If it ain’t broke…break it


One of the things that does my head in these days is the way people treat briefs as some kind of legally binding document written in blood and never to be deviated from. How many great ideas die because they’re “off-brief”? Sod that, the brief’s there to inspire creativity, not to strangle it. Karl Marx said “Question everything” and I reckon that should include the proposition on an advertising brief. I know that the client might have already bought into the strategy, that the proposition’s already signed off internally, that there’s no time and I know there are a million more reasons not to go off-piste. A lot of hard work from some intelligent people has gone into that brief. But…it could be better. Everything always can be. And I just hate to see potentially brilliant ideas get killed just because we’ve previously agreed that the current brief is the best one.

Now, getting an idea that’s off-brief onto the table may be difficult. But there’s one thing that’s even harder. There’s a sacred cow even more sacrosanct than the proposition. And that’s the existing campaign. And the various guidelines and mandatories around it. Outside of actually being briefed on a new campaign, have you ever got any work out that breaks the guidelines? That departs from the current campaign? That deviates from the guidelines? It’s pretty rare isn’t it? And part of me doesn’t want to be the dickhead who killed ‘Impossible is nothing’ or ‘Carlsberg doesn’t do…’ and replaced it with something less good. But isn’t that our job? To be dissatisfied with the status quo, to shake things up, to take risks? The brilliantly annoying rent-a-gob troublemaker Julie Burchill once said “If it ain’t broke, break it.” Perhaps not a rule to live your entire life by (it probably doesn’t apply to marriages, Ming vases, kids’ toys). And I understand that brands crave stability. But I reckon a bit of destructive thinking now and then keeps things interesting.

What The Stone Roses taught me about life (and advertising)

Roses hugging

Did you see The Stone Roses at Heaton Park last year or Finsbury Park last weekend? I did. I’m a massive fan. After my wedding day and the birth of my kids, the two best days of my life were 18th November 1989 (the Ally Pally show) and 27th May 1990 (Spike Island). One show I didn’t see (thankfully) was Reading 1996. By this time John Squire and Reni had left so there was a new guitarist and drummer. I watched a bit of it on You Tube the other day; it’s heartbreaking, proper watch-through-your-hands stuff. The new musicians are competent but they’re not in he same league as the (real) Stone Roses. Ian Brown is utterly off his tits and totally out of tune; he looks embarrassed and lonely, the coolest man in the world at his lowest ebb. It’s toe-curling, soulless sub-karaoke.

The Reading show is a grim reminder that we do our best work in the right situation. In the right place, at the right time and – most importantly – with the right people. When we’re surrounded by people we trust (partner, CD, MD, planner, suit etc) and engaged in a project (brief, client) we’re passionate about. Take away some/all of those elements and we’re all vulnerable to our very own Reading. If we allow ourselves to get into a ‘wrong’ situation (eg go with an idea you know deep down isn’t right, allow a client to change a piece of work so much you’re not proud of it anymore, take a job for the money) the next thing you know you’re desperately polishing a turd, feeling bitter and dying inside.

However, while all of that is scarily sobering, there’s to be a happy ending. And it’s this. No matter how bad things get, you can always come back. Just like they did last year at Heaton Park. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts (in American lives)”, but The Roses proved him wrong. Reading ’96 was rock bottom but now they’re back on top. The footage in Shane Meadows’ Made of Stone of them rehearsing is a tribute to the power of friendship.

No matter how shitty your situation, with the right people around you, you can turn it around. And for me, that turnaround starts with your attitude, your perspective. In the words of The Roses, “How many times do I have to tell you/You don’t have to wait to die?/You can have it all/Any time you want it/The kingdom’s all inside.”

Be reasonable. Demand the impossible.

Malcolm McClaren

I first came across the title of this post in 1991 in a book about punk called England’s Dreaming, by Jon Savage. The slogan ran across the front of a shirt worn by a weird looking, curly-haired bloke with leather trousers. That man was Malcolm McLaren. And that picture changed my life.

Having been born in ’72, I was too young to directly experience the ferocious creative energy of punk, but I grew up amid its cultural and aesthetic debris. And coming across this incendiary Situationist slogan as a 16-year old baby Hamlet blew my mind wide open. Off I went on a journey of autodidacticism and amateur anarchism. It was an adventure that eventually led me – by a pretty circuitous route – to advertising. And seeing the epitaph on Malcolm’s recently installed memorial in Highgate Cemetery, reminded me of the power of spectacular, fearless, uncompromising ambition. There’s not enough of it in advertising these days. Nike Fuelband was ambitious. Expedia’s Find Yours campaign was brave. Guardian Three Little Pigs was brilliant. But too many people – clients and ad people – are scared to rock the boat, to stand out, to take risks. But what is there to fear in an industry where the riskiest possible thing is to be boring and anonymous? As Dave Trott said recently, “This could be the most fucking exciting job there is if you want it to be. But if you sit there and just follow the rules it’s just another dull job.” Fuck that. It’s time for some spectacular failure. Cheers Malcolm. Rest in peace, anger or whatever works for you.