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.
What data can’t tell you.
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.
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Ideas are like Goldfish. Easy to kill.
Ideas are like Goldfish. Easy to kill.
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.
If you only had a 0.0004% chance of being great would you do it?
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.
So Buddha and an ad agency walk into a bar.
So Buddha and an ad agency walk into a bar.
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.