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July 10, 2014 / Dave Birss

Telling the BBC about the future

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If you’d told my 8 year old self that one day the BBC would ask me to be the keynote speaker at their Future of Media conference, I wouldn’t have believed you. In fact, if you’d told me six months ago that the BBC would invite me to speak, I still wouldn’t have believed you. I have absolutely no idea how they found out about me or why they thought I’d have anything interesting to say.

But I wasn’t going to turn them down. No sirree.

So I few weeks ago I headed along to the BBC’s Radio Theatre and took the stage to talk about how I wanted to disrupt the broadcasting industry.

And now they’ve put it online in their iPlayer thingy. If you fancy a gander, have a looky here.

November 13, 2013 / Dave Birss

UPDATED: Hello Julian Koenig – the copywriting king


UPDATE: This post was originally titled ‘Farewell Julian Koenig – the copywriting king’. However, it seems that I’m somewhat premature in declaring Julian’s demise. His Wikipedia entry was erroneously updated by someone who’d seen an obituary for another Julian Koenig! I only discovered this after contacting his daughter, Sarah, who reliably informed me that her father is alive and well! But rather than deleting this post, I want to leave it to celebrate the great man. And maybe – just maybe – I’ll still get that interview with him!

I’ve only just found out about the passing of Julian Koenig, the copywriter behind Volkswagen’s ‘Think Small’ ad, Timex’s ‘Takes a licking and keeps on ticking’ work and lots more legendary ads from the creative revolution. We lost him on August 29th of this year.

The man was a legend who influenced an entire industry for decades. In fact, according to his Wikipedia listing, Jerry Della Famina once wrote “I spent my first five years in this business trying to emulate Mr. Koenig. I wasn’t alone. Ask any top copywriter who he followed early in his career and almost to a man, they’ll mention Julian Koenig.”

And even in the 90s, when I started as a copywriter, his influence continued on this side of the Atlantic in a crappy ad agency in Glasgow.

If I have any regret from the last couple of years, it would be not getting an interview with him for the podcast. Or even just a chat with him that you lot couldn’t eavesdrop on!

One of the things that interested me in recent years was the disagreement between Julian and George Lois. Having interviewed George and heard his stories, I’d love to have given Julian the opportunity to balance things out. If you want more of an insight into the situation, I recommend listening to this wonderful piece by his daughter Sarah for This American Life (skip to 7:30 to listen to the segment).


Most of us advertising creatives would die happy knowing that we’d produced work that echoes through time in the way that Julian did. But clearly he didn’t feel quite the same way.

Towards the end of the segment, he says:

“Advertising is built on puffery and hard deception and I don’t think anyone can go proudly into the next world with a career based on deception, no matter how well they do it.”

That’s pretty hard-hitting stuff for anyone still making their living in the world of advertising.

Instead of being the ‘Think Small’ guy, it seems that Julian would prefer to be remembered for the environmental work he did with Earth Day. That seems a far more worthy legacy to leave behind.

Here are a few of his reminiscences from a few years ago:

And I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from a speech he did in 1961 for The Advertising Writers Club in New York. He gives us his response to four questions he was being asked. And – not surprisingly – most of what he says is completely relevant to the industry more than 50 years on. Particularly points number three and four.

“ONE. Why did I leave Doyle Dane Bernbach with George Lois to join Fred Papert and start an agency?

Because I was crazy.

After all, Lois and I had the best jobs in advertising.

Logic was completely against it.

We should have been bankrupt within a month.

But we weren’t.

Twenty-two months ago, in January 1960, we had one account that billed—we thought-two hundred and fifty thousand.

Today we have 17 accounts that do about sixteen million.

So my advice to you is this. If you like what you are doing, quit and start an advertising agency.

TWO. What is our creative philosophy?

Rosser Reeves has a creative philosophy and it is enormously successful. Mr. Ogilvy has a creative philosophy and it is brilliantly tabulated.

