advertising, Creativity, Uncategorized

Advertising. 450 million dollars for peacock feathers.

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”

Leonardo da Vinci

This is Salvator Mundi. The world’s most expensive painting. It recently sold for 450 million dollars at Christie’s in New York. Most experts thought it would get to about 200 million dollars. They were very wrong. However, the gigantic sum paid is not the most startling facts about this masterpiece.

What is far more eye-watering is many don’t believe it is real. Many experts feel that it was done by Da Vinci’s workshop rather than the master himself. If that is the case the paintings value drops to 1.5 million dollars. My hands get a little sweaty writing that sentence. I don’t know why, it’s only a 448.5 million dollar gamble.

The first. The last. Original. The one and only. The genuine article. What is the value of specialness and exclusivity? Why is being distinctive so important to us? Why does it matter? I believe it is inherent in human beings to want to be different to everybody else. It might be a skill you have learnt. A story you can tell. An instrument you can play. Or, something you have collected. But most people attempt to have something that makes them different or if you prefer, interesting. Think of the last dinner party you were at. Who or what do you remember? Invariably, it was a story that somebody told that made you laugh or shake your head in disbelief. Or, an outrageous act from somebody who was a little drunk and perhaps had a serviette on their head. Either way, whether it was surprise or emotion being different is very good at disrupting the banality of polite conversations and bland pre-dinner snacks. In short, it gets you noticed.

I feel in a world where discussions are often about effectiveness, distinctiveness is often neglected. In advertising, especially these days, we often talk about what must be done, we speak far less about how it must be done. I can speak from experience when I say tone is often what trips up campaigns. We all know what the work has to do but how different or distinctive it needs to be is where you often run into tricky issues. Efficiency is important as is effectiveness. But here is the conundrum. That efficiency often comes from very inefficient and human qualities. Emotion, confidence, risk, surprise and a touch of drama. Without it, there is very little distinctiveness and consequently less efficiency. So, although many are trying, it would seem efficiency and difference are very difficult to separate. I think this quote from Rory Sutherland explains the puzzle perfectly.

“Like a peacock’s tail, advertising is not really about efficiency…A large part of advertising’s power comes from the fact that it is perceived to be expensive, and is broadcast at a wide audience in mass media, thus conveying a seller’s confidence in the widespread popularity of what is being sold”.

Or, to get back to our expensive painting, let’s look at it another way. In a strange turn of events, you have become wealthy and remarkably good looking. You have been going to expensive dinner party after dinner party. Each one, has had great food and wine, fantastic hosts and impeccable service. Tonight’s party has been no different until the host says to the gathering that behind the curtain is the last known Leonardo da Vinci. He unveils it to loud gasps. It would be a showstopper. You wouldn’t remember any dinner party before that and guess what you would be talking about at the next one?

So, perhaps, a Da Vinci is just a peacock’s tail to some ridiculously, wealthy billionaire (it was actually bought by a Saudi Sheik) with a permanent tan and fantastic white teeth. That’s what he looks like in my head anyway. Is he completely batshit crazy?

Actually, that is the wrong question.

The right question is what is genuine difference worth these days?

And the answer to that is another question.

What is a peacock worth without its feathers?

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Making it mean something.

“Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.”

Terry Pratchett

After Cannes, I found it difficult to write anything. It felt like everything had been said. It had been dissected in a million different ways. There is a frenzy after Cannes to explain what it all means. And normally, I would be right there. This year, I needed a moment. I tried to move on and ignore it all but something kept gnawing away at me. I felt I needed a rant but I didn’t know what I wanted to rant about.

While this itchy-scratchy feeling was happening I walked into an old camera shop my son Jake had found. He had bought an old 70’s 8mm film camera for 35 dollars. As a smug former photographer, I told him he would never find film or batteries for a camera that old. He proved me wrong – in a single morning. Walking into the store was like walking into my past. Kodak, Ilford, Nikon F3’s on the wall. I don’t know why it amazed me but it did. It was like finding a beautiful old Ford Mustang in amongst a whole lot of bland Ford Mondeo’s.

I asked Barry the owner if he ever sold anything. He said he was selling two film cameras a day and processing about 20 rolls a day. And, he said with a smile, all to young people. I asked him why he thought that was. He eloquently said you can shoot 300 photos with a smart phone, but it’s too easy. It all looks the same. He laughed and said it becomes meaningless. You don’t think. So you don’t care about what you have done. People want it to mean something. They want it to be a bit hard. And, most of all, they don’t want to be like everybody else.

Maybe it’s because I was in this strange back to the future store but his words stuck in my head.

So here goes. Here is my rant.

Firstly, there was a lot of great work at Cannes, as there always is. And having a purpose as a brand can be a powerful force when done authentically.

But there was a term I heard recently: Woke washing. Another was Sadvertising. You will see a huge amount of this work is winning these days. But that wasn’t the itch for me. The itch that needed to be scratched was the attempt to use purpose (often tenuously with very little connection to the product) to evoke the same sad emotions over and over again. And yes, I understand the world is not a happy place right now and that brands can play a massive role in changing it for the better. If they are being authentic. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if Volvo’s Epic Split would still win a Grand Prix these days. You know, just something funny, clever and well made. Something that is designed to sell stuff. I mean that is the business we are in, right? Selling. I wondered if we as an industry are painting ourselves into a very narrow corner where having a purpose is rewarded far more than building a brand. (I know some will say that can be the same thing but I think that it is only true for certain companies). I wondered if the advertising of a company whose only purpose is to make great cheese could win anything of consequence. I wondered if we now have a very set pattern of success? A pattern that will be broken. Because, mark my words, that is what creatives do.

Or, in the words of Barry. “It all looks the same and feels the same. He laughed and said, it becomes meaningless. People want it to mean something. They want it to be a bit hard. And, most of all, they don’t want to be like everybody else.

I think I am going back to the store to buy some film.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. What if nothing is changing?

“Creativity doesn’t wait for that perfect moment. It fashions its own perfect moments out of ordinary ones.”

Bruce Garrabrandt

There is an advertising urban myth about a company needing to sell more baby powder. Basically, all the brightest and the best would come into a room each day and try and brainstorm how they could sell more baby powder. They would look at communication, distribution and pricing. At the end of each day a cleaner would come in and clean up the room. While she did this she would listen to what they were saying. At the end of 3 days very little progress had been made in selling more baby powder. The cleaner could see everybody was a little crestfallen so she gave them her idea.

Why don’t you just make the holes bigger?

The question is always how you change the game. And the answer is usually made up of two words. Creativity and simplicity. You will find these two qualities in any answer of value.

However, changing the game and talking about change are of course two very different things. One of the funniest things in our industry is to watch people take on the cloak of the grim reaper. One of the safest positions you can take in our industry is that everything is about to die. This has been said every year since I got into the business. Bob Hoffman wrote a brilliant piece about this phenomenon in Cannes recently: https://campaignbrief.com/bob-hoffman-dying-at-cannes/

In it, he shows how speaker after speaker talks about how we are all dying if we don’t adapt. Or, how advertising is dying. Or, that massive change is on the horizon. Run for the hills. For the love of God, we have to change. Otherwise we are all going to die. Now, of course if you get to the end of these talks you will find most are selling something. And nothing sells quite like impending doom.

I guess the real question is what is changing and what isn’t. The idea of change has always fuelled our industry. The restlessness this brings is a good thing. But, it can also be a false prophet. So, I thought I would look at all this through the lens of an excellent article I read recently. For me, it highlights the fact that in the end we always come back to the need for creativity. That is what never changes. It is almost always the solution you return to over and over. And more importantly, it’s how you change the game and make giant leaps when everything else eventually gives you parity.

The article is by Jay Patisall in Forbes magazine called The Cost of Losing Creativity. Please do yourself a favour and read it. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forrester/2019/06/19/the-cost-of-losing-creativity/#2f061d79703a

In it he argues that the industry has commoditised brands and homogenised experiences. Here is what he had to say about how customer experience has become too similar to make a difference.

The issue is that the work looks, feels, and behaves too similar. The industry obsession for meeting every customer need and want for ease and convenience by using technology has left little room for creative differentiation. That has come at a cost. The front door to your brand is a web or app experience that is virtually indistinguishable. Fashion experiences look the same. Quick-service restaurant and coffee apps allow you to order ahead and skip the line. All airline apps allow travelers to check in, manage travel, and use a mobile device as their boarding pass. What can make one brand different from another when the experience is built from the same common technology platform, designed to solve the same user or category need, and programmed for the same two devices? Creativity.

In other words, there comes a point where through technology or just about anything else, you reach an experience plateau where everything becomes the same again. You and your competitors become the same again. And then, you have to differentiate again. For that you need ideas. You need creativity to change the game. It would seem as long as there is competition or choice this will always happen.

Take television and content. Recently, Disney and NBC have taken their content back from Netflix. The game is changing and to be fair there are many scenarios that could play out in the future. But just for fun, let’s take this information and run with it. Disney (I believe the app is called Disney Plus) and many others could soon have their own apps that consumers will be able to access in a variety of ways. This means in the future you could have a multitude of apps or platforms on your screen. And hey presto we are back where we started. Not unlike today with a multitude of television channels to choose from. What was once radically different will become familiar again. This cycle is far more true than radical change.

So, the question becomes how will all these streams of content differentiate from each other? My guess is a few people in a room trying to come up with ideas. No matter what labels are used or what impending doom men in cool trainers tell us is about to visit, this always seems to be the answer.

It is ironic that the one thing that actually creates change, doesn’t change at all. Creativity.

It knows eventually it will get the call after all the talking and posturing is done. It knows it is the only architecture that will let you leap again and again.

Just like the holes in the baby powder, the answer is always staring us in the face.

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advertising, Uncategorized

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, Uncategorized

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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