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

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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Uncategorized

11 seconds with Madiba

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I met Nelson Mandela twice. Each time it was fleeting but those 11 seconds have stayed with me. The second time was about 4 seconds long and we were completely alone. I was working at an agency called TBWA Gavin Reddy in Houghton in Johannesburg. Houghton was the suburb where Mandela lived.

I was walking to work early one morning because my Beetle had broken down for the third time that month. I was walking down a road and not really looking up. I sensed somebody in front of me. About 10 metres away stood Nelson Mandela. His bodyguards were a little way back. He was going for a walk. I was going for a walk. We were walking. We were alone on an empty street. Fuck. What do I do?

You get this stupid shit eating grin on your face when you meet famous people don’t you? And Mandela is much more than that. My grin must have been especially shit eating that day. You just don’t know what to do. I couldn’t speak. I put out my hand, he shook it. I said good morning in that voice you have before coffee. You know raspy and high pitched. Ridiculous. He had that massive smile. He could see this was weird and saw the humour. He said good morning and looked into my eyes when he spoke. And then he was gone. And I was standing there alone on a beautiful Tuesday morning. It had all happened in about 4 seconds.

But I had met him before.

In 1990 I was a photographer in Durban. At the time I was 20 years old and politically naive. I was asked to take some pictures of Nelson Mandela at the book launch of Fatima Meer at the University of Natal. I was near the stage. We used film in those days, so I was loading my camera with my back to the entrance.

Suddenly, there was a sound that I hadn’t heard before or haven’t heard since.

It was a mixture of roaring and intake of breath. It is the sound you make when language cannot help you. It was very human. It was the crowd. Up until that moment I don’t think I really understood what Nelson Mandela meant to people. As he walked in people collapsed. They were rolling on the floor. People were ululating. Women and men were crying. Collective, pure, raw emotion. In a single second a normal university auditorium had been turned into the most powerful gospel revival you have ever seen.

In that instant, I realised that I knew nothing about the country I lived in.

I had to get pictures of him speaking, which I did. But I wanted to try and get a picture of him. It became this burning need as I listened to him speak. A portrait as opposed to something for a PR release. I didn’t want to just take a photograph I wanted to make some sort of connection. I thought the only chance would be on the way to his car afterwards. He finished his speech and I followed him through the crowd until we were both outside. I was completely inexperienced. I didn’t know what to do. I was beginning to panic. As he got into his car I remembered him giving an ANC salute (raised fist) when he walked into the auditorium.

For a brief moment everything fell into place. He was sitting in the backseat and looked at me through the window. I lifted my arm and did probably the worst, uncool ANC salute in history. I didn’t understand its significance or its meaning. I was out of my depth. He looked at me and my fist. He understood everything. I was a dumb, shy, white kid who really needed a picture and was trying to connect but didn’t know how.

He didn’t look at the camera, he looked at me. And when I say me, straight into my eyes. This single second felt like an hour. He started to laugh and raised his arm. He gave me the picture. He waited until I shot it and then told the driver to go. 7 seconds. 7 seconds, that tell you everything about his greatness.

His incredible strength and power never got in the way of his humour and his ability to make time for everybody. His humanity was on the outside. For most of us it is on the inside.

I handed the pictures over and I don’t know where they are today. Strangely, I don’t feel sad about the loss. The memory for me is so strong and personal it has become more valuable than the photograph. And trust me coming from a photographer that is saying something. There is just this lingering memory of potential. Of what we all could be if we were a little kinder to each other.

In 7 seconds he made me feel like it was going to be OK. He gave me some of his humaness. He could have looked away and told the driver to go but he didn’t. He understood my situation and accepted me as I was. There was no judgement or irritation. He solved it with humour and time.

He had the greatest gift of all. In that moment, he showed me what true greatness is. To simply be human. And he did it with the world on his shoulders.

It was only eleven seconds but I am grateful for each one. I will never meet a man like Nelson Mandela again.

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