The Power of Inspiration

9th July 2016

Obama’s former speechwriter spoke recently of what he learned, working with a man audacious enough to place his image on a poster, accompanied by one single word: Hope.

Without hesitation, Jon Favreau spoke about the transformative value of inspiration in the politics of persuasion. It is, he had learnt, through experiencing inspiration that we move beyond ourselves, and begin the process of change, even if those about us, or ourselves in a different mood, might consider such appeals as icky, treacly, or downright cheesy.

Logic and debate do not loosen the grip of the old, and orient us towards the new, in half so powerful a way as inspiration. We are human beings who want to feel alive, not just know that we are alive. It follows that she who masters and channels inspiration, can go on to defy gravity, and have a chance to rule the world.

This is the real power of seeing the world through a marketing lens. I am over (and I mean over) the cynical view of marketing as simply a way to manipulate behaviour for nefarious, profit-only ends.

There is poor practice of art wherever you wander. I do not judge all plays by a shoddy piece of doggrel pulled together over a 24 hour drinking binge, and conclude that there is no space for theatre in my life.

Well of course not. Marketing, when employed with smarts, is not an activity with one single end, but rather an orientation across time. It seeks to see the world fully dimensionalised – not just as 2D representation of facts, but including the third and more liminal dimension of emotion.

And inspiration is the angel that effortlessly binds these dimensions together.

I sat with a client just this week, looking at some packaging design coming from our agency collaborators in London and Paris. For each design route, the agencies recounted a little narrative in words to evoke the mood of the world their packaging design concepts would express. The words used were beautiful, wistful and enchanting. I felt drawn under their spell.

What these designers were doing was not the necessary and more prosaic art of brand planning and positioning. No. This was poetry. With each sentence, they prepared my senses to receive the creative design they had conceived. Like a relay, one to the other, inspiration was prepared, built and secured across phrase and design. It is no surprise to me that the design routes I felt most keenly worked did so, not just because they sat right, but because they felt right.

I think of inspiration as the highest form of non-verbal communication in marketing. It is the thing that lands, suffuses and leaves a trace, long after the rational argument is forgotten. Inspiration is the positive feeling that will not die. It is a gift.

I recall some two decades ago, walking into a clammy bar in the side streets of Madrid with a friend, only to fall upon a local performance of flamenco dancing – given by kids of the locality. These children were in that overripe moment of youth, just before spending a full evening with one’s parents is akin to living life rotting.

That is to say, they were about sixteen.

The flamenco girls, flush with beauty, power and skill, danced on the bar counter as the boys played the live, gitano music of Andalusia. The atmosphere in that dingy, unremarkable place was heightened – cloying and febrile.

One girl whirled and whirled as she neared the end of her piece – her feet stomping and eyes closed as she did so. The light, blaring white as happens in Spanish bars, lit up every part of the scene, and an anticipatory tension became almost unbearable. Her parents, clapping in syncopated fashion to excite the blood, pushed her forward. Whirl. Whirl. Finally the fever broke, and the music and dance ended. The bar erupted in cheers and applause. Single flowers, one after the other, were thrown across the room to her feet.

And then, spontaneously and almost necessarily, this beautiful girl began to cry.

I have never forgotten that moment in Madrid. The music and meaning of authentic flamenco is writ on my heart. Twenty years later, the inspiration of the experience burns bright.

The quixotic and paradoxical thing about inspiration is that it cannot be manufactured. It is an authentic response to authentic stimulus. In marketing, our job is not to place inspiration as an objective when we tell our stories. But rather, to have the courage to tell our tales with such conviction that some might think them icky, treacly or cheesy – but that others, in the packed and clammy bar of the marketplace, might feel their worth, and become changed forever.



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