Cool Runnings. What a Jamaican Eatery taught me about boardrooms.

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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.

If Russell Brand doesn’t have a fat friend called Greg, he has a problem.

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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.

Trying to find Jesus through advertising

The team started to explain their idea to the Group Account Director. He wasn’t having the best of days. I was watching his face as he listened. It began to change with a small laugh. Then he started laughing uncontrollably until he was crying.Tears were rolling down his cheeks. Laughter is a very powerful thing. It creates unity. When he walked out, there was absolute certainty that this was the idea to present.

It was one of the moments creatives all crave. When you go from an ordinary day to a moment that you are not observing but are actually in. These moments give you the energy to go on for months.

I sat in my chair and started thinking about the moments I have craved through my career. And they seem to be split between recognition and authenticity.

Many years ago in the 90’s before Google, I would laugh at people who thought that if they won an award everything would be OK. Their skin would clear up, beautiful women would want to go out with them and eventually they would get a wine farm. They believed a moment of recognition would fix everything.I called this trying to find Jesus through advertising.

And then about 15 years ago I won a bronze at Cannes.From this small moment of recognition, my life changed. I became obsessed with winning. And I did. 

And in the beginning it was a lot of fun. I have had some of the best moments you could have in advertising with some awesome people. And then one night, on Long Street, I heard a creative bitching about a bronze that should have been a silver. 

I found myself saying, does it really matter. And the creative memorably said, fuck you, you would cut your own balls off for a finalist. Sadly, he was right. What had changed was it was not fun anymore. Winning in my head, had become about the wrong moment.

It had become some kind of endless arms race. It had become about points and lists instead of ideas and people.

And let me tell you winning without any enjoyment is a very strange place to be.

Winning, however, is very addictive. Creatives in some form or another are always the fat kid with asthma at the back of the class. We want affirmation and adulation no matter how much we pretend we don’t.

So, this is not some parable about winning being bad or wrong. I don’t think that. Winning has helped my career and pushed me to do better work. Work, I didn’t know I was capable of. Winning is great for morale and creates a benchmark for everybody in an agency.

That is the positive side. The other side, for me at least, is that it has the power to make you chase the wrong moment. This is the second moment. A moment of recognition. The right moment is in an office with a few people where you are laughing your ass off. You have an idea and it’s awesome. This is the first moment. A moment of authenticity. And it is the only moment that matters.

So, here is something that I have learnt many times in the last twenty years.

If you want to experience a true advertising miracle stay in the first moment. If you can do this, the second moment happens all by itself. Or not.

Glory is fleeting but obscurity is forever.

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A great quote from Napoleon Bonaparte. Admittedly, it all ended pretty badly for him on a godforsaken island in the South Atlantic but I am sure on a clear day the views were almost spectacular.

The reason I use this quote is I was recently reading Dave Trott’s remarkable and excellent book Predatory Thinking.

In one of the chapters he talks about how marketing departments always want to grow and to do that they need to take somebody else’s lunch. To survive they have to win.

Advertising agencies are no different.

And to win, you have to attack. You have to beat the opposition. You have to have a better plan of battle otherwise you die.

Many don’t like to talk about this because it is brutal. But this is the truth of our business. And those that succeed, fundamentally understand that unless you attack at some point you will never win a battle. Or, to put it another way you cannot succeed unless you are prepared to fail. These days waiting for the battle to come to you is not a formula for success.

I listen to many talking about defending their way to glory.They use large words and have many intricate strategies with colourful pie charts.

Well, in the words of Mike Tyson, everybody has a strategy until they get punched in the face. Our business is littered with examples of people who have tried to just hold on to what they have and failed dismally.

And if you want an example of this outside our business I will give you one. Kodak. It blows my mind that a company of that size can die. The strangest part of their demise is they invented what killed them. They had a digital camera in 1976 but didn’t develop it because it would threaten their core business. They were right.

I think some in our business are going to succeed and some are about to experience their own Kodak moment.

Jack Welch said if the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near. Well, I would say the rate of change is so fast right now by the time you have put up your defences, your own army has moved. Or the weapons have changed. Or the battlefield is somewhere else.

I honestly believe attack is important simply because it creates movement. It does not guarantee success but it creates a target and energy. And most importantly, you might get to a better position than you are in right now.

Defence at best guarantees the status quo. As a strategy these days, that is not an option.

To attack takes a large amount of bravery and daring. And even if you have buckets of both, there are no guarantees. What I do know however, is that people are normally remembered for what they tried to do. Very few are remembered for doing nothing.

