advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Ideas. They are not for everyone.

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“Ideas are easy. It’s the execution that really separates the sheep from the goats.”

Sue Grafton

Narratives that don’t make sense. If you have been in advertising for more than 10 minutes you will have seen this before.

Invariably over time you find these narratives have far more to do with making or saving money than anything coming close to the truth. Look what was said 5 years ago about digital advertising and you will see what I mean.

Right now, there are two narratives floating around advertising that are diametrically opposed to each other.

The first one goes like this. Nothing is more important than creativity. It is our secret weapon. We need it. It is what separates us from the rest.

The other is creative should not be left up to the creatives. Ideas can come from anywhere. Anybody can come up with an idea. We should be open to everybody having ideas.

Now, I would agree that anybody can have an idea. Any Creative Director worth his salt will look at the idea, not where it came from. I also understand that a lot of these conversations come from dealing with how many puzzle pieces there are these days. And, how little time exists to make that pretty picture on the box.

However, when I look at these competing narratives I have some issues about the misconceptions many in our industry have about creatives and why they are so necessary. For me, these problems begin with two words. Creative and idea.

Creative is not a job description it a vague, undefined ability. I have told people I am a creative and they have responded by saying they are also creative, they love to cook or are quite keen on gardening.

So, what you often have is the erroneous thought by many in our industry that anybody can be a creative because the job description of being an advertising creative is undefined. This description also erodes the value of what we do. However, there is a far bigger problem.

The second word I mentioned is the word idea. What is an idea? Seriously, think about it for a second. For those that aren’t sure I can put your mind at rest by telling you it is far more than a couple of words on a bloody post-it.

For many, the perception exists that having an idea is hard. The truth is that the hard part is actually caring about an idea. Everybody can have an idea but, selling, making and caring about an idea that leads to potentially hundreds of executions often over a couple of years needs a person with special qualities. That blend of talent and dedication is very hard to find.

Creatives are often described as rock stars but the truth is really great creatives are far more like shepherds . They are there when an idea is born. They try to keep it safe and moving in the right direction. They try and make sure it doesn’t die. To use a comparison from the other end of the job spectrum, I often think it feels similar to being an actor in L.A. going to auditions every day and being rejected for being too short, too tall, too fat, too boring etc. Talent is important but so is toughness. It’s not for everyone.

The other tricky thing about ideas is that everybody thinks their own ideas are great. This is fine if you don’t have to make one. It can just be a nice theory. Nobody gets hurt. But, if you are actually making an idea which can often cost millions of dollars somebody has to be responsible for the end product. Who decides? And to be clear, if it is a committee or involves brainstorming you are already in deep shit. Somebody has to make a call. And not just one decision but hundreds of tiny unglamorous decisions.

Paul Klee once said that a line is a dot that went for a walk. It is one of my favourite quotes because it perfectly describes the difference between having an idea and the endless process of making an idea.

Many at the moment are making the mistake of thinking that having an idea is the same as making an idea. Whether it is the disaster of an event like the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, the infamous Pepsi ad or the hundreds of ads that all look like each other because people have cut corners, we need to remember in the end it is the making that matters. This is why creatives matter, they make ideas real. They understand more than anybody that an idea means nothing if it isn’t made. It is what drives them. It is why they push further. It is why they are different. It is why they are valuable.

The truth is having an average idea is pretty painless and can be done by many. On the other hand, making a truly great idea needs a person or people that have a lot of courage, passion and a very high pain threshold.

Despite what some may think, it’s not for everyone.

 

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. What if the right answer is wrong?

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

H.L Mencken

The thing about process is that it leaves very little room for madness, obsession and mistakes. To be human. My fear is that our business at the moment is having a lot of conversations about ways to get to huge quantities of acceptable, average answers. Creativity is not at the forefront of our business right now. The ability to make a lot of average stuff quickly is.

The desire for vast amounts of content by its very nature means a process has to be created. A pipeline. A conveyor belt. A factory. If you look at those last 3 words you don’t get to unique, memorable and human. You get to continual, consistent and sterile.

