advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The illusion of control.

 

 

Unknown

Kintsugi. The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold.

 

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”

Carl Jung

Recently, I was in Sydney at an award show conveniently called AWARD. A young creative started chatting to me before the show about good and bad agencies. He asked me what the difference was between a good agency and a bad agency. I had written a piece about this before, so I used what I had written. I said the difference was that most agencies have similar ideas but great agencies make their ideas, average ones don’t.

He sort of nodded and wandered off to get another beer. I felt a bit weird. I had given this nice little answer. A neat little one liner. But, it felt insufficient. Maybe even bullshit.

Now, it is true that average agencies don’t make their best ideas. However, the real question is why don’t they make their best ideas.

So, imagine having an idea. Perhaps, even a great idea. It is precious and fragile. It is not perfect but could be powerful. It is new and you believe in it but have no data to back up your gut instinct.  Now, take that idea and put it into an environment where there is a process. This process has many boxes that all have to be ticked. This means a new thought meets an existing blueprint. This mitigates risk. It also creates work that has been made many times before. So, the idea dies. Also, the idea cannot have any imperfections according to the existing blueprint. So, round after round of alterations occur. We are now no longer looking at the idea because it is interesting, we are trying to make sure it isn’t incorrect. So, the idea dies.

What happens in a bad agency is that the process becomes more important than the idea. Not being wrong is far more important than being right. And by right, I mean interesting.  This is not an earth shattering problem except for the fact that it kills creativity. Stone dead. Although, at a painfully slow pace.

Creativity is used to break patterns and create new ways of moving forward. Whereas a process is a pattern designed to give consistency. You could not have two more fundamentally different ways of thinking if you tried.

Creativity does not happen in a consistent timeline, a process does. Take the Japanese art of Kintsugi pictured above for example. Process would give you the bowl and discard any broken pieces in a timely fashion. Whereas creativity arrives fashionably late and takes the broken pieces and creates something even more beautiful. Creativity has made something new. Something different. Process creates what exists consistently with an unerring accuracy.

Creativity also needs madness and a fair bit of chaos. Process is all about control. One of the strangest phrases in the English language is ‘the creative process.’ In essence, they are opposing forces. Control and chaos.

A great agency has the ability to harness both of these qualities. This balance lets ideas live a little longer.  It is an alchemy that creates a measured madness. They make a space for insanity and instil an unyielding understanding for why discipline is required.

An agency often starts to go into decline when one of these forces overwhelms the other.

When an agency is ruled by chaos the decline is often sadly spectacular and pretty quick. It is literally like somebody jumping off a building.

When an agency is paralysed by control the death is a far stranger one. The agency doesn’t know it is dead. Often for years everything works. Everybody knows what their job is. There is great comfort in the precision of process. This comfort is what is sold to clients. Not the work. And then, one day, the client says the work you are making is boring. It’s kind of a bit shit. Game over.

Average agencies like the comfort of making bowl after consistent bowl until one day they get smashed and nobody knows what to do with the broken pieces.

Great agencies are able to have both structure and chaos. They can make bowls but they can do so much more.

To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, they understand that it’s the cracks that let the light in.

 

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

What if you could change the world?

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You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’

George Bernard Shaw

I will get to the picture above a bit later.

First, let me give you a scenario. Imagine there is a job you have dreamed of your whole life. It is all you have ever wanted to do. You spend every day trying to make it happen. You are passionate and diligent. You work hard. This job is all you care about.

And then one day, a couple of years later, you realise something fairly bleak. You are not good enough. And what’s worse is that in your heart you know that you will never be good enough. You have the dedication but you don’t have the ability. You have limitations that you can’t conquer. You have to give up the dream. Think about how you would feel and what you would do if you were in that situation. What do you think the solution could be?

Now, what if I told you the solution and the way forward for you was in the fact that you were limited. That this limitation would make you incredibly successful and a worldwide phenomenon.

I know it sounds far-fetched. Except it is true.

I am with my wife, son Jamie and 2000 screaming kids at the Auckland Writers Festival. Jeff Kinney is the author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and he telling his story. He has sold over 150 million copies of his books. There has been 4 movies. And he has his own bookstore in his hometown which has the perfect name. Plainville, Massachusetts.

The scenario I painted earlier was Jeff Kinney’s story. He wanted to be a cartoonist for a daily paper. He wanted to have a strip like Calvin and Hobbes. But, after trying for a long time he realised he wasn’t good enough. He was not a fine artist, he didn’t have the skills.

I would imagine that was a dark day. For most of us we would have given up, right? Jeff did something different.

He said to himself, perhaps I am not good enough to be an adult cartoonist but what if I re-imagine myself as a 12-year-old boy who likes to draw.

This simple thought changed Jeff Kinney’s life and millions of children’s lives forever.

People often ask me what creativity can do. If this example is anything to go by, the answer is it can change the world.

Jeff was faced by limitations and obstacles. He used them to create a new reality for himself and the world. There are very few things that can change the world and create a different reality. In fact, creativity might be the only thing that can do this. And to be clear, not measure reality, or confirm reality, but alter reality. It is a form of alchemy that is as close as we can get to magic. It can create opportunities beyond all measure. It is also something we should value far more.

You are probably wondering about the photograph. Jeff Kinney’s story reminded me of it. I took it on a street corner in Chicago a week before I saw him speak.

Here is how it happened. There was a slightly unenthusiastic band going through the motions being watched by an equally unenthusiastic crowd. The gentleman with his feet in the air appeared from nowhere. And like Jeff Kinney, he asked himself a simple question.

His question was what if I wasn’t a homeless guy but I became James Brown and this band was here to support me and make me look like a star?

Now granted, he may have been high. But, by asking this one question he changed his reality. He began to dance and perform. He began to play with and to the crowd. He became Mr Entertainment. This made his pasty backing band look boring as hell. What’s more he made a lot of cash. The now backing band wasn’t happy but he was. He had in a small way changed the, or at least his, world.

This is what creativity does. It does not accept what is. It pays no attention to limitations or rules. Because of this it makes a leap. This is what makes creativity different from all other things. The leap. Almost everything else is an orderly process or at least has some steps. There are rules. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is a pattern.

Creativity says bullshit. It breaks the pattern. That is why it is priceless. It just comes along and says reality was like this and now it is like this. And off we go.

In a single moment, the world can be changed forever.

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advertising, Uncategorized

A Priest and a Psychic walk into a New York Bar.

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“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Steve Martin

This is one of my favourite pictures of New York. It shows the density of the place. As I am taking a picture of the graffiti, in that split second of focusing, a yellow cab and a man on a motorised wheelchair drifted into frame. A lot happens here. There is a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense. I can imagine life can be overwhelming.

It might explain a strange phenomenon I noticed on the streets. Almost every second block I found a practicing psychic in some tiny store or room.

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I had to go see one. I walked in and a lady with an impressive amount of make-up and an accent that could only be described as a car crash between Brooklyn and Budapest told me my life was going to great. Awesome.

Well, I think she did. It was hard to tell.

Predicting the future is a business advertising seems to be obsessed with these days. While I was in New York everybody was talking about Sir Martin Sorrell and what his sudden departure meant. I spoke to a lot of creatives from all sorts of companies who all said things were tough. A few had been retrenched and there was general uncertainty in the air. I guess at times like this you start to look for confidence. Perhaps, that is why I visited the incomprehensible psychic.

The truth is it is at times like this it is good to remember a lesson I have learnt many times and should stop forgetting. I was reminded of it not by a psychic but a priest. Ben Priest founder of DDB Adam&Eve.

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I was in a meeting with Ben and a few others and one of the reasons we were there was to thank Ben for all he has achieved and say goodbye.

His lesson was simple. Confidence happens when you define your own success.

When Ben spoke I could hear that confidence. That thing. He spoke about when they started they didn’t have a mantra or posters on walls. They all just decided to be an agency that did the best work in the world. And Ben never said this, but I got the feeling he meant work that the people inside DDB Adam&Eve thought was world-class. They created the benchmark and nothing left the building unless you surpassed that level. This creates a common language and goal. It creates unity and resilience. It creates difference. It creates value. It creates confidence.

The question is where does confidence come from?

I have worked at a few great agencies in their prime. What they all have in common is they find a way of defining their own success. Of course, what the client thinks matter. What the public thinks matter. Awards matter. But, what people in the agency think really matters. It is a standard that breeds an internal confidence that gives an agency power like nothing else. When it happens it’s like being on a planet that creates its own gravity. It’s hard to explain but vital for life to exist.

As a friend said to me the other day, a great agency is where nobody tells you the rules but you always know what they are.

When you work in a space like that, the confidence of the place pushes you forward. You make more stuff and better stuff.

And, if there is a great comfort in being a creative, it is that in the end you get to make something. So, we may as well make it fucking great.

The simple truth is when a great piece of work is made nobody asks any questions.

That is always the answer. This is how you get rid of the noise and the bullshit.

This is where our confidence as an industry will always come from. It is also where it should always come from. Nobody else has the answer. What’s the old mantra, go within or go without.

And I don’t need a bad New York psychic to tell me that.

Just the occasional priest.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Two Lessons From The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge.

Unknown

“Man, if you gotta ask you’ll never know.”

Louis Armstrong

Chicago. It’s almost midnight and it’s cold. But not too cold. It’s the kind of cold that makes you alert. It gives the evening a crispness and makes the neon signs a little sharper.

I stepped out of the cab onto the green glowing pavement with my partner in crime for the evening, Mr Justin Mowday. He is the CEO of DDB New Zealand and, this is just hearsay and vicious rumour, might like the occasional party. He had come up with the fine idea to find a jazz club and by chance we had found Al Capone’s favourite haunt, now called the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Later on, by sheer good fortune, we would also sit in his favourite booth. However, this gangster themed evening would take a gentler turn because of two events.

As we sat down with our very weak beers, the band was about to be introduced. The clubs owner was an older, slightly balding gentleman in what looked like a Hawaiian shirt. He looked like somebody who had flown helicopters in Vietnam or had to leave Florida very quickly. Either way, somebody who was wearing a thin Hawaiian garment in less than tropical conditions was not to be trifled with under any circumstances.

This was confirmed when he explained the house rules. When the band plays you shut up. You listen. You don’t use your phone. You listen. You don’t use flash photography. You listen.

And then, the band came out. Most of them were at least 75. The lead singer was Sheila Jordan. She is 89 years old.

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Charlie Parker described her as the singer with the million dollar ears. She was fantastic. She was funny. She could tell a story with her songs. Her age and frailty somehow amplified her talent. Her phrasing was surprising and the band that supported her knew each other so well, that you felt safe inside the beautiful, improvised experiment that is jazz.

About halfway through the set, a couple started talking. They were almost in the front row. Now this is a club. There is going to be a bit of background noise right? Wrong. Hawaiian shirt man gets up from his booth. We watch from the safety of Al Capone’s booth as he in about ten seconds eviscerated them. I imagined him saying something along the lines of if you value your life and don’t want to die in a nameless Chicago alley you will shut the fuck up. They stopped talking. I also noticed a bouncer the size of a large land mass, say Madagascar, gliding like a supertanker through the club looking for people who were talking. They were not joking around. They were saying shut the fuck up and listen. They were saying respect the artists. There was a reverence for the musicians that I had never really seen before.

So, Justin and I really started to listen. Now, if I am honest I don’t know if I really have ever understood jazz. And I suspect, there are many more like me. Sure, I know the names and have listened to a few albums. But perhaps, I have never really listened.

The drummer began to do a solo. I realised as he started his improvised journey that the whole club was listening the way I was. It’s a strange concept to feel other human beings listening. We were all giving our whole attention to what he was doing. We were in sync with him. We went on the journey with him. Every variation, or new rhythm he created was a joy for the whole club.

We were able to hear ideas being born. And maybe, for a moment, we kind of understood the jazz thing.

We were witnessing the absolute freedom to create. However, what’s more important is the audience had created the space and the understanding for the drummer to be that free simply by listening.

Learn to listen, so the artist can do what they do. Learn to listen, so that you can hear something new.

Two lessons from The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge.

Photo: Source allaboutjazz.com

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Be somewhere.

 

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 I want you to imagine I am telling you the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. In your head, run it through. Picture all the details, the twists and turns and the big ending.

Right, now take the same story and tell it in half the time. Now halve the time again. And again. Eventually, your story would be something like Girl, bear and porridge. This process happens in advertising a lot these days. You only have to look at the vast majority of advertising to see this. There is a reduction of elements which is why so much online advertising looks like 1950’s print ads. A visual, a headline, a payoff line.

What this often leads to is information with no emotion. We know from the studies of Les Binet and Peter Field this is not the way forward. So, that’s a problem. However, a far larger problem is that the kind of ideas that are now being made are often selected on flexibility rather than impact.

The only thing in advertising that is worse than being invisible is being invisible everywhere.

The criteria for how a great idea is chosen today is often about how many hats it can wear rather than its impact as a single form of communication.

In essence, an integrated campaign today seems to be far more about counting impressions as opposed to making one. I would say that when measurement becomes more important than what is being measured there is a problem.

An integrated campaign, was always supposed to be multiple elements that worked together. It is supposed to be many Lego blocks that build something bigger and better. It was never supposed to be every Lego block and more importantly, it was never supposed to be one Lego block sliced to within an inch of its life. Today, integrated campaigns as a concept are often replaced with a single asset chopped up to be spread across as many communication channels as possible. Every time I go to a conference, there is somebody saying you shouldn’t just put your television ad online. Well, go online and tell me what most brands are doing.

There are many reasons for this happening. A budget that has not grown while the amount of communication channels has. A lazy agency or marketer. The inability to think long term. The lack of a brand platform that allows you to have multiple executions that are relevant to their channels yet all contribute to the same idea. These reasons and many others have resulted in this now often being a blueprint for a modern campaign.

Sadly, you can see the ramifications of this when you look at portfolios of advertising students. You see an average idea repeated across multiple channels with very little thinking about each channel or how the separate assets work together. And the students always say the same thing. You see it’s a great idea, it works everywhere.  This is learnt behaviour and they are learning it from our industry. They are learning, incorrectly, that picture frames are more important and valuable than the picture.

I think we as an industry must be very careful that our quest for flexibility and pragmatism don’t lead us down a road of utilitarian mediocrity.

We need to remember being everywhere, averagely, is just another way of saying you are nowhere.

We have never needed brilliance in our industry more than we do now.  For that you need great ideas. Ideas that blow your mind and demand your attention. Ideas that are exciting, audacious and very unboring. Ideas that have impact. Ideas you won’t forget.

We need to have the kind of ideas that paint a memorable picture people want to look at rather than have ideas that are a frame for an endless procession of bland and instantly forgettable whitewashed walls, we hope, people might remember.

Because hope, is not a strategy.

 

 

 

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Advertising. Maybe we should try fun this year.

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“I have a fun clause in my contract. If I’m not having fun I can leave.”

James Burrows

Last year, was a very serious year. People were very serious. They were serious about where advertising is going. There were lots of serious conversations about the new models of advertising. There were serious predictions about the industry ending. Even the work seemed to be about very serious things.

I had reached December 2017 and my overwhelming feeling was the business had become a bit strange. A lot of doom and gloom. A lack of confidence. Perhaps, I had read too many blogs and articles, but you could feel people trying to come up with processes and models to solve the issue of where advertising was going.

Nobody mentioned the word fun in any of these articles.

Now, a lot of this has to do with money. As an old friend of mine used to say, advertising isn’t rocket science, but a lot of people make money pretending it is. And, as Mae West once said, the last word in show business is business. Trust me, I get it.

However, we only get money, if we have creativity to give. That’s why I would like to talk about creativity and how to protect it. In this instance, creativity is more important than money, because creativity is the solution. And many forget, without creativity, there is nothing at the heart of our business. In fact, there is no business.

Perhaps, all the things I have mentioned have created a certain amount of fear in our industry. The fear of making a mistake. What if I do something wrong?

Now, if there is one thing I know it is that fear and creativity cannot live in the same place. And making mistakes is part of the creative process. Tricky.

So, the danger that exists in our business is the possibility that as we try to eradicate mistakes and create more efficient, streamlined perfect processes we start to embrace formulas instead of discovery. We start to make the same work over and over. Something that I believe is already happening on a massive scale. We are finding it harder to try new things. We don’t make mistakes, but we don’t get it right either. We become boring, at a time, when it has never more important to be unboring.

You may have heard the saying, you cannot cut your way to growth.

I think many in our business are doing this. It is a short-term solution. And, it might not be a solution at all.

The only way to grow is to have new ideas. And for that you need creativity.

And that is the one thing we have.

So, my fervent prayer for 2018 is we remember this fact. We replace the word fear with fun. Because, although this might seem counter-intuitive, enjoying what you do is the way you get to better ideas.

Better ideas, bigger ideas and ideas that change everything is what we need.

And to get them, there are certain ingredients that are required. They have never changed and never will.

You need smart, talented people who care.

You need the right amount of time.

Lastly, the third and most vital ingredient. No matter how stressful it all is you should laugh your ass off together. It should be fun.

And what many don’t understand is that without fun, you will never have the first two ingredients. Ever. Creativity in your business will slowly die. The one thing your business needs to exist.

Fun is not a nice to have. It is the oxygen creativity needs. It is what creates our confidence. It is something we take for granted. We shouldn’t.

I hope 2018 is the year we as an industry realise that we will never defend our way to victory.

We need to laugh again.

It is how we will grow.

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The magic of Coltrane and the farm.

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“Architecture is frozen music.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Its been an interesting week. The creative department got to visit Gibbs farm. It is a sprawling Willy-Wonka type meadow filled with exotic animals and dotted with some of the most gigantic and beautiful sculptures the world has ever seen. It was also full of hundreds of people in sensible shoes and fashion-free hats staring. Just staring. They had driven 90 minutes to look at stuff. Why were they here? Why do people need creativity? What does it do?

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The next day I happened to watch a documentary on John Coltrane called ‘Chasing Trane’. It is fantastic. I knew very little about him. What I enjoyed the most was that he wasn’t particularly brilliant when he was young but through dedication and using the pain in his life he became a genius. I think becoming a genius is far more impressive than just being one. However, there was a small part of his story that really got me thinking.

When he was 12, Coltrane’s aunt, grandparents and father all died within a few months of each other. You can imagine the amount of pain he was enduring. A year or so after that he started saxophone lessons. According to the documentary he held onto playing music with his whole being. The art was his life raft. He held on and it saved him. So, perhaps for some, creativity is about holding onto something.

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Back at the farm I passed a small boy with his parents. While I was thinking about what it all meant he answered the question for me. He was looking at the Richard Serra sculpture above. He raised his hands up and did a funny little dance. He let go in the way only kids can and shouted three words that answered my question.

It’s like magic.

Creativity can help you hold on like Coltrane in one of his darkest moments. But, at Gibbs Farm, creativity can also compel people to drive 90 minutes and just let go. Those people with water bottles and sensible shoes went somewhere else in their heads. They left their lives for a brief moment and were totally in the moment. There were less words and more thoughts. There was a sense of wonder.

It would seem creativity is something that can help you hold on. And, strangely also let go. Something, that takes you out of your life but keeps you in the moment. Something that makes you feel things you didn’t know you could feel.

I would say that’s about as close as you get to magic.

And who doesn’t want magic?

Merry Xmas everybody this is my last blog of 2017.

 

 

 

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