Archive for the ‘ culture ’ Category

Art or Vandalism?

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Arches

For me, one of the greatest luxuries of being on holidays is just sitting around and watching the real world pass by. It’s a rare pleasure, to have time on your hands, to have space in your head.

Here in London I sleepwalk. Too fixated on getting to my destination, my mind lost in work or errands or needless stresses. When I’m away, I’m aware. Everything’s different and everything’s interesting.

In Argentina (where I’ve just returned from honeymoon), there was no shortage of fascinating scenery, particularly in Buenos Aires where the streets are fast becoming a living tapestry of politics and art. The city is becoming one of the graffiti capitals of the world, flooded with every kind of expression from crappy name tagging to stunning large scale murals.

This is partly thanks to some funny planning laws in BA which mandate that buildings can only have entrances on two sides, leaving large uninterrupted walls just begging to be filled in. And it’s partly because of a strong anti-establishment vibe in a country which has had huge political unrest and economic instability.

But what’s interesting about the street art scene here, according to my insightful graffitimundo tour guide, is that unlike the US movement in the 80s and 90s, it’s never had that hard subversive edge and it isn’t driven by territorial gang warfare. The Argentinian scene was started by the rich middle class kids, who in Argentina’s wealthier times, travelled to places like Miami and New York and wanted to copy what they saw there.

As a result, many graffiti artists are professional graphic designers and fashion designers, people with a nine to five job that paint outside on their off-time. And street art is not just tolerated, but increasingly encouraged by the community and the government. In London, we see stencils and spray paint dominating, because graffiti artists here have to work at lightening speed before someone calls the police. In BA, artists can use paint and rollers and even scaffolding, creating intricate designs over a few afternoons. They can collaborate in groups, meshing different artistic styles together.

While traditional graffiti is often full of private in-group messages, only understood by a niche community that get the codes, in BA, many of the artists are trying to reach a wider mainstream audience. Whether through positive and beautiful images of hope, or through thought-provoking themes like that of Jaz, a prolific artist who creates striking images of battling beasts in football shorts, always two identical sides of the same coin, a commentary on the violent football hooliganism within the country.

In truth it’s a mixed bag – and this is where I think it draws a parallel with advertising. There’s the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Some would debate whether there’s enough artistic merit overall to justify the vandalism, the public intrusion. And it’s so totally ephemeral. As artists continually churn out new work, they paint over the pieces that were there before. It’s a rare piece which is respected enough to be left untouched by other artists or taggers. Painstakingly created, casually painted over and forgotten.

But like everything else, the good stuff stands out, makes an impact and lasts the longest.

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Mudblood Planners

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Not so long ago I was talking to a well-respected planner, who spoke with pride about the day his colleague told him that he had successfully “shaken off that media guy reputation”. He, like me, had started his career in a media agency. At the time I was genuinely surprised to see that he carried this upbringing like it was some kind of stigma. I wondered why he felt so ashamed.

Another planner, who started out working client-side as a brand manager, told me she had toyed with the prospect of a communications planning role in a large media agency and was fiercely warned against it by everyone she met from recruiters to Heads of Planning. When it comes to industry reputation, it was made clear to her that media would be a backward career step.

This perception is at odds with my own experience – having worked on both sides of the fence I would still maintain that some of the smartest and most creative people I’ve ever worked with, are in media agencies today. But the prejudice is ingrained and though subtle, is hard to miss when you’re on the receiving end. Similarly the same once client-side planner spoke about the biases she sometimes faces. She isn’t seen as a “pure-bred” planner.

When it comes to planning, there’s definitely a preferred pedigree. It works off the assumption that more years in “traditional” planning, in the right kind of agency, will make you a superior planner. I wonder whether this is true?

Most interestingly, this assumption disregards the advantages that come with being a mongrel, mudblood planner. There’s a strong skill-set that people from client-side, digital, media or direct bring, from understanding research to understanding broader marketing and business, or the role of return on investment in advertising. These skills are often surprisingly weak in traditional planning departments despite their importance to making effective work and crucially, to selling it in to senior stakeholders.

But this assumption also overlooks another critical advantage. The creative advantage that comes with being an outsider.

Throughout history many of the best known creative thinkers have been outsiders, whether as foreign immigrants in a new country or misfits at the edge of mainstream culture. And there’s a good reason for this.

Outsiders see things differently. They don’t take the accepted way of doing things as agiven. They look at problems from a different angle. They identify new problems or solutions which insiders can’t see.  And they come with a bundle of unique influences, ready to collide and connect and form creative ideas.

There’s a whole host of mudblood planners out there now. They have muddled career pathways and it’s exactly this diversity that make them so valuable to both creativity and business. And as our industry evolves to take on new tasks and revenue streams, to regain a foothold in the C-Suite, these people may be offering exactly what agencies have been missing.

