‘Bravery’: The folly and the vanity

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn
And I dream of what I need

Bonnie Tyler***


Bravery, writes the American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, is about being intimate with fear”. Bravery after all, is about encountering the possibility of disaster. So why do we bemoan the lack of ‘brave’ work? Why do we ask where all the ‘brave’ clients have gone? Are we encouraging our clients to make work that might fail? That might have no brand or business effect? That might actually be a total waste of time and money? That might indeed prove to be a total disaster?

If that’s what we are suggesting then we (self-styled students of psychology and human decision-making) are indulging in some truly Class-A dumb psychology. Phil Adams nails the self-indulgent naivety of this approach:

If you want to use reverse psychology to talk a cautious client out of approving an ad, tell her it’s a brave idea. It demonstrates a startling lack of empathy. Bravery is a function of risk and danger and she knows it. You apparently don’t.”

We are so keen, it would seem, to cast ourselves as heroes and iconoclasts, so hungry to massage our fragile egos that we choose to misunderstand both human psychology and the collective psychology of the corporation. But we should heed the words of John Hegarty:

There is no point in saying ‘I want you to be brave’, you’re not going to succeed. We’ve got to challenge this notion that we’ve got to sell more bravery because people won’t like it”

Exhorting clients to be ‘brave’ enough to buy ‘brave’ work is not just poor psychology. It misrepresents and undermines creativity, passing it off as some roll of the dice, or reckless shot in the dark in which the possibility of total failure is deeply embedded. Yet if we look at what makes for effective work we see that it entails eschewing category norms and conventions, being distinctive and interesting not merely relevant, evoking visceral reactions, and leaving behind long-term memory traces. 

None of this is being ‘brave’. It’s not embracing of failure. It’s not reckless. It’s just prudent, effective brand-building. And so if as Nils Leonard has put it: “There is no such thing as creative bravery, only true creativity”, then the most foolhardy, risk-embracing and reckless thing a marketer can possibly do is to pursue the safe, the tried-and-tested, the formulaic, the unremarkable, and the unoriginal. As Bill Bernbach opined in an interview:

Playing it safe can be the most costly thing in the world”.

But talk of ‘brave’ work obscures the real heroes. For the true acts of bravery are those of clients who in championing creativity choose to take on the systemic biases of the corporation that employs them. Shepherding creative ideas – “true creativity” in Leonard’s words – through the layer cake of ‘stakeholders’ so often means navigating organisations that are process-dependent, entrenched in formula, slave to the advice of so-called experts, mired in so-called best practise, beholden to zombie ideas, uncomfortable with the unfamiliar and the new, and even downright hostile to the very idea of creativity.

Choosing to swim against the cultural tide of the corporation is proper bravery. As the psychologist Cynthia Pury puts it, courage is “the ability to act despite general social or cultural pressure.” And if Adland could just hit pause on its incessant need to lionise itself and think about the circumstances and needs of others, we and our clients might just make a little more progress.

Pury’s research has found that courage is more likely to emerge when a person sees a meaningful goal and then believes he or she has the ability to achieve that goal. Thus, argues Pury, a person is more likely to run into a burning building to save kittens if they have the training and equipment to do so.  Conversely, a person who has the training and equipment but doesn’t see saving kittens as a worthy goal will simply stand on the sidelines. Action then, depends on a person’s goals, as well as evaluations of personal risk and one’s own ability to achieve the goal.

So if we want good ideas to see the light of day, it falls to the us as originators of ideas to demonstrate how the new and unfamiliar is in fact, the right thing, the sensible thing, and the best thing to do. It demands that we articulate how and why it is fit for purpose. How it will work. And how we will know if it is working. All those things that we devalue so casually and so thoughtlessly when we ask for a few slides of Powerpoint ‘setup’. As if this were merely some audience-fluffing warmup act ahead of the main event, rather than the exercise of rigorous idea stewardship.

Good agencies – good idea stewards – will be well-attuned to the assumptions, practices, personalities, politics, biases, quirks, and pathologies of the corporations they service. They recognise that the agency is not the only advocate for the work, that clients too must act as internal salespeople for ideas, and that the ‘sell’ continues long after the agency has left the room. They dedicate themselves to arming their clients with the argument, evidence and yes, confidence to make the case internally. And to ensuring that what might seem in the eyes of outsiders as utterly bananas, is understood and embraced as absolutely the right thing to do.

Not ‘brave’. Right.



Bill Bernbach interview, 1971

John Hegarty speaking at Advertising Week Europe panel, 2014

Phil Adams, ‘Why bravery is a bad idea

Cynthia Pury, in Greater Good Magazine


Edge Effect

25th October, 2017

Everything is weirder than it first appears.


Giants fall from grace

Other than each other, there is only one thing between the Four and $1T in market value: the perception of poor citizenship. The small-ball strategies of tax avoidance, obfuscation, and the idolatry of youth and the dollar, may turn big tech into smaller tech.”

