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Experience and advertising

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Most creative people, in agencies throughout the world, have an encyclopedic knowledge of who wrote and art directed great ads of the past, going back almost half a century. Ask about the VW ads from the 1960s, Hamlet ads from the 1970s, Apple ads from the 1980s, Nike ads from the 1990s, etc.

Ask who created the British Airways ‘Face’ or Tango ‘slap’, Levis or Diesel, Perdue or Hathaway work.

Ask them even who directed the ‘1984’ TVC or “Where’s the beef? Creative people pore over award annuals, creative magazines that reproduce ads in loving detail and even, occasionally, advertising books that hero great work.

This is part of the problem. Advertising people live in a circle of mirrors. A great deal can be learned from the greats, no question.

Case histories of all types are telling. And of course you should be a full bottle on your craft. But it’s sometimes hard going forward while you’re staring constantly in the rear view mirror.

It’s hard to be original when you’re steeped in what has been. A walk down a creative corridor anywhere, almost anytime of day, will reveal too many noses stuck in advertising books. Stuck in the past.

Before I start, I’d like to ask a few questions:

Have you been arrested?
Have you exchanged stories with a stranger this week?
Have you been beaten senseless in a street fight?
Have you worked in other industries other than advertising?
Have you been fired from your job?
Have you had a near death experience?
Have you been refused service in a restaurant because of your colour?
Have you fought in a war?
Have you cried so uncontrollably that you had to vomit?
Were you picked on in school?
Did you pick on other people in school?
Have you been in a threesome?
Have you ever been lost without money in a foreign country?
Have you ever drunk a glass of vinegar?

It’s a pool that you can tap into whenever you write. A very important pool. Even for advertising. Especially for advertising.

A person who’s just had their heart broken sees the world differently to someone who never has and will express themselves differently.

Just as a person who’s been addicted to drugs sees the world differently to someone who hasn’t. They just do. They’re changed by their experience.

Everything we experience feeds us. And because our personal experiences are usually truths of some sort. It’s hard to lake that.

One of the best things I’ve ever done is to attend a writer’s workshop with chuck palyhnuck (the author of fight club).

Someone handed in a story of concealing traces of marijuana for an army drug test by drinking vinegar.

“Did you drink vinegar when you wrote this?” Chuck asked “Well, no” was the writer’s reply. “It shows” he said.

“you can feel it when someone has actually experienced it.” I believe the best work always seems to be based on some kind of truth.

That’s the stuff that resonates. That’s the stuff that gets cynical consumers to lower their guards.

When I first joined Wieden & Kennedy I had been an avid student of advertising. I was proud of all the ads and annuals I had memorized.

That was until I was confronted by Jim Riswold, a trained philosopher who had turned his hand to advertising and the writer of some of Nike’s most famous ads (“Spike and Mike”, “Instant Karma,” “Hello World”).

He wasn’t a student of advertising at all. He hated advertising. He told us to throw away our annuals, study culture, then pillage it for ideas.

“You don’t find originality by looking at what’s been done before.” He was looking for unique voices not derivative ones.

Our cultures provide us with experiences which affect our personal ways of seeing things. For example, anyone who has lived in the UK will know that the English and the French aren’t terribly fond of each other.

It’s not something that consumer’s everyday thought but it’s there in the national psyche, just waiting for someone to use it.

And use it Howell Henery did with their ad for Black Currant Tango. It resonated to sell because they had tapped into that cultural truth.

I daresay this way of thinking could work somewhere else. Japan, Korea? Greece, Turkey? North and South India? It’s a pretty human sentiment, after all.

A person who has grown up in Asia is going to see the worlds slightly differently from someone who grew up in America or England.

That doesn’t mean we’re all so different and will never understand one another. I don’t subscribe to the view that only Asians know how to advertise to an Asian market.

It’s as short-sighted as thinking that only Europeans know how to advertise to a European market.

People are more similar than they are different. There’s far more unifying us than separating us.

We all want to love. Be loved. We all eat. We all want security. And we all like to buy stuff. The contexts may change but people generally don’t.

Our cultures help shape our ways of seeing things. And different ways of seeing things are a valuable resource in advertising where we all feel like we’ve seen everything before.

About 10 years ago, Sweden started to appear on the world advertising map. They had a strange way of looking at things, to say the least.

And it showed in their work. The Diesel advertising coming out of Paradiset in Stockholm was hugely successful.

The Swedish agency’s strangely kitsch and ironic point of view turned out to be really appealing to cynical Generation X.

Traktor, a group of Swedish directors responsible for producing much of the Diesel work became the most sought-after directors in the world.

In turn, their work started to influence advertising in the US and the UK. But what happens when you displace some of those Swedes and put them in a new environment?

Would they still be different? Would they be understood? Two of the Diesel creative, Linus and Paul ventured to the US to try their hand at Fallon. Here’s a little of what they did.

It didn’t look like anything else in the US, which meant it stood out like the proverbial dogs’ balls. And, once again, helped change advertising a little more over there.

Other creative and agencies started trying to do more kitsch and ironic work. Remember the C-Net campaign from Leagus in San Francisco and the Discovery.com campaign from Hal Riney?

Both campaigns incidentally, directed by Traktor. They had changed the industry in the US by showing them a new voice.

When Neil French first turned up in Singapore, he brought a unique voice that changed the market there.

When you mixed that up with Australians like jim Aitchison, the style started to evolve further. The next generation helped bring Singapore its own flavour.

People like Calvin sho and Francis Wee took those European and Australian influences and brought their own sensibilities and experiences to them.

Thanks to all that influencing and cross-fertilization, Singapore now has it’s own definitive advertising style.

Advertising is always better when you try to mix things up. Wieden & Kennedy did it in throughout the 90s.

They brought in non-advertising people and made them work with ad people. They brought in designers and architects and architects and mixed them up with philosophers and just plain odd people.

Say what you like about their work then, but you can’t accuse it of being like anyone else’s. It was unique. It was honest. It was thoughtful and funny and ironic and provocative. It wasn’t like advertising.

They also brought athletes to work on the advertising. They realized that sport was a culture with its own truths. And if you weren’t being authentic, then your audience would reject you.

No one wants to hang out with a phoney. Of course, the Swedes weren’t the first group of invading foreigners to help diversify advertising voices.

There were Australians going to the UK and the US a decade or so earlier. Eugene Cheong and Tan shen Guan had ventured over to the UK to try and add their voices to the mix. And we’ve already talked about Neil.

So what happens when you start taking voices out of Asian and get them to apply some of their thoughts and memories in the Western market? Well, a good example is Tarsem’s “Elephant” spot for Coke.

He had seen elephants swimming while growing up in India and it added a fresh image to most of our visual psyches.

Because you don’t see many swimming elephants in Atlanta. I’m going to bastardise a Tarsem quote, but I think it’s an important insight into what we do. “You don’t pay me for the film I shoot or the awards I’ve taken, every movie I’ve seen.”

With changing emigration and more open, diverse, worldly media, more foreign and alien experiences start to overflow and permeate into other cultures.

You start to see some interesting imagery come from unexpected places. The Peugeot Sculptor spot was from an Italian agency, for a French care, with an Indian theme.

I went to Singapore in 1992 because, While at O&M London, I had heard about Eugene Cheong and shen Guan. Well, to be honest I had heard that they said it was really easy to sell work out there.

Of course they were lying. But still it got me to up and leave. That and being fired from my job in London.

So I brought my own set of experiences and ways of seeing to Singapore, and had my ways of seeing changed by the place.

The more places I live in, the more different ways of seeing things I’m exposed to. Even if I misinterpret them, I’m, still changed. And, just perhaps, more unique. And the more unique I become, the more valuable I become.

For instance, in England when the sun comes out, we all rush to try and soak in as many rays as possible. Because we never know when we’re going to see it again.

So imagine my surprise when I go out walking with my wife, who is from India. And she starts taking this really convoluted route to get to places.

The sun’s not such a big treat for her. In fact, she tries to avoid it at all costs. I’d be saying, “Where are you going, the shops are over here?”

Andy, my old partner, experienced the same thing when he moved to Singapore. He was astounded too.

Well, you store that stuff away. Until one day you write a spot about a woman running a convoluted route to stay in the shade.

I doubt whether Andy or I would have known that without having observed things in Asia. Little things.

So what happens when you get an Indian Kid from Singapore, send him over to England at the age of seven months, “bring him up with West Indians, and then get him to live and work in four different continents?

Hopefully you get a different way of seeing things. So what am I getting at? Don’t be closed.

Look for new experiences. Reals ones, preferably. If you can, don’t go straight from school, to college to advertising. Get arrested first. Leave the country. Go out and take you experiences elsewhere.

Then come back changed and apply that new modified voice at home. Or somewhere else again Drunk and bored at a Christmas party once, I decided to piss off my friend’s dog who had been following me around.

I decided to follow it around until it snapped. It took about 45 minutes. And I did get bitten. But 17 years later it became the inspiration for Tailgating.
Keywords: advertising, experience,


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