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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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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. 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. 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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Advertising. The rise of the internet class.

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“First you make people believe they have a problem, and then you sell them the solution.That is how advertising works. Every snake oil salesman knows that.”

Oliver Markus Malloy

Lately, I have been followed.

The man who is following me has good hair and dead eyes. It would seem wherever I go on the internet he pops up. He is young, very young, but is constantly telling me that he has the wisdom and the secret stuff that can help me. He keeps telling me he is very rich and desperately wants to help people. This is why he will help me become very rich too. He always seems to be at a mansion with a couple of Ferrari’s in the background. The snake-oil gospel of success. P.T Barnum without a real circus.

I have a name for these people. I call them the internet class. My definition of the internet class is people who have no discernible skills but seem to make money by claiming they can explain things. They don’t make anything tangible but have loads of information and answers they claim makes them experts. They repackage what exists and explain what is already known to people who are desperate for answers. They promise everything but deliver very little.

I think our industry is starting to have its own internet class. Now, I know, advertising has always been full of hustlers. But, the hustle, for creatives at least, has always been about trying to make things. The hustle, was the way, never the end goal.

One of the great comforts of being a creative is that you know, in the end, after all the talk, something will have to be made. There will be evidence of industry. The process will lead to something other than itself. This simple fact guarded against words being more important than things. The result is what counted.

For many that is still true. However, in my travels I have started to meet a certain type of person. Other creatives have described them to me as well. They have good hair, the right trainers and a fixed smile. The know all the work. They know all the buzzwords. In the first meeting, they are very impressive. In the second one, less so. Their gift is they can explain everything and anything. They just don’t know how to make anything. They have vague titles and even vaguer skills. You find them everywhere. They are spread across the advertising universe like the black space between stars.

The internet has given them the information, the platform and the words. They don’t think. They don’t have to. They just explain. They tell you that you don’t understand but they have the formula. They know the secret. It is very seductive and very palatable in a world where things are getting faster and faster. The danger is as an industry we could end up drinking our own snake oil and wondering why we are still not feeling well.

There is a simple solution. Call me old-fashioned but there was a time when your portfolio mattered more than anything. It was proof in a world of puffery.

Look at what the person has made. Look at their ideas. Not what they say. Not their process. What have they done? Their work should speak for itself. Words are not things.

The industry needs to remember being able to explain something is not the same as being able to do it. It is the difference between a critic and a creator. The difference between a commentator and a competitor.

And that, is a very big difference.

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Advertising. Enough plankton, and you sir, have a whale.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Man is what he believes.”

Anton Chekov

It has been a couple of weeks of belief and varying degrees of success.

From the rescue of the incredibly brave football team in those very dark caves in Thailand to England getting to a semi-final in the World Cup and an unlikely South African hero called Kevin Anderson, who with his dodgy knees beat Roger Federer, the greatest of all time, to make a Wimbledon Final.

Watching all these news stories I noticed something a little strange. Take the cave story in Thailand. The reporters would ask the divers and dive experts massive questions. Would the children in the cave live? How is this all going to end? In other words, what would the outcome be? What will happen in the future?

The divers would always respond to the reporters big questions with small answers. We just have to focus on replenishing the air bottles and continue to follow our plans. In other words, we are just going to focus on right now.

Harry Kane was repeatedly asked if England would win the World Cup. Is it coming home? His answer was always about focusing on what they had to do right now. The small details they have to get right, right now. Their success was based on being granular. It helped them focus on what they could control and deal with the expectations of a nation.

Kevin Anderson in his post match interview after beating Roger Federer in the Wimbledon Quarter Final said that in the fourth set of their marathon long five set match started to think about winning. Of what might be. He admitted he had to quickly banish those thoughts and just focus on the next point. He had to focus on right now.

Success and the future is something everybody speaks about a lot. Doing and the present is always done by the very few.

It would seem success in our minds is made of a giant tomorrow. It is filled with massive ambition and massive results. However, in reality, success seems to happen when you focus on the smallest actions and get them right. And that happens, when you are able to focus on the present.

And that happens, when you believe in your own ability or what you are doing.

So, although belief in our business is slightly unfashionable these days, it would seem success of any kind is literally impossible without it.

Belief has become unfashionable because way too many posters have been put up with snappy slogans on agency walls. This is just window dressing that doesn’t help anybody. It is the easy alternative to creating an agency where you believe you can do something special. And doing something special, normally begins with being in a place that makes you believe you can. So, that is the first part.

The second part for creatives is about craft. It is about doing the small things, that often don’t seem important, correctly. It is about focusing on right now, rather than the outcome. Large belief meets tiny, seemingly unimportant actions and bingo.

