If I knew then what I know now.

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I have been a creative for 25 years. First as a photographer and then as a creative in advertising. So, I thought this would be a good time to write to my younger creative self about what I believe are rules for successful creative living.

Beginning. A blank piece of paper or screen. The clean space of potential and the emptiness of beginning. The fear never goes away. The excitement never goes away. What you do in that moment is everything. What is your intention? The truth is without an idea everything that happens afterwards cannot help.

Ideas. You cannot go to an idea, it has to come to you. As you do this more and more, you realise the ideas are right in front of you. The problem is the more you look for them the less you can see them. It’s hard to put this process into words. But the first time you have an effortless idea you will understand this.

Energy. Sir John Hegarty said that if you are the Rolling Stones you can still play Brown Sugar and get a standing ovation. That is a 40 year old idea. We cannot do that. A creative has to come up with a brand new idea every day. Cheeky, but definitely food for thought.

Comparison. Do not compare yourself to others. It is a waste of time.You cannot do what they do. They cannot do what you can do. All this does is breed insecurity and fear.And fear kills ideas and creativity instantly. If you don’t believe me watch a comedian who is afraid. He will always suck.

Listen. If there was a piece of advice I wish I had learnt earlier it would be to listen.There are millions of opinions in our business. But you have to listen to hear the answer. Listening, is the first thing you have to do to let an idea come to you.

People. You will meet people in this business who will inspire you to jump without a net into the unknown. You will do more than you thought you could because of them. Surround yourself with these people.

You will also meet massive arseholes. They take many forms. Liars, narcissists and those with super nova sized egos. The ones that think that only they can be right. Eventually, you will find out that most are deeply insecure. And hey, aren’t we all.

Kindness. If you can help someone, do it.If you can’t, don’t make it worse. You see it every day on advertising blogs in the comments section. Nastiness masquerading as high standards. My theory is that this is a bit like people who suffer abuse becoming abusers. My life is shit so I will make yours shit too. Why creatives do this to each other beats me. And I doubt they feel any better afterwards.If there is anybody we should help, it is another creative.

Bravery. An old CD once told a friend of mine, if you have balls you can roll far.

You need bravery in this business. When you are the only person in the room that believes in an idea, those are the moments you have to speak up. Speaking up for yourself and what you believe in doesn’t happen as much as it used to.

You begin on this voyage with enthusiasm and try to acquire wisdom. And later, you have to make sure your wisdom doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm.

This is the riddle we all have to solve. And it is the journey we all have to take.

I wish you well on yours.

The Wisdom of Insecurity.

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For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.

Vincent Van Gogh

The Wisdom of Insecurity is a book by Alan Watts I read when I was just starting out in advertising. The simple message is that certainty is an illusion and change is constant. So, becoming comfortable with change and not knowing can teach you many things. It shows you there is no end point or pattern. Which of course works really well in a business full of deadlines.

Being comfortable with uncertainty in an industry that demands certainty is a strange place for a creative to be.The truth is nobody really knows anything, absolutely. And even if they do, it isn’t necessarily interesting or inspiring.

Inspiration.There it is. The world’s most overused word. It is used constantly and there is so little of it.The stars make me dream. I don’t know anything but the stars make me fucking dream. Certainty, might give you the right answer. Inspiration, gives you new ones.

Recently, Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian spoke about our industry drowning in its own bullshit.The jargon, the process, the context all used by so called experts in this ridiculous quest to create certainty.

Do yourself a favour, watch his speech. You might not agree with everything he says but it certainly shows how experts don’t really know much more than the rest of us.

In fact, when I think about people in my career who have been absolutely certain, they have always been trouble. The problem is our industry gravitates towards them. They make you feel like it’s all going to be okay. Many are arrogant or snake oil salesmen. If they are right, it is normally in a well trodden boring way wrapped in a slick presentation.And if they are wrong, they are gone.

And then you get those special people who are not so sure. But they believe. Often, they are ignored or not listened to. However, in my experience, I have found, they are often correct in the most interesting of ways. Interesting. We forget this is what this business craves and what every creative searches for every day. The problem is interesting is not measurable.

What many people forget, however, is in our business, neither is perfection or certainty.

Voltaire said, doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

I would venture most creatives couldn’t agree more.

For the lonely men and women.

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Illustration Courtesy Minky Stapleton

This beautiful description comes from a speech Leo Burnett did many years ago. He spoke about those lonely people that work into the night pushing themselves. When everybody else has left, they stay.Their solitary, unobserved greatness is based on satisfying themselves before they satisfy anybody else. They are advertising’s invisible heroes.

The truth is, without these magical mad men and women, who have this need to go beyond an impossible, invisible line in their heads, advertising would be a simple, unsatisfying business.

And the impossible invisible line is never larger than when the great migration begins. It is a mad migration. For a few weeks, creatives get the fever and they become a strange hybrid. They are half crack addict, half Olympic Champion. Addiction meets this strange desire for a fleeting type of success. Or perhaps, for once, we just want to have the best outfit at the party.

