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Victorian Values

Posted on October 3, 2011 and read 4,621 times

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nick smile Victorian Values

Nick Bailey
Executive Creative Director
AKQA Amsterdam

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt recently caused controversy in the UK when he criticized the British education system for dividing children too early into competing humanities and arts disciplines – or as he put in in typically eccentric British vernacular, “you’re either a ‘Luvvie’ or a ‘Boffin’.”

He argued that by inhibiting cross-pollination of ideas, insights and ways of thinking between the arts and sciences, the UK is failing its young people, and its competitiveness in the world.

Listening to him, it struck me that this principle applies particularly powerfully to creative industries, as agencies today struggle with the challenge of building brands creatively via an ever-evolving array of platforms, media and technology.

Eric’s hymn to the merits of luvvies and boffins getting more intimate took me back to the early days of what was then called ‘new media,’ when newborn agencies attracted a genuinely eclectic and oddball mix of coders, designers, writers, creative thinkers, producers, artists, strategists and total crackpots* (*more British vernacular – nothing to do with controlled substances).

What distinguished them all was firstly an absolute lack of experience in the world of advertising – the “way things are supposed to be done”  – and, most importantly, their ability to actually do stuff; to make things, to conjure new ideas into life. These were genuine craftspeople working together and learning from each other. It was like a luvvie-boffin bootcamp with benefits.

Every problem was different, every project was different, so every process was different. Coders brainstormed with creatives, writers worked on information architecture, designers animated, animators designed. People were making stuff; solving problems, inventing and creating in the truest sense of the word. Or to put it less grandly, we made it all up as we went along.

Many of those green, fresh-faced and innocent pioneers of the digital age are now gnarly veterans of those same agencies, all grown up, with a few processes in place – but still to a certain extent making things up as they go along.  And as one of those gnarly veterans (and like all grumpy old men before me) I lament the passing of our chaotic but productive past – not because I’m nostalgic (at least not too much), but because, like Eric Schmidt, I believe that specialization is the enemy of innovation.

Those years of crazy invention were an extraordinary privilege to live through, and the best apprenticeship any of us could have had. I’m enormously grateful for the freedom from constraints I had in those early days – and the opportunity to experience (and learn from) mistakes and failures, which is the most valuable part of any education. It’s a missed opportunity that so many creatives starting out in agencies today are less well equipped for the future than their predecessors, because, like their luvvie or boffin peers, they’re highly educated – but within a too-limited range.

Of course – smart creative thinking and great ideas are the fuel on which our industry runs. But if you’re going to convert that fuel into useful action, whether it’s building a new service or application or any of the infinite ways brands now have at their disposal for connecting with consumers, you need to be a “do-er” as well as a thinker. You need to be a creative or technical practitioner who’s expert in a craft (or preferably more than one) – and you need an active interest in and understanding of the crafts of your contemporaries in other disciplines.

In his speech, Schmidt recalled the age of the Victorians as the zenith of the fertile creative collaboration between the arts and the sciences. But what really strikes me about the example of the Victorians is not just the proliferation of extraordinary polymaths – but just how creatively industrious they were. They didn’t just think, they did. A lot.

Lewis Carroll, cited by Schmidt, wasn’t just the author of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ – he was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford.  Anthony Trollope, one of Britain’s most prolific and critically acclaimed Victorian novelists, wrote many of his early works whilst traveling on the train for his job as postal surveyor for Northern Ireland. Oscar Wilde delivered lines like “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination,” or “I am not young enough to know everything” casually, in the course of letters or conversation – lines that the Ad world today would laud and applaud as the absolute apotheosis of creative endeavor.

Of course these men, as well as being industrious Victorians, had the advantage of each being a genius – but it’s nonetheless true that the tiny minority of people (mostly men) privileged with an education in those days really were equipped with a broad range not just of learning, but of skills. Eric had it right: if you want to succeed in the digital creative economy of the 21st century, take a leaf out of the Victorians’ book.

Because the people and agencies who skill-up, learn the unfamiliar language of the luvvie or the boffin (depending which side they fall), and above all, who can do as well as think, will be more competitive, more innovative and, like their Victorian antecedents, might just get a little more out of life, too.




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