advertising, Creativity, Uncategorized

Creativity. Gentle anarchy never hurt anybody.

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth.”

Leo Tolstoy

There is probably a weird German word for it. A word for that strange feeling you get when you see an idea and it makes you happy and jealous at the same time. I looked at my phone screen and saw this picture. It is a picture of a see-saw that goes between the Mexican and American Border. This simple idea lets children play with each other even though they are separated by an impenetrable steel barrier. Think of the anger. Think of the pain that exists on either side of that steel line in the sand. Think about the intelligence and heart that creates an idea that lets people have fun in that barren and unforgiving environment. An idea, that does not break the law, but simply overcomes the law. An idea, that proves just how limited rules can be.

It was created by two architects, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello. Their beautiful intention was to bring people together through design. As you may have guessed, I really like this idea. It has power, playfulness, humanity, humour and simplicity in equal measure. But most importantly, it has a gentle anarchy at its core. Great ideas like these have this essential creative point of view. There are no rules. Reject the world as it is or how others tell you to see it. Realise you have the ability to make the world the way you want it to be. And, it will be fun or at the very least, unboring. Gentle anarchy. This point of view can be scary for many. But without it, almost nothing will change or move forward.

Think of that famous 60’s photograph of the the anti-Vietnam war protester putting a carnation into the barrel of a military policeman’s gun. Gentle anarchy. It’s a gun. No it’s a vase. The power you thought you had is gone. It’s a wall. Nope, it’s a children’s playground. The power you thought you had is gone.

Transformation. Fundamentally, this is the super power creativity has. This was how the world was and, hey presto, now, this is how the world will be. It breaks patterns. It changes boundaries. It gives us new pictures. Instantly.

Nothing else does this. This is why creativity is so important. Many strong and brutal things can change the world but invariably there are casualties. Creativity takes the fear out of change. It can shift power effortlessly and elegantly. It can also make you smile in the middle of all the madness.

Creativity can change the world and nobody has to get hurt.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Making it mean something.

“Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.”

Terry Pratchett

After Cannes, I found it difficult to write anything. It felt like everything had been said. It had been dissected in a million different ways. There is a frenzy after Cannes to explain what it all means. And normally, I would be right there. This year, I needed a moment. I tried to move on and ignore it all but something kept gnawing away at me. I felt I needed a rant but I didn’t know what I wanted to rant about.

While this itchy-scratchy feeling was happening I walked into an old camera shop my son Jake had found. He had bought an old 70’s 8mm film camera for 35 dollars. As a smug former photographer, I told him he would never find film or batteries for a camera that old. He proved me wrong – in a single morning. Walking into the store was like walking into my past. Kodak, Ilford, Nikon F3’s on the wall. I don’t know why it amazed me but it did. It was like finding a beautiful old Ford Mustang in amongst a whole lot of bland Ford Mondeo’s.

I asked Barry the owner if he ever sold anything. He said he was selling two film cameras a day and processing about 20 rolls a day. And, he said with a smile, all to young people. I asked him why he thought that was. He eloquently said you can shoot 300 photos with a smart phone, but it’s too easy. It all looks the same. He laughed and said it becomes meaningless. You don’t think. So you don’t care about what you have done. People want it to mean something. They want it to be a bit hard. And, most of all, they don’t want to be like everybody else.

Maybe it’s because I was in this strange back to the future store but his words stuck in my head.

So here goes. Here is my rant.

Firstly, there was a lot of great work at Cannes, as there always is. And having a purpose as a brand can be a powerful force when done authentically.

But there was a term I heard recently: Woke washing. Another was Sadvertising. You will see a huge amount of this work is winning these days. But that wasn’t the itch for me. The itch that needed to be scratched was the attempt to use purpose (often tenuously with very little connection to the product) to evoke the same sad emotions over and over again. And yes, I understand the world is not a happy place right now and that brands can play a massive role in changing it for the better. If they are being authentic. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if Volvo’s Epic Split would still win a Grand Prix these days. You know, just something funny, clever and well made. Something that is designed to sell stuff. I mean that is the business we are in, right? Selling. I wondered if we as an industry are painting ourselves into a very narrow corner where having a purpose is rewarded far more than building a brand. (I know some will say that can be the same thing but I think that it is only true for certain companies). I wondered if the advertising of a company whose only purpose is to make great cheese could win anything of consequence. I wondered if we now have a very set pattern of success? A pattern that will be broken. Because, mark my words, that is what creatives do.

