bowieDavid Bowie’s passing prompted me to inspire some discussion around something he always impressed upon me. It’s easy to classify him like most do as a creative genius, and just about every single one of us has been touched by his artistry in one way or another over the course of our lives. What he truly represented to me, however, was courage. To me, David Bowie constantly demonstrated the courage to explore and follow his innovative heart. And, it should be said, he did so without all the trimmings of celebrity that seems to come with the territory these days. His characters challenged us and his music was a vehicle to deliver his message that has punctuated popular culture for decades. Like all great artists, David Bowie was transformational, literally and figuratively.

I firmly believe we work in the pop culture business, too. While traditional advertising agencies are often lauded as the owners of this arena, our responsibility is also to affect some sort of change in popular belief or behavior. As I ponder what we do, echoes from many industry greats come to mind. Dan Edelman, once said, “Be creative. Strive for the big idea. Be realistic, but dare to be different.” This is great advice and there’s a reason I cite Mr. Edelman. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple and was rebuilding the empire, he started the search for a new PR partner. Did you know that Dan Edelman won the account in five minutes? As I understand it, Steve Jobs was as obsessed with PR as he was with design. Go figure! Given the enormity of the Think Different campaign of 1997, you may have thought advertising was more front and center. My point here is that Mr. Edelman was one who provided key counsel, helping Jobs build the incredible brand we know today, and interestingly, a brand that forever changed how we experience David Bowie’s artistry.

Which gets us to art. In his book, Juicing the Orange, the late Pat Fallon suggests that “Art does as much for the audience as it does for the people who fight to bring it to life.” Transformative work takes courage to sell, but the rewards can be significant. In a world where people aren’t naturally enamored with the concept of change, innovative thinking and artistically executed work gives us the ability to strike people with ninja-like precision. And just like a great song, when we strike that emotional chord, we make great things happen.

You may recall the Cadbury Gorilla campaign of 2007, where a gorilla plays the drums to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” Back then, Cadbury was reeling from a salmonella disaster and they were not in a frame of mind to take risks in the wake of that costly situation.gorilla1

But a simple brief from Cadbury was given to their agency: “Eating Cadbury’s chocolate makes you feel good.” The resulting idea had been living in director Juan Cabral’s head for some time before he actually saw the brief and he was convinced it would be a hit. Phil Rumbol, marketing director of Cadbury, loved it, but further up the chain at Cadbury, however, they weren’t impressed – too long, no product and no message. But Rumbol was convinced it would be successful and commissioned the new work. When Rumbol presented it to his superiors, they said he was to never run the spot. But he persisted, and after four months, it went live. The results were significant. Most importantly, Cadbury sales lifted 10 percent. His relentless effort to see a great piece of work created resulted in a substantial growth in business.

There are plenty of lessons here, and many that I remind myself of at the start of every year. Most importantly, though, I remind myself of the importance of great work, not just for the work’s sake, but also for the effect it can have on the ecosystem around it. The brand, the business, the people and the culture can all be touched by truly transformational work. Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Photo credit: Heroes album cover shoot, 1977, by Masayoshi Sukita.