I was talking to St Martins’ students last week.

I was explaining the power of naughtiness.

Why art schools attracted people who were rebellious, whereas universities didn’t.

Why the whole point of art schools was to be outrageous, to break the rules, to do what you’re not allowed to do.

Why naughtiness was creative.

But some of them thought, by naughtiness I just meant shock.

And by shock I just meant being rude.

Well that’s a misunderstanding of what I mean by naughtiness.

Naughtiness means not wanting to do what everyone else is doing.

Not wanting to blindly follow the rules.

Not wanting to be conventional.

If naughtiness just meant being rude then that would become a formula, a convention.

And following a convention wouldn’t be naughty or creative.

In truth, just like a child, naughtiness is about wanting to be heard, about standing out.

And standing out is what advertising should be about.

As Bill Bernbach said “If no one notices your advertising, everything else is academic.”

John Hegarty talks of the need for creative people to be iconoclastic and irreverent.

For the same reason.

Most people in advertising at least pay lip service to ‘disruption’.

Overturning the conventions in a category.

But they baulk at finding out what everyone else is doing in order to actually do something different.

To understand the context, not so we can be part of it, but exactly the opposite.

In their book, Ries and Trout talk about repositioning the competition.

Your competitors’ advertising is the context where your advertising must work.

So, by doing something totally different you reposition all your competitors’ advertising as wallpaper.

Then your advertising becomes the picture hanging on top of all that wallpaper.

So being naughty, breaking the rules, standing out, is what advertising should be about.

Bill Bernbach, the man who invented good advertising, knew that.

What were the conventions in car advertising in 1960s America?

Cars should be bigger, more luxurious, new each year.

So Bernbach advertised Volkswagen as small, basic, and non-changing.

And now, years later, Detroit is dead and VW is one of the biggest car companies in the world.

What were the conventions in business advertising in 1960s America?

To always claim you’re the biggest, to show no weakness.

So Bernbach advertised Avis as smaller than Hertz, which made them try harder.

Now years later, while most of the other small car rental brands are dead, Avis is a worldwide giant rivalling Hertz.

What were the conventions in food advertising in 1960s America?

White Anglo-Saxon protestant: crew-cut husband with a blonde wife and freckled children.

So Bernbach advertised Levy’s as “real JEWISH rye bread”.

And sold it using Chinese men, black children, red Indians, and Irish cops.

And Levy’s became the biggest selling rye bread in America.

What was the convention for airline advertising in 1960s America?

Identical silver airplanes with stewardesses in uniforms.

So Mary Wells got Braniff Airlines to paint every plane a different colour: one red, one yellow, one turquoise, one purple, one pink.

And she had outfits made by top Italian designers so the stewardesses looked like models.

And Braniff became a huge domestic airline.

Time and again we see breaking convention works.

And yet we have departments full of people whose job it is to find out what the conventions are in any given category, then make sure we stick to those conventions.

Ensuring the work is the same as everyone else’s.

Ensuring it’s invisible.

Sure we need to find out what the conventions are.

But not so we can follow them.

So we can break them.


When everyone else is being grownup and sensible and dull, someone needs to be naughty.