“The only thing he cared about was everything.”

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One of my advertising heroes, George Lois, once said “the accurate measure of a human being is what he or she actually gets done.” By these standards, David Hieatt is doing OK so far. I imagine many readers of this blog will know of him. For those who don’t, he’s an ultra-inspiring bloke: a passionate builder of brands, maker of things and do-er of stuff.

Hieatt started out as a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi London. Working under Paul Arden for seven years, he learned from the master about turning obsessiveness into creative greatness. “The only thing he cared about was everything”, wrote Hieatt after Arden’s death.

He worked his way up to the board at Abbott Mead Vickers. But despite his successful advertising career, he had a passion for making his own stuff and left to set up Howies, the much loved organic and ethical clothes brand. He eventually sold Howies to Timberland, a decision he now regrets. He seems frustrated by where Timberland have taken the brand but he says, “It’s the past, and you can’t look back. The future is too exciting to be dwelling on the past.”

After Howies, Hieatt and his wife Clare set up The Do Lectures. It’s a kind of TED-style thing, but with one important difference: the talks don’t just make you think about things, they inspire and encourage you to get up and DO stuff.

Hieatt subsequently set up Hiut Denim in Cardigan Bay, Wales. The area has a history of denim making but the industry had closed down as a result of production being cheaper overseas. Hiut tapped back into the skillbase of the Cardigan area and got the industry up and running again, creating more jobs and some of the best jeans in the world. Jeans with a unique idea and philosophy behind them. Hiut Denim personalises their jeans and gives each of their jeans a story, a history. Hieatt believes that an artist should always sign their work, so each pair of jeans is signed by the people that helped make them. Each pair also comes with a ‘History Tag’: when you buy your jeans, you go to the website and register their unique number. Then you can upload pictures of where you went, what you did, who you did it with…to the HistoryTag website. So those memories get saved. And when you look back or pass the jeans on, the memories will live on with them. Lovely idea, eh? The jeans are very expensive, but you’re paying for amazing quality and the breadth of passion behind them.

Whether you’re a maker of ads, ornaments or IT systems, I urge you to read David Hieatt’s principles for making things – they’re packed with truth, insight, integrity and inspiration.

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The ‘old format/new twist’ method

 

 

Ever since I started in advertising I’ve been fascinated by methods for coming up with ideas. Edward De Bono is the daddy in this area and his Lateral Thinking and Six Thinking Hats were my Bibles during my early years in advertising. I was turned onto him by one of my first CDs, Siimon Reynolds, who was an obsessive student of ‘thinking systems’. Siimon taught me many practical ways of systematically focusing my mind on a brief to come up with solutions. At first, this felt too functional but, over time, I came to see that a methodical approach is essential when you need to deliver ideas meeting after meeting, day after day, week after week. And while there are limited formats for an idea, there are unlimited things you can do within those formats. Later, I came across similar thinking in other areas of creativity, such as Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots and Robert McKee’s Story.

I wrote a little while ago about ‘The Seinfeld Method’. The ad above – recently pointed out to me by my lovely new colleagues – is a great example of another way into a brief. Putting aside the fact that pay-day loan firms are heinous bloodsuckers, it uses what I call the ‘old format/new twist’ method, to great effect. The ‘old format’ is ‘If situation X occurs, product Y can help’. And while product Y is whatever it is, the ‘new twist’ comes in because the possibilities of what situation X could be are endless. Have some fun with that, sprinkle some executional magic dust over the casting and performances and, hey presto, you have an ultra-memorable ad that stands out a mile and gets people talking about it. Brilliant advertising. Top work, Clemenger BBDO Brisbane.

“Just what is it that you want to do?”

 

I noticed that legendary DJ/producer/remixer Andrew Weatherall is playing the Sydney Festival next week. It got me thinking about some of his finest moments, which inevitably led me to Primal Scream’s Loaded. The scene he sampled from The Wild Angels has got to be one of the most uplifting, energizing moments in movie history. Up there with iconic screw-the-system scenes from films like Network, Taxi Driver and The Wild Ones. But the thing I find most fascinating about this particular scene is the way you literally cannot watch it without hearing the opening strains of Loaded in your mind.

It’s amazing to think that the idea of sampling a piece of film dialogue onto a music track could create such an indelible cultural impact. And it makes me (jealously!) think about how incredible it’d be to create something that will resonate culturally pretty much forever. The buzz of knowing that you’ve achieved such alchemy must be beyond money, fame, passing kudos and awards. Top work, Andrew Weatherall, you’re a legend, you’re gonna live forever!

“YOU are the one who decides what defines you.”

