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Creativity in the time of Cholera.

This is supposed to look a bit shit. Mission accomplished.

I’ve never read that book. It looks a bit long. Is it long? I get it confused with À la recherche du temps perdu, which I’ve also managed not to read. I think that’s a real doorstep. I’m not averse to a doorstep (I’ve read War and Peace), but I do like to discover that a real classic is nice and slim (see Catcher in the Rye and The Prince for excellent examples).

Anyway, here we are in the time of cholera. Depending on your country of residence, a couple of weeks of shutdown have passed. People have told you this is the new normal enough times for it to be the new normal of the new normal. You might have more work to do, but you probably have less, and you might have none. So what to do with the free time that isn’t taken up by your one mandatory exercise hour and your weekly search for toilet paper?

I used to ECD an agency whose work came in quite distinct waves. Three or four times a year we’d be a month or two of all hands to the pump, followed by a month or two of pretty much nothing. One of my art directors asked me what he was supposed to do with all this free time. I was surprised at this question because I thought all creatives had a side thing (not ‘hustle’. Never hustle. That implies some sort of part-time job whose existence is made necessary by your relatively paltry wages and the fact that your day job offers no creative satisfaction. If that’s your thing, feel free to get hustling, then enter whatever you’re doing into D&AD’s fucking stupid ‘Side Hustle’ category, but know that winning that Pencil is about as admirable as drinking a pint of your own piss).

My side thing has always been other writing. I’ve had one novel published, but I’ve written a couple more, along with three screenplays and an entire 10-episode TV series. So when my department was in a fallow time, I always had somewhere to point my creativity.

Being an advertising creative is necessarily a job of peaks and troughs. Even if you have the best, trickiest, most fascinating brief on your desk, you need time away from it, time to allow your subconscious to come up with some solutions. Maybe you could take that mental holiday by going for a walk. I found another 500 words on my other thing was just as effective. At the end of the year I tended to have most of a book finished, and it kept my writing muscle in tip-top shape.

But here we are in the time of cholera, where you might be feeling a bit adrift. Should you be battering down the doors of recruiters? Maybe, but there’s less work out there, and only so many people to contact, so at some point you’re going to have to step away from LinkedIn and do something else.

What about recharging the batteries? Slam down Tiger King, or whatever movie you’ve always been meaning to watch. Read that biography of Elton John. Make the bestest-ever workout playlist for your iPhone.

But you’ll still have plenty of free time, and here’s the real kicker: it’s a gift you may never receive again (although I’m pretty sure we’re going to go through another pandemic in the next 5-10 years). Don’t let it go to waste.

Let me give you an example: I am a poor visual artist. My drawings haven’t really moved on from when I was about twelve, and they were pretty mediocre back then. But in November I had a brainwave inspired by listening to an excellent interview with Grayson Perry and a book written by Mark Denton: my art was my writing. No artist has really used a lot of writing as their visual (feel free to correct me, but I have yet to find one. I think if you’re good as creating pictures you’re probably not so keen on writing shitloads of words), so if I wrote and wrote and wrote, those words might look good on a single canvas or sheet of paper.

I started with large A2-ish sheets, and experimented with different colours and patterns, then I established that a single block of black type looked best, so I added that to a T-shirt and a larger canvas:

Yes, I do own an old arcade machine. It’s the best thing I ever bought, especially for these domestic days. It’s got 90 games including all the Donkey Kongs, Pac Mans and Galagas, one of which is based around killing Osama Bin Laden. I tend to play a lot of Mr. Do.

I liked the way they looked, so I took the next natural step and bought a roll of paper that’s 4 feet wide by 75 feet long. Yes, that is indeed 300 square feet. When I started it in late January I worked out that, at around 1000 words a day, it would take me until September to finish it.

As Percy once said in Blackadder 2, I like a challenge.

Every evening I knelt behind the couch as my family watched Schitt’s Creek, and added to the piece. By the end of February it looked like this:

See? Kind of cool. Writing novels has given me a stoical perspective on writing lots of words, so I found the idea of 350,000 entirely doable.

