Real creativity is being the person who spots it.
Trott started his advertising career as a trainee copywriter at Boase Massimi Pollitt in 1971 and then, 11 years later, founded legendary agency Gold Greenless Trott
“The British press once compared advertising by Dave Trott to a brick flying through the consumer’s window. And during his 30 years in advertising Trott has in fact created many campaigns for clients such as Toshiba and Holsten that are among the strongest British advertising has to show.” This is how our first interview with Dave Trott, published in Vol. 6/1999 of Archive magazine, began. Sixteen years on, Trott continues to be a major figure on the ad scene and has not mellowed one little bit. In 2010, the recipient of D&AD’s 2004 President’s Award for his lifetime achievement authored a book entitled “Creative Mischief,” which detailed the things he has learned in his 40-year career in the business. This was followed, in 2013, by the release of his book “Predatory Thinking: A Masterclass in Out-Thinking the Competition,” and early June of this year saw the publication of his latest, the volume “1+1=3.” Hermann Vaske spoke to the British ad legend in London.
You mention Steve Jobs in the foreword to your new book, “1+1=3.” What can creative people learn from Steve?
Jobs says really creative people expose themselves to new experiences and new things that are a long way away from either where they feel comfortable or where they normally go, or what they normally think. So what I’ve tried to do with the book, is to put together things that wouldn’t normally go together, and show how totally new experiences mix to create totally unexpected things and to provoke the mind off its normal tramline tracks.
Connecting the dots, as you put it. Why is connecting the dots good for creativity?
You’ve got 75 per cent more possibilities available to you, by laying down dots, experiences, knowledge, in that other part of your brain: the part where you don’t feel comfortable. Everything in the new area is a new connection that connects to everything you knew in the old area. So you’ve massively increased the possibilities.
The great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and I once talked about football and he said what he really liked about football is bicicleto, which is a bicycle kick in English. He says because it’s a surprise and, as in architecture, you have to surprise people. I think it’s the same with advertising, isn’t it?
That’s what’s gone wrong with advertising at the moment, it’s not surprising. Nobody surprises anybody; the nearest you get is maybe Dave Droga sometimes, but that’s it. All anybody else does is keep repeating what won the awards last year. And it’s no surprise. So nothing stands out, so nothing looks unusual, so everybody’s looking in the same old place, everybody’s looking on YouTube, and there’s no surprises, no unusual connections, nothing really creative happening. Edward de Bono said: “There are a lot of people calling themselves creative who are actually mere stylists.” And that’s kind of where we are at the moment, we’re rehashing style and refining style. We’re not doing anything unusual or creative because it’s too much about security and comfort and fear of risk and, as Helmut Krone put it, “something you can look at and say: ‘I like it that it’s not new.’”
Yeah, totally, it’s a repeat of a repeat of a repeat. People look at the annuals, people don’t go, say, to the jungles of the Congo or the Gobi Desert. They don’t try to find beauty and art in unexpected places, somewhere, you can get some inspiration from.
Everybody needs too much agreement and, consequently, the one thing that should be absolutely outrageous and different and unusual and surprising, that should jump out at you and doesn’t - which is advertising. Of all things, advertising has to be the one thing that jumps out at you and it doesn’t. And if that doesn’t jump out, why bother doing it? Why bother if it all just looks like a slightly nicer piece of wallpaper?
What’s the way out?
It’s cyclical, isn’t it? Like with music, you get a revolution, something exciting, then it’ll get gradually refined and refined until it becomes boring, until it becomes very dull, and then there’s another revolution. And it’s just cyclical. It happens in music, happens in film, happens in all art and culture, and it’ll happen in advertising.
Yeah, but I mean this connecting the dots, one plus one equals three, is at least a guideline or, in a way, a philosophy.
I’m not trying to tell people WHAT to think, I’m trying to show them HOW to think. To come up with fresh stuff by opening up whole areas of your brain that would otherwise just be sitting around unused while we spend all our time doing the same old stuff.
What I find interesting is the kind of narrative you choose for the structure of your book. It kind of kept reminding me of some little Zen koan. There is always a surprising lesson to be learned.
