Wednesday, 23 March 2011

You can always tell when they've finally had enough and are desperate to get the hell out of the place. They start "putting their book together." As the Creative Director of an ad agency, you learn to spot the signs pretty quickly. Suddenly, the unhappy Art Director – let’s call him, say, Kevin - becomes feverishly active. Uninvited, he starts popping up all over the place. Weekend work? No probs. Late night meetings? Too easy, count me in. Treading on toes and butting in on other people’s business becomes the order of the day. You see, Kevin will do literally anything to get some more ads out. He's desperately putting his book together.

Almost certainly, Kevin has been miserable in his job for over a year. Sure, he gets to travel a lot and go on all the glamorous overseas shoots. The expense account is good, too, with long lunches and fine wines galore. But creatively, well, Kevin feels stifled. And under-appreciated. Nobody asks for his opinions anymore. Ever since he was stabbed in the back by that red-headed bitch. Advertising is such a ruthless game. And despite the faux friendship they both feign, she is definitely getting on his nerves. That voice! Aaarrrrgggh. Worse, she keeps nicking his ideas and claiming them as her own. The chutzpah is unbelievable. So one lunchtime Kevin sneaks out to see a Headhunter. Furtively smuggling his "book" - the shiny black portfolio containing his very best work - out of the office, he hops in a cab for his secret rendez-vous in a cafe on the other side of town. Headhunters don't do a great deal, apart from make tons of money and the odd phone call. But you can rest assured they will immediately tell you one thing; that your book isn't up to scratch. Kevin sits there, stunned. Spread out across the table is his most famous campaign. As everyone knows, it won every top award in town; Best Ad Campaign of the Year, Most Effective Campaign of the Year, Most Memorable Slogan. How much more up-to-scratch can you get, he protests, his voice rising unnaturally. The Headhunter casually lights up another cigarette, flicks the ash over her shoulder, and shrugs dismissively. Yes, but that was way back in 2007, she says. This is 2011. That’s a lifetime ago in today's high-pressured world. What stuff have you done recently? What on earth have you been doing with yourself all this time?

Kevin frowns pensively, clears his throat and pushes his glasses up his nose. Of course, how could he forget? Eagerly, he starts describing the massive Anti-carbon campaign he spent so long conceptualizing. It was brilliant! Ahead of it’s time, unbelievably creative, dynamic… But the Headhunter cuts him off. So what? she says, dismissively - that campaign never ran. Nobody cares how good it could have been, she snarls, cruelly emphasizing the “could”. If it didn’t even get up, it counts for jack-shit. Kevin starts to sweat. It's true, he thinks to himself. Nor did the Mining campaign. Nor the... He stops himself. So many great campaigns he'd had in his head. Yet none of them had actually seen the light of day. Just loose ideas. Doodles and scribbles on the back of his pads.

He starts to stammer. The Grocery thing, that was really interactive, he says, trying to sound enthusiastic. And the, um… the Pink Batts was kind of an interesting approach to…

You cant put that crap in your book, sighs the Headhunter, wearily stubbing out her ciggie. Those ads bombed. Bigtime. They were a disaster. Nobody wants to see ads that failed.

Kevin gulps, lost for words. The reality is, says the Headhunter, ordering dessert, you can't put any of that stuff in your book. You got nothin’. What the top agencies are looking for these days are the big visual campaigns. Lots of dramatic footage. Raw emotion. Passion. That's what turns them on. And forget Australia. The really cool jobs are overseas.

Kevin nods, taking it all in. London, Geneva. Or even the really big one, New York. Forget piddly old Canberra. It’s a crap joint anyway. Way too political, for starters. And they'd never appreciated him here, not really. Let's face it, he tells himself, you're far too good for this lot!  

So what do I have to do, Kevin pleads, as the bill arrives and they agree to split it. The Headhunter looks thoughtful. Get a few new ads out there, she says. Visibility is everything. They've got to be topical, you know, current. Relevant! And noisy. Make people sit up and take notice. Find some controversial campaigns you can get involved in. Natural disasters are good. Floods. Earthquakes. Wars are even better. Guns. Bombs. Nuclear terror is best! Scare the crap out of everyone. Lots of opportunities for really graphic pictures. You're a heavyweight. So throw that weight around. Get them talking about you again. Write a few opinion pieces in the trade rags, too, just for good measure. Can't hurt.  

