Bob Isherwood is a legendary figure in Australian and international advertising, having recently resigned as Worldwide Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi. But at a lecture yesterday in Melbourne, he left hundreds of industry practitioners, academics and students bemused and bewildered and his approach came across as a leading example of the sort of self-indulgence for which advertising creatives have long been lampooned.
One senior industry figure who donates a lot of his own time to mentor young creatives, told his followers on Twitter last night: “it’s OK to say you weren’t that impressed by Dr Bob’s presentation”. Others have appended their views (mostly negative) to a critical review of the same talk given last week in Dubai.
Billed as Bob Isherwood’s “Three Keys to Success“, the talk was organised by the Alumni Relations department of RMIT University. Dr Isherwood, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by RMIT in 2007 and is an Acclaimed Alumnus of the University, was to “share his personal tips on unlocking the secrets to success”. Interest was so high that the talk had to be moved from its original venue to another site capable of holding the 500 or so who registered to attend.
In his introduction, Professor Robin Williams, Director of Alumni and Development at RMIT, gave a brief outline of Dr Bob’s career. Far from being just another advertising creative, Professor Williams told us, Dr Isherwood was a passionate believer in how ideas can change the world and had co-authored the book World Changing Ideas.
Dr Isherwood was now in demand, we were told, because of his passion for ideas: “As soon as Obama was elected, he got Bob on the phone.” He was just back from the Arctic, where he had been “working on ways to melt ice to provide drinking water for the Inuit Indians (sic).”
But most importantly, said Professor Williams, “he’s such a lovely man”.
With the audience thus warmed up, Dr Bob spoke … for 10 seconds. He announced that the first part of his talk would consist of a video, then promptly sat down again.
The video — which ran for about 30 minutes — began with Jimi Hendrix playing The Star-Spangled Banner. It then moved on to (a different) Robin Williams’s star turn in Good Morning Vietnam, and included the first few minutes of an episode of The Simpsons, Richard Burton reading from the opening pages of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and Miles Davis playing So What, together with still images of artworks by Picasso, architecture by Gaudi, an Alessi kettle and a Fender Stratocaster guitar.
Occasionally, these apparently randomly arranged clips and images were interspersed briefly with a word on screen. At the end of the video, these words came together to make the sentence “Originality … is … the … inspiration … for … originality”. If the circular nature of this argument weren’t already clear, then a short animation made it so, as the words turned into … a circle.
Presumably this was one of Dr Bob’s “keys to success”, but he didn’t allude to it at all. When he finally took to the lectern, he asked that the doors be closed and that no-one leave. He then read — without introduction or explanation — a lengthy and detailed account of the history of microelectronics and nanotechnology.
It was clear from his intonation and his stumbling over technical terms that this was not his own work. Some sleuthing reveals that it was text from a 2005 BBC Reith Lecture delivered by distinguished engineer Lord Broers. Dr Isherwood may eventually have acknowledged this as the source — I don’t know, as I walked out five minutes into his faltering description of the process of microlithography used to make silicon chips.
Almost 45 minutes into a 60-minute talk, Dr Isherwood had not “shared his personal tips” at all. He hadn’t verbalised a single insight of his own or bothered to establish any rapport with his audience, which struck many as bizarre after the gushing introduction.
Perhaps there was some kind of “revelation” eventually. I guess it’s my own fault if I missed it, and my career may be the worse for it.
But had Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix been on stage for 45 minutes without playing a note, after demanding that the doors be closed and no-one leave, I would have walked out on them too.