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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.

Three and a half happy bunnies

I normally like to moan about the advertising industry like Cassandra coming down off the finest crack cocaine while wandering around the charred remains of a favourite family pet.

But it behoves me sometimes to point out that the industry is not all doom and gloom.

(Although rumour has it that Doom and Gloom are planning to open an agency specialising in wearable technology just off Brick Lane.)

Recently I met three people who all seemed very happy with their lot.

The first was Mark Lund, who now runs an agency called Now.

In the old days of course, he ran an agency called In The Old Days.

You can find his new agency Here.

Within seconds of meeting Mark, you realise that you are in the presence of the ultimate pair of safe hands. He exudes all the decent qualities, in almost indecent quantities.

Eminently sane people like Mark are exactly what you need to front an agency. While the necessary lunacy is hopefully going on at the back of the agency, where the creatives – if they’re any bloody good – are thinking unthinkable thoughts and torturing the bounds of possibility until you don’t know your arse from Sheffield Wednesday.

The second was James Hilton of AKQA. James was sitting on a panel at the Guardian advertising conference and it was obvious from the first question directed at him that he wasn’t playing the same game as any of the other speakers. Most people accept a speaking gig at a conference in order to pimp their wares, and so they exude the false bonhomie of a snake oil salesman at a cocktail party full of disgruntled boa constrictors.

But James just answered the questions in a no-frills fashion, in a way that was about being straight rather than sell-y. It was all the more compelling for being so completely unapologetic.

And the third was Graham Thomas who I met at the CMI conference – where I myself had accepted a speaking gig to pimp Decoded at the assembled luminaries of British industry.

Graham runs something called The Disruption Factory and he practices what I’ve been preaching for ages – prototyping. This is the same topic I discussed with James at the Guardian conference. Creating stuff and just putting it out on the internet.

To my mind this solves the biggest problem facing creative agencies – the approval process.

It’s not an ideal way to test creative work – there will never be an ideal way to do that – but it’s a million times better than focus groups or relying on the subjectivity of people who are usually far too risk-averse.

James and Graham are both making prototyping work. I don’t know about Mark.

But from a straw poll of three happy bunnies, two of them were using it.

In fact let’s bring in a fourth happy bunny.

Jonny Plackett.

Jonny used to work as a copywriter at Albion and it was his coding skills which first led me to think about all that. He’s now at Wieden+Kennedy, and we had a great time talking about prototyping and other topics.

Most of the people I meet in adland are pretty pissed off, more like bunnies who’ve been told that mixamatosis and chips is all that’s left on the menu.

So it’s worth thinking about this.

When you consider that 90% of new product launches fail and they all use conventional research, it doesn’t look like a great way to operate.

But 75% of all happy bunnies who expressed a preference said they used prototyping.

(And, coincidentally, it also built the biggest companies in the world.)

If you want to know more about prototyping, you could do a lot worse than come on the Decoded course where you’ll learn the basics of coding in just one day.

If you do, maybe I can turn down some of these endless invitations for speaking gigs at conferences.

Which might make me a slightly happier bunny myself.

Good afternoon, Manchester

I went up to Manchester last week to speak at the inaugural Freshtival get-together.

My speech was attended by the metaphorical one man and his dog. It wasn’t quite the smallest audience I’ve ever had – that was in Slovenia about 4 years ago, (when the metaphorical dog failed to show up) – but it was definitely in the all-time Bottom Two.

Maybe it was just because the event was inaugural. Or maybe the people of Manchester had decided that I was a terrible speaker. Either way, it’s always a bit dispiriting when you’ve worked on a presentation and the audience is smaller than some meetings you’ve been in.

It felt less like a talk, and more like a tete-a-tete.

But, hey.

What was new about Freshtival wasn’t the awards – which have been around for yonks – but the lectures and seminars. I remember back in the 1990s saying to the bloke who used to run Cannes, that he should open up Cannes for seminars etc. It transformed Cannes and so the Freshtival initiative is to be applauded.

(Even if the applause at the end of my speech – the applause of a generous one man and his generous dog – didn’t generate any noise complaints to the local council.)

It also reminded me of being at the inaugural week of Adfest in Chiang Mai, Thailand back in about 95.

