Why you must learn to hate your own ideas.

Of course most people like their own ideas, sometimes none more so than creative people themselves.

I’m sure the person who came up with the term ideation was delighted with it.

But what a lot of people, and by that I mean the idea-toting non-creative wing of adland, may struggle with (only because it takes time and experience to learn), is knowing how an idea will actually work or how to make it work, or what it will look like when you’ve done it and how it will be perceived once you’ve had it.

Add to that whether the idea is doable in the time, within budget, and won’t simply look stupid or in poor taste.

People tend to think in terms of scenarios. ‘How about a woman who is having trouble reading the small print on a menu while on a first date.’ is a perfectly reasonable scenario in film, but almost impossible in a still. It’s probably just a woman squinting at a menu.

It’s as hard as knowing if you’ve just had a good idea or not. In fact, arguably that’s what a good idea is.

It’s why we still have creatives, and we still have creative directors (for the moment) and it’s why a creative person’s idea is often – not always – been through their own internal creative director’s office, before it even makes it to a ‘what do you think of this?’ in the open air.

Because an instant love for our own ideas has been tempered by the crushing disappointment of other people’s opinions and a desire to do the kind of work that gets them their next job.

As a creative you start out with a raw talent, ideally, if it hasn’t been beaten out of you by your education system, parental pressure for you to find a proper job or the desire for qualifications in History and Maths.

You take this raw talent, tout your book of ideas around town and after about a year of people hating your ideas, eventually you start doing better ones, then quite good ones and then hopefully a few stonking ones and then, if you are in the right place at the right time, someone will recognise talent it in you and give you a job.

You then spend those first ten or twenty difficult years learning what those ideas that pop in to your head actually mean and how you can turn them in to something. But with practice you get really good at deciphering the bad ideas from good, the practical from the impossible and so on, almost instantly. You don’t always get it right, but it’s a process that takes time to learn.

That experience is hard won, but that expertise is what clients pay for without even really considering it, not just the talent of coming up with them.

It comes with the daily agonising process of coming up with ideas and seeing most of them dismissed.

The problem is, none of that is on show when you present work. It appears that you are just showing a bunch of random ideas that you just whipped up in a couple of days.

Sure looks easy. Let’s all have a go, it’s fun.

But all the years of internal deciphering wheat from chaff is what has led you to this point, not a couple of hours in a brainstorm or scribbling on a pad.

There’s probably a sperm and egg analogy here but I’ll leave it at that.

The famous photographer David Bailey, when asked how he could charge 20k for a day’s shoot when he completed the shoot in a couple of hours, allegedly replied “this didn’t take me two hours it took me twenty years”.

I am not sure if he stole this reply from Picasso who was said to have offered to sign a napkin for 20k on the basis that it wasn’t the minute it took to sign it, it was about the fifty years he had spent making it worth signing.

Experience matters in creativity, almost as much as no experience.

So now if you are a ‘non-creative’ and you think your idea is a way better than what you’ve seen, just ask yourself whether you like it because it’s yours or because it’s actually better.

Because judging your own ideas is different to judging someone elses work. Objectivity is a huge factor in judging others’ ideas.

Judging your own ideas is really hard. And it’s important to judge them as if your career were to be judged on it.

That’s not to say your idea isn’t any good, by the way. But you owe that CD a listen as to why it may not be.

I’ve found the best clients or ‘non-creatives’ can offer ideas and lines but are usually also pretty good at taking push back if the CD (in a sudden role reversal) doesn’t think it’s right. As are the best kind of creatives.

The worst kind of client just want you to do it their way.

Mutual respect is important in a client agency relationship and that includes ideas.

What is usually more helpful to hear from the client side is ‘I think your idea is wrong or not doing enough of this or that. How can the agency solve it?’

The more prescriptive you are the harder it is for agencies to crack the problem.

So it doesn’t mean your ‘I’m not a copywriter but…’ idea isn’t any good. It just depends on how you regard it. Does your idea have some kind of special golden ticket as it’s yours? do you have so few ideas that when you come up with one it needs to be curated like an ancient artifact?

Or is it an idea that deserves the same scrutiny that all ideas, from whatever source they derive from, should expect to receive.

So, let’s assume IT IS a great idea.

Has it been done before? Will it look different and stand out. Will it fit brand guidelines? Is too complicated?

Making sense is only the first step.

Because you may be a CEO or a CMO or even a brand manager or planner or agency suit and your idea may be fantastic. But creatively speaking, if you haven’t spent some time learning these creative ropes, it’s an idea from a junior creative.

In other words, someone who hasn’t learned to reject their own ideas yet.

If you can accept that, then ideate away my friends.

Throwing money at a problem

Everyone has a story they tell when they dine out or meet new people. Mine is about the time I found myself in the lift with all of the members of U2 and was greeted by Elton John.

But that’s for another time.

My brother-in-law Dermot has a story that he used to tell a lot, but these days he will only bring out if you insist. So I tell it here instead, with his kind permission, mainly because it illustrates a reasonable point about creativity but it’s also a pretty good tale in itself.

It happened back when Mullets ruled the hairdressers and band names sounded like the ramblings of an eight month old baby (Kajagoogoo? no? oh please yourselves) and the internet was just a twinkle in Tim Berners-lee’s eye.

Our story starts on a fine spring day in a ski resort somewhere in the Alps when Dermot and two friends, Henric and Mike went off for an afternoon’s skiing. Such a fine day in fact that he decided, as people often do, that a jacket was surplus to requirements.

It was one of those afternoons where the sun reflects off the slopes and turns the whole mountain in to a giant reflector, the sky was a pastel blue and the snow was powdery and perfect. Bliss.

The other two cursed him as they sweated in their jackets and the three friends, all pretty good skiers, decided to take a detour and go ‘off piste’.

It must have been an hour or so later when they realised they had taken a wrong turn, missed a marker or sign and now were completely lost.

It was getting darker, but they carried on down the mountain anyway, thinking they were sure to find a route somewhere.

They chopped through the trees, weaving their way down when they abruptly came to a cliff and all three narrowly avoided going over the edge. That was close, they thought, but things were about to get a lot worse.

By now it was now almost totally dark and now it was getting freezing. They were properly in the shit.

And Dermot only had a sweater on.

They couldn’t risk walking in the dark and going over another ledge, so they reasoned they would have to make a camp there and spend the night on the mountain.

This was before mobile phones, and they hadn’t thought to tell anyone of their plans. Nobody would miss three guys in their twenties who didn’t come home all night.

They tried to make a fire. They had a cigarette lighter, no cigarettes of course, but nothing would burn.

They destroyed their skiis trying to use them as axes on the pine tree branches but no luck.

They would have to survive with no fire and no food.

If only they had some paper!

They dug a hole out of the snow with what was left of their skiis and cuddled up.

Stupidly they tried to sleep, which you shouldn’t do if you are in sub zero temperatures as you can quickly sink in to a coma.

Nevertheless Henric and Mike sandwiched Dermot between them to share body heat.

Dermot usually says at this point ‘I told them that if one of them needed to pee to just do it on me’ because the cold was so intense.

It was a long night, during which they all genuinely thought that they were done for.

As the first light appeared around 4am they were relieved to discover that they were still alive, if a little urine sodden. Slowly they made their way back up the mountain, (in 1980’s ski boots) trying to find a route down.

By 3pm that afternoon they eventually made it back to some kind of civilisation. A town that wasn’t where they were staying but had a taxi that would take them back to their village.

Exhausted, hungry and grateful for their lives they arrived back at their hotel.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with finding a simple obvious answer.

The story would have ended there, a lucky escape and cautionary tale about the perils of mountain conditions. But as they entered the chalet, Henric, nonchalantly produced some money to pay the cab.

He has been sitting on a thick wedge of cash.

