Advertising. Lessons from the second last Blockbuster in the world.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on

“I think there is just one kind of folks. Folks.”

Harper Lee

Dargaville, a small town on the banks of the Wairoa River in the North Island of New Zealand with a population of approximately 4500 people lost the second last ‘Blockbuster’ Movie store on Earth this week. The last one is in the town of Bend, Oregon in the USA.

It would be easy to say well that’s show business. And, I suppose it is. There are plenty of businesses and industries that have disappeared without the faintest hint of romance.

However, I thought I would make an argument for Blockbusters. Just going with the flow and accepting the inevitability of the future seemed too easy. What the hell, it’s my blog. Let’s give it a go.

I felt this strange pang that this little store in a tiny town had a lesson I should try and find. I found it while reading about the store. I stumbled on this question from a journalist to the owner Chris Cucurullo. The question was how did you stay open for so long? I mean it’s 2020. We have Netflix, Amazon Prime and all the rest. You have to say that’s a pretty good run.

The last Blockbuster in New Zealand

His simple answer was the relationships and conversations he had with his customers kept the store open. His customers came to see him and chat about the films just as much as watch the films themselves.

In short, new DVD’s would come in and he would have a chat with regular customers about what the new releases were. Sounds obvious, but think about that for a moment. What modern companies do this well? Through this, Chris built relationships that have obviously lasted a long time. 26 years, in fact. Every time those customers walked into the store there would be a little bit of excitement and delight. They didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know what would be waiting for them. The randomness is what made people go back. They didn’t know what they were going to find. It made search exciting. There was happiness when you walked in.

Today, we have an algorithm that suggests what you might like based on what you have watched before.

In essence, you find more of what you already like. And that becomes more defined over time. You become your history. But there is very little excitement about finding new things. It made me think that perhaps accuracy makes discovery boring. How do you find what you are not looking for? Will randomness have to play a bigger role in keeping things interesting?

Who hasn’t scrolled mindlessly through oceans of content and found nothing to watch? And then somebody tells you the series ‘Succession’ is amazing at work and you watch that. A human recommended it. Humans watch things, machines don’t. The simple truth is we trust other human beings because they actually care about things. What will a human being recommending a product be worth in the future? With endless amounts of content will that be how we choose what to watch tomorrow? Will other human beings be the ultimate search engines in the future?

Here is another thought. Last year, Apple shipped over 30 million watches to the world. That is almost 10 million watches more than all the Swiss watches combined. It would seem usefulness could be the new luxury? Will the terms handmade or bespoke lose their value. Or, will human hands make a product more valuable?

I keep thinking about the human factor going forward. How will it fit into the endless automated solutions of customer service? Think about how long we wait on the line to speak to a call centre. We seem to value talking to people over anything else. We want people even if they are not always the best or easiest option.

Here is a great example of this. Boeing and other companies already have pilotless planes. They would eliminate the main reason for plane crashes, pilot error, and if this idea became mainstream it would make flying way cheaper. The Swiss bank UBS did research and surveyed 8000 people asking if they would consider flying in a plane without a pilot. 83% said no. Even though it is safer and cheaper. Now, I am sure this will eventually happen purely because of cost. The view is it could save airlines $30 billion dollars. But be honest, would you still want a pilot?

How much extra would you pay to have a pilot on board? Could having actual pilots be a new type of luxury? Economy, business, first class and now, ladies and gentleman, introducing pilot class.

People have a mysterious, priceless value. It made me think about the surprise and delight those customers would have felt in little old Dargaville. One human being turned a chore into an event. An experience that customers looked forward to every week.

The human factor is a contradiction. Even though people make mistakes and often are the reason an error occurs we want them over machines. That humaness (my word) is what what we trust. You don’t like a stand-up comedian because he tells a joke accurately. You like him because you trust his humanity. The laughter comes from connecting with another human being.

Perhaps that is the lesson from the last Blockbuster in New Zealand. Yes it died. However, a video store stayed open until fucking 2020 because its owner Chris understood one thing. In the end, sadly, it is all he had and it wasn’t enough to fight the future.

What he understood was that consistency and accuracy are a service. A service that can become boring, expected and invisible. Service should just happen. It often doesn’t but it should.

However, surprise and delight are an experience. People want them. They need them. They want to connect. Humans want to feel special. They want something to talk about the next day. That is why they come back. Not because you made their life correct or accurate.

Because you gave them something they didn’t expect. Because you made their life a little bit more interesting. You made their day better.

Human beings will always be the difference, simply because we can be.

People will always be the ultimate luxury.

After 26 years the last Blockbuster in New Zealand is gone. Yet, its lesson will always remain.

Advertising. Sometimes a yacht needs a horse.

“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start winning a game.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In my head, I went through all the answers I thought he could give. But I was way off.

I was in a hotel room with jet lag watching an odd documentary with sub-titles. It was about building super yachts in Monaco. I wouldn’t call it riveting. However, as it got towards the end, one of the boatbuilders was asked a simple question.

What is the craziest thing you have ever been asked to build on a yacht?

Now, in my head I went through what I thought was opulent. A gym, gold plated toilets, massive bedrooms maybe a full sized movie theatre.

His answer. A stable for a thoroughbred stallion. And a riding track.

He explained that everything had been done and super yachts were a strange arms race for the rich. You had to have something the other rich guy didn’t. It was an insane idea whether horses get sea sick or not. Apparently they do. But they can’t throw up. So that sucks. And it is an idea years later I can’t forget. There is one simple reason for this. I would never have thought of it.

So, the question is how much is a stupid idea I would never ever think of worth?

I would say it could be very valuable. Invariably, any disruptive thinking starts with what many called mad or stupid ideas. All of a sudden, we launch super yachts that now come with stables standard. Horse riding holidays pop up on inaccessible unridden islands across the globe and hey presto you have the next big thing every billionaire has to do this summer. I can see it now, two billionaires racing their yachts on a reality show to some tiny Greek island to be the first to ride a horse on its miniscule beach. Crazy idea? Maybe. But not as crazy as it was 60 seconds ago.

The trick of course is to allow these ideas in the creative process. And more importantly survive. What kills these kinds of ideas? Intransigence. Thinking you know what has always worked and being unwilling to change. Fear. In many corporate structures ideas like these are killed because they can get you into trouble. There is no real space for this kind of madness to be considered in some companies. And usually they are the companies that need them the most. A single or insular perspective is also tricky. When everybody in the room has the same point of view it is very unlikely you will get anywhere new or better. And finally, bravery. The bravery to say the idea out loud and the bravery to truly listen and think about its possibilities. Many times I have been asked for disruptive thinking from people that are incapable of buying it and in their entire careers, never have. And, if they were honest didn’t really want it in the first place.

So why does this matter? The simple answer is these crazy ideas make companies grow. Especially when business models change. Which seems to be happening more and more these days. We need to make sure these ideas are able to live. Even if it’s for an extra 60 seconds. Because that can make all the difference.

Let me try and give you an example of a crazy idea that might one day be very valuable.

How do you think the band U2 makes most of its money?

In 2017, they made $54.4 million. $52.2 million was from touring. Music sales $1.1 million. Publishing $705,200. Streaming $624,500. In 2018, this number doubled from being on the road touring with the Joshua Tree tour. I am pretty sure when iTunes launched in 2001 very few in the music industry thought bands in 2019 would be making the majority of their money from touring. Would they have believed a live experience would be making way more money than the ease of downloading or streaming?

Here is another interesting stat. Fortune magazine makes 40% of its revenue from events. So that’s kind of interesting. Almost half its revenue. It would seem their business model is definitely changing. People seem to like live events and live experiences and are prepared to pay. OK, what if you applied that that to something that isn’t a live experience like television. Something that doesn’t really want it or need to change their business model. That would be disruptive. What if Netflix decided to build theatres around the world? Where plays of their shows could be put on. Maybe on Broadway. Where Game of Thrones, or whatever was cool that season, would become a live experience. A place where you could develop a loyal community out of promiscuous viewers. Could live events be the thing that creates a valuable difference between all the streaming services?


Building a stable on a yacht is a stupid idea.

A streaming service opening a theatre on Broadway is a stupid idea.

But not as stupid as it was 60 seconds ago.

Creativity. Having fun underwater.

“It’s the possibility that keeps me going, not the guarantee.”

Nicholas Sparks. The Notebook

40 million dollars is a lot of money. That is the loss Cats is expected to make. It is a re-occurring event in film. A sure fire winner that fails. In 1980, one of cinema’s biggest box-office flops, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate lost 37 million dollars which today would be equivalent to 144 million dollars. Both had fantastic directors, many smart people looking at every detail, a great script, a stellar cast and plenty of budget. Yet, they both failed. Ask yourself why?

I am sure there were meetings where somebody said we have the Academy Award winning director of The King’s Speech, Dame Judy Dench and Idris Elba, this is a guaranteed hit. But it wasn’t.

Whenever I hear the word guarantee anywhere near creativity my spidey-senses go off. Guarantee implies a fixed ending or answer that negates the most important part of creativity. Being open to other possibilities. Being able to say something is a shit idea or trying something in a different way. Being able to play. Without that special ingredient, you can have all the so called right ingredients and still create a terrible meal. Ingredients (or film stars in this case) are the beginning. What happens to those ingredients in the kitchen is where guarantees die and triumph as well as the occasional tragedy is born.

Now, with a great meal maybe 50 decisions have to be made to guarantee success. A film has thousands and thousands of decisions that have to be made. Think of the pressure. Get a few wrong and you are toast. Miss the release date and you are screwed. Think about wanting to try a few things. Think about how it feels when those things don’t work and you are running out of time. Thinking of trying to play and have fun under that kind of strain. Think about what you would do in that situation.

While I was thinking about this, my friend Jason Lonsdale sent me this clip of John Cleese talking about the secret to creativity.

John Cleese on creativity

The thing I find most striking is his comment about IQ and creative ability being unrelated. You can be an intellectual genius but creative ability happens outside of that. In other words, there is the structure, logic and process which happens in a timeous manner. However, creativity does not. It is something you access through being able to play. But playing under immense pressure is a special skill, it’s a bit like having fun underwater.

What this sets up is the great conundrum of commercial artistry. On the one hand, you have commercial imperatives, budgets and an expected outcome. Pressure. On the other hand, to reach any of these very serious goals, you have to be able to have fun and do what is counter-intuitive. Play. So, what you have is this great tension between the destination and the journey to get there. The great mistake many are making is thinking you can get to the destination without the journey. All I will say is, if you cut enough corners you end up making something smooth, dull and flat. Something that has no edges. Something nobody notices. No matter how many of them you make.

I am often asked why so many ads are shit. And by shit, people either mean boring, vanilla invisible work or something like the colour by numbers Pepsi/Kardashian ad. The simple answer is when pressure stops the creative process from unfolding, you will invariably get something average. There is also normally a large dollop of fear involved. Fear and creativity are not great friends. Or, the process becomes about closing down choices as opposed to being open to possibilities. Lastly, pressure and lack of time also robs you of one other very important lifeboat. Craft.

The day before the premiere of Cats, last minute edits were being made. Even so, you could see Dame Judy Dench’s hand and wedding ring in some of the scenes of a 100 million dollar movie. That says to me process and pressure won over quality.

There is an old line in advertising that goes, I don’t make deadlines, I make ads. It is of course rubbish. We always make deadlines. Otherwise, there is no ad. In our business, time is always the enemy. It always has been. And as the world gets faster, creatives will have less and less of it.

So, as 2020 kicks off, perhaps, we should give more respect to the ingredients we will always need to do anything great. We need to stop with the jargon. We need to stop with the bullshit that there is some other way. We need to stop pretending it doesn’t matter. Because it does.

Time. Craft. Playfulness.

With them, you can have fun underwater.

Without them, more cats will drown.

Creativity. You are never lost in Mumbai, you are just on your way.

Mumbai is not a city, it’s life.

Subhasis Das

My problems began where most problems do. Being friends with a Bulgarian Art Director. Art directors have a strange need to collect or find things. Combine this with being in Mumbai and the unique Bulgarian trait of finding danger where there is none and what you have is an interesting afternoon. Alexander Kalchev my friend and colleague had decided to find a Bollywood poster store in a street called Mutton street. Even though we bought posters I am still not 100% sure this street exists. The chaos of that afternoon made me feel like we found a secret portal and we visited Mumbai’s answer to Hogwarts.

There were warning signs early on. For example this is a picture of our taxi’s roof.

A taxi on LSD

It seemed like either the taxi or I had taken acid. I had a choice to make. I decided on the taxi and pressed on. And when I say pressed on I mean moved slowly forward. The reason for this is the Mumbai traffic. Now, this is the paragraph where I will try and describe its utter insanity. I will fail, but I will try.

I want you to imagine doing endless Tai-Chi on a beautiful beach. You are moving incredibly slowly. You decide to blink. As you blink, out of nowhere, you are attacked by a murmuration of a million starlings. The starlings have chainsaws. Also, the starlings are actually cars. Or horses. Or dogs. Or men balancing long steel poles on their heads. Or entire families on a Vespa. The beautiful beach is a one way street and of course you are going the wrong way. And your fucking cab driver is on his phone. Or watching television. Driving in Mumbai gives you that weird feeling of excitement and dread you get when you are slowly moving towards the top of a rollercoaster before the big fall. It is scary but strangely you also like it. It makes you want to shout I am alive. And I am sure I said that multiple times in the back of our acid taking taxi.

A calm Mumbai Street

In this chaos however, there is also a lesson. The lesson is it somehow all works. In a city of almost 13 million people there is a lot of hooting and shouting but I saw no accidents. Inside the chaos there is a mad, mesmerising ballet that is made up of a billion instances of cooperation. It is a system driven by people rather than rules. Now, not everybody would say that is a good system but it opened my mind to the fact that we often think there is only one way to do things. We always believe technology is the answer but perhaps people can be too.

This is what Mumbai has. Pure potential. People all trying to get somewhere or make it. Mumbai has this strange background sound. It is a low hum. It is the sound of everything. It is the sound of energy.

That was never more obvious than when we visited the a slum called Dharavi. It is where the film Slum Dog Millionaire was made. Our guide very quickly pointed out that when you think of a slum you think of people wanting hand outs. This was not the case in Dharavi. What he showed us was a hive of industry. Leather works, tool makers, tailors, hairdressers, plastic and cardboard recycling just to name a few. People working bloody hard in tough conditions. I am not saying it is perfect by any means. But I could feel the energy and iron will of people trying to move beyond the grasp of their circumstances.

Dharavi Mural
Leather worker in Dharavi

That is what Mumbai taught me. This is Mumbai’s secret. People. Human beings that move mountains every day. They can be the answer to just about every question. People are capable of doing the impossible and the unimaginable. They can make sense out of chaos. But more importantly, they can make chaos beautiful. Only people can change the perceived barriers of messiness and madness into the ingredients for creativity. Alchemy, can only be done by humans. Out of nothing you can make something. Perhaps, we should fear chaos far less than we do. Maybe, we need it far more than we think we do.

Mumbai made me ask myself if in the West we believe in the power of process and technology far more than the potential of people. Logic, process, technology are all truly great things and Mumbai showed me that they are definitely required. However, Mumbai also showed me they are not the only answers to our questions.

Mumbai made me ask where does the human spirit belong in all of this?

I don’t know the answer to that. But, I do know where it lives.

What will advertising be like in 500 years?

This is an article Rupert Price (Chief Strategy Officer) and I recently wrote for Idealog Magazine. We were asked a simple question. What will advertising be like in 500 years? Now, Rupert and I are not very good at thinking ahead. Even when it comes to what we want for lunch. And 500 years is a bloody long time. But we gave it a go. And then we went to an unplanned lunch. Enjoy.

“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

Bill Bernbach

Change is a very seductive thing and of course very easy to see. However, what this 70 year old quote shows is that although many things change, people don’t.

That is a particularly important point as we time travel 500 years into the future.

What advertising will look like at that distant horizon is based on three questions.

Will choice still exist for human beings?

Will status still be something to be obtained?

Will humans still want to belong or be seen as an individual?

We believe the cornerstone is choice. If human beings still make decisions advertising at its core will not be that different. How that information is conveyed and received will of course change beyond belief. But, the fundamental idea of one thing being better than another thing in your mind will drive your behaviour as it does now.

If human beings no longer make choices and decisions are made by A.I. perhaps we will have to create advertising for machines which is an interesting thought. Where we struggle with this concept is that making things easy for humans only works to a point. People don’t want to all be the same. People are irrational and driven by emotion. I feel like there would be a radical response to daily conformity. Don’t take our word for it, ask communism.

This brings us to our second point. If a hierarchy or society of any kind exists 500 years from now, status and getting ahead will not be that different from today. Now, that hierarchy might be a digital one or your status might be determined by what kind of microchip is under your skin. But, you will still want the best microchip, right? Just a bit better than your neighbour’s one.