Well, it’s the opposite of didactic: it doesn’t tell you what to think, it’s not definitive, it’s provocative. My generation, baby-boomers, people like Steve Jobs, read a lot of Zen and mixed it with western thinking, so 1+1=3. If you never take people out of their normal ways of thinking, they don’t know they’re stuck in their normal ways of thinking. They think it’s all the thinking there is. So if you take people out of that and show them another kind of thinking, get them to look back at their normal way of thinking and re-connect that to another way of thinking, then you’ve opened up whole new possibilities and you can now choose how to think, whereas before, you didn’t have a choice. So that’s maybe the Zen part of it, yeah.
Well, your book is not dry theory. Your book is not ten rules about whatever.
When you give people ten rules or whatever, what you’re putting down is a formula, and a formula is the exact opposite of creativity. Because it’s not about thinking, it’s about memory. You’re not inventing or creating, just memorizing. So what I’ve tried to do is to make the book a lot of provocations. To provoke you into thinking rather than just giving you an easy-to-remember formula.
So what’s the conclusion?
What’s consistent pretty much throughout the book is, your biggest enemy is yourself. Your biggest enemy is your own mind. And the fear your mind creates, whether it’s real or not, is what stops you being great. And, actually, the book is all pretty much about mind. Pretty much about mind as the opportunity, but it’s also the problem. Most of us really struggle to realize that we are not our mind. We think we are our mind, and so consequently we go through life like little robots, just doing what our mind tells us.
But can’t fear also be a friend or motivational factor for creative people?
Fear can be your best friend but you must be in charge of the fear. If you know how to generate fear, fear can make you do what you’re either too lazy or too embarrassed to do. What you know you should do but you’re too lazy or embarrassed to do. But that must be you generating fear. If you don’t generate the fear, then you feel the effect of it and it becomes paralyzing. And the fear becomes your reality. Because the only reality you can ever know is what’s in your mind. You can never know the real world outside your mind; you can only ever know your mind’s interpretation of the real world. But the power comes from at least knowing that your mind’s interpretation isn’t the truth, it’s an interpretation. It may be right, it might not, but it’s an interpretation, it’s not a fact. And the fear comes from automatically assuming that everything your mind tells you is a fact. Now if you can control that, if you can use fear to make you do what you’re too lazy or too embarrassed to do, that’s a positive use of fear, that’s a positive understanding of how your mind needs to be motivated.
You shouldn’t be the passive victim of fear, you should use it as a catalyst.
Yeah, it can give you an edge, as long as you’re in charge of it, as long as you know how to use it to make yourself do what you know you really ought to do but you’re too lazy or embarrassed to do. Use the fear to get you past your own mind. Your mind is telling you, “Don’t do it, it’s embarrassing and, anyway, why should you have to?” And that’s when you need to be able to turn on the fear. I was reading the Harvard Business Review, Alex Ferguson was talking about the European Cup final, when Bayern was winning 1-0 and they’re a really good team, and Man United just couldn’t break through and Ferguson got his whole team to walk past the European Cup and he said to them: “Now remember, you’re six inches away from that cup, and if you don’t win, that’s the closest you’re ever gonna get in your entire life. You’re never gonna touch that European Cup if you don’t win.” And he said: “Don’t come back and allow yourself for the rest of your life to regret it. Because you’ll be regretting it for the next fifty years of your life.” That’s using fear in a positive way. To put the fear that you’re gonna do absolutely everything short of dying to win that game, and they did.
It’s a motivational fear.
Absolutely, and that’s exactly how to use fear as a motivator.
Yeah, and you also have to have the ability to think out of the box, to think around the curve. Like the story of David Geffen in your book.
Yeah, absolutely, it’s doing what everybody else wouldn’t do. David Geffen wanted John Lennon on his record label, but so did every other major record label. And every other label would phone up John Lennon and try to talk John Lennon into it. And Geffen thought: “I’m only a tiny record label compared to them, how can I create an advantage?” And Geffen went to talk to Yoko Ono. She was feeling really ignored because all the other labels were only talking to Lennon. She was annoyed at all the other labels because none of them were talking to her. So Geffen took Yoko One out and talked to her about it and got her involved. And Yoko was really pleased that Geffen was talking to her, and she talked John Lennon into joining David Geffen’s record label. All because he took an advantage that nobody else would do, by looking at what everybody else was doing and doing the opposite.