Paper.

Paper that they could have burned to start a fire.

But it never crossed his mind. Money wasn’t paper to him. It was money.

Sometimes the best ideas aren’t that hard to find, you just need to know where to look. You just need to think a bit differently about the familiar. What good creatives are able to do, rather like good comedians, is take the ordinary and twist it in to new shapes and present it back to you in new ways.

So it’s not always about new media, or new techniques.

Sometimes it’s just about looking afresh at something you’ve seen a million times before.

And setting light to it.

 

 

 

 

 

Is Pharmaland a one way ticket?

I recently had a phone conversation with a Creative guy who was uncertain about a move to a CD role in Pharmaland.

He had some legitimate concerns.

Would he be forever labelled as a ‘pharma-creative’ with all the mediocrity that that would imply. Could he ever get back in to consumerland after having the ‘Pharma stink’ on his clothes?

He didn’t put it like that but it’s what he meant.

I remember from my days in consumer the disdain that all self-respecting-ATL creatives had at the time for the lower divisions.

By the lower divisions I mean the BTL lot, the Direct lot, the Digital lot, the global lot.

You know…what all creatives are nowadays.

It wasn’t overt, but when a creative left to join a healthcare agency there was always the same reaction, a mixture of pity and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-like thankfulness it wasn’t you (yet). Like the scene in THE GREAT ESCAPE where the little Scottish guy runs at the fencing shouting “I cannee take it any more!!!” before getting gunned down by the guards.

We looked up, nodded them a farewell and returned solemnly to our desks writing ideas that would never make it beyond a special account handling department file labelled ‘Meeting fodder‘.

This was the life!

As I spoke with my new consumer-creative acquaintance I even surprised myself with my now solidified passion for Pharma, now that there is clear water between my old career and this one, it seems I have gone native.

And what’s worse, I don’t even care.

Because what’s so great about consumer these days? have you seen the work that is on our outdoor posters recently? have you watched a TV break? when was the last time you asked anyone if they saw ‘that ad’ last night.

Believe it or not, that used to happen a lot.

Sadly, the most memorable ad of late is probably the diabolical Pepsi debacle.

Maybe the ‘content pieces’ that seem to emerge from somewhere or other and find their way on to your Facebook page are all that’s left of a once heavily populated ocean of opportunities, deftly avoiding months of focus groups and re-briefs. Occasionally there is the odd socially motivated film that gets shared, about how we should all just get along and have a beer (insert brand). That kind of thing. Fair enough.

There are some great humanitarian campaigns about empowering girls, or teaching the world to read.

I’m sure there are some other great campaigns but I can’t really remember them.

So, I wonder why a consumer advertising career is still attractive to a young creative person. It’s now much more about tactical thinking, direct targeting and content platforms than it is about launching new brands to the world. That’s much like Pharma, but we still get to launch brands all the time.

And consumer-land isn’t even much of a haven for heavy drinkers anymore.

These days many of the restrictions and legal limitations that a consumer brand faces are similar to those in healthcare, at least creatively speaking. No use of clever language please, no regional in-jokes etc because the world wants global ideas.

(Customers don’t want or need global ideas, but corporations do.)

Ok, so Pharma has a bunch more self-imposed restrictions than just that but the creative opportunities, when they arise, are just as potent.

It’s all about what you do, as a creative, with those opportunities. And recognising them as such in the first place.

Okay, you counter –  it’s the clients and target markets that are worse in Pharmaland. They’re very literal and unsophisticated (never understood why) and obviously consumer clients are more media-savvy and braver.

Can they be any worse than whoever insisted upon or bought and signed off these attempts? It seems now its quicker to bypass creative teams and go straight from brief to production.

So much for the un-shackled glamour and creative opportunities of a career in consumer. At least in Pharmaland there are no pack shots, (just big logos) to substitute for an idea.

Anyway, back to my creative guy: I just heard he accepted the job. Good for him.

