Let's get the hell out of the land of middle-distance mediocrity

Let's get the hell out of the land of middle-distance mediocrity

Twyla Tharp's notion of focal lengths teaches us about creating advertising that feels most alive and vibrant.

Twyla Tharp is one of America's greatest choreographers. In a long and prodigious career, she has created more than 130 dances for her own company, as well as for the Paris Opera Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet.

In 2003, she committed the secrets of her success to paper in a powerful account of her process called The Creative Habit. This is no self-help book on "creativity" by a bystander or pundit. This is a raw exposé of how an artist faces down the tyranny of nothingness, of a large, white, empty room lined with mirrors in which she will conjure from her own mind and body a performance that does not presently exist.

There is much to love about this book and much to learn from Tharp; it’s the sort of book you end up reading over and over and chewing on it as you contemplate each of the ideas she introduces. There is, however, one concept that is particularly powerful for the nature of our work: that of an artist’s focal length.

Every artist has a focal length that they work at, finding greatest comfort and productivity in seeing the world either from a great distance or close up. Tharp maintains that this isn’t really a matter of choice but of creative DNA: "Rare is the painter who is equally adept at miniatures and epic series, or the writer who is at home in both historical saga and finely observed short stories."

Photographer Ansel Adams, who in many ways taught us how to see nature with his panoramic images of the American west, was compelled to view life from a great distance. Adams' preferred focal length was incredibly deep, seeing the world in its most expansive form, taking it all in from heaven to Earth. At a deep focal length, we see the majesty of life, the universal and the whole.

Meanwhile, writers such as Raymond Chandler and Iris Murdoch clearly see the world in close-up, as if it’s entirely in front of their noses. It is the detail that they are obsessed with, "no long-distance musings on the state of the world" but, instead, a thirst for closeness, almost as if they have their faces pressed against the glass of life. At a shallow focal length, we feel the intimacy of life, the sensual and the visceral.

I love the idea of focal length. In both the deep and the shallow, we see truth and reality, each equally powerful and each equally profound. And it is at these opposite ends of the spectrum that marketing, advertising and creativity feel most alive, vibrant and vital.

At a deep focal length, we are able to understand and identify the broadest themes of humanity, the eternal drivers of behaviour and the cultural tensions of the moment. Here, we see the thinking and work that move culture and that resonate because of their universality.

Nike is the master of deep focus in advertising. Able to pull back so far that it can see hypocrisy and misogyny and call it out ("Dream crazier") or speak for a city of eight million people about far more than sport ("Nothing beats a Londoner").

At a shallow focal length, we empathise with and relate to the most intimate of experiences. Personal stories and the details of individual lives that resonate through proximity and relevance.

McDonald's loves to work up close and personal, portraying the intimacy of life in British families, and it has been doing it for years. Meanwhile, relative newcomer Spotify has established a reputation for using individual listening data to create work that feels incredibly personal and powerful. And I still love the way that Allstate’s "Mayhem" sale zoomed right into the behaviour of one couple on social media (selling the entire contents of their house online while they were out) to tell a bigger story about insurance.

But my sense is that the vast majority of our output as an industry resides not at these extremes, but in the middle. Neither able to comprehend the full force of broader human truth nor get to grips with the intimacy and messiness of real lives.

The middle distance is where most "insight" lives – dulled and lifeless representations of real people’s lives. It’s where pen portraits are created and segmentation studies abound. It’s a place of corporate wishful thinking and cliché, about categories and the people they serve. A place of statistics and not data, of averages not outliers. A place where we can shelter ourselves from cultural earthquakes that surround our brands and the behaviour and beliefs of the real people on which they depend. This is marketing’s comfort blanket; a kind of make-believe land of middle-distance mediocrity.

And we need to get the hell out of this place.

We need to move further away from our subjects so we can see and appreciate the vast sweep of humanity and be able to mark the turning of culture. At the same time, we need to get far closer to them, so we can press our noses against the glass of life, serving people as people, individual and idiosyncratic. 

Not everyone can shift effortlessly between the two focal lengths; after all, those great artists predominantly worked with one or the other. But it is imperative that in our teams we are able to assemble people, strategically and creatively, who are capable of bringing both of these ways of seeing to the work. And, in doing so, fight the insidious creep towards middle-distance mediocrity.

Richard Huntington is chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi

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