That’s great, putting it upside down. That brings me to the lipstick story in your book. Could you elaborate on that?
Well, that’s behavioural economics. The interesting part for me is what they call “choice architecture,” where you get upstream of the problem and you set the choice up so that the outcome will be what you want. So, in the case of the lipstick, it was in America at a high school where the girls would always go into the bathroom and put their lipstick on and then leave a kiss mark on the mirror, which young girls like to do. And the janitor said to the headmistress: “It’s really difficult for me to clean off, it’s a pain.” And the headmistress nagged the girls but the girls would still do it because no one could find out which of the girls was doing it, so there’s no way to stop it. So what the headmistress did, she called them into the girls toilets and said: “Let me show you why it’s a bad idea. The janitor can’t get that lipstick off the mirror, it’s so difficult. What he has to do is put his mop down the toilet, fill it up with water and wipe it all over the mirror to wash the lipstick off. Then he has to put it down the toilet again, fill it all up with water and then wash it off again.” And all the girls suddenly got it: if they’re kissing the mirror, they’re kissing the water from the toilet. You can imagine none of the girls from that day on would kiss that mirror. They wouldn’t even touch it. And he didn’t tell them, he just showed them: “Hey, look at this, now you make a choice: do you want to put your lips on water from the toilet that everybody has used?” That’s how Bill Bernbach used to be with the really great advertising campaigns: Volkswagen and Avis. You don’t have to nag people, you just set the choice up: if you make this choice, you are a thinking person, and if you make that choice, you’re not. Now you are perfectly free to choose whatever you want but we don’t have to lecture you about it. Here’s the Volkswagen, which uses less petrol and it costs less and it goes forever and it won’t freeze in the winter, versus this big flashy car that costs twice as much, freezes in the winter, breaks down and uses tons of petrol, and you have to change it every year. Up to you which one you want to buy. It’s choice architecture, that’s what great advertising is - just like those campaigns. You don’t have to lecture people, you just set the choice up and you let people choose.
Yeah, you don’t take a patronizing approach.
You don’t have to nag people, because people who do want the big flashy car will go and buy that big flashy car. But people who want to buy a brand that says they’re intelligent will obviously buy the smaller car. Same with Avis, same with any number of Bernbach’s great campaigns: they aren’t didactic, they aren’t patronising, they don’t lecture you about it.
Yeah, I mean how can you beat that?
I think it’s just using your brain. John Hegarty was telling me about when he started advertising Audi and had a German client, John Meszaros. The problem was Audi wasn’t selling and nobody could work out why, because they were really good cars, and John Hegarty said: “Well, the problem is nobody knows they’re German. They think they are Scandinavian or Belgian. But people would pay a premium for German cars: BMW, Porsche, Volkswagen, Mercedes. German cars are, as everybody knows, the best in the world. If we could make Audi German, suddenly people would want them.” And John saw a line on a factory wall in Germany: “Vorsprung durch Technik,” and he wanted to run that on all the English advertising. But the account men and the planners all said: “No, we’ve researched it and people don’t like it because they remember the war and they don’t want the German language everywhere.” But the client said: “No, you’ve convinced me, we need to make this car German. So whether the people like Germans or not doesn’t matter. We’re going to put that line on it.” And he was right. Despite what research said, Audi’s image and sales went through the roof. And John always says that was down to John Meszaros, the German client.
You talk about Marshall McLuhan and Marcel Duchamp. What do they have in common creatively?