He’ll find that Pharmaland isn’t a land devoid of budgets, cool people or creativity.

There are some cool people and creativity.

Ok, definitely creativity.

Occasionally.

And if it is a one way ticket, then that suits me fine.

 

 

Dear Mr Hammer, your problem isn’t a nail.

Aren’t all branding ideas sort of advertising ideas and vice versa?

Well, sometimes, I guess, but not always.

In Pharmaland we can lean towards treating every problem as if it needs a good whack on the head. Give it a brand image that people will remember, plaster it all over the congress stand and the iPad and stand back.

Not you obviously, but you know…other agencies.

The most recent Mr Muscle campaign highlights the often subtle differences between what (I regard as an..) advertising idea and a brand idea. Both have found their way in to an adspace mind you.

Now, I am not saying that this is the greatest campaign of all time, but it provides a useful, albeit mediocre, example.

The old campaign featured, for years, a feeble nerd who took on super strength because of the product. Mr Muscle loves the jobs you hate.

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-17-29-24 screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-17-29-46

Yes, irony folks. But it worked because people could see the role of the brand in their life.

Then after a 30 year successful run some sort of global adboard switches it around and makes the product a superhero (yawn), complete with muscles and a square chin. Not sure why he’s animated but never mind.

One shows the user having a clear benefit.

The other says the brand is great.

journal-mr-muscle

I can imagine the team somewhere deciding that the weedy guy was too negative, he didn’t embody the brand in a positive way.

“I think people might think the product is weedy too…I just feel it’s too negative”.

“Good point Gustav, what we need is a more positive image.”

“Yes, and we need a woman in there so housewives can relate to the user – because men don’t really do cleaning”

“Thanks Maria, good point.”

That Maria is a bit sexist if you ask me.

To my mind they fundamentally lost what makes a good advertising idea work.

The hero is all about the brand, the weedy guy is all about the benefit to you, the bathroom attendant and therefore the brand.

Truth is, clients can often miss the point and go straight to what the pictures in front of them appear to be saying purely on a visual level.

It’s the semiotic argument.

But to paraphrase Eric Morecombe, do all the right notes in the wrong order still add up to a concerto?

At one point in the third act of the film ‘Notting Hill’, you’ll remember that Hugh Grant and the gang all pile in to a small car with a lion in its logo. The cookie sister shouts to Rhys Evans as he squeezes in to the boot ‘You’re my hero’ and they whizz off to stop Julia Roberts from leaving town, to the tune of ‘Gimme some Lovin’.

473a6b117f9cfeae2b078dab43eec665

I only found out about this a couple of years ago that this was a secret sponsorship, product-placement kind of a deal, brokered by the the account director on the car account I used to work on.

Unsurprisingly, it bypassed our creative department entirely.

It showed the family car could take a lot of people (obviously) and the ‘hero’ line was spot on the branding strategy about heroes that that particular car brand was employing at the time.

The client loved it. They couldn’t sign up quick enough.

That little deal cost them about £150k and it went straight in to the pocket of Working Title films and became an iconic moment in a much loved movie.

But wait a bloody minute.

I’ve seen that film a dozen times and all I saw was a group of friends jumping in a car and driving though london.

And I worked on the brand!

All the right notes, not necessarily in the right order.

Maybe it had some semiotic effect that I don’t know about, but even with all those branding elements that the client held dear and spent millions on, it still didn’t add up to an actual message.

Pharmaland is full of images that capture the ‘brand essence’ or even the MOA without making a connection with the doctor or end user in any meaningful way. We mistake branding ideas for ideas that connect with our audience, the orange bridge, the blue apple, or I dunno….the red sodding banana all probably encapsulate their respective brands perfectly, without ever actually meaning a bloody thing.

What we need in Pharmaland, heck even adland in general, is less hammers looking for nails and more advertising ideas.

Or at the very least, to be able to know the difference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every brand has the same issues.

Target markets really are a pain in the arse.

