advertising, Uncategorized

Has advertising lost its sense of humour?


“When humour goes, there goes civilisation.”

Erma Bombeck

There is a saying in Hollywood that comedies never win at the Oscars. It would seem the stats back it up. Guess how long it has been since a comedy won best picture at the Oscars? 40 years. Annie Hall won in 1977 and that was the very last time. In total, comedies have only ever won Best Picture 6 times in 88 years.

It’s a very strange fact. It’s almost like we cannot reward or acknowledge humour. It’s as if it is not a deep enough emotion to be rewarded. We need tears, angst or deep meaning to say a film is truly great. It has to be worthy of our praise. The problem with worthy however is that it is a very serious business

The truth is to make something funny is one of the hardest things you can do. And if you are honest about the films you love or the Youtube clips you show to your mates, comedy wins every time.

As I read all these stats about the Oscars I started to think about if this is true for advertising. Are we any different? How often does funny win best in show these days? And, I stress these days. Innovative, sure. Helping the planet or others, check. A story that makes you feel deeply, that’s a yes. Something that makes you laugh your ass off, not so much. So, does advertising still have a sense of humour?

One of advertisings greatest weapons was the ability to make people laugh. We shouldn’t underestimate or throw away its power.

While I was thinking about this I stumbled on a brilliant SNL skit that perfectly explains where advertising is at right now and the problems we are creating. And, it uses humour to do it.

Do yourself a favour and watch it. It’s worth 4 minutes of your time.

If you are in the USA you can watch it here.

Or, if you are not in the USA it apparently exists on Search for ‘pitch meeting.’

What this fantastic skit highlights is the real danger for advertising right now. Everybody is jumping on a cause. Should every brand have a deep purpose or meaning? If you are a corn chip called Cheetohs like the one in the SNL skit, should you really be trying to save the world?

Now, having said that, I think there are some brands that have walked the talk and have used this type of advertising or way of behaving to great effect. What you will normally find though is there is some sort of natural fit and it makes sense for the brand. These brands normally back up what they say. And, most importantly because of this the consumer doesn’t think it is all just bullshit and puffery.

However, without mentioning names, look at the Super Bowl work from this year and you will see many brands jumping on very generic trends that really have nothing to do with their brand or past behaviour. Somebody told them that people care about these issues and they just smashed their brand into a cause or purpose with very little truth, humour, charm or most importantly relevance. This is advertising’s version of alternative facts.

It’s like meeting somebody at a dinner party who just keeps saying I am a good person, I care about the world, love me. I am a good person, I care about the world, love me. I am a good person…it’s pretty weird right. A little intense. You would move to another part of the table desperately looking for someone who has a good story that will make you smile.

For me the lesson is simple. A trend is not an idea. Information is not a story. And sometimes, you don’t have to be worthy, or save the world.

Just make me laugh.


The Value of a Pencil



I have been lucky enough to be invited to judge D&AD this year. They asked me to write a story about the value of a pencil. This is what I wrote.


“Price is what you pay, value is what you get.”

Warren Buffet

I apologise in advance for the unnecessary use of nostalgia and being a little romantic about it all. Actually, I don’t.

It was ten years ago that I first saw it.

I had flown fifteen hours on an Airline that didn’t offer Chicken or Beef. Or, any comfort for that matter. You know those flights you get when you desperately hope there will be a little screen in front of you and instead all you find is the back of a chair. It was one of those flights.

Yet, I was very happy. I had landed in London and I was here to judge D&AD. For me and many others in South Africa, D&AD had an almost mythical status. You heard how hard it was. At the time, I think South Africa had only had one Yellow Pencil winner.

And winning the Black Pencil? Well, that was impossible. A ridiculous pipe dream.

So, winning a Yellow Pencil and then being asked to judge the following year all seemed a little surreal and quite unlikely. When you live in a small country (South Africa or New Zealand as I do now) far from the centre it seems like a long shot anybody is going to notice what you are doing. But, they had and here I was.

I remember getting out of the cab and instantly realising the jacket that kept me warm in Johannesburg was less than useless in London. This fact made me run into the hall and my eyes had to adjust to see what was in front of me. That’s when I gasped. Seriously, it’s one of the few times in my life that I have made a strange strangled breathy involuntary noise because of what I was looking at. In front of me, was a hall the size of two football fields. It was filled with 30 000 actual pieces of work. It was too much to take in. Row upon row. Table upon table. 30 000 ideas saying pick me.

Something changed for me that day.

I realised I was looking at the most beautiful level playing field. It didn’t matter what country the work came from. Budget didn’t matter. Reputation didn’t matter. All that mattered was if the work was any good. Every idea had an equal chance.

That day, D&AD was not just a hall of ideas for me, it became a repository of belief.

I instantly believed and understood that ideas were far more powerful than geography, language, money and the barriers in my own head and all the ones out there.

For me this is what D&AD does. In an industry that kills thousands of ideas a day, D&AD gives those ideas the chance to survive and succeed. And, perhaps more importantly, it lets the people that have those ideas believe in their power again. And creating belief, is the first step to doing anything of consequence.

Three years later, I found myself in a bad suit on stage in the middle of London. I was standing with four truly special creatives and an editor by the name of Wilf Mbanga. We were slightly drunk holding a South African flag.

We had just won Africa’s first D&AD Black Pencil for The Zimbabwean Newspaper.

It was impossible. And then, it wasn’t.

Impossible. Belief. What you are trying to do. What you need to do it. Those things are very seldom found in the same place.

Advertising Award shows often get a bad rap and some deservedly so.

However, on a cold London day in 2007, D&AD showed me the impossible and gave me a large dose of belief. Magically, both happened in the same place.

I think that’s about as good as it gets.









The great comfort of bad Super Bowl ads.

Damon's Brain

“I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.”
Gilbert K. Chesterton

Quick, name your top 10 Super Bowl ads from this year. I know, it’s a struggle. I am asking you to remember 10 out of a 100 or so ads whose sole purpose is to be memorable.

Each 30 second spot costs 5 million dollars to run. Each spot would have cost at least a million dollars to make. These numbers are considered a bargain because of the massive audience the Super Bowl attracts.

These numbers also do something else. They create enormous pressure to deliver a great ad. And the truth is, year in and year out only about 10 percent are any good. As hit rates go, that isn’t great.

Now, the easy explanation is the creative was no good. Well, I will take you a billion dollar bet that…

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Are rules more important than ideas?

IMG_0296“It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we’re legally allowed to take over our competitors.”

Bill Bernbach

This isn’t scientific. Just a hunch. A feeling. Remember those?

It is a new year, so I decided to do a new little experiment. In a single day, I would observe what all the articles and blogs on my various feeds where about with regards to advertising. Was there an overall narrative? What are we talking about as an industry and more importantly what are we not talking about?

I had done this because I had begun to have an uneasy feeling that had begun to grow.

To explain, let me go back a bit. Advertising has always been about using creativity to create an unfair advantage for your client. In essence, creativity was how you broke the rules. You tried to find a new way, a more memorable way of communicating or getting noticed. You did not do what everybody else was doing. You looked for an angle or a spark. You broke the rules and created new possibilities.

This has always been the magic of advertising. Advertising has a kind of alchemy at its heart and when practiced well it can create the impossible out of nothing.

You would think something that precious would be important as a cornerstone of what we do. You would think as an industry we would protect it all costs. But lately, it feels like the end product, ideas and even creativity have been lost in the noise.

Back to my very unscientific experiment. In a single day, I counted about 40 articles on my various feeds. They were about many topics but often they were about rules. Rules about optimisation, speed, efficiency, big data, cost and structures for the new models of advertising. Five were about diversity and only two were about the importance of creativity. Two. The first piece was about the lack of creativity in our industry today and in this particular blog the writer argued that advertising was getting worse. Awesome.

The second piece was from a planner called Craig McLeod who was arguing that art trumps numbers. Here is a paragraph I really liked.

“The decision to use a subservient chicken to sell burgers ain’t easy. Nor using hatred to sell diesel cars. Van Damme doing the splits to sell trucks. These ideas owe far more to immeasurable and inspired serendipity than numerical logic. In short, creativity gets you what money can’t buy.” 

So, 33 out of 40 articles were about the rules and direction of advertising. Almost none of the thinking was about ideas, the end product or creativity. What we actually make. What we do to create value. Rules, however, were everywhere.

Now, you could argue this is happening because we are changing rapidly as an industry. We need direction and parameters. Yes, we do. However, we also need inspiration and creativity. We need to remember we have always broken the rules. We still need magic and new ways of doing things. Now more than ever. If you don’t have these things, you create an imbalance in our industry that moves us away from magic to mediocrity. Perhaps, as an industry we have had creativity for so long we have begun to take it for granted.

I would argue if the prevailing narrative in our industry is predominantly about rules we could begin to stop loving ideas and begin to care far more about other things. We might start to think the process is as important as the outcome.

I tried to think of analogy to explain my uneasy feeling. I will try and be topical. It’s a bit like advertising is a country that is obsessed with the theory, structures and processes of democracy, but often is not really bothered about who ends up becoming president. In short, we are talking about everything except the end product.

The danger going forward is we will value only what is certain, measured, proven and has been done before. We will begin to forget that ideas can get you what money can’t buy.

Ideas and creativity are beyond definition. They don’t fit into boxes or processes because they are a magnificent leap. That is their purpose. And that is why they are so valuable. There was nothing and then there was something. We should hold onto doing impossible things with both hands. Advertising should not give up on uncertainty so easily because that is how ideas are created. That is how ideas work.

And, advertising having lots of rules but no ideas, well, I am not even sure what that is.



advertising, Uncategorized

The beautiful stone in your shoe.


“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”


I am lying in the middle of the Noosa River an hour outside of Brisbane. After a pretty crazy year where we were working right up to Xmas I was suddenly on vacation. Holidays are strange, lovely things. They creep up on you with the best of intentions. It’s like a really weird neighbour who appears out of nowhere from behind a hedge only to give you some freshly baked Blueberry muffins.

Well, I find it hard to decompress anyway. You are working flat out and then suddenly you are supposed to do the opposite. It’s like you are going down the main straight of Monza at 300kms an hour and halfway down you are told to make a hard right turn. Tricky.

Anyway, there I was in the river trying to relax and appear like a normal human being who can actually blink and shit. The beautiful river had made me think about dealing with stress and relaxation in our business.

Creative agencies are a strange blend of these two opposite qualities. My old boss used to say you need equal parts tea-party and tantrums to make it all work. This is why great creative agencies are so hard to replicate.There is no blueprint or process. Just people. Many in the next couple of years who are looking for alternatives will find this out.

If an agency is too relaxed and always says yes and never pushes itself, you get a tea-party. Everybody is pretty happy and comfortable but the work invariably is shit. There is no drive and no desire. And an agency without desire, might be one of the saddest places to work in the world. For the simple reason that it is practically impossible to be creative without desire or passion. The creatives are doing colour by numbers because it makes everybody happy and their ideas which have real value sit in their bottom drawer

On the other hand, if an agency is too stressed you get tantrums. Too much tension strangely also kills good work because it creates the number one killer of creativity. Fear. And when creatives are afraid they stop trying and just do as they are told. There is no drive and no desire. And, a frightened agency might also be one of the saddest places to work in the world. For the simple reason that it is practically impossible to be creative when you are afraid of being wrong all the time. The creatives are doing colour by numbers because it makes everybody happy and their ideas which have real value sit in their bottom drawer.

So, if you only have one of these qualities in an agency you probably end up with a potential disaster.

Strangely, if you have both these qualities in the right amounts you might have something brilliant. Pretty weird. It is a strange equilibrium created by tense situations and huge amounts of laughter and fun because of those situations. If it proves anything it is that creating conditions for great ideas is far more an art than a science.

In my experience, the best agencies I have worked at were like a beautiful stone in my shoe. I was never completely comfortable but I seemed to happily walk a bit faster to get where I was going. The pain and pressure made me focus. And, it also quite often made me laugh my ass off at the absurdity of it all.

I looked at that last paragraph and wondered if it was different for other creatives. How had they handled stress, different agencies and this business called advertising.

So, I sent an email out on Boxing Day to some of my favourite creatives around the world to ask them how they see it. Fucking Boxing Day. Firstly, let me apologise for the email on Boxing Day. I think that proves I hadn’t really gotten the hang of the whole holiday thing.

Unbelievably, most answered and they will be part of a blog later in the year. However, I will leave you with two answers which I liked very much.

The first was from South African Chief Creative Officer, Chris Gotz.

“The advice I would give my younger self would be this: Good creative people move in straight lines, ignore the bullshit and chase the work. The only thing that changes the conversation is great work. And on any given day you can do that work. I’ve seen it happen to the people who chased it, who knew how to rise above the noise.”

The second answer was from Australian Creative Director, Louise Mahoney.

“The secret to surviving an advertising career is to keep falling in love. Everyone has crap ideas but if you keep searching for the one that excites you and you’re brave enough to share it, nurture it and defend it you can create something beautiful. Like all relationships, some ideas fail, some flourish but unless you put your whole self into them you’ll never be part of something memorable.”

In summary, try and lie in a river, find that beautiful stone in your shoe, move in a straight line, ignore the bullshit, rise above the noise, chase the work and keep falling in love.