Forcing it never works

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I feel sorry for Marissa Mayer because if she was a man, no one would expect her to be anything other than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

But she’s not a man, she’s a woman. One of the only women to hold such a powerful post. One of the few female leaders in silicon valley. And because of her rare achievement, she’s now a high profile role model – whether she likes it or not.

Which means everything she does will be scrutinized from the perspective of gender, in a way it literally never is for a man. And as unfair as that is, it explains why there is such disappointment when she appears to be setting back progress for working women. Hard won gains like time flexibility and remote working, which have allowed mothers to take care of children while also maintaining a career. The fact is however, while it’s clearly a hot issue for women as long as they are still the primary caregivers in the home, at it’s heart it’s an issue for everyone.

Penelope Trunk, who I always enjoy reading though frequently disagree with, wrote a piece on the issue which was incredibly depressing, with passages like this:

The reality of today’s workforce is that if you want to have a big job where you have prestige and money and power, you probably need a stay-at-home spouse. Or two full-time nannies. Which means most people don’t have the option to go on the fast track, because most people have not set their lives up this way. So let’s just admit that most of us are not on the fast-track. Stop bitching that people won’t let slow people on the fast track. Stop saying that it’s bad for family. It’s great for family. It means people will not continue operating under the delusion that you can be a hands-on parent and a top performer. People will make real choices and own those choices.

This is definitely a reflection of professional America’s unhealthy relationship with work, but it also spills into many fields across Europe. The idea that people are either fast track or slow track is ludicrous. There is a huge spectrum in between and often the most talented and creative people are exactly that because they have a wide range of interests and influences in their lives. They’re out in the world, aswell as the office.

So a reality check.

It’s the 21st century and in the affluent developed world at least, we are fortunate to have never lived in a more peaceful, comfortable and educated society. Technological innovation has given us unprecedented ability to work effectively and efficiently at any time or location. Why  on earth would anyone want to work like a slave in shackles, or only develop one aspect of their lives at the expense of all others?

Coming back to Marissa’s main issue however, she clearly is trying to figure out how to galvanize Yahoo and stimulate creativity and innovation, and this is a valid problem. What both she and Penelope are missing however, is any simple human insight into how companies instill this passion and dedication in their staff. Because their strategy definitely won’t work.

Whether you lead with the autocratic perfectionism of Steve Jobs or the geeky humanistic spirit of Sergey and Brin, people make a decision to buy into the purpose of a company and give their time and skills towards building it. As Penelope herself writes:

In Silicon Valley, home to Facebook, Google, Airbnb, none of most desirable companies make room for a personal life. They don’t have to. They have plenty of people hoping to give up their whole life to the company.

The point here is that this professional commitment is voluntary. It can’t be forced.

And if passion is lacking in your company, as it evidently seems to be in Yahoo, sending a mandate isn’t going to fix that. Especially one that in reality only affected a small fraction of employees, yet sent a huge message to the rest of the company. A message which frankly smacked of self interest on the part of their management team. It sounded like they cared more about the company, than the people within it. And that’s never going to win people’s hearts and minds.  Richard Branson says for him the priorities go: staff, customers, shareholders. If I were Marissa Mayer, I would put that on my wall.

How Creative Agencies Can Become More Creative

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Advertising agencies talk a lot about their culture. They’ve rightly identified that getting the culture right is half the battle when it comes to getting the work right. The tricky part is that it’s so damn elusive. And often our attempts to influence this sensitive eco-system have the same results as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 

One of my favourite London organisations, the innovative School of Life, are running an interesting sounding seminar on “living with a creative mind” and they’ve identified five principles for getting the best out of creative people. It makes for an interesting checklist when assessing how well your agency is set up:

 1.   Affirmation

Apparently creative people need a lot of encouragement. Because they may appear confident but are also plagued with insecurities. I would say this rings true, but is also true of pretty much every human being – some people are just better at hiding their self-doubt. Affirmation (real, genuine, positive comments rather than false flattery of course), is the easiest and cheapest way to motivate your staff. And yet so many managers haven’t mastered it yet.

 2.   Permission to Fail

I imagine this varies quite a bit from agency to agency depending on their appetite for risk and glory. For an agency like Wieden & Kennedy, embracing failure is part of their DNA. Whereas the established safe pair of hands BBDO, may have more to lose from a wild departure from best practice. At a more micro-level, agencies need to watch out for blame culture. The best managers protect their teams. This gives people the security to fully focus on the win, instead of obsessively guarding against minor losses.

