Mike’s Blog

My old friend Mike Nicholson has just started a blog.

For some reason, blogs by creatives are pretty rare enough, but blogs by creatives who have worked in great agencies and won D&AD pencils are even rarer.

Check out his words of wisdom.

Rick Rubin and advertising

Earlier today I was listening to Tim Ferriss interviewing Rick Rubin (in a barrel sauna).

After discussing how you can lose 148 pounds by consuming nothing but protein shakes, they moved onto the creation of music.

Rick had four big points (that I can recall):

1. Only listen to the very best. It will inspire you and help you find your own voice (what is the best of the best? Rick says you should start with one of those Mojo lists of the top 100 albums of all time). This interested me because I’ve read plenty of authors and filmmakers who have said that experiencing the finest work of their peers simply intimidates them into giving up on their own projects. But have no fear! Rick has an answer to that…

2. Only try to beat yourself. If you aim for the Beatles and miss it can be a little demotivating (and almost guaranteed to occur). Instead, simply try to improve on your own work and take it from there.

3. Don’t let external influences affect what you do. If you try to create what you think your audience is going to like or worry about doing better than the competition then it’s going to affect the art you produce in a negative way. One of the Dixie Chicks said that working with Rick was like discovering music rather than creating it, like it’s in there all along; you just have to reveal it.

4. Great music comes from the heart, then the head has a listen and helps to organise it. But that first burst has to come from somewhere more fundamental that isn’t a product of logic so much as a spark of inspiration.

Because I write this blog I often wonder how such things as a Ferriss/Rubin interview can apply to what we do. After all, advertising is also the creation of art (as opposed to an entirely predictable science) that is intended to produce a reaction in the person experiencing it. So how do Rick’s points stand up in our world?

1. How many 2015 creatives dip into the greatest ads of history? As a youngster I heard it suggested so many times that I virtually memorised D&ADs and One Shows in the hope that I could at least stand on the nipple of a giant, if not his/her shoulder. How many of you know the best of yesteryear? I’m not even suggesting you go back to the 60s and 70s (many of the winners of those days seem a little distant in terms of how they relate to today), but the 80s and 90s are stuffed with amazing work that will only improve your own. If Paul Thomas Anderson can get something from Carl Dreyer, you can get something from John Webster. Start with Dave Dye’s superlative blog.

2. Trying to beat yourself instead of others sounds like it’s worth a try, but I think in this industry we don’t have untouchable geniuses like The Beatles. You could be as good as literally anyone who has won a Cannes Grand Prix in the last twenty years. Yes, a few of them seem pretty amazing, but that ability is definitely within your grasp.

3. External influences might have more significance in advertising. Unlike music, it’s quite important that you go in a different direction to the other advertisers in your category, so you need to know their work in order to diverge from it. Whether or not you need to care about what the people in the next office or at the next desk are doing, I don’t think it matters either way, but just make sure your client isn’t playing on the same pitch.

4. The heart then the head has a lot of layers to it. Trying to create art based on logic is unlikely to end within anything particularly inspiring, but then you have to learn to trust the unpredictable combination of circumstances that lead to a heart-busting idea, and that’s not a comfortable place for most people. In my experience the creatives can always be the heart of the agency, while planning can add the brain-justification that helps to sell it to a less hearty person. But how do you harness your heart? I think that the creation of ideas is one of those things that churns around at the subatomic level we just don’t understand – if it were clear and easy we’d be better at it. So can you dependably corral all those quarks and superstrings to make something that’s worth revealing to the real world? Sure. You just have to practice. Find what works for you and keep heading in that direction, but don’t forget to ignore what works from time to time and do something completely different.

Thanks, Rick.

She’s got a smile that it seems to me reminds me of the weekend.

The greatest book of all time (thanks, J).

Which one of Ant and Dec are you? (Thanks, T.)

Tetris with goats:

Great interview with the highest-paid screenwriter in the history of Hollywood (thanks, J2).

Movie shots from inside the fridge (thanks, J):

What happens when you feed 2001 into Deep Dream?

Sometimes you just want to watch a huge fountain of blood gushing out of a zebra into the surprised face of the leopard that’s trying to eat him.

This kid just won life (thanks, N):

And while we’re on the subject of boundless joy:

Justin Bieber butt photoshoppery (thanks, J).

Great shots of the backs of theatres (thanks, J).

The Shining board game, designed by Stephen King (thanks, T).

A large evil corporation

I’m a big fan of the commercials production company known as A Large Evil Corporation (ALEC).

