advertising, Uncategorized

Judging D&AD. The Hustle and Strive.

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“First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty if you’re lucky and have said your prayers.”

George Balanchine

Where do you find inspiration?

As it happens, I found it on a windswept balcony overlooking Shoreditch.

It is a part of London that is made of grit and questionable glamour. A suburb that has urban decay and optimistic baristas in equal measure. And, with their neat haircuts and even neater tattoos they will eventually win the day. One cup at a time. It is a home for the homeless and the hopeful. I was watching the sad, daily pilgrimage of hundreds of commuters with their arms folded against the biting wind walking straight past cheerful and hopelessly ineffective graffiti.

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London is a place of contradictions. It is a place of endless, beautiful layers. Just put your fucking graffiti over the graffiti from yesterday. One voice over the next. It is a hard place where you have to push, scramble and fight to be heard. It is a place where you can never give up. It is a dance where you have to hustle and strive.

I was here to judge D&AD.

Mostly however, I wanted some inspiration. Whatever that is. Inspiration. Where does it come from and where does it go?

D&AD is many things. Like London, it also has its contradictions and layers.

From the older creatives in fetching scarves who love the sound of their own voice to the younger uncertain creatives who don’t quite know what their voice is yet. Last year’s winners, looking at next year’s winners, standing next to this year’s winners. Ideas so great you are jealous for days and the average ideas that start to make you feel mildly smug.

More than all these contradictions and layers though, like London, D&AD has the highest standards. And that simple fact, gives it value. The value of something rare and illusive. The value of something you should never just automatically expect.

Let me explain. I think I judged well over 700 entries. From that, there were 6 Graphite Pencils. That is less than 1 per cent. From that, there were 2 Yellow Pencils. That is way less then 1 per cent. I would call that rare. There were only 5 Black Pencils awarded from 26000 entries. That is exactly 0.0192307692308 per cent of all the entries to receive a Black Pencil. I would say that is beyond rare. Closer to impossible.

There are some things that can only be learnt when something is very difficult. You know that if you’re going to succeed in this arena you have to give it your all. You know you might fail or screw up because that path is very narrow. But, you also don’t want to be anywhere else. You want to know how good you are or could be. You want to test yourself. You want to find out what you are made of.

Inspiration doesn’t always come from a beautiful piece of music or sunlight dancing on the horizon. Sometimes, it comes from struggle. It comes from the hustle of trying. It comes from putting everything on the line. When I was standing on that freezing balcony I could see it on the walls and street corners of the unending story called London.

With every fibre of its being London shouts, get in the game son, you are alive, show us what you can do.

And for a few days a year at D&AD, we get the chance to accept that challenge. We get to fight to be heard. We get to hustle and put it all on the line. We get to take our shot at the title. We remember why we love this business. We get hungry again. And, we suddenly find inspiration was there the whole time.

Thank you D&AD for making it so bloody hard.

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advertising, Uncategorized

The Kool-Aid is strong with this one.

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All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.

Mark Twain

It would seem I was beaten to writing about the new Pepsi commercial by about 6 million people. Perhaps that is a good thing. It gave me time to think and look at what everybody has been saying over the last 72 hours. Although for those involved with this commercial it has probably felt far longer.

Now, just about every angle on what is wrong with this commercial has been covered on blogs around the world. There has been much schadenfreude about the fact that it was done by an in-house agency. The narrative is that because it was done in-house there was a lack of perspective. Now, judging by the press release everybody thought they were onto a winner. Nobody internally thought it was offensive.  So, perhaps there is some truth to that. It would seem to me that very few difficult conversations about the concept were had. The Kool-aid had been drunk. Could this have happened in a good, creative advertising agency? Probably. But, the chances would have been far less because the creative voice would have been far stronger. And it would have been far stronger because creatives would have had an issue with the idea and most importantly the context. There would have been push back. However, getting to a commercial like this is far easier than you would think.

I have been in situations like this where an alternative perspective gets squashed because the big boys in the room have decided. I have also experienced meetings where some have believed their product by its sheer magnificent existence will change the world. That kind of environment creates nodding and squashes nuance and subtlety. Two qualities that might have saved this commercial.

But even still, on paper this commercial would have had a lot going for it. They had a big budget. Tick. They had loads of data about their audience. Tick.  They could have the highest production values. Tick. A celebrity and a great track. Tick. So they have a great ad right?

Wrong.

Like I said the commercial had a lot going for it but there are two things it didn’t have. Friction and an idea. This commercial is what keeps us Creative Directors up at night. It’s what gives us nightmares so terrifying we go on to develop an addiction to sleeping tablets just so the bad dreams go away. For a while.

