Crazy Ones.’

“They have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.”

You can’t ignore them because you know they are telling their truth. And in a split second, they change the world. We all want to see that.

The World: Bernie, when you go to a Presidential inauguration you dress a certain way.

Bernie: Hold my beer.

The world has changed.

Captain Sir Tom Moore

And now to something truly grand. In the same week, Bernie did this, Captain Sir Tom Moore sadly passed away. He is a hero of mine. This great man had a simple, beautiful idea. Walk 100 lengths of his garden by the time he reached his 100th birthday. He wanted to raise 1000 pounds. He ended up raising closed to 33 million pounds. Very similar ingredients. I know who I am. I will do what I want to do. Honesty. Bravery. Kindness.

The World: When you are almost a hundred you can’t do a hundred lengths of your garden.

Captain Tom: Hold my sherry.

The world has now changed

Both Bernie and Tom’s examples remind us to be honest and authentic. To follow your own path. Listen to yourself first. Do it your own way. When you do, the world finds you and your ideas.

But, Captain Tom. Well, for me that is on another level. Selfless. Pure love. What a bloody great human. I think his example teaches us in the most compassionate way of a simple fact. When it comes to ideas, or life if you prefer, you can only get 90% of the way safely. You can avoid the risks and the pitfalls with intellect and knowledge. But, there comes a dark valley in your voyage . The last 10%. Here you have to go where you don’t know the outcome of your journey. You have to risk. You have to commit. I have an idea and I am all in. You have to say fuck it, I am giving it a go. There are a few ways you can get through to the other side. Determination, authenticity, maybe a little pigheadedness and a dash of madness. Without it, you don’t reach the shore where you find the one vital ingredient all great ideas must have.


Creativity. Listen to Motown and the Lion Rock.

Lion Rock. Piha.

“Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life.”

Werner Herzog

I have been staring at this rock for three days. It may have hypnotised me. I have become convinced it is trying to tell me something. I have smiled at it. I have photographed it. Once or twice, I have turned quickly trying to catch it unawares. But nothing. On the third day, however, I started to understand. Nothing was the message. A fact has time on its side. And a rock, is a big fact. A fact doesn’t have to say anything. It can just listen.

Let me take a step back. For a month or so I couldn’t write anything. Towards the end of 2020 I felt like there was a strange frenzy happening. An orgy of explanation and opinions. Everybody had something to say. Everybody had an answer or a process. Experts were all talking about how it was all going to change. It was understandable. In a year of having no control we were all trying to find some pattern in the chaos. Make sense of it all. I get it. However, the deluge of opinions made me not want to add anything. So I didn’t. I just listened. I was looking for my own big fact. A rock. I was looking for what was not going to change.

There is a phrase. The serendipity of ideas. How ideas happen. It has become a reoccurring mantra in my head. It is a little at odds with powerful and fashionable themes like efficiency and how in the future we can all work from home. There are many types of work you can do from home. There are many meetings you can have from home. And probably should. There are many things that should be on that list.

Having ideas under pressure on a daily basis isn’t one of them.

These days a creative department feels like a very unfashionable description. But, rather than come up with a new sexy name like idea navy or the innovation cloud, I would like to make a beautiful, yet possibly doomed attempt at arguing why ideas will always need a couple of people in a room. Whatever you call them.

The underwhelming garage that became Motown

So, let’s go back in time and look at another creative department. Motown. It was started in 1959 by the brilliant Berry Gordy. It all began, as most success stories do, in a garage. 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit to be exact. An unfashionable address that would become the most successful independent recording label in history. I won’t go into the glittering history and the incredible success of Motown. But, let’s just say 25 number 1 hits means they had the right ingredients. So, what were they? What did they have that great creative departments have? How did they improve ideas and ensure they always became real?

For ideas to happen and improve you need interesting people that are interested all in one place. Or, to put it another way, ideas need a home where they can incubate. Some ideas happen instantly and some can take years. Output comes from input. A great creative home gives you that time and space. You can sit in a room and have very efficient zoom calls day after day but speak to any creative who has been doing this and they will tell you eventually they struggle. You start to have the same ideas. As I said, output comes from input. It comes from listening to a conversation in a lift or overhearing a chord progression when somebody is making coffee. Ideas come from the unexpected fragments life gives you. Ideas are also unending. One tiny thread or strange hallway chat can change everything. This would have happened at Motown and I have seen it happen in creative departments

Ideas need competition. I am pretty sure Marvin Gaye would want his album to be better than Stevie Wonder’s next record. They would have pushed each other. I am sure they all did. And helped each other out too. A weird mix of competition and co-operation you see in creative environments. Stevie and Marvin would care more about what their peers thought of an idea more than anybody else out there. Creative departments are no different. You can have an idea but it still needs polishing. If you think obsession isn’t part of making something great you are not a creative. The invisible line that lives in creatives minds and in a creative department is what creates magical things. I would argue that has enormous value and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Ideas need belief and momentum. Motown succeeded because they had a great product. But it also succeeded because it had enough people pushing in the same direction. That created a very unique sound, style and a standard. An idea that has a unique tone and flavour is distinctive. Ideas that are distinctive are the holy grail if you are in the business of being noticed. This happens with great agencies. When enough creatives tune into the same frequency but retain their own wavelength. A strange type of idea telepathy. I would venture that would be almost impossible to replicate on your own. Also, ideas don’t just happen. Most great ideas have quite a few people that fought very hard to make them happen. It really can take a village to keep an idea alive.

I have always said having a 100 ideas is easy but caring about one is the hard bit. Coming up with ideas is a messy business. It is not a straight line and often doesn’t make sense. Until it does. To do it you need people. Strange people that care too much. Weirdos that believe when others don’t. Madmen that listen to funny conversations on a bus and remember naughty words written on a wall. Maybe that was what 2020 was all about. The human factor. Reminding us that there is no substitute for us all being there. Together. In the same place.

So, viva the creative department. Or, whatever you want to call it.

Because when we listen to each other, impossible things happen.

That’s what the rock said anyway.

Happy New Year.