The Good, the Bad and the Lazy of Advertising

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

Advertising has been declared dead so many times that if I had a penny everyone organised its funeral I wouldn’t still have to work in it. But, here I am, still trying to make better work than I did before, because that is how I was raised.

I cut my copywriting teeth at an agency that had a very simple mantra about its work:

Let’s make ads that are more entertaining than the shows we are interrupting.

This was based on the premise that a lot of ads were terrible, using formula, cliche and superlative to beat clients’ message into the brains of people. At the time, and I am showing my age here, people didn’t have that many options to avoid advertising. If you didn’t want the latest jingle about which detergent washes whiter uploaded into your memory you would have to get up to go make a cup of tea.

So the idea was to make advertising that people would love — little half-minute mini comedies and dramas. People didn’t walk away from this type of advertising because it was magic and awesome.

To make this kind of work, we had to gain a better understanding of the people we were advertising to. We had to had to work harder to make sure we were working with the right insights and human truths. And we had to work many long hours to write more scripts and draw more scamps than our competitors, because breaking convention is always harder than following it.

We got it right. In the 90s, TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris won every global accolade for the work it produced for BMW, Nando’s, Standard Bank — and many more. The work made the agency and the clients famous. Great creative people, even from around the world, wanted to work there and were willing to take paycuts for the privilege.

Great ideas stood out. Bad ideas didn’t.

But that was then and this is now. Fast forward to 2015, and we find ourselves in an age where technology has enabled people to avoid bad advertising.

The marketing world has gone into a mild panic, to say the least. Advertising creativity festivals, that used to be about celebrating great work, are now mostly conferences in which marketing people slingshot from one seminar to another go sit at the knee of another technology prophet to understand how to buzzword the buzzword into buzzword.

Those who relied on formula and lazy thinking before now search for formula and lazy thinking in technology and algorithms.

Of course, understanding technology is a good thing. In fact, tech is our friend. It has given us new tools to make our stories even more compelling and better. But it shouldn’t distract us from the fact that even though the media has changed, that people haven’t. We are still the same hominids who sat around the fire millennia ago, trying to outdo each other with our stories.

Doing our jobs well still starts with putting in the time and investment to find the right insights and putting in the extra hours to make create better and more insightful stories than our competitors — whether it is another agency, or a kid with an iPhone and Adobe Creative Suite.

We should still set out to create magic and awesome, because that is what makes work unskippable and shareable.

Great work is and always will be about compelling, relevant stories, delivered in a surprising and magic way, no matter the media or the platform it is delivered on. Bad work just found itself some new buzzwords.

There is no lift back up

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

Imagine you are skiing down a beautiful slope.
It is a gorgeous day.
Little sparkles are dazzling in front of you.
The sky is deep and blue, the powder under your skis are fluffy and crunchy.
There is hardly a soul around you.
You feel alive as you effortlessly and fearlessly descend down the mountain.
Ravines and peaks rise and fall around you as you make your way down.
In the distance, the horizon stretches out to forever.
You feel that sense of possibility in you. Joy. Peace. Quiet.

Now. Imagine when you get to the end of the slope there is no lift back up. And that you will never get to ski this slope again. Now rethink how fast you want to ski that slope.

You are going to want to stop when you get a good view. You are going to consider your speed. You are going to want to slow this beautiful day down to suck out every little bit of joy that every centimetre of the slope can give you.

This is life.

Where you are now, you can never return to. There is no lift back up to now. You're going to want to slow down. To make the most of every single second you have. Because the force of nature is pulling you further down towards the end. This is your main thing - to learn to slow down and take it all in. To make the most of every centimetre and every second. To make as many wide turns as you can.

There is only now.

Without purpose you are nothing

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

Purpose sounds like one of those words that make PowerPoint slides look good. You can look at it, understand it intellectually, even say it and preach it - but if you don't have it, you have nothing.

It's an invisible thing, but it is the thing that holds a person or a business' life together. Like gravity, you can't see it, but if it disappeared the whole universe would disappear into a swirling vortex down the plughole of time. 

I have just written a new post for the nice people at Pick Crew about how small and medium enterprises can practically define their purpose. 

Pick Crew Blog: Finding your purpose

I would be grateful if you gave it a read and let me know what you think.

But I would be even more happy if you found it useful - for yourself - or a friend.


