The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

If You’ve Not Experienced It, You Can’t Possibly Understand It …

So I’m back from Cannes.

It was alright.

Enjoyed doing the WARC speech with Martin of course.

As much as he likes to think he’s a grumpy asshole, he’s insanely wonderful in every way.

I genuinely adore him, which is probably the last thing he wants to know or hear.

Which is, of course, why I have said it.

That said, I still have my reservations about how some people act at Cannes.

How some people walk around.

Like they’re better than everyone around them.

That their view of life is everyone’s view of life. Or should be.

And yet, even though they revel in their bubble of privilege, they deny they live in one when there is the opportunity to pass judgement or commentary on how others live, despite the fact even having a regular income puts them in a totally different orbit.

Of course not everyone was like that.

Some are great people who also happen to be great at advertising.

But I’m still not sure if that split is even or – as I suspect – in the minority.

Which is why I hope those who sit in their ivory towers, passing judgement on people they have almost zero commonality with – let alone have probably never interacted with – read this post and, more specifically, watch the clip.

In 1968, American novelist, playwright and activist, James Baldwin, visited the Dick Cavett Show and shared that he wasn’t feeling optimistic about American race relations – referencing the toll racism takes not only on individuals, but on American democracy.

To add context, Martin Luther King had been murdered earlier that year in Memphis, prompting the greatest wave of social unrest in the United States since the Cvil War.

Shortly afterwards, Yale philosophy professor, Paul Weiss, walks on set to give his “scholarly” take on the issue. Weiss launched into a tirade about how each individual has to struggle with some obstacles in life and that emphasizing one element of the struggle at the expense of others leads to a form of inauthenticity. “So why must we always focus on color?”

What happened next was unprecedented for American television. Black America’s foremost intellectual delivered a deviating soliloquy that explained institutionalized racism to millions of white people who never before experienced it or accepted it existed.

What makes it hard to watch isn’t what James says – he’s right on everything – it’s that so little has changed.

If you don’t act against the prejudices that exist in society, you’re complicit to the prejudices in society. Pure and simple.

It’s why I worry too many people in our industry, especially planners, want to be like Paul Weiss – academically victorious – when the power of James Baldwin was that he was culturally resonant.

While we may all like to think our intelligence allows us to engage and understand others, the reality is no one can truly understand what is going on in the lives and minds of segments of society if they don’t come from those segments of society, especially if their views are born from the pedestal of observation.

16 Comments so far
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That is an amazing interview.

Comment by Pete

Is your presentation going to be available? I would love to see it despite being confident it is your usual pictures with no words.

Comment by Pete

I think it will be. I am quite interested to see it – even though I know I’ll cringe throughout my bits, regardless how I did.

Comment by Rob

I have watched the video multiple times. As you write, it is as relevant today as it was when first aired. People of privilege who think their truth represents everyone’s truth. Very much like Cannes I would imagine. Thank goodness I no longer have to go.

Comment by George

Yep … that pretty much nails it.

Comment by Rob

Interesting article Rob, and is interesting food for thought – particularly ithe bubble I think we often are in advertising. I know on a specific point about our industry and profession – we planner don’t get out there enough in the real world.

But if you assert that we cannot understand something without ever experiencing it ourselves then how can we ever as planners do the core tennant of our profession? – understanding and empathising people so different from ourselves?

Also on the issue of progress on race relations I’d be curious to hear what you think of this article written by the young, but clearly thoughtful Coleman Hughes who recently testified to Congress on reparations. As a centre lefty liberal – it’s certainly given me cause to reflect on some of my own assumptions

Comment by HB

I don’t want to speak for Robert, but I believe he is saying you can only understand others context if you spend time with them in their context and then listen rather than focus on extracting the information from them that you need specific to the brief you are working on. As I understand it, clients and planners today prefer to gain understanding by proxy, overlooking nuance in favour of simplicity.

I hope I haven’t misrepresented you Robert.

Comment by George

Hi there HB and thanks for your comment.

I suppose my point is that while you can obviously understand a situation from a distance, the reality is you tend to miss the nuance, details and understanding you would get when you are really in the weeds.

By that, I don’t mean you have to physically experience it first hand – because even if you do, your cultural background may mean you never get it from the same perspective as someone who lives it every day – but you do have to spend time … real time … with those who do. Allowing them to speak and express freely rather than wanting them to rush to the bits that matter to you.

The reality is our industry doesn’t do that.

Doesn’t want to do that.

Preferring speed over substance both because of costs, convenience and client demands.

It’s a false economy and why the brands that culture lean into are brands that do work that is born from inside the culture rather than obvious observers of it.

As for the article.

Well it is brilliant and I can’t argue with what has been written as it is from their perspective and backed by academic findings.

However my experience with America and specifically African American’s I met, talked to and did work with [The America In The Raw project I did last year highlights there are many people who feel very differently.

One of the worst things I heard was from an African American from Chicago that said that maybe whites and blacks should be separate so they can both get on with their lives without the feelings of hate that permeate their lives. Ask them what they think about the progressive attitudes towards reducing racism and I think you will meet someone who will laugh at us.

There is no definitive answer to all this … and for me, that’s part of the problem. We want that. We want a silver bullet. And while I agree it is too easy to deny the improvements that have – and are – happening, for many people, that is something they have never experienced and should not be talked to as if they are beneficiaries of it.

Comment by Rob

Coleman Hughes is not the first person to make these arguments nor will he be the last, but nothing he says proves that racism isn’t endemic.

When he writes that “It’s no accident that the majority of blacks don’t view racial bias as the main issue they face today” it actually suggests that a minority (how large or small we don’t know) do think that . Moreover it doesn’t mean they don’t view racism as an issue or indeed what issue in their life is more important (maybe health?).

Three fourrths of NBA players is three fourths of 494.

As for ” Now, racially-motivated killings of blacks occur at a rate of zero to one per year.”

I refer the witness to this

It’s far from the only socio-ecobomic problem in the US, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I’d never heard of Coleman Hughes before, so I’m going to ask around before jumping to conclusions but a a student at my alma mater, he’s writing from a position of privilege – no doubt hard-earned but privilege nonetheless and I can’t help but wonder if he’s displaying the same type of proof by proxy that George highlighjts with respect to the ad industry.

Comment by John

Just noticed this one “But the study also found that black women have higher college attendance rates than white men, and higher incomes than white women, conditional on parental income.”

Given that the parental income of black families is lower than that of white families, this finding is almost inevitable if we assume the distribution of talented people is the same across populations. The talented people will be rising further if their family income is lower. That’s statistics not culture.

Comment by John

Thank you for this Robert. I hope many people read it and watch the interview.

Comment by Lee Hill

I was talking to a friend who is in Cannes. He told me one of the best presentations he has seen there was by these 2 brit planners. He doesn’t know I know you so you can imagine how sick I felt when I realized he was talking about you.

He is no longer my friend.

Comment by DH

now my weekend is fucking fucked.

Comment by andy@cynic

campbell. this is very fucking good.

Comment by andy@cynic

well put

Comment by Nyaze Vincent

[…] Nyaze Vincent on If You’ve Not Experienced It, You Can’t Possibly Understand It … […]

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