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What would David do?

by Contagious Contributor

All the greats do it, so why shouldn't advertising embrace theft as a creative tool? Mark Earls (@herdmeister), co-author of Creative Superpowers makes the case for magpies everywhere.

I’m campaigning to make July 6th a public holiday all round the world. Get out your calendar and put a big flamboyant circle around the date. Why? Because on that day in 1972, Creative SuperThief David Bowie revealed his extraordinary Superpower to make new from old.

On that summer evening he sashayed across the stage on the BBC’s Top of the Pops, his band sweating in their sparkly shirts and sharing equally shiny grins at the unlikeliness of it all.

David himself is squeezed into a Lurex knitted bodysuit, eyes and lips adorned with…girls’ makeup! He sings directly into the camera, his feline fingers pointing out each and every one of us sat at home on the sofa with our mums and dads, calling all of us to join his weird world of spacemen, shininess and sexual fluidity. It all seems very modern, very risqué, very forbidden.

Four decades later the shock has faded. What remains is the Thievery. The clothes and the attitude from Burroughs, the groove from T Rex and the chorus… Oh, man, the chorus! After the slow rhythmic strum of a minor-key verse an entirely different song is let loose at the chorus: the octave-leap of ‘Star-man waiting in the sky is’ as close as you could want to Over The Rainbow.

David does here what David always did: steals from a song in a completely different genre to make something new and unforgettable and pan-sexual. So new and fresh in fact was Starman that almost no-one spotted the source of the sign-a-long chorus at the time.

Why now?

We all know and celebrate the power of creativity in whatever form we find it, but particularly as the key to unlock commercial problems and challenges. Creativity continues to be one of the most sought-after skills in the upper echelons of business. Research among CMOs and CEOs alike emphasises the importance they place on creativity, ranking it among the top two or three things they need from their people and their vendors now. And their demand for it is only growing stronger: over the last few years, creativity has been climbing the ranking steadily.

Yet, the creative industries are undoubtedly struggling. Some of us take the pessimistic view, pointing to the dire first flush of programmatic content and the Big Tech platforms’ lack of interest in anything we understand as creativity. Machines can do it all, they say. Others, like my fellow authors of Creative Superpowers, view this as the great opportunity to stand up and be counted. Advertising folk have long felt that they could do bigger and better things with their creativity, and now’s the time to - excuse the pun - reach for the bigger brushes and the bigger canvas. To give the CEOs what they really, really, really want.

SuperPowers & SuperHeroes

We’ve identified what we think of as the four central Creative SuperPowers (Make, Hacker, Teacher and Thief). And the greatest of these, for my money, is the last one. That is the ability to take what is and make something new and fresh and interesting and valuable.

Few artists have created original work as consistently as Bowie did. Few have a body of work that has influenced so many others in so many different ways. And yet, if you examine Bowie’s working method, the paradox of Creative Thievery emerges. Bowie was able to be so original again and again because he was a copycat, not because he had some God-given talent or access to some muse the rest of us don’t know about. Bowie was a thief. So let’s do what David would do.

Beg, borrow, steal

His early work stole from the books he read. The dystopian world of Ziggy Stardust was largely created as a response to William Burroughs’ Wild Boys. The later Diamond Dogs took so much from George Orwell’s 1984 that Bowie requested permission to call the album 1984 (the Orwell estate turned him down flat). His Young Americans white soul vibe was written as he toured the Diamond Dogs rock show across the US, listening all day and all night to RnB radio stations. His Berlin trilogy was inspired by the synthesizer-led Krautrock and the oppressive atmosphere at the end of Soviet occupation that gripped his adopted city.

He also borrowed other people’s methods to create his fictions. It’s well know that his lyrics were sometimes created using the cut-up technique he learned from Burroughs, taking existing words and texts to create new meanings and stories. (he later created a piece of software, the Verbasizer, to do the job). His use of Lindsay Kemp’s approach to dance and physical movement influenced his music, his characters and his performances.

‘The only art I’m interested in is art I can steal from’ he famously quipped to Alan Yentob in a BBC documentary in the 1970s. Really valuable artists, he suggests in a later interview, ‘look at the world as some usable substance’.

You, me and David, too

Bowie is not alone. Most of the greats - in music, in art and literature and design - use the work of others to fuel their own work - even if they end up rejecting it. T S Eliot - poet, essayist and editor - asserted that it’s not the fact of copying that distinguishes the average poet from the best, it’s how you copy and what you do with it.

Picasso quipped ‘talent copies, genius steals’ (Hello, Faris and Rosie! Is that where you got the company name from?). Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and Sir Jonathan Ive build Apple’s beautiful, simple gadgets from things and behaviours that already exist. Did you ever ask why is an Apple watch a watch and not a wrist-based-wearable computer?

James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine that fired the Industrial Revolution, the darn things had already been used to pump water out of mines for 50 years before Watt landed on his patented design. He merely added a pre-existing component, an external condenser, to the existing product to make it more efficient.

The first software coder, Ada Lovelace, chose the same card-based input for the machine she and Charles Babbage designed that was used in France’s Jacquard looms. All of us stand, as Isaac Newton grumpily admitted, ‘On the shoulders of giants’ - you, me and David, too. Can we learn to be a bit more comfortable with it?

I’m original, me

Most of us carry a smartphone or a Moleskine to help us remember the things we overhear or stumble across. Some of us - like Wieden + Kennedy’s Tony Davidson and team - have publicly celebrated the practice of scrap-booking. Iphoto, Evernote and the like are fantastic digital aids to the magpie mind that real creativity requires. As award-winning milliner, Justin Smith observes, the most creative minds often don’t suffer from a lack of inspiration - inspiration is everywhere, if you stay open - it’s managing the inspiration that’s hard to do.

Yet few advertising creatives seem confident acknowledging to outsiders the use of other people’s work as a legit creative tactic, let alone a Creative SuperPower. Original work needs original thinking and original methods, we say. Borrowing and re-purposing is theft. And theft is wrong, even if it’s done with good intent. Hollywood has a best adaptation category for screenplays at the Oscars but the Cannes Lions will never have a category for the best use of somebody else’s work.

There was a time when architects felt the same way, as award-winning architect Alistair Barr describes in our book. At the peak of Modernism, leading practitioners like Le Corbusier made every effort to erase their sources, to discard tradition in order to suggest the clear, sharp originality of a superior vision. It’s only in recent years, as the internet has exposed young architects to a dizzying number of sources that the architectural profession has rediscovered the value of re-using what already exists.

Of course, there’s bad copying in architecture — slavishly repeating or ironically re-purposing what’s been done before. The spookily fake period town of Poundbury is just a bad reproduction of the historical architectural archive. In advertising terms, this is what we call ‘derivative’, ‘stale’ or even ‘cheat’ work. Stealing from a student’s portfolio is just as bad as stealing from an old D&AD annual. Stealing in this sense is cheating.

Photo by Dmitri Popov on Unsplash

But that’s not what our Creative SuperThieves do: they make something different from whatever their raw materials happen to be; they find solutions far away from the category - not from one of those painful ‘competitive reviews’ that brand managers love. The further you look, the more interesting the material; the less adjacent, the more striking the solution. And as Bowie demonstrated again and again, it’s always what you do with it that matters.

This is true whether you’re applying it to our traditional canvas - advertising and communication - or whether you reach further and try to apply creativity to solving the bigger problems your clients face, inventing the new products, services and businesses they need to develop tomorrow and after that.

So when faced with any problem - any brief, any blank sheet of paper - don’t fret. Just trust your Creative Superpower and ask yourself: What Would David Do?

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