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Doing What Matters
Guest Editorial by Brian Collins

In 1941 the Bulova Watch Company broadcast the first TV commercial during a Brooklyn Dodgers game on WNBT. They paid only $9 dollars, but advertising changed overnight. By the 1950s David Ogilvy’s genius was to put some science into that mix: If you understand people well enough, you can project what you’ve learned into the future. Assuming, of course, that the future was simply an extension of the past. And for fifty years, it practically was. But everything just changed. Again. And judging Creativity’s first awards has given me great heart that imagination and courage is alive and not only thriving in this change, but, more importantly, in all sorts of amazing new products and experiences.

Here’s some random thoughts that came to mind as I reviewed this year’s best work.

The One Big Idea model is dead. Hell, the last half of the 20th century was the only time when there’s even been a model. Since the dawn of commerce, niche products and shifting micro-segments have always been the rule. TV created massive markets for mediocre, “good-enough” stuff. That was the exception. Now we’re back to chaos again. And we’re not going back. This has undone some marketing organizations that are used to placing the bulk of their efforts in one broad, top-down, idea. Single-minded communication — The Big Idea — makes life easy for communicators. But people aren’t single-minded. We’re too busy living our lives to pay attention. We know what we love, and it’s not brands spread like jam across every piece of media in our face. It’s lots and lots of small, weird, new ideas and products — in lots of different places — so amazing that people will seek them out. Axe’s Gamekillers work is a smart example of making something so remarkable people will do just that.

The answer isn’t more advertising. Three generations of agency creative leaders grew up with media that interrupted what people really wanted to see. By definition, advertising marginalized itself; it was stuck between things that people cared about more. So agencies learned the power of rapid-fire storytelling. And the best ones raised their stories to the flash-point. Apple’s “1984” commercial created a myth in 60 seconds. Twenty years later new media shops tried to turn agencies into punching bags for cluelessness, proclaiming the irrelevance of narrative in interactive. “It’s all about utility!” Well, sure. But as long as there are humans it’s never “all about utility”. As utility quickly becomes commodity, utility with stories will be what people seek. The Nike+ iPod product and companion website is a perfect example of what this future will look like.

You can’t buy passion. Why create things people will LIKE when you can create what people LOVE? Regardless of discipline, we’re all now in the business of inciting contagious passion. Mass deadens, and corporate leaders are figuring this out faster than I could have hoped. “We’re all just one step away from commodity hell,” says GE’s Geoffrey Immelt. Doing something breathtaking is the only safe spec. But to make things people love means you will, inevitably, make things some people will hate. I’ve judged the Skittles campaign twice this year. And each time it floors me. Monty Python in their heyday was this good. But some people on one of the juries despised this work. It completely wigged them out. Thank God. Seeing Skittles renewed my faith in almost everything I love about working in this business.

Oops happens. With the iceberg dead ahead, the crew tried to steer the Titanic instead of just stopping it. The Titanic would still have hit the iceberg, but the ship would have stayed afloat. A lot of branding work gets going in the wrong direction and the people on the bridge make the same mistake — trying to steer through a disaster instead of just saying “Stop!” Unilever stopped a big campaign halfway through, scrapped everything and started all over. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty was the result. The “Evolution” film is that campaign’s most remarkable idea to date. Even Tara, my eleven year-old niece, now knows what the beauty industry kept secret for so long.

It’s changing, but television is still the world’s campfire. On a brand scale, TV can still create phenomena. Whatever you think of “American Idol”, it’s a weekly event that incites people in astonishing numbers to engage. Sometimes even ads will still engage on that scale. When I was 10 years old I saw Coke’s “Hilltop” commercial. It was the height of the Vietnam war, and here were kids from all over the world who wanted to teach the world to sing. And they did. Millions of kids like me bought the ‘45 single. We all wanted to be the people on that hill. Coca-Cola appears to be hitting such a solid creative stride again. The violence of a popular game like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto was magically twisted by Coke into a giddy, over-the-top all-singing, all-dancing musical number that would shame Busby Berkeley. It is a daring act of optimism. The spot is not cool. And that’s cool. It showed that the Coke Side of Life may be a campaign that lasts longer than their rotating marketing chiefs.

War is the wrong metaphor for marketing. How do we think we’ll inspire hearts and minds when we drive “penetration” by launching “campaigns” against “target demographics”? When I go around agencies and see conference rooms re-branded as “War Rooms” it makes my teeth hurt. Selling isn’t about conquest. It’s about what marketers and their customers have and can do in common. Still love battle metaphors? Fine. Then ask: What’s worth marching for together? Hey, I know. That amazing $100 laptop computer to get into the hands of children around the world. Let’s go.

A storm is coming. Are you going to hunker down? Or are you going out to meet it?

Walt Disney made his own storms. Cartoon shorts were only the beginning of his career. When you think about it, he started off doing what many agency people still aspire to today — making mini-movies. The difference is that Disney didn’t stay with what he knew. He was at the forefront of every new technology: animation, sound, Technicolor, television, robotics, live action — and combining animation with live action. Then he brought all of his stories to life physically on a scale nobody had ever seen before. Next, he wanted to take everything he had learned to build a city.

A city. That’s what he was planning was when he died. For him the world was always new. He changed every five years, always asking: What’s the next thing? And the next thing after that? What’s odd to me is how so many agency people still believe that the height of creative achievement is getting a spot on the Superbowl. I mean, after 50 years, is that all we’ve got?

Put down the camera. Please. Pick up some other tools and try to build something that’s inherently inspiring, on its own. A new product. A new service. A store. A game. Anything that’s not an ad. A brilliant product like the Nintendo Wii doesn’t need to be “sold”. It’s an irresistible new combination of industrial design, sports technology and digital thinking. It creates its own media because consumers can’t stop talking about it.

David Ogilvy came to advertising from a research organization. In the early years, he preached that success could be codified — and should be replicated. Later on, he saw that the future was no longer the lengthened shadow of the past. “Change,” he said, “is our lifeblood.” And change is exactly what I saw throughout this work. And it’s about time.

Brian Collins, Chairman & Chief Creative Officer
Brand Integration Group / Ogilvy & Mather

A shorter version of this article ran in the May, 2007 issue of Creativity.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 3485 FILED UNDER Discussion
PUBLISHED ON Jun.06.2007 BY Speak Up
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Doug B’s comment is:

There's some GREAT work here, but it doesn't take a long read to realize that a *lot* of the agencies who won employ a good number of the jurors.

Does this mean the 'fix' is in?

Hopefully not. But it wouldn't be hard to find a more objective (looking) panel.

And, only 3 female judges out of 16 total...uh, oh...here we go again...

On Jun.06.2007 at 05:20 PM
Dave Werner’s comment is:

Fresh, welcome perspectives all around, and I especially love the Disney mention. Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination does a great job at chronicling his continual innovation...it's an extremely inspirational read. Absolutely love the Wii too.

On Jun.06.2007 at 09:35 PM
von K’s comment is:

I agree wholeheartedly, Mr. Collins.

The thing that gets me, though, is that those of us communicating on behalf of these brands/products/etc. aren't always handed a Wii. Most of the time we're charged with inciting contagious passion over things that are mediocre at best, and in worst cases probably shouldn't even exist.

We're faced with markets that seem to oversaturate faster than ever. Clients and potential clients are asking us to turn mud into miracles. The truth is, most of the stuff people are selling is no better or worse than the 10,000 other examples already on shelves / in people's minds.

So how are we supposed to deal with the day-to-day of getting the job done? Should we be telling clients selling mediocre stuff that they should go make something worthwhile? Is it up to us to transform every drab hunk of crap into something people will LOVE? It seems like an impossibly tall order to me...

On Jun.07.2007 at 12:14 PM
felix’s comment is:

Hey everyone!