Gamifying the battle against cancer

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

When I was still a boy my father died of cancer. It is a terrible disease. Somewhere along the line, we are all touched by it. We lose friends, loved ones. Or we get it ourselves.

My friend and colleague, Conn Bertish survived brain cancer. He threw everything he had at it. Chemotherapy. Radiation therapy. And his spirit.

Conn designed a series visual thinking maps to invoke his mind in the battle against the tumour in his head. He believed that if the brain has the ability to raise the immunity in the body, it also has the ability to help in the fight against the cancer.

Now he is helping others who don’t think as visually as he does to do the same through something called Cancer Dojo.

I have just posted an article about Cancer Dojo on Medium.com

Please give it a read and let me know what you think in the comments or by mail. And if you think somebody you know would find it useful, please share. 

A few words about walking

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

Somebody asked me what I thought they could be doing more of to meet themselves over the next six months.

Here's what I said:

Walk. Walk every day for six months. Don't put anything in your ears. And for goodness sake don't carry anything electronic in your pocket that might distract you when you spot a park bench along your way. Just walk and don't try to ask yourself when you're going to meet yourself. As you put one foot in front of another, just allow things to bubble through you.

Here is what you can expect

Ideas. They will slowly start swirling around from your subconscious. Most might be half-formed and broken, but allow them time to bounce around. You never know what might happen with them.

Feelings. You might become overcome with sadness. Or happiness. Memories of things that have hurt you in the past might come back. Allow it all to pass through. It's all good.

Sights. You will see things. When we walk, we experience life on a different level than from the luxury of motorised transport.

People. Inevitably you might encounter other humans. Some might want to strike up a chat. Others might ask for help. Others might be willing to help. Some might just be minding their own bloody business and when you stare too much at them with your new found goofy smile from all your walking they might feel a little creeped out - but every single person will eventually help you meet yourself.

How exactly does this work?

There is a clear and demonstrable link to increased creativity through meditative repetitive actions. It places the brain in low focus mode which allows the subconscious to push more ideas to the conscious. History is littered with creative geniuses who espoused the virtues of regular walks.

So how does creativity link with finding yourself? The act of creation brings us closer to the core of our being. We are through what we create. By writing, we often find bits of our identity hidden in the words that pour from the pen. Kids draw aspects of their identity in their drawing.

Walking is just a useful trigger. It has the added benefit of letting you get out, breathe fresh air, stir the body and let you see things you could generally miss.

It's such a simple thing. Walking.

If the journey of life is a thousand steps somehow, somewhere, you have to take the first one.

10 Lessons I learned from a career in advertising

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

I have a friend who’d been working in China for a long time. He said that after a week of being there you feel like you can write a book about China. After a year, you could manage an essay.

After ten years of living in China, you would probably end up with a postcard.

Advertising is a bit like China in that way. After almost 20 years of doing it, I feel I can barely squeeze out a few core themes that would fit on the back of a postcard. Maybe after another 10, I could write one on the back of a business card.

I got into advertising because it was my Plan B. When I was in high school, I read a novel which was set in an ad agency. I knew the author had actually worked in advertising before, so I presumed that some of it was based on real experience. In the story, I got the feeling, that advertising would be a place where you could earn a decent living, without any formal qualifications.

You’d only need your ability to think creatively.

From that point on, I parked a career as an advertising copywriter as an escape hatch - an industry to go to if my plan A bombed out.

Plan A did in fact flame-out in spectacular fashion. Towards the end of my 19th year in this world, I found myself trying to sell the most awful copy test (a set of lateral thinking problems agencies used to test a person’s ability to approach advertising briefs) to Johannesburg’s advertising industry. Of course I thought I was a genius and I couldn’t understand why nobody was clambering to hire me. That’s when I learned my first lesson:

1: You’re not as good as you sometimes think you are.

Imagine that. I was learning, and I hadn’t even got in yet.

A very kind headhunter took pity on me and tried to find me a gig. I held on to a belief deep inside me, that I did have what it takes, but I just needed the right environment to prove myself. Of course, I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was right. Talent is nothing without the right environment - the right coaching and the right inspiration. Because you know -

2: Success never happens in a vacuum.

Lesson 2, done and dusted and I haven’t even earned a single dime yet. I told the headhunter I would work in an agency - FREE! As long as I could get exposure to the right people and opportunities. Of course, I was too young and inexperienced to understand that I was asking for a full-time internship but when he called me to say that Saatchi & Saatchi would take me on - that is what I was offered.

I started working my first job in advertising in March of 1995. It wasn’t a perfect agency - by no means. But it did contain some amazing people. People of the kind I have never met before. And it contained amazing opportunities. Lucky for me, one of those opportunities did arrive on my desk and lucky for me I solved a problem that had been lingering in that agency for a long time. The client loved it, and so the agency felt compelled to put me on the payroll.

At the time, the agency had a horrible but rather profitable project - to advertise the 1995 local government elections. But two wonderful opportunities were hidden inside the darkness. Firstly, between me an one of the senior writers we produced close to 300 radio commercials. For a young copywriter with mere months of experience under the belt, to get this exposure to the production process, was incredible. It gave me a grounding in radio that stays with me today. And secondly, I wrote an ad for that project that gave me an in into the best agency in South Africa.

And so, I learned Lesson 3.

3: Never say no to an awful brief.

Part of my duties were to write the Afrikaans communication for the campaign. Because very few people on the project understood (or cared for) the language, I was able to be a little experimental. I had a lot of fun with some of the ads. There was one press ad I was particularly proud of, but of course you had to understand the language and its history to appreciate it. Lucky for me, one person in particular saw it and loved it.

Harry Kalmer, the playwright, novelist and famed Afrikaans copywriter at TBWA Hunt Lascaris saw it in the paper and when he decided that it was time for him to pursue his own interests, he suggested to John Hunt that they should hire me.

So, after two years in the business, I got hired into one of the best advertising agencies in the world - with a not great portfolio, but on the strength of one newspaper ad.

Being the Afrikaans copywriter wasn’t the perfect job, but - it was a job in the right agency. Hunt Lascaris was in full ascendence and it has created an amazing environment that allowed for charming, memorable and award-winning work to flourish. And I was fully exposed to it. To the people, the culture and the work.

I realised I could apply my mind to any brief there - not just the ones I had been assigned to. And I did. At some point, the agency realised I had useful ideas and they had paired me up with one of their most up and coming art directors. We stayed a team for a few months and then I was placed in a new team and did the best work of my life.

4: Your career is like a highway. Choose your on-ramps and lane changes carefully.

This is a very good analogy for a career in advertising. Probably also for a career in anything. If I didn’t get into the lane that got me into Hunt Lascaris I would never have come as far as I did.

Remember lesson 1: the environment is incredibly important. Great talent will wilt and suffer in the wrong environment. Don’t compromise on who you choose to shape your talent.

I made some bad lane changes after I left there, but lucky for me the momentum of my stay there helped me to get back in the fast lane. In fact, after two years I found myself back at Hunt Lascaris.

I noticed a shift in the culture of the agency. At that time, John Hunt, one of the the founders and the eventual world-wide creative director of TBWA, asked me if I had noticed a difference. I said: Sure. Two years ago, creative teams always had their doors open. People would drift in and out and look at your work and they would always comment, and help you make your work better.

In the new culture the doors were always closed. Teams worked in isolation. People protected their ideas.

John just nodded and I left to go home.

The next morning, when I arrived at work - every single door in the creative department had been removed overnight. Firstly, that was the type of decisive action that is the hallmark of a great leader, but secondly, it was opening up the agency again to the power of collaborative learning.

John understood that ideas are almost never a single individual’s “work”. They are the result of days, months, even years of influence. Half-formed thoughts bouncing around in the ether until one day, when the conditions are perfect, they snap together in a beautiful, full formed idea.

He even alluded to this with an analogy that I only fully grokked years later. He said, as creative people, we carry a bag of Lego with us. And every experience we have is a block of Lego that goes into the bag. And as we tread this earth, and as we live, the Lego pieces bounce around our bags and sometimes snaps together in new and wonderful combinations. The trick, if you follow his analogy, was to fill your bag with as many Lego pieces as you can to maximise the opportunity for as many new ideas to form in your head as possible. This brings us to the next lesson:

5: Live your creative job outside the agency.