We don’t want to be the same as everybody else. That’s just how human beings work. We want to feel like we are unique. We also tend to want to belong to a tribe of like-minded people. These drivers have been a part of us for thousands of years. They will be with us for thousands more.

The question is what will advertising be like in 500 years? Perhaps, we should ask another question. What will people be like in 500 years? If we go back 500 years, how different were people when it came to their desires? Not very different at all.

When it comes to advertising we are often seduced by the new way or the shiny new channel. The truth is perhaps more mundane. Things change a lot, people don’t.

Now, that would have been a great place to end this article except there is another way this could all go. What if people could change?  

After all, we did say 500 years, right? And what we are about to say could easily happen in the next 50 years or so.

As we said, advertising will exist as long as people make their own choices and have their own preferences. But, what if those decisions were made before they were born? What if we are at the birth of intelligent design? For 4 billion years the planet and all species upon it have been governed by the laws of nature and natural selection. However, we can now select gender, we can prolong ageing and rebuild humans through replicating DNA. We are also starting to see ideas like bio-hacking becoming very popular. All of this will only snowball as we learn and do more. It is also not going to just go away.

So, the question becomes, if we can pre-program eye colour and gender, could we pre-program tastes and preferences into our off-spring before they are even born? A human beings education could be paid for using their DNA sequence. What would an idea like that that be worth to a brand? I know, it’s insane. And quite possibly, deeply offensive. But it could happen. Very easily. If you look at how social platforms have polarised and shaped our beliefs and choices could this be the next step?

And, here’s another funny idea. What if, as those crazy kids grow up, they could be persuaded to get back at their parents by changing their choices by changing their DNA to a different brand? 

DNA advertising. I am not sure I like it, but, you heard it here first folks.

Looks like we might need some more office space.

The risk of not taking risks.

“A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.”

John A. Shedd

In a recent interview with Empire Magazine, Martin Scorsese said that he didn’t think Marvel Movies were Cinema. As you can imagine this statement caused much gnashing of twitter teeth. So, to explain his position he wrote an article for the New York Times.

This is a paragraph from the article that sums up his position.

“In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”

His basic argument is that as risk has been eliminated from film, and by risk he means smaller independent films and offbeat stories, it has been replaced by packaged formulas of certainty that are free of surprise or a strong point of view. As you begin to watch these films you know what you will feel and how much you will feel. There is very little challenging the viewer.

So, the question is why does that matter? I am sure if you asked the producers on the Marvel films that have made millions of dollars they would laugh at you through their cigar smoke.

The simple answer is the word ‘pattern.’ Patterns are very useful and have enormous value. They are consistent and predictable. However, if they have one weakness it is they are very bad at creating anything new. They are very bad at changing how you see the world. And, importantly, they always have a sell by date. So, could the big film studios be the next Kodak? An interesting question, especially if you look at where a lot of innovation and great storytelling is happening these days (Netflix, Apple, Amazon, HBO etc).

Risk on the other hand is very good at creating the new. Mr Scorsese argues in the article that Hollywood is now making the same film over and over. And, if you look at how many indistinguishable franchises there are in Hollywood these days he may have a point. It has become a pattern that is predictable.

Now, if you are a brave man or woman, you might argue Scorsese is old school and doesn’t get it.

But, I would disagree. I think he gets something very important.

Like a great chef, he knows that risk is an ingredient that is required to make a new recipe. A great example of this is one of the world’s greatest chefs, Ferran Adria. He ran the globally renowned Michelin 3-star restaurant elBulli. Even though it was reported that the restaurant had a waiting list of a million people, elBulli would close for 6 months of the year because Chef Adria vowed never to repeat the dishes he created each year. This time allowed him to innovate and take new risks. Financially, it makes no sense but artistically it does. You don’t get to greatness by doing the same thing over and over. He understood standing still leads to atrophy and eventually death.

I also think Mr Scorsese and Chef Adria fundamentally understand the difference between profit and growth.

A pattern can make you a lot of money. But, only risk can give you exponential growth. Spiritually, artistically and financially. Only risk can help you see new things or make your world bigger. Risk can keep an industry alive. Risk can innovate and change the game. Risk can give you something that didn’t exist.

Risk is very hard and scary and the only thing that can get you somewhere new.

Risk is the alchemy we all believe in but so few of us are brave enough to use.

This is a tension I have seen in many companies throughout my career. The need to change but being paralysed by the pattern that got you this far. I have spent countless hours in meetings that are pantomimes about changing without changing.

