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Bob Isherwood Surprises Audience at Creative LIAisons Event

London, UK
Industry legend drops in to share wisdom with young creatives

On Tuesday, advertising legend and Innocean chairman Bob Isherwood dropped into the London International Awards’ Creative LIAisons event in Las Vegas to give an unscheduled masterclass in advertising.

Bob was originally due for a flying visit to the LIA judging to meet up with Innocean colleagues but decided to drop in to the Creative LIAisons event, in which 85 young creatives are flown to Las Vegas to learn from the most senior creative minds in the advertising business.

Armed with a digeridoo, the former Worldwide Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi shared words of wisdom and fielded questions from the assembled creatives.

Creative advertising is tougher than you think

Kicking off, Bob underlined the challenges of making truly creative advertising.

“I think creative advertising is more work than most people probably imagine because it’s hard to do creative advertising. Most advertising I see is dumb, boring and it’s done by people who don’t believe in it. A very good friend of mine, Edward de Bono, is the man who coined the term ‘lateral thinking’. I’ve worked with him quite a bit and Edward once said to me that creative people in advertising are some of the least creative people he meets. That’s pretty brutal but there is some truth to it.”

He shared his criteria for evaluating work, both as a judge and as a creative director. Successful creative fulfils Bob’s ‘ORE’ system – work that is original, relevant and makes an emotional connection. Unfortunately, he noted, much work fails to clear the first hurdle of originality.


Let passion drive you

However, while Bob was critical of the glut of mediocre advertising, he had plenty of insights to help the ambitious young audience achieve creative excellence.

The first was about the importance of passion and combining that with initiative. “If you don’t have passion you won’t get very far. So I don’t know your passion level, I don’t know whether you are working in the agency you want to be working in right now or for the people you want to be working for… I left Australia, my country, and I didn’t go back for 17 years because the best people in the world weren’t there at the time and I wanted to work for the best people in the world. I wanted to be the best. And that’s the fast track way to do it. If you have passion and you want to be the best don’t leave it for now, if you’re not in the right place don’t stay there. Identify the people you want to work for and know the work they do, identify the individual and try to work for that person. It will carry you a long, long way because their talent will rub off on you.”

Prepare for ‘spectacular failure’

Punk pioneer Malcolm McLaren, who was a friend of Bob, inspired the next piece of advice – that greatness is only possible when you risk failure. Malcolm discovered this when an art school tutor told his class that none of them could possibly become ‘spectacular successes’ as all the great works of art had already been produced… and at that moment Malcolm decided that he would instead aim to be a ‘spectacular failure’.

That philosophy led to deliberately obtuse-yet-original business decisions (like opening his shop for just a few hours a day, placing a mud pit just by the entrance and managing the Sex Pistols). Those in turn led to the formation of punk, and, ultimately, Malcolm’s success.

“So what’s the lesson in this?” asked Bob. “The word ‘spectacular’ is I think the lesson. Most of us don’t work in that category, most of us don’t want to go off like a rocket for fear of coming down like a firework. We play in the middle, we don’t want to be truly spectacular because we’re not prepared to be spectacular failures. But if you want to be great and you want to be a true artist and do truly great advertising, truly original advertising, you have to run that risk.”


Get out of the office

When it comes to generating ideas, Bob said that the best thing creatives could do was to get out of the office and into the streets and visit the client’s factories and workplace. Insights gleaned from real life are always richer and more interesting than anything we can make up.

To illustrate his point, Bob recalled an anecdote from his time at CDP. When working on Parker Pens ads, he would always make a trip to the factory and every time he would return with new inspiration. For example, on one visit he spotted a pile of empty walnut shells on the floor. When he asked his guide what they were for, he replied that they were used to polish gold. Why? They had never found anything that worked better.

“Well… if you can’t write an ad about that then you shouldn’t be in the business… but you could never make it up,” said Bob.

Once when at Saatchi & Saatchi, Bob was working with two young creatives who were struggling to come up with ideas for their client, Sydney’s Metropolitan Police. Bob sent them off to spend the weekend riding along in the back of a squad car through Sydney’s toughest neighbourhoods – and they came back on Monday with 40 ad ideas.

The talk rounded off with a Q&A session with the young creatives, who took full advantage of the opportunity to pick the brains of an industry legend. 

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