What is our creative philosophy ?

We have none.

All we do is make ads.

THREE. Multi-million dollar budgets.

I have nothing against big spenders.

In fact I like them.

I would much rather a client gave us his successes and spared us his challenges. But it is true that million-dollar budgets are frequently used as a substitute for good advertising. I have heard too often that advertisers must wait for the cumulative impact of a campaign to take effect.

Nonsense. The only ad that we’ll run is an ad that has an immediate effect – even if it’s only someone writing to say “that was the worst ad I’ve ever seen.”

In fact the first ad we ever ran was this mother-in-law ad for the LADIES’ HOME JOURNAL, We did it rather tongue in cheek but people reacted intensely.

People either liked it or disliked it, according to their relations with their mothers-in-law.

But as the advertising manager at the JOURNAL said “At least we heard from people for the first time in years.”

I want an ad that people will notice and react to.

I want people to be involved. If a client says “Well, we’ll offend someone,” I answer, “Well, there are even people who disliked Eisenhower.”

If you are alive, you’ve got to offend someone.

But of course if you’re not, you won’t. But by the same token, when you do offend some people, you are going to move and exhilarate others.

If we let copy research dictate whether we should or should not run ads, we would be out of business.

If I found copy research that showed no one disliked an ad, without seeing the ad I would say don’t run it. It’s got to be anonymous milk-toast waste. When we run an advertisement, we are using someone else’s money and we take good care of it.

After all, it costs exactly the same money to run an ad in LIFE that no one looks at as an ad that everyone looks at.

People have an astonishing ability to ignore dull advertising.

The true economy – the best use of a client’s money is to run an ad that people look at.

FOUR. Creativity.

A lot of bad advertising is being palmed off today in the name of creativity.

There is simply no excuse for advertising that shows the ingenuity of the copywriter and not the merit of the product.

Yet magazines and newspapers and television are filled with a kind of clever clap-trap which masquerades as creativity.

I saw that Richard Manoff recently in pitching for a new account made up a variety of so-called clever creative ads to demonstrate that the Manoff Agency could do them as well as anyone.

All he demonstrated was that he could do them as badly as anyone. Advertising is ideas about products, whether you call these ideas unique selling propositions or what have you.

Advertising that doesn’t stem from unique ideas about the product is not advertising but self- indulgence.

What is the job of creativity?

To take individual ideas and to transform them into simple direct and pungent statements.

And that may call for a page full of copy.

If a product has legitimate news, state it.

If a product has no news. go in for showmanship.”

Thank you Julian, from all of us who’ve tried and failed to follow in your footsteps.

September 8, 2013 / Dave Birss

A wee interview on Tech Britain TV

I was just trying to enjoy my lunch at Silicon Beach on Thursday when I was asked if I didn’t mind being interviewed. Of course I didn’t. And here’s how it went:

September 7, 2013 / Dave Birss

Interviews from Silicon Beach 2013

I got back from Silicon Beach last night, exhausted and exhilarated. It was two days of amazing speakers and a very lovely bunch of attendees. And great food. And sun. And rain. And booze. In other words: lot’s of great stuff.

I managed to catch up with a few of the speakers for short natters on behalf of The Drum. And here they all are in one place:

On the road with Julian Hanford

In the dark with Jon Burkhart

My brotha from anotha mutha: Simon White

Hanging out in an empty room with Laura Jordan-Bambach

A double Scottish bonus with John V Willshire 

Steve Earl talks PR and convergence

I only wish I’d had more time to interview the rest of the speakers! Maybe next year. If I’m allowed back again!

May 24, 2013 / Dave Birss

How to Kill Creativity

I did a talk at Digital Shoreditch a couple of days ago. It’s proved to be quite popular on their website. So I’m sharing it here so that even more people can find it.

I did another couple of talks this week that were also filmed. I’ll put them up here as soon as I get them.

