Semiwhatics?

One day, years ago, my Uncle Mick said to me: “How’s your advertising agency going, Dave?” It was GGT at the time, and I said: “Yeah, it’s going great Uncle Mick.”

He said: “What are the blokes you work with like?” I said: “They’re brilliant. There are guys from: Yorkshire, Manchester, Newcastle, all over the country.” He said: “You all get on okay?” I said: “Yeah, they’re a good laugh. Except they make fun of my accent.”

Uncle Mick was shocked. In broadest cockney, he said: “But you ain’t got no accent. You talk normal like what the rest of us do.” And I realised, it’s all comparative.

Uncle Mick, all my family in fact, had lived their whole lives where everyone spoke like them. So, because there was no comparison, effectively there were no accents.

For a thing to exist as an entity it has to be defined by that around it which isn’t it. Freud calls this the move from Id to Ego. When we’re born, all we know is consciousness. We don’t know some of the things we experience are us, and some aren’t. Gradually we learn that we are defined by the skin that surrounds our body.

Anything inside that skin boundary is us. Anything outside it isn’t us. Talking about skin and identity, I’ve talked to some of my black-British friends about this.

They say that when they grew up they just felt black. Because that’s what made them different, so that was what defined them. The first time they left the country and went abroad, they felt British. Because, in that situation, that was what made them different and defined them.

If no one ever tells you you’re different, you never know. I never knew a lot of the language I grew up speaking was slang. It was just language.

The first time this happened to me, I went for a job interview in the West End. I put on a suit and tie and shined my shoes. At the end of the interview the man asked me if I had any questions. Trying to sound like the posh people on the telly, I said, “Can I just have a butcher’s at the contract please?”

It wasn’t until years later I read a book called “Cockney Rhyming Slang”. I found out “butchers” was short for “butcher’s hook” which meant “to look”. I didn’t know it was slang. Where I grew up it was just language. It can get confusing.

Gordon Smith and I once had a PA, an amazingly posh (I was going to write ‘bird’ but she was too posh) woman called Nicola Jane. Nicola Jane had been to finishing school in Switzerland. It was like having Penelope Keith sitting at a desk just outside our office.

She was trying to learn the way Gordon and I talked, because I’m sure she thought it was technical language. I heard her on the phone to the garage one day,enquiring aboutGordon’s car. In a cut-glass accent she said, “Mr Smith wants to know what time his jam-jar will be ready.”

And that’s language. Semiotics if you like. Symbols that are strung together to convey a meaning between people. Defined by what works. Not just by a set of rules. It’s not enough to speak correctly. To communicate you need to be heard correctly.

The first dictionary didn’t even exist until 100 years after Shakespeare finished writing his plays. In (I think) ‘King Lear’ one word is spelled three different ways in different parts of the play. What do you reckon, if Shakespeare had had a dictionary his plays might have been better?

What a shame he didn’t know how to write better English. And how strange that our greatest ever writer did it all before the books came out
with all the rules in. But you see what happens. First we have the great exciting creative revolution. Then someone comes along, analyses it, makes up rules about, and kills everything stone dead.

Because now everyone’s learning the rules, and measuring everything against the rules. Instead of doing whatever it takes to get the effect you want. Now following the rules matters more that getting a result. Because there are lots of awards for people who can follow the rules. And it’s all very slick and professional.

But somehow it’s hollow, and it’s not for ordinary people anymore. Somehow the fun’s gone out of it. Sound familiar?

  • Japan. Two novice monks were walking along a narrow path between tall bamboos. It was not yet blossom time, cold and it had rained heavily. The tall plants were bent over with the weight of water on them. The leading monk stopped and turned to his companion and said, ‘Look the bamboos are like old men bent over by the storms of life.’ The second monk stared at his fellow novice and said quite slowly, ‘Why do you have to be such a fucking prick all the time?’ After this exchange nothing more was said as they trudged on through the bamboo forest. Their lives and training had been almost identical. Both had know from childhood that they would become monks. Both had undergone novice training at their local temples until it was time to move into the monastery where they would live the strict unforgiving hardship of Zen training for the next nine years. But now they found themselves together on a lonely path up the mountain towards their destination that they would not reach until late the next day. The path opened onto a stream swollen by rainwater weaving down the mountain. They prepared to wade through the waters when they noticed a young girl standing at the waters edge trying to cross. Without a word the monk who had called his companion a prick stepped forward and picked up the girl. He waded through the rushing stream to the other side where he put the girl down and resumed his journey. The one who had been called a prick shook his head for Zen monks are strictly forbidden to have anything to do with women and this one had been a beautiful young girl. Her neck was delicate and pale. Her hair pulled back from her brow so that her white face hid no secrets. The prick crossed the stream and set off after his fellow monk. At dusk they reached the hut where they would spend the night. The air was cold and their breath billowed out into the spartan room. They set about preparing the rice that would be their evening meal. Sticks crackled in the open grate, water poured from the wooden ladle. And they crouched beside one another silent, the new flames lighting their faces, until the prick who had been fidgeting, pulling his arms into his sleeves and out again, finally spoke. His voice breathless. ‘The girl, the girl at the stream.’ His companion said nothing, his face weary. ‘You should not have touched her, it is forbidden, it was wrong of you to touch her. It is an unbreakable RULE of our order.’ Having said what he had been driven to say he fell silent and let the snapping twigs and boiling rice water fill the space. The second monk stood and went to the open door and stared out across the endless forest steaming in the blue dusk. He spoke carefully, mindful that he would only say this once. ‘I left the girl by the stream but I see she is still with you. You broke the RULE because you do not understand the meaning of the RULE. I did not break the rule because I know why the rule is there.’ A leaf grazed against another and then fell silent.