To some, this may sound pretty good. The problem will be when everybody has a conveyor belt. Then a lot of things are going to look the same. What then?

The question is will accuracy and frequency be enough? There is a very strong desire to create order and patterns in our business right now. Creativity by its very nature breaks patterns. For it to survive it has to be able to make mistakes and take risks. It cannot be content with an average answer. If creativity can’t have those things it will give you the answers you already have. And then it has no value.

I tried to think of an example of doing something the wrong way but something marvellous and human coming out of it. I didn’t have to look far.

My youngest son Jamie (playing the piano in the video) is dyslexic. One of the ways we discovered this is that he took piano lessons and he would play a piece at a concert. We noticed that he wasn’t looking up at the sheet music. He was looking down at the keys He would play the whole piece out of his head. He coped my memorising a whole song. He is eight years old.

In essence, because one part of his brain struggled another part became almost superhuman. Dyslexia is often called the MIT disease because so many end up in these kinds of respected learning institutions. The reason for this is that dyslexics often develop the ability to make unique connections and come up with novel solutions to complex problems that are very different to typical minds.

Finding another way is one of the most important parts of creativity. It is also a very human quality that gets you somewhere new.

I am not sure it is a word but I think about humaness a lot. I would define it as the opposite of sterile. It is unexpectedness, delight, surprise and the other stuff that makes life worth living. And I don’t just mean those words on a poster. I mean what you feel.

In a couple of years, once we have created a hyper-personalised, hyper-conversational, cross channel, responsive, data unified, outcome based, always on, highly snackable, curated customer experience, how will human beings feel about it all?

Will research come back that they find it all a bit boring and predictable? Or, will it be that they don’t notice it at all because everything has become so seamless? After they have been chased around the internet will they feel like people do now when they get a machine instead of a human being at a call centre.

The truth is another word for creativity could be humanity. And, if we lose that, in a business that is all about talking to other human beings we will be in deep trouble.

No matter how accurate we are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Cannes. Strangers at the Circus.

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“Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers.”

Victor Hugo

There were two boats in Cannes. They were part of the seemingly endless cavalcade of behemoth yachts moored in the South of France for the Cannes advertising festival of creativity. One belonged to some venture capitalists and was obscenely large. It had its own planet sized chandelier and a place to land a helicopter. The other was more modest by Cannes standards. It belonged to the advertising agency BBH. One of the great agencies in the world.

The venture capitalists had been on their deck staring with great intent at the BBH boat. In particular, they had been looking at the flag of BBH which is a black sheep. I believe it comes from one of Sir John Hegarty’s early ads for Levis. It shows a whole flock of white sheep and one black sheep and I think the line was when everybody zigs, zag.

The venture capitalists looked at this for a while and one of them shouted across to BBH.

“So what kind of business are you guys in? Livestock?”

Now, I don’t know if this story is true. I was told the story on two separate occasions while I was in Cannes. And after being there for the week, I can certainly believe it happened. The reason I mention it is that it is the perfect example of where Cannes and advertising is right now.

For years Cannes was the place where old buildings met new ideas. Strangely, it was a very consistent, predictable template that housed necessary madness and bleary eyed hedonism. It was a simple, crazy beautiful celebration of ideas and creativity that said we are the creators and the disruptors. It was about a tribe that believed in taking risks and finding ways to bring the new. There was a bit of schadenfreude mixed with joy and full frontal ambition. It was a place where your sputtering career and where the industry was at merged. This weird fusion gave you a pretty good read of the advertising landscape, a vague map and a way forward.

This Cannes was different.

There were many tribes. Venture Capitalists wanting to buy stuff. Tech companies wanting to sell stuff. Consultants. Entertainment. Gaming. Media. Facebook. Google. And Snapchat with a Ferris Wheel. I could go on and on. But it’s safe to say that there were many strangers at the circus. And even the ones you used to know were trying to re-invent themselves. They were all saying we used to be this, now we are that.

To me, we have reached a point where advertising no longer knows what it is because it has become everything. That’s a pretty big place. Believe me, a new world is forming that is both frightening and exciting in equal measure. You could see the tectonic plates shifting and the lava oozing out around your newly bought Espadrilles.