When I tell people about this the first question tends to be, ‘What do you write about?’. Well, it’s a mixture of things. Most of it is the beginning of another book. I figured any novel would require several redrafts, so if I could work out a few plot and character points on here, I’d be good to go for a second draft on the computer. Otherwise I broke the fourth wall a lot and wrote about writing, or whatever was in the news, or whatever sprung to mind. It came out to about 1000 words an hour of brain-dump/novel/etc., and I soon upped my speed to 5 inches (down the page) per day, which was around 1500 words.

I had no idea what would happen to it. I thought a gallery might like it, although it would be impossible to hang or frame, so that might be problematic, but y’know, the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern might have the space. Would a gallery want it? That was the next question. I clearly have no name or standing as an artist, but is that what acceptance of ‘art’ is based on, and what is art anyway? It’s whatever the fuck I say it is, that’s what.

Then, in February, I remembered that Mark Denton had shown his work in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, which accepts submissions from professionals and first-timers alike. So I asked Mark about the process and he pointed me to the website. Luckily I was about two days away from the deadline, so I sent in the big piece as it stood (around 10ft x 4ft, or 40 square feet) and accidentally added another entry, so I also put in the canvas one shown above.

Long story short, the canvas one was shortlisted! That was pretty cool. There was some confusion on my part over which of the two pieces they’d chosen, but for whatever reason they liked the smaller one. Now I have to see if the exhibition is actually going ahead. You see, there’s this virus going around, and it’s shut all the art galleries. But I’ll happily take a shortlisting for what is literally my fifth deliberate piece of visual art.

So what I’m taking a very long time to say is that you can fill your time with all sorts of creative pursuits, even ones that aren’t your usual métier. If a non-artist like me can create something that gets shortlisted by the Royal Academy, you can probably set your dreams pretty high.

Use the time to add another quiver to your bow. You never know where it might lead, or what it might turn you into by the time this is all over. Make music with Garageband and Soundcloud; start a blog/novel/anthology of short stories on your Mac; create art out of your Amazon delivery boxes…

My current thing is stand-up comedy classes (they’ve moved online). This week is one-liners: There was a fire at the waxworks. Now they just have 73 versions of the Elephant Man.

Still got a way to go, but it feels good being on another journey.

I was five and he was six. We rode on horses made of sticks. He wore black and I wore white. He would always win the weekend.

What’s it like to be on the show ‘Naked and Afraid’?

The story of whoopee cushions and silly putty.


How your personality changes as you age.

Remember Cannon films? (Thanks, A).

Social distancing album covers (thanks, D).

The Aztec Death Whistle. Once heard, never forgotten.

And… How the pandemic will end.

It’s kinda sad, but I’m laughing whatever happens Assassins are stabbed in the back of my cabin Labrador yapping I’m glad that it happened, I mean the weekend.

A reassuring chat with the writer of Contagion.

More free movies to keep you going.

Pro-wrestling without an audience is avant-garde theatre.

What to watch, listen to and read during this trying time.

And you can learn shit, too!

Bowie’s top 50 songs, ranked.

Addicted to the love of ourselves, I’m the weatherman. I tell no one else, I’m the weekend.

Cool broken furniture.

The fascination with death row last meals.

Movies to keep you occupied, just in case you happen to be shut in over the next few weeks/months.

Whenever I have to write a headline I start here then head down a rabbit hole.

A post-Corona world of possibility.

Stay safe, everyone. And remember: isolation isn’t necessarily to protect you; it’s to protect vulnerable people that you might unwittingly kill.

Down the chimney, he will come with his great big smile. And you’ll find that even the kiddies are swingin’ in the weekend.

The parents of Tik Tok teens.

Going to camp to prep for the apocalypse.

Stories of black people in advertising 1969-2020.

The silence of the dogs. (thanks, J).

Musicians are getting too old to tour.

The reality of Parasite.

Animals that look like they’re about to drop great albums (thanks, J2).

