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Afta Bafta

 

 

I was on stage at Bafta last week with Dave Droga. He’d put together a line-up of me, John Hegarty and Dave Trott to talk about bravery.

 

Although what a bunch of over-paid people who sit in glass offices making decisions about whether a singing tomato is better than a piano-playing mongoose know about true bravery is debatable.

 

But  … as well know,  it’s a topic which advertising definitely needs to explore.

 

For myself, I was trying to cover too many bases – talking about pushing creativity, about technology, and about ethics in advertising. All too much.

 

Droga, by comparison, was brilliant.

 

Which probably won’t surprise anybody reading this  – although I have to say he’s even better in real life than all the hype. And when the hype tells you that he’s the best CD in the world and a lovely guy, that takes some doing.

 

I’ve known him for many years – and he hasn’t let success spoil him. That is true for some of my closest friends, for the simple reason that success hasn’t gone anywhere near them. Dave, however,  has been many-millions-of-dollars successful and he still comes across as a beach bum who’s borrowed his elder brother’s car to come and see you.

 

That’s about the highest praise I could give anyone – although I’d understand if Dave didn’t see it that way.

 

I’d put him on a par with Dan Wieden. So that’s a par which is like a trapeze artist’s bar, suspended 100 feet above the rest of us mere mortals. I met Dan once, in Portland, and  within a few seconds I realised that if I were a client I’d give him my business there and then. He’s almost impossibly likeable, totally authentic, unbelievably smart and he commands an easy, unforced respect.

 

For me,  Dave and Dan both engender trust. They do this by being passionate about what they believe – the very best creativity, the most original thinking – but they do it in a way which isn’t about showing off, or scoring points, or starting fights.

 

They take ego out of it – and they win.

 

In my talk on bravery, I went into the story of Paul Polman and the Sustainable Living Plan at Unilever. Because, for my money, that’s the bravest thing that’s ever happened in marketing and the most interesting thing happening in the whole business world right now.

 

I haven’t met him yet, so I’ve no idea what he’s really like – but we’ve just hired his son Christian at Decoded, so maybe I will one day.

 

It’s always nice to meet your heroes – despite the saying.

 

And when the Stranglers sang “No more heroes anymore” … they hadn’t met any of these guys.

Logically, I’m on the side of emotion

 

 

I know Rory has been banging on about this for ages.

 

But I found myself thinking about Daniel Kahneman’s stuff the other day. Because I think there’s further work to be done on how people respond to commercial messaging.

 

In his  book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Kahneman argues that we all make a huge number of decisions without pondering them in the way that a focus group attendee would like to think they do. It’s fast and instinctive “System 1″ thinking.

 
It’s interesting if you try putting that thought together with the findings of  Les Binet and Peter Field, whose study of over 1500 IPA Effectiveness Awards showed that a mere handful succeeded through appealing to logic. The vast majority worked on an emotional level.
We are, it appears, far more influenced in our decision-making by emotion than we are by logic.

 

So why do we keep writing logical propositions ?

 
In this context, I  always used to say that the pitch process was like buying a flat – we think both hugely important processes are logical, but they aren’t.  In flat-buying, you start off with a logical checklist – e.g. three bed-rooms, large kitchen, south facing garden, 5 minutes from the tube, etc.

 

Then you find a flat, fall in love with it, and forget all about the logical list. It doesn’t matter if the flat only has 2 1/2 bedrooms, a scrawny north facing garden, a pokey kitchen, and it’s 12 minutes to the tube – if you like it, you forgive it all that.

 

So last week I found myself discussing the idea of an emotional currency within ads.

 
We’re all used to logical propositions – but by now we realise that they don’t actually work very well.

 
Maybe we should start asking questions about communications like – what’s the emotional connection? What’s the emotional promise? What are the emotional values of this brand and how are we making sure we communicate them emotionally ?

 

This  might lead to a greater  appreciation of the creative skills in the process – instead of spending months refining the logical aspects of a brief, we’d spend more time allowing the creatives to explore the emotive aspects of the messaging.

 

But that would mean giving more time and support to the creative process, something that most agencies seem loth to do.

 
And we also need to remember that the ancient Greeks had a word called ‘akrasia’ which means knowing that something is the “right” thing to do, but then doing something completely different.

 
So I guess we’ll carry on being emotionally attached to logical propositions while knowing that an emotional approach would actually be more logical.