If you haven’t already seen it, PLEASE watch this video. Lizzie Velasquez was born with a disease that stops her from ever gaining weight. She’s blind in one eye. When she was 11 years old she came across a You Tube video entitled The World’s Ugliest Woman – a silent eight second image of her. It had four million views. In the comments, among the heinous bile and hatred, someone had written “Lizzie, PLEASE just do the world a favour, put a gun to your head and kill yourself.”

In the video above, Lizzie says, “Am I going to let the people who called me a monster define me? Am I going to let the people who said  ‘Kill it with fire’ define me? No. I’m going to let my goals and my success and my accomplishments be the things that define me.”

I’m humbled and inspired by her bravery and wisdom. This is true beauty.

The best idea I’ve seen in Australia so far

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William Burroughs once called heroin “the ideal product… the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.” In a way, his words could apply to cigarettes. I think smoking is bloody stupid but, as an ex-smoker, I understand that it’s an addiction. I do, however, reserve a special hatred for cigarette companies: pure evil fuckers whose entire reason for being is to make money out of getting people to kill themselves.

I’ve worked on anti-smoking campaigns for about a decade. I’ve tried all kinds of angles, including the surprise factor, an inspirational tone, appealing to teenagers’ vanity and LOLZ – with varying degrees of success. The starting point for everything I’ve ever done is that smokers don’t want to hear what we have to say, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ways to smuggle the message onto their radar.

While in the UK we can’t even get plain packaging through because the Tory government is tucked up cosily in bed with the tobacco companies, in Australia that’s not the case. They don’t have plain packs over here, they’ve further: every pack is plastered with terrifying pictures of the results of smoking-related disease. And I don’t mean there’s a little picture like on packs in the UK – I mean all space on all packs is covered with rotting teeth/busted lungs/amputated limbs/people dying of cancer and the associated health warnings. The packs are usually kept in a closed cupboard but when the door is opened, as you can see above, the shelves are a grim display of fucked-up body parts. The imagery is a long way from the rugged independence of the Malboro Man or the sexily oblique intelligence of the Silk Cut campaign. And the ‘branding’ is limited to the name of the brand in a small, plain font.

I know from my previous work in this area that the shock/fear factor has limited effect. However, the Aussie initiative is working on two levels: it’s massively reducing the ‘cool factor’ around smoking while simultaneously landing the truth about cigarettes in simple words and pictures. In addition, the Aussies – who already have the second highest cigarette prices in the world – have pledged to raise the tax on cigarettes by 12.5% every year for the next five years. Great work, Australian government. Fuck smoking, fuck cancer, fuck the tobacco industry.

“It’s good…keep going.”

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A few years ago I went to an event where the great writer Don DeLillo talked about creativity and politics. DeLillo, who describes his writing as being about “living in dangerous times”, is a subversive thinker and a serious intellectual, but the key to his talent is that his books are very readable. I’ve often wondered if that’s partly due to the five years he spent as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather New York at the start of his career. That night, I also wondered if his advertising experience partly shaped his view on the role of a writer in society – which is the polar opposite to that of a copywriter: “A writer must oppose systems. It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state and the whole system of consumption and debilitating entertainments. I think a writer, by nature, must oppose whatever power tries to impose on us.” Is it possible to agree wholeheartedly with this definition and yet to love working in advertising? I’m still working on the answer to that question.

I asked DeLillo a question about his novel Underworld, about how he’d planned out such a vast and complex creative undertaking. His reply was eye-opening. He told me that the prologue, Pafko at the Wall, had been conceived as a self-contained novella. The piece describes the young Cotter Martin sneaking into the Polo Grounds to see the National League-deciding 1951 baseball game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The game’s seen from the stands by a typically omniscient DeLillo narrator, with figures including Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and J Edgar Hoover in attendance. When Bobby Thomson hits a homer into the stands to take victory for the Giants (the infamous ‘shot heard around the world’) Cotter manages to get the ball and runs home with this precious souvenir – which his dad later steals and sells for $32.

Pafko at the Wall is a brilliant set-piece and would have made a great novella. But DeLillo told me that once he’d finished it, his mind kept going back to it. To where the story could go from there. “A whole world seemed to open up to me.” It was the writing of the baseball story that sparked the idea for broader novel. Without one he’d never have got to the other. This got me thinking about advertising, the ays that ideas beget each other and the difficulty in pushing a good idea to the limits of its potential.