There’s no ‘me’ in advertising.

Advertising is a team sport. How you inspire, enroll, persuade, educate and cajole the rest of your team (and how they do the same to you) is critical to an ad’s success.

Let’s look at the various roles, section by section, to see how you can make the most of them, or at least avoid having them rain on your parade.

In the creative department it starts with your partner. I used to come into work an hour or so before one of my art directors (actually, all of them. What is it with ADs and punctuality?), so after half an hour of thinking about the brief, in addition to whatever ideas had occurred to me in front of the TV the previous night, I was raring to go. However, he just wanted to sit down and have a coffee first, so he wasn’t very receptive to my puppyish positivity. I thought he’d appreciate me getting a head start on the brief, but I regularly forgot to look at things from his perspective, leaving my ideas to climb a mountainous lack of enthusiasm. 

Your art director or copywriter might need a moment to think about that idea you believe to be an obvious Grand Prix-winner. They might be an introvert who needs to have their best stuff coaxed out of them. They might want to methodically consider all paths before choosing the concept you decide to show your CD.

If you don’t work out how best to navigate those vagaries you’re not really doing your job as an advertising person: consider the target market; communicate in the tone of voice that will win it over; work out how your message sits amongst the competition; use the right media channel…

And it’s the same when you see your CD/ECD/CCO. Are they more receptive in the morning or right after lunch? Do they respond better to cheeky irreverence or heartfelt pleas? Do they prefer you to do the talking, or to shut up and listen to them? Get them on your side and (depending on the agency) they can squeeze the account team, smooth-talk the client, or call up their mate who happens to run Dougal Wilson’s production company.

Talking of the account team, if they’re not on your side your ad will probably die in the toilet. I don’t mean you have to be best buddies, but you have to be aligned on how to sell the ad so that its quality is protected. If they come back from the client with an intact visual but a ruined headline, they didn’t do their job very well, but neither did you. 

If you’re not going to the presentation, you’re entrusting them with your baby. Make sure you give them the equivalent of a bottle of warm milk and a favourite teddy bear, and anything else you need to make sure your little one comes back safe and happy. 

They can also get more time and budget out of the client, two things that can make a critical difference to the success of your ad. Arm them with examples of the great things that might happen if they work some extra magic. Inspire them with what that could do for their career. Buy them a pint (I once bought an account team a bottle of Champagne for selling a particularly weird ad. Do things like that. It’ll get you a good reputation, and it’s the right thing to do).

Next is the client. Yes, they need all the persuasion everyone else needs, and then some. Remember: there are good and bad clients, and some need more help than others. Don’t assume anything, and that goes for all subjective interpretations of your concept. Bulletproof the whole thing, or suffer the consequences.

If you’re doing the presenting, do your homework: what’s the client like? What are they trying to accomplish? Do they need their hand held or their fire stoked? They’re probably the most critical link in the chain. Keep that link strong.

Then there’s the production partners: the art buyer, the agency producer, the photographer, the director, the music people, the post house… One of my old producers had a direct line to Jonathan Glazer (he loved the script but the client didn’t). Great art buyers have been great at finding the perfect illustrator, and calling in a favour to make sure they were available. Making sure a director knows why you chose them and how this job could add a new arrow to their quiver is as important as all those Kubrick references you bring up in the pre-prod.

Right at the end is the media company. Their insight into where your ad might work best can be essential, particularly for something experimental. And in this age of digital media, experiential events and influencer marketing, the right context and placement for your work could be the difference between a big bang and a damp squib.

And the final person, the one you’re most likely to forget, is you. Keep an eye on what you say and do, how that eye-roll can drain the energy out of a meeting, or how a needless dig in the agency bar can set up a revenge attack that kills your best work. 

Like everything in life, it’s all down to you. Just make sure every single thing is perfect and you can’t fail.

We’re just not good enough

The advertising industry needs to admit a harsh truth: we’re not as good at this as we used to be.

Yes, there are lots of other reasons why the work has worsened, but the reduction in talent and ability is obvious. 

