Photo courtesy geek philosophy.com
Well, yes and no. This is an old Buddhist quote. I have been thinking about it and how it relates to what I do now and what I will do in the future.
For a long time, advertising was designed around stars. Dots of light. Points of excitement. And then nothing. And then another dot. The problem is these days dots no longer exist. Everything is connected. Every dot is a line.
Every single piece of communication will be direct response. If it is not, it will eventually die.
The tricky part is sometimes you need a dot and sometimes you need a line. And sometimes they are the same thing.
Or, to put it another way, are we making speeches or are we having a conversation? (Courtesy of Clare one of my classmates at Hyper Island).
Advertising has been and often is a speech. Words and visuals that had to be polished to perfection. We agonise over every detail. There can be no mistakes. It is about absolute control.
This is normally a fairly linear process and can take a very long time. And I would say for many agencies and marketing departments it is still this way.
A conversation however, happens in real time and is not linear. If you planned every word of what you said at a dinner party I guarantee you would not be invited to the next one. Of course during a conversation you may say something inappropriate and a little odd. But you just fix it with your next sentence. If you are entertaining and keep moving you should get to dessert.
A great conversation is about relinquishing control. It is about exchange and trust. It is about being quick witted. Fundamentally, it is about speed.
You may say this is all a little obvious. Perhaps. However, before you do, look around. Look at the industry. How many of us are equally geared up for absolute speed and polished precision? How many organisations can change gears? How many can do both at the same time?
Simply put, advertising has been happily orbiting Earth. Now, we need to make it orbit the sun at the same time. Tricky.
This is the issue. When things move at different speeds and in different ways you cannot have a single process. As I said in a recent blog, communism cannot create Lego.
We will still need to make dots of polished brilliance. Because they start conversations. They give us something to talk about. However, doing something that’s a little rough, relevant and ready will do this too. Either way, you will have to keep the conversation going. Or, you will just have to let go and let the consumer do it for you. Or both. And let’s not forget that other word. Curation.
It would seem the next couple of years we will have many choices about how we make things. And perhaps more importantly how long they take to make. Many conversations are going to be about time. How quickly things can be done versus how well things can be done will be a reoccurring theme. And how that time will be paid for. The dots have to be joined.
We know how to build stars. Now, we will have to build what’s in the spaces between them.
And as you all know, space and time are often the same thing.
In 2008 I wrote an article called is PR the new advertising. As you can guess the title did not make everybody happy.
I had read that at the time Miley Cyrus was worth a billion dollars. Lunch boxes and DVD’s had made her brand worth a billion dollars.
I made the argument that people were becoming as powerful as brands. I made the argument that because of social media and reality television we would see the rise of what I called people brands. They would be able to do everything a brand could without ever needing one. At the time I thought I understood what I was seeing. Looking back, I know now I was just looking at the wallpaper.
In reality, the whole building was slowly sliding away.
But it did make me ask myself a simple question. These days, what is a brand? Is it a promise? Is it a navigation device? Is it a destination? Maybe a bit of entertainment? And does it have to last? It was the first time I realised that our business had to change drastically.
This week Pharrell Williams released his 24 hour music video. It has swept across the world. It is as powerful as anything a brand could do.
It does not interrupt. It is the destination. That is a lesson we have all been trying to learn.
As an industry we are very blasé about this phrase, yet it is the single biggest shift in the entire history of the advertising business.
And if you want one argument for creativity that’s it. What we do now cannot just be great advertising,it has to be great, period. These days our competition is everything and everybody. It would seem just about anything can be a successful brand. Just ask the Kardashians. Their products made 100 million dollars last year.
When you start overlaying this with what’s happening with media, the picture becomes even clearer.
I am pretty sure five years from now, kids will laugh that there were ad breaks and we would wait for our favourite TV shows. In fact, they laugh right now. Just ask Bit Torrent.
The simple truth is we are no longer in competition with ourselves anymore. We are in competition with every piece of content generated on the planet.
If that doesn’t make us as an industry realise how important creativity is nothing will.
These words are part nostalgia, part belief that some things never change. They are about the death of salesmen with apologies to Arthur Miller. It is what Hegarty talks about in his latest interview. We have to become about persuasion again rather than just promotion. It is about strong beliefs versus polite process.
Here’s to the crazy ones. The square pegs in the round holes.
This is the beginning of that ad every creative knows. It is also the great-grandfather of the bane of our existence. The manifesto.
It is a strange quirk that things that were once fresh become a cliché. Especially in our business.
Here’s a stat. In 1982 all the top ten movies in America were original scripts. In 2010 most were sequels.
It would seem with the speed of the world a sure thing and a safe bet are a necessity.
Music is no different. Take the packaging of Idols and The Voice.
These are big machines designed to create certainty.
Would Nirvana have got anywhere as a band if they started today?
Perhaps, I am committing the cardinal sin in advertising, I am getting older. And as I get older, I seek out individuals far more than collective thinking.
In my defence, I will say this. A couple of years ago at Cannes, George Lois and Lee Clow took the stage.They are strong individuals and strong persuaders. The audience hung on their every word. They are some of the greatest salesman our industry has ever seen. And they sell because of their slightly unvarnished personalities. People believe in them as much as in the work or idea they have. If you don’t think that is important, you have never tried to sell something that people cannot physically see. An idea.
They are the kinds of people that through their imperfection and humanity can sway a room.The kind of person you want in your corner when you are in that meeting. You know, after all the other non meetings before it.
These are unpredictable men. They are the crazy ones. The ones in these kind of presentations that have the balls and the bravery to say what needs to be said.
They don’t hide behind words and they speak about what they believe. They don’t care what the other 20 people think. They back themselves. They have the rarest commodity in advertising. Conviction.
To do something truly great, something nobody has ever done, you have to be one of the crazy ones. You have to be willing to go where nobody else will go. The alternative, go where everybody has already been. Safe, full proof and the definition of creative insanity.
Crazy might just be another word for brave. Or, another word for truth.
Perhaps the crazy ones still exist. If they do, we should protect them and cherish them because I fear they are a dying breed.They are the ones that have your back.They are the ones you want to follow. They are who you want to become.
When all is said and done. When every pie chart has been eaten and every graph points in the right direction. When the data and analytics tell you what to do and all the work integrates seamlessly I still get this feeling. Perhaps, desire is a better word.
A desire for craziness and messiness. The creative equivalent of running, screaming down a hill into battle with a massive axe and painted blue face. It’s not going to be perfect but it is going to be interesting. Today, is the fucking day.
That’s what the crazy ones make me feel. That is why they are important for agencies.They make me believe I can win. They make me believe I can go to places I didn’t think I could go. I guess this is just about how I wish there was more of them.
No matter how hard you try, the world doesn’t make sense by just making cents. The crazy ones know that.
Find a crazy one or become one.
Over my career I have often heard people talking about formulas. A foolproof way to arrive at a perfect creative result. To replicate something over and over. A system for ideas. That’s like saying, let’s use communism to create lego.
Sometimes, I still have nightmares about 700 page style guides. Whole forests have died in an attempt to give creativity a short back and sides.
The main reason this happens is the need to mitigate against risk. And making great work always has an element of risk because if it is really great it has not been done before. There is also this collision of worlds. Creativity and commerce. Direct business imperatives wrapped in the subtle art of storytelling. So, a lot of time is spent researching and creating parameters and guidelines. I understand the need for these things especially with large accounts. You do need consistency. However, you also need a spark.
Simply put, the act of creation is about what will be. What is going to happen. No matter how much people wish they can predict the future, they can’t.
That is why the most vital ingredient in the creative process is trust. It is something that has to come from both sides. That is also why it is so rare.
No matter how much research is done, there is still that meeting. The meeting where after everything is said and done you have to push the button. Somebody has to look across the table and say let’s do this. You can be in a 6 month process but there will still be that meeting. I have been in them. And the only way you get through those meetings is trust.
Trust, is a word that is often used in our business but not always practiced. I have seen what trust can do. The boundaries are pushed and the work gets better. And the work gets better because trust has allowed you to go further. That freedom will create better thinking and ideas. It is that simple.
So, in the end, there can be as many systems and structures as you like. This will not lead to great work, at best, it will stop bad work. What leads to great work is looking each other in the eye and having a conversation. The word relationship is a cliche in our business. However, if you look at the greatest campaigns in history you will find a partnership at the centre of them.
Think about your own career. How many of your greatest pieces of work happened because of a process versus somebody trusting you and backing you?
