Author, entrepreneur and creative director, Dave Trott has over 40 years experience challenging the foundations of creativity in the advertising industry.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: My line of questioning is based in part from Dave Trott’s June 2012 interview by William Channer of Dorm Room Tycoons:
If you’re interested in working in a creative field, I highly recommend listening to it.]
You said in a 2012 Dorm Room Tycoons interview that 90% of advertising and marketing university graduates are loafers and skivers who want the fame, fortune and satisfaction of working on projects they’re passionate about, but don’t want to take the initiative required to find their own way to success, preferring somebody give them a ‘universal set of rules’ needed to become successful, and when they don’t get their way they complain about not being able to find a job. Yep. And as far as I’m concerned that is still true today. This lazy mentality is the unfortunate byproduct of an educational system which rewards students with passing marks for blindly repeating what their teachers tell them to, and then those students spend their free time playing around and getting drunk. This is how they have learned and have been trained to behave going into the workforce. I have found that this applies to graduates in general, regardless of their field of study.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For an interesting theory on why younger generational complaining, read the article Why Generation Y Yuppies Are So Unhappy by Tim Urban of Wait But Why.
Secondly, recall in my interview with Art Director Akim Zerouali that advertising doesn’t actually change very much. The same techniques used in advertising of yesteryear are pretty much the same techniques used today. What’s different is the inspiration, the mediums at our disposal and the way we present the message to consumers.
Check out the blog Joe la pompe and you’ll see the same mechanics, visual references and ideas throughout all the advertising campaigns. Yes, there are unscrupulous advertisers, creative directors and copywriters who intentionally steal other people’s creativity and try to pass it off as their own, hoping nobody will notice; however most idea theft usually isn’t done on purpose. It’s just that nearly all advertisers are working from the same intellectual thought processes stemming from the same books of techniques, graduating from the same advertising school curriculums, and using the same consumer-base demographic to create their advertising campaigns.]
Do you think this also applies to entrepreneurs and startups? With startups launching a new product or established brands launching a new product, 90% of the time you’ll find that a person’s ‘new’ idea is a waste of time and statistically, destined to fail. They’ve been seduced by the novelty of taking what already exists, rearranging it or enhancing it and launching something they call ‘new.’ Creativity is how you do your job in a way nobody has done before.
Unless you’re truly creating something new, you’re just concocting another means of communicating a message similar to what many other brands are already trying to sell.
Real creatives are attracted to, and find creativity everywhere; so much so that true creatives will find 2-3 examples of this every day.
Real creativity is looking at what everybody else has already looked at, and seeing something nobody else has seen. Real creativity looks obvious after you see it, but you couldn’t have seen it coming beforehand.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Recall in the Ycombinator lecture The Importance of Finding Your Idea & Product by
at Standford University that an entrepreneur’s job is to build something users love. A lot of good-on-paper startups fail because they make something that users merely like. Building something that people merely want is a great way to fail while not understanding why you’re failing. It’s better to build something that a small number of users love than something a large number of users like. It’s much easier to expand from what a small number of people love to something that a lot of people love than something that it is expanding from what a lot of people like into what a lot of people love.]
So if I’ve been raised and educated to see things a certain way (as mentioned above), how can I see what nobody else sees? First and foremost you have to desire it. By desiring it you can put yourself amongst it. By putting yourself amongst it, you literally absorb it.
After +40 years in the industry I have through experience developed a very short attention span. If within 30 seconds something neither attracts my attention nor keeps it, then I move on to something else. If, however, there is something that captures and keeps my attention, I’ll study and learn about it for a bit, note down what I learned from it, and then move on.
You won’t necessarily study any one thing in great depth, but as long as you’re learning something and it interests you, keep exploring it. Once it gets boring, move on.