It was called the Charge of the Light Brigade not the defence of the Light Brigade.They were celebrated because they gave it a go, the nobility of trying, instead of waiting for someone else to decide their fate.

In the past, it always came down to that choice of defend or attack. I think these days, that choice has gone.

When photography was music

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I read a stat the other day from the Executive Chairman of Alphabet (formerly Google) Eric Schmidt that was remarkable and pretty fucking scary.

We now generate as much information every 2 days as was generated from the beginning of time until 2003. Every 2 days.

To be honest, my brain just starts singing comforting gospel numbers when I try and think about that. And then it explodes.

To make sense of it I have tried to think about it another way. Not in sheer volume but what it could mean for creativity.

While I was thinking about this, I started thinking about creative heroes of mine. One of them was a man called Ansel Adams.

He was a great American landscape photographer. Some of his landscapes of Yosemite set the benchmark for landscape photography for the next 100 years.

He would walk up a mountain with a massive camera. He would have the most delicate glass plates the size of an A4 piece of paper. If they broke or cracked, they were useless. When he got to the top he would paint the emulsion onto the glass using albumen (egg white). This was to take one photograph. And through this very difficult process, he discovered something that changed photography forever.

He wanted to get more detail in his photographs. He wanted detail in the shadows and the highlights. To do this he created an exposure system that today is called the zone system. It is based on the musical idea that you can sing a song in a different key. B flat or D minor etc. He used that to create the idea of exposing film to light in different keys. Music had changed photography beautifully forever.

I think about him and then I think about the millions of apps that let you easily take a picture today. I think about how hard it was for him to take a single photograph. And perhaps the fact that it was hard, made him better.

I realise that is a very romantic perhaps old fashioned idea. But I believe craft and dedication should always be part of the creative process. I also believe when things are very easy, you don’t have any need to push yourself beyond the average. 

We have made it easy to generate data. To capture an image is a very simple act. And then, you put a filter on it and you are a genius.

In Ansel Adam’s world, you needed time and dedication to take a photograph. The power was in the act. In our world, it is not about the act. The power lies in sharing. Do we care more about what others think, than what we think? And does it matter? If your friends don’t like it, relax, you can just post another one. Very little thinking is done. In the past, thinking is what created value. And it is also what made something last. Today, what seems important is not being able to last but being able to change, delete and replace.

I think this has created a modern world where there is such a volume of data, very little stands out or lasts. And if it does, it is replaced soon. Yesterday’s data was the Jonas brothers. Today, it’s One Direction.

Would The Rolling Stones have had the time and space to succeed in the modern world?

This is why curation is so powerful these days. With that much data, it has to be organised.

But organising data, is not the same as discovering something new. Discovering how music can be used to make photography better is not a disposable idea. You need more than a day or two to find ideas like that.

And by making creativity disposable and easy we may take many photographs of cappuccino’s. And this may generate a lot of data.

So much data, but perhaps, a little less discovery.

Don’t walk. Run.

I am at the airport. I am waiting for my family to arrive.

A father walks into arrivals. Two boys about six and eight see him. Their faces light up. They literally change to another frequency.

The energy of the moment travels through their eyes and creates an energy that has to be released. They cannot contain themselves. They have to go there. We want them to go there.They take one step slowly. And then they scream. They scream as loudly as they can and run as fast as they can towards their father. They hit him like a wave and for a brief moment there is the purest joy. In a bland, beige airport, full of rushing and unhappiness, pure joy.

I look around. We all had run with them. Everybody is crying and smiling. For a second a group of total strangers are happy together in an airport. And then it is over.

I see this happen every day.

That energy and desire. When you are in a room trying to come up with ideas and then suddenly. Suddenly, somebody says something and we all see it. There it is. You have to go. We all have to go. And for a brief moment, pure joy. We are all smiling in the room.

The only way you can come up with truly great ideas is when you get that feeling.

This is what many don’t understand about creatives. Once you have that feeling about an idea you have to go to it. For a creative that is absolute truth. When you experience it, it lasts forever.

Talk to older creatives and they will tell you about ideas that they had twenty years ago that they never made. They still think about those ideas because they never could go to those ideas. And those ideas are still waiting. And that’s what kills you as a creative.

Later on, there will be a thousand worldly reasons to change the idea. Why it can’t be done.

But in the beginning, there is just an irresistible, unquenchable urge.

An urge, to run towards an idea like a small boy running towards his father.