How to make Norwegian curry.

“The film is made in the editing room. The shooting of the film is about shopping, almost. It’s like going to get all the ingredients together and you’ve got to make sure before you leave the store that you got all the ingredients. And then you can make a good cake – or not.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Many years ago, as a very skinny and intense student there was a ritual I used to partake in. It went like this. Towards the end of the week, my flatmates and I would normally be broke. Yet, we needed to eat. The solution was ingenious. We would go to supermarkets. We would try to look casual, relaxed and unhungry. We would descend on those happy, friendly samplers like a pack of wafer thin wolves. We would take as many samples of sauces or biscuits as we could from those now sad empty handed samplers who had mistakenly thought they might be able to sell something to a malnourished frenzy of students. We would combine this glorious haul with our one friend who could always get his hands on what seemed to be an unending supply of Scandinavian sardines from his doting mother. We called this culinary triumph Norwegian Curry.

I am sure if you opened the cupboard in your kitchen you would find some weird shit. Look right at the back and there will be a bottle of dry leaves or granules with a name you can’t pronounce. You don’t remember buying it. But you don’t chuck it out do you? Because deep down, you know that one day you might just need it to make your very own Norwegian Curry.

Ingredients are funny things. Try eat a bottle of cinnamon and you will have a really shit afternoon. Put them on pancakes. Way better. Try make custard without vanilla. I am sure it is possible but it won’t be as good. The question is, does that really matter? Do you need great custard or will average suffice? This question is what drives thousands of creatives mad around the world every day.

The longer I am in this business, the more I think that we are always wrestling with three possibilities or challenges. Make the same recipe, but with less ingredients. Use ingredients we don’t always like to make something we do. And very occasionally, you get all the ingredients to try and surpass the existing recipe. These three possibilities are the number one reason you need creativity and lateral thinking. Because the truth is, if you are a creative you are always trying to make a better Norwegian curry (something new or something that doesn’t yet exist) no matter how few ingredients you have. And, for me, the key to doing this was learning that like garlic on your breath some ingredients will always be there. Some are ingredients you may not like but will always need.

So, I thought I would jot down a few ingredients that you find in almost every creative endeavour. I don’t like all of them but in just the right amount it can get you that Michelin Star, Silver Bear, Bronze Guava or just remain gainfully employed. I call them them the 5C’s, or to extend my culinary metaphor, the spice rack of advertising.

First up criticism. The cayenne pepper of advertising. Too much of it and it will destroy everything. Agencies, people, work you name it. Often, it can be ego masquerading as high standards. However, if you have none of it, your dish could be bland or completely shit. If there is way to be better we should open to it. The trick is to find somebody who will tell you the truth. And here is the important part, find somebody who is trying to make your work better rather than make you feel worse. If you can’t take criticism you won’t make it in this business. I think the hardest lesson I had to learn was trying to use criticism to be better than I was yesterday rather than trying to be better than everybody else. I know, that’s easy to say.

Second C. Being a car salesman. It has become pretty unfashionable to talk about selling in this business. Which is why I am using the very sexy term car salesman to describe the task. Our job is to make ideas that sell and sell ideas that we can make. Every day. You can have the best idea in the world but if nobody else can see that, it’s game over. We deal with large sums of money and things that are yet to be made. There is a lot of fear baked into that process. Persuade, paint a picture, seduce, present a strong argument, convince or any other term you might like is needed to get the curry made. If there is one thing I would say to young creatives it is learn to sell the idea as much as have the idea. It can literally save you years in your career. I don’t always feel this is addressed in ad-schools but it should be.

Next up, curation. There is a saying that you think the stars are big until you look at the spaces between them. Having a great idea is awesome but seeing the potential between many of them is more important today than it ever was. There are very few campaigns today that are not integrated. There are very few that don’t use multiple channels. This means you are either looking for what I call a Swiss-army knife idea. That is, an idea that can work across multiple channels. Or, you have to develop the ability to look at a wall full of disparate ideas and see the connection or possibilities between them. You then have to pull those ingredients together. This is a skill that is not always understood and it is often how work suddenly magically happens. This will become even more important in the future because the ideas can no longer just be stars but have to also be the spaces between them. The orchestration of ideas will become as important as the ideas themselves.

