We’re gonna need a bigger audience!

Festival Mix Brasil is an annual film festival which takes place in Sao Paolo. Run by Brazil’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organisation, it aims to spark debate about the diverse spectrum of human sexuality.

The festival is internationally renowned and, by many gauges, very successful. However, the organisers had a problem. While ticket sales had been healthy since the inaugural event in 1993, they’d plateaued out. Everyone who was into ground-breaking, taboo-questioning movies about sexuality was sure to attend the festival, but no-one outside of that niche audience would. So the festival had hit an attendance ceiling, which meant there was a limit to the money it was making. Which in turn meant there was a limit to the films, directors and stars they could bring to the festival to make it better.

This is where Neogama BBH come in. As it stands, straight people think the festival is purely for the gay community. And if that’s the case, the two options are – sell more tickets to the gay community or sell more tickets to people outside the gay community. While they didn’t want to compromise the appeal of the festival to the former (core) audience, BBH realised that the latter (‘non-users’) was the far greater opportunity in terms of numbers. But how could they get people to be interested in something they didn’t think was for them?

By positioning it as absolutely ‘for them’. Tapping into the cultural zeitgeist – specifically the tendency for people to label increasing numbers of things, traits and behaviours as ‘gay’ – BBH came up with the thought that if everyone is ‘gay’, the Mix Festival must be for everyone. The outstanding execution brings the idea to life brilliantly, giving us a piece of genius strategic and creative reframing that I reckon Dave Trott would call classic ‘Predatory Thinking’.

This is genius!

Nazis unwittingly marching against themselves. Brilliant!

Is this 2014’s “best Christmas ad by a country mile” or “a fucking disgrace”?

This year’s Sainsbury’s Christmas ad has been the subject of much debate and that debate was very much raging in my world on Friday afternoon. Half an hour after I’d proclaimed it “a masterpiece, the best Christmas ad this year by a country mile” my colleague, the legendary creative director, diarist and blogger Andy Flemming, turned up and announced that it was “an absolute fucking disgrace”. These diametrically opposite points of view led to a fascinating debate in which I changed my mind then changed it back again several times, flip flopping around like a tasered Havaiana.

Andy’s main issue with the ad is that it takes real events from World War One, sanitises them and uses the resultant heartstring tugs to flog tins of baked beans. Like this Guardian piece he feels that romanticising what was a horrifically violent chapter in history – a chapter in which millions of mainly young soldiers died cruel, bloody deaths – and slapping a supermarket logo on the end, is beyond the moral pale. That prettifying and repackaging WW1 is offensive to the memory of the soldiers who died and their families. He asserts that if WW1 can be used as the backdrop for an ad, why not 9-11 or Auschwitz? How about the story of Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis in a wardrobe being turned into an Ikea commercial? These are all fair and powerful points/challenges. They go to the heart of what an ad campaign can and can’t do, what it should and shouldn’t do. On the surface they seem to add weight to Bill Hicks’ infamous standpoint that advertising people are “Satan’s little helpers…the ruiner of all things good…Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage, you are fucked and fucking us…kill yourself…no, seriously, kill yourself.”

However. Let’s pause a minute before we get too depressed and take Bill’s advice. On reflection, I believe the world is a better place for this ad having been made. Yes, it uses the context of a horrific tragedy for commercial ends but, crucially, it doesn’t seem to come from a cynical place. No, it doesn’t have the grim realism or existential punch of The Deerhunter or Saving Private Ryan but what it does do is tap into a unique moment in history and pull a sliver of beauty out of the shit. Like The Farm’s classic song All Together Now, it shines a light on the incredible moments when those young troops – against their superiors’ orders – stopped the slaughter and stood side by side. For those few days the filth and shit and violence were put aside and humanity came first. As the lyrics go, “A spirit stronger than war was working that night/December 1914 cold, clear and bright/Countries’ borders were right out of sight/They joined together and decided not to fight.”

To bring this unique event to life, to remind us that even in the darkest hours of the darkest days humanity can still win out over all the shit…even if only for a moment or a day or a week, is A Good Thing. Yes, there’s a logo on the end and yes Sainsbury’s are looking to build brand affinity and make cash out of that. But that doesn’t change the fact that the ad will educate and inspire. It’s got people talking about WW1, reconsidering the context, remembering that the millions who died were real people not faceless statistics, asking themselves what it was all for and what we’ve learnt. The answer to that last question is probably ‘fuck all’ when you think about some of the other conflicts around the world over the last decade alone, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. As my old history teacher drummed into us, “We study the past to understand the present and to throw light onto the future.” Yes, we should probably get our history from books and films not ads, but for a whole array of reasons, sometimes those formats aren’t accessible or compelling.

And while the argument that some things should be left untouched by advertising is a strong one, I’d rather focus on the positive things that advertising can do than the things it shouldn’t do. Rich Silverstein of Goodby Silverstein famously described advertising as “art in service of capitalism” and if the ‘art’ part of the equation can make a difference, all the better. Some of my favourite work ever taps into this vein, from an insurance company creating an installation that drastically reduced suicides to a global creative technology company using its platform to support young gay kids dealing with bullying and a travel company raising awareness around the tragedy of kids’ cancers. And one of the campaigns that made me want to be a copywriter in the first place was Olivero Toscani’s controversial work for Benetton in the 80s which featured AIDS victims, riots, famines, political unrest, death row inmates, anorexia, war zone reportage, provocative religious and racial shots. He blended social commentary and commerce in a way that forced the world to reconsider what advertising could and should be. I remember many a pissed-up pub debate with outraged mates insisting the Benetton stuff was “cashing in on tragedy to flog jumpers.” But Toscani always came across to me as an artist, someone using ads to raise awareness. “There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality,” he said at the time. “All I’ve done is put a news photo in the ad pages.”

