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Alain de Botton: The next Zuckerberg could be a philosopher


Alain de Botton presented to a full house at the Cannes Lions 2012 festival as part of the Ogilvy & Inspire series. De Botton put forward the argument that advertising can be seen as an art form.

He described art as the most forceful, intelligent, complex medium that we have and that art is a reminder of what we should live and die for.  In the contemporary world, Advertising is art.

The difference between good and bad advertising – is like good and bad art – the difference is very small. De Botton’s advice to the creator of advertising is to understanding yourself as the consumer and give the complex clarity and simplicity.

Thomas Crampton from OTV was lucky enough to get to catch an interview with Alain de Botton straight after his address.

Alain de Botton Interview:

Thomas Crampton: I’m here in Cannes. We just heard from Alain de Botton speaking about advertising and creativity. You made a link between art and advertising, is that a true link?

Alain de Botton: Absolutely, what advertising does is to sell products and we tend to think that’s very different then selling concepts like love. But I’m suggesting that really it’s the same thing. What you’re doing is selling a concept and that we should respect advertising as we do art when it’s selling us something we actually need and is important. At that point advertising becomes as great as art.

Thomas Crampton: But the fundamental problem you were saying is most companies are selling at the bottom end of Maslows’ hierarchy of needs. Is that something that can be overcome? Is there a way that we can move companies up the hierarchy instead of selling desires rather than needs.

Alain de Botton: Absolutely. Take something like psychotherapy, it’s going to be the growth area of the 21st century because it is the way in which we interpret ourselves, understand ourselves etc. Who’s offering psychotherapy now? People in their kitchens, in their basements, in their spare bedrooms; it’s a cottage industry. Imagine if P&G took over therapy and they said ‘ we’re going to organise this, we’re going to systematise and comodify this.’ It’s a fanciful idea but not a crazy one. The closest example we have of a comodified, well organised system of touching inner being is religion. If you’re not religious you’re out there on your own, you’re dealing with cottage industries that can’t afford advertising agencies. I think the great promise of the 21st century is some of those inner needs will get organised,
get commercialised, get comodified and therefore will be able to be clients of advertising agencies.

Thomas Crampton: So the next Mark Zuckerberg will be a philosopher?
Alain de Botton: There’s no reason why not. In the sense that, not a philosopher, but that they might be offering people things which are higher up on that famous pyramid of needs, things like friendship, community, self  understanding, in these things there is money to be made –in a good way- from these areas of life as much as there is from selling people trainers and cement.

Thomas Crampton: In terms of lack of follow through or promising something that isn’t actually delivered, how do you feel that social media fits into that spectrum, is it offering that companionship or friendship that you were saying was one of the necessary things? Does it actually offer that?

Alain de Botton: It doesn’t completely not, but like many tools it has to be used with care. So it is a promise of social ability but to actually fully deliver we have to learn how to use that tool, and that’s something that we, as global citizens, are still struggling to know how to deal with. It’s like having a dinner party and actually no one communicates properly. You’ve made all this effort, you’ve got all the food ready, you’ve got all your friends round, but actually there has been no proper communal effort. You could look sometimes, at its worst, social media, and say it’s like that dinner party where everyone is around the dinner table, but the soul is not communicating with the soul, as it were. That’s the furthest step, we’re at the hosting the dinner party stage, we haven’t quite yet got to the next stage.

Thomas Crampton: Finally you mentioned something about creativity, what people should do to be creative. Put a skull on their desk?

Alain de Botton: Remember death puts things into perspective. Ultimately accommodate the failure, failure is the great inhibiter of creativity. We’ve got that idea out there that good creativity can be achieved without difficulty, without failure, without panic. It can’t. It demands failure, panic, revulsion, envy. All these things are part of a good creative life, so we need to steel ourselves for a little bit of difficulty if we’re going to create good work.

Thomas Crampton: And you described it in the term ‘Noble Failure,’ so let’s aim for noble failure.

Alain de Botton: Indeed.

Thomas Crampton: Thank you very much.

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