Adfest is now one of the biggest ad festivals in the world but back then it was just starting out and I thought it would collapse immediately.

Partly because Neil French was chairing it and Neil likes to try new approaches to awards ceremonies.

And I should add in passing that Neil takes awards festivals RATHER SERIOUSLY.

(It’s an interesting side issue. This aspect of his character is relatively unappealing, whereas the parts of Neil which are NOT about taking stuff seriously – an absolutely massive chunk of Neil’s character, probably at a rough statistical guess about 92% of total – are immensely attractive. I wonder if there’s a universal truth here ?)

Neil had accumulated on the jury a large bunch of his cronies and then some token outsiders –  me, Warren Brown (the most successful Aussie adman after Droga) and Donald Gunn (of Donald Gunn fame).

Neil announced on the first evening that we wouldn’t have any of “this abstaining nonsense” and people would be allowed to vote for work done by their own agencies.

When I raised the question of the fairness of this, having judged at most awards schemes around the world and finding this approach unique, Neil waved a magisterial hand (bearing a magisterial king-size fag in it) and said “we’re all grown-up here”.

This pronouncement proved a tad optimistic when, at the end of the week’s deliberations, 32 awards were given out and 31 of them went to Ogilvy. Which, not altogether coincidentally, was the agency Neil was running at the time.

I was convinced that the festival would be denounced as a fraud and the jury members hung up in effigy while D&AD pencils were inserted into our ani.

But nobody seemed to mind very much.

The real bonus for me of that week was meeting Donald and Warren and just laughing our heads off by the swimming pool. The equivalent in Manchester (minus the swimming pool)  was chatting to  Bill Bungay of BMB fame.

Bill and I were bemoaning the lack of rebellion  in younger creative people (I’d touched on the Punk ethic in my talk) and I told Bill about an ad I’d tried to sell to Absolute Radio a few years ago. It would have appeared in the X Factor Final and shown all the greats of rock music – The Stones, Jim Morrison, Dylan, Bowie, Hendrix, Lennon, Janis Joplin, etc etc – for 3 minutes – and then asked the simple question “Would any of them have won X Factor ?”

Then an end-line “If you like real music, you know where you can go. Absolute. ”

Bill told me of his idea to set up a YouTube channel called “The Fuck You Factor” – to celebrate musicians too talented, too opinionated, and too individualistic to gain the show’s smug, middle of the road approval.

I love that idea.

In tribute to Bill’s concept, I was going to title this blog “Fuck you Manchester”.

But that might have been misinterpreted.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think my ego had been bruised by giving a talk that could have been housed in the average wheelchair toilet.

No – I’m bigger than that.

And besides, the people of Manchester are lovely. If there aren’t enough of them, it just says to me that we need more of them.

Time, perhaps, to grow up

Last week I went to a talk on Tuesday – and then saw the real thing on Thursday.

The talk was given by  Tim Lindsay and was entitled “purpose beyond profit”.

Before it started, Tim and I discussed what an executive creative director does these days – and we concluded that the answer was, spend all their time figuring out how to win awards.

This might not be such a bad thing for Tim, given his role as CEO of D&AD.

But it was an interesting counterpoint when, three minutes into his talk, Tim quoted the title of a book about Howard Gossage, which was “Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man.”

By that criterion, there aren’t many ECDs who qualify as “grown ups”.

Tim then went on to heap praise on Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, who is doing the most incredible job of making his enormous company change the world for the better. Paul has said that all consumer- facing companies should rip up their business models and start again.

But whenever this topic is raised , the same two questions keep surfacing in various guises.

One, is this commercially feasible ?

And two, (from a consumer perspective), are you doing this just to sell more products ?

My instinct is to let the people asking the first question talk to the second group because if it’s so obviously appealing to customers, then that answers the first question stone dead.

The second question is thornier. On one hand, I’d ask the second group what exactly is the point of a company that doesn’t want to sell its products ?

But the issue of over-consumption is, of course, crucial. It’s one which Unilever are well aware of –  (Keith Weed, their CMO, kicks off all his major presentations talking about it) – and that is why their strategy is based on increasing market share.

But the problem with both those questions is that, like most reasonable-sounding questions, they’re just a reason for not doing anything.

That’s the real problem right there.

Anyway, two days later, I met Dave Hieatt for lunch.

Dave worked in advertising for 10 years, I helped him get his first job – and he’s the sort of guy who just DOES things.

Amazing things.

He set up the legendary clothing company Howies from a  photocopier while working at AMV back in 1995. His vision was bold, distinctive and simple – he wanted a company that made people think as well as buy. Particularly, he wanted them to think about green issues – Howies championed sustainability way before any of the other companies in this sector.

And that of course is the only issue worth talking about – because if we don’t sort that out, we’re all going to die a slow painful death.
Howies was actually doing a lot of what Patagonia does now – years before Patagonia did it. (This isn’t a dig at Patagonia, by the way – who I would cross the desert to applaud. It’s a hat-tip to Dave.)

He wrote the copy for some brilliantly engaging catalogues and he created a brand that stood for something beautiful. He did it with wit too – their endline was “the 3rd biggest clothing company in Cardigan Bay.”

Howies was very successful but then had some bruising encounters with the business world. But now Dave is back with “the 25 mile pub” – a pub that provides food cooked with ingredients sourced from within a 25-mile radius.

Sheer genius, and several brewers are talking to him about a national roll-out.

He also set up “The Do Lectures”, a gathering in Wales which celebrates bold action in all areas – and he’s now looking for funding for a new business start-up incubator.

He’s the nicest, straightest guy you’ll ever meet in your whole life. He could have made millions out of Howies – but he has always put his principles ahead of financial greed.

So while a group of people working in advertising debated the issue of “purpose beyond profit” in central London – a guy who lives in South Wales, and who used to work in advertising, was showing us all how to do it.

But if that doesn’t persuade you  … then think about this.

The smartest marketeers in the world are putting this thinking into practice – Unilever. The thinking is something I’ve been saying for years – make all your brands a force for good. Use those millions of pounds of marketing budget to do something more valuable than wallpaper the city with messages that insult our intelligence.

Solve real problems for your customers.

Also, what are the two most creative agencies in the world ?  Droga and W&K.

Look at the work they do and you’ll see that ethical issues are usually a strong part of their thinking.

So there are reassuringly selfish reasons to think about altruism.

In fact, you don’t even need to be a nice guy to get this.

The niceness might come later when you get a warm feeling and realise that totting up figures on a spread-sheet is only ever going to be the most boring and pointless part of any business venture.

Changing the world for the better – now that’s a reason to get out of bed.

And a final thought – if you’re NOT trying to change the world for the better, on a daily basis,  maybe – possibly – theoretically – you’re one of the bad guys.

If you want to know how urgent this is,  you could try reading  “Ten Billion” by Stephen Emmott.

(It’ll make a larger dent in your brain than anything else you can read this year.)

Unless you’ve got a good reason not to, of course.

A brief from Mick Jagger

The world is divided into those who, when they see a sign saying “Don’t walk on the grass”, don’t.

And the ones who think “Hmm, I bet that grass is nice and springy underfoot.”

With this in mind, I gave a talk to an agency the other day which I called “the Art of Transgression”.

The title got changed for some reason to something else but I went ahead regardless.

That’s what us transgressors do.

The key quote in all this comes from the art critic John Berger who said (40 years ago) “the first time you go into a restaurant and stick a needle through your tongue, you’re liable to be arrested. The second time you do it, you’re liable to be hired as the cabaret.”

His point is that the shockingly new is usually a lot more interesting to people than the boring stale old stuff – and that people go from being shocked to being fascinated  quicker than you think.

Certainly quicker than conventional research will tell you.

Interestingly, he picked tongue-sticking because he wanted to be as gratuitously shocking as possible – but time has proved him right, because tongue studs are now not the least bit shocking.

Given that the purpose of most advertising is to get into word of mouth, it’s worth asking how much conversation is taken up by talking about weird new stuff vs conversations about stuff which is “maybe quite interesting if you’re in the target market”.

We are all of us, like it or not, collectors of weird shit.

A recent Sunday Times profiled 3 creative artists in the first 7 pages of the Culture Section.

Lake Bell, Sergio de la Pava and Shane Carruth.

All three have deliberately set out to shake people up.

That’s how they work. That’s their fuel.