 

The problem with creative people

 

 

Out of all the myriad aspects of my portfolio life – consulting at the top level, guiding agencies to winning huge chunks of new business, being with Decoded on its fascinating journey, putting out the bins, picking fluff from my belly button – one of my favourites is running creative workshops.

 

While giving a workshop recently, I had some interesting conversations with the creative folk. As usual, a lot of them felt very marginalised.

 

I just don’t get it. What’s the point of advertising, if it has no confidence in the people who make the products ?

 

Are creatives just bolshy over-grown kids who don’t understand the commercial realities of the business they’re in ?

 

Don’t answer that.

 

Ok, sometimes they are. But I honestly think that view is dangerously prevalent among nearly all agency leaders these days.

 

Maybe we marginalise creatives in the hope that – if we protect them from the crap – they might somehow change the industry ?

 

Maybe Richard Branson will fly Trevor Beattie to outer space on a Gloucestershire Old Spot.

 

It’s interesting that creatives get hardly any training or support. One of the reasons I co-founded Decoded was to help creatives understand the digital world better, but nearly all agencies send their account people first.

 

Like favourite children.

 

And I’d love to know the percentage of people involved in IPA meetings or projects who are creative.

 

Virtually every project you work on in an agency has at least two or three creative teams working on it. In HHCL, we allocated one creative team per project. I didn’t trust any system which allowed account people to nip around from one team to another, like a French president on a moped.

 

Hire good creatives, and trust them.

 

But of course the great advantage to agencies of creative people is how easy it is to exploit them.

 

If they’re working on interesting projects, creative people will work for almost nothing. They actually love doing it so much, that the work alone is rewarding enough.

 

(How many account people could you say that about ?)

 

And, in the endless repetitive charade of creative presentations – where the account director will come back from a meeting in which the client has bought the safest idea, but asked that it be made more exciting – they will encourage the creative people to do more work, playing on their natural perfectionism and indeed their love of just solving problems.

 

Great creative people can always keep going, can always find new answers – but that isn’t the point. The point is to MAKE something.

 

I remember Andy Berlin, one of the geniuses of the US ad scene (at one stage he’d had his name on three different agencies, all of which had won Agency of the Year) telling me a story once.

 

A client of his kept saying of every idea which was presented to him “It’s good, but is there a better one ?”

 

He finally said this to Andy in the pre-production meeting. The production company were, understandably, a bit non-plussed. Andy paused and then asked the client a question.

 

“Was your wife the best-looking woman you could have married ?”

 

There just comes a time when you have to make a decision. And the people who succeed in life don’t agonise like twats over every stage of the process.

 

The big irony in all this is this.

 

Keeping going back with creative ideas endlessly isn’t just a massive waste of resources. It’s also the most demoralising way you could treat your staff.

 

So they’ll leave.

 

And anyone who runs a company these days knows that finding and keeping the best talent is THE biggest problem.

 

So it’s time to make a commitment to your creatives:

 

Believe in your creative people, and believe in your creative ideas.

 

If you can’t do that, what’s the point of working in advertising ?

Advertising will eat itself

 

 

It’s not often that I greet the front page of Campaign with a whoop of joy.

 

Normally the news is pretty miserable, as accounts move around as urgently as a small ugly guy at an orgy.

 

What raised my whoop was a picture of one of HHCL’s most interesting campaigns (the “slag of all snacks ” for Pot Noodle) and the line “Is this the bravest ad ever made ?”  Aha, I thought. Recognition – applause – all good Lemmon Quaaludes for my status addiction.

 

But as is often the way in life, my lip-slavering was to be followed pretty sharpish by a slap round the chops. Because although the main article by James Denton Clark was asking some great questions, my mood was deflated as fast as a fat man on a faulty space hopper when I carried on reading.

 

My old mucker Jon Burley, who wrote some amazing campaigns at HHCL, said some brilliant and lovely things, although I wouldn’t have used the phrase “gleefully celebrating the inherent vileness of the dehydrated filth it was trying to sell” myself. We celebrated all we could celebrate in the product, which was its addictive taste hit – we’d finally persuaded the clients not to whitewash the message with some adland weaselling around  claims for high fibre etc.

 

That campaign was actually one of the first to celebrate with humour and courage a self-deprecating AND HONEST way of talking about a product.  Several years before the brilliant Skoda campaign from Fallon, for instance.

 

But what worried me  more  were the words from Andy Sandoz.

 

Let me say immediately that Andy is one of the good guys … an immensely talented and visionary man … but I got straight onto him because his comment really worried me.

