The power of doing nothing


There’s a story about an agency boss who was strolling the creative corridors one day and noticed all the creatives were not actually working but staring out the window, flicking through magazines or playing scrunched-up-paper-bin-basketball.

He immediately returned to his desk and had his secretary type a memo.

It read : “Dear creatives, please don’t spend all morning looking out of the window, you’ll have nothing left to do this afternoon”

It has always been a source of frustration to non-creatives to see us sitting about with our feet on the desk not actually working. But what does creative work look like?

Personally I like to sit at a desk and think about a problem, surf the internet, flick through some magazines and sometimes an idea will pop up.  Badly formed and shapeless perhaps, but I can usually eek it out in to something workable.

But mostly I find ideas sort of simmer to the top like frozen peas in boiling water, once I have turned the gas on.

Because the subconscious is a powerful part of the process.

Everyone has ideas, the trick is recognising them as nutritious and harvesting them before they fall like sand through your fingers, like that…er…metaphor.

You know when you’re trying to remember the name of that guy who played the dad in Home Alone? Next time don’t Google it. Just forget about it and a name will soon pop in to your head without warning like a sort of brain burp.

John Heard.

Well, whadaya know.

There are many well-known examples of brilliant ideas that came to people “out of nowhere”, from Archimedes in his bath, to Newton in his Lincolnshire garden and Paul McCartney who woke one morning having composed the tune for “Yesterday” in his sleep.


Brent Coker, who studies online behavior at the University of Melbourne in Australia, found that people who engage in “workplace Internet leisure browsing” are about 9 percent more productive than those who don’t.

You see, reading this blog really is helping.

Last year, Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara published a study called Inspired by Distraction. It concluded that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.”

wooden spoon

Hmm, that smokers club outside the front door could be good for your creativity after all.

Schooler gave participants a series of “unusual uses tasks” (UUTs), which asked them to invent as many different uses as they could for a mundane object. The more original the responses, the more creativity they were demonstrating. After performing a baseline test, participants were divided into groups and given different 12-minute “incubation” periods. These consisted of either a demanding memory task, an undemanding memory task that allowed for mind-wandering, or total rest.

A fourth group had no ‘incubation interval’ at all.

Then all four groups were presented with more UUTs, which involved at least one object from the first round. The group that had been given a non-demanding incubation task showed the most-improved UUT scores.

Of course, in the eighties that ‘incubation interval’ was called lunch.

For all you millennials, it was a sort of ‘break in the middle of the day’ ( I know, right?) where you would venture out from your desk and even meet colleagues in local pubs or restaurants (a bit like a Starbucks with beer) to discuss topics that weren’t related to ‘ideation’ or ‘brand strategy”…and no they weren’t ‘brainstorms’.

They were almost a complete waste of time. (Ok, they were similar to brainstorms)

Personally I hope international airlines keep WiFi out of planes, a few hours being able to watch some movies and read a book without fear of disturbance is not just a highlight of the journey in entertainment terms but it has a powerful replenishing effect. I always feel rather sorry for those people who immediately get their laptops out and start tapping away.

Even though I know I probably should too, I feel like looking up from the movie and saying…hey, this is working too, hotshot!

Even if you’re not a ‘creative’ person, doing nothing can be the best option.

So, dear reader, next time you are struggling to come up with an idea for a drug that treats Ulcerative Colitis or Psoriasis or bladder issues, ignore Nike and just don’t do it.

It might be the inspiration you are looking for.



The North Pond Hermit™

For thirty years the legend of The North Pond Hermit in central Maine continued to grow.

He remained unseen but his presence was felt everywhere. During the night things would go missing from local houses, never money, but food, clothing, books and oddly – BBQ gas canisters.

The only evidence left behind was occasional wood shavings, the remnants of a jimmied window.

Like BigFoot or The Loch Ness monster, this…thing….became larger than life, taking on mythical status.

A brand, if you will.

How could one person survive in the woods during those severe Maine winters when one night in the snow would be enough for most people, and a week would be unthinkable?

Eventually, almost thirty years after he left the civilized world Christopher Thomas Knight was caught pilfering food from The Pine Tree Summer Camp kitchens by a motion sensor that linked through to the Police chief’s home, a man who had been hunting The North Pond Hermit like he was Dr David Banner himself. ( If you don’t get the reference look it up)

Technology had finally caught up with him. The news broke and the story spread across America capturing the nation’s imagination.

Christopher, now 47, was barely able to talk, having mostly lost the ability due to his solitary existence. He had the same glasses on he’d worn when at the age of 20 he’d disappeared in to the forest. When the cops asked how long he’d been living like that he replied “what year was the Chernobyl disaster?”


This was a man without property, taxes, car, mail, or any of the baggage of our modern world who existed under tarpaulin sheets in the middle of nowhere.

His recently pilfered trousers, however, were in fine fettle, as were his sturdy boots.

The police held him and charged him with multiple burglaries (estimated at over 1000 at an average of 40 a year)

Not so much a legend as a college drop out in dodgy jeans.

Reading this story it occurred to me that to create a brand, a good percentage of the job is done by elements out of the brand creator’s hands. It can behave in a certain way, it can not say very much at all in fact, and sometimes that might actually help and we, the fanciful public, fill in the gaps.

People love to use their imaginations, creative or not, and that is a vital ingredient in the bubbling cauldron of brand perception.

We don’t so much “Capture the imagination” as release it.

It’s why papers give serial killers a good nickname to maximize the horror. The Yorkshire Ripper beats dreary old Peter Sutcliffe any day. The Moors murderers, The Monster of Florence, The Lipstick Killer, Son of Sam…the list goes on.

In our Pharma world, despite being told endlessly to the contrary, a little mystery is still essential in constructing a brand. We’re told HCPs just want the data, patients just want the facts and yet we know a dash of the coquettish can make all the difference.

If we reduce concepts and ideas to just messages, without any creative magic, what we are effectively selling is Christopher Thomas Knight. Call me shallow if you like, but I am less interested in Christopher than his alter ego The North Pond Hermit.

One is a brand, the other is just a bit of a weirdo.

Like a magician who transports an audience member from one end of the theatre to the other with a wave of his magic wand and is then exposed for using identical twins, the unremarkable ordinariness of the truth will suck the oxygen right out of a brand.

Coke isn’t happiness it’s sugary brown water.

But what does Vorsprung durch Technik mean? People will be confused, can we run it in different languages for different countries?

It means Truth in Engineering.

Oh, ok. Meh.

It’s not a Happy Meal, it’s a small burger and a plastic toy.

And yet when it works the other way, it can be mesmerizing. For years the Para Olympics were the poor relation to the main event, synonymous with half filled stadiums and obscure TV channels. What marketing existed was along the lines of  ‘for people who can’t walk or see they’re a lot like real athletes’

But when Channel 4 got hold of it in 2012 they told us we were actually watching Superhumans. With one bound they overtook ‘normal’ athletes and stars were born.

Ok, now I might tune in.

Para Olympics 2012

4 Creative’s Para Olympics campaign 2012

As creatives our job is to add the magic even when it seems there’s none to be found. It’s not about obscuring the truth, it’s about revealing enough truth to tantalize.

Tell too much and the spell can be broken.

The one clever thing The Hermit has done is remain silent about his life in the woods. How he survived is still mostly a mystery and so an element of the legend remains, even as he languishes in jail for all the burglaries carried out since 1986. (It doesn’t matter that it’s mostly because he can’t talk very well anymore.)

Like a stripper with carefully positioned feathers, more can definitely be less.



Commiting Brandicide.

Imagine this scenario:

After ten years of marketing an orange soda drink, say one that has become one of the most famous brands in the world, the patent runs out and another, almost exactly the same, orange soda drink is launched by a rival manufacturer at 25p cheaper a can.

The company that manufactures it thinks: there’s hardly any difference between our product ‘Orangyfizz’ and that other Orange Soda drink ‘Orangytang’ and theirs is much cheaper. So they conclude; we’ve had a good run…we’ll just cut our losses, trim the marketing spend right back and let it slowly die. Clear your desks everyone and go away and develop a Raspberry fizzy drink.

Excuse me…but Orangyfizz is a world famous brand?!

Yes, but Orangytang is exactly the same and 25p cheaper. The public aren’t stupid.

Fair enough. It was good while it lasted.

Okay, okay, spare me the ‘but-pharma-is-different-this-idiot-doesn’t-understand-anything’ hurrumphing I can sense seeping through the screen.

You’re right of course, but this is a column about creativity and brand and all that unmeasurable stuff.

Stop wagging that sciencey finger, there are no graphs here.

It just seems weird to me that so many of the clients we work with still don’t see their brands as..well..brands. Or if they do, they don’t see the value in what they have created.

Look at what happens when a big consumer brand stops spending.

In the 1980’s Reebok, believe it or not, was the ‘sneaker’ everyone wore. ( I refer to it as a sneaker as some of our readers are from the colonies)

Nobody had heard of Nike back then, and even when the Nike Air began to sell big, Reebok’s basketball pump action sneaker was outselling it and at twice the price.

The thing about a reversal of fortune for a brand is that sometimes it can be overnight (Brazil team-shirt anyone?) and sometimes it can be a slow process of neglect. Call me old fashioned but neglect seems the inexcusable option.

So in the early 90’s recession Reebok decided to cut back on their marketing budgets, they were after all Reebok and there was pressure to save costs.

Luckily this cessation of advertising budget turned out to be very good for business.

For Nike’s business, to be exact.

In the same recession Nike started to spend like a teenager with a stolen credit card. Without any competition the floor was open, it took Adidas years to attain the same kind of cool, and due to their nonchalance Reebok never really did again. In fact in a recent poll Reebok was voted the world’s least favourite shoe brand. They just withdrew from the game and the game carried on without them.

Marty McFly would be horrified.

Now, obviously this a lot to do with new products, endorsements and all the stuff that goes beyond mere advertising, but nevertheless the correlation between cutting ad spend and being superseded within the market is there. It’s not rocket science.

But this happens all the time in biological science. Clients underestimate the power of the brand and therefore after a patent has expired seem to just pull the plug.

Maybe they’re right to do so logically, but people aren’t logical. Ok, so drugs get superceded, beaten on price etc but so do phones. So do trainers, so does everything.

Can you write down the big differences between a Nike shoe and a Reebok?

Neither can I.

But there’s a difference right? and it’s not really about the stitching.

I think if you believe in creativity then you have to believe a brand has equity. Surely when a patent is about to expire that’s the time to massively up the spending?

Let’s look at the Reebok of Pharma.


After four years of zero above the line investment in the US, and fifteen months since it’s patent ran out in the UK, Pfizer are relaunching in the States with a campaign by BBDO NY using a woman to front the campaign.

New Viagra campaign

As probably the most famous pharma brand in the world, Viagra could, and probably will, transcend competitors who can beat it on cost and remain the ED drug of choice for patients who don’t wish to be palmed off with a generic or a competitor. (It’s almost impossible to refer to Viagra without innuendo).

But Viagra also seems to me to be the best example of a powerful pharma brand that has been left to almost wither, sales dropped 8% last year to $1.9 billion ( okay, its not exactly withering but another 8% of 1.9 billion is approximately…a lot of money) so as an old adman I am heartened that they are reviving it on the TV front, hopefully that will help get it up. The sales. Help up the sales. Help the sales go up.

(Almost as testament to its brand prowess, one of it’s main competitors is from illegal online counterfeit versions, complete with rat poison and washing powder for that cleaner, rat-up-a-drainpipe erection. Like a shop in an Egyptian holiday resort selling ‘genuine’ Rolex watches for £50, counterfeiters know the brand still has selling power.)

In the meantime Cialis and Levitra have carved out their own slice of the market and generics won’t be far behind.

If it succeeds beyond the patent expiry, it will be an example to other marketers that all that guff we tell them about brand adding value isn’t total crap.

And if it fails to create a tent in the spreadsheets, maybe it will serve as a reminder that even a brand as established as Viagra still needs nurturing to continue to bear fruit.

Either way, isn’t it better to let the HCPs and patients decide when a brand is dead before we commit brandicide?