Here’s a fun one, catastrophe. A dangerous spice, that’s for sure. In just about every piece of work I have done it has appeared somewhere in the process. Something changes. Somebody makes a mistake. The timings have changed. You can’t use a certain colour or word. There was information you didn’t know. Or there is something you can no longer get. For reasons beyond your control, it all just fucks out. It’s in those moments where you have to have great people around you that just won’t give up. Courage is another spice. As is tenacity. There is no shortcut. Sometimes you just have to stay in the kitchen. Without being able to hang in there, you almost never do anything great. One other strange point about catastrophe. In the middle of it, lies opportunity. I have found that if you can just keep cooking through the madness there will be something that makes the work better lying in the middle of the problem. I don’t know why, it just seems to always happen.

And finally, creativity. It is the one thing that lets you take the same ingredients and make something new. In fact, it is the only thing. There are only 12 notes in music. But how many songs are there? Without it, the other ingredients don’t really matter. It is the only thing that has the power to transform, re-interpret and change the mundane and the same old same old. It is what can help you make leaps you didn’t know you could make. It is what can change everything. It is the strongest glue and the brightest light. It is not a formula and the more you try and explain it the dumber you will sound. It is a mystery you need but can’t solve. It is this strange power that says the world was like that and now it is like this. And it can do it instantly. It is not just an ingredient, it is every ingredient and every food. Without it, you can literally make nothing worth eating.

And this is coming from somebody who has made way too much Norwegian curry.

Creativity. Intelligence is not enough.

Creativity is intelligence having fun.

Albert Einstein

I will get back to this brilliant quote in a minute.

Jerry Seinfeld is standing on stage. Actually, he is leaning on the stool provided. The stage is small, smoky and I imagine dank. It’s one of the those rooms that you always find at the bottom of some dark stairs. Jerry is sweating. He has a piece of paper with some jokes on it. He has lost his train of thought. He is bombing badly and it is very painful to watch. While he is grasping and scrambling somebody in the late night audience heckles the great comic. They shout out, is this your first time?

You can see this moment for yourself in a documentary called ‘Comedian’. It is about what Jerry Seinfeld did after Seinfeld ended. The answer is he went back on the road and sucked for a while. In fact, it took 3 months to get enough new material. He understood that to do this he would have to go through a very painful public process. Because that is how you create something new. There is no shortcut. He understood that the stage was not the joke. His reputation was not the joke. His process was not the joke. The audience and the drinks were not the joke. The joke was the joke and he had to find it in a fumbling, naked way. He has to find the fun. Because that’s how it’s done.

I think our business could learn a lot from this example. Swop the word joke for creativity. We talk a lot about what creativity is. Let’s talk about what creativity is not. Many of these things surround creativity. Ideas might actually need these things. But to be clear they are not the joke. The joke is the joke. Creativity is not an iron clad formula. Unfortunately, it’s not predictable but on the upside this is also why it is valuable. Measurement is not creativity. It is not post rationalisation and explaining. It is always a leap and it is not lots and lots of meetings. If that were true, a lot more advertising would be great. But it’s not. We should probably talk about that. Maybe in the next blog.

Anyway, this in a round about way, brings me back to the quote. The first half uses the word intelligence. I would imagine very few people would argue that intelligence is required to find elegant solutions or answers. The second part uses a much shorter word that we don’t really talk about. Fun.

Now, fun might seem frivolous. Maybe a bit silly? But, without it you just have intelligence. And according to Einstein that is not enough to form creativity. Simply put, there is no leap. You do what has always been done. Here is a perfect example of why intelligence is not enough. Below is Sir Ken Robinson’s brilliant talk where he tells the story of a little girl in class who never paid attention until she got to art class. Please watch it.

What is fun? It is pure potential and belief. And a large lack of fear. This is how you get somewhere new. A 6 year old girl reminds us that to do something impossible like draw what God looks like you need more than intelligence. Intelligence is not enough. That is what the teacher has. You need innocence, belief and a few other things that make that secret sauce. Human, messy things. Seinfeld understands this completely. To create new work, he knows he has to believe in something that does not exist. Not what he already knows. He has to believe in his potential and talent and quite frankly hope for the best and go through a very painful couple of months. That’s just how creativity works. Creativity is a line not a dot. You have to follow that line and let it show you where to go. Not where you are, or where you have been. That creativity has very little value.

Our industry should always remember and protect the second part of Mr Einstein’s quote because the first part will never be enough.

Mind your language.

Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.

Martin Heidegger

I have been thinking about language a lot lately. I have a saying which is let’s not get lost in the forest of maybe. It is the place where a lot of advertising ends up before it is made. The simple reason it often happens is the imprecision of language. Let me give you an example. Take the word real. In your mind, think what the word means to you. Whatever you thought, it can mean many other things. Real can mean authentic. It can mean gritty. It can mean a documentary. It can mean unvarnished. From the streets. Full of unrestrained emotion. It can mean showing things as they are. My point is whatever you think it means it can mean other things. This is the path to the forest of maybe. But there are other ways to get there.

Take the word Metaverse. What does it actually mean? 6 months ago, it didn’t exist. Then it did. If you listen to any conversations in the marketing world at the moment you will hear terms like blockchain and NFT’s sprinkled into sentences like confetti from the future. The power of the new. It is something our industry does to create energy and possibilities. It is not that any of these terms are wrong but just that they can mean many things and that normally involves very different levels of investment. Never let anybody tell you money is not important when it comes to creativity. Ideas might cost nothing. Making them real does not.

In the past, we have had other words and phrases. Pokemon Go, data is the new oil, Google Glasses, Vine, VR and AR just to mention a few. They were the things creating excitement and energy. They were also used to seem contemporary and of the moment. And then this weekend a company made a television commercial that consisted of a QR code for the Super Bowl and our industry got very excited. To be clear, this is a technology that nobody gave any love to for a decade. I guess there is a big difference between words and ideas.

The great photographer Sir Norman Parkinson once said the purpose of fashion is to change. I often think that same need lies inside advertising. And that can often be wrapping paper without a gift. Language can impress but in the end you better have an idea. While thinking about this I bumped into the picture above. It sums up everything in a single image.

The old saying is that words have power. But, perhaps there is a flip side. Words lose their power. They lose meaning and feeling. This occurs when words are used over and over. Or, it happens when what those words mean do not suit your purpose and you begin to stretch the truth using language. When this happens we start saying things like brands are religions. Sounds good, but what does it mean? We have just entered the forest.

Why does this matter and why does it happen? The simple answer is the familiar becomes less and less noticed. The familiar becomes boring. Language loses its charge and there is an understandable desire to make those words powerful again. It is the battle between accuracy and intensity.

It is a schism that exists in our business. On the one hand we want clarity. We want it all to make sense. On the other hand, we want to sell things, concepts and ideas. We want human beings to do stuff. The solution is to create emotion. Emotion drives behaviour far more than clarity on its own. So, we get weird phrases like turning customers into fanatics. And you don’t have to look far to see how weird it can get. If you look at companies like WeWork or Theranos at their core there was a religious fervour. When you tell people what they are doing is special and deeply important they will go to ridiculous lengths to make that true. I mean WeWork sells space in buildings but to the people that worked there it came across like it was a cure for cancer.

If you read Amanda Montell’s excellent book Cultish you realise this way of speaking has become far more prevalent than we think. She looks at modern exercise programmes like Peloton and F45, Jim Jones and Donald Trump and everything in between to try and define what a cult is. It turns out it’s way more difficult than we think. The main ingredient seems to be language and how it is used. If you know secret words or phrases you feel part of something. You feel special. Another is measurement gives meaning to people. When you can see progress you can see movement in your life. Many tech brands understand this very well. Another secret ingredient is conviction. And it might very well be the most underrated ingredient of all. It also just happens to rely on language for success. Conviction gives people a solid path. It creates direction. This is incredibly powerful. And this normally starts with people believing that something is better than something else. I said believe rather than know.

Which brings us back to language. Which brings us back to selling.

Watch a documentary like the Tinder Swindler on Netflix and you can see just how dangerous absolute conviction and use of language in the wrong hands can be.

The question is in a world that loves the rational and the measurable how much is selling still about conviction and persuasion?

If the examples above prove anything, it is that people desperately want language to create a path of simplicity and understanding. But, language can do a lot more. It can also create conviction. A certainty of feeling. In a word, belief. This seems to be how you get people do just about anything. And I do mean anything.

Let’s choose our words carefully.

Creativity. Choose your certainty wisely.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

William Butler Yeats

Ahead of me on the street were two late 20 somethings talking very passionately. They were on vacation. T-shirts, cargo shorts, sandals and a farmers tan. They were very excitedly talking about crypto, blockchain and NFT’s. It was the future and it was a sure fire way to get filthy rich. They were dead certain about this. For them this was a pattern that would never change. They hadn’t ever considered the possibility they could lose money. I think they even gave each other a high five which made me feel like I was in a teenage Disney film with bad acting and way too much styling.

