Getting it wrong

 

I went to see Malcolm Gladwell talk the other night. He was speaking about themes he covers in his new book, David and Goliath, a study of ‘underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants’. He talked us brilliantly through a number of diverse stories and anecdotes, each one offering a different angle on the conundrum of what drives certain people to rise up against opposing forces of seemingly far greater strength/numbers/resources. Each of them backed up Gladwell’s theory – in a surprising way – that “as much can be learned or gained from adversity as from advantage…you can succeed because of your shortcomings”.

But for me, the most interesting part of the evening was Gladwell’s look at a key incident in Northern Ireland that exacerbated The Troubles. The Falls Curfew, also known as ‘The Rape of Lower Falls’ took place in July 1970 in an area along the Falls Road in Belfast. The operation started with a weapons search but quickly developed into gun battles between British soldiers and the IRA. Shortly after the violence began, the British commanding officer in Northern Ireland, General Ian Freeland, imposed a curfew, which lasted 36 hours. During the curfew, over 3,000 British Army troops went into the area with tanks and trucks. No-one was allowed in or out of their home and every house in the area was searched from top to bottom. Four civilians were killed by the British Army, at least 75 people were wounded (including 15 soldiers) and 300 republicans were arrested. On the morning of 5th July, an eerie calm came over the area and General Freeland lifted the curfew. He then triumphantly drove groups of politicians and journalists around the silent, deserted streets proudly announcing that he’d stopped the violence and solved all of the problems. At that moment, he believed it was a case of ‘job done’ and the British Army would be returning home shortly. In fact, what he’d actually done was fan the flames of alienation and ignite a violent rebellion which would see the British Army remain in Northern Ireland for a further 30 years with thousands of casualties on all sides.

In a strange way this story reminded me of an incident Russell Brand recounted in his second autobiography. At a Morrissey concert in the Camden Roundhouse, Brand was sitting alongside Jonathan Ross, David Walliams and an attractive young ladyfriend. The gig started but Morrissey wasn’t well and, after a couple of songs, he had to go off stage unable to continue. The crowd got restless and chanted loudly for Morrissey to come back. Brand, Ross and Walliams decided to help smooth out the situation by going onstage to let the audience know what was going on and doing a bit of stand up comedy to cheer everyone up. As you can see from the video above, this didn’t go down well. The crowd turned on them, booing loudly, chanting for them to piss off and throwing stuff. Something hit Walliams in the face and all three of them had to slip off, tails between their legs, utterly humiliated. As Brand tells it in his book, to this day his soul shudders with shame and embarrassment when he recalls the screams of ‘Fuck Off!’ and the thought of his ladyfriend witnessing his complete humiliation.

Both stories reminded me that often we are most wrong at the point at which we mistakenly believe we are most right. Gladwell argued that the British were plagued by a simple error: the belief that their superior resources meant “it did not matter what the people of Northern Ireland thought of them.” Brand, off the back of several successes, thought he could work his magic in front of any crowd. And because self-induced cock-ups like this can be awful, embarrassing, difficult to live down, I think they’re excellent – if extremely sobering – reminders to, as Ice Cube put it, “Check yo self before you wreck yo self”. To try to keep an objective eye on ourselves – especially in our supposed moments of glory – and remember that it’s when confidence tips over into arrogance that disaster strikes.

Keep warm, make trouble

 

A depressingly high percentage of contemporary advertising is bland, instantly forgettable bollocks, designed not to draw attention to itself. Flicking through any newspaper or enduring any commercial break, you can smell the fear coming off this work, the desperation to conform to sector stereotypes, tropes and clichés. The mind boggles at the money and man-hours wasted on creating such anonymous corporate drivel.

However, the occasional gem shines through, the work of those rare agencies and brand managers willing to take risks, to stick their heads above the parapet. To concoct something resembling an interesting point of view on the world and their brand’s place in it, then articulate this view in a stylish/intriguing/funny/moving/clever/ inspiring/shocking way. To zig when the world zags, as BBH famously put it.

Crispin Porter and Paddy Power are one such partnership. Since the ‘Chav Tranquilizer’ ad a couple of years ago, the ‘responses to fans’ social media posts’ campaign has been consistently bold, provocative and ‘how-the-fuck-did-they-get-away-with-that?!’ funny. And with the latest execution, the ‘Taser’ ad above, they’ve outdone themselves. Daft, shocking and absolutely hilarious, it’s sure to inspire moral outrage, legal action and an outright ban. Which, in my book, is a very good thing. As Oscar Wilde said, “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”

While the competition is stuck in a seemingly infinite recycling of the same old tosh, Paddy Power stands out a mile. It has a unique tone of voice in the sector, each gloriously silly ad/stunt gets acres of newspaper headlines and it’s the campaign that every taxi driver/bloke down the pub mentions when the subject gets onto advertising. With each new execution, it feels like they’re pushing to see how far they can go. Good on them. This is ad of the year so far, by a country mile. “One in the bum, no harm done”, indeed.

