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Wednesday, November 22

Lessons from the Chinese Novel

I find Sacred Space in TOI(the quotable quotes, anecdotes and more section) to be a good idea cyclotron! Day before yesterday, there was a very nice speech on the Chinese novel by the nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck delivered almost 70 years back on December 12, 1938 at the Stockholm Concert Hall...

Google led me to the original speech at Gifts of Speech. Do read the full speech! It's brilliant!

The speech triggered a train of thoughts. So, here's the excerpt from the speech interspersed with some of my thoughts!

In China art and the novel have always been widely separated. There, literature as an art was the exclusive property of the scholars, an art they made and made for each other according to their own rules, and they found no place in it for the novel!
Lets play a substitution game! In the above statement, replace 'China' by 'India', 'Art' by the 'Creative department', 'novel' by 'non-creatives/planning' and 'scholars' by 'creatives' and a few other minor changes!

So the statment now reads - "In India the creative department and the non-creatives have always been widely separated. Here, advertising as an art is the exclusive property of the creatives, an art they make and make for each other according to their own rules, and they find no place in it for the non-creatives!"

And they held a powerful place, those Chinese scholars. Philosophy and religion and letters and literature, by arbitrary classical rules, they possessed them all, for they alone possessed the means of learning, since they alone knew how to read and write.

They were powerful enough to be feared even by emperors, so that emperors devised a way of keeping them enslaved by their own learning, and made the official examinations the only means to political advancement, those incredibly difficult examinations which ate up a man's whole life and thought in preparing for them, and kept him too busy with memorizing and copying the dead and classical past to see the present and its wrongs.

In that past the scholars found their rules of art. But the novel was not there, and they did not see it being created before their eyes, for the people created the novel, and what living people were doing did not interest those who thought of literature as an art. If scholars ignored the people, however, the people, in turn, laughed at the scholars.
And today the creative department holds a powerful place. The prima donnas, their self-indulgence and big egos! Archaic craft rules. And D&AD(of which India hasn't won a single award) and Cannes-n-Abby-focussed-existence, obsessed with narrow definitions of creativity, turf-protection, politics and silly awards.

For they alone possess the Macs,have access to the code to photo-shop,illustrators and corel draw and the right to 'be creative'!

And the creative class is powerful enough to be feared even by the new emperors(the CEO and the Board!) But many of the creatives today are enslaved by their own creativity. The D&AD, Cannes and Clios - the incredibly difficult exams which eat up their whole life and thoughts preparing for them, and keep them busy with doing arcane stuff to be appreciated by a non-appreciative-western-audience.

Copying the styles of the West and too dead to hear the sounds of their own back-alley and hinter-land! If creatives ignore the consumer and reality, the new consumer and ground reality, in turn, ignores the tradional creative! Because the youth and the new consumers are plugged more into Bollywood than advertising, laughter shows than clever body-copy and gaming( albeit on a very niche base) rather than self-indulgent many-a-time non-relevant creative!

In China the scholar was a class. Here he was. A pursed mouth, a nose at once snub and pointed, a high pedantic voice, always announcing rules that do not matter to anyone but himself, a boundless self-conceit, a complete scorn not only of the common people but of all other scholars, a figure in long shabby robes, moving with a swaying haughty walk, when he moved at all.

He was not to be seen except at literary gatherings, for most of the time he spent reading dead literature and trying to write more like it. He hated anything fresh or original, for he could not catalogue it into any of the styles he knew.

If he could not catalogue it, he was sure it was not great, and he was confident that only he was right. If he said, "Here is art", he was convinced it was not to be found anywhere else, for what he did not recognize did not exist. And as he could never catalogue the novel into what he called literature, so for him it did not exist as literature.
The Chinese scholar and the typical average Indian creative( run-of-th-mill, 90% of the creative class) share some common traits - supercilliousness, ignorance of reality, boundless self-conceit, a complete scorn not just of account management but of all other inhabitants of the agency including the planner( although grudingly they do make small concessions and friendly gestures) and a haughty sway as a shield to any new idea, radical thought or counter-intuitive suggestion!

Spotted in huge gatherings at self-congratulatory award shows. Most of his time is spent in studying 'Archives' and trying to copy some of it without revealing the source. Hating any new thought, leave alone copy/story which comes from the non-creatives!

Not recognising anything which is not in 30 seconds or 100cc. Everything else must follow into the deceit of the 360 - expedient extensions of the primary idea with total disregard for the TG, the client's problems/ needs, cultural sensitivity or any logic!

But, happily for the Chinese novel, it was not considered by the scholars as literature. Happily, too, for the novelist! Man and book, they were free from the criticisms of those scholars and their requirements of art.

Their techniques of expression and their talk of literary significances and all that discussion of what is and is not art, as if art were an absolute and not the changing thing it is, fluctuating even within decades!

