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Dave Billing asks: Have we forgotten the power of polarisation? The latest Natwest Mettle Power Up What You Do aims to be unforgettable.
Have we forgotten the power of polarisation? | Dave Billing Thoughts
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Have we forgotten about the power of polarisation?

Last week, we finished a heavy rock video that happened to also be a banking ad. A few days later, I took my son to Beyond The Streets at the Saatchi Gallery. Two doses of unapologetically defiant, anarchic cultural expression in quick succession.

And I felt energised. 

Because there’s something about the art made by subcultures. Whether we’re talking hip hop, punk, rave or metal, you find that same defiant single-mindedness. A lack of f***s given to people who might not like it. In fact, an almost wilful desire to offend the ears and eyes of those that don’t. Tribes create interesting cultures around them not just because they know who they’re for, but also because they know who they’re not for. 

Once, not that long ago, the cultural tribe you belonged to was everything. What you wore, what you listened to, how you self-medicated. Now, it’s commonly said that Gen Zs aren’t interested in tribes - that’s too much like a fixed identity, and generally Gen Z is far happier staying fluid, picking and mixing from culture at will.

This eclecticism, this cultural stamp collecting, has affected what we make as an industry, and not only because we’re obsessed with courting Gen Zs. We make eclectic, heterogenous work because we have become afraid of being too definite, too singular. We don’t want to polarise. To offend. To exclude people or make them feel that maybe this isn’t for them. 

We want to make work for everyone. And that’s a mistake. 

David Gwyther, the artist who runs the studio Death Spray Custom, puts it succinctly:

“You need to make sure people hate it. As well as love it. Because if people go, hmm I dunno, you’ve lost.”

If that’s too far from home, the canonised saint of advertising Bill Bernbach once said: “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you."

It’s interesting to me that in a time when people have never been less interested in advertising, on the whole we’re making our most forgettable work. Work that’s happy to politely reflect the zeitgeist, go along with the consensus, work that’s unlikely to say boo to a goose. Surely times such as these demand work that demands attention, that knows its tribe - and its enemy. From art direction to music selection, from casting to direction, every decision is a chance to be singular, to be specific, to be distinctive. 

When we made our anarchic music video that happened to be a banking ad, we had a very specific subculture in mind. A side of the genre that isn’t even the pantomime end of hard rock that our industry often parodies. No, we wanted specific hardcore noughties vibes. All muted tones and seriousness and sweat and crowds packed in tiny rooms and drop D tuning and flailing heads. We shot it with a director who makes this stuff for real, with bands like titans Bring Me The Horizon. We synced a not very fashionable, up and coming British metal band. 

Nothing about what we did was The Done Thing in the banking world. No gentle ‘trust us’ vibes, no avuncular reassurance, no cover version whimpered out by a breathy singer songwriter. It’s loud, it’s aggressive, it’s visceral, even. You feel it more than you understand it. But it was the only choice that captured the spirit of the audience we were talking to: passionate people - self-starters not side hustlers - people who stick it all on the line every day and live for every minute of it. 

You may love what we have made. You may well hate it. But you’re not going to forget it. 

And that feels good. 

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