Kevin hesitates. He’s in a cushy job. What’s the big hurry, after all? Maybe I should just sit tight, he says, and see how things play out? You never know - the bitch might get hit by a bus crossing Northbourne Ave. The Headhunter gives him a withering look. Timing is everything in this game, she snaps. You’re in a great position now, you know, to put yourself out there. Capitalize on it. Who knows how long you’ll be in this job? Aren’t those bastards over at Abbott Robb Bishop sniffing around? Advertising’s a fickle game. If those guys win the next big pitch, then you lot are out on the street. Yesterday’s news.

Kevin nods, taking it all in. As soon as you've got your book together, says the Headhunter, give me a shout. In the meantime, I'll start lining up a few interviews. She smiles. There's a really tasty position coming up in New York pretty soon. Korean bloke. Completely useless. You'd be perfect for it.

Kevin grins, and thanks her profusely. Then he rushes back to the agency as fast as he can. There's not a moment to lose when you're putting your book together.

Copyright Rowan Dean 2011

Rowan Dean is a regular panelist on The Gruen Transfer and media consultant to Sydney Radio 2UE.


Thanks, Terry old mate. We couldn’t have got here without you. Imagine the state NSW would be in today if you hadn’t had your little dummy spit and tossed your toys (and us along with them) out of your pram. Would we be – as we once were - the Premier state in Australia? Maybe we’d be able to get to our place of work in under 90 minutes. Or I dunno – call me crazy, but I’d like to think we could take our kids to hospital and not feel like we’ve just walked into downtown Kosovo.

I like to think of Terry Metherell as our very own Gwyneth Paltrow. Not in looks, of course - I seem to remember Terry had the bland, inoffensive looks of an extra in Blue Heelers - but as a concept. Gwyneth, you may remember, found herself living two parallel lives after having hopped onto a train just as the doors were closing. (Warning: this sometimes triggers an unusual time warp effect, splitting your life into two versions.) In the film, we see the life Gwyneth was already leading – cheating boyfriend, dreary day-job etc, and then an altogether different version of her life – handsome fiance, cool job and so on. Two different lives courtesy of one split-second of indecision.

So let’s pop a blonde wig on Terry Metherell and see what alternative version of life awaits him – and us. The train-catching scenario is, of course, not credible in today’s NSW. If Terry now tried to brave some graffiti-ridden, garbage strewn platform in order to hop aboard a criminally under-funded train, a cancelled metro or a non-existent light railway he would find himself having to wait for a length of time beyond human endurance only to face a carriage bursting to overflowing when it finally arrived. So no sliding train doors for Terry. Maybe he could try and perform the same time warping trick by catching a commuter bus along Military Road. Heaven help him if he does.

So let’s just use our imaginations. Terry’s alternative life begins in 1991. It is a glorious Sunday morning, late in May. As the former Minister for Education in a recently returned Greiner-led minority Liberal government, Terry is in a good mood. OK, so his Education Reform Act wasn’t all that popular with the teachers, but it was a long-overdue and necessary piece of legislation. The door to the Premier’s office is swinging gently ajar. An invitation? Or a warning? Terry pauses. Unbeknown to him, inside that room only moments before, Premier Nick Greiner has decided to dump Terry Metherell from his front bench. No-one quite knows the real reason why, but this is NSW politics after all.

Terry hesitates for a split second. And then abruptly he goes in. As he does so, his – and our - futures split in two.

In version one of Terry’s future, he accepts his demotion with a disgruntled shrug of the shoulders and, mustering his dignity, withdraws to the backbenches like any sane demoted politician, content to concentrate on his golf swing and the odd lunch at Banq.

But in version two, Tezza throws one almighty tantrum.  Hugely pissed off, he decides to embark upon a course of action that will have the most profoundly dire consequences for every single person living or about to live in New South Wales.

Firstly, he quits the government and becomes an Independent, thereby awarding himself Oakshottesque powers to hold his former colleagues - and the electorate - to ransom. Not content with that piece of mischievousness he then does a deal. Not any old deal, mind you, but a deal that (among the many exquisite ironies in this tale) is deemed sufficiently dubious that it sees both himself and the Premier hauled up before the very body they themselves have recently set up to fight assumed Labor corruption – the ICAC. The nature of the deal? In exchange for a cushy job with the Environmental Protection Agency, Tezza will stand down as an Independent to force a by-election that is a shoo-in for the Coalition, thereby restoring to the government the numbers the people of NSW had originally voted for.

Cut back to version one of our tale: Having perfected his swing, backbencher Metherell is now writing a fishing column for the Sunday Telegraph and enjoying doing the odd interview with polite, up-and-coming 2UE radio presenter Alan Jones. Unmarred by scandal, Greiner embarks on an ambitious long-term infrastructure program for NSW.