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    I’m a Planner, and a few years ago I decided to move from just working in the advertising agency world to try the direct marketing world at an agency called O&M Direct (now OgilvyOne). I was very worried at first because direct marketing seemed to be full of rules, documented in acres of print. It was totally unfamiliar to me. The first creative team I worked with were two young guys; an art director called Mike Simm and a writer called Rory Sutherland. Very early on I shared my concerns with them. (I’d seen their work and, frankly, I knew I was in the prescence of some rare talent. I didn’t want them to think I was a complete waster, so I fessed up). Over the course of the next 20 minutes of poking fun on their part, I learnt stuff that I’ve never forgotten. Most memorably, Rory said to me that the bane of the industry – and to his own personal frustration – was that any “learning” was immediately turned into a rule or set of rules. Actually, in most instances, all that had been established was a “finding” and, as in any research, true at that point in time and within a particular context. The creative task was to exploit the “finding” not slavishly follow a “rule”. We never looked back.

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    Talking of language rules, regularly a word comes along that professional people adopt like sheep they really should know better. That word right now is ‘robust’ and politicians have been using it incontinently to shore up anything vague they happen to be saying, The contagion is seeping out to the business world. At a conference this week I heard the phrase ‘draw down some robust learnings’ – truly horrible.

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    Mick,
    As Bernbach said, “Principals endure, formulas don’t.”

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    Oh Yes, it sounds all too familiar. This country is in a straight jacket of control. Like a vice, it has slowly crept up on individuals. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. Why not? The ASA rules used to be to make sure that ads were always honest decent and truthful. Now it has legal added to it. Does this mean the rules are not to be broken? Honesty, decency, and truthfulness…yes. However the word ‘decent’ can mean many things, as in ‘a decent pair of jeans’ or
    ‘that’s a decent ad’. I agree totally with Ross Furlong’s comment about ‘draw down some robust learnings’.
    It sounds like a description of someone pulling their pants down! I love the story about Nicola Jane. I can imagine her, blonde, in a bun, in a very sober deep blue suit with glasses (sorry spectacles). I can imagine her saying: ‘I’ll be over with the wonga shortly”. That’s REAL CHARACTER, real stand-out, and of course as you know, REAL ADVERTISING.

    Fortunately, I have been exiled to Russia and Saudi Arabia in my time. I say fortunately, because it gave me a second life ( A real one). While the UK ad world was measuring everything from
    every orifice and contemplating whether they needed art copy teams or whether one person could do it on their own, I went and did it. We had such a great time. Get this. In free countries like RUSSIA, and SAUDI ARABIA, I was free to do what I wanted (so long as I did not offend Islam of course as that would mean a prison sentence) But that was the exciting thing about it! Could I do ads and escape jail? They got the hump over one ad I did because it showed a little too much hair for their liking, but it didn’t stop them running it. It sold like hotcakes. Then there was the poster campaign where the rule was to pixelate anything that showed life, like eyes, or a smile, so I decided to make it a campaign and pixelate the whole poster. Honest, decent, truthful, and very legal. Sometimes the rules can work to our favour with a little lateral thinking. Rule breaking is a funny old thing. Some rules can be broken and some can’t. Some rules can be broken by some people and not others. I used to drive a lot from Riyadh to Jeddah, a good 9-10 hour drive if you could do 120 mph across the desert motorway. Twice I got a ticket. First time was Okay because they like the British, Second time was touch and go, and I could have ended-up with a 24 hour prison sentence as well as a fine. Omar, one of the Omani guys in the office was not so lucky. He went to jail for 24 hours. He was sharing a cell with about thirty other people with no sanitation other than the communal bucket, which remained un-emptied. While he was in
    there his neighbour asked him: ‘What are you in for then?’ He replied: ‘Speeding.’ Omar returned the question (as you do) “So what are you in here for?’ The reply came: ‘They caught me shagging the Chicken again’… and that’s a true story, and why some rules should definitely not be broken. I must admit, I have kept to the speed limits ever since.