You would think that you could just come out and tell people the facts about your product, drug or treatment and they would weigh up the benefits and then make a decision based on the facts presented.

No flim or flam, no marketing baloney. No manipulation.

Just data.

The thing is, we have reason to suspect that medical people are much like ordinary people. That is, their perception of certain drugs etc differ from reality as much as it might in the real world with consumer products.

It doesn’t really matter if your glucose meter is more accurate than the most popular one. If it’s more expensive people will just hear more expensive.

It doesn’t matter if your pill is as fast working as an injection. People just hear pill.

It doesn’t matter if your drug is more efficacious than the best selling one but the side effects make you grow horns on your forehead. Those stupid, petty, pedantic, twatting, people just hear horns, it’s so frustrating.

But the good news is they are also as easily manipulated by spin, media tricks and perception as anyone else.

Hurrah!

Luckily for we evil admen the task of persuasion is made considerably easier by the use of clever ideas, imagery, film and even words, (when we’re allowed them) because most of the time we are battling not to get the facts across but to manipulate people’s perception of the facts.

In recent weeks I have been amused how this is just as much a problem for personality brands.

Take Russell Brand, (coincidentally) who seems a particularly well meaning sort of a chap. You probably think of him as the comedian and whacko political campaigner who has told people not to vote.

He did let that slip in the Newsnight interview with Paxman in a certain context but what he more keenly urges is ‘give us something to vote for’.

This is from his Spectator article that started it all.

I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites. Billy Connolly said: “Don’t vote, it encourages them,” and, “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.”

I’ll grant you it may well amount to the same thing but ‘don’t vote’ isn’t particularly what he is trying to get across.

What he mostly tries to communicate is The system is broken.

With Russell, the right wing media don’t have that hard a job in manipulating his brand-image to be a radical idiot that’s not worth listening to, based on that one quote alone.

In the interest of balance it’s not just Russell Brand who struggles with this perception vs what he actually means issue.

Take Brand’s Question Time nemesis: Nigel Farage.

In the league of misrepresentation Nigel is rather more like Russell than either of them would be comfortable with, I am sure.

The headlines of ‘Nigel Farage says breastfeeding mothers should be put in a corner’ makes him out to be a horrendous chauvinist boob-Nazi.

Take a look at the twitter backlash that followed after his LBC radio interview, particularly the last comment.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 18.41.57

But the actual interview on LBC from which the storm erupted was a perfectly reasonable suggestion ( to my mind anyway) that each establishment should decide for themselves- ‘he has no problem with it’ – (yes folks he actually said ‘I have no problem with it’) but if a particular establishment does – as freedom is a two way street – then maybe set aside a room or ask mums to sit in a corner because some people get embarrassed by it. (The context was lost on the Guardian but hey, they have an agenda just like the Sun or Daily Mail.)

Decide for yourself and watch Nigel Farage on LBC

For the left wing media the job is just as easy to paint him as a fascist idiot. Pick out that one line and the job is done whether you think anything he says is worthy or not. It’s hard to be taken seriously on border control if mothers, who hate being in corners, hate you.

However, as political brands they both have their art direction correct.

Saying dumb things in a smart suit will always get you taken more seriously than saying smart things in a ripped T-shirt.

But then, if you want to encourage a revolution don’t wear a tweed suit and have sensible hair.

In the end, if you are in the public eye your brand stewardship has the same problems as any other brand. Misrepresentation, poor PR, superiority or inferiority to competitor brands, price and image.

And we, the great unwashed, are constantly being manipulated and marketed to whether we like it or not and whether we are aware of it or not. From expensive ad campaigns to your ‘friends’ on Facebook who constantly provide evidence for you to think a certain way because they do.

The only way to not be manipulated is to look at the data and make up your own mind.

And what a terrible idea that would be.

 

 

(Happy Christmas dear reader and thanks to all of you have read my ramblings and kept me encouraged to continue, since I started this lark. Until January then….)