Archive | March, 2011

Anyone Can Draw a Tiger

28 Mar

Everyone knows when they have an Aha! Moment.

But nobody really knows where these Aha! Ideas come from.

Or what happens at that moment when the mind recognizes a thought as a new idea.

A 2004 study by neuroscientists Mark Jung-Beeman and Edward Bowden found an increase in neural activity in the brain’s right temporal lobe occurs during these moments.

So we know there’s increased traffic in the brain, but neuroscience seems to be years away, from really understanding the genesis of ideas and answering the question, what happens in the nanosecond an idea comes into creation?

Wired editor and author, Steven Johnson tackles the question from a social and cultural perspective in this excellent animation, Where Good Ideas Come From.

And Seth Godin knows they don’t come from watching television, which must be a blow over at the The Discovery Channel.

Not to be out done, by these two luminaries, over the years I’ve conducted my own field research.

I’ve enjoyed some stimulating conversations and a few beers in pursuit of the answer, with the assistance of all kinds of creative minds,  from advertising people to architects, musicians to furniture designers.

Not forgetting a couple of astrophysicists I met at a fiesta in Merida.

And the result of all this collaborative investigation is…I still don’t know.

Sometimes ideas come as a result of grinding them out “Just work the problem harder,” as Einstein said.

Sometimes they come out of the blue, while you’re driving or taking a walk, or in a dream.

And usually they come from somewhere in between the two extremes.

There are some people you work with, and you riff off each other as effortlessly as  John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

And other people you work with where the process seems to internalize and feels like pulling hens’ teeth.

Fortunately, you don’t need to know where ideas come from, in order to recognize them.

About a year ago I had my own tiny Aha! Moment.

It led to a very simple theory of creativity.

The clearest way of explaining it is to imagine a child’s dot to dot drawing book.

Anyone can draw a tiger if they just connect the dots in sequence.

Remove the numbers from the dots and it becomes a little harder.

Remove the dots all together and some people can still draw a tiger if they know that’s what they’re meant to draw.

But what if they don’t?

And that’s the point.

Because my very simple theory says: creativity is connecting dots that don’t exist.

And the magical thing is – when you connect them, they do.


A Better ClapTrap™

21 Mar

“Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door,” is a phrase attributed to the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He probably didn’t say it, but it’s entered the language anyway.

What he did write in 1855 was this, “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”

Either way, it’s pretty much the same thought.

I’ve never read any of Emerson’s poetry so I have no opinion on his merits as a poet, but I have a definite opinion on the merits of his marketing strategy.


What amazes me about this piece of advice, apart from the phrase’s longevity, is just what spectacularly dreadful advice it is.

And that’s not even with the benefit of hindsight.

All the evidence suggests it was terrible advice when Emerson wrote the line, and we can validate this by looking at product innovation from the period.

And what a rich period it was for innovation — resulting in the creation of substantial new industries.

For example, in 1846, the first American patent for the sewing machine was granted to Elias Howe, although it took until 1854 for him to enjoy any substantial earnings from the patent, and then only after a series of legal battles.

The zipper, first patented in 1851, faced an even longer struggle and did not achieve any meaningful commercial success till the 1930s.

Rather than paths being beaten to the respective inventors’ doors, the establishment of these industries was characterized by hardheaded  tenacity.

And what if you build a better mousetrap today?

We’re talking Apple or Dyson better, the Aston Martin of mousetraps.

Let’s call it ClapTrap™   — it’s catchy.

Would you follow Emerson’s advice and wait for customers to come knocking?

I wouldn’t.

I’d climb the nearest roof and holler real loud, build the website and fire up a social media campaign.

I’d pay guys to dress in cat suits and picket the town hall, with placards proclaiming: ClapTrap stealing our jobs.

Or persuade a celeb to endorse ClapTrap™, and watch copy-cat celebrity rodent infestation stories, bump Lindsay’s relapses off Entertainment Tonight.

Now ClapTrap™’s hot, sales take-off, and you’re laughing all the way to the bank, in the bank, and leaving the bank.

Until you get blindsided by a smear campaign from the category leader, claiming ClapTrap™, is produced with child labour and covered in lead paint.

When even this libellous accusation fails to dent sales, an ex employee with suspiciously deep pockets files a claim alleging patent infringement.

And sales still skyrocket.

Then a competitor starts making knockoffs in China, produced with child labour and covered in lead paint, but substantially discounted and almost as effective as the original.

Now sales fall of a cliff, while your lawyer’s bills skyrocket.

You’ve got problems you’d never have if you’d only waited for the world to beat a path to your door.

But you’ve also got the ClapTrap™ brand, and a hard-won reputation as an entrepreneur to watch.

So how did Emerson get it so wrong?

Even more intriguingly, if his thinking is so misguided, why do so many people know the line?

Why am I writing about it some 150 years after he wrote it?

I think the answer is we want his line to be true.

We want to live in a world where the superior product always triumphs, where massive ad budgets don’t perpetuate the mundane, and quality not hype, is what engages our attention.

The line tells it the way it should be.

The way we wish it was.

And that, if not poetry, is undeniably poetic.

We Are all Plagiarists Now!

14 Mar

When I googled “We are all plagiarists now” I got 8 hits.

So the title isn’t original but I kept it anyway.

Incidentally, neither is it plagiarism.

I’m not trying to pass it off as original, so there’s no intent to deceive, although a citation would be good manners*.

It’s not just Lady GaGa who gets hit with charges of plagiarism. wants to prevent it in high schools, which is laudable.

Sites like claim to be able to detect it, I have no idea how well it works, but I’m pretty sure no one can detect paraphrasing.

Writers have always stolen from each other.

Hence when Oscar Wilde remarked, “I wish I had said that”, Whistler famously quipped “You will Oscar you will”.

To stop it getting out of hand, there’s an unwritten rule.

You can steal the idea, but you can’t steal the phrase.

It’s a bit unfair if you ask me.

If Duchamp can hang a urinal and get away with it, why can’t I nick a page of Ogilvy, re-print it in a different typeface and color and take the credit?

Critics could say, “The exquisite combination of chartreuse and Van Doesburg sheds new illumination on the subjunctive clause.”

The Flarf movement approaches this, by turning found language mostly from the internet, into random poetry which is sometimes funny, sometimes bad, and usually forgettable.

A description which also applies to the output of most agencies — appropriate perhaps when the Flarf type mash up is not unknown to advertising.

In fact, the unwritten rule of advertising is that you can steal from a movie, book or just about anything as long as you don’t steal from another ad.

The principle at stake beneath this smidgeon of idealism is real.

It is — that originality sells.

So finding that sliver of originality appropriate to your client and their product is the holy grail of advertising.

However, I think the internet is changing our notion of originality, from what we might call pure originality of the lone genius in an attic type, to a more widespread adaptive or collaborative type of originality.

Remember those Youtube mash ups from a few years ago?

If you haven’t seen A few Good Creative Men an old favorite from 2007, you must be new to the industry.

While the Internet transforms our view of what constitutes originality, paradoxically it’s made it easier to both plagiarize and detect plagiarism.

You can steal ideas from ads of the world or you can use it to check you’re not inadvertently ripping-off ideas.

That seems like a pretty level playing field to me.

So are we are all plagiarists now?

Or have we always been?


The Trouble With Content

7 Mar

I admit it, I started out in agencies when the digital guys worked in a hole round the back somewhere and it was cool to write TV.

So hailing from a traditional agency background I write copy not content, and even though 80% of the work I do now is digital, I still call myself a copywriter, not a content writer.

And if people refer to me as the latter, I correct them.

Trust me; it’s an uphill battle keeping this content thing at bay, so why bother?

Well, if you think I’m splitting hairs, you’re wrong.

Here’s why I bother.

Content undermines the creative process because the problem with content is context.

Content is just too close to contents.

And logically, the contents of anything must be contained in something.

Whether it’s a book, or a can of tomatoes, content needs a container.

And I would say four out of five websites are built that way.

That is to say designed first and then filled with content, tomatoes, whatever..

I think the word encourages people, unconsciously perhaps, to think and work that way.

That is to build a site and fill it –as opposed to building it around a core idea or functionality.

You might as well refer to a skeleton as the body’s content.

I think it’s pretty clear it’s much more than that.

So I think content has something to do with the poor standard of most websites.

And I’ll continue to write copy.

One thing’s for sure.

There’s a ton of difference between content and meaning.

Regards is Fine

4 Mar

I’m getting a disturbing amount of email with inspirational quotations tacked on as a sign off.

Not being a mean spirited guy, when it’s from a plumber, chiropractor, or widget maker I let it go; on the basis that they are not in the communications business.

But I find it annoying when creative professionals use this device.

I got one the other day from a designer who used this sign off:

“Imagination is more powerful than knowledge” – Albert Einstein.

I thought it was hilarious.

I imagine when Einstein said this he was encouraging individuals to use their  individual imaginations by referring to the power of the collective imagination.

But why bother to do that when you can just co-opt a quote from the imagination of a genius?

Talk about unintentional irony.

What do his clients’ make of this?

a) He knows who Einstein is?

b) He doesn’t have much knowledge but he has imagination and Einstien says it’s OK?

c) I give up..

If you really want your email to inspire, shouldn’t the inspiration come from words you’ve written yourself, especially if you’re selling creative services?

And if the words in your email are inspiring, I think it’s enough to sign off with a simple: