Earlier this year, I was invited by the IPA to come to London and talk about creativity in my part of the world. I'm from New Zealand and although you may never have heard of us, we are, per capita, the most creatively awarded country in the world.
"How?" asks the video that opened our local creative awards a couple of years ago. "It's because we have the perfect conditions for creativity. New Zealand has no celebrities, and so agencies have to sell products with brilliant ideas instead. And A-class drugs are obscenely expensive, so advertising people have to put in the late nights and weekends at the office to afford them."
Valid reasons, though I couldn't help feeling these weren't exactly mining deep cultural insight into why we're such a creatively fruitful place. Of course, we're small, which means less of the obvious creativity killers of policy, politics, process and testing research. One guy I worked with put it brilliantly: "In New Zealand, you get to 'no' quicker." He'd spent time in bigger markets doing iterations of campaigns to which the CEO, with whom they finally got an audience 18 months into the process, was never going to say yes.
So yes, we're little. But that revelation isn't exactly helpful in large markets that don't have a plan to drastically reduce their population.
So, being a planner, I did some research. I asked our most-decorated creative directors why we got away with so much good work down here. They ummed and ahhed a lot, and the lovely thing about our creative people is that they don't fuss much about why it's good here, they're too busy making good work.
But the awfully British Toby Talbot said something very interesting. He has worked in both London and New Zealand in recent years, as ECD for Rainey Kelly there and TBWA here.
He was musing about how nice it is having access to brilliant executional talent over there: "In the UK, you're awash with amazing craftspeople. Wherever you go, there's an amazing animator or director. We don't have that here in New Zealand. And, in a way, that means you can't jump to execution. You play a very dangerous game if you jump to execution here because, for the most part, you're never going to get that person that you're referencing."
And interestingly, in an advertising world that's become hungry for substance over style, that incredible aptitude for executional craft might not be such a good thing. In New Zealand, we have good executional people, but we don't have the pedigree or the money to make things so beautiful that they render consumers powerless in the way that only Guinness 'Surfer' or Honda 'Cog' or films of that kind can. Which means we need to think differently. New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford, credited with first splitting the atom, is famed for saying "We haven't got money, so we have to think." It's a New Zealandism that encapsulates our pride in solving problems in a way that circumvents the tyranny of budget.
In recent years, advertising creativity has become enamoured with a kind of 'problem-solving' creativity more than the tradition of 'entertainment' creativity upon which 20th century advertising was built. Today, Grand Prix Lions are given out when we sell soap by getting an FBI sketch artist to show how strangers think women are more beautiful than they think themselves, or when we make funeral insurance a cultural conversation by getting the public to eulogise their loved ones while they're still alive. Of course, these ideas still need to be executed competently, but they're good ideas even just written in a Sharpie on an A3 pad. They don't require swathes of budget to become good ideas.
It's this necessity that's long been the mother of our invention here in New Zealand. We constantly need to come up with ideas in the absence of believing we can execute them brilliantly, which leads us to a different nature of idea. That's how we show how cider is made from real Apples by 'accidentally' dropping twigs from the orchard's trees into the retail cartons. It's why we teach empathy towards female salaries being 10% less by charging men 10% more for their coffee. It's why we arouse sympathy for SPCA dogs by showing they're smart enough to drive cars.
While there's no getting away from the process and politics of a big market, there might just be an interesting trick in pretending the budget is a tenth of what's written on the brief. "We have world-class production companies that will make a 90-second TVC for $17.50" laughs the aforementioned creative award show opener. And that's probably the secret of our success.
This blog originally appeared in the July/August issue of Admap.