Meanwhile, in the suspense-filled version two, both Greiner and Metherell are forced to resign in disgrace. Despite winning the Olympics for Sydney, and jumping excitedly out of his chair, Nick’s hapless successor John Fahey is not wily enough to overcome the stench of the Greiner/Metherell scandal – despite the fact Greiner is belatedly found not guilty of any corrupt behavior whatsoever. Come May 1995, a new character enters the scene; an odd-looking individual with oversized ears and nerdy features who labours under the uninspiring name of Bob Carr. He wins government by one vote. And New South Wales will never be the same again.

Bob’s an ex-journalist, so he understands first hand how the press works. He immediately launches a ruthless era of manipulating the media that will end up contaminating not only state but federal politics too. Before long, sound policy no longer matters. Spin is king.

Quick cut to version one: Terry retires from the recently re-elected fourth Greiner government to “spend more time with his family” and enjoy the lucrative golden handshakes pollies receive from the public purse. Back in Macquarie Street, concerned about the states finances post the Olympics, and admiring of his colleague Jeff Kennett’s healthy balance sheet, Greiner decides to privatize the state’s electricity assets as his final achievement before retiring.

Back to version two: Emboldened by his mastery of the daily news cycle, and his coffers bloated by his brilliantly imaginative taxing of the late nineties Sydney property boom, Bob nonetheless ignores desperately needed funding of roads, hospitals and public transport. Questioned about the state’s ever-growing hospital waiting lists, Bob signs in blood a promise to resign if they don’t come down by half in 12 months. They don’t. He doesn’t.

Quick cut to version one: In belated recognition of the now widely-accepted success of his education reforms, Terry receives a gift of gratitude from the newly elected first female Premier of NSW, Kerry Chikarovski; front row tickets to watch Thorpie win Gold at Homebush. The press label it “When Kerry met Terry.”

Version two: Basking in the glory of the Olympics, Bob and his cronies decide NSW doesn’t need to invest in tourism promotion – or anything else for that matter – and set about ensuring their place in history by banning farmers from burning off on their own land and declaring half the state a national park - minus the funds to adequately maintain them. Scared off by the unions, Bob and co. shy away from selling the state’s electricity assets, and decide to leave that particularly thorny problem for someone else to take care of further down the track.

As the new millennium dawns, Terry in version one watches as his former colleagues capitalize on the success of the Olympics, swelling the government coffers as tourist numbers soar, thereby permitting the construction of more roads and hospitals. An Epping to Parramatta Rail Link is promised.  And built.

Back in the action packed finale of version two, Terry has to visit hospital with a dodgy ticker. But he can’t get there by public transport. So he orders a cab. It takes forever through the clogged traffic and costs him an absolute fortune. Finally arriving, he learns the hospital ward was shut down six months ago anyway. Across town, with his media skills now honed to perfection and eagerly adopted by all of his Sussex street comrades, Bob retires to a cushy job at the millionaire’s bank, Macquarie. Eager to avoid the punishing NSW land taxes that he himself introduced, Bob and his wife purchase a stunning waterfront acreage to escape to  - in New Zealand. Behind the scenes, intoxicated by the power of Spin, union bosses are keen to get rid of his anointed successor Morris, and replace him with someone more malleable. Nathan, perhaps? Or isn’t there someone pretty who’d look good on TV?

Cut back to version one: With NSW still benefiting from the healthiest economy outside the mining states, and the 2011 election approaching, Premier Chikarovski decides to hand the reins to her long-time deputy O’Farrell.

Version two: The attractive Kristina Keneally, struggling with the worst polls in history, in a state bloated by bureaucracy and burdened by taxes, weighed down by a staggering debt due largely to mismanagement and a string of broken promises, that relies primarily on speeding fines for funding, puts on a brave (and pretty) face as she goes to face the electorate.

Terry, what on earth were you thinking?

copyright Rowan Dean
Rowan Dean is a regular panelist on The Gruen Transfer and media consultant to Sydney Radio 2UE.

