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.


advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Fawlty Towers and the art of prediction.


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

Daniel Kahneman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exponential growth.

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

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

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

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

Many think creativity is always about massive risk.

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


In defence of the often maligned creative.


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

W.C. Fields

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

That is one description.

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

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

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

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

True creative talent is a rare and precious thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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