Only 12% of Fortune 500 companies are left from 1955. I always wonder how many perished because of the risks they didn’t take. 

To paraphrase William Faulkner, we desperately want to swim for the horizon but are unable to lose sight of the shore.

Advertising. So, what happens to once upon a time?

“There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.”

Terry Pratchett

In his excellent book ‘Blowing the Bloody Doors Off’ Michael Caine tells the story of meeting John Wayne at the Beverly Hills Hotel on his first trip to the United States. The great actor gives him some advice about what he should and shouldn’t do when he becomes famous. He tells him not to wear suede shoes. When Michael Caine asks why, John Wayne tells him that when you are famous you will be at the urinal and the guy next to you will see you. They will do a double take, turn to you and say hey you are Michael Caine. And piss all over your shoes.

It is no accident that Michael Caine is on many talk shows. He is an excellent storyteller. Storyteller’s are valued on late night talk shows because of one simple fact. Stories, unlike almost anything else, emotionally connect with everybody. All the demographics you like.

Yet, storytelling in advertising has become an uncool word. This is something advertising loves to do to itself. Forget what works, let’s find something shiny.

For many it has become associated with what some would call old ways of doing advertising. Although, if you listen to Les Binet and Peter Field there is a desperate need to go back to this kind of creativity. From their evidence at the IPA, trying to build a brand with short term thinking rather than creating a consistent narrative that connects with consumers emotionally is doomed to failure. Especially, when the economy takes a dive.

I also think storytelling has become unfashionable because of the obsession to make all content as short as possible. Try telling a joke very quickly and see if people are laughing at the end. The result of all this is many bits of online content that look like charmless 1950’s billboards. Cheap and uncheerful.

Another reason it has become uncool is because our industry has tried to replace it with stupid jargon-words like story-making and the even more ridiculous story-doing. This is because our business seems to think that telling stories in other ways, be it online or using customer experience is vastly different. The channels might be, but the desired result is very much the same. Feeling and connection. This is something advertising often forgets with new media channels.

While we are doing the very important job of labelling things, Netflix is spending 11 billion dollars on telling stories and Amazon is about to spend 7 billion dollars to do the same. I would call that a ringing endorsement that gives us a hint of where things are going.

So, why do stories matter so much in advertising?

Take this photograph. It was taken during the London terror attacks. Apparently an advertising agency strategist (I think named Paula Bloodworth) looked at the picture and noticed the man on the right was still holding his beer while running away. From that came the brilliant line ‘Nothing beats a Londoner.’ She saw the story in the picture. She saw something that data would not have seen in a photograph of a London terror attack.

Storytelling is how you get somewhere new. Stories let you connect impossible things. It is how you invent characters and new worlds. Stories make sense of what is but they can make you see what isn’t there yet. And most importantly, they make you pay attention. That has enormous value.

As I have said, a great story cuts across all demographics. That is ridiculously valuable. It also makes people want more. It can be episodic. Game of Thrones has been going for 8 years. Going forward, I think advertising will need to think a lot more about how stories can continue.

Stories are also how human beings naturally entertain and talk to each other. And, I think, as we have more and more channels to speak to a consumer, many brands are forgetting this simple fact. Tone is one of storytelling’s greatest strengths. One of the great dangers for brands going forward is they will be omnipresent, yet perfectly impersonal. All the information at exactly the right time with none of the charm. Will that be enough? We will see.

Perhaps you are still unconvinced. OK. Well, let’s create a very good product that everybody wants. Let’s give it excellent customer service and fantastic distribution. Let’s also give it a very good price. So far, so good.

Now, let’s give it some competition that has exactly the same attributes plus a story. The moment this happens things start getting weird. People start saying imprecise things, like our product is fine but it’s a bit boring. It has no vibe or it’s a bit soulless. There is no personality. And that is because people are irrational. They make decisions based on emotion rather than facts. We make choices based on how we feel. We think we don’t, but we do. Take the biggest purchase people make in their lives. A home. What do people normally say when they choose a home?

It just felt right.

That is why storytelling works and matters. Because it is the perfect vehicle to convey emotion. And emotion rather than logic is how we make decisions.

That, and the fact that very few boring people make it onto chat shows.

Advertising. Swimming with clowns.

“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.”

William Shakespeare Twelfth Night

This is a plea for naughtiness.

Naughtiness is defined as mischievousness, prankishness, a type of disobedience.

For about a year I have had this re-occurring thought. Has creativity become a formula because of how ideas have to serve so many media channels? Useful, practical Swiss army knife ideas versus impactful, sharp steak knife ideas. This thought pops in my head every couple of days. It comes from something I wrote a couple of months ago. I wrote creativity can make nice patterns but its real value is that it can break patterns. This makes creativity dangerous but also priceless because almost nothing else can do this for a business.

Recently, I hired a team who had been retrenched. One of them told me they had taken a clown as their support person to the retrenchment meeting. He instructed the clown to make balloon animals while he lost his job. When the team told me the story I laughed for about ten minutes. So, we hired them.

For me it demonstrated two things, creativity can change the rules of any situation and it can get your power back when you have none.

I was thinking about this as I descended through the brown air tightly hugging the very organised Singapore. I was here to judge Spikes Asia.

It is a strange thing to watch 150 case studies in a day. Eventually, you are hypnotised by the same structure, same set-up, the results etc. They all look the same. But, every now and then, something comes along that is so clever or funny that it breaks through the pattern and packaging. Or, somebody in the room changes your mind with their perspective. They break the pattern in your mind. That’s the strange thing about creativity. It can break something and make it better at the same time.

My mind wondered and I started to think about patterns. I asked myself what pattern could be broken in our creative world. Here’s a thought. Case studies all look the same, don’t they? We have reached a strange optimum 2 minute efficient way of telling our stories. Set up. Problem. solution. Data. Results. Huge buzz was created. Millions of channels. The structure and restrictions of the case study dictate a pattern we now follow.

I decided to apply clown theory to the problem. What if you gave case studies to a clown? How would he or she present it? In person? A bad video with boards and charts? Would the clown attack the jury in the bar with a squirting flower? All risky strategies, but boy, they would be fun. And you would remember the work wouldn’t you? Maybe somebody should try it. It would be chaos but it might get us somewhere new. And like I said, it would be fun.

Spikes Asia 2019 Direct Jury with a clown

This kind of thinking is where the real power lies for creativity. We are scared of it but we love it. It’s dangerous but it’s where we want to go. Why else would a small story in NZ go right round the world? The simple answer is that in the worst situation you can imagine career wise, somebody saw an opportunity to change everything for the better. They didn’t follow the rules. They made new ones. They said fuck it. The thing we all want to say at least once a day.

In our business, we talk about creativity a lot. Most of the time it is used to solve problems efficiently. It is practical. It is useful. It is effective. It is clever. But, there is another type of creativity, a creativity that is mad, unpredictable and breaks every law. As a jury member said to me over dinner, advertising used to have more naughtiness and more strange characters. It is our super power. We should never lose it. And maybe we need a bit more of it these days. Anybody can make sense. But, madness is often what you need to go somewhere new. And then, it is no longer mad.

That is the creativity that frightens us. That is also the creativity we all want. And that is why we need more clowns.

They take you laughing into the deep water.

Advertising. Phineas Gage is a strange story we should all know.

“One can be master of what one does, but never of what one feels.”

Gustave Flaubert

September 13, 1848 was not a good day for Phineas Gage. Until that day, the handsome 25 year old had worked his way up to the position of foreman. By all accounts he was very good at his job. Shrewd and capable. Somebody you could depend on to get the job done. But, unfortunately on that day none of these fine qualities would help him. He was working with a four-foot iron rod to tamp down some blasting powder. And through sheer chance, the iron bar created a spark as it struck a rock. This sent the iron bar straight up through Gage’s left eye and clean through his brain. Apparently, the rod landed 30 or 40 feet away from the unfortunate and now one eyed Mr Gage.

And now the good news. Phineas Gage, incredibly, was fine. Yes, he had lost an eye and had a massive hole in his brain. But, apart from that he was fit as a fiddle. Later that day, he would walk into a doctor’s office saying, “Here’s business enough for you.”

I was fortunate enough to be told this unbelievable story by Rupert Price our urbane Chelsea Football Club loving head of strategy. The reason both Rupert and I are interested in Mr Gage is because of what happened to him next. You see, although Mr Gage showed no physical side effects, there were some other changes.

He was unable to control his emotions or make choices.

His intellectual abilities were fine. He could think, but could not make decisions.