 

Andy wrote that the campaign had led to “tanking sales” It turned out that he was merely repeating some gossip that was going round when the account moved on (a couple of years AFTER this campaign ran).

 

But phrases like “tanking sales” are always the spectre at the feast of great work. They’re the way the ad industry gives itself an excuse for not caring or fighting enough for great work.

 

“That brave stuff doesn’t work – let’s just do the average shit again.”

 

It’s a long time ago and I can’t remember all the details – but this industry loves to bitch. It would rather snipe and hope that by undermining a particular relationship, that it will pick up some scraps from any fallout … like a bunch of hyenas in Boss suits.  (Which is as good a definition of a new business department as you’re likely to find this year.)

 

I’ve spent most of my career defending HHCL from accusations of irresponsible wackiness – because we had processes in place that helped produce work that was stand-out AND effective in the market-place.

 

So let’s look at the gossip at the time, which insinuated that the work hadn’t worked because mums buy the product more than kids.

 

But  it’s much more complicated than that.

 

“Slag” ran for two years before we then ran an even bolder campaign about people “having the Pot Noodle horn” – a campaign which was even more out there, even braver and funnier,  than the “slag” work.

 

I.e., we kept on doing work aimed more at kids’ sense of humour.

 

Why ?

 

Because firstly – mums have a sense of humour. Secondly – mums recognise when you talk to kids that that tone is going to be appropriate to kids. (To take a brilliant example – Lynx.). Thirdly – kids eat the stuff and funnily enough they don’t want campaigns that talk the same language as their mums.

 

Look what’s happening to Facebook now – it’s losing currency with kids because Mums are on it.

 

So you have to tread a thin but fascinating line.

 

If you buy the usual crass research findings that mums are stupid and humourless – well, good luck advertising to them.

 

To be fair, Andy did say “ultimately tanking sales” – which reduces the criticism to being merely pretty meaningless rather than actively damaging. That’s like saying that the surreal poster campaign for B&H “ultimately” led to  declining sales of those cigarettes – completely ignoring time and a long list of other contributing factors.

 

At the time it ran, that campaign provided a huge boost for Pot Noodle in a very difficult market-place – and won an internal award from Unilever as their best advertising globally that year. Even more importantly, it pushed the boundaries of advertising, it explored new ways of communicating using honesty and humour. It did what creativity is supposed to do, it got talked about by being different in a way which resonated with the target market.

 

It genuinely pioneered a more honest and accountable approach, too.

 

So there will always be people who say “Sony Balls didn’t work” or “Cadbury’s Gorilla didn’t work” – and there are discussions to be had around all outstanding pieces of creative work, sure   – but unless that person’s take-out ultimately is that such innovative work is better than the average crap the industry produces … don’t listen to them.

 

They’re what Jerry Della Femina called “killers”, people who make a career out of saying No.

 

Now, Andy isn’t a killer. In fact he’s one of my favourite people in the whole god-forsaken industry.  But if this industry is ever going to get its cojones back – a weekly theme in Campaign – it has to start by celebrating what is great and interesting ….

 

In the world advertising needs to inhabit – of prototyping, experimenting, pushing – you would see a lot more innovative work like “slag of all snacks”.

 

But if “brave” is equated with stupid rather than with intelligent, which is what that piece seemed to suggest – maybe that’s because people have forgotten the point of being brave. Which is to produce work that breaks through the massive indifference most people feel for advertising.

 

You don’t do brave work to win awards or lark about. You do it if you want work that works.

 

But maybe adfolk are scared of everything these days – including their own shadow, coming towards them.

 

The shadow of Google.

 

This used to be an industry that was creative and had fun and took risks.  But it seems pretty miserable  now.

 

And no wonder 90% of it is shit. (The opinion of, among other people, John Hegarty, Dave Droga, and your humble blogger.)

 

Someone was quoted in Campaign the other day saying that 90% shit levels are OK, because that’s true of everything in life.

 

a. I don’t agree.

 

b. Remind me not to go round to their place for dinner.

 

 

A ragbag of students and strikers

 

 

I was talking to a bunch of students at the SCA last week about the need for them to fight for great work, when one of them punched me in the face.

 

He caught me with an uppercut to the chin, having first winded me with a short-arm jab to the stomach.

 

Well, not quite. Perhaps there’s an elements of exaggeration here – we were actually just discussing the topic, and everybody was incredibly well-behaved.

 

But that’s advertising for you these days. Nobody gets drunk at lunchtime, nobody shags on the boardroom table, nobody punches anybody.

 

There’s no dignity or sense of purpose left in the industry.

 

Did I tell you about the time I punched a client?

 

True story. (Although, somewhat disappointingly, it was self-defence.)

 

Another time perhaps.

 

The topic under discussion with the students was broadened to include the challenge these days of being ethically responsible, while also being creatively irresponsible.

 

Marketing needs to be ethical, (Finally ! Thank Christ !) but it also needs to be fun – and fun means irreverence and irresponsibility ….

 

I was supposed to talk for 30 minutes but the discussion went on for about 2 hours.

 

Very fruitful discussion, and the students were bloody great.

 

And then I saw some work they’d done. A campaign for Moonpig was just brilliant. The notion was to bomb the bad bastards in the world with love. So, start off by sending Valentine’s cards to Vladimir Putin with images of gay pride on them.

 

What I love is that the mood of the work is all positive – that’s the surprising and brilliant thing about it.

 

It’s like Gandhi meets Modern Toss, and Gandhi winning.

 

The campaign does two things I love. It starts by asking the question, how can this brand make the world a better place? And then brings that to life with a piece of brave creativity, the sort where you know people are going to argue with you.

 

The second idea I saw was for a political party, which could actually mend democracy. There is nothing inherently wrong with democracy, it’s just the prats who are running it.

 

The thinking, the work, the way the students discussed it – all of that was brilliant and felt like the best that our industry can be.

 

All it missed, really, was a good punch-up and a two bottles of red wine each for lunch.

 

I should’ve stayed for more crits, but it was the second (heavily raining) day of the Tube strike, and I had to urgently get somewhere in two and a half hours.

 

Like most people tramping the streets in the rain that day, I was cursing Bob Crow under my breath.

 

Then I thought – what is this dispute really all about ? Am I blaming the right person ? Is it really just about London Underground wanting to introduce more self-service ticketing ?

 

Has Bob Crow not been into a Tesco or a WH Smith in the last 6 months ?

 

I mean, I hate those bloody machines, but it’s very difficult to argue with that sort of progress.

 

So I did some digging around (avoiding most of the British press because frankly it’s about as likely to give Bob Crow a fair hearing as Vladimir Putin is to give a fair hearing to anyone who disagrees with HIS world view).

 

And I finally found a very good piece in the Guardian by Decca Aitkenhead, where it emerged that the reason London was paralysed was actually even less complex than I thought. RMT just want to know what London Underground  plan to do with the staff who they fully accept will lose their ticket-office jobs.

 

As Decca says, “this sounds like a startlingly modest matter to resolve”.

 

Of course it’s not just Bob Crow who’s being obstinate here – to quote Decca again,  “the boss of London Underground Limited (is) unaccountably absent from the whole row”.

 

But before I let rip at Mr Crow (or any of the other key players who’ve failed to resolve this issue and caused huge amounts of unnecessary misery, particularly among low-paid workers who really need to get to work) – I had a thought.

 

Steady on, Steve – this isn’t the Moonpig way!

 

The Moonpig way would say that aggression isn’t the answer.

 

So, here’s to Bob Crow. Happy Valentine’s Day, mate !

 

Here’s to really helping the low-paid workers !

The phew we got through January blues.

 

 

Advertising being a tricky business to keep on top of, I’m usually on the lookout for some tips to guide me through the months ahead. That’s why I always keep hold of Campaign’s Annual Review issue, which costs a whopping £8.95 and comes out in December, containing innumerable lists of industry excellence.

 

In fact, I usually forget to read it in the fog of turkey sandwiches and rancorous family arguments which is Christmas, so when I did read it this year I was surprised to find that the Annual is actually more useful for cocktail party gossip like telling people who is the 17th best account manager in London.

 

Or the 14th best writer of radio commercials.

 

Since my own category of “industry legend and freelance creative consultant who has co-founded a very successful digital enlightenment company” isn’t included, I consider the whole thing to be a giant vanity exercise.

 

But the lists will also tell you fascinating things like why James Murphy looks like Jim Kelly (or vice versa) and which 10 media buyers painted their testicles purple for charity.

 

I was astonished to find that this last list was headed by Sir Martin Sorrell, Philippa Brown, and myself. I say astonished – I mean astounded. Or perhaps “mistaken” is a better word. Because I realised that I was looking at the wrong list, and that what I was actually staring at was the  list of advertising people in the Guardian’s Media Top 100 for last year.

 

Philippa was, however, prominently featured in the Campaign Annual – being numbers 1 through to 10 inclusive in the list of most attractive, intelligent and generally fun-to-be-with women in advertising.