It's Mr. Collins ... Zzzzz..

On Jun.07.2007 at 12:20 PM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

I think everyone who works in advertising at some point should be forced to start a business with their own money, or money they've borrowed from a big, potentially vengeful bank. With the pressure to sell shit, their perspective on what creative is and should be would probably change for the better.

A lot of this work is pretty cool. That Nike Plus site kicks ass--I'm not a runner, but I imagine it taps into that mentality extremely well. I'd have to ask my runner friends what they think, and more importantly, if they've started buying Nike shoes.

But, like all the shows these days, the work featured is almost entirely for big, giant brands. I'm pretty sure that there's great work being done for smaller clients that will likely not get too much recognition. Such a shame. I skipped the woman giving the speech during the site's intro because it was sounding like everything else I read. Unfortunately, you can't fill a bank account with self-importance. So, I'll continue looking at D&AD for examples of the best work I think.

On Jun.08.2007 at 10:44 AM
Armin’s comment is:

RE: The Creativity Awards

The selected work is nothing but the expected work. It is the most high profile, documented and celebrated work. So the relevance of the awards relies solely on the reputation of the magazine and the judges. Since I am not in the advertising world I really don't know what this translates to. But in my personal view, it does seem to have a little weight. However... I see absolutely no point in recruiting 17 judges to select 22 winning entries, after asking 150 people to suggest work for consideration. A "curated" awards show like this one would be much more interesting with 3 or 5 judges, where the choices are inevitably a reflection of their personalities and their chemistry, good or bad. This show probably boils down to majority voting, instead of consensus.

I also find that the winning work being done by some of the judges presents a heavy conflict of interests. It is never well received to see a show with judges work in it.

[Disclosure: Creativity is our client at Pentagram and I work directly with the Editor (or "the woman giving the speech" as Brad put it); for whatever that's worth.]

Re: Doing what matters

I find it refreshing that the article, with its title, was not about condemning designers and advertisers to do socially conscious work or stop doing ads for clients that sell vodka. Instead it points to ways of doing work that can be refreshing and rewarding. And maybe pointing out the work for the big boys is a way to have it trickle down to the small clients, which as Brad suggests, also require (and actually do) great work.

On Jun.08.2007 at 12:11 PM
fatknuckle’s comment is:

The one big idea is not dead, Armin's got it and he 'aint sharin'....

On Jun.08.2007 at 03:01 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Currently showing in San Francisco this week a play about how old Disney certainly went out to meet new visionary friends like vice-chancellor Hitler. Seems the boys had a lot in common. Inspirational to all you little dreamers out there.

On Jun.08.2007 at 03:28 PM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

I think that there's probably a lot of frighteningly original work being done by/for smaller clients that never gets much recognition or visibility. I've heard that the editors at Creativity have taken some flack from smaller agencies for not showing work by lesser-known shops. And rightfully so. Whether or not the decision is intentional doesn't matter--its their JOB to pay attention and look deeper.

I've always found the fascination with alt-media and non-paid media work over the past couple of years really curious. Plenty of smaller, regional shops have been doing this out of necessity for over 15 years. Once that sort of work became a reality for NYC and LA agencies, pundits everywhere declared it "new." Its not. It hasn't been for years. Time was, you couldn't get a job in a big ad agency without a book full of ads; now you can't get a job in one of those places WITH those same ads.

Either way, I'm not likely to look to ad people to lead the way in creativity, nor will I look to "luminaries" like Damien Hirst for it either. The most creative stuff will continue being done by people not motivated by money or recognition.

On Jun.08.2007 at 04:30 PM
Mark A.’s comment is:

Is Disney inspirational? He was for me doing this poster for a play about him meeting Hitler...

Hey Gunnar, I'm making like a Modernist here! The typeface is even called Berliner....

