Setting the bar too low

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I saw the revival of Jez Butterworth’s infamous play Mojo last night. It’s a spellbinding mash-up of Pinter, Mamet and Tarantino, by turns thrilling, shocking, perplexing and, mind-blowing. In part, this is down to the world class acting and Ian Rickson’s phenomenal production. But at the heart of the show – as with Butterworth’s more famous play, Jerusalem – is the writing. He’s a master craftsman of writing for the stage, his words somehow simultaneously sharp and rambling, precise and free-wheeling, almost out-of-control but always nailing the human condition from an unexpected angle.

I’ve written on here before about creative ambition. Last night was another reminder for me that working in advertising, we’re constantly in danger of thinking too small, of subconsciously limiting our creative possibilities. I spend my life coming up with ideas, crafting them and helping other people develop them. I like to think I’m a creative person. But when I’m confronted by real creativity, by genuinely bold, fearless, risk-taking ideas and craft, I’m humbled. It makes me feel as though advertising talks the talk but only real art walks the walk. I went home dazed, absolutely sure of only one thing: I’ve been setting the creative bar too low.

Ads ain’t art. A press campaign’s not a novel and branded content on the internet isn’t a play. But. Isn’t the point of all creative endeavours to use ideas and craft skills to move people in some way? To make them question their preconceptions and perhaps change their minds? Butterworth’s writing does all of this and more. His use of vocabulary is extraordinary. Even simple descriptions somehow make you change the way you see the world (in Mojo, a pair of loafers are described as “baby fuckin’ buckskin, hand-stitched by elves.”) Characters are drawn so powerfully and the situations they’re put in are so hyper-real that when they drop Butterworth’s word-bombs you don’t know whether to laugh or cry (when a just-bereaved character said, “There’s nothing like someone cutting your dad in two for clearing the mind” a ripple of gasps and giggles went around the theatre).

While they’re vastly different plays, Jerusalem had exactly the same inspiring/humbling effect on me.  To borrow a phrase from the central character, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, that “alcoholic bucolic frolic” was so brilliantly written that it felt to me that Butterworth had captured the pure essence of what it means to be English in a single show. Not something I’d say about any ads I’ve seen recently. And while you might say this is an unfair comparison, that ads simply aren’t a relevant forum to explore social issues and deep human insights with wit, wisdom and stylistic flair, I’d argue that’s is exactly what we should be doing. This ad did it, so did this ad and this one.

I think of great art like Jez Butterworth’s work as nourishment for the soul, inspiration for creativity, a kick up the arse to craft more, to be better. It reminds me that to be a writer – whether of plays, prose or press ads – is a difficult but wonderful thing, a privilege and badge of honour I need to work harder at to deserve.

Be naïve

 

The other day, we got the legendary creative director/social campaigner/provocateur Trevor Robinson in to talk to us about his career. It was fascinating to have him talk us through some of his work and explain his approach to creativity and the advertising industry.

The main thing that came across was that he’s in it for the work, not his ego. It’s rare and refreshing for someone so accomplished, who’s achieved so many things – from creating iconic ads to founding his own agency to helping steer kids away from gangs and into the creative industries to receiving an OBE – to be so down to earth. He talked about the fact that so many people in advertising have such huge confidence and how that’s not the only way to be: “You get people like <advertising legend> who clearly have this unshakeable inner belief…they’re so sure they’re right…but I’ve never been like that…I’ve actually never been completely happy with anything I’ve ever done.

We talked about the fact that even today, nearly 20 years after some of it was created, some of his best stuff seems so bold and fresh (like his Apple Tango ad, above). I asked him how some of his best work came about and he said a lot of it was to do with not playing the game because he didn’t know the rules back then. “I didn’t realise how naïve I was…and that kind of helped.”

