I couldn’t explain why exactly, but creative people seem, in my experience, more dependent on heroic figures than most.
Perhaps it’s to do with the nakedness of the creative life — where you expose your most personal efforts to the world again and again. If that’s the case, a hero on your shoulder — the more adamant and unyielding the better — is the only real source of reassurance we’re able to insist upon.
And yet, certainly in a creative field like advertising, we too often choose the wrong sort of hero for the job.
I would expect some — perhaps many — of you to disagree, but when we audition for our role-models we should look further than those who already do our job, however well they might do it.
I’m a copywriter, and I could haul in inspirational ancestors — and peers — by the bucket-load. But casting your admiration so close to the shore leaves you with a decidedly shallow pool of ambition. And, pairing doubtful idolater with an impeccable idol can often trap you in a ditch of unsatisfying comparison.
The subject of heroes was probably best explained by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol who writes in his endlessly-quotable novel ‘Dead Souls’:
“I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone.”
I believe our heroes should be strange. I believe they should be different in their values and their spirit and the fights they pick with the world.
(A warning here on misreading ‘strange’ for ‘eccentric’. Eccentricity can very often be the mastery of shining a light in the right direction, not necessarily evidence of a brighter or wilder flame. The travel writer Bruce Chatwin once wrote in a letter to a friend ‘eccentricity has an uncommon tendency to develop into egomania’.)
My creative hero, as you have probably worked out, is Columbo, the unlikely champion of the famous fictional detectives.
Columbo embodies everything I would like my creative character to consist of. Firstly, there is his patience. The genius of the Columbo format was to discard the traditional ‘Whodunnit’ arc for a ‘Hedunnit’ narrative (overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, the culprits in Columbo are terrible men).
By knowing from the very beginning who committed the crime, the story then becomes about the imaginative way it will be revealed.
And Columbo takes his time. If the murder was a tightly wrapped parcel, Columbo tackles it fold by fold, knot by knot. He ponders aloud, he punctuates, he takes great arcs around the truth in order to see it from every angle. Of course, he knows from the very beginning who his man is. But his method is not about knowing who, but seeing how. That, surely, is a winning mantra for any copywriter.
As well as the patience, there is the audacity. Columbo is unfailingly polite, often deferential to the point of subservience. But this is simply the cloak beneath which sits his disdain, his impertinence. No question goes unasked, no matter how many mumbled apologies or gestures of faux embarrassment proceed it. Columbo’s pursuit of answers is pleasant, courteous, respectful of feelings and inescapably ruthless.
Creatives, and copywriters in particular, can find clarity hard to come by. Poorly expressed, flimsily reasoned opinions and feelings and senseless peeves are often our natural substitute for clear and decisive feedback. How useful would it be, then, to insist on digging beneath that without ruffling feathers and disjointing noses.
Columbo is purpose and presentation in harmony. He is unwavering self-belief anchored to humility. He is devilish persistence draped in empathy and cordiality. He is professionally detached, yet violently curious.
He is my strange hero as a creative and I only discovered this by accident. When I’d tangled myself in a creative problem and discovered the old ways were, on this occasion, closed. Anyone who has ever found their trusted escapes all to have been blocked and bunged and stuffed with thorns, will know that the only way through is a new way. Columbo, on that occasion and ever since, was mine.
To tell anyone about this — let alone to write 800 words on it — felt preposterous. But the Columbo way is to do only what works and not worry about how things seem. To have confidence in what feels comfortable, remembering always that your creativity ultimately belongs to no one else, even when someone is paying for what it yields.
And that, I would say, is precisely the job a creative hero is summoned to do.
Andrew Boulton is a copywriter and a lecturer in Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln.