It’s hip to be square

It’s hip to be square

Who doesn’t like life to get interesting? But in our latest thought-piece Chief Strategy Officer James Champ explains how it’s by de-risking what you do, that you can make your world a little more extraordinary.

If you ever get the chance to go wing walking, take it. 

I tried it years ago when I worked on Utterly Butterly, who sponsored a wing walking team. And my client either liked (or loathed) me enough to give me the opportunity to travel at eighty miles an hour a thousand feet in the air while standing on top of a 1930s biplane. 

I remember it so vividly. The bump and float as the wheels left the ground; a tractor far below, so tiny I could cover it with my fingernail; waving wildly as I flew past the club hut at fifty feet. The word ‘fun’ describes those fifteen minutes very well. 

The word ‘risky’ should, too. As aeroplanes go, a Boeing-Stearman is a simple device but still a lot can go wrong. The engine could stop, the control cables could snap, the belt attaching me to the plane could break.

But to say it felt risky would be wrong. For the simple reason that a lot of people worked hard behind the scenes to make sure it didn’t. If I hadn’t known that, would I have had as much fun? Would I even have gone up at all?

Less risk, more fun

Don’t get me wrong: I love risk. I watch movies about people taking risks. Read stories about awe-inspiring daredevils pushing themselves to new limits or conquering previously unconquered lands.

But in real life risk kind of … sucks. 

So at STACK we’re a bit like the Utterly Butterly Wing Walking Team: we eliminate as much risk as possible so that our audiences and clients can have the best time possible. 

It means budgets can go further. Messages can be clearer. Relationships between customer and brand can feel more solid.  

But isn’t creativity meant to be about risk-taking? Won’t this approach make us all, y’know, uncool? 

Square or groovy: why choose?

Early in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author recounts how he offers to fix the handlebars of his friend’s expensive BMW motorcycle with a shim cut out of an old beer can. 

His friend is hugely offended. How could Pirsig even think of repairing a ‘half century of German mechanical finesse’ with a bit of scrap metal?

Pirsig uses this anecdote to identify two separate forms of human understanding: ‘square’ and ‘groovy’. (Zen was written in 1974, when everyone still spoke like Austin Powers.)

‘Square’ understanding is intellectual, rational, cerebral, concerned with the world’s underlying form. Squares know that beer can aluminium makes a perfect shim. They don’t care that it’s got Coors written on one side.

By contrast, intuitive, ‘groovy’ understanding focuses on appearance. Grooviness sees only what the beer can shim is (a ‘hunk of junk’). Not what it means (a safely fixed bike). 

Pirsig spends the rest of the book showing that the world doesn’t make sense unless you see that rational and intuitive understanding are two parts of the same thing. 

And that, I think, is pretty much where advertising needs to be.

For years, ad culture has been groovy. It never really had to be square, because its underlying structure was very simple. All you had to do was fill 30 seconds of ad break with something that looked like an ad and you got your slot in Private View. 

Needless to say, that’s changed. Bob Hoffman observes memorably on his blog that “Creative people make the ads. Everyone else makes the arrangements.” 

These days the arrangements are much more difficult and not everything is an ad.

These days the arrangements are much more difficult and not everything is an ad. Our industry’s creativity can’t have its full commercial impact unless we also get to grips with the world’s underlying – and changing – form. 

For example, good content demands a different kind of creativity to traditional advertising – the ability to expand entertainingly on a subject and bring people along for the ride, rather than the ability to summarise a brand in thirty seconds. Constructing and using data is really square (as our data people proudly admit) – but it creates new possibilities for creativity. And merely thinking the words ‘customer experience’ takes you into an analytical world where ads are only a shrinking part of the communications mix. 

Traditional ads won’t die out, because they do work (sometimes, at least). But if we focus solely on a particular creative technique – the traditional creative idea – we are actively restricting our creativity. Trapped in our groovy box, we are being, and doing, less than we could. 

From a selfish point of view that’s a risk to agencies. But at a deeper level it’s a risk to the brands we work with. And maybe even a risk to creativity itself.

  • JAMES CHAMP

    JAMES CHAMP

    CHIEF STRATEGY OFFICER