April 4th, 2008

operesque

The good ad man

I tend to think that ad men can't be gurus, and that a creative director most famous for a cigarette campaign (the Silk Cut "silk cunt" purple silk slash) couldn't possibly have done the world much good. But British ad guru Paul Arden, who died this week aged 67, wrote a self-help book -- a thought experiment of sorts -- called Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite, and I'm going to follow his advice today. Whatever I think about advertising, I'm going to try thinking the opposite.



Paul Arden worked for Saatchi and Saatchi in the 80s, masterminding ads for British Airways, Silk Cut, Anchor Butter, InterCity and Fuji. Later he started his own agency, Arden Sutherland-Dodd, and did campaigns for BT, BMW, Ford, Nestle and Levis. He's the man who advertised The Independent newspaper with the slogan "It is. Are you?" (The paper later gave him a column, which is where his bestselling motivational books began.) He came up with "The car in front is a Toyota". This is his ad for the BMW C1:



Do you see what he did there?

His first book, It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be, contained ideas like these:

The problem with making sensible decisions is that so is everyone else.
Why do we strive for excellence when mediocrity is required?
Don't try to please the client.
Have you noticed how the cleverest people at school are not those who make it in life?
If you can't solve a problem it's because you're playing by the rules.
You don't have to be creative to be creative.
You don't have to be able to write to be able to write.
Don't seek praise, seek criticism.
Sometimes it's good to be fired.
There is no right point of view.
It's right to be wrong.


Those last two thoughts contradict each other, but maybe there's nothing wrong with self-contradiction if nothing is wrong? Maybe it's better to be interesting than right? Maybe wrong is the new right? Let's think those thoughts today, or think their opposites. Maybe there isn't much difference between thoughts like that and their opposites.

Arden's second book details cases of people breaking through to new success by thinking the opposite of what they previously thought. He starts it with Dick Fosbury, a highjumper who came up with the Fosbury Flop. Previously Fosbury, like everyone else, had vaulted forwards, crossing the bar parallel to it. Then one day he did the opposite; he flopped over it backwards, and broke the world record. Penguin did the same thing, says Arden, when they invented the paperback:

"Good writers, good design and good value at sixpence. Sounds obvious. Not in 1934. Booksellers told Penguin, 'If we can't make a profit on 7s 6d, how can we make one on sixpence?' Writers thought they would lose their royalties. Publishers would not agree to sell their titles for paperback printing. Only Woolworths, who sold nothing over sixpence, was cooperative. As a publishing venture it was considered a bad idea. The founder of Penguin, Allen Lane, thought the opposite. The rest is history!"



After leaving Saatchi, Arden started a film company, taught at the School of Communication Arts, and founded his own agency. His film company made this rather interesting (or interestingly boring) film, The Man Who Couldn't Open Doors. To me, it's a take on Colin Wilson's The Outsider. It looks like an ad, but it's slowed way down, so you just get the metaphysical remoteness of advertising, its detachment from life. Instead of machismo, a certain kind of pathos is communicated. We're in the world of 1980s advertising, but also the world of Magritte and Camus.

"All the man who couldn't open doors had in his flat was a poster of Mao Tse Tung. The previous tenant had left it." Somehow, I can recognize that that thought comes from the same man who made the Silk Cut ad. It has the same Zen-like emptiness. Arden was apparently such a perfectionist that people joked he wouldn't play football unless the grass was the right shade of green. But he was also religious. His last book was called God Explained in a Taxi Ride.

Here's his take on 9/11:

"If instead of showing strength by spending billions on weapons of war, the West was to build a mosque on Ground Zero, it would be a remarkable symbol of our understanding of the Islamic point of view. It would be a major step towards world peace."

Here are some of Paul Arden's other pieces of advice:

If people constantly reject your ideas or what you have to offer, resign. You can't keep fighting and losing, that makes you a problem. If you are good and right for the job, your resignation will not be accepted. You'll be re-signed, on your terms. If they accept your resignation, you were in the wrong job, and it is better for you to move on. It takes courage, but it is the right move.

Your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have. Without having a goal it's difficult to score.

To creative types: don't worry about the medium you work in, focus on the money you'll make. It's honest.

Paul Arden gave lectures which, according to Creativity Online, were boring at the time but interesting for years afterwards when you thought back. "In one industry talk, he stood silently next to a woman playing the cello. Another time he gave a speech with a naked man on stage, demonstrating that a person is a blank canvas. And he once hired an actor to babble onstage while Mr. Arden displayed meaningless charts. His point was that although no one in the audience knew what was going on, they would never forget it."

In an interview with The Independent shortly before he died, Arden struggled with the question of advertising's moral culpability:

"If anyone is to be accused, it's the manufacturer," says Arden, who also believes that the state should take responsibility for irresponsible ads. "Cigarette advertising should have been banned by government but they wouldn't because it brought in too much money. It's the government that's corrupt," he says. "We all in our heart know that casinos are wrong. They are a way of robbing poor people of their money. Why does the government allow them? Because they make a lot of money. It's not the people advertising the casinos or the lottery but the governments that allow them that are creating the cancer."

Although nobody denies that he was a difficult man and a perfectionist, his colleagues remember Arden fondly. A good ad man might be something of a contradiction in terms, but today, in tribute to Arden, let's think the opposite of what we think.