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.

The red clogs Hamish made.

Twenty years ago I was seriously broke. I used to count coins to go to the corner store. I would walk in and begin the negotiation Tango with a very kind Portuguese mama who owned the store. She would smile when I told her I would pay her the rest next week. She knew I would never pay her back.

I lived in Yeoville in Johannesburg. It was a suburb full of hustlers with vague potential and no money. It was full of people like me.

People who were sure they were supposed to go and do something important. They just needed to borrow some bus fare to go and do it.

We all had nothing. It united us. We knew we would have to figure it out for ourselves.

This is where I met Hamish. Hamish might have been one of the few people in Yeoville who was more broke than me.

And despite this, he was always creating things. He would make drawings, sculptures and good stories.

Eventually this culminated in an astoundingly ridiculous exhibition. I think there were two boxes of wine, not enough paper cups and a whole lot of people disappointed there was no food.

I walked in and in front of me was a pair of red wooden clogs. On the sides were some gold nike swooshes.

They were the funniest things I had ever seen. A pair of Nike clogs. Hamish had made them with spray paint. He probably stole the clogs. They were magnificent. They were desperate.

They were the creative equivalent of going down swinging. They were the funniest and saddest things I had ever seen.

Since that day, I have been a creative in some shape or form. I have been a photographer, a writer, director, copywriter and creative director.

Being creative is the only way I have made a living. It is a fantastic life.

You have days that get pretty close to perfection and you also have these days where you are cynical about creativity. Where you don’t believe in it or you feel like there is no point.

Those are dangerous days.

These days happen to every creative.

When those days happen to me I think about the red wooden nike clogs.

In the most desperate situation, Hamish made something great out of nothing.

He also taught me something in a split second that has lasted a lifetime. True creatives, have to create. No matter what the situation, they have to create. They have no choice in the matter. It is not a job or a quest, it’s who and what you are.

And sometimes when the great creatives create, they change the world. Or, they make some broke guy who hasn’t a clue what to do with his life, smile and then laugh.

Twenty years on, I still think about those magnificent, ludicrous red nike clogs.

I think they still fit my friend.

What data can’t tell you.

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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?

Creativity perhaps?

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.

Bullshit.

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.