I’m going to take a gigantically presumptuous, judgmental leap here. One that will hardly widen the gene pool of cultural references among most bloggery mediary types. Because I’ll just bet you’ve seen more than one episode of the Channel 4 TV programme, Grand Designs.
Of course you have.
We took a spin down to Spain with good chums a few years ago. Fine, thoughtful, caring, intellectually engaged people to chew the philosophical cud with. And sure, on this trip, we belted across Granada at one point to marvel at the Alhambra – a gently awe-prompting piece of distinctly ‘cultural’-sounding Islamic history in Europe.
But the event we probably put most practical enthusiasm into, with watch-glancing and meal-prepping and the like – all the while we were in this vastly diverse, culturally rich foreign land – was the screening of a new EP of a certain aspirational home build telly show on the sat feed. Got so excited we smashed some decent glasses of wine, as I recall.
My point may be that a lot of folk don’t half like to gawp at beautiful design. And at someone else carrying the emotional and – pointedly – financial can for it.
Is it a dream of a better, cleaner, finer, more Germanically-engineered, more smoothly-plastered life, in a doom-tottering dirty world?
Or do we just enjoy hoping to see especially uptight fellow middle-class people melt down in public? Artisan bread and circuses, mate.
Well, the rich, gutsy, pushy, uptight, visionary people always get the posh house and gliding crane shots in the end. And I rather think that that’s the point.
A point highlighted by an episode I watched last night, that made me think of the end of civilisation as we know it.
It didn’t make me think of the end of civilisation as we know it. Not exactly. It did make me think what a fantasy a designer home is for most of us, especially after Prime Minister Cameron’s lectern-gripping speech about make-or-break Britain at the Tory party conference on Wednesday. Is George Osborne’s social care-killing future really the only one ahead of us all? Is it time to start learning some rat recipes from Nigella and Jamie?
I probably also thought this a bit in light of also watching sci-fi blunderbuster Looper at the weekend – which, although enticingly promising a near future with airships in it, also deftly painted a hellish, steam-Dickensian life of addiction and vigilante dodging for all of us living below them. ..Yes, do you have it in hand-thrown, sun-weathered terracotta, please?
What it more precisely made me think of was… the challenge facing us. All of us. Now. What shape it really is, In the middle of a hugely destabilising period in history. And how the creative industries may be at the forefront of helping us meet it.
Our freak-scary challenge is an imperative of economics – obviously, because everything is. Especially if you’re trying to build a home on a goopy riverbank on one of the most expensive domestic stretches of the Thames. But it’s tempting to say that the challenge is really one of technology. Especially if you’ve just been to a ‘digital’ creatives conference. Which I have.
Silicon Beach is the sort of thing that people all over the south coast should be talking about. Especially people in business. It should be a four-page pull-out feature in the Bournemouth Echo. It should be at least the subject of a news item on BBC South Today. Or Heart FM. And there should surely be a bumper sticker campaign about it. It should, in short, come to people’s attention through all the distinctly old-world, un-digital media channels we’re all very comfortable with thankyou.
Why? Because it’s brilliant. Because it’s more akin to a TED conference than a bunch of provincial advertising types getting together over home-made soup and branded cupcakes.
Organised chiefly by founding member of creative network Meetdraw, Matt Desmier, SB is about bringing together digital creatives and advertising biz people with some of the coolest leading edge thinkers in the industry – to simply share stuff. It is an open-handed proposition, designed to help everyone raise their game. Or to put it a little more humanly, get inspired. Excited, even.
New tech is exciting. It promises solutions to things we currently live with as immutable. Mutterings are often made about building a new Green Economy in the UK, for example – not simply rebalancing the currency of our sustainability, as it were, but investing in clever tech ways of overcoming pollution and waste and power needs. But much more importantly, of course, new technology also promises fun.
As coding wünderkind Syd Lawrence, founder of Winchester’s We Make Awsome Sh.It put it on the second day of SB: “Digital is our playground”.
At any business-related conferency thing, you’re likely to hear a lot of ‘strategic’ words. Words like Strategy. And Delivery. And Budget. And at a conference for advertising types, you can add words like Audience. And Platform. And Type. And Ad Words. It’s confusing. It’s boring.