I know it’s hard to separate all the strands of why ads used to be better, but allow me to remove my rose-tinted glasses and take a good long look at what has happened over the last twenty years.

In the 1990s there was much more money knocking around. Production budgets were bigger, wages were higher and margins were healthier. Gradually, for complicated political reasons that we could trace back to the deregulation of the Reagan/Thatcher years, those pools of cash have dried up to puddles.

There is still a lot of money sloshing around, but it’s now finding its way into industries like tech and gaming. So if you want to have fun and work for big brands your mates have heard of, you might now skim past the list of ad agencies and look instead to Facebook, Google, Apple and the producers of Grand Theft Auto and Call Of Duty. Your work will be seen by hundreds of millions, the wages are good and the snacks are usually top notch.

Where does that leave advertising? Fighting over the crumbs left over when the best talent has chosen a more prestigious, more significant, more creative and more lucrative job elsewhere.

We used to be able to attract the best and the brightest; people who could enjoy their job, see their stuff on TV and get well paid, while still finding the time to spend afternoons in pubs and mornings in bed.

Now we offer smaller salaries, minuscule production budgets, briefs for the kind of ads that routinely ruin your day, and the opportunity to work evenings and weekends; not because you love your job and want to do it better, but because your boss can’t afford another copywriter, so needs to get double the work out of you.

Which path would you choose? Yes, there are still good ads out there, somewhere; and yes, the salaries are still much better than 90% of jobs, but this is all relative. Things ain’t what they used to be, and in terms of motivation, attraction and fuel, shit in equals shit out.

And it doesn’t just mean the ads are worse. crucially it means that clients no longer have confidence in us producing 10/10 work. The last decade has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that your agency is unlikely to produce anything like the work that made it so cocksure in the 1990s. Every substandard ad is another nail in the coffin of trust between agency and client, so they expect less of you, give you fewer chances to prove you can do something great, give you less money to make work that will probably be 7/10, and the vicious circle spins on.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to take a good look in the mirror and ask if we’re doing everything we can to be good at our jobs and, beyond that, do we care enough to do more?

Are you a real copywriter, or did you lose a coin toss between you and your art college partner? Do you tell people you’re a writer, or do you say things like ‘We both do a bit of both’? Do you take pride in your words, or do you try to mumble them out into the world, hoping no one will notice? Do you own a copy of D&AD’s The Copy Book? Do you read it out of choice, not as if it’s homework? Do you spend hours crafting a headline, or do you knock it out as quickly as possible because ‘it’ll do’?

Are you a real art director, or did you end up in advertising because it looked like an easier way to make money than the ‘real’ art you’d prefer to create? Do you understand that your job isn’t to make things look good, but to stop people and lead them through your communication with invisible skill? Do you know who Neil Godfrey is? Do you listen to Dave Dye’s podcasts? Do you have enough knowledge to be able to fight for your decisions with convincing authority? Do you contribute to the grade, or do you sit at the back of the suite, browsing Reddit, hoping that a nod to the colourist’s questions won’t leave you exposed as hopelessly out of your depth?

I could sum up the above questions in three words: do you care? And if you don’t, it’s OK. I understand. The job isn’t what it was, and you probably can coast through 90% of it and still pick up a decent pay packet. The client is frustrating, your ECD has ‘never done anything good’, most work is shit anyway, the pub is calling…

But that path leads to an unhappy you and a worse industry. Here’s an idea: if you don’t like the job, don’t respect it, and don’t see the point in putting in the effort, why not do something else? Your three score years and ten are ticking away far too quickly to waste them doing something that gets you down.

Then again, you could literally choose to make the best of it. You could work harder, read more, ask more questions, fight your corner, learn when to use a semi colon in a headline (pretty much never) and spend a night emailing Jean-Paul Goude references to your director.

In short, you could learn to love your job, become proud of it, become proud of yourself for doing it and go to work with a spring in your step. Then, when people wonder why the ads aren’t as good as they used to be, they’ll stop thinking it’s because of you. 