Duchamp and McLuhan both allowed accidents to happen, did not get fixed on tramline thinking. McLuhan wrote “The Medium is the Message” – that was the original title of the book. He sent it to the printers and it came back with a typo on it that read: “The Medium is the Massage.” And everyone said, “Oh, hang on, we’ll send it back and get it reprinted.” And McLuhan said, “No, don’t, I think it’s better. It’s fun, it makes you think about it harder now.” And he kept the mistake, he allowed the thinking to change, he wasn’t on tramline thinking. Duchamp sent The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, what they called the Large Glass, from Germany to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s got to be about twelve feet tall by about four feet wide, and it’s two sheets of glass, and when they took it out of the crate it was cracked all over and they said, “We’ve got to get it repaired.” And Duchamp said: “No, I like it that way.” And now when you see it, it has all the cracks still in it, because Duchamp liked it that way. And I think that’s what I learned from John Webster: you have to be open to let mistakes happen, maybe the sound effect you heard isn’t the one you had in mind, but maybe it makes it better. John Webster always used to tell me a story about when Kubrick was making 2001 and he was shooting the apes while someone else was shooting the space station docking sequence with models. And so Kubrick went to look at the rushes of the spaceship approaching the space station, and he would never look at rushes mute, so he said, “I have to have some sound on it.” So they said, “Well, we haven’t shot the sound yet.” The sound was going to be electronic voices over the radio. And Kubrick said: “Well I’ve got to have some sound, I won’t look at it mute.” And they scrambled around everywhere and they said: “The only thing we can find is this old recording of the Blue Danube Waltz,” and Kubrick said: “I don’t care what you’ve got, put it on.” And so they put on the Blue Danube Waltz while Kubrick watched the space station and they were all waiting for him to go crazy but he actually turned to them after about five minutes and he said: “Do you know, when I do this for real, they are going to call me a fucking genius.” And that’s why you’ve now got the Blue Danube Waltz over the space station sequence, because Kubrick left room for accidents, and John Webster always used that as an example for me. And from working with John I’ve always learned, don’t keep your brain locked off on tramlines. Leave space to see what happens; the new thing might make it better than what you’ve got in your mind.
That’s a great example. It’s right to be wrong and it’s wrong to be right.
Well, the most important thing John taught me, and I also previously heard it from Bill Bernbach, and they’re two great people to learn from, is: “It’s not who says it, it’s who spots it.” Real creativity isn’t who says it, it’s the person who spots it. And Bill Bernbach would always say it was his job to go around Helmut Krone’s wastepaper basket at night. Krone wouldn’t know what he had done, he’d just have all these ideas and throw them away. But Bernbach would fish them out, open them up and say they were great. And when I worked with John Webster, that’s what John used to do to me. We’d be working on something and he’d say: “Hold on, the thing that you just said there, that’s great!” And I’d say: “What?” I didn’t even realize what I’d said. He’d say: “That thing, go back there a little bit, what did you say there?” And he’d tell me: “That’s great, let’s do that!” And what I learned from John is it’s not who says it, it’s who spots it. We all think the author, the creative person, is the person who says it or writes it, or draws it or paints it, the person who has the physical creation of it. And what I learned is, no, it isn’t. The real creativity is being the person who spots it.
But does the idea come to you or do you have to go towards it?
Well, I think that’s why you need to seek more diverse input, more diverse experiences so that you can make those connections. The more you’ve got those diverse experiences, the more, when someone says something, you can suddenly make a connection that allows you to suddenly see with glaring clarity: “Ah yeah, that could be it! That could work!” But if you haven’t made all those connections in different places, your mind isn’t broad enough to suddenly have that flash.
How do you get ideas?
Well, you know, another thing I learned from John Webster is that the worst time to look for an idea is when you need it. It’s too late then. You have to have had all of those influences, all of those ideas, already. John Webster’s office used to be like a shed: you’d go in and there were all little ideas pinned up around the wall… you know, different things all pinned up around the walls all ready to use. Dave Dye was telling me about this typographer who, when he was younger, used to be in a band with a guy called David Jones. That was David Bowie’s name before he became David Bowie, and he said it was obvious to him that David Jones (Bowie) was going to be great, because whereas all the rest of them would just listen to rock and roll, he would have opera tracks, German brass band tracks, ballet music, opera, Country and Western, Brazilian music, whale songs. Weird things nobody else had ever heard of and he said: “One day I’m gonna use this.” He’s saving up stuff and one day he’s gonna use it, all these weird things that nobody else had heard. When I was in New York I trained at Carl Alley Inc, and Carl Alley said: “The creative person wants to be a know-it-all, he wants to know everything. He wants to know about hog futures and flower arranging, he wants to know how the stock market works, how a car engine works, how they make perfume. The creative person wants to be a know-it-all about everything. He knows these things will fit together at some point in the future. He doesn’t know if it’s a week from now or a year from now but he knows at some point these things are going to connect and fit together.”