Let me explain.

Firstly friction. Every Creative Director looking at this will know there were no small battles. And if there were, the creatives didn’t win any. Great commercials happen because of many discussions and decisions. The conversation probably went like this. Do we need a celebrity? Yes. Should we really go anywhere near protesting? Yes. Do we really need to start with the Cello player on the roof? Yes. Do we really need a Cello player? Yes. Does he really have to have a massive Pepsi blue Cello case? Yes. Is it weird that there is a fashion shoot right next to a massive protest? No. I could go on.

Yep. You can feel this baby was locked and loaded. They were working to a formula. A series of modern cliches which seem strangely dated. The consequence is there is no humanity or authenticity which ultimately means no connection. Instead of capturing the zeitgeist it gives us a parody of it.

Having friction however is only useful if you have an idea. And fundamentally, there isn’t one anywhere near the blast zone of this commercial.

I think this is what angers the creative community more than anything. For the last couple of years creativity has become this strange thing at the end of the line. Something we will do after all the important stuff. There is also the erroneous and financially driven belief that anybody can do it. We will just get some ideas from the idea factory, right?

I have often said these days the industry thinks the picture frame is more important than the picture. This ad is a perfect example of that.

Creativity, craft but most importantly concept have not been given the respect they deserve.

What this ad proves is that you can have all the money, the data and the insight, even the audience and still make a bad ad.

The simple reason for that is many arrogantly think they just need the ingredients to do it all.

The Pepsi ad proves you may also need a chef.

And, probably one who doesn’t work in your restaurant.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The postcard is never the place.

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“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” Oscar Wilde

“Maybe that’s what life is….a wink of the eye and winking stars.” Jack Kerouac

I had been walking with my new friend Alexander Kalchev through Chinatown in San Francisco. I had visited these streets before in my head.

As a young man I used to read Kerouac on the Greyhound bus between Durban and Johannesburg in South Africa trying to make being broke a romantic pursuit. Today, I was visiting Beatnik Central.  We stumbled onto the City Lights Bookstore where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and all the others had spent a lot of time.

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It is a strange feeling when you see something for real that’s been in your head for years. There are little gems you find in reality. Hidden details that fill in gaps or give you new insight into the stories you have read. Direct experience. There was a time where we got our inspiration from going out there and finding stories, ideas and things. Today, of course those things come to us. They are piped in. The information comes to us on a screen but I am not sure the experience does. And the reason that is important is that information needs experience to become a story. Experience interprets information. Experience transforms information.

We walked down the road and we found the American Zoetrope Building. The Godfather and Apocalypse Now were edited there.

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I looked at the building with it’s bright green facade created by time. I saw a younger George Lucas drinking coffee on the street and Francis Ford Coppola with a half smoked cigar in his mouth looking out of one of the windows with a very harassed editor behind him drowning in the pieces of Apocalypse Now still to be edited. The place and the building had given me a feeling. A feeling I would not have had if I had just Googled the address. A feeling and a story that information alone would not have supplied. The direct experience of things it would seem has a strange side-effect. Inspiration.
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 Inspiration was something I had experienced the day before. Keith Reinhard is Chairman Emeritus of DDB and has been in advertising for six decades. Let’s just say he has forgotten stuff you will never know. He had been kind enough to come and speak to a few of us about advertising and his journey through it. There was a joy in his stories and I found his talk really inspirational. And, I believe I felt the way I did because I was in the same room as him. If I had watched him on a screen I would not have experienced his gentle warmth, intelligence and sense of humour. I got a sense of him as a person and that made what he said better.
Inspiration and direct experience of life are vital ingredients for creativity. We need both to do anything interesting. Advertising is taking these qualities for granted. Without them, you will reach the sea of sameness very quickly.
Fortunately, over a two day period I was given two very large doses to point me in the right direction. First from a great man who had better stories than me. Second from a great place that had better stories than me. And now, their stories have become my story.
The lesson I learnt from San Francisco and Keith Reinhard is that being there is everything. It is how inspiration happens. That’s how stories begin. The postcard is never the place.
It’s a lesson our business should never forget.
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advertising, Uncategorized

Has advertising lost its sense of humour?

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“When humour goes, there goes civilisation.”

Erma Bombeck

There is a saying in Hollywood that comedies never win at the Oscars. It would seem the stats back it up. Guess how long it has been since a comedy won best picture at the Oscars? 40 years. Annie Hall won in 1977 and that was the very last time. In total, comedies have only ever won Best Picture 6 times in 88 years.

