“They should do something about this.” You hear it all the time. When a problem seems too big or complex for us to tackle on our own, we psychologically defer to a metaphorical group of people we mistakenly feel have more power and/or control. It doesn’t matter if it’s politics, human rights, technology or taxes - “they should do something about it.”
What most people don’t realize is most of “them” are corrupted by outdated, and often deeply flawed, views of Wall Street. Wall Street’s primary goal is to commoditize and monetize everything on the planet. Take an idea, technology, company, natural resource, whatever, and break it into a million identical bits (shares) and sell it. It intentionally strips out anything unique, magical, and/or human from the process. Anything that can’t be put on a spreadsheet is now gone. The moment a company goes public, its management is now living under a commoditized/monetized quarterly review.
From where I sit, I feel this pressure across our entire industry. Clients buy what they’re familiar with. Agencies deliver what they know how to bill. Media companies offer what they can sell. And technology (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) offer up “features” that garner the most whatever it is that Wall Street wants to measure. All this gets wrapped up in my most hated term, “best practices”.
Besides having no scientific basis at all, “best practices” “suffers from what is called ‘selection of the dependent variable’” (long explanation here). Short version: best practices are a way for uninterested people to super-impose “what worked before” onto something they probably don’t understand.
All of it leads to a stifling sameness. The only ones able to pierce through this institutional dogma are artists (stick with me here because I’m about to make a leap). We are “they”.
Up until the 1900s, virtually everything we define as “art” in the western world was simply advertising for the biggest brand in the world, the Catholic Church. If you’ve ever taken an art history class, you know this to be true. Amidst the “best practices” of thousands of mediocre Virgin Mary triptychs, we got the breakthrough glory of the Sistine Chapel.
If we accept that consumerism is now the organized religion of the developed world, every single person who can make something in advertising, media, and media-tech companies is an artist. You receive a commission (your salary) to create art for a benefactor (brand).
“We should do something.”
Instead of accepting a TV ad with a URL to a Facebook page and hashtag, we should blow the whole thing up and design a new church. Forget the “best practices” of another boring Virgin Mary triptych and try to bring a little magic into the world. All this technology was about connecting people, but we keep getting stuck buying the same damn rich-media unit that Wall Street can count.
You have the paint and an empty ceiling, what are you going to do about it?
Alternate title: How to offend Wall Street, the entire advertising and tech industry and the Catholic Church all in a single post.
I hate the word “content”. It implies that all things that fill space and time are equal, while removing all emotional value and demoting creators to cogs in the machine. It says Shakespeare and Snooki are equal in talent and contribution to society. It says that any monkey with a Mac can create. It commoditizes every creative thought that’s happened throughout history. So, with that, I’m never using it again.
The term comes from VCs, technocrats and Wall Street types who want to “monetize” all the stuff we love, hate, feel, share and bitch about. If you can commoditize everything from our vaguely understood grey matter, you can make money from it. There are formulas, predictive models and all the data in the world, but none of it can understand what resonates at the human level.
Because virtually everything is delivered via technology, they mistakenly apply the old rules of software. If every copy of Windows, after the first few hundred thousand, is virtually pure profit, why wouldn’t the same hold for songs? Or books? Or movies? If they can cut out costs of distribution, there’s more margin to be extracted from the transaction. And we’ve watched this extraction of wealth mentality spread like a virus to almost every industry in the world.
We idolize the technology companies not because they’ve added much value to our lives, but because they’re incredibly efficient at extracting cash. And we’ve let their vernacular invade all the things that used to entertain us and make us happy. Enough is enough.
From this point forward, in place of that hated word, I’m going to use, “Stories, videos, songs, thoughts, games and other stuff that illuminate the human condition.” And you should, too.
Big Data is obviously at peak-hype right now. All that hype has people loosely throwing around a lot of terms. We keep hearing the amazing insights we’ll glean from all the data out there. Well, I’m skeptical.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there are tons of facts to be found. And occasionally, very interesting observations and correlations. But insights take human attention. AND, it takes time. Can anyone really tell you what the Bible means? Or more simply, the US Constitution is only a handful of pages and we’ve been debating it’s meaning for over 200 years. Now, consider that 90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years.
People will argue and say things like, “we used the data to find that 62% of our customers prefer blue packaging over orange packaging.” That’s an observation based on fact. It’s not an insight. The numbers can’t tell you why.
So, here’s the example. (To give proper credit, I think the first time I heard this was from Brooke Skinner - @brookerules.)
Fact: Most people feed their pets twice a day.
Observation: Most people feed their pets at breakfast and dinner time.
Insight: People feel guilty eating in front of their pets.
Data can find the first. And, if you’ve spent a ton of money perfecting your software, a smart analyst might even find the second. But, the third, the part that allows us to operate in the human “why” space, isn’t coming out of the data. That part takes a human.
If you’ve been paying attention to ad land press, you’ll know there’s been a bit of news about me. On one hand, it’s the news of another job. But this time, it’s bigger than that for me.
A good friend of mine pressed me on what I wanted to achieve. I talked about the campaigns, the organizations, etc. But that wasn’t what he was pushing for. He said, “You’re going to be THE boss. It’s yours. So, you’re going to be ‘the man’ that all those people like you will be pushing against. What are you going to do about it? If they make a movie about advertising in this decade, will you be in it? And if so, what would they say about you?”
Damn. That makes you think.
But I realized it was already there. When I was MUCH younger at Wieden + Kennedy, I always used to hang on every word when David Kennedy would tell stories about how Bill Bernbach was his hero. So, I paid attention and learned more.
Many years later, as the ad world became so irrationally reactionary, falling in love with every single one of the latest shiny objects, I caught myself using those Bernbach quotes a lot. There was a lot of eye-rolling from those whose quarterly bonus depended upon selling the latest shiny object. But in the end, the fundamental human insights always held true.
I’ve written on this blog many times about how this is probably the most exciting time in the history of the business for creative people, despite the noise that we’re being automated / out-sourced / insert shiny-object buzzword here. I believe that “Creativity is the most powerful force in business.”
So, to answer my friend’s question, I’d hope they’d say, “He did his part [no matter how small] to keep the Bernbach creative revolution alive and well throughout a time of tremendous change.” Without Bill, Wieden + Kennedy wouldn’t have existed as we know it, and I definitely wouldn’t be here.
I was thinking out loud with a friend tonight over a beer and said something I thought was painfully insightful (maybe you’ll agree). And when I said it, I had to stop and take note.
We were talking about the massive gulf between the “business” people in an agency vs. the “creative” people. The “business” people do everything they can to get people to do exactly what they want. It’s a way to scale themselves. If there are 100 people doing what they want, they win.
BUT, creative is different. I’m a “seasoned” (read: old) guy in this business. So, I can typically give you slightly better than average ideas off the top of my head. Unfortunately, that’s not scaleable. AND, I don’t want “slightly better than average”. I want great. So, to do my job effectively, I do everything in my power to teach my people to NOT do what I say. To be better than me.
My old friend @WillOBurns wrote an interesting article for Forbes compiling a lot of research about where creativity comes from. Check it out.
As someone who’s spent his entire adult life as a “creative” in advertising, I can say a great deal of this resonates. Almost all my “big ideas”, the ones that won me awards, job offers, etc., happened at the urinal, or while walking through a strange city, or at a bar (of course, a lot of bad ones happened there, as well).
I think this is a lesson a lot of companies need to learn. Due to business models, financial constraints, etc., it’s amazing how rigid our industry has become with getting to ideas. “You have X hours allocated to concept this” is a refrain heard in so many organizations now. Efficiency and speed rule the day. But the best work, the work that is truly creative and touches on a universal human truth, almost always happens when you’re not thinking about it.
Einstein once said, “Creativity comes from waste.” We need to build more flexibility into the system so that the people expected to come up with those ideas have the time to “detach” and let go of all the rational inputs to get where they need to be.
We talk a lot about tapping into human behavior in our work in this business. But too often, we completely forget that we’re human as well, with the same flaws as our consumers. Which got me thinking about how our human-ness is causing problems in our industry.
My grossly simplified version of Maslow’s hierarchy, looks something like this.
At the bottom is basic survival: food, shelter, safety, etc. The middle bits are fundamentally companionship: love, unrequited love, friendship, etc. And at the top is enlightenment. What’s interesting is that you can overlay the advertising business.
It’s kind of amazing how well it lines up. At the bottom is that stuff you have to do to keep your business running. The higher you go, the closer you can get people to like you and feel like they’re part of a tribe.
But a funny thing has happened in the last 5 years. The tactics at the bottom have moved up the importance scale a bit. And the higher-order items have been drug down. You’ll hear people in the business talking about the “race to the middle”. About “above the line” and “below the line.” But we’ve kinda destroyed the line. Television is direct and CRM can help/hurt the brand.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that we’ve completely taken our eye off the prize at the top. We’ve commoditized ourselves in the name of survival. It’s the “trusted partner” and “strategy leader” we used to be is what sits at the top. And sadly, the part that Naked, McKinsey, etc. are happily taking from us. That’s where the money is, and from a creative perspective, the most fun work to do. We should stop chasing every dollar to the bottom and work much harder at the top of the scale. That’s what CMO’s need from us. The rest, they can get anywhere.
“… [with so many people taking photographs] there’s really no such thing as professional photographers anymore,” (though she acknowledged that there are “different skill levels”). - Marissa Mayer, Yahoo! CEO
I could go on and on about how this pathetic attitude dismisses the entire history of human civilization and art, but business school people only understand money. So, in terms they’ll understand:
I could get my brother-in-law (he has a nice camera and takes lots of pictures) to shoot my ads / editorial / etc. But with talent costs, deadlines and one chance to get it right, I will choose to pay a large sum to a professional photographer who has been training most of his/her adult life to pre-empt any possible mistakes, knows details of exposure / light / capturing a moment, and has a proven track record for results. And from a creative perspective (which she obviously doesn’t understand), a “professional” will make it better.
Despite technology’s misguided dream to disintermediate every act of creation, there’s a reason you pay people.
I had one of the most beautiful walks this morning and saw the world as it is for the first time in a long while. On every face, the hopes, dreams, frustrations and insecurities were so obvious. The overwhelming beauty of the human condition set on the backdrop of grand human achievement (Chicago architecture) played out like an art film in front of my eyes.
I miss that. Like so many people, I get trapped in the bullshit of day-to-day existence, my own insecurities and fears, not to mention the panic an fear of so many around me, and lose sight of the beauty all around.
In the last 24 hours, I confronted a tremendous obstacle in front of me, received validation of everything I believe in, then, was able to purge all the shit cluttering my mind. It was the first pure moment I’ve had in an extraordinarily long time.
Damn, it was beautiful. I’d kill to have that feeling for just 10 minutes every day.