When you’re starting out as an advertising creative you get used to hearing from unimpressed CDs that your favourite idea is merely a “first thought”. Then, long after you’ve learned to keep going and push harder comes a related but trickier challenge. Once you’ve got to the point where you can actually have a good idea and identify it as one, the natural human inclination is to stop there. But what if that idea, like DeLillo’s novella, is merely the building blocks for something even bigger and more ambitious? Which is why, at the very moment that every fibre of my being is telling me to stop and bask in the glory of a brief cracked and a job well done, I like to mentally run the work though the DeLillo filter and ask myself if I’m missing a bigger opportunity. As the legendary ECD John Pallant used to say when I’d show him an idea I really liked, somehow managing to simultaneously commend and challenge in just four carefully chosen words, “It’s good…keep going.”

This is real punk rock

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The legendary Kevin Rowland of Dexys (Midnight Runners) has lived a life that’ll make a brilliant movie one day. From the brass-driven sounds and Mean Streets chic of the early band to the Van Morrison-inspired folk soul and global success of the 80s and on to the criminally under-rated all-time classic political soul album, Don’t Stand Me Down, Dexys have always been a magical blend of music, fashion and subversive ideas. Driven by Rowland’s restless energy and relentless philosophical searching they’ve scaled amazing heights and hit terrifying lows, creating intensely passionate music and experiences along the way that have changed many fans’ lives, mine included.

1985’s Don’t Stand Me Down, a stone cold masterpiece, was a commercial failure, sabotaged in many ways by Rowland himself. “Maybe I just wasn’t ready for success,” he later wrote. Sadly, this heralded the start of a lost era for him. Although outwardly confident, he’d always been plagued by insecurity, paranoia and fear. The commercial success of Come On Eileen had masked it for a while; the failure of what he saw as his greatest creative achievement exacerbated it. For a decade he absolutely lost the plot, becoming hopelessly addicted to cocaine to the point where he was doing eight or nine grammes a day. He went bankrupt and lost his house, going from bedsits to drug treatment centres. Reflecting on this period later on, he’s said that every time he thought he’d hit rock bottom a trap door opened and he realized there was further to fall. “I didn’t want to live. I really wanted to die,” he said.

The lost period appeared to be over when Alan McGhee of Creation Records persuaded Kevin to sign to his label and record an album. That album ended up being My Beauty, a collection of cover versions of songs that had helped Kevin through the lowest points in his life. The strangely uplifting sound of a soul singer rising from terrifying drug psychosis, it included heart-breakingly beautiful treatments of The Greatest Love of All, Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top, You’ll Neber Walk Alone and Thunder Road (sadly deleted from the eventual release when The Boss refused to sign off Rowland’s lyric changes). However, tragically, the beauty of the music was lost beneath the controversy surrounding Kevin’s new look. A long-time admirer of the soft materials and looser fit of women’s fashion, Kevin had designed a range of “men’s dresses” for himself. He appeared on the cover of the album in the dress, underwear, suspenders, pearl necklace and lipstick combo you see above.

Rather than ‘Welcome back, Kevin’ the story became ‘druggy lunatic turns transvestite’. Sunk by its cover image, the album was rumoured to have sold less than 500 copies and Kevin was booed and pelted with bottles of urine at the Reading Festival. But, as Adam Ant once famously sang, “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.” And Kevin, unbowed, stood by the look. “I’m very proud of it,” he said. “I think I look beautiful…just like my music comes from the soul, these clothes are about my soul…this isn’t my new image. I’m just being myself. If I’m not able to be myself, then I’m going to die, that’s how it feels right now. If I was to appear on the cover of this new album wearing a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt, I’d be denying a big part of myself. I’m just not prepared to do that. I denied myself for years. I was a very frightened man, always trying to second guess what people expected of me. I abandoned the real me and that led me to some very dark places. For years I had no idea who I was. Everything about me was a defence. I can’t afford to let that happen again now that I’m just starting to find out who I am. When I find something that’s me, I’m grabbing it.”

Contrary to the small-minded mocking and provincial attitude towards My Beauty, to me the music, look and performances felt – and still feel – like the ultimate punk rock statement. Not ‘punk’ in the tired sense of daft haircuts and Special Brew, but of a singular, bracingly confrontational creative vision. An idea conceived and executed – for better or worse – with absolute lack of compromise and spectacular purity.

As Patti Smith described it on Radio 4 last year, “Punk rock is a frame of mind. I think of Mozart as punk rock. I think of Rimbaud as punk rock. Those laurels don’t really belong to anybody.” For me, that means Eric Cantona kung fu kicking a racist idiot. Beethoven continuing to compose long after he went deaf. Ali daring to take on the ‘unbeatable’ George Foreman. Bob Dylan plugging in his electric guitar to the fury of the folkheads at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. That’s what My Beauty was. Kevin Rowland doing it his way. The bold, brave and frighteningly honest cry of catharsis of a true artist.