It’s a very strange fact. It’s almost like we cannot reward or acknowledge humour. It’s as if it is not a deep enough emotion to be rewarded. We need tears, angst or deep meaning to say a film is truly great. It has to be worthy of our praise. The problem with worthy however is that it is a very serious business

The truth is to make something funny is one of the hardest things you can do. And if you are honest about the films you love or the Youtube clips you show to your mates, comedy wins every time.

As I read all these stats about the Oscars I started to think about if this is true for advertising. Are we any different? How often does funny win best in show these days? And, I stress these days. Innovative, sure. Helping the planet or others, check. A story that makes you feel deeply, that’s a yes. Something that makes you laugh your ass off, not so much. So, does advertising still have a sense of humour?

One of advertisings greatest weapons was the ability to make people laugh. We shouldn’t underestimate or throw away its power.

While I was thinking about this I stumbled on a brilliant SNL skit that perfectly explains where advertising is at right now and the problems we are creating. And, it uses humour to do it.

Do yourself a favour and watch it. It’s worth 4 minutes of your time.

If you are in the USA you can watch it here.

Or, if you are not in the USA it apparently exists on metatube.com. Search for ‘pitch meeting.’

What this fantastic skit highlights is the real danger for advertising right now. Everybody is jumping on a cause. Should every brand have a deep purpose or meaning? If you are a corn chip called Cheetohs like the one in the SNL skit, should you really be trying to save the world?

Now, having said that, I think there are some brands that have walked the talk and have used this type of advertising or way of behaving to great effect. What you will normally find though is there is some sort of natural fit and it makes sense for the brand. These brands normally back up what they say. And, most importantly because of this the consumer doesn’t think it is all just bullshit and puffery.

However, without mentioning names, look at the Super Bowl work from this year and you will see many brands jumping on very generic trends that really have nothing to do with their brand or past behaviour. Somebody told them that people care about these issues and they just smashed their brand into a cause or purpose with very little truth, humour, charm or most importantly relevance. This is advertising’s version of alternative facts.

It’s like meeting somebody at a dinner party who just keeps saying I am a good person, I care about the world, love me. I am a good person, I care about the world, love me. I am a good person…it’s pretty weird right. A little intense. You would move to another part of the table desperately looking for someone who has a good story that will make you smile.

For me the lesson is simple. A trend is not an idea. Information is not a story. And sometimes, you don’t have to be worthy, or save the world.

Just make me laugh.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Are rules more important than ideas?

IMG_0296“It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we’re legally allowed to take over our competitors.”

Bill Bernbach

This isn’t scientific. Just a hunch. A feeling. Remember those?

It is a new year, so I decided to do a new little experiment. In a single day, I would observe what all the articles and blogs on my various feeds where about with regards to advertising. Was there an overall narrative? What are we talking about as an industry and more importantly what are we not talking about?

I had done this because I had begun to have an uneasy feeling that had begun to grow.

To explain, let me go back a bit. Advertising has always been about using creativity to create an unfair advantage for your client. In essence, creativity was how you broke the rules. You tried to find a new way, a more memorable way of communicating or getting noticed. You did not do what everybody else was doing. You looked for an angle or a spark. You broke the rules and created new possibilities. 

This has always been the magic of advertising. Advertising has a kind of alchemy at its heart and when practiced well it can create the impossible out of nothing.

You would think something that precious would be important as a cornerstone of what we do. You would think as an industry we would protect it all costs. But lately, it feels like the end product, ideas and even creativity have been lost in the noise.

Back to my very unscientific experiment. In a single day, I counted about 40 articles on my various feeds. They were about many topics but often they were about rules. Rules about optimisation, speed, efficiency, big data, cost and structures for the new models of advertising. Five were about diversity and only two were about the importance of creativity. Two. The first piece was about the lack of creativity in our industry today and in this particular blog the writer argued that advertising was getting worse. Awesome.

The second piece was from a planner called Craig McLeod who was arguing that art trumps numbers. Here is a paragraph I really liked.

“The decision to use a subservient chicken to sell burgers ain’t easy. Nor using hatred to sell diesel cars. Van Damme doing the splits to sell trucks. These ideas owe far more to immeasurable and inspired serendipity than numerical logic. In short, creativity gets you what money can’t buy.” 

So, 33 out of 40 articles were about the rules and direction of advertising. Almost none of the thinking was about ideas, the end product or creativity. What we actually make. What we do to create value. Rules, however, were everywhere.

Now, you could argue this is happening because we are changing rapidly as an industry. We need direction and parameters. Yes, we do. However, we also need inspiration and creativity. We need to remember we have always broken the rules. We still need magic and new ways of doing things. Now more than ever. If you don’t have these things, you create an imbalance in our industry that moves us away from magic to mediocrity. Perhaps, as an industry we have had creativity for so long we have begun to take it for granted.

