I was in a pub with Barney Edwards one night.
Barney Edwards was one of the best advertising photographers ever.
Anyway, Barney was from Yorkshire.
Cold refreshments had been taken, and the conversation took a turn.
Barney said, “What does it mean to you, to be a real man?”
Apparently this is a very important subject for Yorkshiremen.
He said, “For me, being a real man means having the guts to go up to the biggest, hardest man in the pub, and say to him, “Look I know you hate me, and I hate you. And I know you can beat the daylights out of me. But I don’t give a stuff, you can do what you like.’
Barney said, “That’s what being a real man is to me.”
Now I’m from east London, and I said, “That’s funny Barney, where I come from we call that a prat.
Where I come from a real man is clearly seen by several witnesses to be having a drink at the bar, while some other guy is running the big bloke down in a car outside.”
Now of course, I’m not advocating killing people as a way of life.
But it illustrates a point.
In that drunken exchange you see two different instincts.
If you grow up in the poor section of a big city, your wits are always more important than your muscles.
There will always be someone who is bigger and harder than you.
Someone who can beat you in a fight.
So how do you beat someone like that?
You learn to out think them.
There are no physical limitations to thinking.
So you can make yourself better and better at out thinking other people.
That’s why people in poor sections of big cities grow up to be wise guys.
I found it when I went to New York.
People came to my art school from all over America.
But the guys I made friends with quickest were from Brooklyn.
They liked to laugh a lot, they liked to talk a lot, and they liked to use their wits to gain advantage.
In fact pretty much everyone I hung out with was like that.
So I thought everybody, everywhere was like that.
It took me a long while to realize that what I took for common sense wasn’t actually that common.
Let me give you an example.
Recently I met a guy from Brooklyn called Steve.
He’s a big Jewish bloke, and he works in fuel import/export.
I asked him how it was going.
He said, “Really interesting, I had the CIA come to see me.”
I asked him what happened.
He said, “I go to the middle east all the time on business.
I’ve always got tankers loading or unloading fuel over there.
These WASPY guys from the CIA asked me if I’d gather intelligence for them while I was there.
I told them I wouldn’t go out looking for it.
But if I saw any stuff I thought they could use, I’d tell them.
And the CIA guys said, “What sort of stuff?”
So I said, ”Well my tankers are always refilling the military fuel dumps when they’re half full.
If they call us in to refill them when they’re completely empty, I could tip you off. Because you’d know the fact that all the fuel dumps are empty could mean they’ve filled all their military vehicles and might be planning an invasion.”
Then the guys from the CIA said,”That’s really clever thinking.
By the way, where are these fuel dumps you’re talking about?”
And that’s when I realized: the CIA’s never going to be any good until we get some guys from Brooklyn running it.”
I know exactly what Steve means.
And I think it’s true of advertising.
Growing up using your brains to out think other people is not something you can learn from studying case histories.
You won’t find it taught on advertising courses.
You won’t find a chapter on it in the marketing textbooks.
Because you can’t teach it.
It’s not about conventional wisdom.
It’s not about doing what you’re supposed to do.
It’s about finding what you’re not supposed to do, and getting away with it.
It’ about creating an unfair advantage.
Because all advantage is unfair.
It’s called creativity, and it’s risky.
If it goes wrong, you’re in big trouble.
But, if you try to play safe by asking for permission, you won’t get it.
That’s why most good ideas end up as just talk, over the pub.