Yeah, that’s true, but then you just have to see that you can figure it all out because there are too many ideas for a lifetime.
But you have to constantly be collecting ‘em and constantly having them in your mind, so that when you need an idea you can now go and look there. You haven’t got to start from scratch. You’ve got all these great ideas that you think to yourself: “Some time I’m gonna use that.”
How do you do it? Do you put thousands of papers on your office wall?
The great thing is, it doesn’t come from advertising. Ron Collins was telling me when he wanted to do an ad for Escalade, years and years back, he wanted the woman to have this really wild hair and he said to the photographer: “I want her to look like Botticelli’s Venus arising from the sea.” And the photographer didn’t have a clue what Ron was talking about, so Ron had to bring in the picture of Botticelli’s Venus arising from the sea. And of course nobody else has got that reference so all anybody else is doing is just looking at other ads. So Ron now has an ad that looks nothing like anybody else’s ad. John Webster used to have old Second World War propaganda, he used to have old 1950s American comics, René Magritte, Saul Steinberg, black and white historic photos. I would do the same thing, with music. You just collect it so that you’ve got a ton of stuff ready to use. You don’t know when you’re going to use it but you know this is really good - and one day I have to use this.
To outsmart the competition that’s also in your previous book, “Predatory Thinking.” Tell us what to do when you meet a tiger in the jungle.
In order to do that you have to get upstream of the problem and change it to a different problem. So the example of the tiger is two explorers walking through the forest and they hear a tiger running up behind them, and one explorer gets down to put on running shoes and the other explorer says: “You’re crazy, you’ll never outrun a tiger.” And he says: “I don’t have to outrun the tiger. I just have to outrun you.” And that is instead of trying to solve a problem you can’t solve, which is how do you outrun a tiger. I don’t have to outrun a tiger because a tiger doesn’t have to eat two people, the tiger only has to eat one person, and it doesn’t have to be me. Which means I only have to outrun the guy next to me.
How important is competitive edge as a motivating factor of creativity?
Well, we’re in advertising. If it’s not about competition, what is it about? Why are you bothering to work in advertising if it’s not about competition? It’s a zero-sum game. If you want some money from someone, you have to make sure they spend it on you instead of on something else. No new money will magically appear. If you want someone to do something, there’s a finite amount of money, a finite amount of time, a finite amount of attention, even a finite amount of love. If you want it, you’re going to have to divert it from somewhere else - now that’s competitive. English people are very uncomfortable with that. Americans aren’t, Asians aren’t. English people like to believe that you don’t actually have to take anything away from anybody else. They like to dress it up so that it doesn’t look like that. Which is why English advertising is now pretty much 90 per cent ineffective.
Nobody loves a brand of soap or milk or sugar or butter. Nobody! You might like it, fair enough, you might prefer it, fair enough, but a brand is not a love affair. It’s a brand. If everything else is equal, if the cost is equal, the shape is equal, if the size is equal, the distribution is equal, everything else is equal, then I’ll buy a brand I prefer, but that’s all.
Yeah, but you know what that is? It is just PR.
Well, it may work from ad agencies to clients but it doesn’t work from ad agencies to consumers. Clients are a different world from consumers. Consumers have largely been left out of the loop of this stuff. We’re not talking to the world of consumers, we’re just talking to the world of what clients like to hear.
What’s your inspiration? What drives you?