Compare that with the story in Campaign recently about the Saatchi interns who were tasked with doing something extraordinary and ended up putting letters reading “nothing is impossible” on the roof.

I.e., they went through a fire escape door.

As the journalist who wrote the story said, it’s hardly Honda’s live parachute jump.

And even the fact that that example of bold thinking was used (from 6 years ago) says something about the dire state of advertising today and the almost complete lack of anything resembling testicles in it.

A great friend of mine recently sent me a wonderful letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol, commissioning the Sticky Fingers album cover.

(Of course album cover design is now a lost art – rather like advertising creativity. The latter used to be fun and interesting – but now it’s just a wasteland of lifestyle images selling interchangeable phone tariffs, family cars and face creams.)

Jagger’s approach is interesting.

On the one hand, he tells Warhol to do whatever he wants, gives him an unlimited budget and says don’t worry about any time deadlines.

So you see – if you want an iconic image that will last for generations, that’s all it takes.

Ha ha ha.

On the other hand, Jagger says “in my short, sweet experience, the more complicated the format of the album, e.g. more complex than just pages or fold-out, the more fucked-up the reproduction and agonising the delays”.

Warhol responded by creating an album cover that relied on a functioning zip being worked into every cover to give you access to the record. I.e., he took Jagger’s restriction and deliberately rejected it.

I’m not repeating this story to make Mick Jagger look stupid.

Keef’s biography from a few years back tried its best to do that.

(How can a guy who was one of the sexiest men of the last century have “a small cock” ? I reckon the drugs have destroyed Keef’s sense of perspective. Or maybe they just gave him an exaggeratedly benevolent view of his own member.)

And for me Mick Jagger can do very little wrong. He wrote roughly 25 of my favourite songs of all time.

In his prime, he didn’t just walk on the grass. He smoked it, and wrote songs glorifying slave-traders, cocaine and serial killers.

In fact, to my mind the most objectionable thing he ever did was accept a knighthood.

Keep Calm and Stop

I was reading about a new book the other day called “Victoria’s Madmen”.

This wasn’t about the Bill Bernbachs of the Victorian age –  because there weren’t any  – nor was it really about lunatics. It was actually about the counterculturalists and misfits who changed Victorian society. It’s very interesting to see that a bunch of eccentrics, revolutionaries and grumpy old gits were the ones who won the historical argument in the long run. Whether they were just making their own pots, talking about sex too much, or blowing up policemen.

History tells us, it’s the long tail which prevails. A dysfunctional society was unravelled by the people in the margins. So enjoy your temporary victories, ye middlemen and compromisers. It’s the crazy ones – as Apple realised many years ago – who win.

(Which reinforces my passionate belief that today’s “Madmen” should be mad men, not sad men.)

And brings me to the title of this blog.

An email came through from an old friend of mine, an ex-copywriter called John Parkin who used to work for me. He set up a yoga retreat on a hill in Tuscany with his wife Gaia and they created a new philosophy called the “fuck it” philosophy. This is their take on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing.

“- to ‘KEEP CALM’ works in almost any circumstance. But to ‘CARRY ON’? I think not. If the backdrop is ‘difficult times’, when things have gone wrong, when it’s all going pear-shaped, when the shit’s hit the fan, then it’s usually best to STOP AND THINK FOR A MOMENT.

“We are astonishingly good at realising that things aren’t working, but then applying the same ideas and the same solutions to try to get out of the pickle we got into. Look at any area of life and you see this ‘CARRY ON’ mentality in action: We’re overweight, but we still try to do the same old diets to get thin, hoping that it’ll work ‘this time’, The financial system crashes, but we leave the same systems intact, crossing our fingers that it will be okay this time, A relationship doesn’t work, we leave, and find the same patterns emerging in the next relationship …

“But when things are going pear-shaped, it’s wise to stop and think…  to see what’s really happening, to see what got you into the pickle in the first place, and to get into the habit of changing your habits, changing your conditioned response, changing the solutions you apply.

“In other words, in the battleground of your life,  KEEP CALM, STOP AND THINK, TRY SOME NEW WAYS.”

