Personal is powerful

Is Tom Waits’ Jersey Girl a Christmas song? It should be easy to tell.

Does it mention Christmas? No.
Does it talk about snow, reindeer etc? No.
Anything about the Nativity, wise men, stables and so on? No.
Scumbags? Maggots? No.
Anything at all even vaguely to do with holiday season? Er, no.

So I must be wrong. Except, I’m not.

I bought Heartattack and Vine, the album the song is from, at Tower Records in Piccadilly in December 1999. Back then I was young, broke – but newly-employed on a hysterically low salary at a technical journal with an office on Carlton House Terrace – and living with my brother in a peculiar house at the Ravenscourt Park end of Goldhawk Road that had, until recently, been the very small office of some anti-vivisection charity.

I can’t remember much about the place except for the location, erstwhile purpose, and the mice (perhaps former committee members finding it hard to move on), but I know we were there for six months, across the winter, and if I think back it was always dark, wet, cold… And Christmas.

Every time I hear Jersey Girl, those are the memories that come flooding back. For me, the song is as much Christmas as the wonky, motley decorations that lasted unchanged through my childhood; the cartoon of I Saw Three Ships watched alone while everyone else slept, one unplaceably distant Christmas morning; or, indeed, The Pogues.

I’m sure this association, this merging of experiences and feelings from a particular time or place, is a simple science. Say I bring some work home (it happens), and end up writing it in front of a BBC4 documentary about a garibaldi biscuit factory, for evermore that work – the client, brand, item itself – will spontaneously conjure images of a bakery production line. I’ve somehow made it personal.

And there is power in the personal.

Take this block by LeBron James. Apparently an important moment in James’ career, it came accompanied by a piece of commentary (it’s at 23s) about him arriving ‘out of nowhere’. That description gave it a pithy significance, whether as judgement on the ground James makes up, surprise that he’s there at all (I don’t know, but this sort of defensive shizzle maybe isn’t strictly the remit of someone playing his position), or because James is known to be lazy (although I doubt that).

But it was still just commentary.

Now look at this Nike ad. Here, the same line becomes a command to ‘come out of nowhere’, to overcome the apparent barriers to your success, just as James did. That line could have just sat there, as commentary mostly does, but someone chose to claim it, recast it through a personal story (whether it’s true or not), and use it to fuel a classic piece of bombastic sportswear tubthumpery.

It’s connected directly to a key moment in the Nike man’s season, a moment their customers have seen and judged for themselves, and it’s powerful – because now it’s personal.

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The bliss of ignorance

I occasionally encounter the first few minutes of Jamie Cullum’s radio show (7pm Tuesdays, Radio 2) as I try to make it home in time to bath the kids. The template is sharp: he’s always on his own and it always sounds like he’s somewhere confined. Usually the confines are his home studio, or a hotel room.

“Evening everyone,” is a fairly typical entree. “This week I’m speaking to you from my room at the Gaston Hotel in Los Angeles. I’m here for the first date of my tour, and to do a bit of promotion for my new record.”

So far, so so. I don’t own any Jamie Cullum records and I have to say I know very little about the bloke. But that, as it turns out, is everything.

“We’ve got a great show for you tonight. There’s a new track from the great Genevieve DeMarchis, some classic sounds from Sonny Humbert, one of the all-time legends of jazz trumpet, and of course we have the incredible crossover artist Anthony ‘Ant’ Perkins, the man who brought bebop into mainstream music with Bebop dewop, a record he cut in 1958 at Copper Hat in Harlem.”

Now, I’m fairly into music, or I used to be. So I count it as a rolling surprise that I’ve only ever recognised a handful of the names Cullum dishes out in his intro. These flurries of jazz royalty, inevitably framed with at least one jazz pronoun and associated with some venue of apparently epochal significance could, as far as I’m concerned, be Cullum reading a list of Murray Gell-Mann’s post-docs and their most favoured New York dive bars.

The experience builds over time, because every week it’s the same. Last week he was in Berlin, bringing us Marlon Duke’s 1938 recording of Springtime on the Chesapeake. The week before he was stopping over in Kuala Lumpur en route to Tokyo for a session at Sotto Tamasu’s Rum Records, and waxing lyrical about Shirley Neuberger’s new arrangement of the classic Hitch Boggins number Aphrodite.

Who? Where? When?

In some ways this is how air travel used to be. I get that feeling of enforced alien-ness, abstracted from my routine, segregated, unfamiliar. I don’t belong. It has the same recharging effect, and that seems hard to find these days, maybe because I have a couple of young kids, or because the ruts are wearing in. Today, more or less everything is familiar.

