So it’s 1962 and my father is in a small band in Rhodesia. They leave for London and by a series of strange events ends up being the only South African band ever to be given a Lennon and McCartney composition to record. The song doesn’t do much in the charts but it transforms my fathers life. He goes onto have 7 albums and a TV show in Australia.
So what does this have to do with data. Everything and nothing. What has always struck me about this story is the bravery and slight madness 5 guys had to go to London and give it a go. I am sure if they had looked at the data it would have told them not to go.
But they were brave.
Don’t get me wrong data is the new oil and will change our business forever. Data finds human patterns that we can use to great effect. What it doesn’t do is break patterns. It’s not great at helping you do the wrong things. Picasso once said computers are useless, they only give you answers.
Questions are always how you go somewhere new.
So here is a question. Once we all more or less have the same data and algorithms, what do we do then? How will we differentiate ourselves? How will we stop ourselves all landing in the same place?
Data can tell you what has happened or is happening. And this is vital. Yet, some of the greatest work in our business is totally unexpected. Great work is surprising. And the work is normally surprising because somebody went where nobody had been before. Where sometimes there is very little data.
And that’s what great creatives do. They take risks by going where others wouldn’t go.
Take Cadbury Gorilla as an example. We are going to have a Gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins and we think this will be a good ad for chocolate. Today, everyone loves that ad and all of them can explain why it’s great and why they would have bought it.
It must have taken enormous bravery to make that commercial. And enormous bravery to buy it at the time.
Data is going to help us in ways we can only begin to imagine. It will tell us so much. Who to reach, how to reach, when to reach, personalisation etc.
Yet, there will come a moment when you know all these things and you will still have to leap if you want to do anything great. Data might get you to the edge but you still have to look over it. Because human beings love wondrous things they have never seen before.
They love to see what they could not imagine. What they thought couldn’t happen.
And data can only tell you about what has happened.
And to do the wondrous, the unexpected, the impossible and most importantly the new, you have to be brave.
And data cannot tell you to be brave.
Ideas are truly the most beautiful things. They have such power and at the same time they are completely fragile.
I have seen ideas born because the right people were in the room. I have also seen them happen because the wrong people were in the room. They can come from an argument or two people laughing their ass off. I have seen them happen instantly and over months and years. Some days they are impossible to find, the next day it is so obvious and they were there all along.
I have seen them change lives and the world. And yet, we don’t often value them.
I don’t know where ideas come from but I have worked with a few great creatives that have taught me a few things you need to do to find them.
The greatest creatives work with what’s in the room. They don’t judge the ideas at first, they play with them. That creates trust and a space where all things are possible.
You cannot underestimate trust. My worst creative sessions are when ego comes into play or everybody thinks their idea is the best.
Fear and creativity cannot exist in the same space. If there is fear, nobody has so called stupid ideas. And stupid ideas are the key to everything. They are the doorways to greatness. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the words, I know this is dumb or wrong but…..And moments later, we have cracked it.
If you work in an agency where you can’t have stupid ideas, resign. Today. You will never do anything great there.
Trust creates flow. And flow is another way you get somewhere special. When you see a great creative team working together their understanding verges on telepathic. They finish each other’s sentences. It creates so much energy. And this creates a feeling where the ideas you have had have to be made at all costs. Those are the days that make being a creative special.
Lastly, listening. Great creatives have taught me to listen. Sometimes the idea is in bits. One persons words. Another persons joke. A drawing. What somebody said when they were making tea. It is there, you just have to create the space for it to appear.
And once you have them, you have to protect them. There are many who will tell you why an idea is wrong. And sometimes they are right. There are many who will encourage you when you have an idea that is a piece of shit. And then there is what’s going on in your head. Keeping an idea alive takes bravery, judgement and probably some madness. In the end though, belief is what will get it across the line.
And belief is not something anybody else can have for you.
As our business changes some things don’t. We have creatives who have to come up with ideas every day. You start at zero every morning. It’s hard because the demand for brilliance is getting faster and more complex. Think what an integrated campaign or platform was 5 years ago and think what options exist today. Complexity has increased and time has decreased. We all talk about how advertising has changed, what hasn’t changed is there are 60 minutes in an hour.
