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Advertising. The wisdom of taxi drivers.

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“All the stories I’ll ever need are right here on Main Street.”  Robert Cormier

Many years ago, I was in New York for the first time. I was in a yellow cab I had seen in a hundred movies. It was like cinematic deja vu. From the journey, I remember two things. The first thing was that the suspension of yellow cabs in New York often make you feel like you are driving in a large swimming pool. The second thing I remember was the answer the cab driver gave me to my first question.

I was a little overwhelmed. We had driven for a while from JFK International Airport and the first time you arrive in New York there is a lot to take in. The skyscrapers, the poverty, the wealth and the unmissable perfume of potential.

My cab driver was an older Jamaican gentleman and he was listening to talk radio. The discussion on the radio was about wearing a weave and if that made you a fake. It was just one more detail I strangely still remember.

I leaned forward and asked him this question. What is the difference between New York and Los Angeles? He looked into the mirror and instantly responded.

New York is theatre. L.A is T.V. Yes, sir.

The perfection and simplicity of the answer hit me between the eyes. 20 years later, I still think it might be one of the best answers I have ever heard.

Since that day, I have always had conversations with taxi drivers. Recently, I was in San Francisco and I wasn’t disappointed. The first guy, Ahmed, told me what it was like to be a Muslim in America right now. How people are frightened of him and how he sometimes pretends to be Mexican. The second was a Nigerian man who you can see in the photo above. He told me about moving to America in 1979 and how there was a large Nigerian community in of all places Dallas. When I asked why, he said because there was a direct flight from Lagos to Dallas. It was the first city you reached, so people stayed there.

I mention these stories because in each one there are fragments and details that make them interesting, specific and very human.

Interesting. Specific. Human.

I think about these words a lot at the moment. There are many articles and discussions about data, personalisation and process at the moment. We use the word insight in just about every presentation we ever make. We talk about storytelling and its importance.

A lot of words. A lot of questions.

My feeling is that instead of all this making the work more interesting and specific, it is making it more generic.

Now, it would seem other things are more important than quality right now. Cost and the ability to make a lot of stuff very quickly. Fair enough. But I can’t help but wonder. Where does this go? Let’s fast forward as an industry 5 years into the future.

We make content cheaper; we make more of it and we put it everywhere. This very process will make what is made more generic and boring. Mark my words. There will be a sameness that will grow into an epidemic. What will be made will become less and less memorable. We are talking about a lot of work that nobody will notice despite all the measurement saying otherwise. It will also not sell anything to anybody. And when that happens, there will be three questions that will have to be answered. Firstly, is making thousands of things of average quality really the answer? Secondly, does memorability and distinctiveness matter anymore? Thirdly, if it does, what can be done to fix the situation?

It will be interesting to see what the answers will be. Things are pretty uncertain in this industry right now but if there is one thing I do know it is that clients never just want parity with competitors.

So, the first lever that can be pulled makes something cheaper. The second will make more of it. The question is what happens when everybody can pull these levers? The answer is you have to change the game. And creativity, is always the answer to that question. You only have to look at history to see this seemingly new paradigm has happened over and over.

Be distinctive. Be interesting. Be noticed. Have something to say. And say it well. Those things don’t change.

A memorable Rastafarian taxi driver I will never forget taught me that 20 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Perhaps a little more Roger Moore?

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“Some are blessed with musical ability, others with good looks. Myself, I was blessed with modesty.”

Roger Moore 

Ok, so this one isn’t really about advertising. Let me explain.

I had been thinking a lot about inspiration lately. What it can do. Where it can take you. And the fact that these moments last and linger. Sometimes, for a lifetime.

So, I was all set to write about the topic when Sir Roger Moore died. This changed things for me. He had had been a big part of my childhood. My brain got a bit frazzled. I couldn’t write anything for a bit. James Bond had given me writer’s block. I was in an unending loop of Live and Let Die followed by Octopussy. And every time I began to write, boom, 007 in the house. I know it’s very weird. So, I must write this down to get Roger Moore out of my head. Also, I am not sleeping well. So, think of reading this as a favour to me or a bizarre form of online therapy.

When I was about ten I used to walk to the movies every Saturday. I can remember ambling along trying to imagine what the film was going to be like. We lived in a small suburb in Cape Town called Kenilworth. It was about as far from the magic of Hollywood or Pinewood Studios as you could get. And that, was what made those films so magical every Saturday. Westerns, comedies and action movies all blurred into the perfect Saturday. However, there was one film that always stood out. A James Bond film. We waited for those and acted them out for weeks afterwards. I can vividly remember seeing Moonraker for the first time. I remember thinking I want more of those stories. It made me think of doing impossible things.

A couple of decades later, I had the amazingly surreal opportunity to shake Sir Roger Moore’s hand at the annual La Colombe d’Or lunch in Cannes. I had seen him there a year or so before but was too shy to walk up to him. When I did, I instantly turned into my 10-year-old self. All I could muster was the word, thanks. I was trying to say thanks for the movies but all that came out was, thanks. Fuck. He simply said, you are welcome. I went to the bathroom mortified and stared with a self-loathing intensity at a real Picasso while feeling like a real, bloody idiot. I still cringe writing this.

What I had wanted to say was thanks for the inspiration. Thanks for showing a kid that dreams can be made. Thanks for making me think stuff was possible. Thanks, for making me imagine.

Oh well, at least I got to say thanks.

Thanks for giving me that I can do anything feeling Sir Roger.

Goodbye Mr Bond.

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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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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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