Do you have NICE approval?

Can you be successful in advertising and be a nice person too?

Some of my closest friends are from the advertising world so don’t get me wrong – the majority of the agency world is lovely, but day one in Pharmaland I was struck by the general reduced numbers of assholes.

No offence, to those of you still selling sugar to kids.

This may make Pharmaland a more sober industry, but after twenty five years in Adland it was nice to shed the hangovers.

(Metaphorical ones at least.)

The problem is that nice is still regarded as a flimsy adjective, it carries with it an implied weakness or lack of conviction, a wishy-washy, flim-flammy creative attitude.

There is a school of thought that says; if you are nice you can be walked over. That’s how mediocre work happens.

But do we do better work if ruled by fear?

Anyone who has been an employee in advertising can relate to the notion of being in fear of losing their job, mergers, redundancies, awful clients and even evil, psycho-bosses.

When I worked on Citroen in the early 90’s we were threatened every week with losing the account if we didn’t crack a particular brief. Not by the client, by our Creative Director.

Fear can cripple your creative juices if you are consumed by it every day. Some people may thrive on it, but you lose so many talented people who can’t operate if paralysed by the threat of losing their job every two minutes.

I recently read an interview with the film director David Lynch on the subject of fear:

Interviewer: But doesn’t fear motivate?

DL: In the short term it works. But, at the same time, you’re killing people. The other way is, you get an atmosphere going on the set—it’s not that you have candies and little happy moments—it’s energetic and it’s inspirational.

Interviewer: What do you think of the notion that you have to suffer to create?

DL: When you think about it for more than three seconds, it’s completely absurd. When you have deep anxiety or deep fears, you’re a big beautiful V-8 engine running on three spark plugs. If you could get that to lift away, you can still understand anger and you can do all kinds of stories about the human condition. But you yourself can do a better job if you aren’t suffering with fear.

Being a creative genius often comes with being an arsehole too and for some, success only serves to fuel their enormous egos.

For one (once all conquering now mid-table) agency the long time owner and boss, although charismatic, can’t seem to bring himself to be kind or considerate to his employees. He wants fear.

What is he so afraid of?

A friend who was once an employee of this particular dinosaur, as the CD no less, worked 12 weeks straight without a day off. This run of weekends finally ended when he had the temerity to take some time off because his father-in-law had died, these days we call it compassionate leave.

When he returned the boss just asked ‘where have you been you lazy c**t?

That was the day he decided to walk. Who wins in this situation?

And the excuse is, of course, that this is what it takes to be great.

But to be treated with respect, with no shouting in the corridors and no tantrums, can produce some great work too. In fact arguably considerably better work.

The late David Abbott, widely regarded as peerless among the world’s legendary copywriters (The A in BBDO AMV) was well known for being a gentleman.

I never met him, but I do believe that his reputation was built on a unique talent and yes, niceness.

Not that being a decent person didn’t mean he wasn’t a man of conviction, just that he lived his life with respect for others and respect for the work.

So it can be done.

Indeed in his obituary in the Guardian Stephen Bayley wrote “To visit his office was to experience something of the intellectual calm of a tutorial or the moral purgation of a confessional. There were steepled fingers and moments of silent reflection. But in the antic and frantic world of advertising, who is to say what a powerful self-promotional tool quietly spoken and cerebral self-effacement might be?”

Abbott was admired for high principles as much as high craft.

How many Creative Directors or giants of the industry over the years can claim that?

Times have changed.

And arguably much of advertising has become mediocre.

But like all data analysis, it’s easy to mistake those two things as cause and effect.

I can’t help feeling that in the ‘post-truth’ world, where leadership in some quarters is judged by an ability to lie and get away with it, to insult without recourse, to exaggerate without being held to account and to manipulate sycophants to feed an insatiable ego, a little bit of niceness is not to be underestimated.