Ultimately, one person trusting another person is at the heart of all great work. I see agencies abuse that trust and clients not thinking it is important. Both are making a very big mistake.
Think of it this way. When the work is done, you want people to feel something. A genuine human emotion. Yet, emotion is often something we try to eradicate in the process of making ads. It is not empirical, it cannot be trusted. Passion and precision. Always the conundrum.
There are those that believe if we have enough facts we will get to feeling. I have never believed that. I believe two people need to look each other in the eye and say let’s be brave.
I believe if you want feeling at the end you need to start with one. A feeling of trust.
I shot this photograph 20 years ago on Rockey Street in Johannesburg. It’s an important photograph for me because
it represents my philosophy on creativity.
Creativity is a very strange process. It involves having a vision that you completely believe in and would defend to the hilt. It also involves having the ability to throw your vision away because during the process you saw something better. I think the expression is strong beliefs lightly held.
The photograph is 90% the way I planned it. As I was shooting the photograph I could see out of the corner of my eye a woman standing in the background. She was a maid that worked in one of the homes in the suburb. She was amused by the fashion shoot.
She thought the model was funny. I could have cropped her out but I didn’t. This was 1994 the year of the first democratic election in
South Africa. The photograph says so much about the country at the time. Old versus new, identity, change, South Africa meeting the world. It’s a photograph that hangs in my house and each year I like it a bit more.
If I had photographed this the way I had planned it would have just been a nice picture. Nothing more. Instead, I captured a small moment in South Africa’s history. What that day taught me was the power of being aware in the creative process. It taught me there is no such thing as a mistake.
Creativity is not a thing, it’s a way. That means creativity is not an answer, it is a process. Many don’t like the uncertainty of that statement. They try and mitigate against it. The reality is if you want to do something truly great you have to believe with your heart you are right. And accept there might be a much better way than your idea. And you have to try and do this at the same time. Tricky.
Never believe you have everything figured out. Never call something a mistake. Always look for the cracks. They let the light in.
Growing up I was always fascinated by stand up comedy.
I would watch early Saturday Night Live tapes of Belushi at his best and his worst. Bill Hicks destroying audiences and them laughing and thanking him for it. Richard Pryor being a free basing genius. I think it was the mixture of sheer terror of actually getting up there and the power you could have when the room was in the palm of your hand that amazed me.
I used to go to a lot of open mike nights. One of the places I used to go was Cool Runnings in Johannesburg. It was a dank little basement in Melville. It was underneath a Jamaican eatery that sold everything on the menu and quite a few things off it.
You would see guys like Jon Vlismas, David Kau or Bevan Cullinan hosting the night. They were amazing because they could bring the crowd back after somebody sucked. Just think how hard it is to do that. Just for a second, picture yourself going on after somebody has bombed.
And boy did some of the guys bomb. I remember one 50 year old freaky German guy in a full lederhosen outfit getting lynched after telling inappropriate jokes about kids.
Night after night, you would get guys who were dry heaving backstage because they were so nervous. They would force themselves to get on that stage and be terrible. The audience would throw ice at them. They would stumble off the stage, broken. And they would be back the following week like a junkie hunting for a needle. And when they were done, Vlismas would walk on stage and fix the mess of their addiction.
I really tried to learn from all these guys. What made some so good? What made some so bad?
I had to present every day of my life in boardrooms to people who tried very hard not to show any emotion. You would often be presenting in a very tense atmosphere because of timings or just general pressure. And, if you think it’s not that hard to do this, try presenting some creative after a client has argued about the strategy. Or worse still the brief. And my favourite, when a client argues with his or her own people.
And now, here’s the creative to inspire you.
To be able to cope with situations like this you need to develop skills.
So, what makes a good comic? Obviously, the material. Without that, you are dead. However, I have seen the same joke delivered on consecutive nights and seen it bomb the second night. I have also seen people incredibly prepared for presentations fail badly.
So, although material and preparation are vital, these guys had something else. Firstly, fear was not a factor.
They either had mastered the feeling of fear or they were very good at faking it. Showing fear was the first step to a routine going South. If you are afraid people will not laugh or listen. Fake it, create a different persona or learn to enjoy the fear but don’t show it.
Two, they could read a room. They had the ability to be consistent but still respond to what was happening in the room. They could adapt. This was the biggest mistake rookies made. If they got heckled or the audience didn’t laugh, they couldn’t recover. It is the same with presentations. If you have learnt the presentation off by heart and something changes, you have to be able to adapt. You find out if you have any skills when things go wrong.
Being able to deal with what’s in your head and what’s happening in reality is probably the hardest skill to master.
Lastly, the great comics give the impression they don’t care if you laugh. Some even give the impression they are not really interested if there is an audience. This gives the material power and in a way gives the comic power too. To do this and still respond to what’s happening in the room takes years of practice. You watch Robin Williams in full manic flow. You think he is in his own crazy world. Yet, he is still listening and adjusting his timing to the audience. Genius.
So, I am no comic, I don’t have that strange obsession or perhaps the inexhaustible courage you need to do it.
What I do know is they have taught me hundreds of lessons through the cigarette smoke and drunk heckling. They taught me a whole lot about speaking to a room of people you have to win over. And I am pretty sure what they taught me has saved my ass hundreds of times.
And for that I will be forever grateful. Thanks, you killed out there tonight.
Russell Brand is using his many skills as an a stand up comedian against Jeremy Paxman in an interview we probably have all seen by now. As I watch it, I have this overwhelming feeling of de ja vu. I have seen many speak like this before. And they are normally one half of a successful team.
Creativity is strange because with it comes a built in insecurity. To see a variety of perspectives and various points of view you have to be quite flexible and be willing to be wrong. Certainty and creativity don’t have great sex.
In the beginning, you don’t know if you are right or are just making a big mess. It takes courage and bravery to stay with the process. It takes somebody with dedication and sheer willpower to find that piece. Someone, who will find something unique because he will go where nobody else has gone. When everybody in the room says it’s dumb he stills goes to have a look. He cares deeply about details that everybody else thinks are trivial. Details. He also cares deeply about making it. He thinks about how to do it. That isn’t Russell Brand. That would be his fat friend Greg.
Greg is a different type of creative to Russell. He doesn’t care about words he cares about doing. And make no mistake Greg needs Russell. You see once you have an idea that has been created using the wisdom of uncertainty you have to very quickly move to certainty. You have to sell the idea. This is where Russell comes in.
Russell is confident and clever. He is incredibly articulate and the ladies as well as quite a few men like him. He grasps concepts and can tell a story like nobody. He has charm and perhaps a bit of danger. He is a salesman.
He walks into a boardroom with Greg shuffling behind. He speaks, they listen. He sells first time. He probably will get promoted but he won’t take the promotion unless Greg is promoted too. Well, that’s what a smart Russell would do. A smart Russell would understand the symbiotic nature of their relationship. A dumb Russell will eventually die because he believes his own press.
That is the story of about a billion creative teams. Teams like this are successful because they are able to harness uncertainty and certainty at the same time. I can think of about 5 people I have met in 20 years that can do both equally well. In my book that is genius level. Russell Brand may be a genius, but we will have to wait and see.
As I said these people are rare. This is why great teams are very often opposites and they make no sense until you see the work.
What we saw in the Russell Brand interview was a great pitch. A world class salesman. Excitement, bold ideas and entertainment. All very important.
But, there was a moment that gave Russell Brand’s limitations away. It showed why he needed a Greg. Paxman asked him how he would make these powerful ideas happen. He couldn’t answer. He said his job was just to put ideas out there. Paint the big picture. Stir things up a bit. People more qualified than him would have to make them. In other words, somebody else would have to make this shit happen.
If I have learnt anything in my career it is that it’s fucking easy to say something, it is much harder to do it. I have seen seen a single sentence uttered in seconds take a year to happen. To go from an idea or thought to being real.
If any of those ideas actually had to happen I guarantee Russell would turn to his friend Greg the doer. And Greg would begin the journey of making them happen.
In the end, there are those that can describe and sell an idea. There are those that have ideas. And there are those that can make an idea. Occasionally, you will meet someone who can do all of the above. They are rare.
Russell Brand was being interviewed alone. It was all about him. A salesman for a generation. He has some very interesting ideas and thoughts. But no detail. No, this is how we can do it.
What he has done well is articulate how people feel and his points about flaccid governments are valid. However, for his ideas not to be discounted he needs to make them happen. And for that, he better find his fat friend Greg. Pronto.