Bob Paisley was manager of Liverpool when they won three European Cups, and Kevin Keegan played for Liverpool. He had been voted European Footballer of the Year twice. The expression nutmeg is when you kick the ball between a player’s legs, go round him and leave him on his back. I tell you that because the story I like was when someone asked Bob Paisley what he looked for in a youngster coming to play for Liverpool. And Bob Paisley said: “We want a youngster who is going to try to nutmeg Kevin Keegan on the training pitch but stand aside for him in the corridor.” And I thought that was great. That’s exactly what you want: you want someone who’s going to try to beat whoever is the best but still recognize they’re great and learn from them and respect what they’ve done. And I’m like that with guys like John Webster, David Abbott, Charlie Saatchi. I would always try to nutmeg them if I could but definitively I’d always stand aside for them in the corridor.
George Lois said: “Don’t show me your great roughs. If it don’t run, it ain’t advertising.” And that’s still a fact. We are called creative, and what creative means is bringing into existence something that didn’t previously exist. If you don’t bring it into being, then you haven’t created anything. To be creative you must create, you must bring something into being. What has always interested me is how to beat people who are better than me. That’s the interesting bit, that’s the creative bit. It’s not creative to beat people who are not as good as me. That’s easy, anybody can do that. That’s not clever. What’s really clever is beating people who are richer than me, bigger than me, tougher than me, they’ve got more money than me. They’ve got every reason to win, so how do we beat them? That’s the real rush - when you can do that, that’s really creative. Whether that’s a football team, whether that’s in war, whether that’s in painting or media or making films or doing ads, how can we beat people that we shouldn’t beat? That’s the really creative rush.
After having had a career in some of the most successful agencies as a creative person, what was your drive in writing what are now three books on creativity?
You know, everybody has got a way of telling you how it ought to be, how you must obey the rules. If you look at the way the book is written, double-spaced lines, lots of white space, every time there is a full stop you start a new paragraph… And the number of people that have written to me criticizing: “That is not how you write, this isn’t how you write English.” Well, I know that. If I’d wanted to write English according to the rules I learned in the school, I would have written it that way. Obviously, I didn’t want to do that. What I wanted to do is what Helmut Krone did with the Volkswagen copy all those years ago. I want to make it look more inviting to read. Not a dense block of type but open it up and put a lot of white space in so it’s inviting to read.
But it seems to me that everybody is so desperate to find some rules and follow some rules, and then you don’t have to be creative anymore. But I think the whole point of being creative is to break the rules, bend the rules, change the rules to be whatever you want the rules to be. That’s what I learned in New York. But lots of people are desperate to follow rules, the rules of how you write English, which I’m not trying to follow. The English always follow rules of how you write English. I much prefer the way Americans write, they paint with the language. When I was young, French was the international language but English supplanted French because the French have a list of rules about how you can and can’t use French. And they’ve got an academy set up to monitor that and observe it and make sure people only use the French in accordance with those rules. As George Orwell said, everyone owns English and changes it as they want, all the time, every country. The Oxford Dictionary comes out and it’s got 20 or 30 new words in it every year and it takes out 10 or 15 old words. And English follows the way people use it, whereas French tries to make people follow the way the rules are. So French is dying and English is becoming the international language. Because English is just for people to use how they want to use it and do whatever they want to do with it, whereas French has got a very rigid setup, lot of rules. Now you find a lot of the most interesting use of English comes from black rappers in America who are not using it at all grammatically correctly. But it’s much more interesting, it’s much more poetic. It’s a much more creative way to use the language, and so I think all of those things are about thinking creatively and outside what everybody else is desperate to keep you enclosed in, and using the language the way George Orwell said, which is to let the language be refreshed from below, not restricted from above.
Yeah, absolutely, you have to know all the rules to break them or, as Milla Jovovich, the actress, once said to me when she was quoting her musician: “I learned to play the guitar before I took drugs.”
I like what someone said about jazz: “If you make a mistake, play it twice.” That’s really creative, isn’t it? With classical music, if you make a mistake everyone must stop and all start again - and this time don’t get it wrong.
What fucks up creativity? What kills creativity?
