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Advertising. There’s a reason they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

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“Meow means woof in cat.”

George Carlin

Years ago, I was asked by a client to write some ads. There was a catch. He wanted me to write ads about nothing. He had no facts to communicate that would persuade anybody to use his company. His competitors had far more advanced platforms and it would be another two years before he caught up. For two years, he wanted feel good ads. His words, not mine. Six months in he called me in to say that he liked the ads but they needed more facts. I said do you have any? He said no. And then he said, you’re the clever creative, come up with a few. We both stared at each other for a very long time.

I remembered this story when I was recently asked the other day why advertising sometimes goes wrong or why it can take so long. My response was to use Susan Sontag’s quote. Words are not things. It is one of my favourite quotes because it explains so much about the business.

If you have been in the business for a while, you will start to see the same words over and over. Here are a few. Real, authentic and fresh. Or phrases like ‘out of the box thinking’. You will see or hear these words fairly often. They relate to how the communications should feel. These words often create the opposite of clarity.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these words. As words. The problem with these words and many others is they either mean nothing or they mean very different things to different people. So, when you try to take them from nice words into actual things you run into all sorts of problems.

Let’s take one of these words as an example. Real.

We all know what it means right. But let’s turn it into a film.

Visually and conceptually, real can mean many things. Should it feel like a documentary or real as in contemporary and what’s happening today? Maybe the gritty reality of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.  Or, should the people in the film not feel airbrushed? Real characters speaking like real people. Do we mean real emotionally? Or real as in based on a true human insight. Now, that is just one word. And perhaps you can answer all of those questions.

OK, let’s add the single phrase ‘out of the box thinking’. Simple right? Real and innovative. So, show me something that you know is true and honest and something that is new that you have never seen before. That is a little trickier. Let’s ad the words passionate, fun but not quirky. Real, new, passionate, fun but not weird.

Five words in and we are already in deep shit. Yet, there is a greater problem. Almost everybody involved in the process has slightly or very different interpretations of these words. What one person thinks is fun another person will think is very weird. We might think we are all speaking the same language but already translation is required.

This is the great problem with language. It creates the illusion of precision.  We think it is a simple bridge from imagination to reality.

And in an industry that single-handedly supports the very wealthy people that make Post-its, this is a big problem. We are very fond of creating lists based on a whole lot of words that we pretend are ideas. We think these words will become a thing. We think this gives creatives direction.

I have just demonstrated with five simple words this is not the case. What language doesn’t address are things like understanding, tonality and intention. These three words are often the reason the process takes so long. Looking at my career and speaking to other creatives these three words are the most frightening of all.

We worry a lot about what we are going to do. But what often causes all the problems is how we do them.

Vague words on a page don’t really solve this.

Making others see exactly what is in your head does.

And often, that, can, be a very slow and strange dance.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The undeniability of Redwoods.

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“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the colour which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

John Steinbeck

There is a type of silence that happens now and again that makes you smile. When this silence happens and you look around, the other people with you have exactly the same expression.

I was in Las Vegas to judge the London International Awards. The jury was full of some of the most talented in the business. I learnt a whole lot from them and their collective wisdom. There were many arguments and different points of view but now and again there was a fantastic silence.  In the middle of a mad adult theme park, floating in the desert sun, silence. When you see something great, you just know.

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Las Vegas is a mirage that is real. The city of sin is everything they say it is. The brighter the lights, the longer the shadows.

A taxi driver told me he just needed one more jackpot and he could leave. I asked him how long he had been waiting for the big win and without hesitation he replied 16 years. He then asked me how much change I wanted from a 10 dollar ride. I had given him a 20.

Vegas is also plastic fantastic. The city has created its own world that eventually on some level you have to surrender to. A reality, based on greedy determination and admirable ambition. A flagrant disregard of what you are supposed to do. Vegas has so much of itself, that somehow, it can defy the laws of physics. Time and space can be altered. Day becomes night. Luxury that makes you forget. Opulence that makes you believe anything is possible. And, savagely sunburnt couples in matching vests drinking two litre Margaritas at 8:47am. On a Tuesday. Eventually, you sort of love it. You know you shouldn’t, but you kind of do.

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What Vegas has is a density. A density of information. Layers of glitter. Many explanations. Proof that the odds are in your favour.

So, against that backdrop, perhaps the silence in the jury room was heightened. We had all just seen a great idea. We were all smiling. We were nodding. Words were unnecessary. Nobody had to explain. It was self-evident.

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I was lucky enough to experience that silence a few more times on the trip. Once at the bottom of the Grand Canyon overlooking the Colorado River. It is so beautiful it looks like a bizarre naturally occurring Wes Anderson film set. There is an intense silence. A silence, that feels like it is coming from inside you. A silence where everything makes sense. A silence when you are absolutely there.

I began to think about this idea that when things are truly great, language fails you. This idea of knowing. Nobody has to explain something if you feel it. Whether it is an idea, a song or a very large tree. We easily trust and are seduced by words. But, when something is truly great there is a leap from language to another place.