Sounds about right.

Happy 2017 everybody.



advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The truth will set you free.


“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

Marcus Aurelius

Nothing reminds you of your love for advertising more than lying next to a man discussing the insertion of his catheter with his best friend.

It has been an interesting two weeks. I had been in hospital because my appendix was trying to kill me. Auckland City Hospital looks like it was decorated by an East German Dictator who discovered he had no creative ability and a large amount of grey paint left over from painting his tanks. But I shouldn’t grumble, the magnificent and dedicated people there saved my life. And for that, I will forever be grateful. And they deserve better decor.

There are a number of strange things you discover in a hospital. For example, I had no idea how many different places they can take blood out of your body. I won’t go into detail in case a hipster throws up. Or, the fact that my legs look magnificent in compression stockings (photographic evidence supplied above) and I may now wear them on weekends. I also discovered how the thinnest curtain creates remarkable honesty. When you are in a ward and you are only separated by a thin curtain from the next patient some of the conversations like the one mentioned above are truly eye watering. The unvarnished truth. I was being allowed to hear things that once the curtain was opened were never discussed. The raw truth replaced by polite conversation

While this was happening I was taking some excellent opiate painkillers. My brain learnt to do the tango in a single afternoon. Once it stopped swaying, I started to think about thin curtains, honesty and what it gives you. I also thought about what honesty could do for advertising.

I have judged a few ad shows around the world this year. One of the things I noticed was how many pieces of the work were the same. And, I am talking about hundreds of pieces, the same scenarios, the same resolves, the same half funny gags and the same looking people in the same looking house. They are generic. They are inoffensive. Nobody will ever notice them. Perhaps, this is what some people want but I find it hard to believe considering the money that is spent. The question is why does it happen?

As my drugs kicked in and the hospital ceiling floated away I strangely thought about Donald Trump. Nobody predicted he would win, but he did. The reason all the so-called experts say this happened is because what people were thinking and feeling was very different from what they were saying. They didn’t feel like they could be honest. But once they got behind their curtain they were surprisingly honest.

What they were saying was not what they were thinking and feeling. They went from an acceptable generic lie to a specific truth.

The process ads go through create this same result. Everything becomes sanitised, inoffensive and generic. There are many global pieces of work that have gone through round after round of pummeling and what you end up with is something that doesn’t upset anybody but doesn’t surprise and delight anybody either. I call them CNN ads. Watch CNN and look at the ads. Large budgets desperately trying to hide bland work.

Great work that connects normally has something specific about it. There is something unusual, something unique. Something you have never seen. Think of your favourite piece of work. Whether it’s Cadbury Gorilla, Paralympics, Under Armour, John Lewis or the Harvey Nichols work from last year they all had some risk, originality and memorability. Somebody also had to be brave enough to buy it and make it.

The process ads go through often try to eliminate the very specific things that make work memorable because they are dangerous and this is often why work looks so generic. However, are we getting honest answers from people about what they find offensive and risky? Are they telling us the truth?

Look at the films people love. Look at the most popular YouTube clips. This is what people enjoy watching. This is the competition. Think of the chasm between what people want to watch and most ads. Think of the different sets of rules. Maybe they should be the same.

Do those people also give completely different answers when it comes to ads because it is what they think is acceptable? Have we built an entire industry based on what people think they should say instead of how they actually feel? How much honesty are we getting from consumers? How reliable is the data?

Are these the ads people really want? And before you say nobody wants to look at ads the John Lewis Boxer ad has been watched over 20 million times in a month on YouTube and shared almost 2 million times. A bit of quality and originality and people don’t care that it’s an ad. They will watch it because they like it.

Have we created an industry that has rules that create a certain outcome? Is that outcome going to work in the future? I know those are a lot of questions but hey, right now, I am on medication that doesn’t me allow to operate heavy machinery.

All I know is that the vast amount of work that comes out of our industry at the moment is not great and not future-proof. It is often banal. The amount of it also tells me it is not an accident. It has to be a desired outcome from perhaps a very flawed process. The question is, does the consumer want it? And if the answer is no what are we going to do about it?

My belief is there has to be a shift in how we make things. There has to be a desire to change the standard and who we measure ourselves against. Average is not OK. There is too much competition for people’s attention to carry on making work that nobody notices.

And, before you say nothing can change, Donald Trump is the President of the United States.

Right, time for another tablet and a lovely chat with a man about his colon.

advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. How to do impossible things.


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

Miguel de Cervantes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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