“If you’re going through Hell…keep going.”

 

I drove past The Flavour of India in Edgecliff (Sydney) the other day. It’s the restaurant where the late INXS singer/songwriter Michael Hutchence had his last meal in 1997 before he tragically died in a hotel room down the road in Double Bay. It got me thinking about Hutchence and the heartbreakingly poignant U2 song, Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of which Bono wrote for and about Hutchence.

The song is creativity driven by pain, a rare and powerful blend of beauty and anger. Bono’s lyrics are based on a conversation he wishes he’d had with Hutchence in which he tries to talk him out of suicide. “It’s a row between mates, you’re kinda trying to wake them up out of an idea…a row I didn’t have when he was alive”, said Bono. When he sings “You gotta stand up straight/Carry your own weight/Cause tears are going nowhere baby”, you can feel his rage at Hutchence for letting himself get weighed down by the shitty stuff and slip under into the darkness. The anger gives way to sadness and frustration at the waste of such an extraordinary life when we get to: “I will not forsake the colours that you bring, the nights you filled with fireworks, they left you with nothing.” But the verse ends with a flicker of hope at the idea that Hutchence’s spirit will live on in his friends’ hearts: “I am still enchanted by the light you brought to me, I listen through your ears, through your eyes I can see.”

Bono has also said about the song, “I feel the biggest respect I could pay to him was not to write some stupid soppy song so I wrote a really tough, nasty little number, slapping him around the head.” But although that’s true of the words, the magic essence of the song is its gospel-tinged melodies and The Edge’s lovely guitar part. These seemingly incongruous elements combine to create something transcendent, an anti-suicide, anti-giving-in anthem that’s helped many a struggling soul through many a dark night. At its bleakest it warns that “It’s a long way down to nothing at all”. But the beating heart of the song, the brilliantly inspirational theme is the simple message that no matter how bad things get, “It’s just a moment, this time will pass.”

“In the slip of a bolt there’s a tiny revolt…”

 

I’ve just moved from London to Sydney. While I’m still getting used to the humid weather, vicious mosquitoes and startling friendliness, things are going well so far. I have some amazing family and friends over here who’ve gone out of their way to welcome me, help me acclimatise and get me up to speed with the local lingo (I now know that you don’t smoke a ‘Bondi cigar’). So, on an Antipodean tip, I thought I’d use this post to pay tribute to one of the greatest living Australians, the songwriter, actor and atheist troublemaker Tim Minchin.

I’m a fan of his wordy, witty cabaret songs and poems, stuff like Storm, If I Didn’t Have You and White Wine in the Sun. But I want to focus on his work on the ground-breaking RSC musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Have you seen it? I really can’t recommend it highly enough. The blending of Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics with Dennis Kelly’s writing and Matthew Warchus’s direction to tell the story of a bullied schoolgirl who develops Carrie-like powers is absolutely extraordinary.

Despised and unwanted by her parents and subject to the violent whims of the sadistic headmistress Mrs Turnbull, Matilda escapes into books and stories. The show is about the anarchy of childhood and the power of words and ideas to inspire you to take control of your own destiny. It’s a kids’ story with typically nutso Dahl humour but, like much of his writing, from The Twits to Danny Champion of the World, it’s extremely dark.

Matilda’s theme of changing your circumstances and shaping your own life is fascinatingly reflected in the backstory of Tim Minchin’s involvement with the show. Back in the ’90s, as a lifelong fan of the book, he wrote to the Roald Dahl Estate asking for permission to create a musical version. He wasn’t a ‘name’ at that point and the Dahl family asked him to submit a completed script for them to consider. Unwilling/unable to take on such a big project without being paid, he let it go and moved on. A decade later, knowing nothing of this, Matthew Warchus was looking for someone to write the songs for the RSC’s planned adaptation of Matilda and happened to catch the now moderately-successful and well known Tim Minchin’s show. He decided on the spot that Minchin was the man for the job and approached him with an offer. Minchin jumped at the chance and the rest I history.

After opening in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010 Matilda transferred to London in 2011 and won a record-breaking seven Olivier awards. It subsequently opened on Broadway in Spring 2013 and picked up four TONYs and has been described as “The best British musical of all time.” For me, it’s definitely one of the greatest works of creativity in any medium over the last ten years. And further to that, I reckon that both the story of Matilda and the story of Tim Minchin’s involvement in the show offer salutary lessons in the importance of working your arse off, plugging away, playing by your own rules and making your own luck. Or as Matilda herself puts it in Minchin’s Naughty: “But nobody else is gonna put it right for me/Nobody but me is going to change my story/Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty!”

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

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The legendary (ex-)boxing anti-hero Mike Tyson has always had a touch of the philosopher about him. Back in is early 20s when he tore through the heavyweight division like a hormonal tornado, he worshipped Jack Dempsey and talked of throwing “good punches with bad intentions.” Years later, after he’d done time for rape, converted to Islam, been declared bankrupt and lost his daughter in a tragic accident, he spoke of his love of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and his sadness at being “old too soon and wise too late.”

