Sponges and Rocks

Sponges absorb. Rocks don’t.

Increasingly I feel that the advertising agencies are populated with rocks while all the smart sponges who absorb knowledge, references, culture are going to start-ups, consultancies and so on – the new capital makers.

I see fairly young creative teams who churn out the same old ‘manifestos’ characterised by 2000’s era semantic bullshit. I see senior leadership struggling to grapple with fundamentals of digital age consumer journeys. I see copy writers who don’t know age-defining shows and cultural references. They still don’t know Flume, Gesaffelstein or the Casteless Collective. They don’t know mainstream nor the niches. They haven’t seen Kurosawa, Truffaut nor Pa Ranjith or Nagraj Manjule. They have not read film scripts, nor tried to write one. Basquiat & Grayson Perry are aliens to them. So is the work of Sagmeister & Walsh. They have not read Amitav Ghosh, Vonnnegut, Philip K Dick or even the contemporary thought leaders like Harari or Gladwell.

What to do with these rocks? You make available books, interesting chats, video links to them, which duly fall sideways as they remain busy wallowing in their mediocre existence bereft of the beauty that the world offers all the time.

It feels as if we live in different eras & cultures and we are accelerating away at light speed. I am a voracious reader, curious about new ideas and content. and the only people who share that curiosity are outside advertising – artists, film makers, new age capitalists. You step into an Advertising office and increasingly it feels like stepping into retrograde timezones. The flotsam industry flowing downstream helplessly and without knowing it is going downstream.

The feedback loop

There is one definitive characteristic that separates the competent from the mediocre; the practice of giving, seeking and acting upon constructive feedback.

I was fortunate enough to get good bosses early on in my career who were kind and thoughtful with their feedback. I learnt a great deal from them.

One of the most valuable artifacts I have, is a printout of my ‘yearly evaluation’ by my then boss, Anirban, who took the pains to write multiple pages worth of insights about my work. He saw the good in me that I was not aware of. He kindly pointed out areas of improvement that I was afraid to even acknowledge. Without feedback like that, I would have remained insecure and incompetent. But I was lucky to get good bosses. I shudder to think about those who work in companies that do not have a culture of giving, seeking feedback at all. And there are many companies like that – I have worked in one where the bosses never gave any constructive feedback at all, they would just sit on judgements. Young creative guys would not know what will hit them. The creative process became a religious process – blind, fraught with terror and delivered with superstitious hope. Superstitious folks are not the ones to reason and improve. It was a terrible place with low morale, high insouciance and middling prospects. I was at my busiest in that agency even as none of the work we did was worthy of going in anyone’s portfolio. We were a factory of uninspiring ads.

Don’t be at such a place. And rescue your own workplace from becoming one.
A good place to work is where the boss provides kind and thoughtful feedback often. A rookie might not even know what he needs to know, so the onus is on the leadership to cultivate a culture of thoughtful dialogue, of thoughtful analysis of our work.

Without feedback, there is no improvement.
Without improvement, there is no growth.
Without growth, there is only existential dread and career insecurity.

Why subject yourself to it? If you are senior enough, get in the habit of engaging your team in thoughtful feedback dialogues. If you a junior, get in the habit of asking for feedback.

Feedback is a lot of work – you have to think hard, analyze… most are too lazy to do it proactively. So demand a feedback from your superior after every project. No other education/ ‘training’ is needed if you have a culture of thoughtful feedback.