Wnek: Zen and the Art of Twittering

Our Creative Columnist on Embracing the Microblog

There’s a famous IQ test that goes like this: Using as much rope as you need, how would you get across the Grand Canyon? Many of the smartest people of my generation I know got stumped by this one. The answer is: You fill the Grand Canyon with rope and then walk across on top of it.

The mental gymnastics required to get to the solution is interesting because it’s about doing the opposite of what comes naturally. Traditional solving is a matter of focusing and cutting away the extraneous. Here the mind needs to open itself out, to achieve a state of abundance.

All the above occurred to me as I was tweeting from Japan recently. I love Twitter for the way in which it plugs you in to a live, worldwide intellectual electricity grid. It’s a marvelous educational tool for me, and the jewels embedded in many tweets in the shape of references, links and personal thoughts that my fellow Twitterati post broaden my mind like few things do.

It was a liberating sensation to be on the other side of the world in Japan, itself an exotic sensory experience, and periodically checking in with my brother and sister Twitterers and being additionally stimulated in completely different but equally exotic directions — like, for instance, checking out San Francisco dweller Ming Yeow Ng’s web-design presentation, “Discovery is the new cocaine,” or witnessing the steel-cage death match on TechCrunch prompted by a Wharton professor who believes advertising on the internet is toast.

Many people are intimidated by the abundance the digital world offers. There are all kinds of ways of categorizing these people, age and occupation being the two most common. While I think this is wrong, there is a spooky echo of my grandparents’ contempt for long hair on men and color TV, my parents’ contempt for rock music and flared trousers, my big sister’s contempt for punk rock and piercings, in most boomers’ (often very subtle, often subconscious) resistance to the new world.

It all comes down to how you were educated. Those defeated by the Grand Canyon test are defeated because most education has always actually been about narrowing the mind. Those with less-conventional upbringings — and to suggest this means only NetGeners is ageist nonsense — aren’t necessarily in thrall first and foremost to intellectual order and tidiness. Being open, ceding control, enjoying the journey, embracing abundance thrills them. You’re either lucky enough to be in that group or you’re probably still complaining about things like the Facebook redesign and how flawed Wikipedia is.

For the record, my view, both personal and professional, is the same as former racing driver Mario Andretti’s: If you’re in control, you’re not going fast enough.

This article originally appeared here in Advertising Age, April 10, 2009.

Working Fast and Brilliant Is the Challenge for Creatives Today

Viewpoint: There’s No Asking for More Time in Our Frenetically Paced World

Twenty-five years ago, I was one of those odd people who went in to advertising because I was actually fascinated by advertising.

Most other creative people I encountered had some kind of fine art or novel/screenplay writing dream, and advertising paid the bills in the meantime. Their hero was Alan Parker, the copywriter from CDP in London turned celebrated Hollywood film director. Not that many achieved their dreams, but most made great money and had a lot of fun — remember fun in ad agencies? — not doing so.

Strangely enough, much of the fun entailed plumbing the tortured depths of thwarted artistry, railing against things like account people and their maddening adherence to business issues; clients tampering with objets d’art (the crown prince’s critique to Mozart in the movie “Amadeus” — “Too many notes, Mozart” — always drew a knowing sigh); or researchers trying to dilute artistry with damned statistics.

Decades later, the advertising creative community still carries in its DNA some of the inherent artistic temperament of its forbears. The most extreme examples — monthlong drinking benders, TV sets and typewriters being tossed furiously through windows — have gone the way of the typewriter. But the one thing that can still rankle even the most seasoned ad creative is the lack of a commodity that their “pure artist” counterparts wallow in: time.

Deadlines didn’t figure in Picasso’s or El Greco’s worry list. Coppola and Spielberg and their ilk can lavish as much time on a project as they wish. Truman Capote splurged much of a career on “In Cold Blood.” No single issue in all the while I’ve been in the ad business has been debated more passionately and at such length by ad creatives than the desire for more time.

About a week into my career, the following quavering accusation of a senior writer hurled down the corridor at a retreating suit stays with me to this day: “Don’t ask me if it’s ready yet! Ask me if it’s great yet!” Even the ultimate evil of having your work altered can be allayed if there’s time. But the fact is, all the time there’s less and less time. In the internet-juiced world, everything can change in moments.

All manner of cycles — cultural, economic, political, historical, you name it — have been truncated. Arguably “continuous improvement” are now the two most important words in the communications canon: The viability and romance of the solitary creative team gestating their ideas over time in their garret and eventually putting them out there for all eternity seems questionable.

Surely the true thrill and reward today is working hell for leather alongside others with different but complementary skills, in tune with the racing heartbeat of the modern world. Not working fast and shoddily — God forbid. But working fast and brilliantly? Daily newspaper editors have been doing it for hundreds of years. Finding and developing those super-rare creative people who can work fast and well is tough.

But they’re out there — creative minds more excited about being the next Phil Dusenberry than the next Philip Roth and certainly not believing that ambition to be any less fulfilling or honorable. (By the way, how soon before “continuous improvement” captivates the pure artistic world? With the advent of electronic books, say, surely it’s only a matter of time before authors begin to produce continuously updated versions of their novels.)

It’s a way of working I’ve always aspired to, even as a young creative faced with considerable disapproval from group heads and creative directors who considered speed of thought a dangerous irrelevance and later in the face of concerns like commoditization. If it takes you only a day, clients will think it’s easy and worth less, the argument went — to which the answer is that it didn’t take a day.

It took 25 years and day — 25 years ago being when I first proudly started out as a trainee copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather in London.

This article originally appeared here in Advertising Age, February 9, 2009.