Every year I see creatives literally do the impossible. And, when I say impossible I mean a Red-Bull fuelled, staring at the ceiling at 4am, I will show you I am not shit, shark frenzy kind of impossible.

In the last couple of months, I would estimate the planet has been covered twice over in the amount of white board being cut and used for entries into Cannes. Hollywood films have been halted because somebody is using the edit suite to make one final change to a case study.

Cannes. I can never work out if it is a small town or large set in the South of France. First, they have a film festival, then a porn festival and then finally, an advertising festival. As you can imagine, there are many jokes about the fact that we are third. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a plumbers award show that follows us. Cannes is a town that is like a beautiful frame. Each week the frame remains the same but the picture changes.

I have done the pilgrimage at least ten times. Each time what always strikes me is that Cannes has this amazing ability to absorb an entire global industry. This small French town seems to swell but never burst. I have always wondered if there are secret underground hotels.

It is a beautiful place with beautiful people who seem to spend the week only eating food you can hold in two fingers. There is the glitz of the large boats, the big boys holding court at the Carlton and the tasty Burgundy inspired stories of last night. There are the soulless wankers who wear mirrored sunglasses so they can look over your shoulder as they speak to you. The 15 minute meeting people who have done so much networking they look like they are on medical grade acid while trying to drive a car. The frightening East European bouncers presiding over champagne soaked parties full of white linen strangers who eventually all go and lie down in the gutter bar.

Above it all, though, for me at least, there is this very strange feeling of belonging to something. Or perhaps more accurately and romantically, being in something together. If you look hard enough past the new outfits and old routines, you will see the lonely men and women meandering down one of those perfectly aged French streets.

Cannes is for those crazy bastards. And they deserve every moment of it. It is for those long lonely nights when they tried to find something shiny and new without a signpost. It is for those that were brave enough to try again and again.

More importantly, for the lonely men and women, it brings those long nights to an end. A moment in the sun.

A pause.

A breath.

And then we begin again.

The DNA of Lego

Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.
Coco Chanel

Average advertising agencies and great advertising agencies are often like country clubs and football clubs. You join a country club but you belong to a football club. You join a country club because of status and perhaps the amenities. You belong to a football club because of the people, passion and belief. And that belief in a promise stays with you and becomes a part of you.

I suppose the question we have to ask ourselves every day is are we part of a country club agency or a football club agency?

If you look at the great agencies around the world they have uncorrupted DNA. Others would say they have a strong brand. And what is a brand? A promise.

Isn’t it odd how many companies want advertising agencies to shape their brand while many of those agencies have no concept or understanding of their own.

Now,with great agencies you will normally find a few things. The founders had very strong beliefs and are often still very involved. This is the magic energy of start-ups. It is often why in the beginning independent agencies have so much success. Also, with these agencies the environment shapes you as a creative. There is always a strong belief that is set in stone. It is not just a slogan or packaging, it is how things are. If you work there, you believe it. It is what I call spiritual consistency. This is the most important and underrated condition you need for creativity to thrive over long periods. People often discount the soul of an agency thinking it’s a nice to have or worse still window dressing. Well, try doing that to a football club. Manchester United. Great facilities, good players but we take away the passion and belief. Doesn’t really work does it? Agencies are the same.

Think about this for a second, the great illusion about agencies is the passion and belief remains the same inside them because they remain in the same building with the same logo on the side of them.

The rise and fall of agencies is often about the smallest shifts. (I could give you many examples) And for the powers that be, remember this, I know conventional wisdom says everybody is replaceable. But, what you have after the person has left the building will never be the same. It might be better and it might be worse. Never the same. The agency has mutated ever so slightly. If your core DNA isn’t strong, you can become all sorts of wrong. Very quickly.

As an industry our primary resource is people. These people are like the most amazing lego blocks mankind has ever seen. When the agency DNA is right they can build the greatest agencies. And what’s more, these strange and crazy people can build things nobody has ever imagined. Most importantly, it is the combination of these people that create the secret sauce. Yet, average agencies often think whatever ingredients you use will give you the same secret sauce.

To take the example further they also try to do this without a recipe. They just hope it tastes good. And hope is not a strategy.

It is time we all remembered what an agency is. It is not a flashy logo. It is not a slick business card. It is not a big title. It is not a building. It is not a foyer with lots of awards. It is not a shiny boardroom table. It is not buzz words and jargon. It is not empty mantra’s and hollow slogans.

A great agency is a whole lot of people coming together for a brief moment in time and having the same belief. In the end, an agency is simply a promise to itself.

The people are the lego. The belief is the DNA. You have to have both. When you do, those amazing lego people can do anything.

And when you don’t you have a whole lot of pieces strewn across the carpet that somebody will have to pick up again.