Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing the brilliant Richard Curtis speak at our company meeting. As well as giving us insights into how he wrote some of the best comedy this country has ever produced, he said something that struck me as particularly profound.
When asked how he felt about the then upcoming events in the US, he paused and said his great hope was that the next few years will see an explosion of art, music and comedy – because creativity needs an enemy.
Curtis cited Margaret Thatcher and everything she stood for as the catalyst for himself, Ben Elton, Rowan Atkinson et al to express themselves and their beliefs through great comedy. And, boy, do we have an enemy now. If Thatcher’s years produced The Smiths, Withnail & I, Blackadder etc, how exciting is it to see what the Donald Trump era will produce?
This is backed up by science. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology demonstrated that anger was better at promoting "unstructured thinking" on a creative task when compared with a neutral mood. A second experiment elicited anger directly in the subjects before asking them to brainstorm ways to improve the condition of the natural environment. Once again, people who felt angry generated more ideas – and the ideas they had were more likely to be unique. Angst, it seems, really is good for your art.
Of course, we’re not comedians, musicians or artists; we’re merely advertising creatives. But we do play a role – a role arguably more influential than the "purer" arts. What we create goes straight to the heart of our culture and is seen by millions, thanks to our clients’ wallets. So what is our anger and frustration going to create? How do we fight back against an enemy that is so intolerant of difference? We fight back by trying harder than ever to make only useful, beautiful things.
We might not have our fingers on the nuclear button, but our fingers are hovered over keyboards. What we write goes out into this world, so it’s our responsibility (or it should be) to only write things that make a positive contribution to people’s lives. Yes, it’s "only" advertising, but the best advertising makes people laugh out loud, it sparks debate, it entertains and, crucially, it makes people think.
Before you put something down on paper, picture the Tango man and take a moment to reflect: is the world going to get something out of what you’re about to write? Is it going to raise a smile? Is it going to form a tear? Is it going to get talked about at the bus stop? If the answer’s no, think again. Maybe the brief is too restrictive – in which case, go back to your strategists. Maybe the client’s brief is lacking ambition – in which case, go back to the client.
But, truthfully, if you’re the one who commits the thought to paper, if you’re the one who types the script, then I’m afraid the buck stops with you. It’s really quite simple. As Paul Belford once said: "If you don’t write crap, they can’t make crap."
We’re the largest creative industry in the UK, with a broader media canvas and more tools to play with than ever before. And now we have a big, scary, common enemy with tiny hands. If Curtis’ theory is correct, this could be a powerful combination.
In four years’ time, we could be looking back on an era that produced groundbreaking music, thought-provoking art, edgy comedy and, if we do our bit, some killer advertising in formats and media we’ve never gone to before. Either that or the entire human race has been obliterated thanks to the spontaneous whims of a climate-change-denying egomaniac. Fingers crossed for the former.
Ian Heartfield is deputy executive creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty London