Neil Lawrence (@neiltlawrence) is STW Group’s Executive Creative Director. He’s also the CEO of Lawrence Creative Strategy, where he’s run some of the biggest campaigns in Australia in the last few years, from Kevin07 to the mining industry’s Keep Mining Strong campaign against the resources super tax, from the GenerationOne Address to the Nation on indigenous disadvantage to Alan Joyce and Qantas’ transformation and launch of its ‘New Spirit.’ In this guest post adapted from a talk he gave, he tells us what’s kept him inspired for nearly thirty years in advertising.
Inspiration is not a word I use very much. What does it really mean? Fired up, animated, sparked? But when I looked at the etymology of the word and found it means “to breathe in” – it started to make some sense to me.
The truth is, my inspiration rarely comes from inside our business. That’s not because I don’t admire what many people do in it. I certainly learnt a lot from some excellent practitioners when I was younger. But I haven’t read BandT, AdNews, an Award book or looked at an Award reel for more than a decade.
So what do I draw from? What is it on a daily basis that I surround myself with? What do I literally breathe in that informs my working and creative life? To keep it honest, I immediately grabbed my camera and photographed my office. Well, a slightly tidied up version. This is what I found.
Like so many people, music is a great influence on me, and has been since I was a child. I listen to as much and as widely as possible, and I play it as well as I can. Unfortunately that is not very well, although I did once get to play the blue’s harp on stage with Neil Finn. Those are my bragging rights. I’m currently rebuilding my record collection, one album at a time, shuffling with purpose through second hand shops. Vinyl really does sound better.
2. Big challenges.
The bigger the better. I’m inspired by people who really do try and make a difference in the world, and I love using the tools that we as an industry have at our disposal to try and help them. One of the best examples of this I’ve seen recently has been RUOK? Day. This is the front page from the day of The Apology to the Stolen Generations, when I was very proud to have worked to get the Labor Government elected. I wish my happiness had continued in the same vein. There’s GenerationOne, which aims to bridge the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Lawrence Creative has done a lot of work with them. And more recently, I and others in the industry have banded together to work together to inform people of the dangers of poker machine addiction.
3. Great clients.
I’m inspired by great clients who know what they are doing, really respect what we can do, and let us do it.
4. Cooking and making things.
I love cooking. A lot of people say they get their ideas in the shower. I get them while I cook; I think it absorbs enough of my brain for it to relax. Those jars of jam are my experiment in starting up a new company, the Jamberoo Mountain Co., from scratch. I doubt very much it’s going to be a commercial success. I did back-of-the-envelope calculations and each jar is worth about $146. But they’ll make some pretty nice presents.
5. Creative lives.
I’m inspired by people who lead genuinely artistic lives. Here’s just a few. Finding One’s Way with Clay is written by a friend of mine Paulus Berensohn. I’m going to make a film about him in the second part of this year. He’s a dancer, a potter, a teacher, a philosopher. MC Richards, a great poet, writer, potter and professor. Mary Oliver, Pulitzer prize winning poet. Great poetry has the ability to capture in a phrase what we could take hours to say. Patti Smith’s Just Kids is the best book I’ve ever read about growing up to become an artist. You must read it, and even better, get the audiobook and hear her reading it. And Charles and Ray Eames. They worked from 9am to 10pm in their workshop every day, a creative, collaborative pair, with a cook so they didn’t have to stop.
Charles once said,
Eventually everything connects—people, ideas, objects… the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se… I don’t believe in this ‘gifted few’ concept, just in people doing things they are really interested in doing. They have a way of getting good at whatever it is.
Just find your own trails. Follow them, and eventually the dots will join.
6. Wandering around.
I walk whenever I can, particularly if I’m in a new city. I was in Regent Street in Alexandria recently, picking up some photos I’d had printed. I walked past a shop and wandered in. I met a young woman called Robyn, otherwise known as Flutter Lyon. She does amazing ink drawings. This is one she gave me; the others she does are huge. It in turn became the inspiration for a new logo design. Across the road there’s an equally passionate woman selling the best chicken, the best olive oil in Australia, she said. The world is full of passionate people, particularly younger people. They’re worth finding.
I’ve always loved photography and had my first Kodak as an 8 year old. But I got overwhelmed with it. With digital technology you end up with three thousand photos but no time to look at them. So I started again. I bought a 1963 fully manual Leica and loaded it up with black and white film. It’s been a great experience, as learning things all over again can often be. It’s slowed me right down. I get to think about aperture, lenses, exposures: I’ve fallen in love with photography again, and occasionally get one I’m happy with.
8. Beginning again.
I mentioned that later in the year I’m going to make a documentary film. Well, I’ve had to learn how to do that myself instead of just hiring very, very good people. Again I’ve been a complete beginner and made all the mistakes that beginners do. But it’s one of the great ways to refresh the brain – taking on new challenges. Being an idiot. Learning everything all over again. There’s a wonderful book written some time ago by Zen master Suzuki, called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. It’s all about that.
9. Everyday life.
I’m inspired by the beauty of everyday life. I carry my iPhone with me to capture it. A bird’s nest. The pattern that crabs make on the beach. There’s a street that runs behind our campus at 72 Christie Street that goes up to the park along the railway line. It has a bare nature strip all the way except where one guy’s planted wild flowers. I find those small gestures and moments of beauty in everyday life very inspiring. I recently came across the quote from artist David Hockney on Nextness: “I can find excitement in raindrops falling on a puddle.” That resonated with me.
10. People I work with.
I hope this doesn’t sound like a cliche, but it’s the most important thing I’ve got to say. I figured out early on in my career that we will all spend much more time with our colleagues than we will with our partners, our children, our best friends. You want to make sure you’re working with people you can draw inspiration from and give it back to. It’s the single most important thing I’ve learnt in what’s been a fairly long career.
Of course, what inspires me won’t necessarily inspire you. I hope some of it resonates but I hope even more that what you breathe in is significantly different. I think that’s the trick. Find your own leads, and you have to follow them wherever they take you.