Maybe it was because it was the beginning of the year. Or, perhaps it was the strangeness of last year but it got me thinking about the word certainty. The first observation I would make is that being certain about the future is a dangerous game. Last year proved that. I started to think about the different types of certainty that lead to actions and ideas. There is the certainty of what you perceive as fact. You believe this solidity will never change. It is the kind of certainty the two crypto bro’s had in front of me. It is the certainty you find at the beginning of things. You don’t know for sure, but you definitely believe. It is the certainty that lets you take crazy and occasionally brilliant risks.

The second type of certainty is about established patterns. Some time in the holidays I saw a fantastic documentary called Sour Grapes. It is about a fraudster called Rudy Kurniawan and the wine collecting industry. Essentially, he conned the wine industry by creating fake bottles of wine. The wine industry was an established pattern. Everybody understood the pattern and the rules of the game. Rudy came along and broke the pattern. He was creative. He would create fake labels on the bottles and mix cheaper wine to approximate the original expensive stuff. It was almost the perfect crime. If you are buying wine for investment purposes you store it and never see it. If you actually drink it, the evidence is gone. If Rudy hadn’t made a spelling mistake on one of the bottles he might never have been caught. The damage he has done to the industry is incalculable. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. All because somebody came along and said I don’t accept your version of reality.

Create patterns and break patterns. This is the dance. Being certain at the beginning is good. Using certainty to your advantage is better. Being certain as things change is the best of all.

This is the third type of certainty. What I call creative certainty. I would define this as trusting and working with change. You are not certain about the outcome but you are certain about the process. You know the pattern will change and you know it will still work out.

Here is a fantastic example.When Bridge over Troubled Water was originally written by Paul Simon he wrote it on guitar. They went into the studio and he realised the song needed to be played on piano rather than guitar. Paul trusted and was certain about his instinct. This meant the song had to be changed and they needed a piano player. The piano players name was Larry Knechtel. He had a very strong gospel background and had played with Elvis Presley fairly often. This of course influenced how he played the song. Because of the way he played, Paul Simon realised the song needed a much bigger third verse which he went and wrote. This is what made the song iconic. Paul Simon was not certain about the outcome but he was certain about the process.

This certainty allows you to break patterns rather than cling on to old ones.

It is the most valuable of all. I am almost certain of it.

Advertising. You can learn a lot and very little in 10 years.

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”

Robert Frost

I am going to apologise in advance. I am not sure what this post is about. It’s a little sentimental. I just felt I had to put something down or say something. Next month is a little milestone for me. I genuinely didn’t realise 2022 will be the tenth year of writing I have written over 220 posts and I have had over 250 000 people visit the site and a few more read my weird ideas in the 8 countries that the blog is published in.

That makes me proud.

So fucking what I hear you say. And that’s fair. Enough humble bragging from me. Maybe a better use of this blog would be asking was there any point to writing all of this weird shit and did I learn anything?

Well, to answer that let’s start with why wrote it in the first place. The short answer is I felt when I started everybody except creatives were writing about being creative. Nobody wrote what it was like to be a creative and stare at blank walls, screens and pads hoping an idea would appear. Everybody had a theory or a process but never had to come up with the actual answer. They could tell you how to do it but never had to risk doing it themselves. Ten years later, not much has changed there. What has changed however is many more types of companies now see the need for creativity. I believe this is going to massively change the landscape going forward. But that’s for another blog.

On a more personal level, I began writing because I wanted to see if anybody else felt the way I did about ideas. It was a strange kind of public therapy. What I found was many did. I got emails from Minneapolis to Moscow and everywhere in between. What I found was that creatives are a tribe. We might speak different languages but we all actually speak the same language. And from your emails, we certainly deal with very similar challenges globally. As a side note, I wish I could publish some of the stories I have been sent. Trust me, if you are a creative having a rough day, there are some insane stories I have been sent that will put your day into perspective. From your stories and responses I learnt there is no perfect. I learnt nobody has the answer and perhaps talent is important but resilience is very important. That is still true today.

I also learnt when you hear jargon beware. That was a re-occurring theme that I wrote about often. In our business we love jargon and complication. But, in my experience, if nobody in the room understands it, it’s either because there is nothing to understand or it’s just not very good. 100 page decks are normally hiding nothing rather than showing you something. Simplicity is very hard and does the job far better. Take one of my all time favourite quotes from the late great David Abbott.

“It doesn’t matter how fast shit reaches you, it’s still shit.”