Open yourself up to lots of different and new experiences. When people start out in advertising, there is a huge temptation to try and fit in with the other creatives. With the rest of the culture. But if you do that, your work will look and feel like everyone else’s. You know that joke about teenagers - “I want to be different - just like my friends”? Well, ad people are like that too. It is the truly innovative people in our business that manage to speak with their own voice. They don’t care about trends. They listen to that vibration deep inside their own hearts. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American poet and essayist had something to say about this in his great essay “Self-Reliance”:

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

What Emerson was trying to say to us is this: that weird way of looking at a problem, if you don't act upon it, you will see that on next year's Cannes reel. And you will hate yourself because somebody else will pick up your accolade.

This means you have to be brave. And you have to understand this about advertising. It is a business of opinions. There is no real right and wrong. What is true is this: the one with the best ability to convey her opinion wins. So. Learn to make your case. If you’re shy, and an introvert, it doesn’t matter. Just learn to make your ideas hear and learn to present them with the passion and theatre. Be true to yourself, believe in your ideas and respect them and give them a big opportunity to win. It is hard to boil down what I have just said in one lesson, but let me try:

6: Give your ideas maximum respect.

Use massive pieces of paper to let illustrate your thought. Be confident. Have balls. Present in a way that you are comfortable with, but by all means, present with passion.

In that time, when I was at Hunt Lascaris, I got given an assignment that was my first real creative leadership role. A perfect opportunity to give a young player a run on the park when the match result is a foregone conclusion. The project was sure to fail for many reasons, but it was a brilliant opportunity for them to try things out.

The opportunity was this: BMW was about to launch the newly redesigned MINI car. They asked us to pitch, because we were the agency of record for the BMW brand, but all signs pointed to the fact that they wanted a new agency to handle this launch.

But we had three months and I did nothing except work on this. Plus, I got to collaborate with amazing people.

What I learned from this was that if you can make everyone in your team believe that you can achieve the impossible - you will. Also, if you have an idea that really excites people. That really touches them, then you will win.

And we had such an idea. It was so simple. John Hunt kept saying to us during reviews: “This car is such a legend, it defies description. So … our idea was this: for the indescribable car, we invent its own language.

Minish - was a language we made up and presented as the launch idea. We developed about 200 words that described how you feel about your MINI, from the way your bum feels when the seats warm them, to the sound it made when you wire the battery terminals the wrong way round.

It was the kind of idea that lit a fire in people ran. Our activation guys came up with an amazing dealer strategy. They made CDs that people listened to on test-drives - that would be an instruction course on how to speak Minish.

We won that business. But in the end, they launched the car with an international campaign.

But, lesson learned:

7: Truly inspirational ideas can make the impossible happen.

This project lead to me being offered a job as Hunt Lascaris’ creative director in Cape Town.

I arrived at an agency that had the same name as the one I knew in Johannesburg, but that had a very different culture. I tried everything to do things the way I was thought but was too inexperienced to change the fundamentals that made the bigger sister agency tick. I also pushed work on clients who weren’t interested in that style of work. It was then that I learned that:

8: You can only do the work for your clients that they want you to do.

If you come up with awesome stuff for a client who does not think it is awesome it will fail in the long run. Spend time understanding a client’s business. Listen to them. Agency people like to believe their clients are idiots, but in most cases they know their brands. Work with them, not against them. Of course they want work that will make them famous, exactly what you want, but you have to tick their boxes. That is just the way advertising is. You can’t work around it. And you can’t blame the system. This is what you signed up for. So suck it up, love it, and make it work.

In the last few years, I have been lucky to have regional and global jobs in Asia and Europe. And I found this:

9: Before you change agencies, change yourself.

I am not saying don’t move if you’re unhappy. But I am saying give every job your best shot. Sometimes we are not honest with ourselves. We come up with reasons to leave - but actually those are just hiding our own insecurities. Give every position your best shot, and unless something really intolerable is going down, give it your best shot for at least 2 or 3 years.

Finally, I’d like to say a thing or two about your brain.

10: Your brain is your tool. Look after it.

You have chosen a job that 100% relies on the proper functioning of the matter between your ears. This means, if you take your job seriously, you should take proper care of your brain.


No drugs. I am being serious. I have seen amazingly talented people lose their careers and their lives because their addiction to drugs took control of their lives. So, yeah, like your mom I am saying - say no to drugs. She says it cause she loves you, I am saying so cause I want you to make an awesome contribution to our industry.