From an employer branding standpoint, Human Resources’ uses mathematical models to attract and recruit A-players (above average performers) while trying to limit B-players (average employees) and weed out C-players (warm bodies who simply fill positions within the company)… There are employees that are more appropriate for your company and employees who aren’t, and if your company is attracting employees who aren’t right for your company, it’s your marketing department’s fault for failing to correctly communicate your brand’s vision. That isn’t to say one employee is better than another, it’s a matter of can you attract people who are most appropriate for your brand?
Is Steve Jobs better than Bill Gates? For me, I’ve read about Bill Gates but I personally can’t learn much from Bill Gates because he doesn’t seem to be creative – He’s absolutely fantastic at making money, a real nice person and philanthropist, but as a creative I’m interested in creativity and being creative, and so I can learn a lot more about creativity with Steve Jobs than I can with Bill Gates. I want as many “Steve Jobs” working for me as I can get, but that’s just me. Your company may be different.
From a recruitment standpoint, if decision-makers in a company focus on making their business the best it can be, then the employees who want to be the best (as defined by your brand) will be attracted to your company.
…you aren’t worried that making such bold claims about the laziness of tomorrow’s workforce might damage your career and brand’s reputation as an employer? That’s not my responsibility. It’s not my job to make people work. My job is to find the people who are desperate and want to work, and give them the opportunity and the break they need. If that is you, then send me your CV! But if prefer to have a cozy job at a nice desk and not have to do much work, then I’m the wrong person to work for.
Finally, someone was actually listening in one of my lectures… pic.twitter.com/qknPZnzCmv— dave trott (@davetrott)
Your perspective seems to resemble that of Bob Hoffman, author of 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising and the blog The Ad Contrarian… The problem with advertising on the agency side is that they always tend to focus on one ‘key’ solution, such as the Millennial Generation as being the most important fad to cling on to for brands wanting to succeed today. But this current ‘Millenial’ solution is the sales pitch of stupid advertisers who prefer to follow what everybody else in the industry is doing rather than think for themselves, just like they learned to do while in university.
Granted, it’s not the Millenial Generation’s fault that they happen to be the modern poster child for lazy advertisers simply out to win a pitch or upsell services to their existing clients.
Take for example Bob Hoffman’s research showing that 88% of all new cars are purchased by senior citizens, with only 12% of all subcompact cars being purchased by Millenials. Yet when you look around you ALL of the car advertisements out there target Millenials, not the senior citizens (the baby boomer generation) – the most lucrative age group in the car industry. Seems like a pretty ridiculous advertising decision when you look at the research, don’t you think?
It is this ridiculous logic that Bob and I complain the most about; advertisers preferring to follow the crowd rather than thinking for themselves. Thinking is hard work, and we know that heuristically the human brain is an energy saving machine and so feels more comfortable with formulas and predictable behaviors and answers. But this mentality runs counter-intuitive to creativity.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on heuristics and behavioral economics, read my interview with Executive Creative Director Rory Sutherland.]
But if everyone believes and repeats a popular belief enough times, doesn’t it become accepted as a general truth? Plus as long as those advertising solutions show a marginal return on interest (ROI), then from the brand-side the solution is worth it, no? No. Just because everybody believes something, or because somebody has taken the time to ‘codify’ it and promote it doesn’t make it true. Anyone who claims they have created “The 10 Rules of Creativity” doesn’t understand creativity: how can creativity possibly be captured into a list of rules?
But for example in his book Creative Advertising: Ideas & Techniques From The World’s Best Campaigns, Mario Pricken dissected the advertising process and reverse engineered the best advertising campaigns in the world, resulting in a codified list of 116 questions to answer which would allow ANYONE to replicate the results, effectively codifying creativity. So it effectively stops people from having to think? Most people don’t understand the difference between creativity and style. There are a lot of people who are calling themselves creatives who are actually merely stylists.
Anybody can make anything work if you throw enough money at it. There is nothing creative in that. In fact, people will spend decades throwing money at something until someone creative comes along and completely disrupts the industry.
Just because it has been shown to work in the past doesn’t mean you should keep doing it. This is one of the reasons why Detroit died; because somewhere along the line the decision makers and the creatives stopped thinking about how they could improve their product and stay competitive. Meanwhile competitors around the world outsmarted, adapted, and then drove Detroit’s entire automotive industry into bankruptcy.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: As a contradictory thought to consider, in his book Permission Marketing, Seth Godin argues that the only person who should decide when you change your advertising is your accountant. When the ad stops working, when the look ceases to be profitable, change it.
Also, Art Director Julien Hérisson and Product Designer Timoni West outline how to tell the good creatives from the bad. For a more thorough list of ways of identifying good creatives from the bad, read my book How to Shape Human Behavior (2nd Edition).]
Wouldn’t advertisers and entrepreneurs who ‘lazily’ promote current trends and become rich doing so have a good argument for claiming that in fact you’re the stupid one for not taking advantage of the current trends? Revolutions and disruptive ideas will never get started with that kind of thinking. The people with money and status will always argue in a way that benefits them keeping the money and status, and as long as the general population continues following along without thinking or challenging those arguments, nothing will change.
Whereas Britain and Europe have always favoured skilled experts, the US praises and rewards rejects, disruptives and trouble makers. You, and only you, are directly responsible for your own happiness and success. The United States was founded by people who were rejected by Europe. Apple’s “Here’s to the crazy ones” campaign perfectly personifies this mentality.
In that context, learning to survive without a skill can actually make you stronger and more powerful than those with a skill.
But in business we’re taught that slow and steady wins the race… I completely disagree! Slow and steady doesn’t win the race. Slow and steady wastes a lot of money and is dull and boring. Evolution shows that the slower species eventually goes extinct while the quicker, more adaptable and innovative species continues to grow and evolve.
But hey, if you’re happy with the slow and steady; if that’s how you want to spend your few fleeting years on this planet, it seems a complete waste of a life, but I wish you all the best.
Sir John Hegarty argues that the typical life expectancy of a creative is 10 years because they have to ‘have a new, innovative idea everday,’ and eventually they burnout. Are you proposing that creative burnout is not possible? If you are not adaptable, and if you carry on doing the same thing for 10 years, you will probably get stale at it. With experience you progress, and eventually you get so good at what you’re doing that you begin mentoring other, younger and inexperienced people on how to do what you have become an expert in. That is how you survive past 10 years in the same industry. For instance, football players can become great managers: Franz Beckenbauer won the World Cup as a player and then again as a manager. John Hegarty, David Abbott and I have won awards as creatives, ten again as creative directors. First you learn how to do it yourself, then you learn how to teach other people to do it. As long as you never stop growing and evolving you don’t need to burn out.
Creativity never really stops; it just keeps evolving.
China has become the world’s most adaptable and efficient economy for mass production and innovation, yet look at the consequences: undrinkable water, the worst air pollution on the planet… That isn’t really adapting though, is it? Because some creative person will come along and create a more environmentally-friendly way of doing the same thing as China and solve that problem. Increasing productivity while compounding the resulting consequences isn’t adaptation; that is simply ignoring the problem.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This December 1, 2015 BBC article claims that “Just breathing the air in China for one hour can reduce your total life expectancy by 20 minutes.”
For more on how technology is destroying the planet, watch the documentaries The Story of Stuff: How our Modern Markets Economy is Destroying Our Planet and How Your Technology Waste Destroys The Planet & Compromises Your Security.]
For every Steve Jobs that revolutionized an industry there are a million other ‘would be’ revolutionaries who tried and failed and fell into obscurity. Wouldn’t Steve Job’s ‘revolutionary message’ only be heard because he happened to be lucky enough to have won the lottery: defying the odds and not failing? That mentality sounds like the social classes of London where only one out of a million people managed to work their way out of the impoverished working class. That mentality says the working class should basically stay where it is, shut up, and let the ruling class rule. That mentality is too far away from me to be able to relate to and accept.
You cannot control when your lottery number is picked, but you can influence whether or not you will be successful in your own life, and there are a million different ways to influence that.
