News & Views

I Ain’t Gonna Work On Maggie’s Farm No More

by Contagious Contributor

In this extract from Creative Social's latest publication, Hacker, Maker, Teacher Thief: Advertising's Next Generation, Sam Ball, creative partner at Lean, Mean, Fighting Machine, on the danger of conformity and the importance of troublemakers 

You have been brainwashed.

As soon as you can walk you are told what to do. Then you are put into school, a place with more rules and regulations. You are told what to wear, when to talk, and when to eat. They clip your wings and prepare you for a solid and respectable job. Has a careers adviser ever advised anyone they should be a stuntman, artist, or rock ‘n’ roll star?

You make it through the system and you think you’re free. The world is your oyster. Then you find out that the brainwashing continues throughout your career, and now it’s even worse because you have the added pressures of paying your rent or raising a family. Your bosses and colleagues will persuade you that conformity is the best thing for you to progress your career. Don’t rock the boat, keep your head down and work hard and you could make regional manager. They will, over time, brainwash you so that your main motivation is security: “I’ve got a good job. I don’t want to get fired. How will I put food on the table?” This fear will blind you as hundreds of opportunities whoosh by.

I am not painting the picture of some corporate drone. I am talking about the creative industries. Music, architecture, art, theatre, dance, the movie business... I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these, but do I know a thing or two about advertising. I can confidently say if you were to visit any advertising agency in the world, you’d think that 80% of people who are working there are simply going through the motions. Their motivation to create new things has been replaced by conformist habits and patterns.

The great brainwashed make the “world go round” but they never really change it. For that we need the troublemakers. The troublemakers aren’t smarter than you, they are not luckier, and they are not bestowed with any unique powers. Things don’t come easy to them. What separates them from everyone else is they couldn’t give a f%^& about the consequences of their actions.

People will want you to be who you already are

It was July 1965 and a nervous Bob Dylan, the greatest folk singer of his generation, was about to walk out on stage and make the biggest statement of his career. To the 20,000 folk purists, Bob was their hero, prophet and mystic poet. It would have rocked them to the core when he plugged in his Fender Stratocaster, cranked up the volume and ripped into an electrified version of Maggie’s Farm.

As they stood there and watched they felt betrayed. Their blood boiled and a barrage of boos and jeers followed. Did Dylan give a fuck? No, he kept on playing. This was a man breaking away from the traditional folk label that had been slapped on him. Dylan was breaking away not by picking the lock and sneaking out, but by blowing the bloody doors off. It was no coincidence he chose to open that set and declared his independence with Maggie’s Farm, a song that is often interpreted as the oppressive nature of the folk music scene.

In the first verse Dylan sings;
I have a head full of ideas that are driving me insane,
But it's shame the way she makes me scrub the floor

How many times have you been driven insane by a client who wants what everyone else is doing, despite starting the project with the now hollow ambition of wanting 'the very best ideas you have'?

For all their anti-establishment leanings the people who booed that night wanted their singing talisman to remain the same. They wanted the times not to change but to remain exactly how they were. His fans didn’t grasp the fact that he had to keep moving, that he had little respect for the status quo.

Dylan’s success didn’t come simply because he was a master of words, it came because he wasted no time attempting to gain things like acceptance, attention and praise. Bob Dylan was a rebel. The greatest revolutions in arts, politics, culture or indeed anything for that matter, have been achieved by rebels.

It’s ok to be afraid

What’s stopping more people acting like Dylan? Because of this constant brainwashing we are becoming slaves to fear. And how does fear manifest itself? Fear stifles our thinking and our actions. It creates indecisiveness that results in stagnation. You procrastinate indefinitely rather than risk failure. Here is the biggest revelation of this chapter, nay, here is the biggest revelation of this book. It is so important that you must read it ten times in a row. Don’t cheat. When you come to the end of the chapter, come back and read it another 10 times before moving on.

You can be afraid and confident at the same time.
You can be afraid and confident at the same time.
You can be afraid and confident at the same time.
You can be afraid and confident at the same time.
You can be afraid and confident at the same time.
You can be afraid and confident at the same time.
You can be afraid and confident at the same time.
You can be afraid and confident at the same time.
You can be afraid and confident at the same time.
You can be afraid and confident at the same time.

Mike Tyson, a man who routinely cast his life and soul to the altar, is one of the finest students of the unique duality of confidence and fear.

