Suspend disbelief.

10 Mar

Free time is a strange thing. The knowledge that any given day might stretch on ad infinitum has proven to be the single most crippling force to ever take a hold of my poor nerves. I don’t sleep at night. I don’t achieve anything by day. I’ve taken to committing to a semi-normal schedule of daily activities not because I want to, and certainly not because it is good for me, but because I simply can’t keep myself feeling inspired and engaged with my private work. It turns out that being busy is the only way I can motivate myself to use my free time wisely. The universe can be cruel in the way it chooses to dispense its irony.

The one thing I have had plenty of time for is over-analysing. This is my favourite pastime. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the potential for auteurship in advertising. Some would say that the best creatives in the world are strategically and aesthetically neutral. By that I mean they move between projects with such energy and flexibility that every brand, every job and every advertising problem is treated as a new challenge with an entirely new solution. Their personal style does not affect the end result.

To me, that seems to fly in the face of motivation, to work tirelessly at something while intent on leaving no trace of oneself – not a fingerprint. Most of the creatives I know have some area of specialty. Mine might be the over-wrought, over-earnest nonsense that decorates my prose. One freelance writer I worked with was an absolute master of horrible puns. There was the senior art director that would grade photos himself, usually with just a wash of green, so as to make everything look like a freeze-frame from The Matrix.

I wondered if I could identify one trait that connects the work I like to see and the work I would personally like to do more of. I’ve always been a fan of the absurd, the challenging and the obtuse. Very simple ideas executed in a way that does not necessarily subscribe to logic or the popular position. The more laws of the universe broken in a commercial, the more chance there is I’ll like it. For some reason, advertisers that are brave enough to subvert reality or suspend disbelief rapidly become my favourite brands.

This means ignoring the single most prominent trend in advertising (the desperation to conform) and doing the exact opposite. I understand perfectly the desire to produce work that looks familiar. In order for a marketing manager to feel in control, the brand must feel in order. Dear Reader, I am sure that you too feel surrounded at times by artists or filmmakers or musicians whose innate ability to see order in disorder, beauty in chaos, even joy in depression, reduces you to hack status. This level of foresight is a skill that most, including people like us, who work as commercial creatives but privately imagine ourselves as so much more, do not possess with any real purity. This vision takes a lifetime of sacrifice to hone, which (aside from that really tough six months in 2004 you spent as an unpaid intern (living rent-free in your parents’ Parnell dream home)) we, who couldn’t hazard a guess at what figure currently stands as the legal minimum wage (much less survive on it), would never hope to experience.

The trouble is, when the only place you can find beauty is in order, you end up producing a lot of spectacularly shitty art.

I think that goes some way to explaining the persistent disappointment that all too often accompanies creative presentations. In the end it all comes down to two things. (1) The ability of the marketing manager to suspend disbelief, and (2) Your ability as a presenter of concepts to affect this phenomenon in said person. There is a sort of stink that follows certain marketing managers around. They quit the job with the telco and that stink shows up again across town at some car company. Their whole careers they will carry that stink with them everywhere they go. In case you’re wondering, the smell is shitty art.

But the best marketing managers, and most creatives I have met, have developed techniques to see beauty in chaos. They can be presented with an idea that makes no factual sense, defies the laws of physics, would be deemed by any rational thinker to be impossible, and rather than flinch, they will chuckle. This, Ladies and Gents, is The Best We Can Hope For.

In this realm, I am pleasured by the simplest of gestures. I like it when animals do human things. I adore anthropomorphic inanimate objects. I love it when a character betrays his official role to the disgust of others. Hell, I’ll give a giggle if someone falls over and hurts himself.

When a brand is prepared to embrace the unexpected it can incite a moment of genuine excitement in the viewer. It’s one of the reasons great commercials go viral. It’s easy to observe this phenomenon through the wrong end of the telescope, which can easily result in a wild goose chase when that dreaded brief for ‘a viral video’ lands on your desk. But videos like these don’t go viral because they are weird. They go viral because we didn’t expect them to be weird.

Put it this way, there’s a lot of weird shit on the internet. Case in point:

It’s a great video. Nicely produced. It takes us by surprise. But I’ll bet that this is the first time you’ve seen it. What I’m saying is, if Masterfoods had stuck their logo at the end of it, they’d be famous by now. As advertising creatives, this is the advantage we have over bona fide artists.

Sad But True: It’s not so hard to surprise our audience, because they expect nothing of us. When preparing client presentations (and even, God forbid, within them), I’ve heard the most obvious ideas, the work that makes creatives prickle with embarrassment, referred to as ‘safe’. This is the ‘safe’ idea. The one the client will definitely buy. I’ve even heard clients refer to concepts as the ‘safe route’.

But here’s the saddest bit. The only stakeholder for whom that work is safe is the advertising agency. A piece of work they know won’t challenge the client is an easy sell. The relationship won’t get ruffled, account service won’t have to work so hard and everyone can go home a bit early. It’s easy to predict how the process will go. But it’s actually very, very hard to predict the results.

Because when a concept follows convention to the letter, it becomes wallpaper. Giving a client a ‘safe’ concept is like handing them a loaded shotgun. Eventually, someone is going to die.

We’ve all seen clients come and go. Sometimes the loss of a big account spells the death of an agency, other times, it’s a relief for everyone involved. The one thing I have never heard upon a client’s departure is, “We’re putting the account up for pitch because we want more generic ads.” And yet, in every case I can remember, that has been the primary pressure on the agency throughout the relationship – to dial down the element of surprise in favour of the ads we call ‘safe’. This pursuit of the ‘safe’ is something from which we, as stakeholders in the creative integrity of this industry, must consistently deter our clients.

It’s not hard to surprise someone watching an ad break. So let’s show the human race some respect, even if it is just an end frame on an absurd or obtuse video. Because by attaching a regular old brand to a piece of content that might not be ordinarily considered a ‘safe’ alignment, we create the surprise.

And all because, for one glorious minute, everyone in the boardroom was able to suspend disbelief.

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