Are you as strict with your clients and their brief as you are with the creatives who work for you? Charlie Saatchi had a great answer to taking on new business:
“Either we have to be making money on it, or we have to be doing great work. If we aren’t doing either of those things, we don’t want it.”
Fashion advertising is little more than an emotionally-laden photo or video of a famous and/or beautiful person interacting with the product, in a beautiful place, and with the brand logo somewhere in the picture. Is this branding technique good for small businesses? Advertising that isn’t intrusive isn’t very effective unless you spend a TON of money on it. If you’re Coca-Cola or a high fashion brand with a large advertising budget, you can afford to do that kind of advertising. Like I said before, you can make anything work if you throw enough money at it.
But without the budget, it will be invisible. What you need is an advertising idea that will get noticed and talked about, and on a smaller budget.
Concerning the stories you tell in your books and on your website, do you find stories to corroborate your solutions or take the solutions from the stories you hear?Stories first. The stories I hear lead to the creative principles I outline in my books and on my website. The best place to find stories is to start by looking at yourself and your own decision-making processes. Examine your own behavior and ask yourself:
- Why did I remember that particular advertisement?
- Why did I choose this product and not the others around it?
- Why do I find this particular painting or story interesting?
There are some people out there who are just full of interesting, funny stories, and every time they open their mouth they tell an interesting story. Whenever you hear a good story, remember it and look it up later, and then focus on why you liked the story as well as what lessons you can take away from it. I can usually reduce that down into a simple truth:
I’m in university studying advertising, what can I do to stand out in the industry? Don’t go to university to learn advertising. You don’t learn advertising from teachers because teachers don’t do advertising; teachers teach. You want to learn advertising? Get a hands-on job or an internship in an ad agency and learn how to do it first hand with the people who are good at it. Most of the great advertisers don’t have advertising degrees because all that would do is stop you from thinking.
Learn by working with the best and through trial and error; it’s neither the teacher’s nor the creative director’s responsiblility to teach you, it’s your responsibility to learn. The good students understand this.
In advertising you don’t need degrees to move up in the industry, you need a good portfolio. If you give 10 pitches and come in second place every time, that is stupid because walk away with nothing: it means clients kind of like your work, but not enough to hire you.
I would rather finish last 9 times and then finish first on the 10th, because that means you’ve got one paying client. But most people are so petrified of finishing last that they never get the chance to finish first once. To finish first once you need to get a strong response, to get a strong response you need to polarise people. So some people will love you and some people will hate you, but nobody will feel lukewarm.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his talk Win Without Pitching, Blair Enns argues the benefits of branding yourself as an expert with a narrow focus, arguing that when it comes to winning new business, ideally you want to:
- Win without pitching (if possible)
- If you can’t win without pitching, try to derail the pitch
- If you can’t derail the pitch, try to gain the inside track
- If you can’t gain the inside track and be seen as meaningfully different, then it’s probably time to walk away with your integrity, positioning already established as an expert in your space, and preserve your future business opportunities.
You don’t have to win every business opportunity that presents itself to you, but you should be a little selective in the type of work that you do and the type of clients that you do it for.
When you brand yourself as an expert in a narrow focus, it’s the depth of your expertise that the client is after. Narrowing your focus requires changing how you offer the services you offer because the clients who hire you on your expertise will have very specific marketing and communication challenges that won’t be solved using a generalist offer.]
How do you consistently know when an advertising idea will work? Common sense. Having been doing advertising for 40 years, and I can tell you that there isn’t a formula. Bill Bernbach said “principles endure, formulas don’t.”
Does consumer testing inhibit creativity? Consumer testing can be good depending on how you use it. When the client isn’t involved, it can be useful for creative developmenet. But once the client gets involved, then they begin to take decisions and it isn’t useful for creative development anymore.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For a basic model for constructive consumer testing, read my interview with Peter Spear.]
5 responses to “162. Dave Trott on True Creativity & How Creatives Can Start Revolutions”
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