Respect the computer. Computers are amazing tools. They have automated many functions you kids take for granted. When I was your age, we walked 16 miles in the snow - barefoot - to the agency. And we used letraset. And typewriters. Well, almost. But the point is this: computers can make your brain lazy. Use them when you execute, but always do all your thinking in your brain.

There is a theory that writers write better on typewriters because you can’t just backspace backspace backspace backspace. They spend more time composing in their heads so when they commit to paper, the words are better. The same is true for film cameras. Because film is expensive, you think more about the composition of a shot. If you’re just going to shoot 2000 images and choose one, where is the fun in that?

Computers are incredible tools. But like any powerful tool, it can cause you to lose a thumb. Or a brain. So get to know how to use them.

Oh. One more thing. Be brief.

I really should have written this on a typewriter.

A small announcement

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

I was having breakfast with my daughter in a little restaurant in Paris when Pepe Marais, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Joe Public, called me to confirm that their agency will provide me with a home when I wanted to go back home to South Africa from Switzerland. 

This call signalled the beginning of a great journey with one of South Africa’s most successful and interesting advertising groups. In just under two years, the Joe Publicans and myself have set up a great digital presence in Cape Town and in the last few months we produced an awesome campaign together, launching January 2015, that is the best work of my career to date.

It’s been a great journey. But it has been one where the path kept veering to Johannesburg - which is a far way from my home and my heart.

So when an opportunity came up to join the Woolies team in Cape Town, it was difficult to say no. This is an opportunity to help shape a great premium brand from the inside, try out the ultimate agency integration model and most importantly - explore my interest in innovation beyond communication.

I am sad to be leaving the Joe’s and I will keep rooting for their continued success. But I am also over-the-moon excited for the new direction my career is about to take and the interesting places where it will take me next.

Why Evernote is indispensable for the creative pro

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

 In the last few months I have become more and more reliant on Evernote. And the more I have been using it, the more powerful it becomes. 

Here’s why: Typically I now save everything in the it. Ideas, fragments of ideas, scripts, meeting notes, bookmarks, Web clippings, dreams, important documents and attachments and reminders. In the background, Evernote makes connections between your notes based on the content and the tags you assign to each note.

And this is where its power as a tool for the creative professional becomes apparent. Whenever you start a new note, Evernote keeps refreshing a pane of what it calls “related notes”.  It starts making the connections obvious. Suddenly, notes appear that contain anything from a dream you had years ago, the beginning of an idea you struck on last week, something you saw online or an old script that you never sold. It helps you draw connections and connect those half-formed hunches that have been waiting to pair with other hunches and stimuli to form new ideas.

I have written before (lesson #5) about the importance for those who want to make the most of their creative ability to fill their minds with many diverse experiences. With Evernote, you can now make the most of all those fragments to give you access to the better ideas that are lurking in the reaches of your mind.

The Double - real life edition

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

A few months ago, I published a short story on KDP called The Double. It takes place in a world where every person is born with an exact twin. In this world, every person shares their life force with their double. When that double dies, their half of your shared life-force is reunited in you - the surviving twin. In this world, it is permissible to find your twin and kill him or her.

Today I came across this article on wikipedia. It is about the twins Jennifer and June Gibbons

They were both ostracised from society and spent most of their adult lives living in mental institutions. At some point, they agreed that one of them would have to die for the other to live a full life.

Their whole story, especially Jennifer's death of heart failure, is shrouded in mystery and worth a look. 

Chuck Palahniuk's advice on writing

Added on by Leon Jacobs.

Chuck Palahniuk, author of such groundbreaking works such as Fight Club, Choke, Romance and Snuff, recently did an AMA (ask-me-anything) on Reddit

At one point, replied to question "What is your biggest source of inspiration when planning a new novel?" as follows:

To begin a new novel, I look for the biggest problem in my life that I can't solve or tolerate. Something that drives me nuts, but I can't fix. Then I find a metaphor that allows me to explore the problem, exaggerating and expanding it beyond reason. I build it up to the worst scenario possible and then find a way to solve it. By the time the book is done, I've exhausted all of my emotions around the original problem. Whatever it was, it no longer bothers me. And typically, during the time of writing, the problem has resolved itself. It's like magic. Try it. It will keep you alive in this world of bullshit.