Simple, clear and to the point.

Ten years on, I would say we need a lot more of that.

I guess another big theme has been creatives themselves. How you need human beings to come up with ideas that are new and can change everything. I would say ten years on there are many debates about how to generate more and more ideas that we have to put in more and more places. I think this has changed the kinds of ideas we have to come up with now. Think what else you would have to do with Cadbury Gorilla now as opposed to it just being a television commercial 15 years ago. The debate of being somewhere vs being everywhere will continue.

For me what isn’t up for debate when it comes to ideas is the secret ingredient of humaness (my word). I would define it as caring way beyond your salary or working hours. Without it, the danger of everybody having the same idea becomes very real. Go and look at this years Xmas commercials. A couple stand out because somebody really cared about the idea and the details. However, many are generic wallpaper and some are just terrible. So, despite all the processes we have a decade later that ratio hasn’t really changed. The truth is really great work happens because somebody trusts somebody and believes in something that doesn’t exist yet. That is the human factor. That hasn’t changed. Even after all the due diligence has been done a leap always has to be made.

For that, you need people.

I guess that is what I have learned by writing this weird blog for 10 years. We love the shiny. We love what is next. We love big words. Many love fancy offices, big salaries and grand titles. And in this business, we all probably love or need adulation a little too much. A lot of this stuff lasts a day, a month or not much longer than that. Everything is always changing. Yet, despite all this noise, movement and madness some things don’t change at all.

The right people can walk into a room and leave with an idea that can blow the world’s mind.

I have seen people do impossible things or come up with ideas that make you sit down. I have seen people fix impossible things, explain things, change things and create things. The magic of alchemy with the pressure of a stopwatch.

These mad, brilliant people make me love advertising and creativity.

We should never take them for granted because they are pretty special.

That is the lesson. In a world that is changing a lot, what hasn’t changed are the people who make it all work.

They are a tribe of coffee-fuelled magicians.

To the tribe, thanks for reading my blog. It means a lot.

Merry Xmas and keep doing impossible things.

Creativity. The unfortunate way ideas happen.

“If you run out of ideas follow the road; you’ll get there.”

Edgar Allan Poe

I wonder how many times a great idea has been filmed? It couldn’t have happened that many times. Most of the time it is an internal process. You cannot see it. Fortunately, and luckily for us, that is not the case in Peter Jackson’s new documentary called ‘Get Back’ about the Beatles last couple of weeks together in 1969. I am a Beatles fan so found all 6 hours of it fascinating.

However, even if you are not, you should watch the clip above of Paul McCartney trying to come up with a song which just happens to be Get Back. It is the best example I have seen of how an idea happens. It has all the ingredients and none of them are a post-it.

What struck me about The Beatles was how they worked. They were almost always joking around but focused. Relaxed and slightly on edge. They were in no rush but when something stuck they suddenly became aligned. Even Ringo who seemed stoned most of the time had this weird way of suddenly playing the drums when an idea started to take shape.

But back to this clip. (If you get a chance watch the full clip on YouTube to see all the pieces come together) What does it show? Let’s start with desperation and belief. Ingredients that every creative understands and are always useful at the beginning of a process. Belief is a wonky compass. Desperation a strange fuel. Paul has both because he is under the pump. He needs a song. So, he just starts with no idea of what to do. This is what every creative does. He starts to basically fuck around. Strumming something with no words. He believes there is something there. But he doesn’t know what it will be.

This is actually a critical and very sensitive juncture. Nobody stops him fucking around and he has the time to fuck around. George and Ringo have no idea what he is doing. But they don’t say, that’s a bit shit Paul. They wait because they know this is how you come up with ideas. They believe Paul is going to find something. They know he will find the beginning of the thread. It is the perfect example of an idea being a line rather than a dot. When you have the wrong people in the room or you work in a negative environment ideas die before they are even born. Those people want the idea to be fully formed instantly. But that’s not how ideas work. Most friction in our business is because of this fact.

The other part that is fascinating is when Paul does find the thread. This is where you see why The Beatles are truly great. There is instant unequivocal support. They almost all instantly know he has found something. They don’t question it. They all click into place. They just support what he is doing. Even John, who comes in late sits down and begins to play. He doesn’t say a word. He just fits into the idea. Four minds become one. That ability only comes from teams who have worked together for a quite a while. They just know. They don’t need language.

The ingredients. A little pressure. The ability to play and have fun despite that pressure. Having enough self-belief that you will find something. Creating the time to find it. Getting support from your band. Nobody in that clip has any idea where things are going. There is no data. There is no proof.

Just trust.

These are the ingredients you see working perfectly in this clip. These are the ingredients that you need to find a great idea. Not the illusion of an idea. Not a pretend we have seen that idea a million times before idea. But an idea that wasn’t there and then it was kind of idea.

It is strange how we try and bypass these ingredients. We always think there is an easier, faster way. It is also strange how we don’t realise the value of people working together and that experience and collective experience creates things that couldn’t be done any other way. We want ideas. The world wants ideas. But we don’t like the uncertainty of how you have them. We want the destination without the journey.

Most of the time the reasons given for this are progress and efficiency. I often hear the words faster and more. For some this is how we move forward.

However, it would seem there is another way that will never change and has been here all along.

Perhaps, to truly move forward it would be far better if we just listened to ‘Get Back’.

A line is a dot that went for a walk.

This is a quote that I think about a lot. It comes from the great artist Paul Klee. Anybody who knows me has heard me say it. For me, it perfectly sums up the tension between closing the deal and creatively staying open.

Anybody remember the great movie, The Man from Pluto? No, me either. This was almost the name of a film you probably do know called ‘Back to the Future’. Here are a couple of other fun facts. The time machine in the film was almost a refrigerator instead of a DeLorean. And there was another actor that was cast before Michael J. Fox. Eric Stoltz. He was pretty famous at the time and they actually filmed with him for about 6 weeks before he was fired.

Two things. All of these decisions had to be made after the script was sold and millions had been invested. They were all made because of how the creators felt. They felt the man from Pluto was a stupid name the studio had suggested. They felt a DeLorean (by the way the car almost ended up being a Ford Mustang) was better than a fridge. They felt Eric Stoltz was too serious and was not working after 6 weeks of shooting. Think of the balls you need to say to a major studio who has sunk a lot of money into the project that you need to start again. I guess feelings do matter.

So, you might say, well that’s just Back to the Future. Do yourself a favour, go and watch ‘The Movies That Made Us’ on Netflix. It explores how some of the greatest movies were made over the last 30 years or so. Not only is it pretty interesting, you start to see a very familiar pattern in each one. You see how close each film came to complete disaster and was always saved in the same way. The pattern is remarkably consistent. A script is sold. Eventually, finance is found in a variety of ingenious ways. As the creative process happens problems and challenges arise or are discovered. Some are minor and some are major. Because of this 3 or 4 decisions are made that determine success. These decisions often have nothing to support them in terms of evidence. Most of them are just made because of how a creative feels. Maybe feelings are as important as facts when it comes to creativity. These days, that sentence sounds way more radical than it should.

This thought may leave many with a sense of discomfort. You finally have a script. It had been signed off. Maybe it had been researched. Risk had been mitigated. It’s all there in black and white. Everything should work out. Everything should be great. But then you end up with a shit sandwich. Why?

I think the answer is whether we do it intentionally or not, we focus on the dot way more than the line. In our business, we often think of creativity as a finite answer or an end product. But, that’s not how creativity works. Creativity is not a thing it is a way. Or, if you like it is a series of answers.

Leonardo da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa with him for most of his life. He was never paid for it and the family that commissioned it never received it. For him, it was never finished. It was never perfect. Every morning the painting collided with what was happening that day and what was happening in the great masters mind. A universe of possibilities and an infinite amount of decisions. In essence, there was not one Mona Lisa. There were billions. It couldn’t be finished. That wasn’t really the point.

Now, I realise that last paragraph isn’t particularly helpful to someone that has a deadline, a client and a finite budget. Or, maybe it is.

In our business we want certainty. We want to close the deal. Tick the box. Put it to bed. That comes from the beginning. However, we also want greatness. That doesn’t come from closing the deal. That comes from staying open to new ideas. Ideas that come from nowhere. Ideas that will make your life difficult. I have seen first hand that this is perhaps the hardest thing to do in our industry. Time, money and measurement. The dots. All important things. But they are not creativity. Let’s remember, creativity is valuable because it doesn’t care about any of the dots. That’s how it gets you to a new answer. An answer you either do not currently have or didn’t know you needed.

Of course, you have to care about the dots. But you had better care about that tricky line as well.

The line is a few decisions that can seperate you from disaster and take you to triumph.

They will be in every creative process. Stay open to them, even if you have closed the deal.

Listen to your gut.

Otherwise, you might go nowhere.

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.