Or, in the words of Barry. “It all looks the same and feels the same. He laughed and said, it becomes meaningless. People want it to mean something. They want it to be a bit hard. And, most of all, they don’t want to be like everybody else.

I think I am going back to the store to buy some film.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. What if nothing is changing?

“Creativity doesn’t wait for that perfect moment. It fashions its own perfect moments out of ordinary ones.”

Bruce Garrabrandt

There is an advertising urban myth about a company needing to sell more baby powder. Basically, all the brightest and the best would come into a room each day and try and brainstorm how they could sell more baby powder. They would look at communication, distribution and pricing. At the end of each day a cleaner would come in and clean up the room. While she did this she would listen to what they were saying. At the end of 3 days very little progress had been made in selling more baby powder. The cleaner could see everybody was a little crestfallen so she gave them her idea.

Why don’t you just make the holes bigger?

The question is always how you change the game. And the answer is usually made up of two words. Creativity and simplicity. You will find these two qualities in any answer of value.

However, changing the game and talking about change are of course two very different things. One of the funniest things in our industry is to watch people take on the cloak of the grim reaper. One of the safest positions you can take in our industry is that everything is about to die. This has been said every year since I got into the business. Bob Hoffman wrote a brilliant piece about this phenomenon in Cannes recently: https://campaignbrief.com/bob-hoffman-dying-at-cannes/

In it, he shows how speaker after speaker talks about how we are all dying if we don’t adapt. Or, how advertising is dying. Or, that massive change is on the horizon. Run for the hills. For the love of God, we have to change. Otherwise we are all going to die. Now, of course if you get to the end of these talks you will find most are selling something. And nothing sells quite like impending doom.

I guess the real question is what is changing and what isn’t. The idea of change has always fuelled our industry. The restlessness this brings is a good thing. But, it can also be a false prophet. So, I thought I would look at all this through the lens of an excellent article I read recently. For me, it highlights the fact that in the end we always come back to the need for creativity. That is what never changes. It is almost always the solution you return to over and over. And more importantly, it’s how you change the game and make giant leaps when everything else eventually gives you parity.

The article is by Jay Patisall in Forbes magazine called The Cost of Losing Creativity. Please do yourself a favour and read it. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forrester/2019/06/19/the-cost-of-losing-creativity/#2f061d79703a

In it he argues that the industry has commoditised brands and homogenised experiences. Here is what he had to say about how customer experience has become too similar to make a difference.

The issue is that the work looks, feels, and behaves too similar. The industry obsession for meeting every customer need and want for ease and convenience by using technology has left little room for creative differentiation. That has come at a cost. The front door to your brand is a web or app experience that is virtually indistinguishable. Fashion experiences look the same. Quick-service restaurant and coffee apps allow you to order ahead and skip the line. All airline apps allow travelers to check in, manage travel, and use a mobile device as their boarding pass. What can make one brand different from another when the experience is built from the same common technology platform, designed to solve the same user or category need, and programmed for the same two devices? Creativity.

In other words, there comes a point where through technology or just about anything else, you reach an experience plateau where everything becomes the same again. You and your competitors become the same again. And then, you have to differentiate again. For that you need ideas. You need creativity to change the game. It would seem as long as there is competition or choice this will always happen.

Take television and content. Recently, Disney and NBC have taken their content back from Netflix. The game is changing and to be fair there are many scenarios that could play out in the future. But just for fun, let’s take this information and run with it. Disney (I believe the app is called Disney Plus) and many others could soon have their own apps that consumers will be able to access in a variety of ways. This means in the future you could have a multitude of apps or platforms on your screen. And hey presto we are back where we started. Not unlike today with a multitude of television channels to choose from. What was once radically different will become familiar again. This cycle is far more true than radical change.

So, the question becomes how will all these streams of content differentiate from each other? My guess is a few people in a room trying to come up with ideas. No matter what labels are used or what impending doom men in cool trainers tell us is about to visit, this always seems to be the answer.

It is ironic that the one thing that actually creates change, doesn’t change at all. Creativity.

It knows eventually it will get the call after all the talking and posturing is done. It knows it is the only architecture that will let you leap again and again.

