I hate this ad more than the BNP

DSC_0349

In my teenage years, as a baby Hamlet hyped up on existential angst, cheap lager and Henry Miller novels, I was a big fan of the Welsh political rock band, Manic Street Preachers. I developed a pen-friendship with Richey Edwards, the lyricist/guitarist who disappeared in 1994. I’d send him my gonzo fanzines and he’d send me letters and books from wherever they were recording or on tour. “Music is right at the bottom of our list of priorities,” Richey once wrote to me. Which summed up one of the things I loved about them – and, conversely, dislike about a lot of bands today – that they understood the importance of image, iconography, ideas. Sensationalists who played the media to get themselves onto the map, in an early interview with the NME they said, “We’ll always hate Slowdive more than Hitler.” Which was clearly daft and offensive, but it was an interesting take on the way our perspectives get skewed around the worlds we inhabit.

I thought of all of this the other day when I saw the ad above. If you can’t be arsed clicking on it to make it legible, it’s a couple of standard stock shots divided by the line: ‘Life is a journey in which we’re all travellers, looking to make that great trip with someone.’ Wow, deep, eh?

One way of looking at it is that it’s just one more forgettable ad in a world full of them. Dull wallpaper, who cares, move on, right? But, as someone who spends my life searching for fresh ways to express ideas, it just annoys the shit out of me. Like a carpenter irritated by a badly made table or chef pissed off by a crap sandwich, it winds me up disproportionately. It’s simultaneously bland and stupid; it pretends to be wise but is incredibly shallow. In lieu of intelligent thought, they’ve spend a small fortune on media to thrust some inane platitude into our faces. And most goat-getting of all, it gives me absolutely zero reason to consider flying to Malaysia on Malaysia Airlines.

Martin Amis memorably described the application of creativity as “the war against cliché.” The team responsible for this effort capitulated way too easily.

Advertisements

Utterly beautiful

 

Bill Bernbach once said that “execution becomes content in a work of genius.” I’ve always thought that the key to that quote lies in the last word of the sentence. Genius is pretty thin on the ground in advertising and without it, execution is often simply the style that papers over a lack of substance. However, once in a while a piece of work comes along that’s so beautifully executed that it stops you in your tracks, moves and inspires you even without a particularly strong idea.

That’s how I feel about this campaign for Tourism Western Australia by Host and The Glue Society, Sydney. The script would have looked for all the world like a standard tourism ad. It’s basically a montage of lovely locations. But bring in a handful of phenomenally gorgeous shots, sublime cinematography, a distinctively languorous pace and a heart-breakingly beautiful track and you have something that feels surreal, dreamlike, unique. It’s like Terrence Malick got into directing ads and persuaded the Cocteau Twins to let him use one of their tracks.

The line at the end – ‘Extraordinary lives with you forever’ – doesn’t really add up for me. Does it? How? Is this whole ad the misty-eyed flashback of a septuagenarian on his deathbed? Bloody hell, that’s a bit deep isn’t it? But by that point I’m hypnotized by the beauty and I’m busy Googling ‘Holidays Western Australia’.

 

“Only the man who says ‘no’ is free.”

Over the weekend I was reading some extracts from the cookery writer Nigel Slater’s diaries. He gets up at 5.30am every day and works his arse off. “I cannot remember a time when I didn’t have a book, a column or a television programme on the go. I have worked almost every week without a break since I left school at 16. I’m lucky and I’m grateful.” But he doesn’t work on Fridays, never has. “Friday is my day off. Sacrosanct. Written in stone. Everyone who works with me knows I haven’t so much as taken a phone call on a Friday for 25 years. There is the odd bugger who pushes their luck, but most people know they take their chances.”

I really identify with this attitude of loving what you do and getting shitloads done, but on your own terms. It reminded me of the  Herman Melville quote above. Which in turn reminded me of a recent post on Julian Watts’ brilliant blog, A Creative Meander. Writing about the importance of carving out mental space among the chaos and deadlines of advertising, he says, “The best people I’ve ever worked with, and the ones I’ll work with again in a heartbeat, knew how to say ‘no’. They still get it all done, and at the highest quality finish, but they don’t mix their focal planes. 
And the best agencies and companies know the threshold of their capability. And have mastered the art of saying, ‘No, not yet.’”

I’m a workaholic. It’s partly because I absolutely love my job but also because, unlike those people Julian mentioned, I’m not great at saying ‘no’. Over the last couple of years I’ve got better at it. I’ve learned to stop believing great work automatically means crazy hours. I’ve begun to realise the massive importance of time management and tried to improve at it. And, most important of all, I leave on time on Tuesdays to take my son to taekwondo. It’s a relatively small thing but, like Nigel Slater’s Fridays, it has huge symbolic significance for me. Nine times out of ten I make it home in time to get to the class. But the other one in ten is an epic fail by me. After all, as TS Eliot wrote in The Confidential Clerk: “If you haven’t the strength to impose your own terms upon life, then you must accept the terms it offers you.”

Wow!

 

I’ve just been alerted to the genius of this new Virgin interactive video thingy by Mother New York (cheers K-Mac). It’s a corking mash-up of clever technology and brilliantly crafted mentalism which simultaneously manages to do a totally direct sales job. The blink recognition thing is cool but the way the VO keeps flowing seamlessly across the various different videos is mind-blowing. The video above is a trailer for the experience. Click here to be ‘BlinkWashed’. Seriously impressive stuff.

