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The Influencers

FUNNY OR DIE (quietly)

INFLUENCER: David Nobay, Marcel Sydney’s CCO, heaves a sigh and asks where all the fun has gone

FUNNY OR DIE (quietly)

Ever tried singing Karaoke sober?

I have.


Last year, judging Andys. In Costa Rica, of all places (which raises the threat level from a base-line "fucking miserable" to a full-scale "soul-sucking hell".)

My point is, from a technical perspective, it's achievable. It can be done. But, trust me; you wouldn't want to sit through it. A brutal and devilish torture. For both crooner and crowd.

By my twisted logic, it's much the same with creative briefs. Trying to crack one when you're flat, uninspired and mildly suspicious that, in the unlikely event you invent something fresh and potent, there's a spectacular probability it will be castrated by a committee of savagely righteous heavy-breathers, is about as fruitful as trying to knock out "Love on the Rocks" in front of an inebriated mob, powered only by Diet Coke.

Greedily gulping sparse pockets of oxygen, with a plastic bag pulled tight over your face, would be an improvement to conjuring up an idea for an ad when bored.

In this painful scenario, the simple act of laughing is as central to your box of tools as a working laptop and Wi-Fi. It's not a "nice to have". It's a necessity. The insane arrogance to believe your brain will spot the narrow gap others before you have missed, is hugely aided by hulking globs of childish mirth.

Granted, making a guy in a monkey suit resemble a credible gorilla channelling Phil Collins in order to sell chocolate bars is no laughing matter. It takes gruelling months of craft, hard labour in chilly boardrooms and a near pathological attention to detail. But I'll warrant, when Juan first came up with the idea, he was cracking a thin smile. There may even have been giggles.

And here's the dirty little secret no-one wants to talk about, I can only assume, in case we all reach for the ledge...there's not a lot of chuckling in creative departments these days.

As an allegedly "grown up industry", it's just not something we like to talk about. Presumably, in case we have to suffer the ignominy of seeing our hard fought "A-Grade Scientific Marketing" ranking revised to a lowly "Trust your Gut, Clown Around & Roll the Dice" downgrade?

Which begs the curly question: how scientific is "modern" advertising?

There are certainly books which suggest that it's almost entirely scientific. I've seen them at the airport. I've definitely seen them on client's shelves. The "How To" of Predictive marketing. Top 20 Big Data Tips. Pin sharp research tools. Desktop listening gadgets. Maybe this uber-droid Watson is in on it, too?

According to these steady, reasoned voices, my chaotically unpredictable brain is about as relevant as MySpace. Yours too, perhaps?

And what if they are right? What if colourful, loud mouthed, eccentric, over-opinionated creative types, in reality, are simply the cosmetic trappings of a bygone age? What if we are simply being kept around to suggest an air of old-world charisma, whilst, in reality, we are entirely expendable? Rather like buttoned-up concierges in fine hotel lobbies; the sort of polished chaperone who makes you feel familiar on foreign soil, when, in reality, we all know a 2-minute Google search could answer your inevitable question faster.

Are you really paranoid, if everyone is really trying to kill you?

If we are to believe most of what we're told by "those who should know", in the high-stakes poker game of modern adland, real-time analytics beats a pair of balls every time.

For an idea to claim genuine veracity, it must first conform to the snug, linear logic of a well-oiled case study film. A perfect, logical journey: from left to right; A to B. Problem to solution; insight to execution.

But (and here's the rub) from personal experience, my best ideas tend to come out of a hot bubble bath. Or, rather, out of me, whilst in a hot bubble bath.

That's not to undermine a good brief. A pithy, precise creative brief is, and always will be, a thing of rare beauty. And the planners and clients who pen them, God-like creatures. But, for all their intellectual eloquence, they ignore the presence of the most powerful gun in our armoury: anarchy. The delicious, chaotic crutch that keeps us from toppling into a heap of festering poop and sometimes points us in the most wonderfully unexpected directions.

And what is this breed of creative anarchy's favourite tipple? Fun. Leaded, unleaded, diesel. It matters not. It is the simple propellant that carries the world's best ideas from brown to gold.

However, the thing about fun is, it's, well, annoyingly unpredictable. Diarizing fun, for instance, is notoriously tricky. Back in my early days as circus ringmaster at Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney, I managed to conveniently compress it into a regular six-hour fun-fix thanks to my introduction of the FFC ("Fuck Friday Club"). On the last Friday of every month, we would celebrate 30 days of hard slog with an afternoon of bourbon-soaked debauchery across town that would invariably produce the kind of stories that newbies in our industry now assume are simply fabrications; romantic, exaggerated urban fables, born of middle-aged hacks' lazy nostalgia and looseness with the truth. Whilst, ironically, those who are still alive to bear witness will recall that, far from exaggerate, we invariably underplayed our antics by Monday's sober morning, in fear that HR may finally swoop down and torch our happy play sheet.

Fun. It's an unpredictable mistress. Certainly, as is so oft underlined in these fiscally strident times; absolutely un-billable. And, let's be honest, if CFOs ain't diggin' it, it ain't happening. Not these days. In that same poker hand I mentioned earlier, an indignant pair of CFOs beats a straight flush of idealistic CCOs. Any day of the week.

So, there you have it:

Sugar is bad for you.

Toys aren't made the way they were.

Oh, and advertising isn't fun anymore.

Not really fun. Unless wearing cargo pants to work and having house music play in reception is all it requires to make you smile. If it is, then cease reading now. If you seriously think working in an ad agency creative department is "fun", you're lost to me. You're also, I must assume, a regular partaker in class-A drugs, in which case, no drama. Hats off. Have a nice day. Pass the dutchie to the left hand side. Enjoy your BBQ Pringles.

For those still Xanax-free and, like me in recent years, painfully sober, I can only hope I've tweaked your empathy nipple enough to indulge me a little longer in this circuitous ramble.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I think working in a creative department is unbearably bleak. Not in the sense working in an underfunded triage in Somalia is bleak. But, the fact remains, I've yet to meet a senior creative director, anywhere in the world (and trust me, I travel) in the last few years who doesn't freely admit that, should a, yet unknown and unfeasibly wealthy, distant relative pop their clogs, they'd be out the door of adland faster than you can say "procurement directors favour marble-wash denim".

So, where exactly did all this fun go? Some of it, admittedly, could be attributed to forces wider than our own small industry. The PC revolution had little to do with Bill Gates, and more to do with toning down the more colourful end of the conversation.

Granted, some of that shift was wholly warranted and, frankly, overdue. Case in point: Diversity; big tick.

But, somewhere along the way, we lost the baby with the dirty water. Where once, eccentricity and emotional excess was a badge of honour for a jobbing CD, it's long been an anchor around our collective throats.

Being a Pirate rogue may still sell tickets for Johnny Depp, but you'd be wise to keep your skull and crossbones under the bed if you have ambitions to rise up the corporate ladder of Adland. What's the phrase du jour? "Falling Upwards". The near guaranteed accent of polite mediocrity.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to the same maladie that has elevated Trump to baffling levels of popularity and ISIS to similarly cosmic heights of infamy...abject fear. In their case, fear of the unknown, the foreign, the unfamiliar. In our case; client's fear of overshooting our consumers’ IQ and fear of under-branding our product's name.

In fairness, that's nothing new. Over 50 years ago, George Orwell dismissed what we call a profession with characteristic acidity: "The public are swine; advertising is the stick that rattles the swill bucket". George Carlin was equally damning, if, arguably, a lot funnier.

I can only assume you could locate plenty of CDs who would voraciously disagree with my wanton pessimism. Like you, I've read many a piece by a highly respected "Creative Leader" basking in the riches this shiny new media and technological landscape afford to us as "modern, creative thinkers".



All I see is less time, less budget, less respect, less trust. And, tangibly, a lot less fun. (Did I mention less time?) Sure, VR is a blast. Yes, we have some crazy-cool new toys to play with. And, yes, clever data can empower smarter insights. I'm not completely nuts. But, creativity, that chaotic stuff that some of us still like doing in the bath, that's the bit that doesn't submit to coding. Without it, all the tech savvy in the world is anaemic, at worst; decaffeinated, at best.

Then again, maybe I'm just not that modern. Perhaps I'm putting too much value on craft? And the time and latitude it demands. Perhaps I'm mad? It's certainly been suggested. Why for instance am I even still in advertising? Still trying to ape a half decent creative director?

Well, put simply, two reasons: the aforementioned unknown relative hasn't been good enough to die yet. And, much to my genuine shock, I've managed to maintain a smattering of clients who appear to have bucked the prevailing trend and actually trust me and the guys to do what we do best. Or, at least, do what they hope we do best. That's rare. "As rare as hen's teeth", as we say down under. So, I guess I'm staying on this bucking bronco a little longer than anyone, including me, predicted.

Thankfully, the French have a soft spot for Johnny Depp movies.

Hope springs eternal.

David Nobay is Founder/Creative Chairman of Marcel Sydney.
You can watch David's Artbreaks series here.

In 2017, LBB launches his podcast "ADjacent": things we do on the side

Genre: Digital , PR , People , Strategy/Insight