I expected lots of references to otherworldly things that pen-and-paper layout pad huggers and piano botherers like me find a little unnerving – “HTML5” and “Applet” and that kind of thing. To my uncoded delight, the conference largely operated in the space that most creatives most want to work in – an emotional space.
The business truth of most advertising businesses is that any kind of financial stability you can manufacture for your team, you will. Steady income flows keep the ship stable. Ruts steer the truck for you. ‘Creatives’ can be very un-risky thinkers quite easily, especially if a tent-pole client is regulating the type of work coming through their studio. Thinking hurts. And can get you in trouble fast.
As conference host and founder of industry challenger, Additive, Dave Birss, put it: “Creativity makes people uncomfortable – because it means that people will have to think”.
Your client doesn’t really want to have to think. They have enough to think about. And so does your boss. Everyone wants results. And champagne. Everyone wants champagne. Who really wants to try something outside their normal frame of reference? Especially when there’s a whole champagne lifestyle riding on your damn-fool, hair-brained, new-spangled ‘idea’.
Well, the issue facing us all, perpetually, is sustainability. And that relies on nature’s greatest, most instinctive trick. One we humanimals reflect cunningly.
Only adaptation ensures life. To a business. To a society. To a life. So ideas may be the 21st century’s new currency, some say.
Yeah well they’re idiots. Try popping to the bank and offering them some good ideas in exchange for an extension to your credit limit.
And how many truly great ideas have you ever had, eh? Enough to survive armageddon?
No, me neither.
Ideas are essential. And Lord knows that some brains are far more shaped to pop them out of nowhere than others. But if you really think that creativity is all about prophets sharing gifts from God, your job is clearly so boring I want to cry big hearty man tears for you. Leave it now. Because creativity is not simply about toiling over an idea to make it workable – deliverable – it’s about people. Team. Sharing.
Who is doing the prophet’s laundry while he or she is pontificating, hmm? And who manufactured the pants that need scrubbing after a hard day’s inspiring, eh?
As Steve Taylor, CEO at The Neighbourhood, put it: “The idea that only some of us are creative is stupid. Everyone can play an active part in problem solving – if the processes they find themselves in facilitate it.“
The problem we’re all finding, everywhere it seems, is that we’re all working in processes that don’t facilitate it. That almost seem designed NOT to get the best out of each of us.
Alan Moore, founder of SMLXL and author of No Straight Lines, put it simply, as he flashed up a big image of a colossal rusted super-freighter on a beach: “Industry actually served us well for a time. It built amazing things, in fact. But big industry is no longer fit for purpose.”
Applause and reflect.
There were, for me, three words lurking under all the different talks and conversations at Silicon Beach 2012. Three words that point to one word that really sums up both the challenge and the leading edge solution to it that we have at hand.
For the challenge facing the marketing industries is one facing, well… the world: How to make sense of change, and survive. More than that – thrive. Profound changes are happening all around, and old norms are morphing. ..Again. Cuh. BORing.
Now, marketing people purportedly know about audiences. How to build them, how to nurture them, how to keep them engaged and grow them. Audiences feed us, after all. Sometimes very directly, if they start throwing food at your rotten performance.
Engaging with an audience usually means… letting them in. Narcissism drives all of us to some degree – how can I better see myself in something? Reassure myself that I fit somewhere? Issues of identity and vanity merge in all emerging markets in some way. But in this regard, the creative work of much advertising is actually drawing heavily on art.
Spock and awe.
Believe it or not, and I have quoted this before, it was I think Leonard Nimoy who once said that art is itself a kind of loose-weave canvas, allowing and even requiring that the viewer puts themself into the gaps, making half the content of the picture.
If there is one tagline to 20th century art, it may well be: “New ways of seeing.” This is, in truth, arguably all of art’s defining purpose. It’s meant to change you, add to you, not sell you anything. But it does so by drawing you into it, catalysing it in your own brain… with you. You’re a catalyst, mate, just by turning up.
Advertising that invites people to get something of themselves back out of it always has a certain draw – especially if it promotes a new way of seeing themselves. But more than this, it’s potentially the engine of development and progress itself. Deeper and truer than the lazily-quoted notion of ‘crowd-sourcing’. It is conversation. It is ideas development. It is identity in the together.
