A month ago, I was lucky enough to be one of the judges of The Drum Creative Awards.
In one of the breaks, reporter Katie Deighton asked me the question, “What is the most important piece of advertising you’ve ever done?”
I’ve never been asked that before.
What’s your favourite ad, yes.
What are you proudest of, yes.
What’s your most awarded campaign, yes.
But, important? No.
I gave her a poor answer.
“When I croak, they will not write on my headstone, ‘Here lies the man who wrote Accrington Stanley,’ will they?”
But I was pompous and thoughtless.
And if she were to ask me again, this is what I might say…
Almost every ad I’ve ever written was important – important enough to the clients who commissioned them to write a brief. And every brief was – is – as much a declaration of a set of beliefs as a manifestation of hope.
It’s a belief that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, and that in a free market economy, the work will be of value. The work will sell stuff today, or, in helping build the brand, someday in the future.
And selling stuff is good, because it creates the profits that pay for new ideas and better products at better prices, which, in turn, can build a bigger factory, so there are more jobs for people, who simply want to live comfortable lives.
I say ‘almost’ every ad because I do remember one campaign.
Ray Barrett once came up with an idea for an over-the-counter medicine.
When we presented the work to the client, he groaned – literally, a sigh of despair.
“Will these win awards?” he asked.
“That’s not the point,” we said. “We’ve done consumer testing and the campaign really resonates with its target audience.”
“I think they could well win awards,” he replied.
“Look, I’ll level with you. I’m 53, not far from retirement. If I buy these ads and they win awards, there will be a splash about it in the company newspaper. They’ve left me alone up here in Hull but suddenly I’ll have people from down south up here poking about, and I’d rather they didn’t.
“Please, can you take my half-a-million and spend it on a campaign that looks nice but which no-one really notices?”
It’s the only time I was ever asked to be mediocre.
Creative people are obsessives. In most agencies, they work many more hours than they are paid to. They are driven not so much by the need to get the job done but by the desire to do the job well.
And that’s what keeps them in the office late at night: fear of mediocrity.
The moment they give in and do something they know to be poor, that’s the moment corrosion sets in. We’ve all seen them – the cynics, the weary ones, the bad-mouthers and swearers, the killjoys who regard the brief as a bull turns on the red rag.
There aren’t too many of them; they tend to burn out rapidly. Because they make it plain that their work is unimportant, they lose their jobs.
Perhaps it’s because I am fundamentally stupid, but I have never lost my excitement for the next brief, the next project.
Maybe it’ll give me the opportunity to do something important in the way Katie meant it.
Something that makes the world a little better. Or a lot better.
Like helping save a life as DDFH&B may have done with their cancer awareness 'Coughing Billboard'.
Or Cavalcade’s '#UNitedAgainstHarassment' work for the University of Geneva.
Or, if you want to see the meaning of great art in people’s lives, Droga 5’s beautiful video about the $450m sale of 'The Last Leonardo da Vinci'.
A simple idea, made by people who care, because it was important to them.
Creativity isn’t a job, Katie, it’s a way of living your life.
I hope that’s an answer.