 

No wonder my rectum was deceived.

 

I mean of course my retina. Bloody iPhone predictive text. My retinas were deceived. My rectum, to be perfectly clear on this, was the organ through which I was speaking when I ascribed the testicle-painting episode to Sir Martin Sorrell.

 

A man, like me, whose best testicle-painting years are probably behind him.

 

Despite these drawbacks to the Annual issue, Campaign’s first issue of 2014 was an absolute belter, however, and fulfilled all my needs.

 

For those of you who missed it, tough titty. You’re not getting my copy.

 

The issue contained a host of essays by various luminaries of the ad scene, discussing topics such as technology, creativity and everything in between.

 

(And what normally comes between technology and creativity is just plain old fashioned ignorance.)

 

Some of them were absolutely brilliant, and reaffirmed my sometimes shaky belief that advertising is full of incredibly talented people.

 

Perhaps the best one featured Gregory Roekens of AMV writing about Technology. A wonderfully clear and inspiring piece, about the most important topic there is – bring on the Phygital world, I say !

 

This was followed by Ben Fennell of BBH, whose essay about the future for ad agencies was worth the entry price alone.

 

(In this case, a very reasonable £3.70.)

 

The bit I loved best was when Ben talked about how BBH were involved in building the e-commerce engines for a number of their clients – which shows them sales in real time and gives the agency access to crucial data. In some senses this takes us back to the early days of that amazing agency BMP – they did all the consumer research for their clients so they had knowledge (=power) which they could bring to the party.

 

As Ben says, this initiative at BBH “changes everything … (We) don’t need to ask clients for data. (We) are getting it fast and raw.”

 

Getting it fast and raw is always, in my book, a good thing.

 

It’s fascinating that a so-called “traditional” agency is providing such agenda-leading thinking. And I wonder if it’s a coincidence that BBH have always been big into the Decoded experience, sending their management team on the “Code in a Day” course over a year ago.

 

In the same bunch of essays was another brilliant one from James Connelly at Fetch, talking about mobile.

 

Funnily enough, Fetch are sending 40 people to Decoded over the next couple of months. The more observant among you will perhaps have spotted a trend here.

 

Whatevs. I can breathe a sigh of relief. Advertising is still full of smart, creative individuals who are curious about the future.

 

But I admit that my faith tends to weaken in December when the gilded and perceptive superhumans of the ad industry can occasionally turn into dribbling alcoholics who reminisce about the past and embarrass themselves at the office party.

 

(Thank God some people are still having a good time …)

 

But I exclude from this shameful list the holy trinity of Sir Martin Sorrell, Philippa Brown and myself.

 

 

Aha (as Alan Partridge used to say).

 

It was back in the early 1990s (which, for my younger readers, was just after the Biblical Flood and just before the Italian Renaissance) when I had an epiphanic encounter with three obese people in a lift.

 

I’d been asked to speak at a conference in America. It was like most conferences – the star names gave nothing away while exuding the aura of glossy skin and pampered ego that comes from knowing they earn more in 5 days than normal people earn in a year. The interesting thinking came, as it always does, from the edges.

 

And then, after a dinner in which every course tasted incredibly sweet to me, as though sugar had been added to everything, I went to find my room and got into a lift where I was joined by an obese man, his obese wife, and their obese kid.

 

All 3 of them were carrying plates on which they had piled chocolate cake and ice cream – emergency rations, I guessed, in case they felt hungry in the 10 minutes spent getting from restaurant to minibar.

 

But what I saw in that lift was the future.

 

Almost as though it was a Tardis, with a maximum weight load and a button to press if it got stuck between centuries.

 

The reason the food tasted sweet to my English taste buds was because America had been adding sweeteners to its food for many years.

 

The story as to how this happened is interesting – because it’s a brilliant example of good intentions going disastrously wrong.

 

One US President (Dwight Eisenhower, I think) had declared that he didn’t want anyone in America to starve. A brilliant mission statement (much more laudable than JFK’s famous ambition to put a man on the moon). So the country had started a huge programme of subsidising farmers to grow crops.

 

Which produced a massive excess of food – particularly, corn. Nobody knew what to do with it, until some scientists discovered that you could make fructose out of the corn and from that make a cheap and tasty bulking agent for food stuffs. I.e., it made food production cheaper, therefore making bigger profits for the food companies, but it made the food taste sweeter, so more people wanted to buy it.

 

Win/win/win,you’d think.