Shane Walter, from the simply inspirational Onedotzero gave us a simple opener to the weekend: “Affect culture, and people will love you.”
The whole point of brand campaigns is to create emotional connections. The problem with so many brand campaigns is that they try to create it, rather than inspire it.
Gimmick to win it.
We love new ideas, don’t we? Newy newy new stuff – we want to live in the new. People want inspiring. Lords knows, I do. If you haven’t seen the Popinator pop corn shooter thingy you’ll want one once you have, let me say.
And if the fundamental systems of industry on which wealth has been built for nearly two centuries have ended up promoting a deactivating of imagination and a quashing of questioning, then we’re going to need to shake things up pretty fundamentally. For the evolution of our economy. And our sanity. Or else we’ll end up putting significant R&D hours into developing weapons-tech snack food delivery systems to divert us from the awfulness of our day jobs.
Ideas don’t appear out of vacuums. They appear out of playing about. Of having the – dare I utter the notion – time to muck about. Time to think. And to not think, but do. To kinetically live with a problem and to try it out. And to go to the pub and chat about bollocks. And about ideas. And to read exciting sh.it.
And to develop pointlessly clever things just because it’s fun to.
It is no wonder that a phrase heard increasingly from the marginally hipper quarters of business is one that refers to beginning all over again – start-up. The agility of a smaller team as hungry and untrammeled and open-minded as a new business. More agile in their ability to respond, to think on their feet. I’m not so sure that every creative that claims this will be all that agile – they’ll spend most of their time off their feet at a screen – but at least their minds are trying to set up a system of business that will promote a certain cerebral nimbleness.
Implying that most businesses – Mad Men advertising behemoths especially, perhaps – are not agile. They are very slow and cumbersome to turn. Like super-freighters about to beach.
It’s a notion akin to another term I was surprised not to hear trotted out at Silicon Beach somewhere – lean. Lean really means in this context quickly getting to the trying-shit-out stage – and, crucially, being prepared to systematically work through mistakes. Ie: make some. Heaven forfend, eh?
But unless we try stuff, we never develop stuff. Development is the crucial component of this “innovation’ stuff we hear about in every imaginable business sector. It starts with the human spark but leads to labs and test beds and boffins in tweed. Or it had better if you want to be sure it will not only sell at some point, but not explode messily at some point after that.
The point being, that unless we have room for sparks to fly in the first place, we will have no ideas to pursue. And if we then don’t put systems in place that manoeuvre people into trying out hypotheses in an ego-free collaboration lab, we will have no innovation taking shape. Which means we will have no product. Which, if this is true in every organisation means we will have no economy. Which means we will have no disposable income. Or designer homes to build.
..Or healthcare. Or police. Or freedom to not feel sh.it-scared about eating without fighting ever again.
Sandpit your wits.
As macro markets fracture and disintegrate slowly, what do they fracture into? Micro markets, presumably. The sort that get stuck in the hoover, I’ll bet.
But I wonder. What is a more micro market than… you?
The gigantic implication of the digital revolution and the fallout of a failing industrial economy is the power of the tiny. Of the individual. But don’t get too excited, we’re still trying to work out this sh.it. It’s evolving as we speak, and the challenge is for you and me to find our places in it. But I hesitatingly say here’s the good news – we surely have a place. We are needed.
Yep, you and me. Well, you much more than me, obviously. But me a bit too. Because we need to realign the way we do things, like, everywhere. Which means taking a new brain into everything we do. A bit.
Those three words I mentioned? We must disrupt. And we must include. And we must play. And we must not give up.
The cutting edge solution and the age-old challenge we are faced with is this one word: humans.
Grind in the willows.
I’ve often said, in unsubstantiated clever-dick fashion, that everything we ever do must be human-shaped. Every last thing a human society will ever make or manage will be governed by whatever humans simply WILL make of it. Not what we’d like them to make of it. The 20th century’s grand legacy is the history-sweeping fallout of grand new designs on how to do things. Philosophies, strategies, technologies… ideas. And man, have we learned some Awesome sh.it from that unprecedented time in the human story.
But the key one is that we are human. And we need certain things, if we are to unlock the key to our own flourishing survival with each new historic challenge and potentially catastrophic turn of events. And last night’s Grand Designs seemed to remind me of it.