These days, the world is often about speed and output. We all just want the outcome rather than looking at the tiny unglamorous steps to get there. This week was a great reminder that if you want to do something properly, there are no shortcuts. You have to have the right ingredients. You have to have belief. You have to be prepared to graft.

A grandiose vision, is the easy part. Everybody has them. In fact, these days, many mistake the vision, for the finished article. It is a big mistake that makes a huge amount of work look the same. I wonder how long it will be before anybody notices?

The truth is for a creative, creating Moby Dick often begins with the tedious, yet essential task, of finding enough plankton right now and having the slightly strange belief that a majestic whale will eventually occur.

However, the world always wants the whale to happen right now.

But, whales don’t happen that way.

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Stranger Things. The Cannes Edition.

“Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony.”

Lou Reed

I had been looking for a sign for a couple of days. And there it was.

I was walking down a little back street in Cannes. I reached one of those fashion outlets that always make me think they are a front for something else. In my head, it was the Marseilles mafia smuggling huge wheels of cheese, fake wine and millions of questionable Moroccan cigarettes. You know those stores. They never have any customers but somehow always remain open. I stared at the faceless and lonely mannequins and on the window was the quote that perfectly summed up Cannes this year.

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For years, Cannes had been a place where for a week, it felt like a million oracles had all been parachuted onto the Carlton Terrace. They would take a sip of their mystical Rose’, adjust their newly bought scarves, look you in the eye and say, I can explain everything.

Now, they normally couldn’t. But, they could vaguely steer you in the right direction. You could get a read of things. I have written before, that for me, Cannes was like a compass and an engine. It could get you through all the waves of opinion with a little inspiration and sometimes it could even point you in the right direction.

That is no longer the case. Cannes is now like that weird swimming pool in Stranger Things. The Upside Down.

Whatever you hear in Cannes, you will also hear and see the exact opposite.

Let me give you what I heard and wrote down from discussions around me in a single Cannes hour to demonstrate what I mean. All this, in one hour. User experience is everything in the future, emotional storytelling is what is really important, why being human is the way forward, the efficiency of programmatic will set you free, consultancies are so much more/less, Agencies, what is the new model, Blockchain is off the chain, dog (Yes, somebody actually said that), television isn’t dying, it’s having babies. I really could go on for a couple of pages.

Let’s take stuff that you have read over and over. So, perhaps you think it is true. Take the often said line that advertising is dying. My creative partner Shane Bradnick made the wry observation while we were lining up to register on day one that if advertising is dying there sure are a lot of people at the funeral. Cannes was packed but everybody kept saying or asking if advertising was dying. The weirdness was industrial strength this year.

Or, you will be walking behind two men wearing identical pairs of chinos talking about the genius of A.I between the Martinez and the Carlton. I counted them saying the word optimisation 12 times within the length of a single Dior store. You will then walk into the Palais and hear somebody else in a Panama hat saying A.I is bullshit. It is just this years buzzword like big data was a couple of years ago.

The phrase I remember overhearing at breakfast was somebody saying replace the letters A.I with the words computer programme and it’s not so sexy is it.

And, I am sure both conversations are 100 percent valid, or not. That is how it was every day. Literally, think of any topic or perspective and the opposite was right next to it poking it in the ribs.

This created a type of madness in some people. They were wrestling with an unending anaconda of ambiguity. They developed a strange form of Tourette’s and kept asking what the bloody trends were this year. Like this, would keep them safe and give them a map. There is no map.

Those questions were questions Cannes used to be able to answer. In the past, Cannes could create an order for the coming year and those old buildings could take new ideas and create a pattern we could all see. The reality is there are no more patterns or perhaps there are millions of them. Either way, things are moving too quickly for a compass. Cannes can still give you an engine fuelled with inspiration but you will have to figure out where to go. And that might all change tomorrow.

My friend Ari Weiss and CCO for DDB North America explains the issue very well in his article for Campaign. https://www.campaignlive.com/article/cannes-future-just-unpredictable-future-advertising/1486489.

What has changed is time. We don’t have any. And strangely, I am not even sure how valuable it is anymore. I mean what the hell is a trend in advertising? Two of the biggest winners in the last couple of years were sculptures. Fearless Girl and Graham. Is that a trend? Should we all be taking sculpture classes? I am being facetious but you get the idea. The simple answer Cannes gave me this year is don’t worry about trends and where things are going just deal with what is right in front of you.

Just deal with today because today is far longer than it used to be.

In amongst all the weirdness and confusion, I found that thought quite liberating.

Stop looking for signs.

Do what is in front of you.

It’s going to be O.K.

Just read to the damn pony.

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