Arrogance Gave Him Up

Is Misplaced Confidence at the Root of Scotland’s Troubles?

I didn’t go to the Scottish Advertising Awards last year. You’re probably taken aback – not by my absence but by the news that such a thing exists. I mean, how often do you see any ad for a product made or managed in Scotland? But it isn’t the vacuity of the event, gallantly hosted each year by The Drum magazine, that made me give it a miss. It’s the rudeness of the crowd.

I’ve been in advertising since the 1980s and awards nights have always been boozy. But, in recent years, the Scottish ‘do’ has become boorish. The crowd talks over the opening address, drowning out the speaker. There’s little courtesy shown to the sponsors whose support makes the evening possible, and the ‘entertainer’ has a task that remains literally thankless. Then, perhaps unwittingly acknowledging the inconsequentiality of the whole affair, the assembled throng blethers through the awards ceremony too. This year, I’m told there was a new twist: booing.

‘So what?’ you might say. “It’s just a night out. People bought a ticket and can do what they like.” That’s certainly a viewpoint to which anyone is entitled and to which I can only offer this simple caveat based on my personal experience.

I would say that the most impressive, genuinely talented and signally successful creative people I have ever met have been unfailingly polite and surprisingly modest.

I remember asking Oscar-nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey about his craft. “I know my exposures pretty well,” says he. That’s a matter of basic maths which – compared to the artistry of movies like “Atonement’ or the ultra-fab “Nowhere Boy” – may seem hilariously humble. But I’m sure he wasn’t kidding.

I also remember going to the BOB Awards (for the best-of-the-best in global advertising) back when London was the world’s creative powerhouse. The room was stacked with people who looked the part: whacky haircuts, trendy togs, attention-seeking specs. Being just a hick from these northerly sticks, I thought “Jings, these folk must be big talents.” Yet, when the awards were handed out, it was generally some bloke in a jumper, jeans and a pair of gymmies who shuffled on-stage. (Although I think the Best of the Best of the Best Award was picked up by two beautiful-but-understated girls.)

To me, such modesty seems next-of-kin to self-confidence. Perhaps the reason why genuinely talented people downplay their gifts is that their success is built on a bedrock of technique – the boring basics of craft honed over years of practice. They know how hard it is to achieve anything at all, and how lucky you have to be: that awards are nice but don’t make a difference; that triumphal marches don’t win wars.

By contrast, the clamour of empty self-regard underscores our own insecurities. In her 2003 book “The Scot’s Crisis of Confidence”, Carol Craig pinpointed our national psyche. But, in many walks of Scottish life, it doesn’t look like we’ve lost our confidence. Too often, our confidence merely seems misplaced: an adaptation to systemic problems that proves counterproductive.

Yet, why are we still surprised when arrogance and failure go hand in hand? ‘The offensive presumption of superiority’ – with its bedfellows ‘complacency’ and ‘lack of common decency’ – often betrays the whiff of slow decay or, sometimes, the distant rumbling of sudden disaster.

When I was in New York in the early noughties, my agency worked for the ship of fools and knaves now world-infamous as Lehman’s (pronounced lee-mins, if you care). They were possibly the rudest, most blinkered client any agency ever had, rendered immune to common sense and courtesy by their massive profits and ‘licence to steal’ on Wall Street. In such circumstances, I tend to think “One day, they’ll get theirs.” And you know what? Generally, they do. Sometimes though, justice comes too late – after the greedy and bloody-minded have enjoyed the aptly-named spoils.

More recently, we’ve witnessed the ‘crime’ of hubris from the likes of Sir Fred, but seem destined to repeat those mistakes in the re-modelling of our financial world. The obsession with corporate re-structures and remuneration – and the lack of care for the common people, both customers and employees – does not fill me with hope for a more sustainable, less volatile future.

So, what am I hoping for over the next decade for Scotland?

I’m hoping that a little diffidence in the Scottish psyche might make a big difference to Scottish society. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of good old Scottish wha’s like us, damn few and they’re aw deid! If we’re being ironic. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll recognise it’s more blaw-hard than brave-heart.

Let’s face it. No amount of noise will mask the parlous state of our creative industries. Today, Scotland’s ‘adland’ is a fraction of the size it was in the 80s. Look at the wider context of our cultural signifiers. 8 out of 10 of our artists earn less than £5,000 a year, and even many of Scotland’s best-known culturati would make more flipping burgers than making art.

Forget our creative industries, here’s what football pundit Craig Burley said recently about the current Scotland squad.

“over-hyped and under-performing buffoons with an opinion of themselves way above their station”

Ouch. That’s harsh. Of course, when you look more generally around the globe, there are some exceptions to Scotland’s under-achievement in the world rankings. No-one beats us for violent crime. We’re 2nd only to the USA for obesity. Liver deaths from alcohol abuse? We’d easy be among the medals for that.

A first step for remedy might be recognising the intertwining of our troubles: how a society that’s lost the art of civility undervalues people and relationships; how a lack of empathy erodes living, local culture; how disconnected individuals end up not caring about their own health and wellbeing.

So, let’s not be fooled by the false positives of a few awards, the iron pyrites of pop-idle fame or even the odd wonderstrike from James McFadden. Anomolous success is no substitute for an effective long-term strategy. Paradoxically, the more modest path, pursued with honesty and civility, may take us higher.

Who knows, I might even try a bit of humility myself.

A version of this article previously appeared in Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman

Image of Fool’s Gold courtesy of Cobalt123 on flickr under creative commons. Image of Subo courtesy of Gilberto Viciedo on flickr under creative commons. Muchos gratias.