What advertising can learn from Dharavi

Creativity exists in humanity's desire to organize chaos.

Over a few too many drinks on a rainy summer evening in New York City, Rick Brim (the CCO of Adam & Eve) and I were discussing where we should hold our next global creative council. With the confidence that can only come from the most awarded human being on the planet he mumbled, "let’s do it in Mumbai*." Perhaps fueled by liquid courage or perhaps fueled by my fear to let Rick know how terrified I was by this idea, I promptly answered "done."

Now to be clear I was mostly terrified by the idea of India because I don’t always have the best stomach when I travel. That, and I can be somewhat of a creature of habit. I love my family, I love my home, I love my community, I love my routine, I love feeling comfortable. I know what you’re thinking. Then how the hell can you do your job as Chief Creative Officer of DDB Worldwide? We’ll come back to that in a minute.

Flash forward five months. After a brief 15-hour flight to Mumbai I exit the terminal to what can only be described as the most chaotic exit to an airport I’ve ever seen. Is that my stomach already starting to act up? Did I mention I also love Indian food? The contradictions in my life don’t escape me.

If you think New York City is the city that never sleeps wait until you drive from the airport to the southern tip of Mumbai at 3am on a Tuesday. Kids are hanging out on the highway median blasting music, a family of four and their dog ride past you on a scooter built for one, and a train flies by with its doors still ajar with hundreds of people hanging out. If it had been light outside you would have easily mistook it for a Friday afternoon. Britt Nolan (the CCO for DDB North America) put it brilliantly when he said "This place would give Wes Anderson a heart attack." Two hours later I check into the hotel, order a curry and promptly go to bed.

So you’re probably thinking it’s been four paragraphs now, when are you going to get to the point? And more importantly how is your stomach feeling the next morning? My stomach is thus far feeling fine, thank you for asking**. As for the point: This place is chaotic, chaotic, chaotic. And I hadn’t seen anything yet. For our cultural immersion day, Rahul Mathew (the CCO for DDB Mudra) recommended we visit Dharavi. So we did.

Dharavi boasts the title as the world’s largest, most populated slum. It spans over 535 acres and has a population density of over 860,000 people per square mile. And for the Danny Boyle fans out there it was the setting for Slum Dog Millionaire.

When you cross over the train tracks into Dharavi you get a brief overhead view of the 535 acres. The thousands of tin roofs and narrow alleys look like honeycomb. Once in Dharavi the hive metaphor continues with an electric energy from the sheer volume of people, lack of space and very distinct fragrances – but these fragrances aren’t of honey. Please stomach, please don’t act up here.

If you’re the least bit claustrophobic this isn’t for you. Our local tour guides lead us through the maze that makes up their local recycling industry. Used plastic from all over India is hauled into Dharavi to be sorted, ground, washed and until recently melted down into small plastic pellets to be sold for future plastic uses (the melting down was recently moved out into the countryside to avoid the toxic fumes). Despite all the apparent chaos each area of the neighborhood has organized itself into unique disciplines. Thousands of cubicle sized rooms make up the sorting neighborhood, same goes for grounding neighborhood, the washing neighborhood, and the neighborhood that makes and maintains the equipment necessary for recycling. And this goes on and on for each of their industries without a single assembly line, automated task, or computer. This is as human as it gets. This is organized chaos. This is a billion dollar a year business. This is the very definition of creativity and commerce.

Walking out of Dharavi five hours later I was no longer afraid of the chaos but somehow oddly at peace with it. It was almost comforting. Here was humanity at its very essence using creativity to organize chaos and find unorthodox solutions to help their community thrive. Sound familiar?

Creativity exists in humanity’s desire to organize chaos. As a species we use creativity to thrive in the discomfort so that it becomes less uncomfortable. Remember when you wondered how the hell could I do my job if I was this uncomfortable? I entered into this industry massively insecure and uncomfortable. And with each new job I seem to always find a way to get comfortable by using creativity. In fact I usually do my best work doing this uncomfortable period. I then inevitably get comfortable again and without fail throw myself into another uncomfortable situation. It can be hard to understand why anyone would put themselves through this, but it’s the only way to constantly reinvent yourself. As an industry that constantly needs to reinvent itself we need to get more comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s in the organizing of the chaos that the creativity lives. Don’t fear the uncomfortable, embrace it, it’s where you’ll do your best work. To quote the great Alanis Morissette "Thank you India."

*Rick Brim never made it to Mumbai because his visa was filled out incorrectly and was turned away at Heathrow airport.

**Despite all the foreshadowing my stomach held up and I returned with an unopened box of both Pepto-Bismol and Imodium.

Ari Weiss is Chief Creative Officer of DDB Worldwide.

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