A little bit of cockiness

It was good to see a picture of Martin Boase in Campaign the other day because I can remember having a slash with him in about 1992.

We’d been judging some awards thing. It was a time of great change in the industry because personal computers were just appearing at work. At HHCL we put a computer on everybody’s desk and gave everyone 10 hours individual tuition. I reckon we “got” digital before people even used that phrase.

When I mentioned this to Martin, he dismissed the whole thing as a passing fad.

He’d picked the wrong time to tell me, because I was so astonished that I nearly wet both our pairs of shoes.

I thought he might be joking, but when I asked some friends at BMP, it emerged that they had only invested in one computer, “for the art directors to play on”.

Now the thing is, I just love that attitude.

As anyone who knew him could tell you, Martin Boase was charm, assurance and persuasiveness personified.

He was so confident in his and his agency’s ability that he could afford to be like that.

And that confidence is much more of an asset than a liability.

I remember reading a book on Japanese management techniques, which said that “a bad decision on Monday is better than a good decision on Friday”.

It’s a fascinating point.

If you have the courage of your convictions, you do stuff. If you shilly-shally, and see both sides of it, and weigh up all the pros and cons, you’re nearly always going to be wrong because you’ll be too late.

When you’re as self-assured as Martin was, you could get it wrong, but decide a year later that computers were a good thing, and you’d still be ahead of most of the dilly-dallying belt and braces merchants.

But if he hadn’t had that self-confidence, he never would have built one of the three greatest British advertising agencies of all time.

My old partner Rupert Howell had that kind of confidence too, and I loved it.

I remember when we pitched for “Fruit of the Loom” t-shirts once. We had a brilliant idea which involved throwing a t-shirt to the baddest gang of street dogs you could find – to prove how tough the shirts were.

One of the clients looked worried and said that the t-shirts really weren’t that strong.

Rupert thumped the table with his fist and assured us all that Fruit of the Loom t-shirts were amazing and could easily withstand such a torture test.

The clients loved his attitude and gave us the business.

As it turned out, Rupert was wrong about how strong the t-shirts were.

But, who cares ?

Better to be confident and possibly wrong than to be always anxious and possibly right.

I was thinking of all this as I did a day’s mentoring at the wonderful School of Communication Arts. Marc Lewis, the principal there, is a man who gets things done and worries about the details later.

And I can’t think of a better guiding principle for his students.

I thought the same thing when I went to a Creative Social event, the launch of a book called Digital Advertising.

The party was like most book launch parties, in that it just involved a bunch of people getting pissed, although in this case it was enlivened by Flo Heiss and Graham Fink attacking a pile of the books with two chainsaws.

But the book itself is a fantastic reminder of what fuelled the rise of the digital agencies.

Like any creative movement of any worth (and I’m also reading Nick Kent’s wonderful book “The Dark Stuff” about music industry iconoclasts) it was driven by anger, frustration, and a cocky belief among the people involved that they were right and everyone else had got it wrong.

And that sense of defiant experimentation is right at the heart of the internet. Dot-com boom gets followed by dot-com bust gets followed by web 2.0.

As Andy Sandoz says of the dot-com bust – “this founding and spectacular failure … set the tone of the internet as a place of experimentation”.

Believe, do something, doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, do something different.

It gets really interesting when you realise, as Shaun McIlrath told me recently, that that’s how it works in retail.

Try something, fail, try something else.

I reckon that would make the perfect model for advertising.

Of course I may be wrong.

But so what ?

  • Dave Trott

    “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better.
    The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”
    (Theodore Roosevelt, from a speech given at the Sorbonne, April 23, 1910)

  • richard morris

    The bit about BMP isn’t true. There were two computers. We had one in a cupboard downstairs where the planners used to make barcharts all day long.


    Richard Morris is right. It’s a nice story, but it can’t be entirely true. I think the Account Planning department at BMP got it’s first PC around 1986, had at least 3 PCs by the time HHCL was founded in 1987. By the end of the 80s, we had quite a decent-sized network.

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