AdMan: Drugs, sex and magic. Why creativity produces productivity

Advertising guru Steve Henry sets the record straight on why it’s great to work in advertising

In my view there’s only one reason to be in the ad industry, and it’s not necessarily the drugs.

Or the sex.

(Although these things are subjective, and you should definitely form your own opinions.) It’s because it’s a creative industry, and that differentiates it from things like estate agency or being a commissioner of TV programmes.

So, what’s creativity about? Risk. As Juliette Binoche said in an interview recently - “If it’s not a risk, it’s not a film”. (She might want to share that insight with the commissioners of film sequels, who are probably called something like Harold Brockman the Second, i.e. people who are sequels themselves, but she’s right.)

One of the legends of US advertising, George Lois, was interviewed recently in Campaign magazine and he was of the same opinion. George is most famous for climbing onto a window ledge and threatening to jump when a client didn’t buy one of his ads - a position most people would like to see MORE admen in, probably on a daily basis…

But actually George is a genuine creative tour de force (one of about five to have worked in advertising), and he said the same thing as Ms Binoche: that you need to create work that is reckless and bold.

“Better to have your work seen and remembered or you’ve struck out. There is no middle ground.” Well I wish that was true but unfortunately, George, there is a middle ground and it’s f**king huge.

This middle-ground rests on a belief among some people in the industry that if you just throw money at a brand, that’ll work. I wish that didn’t work. I really wish it didn’t. But actually it can work. It’s just that it creates brand loyalty with all the adhesiveness of a post-it note that’s been used seven times and then retrieved from the bin. It’s been given some poncey jargon-name like ‘low attention processing’, and it works like this.

When you buy coffee in a supermarket, you don’t want to take ten minutes mulling over the brand values of the various coffees on offer. Life’s too short.

Coffee’s too boring. So you go for a name you know. So, some marketeers think it’s enough to just make your logo big and plaster it everywhere. It’s arrogant, patronising vandalism, in my view.

It’s like those brands that bribe you to “like” them on Facebook with a promotion. Which always reminds me of the wimpy kid at school who told you that his dad could get tickets for the football match. There are whole cities in Asia covered in the logos of electronics giants - although whether they’re Samsung or Sanyo, nobody outside the marketing departments of those companies really cares.

Real people don’t like this approach. They consider it somewhere between an irritant and an evil pollutant. But it does work – up to a point.

Now I am not advocating this at all. (Which you may have gathered from my use of the term “arrogant, patronising vandalism” above.) I am just pointing it out.

I remember years ago a copywriter called Chris Wilkins came up with the riposte to this approach. He said that just because it works, doesn’t mean there isn’t a BETTER way of working. And the “better” model is to use creativity -  to make something that feels like content, not advertising.

The aim should be to create the stuff that people want to engage with, not the stuff that interrupts it.

(Now we hit an irony because Chris Wilkins is currently the man behind the spate of Go Compare ads, which almost certainly are the worst ads in any medium right now. But as Samuel Beckett said of life in the ad business “we lose our hair, our teeth, our bloom, our ideals.”)

So, let’s get back to risk-taking, and the thing which I’ve noticed is this: the line between fear and excitement is wafer-thin. If you’ve got to give a speech you’ll know this feeling - one half of you is loving it, the other half is crapping yourself. You’ve got to have that feeling with any creative project. It’s like the first night of a play - will this work?

In a new book called Imagine, Jonah Lehrer attempts to analyse how creativity works, by diving into areas of the brain like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. But I can tell him that 
creativity can actually be found in that area where the brain says: “I haven’t got a f**king clue if this is going to work”.

But it’s interesting – because risks do genuinely bring their own rewards.

Goethe* put it better …

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy: the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness…. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation/ there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which/ kills countless ideas and splendid plans:

“That the moment one definitely commits oneself,/ then Providence moves, too.

 “All sorts of things occur to help one/that would never otherwise have occurred.  

“A whole stream of events issue from the decision,/ raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen / incidents and meetings and material assistance,/ which no man could dream would have come his way.

“Whatever you can do or dream you can,/ begin it.

“Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

“Begin it now.”

*The attribution of this quote has been questioned by scholars. Whether Goethe wrote it or not, I really like it.



Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in Campaign Magazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising overthe past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.

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