Dumb Ways to Die creator: Nothing stymies brave work like layers of bullshit

John Mescall (with trophy) collects the 2013 Cannes Lions Grand Prix

Why did Australia clean up at Cannes? According to Havas PR's US chief Marian Salzman, it's because Aussie work is more 'ballsy' than the 'feminised' and 'politically correct' communications coming out of other territories. Here John Mescall, executive creative director at McCann Melbourne and the man behind Dumb Ways to Die, explains why it's so important to break the rules...

Well, this is no fun.

When Marian Salzman wrote her opinion piece ‘perhaps there’s a correlation between small countries and big balls when it comes to creating and selling bold ideas that shake up the status quo’, I was asked to provide my own opinion piece on her opinion piece.

I know how these things are meant to work – vigorous rebuttal and violent disagreement. Trouble is, she’s dead right. But to keep things interesting, how about I violently agree with her and take it from there?

What sparked Marian’s piece was Australia’s stellar performance at Cannes this year, where we ranked second behind the USA. This was no fluke: together with our mates in New Zealand we’ve been punching above our weight for years.

In seeking an explanation, she suggests that perhaps it’s the fact that Australian agencies aren’t burdened by the command & control model that clearly exists in other markets.

Nothing stymies brave work like hierarchy, layers of bullshit and centralised control mechanisms. We all know this. And for the most part, Australian agencies (at least the better ones) are flat, open meritocracies.

(From a personal viewpoint, I am fanatical about running our agency this way and cannot ever imagine getting great work out of an office where titles and seniority meant more than the quality of the thinking.)

What makes us like this? I think there are three things at play. Firstly, as a culture we have a healthy disrespect for authority, right across society. And this isn’t just an agency thing either – our best clients are troublemakers too. I see my clients as co-conspirators, and together we seek to get one up on the world.

Secondly, we’re comparatively small. Even our biggest agencies are small by North American standards. This gives us a huge advantage, because being big and rich can make you soft and lazy. Throwing money at a problem is rarely an option for us.

And finally, we’re an island 10,000km from anywhere. Isolation not only gives you really peculiar animal life, it also fosters independence of thought. Without really trying, we tend to think a little differently to everyone else. How could we not?

Anti-authoritarian, ingenious, unique. These are three pretty good traits in anyone who wants to create breakthrough work. But let’s get to probably the most contentious part of Marian’s piece… her belief that things in the American PR industry have become too ‘feminized’ and too politically correct.

I’m glad she said it and not me, because guys can’t say stuff like that without being kicked in the head. Anyway, I totally agree with her observation that too many of us have had our rough edges knocked off and polished to a dull sheen. It’s hard to do breakthrough work if you’re constantly treading carefully, afraid of upsetting or offending.

We can argue whether words like ‘ballsy’ are the best descriptor for the kind of adventurous work we’re talking about. Personally I know a lot of women with (metaphorical) balls, cojones, nuts… whatever. But until someone creates a gender-neutral version of ballsy, I guess it’ll have to do.

But it is a little sad that it’s come to this… that work which is deliberately provocative and seeks to upset the status quo is somehow seen as risky and an example of outlier behavior. This is a tough world; highly competitive. What possible excuse can anyone have for being timid in such an environment?

Surely our job is to be permanently dissatisfied with the status quo; to loathe it and to create work (and create discussions around the work) that don’t just move the needle, but move the category to a whole new place. We won’t always succeed (that’s the problem with having grand ambitions), but if that isn’t the goal, how can you sleep at night? As a marketer, as a PR professional, as an agency creative?

Playing by the rules may seem like the safe option in troubled times, but conventionality is a false god. It provides the illusion of safety, but in reality it offers little more than a slow, inevitable demise.

I’m proud to come from a country that still knows how to break the rules, and I’m also more than a little saddened that friends and colleagues in the US (and now Marian) tell me that conformism has taken hold to such an extent. To be blunt, America shouldn’t need to take lessons from Australia about encouraging and rewarding rebelliousness: you guys invented this shit.

We’re not here to keep the wheels turning, we’re here to make a difference. The Irish have a great saying: ‘You’re a long time dead’. Whatever you do, don’t die wondering.

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