150 years later, Dr Antonio Damasio would examine, analyse and scan Gage’s skull. His conclusion was that Gage’s post accident brain was unable to process emotions and was therefore unable to make decisions.

In other words, you cannot make decisions without the ability to experience emotion.

Think about what that means in our business. If there is no emotion, there is no decision. If there is no decision, there is very little point to advertising.

I hear too many people talk about emotion like it is a nice to have or perhaps part of old fashioned advertising. Apparently, there are better ways now. Really?

Let’s take an example. Buying a house. The biggest purchase most people ever make. In the beginning, our nice couple will do research, they look at suburbs, measure the rooms and talk to experts. You know, rational stuff. Yet, what do they invariably say when they are asked why they bought that specific house?

It just feels right.

The idea that a lot of decisions are purely rational is a myth. A myth, many still believe because that is how they think they make decisions. A myth that has a massive impact on our business. You can have all the facts but without emotion there is one thing missing. The ability to have a preference. Because quite simply you don’t care.

And, when you don’t care about something, no matter how available, rational or effective it is, you don’t notice it. That something becomes invisible. These days, there are many short term choices that are leading brands to reach parity with one another rather than becoming a far more desirable p-word. The preference.

I would argue advertising needs that like a hole in the head.

Advertising. 450 million dollars for peacock feathers.

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”

Leonardo da Vinci

This is Salvator Mundi. The world’s most expensive painting. It recently sold for 450 million dollars at Christie’s in New York. Most experts thought it would get to about 200 million dollars. They were very wrong. However, the gigantic sum paid is not the most startling facts about this masterpiece.

What is far more eye-watering is many don’t believe it is real. Many experts feel that it was done by Da Vinci’s workshop rather than the master himself. If that is the case the paintings value drops to 1.5 million dollars. My hands get a little sweaty writing that sentence. I don’t know why, it’s only a 448.5 million dollar gamble.

The first. The last. Original. The one and only. The genuine article. What is the value of specialness and exclusivity? Why is being distinctive so important to us? Why does it matter? I believe it is inherent in human beings to want to be different to everybody else. It might be a skill you have learnt. A story you can tell. An instrument you can play. Or, something you have collected. But most people attempt to have something that makes them different or if you prefer, interesting. Think of the last dinner party you were at. Who or what do you remember? Invariably, it was a story that somebody told that made you laugh or shake your head in disbelief. Or, an outrageous act from somebody who was a little drunk and perhaps had a serviette on their head. Either way, whether it was surprise or emotion being different is very good at disrupting the banality of polite conversations and bland pre-dinner snacks. In short, it gets you noticed.

I feel in a world where discussions are often about effectiveness, distinctiveness is often neglected. In advertising, especially these days, we often talk about what must be done, we speak far less about how it must be done. I can speak from experience when I say tone is often what trips up campaigns. We all know what the work has to do but how different or distinctive it needs to be is where you often run into tricky issues. Efficiency is important as is effectiveness. But here is the conundrum. That efficiency often comes from very inefficient and human qualities. Emotion, confidence, risk, surprise and a touch of drama. Without it, there is very little distinctiveness and consequently less efficiency. So, although many are trying, it would seem efficiency and difference are very difficult to separate. I think this quote from Rory Sutherland explains the puzzle perfectly.

“Like a peacock’s tail, advertising is not really about efficiency…A large part of advertising’s power comes from the fact that it is perceived to be expensive, and is broadcast at a wide audience in mass media, thus conveying a seller’s confidence in the widespread popularity of what is being sold”.

Or, to get back to our expensive painting, let’s look at it another way. In a strange turn of events, you have become wealthy and remarkably good looking. You have been going to expensive dinner party after dinner party. Each one, has had great food and wine, fantastic hosts and impeccable service. Tonight’s party has been no different until the host says to the gathering that behind the curtain is the last known Leonardo da Vinci. He unveils it to loud gasps. It would be a showstopper. You wouldn’t remember any dinner party before that and guess what you would be talking about at the next one?

So, perhaps, a Da Vinci is just a peacock’s tail to some ridiculously, wealthy billionaire (it was actually bought by a Saudi Sheik) with a permanent tan and fantastic white teeth. That’s what he looks like in my head anyway. Is he completely batshit crazy?

Actually, that is the wrong question.

The right question is what is genuine difference worth these days?

And the answer to that is another question.

What is a peacock worth without its feathers?