Scott Galloway via l2inc


AI teaches itself

A new version of AlphaGo (which they christened AlphaGo Zero) picked up Go from scratch, without studying any human games at all. AlphaGo Zero took a mere three days to reach the point where it was pitted against an older version of itself and won 100 games to zero… Now that AlphaGo’s arguably got nothing left to learn from humans—now that its continued progress takes the form of endless training games against itself—what do its tactics look like, in the eyes of experienced human players?  Since May, experts have been painstakingly analyzing the 55 machine-versus-machine games. And their descriptions of AlphaGo’s moves often seem to keep circling back to the same several words: Amazing. Strange. Alien.”

via The Atlantic (full research paper here)


Augmented reality gets vandalised

It is vital to start questioning how much of our virtual public space we are willing to give to companies,” Errazuriz said. “Right now such sculptures exist in a realm dominated by social media corporations, offering us ‘free’ services that we voluntarily join. Nevertheless, with time, the boundaries between reality and virtual reality fade. The virtual world, where the majority of our social interactions take place, becomes our reality. Once we begin experiencing the world predominantly through AR, our public space will be dominated by corporate content designed to subconsciously manipulate and control us.”

via hyperallergic


Your data is manipulated

At this moment, AI is at the center of every business conversation. Companies, governments, and researchers are obsessed with data. Not surprisingly, so are adversarial actors. We are currently seeing an evolution in how data is being manipulated. If we believe that data can and should be used to inform people and fuel technology, we need to start building the infrastructure necessary to limit the corruption and abuse of that dataand grapple with how biased and problematic data might work its way into technology and, through that, into the foundations of our society.”

Dana Boyd at datasociety


History gets repeated

On your way to work, you grab breakfast from one of the dozen coffee shops you pass. Most of the goods you buy get delivered right to your door. If you live in a large city and have a car, you barely use it, preferring Uber or ride-sharing services. You feel modern. Your parents didn’t do any of this. Most of their meals were consumed at home, and they took their cars everywhere, in particular to purchase all the stuff they needed. You think of your life as being so different from theirs. It is. You think of this as progress. It isn’t.”

via Farnham Street


Utopia doesn’t work

The reason communism or utopianism can work at small scale is because of the tight knit nature of a small group. Think of your family dinner table: Do you need to trade chits to decide who gets to eat how much, or do you need some grand overseer to dole out the potatoes? No. You all simply take what you need for the meal, and make sure everyone has enough. Think of the shameful admonitions if you over-eat and leave another family member hungry. The problem is that the concept doesn’t scale.”

via Farnham Street


We are all cyborgs now

So where does this fear of the technological come from? Or this sense that, as scholars, we feel almost obliged to give technology a failing grade when it comes to its positive impact on our lives and productivity? The answer is 19th and 20th Century romanticism and contemporary articulations of it, like “technology is an intellectually and imaginatively degenerative force in the lives of our children.” Again, even those first-year anthropology students with a few lectures under their belts will tell you that it’s just intellectually flawed for scholars to continue to promote this storied, romantic idea of human as non-technological, as only truly or purely human in a kind of noble, non-techy savage kind of way. Humanity has never been that way.”

via Epic


Around the world in 20 days

She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien’s theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

Edge Effect

25th September, 2017

On experts, empires, privilege, and elites.

The terrorists of capitalism

We’re being devoured by people infected with the Damnable Trinity of capitalism, white supremacy, and kyriarchy. They are munching on people’s bones and baying to those infernal gods while our blood drips down their faces. It’s like Fenrir swallowing the Sun, except it’s their gratuitous greed and empathy-void, single-mindedness devouring our planet and our species in violent, strong-armed swoops. This while they have the audacity to scold us with lies about having ‘earned it’. This, while having the arrogance to say that their wealth means they outworked us all.”

via Alexis Morgan


The unfairness of digital markets

It is becoming increasingly apparent that widespread deployment of algorithmic tools can intensify, rather than reduce, the chasm between the wealthy and the vulnerable. This is the issue Ezrachi and Stucke address as behavioural discrimination. With ever-increasing hoards of data, firms can engage in near-perfect dynamic price discrimination, flipping our attributes, likes and fancies into individually enclosed and tailored worlds. Overall, they argue, this is corrosive to social welfare, because the more vulnerable among us end up paying more. The authors’ assessment of where this is heading is of the most sober kind: absent legal intervention, perfect discrimination will likely become the new norm… In the digital world – and indeed the physical one into which the ruling class of platforms and super-platforms are rapidly encroaching – it seems it is the law of the fist that reigns supreme. And for us, as consumers and as citizens, it is “a descent from king to slave on the data treadmill”.