'When I come out I have supreme confidence. But I'm scared to death. I'm afraid. I'm afraid of everything. I'm afraid of losing. I'm afraid of being humiliated. But I'm confident. The closer I get to the ring the more confident I get. The closer, the more confident. All during training I've been afraid of this man. I think this man might be capable of beating me. I've dreamed of him beating me. For that I've always stayed afraid of him. The closer I get to the ring the more confident I get. Once I'm in the ring I'm a god.' 

If the toughest motherfucker on the planet can be confident and afraid at the same time, then so can you. Let's not piss around, this revelation should change how most of us behave. If you're not worried, scared or ever so slightly shitting it, chances are you're not trying hard enough. In fact, scrap that. You're part of the problem.

Without confidence you make decisions based on fear. With confidence you make decisions in spite of fear.

If you go through your advertising carrier with confidence and fear I can guarantee you will go further, but more importantly you will have more fun doing it. However, a rebellious attitude will mean you will lose business from time to time, but losing business isn’t the worst thing to happen to an agency, it’s the manner in which you lose business that’s important. Take these two examples:

The first is how my agency lost The Royal Air Force account. We had this fantastic campaign that tugged at the heart and raised the spirits of our young audience in a fresh, contemporary way. It had an awesome end line too ‘The best by FAR’ the last word being the RAF backwards. You’ll never see it, so you will just have to take my word that it was great.

Our client at the COI (the Central Office of Information, a UK government department that acts as a conduit between agencies and public organisations) kept trying to get us to dumb the idea down, something we were unwilling to do. You see the client knew what they wanted, but we new what they needed, so we had to stick to our guns, even if it meant a few frosty meetings. We went to present to the RAF, along with another agency that were showing a couple of alternate ideas. In attendance was our COI client and four representatives from the RAF, real military men, who had seen action, not just pen pushers. Every last one of the RAF guys loved our idea and preferred it over the other two presented. We went to the pub and had a drink to celebrate, thinking we could finally make our campaign. The meeting was on a Friday our COI client sacked us on Monday.

The second example is how we lost the Fosters lager social account. We tried and tried to get them to buy more challenging ideas but with very little success. In hindsight we should have resigned them, but instead we resigned ourselves to the fact we were flogging a dead horse. We simply serviced the client; we made the changes they requested without putting up any real resistance. It was no fun for anyone and sucked the life out of the team, worse of all it created middle of the road work, it wasn’t bad in that it was comparable to what their competitors were doing, it was just never going to excite and delight the young male beer drinkers of Britain.

So we toed the line and did what the client requested. Ironically, and inevitably, they put the business up to pitch and that was that. We did have a final hurrah when we resurrected Ex-Chairman Freddy Heineken from the grave. We got old footage of him and got an actor to read a script in a Dutch accent. Freddy told them in no uncertain terms that they had lost their way and were doing it wrong, it was the best and last thing we made for them.

You may think the moral of this story is you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don’t, but there is a huge difference in the way we lost the two accounts. In the first example we died on our feet, and in the second we lived on knees and eventually died on our knees.

Don’t be afraid of losing clients the first way. You will often be faced with the choice to do what is right and what is easy, always choose the former. The biggest advantage is that you will meet clients who are confident and understand that to create successful brands you have to behave differently. This is certainly true in my experience. I would go as far to say that every great ad ever created was done when a confident agency met a confident client.

The majority of people have had their confidence and individualism sucked out of them. They will see you as a misfit or a crazy. Your unconventional ideas will make them freak them out. F%^&’em, do them anyway. Do not vilify the brainwashed, but do not pity them either. Many are content with their lot, but if they start messing with your mind, deal with them swiftly. Shoot them between the eyes, dispose of the corpse, move on and feel no remorse. This is easier to do if you think of them not as humans but as sheep.

If you find yourself mirroring them or echoing their thoughts nip it in the bud. Immerse yourself in the art of the rebels; listen to Bringing It All Back Home or Rubber Soul. Read the books the rebels write, watch the films the rebels make.

Remember that the conformists are not born, they are made. Likewise, the rebels are not born, they are made. It just takes more courage, more confidence, and more hard work to make them. Resist the pressures of conventional success and constantly seek and find new and better ways to do things. Be afraid, be very afraid and then get the fuck off Maggie’s farm any way you can.


Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising's Next Generation is published by Creative Social and available to purchase here