The couple, Lysette and Nigel, were determined to innovate. To do something no-one else on that exclusive stretch of the Thames had dared to do – build a distinctly modernist style home, right on the water’s edge, in amongst rows of ‘Tudorbethan’ pointy-roofed properties. And they were determined to pour however much concrete and pumping power it would take into pile-driving sure foundations into that sodden riverbank plot. The end results were a stunning testimony to vision and determination and a certain modern style.
The results were also a testimony to a very old world way of doing things. Ironically. For Lysette and Nigel were so set on their idea of living right where they wanted to, that they cared not one jot for pissing off every neighbour in the vicinity with their attitude and way of doing things. They were, in fact, perfectly happy to pointedly set out their twin loungers on their indefatigably well engineered balcony that jutted over the river further than anyone else’s and live next to everyone who now hated them, forever more. In their forever house.
Had you seen the EP, you may point out that every person interviewed on the programme seemed in very bad need of a social shake-up and hoorah for someone managing it. The point is, that by focusing on themselves, they built a lot of very bad feeling in their new neighbourhood. Hardly a textbook brand campaign. Or a productive way to promote new ways of seeing things to conservative old inhabitants of where they were now planning to base their lives.
It was also a bit boxy and beige.
Make the platform.
We must disrupt. We must include. We must play.
It’s the three together that may signal a sustainable direction for us. You, me, business stuff, society stuff. How are you helping to see such things wherever you are? How am I? All alone in my semi-tidy shed in my garden?
Open source. There’s a fairly digital term for you. Shared code. Inviting collaboration.
The internet has revolutionised the way we do things more than any other bit of digital fallout. But you better believe that it’s still governed by supremely organic principles – of evolution, of humanity.
What seemed clear to me is that old media isn’t dead. It is simply having to adjust to a more diversified market. People still love the shared moments of TV. The feel of magazine covers. The crick of a new book. Or an old one. The miraculous burble of company through a speaker attached to a radio wave carrying someone talking about something randomly interesting.
People also love being identified with something. With others. With ideas. With something that says something about who they are. And tablets with WIFI enable them to join in a conversation with someone a thousand miles away while watching the same TV programme. Or while playing the same game.
We want to be involved. We want to feel secure. We want to feel purposeful. We want to feel valued. We want to feel excited about the possibilities of our ideas. We want to feel bold enough to take risk and achieve something. And we can only do all this in the right environment.
That environment isn’t going to be found inside a computer. You can climb out of your neon Tron jumpsuit. Unless you’re due at the same party I am.
The truth is, every platform you care to mention, physical or digital, is just another tool in your challenge of trying to reach someone. For help, for trade, for love.
Agencies are daft if they think only about mobile apps, or TV ads, or logo designing. They can specialise – this is an age in desperate need for specialists – but the successful specialist will be someone who knows exactly how to fit their bit of the jigsaw puzzle into place. We’re making a bigger picture than ourselves always. Get that, and you’re on Team Future. And yes, that does include the silver cap and matching boots.
So if the key to a sustainable future for, like, everyone is collaboration, conversation, ideas and developing new ways not only of seeing but news systems of sharing and finding… isn’t it the digital creative roles that are at the very forefront of working out all this?
As Liri Andersson of This Fluid World said: “This is a very exciting time. Marketing has never been in a better position to help business develop ideas with their customers.”
Check three of those key words: “Exciting”, “Ideas” and “With”.
So what platforms are you developing to help people participate?
The truth then is, you’re sat on a real beach, not a virtual one. If you don’t have some equivalent of sand in your shoes after your day’s work, you may not be taking part in something fully effective. Meaningful enough to last.
As Alan Moore said: “True innovation is doing things for the collective good”. If 10% of the British population currently has no bank account, what resources of humanity are we wasting? What people are we not including?
Who are we missing?
How are we undermining our efforts to build a sure future? One that will not only stand the currents of change, but be welcoming to live in, not just to photograph.
I’ve come way from the Beach thinking this: Our job is to reach each other. For our clients. For ourselves. Whether we work in a ‘creative’ job or not. That’s how we’ll activate the real power of the digital future.
And take heart – it’s happening now. ..Wanna play?