 3.   Freedom from Fear

Linked to number 2. Fear and anxiety cause the brain to narrow in on the immediate threat. That’s convergent thinking, rather than the expansive divergent thinking that’s required for creativity. In other words, when our backs are up against it, survival is the only thing we can focus on. That doesn’t leave much brain space for connecting random interesting thoughts. So if you want to increase creativity, look at the daily interactions of your teams. If they are tense, anxious or defensive, the resultant work will be shit. It’s also another reason why “talent doesn’t excuse temperament”. Regardless of technical ability, if there’s someone who’s a negative influence on others, they’re dragging your overall creative output down.

 4.   Room to Explore

This is a principle most agencies seem to be quite aware of – in theory, if not in practice. Creative people need both time and often physical space to explore random ideas and stimulus so that they can make new connections. It’s why we’re all allowed to watch Youtube and pop out to a coffee shop for a meeting every so often. But it’s also the first thing to fall by the wayside when people get busy. Given that creative thinking is part of what we’re paid for, this should be a mandatory requirement and way of working, not a luxury.

 5.   Sticking with their Tribe

Now this one has implications for agency layout. A number of people I’ve spoken to recently have mentioned the benefits of putting the creative department back together. And arguably the planning department too. There are clearly benefits from sitting in account teams, but I suspect they err on the side of efficiency rather than creativity. Putting like with like, raises everyone’s game within their discipline. Both through comparative competition and more innocuously through casual chats and sharing inspiration. The downside of course is finding other ways to encourage good working relationships across departments and avoid ghettos. But as the advertising process becomes more collaborative and iterative, hopefully this will follow naturally – from necessity if nothing else!

Learning from Everyone

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It’s funny how it’s usually the meetings where you’re completely lost and haven’t a clue what’s being talked about, that you’re most reticent to ask a question. A stupid question will just expose your ignorance. Better to stay quiet and be thought a fool, than speak and remove all doubt.

And the more senior you are, the harder it is to reveal a lack of understanding or expertise in front of colleagues. Part of this is because our cultural image of great leaders is about being in control, all knowing. We’re programmed to think that asking for advice or asking for help, is an admission of weakness, instead of strength.

In the real world though, the greatest leaders are those who show humility and often vulnerability too. You can’t inspire people if you don’t connect with them. And it’s hard to connect with superhumans. They’re just too different from the rest of us.

That’s why one of the biggest things holding back leaders today is that pressure to maintain an unflappable public face. It creates distance between management and staff. It creates barriers to open conversations. And it’s an out-dated approach from a different time. A time when companies were run on top-down authoritarian leadership. Where employees did what they were told, stayed in their boxes, clocked in and out, left their soul at the door every morning to be picked up again at 5PM.

Now we live in a different world. It’s a world where education and access to information are no longer the preserve of the powerful few, but are increasingly democratised. Which means the person at the top may no longer know best. It means more people will be questioning authority and the status quo. It makes it likely that people won’t be content to keep their head down and climb the progress ladder step by step. After all, that’s what happens in the kingdom when the peasants learn to read…

And rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, the best companies are evolving to gain the benefit of a workforce with higher expectations for their jobs.

Like having reverse mentorship schemes where management buddy up with junior staff, not to appease them, or pretend to be listening, but to genuinely learn new skills and new ways of thinking.

Like abolishing performance reviews (which if we’re really honest, are more about keeping salary costs down than genuine staff development – they tend to be quite rubbish at that), and even replacing them with bottom up staff appraisals of how the company is performing and what could be improved.

There’s a lot to learn from everyone if we’re open and interested enough to want to listen. None of us is smarter than all of us – the collective knowledge of all staff will only help businesses do better. And it comes with the happy side effect of happier staff too. Motivated workers and shared responsibility for success.

The only wonder is that in 2013, this is still relatively rare practice. So there’s definitely a first mover advantage up for grabs – the best leaders will take it.

Choosing between money and meaning

When did it become the middle class dream to quit your well paid job and open up a little artisan coffee shop in the slightly dingy part of town? I can’t count the number of people who have confessed this secret fantasy to me recently, and I know one person who has bitten the bullet to make it happen. It’s easy to see the allure. Especially for Generation Y (of which I am just on the verge) who have grown up with the expectation that work should be a rewarding and empowering pursuit, not a ball and chain around your neck.

This is partly because the wealthy western world is moving higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s no longer enough for jobs to provide money, security and status. Now many of us are looking for careers which help us grow as people and reach our full potential. And that doesn’t just mean stimulating our brains, but our heart and soul aswell. In 1980 21% of British people felt the need to “fulfil myself as an individual by being more creative” whereas in 2012 this has risen to a staggering 61% (NVision). Creativity is no longer the sole domain of bohemians.  “Making stuff” has gone mainstream. “Making a difference” is building momentum.

London now feels to me to be a city divided (for aspiring professionals at least) into those who chase money and those who chase meaning. Success looks different depending on where you fall on this spectrum. And I see two parallel cities sitting side by side. There is the city of bankers and lawyers, whose astronomical wages allow them to exist on a higher plane to their once-while peers. And there is the city of the aspiring bloggers/fashionistas/tech start-ups/foodies/social entrepreneurs, rich in education and taste but priced out of ever owning their flat. They’re cycling to work partly for health and environmental reasons, partly because the tube is too expensive.

One of the reasons I decided to go into advertising was because it felt like I could have the best of both of these worlds. A career where you could make a bit of money while also fulfilling your intellectual and creative ambition. Of course what you realise once you’re in, is that you will inevitably still have to make that choice, at least once in your career. You’ll have to be honest with yourself: which is more important to you, money or meaning? Do you take the high paying job with the status boosting title and accept that the work will not be that exciting or ground-breaking. Or do you punt for the innovative hotshop where the drive is high, client budgets are low, output is near invisible and wages are modest. Most people will fall somewhere between the two. The ultimate dream is to have both creativity and commerce, but is that an impossible ask, or an outcome limited to the lucky few?

Perhaps we should take lessons from Hollywood. They don’t choose money or meaning, they alternate. The smartest actors do the big -budget box-office smash to earn enough money and credibility to invest into their indie project, which in turn gains the Oscars and kudos to drum up the next bankable role. That’s how George, Brad and Johnny roll. Less idealism, more pragmatism. Oprah Winfrey, the original celebrity sage sums it up best:

“You CAN have it all. You just can’t have it all at once”

What Makes Us Creative

Tommy McHugh spent most of his life beating the living shit out of people, injecting heroin and spending time in jail. At age 51 he had a stroke causing two small haemorrhages on both sides of his brain, which doctors managed to repair using a metal clip and coil.

When Tommy returned home from hospital he couldn’t walk. He couldn’t eat. He didn’t recognize his ex-wife who was looking after him. He spoke in an odd rhyming stream of words. His ex-wife recognized that this was his way of trying to communicate, so she gave him a pad and paper to express himself in writing. Tommy started writing poetry and then sketching, painting and sculpting. As he regained his memory and physical functions, a dramatically different personality revealed itself. Gone was the dark aggressive character he had been for half a century. Instead there was a calm, sensitive and thoughtful man. He had also retained this intense compulsion to create art.

No one knows exactly what happened from a medical perspective. All the neuropsychologist could suggest was that the brain damage had disinhibited the neural pathways which were blocking Tommy’s sensitive side and creative tendencies from coming to the fore.

Tommy has said poignantly:

“It’s opened me up to the person I feel I should have been 40 years ago”

As someone who works in the creative industries, I’ve always had a strong belief that creativity is something which can be nurtured, developed and stretched. Cases like Tommy’s inevitably raise the question, how much of creativity is biologically determined?

We know that particular people are born with a greater tendency towards creativity. Openness is an innate personality trait often highly correlated with creativity in both the arts and sciences. There’s also a mixed association with low conscientiousness. Creativity is also linked with higher levels of general intelligence, which has a large genetic component.

But we also know that context (am I in a creative mindset) and physical environment can play a big role in stimulating creativity. And we know that mood can substantially influence creativity. When we are happy, more cognitive processes become available, our attention broadens and our cognitive flexibility increases, so we can associate more elements together which is conducive to creative thinking. Workplace studies have shown that the more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking they evidence that day, and the creative bump carries over into the next day—even if the mood doesn’t last until then.

McHugh has clearly reflected a lot on what has happened to him and why:

“I fight alone to understand the person I am now, the artist that you see, the human being that you see.  It’s a learning lesson for me every day of my life. And it’s valuable.

It’s just difficult for me to get understanding from any other people, to motivate a neural psychologist somewhere, to motivate a man who wants to interpret the clip and the coil in the brain here, to understand that it’s not just me who’s got this. We’ve all got it. In 20 or 30 years time they’ll come out with a mental thinking cap. They’ll plug it on your brain, you’ll be able to be an artist. Or a kook. Or a ballet dancer. Or a rock and roll singer”

Maybe the stroke fundamentally altered Tommy’s brain, or maybe as the psychologist suggested, this creative side was dormant but ready to be released when the brain pathways were damaged.  But perhaps it didn’t have to be physical damage that triggered this release.

Maybe if Tommy had been reached at a younger age. If he had been taught how to control his aggression and given strategies to manage his impulses. If he had grown up in an encouraging home environment or a more open school. If he had lived a happier and more stable life. Tommy’s right when he says “we’ve all got it”. But I don’t believe the answer is a metal thinking cap. Instead of trying to alter people, we need to alter the conditions. And there are  lots of ways we can start to do that. It’s not easy but it is possible. Especially if you believe that everyone has talent which can flourish in the right environment.

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