Just so long as you don’t confuse it with weakness or lack of conviction, Pharmaland can be a place of great work, talented and intelligent minds and respectful human beings breaking new creative frontiers, with grace.

You don’t have to be a fearsome git, after all.






Hydrogen versus Bernoulli

People often wonder where ideas come from.

I like to think that all ideas are just sitting there, waiting to be discovered rather than created out of thin air as one might suppose.

Creative people just spend more time looking for them.

We’re like those people who suddenly got obsessed with Pokemon-Go and were out walking round parks at 2am.

The thrill of finding one is addictive and you get better at it, the more you do it.

And by creative people I mean inventors, research scientists and entrepreneurs too.

Ideas tend to be the meshing of two seemingly disconnected concepts to make a third new one.

Shop mannequins and suicide. Ear inspecting devices and human trafficking, country citizenship and trash.

(And in the case of Pokemon, gaming and treasure hunting.)

When you see a really great idea, one that you’ve either done or wished you’d done, it’s partly a feeling of elation but also recognition that makes it so thrilling. Like, damn, of course, it had to be that idea.

Like that moment on Long lost family, when a daughter finally finds her mother who gave her up as an infant. It’s kind of instant and overwhelming.

In advertising our particular species of idea usually rely on a universal insight, which are similar in that we recognise something familiar in it. When a comedian remarks on something about your life in a way that you’d never considered before but had seen every day and a thousand times, its partly funny because you recognise it, but also because you hadn’t recognised it.

They didn’t invent it, they just found it by looking through a different lens to yours.

Which brings me to flying, boats and hydrogen.

When I was a child my parents great friends, David (RIP) and Carolyn Ezekiel, owned a yacht which they kept in Chichester.

They’d sail around the Solent, the stretch of water between Portsmouth and The Isle of White, most weekends and would take longer holidays in it down to the Mediterranean in the summer and when they eventually retired they would live in it six months of the year in warmer climbs.

My recollection of it was always on a cold, wet weekend in March.

My father loved being invited to spend weekends on it, my mother hated anything that floated apart from possibly the ice in her Bacardi and Coke, so Dad would often take me or my brother or sister.

I do like boats and the sea, but unfortunately they won’t tolerate me. I would usually be a queasy shade of green before we got out of the harbour.

But I remember one weekend when I was about twelve, sat in that small cabin moored up to all the other yachts somewhere in the Cowes marina, listening to the mast ropes clang in the wind, when David asked me if I knew how they discovered flight?

The Marina at Cowes, Isle of white

No, I replied.

Basically it’s sailing.

Wait, what?

The same principle that drives a boat forward, (Sails and keels, like airplane wings, exploit Bernoulli’s principle), is exactly the same principle that lifts a Jumbo jet in to the air, albeit with more thrust.

Don’t quiz me on details.

This was an idea that had been sitting there for thousands of years, obvious really, but nobody- not Columbus, the Vikings or the great British Naval fleet or De Vinci had figured it out.

Because they weren’t looking the right way at the problem. That is to say, the wrong way.

The scientists got to air-ships filled with Hydrogen, because hydrogen is lighter than air, then helium took over, before they got to the principle of a sail turned on its side.

They realised hot air was lighter than cool air and that could maybe get us round the world in 80 days. That was pretty clever.

But not so much flying like a bird as a weather balloon.

It took the invention of the combustion engine combined with Bernoulli’s principle to get man off the ground like a bird.

This revelation completely blew my mind.

How could we not have seen what was right in front of our eyes for centuries?

That’s how we need to think of creative solutions. People often say ‘look at it sideways’, in the case of flying that was literal.

The problem is we too often settle for hot air balloons, or huge inflammable zeppelins for our concepts. They’re not a bad solution to being in the air, but they don’t have that sublime simplicity of flying like a bird.

And clients can be wary of bird flight, they prefer the scientific certainty of a balloon filled with helium.

So the question is, is that idea sat on your desk going to get your brand to soar or tootle your way round the world in a top hat?