 

Except what it meant was that virtually everybody in America became addicted to eating food with a massive, hidden calorie content.

 

Including my 3 close friends in the crowded lift.

 

So, the Government and scientists were half the problem.

 

But the other half was us. The ad industry.

 

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember a TV campaign for Milky Way which used the slogan “the sweet you can eat between meals”.

 

Unbelievably, a mere generation ago, people used to eat at meal-times and only at meal-times. Look at footage of entertainers from the ’50s – like the young Sammy Davis Junior – and you’ll see how astonishingly slim they looked.

 

That’s why.

 

And then sugar was added to every food stuff, which made eating an insidiously addictive thing, and we were told we could happily tuck in whenever we wanted to.

 

So now if you go into a pizza restaurant at any time from 8 am to 2am you will see people effectively eating a full lunch at any time they feel like it.

 

My large friends in the elevator clearly felt that it was ok to eat cake and ice cream off a plate in a lift.

 

And rumour has it that exercise bikes in gyms in America will soon have food trays on them.

 

But the literal weight-gain we see in the obesity epidemic, which is now taking hold in all developed countries, is merely a symbol of our over-consumption of all forms of goods – from cars to shoes to laptops – which is the primary reason why the planet will die over – roughly speaking – the next generation.

 

Why am I saying this, other than just to make people in advertising feel bad ?

 

(And for some people, that’s probably a good enough reason.)

 

Because – while advertising has contributed to the unsustainable levels of consumption which are killing this sweet and mainly blue planet – it might also be able to do something about it.

 

Unilever, under Paul Polman’s inspired leadership, have their Sustainable Living Plan – which I love like I would love an orphan dog who could do back-rubs and tell jokes – and which has brought about life-changing projects like Lifebuoy’s “Help a Child Reach 5″ in India.

 

And in my annual trawl through Contagious magazine’s review of the previous year, I saw some other great initiatives.

 

Like Toyota bringing their logistical expertise to help hurricane victims in New York.

 

There were huge schemes like Google’s Project Loon, which started bringing internet connectivity to the 4.5 billion people on the planet who need better internet access.

 

And there were smaller but thoughtful ideas, like Kleenex creating a tool which could predict where flu would be most likely to break out.

 

Coca-Cola introduced something called Eko-centers – water purification systems operated by specially trained female entrepreneurs recruited from the local community – while also in Singapore producing cans you could rip in half to share.

 

This last initiative is probably one of the most interesting because we have to adopt new models of more modest consumption.

 

And in a world where early obsolescence is built into every electronic item and we are encouraged to buy more than we need in every supermarket and consume more than we need in everything from razor blades (3 blades, anyone ?) to toothpaste – (you only need a fraction of what they show in every toothpaste ad) … this is a toughie.

 

But those 3 globular individuals I saw in the elevator all those years ago represent the most important global challenge there is.

 

Advertising has to stop encouraging unnecessary consumption. It’s got to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.

What can Buddhism teach the average adman ?

 

The immediate answer would seem to be, very little.

In fact quite probably, Buddha all.

It’s rather like the old Monty Python sketch where Graham Chapman as a charity collector goes in to see John Cleese as a City businessman. Cleese as the businessman is completely confused by the notion that he should give his money away, and expect nothing in return. He ponders over this concept, trying to look at it from all angles, but he can’t see the logic in it at all.

In the same way, Buddha’s life story reinforces the apparently total disconnect between the two halves of this equation.

Buddha was born into a rich and powerful family who did all they could to protect him from reality. He was surrounded by things and people that were beautiful, young and dedicated to providing pleasure.

At this point Adland and Buddha are in total agreement.

Because 95% of the ads on TV show a world of impossible perfection.

But the first step towards enlightenment came one day, on a rare trip outside the Royal Palace, when Buddha saw three things for the first time. An old man, an ill man, and a dead man.

Of course,  the great majority of TV ads are usually quite short on appearances by the old, the diseased and the dead.

Although you should feel free to make up your own jokes about various campaigns for Iceland over the years.

So is there anything at all that links the two ?

Well, let’s start on a trivial level.

The goal of Buddhism is Nirvana. But when Buddha first came up with the word, there was a lot of resistance to it.

The word means “extinguishing the candle”. There are many other words he could have chosen that would have expressed…bliss, enlightenment, happiness. Like Brahmanubava, which means “the experience of the ultimate”. He didn’t use any of those. People kept questioning him and saying surely there is a better word than Nirvana  …

But Buddha stuck to his instincts.

