Lessons in creative alchemy from Black Sabbath

BBDO New York's CCO on how to break the house with the cards you were dealt

Story has it that in the early 1960s, a young and promising Birmingham guitarist named Tony Iommi decided he had enough of his day job at the local factory.  Full of confidence, youthful determination and probably a few other substances, he left his position at the sheetrock cutter for lunch with every intention of never coming back.
His mother, being a proper 1960s British mum, convinced the young Iommi to return to work that day and finish his shift.
It was on that day that Tony cut off a good portion of his fret hand’s fingers in a freak industrial accident.
That could have been where the musical part of this story ends, thus depriving the world of dozens of platinum-selling albums enjoyed by millions both forwards and backwards.
But inspired by another similarly inflicted guitar player, Django Reinhard, Tony decided to get back on the crazy train and do the one thing he was put on this Earth by Satan to do — play guitar.
At this point, what was left of his fingers was so sensitive that he could no longer play guitar the way he used to. Instead, he had to loosen the strings down a few pitches to make them easier to touch.  He also now plugged his guitar into a bass amp to create a heavy sound that his delicate fingers could not accomplish alone. On top of that, he taught himself to play a new kind of chord using primarily two fingers.
What this resulted in was one of the most distinct and influential guitar sounds in rock history, forging new sonic territory that was greatly responsible for his band Black Sabbath’s success.
By now, I know what you’re thinking. This is a nice little story, Greg, and brilliantly told, but what does this have to do with advertising?
First, thank you — you’re too kind. Second, allow me to demonstrate.
Say you’re a young creative and you have just presented the piece of work you feel will be your all-expenses-paid ticket to drinks on the Carlton terrace. Only to have it killed because the brief has changed.  The client now wants to just feature the product.
I imagine a similar thing happened when a creative team in the '90s at DDB London was told by their VW client that they wanted to do a spot that showed off every new feature of the latest VW model.  A pure product spot brief.
Here’s what they did. A film that’s almost entirely focused on the product, showing off every feature on the brief in great detail, by way of a truly inspiring piece of creative judo.
The first 58 seconds of it is nothing special,  a '90s piece of product advertising just interesting enough to hold your attention. The last two seconds of it makes it brilliant, turning the previous :58 into a stealth setup to a left-hook punch line.
It demonstrates the value of embracing the problem of your problem. A way of using the weight of an obstacle to your advantage.
Consider this the next time you’re faced with an impossible brief, or an unreasonable, yet unmovable, demand. At such a point you have three choices.
You can fight against it. You can give up. Or, as Mr. Iommi did, use the cruel hand that fate has dealt you to your advantage and create a whole new kind of music.

Greg Hahn is chief creative officer of BBDO New York.

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