Basics Before Breakthroughs

Before Pablo became “Picasso” he was a damn good painter.

Maybe you’ve seen The Old Fisherman (1895).

Or The Barefoot Girl (1895).

Or The First Communion (1896).

Or Science and Charity (1897).

Each one a masterpiece of classic painting.

Not a trace of cubism. Or modernism.

Nothing breakthrough or earth-shattering.

Just the basics, done remarkably well.

And therein lies the magic.

You see, before Pablo became “Picasso,” he was well-versed in the basics of painting.

Lately, I’ve had a number of situations and conversations where folks just didn’t know the basics.

For example…

In the advertising business, it’s a sin to mention the name “Bill Bernbach” and get a blank stare back.

Bill Bernbach’s agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, is famous for the original Volkswagen campaign that positioned the brand in stark defiance of the big, gas-guzzlers of the day. It kicked off its crusade with the notable and now iconic ad that said, “Think Small.” This was followed by a series of smart and cheeky ads in a variety of media that positioned VW as the car brand for people with brains (and a sense of humor).

Not to fall too deep into the rabbit hole but this same agency created “We try harder” for rental car company, Avis. And lots of wonderful work for the likes of Levy’s, Orbach’s, and American Airlines, to name but a few.

Knowing the agency is one thing. But also knowing what advertising is here to do is another.

Get attention.

Offer up relevant information about products and services.

Create interest.

Inspire some kind of action.

These are the basics.

Yet, a lot of folks are just answering a brief by delivering deliverables.

Deliverables are making us miserables.

But I come back to basics.

If you’re in advertising, you must know the basics — and you can start with, “How do we get attention for this brand?”

Are you in sales? Know the basics: What do you really know about the customer? How can you help?

Are you a lawyer? Know the statutes.

Stock broker? Know the difference between growth and value.

Whatever you do…Know. The. Basics.

Yet for some reason, we by-pass the basics in favor of the latest shiny object and its bedazzling bevy of jargon.

All of which brings me back to Picasso.

Cubism (and one could argue modern painting) started when Picasso looked at the basics of painting and said, “What if?”

What if you could see something in three-dimensions and deliver it in a two-dimensional form?

Now, there’s no way he could have arrived at that breakthrough unless he was well-versed in the basics — and their constraints.

So step one for you: go back to the basics of whatever you do.

Remind yourself of the ordinary things of your craft and know how to do them extraordinarily well.

Then…well, then…the possibilities are endless.

Rob Schwartz is the Chair of the TBWA New York Group and an executive coach who channels his creativity, experience and wisdom into helping others get where they want to be. This was originally posted on his Substack, RobSchwartzHelps, where he covers work, life, and creativity.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash.

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