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Advertising. What do you want creativity to do?

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“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.”

Erich Fromm

What can creativity do?

Last week, I was asked this simple question. I have been asked this four word puzzle a few times in my career. It is a strange question. You intuitively know the answer but find it hard to be particularly articulate. I started to give it some thought. Creativity is many things. It also has a few levels of risk and reward.

I think perhaps a better question would be, what do we want creativity to do?

I think it is a question that is becoming more important to answer because it will determine the future and structure of advertising.

Personally, I think creativity is a bridge that breaks patterns. It is a bridge that can take the new, the different and the interesting across that little river called risk to the shores of success. Nothing else can do this without it becoming a repetitive formula.

I think creativity makes this alchemy in three pretty special ways.

On a basic level, it can take the mundane and what exists and improve it. It can make things beautiful or change perspective and make something feel new.

On a higher level, it can solve problems by thinking about them laterally.

And at its very best, the clues in the name. It can create things that were not there before. From nothing, suddenly there is something. This magical quality comes with the most reward and the most risk. This is what causes a lot of friction and trouble. It is also what everybody wants.

The reasons these different levels are important is because if we look at the industry going forward, the danger exists that we will not embrace all the levels and start to make the same thing over and over. And don’t just take my word for it. Read this article by Samuel Scott. Seriously read it.

https://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2018/08/06/optimisation-the-enemy-creativity-marketing-and-music

It shows what happens to creativity when optimisation is used as the ultimate filter. What happens is an ever tightening consensus of what is good and popular. There is a right answer. Not an interesting one. Just a correct one. So, as the article shows, you are not imagining it, a lot of popular music begins to sound very similar. Or as Mr Scott says, songs are becoming stupider. More Bieber. Less Rolling Stones.

Now, short-term this probably is not a big deal. However, longer term what this does is it gets rid of creativity’s greatest power. The ability to create new things. The ability to experiment. The ability to be like nobody else.

In essence, you start to get about 50% of what creativity can do. Creativity loses its true value. You also start to look like everybody else. You become the same as the next guy. And ultimately, you become boring.

Accuracy and precision are very valuable. However, they are far more valuable if what they are delivering is attractive and desirable.

I think this paragraph from the article sums it up well.

“When everyone optimises for everything, it is no longer a competitive advantage. The only true competitive advantage that people will have is what rests in their brains – creativity. Without that, you will only be as good as everyone else.”

This becomes the conundrum we all face every day.

Should we be safe and quite good? Should we push the boat out and try to be brilliant?

Perhaps, the answer lies in looking at creativity very differently. Instead of seeing it as a scary risk we all begin to see it as a necessary bridge.

A bridge that takes us from the illusion of certainty to the opportunity of something far better.

This is what creativity alone can do. If you want it to.

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Advertising. The love story of an engine and a compass.

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Photo by Pete Johnson on Pexels.com

“A flower is basically a weed with an advertising budget.”

Rory Sutherland

Years ago, I was lucky enough to work with two giants in the advertising industry. Out of respect, I am not going to name them because they would want it that way. One was a suit, the other a creative. They were both very impressive. They liked each other. They also used to fight a lot. Invariably, the argument would be a clash about research and proof on the one hand and the power of imagination on the other.

This created a strange tension in the agency. At any time, there could be two answers for any situation or problem. This tension made the agency work. It created a bizarre and slightly uncomfortable equilibrium. It also gave the agency energy and the idea that there were always multiple solutions to any brief.

It instilled in me this idea of being open to solutions. Answers are not pre-ordained and can come from anywhere. Ideas can semi belong to one person and half belong to another. Ideas are not very fond of rules and restrictions.

I mention this because lately, I have noticed two strange things in our business.

Firstly, rules, have begun to crop up before there is even an idea to judge. I will hear conversations about how something is going to happen long before we even know what is going to happen. It has to be mobile, digital or if you are doing a film it has to be this long or that way. And we still have no idea of what we are doing yet. It is what I call putting the accuracy before the horse. The idea should come first.

Secondly, right now, advertising seems to be made up of absolute entrenched positions. Advertising’s strength has always been about being able to look at a problem from multiple perspectives. Like the suit and the creative I mentioned earlier, the different points of view created friction but also made the work better. When it comes to the messy business of having ideas, deciding there is only one right way is the easiest and fastest way to be wrong. The trick is to stay open to ideas and possibilities. That is what a creative should do. That is his or her job.  Trying to have some ironclad formula, or methodology, will only give you what you already have. There are some very polarised views at the moment. It feels like many believe they have to back just one horse.

The horses names are accuracy and attraction. And my money is on a dead heat.

Before you place your bets, do yourself a favour and read Ian Leslie’s brilliant article in the New Statesman. https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/internet/2018/07/death-don-draper.

It shows the schism that is emerging in our business far more eloquently than I ever could.

From a creative perspective it really does feel like this thinking is pushing meaningless choices or creating filters and channels long before there is an idea. There is often a large discussion about accuracy and very little about attraction. To use Rory Sutherland’s analogy, these days we talk a lot about where the weeds should go because that can be measured. Speaking to many creatives, the flower can often be an afterthought.

I guess the issue is a beautiful flower is a lot like charm. Desirable, yet hard to measure.

Imagine somebody, let’s call him Sven. He has a well paid job making things more streamlined, measurable and efficient. One day he pops into his favourite french bistro after work with one of his work mates called Doug. Sven likes going there because of the foreign music, the old school posters on the walls and the slightly mad ambiance. He enjoys the crazy chef who shouts a lot. The host has loads of funny stories, is effortlessly charming and always remembers Sven’s name. While all this pleasantness is washing over him Doug says to him – why do you like coming here, the tables are too bloody small. He had never noticed. That’s the thing about radiant beauty, a good yarn and a dollop of charm, in the right hands, they are way more powerful than being correct and accurate.

Some in our industry might want to discard or minimise these things because they are hard to measure, yet they have never been needed more than now.

There is a simple reason for this.

People like them. People want them. People need them.

Take Tinder. You can create an efficient service that gives you lots of data and measurement. But where the technology ends, people begin. You might be able to get them that date very efficiently. But, it is those pesky humans who are going to have the date. So, the next day the story isn’t about Tinder and efficiency. It’s about the date Jenny had with the weird guy who had a mullet and a very large goldfish collection. Or, perhaps, how she just met the love of her life. It is not just about what we efficiently give. It is also about what people want. And, what people often want is immeasurable. Charm, beauty, seduction, surprise, love and new stories. Human experience. The things that make life worth living.

We need what can be measured. Time and distance. This is the compass. However, we also need what can’t be measured. The story of what happened on the journey. This is the engine.

And we need to quickly realise, one is very pointless, without the other.

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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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Advertising. The illusion of control.

 

 

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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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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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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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Two Lessons From The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge.

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“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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