Graham Fink tells a story about renovating the Criterion restaurant.
For Graham, it’s a metaphor for working in China.
The Criterion wasn’t a particularly attractive restaurant when Marco Pierre White took it over in 2001.
It was plain and minimalist like most London restaurants.
For years, it copied the trend for simple and basic, so it looked pretty much like any other restaurant.
Which is what happens when you copy the same trend everyone else is following.
Marco’s architect wanted to give it some character, to start with some interesting lighting features.
So, to check the ceiling could take the weight, they removed a section of plasterboard.
And they couldn’t believe what they found behind it.
Another huge, beautiful ceiling, covered entirely in gold.
They pulled down all the plasterboard, and there was a spectacular ceiling like nothing else in London.
The gold leaf alone was worth millions of pounds.
It had been covered up 50 years earlier, when the trend turned against opulence.
At the time, an expensive gold ceiling was unfashionable.
So it was covered and everyone forgot about it, and the plain ceiling became the only ceiling anyone knew.
The owners would occasionally redecorate the plain ceiling to fit in with the style of whatever was fashionable.
So the Criterion was just a copy of any other restaurant.
And no-one knew that behind that false ceiling was one of the most amazing ceilings in the country.
They were so busy copying everyone else, they’d forgotten what their real treasure was.
They needed to rediscover what made them great.
What made them different.
Graham uses that metaphor to describe his job in Shanghai.
Helping them rediscover what makes them great, instead of copying whatever advertising is currently fashionable.
I found the same thing myself.
First, when I came back to London from New York.
Everyone was copying American advertising, consequently London was second best – a poor copy always is.
It wasn’t until London discovered its own voice that it became great.
I found the same thing a decade later when I went to Australia.
Everyone there was copying London.
And, again, a poor copy is always second best.
Until Australia found its own voice and it became great.
You find the same thing again and again.
In music, The Beatles copied everyone: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, The Marvelettes, Arthur Alexander, Buddy Holly.
Then they found themselves behind all their bad copies.
The Rolling Stones copied everyone: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Marvin Gaye, Bo Diddley, Rufus Thomas, Sam Cooke.
Then they found themselves behind all the copies.
In art, Picasso copied everyone: Lautrec, van Gogh, Gauguin, Manet, Cézanne, Braque.
Until he found himself behind all his copies.
When he found his hidden self, he became the best of all.
Of course you have to copy at the beginning, to learn the basics.
But once you’ve done that, what makes you great is finding out what makes you different.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three