Stay open

 

In terms of emotional resonance, not many things come close to the music that touches and shapes each of us in our teenage years. That’s why, for me, The Smiths will always be the greatest band that ever lived. I’ve written a lot on here about the life-changing power of creativity; the combination of Morrissey’s words with Johnny Marr’s guitar are a wonderful example of this. Individually outstanding but utterly magical together, their music has always moved me in ways I find extremely difficult to put into words. The adjectives I reach for always seem corny, trite, inadequate. Suffice to say, these songs give my life more layers of meaning.

I Won’t Share You (above), has always been my favourite song from my favourite Smiths album, Strangeways, Here We Come. Most Smiths fans look at me as though I’ve just told them that I’m a Creationist or, more bonkers still, that I think the Daily Mail is a quality newspaper when I tell them this. But one man does agree with me – in his brilliant Autobiography, Morrissey calls Strangeways The Smiths’ masterpiece.

The sublime beauty of I Won’t Share You is in its simplicity, it’s subtlety. The words are somehow both direct and oblique at the same time. Is it about an unrequited lover? Is it about Johnny Marr? Or both? Or neither. As ever with Morrissey’s lyrics, it’s impossible to say. And the stringed accompaniment is disconcertingly lovely. Johnny Marr had been wanting to move away from his ‘jingle-jangle’ guitar sound and had been listening to The Beatles’ White Album a lot. In Autobiography, Morrissey tells a wonderful story about how Marr came up with the riff:

“A window ledge in a forgotten corner of Wool Hall Studios showcases a peculiar stringed instrument from 1777, which Johnny instantly grabs – ‘Oh, let’s see how this sounds’ – and, by second run-through, he can play the oddly stringed lyre that has no sound hole. The strings are possibly horsehair, and there is a barely usable tuning bar, but the sound Johnny finds is mesmerizing, and the song I Won’t Share You is alive. It is a fascinating moment when Johnny’s inner ear leads the way to somewhere unknown – somewhere mistrusted by all until the final depth of thought strikes.”

This is, for me, a textbook case of creativity in full flow. The idea of being on a roll, alive to possibilities, unafraid to fail, creating almost instinctively. It’s a beautifully inspiring reminder about the power of spontaneity. And the idea that great creative opportunities are always out there, waiting for us, whispering to us. We just need to stay open to them.

“This is the game that moves as you play.”

 

All the way from the very first inkling of an idea to the final touches of production, we’re making choices. About what kind of idea it should be and what the right tone of voice is. About who will see and interact with the idea and where and how. About headlines, photographers, directors, casting, styling, VO, music. And so on. It’s an almost infinite array of ongoing conceptual, practical, stylistic and logistical choices. Which need to be made at speed, in the moment, often under pressure. “This is the game that moves as you play”, as the seminal LA punk band X memorably/ominously sang in The Have Nots.

Perhaps ‘talent’ is the ability to navigate this forest of choices and come out at the other end in the right place. (The ‘right place’ being the best possible piece of creative work you were capable of on that particular brief.) Or perhaps that’s experience. Or maybe it’s both. Whatever the case, I’m sure most people reading this will have experienced the heart-breaking feeling of producing a piece of work whose finished execution didn’t live up to its potential as an idea. It’s happened to me a few times. On a couple of occasions, the reality hasn’t even come close to what I’d originally imagined. But I think possibly the saddest examples of this phenomenon of unachieved potential are when the work is almost there but not quite. Good but not great. Close but no Hamlet.

The ad above is a perfect example. The script would’ve have been amazing to read. It’s a brilliant idea with the potential to move and inspire. A thought-provoking concept with a bold, inherently anti-materialistic edge. And it uses an iconic sporting legend to bring it to life. The hairs on the back of your neck should be standing up as you watch it. And they are…but not fully. For me, there’s a few stylistic and narrative elements where I think it perhaps could’ve been done differently.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here in hindsight and pick holes in something that’s really good. I’d love to have this ad in my portfolio…but I do think it could’ve been better. The team clearly had huge ambitions for it. The VO is almost perfectly crafted; the casting and performances are mostly spot on; the use of Handel’s Sarabande is inspired. But I think the fact that it’s ended up as an 8.5 out of 10 when it could have been a 10 out of 10 says something about the difficulty –impossibility, maybe – of making the right choices all the way down the line.

