When it comes to doing stuff at work we seem to be in some weird kind of somnambulation.
Whenever anyone (I wish I knew who these people were) introduces a new thing, it appears to find its way its way into the fabric of the advertising industry (and often many others) like the noise of an air conditioner: you notice it at first, then rarely again until someone turns it off, at which point you breathe a massive sigh of relief as you realise just how annoying it was.
But while it’s there you just put up with it. Sometimes it’s gets on your nerves, but mostly it’s just there, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do about it.
To be clear, I’m talking about recent beneficial ‘innovations’, from open-plan offices to Slack; tissue meetings to directors’ treatments; scamming for Cannes to the spirit of egalitarianism that ensures everyone’s allowed to contribute to the final ad; constant fucking email updates to the delightful, essential, ever-tightening strictures of HR.
OK. Maybe there’s a bat-squeak of merit in some of those, but they tend to lead me to the question: how did anything get done before we had each of these now-indispensable processes, methods and systems?
How, back in the late 1980s, was David Abbott able to come up with the Economist campaign without a word of advice from the planning intern? How did Guinness ‘Surfer’ grace our screens without Jonathan Glazer running his intention for every shot past a discerning client? How can Honda ‘Cog’ have been possible without constant updates on several Slack channels regarding the movement of the windscreen wipers?
And yes, if you hadn’t twigged my implication, the work was much better back then.
With each new system it seems as if someone can explain what we have to gain, but there’s very little consideration of what we might be losing: the attention-sap of the supposedly time-saving digital tools; the degradation of the idea that we actually solve business problems that comes with every Cannes scam; the pointless hours spent in tissue meetings that could have been spent on a chat in a pub that sparked off a ridiculously good idea.
Those of you who didn’t work in advertising in the 1990s and before might be stunned to know that all creatives used to have these things called offices (they’re like your current office, but instead of the entire floor of the building, packed with people from finance, planning and account management, they were much smaller and featured only two people). These strange little boxes allowed you to close your door and work in the kind of peace that actually helped you write good copy. You could put your work up on the walls and have your colleagues take the piss out of it, or suggest a better endline. You could share ridiculous ideas with your partner without having to worry about the disapproving glances from the resources manager sitting to your left.
And those things increased the likelihood of better work.
Now we just have desk after desk of people looking at screens with their headphones on. Tap them on the shoulder for a chat and it’s like you’ve awakened a corpse, so you feel less inclined to do it again. Then the whole place is forever silent because the corpses have combined to create a morgue (but no decent advertising).
The funny thing is, you can find countless articles and think pieces on how to improve or ‘unleash’ creativity, but they all ignore the basic fact that things were better before all the improvements.
If you want to maximise creativity, find out what things were like when the creative output was better, and replicate them. Yes, it might cost money, but so do offsite bonding weekends, and architects who bring ‘breakout spaces’ the size of a phone box to your otherwise uncreative office. Have a single creative assessor (or ‘CD” as we used to call them before everyone in the department became a bloody CD) who has both the power and responsibility to champion work without getting cut off at the knees. Restrict Slack to the people who want to use it and find that it makes their process-based work easier. Ask yourself if that meeting/email/client awayday is actually necessary.
They say we see further by standing on the shoulders of giants. Climbing down off those shoulders, scuttling along the giant’s spine and hiding in his bumhole will not improve your line of sight.