2016: The Worst / Best Year Of My Life

Posted: December 12, 2016

On 10 January, 2016, David Bowie died. And as such started the most challenging year of my life.

Bowie’s music touched people in many ways. If you watched ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ you would instantly recall the exact scene, if one mentioned ‘Ground Control To Major Tom’.

Yes, Bowie’s music will live to infinity and beyond. Click on to view. He moved people. He touched hearts. Because he was true greatness.

On 21 April, Prince died. Three days after my wife’s birthday. And so too did a little part of her heart, because she was his biggest fan. Heidi and myself met in the mid-eighties. We held hands in the cinema while watching ‘Purple Rain’. And we danced in loving memory till the early hours to his music, thirty years later. He left us with songs like ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Raspberry Beret’ and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ in a year that was fast going nuts.

At that stage of the year we were pitching to retain our Jet account whilst putting out fires on so many fronts, that we missed Britain’s exit out of the European Union. And whilst the world was going mad up north, our local socio-economic climate was going further and further south. And with that, everything from sales, to revenues, to senses of humor and general thinking.

Yes, Prince. If you haven’t seen the genius that is the man, click on and watch his solo while performing George Harrison’s hit Beatle song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. It made me weep. Greatness in creativity. I coined it Greativity. Something each of us as human beings are capable of.

Yet, reflecting on the countless number of meetings I sat through in 2016, the majority of people in marketing – on agency and client sides alike – seem intent on extinguishing even the smallest spark of creativity. Do we somehow think that great commercial hits by artists like Bowie and Prince would ever connect to a mass market if it was created by a committee?

Nevertheless, we think we can do so with that little thing we do. That little thing called an ‘ad’. Those little strokes of genius backed by pretty big numbers. Try R40 billion per annum for size.

And so we don’t get to create work that moves people like music does.

Work that will move them en masse, all the way to the till.

Indeed, in 2016, the madness of our world came to the surface, culminating in the death of Leonard Cohen on the 7th of November, two days after the birthday of his biggest fan. Me. Somehow Leonard knew that the greatest atrocity of the year was about to happen within the next few days. So he decided he had enough and clocked out.

Because on Wednesday, 9 November, Donald Trump was elected President of the most powerful nation on the planet. And right there, my friends, was the final evidence that 2016 indeed was the worst year of my short 48 years on Planet Earth.

But I have learned many moons ago, that the worst thing that can happen is always the best thing that can happen. That growth happens in the manure, and the deeper you are in it, the more profound your personal development as a human being.

Andy Rice once said that an insight is like the light that switches on when you open the door of a fridge. And this dark damn year was full of bright little insights. Here’s five.

  1. In 2016, the hundreds of hours spent in boardrooms left me with key insight numero uno: Our clients want what’s best for their business. And because of that, they would prefer the pretty person in their ad – the aspirational one rather than the interesting one. They want the perfect context to their commercials, the fantasy, the non-truth, rather than the ugly underbelly of reality. And, in wanting at heart what’s best for their brands, they create the worst. Work without any heart. And through their noble intention, we end up producing work that results in no intervention. Having gathered this insight from 2016, I don’t just smirk, grin and bear it. I rather go into 2017 with a mission to influence a change in our clients’ approach with compassion and humility.

  2. The year of knee-deep unearthed another deeply buried truth: When I point finger at anyone else, 10% of the problem is on the other’s side and 90% lies within me. And with this knowledge I can own up to the brutal truth that for 26 years before this one I have allowed people with far less creative experience to dictate against what I know is right. I have compromised for the sake of being a nice guy. I have rolled over and played a good boy to the big corporate dogs. 2016 unlocked a new chapter in my book towards deeper creative leadership, as I take full responsibility for our product.

  3. Leonard Cohen spent 54 hours sitting in one spot on the wooden floor of his hotel room, wearing only a pair of white underpants, writing the words to ‘Hallelujah’. That is passion. That is resilience. And that is what it takes to be great. 2016 has taught me that for as long as we react at speed, think at speed, and poep out this wallpaper we call advertising, that we will never, ever add value to the media spaces that our work fills. This year has reignited a deep hunger for work that resonates with people at the deepest level of their being. This year has started a fire, not just under my ass, but within my heart, to make work that really matters for the brands we serve. Or to die trying.

  4. 2016 taught me that there always has been and always will be only one way to grow our clients brands and businesses. Only one way to drive an exceptional culture within your business. Only one way to love and enjoy the work we do in the world of marketing and advertising. Only one way to ensure our business yields margins high enough to reward our people to the level they should be rewarded. And that is great creativity. Greativity. Because without it, our clients’ brands and our business – although we think it alive – is more likely to exist as the walking dead.

  5. And lastly, 2016 taught me that I can either allow Quentin Tarantino to direct my year, or I can take charge and direct the movie of my life myself. Let’s face it, each and every one of us is ultimately in charge of our own lives. So you can either be a citizen, a number, a finger-pointer, a naysayer, a whiner, a victim, a blamer and be eaten and spat out by life. Or you can be a citizen of greatness. A creative activist, a builder, designer and change agent of our industry. And of our country.

So here’s to you, 2016. The worst year and the best year of my life. A year that has challenged me to near physical exhaustion, yet grown me and shown me that without bad there is never good. And in order to really live, you need to greate.