Conformism, of course, because especially in our business you have to stand out but the problem is everybody wants to be like everybody else. Students start by wanting to look like last year’s D&AD. Well, that’s been done. As long as you’re trying to do what’s been done you can’t be creative, can you? You can just do a slightly restyled version of what has been done. And of course that isn’t creativity, that’s restyling, that’s what killed Detroit. Every year you slightly restyle your car. And what happened was new cars came along like the Volkswagen Beetle, like the Japanese cars, and killed Detroit. Because they didn’t slightly restyle their car, they looked totally freshly at the concept of the car.
Yeah, I liked what you said in your “Predatory Thinking” about the inquiring mind. You wrote there about the W questions that the creative mind should ask: “What, where, when, why?” And you went to see four scientists, and the scientists were creative because they have inquiring minds and because they question the question?
Of course, questioning the question is upstream thinking. Most people, if you give them a question, they just answer the question. So how can I outrun a tiger? Well, the answer is, “You can’t,” so you get eaten. But if you question the question: “How can you outrun a tiger?” well, maybe I don’t need to outrun the tiger. Then you don’t need to get eaten. That’s upstream thinking.
Yeah. Also question the basis of what has been done, you know?
Yeah, don’t blindly accept the brief. There’s a thing I read in a New Zealand newspaper that a guy and his wife had bought a modern keyless car. As long as you’ve got the card, it opens the doors and starts the engine and everything like that. Well, they got in their car and then they went to start it and they couldn’t start it because they’d forgotten the card. So the guy went to get out and get the card but he realized he couldn’t get out and get the card because he hasn’t got the card, so he’s locked in the car. So he tried every button and nothing would open the doors to let him out, and then he tried honking the horn to attract the neighbours but it was Guy Fawkes night, everyone was letting all the fireworks off. So none of the neighbours paid any attention, they thought it was just another part of the celebrations. So he got the jack out from under the back seat and started trying to smash the windows but he couldn’t smash the windows and, 13 hours later, he’s still in the car, he’s been there all night and his wife is near death and he’s about to pass out when one of the neighbours sees him and calls the ambulance, and they take him to hospital and he’s in there for three days. And what he says is he never realized that if he’d opened the door-handle he could have let himself out. Because he thought he had to have the card, he thought this car was so complex, he didn’t realize he could open the door-handle. And that’s where we’re all at.
We are so involved with all the complexity and everything we’ve had to learn and how difficult it all is and how complicated it is, all the complicated marketing, the complicated technology, the complicated thinking, that it doesn’t occur to us we can just open the door-handle. We can just use common sense. We are just people talking to people. We can just use common sense, like Bill Bernbach did.
Or question the surrounding or the brief?
Yeah, question the brief. The brief comes down and it’s the most complicated brief on the planet, it’s too complicated to understand, never mind question it, so all anybody does is think, “I can’t possibly question this. So I’ll just take the brief as it is and look on YouTube to see if I can find a technique that hasn’t been done.”
The story in 1+1 with the nuclear warning system of the Russians that you have there with these missiles, it’s quite a drastic example.
The Russians had got the most complicated advanced warning system. They’d just finished building it and it goes off and it shows American missile after American missile after American missile launching. It shows five American nuclear missiles being launched in the USA at the USSR, and the guy who was running it, a major, he had to decide right away whether to launch all the Russian missiles back at America. Because that’s what the whole system was about. And he decided to question it: “No, if they were going to attack us, they’d do it with more than just five missiles.” So he didn’t launch them. And what it turned out to be was a flare from the sun on the lens. Now if he had just followed the technology without thinking, we’d all be dead now because he’d have launched all the missiles back at America, and we’d have had a nuclear war and we’d all be dead. But thanks to that one guy, he just thought: “Maybe I can open the door-handle without the technology.”
That’s where fear as a catalyst comes back in. It’s what Jon Amiel once said to me: “If I don’t take on projects anymore that I’m scared of, I’m not really creative anymore and probably end up doing mediocre stuff.”
In England everyone loves an underdog. No one wants to be the top dog, You want to win but you want to win as the underdog. Germany, I think, is different, Germany, they like to be the top dog, no?
How can you win as an underdog: David against Goliath?
Always. I mean English history is full of those stories and we would always paint ourselves as the underdog even when we actually were the top dog. We pretend we are the underdog because we like that. The Bismarck, the biggest, most powerful, most modern battleship ever built, it destroyed the best ship we had, the Hood. And what we finally sent against it were these First World War aeroplanes made out of fabric and wood with torpedoes, and the planes could only fly 90 miles an hour and they were so slow that the Bismarck’s guns couldn’t traverse that slowly so they couldn’t shoot them down. The Bismarck was geared up for planes coming in at 200 miles an hour, not these rickety old First World War planes coming in to attack. They couldn’t shoot them down flying that slow. So the planes torpedoed the Bismarck and that’s the sort of stories English people love. Nobody loves it when there’s five British battleships beating one German battleship, nobody likes that. It’s almost embarrassing, like being a bully. You love it when it’s five rickety old British planes that beat this huge modern battleship, you know? So yeah, its always the underdog.
Yeah, it’s like football: an unknown fourth division club winning against a first division team, you know. It sometimes happens.
Of course it is. Alex Ferguson said his proudest moment was winning the European Cup Winners Cup. Now you would think that’s for Manchester United, yeah? No, it wasn’t. It was before he ever went to Manchester United. He was manager at Aberdeen and they beat Real Madrid in the final. Can you believe that, Aberdeen beating Real Madrid? You can’t even find Aberdeen on the map, and Real Madrid is the biggest club in the world.
A galactic club.
Of course, those are the ones everybody loves, when the underdog wins. But that’s the creative bit: you have to be creative to beat someone who’s better and bigger and tougher and faster and richer than you. You have to be creative.
Only pull it off when one plus one equals three somehow.
That’s what creativity is. To find a way to make some new combinations. That’s what Steve Jobs says in the introduction: to find a way to make combinations that other people won’t see.
Yeah, it’s a very interesting book, it’s a great book, and what you’ve pulled off in the oeuvre of work here is very, very impressive.
Yeah well, I mean I learned it from watching Paul Arden. Paul loved going in a way he wasn’t supposed to go. I mean, Paul is absolutely one plus one equals three. When Paul did his first book, “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be,” I said to Paul: “It’s all pictures,” and Paul said: “Yeah well, I’m an art director, I can’t write. So I can’t do a book with words.” So he did a book with pictures, now that’s absolutely great, isn’t it? Everybody thinks books have to be words. No, he did his book with pictures and he sold a million and a half copies worldwide.
And the best thing he did was the line he put on the front cover: “The world’s best- selling book by PAUL ARDEN,” because everybody is browsing in the shop and they must pick it up and look at the best-selling book in the world. And, actually, it is not the best-selling book in the world, it’s the best SELLING book in the world: the best book on selling. And it’s the best-selling book in the world BY Paul Arden, because he’d only done one book, so of course it’s the best-selling book by him. But it’s really, really clever to put that on the cover so you cannot walk past without picking it up and having a look.
Yeah, but I also think that cover alone would not have guaranteed the success. The content was also good, you know.
That was another thing Paul spotted: keep it simple. A lot of people turned their noses up at it because they don’t think it’s a real book: “It’s not literature, it has no story, it has no writing.” But what I love that Paul spotted was because it’s just pictures you can do what I did, which is buy a copy for everybody in the agency. If it was a book full of writing, I wouldn’t have done that because I know most people won’t read it. But because it’s just pictures, you think, “This is great, I’ll buy this for everybody in the agency because they’ll look at it, flick through and get the message.”
Yeah, I mean also a good thing is you don’t need to read it in one go. You can read and then read more stories…
But the other thing I like is it opens books up to a whole new market, instead of books just being for people that like to sit down and read. This is books for people who don’t much like reading, which is exactly the market I’m at home with. If you work in advertising, that’s exactly the market you have to be at home with. Look at the people that read the quality newspapers like The Guardian, which sells 150,000 copies. Now The Sun, which is the working-class paper, sells three million copies and has a readership of three to one. That’s nine million people reading The Sun versus 150,000 reading The Guardian. You could say the Guardian is better writing, yeah okay, but I prefer the nine million ordinary people. And that’s why my book is written the way it is. It’s a much broader market, it’s an advertising market, not a narrow small literary market.