The Seinfeld Method

 

Right back at the start of my career, I worked with some ultra-talented peers, Kenn MacRae, Dennis Koutoulogenis and Pat Richer. It’s absolutely no surprise to me that these dudes have all gone on to brilliant and diverse award-winning achievements around the world, in various areas of creativity. Back in the day, we were advertising freaks with little else in our lives beyond cracking the next brief.

Working long into the night on most evenings, we used a method inspired by Edward De Bono. It involved going through every style of ad, one at a time, and thinking of those kind of ads for the brief in hand. The media landscape was simpler in those days and often we’d just be coming up with a script or a press ad. We’d read up on the product and the audience, chat about the proposition, then get into each ad style. Demonstration ads. Comparison ads. Extreme exaggeration of the product benefit. Straight headline, funny visual. Funny headline, straight visual. ‘Swapsies’ (visual analogies). And so on. It was a great way to get lots of ideas down but looking back on it, it was pretty executional.

We did some good ads but it was rare that we’d crack something great. The closest was when we got to the last of our ad styles – observational insight-based ads. To come up with these, we used what we called ‘The Seinfeld Method’. Inspired by the stand-up sections at the start and end of ‘Seinfeld’, this involved shining an observational beam on the product and the audience. Looking at people’s behaviours around the category and how the product interacted with their lives. Although it was invariably more difficult and less fruitful in terms of quantity than the other styles of ads, this was always the richest area. In retrospect, The Seinfeld Method was really the only method. When I think about it, pretty much all of the other kinds of ads, from visual pun to long copy, leveraged an insight we came up with using this method. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel as though every great ad feels like a ‘Seinfeld Method’ ad. Some, like Guinness ‘Surfer’ or VW ‘Snowplough’, use an observation that comes directly out of the product; others, like the sweet and funny Flora ad above, leverage an observation about human behaviour tacked onto a product message. Both can be good, but if the observation resonates, the first kind of ad tends to be really powerful.

“Having cancer was worth it because I got to know you”

 

I’ve been reading a lot about Steve McQueen’s new film, 12 Years A Slave. It looks brilliant and apparently it’s absolutely nailed on for a sackful of Oscars. But one of the things that’s struck me most about the press coverage is that everyone involved seems so thrilled to have been a part of it and so humble about its potential success. Brad Pitt, who’s the executive producer and also stars in it said, “If I never get to participate in a film again, this is it for me. It was a privilege.”

This got me thinking about my own work. And whether I’ve ever done anything I’m so proud of that I’d be happy to walk away from advertising and have it as the thing I’m remembered by. The answer right now is a resounding ‘no.’ I’m hugely proud of a lot of things I’ve done but I love the idea of my best work being in front of me. Achievements are soon forgotten, time marches on and today’s news is tomorrow’s fish ‘n’ chip paper.

In the Mike Leigh film Naked, the unforgettable Johnny asks at one point, “Have you ever thought that you may have already lived the happiest moment in your whole fuckin’ life and all you have left to look forward to is fuckin’ sickness and purgatory?” Which may be one of the most depressing ideas I’ve ever heard. I prefer to take the late, great Joe Strummer’s perspective, which is that the past is gone, ahead of us is pure potential – “The future is unwritten.” The bar I’ve set for myself is so high that I can’t be sure I’ll ever reach it, but I like it that way. It keeps me hungry and honest. And pushing forward in the quest to do something as brave, beautiful and inspiring as the ad above, one day very soon.

Is every brief an opportunity?

Everyone wants to work on the sexy briefs. The big brand campaigns, the cool technology projects, the awards opportunities. But what takes up a big percentage of time for most of us is the less sexy stuff, the ‘bronze’ briefs. It’s hard to get excited about working on a banner ad, retail poster, internal video, whatever. They don’t look like opportunities. They suck up time that could be spent on something juicier, with more obvious potential. And often there are so many things to squeeze into a comparatively small space that there’s no room for an idea.

But…maybe this brief’s not the turd you think it is. Before you employ the ‘bash it out as quickly as possible and move on’ approach, ask yourself a few questions. Are you sure there’s no potential in this job? If a team like Walter Campbell and Tom Carty got given this brief, could they do something with it? And, is the other brief that you’ve heard is floating around the department really a better opportunity? Experience has shown me that when you sit around waiting for the dream brief it never actually comes. Or when it does, you’re off that day or you fuck it up or the client doesn’t like your idea or someone else cracks it or whatever.

I’m not saying that every brief is an opportunity to do great work. But I do think every brief is an opportunity. To impress your CD, perhaps. Or your partner. Or to help the account director out. Or do the project manager a favour. Or lighten the load of another team who’ll return the favour some time. Or to learn something about something that might be helpful to you somewhere, some day. I know it’s bloody difficult trying to lovingly craft a staff room poster or do something interesting with a wobbler. And I know there doesn’t always seem to be room for much creativity. But if Matt Groening can squeeze one of the funniest Simpsons jokes ever into 10 seconds, I’m sure we can squeeze a decent idea into a banner ad.