This was the observation of an online friend of mine, Derek Walker. His full post read:
“Cooking a steak is the easiest thing to do. Buy a steak. Season it. Cook it. That's it.
And yet... some folks end up eating a juicy tender steak, while others end up chewing on leather.
Sure, keep thinking everyone can make advertising. Just be prepare for how hard it might be to swallow.”
(Derek is the owner of Brown and Browner an ad agency in South Carolina. Derek posts on LinkedIn and blogs frequently making lots of sense, so do follow him if you don’t already. I know he makes me smarter.)
Like many creative people, Derek has lots and lots of ideas, but this one in particular struck me as a perfect analogy for what has been happening to advertising creativity gradually over the decades. We’ve been edging closer and closer every day toward leathery steaks or, at best, the uninspiring medium-well.
In Kitchen Confidential, the wonderful look behind the scenes of professional kitchens by the late, great, Anthony Bourdain, I learnt about “save for well done”.
To quote Mr B:
"People who order their meat well-done perform a valuable service for those of us in the business who are cost-conscious: they pay for the privilege of eating our garbage. In many kitchens, there's a time-honoured practice called 'save for well-done'... the philistine who orders his food well-done is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam."
The reason being, that if you’re going to cook the shit out of a steak, to make it juiceless, brittle and tasteless, why would you use a great piece of meat?
Once made aware of the basic discretion available to chefs, ever since I read Kitchen Confidential my response to the question “How would you like it sir?” has been “exactly as the chef recommends” pretty much regardless of whether it’s a burger or a steak or whatever.
We’re still using this as an analogy for creative work by the way.
But let’s extend this parallel further. Let’s say that the creative idea is the steak. We’re agreed we want a steak, fine. One might say that this is straightforward, just cook the damn steak. But for the creative director, the chef if you like, as Derek observed, there are steaks and there are steaks. Consider when you cook yourself a steak how many variables you could choose from:
From whom you buy the steak?
What kind of steak is it?
How has it been aged and for how long?
Which breed of cattle?
What was the cattle feed?
What kind of budget do you have?
What’s the best steak you can buy?
How will you season it?
With what and how much?
How will you cook it?
Will you -
Pan fry with oil? (What kind of oil, from where?)
Pan fry with butter? (What kind of butter, from where?)
Good old-fashioned barbecue?
In a pie?
Even slow cook a la Heston Blumenthal …
Then, how long will you cook it? What is rare, what is medium? (I know I’ve had medium steaks that have been blue and rare steaks that have been medium.)
How long should it rest before serving? Will you slice it or serve it whole?
How will you serve it? With salad, dauphinoise potatoes, French fries (can we still call them that? I’m not sure), chunky chips, baked potato? Now apply all the sourcing variables to these, too.
What about garnish? Or sauces? Pepper sauce, béarnaise, garlic butter, blue cheese, naked? Mustard (French, English, American, whole grain?), ketchup (Heinz, homemade, mushroom other?)
If you get one or two of these variables wrong it might not matter, but if you get one or two others wrong it will ruin the whole dish. Crucially, if you tell a chef how to cook their food for you and turns out bad, it’s not the fault of the chef. But if you ask a chef to prepare food for you as he or she sees fit, then they are entirely responsible for how good it is.
In short, as Derek rightly observes, anybody can cook a steak. But if your steak is an advertising idea that is going to be served to millions of people on the back of a huge investment in media, do you want that steak to be the best that you can do or the best that can be done by people who live and breathe all the variables of these ingredients and cooking techniques all their professional lives? People whose job it is to create the best possible steak from the available budget.
As good a cook at home as you might be, my money is on the professional chef. And in the same way as we don’t routinely walk into restaurants' kitchens and tell the assembled crews how to do their work, we have to let the people of craft in advertising agencies do theirs. Unless of course, you’re prepared to accept the “save for well done” steaks, in which case caveat emptor.
David Meikle - Author, How to Buy a Gorilla – or indeed steak, I guess.