How to stop worrying and learn to love the chaos



It is a truth not quite universally acknowledged that the primary, default mode of much of marketing is, control.

The culture of accountability demands results.

Endemic short-termism demands immediate results.

The corporation’s hunger for certainty is insatiable.

The industries of risk minimisation fuel the desire for (and belief in) predictability.

The mythology of the satellite consumer revolving around their brand of choice encourages the illusion of control. 

The fantasy of loyalty and love feeds the belief that the consumer can be managed and secured.

The zombie idea of persuasion fosters the misguided belief that people’s minds can be permanently reprogrammed.

Not surprisingly then, across much of marketing- and adland, creativity is built around the processes and systems of control.

Who has not worried about losing control?

Who, if you’re on the agency side, has not experienced from time to time, the feeling of mild anxiety that precedes a creative review?

Or, if your on the client side, that precedes an agency presentation?

Who hasnot (go on, admit it) sensed somewhere at the back the brain a small voice worrying… “I hope we have something. I hope it’s on brief. I hope it’s at least near the brief. Please let this not be a disaster. Please let us see something today we can sell to the client.”

Who has hoped for surprise. As long as it isn’t too big a surprise?

With Time and Money, the twin horsemen of the creative apocalypse bearing down upon us, it’s hard and occasionally utterly nerve wracking to take the brakes off, release the mechanisms of control, and hope for the unexpected, the tangential, the convention defying, the stretching of the bounds of feasibility or sense.

Yet our task is profitable growth for our clients.

Of imagining and creating new futures for their brands and businesses.

We are then, in the business of igniting and sustaining momentum.

And as Kevin Spacey reminded us in his brilliant 2013 McTaggart lecture, it is when we let go, that we create the chance to move forwards:

I remembered during Long Day’s Journey Jack [Lemmon] used to talk about when he first started out as an actor in the early days of television in the 1950’s. He often talked about those days as the “Golden Years” – we’ve all heard that term – the Golden Age. As I was being pressured to accept this role, I wondered what did he actually mean by that phrase. So I called and asked him; were you just being nostalgic or was there something different about the way television was back then? And he said to me . . . “You have to understand, kid, that television was brand new back then. It was a new medium and nobody really knew if it was going to last - so you could try anything – comedy one week, drama the next, a soap, a musical, it was terrific. It hadn’t been commercialized yet and no one knew if it was even going to be around long. There was a sense of total abandon”.

“Total abandon” . . . Now that was not a phrase I had ever associated with television: “abandon’. But now it makes sense to me when I discovered that James MacTaggart, in addition to being a dynamic creative force, was also in his personal life a volunteer parachutist in the Scottish Battalion. He chose to jump into space, willingly and bravely – literally taking a leap of faith - and his work reflects that sense of ‘abandon’, which is why we honor his memory today…

Now if there is anything about the character I play on ‘House of Cards’ - Francis Underwood – that suspect people might admire is that he too has embraced a sense of total abandon: abandonment to the rules. He has no allegiances, to party, to titles, to forms, to names, to labels: he doesn't care whether it’s Democrats, Republicans, ideology or conviction. What he sees is opportunity and the chance to move forward. Okay, he’s a bit diabolical but he’s also very effective…

It’s always been about total abandon. It was that way when Jack Lemmon began. It was that way when Grant Tinker birthed the shows of MTM Studios. It was that way when HBO threw up its hands and thought, “Why not a show about overweight, mob boss in New Jersey who kills people but also suffers anxiety attacks? Why not?”

Spacey makes the case for abandon.

In a talk to the agency, Dan Wieden made the case for the necessity of chaos:

See I have this addiction to chaos. I love it when I’m a bit anxious. It’s a sickness, okay. But it works for me. And the older I get, the more I need what upsets me, shocks me, makes me squirm, or get angry. The older I get the more I value what forces me to take a second look. The more I respect people who don’t automatically respect me.

I love this agency the most, when it’s off balance. Moving at 7,000 miles an hour, trying to take a sharp left turn, everybody holding their breath, laughing like hell, occasionally throwing up but smiling, and leaning right to make sure the fucking thing doesn’t tip over.

Chaos does this amazing thing that order can’t: it engages you. It gets right in your face and with freakish breath issues a challenge. It asks stuff of you, order never will. And it shows you stuff, all the weird shit, that order tries to hide.

Chaos is the only thing that honestly wants you to grow. The only friend who really helps you be creative. Demands that you be creative.

Now, clearly, there are some disciplines in this organization that don’t really need to have chaos as their operating policy. I’m thinking finance. I’m thinking traffic. I’m thinking media buying. But even in those departments that need to operate with Germanic precision, even there, we need enough uncertainty that we are forced to question how we do what we do so efficiently. And maybe, why we do it at all.

The other thing chaos does is challenge authority.

It cares more about truth than power. Political figures are fascinated with the agency and some, like Senator Bill Bradley, have come by on a fairly frequent basis, just to share a meal, get our sense of things. I remember the first time Bradley spent a couple of hours in our conference room with about a dozen freaks from the agency. Clinton had just been elected, and Bradley was being considered for Secretary of State. He wasn’t there to lecture, or press the flesh, but to listen. It was a fascinating meeting, very frank, wide ranging. When I drove him back to the airport, he said, “what an amazing group of people. So young, so bright, so well informed. But I gotta tell you what was most astonishing was the complete lack of deference…to you, to me, to anyone.” He wasn’t complaining, he was just mesmerized by the informality, the absence of authority.

Abandon, chaos, letting go - call it what you will - is then, the thing that moves us forwards.

And that has profound implications for how we respond to its outputs.

This gigantic pushpin (100,000 of them) board sits in the Portland office of Wieden+Kennedy:



The exhortation isn’t about a desire to fuck up.

It’s about recognising that if creative people (of all kinds) are afraid of failing, they will never have the confidence or courage to embrace total abandon, to try the ridiculous, the impossible, the untested, or the plain ol’ daft.

So how should we - those perhaps more inclined to be comfortable with order than chaos - respond to the forces of abandon and chaos?

Writing in Campaign Jeremy Bullmore provides us with some characteristically essential wisdom and advice:

Advertising is, or should be, all about ideas, wheezes, hypotheses and improvisations : why don't we…? what about…? let's try…… Good advertising makes difficult things happen – and almost everything that's going to be suggested, at least in it's initial expression, will be patently flawed.

As an eager young recruit, you'll be sorely tempted to display your intelligence by pointing this out : by focusing the blinding light of your analysis on the obvious inadequacies of each fragile weakling : and almost certainly in the presence of the weakling's author and the author's superior. What's more, it will be clear from your expression that you expect praise for this act of wanton demolition.

So my first piece of advice; never, ever do this. It's the easiest thing in the world and the least constructive. If you want to be valued, you need to display a consistent ability to see potential in the feeblest spark and help to coax and cosset it until it blazes into glory. If you can't do that, just shut up and listen.

I don't know what the other two are.”

This is categorically not an argument for pandering to creative whim.

Our work serves commercial ends, and as such, must be fit for purpose. Demonstrating that it is, lies at the heart of making any idea buyable. 

But before we apply the levers of control and ask whether the work is right (for the business, the brand, the customer, the client, the stakeholders) and start to censure, edit, or critique, we should simply ask:

Is it interesting?”

The world after all, is already full to the brim with highly relevant, deeply insightful, single-minded, clearly communicating, well-branded, product truth leveraging, category-conforming, consumer-friendly, focus group endorsed, well-researched, rigorously validated, exhaustively tested, expectation delivering garbage that moves nobody and nothing forwards.