There are books that complain about advertising. And there are books that mythologize it – past, present and fictional. But books that you can turn to when you’re trying to figure out how to actually make advertising are fairly rare. And to be clear, we’re not talking about simple lists of outdated, arbitrary rules or portfolios of great campaigns, or even expanded interviews with the people who used those outdated rules to create those great campaigns blathering on about what they did and how they did it. Because yes, there are plenty of those.
We mean the kinds of books that can actually help you when you’re staring at a blank computer screen at midnight. Or worse, when you’re staring at the blank expression of your creative partner. Books that can help you make something great.
Dave Trott, for those not steeped in the history of advertising, is the son of an English cop who became a UK advertising legend. A student at Pratt, then a trainee at New York’s notorious Carl Ally Inc agency, he kicked off his career in earnest at London’s legendary Boase Massimi Pollit before launching his own agencies Gold Greenlees Trott in 1980, Bainsfair Sharkey Trott a decade later, and Walsh Trott Chick Smith three years after that – where he was chairman until 2014. GGT, by the way, was voted Agency of The Year in 1982 by Campaign Magazine and Most Creative Agency in the World by Advertising Age in 1986, and Mr. Trott was awarded the D&AD President’s Award in 2004 for Lifetime Achievement in Advertising.
One + One = Three is Mr. Trott’s third book relevant to the industry he has dedicated his career to (the other two, Creative Mischief and Predatory Thinking came out in 2010 and 2013 respectively). Published in 2016, it is smart and full of extremely useful insights, and very idiosyncratic, which at first feels like its weakness but ultimately is its strength.
Now, the book’s subtitle – “A Masterclass in Creative Thinking” – might lead one to believe that Mr. Trott started by googling the “top ten creative thinking problems”, and then generating a corresponding chapter for each, structuring them with clear “problem > solution” formats in which to jam his advice.
Yeah, not so much.
Of course, there are chapters – “Creative is Messy” for example and “Choice Architecture”. But Mr. Trott fills them with long form ad copy – copy that reads like old print ads. Paragraphs that are sentences and sentences that are fragments. Copy that pulls you in, telling you a story, weaving in benefits, maybe making a quick aside into another anecdote – and then dropping a bomb on you in the final line. The only thing missing is a logo and a tagline in in the lower righthand corner.
Not optimal for someone desperate to find quick solutions to age old problems.
But that’s the point. Because Mr. Trott is not interested in quick solutions, magic tricks, or clever little sleight-of-hand manipulations that will get you past the deadline. He is here to show you strategies for solving important problems with creativity – and he’s going to use stories that do not connect the dots for you like other books would, but that will nevertheless resonate with you long after those other books have wound up in a box in your garage.
During the seventeenth century, a German scientist claimed it was the movement of the trees that created the wind. This was self-evidently so. When the trees moved their branches, there was always wind. When the trees were still, there was no wind. Just as when someone flaps their arms around, they create a breeze. But when they are still, there is no breeze. Wind was the movement of air, so something must be moving it. Perfect logic. But being logical doesn’t mean it’s true. Because we know it’s exactly the other way round. The German scientist joined up the right dots, but in the wrong order. Wind moves trees, not vice versa. But for him, the logic was seductive.
Now, Mr.Trott uses that anecdote as a brilliant illustration of the proper sequencing of brand and reputation (spoiler alert: first reputation, then brand). But it is also an extremely useful strategy for getting to better, newer ideas. How? Ever been in a room where everyone has been briefed and is brainstorming their way to the same old mediocre ideas. Imagine remembering this German scientist story and saying “Hey, what if what we think is the cause is actually the effect, and vice versa? What would our ideas look like THEN?”
But that would never happen because the brief is never wrong, right? And who cares if it is, because real creativity can solve it anyway, right? Mr. Trott demurs:
Real creativity doesn’t come from struggling to answer a difficult brief. Real creativity comes from getting upstream of the brief and finding a different answer. Reinterpreting the brief is often solving the problem.
This is the value of One + One = Three. It gives you the stories you will need to remember in order to get upstream of the brief to solve the problem. And you will remember these stories precisely because they are stories. Because instead of saying “when you’re stuck, turn the idea around” Mr. Trott gives you trees and wind and a 17th century scientist. He gives you 13th century Knights and candy wrappers in Kent. Exactly the kind of things our brains process best.
Exactly the kinds of thing you will remember the next time you’re staring at a blank screen. Or a blank creative partner.