via times higher education


The superficiality of elite identity

Given that this class’s identity depends on a form of consumption that revolves around the display of cultural capital, it’s unsurprising that so much of the elite’s intellectual and political life is merely gestural… The cultural “products” that [hold] particular prestige for the educated elite—HBO dramas, TED Talks, podcasts, documentary films—are consistent with the gestural (one might say lazy) nature of elite intellectual activity. Consuming these products… Listening to a podcast or watching a TED Talk certainly exhibits and enhances cultural capital, but those are merely acts of passive consumption, rather than of intellectual and aesthetic engagement.”

via The American Conservative


The whiteness of artisanal culture

The character of craft culture, a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism, is not merely overwhelmingly white — a function of who generally has the wealth to start those microbreweries and old-school butcher shops, and to patronize them — it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful. A lie by omission may be a small one, but for a movement so vocally concerned with where things come from, the proprietors of craft culture often seem strangely uninterested in learning or conveying the stories of the people who first mastered those crafts.”

via eater

Edge Effect

28th August, 2017


The ideology behind technology

Too many of us don’t recognize that the decisions made in the design of these products and services constitute a coherent ideology, let alone wonder where that ideology comes from. Too many of us fail to see these products and services as places where distinct values are being enacted. And as a result, too many of us fail to understand these products and serves as contested, or at least eminently contestable, sites. (This includes a surprising number of people who pride themselves on their degree of wokeness in virtually every other facet of their lives.) It becomes far easier to perceive these aspects of the world around us, though, if we take a little time to understand how software functions.”

via verso

What Blade Runner teaches us about being human

In Puschak’s view, Blade Runner diagnoses the condition that “all the freedom of modern society, all its secularism and egalitarianism and choice, conceals a darker side to the coin: the side on which human identity isn’t determined by society, but by the individual, making its formation, by definition, problematic.” Indeed, we could see the shift from societally determined identity to individually determined identity — framed positively, the long march toward freedom — as one of the main threads of the past few centuries of human history, here represented by Deckard’s struggle with “the gradual breakdown of the only identity he’s ever had.”

via open culture

Rediscovering our innate goodness

The contemporary turn towards nihilism that lionises the individual at the expense of the collective has made the idea of cultivating a more beautiful soul appear hopelessly idealistic and disconnected from ‘hard realities’. In a realist’s world, we seek utilitarian ends under the guise of pragmatism, turning away from the illusiveness of an immaterial and ultimately unattainable ideal. The mystery and poetry of human nature has been stripped from our daily experience at the expense of our imaginations and our will to envision a more beautiful world. Yet, the social and environmental ills induced by our unfettered economy of instrumentality are proving anything but pragmatic for the long-term sustainability and wellbeing of our species. If we still harbour hope in the human propensity for goodness, then we ought to contemplate anew the poetic, revolutionary figure of the beautiful soul that might once again provide a vision for deepening our intellectual, moral and emotional faculties in the service of a more just and progressive future for us all.”

via aeon

Cyberpunk as a guide for surviving hyper-consumerism

From the perspective of large tech companies like Apple, we have to use manufactured items for their standardized manufactured purpose. Innovation has been consigned to the boardroom, the R&D lab or the Silicon Valley start up. We no longer literally “own” what we own. Copyright, intellectual property, and the very concept of economic exchange have become disgusting shams under these policies. Technological prescriptivism would rob us of our ability to tinker, to create, to experiment… we are to become naught but predictable and ever profitable consumers.

THIS is where we can learn from Cyberpunk. Those interested in Cyberpunk can quote William Gibson ad nauseum on this: “The Street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturers never imagined.” What Gibson is saying: characters in Cyberpunk overcome the assigned manufactured purpose of the things around them.

Cyberpunk fiction is filled with individuals owning what they own but simultaneously do not “own.” It’s filled with individuals who subvert prescribed use.”

via the society and with thanks to Ian at Dark Matter for this find

Is art a currency for an insane world?

Art as alternative currency shows that art sectors already constitute a maze of overlapping systems in which good-old gossip, greed, lofty ideals, inebriation, and ruthless competition form countless networked cliques. The core of its value is generated less by transaction than by endless negotiation, via gossip, criticism, hearsay, haggling, heckling, peer reviews, small talk, and shade. The result is a solid tangle of feudal loyalties and glowing enmity, rejected love and fervent envy, pooling striving, longing, and vital energies. In short, the value is not in the product but in the network; not in gaming or predicting the market but in creating exchange. Most importantly, art is one of the few exchanges that derivative fascists don’t control—yet.”

via e-flux

Has the smartphone destroyed a generation?

Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”

via The Atlantic

Will our migration towards the stars restore our sense of place, and self?

Today, we are more disconnected from the stars than ever before. Even utilitarian attachments have fallen away, as the markers that form our sense of place in the wider world have shifted from the distant to the local. Navigators once used the stars as reference marks; the GPS units in modern cellphones refer instead to a constellation of artificial satellites in orbit around the Earth, synchronised to atomic clocks in ground-based laboratories… We have lost a part of our selves in the process.

via aeon