Just like the holes in the baby powder, the answer is always staring us in the face.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. What is madness worth? Lessons from Vince and Tony.

“Belief is holding on. Faith is letting go.”

Alan Watts

We will get to the painting later. We need to go back 48 hours.

My little obsession with obsession and madness began with a story I had read on the plane to New York. Now, it is important you know that I know very little about skateboarding. Yet, even I know who Tony Hawk is. The story was about him doing the first 900. This happened at the X-Games in 1999. It is a trick that is ridiculously difficult because you cannot see the skateboard twice while performing it. One of those moments is the landing. You kind of have to just know where the board is and hope you land on it. I found an interview where the great man explains it far better than I could. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x62akqy

Photo by Fernando Menezes Jr. on Pexels.com

What I found interesting about the story was the fact that even though time was up in the competition, he kept going. He didn’t care about the trophy. The trick was the prize. He tried to land it over and over and on his tenth attempt, he nailed it. The competition was over but the crowd went nuts. He had done something impossible. He had taken an extra 10 minutes to get to that invisible line in his head and changed the world.

It made me think what those 10 minutes were worth. Imagine, he had stopped because the competition was over. How important were those 10 minutes? How important is time?

In our business, the question is always how long will something take. And these days, there is definitely less time than there used to be.

Here is the strange thing though. Every great piece of work I have ever seen made in an agency had people who pushed and worked way beyond what was required or reasonable. They were trying to get to that invisible line in their head. They disregarded time to make something great. It’s a type of madness that many in our business don’t understand or think is important. But believe me, it is not an ingredient you can do without.

Depending on your point of view, spending that time is either wasteful or very necessary. What I believe is there has to be some level of obsession or unreasonableness to get somewhere new or great. This is why creativity is so difficult to commoditize. It is the antidote to patterns. Its job is not to accept the way things are. This makes people uncomfortable.

In advertising, we are very fond of talking about pushing the work. Go one more round. However, lately, there are other narratives. One is that advertising is dead. The other is that creativity might not be required. Perhaps, it can be replaced. At the root of these narratives are always money and time rather than any concern for the product.

Super Bowl Sunday in New York

While I was thinking all of this, I found myself in the middle of New York. I was lucky enough to have a ticket to the Skittles Commercial Broadway Play. Instead of running a 5 million dollar ad on the Super Bowl, they created a play. The year before, Skittles made an ad for just one person. Both campaigns were very original, a lot of fun and very successful. Some would say they were very risky or a little mad. Well, that night I watched the Super Bowl for the first time in America. I remember about 3 commercials from hundreds. There were a lot of patterns. Celebrities etc. Some ads were genuinely awful. They were boring and facsimile’s of a hundred ads that have come before them. Strangely, those are never seen as a big risk. Yet, for brands they are the biggest risk of all.

Skittles Poster on Broadway

I kept thinking about being unreasonable and where it belongs in the modern advertising landscape. Is there enough time to be unreasonable or is it just too much trouble? What is the value of making an impact versus frequency? My old boss used to say there is never time to do it properly once but there is always enough time to do it averagely twice. He was smart.

The next day I found myself staring at Van Gogh’s hypnotic Starry Night with hundreds of people at the MoMA. He painted it from an asylum through barred windows over 120 years ago, yet it feels modern. He was losing his mind. The scene doesn’t exist. It is made up. The village in the painting was painted from memory. I stared at it for a very long time. I came to three conclusions.

The more I looked at the painting the more beautiful it got and the less I understood it.

There are no colour by numbers paintings in the MoMA.

A lot of people might not like or be comfortable with madness and obsession but it has value that is beyond measure.

Because it can change everything.

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advertising, Uncategorized

The soft, silence of Tokyo.

“Living right in the heart of Tokyo itself is quite like living in the mountains – in the midst of so many people, one hardly sees anyone.” 

Yūko Tsushima

Imagine you are in a city of close to 15 million people. You are walking down a large street. It is a lot like 5th Avenue in New York. For a couple of seconds, you are happily staring at one of the beautiful window displays. You turn around and your child is gone. The worst feeling in the world. This had just happened to a woman as we were driving down the same street. Our driver stopped the van suddenly and jumped out. Not speaking Japanese, we didn’t realise this unfortunate event had been announced on speakers that I think you find on most Tokyo streets. Thousands of people stopped what they were doing and looked for the child. Our driver happened to see the kid with many others and the child was re-united with a very relieved mother.