It reminded me of a bit in the comedian Frank Skinner’s autobiography when, having seen his first ever stand-up comedy show – at the Edinburgh Festival –  Skinner decided on the spot that he was going to be a comedian. But rather than starting by writing some jokes and doing some open mic try-out nights, he immediately spent his life savings booking a venue for an hour slot at the following year’s Edinburgh Festival. The process of getting to the point where you put on a successful show at the Edinburgh Festival normally takes between three and six years, sometimes much longer. Skinner was blissfully unaware of this. “I was going to do the hour show having never worked as a professional comic in my life. Not because I was brave, but because I didn’t know any better.” Not knowing the way it was supposed to be done, Skinner muddled through and became a phenomenal success doing it his own way.

By talking about how their naivety had paid off for them, both Trevor Robinson and Frank Skinner reminded me that sometimes it’s good to come at situations from a position of ignorance – whether real or consciously taken on – rather than one of knowing everything (or thinking you do). With less knowledge comes less assumptions, preconceptions, barriers and, often, fear. And less of those means fresher, braver work.

This is so beautiful

 

One of the best songs ever written, performed by one of the greatest artists of all time. This brings back wonderful memories of seeing Springsteen in New Jersey towards end of the Devils and Dust tour when he first started playing this song. That night he said thank you to the audience for coming and a few words about New Jersey and shook a few hands, then sat down at a pedal organ alone and finished with a 15 minute trance-like version which kept rising and building, rising and building until it felt like some kind of transcendental spiritual experience. It was acoustic acid house – one of the most out there, punk rock things I’ve ever seen. So I’m really chuffed that Dream Baby Dream is going to be on the new album.

This is a less out-there version but the crazed mantra-like yearning of the song still shines through. And the brilliantly simple video features so many great shots of fans and players that perfectly capture the life-enhancing essence of a Springsteen show. The message at 4.40 should be cheesy but it feels so genuine and powerful. And the shot of The Big Man at 4.47 is a perfect tribute. Beautiful stuff.

Craziest Cat Compilation ever…with a twist in the tail!!!

We’ve had some fun with the internet’s favourite subject…LOL, ROFL, LMAO, etc! Check out our feline extravaganza and please share the link with your friends, colleagues and cat-loving aunties: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nok7h8kON8c

Thanks!

 

“Don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them.”

 

Do you know the Jackson Browne song These Days? I first discovered it via the Nico cover version which was used in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece, The Royal Tenenbaums and it’s been a favourite of mine since then. For one reason and another, it’s been the soundtrack to the last couple of weeks for me.

Letting the wisdom and world weariness of the words and playing wash over me, it seems mind-boggling that Jackson Browne wrote this when he was 16. The idea that a teenager could somehow capture exactly how I feel at 41 is strange and uncanny. When he sings, Now if I seem to be afraid to live the life I have made in song/Well it’s just that I’ve been losing so long” he seems to have summed up in a few lines the essence of being human and being afraid to move forwards. And when he sings, “These days I sit on cornerstones and count the time in quarter-tones to ten”, it cuts straight to my soul like an injection of pure emotion.

As with many artists that people write off as ‘depressing’, from Leonard Cohen to Nick Drake to The Smiths, despite the downbeat lyrics and melancholy guitar sound, there’s a crack of light in there. While the whole thing is soaked in regret and the sadness of wasted possibilities, there’s an intuitive almost-optimism towards the end – “Things are bound to be improving these days.” A sense of healing, making peace with the past, moving on. Thank you, Jackson Browne, for the utterly sublime writing of this truly beautiful song.

Right, I’ll be back to banging on about ads tomorrow, promise!

Just do it

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I’ve been following the controversy about David Dimbleby getting a tattoo at 75. Although on the surface it’s quite a trivial story, the Question Time presenter’s tat seems to have sparked a national debate about what comprises appropriate behaviour for OAPs, with passionate voices both for and against the scorpion on his shoulder. “I have always wanted a tattoo,” said Dimbleby. “I thought I might as well have it done now. It’s a dream come true.”

In one interview, a tattoo artist said, “I’ve tattooed people in their mid-70s. I love it. What I seem to notice is that they all say the same thing: ‘I’ve wanted this for years, but I was never sure it was a good idea.’ So having the tattoo, it’s like watching them break free of everything, and realise the time has come to do what they want to do.”

That sense of ‘the time has come’ has been on my mind this week with the news that my old friend Pat Richer has been murdered, aged just 39 (see post below). I’m struggling right now to get my head around this tragedy but it has given me a much-needed kick up the arse. I’ve always been a fan of impatience. The whole concept of ‘waiting’ seems to me to imply you’re OK with allowing priceless seconds, minutes, hours, days of your life slip through your fingers like grains of sand. Sod that.

In Chris Evans’ brilliant autobiography, he talks about his father’s death being “like the starter pistol going off in my life.” I always remember a piece of advice Dave Trott gave to Graham Fink when he was trying to get his first job. Fink had been to shedloads of interviews without any success. Starting to get desperate, he went to see Dave Trott and asked what he should do. Dave responded with one word: “Panic.” I love the way that this is the exact opposite of what society usually tells us to do. The received wisdom is to not panic, to stay calm, to be patient and polite, to wait and see. But – as the tragic news about Pat reminded me this week – there simply isn’t time for that. Whether we want to think about it or push it to the back of our consciousness, the sobering reality is that our time on this planet is inescapably finite. A sense of urgency is vital.

So whether it’s getting a tattoo or changing jobs, starting a creative project or finishing a project, reaching out to an old friend or changing the direction of your life in some scary, fundamental way – sod waiting for the right time/right circumstances/right person to give you permission. JFDI. Today. Now. As Bob Dylan – a man who knows a thing or two about getting stuff done – once sung ominously, “It’s not dark yet/But it’s getting there.”

Fuck the world

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Apologies for the sweary, negative title but I heard late last night that my good old friend, the creative director Pat Richer, has been taken from us. He was brutally murdered in Nairobi by a gang of evil arseholes who broke into his house to burgle it. The life of a talented, passionate, kind-hearted creative one-off taken for a telly, a mobile phone and a couple of laptops. For fuck’s sake. When I got the news from another old friend, Pat’s old partner Dennis Koutoulogenis, I wanted to bash my head against a wall at the sheer senselessness of it. The idiotic pointlessness, the grim fucked-upness.

As I sat up late last night drinking scotch and swapping emails with mutual friends, I thought back to the days when I was a young copywriter at VCD Sydney. We were intensely focused and lived for work; at the time it had sometimes seemed tough and confusing, but Pat’s massive heart, relentless energy and daft sense of humour had often kept us going. Working with him and Matt Sherring on ads for the Canterbury Bulldogs was always a proper laugh, even when it was past midnight, we hadn’t cracked the brief yet and the presentation was in the morning. Pat loved life, loved his job and loved to live in the moment. Working sessions could turn into all-night piss-ups and not a day went by when he didn’t invent some mental new insult for me along the lines of “You useless lightweight English babe repellent softcock loser.”  Matt summed him up perfectly: “He was like a young puppy who was so mischievous but you just had to love him.” It’s only in retrospect that I realise these were some of the happiest days of my life.

I returned to London in 1997 and Pat came to visit me a couple of times before he went off on his African adventure. He spent almost 10 years over there and, sadly, I was hardly in touch with him at all over the last decade. And now the stupidity of losing touch with him is coming home to me. I wish I’d reached out to him; now it’s too late.

Although these days I think of myself as a positive person, today I feel low, angry, powerless. So sad to live in a world where people are driven by the circumstances of their lives and the darkness in their hearts to commit such vile, inhuman crimes. I think about the paltry amount of booze or drugs those ten murderers are going to buy for themselves once they’ve shared out the blood money from the robbery between them. Pathetic.

I’m sorry for all the negativity. I know with time the dark cloud will pass but right now the shitiness and random evil of it just seems to negate all the love in the world. For now, the best I can do is to say, Goodbye Pat. I’ll really miss you, mate. You made some big hits and crunching tackles. Now it’s time for bed. And to remember these lines from Philip Larkin’s poem, The Mower: “The first day after a death/the new absence/Is always the same/We should be careful of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time.”