April 30, 2013 / Dave Birss

I’ve just made advertising history!


Look at that!

I’m the first person to ever be on the front cover of The Drum magazine twice. Although, it’s just not as flattering this time!

It’s all because there’s a feature in there describing the results from the Newt/Judge Experiment to see if alcohol makes you more creative.

You can also enjoy the piece right here on The Drum’s website.

Thanks to Julian Hanford for the great shot!

April 20, 2013 / Dave Birss

Why should advertising creatives have a monopoly on creativity?


Over the last few years I’ve felt that creativity has been increasingly ghettoised until it’s little more than a stylistic flourish at the end of some pretty ropey thinking. Which is one of the reasons that I decided to step out of advertising creative departments.

I’m more interested in using creative thinking to solve problems. And that means that you need to apply creative thought far earlier in the marketing process. Preferably right at the very beginning.

I was talking about this very thing to Mike Nutley, the former Editor of the NMA, a couple of months ago. He’s currently editing Adobe’s site, so he asked me if I’d write about it.

And I did.

You can see my thoughts right here.

March 26, 2013 / Dave Birss

Testing to see if alcohol makes you more creative


Last week, I conducted an experiment on behalf of The Drum magazine to see if alcohol does, in fact, make you more creative. Those of us old enough to remember the three-pint lunch have a sneaking suspicion that it can play a positive role. As long as it doesn’t turn into the six-pint-and-a-chaser lunch, of course.

So I’ve written a little piece in The Drum about it – which you can read on their website.

And, thanks to the film-making skills of Tom Baker, I can also share with you this lovely little teaser video:

We’re just about to put the ideas into testing to see if creatives work better with or without alcohol.

Once we know, you’ll be able to read about it in the magazine – and enjoy a full-length documentary video of the shenanigans.


November 21, 2012 / Dave Birss

Let’s talk about creativity – my interview on last night’s AWSC chat

Last night I did a Google Hangout show with the fantastic Doug Zanger and Newbear from Advertising Week.

They’re the main men behind the brilliant Advertising Week Social Club (or AWSC, for short).

They wanted to talk about creativity. So they put some questions out to their audience before giving me a grilling.

The four posers for the evening were:

• What do you think makes creative people creative?

• What’s your most important ingredient for creativity?

• Can you teach/create creativity – or is it an naturally-occurring talent/gift?

• Do you feel as though you *understand* creativity? Why or why not?

And here’s what we had to say:

You can also see what they had to say about the shenanigans right here.

November 20, 2012 / Dave Birss

My open letter to clients is up on The Drum

I forgot to blog about this!

It went up yesterday and is currently the most viewed article on the site!

Some people tell me they hate it. Others tell me they love it.

Go and read it on The Drum. And leave a comment to tell me what you think.

November 19, 2012 / Dave Birss

Are you ready for your 4 Minute Warning?

I’m doing some talky stuff again in a couple of weeks at The Drum’s 4 Minute Warning event.

I’ll be talking about innovation and how to make it work in business.

And as much as I’m delighted to be at the top of the speakers’ list, I know that I only made it to that lofty position because of an alphabetical quirk.

So here are some of the other people who’ll be outshining me on stage:

  • Laura Jordan Bambach – ECD of Dare and one of my favourite people in the industry
  • Rory Sutherland – Vice Chairman of Ogilvy, TED talker and tip-top raconteur
  • Russell Buckely – one of the founders of AdMob
  • Justin Cooke – Chair of BIMA and founder of Fortune Cookie
  • George Prest – ECD at R/GA
  • Ken Robertson – Head of Mischief at Paddy Power
  • lots more incredible people

If you’ve not got your tickets yet, it’s not too late.

Go along to the site and grab them now.

November 16, 2012 / Dave Birss

I wrote something for Advertising Week Social Club

A couple of weeks ago I was having a transatlantic chinwag with my chum Doug Zanger at Advertising Week. I’m helping them out with something exciting that I’ll be announcing soon – but in the meantime Doug asked me to write a piece for their blog. And because I sounded so excited about the time I spend at the School of Communication Arts, he wanted me to write about it.

So I did.

And you can read what I wrote right here.

November 7, 2012 / Dave Birss

What makes you more creative – beer or tea? Lab-rats wanted.

This isn’t a joke. I’m working with The Drum to conduct a little experiment. And we need some advertising creatives happy to be tested upon.

We’re calling this The Newt/Judge Experiment (work it out yourself). And it will go like this:

  • We’ll have two teams (each made up of one senior creative team, one middleweight team and some students).
  • Everyone will be given the same creative brief.
  • One team will consume lots of free booze while they work. The other team will be tea-total.
  • At the end of the night, everyone submits their work.
  • The work is then judged by top creative directors (to be announced soon)
  • Our findings are announced.

The whole thing will be covered by The Drum (who will also be picking up the bar tab!)

We’ll be conducting the experiment in 3 or 4 weeks. Think of it as practice for the Christmas party season.

All we need now are the creatives!

If you’re interested – or you know others that would be – send an introductory email to

Spread the word!

October 12, 2012 / Dave Birss

My Silicon Beach talk on how to kill creativity

Thanks to my book, I’ve spent much of the last year explaining the creative process to people and showing them how to have more ideas.

And during that time it’s become clearer and clearer to me that most organisations are actually set up to destroy ideas. Every part of the process leads to compromise, adequacy and the destruction of anything truly fresh.

That has led me to starting work on another potential book about how organisations destroy creativity; and what they can do to help it flourish.

So I decided to do my Silicon Beach talk about these very issues. But – to make it more interesting – I decided to do it from the opposite point of view. This talk is an instructional guide on how to murder ideas before they can have any effect on a business.

I’ve recorded a voiceover so you can hear most of what I spoke about. It’s less than 10 minutes. Enjoy!

October 11, 2012 / Dave Birss

Creativity – what every business needs?

I’ll shortly be posting an abbreviated version of the talk I did at Silicon Beach last week. And in advance of that, I thought I should share a short article I wrote for the event booklet. It’s kind of the prequel to the talk.

What every business needs

London didn’t have much sun this year. But on one of the few days that it did, I was sitting in a large, darkened auditorium with several hundred businesspeople looking to augment their knowledge. Or possibly just people who wanted to get out of the office for a day.

I was due onstage in 10 minutes to talk about my new book. And in the meantime was listening to a lady who runs a large division of a London Council. (Her talk was a lot more interesting than you’d imagine.)

She asked the attendees what they saw as the most important thing their organisation needed.

More budget? A few palms went up.

Stronger leadership? A scattering of fists were raised.

Creativity? More than half the room raised their hands.

I nearly spat out a mouthful of cold tea in surprise.

These weren’t advertising people. They were businesspeople. And they wanted more creativity in their organisation?

That was brilliant news.

And it set the audience up perfectly for my talk on understanding creativity!

So was this just an anomaly?

After a day of missing out on my precious vitamin D, I decided to do a bit of research to find out if this desire for creativity was normal.

A quick Google search took me to an IBM study from 2010. They’d conducted interviews with over 1,500 CEOs and business leaders from all around the world. The intention was to discover how they planned to respond to changes in the business environment.

Again, the number one quality they were seeking was creativity.

What do they mean by ‘creativity’?

The word ‘creativity’ is a troublesome one.

Many people see it as an ability that some individuals have and others don’t. Parents coo over their child nibbling on the end of a Crayola and proudly boast that they’re ‘creative’. It’s a blessing or a talent or a gift that’s bestowed on the lucky few.

Complete piffle!

Other people see creativity as a big negative. They attach it to the word ‘accounting’ to mean unreliable, fictitious or dishonest. It just can’t be trusted.

Utter tosh!

Lots of people see it as a glamorous job title. They want the word ‘creative’ in amongst their ‘assistant artworker’ title to impress the hipsters they meet at Shoreditch house parties.

Total balderdash!

So when it comes to the businesspeople in question, what are they getting at with the word ‘creativity’?

For them I think it just means ‘fresh thinking’. They’re looking for something non-specifically different; a new approach to their established market.

But why are these organisations looking for  fresh thinking in the first place?

I have a theory:

Nothing else has worked

Over decades the world of business settled into an established way of working. Things hadn’t changed that much in corporate land. It was all about refining your process and structure until it was as efficient as it could be.

Then Sir Tim Berners-Lee came along and spoiled everything.

By connecting people with other people, information, tools and businesses – the consumer started evolving at a terrific rate.

Using the classic SWOT terminology, the strengths of traditional companies became their weaknesses. And newer, nimbler businesses started up to take advantage of the opportunities that established businesses saw as threats.

Big business was facing a whole new set of issues. They had to take action.

Accountants did what accountants do; cutting costs to become more competitive.

Holding companies bought, sold and merged in an effort to streamline their business.

Lawyers got busy trying to protect companies’ rights.

Marketers threw money at every new media channel that appeared.

And none of it has had the desired effect.

Something else needs to be done.

Fresh thinking is required.

So under these circumstances the business leaders are right; they need creativity.

But will creativity work?

Here comes the uncomfortable truth:


No, it won’t.

Not with organisations the way they are.

Because organisations are set-up to resist new ideas. They’re set up to maintain the status quo. They demand proof before they’ll implement something different.

I’ve even seen this happen in advertising agencies. And they’re supposed to be the pinnacle of creative business.

Many agencies – especially the larger ones – are hamstrung by their own structure and processes. The leadership are perpetuating an old model that’s becoming less relevant by the day. And the adjustments they’re trying to make are all about minimum disruption rather than maximum impact.

So if these bastions of creativity are doing such a bad job of thinking differently, what chances do their clients have?

Where do we go from here?

We can agree that creativity in business is a must. And also that businesses aren’t set-up to handle creativity.

So how do we get out of this sticky wicket?

That’s a problem I’m working on right now.

Recently I’ve been trying to discover exactly what it is that hampers creativity in business – as well as what makes it thrive.

The more of this we understand, the better chance we have of making creativity work for business.

Some of it is psychology, some of it is ignorance, some of it is organisational structure and some of it is process.

At the moment it’s just a bunch of notes for a possible follow-up book.

My first epistle was about how to boost creativity, so it seems apt that the next one should be about how to kill it.

That’s what I’ll be sharing with you at Silicon Beach.

And I’ll also be bringing my Speedos.

Just in case.

September 27, 2012 / Dave Birss

Meet the host of Silicon Beach 2012

Last year, I was asked to speak at Silicon Beach – a lovely little conference down in sunny Bournemouth – and I couldn’t do it. I can’t actually recall which wonderful business engagement prevented me from attending. It can’t have been that great because I was disappointed not to be there.

This year, not only am I attending and speaking, I’m also hosting the two days of creative industry future-gazing.

And it takes place in just over a week – so I’m starting to get pretty excited.

If the fact that I’m the MC of the event doesn’t get your mental taste-buds salivating, maybe some of the other speakers will. The line-up reads like a who’s who of the marketing industry. How about these for starters:

  • Nick Darken – Executive Creative Director of Albion
  • MT Rainey – Executive Chairman of Th_nk
  • Paul Bainsfair – Director General of the IPA
  • Andy Bell – Creative Director of Mint Digital
  • Tiffany St James – Founder of Stimulation
  • Nicole Yershon – Director of Innovative Solutions at Ogilvy
  • Steve Taylor – CEO of The Neighbourhood
  • Steve Price – Creative Director of Plan B Studio

And there’s more. Lots more. And I’m starting to feel rather out of my depth in their company.