I say that not only because they do marvellous work like this:

…but also because they just made an incredibly accurate vinyl image of me (and my cat, Tyler):


I just fancied a new avatar, so asked them (via the lovely Mark Denton) and they produced this in a couple of days. Why did I ask them? Because I saw this and thought it was ridiculously good:


But the vinyl figures are just a thing on the side to show how well they capture character. It’s the animation that they’re REALLY good at.

I’ve often looked to animation to present an idea in a different way, and love how the process allows lots of regular input from the creatives while still giving the directors a huge canvas on which to express themselves. But you need to work with the right company, so if you like very high levels of craft with an excellent sense of humour (just check out their staff), give ALEC a go.

And in case you’d forgotten, they understand adland like no one else:

Side project!

Hey Ben,

My partner and I have spent the last year trying out different creative techniques at pubs over the year and we’ve put together a collection of some of our favourites. We found some of them to be pretty useful, hopefully others will too.
It’s available at www.lateraldrinking.co.uk and people can get their hands on a physical copy by going through our portfolio with us.
We’d love to know what you think.
All the best,
Ash and James
Nice idea. Good luck with that.

Lloyd’s wank

Ah! Disabled riders, racial minorities, little girls who like milk… These are the very moments that represent Britain’s horsiest bank.

Funny, though, that it doesn’t end with something reflecting the 40,000 staff they’ve laid off since receiving a £20bn bailout in 2008. 

Or the fact that despite this, the CEO earned £11m last year.

Or the time they were fined £226m for rigging interest rates.

Or that other fine over payment protection insurance.

Perhaps a horse having its way with a member of the British public?


Accidental obsolescence

I texted a friend the other day to tell her I’d be arriving at her house by Über. She replied that she was looking forward to seeing me but didn’t agree with Über. She doesn’t like the way it’s doing proper London cabbies out of a job, people who have done three years of The Knowledge and based their entire income streams on the status quo that existed when they decided to drive a taxi.

It’s an interesting argument, but one that has been steamrollered many times by the march of ‘progress’ (define that word as you wish). Automated factories, nuclear power over coal, call centres in India, the cruel way in which those blokes who used to have to walk in front of cars with a red flag to stop them going too fast have been deemed surplus to requirements… The world moves on and, alas, some people get left behind.

But I could also counter the cabbie argument by saying that the only times I’ve been deliberately taken the long way round, it’s been in a black cab (it’s essentially impossible to do that in a credible way if you don’t know the city like the back of your hand). In addition, when I needed a cab at Heathrow last week and I only had a tenner on me, no black cab in quite a long line would accept a credit card. Then, after running around the terminal looking for cash point there was barely enough space to get the four of us plus luggage into the taxi. That strikes me (I don’t know why this realisation has taken me so long) as insane: London’s taxi fleet is less equipped to carry a family plus luggage than a Toyota Prius? WTF? Next, the fare was £7 before we’d even moved. £7. Seven fucking pounds. That’s over $10 to move an inch, part of which was a little extra fee for… drum roll please… taking the fucking luggage unsecured and squashed up around our knees. We took an Über in the opposite direction the following morning; the fare was £7 instead of £14 in the black cab.

So you can build in your own obsolescence by overcharging for a very poor service (let’s not get into the occasional racist chats I’ve had to endure). These cabbies don’t know they’re doing it, but they are digging their own graves (so are Über drivers, of course: the self driving cars that are obviously coming our way by 2020 will make many industries obsolete, including them).

Anyway, to take my mind off this experience I considered how it might relate to advertising.

I’ve written a few times about my theory that improved computing has actually made working in creative industries much harder because now everyone knows how easy it is to change a font or resize a logo. Hell, with a rudimentary knowledge of Word you can slap together a poster with a funky font and a Google image. So now the job looks easy (I’ll have to ignore arguments that say it’s easy to do it in a mediocre way. Unfortunately most clients can’t distinguish mediocre from excellent, or indeed poor, so they don’t care).

Then we made the whole process look easier and easier by sticking logos on the end of YouTube clips and cans of other people’s paint. Back in the day you just had to watch ads like this, pick your jaw up off the floor and throw money at whoever could think up an execute such genius:

When’s the last time an ad made you feel like that?

Of course there are very good ads around these days, but they look somewhat within our grasp in a way that the greats of the past did not.  And if they look somewhat within our grasp then they also look a little more like that to clients, and indeed to the public.

It may have been a necessary turn that happened after the first dotcom crash, where budgets and credibility began a gradual process of reduction. It may be the fault of a brain drain that has seen the best creative migrate towards creating TV shows or tech start ups. It may be another consequence of the rapacious march of global capitalism. It may be the way in which ad agencies now charge more for, and place greater emphasis on, the kind of 360-degree brand analysis/futurism conferences that planning departments take care of. It may have something to do with the vicious circle that all these factors create.

But whatever it is we can’t deny that we, as an industry, are like cabbies: we haven’t helped ourselves to justify the value in what we do, or rather what we did. That’s why salaries have fallen. That’s why production companies and TV stations are offering to do what we used to do. That’s why none of your friends or parents give a shit about that case study film you spent so long choosing just the right War On Drugs song to soundtrack. 99.99999% of the time, if it happened online, as far as the public is concerned, it didn’t happen. Sorry.

We don’t accept credit cards. We charge £7 before anyone even moves. We don’t have room for luggage.

And until someone creates a new model to send us off in a different direction, we’re just going to continue getting shafted by our own versions of Uber.

The ball is in all our courts.

I get down to dry my hair with a little touch of gel. I read all the newspapers but my ma still reads the weekend.

Unrelated people who look exactly alike (thanks, T).

Taxi Driver doc.

Lee Marvin on gay rights (thanks, J).

How and why Eric Stoltz really got fired from Back To The Future (thanks, J).

14 times life imitated The Onion (thanks, T).

Cassetteboy-ish remix of Donald Trump (thanks, J2):

Colbert interviews Eminem on a Michigan public access show (around 22’10, thanks, J3):

Side project involving the beautification of poo

Hi Ben,

My name is Xander Hart, I’m a junior creative in London and an avid reader of your blog.
I wanted to share a project with you that I have been working on over the past few months.
In essence I draw around dog poo with chalk to draw attention to it and ‘save our soles’
Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 19.55.28
Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 19.55.42
I recently won ADC Portfolio Night Paris and Im putting it down to pushing a photo of decorated doggy doo in front of Creative Directors rather than 3 press ads.
I hope you enjoy this project (I’ve attached a little PDF) and if you really really like it I would be eternally grateful if you were to share it on your marvelous blog!
Hope you have a great day and keep your feet clean on the streets of LA.
Best wishes,
No, thank you.

Where is London heading?

I’ve just returned from a trip to London, my first since emigrating.

The overwhelming impression I got of the physical city was one in the midst of much rebuilding. On my first day there I took a look at the skyline from the top of Primrose Hill. The horizon was littered with cranes. Ordinarily I’d think that this regeneration was at least some indication of a GOOD THING happening: London is a living, breathing entity, so a refreshment of its innards would be a necessary and beneficial development. But then I took a few journeys into town and was surprised at the number of huge holes that had sprung up in areas that had shown little change since my childhood. The electronics shops that once gave Tottenham Court Road its identity have given way to a building site, as have the shops on the east side of Berwick Street Market. Apparently the entire market is going to disappear, as is the market at Shepherd’s Bush between Goldhawk Road and Uxbridge Road.

So what are all these pointless, unnecessary elements of the fabric of London going to be replaced by?

Housing. Lots and lots of housing. And that’s great, right? There’s a massive shortage of housing for London’s essential workers, and huge communities are being driven from London’s estates to towns and cities across the country. So now they’ll have somewhere to live in the capital, allowing them to contribute to the diverse combination of ethnicities and social demographics that has made London London for so many centuries.

Ha ha ha! Of course that’s not what’s happening. The housing is being built for rich people from abroad who want to buy London property as an apparently safe investment. Usually they leave these homes empty, decimating the communities in which they exist. If no one lives there, no one will use the shops that surround them, so no one can afford to serve those areas, leaving them as de facto ghost towns.

As I chatted to friends about this and wondered what would become of the London in which I’d spent the first forty years of my life, I found this article in The Observer (there’s another by Rafael Behr in the Observer magazine that I couldn’t find online). It expands on the above in a somewhat depressing fashion.

If London carries on this way it’s going to change beyond recognition, and not in a good way. When I left it wasn’t because of a dislike of what I thought London would become, but if I still lived there I’d think even more seriously about leaving, just to find something less expensive and less homogenised. For the price of my London flat I bought a home in LA that’s twice the size with a big garden and pool – and that’s in a nice area with a good school. When LA seems like a massive bargain in comparison, that’s when you have to wonder about London’s future.

Or come to LA!

Or both.