The Chinese novel was free. It grew as it liked out of its own soil, the common people, nurtured by that heartiest of sunshine, popular approval, and untouched by the cold and frosty winds of the scholar's art.
Replace the 'novel' now by 'non-advertising'. Look at the way in which the internet, search engines, blogs, social networking sites, youtube.com, PR, WOM, design, retail experience, in-film advertising, Bollywood is growing! They are growing out of the wishes and desires of the common people, nurtured by the hearty sun-shine, popular approval and a little less controlled by the cold and frosty winds of the 'creative class'. At one point advertsing led the creative cause. Today, barring a few odd players/ people, I feel the industry is lagging!

No wonder, when in the morning I read Martin Sorrell say at the HSBC summit that 50% of all WPP earnings come from non-advertising and that shortly 2/3rds of it will come from non-advertsing...I knew the novel was thriving...

And yes, if agencies don't gear for the new environment where there is a 'democracy of creativity' we are doomed earlier that we think!


meraj said...

a few reactions from my end:
- using the pearl s buck speech to make the point was a good concept

- your bitterness is coming out too blatantly (but maybe tahts what you wanted)

- you can go to http://nobelprize.org/ for more of such great speeches (Camu's nobel-winning speech is one of my personal favorites)


Manish said...

Hate something, Change something!

Rithika Kumar said...

Amen!! Advertising is a shallow industry, at least a bulk of it is.
I honestly feel the word 'creative' is the most abused word in advertising. So called 'creative minds' parade around in bubbles fueled by their very large, over inflated egos, passing the most ridiculous ideas as treasure chests of creativity and insight!!
What rubs me raw is the selfishness of these people, we are in an industry where connecting with the consumer is the core aim. When awards become the crux of ones creative endeavors where one can see first hand tremendous efforts and hours spent in scam work it reiterates the shallowness of this industry...

Manish said...

hey rithika, i'm glad you ricochet my anger with the pseudo-creative types...and the apparent-to-all, yet rarely challenged 'creative department-myth'

and meraj...i am angry not yet bitter:-) optimistic about agency2.0...we can suffer silently or change the system brick by brick. As Gandhi said, at first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win!

the rule of pseudo-creatives has ensured that whatever trickle of talent that comes to our industry, gets disillussioned in no time and leaves...

anger is a good emotion when channelised properly...Agency 2.0 is just round the corner! We must be the change agents that make it happen soon!

FiNK said...

hey... that was a good rant! It's sad though in an industry built on creativity, the word is being abused a shield, to shy away from any new ideas. And I find it very strange when I meet these 'creatives' who walk around puffed up in self importance, claiming to be thinking, refuse to acknowledge anyone else.. the consumer, trends, people in the agency, basic intelligence.. and then they produce mediocre work that they fall in love with.. regardless of how far away they've strayed from the strategy. Ahh, it's sad. I came back home with enthusiasm and passion and a real will to work in Indian advertising. 4 months into it, I really wonder what the heck this is supposed to be about!! I don't think planners are meant to sit in a glass room and write briefs and defend crap creative work they haven't seen or discussed or believe in. I think it's meant to be team work but I haven't found too many creatives who think so. And i'm an ex creative. Sometimes you gotta wonder if it's all worth it .. the curiousity, the need to excel, the urge to connect with a consumer in an engaging manner.. when all it produces is a 100 cc rubbish piece of work!! God save the Queens that parade down those dark corridors!

Manish said...

Hi Kajal...good to hear from you...
It's the same shit in almost every agency in India!(i am being polite)

The systems rotten from the core...

Of course there are solutions...

1.Start an agency with creative strategists...people like you and me and rithika and meraj...and there are scores of others. Few creatives as well I suspect...

Start Small. Think Big!

2. All India Planner Hartal(strike) LOL

3. Call a spade a spade...Don't put up with crap, don't defend crap, refuse to sell crap...of course its easier said then done...if you get fired goto point(1) above

4. Leave the industry...russel has said earlier, maybe advertising doesn't deserve good planners. Media cos need us, gaming,retail cos., design cos., brand consultancies, youtube india, google india, karan johar, aditya chopra,...not to mention our clients...they all need planners and yes they might pay more as well! LOL

FiNK said...

or go back to London or NYC or Singapore - work with agencies that do take planning seriously - are there a few I'd like to be at.. Hmm!! It may still not be perfect, but I'm young and optimistic enough to believe if not here and now.. there's someplace else I want to be! Something else I want to do. I'm certainly not going to spend my time working with sulky loser creatives who haven't a clue what good advertising is built on (other than the fricckin awards they worship)

Anonymous said...

I have worked in an agency (outside India) where people of all designations worked together closely. In fact it did not matter where an idea came from - a 'creative' could have a project planning or client strategy idea; a 'planner' could write copy, 'client servicing' could create the winning route. The secret? Well I suspect it had something to do with the fact that everyone sat together, all mixed up. The physical distance in the office between client servicing and creative in most agencies here and elsewhere is conducive to factionalism.

Anonymous said...

i really envy you...if somebody could fund me...i would start a similar agency in India as well:-)

some of the servicing guys I know are better copy-writers than many of the creatives I have come across...

it's not difficult to change things! few guys at the top in any agency can do it...But i suspect they are indifferent to the current state of affairs...