For me, Sainsbury’s/Abbott Mead Vickers shining a light on this terrible period of history is a truly positive thing. And specifically honing in on an inspiring element of the conflict is really important. While everyone else is urging us to ‘win Christmas’ by getting stuck into the capitalist merry-go-round of buying piles of stuff and laying on mountains of food, they’ve used the power of great writing, direction, performances, cinematography and effects to tell us something different. To remind us that life is fragile and that the most precious thing in it isn’t amassing stuff but making a real connection with another human being. And if we have to be subjected to a Sainsbury’s logo at the end to be reminded of that, well that’s OK by me.

Is this the greatest song ever written?

I reckon it’s up there with the best. If you’ve seen the mind-blowingly brilliant film Boyhood, I think you’ll agree with me. Blog on Boyhood coming soon but for now, check out Wilco’s Bluesy take on Bob Dylan’s sublime Most Of The Time. It has a desperately lonely bloke doing shit around the house to stop himself from thinking about the love who’s left him (has she left him or is it something darker and more tragic?). When Tweedy sings this bit…

I try to keep the house I’ve and clean
I make my bed, I change the sheets
I even learned how to use the washing machine
But keeping things clean doesn’t change anything

…my heart cracks in two.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.”

I’ve been a geeky fanboy of David Mitchell since the start of his career and have loved everything he’s ever written, from his debut novel Ghostwritten to the poignant coming of age story Black Swan Green, his breakthrough classic Cloud Atlas to the historical thriller The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and his infamous Twitter story, The Right Sort. Well, everything, except his recent novel, The Bone Clocks.

Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy The Bone Clocks. I did, a lot. One of David Mitchell’s greatest talents – and he has so many – is that he’s able to make his novels so enjoyable. He has a knack for creating characters you care about, nailing speech patterns and getting a story up and running very quickly. So that within a few pages of picking up one of his books you’re hopelessly hooked to the point of missing bus stops and turning up for work bleary eyed because you couldn’t stop reading the night before. I’d go so far as to say he’s the greatest living contemporary English writer (or at least head-to-head with Edward St Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst for that title).

Sadly, the new novel was, for me, the first time David Mitchell has ever dropped a bollock. In his work up to this point, he’s created worlds and characters so rich and diverse that I started to believe there was no limit to what he could pull off with his writing. But while The Bone Clocks is as addictive and brilliantly written as anything else he’s ever done, as full of startling epigrams (“Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul”), unforgettable characters (Holly Sykes, Crispin Hershey) and perfectly realised worlds (the dystopian Sheep’s Head chapter, particularly, is outstanding), it includes a science fiction theme and sub plot which IMHO simply doesn’t work. And by that I don’t mean it couldn’t work, I mean it doesn’t. Mitchell has used sci-fi/supernatural themes in many of his novels, most notably in Ghostwritten where one of the characters is a disembodied voice that wanders the planet as a parasite on human hosts, filtering their consciousnesses for clues to its own origin, soaking up their knowledge then moving on; and in Cloud Atlas where the central theme is a kind of mystical reincarnation. But in the new one, rather than using supernatural themes he creates a full blown other-world and renders it in tedious fantasy fiction detail (the ‘Horologists’ and the ‘Anchorites’ battling it out in the ‘Chapel of the Blind Cathar’ over the ‘Shaded Way Codex’ is just the tip of the iceberg…). For me, the issue is not that I’m not into fantasy fiction (although I’m not), but more that he’s spelling things out rather than leaving it up to us readers to join the dots. And that the kind of things he’s trying to do with the fantasy elements have been done far better elsewhere, from the new age classic, Jonathan Livingston Seagull to Mark Haddon’s brilliant kids’ book, Boom!

However. The purpose of this blog was absolutely not to give David Mitchell a kicking. It’s exactly the opposite. While Chapter Five of The Bone Clocks didn’t work for me, it was an extraordinary failure. He swung for the fences and missed, went down, as Jon Bon Jovi once put it, in a blaze of glory. For which I hugely applaud him. I’ve written before about creative ambition or, more to the point, the general lack of it. About the way fear holds us (especially me) back, the way it keeps us trapped in our comfort zones. David Mitchell refused to stay stuck there. Asked about the fantasy stuff in a Radio 4 interview he said, “It’s a risk and some people might feel that it’s one I haven’t pulled off. But I’d be depressed if I kept on repeating myself. I would feel I was letting my readers down if I kept on writing an ever-diminishing version of Cloud Atlas.”

I love the idea that a writer so lauded feels a responsibility to his readers and to his talent, to keep pushing for new ways to connect. And that he feels compelled to take risks, to kick against what’s expected of him. This is a writer who’s given me so much enjoyment and taught me so much. And now his fearless attitude has reminded me that it’s fear of failure that holds me back; to, in Beckett’s words Fail again, fail better. Or, as Woody Allen – another writer who’s tasted his fair share of failure along the way to dazzling creative success, once said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”