And he was right. Because Nirvana isn’t just a beautiful-sounding word – its very syllables seeming to conjure up the notion of other-worldly bliss.

It tells you how to get there.

By extinguishing the candle of your ego.

So, on a profound level, Buddha teaches us to ignore focus groups.

And in fact most of the great philosophers and poets in history would  agree with him on this.

Although it does prompt another thorny question. What would’ve happened if Kurt Cobain had decided to call the band Brahmanubava ?

But back to Buddhism. This preaches compassion and that’s something which Adland could definitely explore.

It’s interesting that Innocent, which has always had a pretty turbulent relationship with agencies, is now saying that its marketing will be focussed on emotion and charity.

I love this and can see it really catching on.

So, instead of covering the real and digital landscape with expensive wall-paper that brashly trumpets the egos and logos of indistinguishable brands, we could use our marketing budgets to make the lives of our customers better in some tangible way.

Of course none of this guarantees the things which Adland traditionally loves – like stealing clients and staff from their friends, watching with glee as another ad agency hits the skids, and getting drunk at one of the myriad creative award evenings.

 

But hey ho.

 

And one final thought occurs to me.

 

Even if you do win at the creative awards, beware.

 

Adland being quite full of envious folk who will  begrudge you your moment in the limelight, you should perhaps be prepared …  as you walk to the podium …  to hear the sound of only one hand clapping.

 

How to lose a pitch

 

 

Losing a pitch is incredibly easy.

 

Because, overwhelmed by the talents and enthusiasm of four usually very good agencies, and having narrowed the brief down to an ice-hockey-sized goal – the clients will often  whittle down the final list by any means possible.

 

Nick Hornby was once reviewing music for an American newspaper and every week they sent him a huge box of CDs. No way could he listen to them all, so he cut the list down on what he acknowledged were ridiculous criteria – like not liking the picture of the band on the cover.

 

He ruled out any band whose picture featured a nose-bleed, for instance, instantaneously.

 

I’m convinced that I once lost a nice bit of business by farting at the wrong time.

 

But that’s a story for another day.

 

I remember hearing how the famously chain-smoking planning guru Stanley Pollitt lost two pitches – once by smoking his own brand rather than the brand they were pitching for (having smoked the free ones on the table in the first few minutes of the pitch) – and secondly, in a pitch for the Fire Prevention Agency, by setting fire to the table cloth by leaving his fag on the side of the table.

 

Now, to my mind, that’s a proper adman.

 

And both clients were absolutely wrong to penalise the agency for such piffling trifles.

 

But right now I want to talk about a catastrophic pitch from another agency from a year or two back. I can’t mention any names, sadly , but it’s an interesting story.

 

It wasn’t just an ordinary pitch – it was one of those “do or die” numbers where the incumbent had to win the pitch to keep itself in business.

 

And they lost.

 

And the agency folded.

 

The guy who was telling me the story said it was down to one thing. The agency led with analogue work and bolted on digital.   (I mean they added it on later. Rather than, when it came to the digital elements, that they ran from the room like a startled horse.)

 

The client gave the account to an agency which led with digital thinking.

 

Because these days you’re either a digital -first company or you’re a lumbering bolt-it-on Frankenstein.

 

Let’s look at that phrase “digital first”. Like a lot of cliches, we take it for granted but this story is a good prompt to ask yourself if your agency is really capable of “digital first” thinking ?

 

Cynics among you might think this is just an excuse for me to push Decoded at you and mention that we’re doing more “digital enlightenment” than ever before – and of course cynics aren’t always wrong.

 

In fact they’re usually bang on the money.

 

But it really does feel to me that advertising is at a pivotal point.

 

And this limnal moment can be explored  by comparing AA Gill with Campaign.

 

On the one hand you have the famously vituperative TV and restaurant critic for the Sunday Times. This was his verdict recently – “Xmas ads mine a narrow range of fixed, sticky sentiment… that remind you of how good advertising used to be, how witty and skilful and how comparatively sophisticated it assumed its audience to be. Ad men were once demi-celebrities: they were exciting, important enough to be sent up. Of all the media businesses that are been turned over by the new age, advertising has suffered the most. Now a copywriter is a clerk, a man who composes the annoying sidebars on websites.”

 

Or, you can look at the latest Campaign – and see what appears to be a very vibrant industry grappling with some serious challenges but applying a lot of intelligence to the issues – and generally having quite a good time.

 

(Which is, actually, probably, the most important thing of all.)

