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.