This kind of pressure increases the risk for mediocrity.
To show the slim chance of excellence for creatives these days,lets look at some stats.
I saw a figure the other day that says America makes 800 000 ads a year. So if we do a rough calculation we get to give or take 2 million ads in the world every year.
Of those 2 million only 40 000 are entered into Cannes. That’s 0.02%. And that’s the work creatives thought was good enough to enter! Of those 40 000 only 16 Grand Prix are awarded. That’s a 0.0004% chance of winning.
Pretty slim. Admittedly, these are rough figures but I think you get the idea. It takes some pretty thick skin and a large amount of perseverance to be a creative.
In a world of critics, who never make mistakes because they never make anything. Where curators simply take other people’s ideas and package them and expect to be adored. Let’s remember these are very low risk endeavours.
All they did was comment or explain. They wait for the blank piece of paper to be filled.
So here is to the explorers, the risk takers and the originators.The people that make ideas. The people that have ideas.
Here is to being a creative.
I have a theory that there is only one difference between great agencies and average agencies. Intention.
Many people will say talent or process or money. All those things play a role but are powerless if the ship is steering away from what is important. The work. The pressure on agencies is enormous and it is easy to lose focus. I have been inside so called B grade agencies and the only difference between them and great agencies is the work they have thought of are still scamps on a wall or in their bottom drawer. Great agencies make their greatest work, average agencies don’t.
Intention is important for an agency because making great work is hard. An agency needs to make that hardship as natural as possible. That comes from a culture of belief in ideas. And that comes from the leadership’s intention. For many that manifests in having high standards but that is not enough. Where it all has to start is with a shared objective and a burning passion to get there.
You might say that’s obvious. Well, look around the world then and tell me why so many agencies get it wrong. The simple reason is they have forgotten the business they are in. When that happens an agency becomes like a planet that has lost its gravity . It may take a month or a year but slowly the people, the ideas and the money drift off into space. Granted, you can have bad luck but that happens to every agency, even the great ones. What keeps them strong is their core belief. And I am not just talking about words or pithy phrases.
I have in my career often heard the powers that be talk about culture as a soft issue. And I have seen those same people grasping for it when the agency’s gravity stops. By then, it is too late.
This is the biggest lesson I have learnt running an agency. In the darkest days, when the hardest choices arrive and when everything makes no sense never forget the agency’s and your original intention.
It is your North Star.
So, this is about how I think we are making creativity a dirty word and a meeting with Tony Kaye, the director of American History X. Lately, I have noticed this strange discomfort for some in our industry when it comes to using the word creativity.
Instead of using the word, creativity, people seem far more comfortable with the word innovation or my favourite, solution. Is it because these words create the illusion of certainty?
Unfortunately, that’s not how creativity works whatever you call it. Steve Jobs had the Apple Lisa, Macintosh TV and the Newton before the I-Pad. Even the great ones have so called mistakes.
Our industry is full of slogans about mistakes, risks and failing harder but very few of us actually live up to the words. When a business craves certainty that much, there is no room for experimentation or the unpredictability of creativity. When this happens people grasp for the first idea and mediocrity becomes your friend.
There is a real danger that as we constantly scrub away the madness of creativity we move towards the most middle of grounds. This is something I learnt from meeting Tony Kaye.
These thoughts had been bouncing around in my head when I went to judge the Axis Awards. I had heard about Tony Kaye, the mad director. We would spend the evening talking and he told me the craziest stories about Marlon Brando giving acting classes to him and Michael Jackson.Yet as entertaining as Tony’s stories were, something else struck me about him. He seemed like a very passionate and honest man. He seemed incapable of not being true to what he believes in. Win, lose or draw. I found it refreshing.
After all the trials and tribulations he had been through, he had an unwavering belief in creativity. Not innovation, or solutions but mad, bad and dangerous to know creativity. He believes in imperfection, mistakes and magic. It was a valuable lesson for me at a time when our industry is in such a state of flux and bullshit. And the lesson is a simple one. Interesting, beats perfect every time.
A blog for creatives about being creative in the weird world of advertising. Enjoy.