And if you work in a creative job, that’s bad. I mean, I could try and do something about it. I could book an exotic holiday, pick up a book by a great Russian writer, or maybe even take Russian lessons. But stuff like that seems just a little out of reach, while I’m negotiating the winter-dark lanes of Berkshire.

Tuning into ten minutes of Jamie Cullum, on the other hand, is something even I can manage – and I’m 40.

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Well, well, well.

A big piece of branding we’ve been working on for a while has just gone public.

The Co-operative Pharmacy chain of 780 stores and 7,000 employees, which was bought by the Bestway group last year for £620m, is now called Well.

Well-logo-web_crop

We did that, and we’re quite pleased with it. It’s not often a major high street chain completely reinvents itself and chooses your work to build a five year, £200m investment on.

From a creative point of view, Well fits the brief like a glove. It adds a promise to a name that was purely descriptive, and presents the tantalising possibility that people might start saying ‘I’m just popping to the Well’ for the first time in, what, a couple of hundred years?

That’s not to say it was our only idea. We had something pretty cool with a bear in it, and I was also quite attached to something with a Native American vibe.

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Authentically real and genuine, yeah?

This is more like it.

Nearly exactly four years old, same as that Kopparberg ad (I like to be current), and also using music to sell a booze that starts with a K.

I think that’s where the similarities end.

Kronenbourg bought themselves authenticity with the cinematography, single-minded execution, and Motörhead.

It’s, um, ace.

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If it’s in print and looks cheap, I’m there

I think this ad was part of Kopparberg cider’s UK launch.

Kopparberg press ad

I’m torn. On the one hand I think it’s shit. I don’t believe the shot; they’ve had to explain what they’re selling (despite the enormous bottle); there’s a twitter logo on it; and it ran in the kind of Sunday supplements that feature £300 jumpers.

On the other, I can’t help but like the line. Maybe it’s more of a brand contention than a headline, but it somehow makes sense of the low rent art direction and takes me straight into a pound-a-pint indy night somewhere numbingly over-crowded. It hijacks a scene. If I was 18 I’d buy the booze and ask questions afterwards.

But I’m not 18, and so instead it all feels a bit too… Fake.

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Is this relatively compelling?

I was interviewing a junior writer the other day and I suddenly realised I’d said something awful. Something along the lines of ‘good writing is compelling’.

After she left I went up on the roof, faced north to Narvik and roared like a bull walrus suddenly aware of his walrusness.

When I came down I asked myself what I had actually meant. I mean, how much of this business have I ever found genuinely compelling?

The first two pages of As I Lay Dying? Compelling.

Brian Hanrahan counting all the Harriers back? Compelling.

Zinedine Zidane nutting Marco Materazzi in the chest during the World Cup final? Very compelling.

A four-page leavepiece aimed at rehab consultants, built on approved client messages?

I suppose it’s all relative.

Faulkner, or Zidane attacking Materazzi, is absolutely compelling. That leavepiece, written well, produced on Colorplan by Pentagram and delivered by a flirtatious orang-utan in a Daks suit over dinner at Chez Bruce would be relatively compelling.

Tell me I’m wrong.

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On awards for creativity

When I was about eight I entered a creative writing competition.

It was the bang that started the race.

Today, I live in the Hollywood hills. When I’m not cruising down Mulholland Drive in my DeTomaso Pantera, I’m probably cruising downtown on my Pegoretti Duende, or cruising up to Mavericks on Harvey Weinstein’s yacht to drop into the green room with Paul Schrader.*

Not really.

The competition wasn’t run by Paramount, or Disney. It was run by the National Mushroom Marketing Board.

And I didn’t win it – I was just highly commended. But I did have to get up in front of a large group of indifferent people who didn’t know what I had done, to receive a piece of paper from someone more senior.

Weird.

*Paul Schrader surfs, right?

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Very nice. What is it?

Here’s a film for Intel.

It’s very nicely shot, and it has a blind bloke in it who’s climbed the world’s seven highest mountains.

Remarkable stuff, but it’s got nothing to do with what Intel do. It’s just fuggling about with ‘look inside’, the iteration of ‘Intel inside’.*

Compare it with this Intel ad from a few years ago.

Still no actual product in it, but an awful lot of Intel. Ajay Bhatt works for them, for one. It drops you right inside the culture that made the company. It’s funny, self-deprecating and proud at the same time. It leaves me wondering at the obsessive, crazy techies behind Intel’s amazing stuff, and plants the seed that these are the guys to trust. After all, geeks rule in computing, and these are the geekiest geeks around.

The other one just leaves me annoyed.

*Could that line be the third most important part of Intel’s PC success, after they got out of memories and then sole-sourced the 386 architecture? Maybe. Anyone interested in the latter decision can get chapter and verse in this oral history document from the Computer History Museum.

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