As John and Gaia say – “That’s not as catchy. But we’re not in the advertising business (anymore). We’re in the living well business. ”

Speaking of Johns, I love telling people how I gave Jon Glazer his first break in advertising. The man is the most incredible director I’ve ever met, (barring possibly Tony Kaye). I was reminded just how brilliant he is when someone sent me a tweet recently that asked if this was the greatest ad never to have run.

This was Jon’s infamous Flake ad which at the time caused huge ructions and even, I think, the split between agency and client.

At the time it was going on, I caught a glimpse of this and wasn’t sure about it. I must’ve been stark staring mad. Looking at it now I consider it a work of wonderful provocative genius.

Jon Glazer.

Not just, Respect.

But, Awe.

And moving back to today, here is a link you’ve probably been sent but what the hell. It’s an incredible 3-D Tube Map.

Go to the website and have a play on all the pages  – there are some wonderfully addictive visualisations.

And finally, here’s a visualisation called something like parallax scrollling.

Awesome and then some.

But before I go, I ought to credit the people who found these wonderful examples of creativity and playfulness and perversity (which are all the same thing, really) and sent them to me – Alex Gulland, Lisa Batty, Amadeus Stevenson, Sophie Hobson.

I blog by with a little help from my friends.

Corporate twats

I don’t know how many of you saw the 27-metre High Diving competition staged recently in Barcelona. 27 metres is about 10 storeys up, and is so high it feels like a bad dream or the climax to every film which Hollywood now makes.

My admiration for the participants was only minutely diluted by the fact that the event should have been called the 27-metre High Jumping competition, since they all entered the water feet first.

When the first guy  (a stocky, unhappy-looking Mexican)  did that, I thought he’d made a mistake. Perhaps miscounting the number of somersaults and tucks. But when you jump from 10 stories on a professional basis, you get details like that right.

It reminded me of the scene in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ where the two outlaws leapt off the rocks into the river below. We used to love this clip at HHCL, and in fact considered using it as part of our interview process. The line that always tickled us was when Butch says he can’t swim and the Sundance Kid replies “The fall is going to kill you anyway”.

That’s what risk-taking is all about.

It’s the fall which you need to worry about. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve got a certificate for swimming a width, breast-stroke.

Several centuries ago, when I started this blog, I wrote a piece asking if the ad industry needed more bastards. I was fed up with the pusillanimity, the milk-soppiness, of the industry. It seemed to me that nobody was taking risks.

But actually risk-taking – entrepreneurship – is not the domain of bastards. Most entrepreneurs are quite gentle souls. It’s the people who want to get to the top by counting the pennies and cutting the costs who are the real back-stabbing bastards.

The corporate twats.

Jesus said that the poor will always be with us – but, much more sadly, so will the corporate twats.

After all, you can have a decent conversation with someone who’s poor.

So what I would like to see in the industry is more risk-taking – and more generosity of spirit.

To the latter point, there is a heartbreaking story in the collection “Binocular Vision” by Edith Pearlman – who has been claimed as the greatest short-story writer in American history – which will tell you all you need to know about grace and kindness. It’s called Allog.

It’s set in a country where, as one of the characters says – “People here … mislaid civility a century ago.”

Into this country comes an immigrant who brings a naturally kind spirit, courtesy, and the inner certainty that helping others brings more rewards than trying to beat them up.

Everybody who comes into contact with him, falls in love with him.

So that’s my proposal this week. Let’s get rid of the bastards. And explore the idea of having a bit of a laugh, while pushing the frontiers of great creativity at the same time.

The ad industry used to have that feeling about it. And I don’t believe it damaged many brands when it took this approach. I bet the industry kills a whole lot more brands now with its acres of inefficient research and its agonisingly slow approval processes, which go at the pace of a dressage competition for sloths with hip problems.

Butch and Sundance survived their jump precisely because they didn’t over-analyse it or ask too many damn stupid questions.

They just jumped.

Entrepreneurs do that. Creative people do that.

(West Coast entrepreneurs and developers all over the world call it Prototyping. The former built the biggest companies in the world by doing it.)

Corporate twats stand by the side of the pool in their sad little Speedos, trying to work it all out with a pencil.

Or, as Mike Tyson put it – “Fear is like fire. You can warm your hands on it, cook your food with it, or it can burn down your house.”

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