But this goes in the pile of rejects. There's always another graphic that gets "the cut". It's the Darwinian nature of the business. Not that the work is any better or any worse than anyone else's it just doesn't get chosen and then nobody sees it. So the pool of ideas sticks with the winners until the innovators just crop up like weeds. Now there's a lot out there. Some kids doing movies and visuals that are stunning. Do they get seen by a wider audience? I don't think so. Do is matter? It would help but it's not essential.

Awards, recognition and such are like that, and that's fine. Designers? It's an incestuous family....which is OK. Isn't it?

On Jun.10.2007 at 08:27 AM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

It's an incestuous family....which is OK. Isn't it?

Not really.

I was reading Mark Twight's "Kiss or Kill," a book about serious mountaineering, and he talks about the difference between French climbers and American climbers. The French historically perform (i.e., die less) better than pretty much any other nation in the world's more harrowing ranges. Their attitude is one of openness--they share information, listen to anyone who might have something to offer, make few if any pre-judgments, etc. They're better. Significantly. Americans, on the other hand, hoard everything. Keep to themselves. They're interested in individual recognition, rather than collectively "raising the bar."

I don't see that sort of collective thinking in the ad/design world. I see a lot of lip service, I hear a lot of the same catch phrases and calls to action, and absolutely no progress. I see unoriginality CALLED originality (I swear, if I hear that story about how Hershey's asked for a billboard and got a store one more fucking time...) thousands of times over until its accepted as gospel. And I see the four or five major shows showcasing the same work as one another. Wow. Inspiring.

I'm with Sockwell on this. Zzzzzzzzzz....

On Jun.10.2007 at 08:59 PM
felix’s comment is:

(I swear, if I hear that story about how Hershey's asked for a billboard and got a store one more fucking time...)

Truer swear words never spoken... As co-founder (with Collins) of that BIG place we love to hate you have to admit the guy is good for something; storytelling.

It seems storytelling is the latest buzzword in recent memory. story this and story that. Who has time to visualize with so much verbalization at stake?

On Jun.11.2007 at 11:03 AM
Mark A.’s comment is:

Brad, my question was retorical.

Felix, someone ought to hijack some design site and just have a free for all post of brilliant reject designwork.... I get so tired of talk sometimes. I'm thru with it.

Just HAD TO go pushing Johnny's play and my graphics out where they can be seen. I'm a shameless whore.

Hey, I get to meet The Vit tomorrow at the How Conference. You want me to cut off a lock of his hair for you?

On Jun.11.2007 at 02:57 PM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

Mark:

Oh, I know, I know. But was the offer of Vit's hair for me? I had lunch with the guy like five years ago or something when I still lived in Chicago. I had my chance, in other words.

Felix:
To be fair, BIG has done some good stuff that probably accomplished numerous goals for various clients. I just sort of loathe the rambling after awhile...

On Jun.11.2007 at 03:10 PM
m.kingsley’s comment is:

Forgive me, but there are a few items flying back and forth here which need to be addressed, and I'm feeling a bit like a schoolmarm tonight. Perhaps it's the wine I had...

First off, calling "Hitler" on a thread is the sign of weak rhetoric. We try to avoid that. Calling "Hitler" while engaging in a bit of promotion is both a non-sequiter and tragic.

Brad, bromides like "the most creative stuff will continue being done by people not motivated by money or recognition" are self-satisfying and buy into the berets-and-paintbrushes mythology of your average art student. While I respect those with passion, you can also learn from people with differing values. They're not dumb.

I bristle a bit when I hear the standard BIG bashing. Perhaps it's the insufferable righteousness of the converted, since I certainly have let go with both barrels. But after spending a good part of the last couple years up there, I've come to marvel at exactly what Brad claims not to see: collective work where team members (no matter their position or experience) push each other beyond their comfort zones.

Unfortunately, economies of scale don't always allow for such teams to function in smaller studios. This is because such work demands long (billable) hours, long (billable) phases, and more than a couple people.