I would argue if the prevailing narrative in our industry is predominantly about rules we could begin to stop loving ideas and begin to care far more about other things. We might start to think the process is as important as the outcome.

I tried to think of analogy to explain my uneasy feeling. I will try and be topical. It’s a bit like advertising is a country that is obsessed with the theory, structures and processes of democracy, but often is not really bothered about who ends up becoming president. In short, we are talking about everything except the end product.

The danger going forward is we will value only what is certain, measured, proven and has been done before. We will begin to forget that ideas can get you what money can’t buy.

Ideas and creativity are beyond definition. They don’t fit into boxes or processes because they are a magnificent leap. That is their purpose. And that is why they are so valuable. There was nothing and then there was something. We should hold onto doing impossible things with both hands. Advertising should not give up on uncertainty so easily because that is how ideas are created. That is how ideas work.

And, advertising having lots of rules but no ideas, well, I am not even sure what that is.

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

The beautiful stone in your shoe.

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“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Heraclitus

I am lying in the middle of the Noosa River an hour outside of Brisbane. After a pretty crazy year where we were working right up to Xmas I was suddenly on vacation. Holidays are strange, lovely things. They creep up on you with the best of intentions. It’s like a really weird neighbour who appears out of nowhere from behind a hedge only to give you some freshly baked Blueberry muffins.

Well, I find it hard to decompress anyway. You are working flat out and then suddenly you are supposed to do the opposite. It’s like you are going down the main straight of Monza at 300kms an hour and halfway down you are told to make a hard right turn. Tricky.

Anyway, there I was in the river trying to relax and appear like a normal human being who can actually blink and shit. The beautiful river had made me think about dealing with stress and relaxation in our business.

Creative agencies are a strange blend of these two opposite qualities. My old boss used to say you need equal parts tea-party and tantrums to make it all work. This is why great creative agencies are so hard to replicate.There is no blueprint or process. Just people. Many in the next couple of years who are looking for alternatives will find this out.

If an agency is too relaxed and always says yes and never pushes itself, you get a tea-party. Everybody is pretty happy and comfortable but the work invariably is shit. There is no drive and no desire. And an agency without desire, might be one of the saddest places to work in the world. For the simple reason that it is practically impossible to be creative without desire or passion. The creatives are doing colour by numbers because it makes everybody happy and their ideas which have real value sit in their bottom drawer

On the other hand, if an agency is too stressed you get tantrums. Too much tension strangely also kills good work because it creates the number one killer of creativity. Fear. And when creatives are afraid they stop trying and just do as they are told. There is no drive and no desire. And, a frightened agency might also be one of the saddest places to work in the world. For the simple reason that it is practically impossible to be creative when you are afraid of being wrong all the time. The creatives are doing colour by numbers because it makes everybody happy and their ideas which have real value sit in their bottom drawer.

So, if you only have one of these qualities in an agency you probably end up with a potential disaster.

Strangely, if you have both these qualities in the right amounts you might have something brilliant. Pretty weird. It is a strange equilibrium created by tense situations and huge amounts of laughter and fun because of those situations. If it proves anything it is that creating conditions for great ideas is far more an art than a science.

In my experience, the best agencies I have worked at were like a beautiful stone in my shoe. I was never completely comfortable but I seemed to happily walk a bit faster to get where I was going. The pain and pressure made me focus. And, it also quite often made me laugh my ass off at the absurdity of it all.

I looked at that last paragraph and wondered if it was different for other creatives. How had they handled stress, different agencies and this business called advertising.

So, I sent an email out on Boxing Day to some of my favourite creatives around the world to ask them how they see it. Fucking Boxing Day. Firstly, let me apologise for the email on Boxing Day. I think that proves I hadn’t really gotten the hang of the whole holiday thing.

Unbelievably, most answered and they will be part of a blog later in the year. However, I will leave you with two answers which I liked very much.

The first was from South African Chief Creative Officer, Chris Gotz.

“The advice I would give my younger self would be this: Good creative people move in straight lines, ignore the bullshit and chase the work. The only thing that changes the conversation is great work. And on any given day you can do that work. I’ve seen it happen to the people who chased it, who knew how to rise above the noise.”

The second answer was from Australian Creative Director, Louise Mahoney.

“The secret to surviving an advertising career is to keep falling in love. Everyone has crap ideas but if you keep searching for the one that excites you and you’re brave enough to share it, nurture it and defend it you can create something beautiful. Like all relationships, some ideas fail, some flourish but unless you put your whole self into them you’ll never be part of something memorable.”