Not as shit as that really shit ad but still a little bit shit

 

Remember that really shit Andrex ad? The one that urged us to get involved in a national debate about how we wipe our arses? The one that was as unoriginal as it was inane? Well, a couple of months ago, Andrex sensibly moved on. Not content with sparking the great ‘scrunch or fold?’ debate, these brave, pioneering souls kicked off a campaign to stamp out one of society’s greatest ills. Is it racism? I hear you ask. Sexism, perhaps? Human trafficking? Poverty? No, no, no and no again. This is a subject far more pressing than those trifling social issues. Andrex are taking on the problem of – are you ready for this? – people not replacing the bog roll when it runs out. That’s right. They are, as Peter Finch memorably raged in Network, mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more. In fact, they’re so serious about stamping out this madness that they’ve created a name for it: ‘rollaphobia’. Know your enemy, eh? And, alongside the old chesnut of the public service spoof ad, they’ve created an online hub that will help you recognise the signs of this troubling epidemic.

Unlike ‘Scrunch or Fold?’, there’s a decent idea trying to get out here. It is annoying when people don’t replace a finished toilet roll. I’m sure we’ve all looked up from the sports pages/crossword/Grazia magazine to discover there’s no loo roll and cursed the person who didn’t get a new one out. However, that insight is lost among the twee XX-ripoff track and the annoying headmistress VO with its random intonations. But my main issue is that Andrex toilet roll isn’t the cure to rollaphobia – surely that’s getting people to replace the roll? (How about a little message on the cardboard tube along the lines of, ‘If you don’t replace me, a little fluffy bunny will die’?) Semantics maybe but if you’re going to set up a campaign against a national issue, surely you should have/be the answer? And while I’m getting quibbles off my chest, I reckon rollaphobia would be much less of a problem if the fucking Andrex puppy didn’t waste all that bog roll at the end.

Is it possible to run out of ideas?

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Working in any creative field, be it advertising, film, music, art, fashion or whatever else, ideas are currency. The quality and quantity of those ideas will be a (if not the) key factor in the success or otherwise of our careers. But what happens if we run out of ideas? Or – perhaps even worse, in a way – run out of good ideas?

It’s a scenario we see depressingly often. For example, Oasis’s first album included two of the greatest songs of the last 100 years, Live Forever and Slide Away. But their second album was middling and beyond that they fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. Similarly, at the start of her career Rachel Whiteread created the game-changing ‘House’. But while her PR might talk about a brave exploration of the concept of negative space, the rest of her career has basically been more executions of the same idea.

Why is it that this inertia affects some creative people while others evolve throughout their careers and produce a richly diverse body of work? For example, while Noel Gallagher has struggled creatively, his former nemesis Damon Albarn has created an extraordinary array of music across an amazing range of genres. In contemporary art, Jeremy Deller continues to build an astonishing body of work in all kinds of media. Philip Roth created outstanding work in his youth, his masterpiece – American Pastoral – mid-career and then an amazing run of brilliance at the end of his career. And an artist like Bob Dylan seems to have a creative tap that he can turn on at will, having spent more than five decades putting out masterpieces across almost every musical genre. “I’m just a song and dance man,” he once said. But he’s clearly a phenomenally prolific ideas man, too.

Is hard work the key? Can habit help us – does having ideas beget more ideas? Or do we all have a pre-ordained number of good ideas inside us? And why do they seem to come easier to some people while the rest of us have to bust our arses for them? The frustratingly elusive answer lies somewhere in the middle of these questions. And there’s a clue hidden in the infamous exchange between Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen in the ’80s. Dylan said to Cohen, “I like your song Hallelujah. How long did that take you to write?” Cohen replied, “Oh, the best part of two years.” Then they started talking about a Dylan song called I And I. Cohen said, “How long did you take to write that?” Dylan laughed and said, “Oh, about 15 minutes.”

Actually, if you’re in advertising…don’t kill yourself

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Instead, redress your karmic balance by doing something amazing with your creativity. Something life-enhancing and world-changing. Like this fucking brilliant idea from Matt Dimmer, a creative director in Denver.

In autumn 2011, his dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He lived in Los Angeles at the time, and his dad lived in Michigan; he’d travel home about once a month to spend time with his dad in his final days. Throughout these trips he thought, “I wonder how many people are in this situation but aren’t here, because they don’t have a credit card to put those flights on? Your dad is dying and he tells you that you grew up to be the man that he had hoped. I just couldn’t imagine other people being denied that.”

He came up with the idea of collecting unused frequent flyer miles and distributing them to those who need help to visit their loved ones dying of cancer. Simple and beautifully compassionate, but not easy to set up. I imagine getting a decent ad out of the door is a piece of piss compared to the red tape and logistical brick walls involved with this. However, since he came up with The Extra Mile, Dimmer’s been a man on a mission, running around badgering his social network, investors, travel companies, charitable organisations – basically anyone and everyone who might be able to help. All while carrying on with his day job. He’s collected hundreds of thousands of unused miles and the idea is now up and running. His passion and determination are an inspiration.

Have a look at the website and, if you can, please donate your frequent flyer miles. But more importantly, have a think about ways you can enrich the world and make a difference with your creativity. I don’t believe in an afterlife but if there is one, you might even get a begrudging pat on the back from Bill Hicks.