  • That’s Foul. Fancy some Stuffing. Cock. Breast or thigh? I’m gonna pluck you. Let’s put on the Corn channel. Mulier est hominis confusio. Okay it’s Friday night.

  • Okay, last one.

    What came first…

    Bye

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    “Where’s the call to action?” etc. When we propose an emotive idea why is it that’s what we get. WTF?!

  • “Because now everyone’s learning the rules, and measuring everything against the rules. Instead of doing whatever it takes to get the effect you want.”

    When nature mixes categories, the result is called variety.
    When man mixes categories, most of the times the result is either a complete disaster or a dull pattern.
    And that’s because nature takes into consideration the rules of all categories.
    Man only considers the rules of one category: either the one he belongs to or the one he tries to become part of.

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    DT – what ever happened to nicola jane?

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    Hi Nicole,
    About 2 years ago I saw Nicola Jane, and she was running an events company doing champagne and cavair receptions for polo matches.
    Much better casting, don’t you think?

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    Am I glad I’m reading this…
    Thanks everyone…
    Where’s Gold Greenlees Trott today?
    hey, Kev!! who were you with in Saudi?

  • Sometime ago one of my clients decided to run some copy I had written past her friend – who happened to be a secondary school English teacher. The English teacher promptly rewrote my copy to make it more ‘correct’. So I asked the account director to arrange a conference call with both the client and her English teacher friend. I agreed with the teacher that indeed what she had written was, in all probability, better English.

    (Hell, I’m a former art director. What do I know about all the technicalities of the English language?)

    Before we went ahead and used the revised copy, I asked if I could read both pieces aloud to them. They said yes and I made very sure that I gave equal emphasis (or lack of emphasis) to each piece.

    “Now ladies,” I asked. “Which one do you prefer?” There was an embarrassed silence.

    “We’ll use your copy,” my client said.

    When I write copy, I don’t write to people. I talk to them.

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    Hello Charles, I spent a little while in Riyadh at Y&R which was like sitting in front of a 3 bar electric fire from two feet away all day, and went back to my barbed-wire tank-protected compound (prison) full of males every evening. The guys in the office were great and worked very hard, often 6 days a week, except for a couple of sociopathic lunatics in the office. The compound was okay, and many Lebanese and Syrian and Saudi guys were very kind to me.
    There truly is nothing like Arabic Hospitality. Regarding Gold Greenlees Trott, it is not my position to tell that story, but all I would say is that when Dave Trott was at the helm, they were one of the greatest agencies in London. I think you should refer that question to Dave.

    Conor, you have my sympathies. Some people always like to have a second opinion, and then when they get it they cannot understand why they don’t like it. I worked with a writer once who got all ‘tarty’ over a headline and it’s syntax.
    Most people who read headlines do not have an MSc in English. They don’t care. They are living a real life. If your friend asks for a second opinion again, I would suggest you remind them ‘Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one.’

  • No worries Kevin. Lessons were learnt, the client was happy with my copy, the English teacher got a lesson herself about the difference between writing an essay and writing an ad and I got a good anecdote!

  • Conor.
    Sadly, I am sure that lessons were not learnt. On the contrary. Entrenched, stubborn, prejudices were reenforced. You honestly think that the teacher thought, my goodness, I really must stop teaching correct English grammar and sentence construction in favour of illiterate, stream-of-consciousness expression? I’m sure it really persuaded her even more that the modern world has been inherited by a generation with the language skills of Vicky Pollard. And did you think, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could write great copy within the formal rules of English language. I don’t think so.

    When I write copy I don’t write to people, I talk to them. Pleeese!

    In a world where Policemen use the word verbal when they mean oral I am sorry to say I must side with the teacher.

    As to weather you ‘got’ a good anecdote is, I believe, debatable. But others might disagree with me.

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    oh Jack – that’s a bit negative of you – there is a huge difference in writing styles, tones, construction and grammar that can be played out to suit different audiences – finding the right approach and a tone that the audience can relate to is part of the creative process.
    If netiher party in Conor’s anecdote took anything away from their conversation it would be a sad indictment of both – painiting them as blinkered individuals not worthy of their positions as commercial writer or teacher of English.
    I’d be suprised if this was the case: learning and communicating being the key to success in each role.

  • Nice.
    Would you mind if I copied and pasted this onto a couple of sites (with you as the author, of course)?

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    Derek, Please be my guest.

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    Dave Trott and his agency were legendary in my youth…
    Seems to me he’s kept most of his gray matter and verve too!
    Kevin: you sound like your Saudi days are over and that you’re back in England now…
    Doing anything interesting? (other than posting comments?)
    If this sounds derogatory; it isn’t meant to.
    That correct?