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I saw the Redwoods in San Francisco after a slightly insane bus trip. Our bus driver had an extremely monotonous voice. It didn’t go up or down. He droned on as if reading while highly medicated. He was doing this while going around sheer cliffs. A passenger actually shouted for him to shut the fuck up and focus on the road.  I believe we reached The Muir Woods just in time. The silence amongst those giants was perfect. That is the only word I have. Perfect.

So what does this have to do with advertising?

Advertising has a lot to answer for when it comes making a lot of noise. It is responsible for a lot of glitter and tinsel. It also makes a lot of rubbish. Watch television on any given night or flick through a few banner ads. Most of it is utter shite. The Vegas strip is not dissimilar to this. Selling and yelling. Everybody wants your attention. It literally becomes a blur. Some of you may say well that is just the way the world is these days. Perhaps.

What is strange though, is when you are in a room and watch 400 ads you remember the one where there is silence in the room. You just know. We all smile. No words. It had craft, beauty or made you feel. You don’t remember the tinsel you remember the Redwood. You remember what is special.

Now, before you say it, I am not comparing advertising to the majesty of the Grand Canyon or a giant Redwood.What I am saying is what always stands out is quality. The hustlers think you can cut corners. You can, but only for a while. The truth is people know. Just like the jury, we just knew.

A simple lesson I learn over and over.

Instead of making and believing in a lot of noise, we should be looking for that perfect silence a little harder.

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Advertising. The rise of the internet class.

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

Oliver Markus Malloy

Lately, I have been followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that, is a very big difference.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The Tango of Donald Trump and Nike.

“Heat sells better than light.”

Jen Lawrence

Outrage. Hatred. These are not normally words you would say are the way forward for a brand. In the past, a brand has always tried to have a position that was not controversial. A position where you attacked your competitors and nobody else. You stayed in your lane. Stuck to your knitting.

I was interviewed last week about the new Nike ad and what I thought would happen. I believed that it had been thoroughly thought through and was going to be very good for business. It has been. In the last 72 hours online sales of Nike have gone up 31% globally. So it has worked so far. But time will tell.

Nike understands who is buying their shoes incredibly well. Nobody was burning their shoes in Compton or the streets of New York. They understand who creates street culture in America. I would guess nobody under the age of 30 is burning their shoes. They understand where growth will come from in the future and the present. They also know that it is highly unlikely that anybody is burning their shoes outside of America. They understand how to be a global brand.

All of these things are interesting. However, there are literally thousands of articles that have been written in the last 4 days about these facts.

I decided to go somewhere else. I started to think about the similarities between the combatants of this story. The similarities between the outrage Nike was experiencing and the outrage Donald Trump created every day. It almost felt like a new blueprint. A blueprint, the public and the media seem to adhere to in terms of time and attention. The 24 hour news cycle has a lot to answer for. But perhaps, it is a new way to connect. Could outrage be a new structure to reach people that are saturated by the endless stream of mundane information that is fired towards them?

I started to wonder if Donald Trump had created a new rhythm in the media. Is this why he has succeeded so far? He harvests outrage. He creates emotion.

It would seem every week Mr Trump would have a new controversy and about a week later the world moved on to the next thing. I also wondered in the modern media landscape how long outrage lasts. I wondered how long it would last in Nike’s case.

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As it turns out about 4 days. On the 4th of September, the share price dropped when the campaign started to run. Ever since then, the price has slowly risen. Think about that for a minute. A brand takes a position that is definitely unliked by the President of the United States and many people in the country. Now 10 and maybe even 5 years ago this would have been corporate suicide. Today, not so much.

Today, perhaps a brand needs an enemy. A target. A strong purpose and voice. Maybe a strong perspective is required in a world where we move onto the next thing every 24 hours. A point of view that might not be universally loved might come in handy because it forces people to have an opinion and pick a side. At the very least, it makes them care.

So, is there a place for outrage and anger when it comes to brands? Perhaps not for everybody. But, I do believe that in the modern media landscape if you are in the middle of the road you will get run over. I think Nike gave us a glimpse of the future. A future where being noticed is going to be very difficult. Brands will have to say something or do something of considerable consequence. Or, at the very least, make you feel a whole lot.

Many believe what Nike did was incredibly risky. I think a far greater risk is not having a point of view or perspective. Outrage is a risk. So is invisibility.

Being noticed in this world is getting harder and harder. And if there is one thing you can say about Donald Trump and Nike is they both get noticed. You might not like one of them but you know about both of them.

The beliefs that Nike espouses might be very different to those of Donald Trump. They are the antithesis of each other in almost every way. However, how they communicate those beliefs are far closer. They both focus on their base. They both say things and do things others won’t. They both say they are the best. They both choose to have enemies and are also adored. They are both willing to outrage many. They are both brands that are selling very different visions of the future.

They are both doing the same dance.

They are just listening to very different types of music.

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advertising, Uncategorized

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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advertising, Uncategorized

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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