Tyson’s now 47 and he’s been battling drug addiction and money troubles for many years. He’s clearly an intelligent bloke but he fucks up on a depressingly regular basis. In a recent interview he sounded near to rock bottom, talking about being “close to death”. Having followed his career and life after boxing closely, I’ve always wondered how he lurches from one tragedy to the next without seeming to glean some wisdom from the wreckage and put together a plan for survival, some form of stability, even happiness. But he answered that conundrum for me with the brutally insightful quote at top of this blog. He was talking about why no-one had been able to beat him for a long time in his early career. But I wonder if he might have also been subconsciously referring to the bitter failures of his later life.

I’m a very focused person but the idea of being knocked off course resonates with me. Tyson’s quote reminds me that while it’s great to be focused, it’s also important to be prepared for the unexpected – whether that’s getting punched in the face by a heavyweight psychopath or sustaining a bruised ego during the rejection of a creative idea – and to have a plan B, C and even D. Because the thing that often hurts most about a plan going tits-up is that, just like a lightning right hook from the young Mike Tyson, we don’t see it coming.

Get a reaction

 

One of the biggest mistakes the advertising industry makes is thinking that anyone cares about our work. Assuming that the general public is sitting around passively waiting for us to share our creative genius with them. They’re not. Why would they? They’re busy getting on with their lives. Chatting. Facebooking. Putting the kettle on. Going to the loo. Checking their email. Trying to get to the next level of Candy Crush. Watching porn on the internet.

People are hard-wired to filter out advertising messages. Their default mode is to ignore everything we do. To stand any chance at all of getting a message through our work needs to be bold enough to get noticed and outrageous enough to get a reaction. Whether it’s a nod of agreement, a laugh, a ‘wow!’ or even a shiver of disgust, some form of emotional reaction means your message is on their radar.

That’s exactly what this Doritos ad from this year’s Crash The Super Bowl campaign does. Most people’s reaction to it is “Eeeeeeuuuurgh!” but that’s a good thing. It gets your attention with the weird vibe, offbeat casting and dreamlike pacing. Lands the message that Doritos are tastier than other cheesy snacks with the “It only works with Doritos” line. And with the creepy wrongness of the Finger Cleaner idea it gets a visceral reaction that ensures memorability/talkability. Top work, brilliantly ikky, wish I’d done it.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

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Next Friday I’m moving from London to Sydney. I’m really excited! There’s a whole array of reasons for my move, but one of the big things for me is the desire to stay fresh. There’s a lot to be said for finding your groove, seeking steady growth in pursuit of your goals. There is also, however, a time for radical action, big leaps, fundamental change. The trick is knowing which is the right time for which…and taking appropriate action.

For me, one of the key challenges is that change can be scary while the status quo feels nice and comfy. To make sure I manned-up and didn’t get bogged down in the quicksand of indecision, I applied the 40-70 Rule, made famous by Colin Powell: “You never make a decision with less than 40% of the information. But you never wait until you have more than 70% of the information.” If you act with less than 40%, you’re shooting from the hip and could make a mistake. If you wait for more than 70% the opportunity may pass and someone else could beat you to the punch.

Also, off the back of a few chats I’ve had with readers of this blog, I’ve realised that I’m far more terrified of the potential regret I’ll feel at the end of my life if I don’t do stuff than I am of doing the stuff itself. The momentary fear of taking a leap into the unknown now is nothing compared to the existential custard pie in the face that’s waiting for me if I don’t Get Shit Done.

The other big challenge is making sure you’re acting for the right reasons. Dave Trott wrote a great blog post on this entitled It’s Not OK To Leave Until It’s OK To Stay in which he talked about the importance of running towards things rather than away from things. “By just running away from things you never look where you’re going,” he said. It feels great to be so excited about the life I’m running towards!

I remember the sense of shock around the country in 1997 when Eric Cantona unexpectedly quit football aged 30, having just won the Premiership for the fourth time. He’d been one of the most successful players ever at arguably the most successful football club in the history of the game. And there was more to come. But he’d gone stale. Many years later, asked for an autograph, he signed a kid’s football shirt with the legend “Ne jamais perdre sa passion! Ou s’en éloigner vite.” (Never lose your passion, or if you do, get away quickly.) He needed something which was going to excite him as much as football once had. That something was acting. Although he’d had no formal training whatsoever, he was passionate about cinema and the way he saw the world was very filmic. Critics told him he should have stuck to what he’s good at, that he was starting from scratch and he’d never be as good at acting as he was at football. Cantona, in typically philosophical style, replied with a phrase that’s been echoing around my mind this week as I pack my house up in preparation for my move: “He who is afraid to throw the dice will never throw a six.”