Best of all – as the host of the event – I can offer you an amazing special deal on tickets. How about 50% off? That’ll do nicely! All you have to do is mention ‘additive’ in the promotional code box and the saving’s all yours.

You can pay me back with a ginger ale when you get to the event.

You can grab your tickets here.

I hope I’ll see you there.

September 18, 2012 / Dave Birss

Assorted Nuts episode 6 – please be upstanding for the President, Rosie Arnold

This is the final episode of our special edition Assorted Nuts podcasts. And I thought I’d save the person responsible for our flurry of activity for last – the current President of D&AD – Rosie Arnold.

As well as her prestigious D&AD role, Rosie is the Deputy Executive Creative Director of BBH. And she’s responsible for some incredible work for the agency.

She managed to put aside half an hour for me and in that time we managed to cover:

• The fact that she’s only ever worked for one company

• Why she’s never left BBH

• Her love of art and the fact that she continues to paint and create outside of her day job

• The move towards creativity doing good

• The difference between men and women and how they judge creative work differently

• Why 90% of advertising is dross

* Advice for people trying to get into the industry

And that’s it for this series of podcasts.

There’ll be more coming for the Future of Advertising podcast very soon.

But I might need to take a break from the headphones for a few days after this for my own sanity.

Thanks for listening!

September 17, 2012 / Dave Birss

A big announcement about the School of Communication Arts

I’m a big fan of the School of Communication Arts. In just two years it’s become the number one advertising school in the UK. And I was over the moon to be awarded the Mentor of the Year award last year.

So I’m pretty excited to tell you that I’ve now got an even stronger relationship with the school.

I’ve committed to spending one day a week with the students. And that’s really exciting for me! I’m going to learn so much!

I’m also on a mission to recruit mentors for the school. So I may be hassling you in the coming weeks and months. I’ll be writing another post soon to explain what’s so good about mentoring.

So today is the first day at the school. And the picture above is of them getting their first talk from the Dean; the wonderful Marc Lewis.

It’s the first day of term for me too. And I’m thrilled to be in a room full of the future of the industry. And after last year’s success, these guys have got a lot to live up to!

September 17, 2012 / Dave Birss

Assorted Nuts episode 5 – tea with Tony Brignull

What a treat this episode is!

This Assorted Nuts interview features one of the men at the forefront of the advertising industry when it was at it’s creative peak. He’s been out of the industry for over 15 years now – but he’s got some amazing stories.

The man in question is Tony Brignull.

He talks to us about:

• His meandering journey to CDP – including a year writing poetry and another period becoming an excellent darts player

• The process that made CDP so good at what they did

• Starting his university education after his career in advertising ended – and getting a masters degree in English

• Why he thinks the standard of writing has plummeted in the industry

• That he uses Ad Blocker to get rid of banner ads!

• Why he believes planners should report into the creative department rather than the client services department

There’s one more episode in this special mini-series coming tomorrow. And it’s especially apt for tomorrow’s D&AD 50th Anniversary celebration.

Don’t miss it!

September 16, 2012 / Dave Birss

Assorted Nuts episode 4 – Twice the goodness with Al & Jules

This time we’re talking to Alan Young and Julian Vizard, the Creative Directors and Founders of St Luke’s. This was the first time I’d interviewed more than one person at a time. I think it went OK – but I’ll let you be the judge.

We covered so many topics including:

• Their individual journeys into and through the industry

• The difference between a campaign idea and brand idea

• What advertising used to be and where it is now

• How many truly great brands come from the Chief Executive’s vision

• How data can lead to better work

• The story of how how the agency grew out of Chiat Day

• The importance of being environmentally responsible

• The importance of having a disrespect for the industry

• Their passion for education and mentoring

There are another two episodes left in this little flurry of podcasty goodness.

I hope you’re enjoying them.

Pip pip!

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