 

Fuck the sidebars on websites – it’s not about that, if it ever really was. The “new age” is about interactivity and understanding the incredible creative potential of technology.

 

But I do think Mr Gill is onto something in his comparison between a demi-celebrity and a clerk.

 

The former are inherently confident in themselves. (Even when covered in cockroaches and forced to eat a kangaroo’s penis, whether in the Australian outback or in a living room in South London.)

 

And if advertising is one thing, it’s always and inescapably a confidence trick.

 

(And that’s also the best tip for winning a pitch, by the way. You’ve got to be super, super confident.)

 

So – much though I love Mr Gill’s silky smooth prose – and I really do – I feel that there’s life in the old dog yet.

 

It’s just a question of confidence.

The advantages of being old and not knowing Jack Shit

 

 

 

Advertising is a young person’s industry because only young people are naive enough to think it could work.

 

 

That’s how it seems to me sometimes. But I guess there is some value in having  senior members of agencies to talk to -  because those people have “seen every problem already”.

 

 

That is  the great advantage of maturity – you’ve been through the meeting where the client tells you that they’ve changed the brief and it’s no longer about selling a business tariff for mobile phones, it’s now about selling ecologically friendly toilet cleaner – and the budget has been halved, and it needs to work in Albania as well, and the media agency have changed it from TV to interactive lamp-posts because they’ve done a deal that will save the client 2.4% year on year.

 

 

Anyone who’s been through that particular meeting will tell you that the right response is to fire the client, go to the pub, and see if you can make a living from your partner’s novelty ceramics business.

 

 

But the downside of having seen a problem before is that it is tempting just to go back to a tried and tested response – and in my view that’s far too limiting. Because change is at the heart of all living things – and, despite much evidence to the contrary, I include marketing in that.

 

 

You know how sometimes you think – that was a fantastic evening, I must do that again ? But when you try to repeat it, it’s never quite as good ?

 

 

That’s life, unfortunately.

 

 

And experience can be doubly unhelpful if it just makes you more cautious. For instance, I can remember working with a coffee client once and showing them some work. They liked it but were worried because the drinker was on their own. “We tried that once and it didn’t work” they told me.

 

 

I was flabbergasted. What had they tried before, was the previous script rubbish, these and a million other questions rushed into my head – but no, the client was adamant. They’d tried people drinking coffee on their own in ads and it didn’t work.

 

 

I’m a huge believer, in fact, in not relying on that kind of experience.  What doesn’t work one week will often work spectacularly well a week later.

 

 

You just don’t know till you’ve tried it.

 

 

I’ve been workshopping with students a lot recently, and I’m often reminded of other ideas I’ve come across – but I’m interested to see if ideas that maybe weren’t right before, may be ideal now.

 

 

Paul Arden used to say that when you’re producing a piece of work, you should always have butterflies in your stomach – like putting on a new play.

 

 

Is this going to work ?

 

 

Who knows ?

 

 

If you’re functioning properly as a creative agency, you’re doing something which nobody has done before – so, strictly speaking, you just don’t know if it’s going to work or not.

 

 

And that sounds scary.  But as I’ve said a thousand times before, the answer to this is prototyping.

 

 

Take “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Publishers weren’t sure about it  – but when it was self-published on the internet, it became the fastest selling work of fiction of all time.

 

 

Don’t waste your time second-guessing. Just put your ideas out there.

 

 

And always  strive to be different from what anybody else is doing.  Because the single biggest problem in advertising is homogeneity – all the ads in a sector looking the same, like a herd of wildebeest swarming together to confuse a leopard. The only slight difference in advertising is that actually we should be trying to attract the attention of the leopard …

 

 

And you don’t need research at all. Research is guessing where you don’t need to.

 

 

Make your ideas. Put them out there on Facebook or YouTube or Mumsnet or wherever you like. Then see which ideas get the most buzz.

 

 

I was at a conference recently where someone was talking about how interesting it is to use Twitter to gauge the most salient scenes in films and TV programmes – by watching the Twitter traffic. What is interesting is that it’s usually the weirdest scenes which drive the most traffic.

 

 

Being unusual is often the most valuable factor in getting engagement.  And that’s something that experience can’t teach you. You’ve just got to live with the fact that when you do something unusual – nobody knows if it will work or not.

 

 

I guess the ultimate thing would be to be old enough to have experienced a lot of the problems already -  but still be passionately  keen on doing new stuff at all costs.

 

 

That’s what I’m striving for.

 

 

Being really, really old – but knowing, in my heart of hearts, that I don’t know shit from Shinola.

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