Ladies leave your man at home, the club is full of ballas and they pockets full grown. And all you fellas leave your girl with her friends ’cause it’s 11: 30 and the club is the weekend.

The end of Miss America.

The reasons behind corporate-speak cackbabble.

Kind of the best website in the world.

Dress like Larry David (thanks, W).

The Mouldy Whopper

An ad campaign has broken out into the REAL WORLD! News outlets are reporting on it! Twitter is in a heightened state of stimulation! LinkedIn’s Creative Strategists are debating its merits!

And you can’t ask for more than that, can you?

Well, maybe.

Look, I get it. It passed the first test, one that almost ad ads fail at: it’s been noticed. And not just noticed, but Noticed. Like. A. Motherfucker. I haven’t been able to move for mouldy Whoppers jamming up my interweb.

And the whole reason it’s being noticed is down to a genuine dramatisation of a genuine product attribute: unlike McDonald’s burgers, the thing actually goes mouldy (eventually)! According to the news link above, Burger King…

…plans to get rid of preservatives from the burgers served in all of its restaurants this year.

By the end of 2020, it said all food items – including sandwiches, sides and desserts – will be free from artificial colours, flavours and preservatives in the US and select European countries, including Germany and the UK.

…Leading to pictures of a burger that has gone mouldy, and that’s original, different and interesting, but also gross, and stomach-turning, and off-putting. But message delivered engagingly, and understood. JOB DONE!

So why do I have a bit of a quibble here? Am I really going to pedantically burrow under its skin to see if it’s really worth all the kudos?

Of course I am!

1. Lame flex. Your burger goes mouldy after 34 days? So it fucking should. This is like Google saying ‘Don’t be evil’. A very low bar. But hey! That’s better than McDonald’s (when they eventually make good on that promise IN TEN MONTHS’ TIME).

2. This highlights how it’s taken till 2020 for them to take on this INCREDIBLE INITIATIVE! They couldn’t remove the artificial preservatives in 2008, or 2015? Slow handclap, boys and girls.

Fernando Machado, Burger King Restaurant Brands international global chief marketing officer, added: “At Burger King restaurants, we believe that real food tastes better.

“That’s why we are working hard to remove preservatives, colours and flavours from artificial sources from the food we serve in all countries around the world.”

So… you still make shitty food? Er… nice one.

3. People who go to Burger King don’t give a fuck about artificial preservatives. That’s why they go to Burger King. Do you think anyone, I mean anyone on the entire fucking planet, was thinking, ‘I do fancy the idea of a grease/MSG-laden fast food burger, but I’m kind of concerned that they might use artificial preservatives’. Of course not. If you care about that kind of thing you eat elsewhere.

4. Burger king have been letting customers experience mouldy burgers for years.

5. These pictures are disgusting. Maybe the stand-out is worth the reduced appetite appeal, but is that an inside advertising thing? I just can’t imagine your average Joe walking past these images and thinking ‘That’s clever. Burger King have taken a bit of risk there by showing us how mouldy their burgers get as a way of dramatising their new policy of removing artificial preservatives (that I didn’t know or care that they used anyway)’.

So, y’know. I’m glad there’s another brave, talked-about, seemingly-admired campaign out there just in time for Cannes the planet’s new-found love of healthy fast food.

But am I convinced? Put it this way, I’m not in a rush to visit the nearest BK’s (and yes, I am an occasional customer).

She say I care more about them “Basquiones”. Basquiats, she learnin’ a new word, it’s yacht. Blew the world up soon as I hit the club wit’ her. Too Short called, told me “I fell in love wit’ the weekend”.

The case against italicising foreign words.

Japan’s amazing lost property system.

By the way, those two links, and one or two each week come from the excellent Ann Friedman weekly mailout. It’s free, so sign up (and maybe donate occasionally). I’d plug it every week, but that would get boring, so here’s a single plug that will have to do for a while (sorry, Ann. Thanks for the links!).

Mail art (thanks, J).

Invoices of Reason (thanks, J).