How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle

May 2, 2017 / Features

By Colleen DeCourcy

Here's what Wieden+Kennedy's Global Chief Creative Officer had to say at last week's D&AD Festival.

[This is a transcript of Colleen DeCourcy's presentation from last week's D&AD Festival. We thought it was so invigorating that we had to publish it in full for a wider audience.]


The title of this talk is “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle” because that’s what we do when we do this thing right. The “lightning” is something fundamentally true and it’s powerful and elusive and you’ve managed to catch it and hold it long enough to show it to the world. And the world goes….”ahhhh…” And that’s the goal. That’s the job. If you’re not setting yourself up to be a person or a place that can do that, well, you might just as well go home.

Everything else is just a distraction.

The talk was written to be about the “how” but I’ve been here all week judging advertising work and I’m feeling a bit agitated about what I’ve seen and so, now it’s been re-written to be all about the “distraction.”


Every once in awhile you have a moment where you worry you may have lost the plot.
You’re not sure what you’re doing or why.
You’re not sure what the right next step is or when to take it.
You look around and you're not sure if you love the work you're seeing.
You're not sure who sees the good work you like.
You're not sure where the clients are.

For 15 years we’ve been talking about the disruption of the advertising industry but I’ve never felt it more than I feel it today. I look at a lot of the work and I feel like we’ve become confused about what the job is.

Marc Andreesen of Andreesen Horowitz says disruptive innovation is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the modern world. Clayton Christensen says it comes down to one thing: more people having access to tools that used to be available only to people with lots of money or skill.

The printing press put the monks out of business, the camera put portrait painters out of business, Instagram took Kodak out of business and iPhones took cameras out of business. Progress is direct access to the means of getting to an end. A shortening of the distance from A to B. Friction taken out of the process.

But here’s the thing - the end, the end hasn’t changed. Lightning in a bottle is still the end goal. We just have to take the friction out of getting to it. I have every indicator I need to make me believe that (despite popular complaints from account people to the contrary) the creative process is not where the friction's the infrastructure.

Infrastructure disruption is not just happening to advertising. It’s happening all around us. Most relevant, it's happening to music and television and movies. Chance The Rapper didn’t need a record label. In fact, records didn’t need a record store, and music didn’t need records. That’s “taking the friction out of the process.”

But we still have Chance’s music.

Hollywood said “OH this is going to kill creativity.” But it doesn't appear that it is. Hollywood is in a panic because Netflix and Amazon are stealing all of Hollywood’s actors and writers because they are paying them more and giving them better briefs. Because Netflix and Amazon didn’t kill the ideas….they just killed the system it used to take to make them. They've accelerated the opportunities to get work made by using data instead of infrastructure. The costs they took out were the costs of the studio system. They didn’t kill creativity, they killed the studios that used to have the monopoly on ideas because it was really expensive to make a movie and a lot of them failed. Now, check out the Netflix Originals tab. It's shockingly alright. Data and a tsunami of auteurist talent means friction of delivery can be 86’d. Serialized content is having a creative renaissance. The television industry’s disruption has actually intensified its creative output.

But our industry? It seems to be going in the opposite direction. We’re heavying up on buildings and holdings and media and programmatic. Marketers are building themselves huge internal marketing department machines to drive around in. Holding companies are growing so big that they can’t even see their own dicks anymore and instead they’re setting up purpose-built mini-agencies like Elbow United.

If you open Campaign or Advertising Age there’s a pretty consistent party line on how fucked we are and many rational points of view on how we should be innovating. The trades are more than happy to publish those because there’s not enough creative work being made to keep them in business just reporting on the work.

There are a million sensible reasons to be reasonable and pragmatic and follow those smart people. Except, sensible reasons are the wrong reasons, common sense is, well, common... and reasonable pragmatism is the final act of people who believe they have lost the battle.

I don’t believe we have lost.

The best asset an agency can have is an artist who sees the world through their own strange and magical lense. The brand is an additive to that. That's the fastest route to catching lightning.

If you follow the examples immediately in front of us, we’re back in a golden age of auteurism. We need to double down on what we’re good at and get some of the infrastructure out of this business.

After 35 years and eight offices opened, Wieden+Kennedy still only employs about 1,300 people. Most high schools are bigger than that. Our costs are the costs of housing and paying for the talent and the work. We add a bit of a premium because our best ideas scale themselves. That’s the surcharge for the aesthetic pleasure machine. The money mostly goes into the work. That's why the work is good. We’re not easy, but we’re transparent and we’re small.

So, we’re not an elephantine holding company living in a world that’s facing a shakedown on what it takes to deliver commercial creativity. For that, I'm grateful. But still, I worry. I feel hungry and wanting.


I ask myself that question all the time.

It’s a stupidly simple question, but it helps cut through the bullshit. It’s the kind of question that ignores everything except what really matters. I ask it of the people we’re supposed to be selling things to and I asked myself that question recently while researching what other advertising companies say about themselves. I was gob-smacked and confused by what I found while looking for the answer.

So I read the claims and asked myself the question…

You want to never stop looking ahead?
You want to be strategically driven?
Digitally native?
Humanity obsessed?
You want to be industry-leading?
You want to explore and evolve?
You want create cultural impact?
You want to go where the status is far from quo?
You want to do some zagging?
Or maybe you want connected specialism?
You want to be customer-obsessed?
You want best-in-class?
You want to work with or for the world’s most awarded and effective advertising agency?

Is that it?

You want to join an industry formerly known as advertising?

I don’t fucking want any of that and I can guarantee you that there isn’t a money-in-their-pocket, stuff-buying human in the teeming masses of people on the high street right now that gives a fuck either.

That question triggers more glorious chaos in humanity than all of civilization could ever imagine.
It’s the most human of questions.
It’s a dangerous question.
Because humans are non­stop, all­continuous, totally nude, triple X, wanting machines.


You think we’d be pretty good at that by now.

You think we’d be pretty good at understanding what want feels like, what forms it takes, how to tap it, how to give it. Because, it's the single biggest qualification for our job.

But making stuff people want is really hard.

We do our best work on hate. Hate can fuel our desire to make our immediate world a better place. It’s the rock W+K was founded on. Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, hated advertising and we still do. But, recently, what used to be a healthy hate for this weird business seems to fuel a self­-destructive lack of confidence, deep frustration, self-­loathing, and then more hate. Why?

We have a saying at the agency ­ “We’re at our best when we’re in the eye of the cultural storm.” In setting an industry example of doing that, we’ve managed to clear a direct path to some pretty shitty things that are now happening in the world of Advertising:

[You can probably figure out where that kind of advertising has led us to, 30 years on.]

Why do we increasingly feel impotent to make great advertising? Because this business is getting too shallow and too wide. Advertising feels like it’s drifting further away from us. Drifting away from original ideas and further into truisms. Away from imagination and into science. Research takes brands into places in culture that they have no authority to be. Because marketers want to harness some of the buzz of the revolution. Stop.

Nike, Revolution proved that pushing ourselves towards ideas that feel uncomfortable is where you find gold. People remember that ad because it was shocking. It didn't feel “good.” It didn't feel like advertising. It looked like shit. It was electric. Like a car crash—people couldn't look away. Its lesson, to the extent that the wisdom earned from these things, is portable: never go for polish when you can break the mold. Fulfill the want that no one knew they had.

For the record, this is what youth looks like when they’re protesting:

If you want to take your brand swimming naked in culture, to be in the eye of the storm, if you want to play with lightning, it’s best you don’t forget Bibi. If you're going in you go in for real. Know where the hurt is. Touch that. Don't gloss it. Be raw and original and human.

[Colleen’s next video isn’t online anywhere, but she described it. It’s a shot of a white jockstrap hanging in front of a black backdrop.]
The jockstrap sets on fire. It’s just one long shot, panning around it as it goes up and at the very end Aretha Franklin starts to sing and then it cuts out and it just says “Nike Women’s”.

That commercial was killed before it ever got out of the presentation room. Nike asked if Wieden really wanted to give the finger to the entire male sports complex. That was 1994. The women that presented that, they did. There was no making that less aggressive towards male athletes. So, it had to be scrapped. You can’t co­opt dissent and then tidy it all up. Eventually the agency and Nike figured out the messaging and made a canon of work for women.

It’s hard to give the world what it wants before it knows it wants it. That question—“What do you want?”—asked of ourselves, of consumers, audiences, people, is the central question of our business, at least the business of Wieden+Kennedy.

And, sometimes, when everything’s right, something or someone can come along with a thing that is so simple, that taps into the bottomless reservoir of want in humanity, and the world goes fucking crazy. We love that feeling. We believe in that feeling. That is lightning in a bottle.

We spend too much time focusing on inputs and outputs. You can do coverage, you can achieve a channel first, you can be social, you can do programmatic, you can make sure your message is everywhere, but real creativity at scale? You have to take leaps for that. Disruptive thinking, scaled, is lightning in a bottle.

Powerful creative ideas that change hearts and businesses require a leap. They require a leap in the minds of their makers, who make connections that no one else thought to make, and, crucially, they require a leap from the marketers who back them. Not blind, not reckless, not uninformed, but a leap nonetheless—a willingness to recognize that creative breakthroughs often seem improbable, until they become inevitable.

We agitate and break through, and create human meaning and connection with creativity.
The world wants frictionless transactions, efficiency.
Creativity needs agitation, friction, opposites, collisions, explosions, emotions, the unruly.

We use the work to say something bigger. Work that creates conversation and lives in the real world not the ad world.

It’s a good time, this particular, challenging period in our industry, and in our world, to remind ourselves of the power of raw creativity, and what it takes for creative companies to conjure and harness it. Best­in­class, relationship­driven, integrated, digital­innovation­operations­technology­process companies can’t do that. Companies devoted to creativity can. Agitation, meaning, the unexpected — these are the things that can truly ignite a culture.

As for Wieden+Kennedy?
I think we're an improbability. Lightning, caught.

There have always been flashes of danger in the history of the agency that felt so scary and so right all at the same time. We’ve followed our gut. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve searched for and stood beside clients who stuck with the journey because they understand that it's a long haul, over time, to greatness.

That's the reason why creative people feel a sense of purpose at Wieden+Kennedy. The goals are clear:
1. Catch Lightning
2. Hold on to it
3. Find (client) partners who aspire to that. Keep them close and keep them dangerous.

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