I have a love hate relationship with Cannes. It gives you the best and the worst of our industry in one place, in a single week. It can be overwhelming. I don’t know why but in a year where Cannes had maximum madness I felt quite serene. Maybe it’s because I had a North Star. I just looked at the ideas. And to be clear, they were pretty bloody good this year. For me creativity at Cannes was not a sideshow.

For many others, that were there, it was. And if I am honest, I found that a little sad.

Cannes felt like an eye desperately trying to look at itself. But there was too much to see.

However, if you can look past the insane circus of obscene boats, shiny people with mirrored ray-bans and far too much linen; if you can peer past the endless bullshit jargon and polished bravado there will always only ever be one ringmaster.

Ideas.

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The wisdom of taxi drivers.

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“All the stories I’ll ever need are right here on Main Street.”  Robert Cormier

Many years ago, I was in New York for the first time. I was in a yellow cab I had seen in a hundred movies. It was like cinematic deja vu. From the journey, I remember two things. The first thing was that the suspension of yellow cabs in New York often make you feel like you are driving in a large swimming pool. The second thing I remember was the answer the cab driver gave me to my first question.

I was a little overwhelmed. We had driven for a while from JFK International Airport and the first time you arrive in New York there is a lot to take in. The skyscrapers, the poverty, the wealth and the unmissable perfume of potential.

My cab driver was an older Jamaican gentleman and he was listening to talk radio. The discussion on the radio was about wearing a weave and if that made you a fake. It was just one more detail I strangely still remember.

I leaned forward and asked him this question. What is the difference between New York and Los Angeles? He looked into the mirror and instantly responded.

New York is theatre. L.A is T.V. Yes, sir.

The perfection and simplicity of the answer hit me between the eyes. 20 years later, I still think it might be one of the best answers I have ever heard.

Since that day, I have always had conversations with taxi drivers. Recently, I was in San Francisco and I wasn’t disappointed. The first guy, Ahmed, told me what it was like to be a Muslim in America right now. How people are frightened of him and how he sometimes pretends to be Mexican. The second was a Nigerian man who you can see in the photo above. He told me about moving to America in 1979 and how there was a large Nigerian community in of all places Dallas. When I asked why, he said because there was a direct flight from Lagos to Dallas. It was the first city you reached, so people stayed there.

I mention these stories because in each one there are fragments and details that make them interesting, specific and very human.

Interesting. Specific. Human.

I think about these words a lot at the moment. There are many articles and discussions about data, personalisation and process at the moment. We use the word insight in just about every presentation we ever make. We talk about storytelling and its importance.

A lot of words. A lot of questions.

My feeling is that instead of all this making the work more interesting and specific, it is making it more generic.

Now, it would seem other things are more important than quality right now. Cost and the ability to make a lot of stuff very quickly. Fair enough. But I can’t help but wonder. Where does this go? Let’s fast forward as an industry 5 years into the future.

We make content cheaper; we make more of it and we put it everywhere. This very process will make what is made more generic and boring. Mark my words. There will be a sameness that will grow into an epidemic. What will be made will become less and less memorable. We are talking about a lot of work that nobody will notice despite all the measurement saying otherwise. It will also not sell anything to anybody. And when that happens, there will be three questions that will have to be answered. Firstly, is making thousands of things of average quality really the answer? Secondly, does memorability and distinctiveness matter anymore? Thirdly, if it does, what can be done to fix the situation?

It will be interesting to see what the answers will be. Things are pretty uncertain in this industry right now but if there is one thing I do know it is that clients never just want parity with competitors.

So, the first lever that can be pulled makes something cheaper. The second will make more of it. The question is what happens when everybody can pull these levers? The answer is you have to change the game. And creativity, is always the answer to that question. You only have to look at history to see this seemingly new paradigm has happened over and over.

Be distinctive. Be interesting. Be noticed. Have something to say. And say it well. Those things don’t change.

A memorable Rastafarian taxi driver I will never forget taught me that 20 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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