It is the best example I can give of this feeling of consideration and kindness that permeates through the busy, quiet streets of Tokyo.

That’s the other thing, it is by far the quietest city I have ever visited. It is a silence that is magnified by the vast amount of people you see. It is a silence that lets you think. It is a silence that lets you see.  It is a silence that feels like millions of people are showing you kindness at the same time. It is a kindness that makes every street seem exquisitely empty.

You realise a lot about yourself when you are out of your comfort zone. You notice that your pre-conceived ideas are often bullshit or very shallow. You have this cartoon idea of a place. And then, you get there and you break out of auto-pilot and really notice the small details.

Here is a little example of thoughtfulness I remember. I was offered chewing gum with a Post-it. The Post-it was to put the gum in before I threw it away. Not exactly a Godzilla film in scale but it is an act that sums Tokyo up for me. A billion, tiny, beautiful acts.

My colleague Christie Cooper also told me about a shop assistant walking a couple of city blocks to give her something she had left on a table. Strange little details. Huge amounts of consideration and caring.

Tokyo also made me think of craft. In the West, we often think of craft as something well made. Something beautiful and quite often, expensive. We often associate craft with objects. Tokyo showed me there was another type of craft. The craft of how to live. It is not a nice to have. It is craft based on caring about others. A selflessness. It is kindness and consideration in all your actions. The craft of how you make another person feel.  We would call it something sterile like user experience or some other jargon. In Tokyo, it is simply the right way to treat others. Yet, somehow, it is far, far deeper than that. Like I said, a billion, tiny, beautiful acts.

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Now, I am sure Tokyo is not perfect. No city is. But, it was for me. It got me out of my comfort zone and showed me new things. It broke my routine. And, perhaps more importantly, let me feel new things. I will always remember the feeling of being in the middle of a city that creates an impossible silence. I will also never forget a child being found on a busy street because a city stopped and cared. 

What a crazy idea. People thinking about others more than themselves.  

Tokyo showed me the ultimate form of craft is kindness.

Merry Xmas everybody.

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. There’s a reason they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

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“Meow means woof in cat.”

George Carlin

Years ago, I was asked by a client to write some ads. There was a catch. He wanted me to write ads about nothing. He had no facts to communicate that would persuade anybody to use his company. His competitors had far more advanced platforms and it would be another two years before he caught up. For two years, he wanted feel good ads. His words, not mine. Six months in he called me in to say that he liked the ads but they needed more facts. I said do you have any? He said no. And then he said, you’re the clever creative, come up with a few. We both stared at each other for a very long time.

I remembered this story when I was recently asked the other day why advertising sometimes goes wrong or why it can take so long. My response was to use Susan Sontag’s quote. Words are not things. It is one of my favourite quotes because it explains so much about the business.

If you have been in the business for a while, you will start to see the same words over and over. Here are a few. Real, authentic and fresh. Or phrases like ‘out of the box thinking’. You will see or hear these words fairly often. They relate to how the communications should feel. These words often create the opposite of clarity.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these words. As words. The problem with these words and many others is they either mean nothing or they mean very different things to different people. So, when you try to take them from nice words into actual things you run into all sorts of problems.

Let’s take one of these words as an example. Real.

We all know what it means right. But let’s turn it into a film.

Visually and conceptually, real can mean many things. Should it feel like a documentary or real as in contemporary and what’s happening today? Maybe the gritty reality of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.  Or, should the people in the film not feel airbrushed? Real characters speaking like real people. Do we mean real emotionally? Or real as in based on a true human insight. Now, that is just one word. And perhaps you can answer all of those questions.

OK, let’s add the single phrase ‘out of the box thinking’. Simple right? Real and innovative. So, show me something that you know is true and honest and something that is new that you have never seen before. That is a little trickier. Let’s ad the words passionate, fun but not quirky. Real, new, passionate, fun but not weird.

Five words in and we are already in deep shit. Yet, there is a greater problem. Almost everybody involved in the process has slightly or very different interpretations of these words. What one person thinks is fun another person will think is very weird. We might think we are all speaking the same language but already translation is required.

This is the great problem with language. It creates the illusion of precision.  We think it is a simple bridge from imagination to reality.

And in an industry that single-handedly supports the very wealthy people that make Post-its, this is a big problem. We are very fond of creating lists based on a whole lot of words that we pretend are ideas. We think these words will become a thing. We think this gives creatives direction.

I have just demonstrated with five simple words this is not the case. What language doesn’t address are things like understanding, tonality and intention. These three words are often the reason the process takes so long. Looking at my career and speaking to other creatives these three words are the most frightening of all.

We worry a lot about what we are going to do. But what often causes all the problems is how we do them.

Vague words on a page don’t really solve this.

Making others see exactly what is in your head does.

And often, that, can, be a very slow and strange dance.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The undeniability of Redwoods.

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“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the colour which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

John Steinbeck

There is a type of silence that happens now and again that makes you smile. When this silence happens and you look around, the other people with you have exactly the same expression.

I was in Las Vegas to judge the London International Awards. The jury was full of some of the most talented in the business. I learnt a whole lot from them and their collective wisdom. There were many arguments and different points of view but now and again there was a fantastic silence.  In the middle of a mad adult theme park, floating in the desert sun, silence. When you see something great, you just know.

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Las Vegas is a mirage that is real. The city of sin is everything they say it is. The brighter the lights, the longer the shadows.

A taxi driver told me he just needed one more jackpot and he could leave. I asked him how long he had been waiting for the big win and without hesitation he replied 16 years. He then asked me how much change I wanted from a 10 dollar ride. I had given him a 20.

Vegas is also plastic fantastic. The city has created its own world that eventually on some level you have to surrender to. A reality, based on greedy determination and admirable ambition. A flagrant disregard of what you are supposed to do. Vegas has so much of itself, that somehow, it can defy the laws of physics. Time and space can be altered. Day becomes night. Luxury that makes you forget. Opulence that makes you believe anything is possible. And, savagely sunburnt couples in matching vests drinking two litre Margaritas at 8:47am. On a Tuesday. Eventually, you sort of love it. You know you shouldn’t, but you kind of do.

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What Vegas has is a density. A density of information. Layers of glitter. Many explanations. Proof that the odds are in your favour.

So, against that backdrop, perhaps the silence in the jury room was heightened. We had all just seen a great idea. We were all smiling. We were nodding. Words were unnecessary. Nobody had to explain. It was self-evident.

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I was lucky enough to experience that silence a few more times on the trip. Once at the bottom of the Grand Canyon overlooking the Colorado River. It is so beautiful it looks like a bizarre naturally occurring Wes Anderson film set. There is an intense silence. A silence, that feels like it is coming from inside you. A silence where everything makes sense. A silence when you are absolutely there.

I began to think about this idea that when things are truly great, language fails you. This idea of knowing. Nobody has to explain something if you feel it. Whether it is an idea, a song or a very large tree. We easily trust and are seduced by words. But, when something is truly great there is a leap from language to another place.

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I saw the Redwoods in San Francisco after a slightly insane bus trip. Our bus driver had an extremely monotonous voice. It didn’t go up or down. He droned on as if reading while highly medicated. He was doing this while going around sheer cliffs. A passenger actually shouted for him to shut the fuck up and focus on the road.  I believe we reached The Muir Woods just in time. The silence amongst those giants was perfect. That is the only word I have. Perfect.

So what does this have to do with advertising?

Advertising has a lot to answer for when it comes making a lot of noise. It is responsible for a lot of glitter and tinsel. It also makes a lot of rubbish. Watch television on any given night or flick through a few banner ads. Most of it is utter shite. The Vegas strip is not dissimilar to this. Selling and yelling. Everybody wants your attention. It literally becomes a blur. Some of you may say well that is just the way the world is these days. Perhaps.

What is strange though, is when you are in a room and watch 400 ads you remember the one where there is silence in the room. You just know. We all smile. No words. It had craft, beauty or made you feel. You don’t remember the tinsel you remember the Redwood. You remember what is special.

Now, before you say it, I am not comparing advertising to the majesty of the Grand Canyon or a giant Redwood.What I am saying is what always stands out is quality. The hustlers think you can cut corners. You can, but only for a while. The truth is people know. Just like the jury, we just knew.

A simple lesson I learn over and over.

Instead of making and believing in a lot of noise, we should be looking for that perfect silence a little harder.

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