In order to support this structure, you need to bring in larger clients. Thus the self-promotion, thus the constancy, thus your loathing.

"Irregardless" of the Creativity Awards, there are good points to be gleaned from Brian's post. The one that has had the most traction with me over the past year or so is "the answer isn't more advertising."

We all know that Advertising is in a bad way. If the NFL can run a commercial which shows several executives admitting they don't have any ideas for a Super Bowl commercial, and they're looking to viewers to make one for them; then there's definitely a problem.

No ideas for your Super Bowl commercial? Geesh! Super Bowl commercials are the one thing everyone talks about!

If even ad agencies doubt themselves to the point where they can produce such self-damnation, then people need to start thinking differently. And this excitement -- of the unknown, of new possibilities -- is what Brian is getting at here.

But then, I have been drinking tonight...

On Jun.13.2007 at 01:41 AM
Mark A.’s comment is:

No problem, Kingsley. I accept the criticism gratefully. I just don't find Disney all that wonderful. Didn't want to open a nazi can of worms ...

On Jun.13.2007 at 09:02 AM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

Okay, maybe I'm not writing clearly enough. That's my mistake.

First off, I'm not necessarily bashing Collins or his group. At all. I'm attacking the homogenized qualities of the major "creative" shows. The work through and throughout is the same. We'll see largely the same stuff in the more Americanized shows, and then the International Shows will have a striking similarity about them, too. This of course is nothing new and it's not even inherently BAD. But to assume that ANY of those shows contain "the best work" is delusional at worst and incomplete at best.

My second point was less clear--because, looking back on it, it might sound like I'm championing "collective thinking." That is not a good thing. What I'm looking for is people sharing knowledge, skills, discoveries, and ideas, not people thinking as "a group." I don't think you attacked that specifically though. Either way, I'm not saying nor would I say that this sense of sharing and exchange somehow doesn't apply to Mr. Collins or B.I.G. If it was implied, that's my error in not delineating my arguments clearly enough. But the fact remains: I never even directly connected my rant to an assumption about the operation of an organization. The ad/design world in general? It's insular. Those in the center of any sort of "crowd" often speak of out "accepting" the group is. Being insular applies to pretty much every type of group worldwide though. That's nothing new.

NYC and SF and LA are much busier centers of activity for this industry than anywhere else. Most ad shops there relied heavily on big giant media buys and profited greatly from TV production for decades, until all that start changing 7 years ago and radically changing within the past 3. It was a big shock to many agencies and they've reacted well for the most part. But, as the past two Presidential elections taught us, the coasts are not the center of the world ( i.e., W reigns as King of America because "flyover country" elected him). Just because its new to them doesn't mean its actually new. I live in St. Louis. Since the mid-1980s, ALL of the shops here have had to do integrated work. Not one has ever made more than 50% of their revenue from traditional advertising-- and as I've heard from those who were there, that even includes the now defunct D'Arcy office. Right now, its even more extreme.

One of the few things I appreciate about the midwest is that the general attitude, in regards to this stuff, is that we'll do what we have to in order to help our clients succeed. We won't ramble on about anything being dynamic or visionary or profoundly original--because none of it is.

And I continue to find children and sometimes adolescents far more creative than people who do it for a career. I'll never forget watching Ty Montague give a presentation of various videos and animations created by kids who just felt like doing something new, and how W+K wisely incorporated some of that thinking. These kids weren't motivated by winning a Lion or Pencil. That doesn't mean they're better, because obviously, being a professional requires a lot more balance and nuance. I never said anything about the beret-wearing art school crowd, because many of those people really want the recognition.

On Jun.13.2007 at 01:27 PM
felix’s comment is:

Creative people are 50% ego and 50% insecurity. They need to constantly be told they're good and they're loved. And nobody's figured out a way to celebrate the people who do interesting, multimedia accomplishments on behalf of brands.

This and other real jewels of advertising wisdom from the
ad man behind "1984".

On Jun.13.2007 at 01:54 PM