In summary, try and lie in a river, find that beautiful stone in your shoe, move in a straight line, ignore the bullshit, rise above the noise, chase the work and keep falling in love.

Sounds about right.

Happy 2017 everybody.

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The truth will set you free.

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“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

Marcus Aurelius

Nothing reminds you of your love for advertising more than lying next to a man discussing the insertion of his catheter with his best friend.

It has been an interesting two weeks. I had been in hospital because my appendix was trying to kill me. Auckland City Hospital looks like it was decorated by an East German Dictator who discovered he had no creative ability and a large amount of grey paint left over from painting his tanks. But I shouldn’t grumble, the magnificent and dedicated people there saved my life. And for that, I will forever be grateful. And they deserve better decor.

There are a number of strange things you discover in a hospital. For example, I had no idea how many different places they can take blood out of your body. I won’t go into detail in case a hipster throws up. Or, the fact that my legs look magnificent in compression stockings (photographic evidence supplied above) and I may now wear them on weekends. I also discovered how the thinnest curtain creates remarkable honesty. When you are in a ward and you are only separated by a thin curtain from the next patient some of the conversations like the one mentioned above are truly eye watering. The unvarnished truth. I was being allowed to hear things that once the curtain was opened were never discussed. The raw truth replaced by polite conversation

While this was happening I was taking some excellent opiate painkillers. My brain learnt to do the tango in a single afternoon. Once it stopped swaying, I started to think about thin curtains, honesty and what it gives you. I also thought about what honesty could do for advertising.

I have judged a few ad shows around the world this year. One of the things I noticed was how many pieces of the work were the same. And, I am talking about hundreds of pieces, the same scenarios, the same resolves, the same half funny gags and the same looking people in the same looking house. They are generic. They are inoffensive. Nobody will ever notice them. Perhaps, this is what some people want but I find it hard to believe considering the money that is spent. The question is why does it happen?

As my drugs kicked in and the hospital ceiling floated away I strangely thought about Donald Trump. Nobody predicted he would win, but he did. The reason all the so-called experts say this happened is because what people were thinking and feeling was very different from what they were saying. They didn’t feel like they could be honest. But once they got behind their curtain they were surprisingly honest.

What they were saying was not what they were thinking and feeling. They went from an acceptable generic lie to a specific truth.

The process ads go through create this same result. Everything becomes sanitised, inoffensive and generic. There are many global pieces of work that have gone through round after round of pummeling and what you end up with is something that doesn’t upset anybody but doesn’t surprise and delight anybody either. I call them CNN ads. Watch CNN and look at the ads. Large budgets desperately trying to hide bland work.

Great work that connects normally has something specific about it. There is something unusual, something unique. Something you have never seen. Think of your favourite piece of work. Whether it’s Cadbury Gorilla, Paralympics, Under Armour, John Lewis or the Harvey Nichols work from last year they all had some risk, originality and memorability. Somebody also had to be brave enough to buy it and make it.

The process ads go through often try to eliminate the very specific things that make work memorable because they are dangerous and this is often why work looks so generic. However, are we getting honest answers from people about what they find offensive and risky? Are they telling us the truth?

Look at the films people love. Look at the most popular YouTube clips. This is what people enjoy watching. This is the competition. Think of the chasm between what people want to watch and most ads. Think of the different sets of rules. Maybe they should be the same.

Do those people also give completely different answers when it comes to ads because it is what they think is acceptable? Have we built an entire industry based on what people think they should say instead of how they actually feel? How much honesty are we getting from consumers? How reliable is the data?

Are these the ads people really want? And before you say nobody wants to look at ads the John Lewis Boxer ad has been watched over 20 million times in a month on YouTube and shared almost 2 million times. A bit of quality and originality and people don’t care that it’s an ad. They will watch it because they like it.

Have we created an industry that has rules that create a certain outcome? Is that outcome going to work in the future? I know those are a lot of questions but hey, right now, I am on medication that doesn’t me allow to operate heavy machinery.

All I know is that the vast amount of work that comes out of our industry at the moment is not great and not future-proof. It is often banal. The amount of it also tells me it is not an accident. It has to be a desired outcome from perhaps a very flawed process. The question is, does the consumer want it? And if the answer is no what are we going to do about it?

My belief is there has to be a shift in how we make things. There has to be a desire to change the standard and who we measure ourselves against. Average is not OK. There is too much competition for people’s attention to carry on making work that nobody notices.

And, before you say nothing can change, Donald Trump is the President of the United States.

Right, time for another tablet and a lovely chat with a man about his colon.

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