Gaia Consequences
It was the tweet from comedian Wil Anderson that alarmed me the most. Wil is a very smart man, with a razor sharp wit, but his comment on Friday afternoon that “the planet seems really pissed off right now” was not, I think, meant as a joke. In fact, as the calamity in Japan has unfolded that same sentiment is being heard time and again; in shopping malls, at family barbeques, endlessly online and even on 60 Minutes, where Charles Wooley left hanging in the air the ominous threat that “nature has delivered mankind such a cruel of hand of late it would be easy to believe we are being taught a lesson."
But is the planet really pissed off? And if it is pissed off, then with whom? Mankind, according to Charles. That'd be us, then. And why? Well, that one’s easy. Because of our wicked ways, driving our cars around and forgetting to switch off the lights. The Planet (the least we can do to show our respect is give it a capital P) clearly has had enough. And to remind us who’s boss, It – or rather, She, because, lets face it, this sort of furious megatantrum bears all the hallmarks of a disgruntled female at a certain time of the month - has unleashed on us in the last year alone a terrifying tally:  three major earthquakes, a handful of cyclones, some truly mindboggling rain and floods - one could almost say of “biblical proportions” – some pretty nasty bushfires, a frozen wasteland in Europe, and a couple of mudslides for good measure. She’s pissed off alright.
And who’s to blame her? We were warned, after all. Her prophets, those She has chosen to communicate with us on Her behalf , can barely contain their glee. One can clearly read their thoughts: We told you so. For how many years have we been spelling it out? And still you didn’t listen! You ignorant people with your plastic carrier bags and your flat screen TV’s. Well, here it is - Armageddon. Enjoy!
Is it too ridiculous to say that the Planet is punishing us for treating her so badly over the last, say, two hundred years – since the industrial revolution? The answer is Yes. Of course it is too ridiculous. In fact, it is insane. Regardless of one’s belief or otherwise in the science of anthropogenic warming, there is no possible, logical, scientific way in which the planet could deliberately set out to teach we naughty mortals a lesson. Nonetheless, this thought, or a germ thereof, has taken root. Over the last few days I can guarantee every one of us has heard such comments as “We must be doing something wrong”, “There’s never been anything like this before”, “There must be something we can do to stop this,” or even the seemingly innocent “What on earth is going on?”
Humans are intelligent creatures. They don’t, for instance, stop one another in the street on the way home from work and say “Why is it getting dark?” They know the answer. They don’t need to ask. We also know why the earthquakes occurred. The tectonic plates are shifting. Again. We know why the floods occurred. There was a surplus of rain. Again. We know why the bushfires occurred. Some creep tossed a cigarette butt onto some dry grass. Again. We also know that these events are not linked. So why do we need to ask what is going on?
Humans are self-obsessed. In explaining the evolutionary traits responsible for all tribes having developed a belief in some form or other of god, Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) theorizes that humans, when confronted with natural disasters outside their control, quickly develop a belief system that sees their own bad actions or behavior as an explanation for the deity supposedly responsible for that disaster having become upset. The gods are pissed off.
We can’t help ourselves. We always want to take the blame. We are determined to ascribe to Nature, or the Planet, or Zeus, or whoever else the ability and desire to punish us for the bad things that we as human beings have committed. We like punishment for our sins. You might even say we thrive on it. And our great civilizations, when confronted with those forces of nature that cowed and terrified them, were quick to recognize that they needed to appease these gods and atone for their sins. Murdering or torturing virgins and children was one way, but burning alive the local old biddy would also do the trick. Anything to stop Mother Nature from treating us in such a mean-spirited way.
Here’s how it goes. Stop me when you think I’m getting too nutty. The Industrial Revolution was the Original Sin (started, not entirely coincidentally, by evil, greedy white anglo-saxons).  In exchange for the ugliness of our consumer society of TV’s and Shopping Malls we have compromised the delicate and beautiful balance – and goodness - of nature. The Planet has only one way of redressing this balance, and it’s going to hurt. Unless we immediately make certain painful ritual sacrifices – such as paying daily through the nose for everything we do that happens to involve the use of electricity or petrol – we can look forward to even more disasters courtesy of the Planet.
Because She is pissed off.
You still with me? Good. Certainly the recently appointed Chairman of the Federal Climate Commission, Tim Flannery, would probably not disagree with the above. As tax payers we will be handing him $180,000 a year to convince us of a very similar hypothesis. The semi-religious concept of Gaia (interestingly, named after a Greek goddess) in essence sees the earth as a single organism or “entity” capable of making such judgments about human behavior and wreaking the appropriate revenge. Every time we question what we know to be fact – tectonic plates have zilch to do with carbon dioxide emissions, cyclones and earthquakes are in no way linked - and look beyond our scientific knowledge for some “deeper” explanation, we take a step closer to embracing a new religion or mysticism.
There’s a strong possibility of yet another earthquake along the “ring of fire” in the next few months, or even weeks. Quite possibly in Los Angeles or South America. Science tells us so. But so does belief in a vengeful goddess who does not see us mending our ways.
Time to get down on your knees and start praying. To Gaia.
copyright Rowan Dean
Rowan Dean is a panelist on the Gruen Transfer and marketing consultant to 2UE.