During World War 2, stone-age people encountered the West for the first time.
Americans occupied islands in Papua, New Guinea, New Hebrides, and the Fiji Islands.
They built airstrips so they could land cargo planes, and began building everything a modern, mechanised military needs.
To the natives, the things they brought came from paradise: corned beef, clothes, hammers, knives, saws, paraffin lamps, everything made from metal.
The stone-age people began to worship the Americans and the ‘cargo’ they brought.
On small islands across the Pacific they became known as Cargo Cults.
After the war ended, the white men left, and the supply of Cargo stopped.
The locals knew if they wanted the Cargo to return, they must perform the same rituals as the whites used to.
So they made copies of their uniforms, and paraded around, they made radios from bamboo and string, they built airstrips and made wooden airplanes, all to attract Cargo.
Of course, it didn’t work.
We may laugh at these Cargo Cults, but we perform a version of the same thing every day.
Agencies that do the very best advertising are the ones that question conventional thinking, so they are more creative.
Not only are their ideas more exciting, their work is more effective, everything about them is different.
Their offices were unconventional: instead of the traditional tea-lady they had cappuccino machines, instead of cubicles they had bean-bags, instead of formality they had play areas.
Because their work was so good, they became really successful.
The traditional agencies wanted some of that success, but how to get the creativity?
So they behaved just like a Cargo Cult: they believed it must be the visible part that brought the creativity.
So those agencies bought cappuccino machines, and bean-bags, and open-plan offices, anything to look creative.
And they waited for the creativity to arrive.
But it didn’t.
The work was as dull and uncreative as ever.
Because, just like the Cargo Cults, they had confused the things they could see with the thing they wanted.
They didn’t understand creativity and they thought copying the unconventional offices would make creativity happen.
I used to watch people trying to copy John Webster with Cargo Cult thinking.
John would insist on thoroughly researched, well thought out common-sense propositions, before he started work.
Then, once he had a solid base, he would do an unconventional execution to get impact.
Consequently, John’s ads were phenomenally successful.
Other agencies wanted that success, so they simply copied the unconventional executions. They thought that weird and whacky executions would make the creativity arrive.
But it didn’t.
All that happened was lots of strange advertising that nobody understood.
Because, just like the Cargo Cults, they hadn’t understood there was more to creativity than copying weird-and-whacky executions.
The creativity begins with the thinking, with the way the advertising is created.
The creativity doesn’t happen just by copying the way the casual offices look, or copying the weird and whacky executions.
Just like the Cargo Cults they copied the wrong part.