How we can improve our culture. Lessons from the birth of Hip Hop (and a panda). | DMA

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How we can improve our culture. Lessons from the birth of Hip Hop (and a panda).


Culture is everything. (Working title).

First he was knocked to the ground. Then amongst the bloodied rubble he was bludgeoned and stabbed to death. The initial reaction amongst the gangs of the South Bronx was to take an eye for an eye, a life for a life.

It was 1971 and this meant war.

Instead we got Hip Hop.

The dying gasps of ex junkie and peace ambassador Cornell ‘Black Benjy’ Benjamin somehow breathed life into the music, the art and the word on the street.

The Ghetto Brothers, one of the largest gangs in the Bronx, pushed for the peace that their brother had died for by inviting all the leaders of each gang to a peace summit.

A truce was signed.

And on every side of the street the grass got greener as the constant turf wars ceased.

West of the Bronx DJ Kool Herc got the party going, soon followed by Afrika Bambaataa in the East and the Grand Master himself (Flash) further north.

Violence and tension gave way to a culture of creativity and the sharing of ideas as gang members moved freely around town without fear of being beaten or having their colours stolen.

Culture is a word that gets thrown around a lot in business. Rightly so.

Create the right culture and great things are born. Get it wrong and you might find employees giving birth to something else entirely in the toilet because they’re too afraid to say anything.

In the case of Hip Hop it’s culture was born from all different aspects. Firstly it was a celebration of local peace and of freedom. It was also, not unlike Punk, a movement against the oppression of a failing system. It's voice was found by using anything the locals could find. Half finished spray cans, old vinyl, large sheets of card.

But it's main strength, like any successful culture, was its inclusivity. You had the DJs who caught the breaks, the MCs who had something to say, the B-boys and girls who turned fighting into dancing and the artists who turned the scorched buildings and subways into a riot of colour and message.

It had fashion, it had music, it had dance, it had art and as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five delivered… it had a message.

Can you dig it?

It would be rare for any business to be able to define its culture through dance and rap.

But what happens to a culture where the creativity of it is mined like a natural resource?

Where creativity is the means and the end. The idea and the product.

A lot of agencies talk about their culture and how it makes their creativity thrive. Just this week I read about how more creatives should enjoy and work more together.

But here's the thing. Ideas don’t understand boundaries. Yet agencies tend to create in silos, using job titles as definitions. In short, departments become the barriers.

As soon as you say someone is a creative then you imply everybody else isn't. Once a strategist is invited into the room, then it puts everybody else in a position of deference. Only the toughest can punch their way out of that particular paper bag.

I’ve worked in agencies where there are no account handlers, no strategists just creatives. The logic behind it worked on paper, but in practice it was flawed. Designers who are happy project managing are probably not giving their best time to the creating. I’ve seen writers waste hours trying to book an opticians appointment or something equally as dramatic as they procrastinate to a point of zero output. Picking up a phone, writing a brief, asking for money is a skill that not everybody has.

And never underestimate an organised mind.

Because it takes a different kind of person who sees an opportunity for peace when everybody else sees blood. The ability to step back from the madness is much, much harder when you’re trying to do everything.

The start of Hip Hop culture may have been fuelled with Grandmaster and his Furious Five, but there's a modern day Grandmaster with his own Furious Five that we should be taking inspiration from - Po the dragon warrior. Kung Fu Panda 3 demonstrates to me better than anything how an agency could work better.

In the film Po has to face his biggest adversary yet, a supernatural warrior called Kai. To defeat him the dragon warrior has to train a bunch of clumsy pandas from his dad’s village in the art of kung-fu.

Only he doesn't. He uses the natural skills of each panda as an asset. The panda that loves hugging is trained to hug so hard he can crush a tree. The pandas that enjoy rolling down the nearby hills are trained to roll faster and at greater speeds making them a deadly weapon.

So what does Po the dragon warrior have to teach agencies?

Culture for creativity isn't created through titles, silos and departments. But you can't and shouldn't ignore the skills that people already have. It's everybody's responsibility to think creatively, to find new ways at solving problems, empower everybody to do so. Make it easier for people to work together, and build on their skills, experiences and views.

Hip Hop was born from the freedom of the streets. It allowed people to share and build on each others ideas’. DJ Kool Herc was the first to drop the needle on the best bits of a track, Grand Master Flash took that idea and worked out if he harnessed the BPM he could mix between tracks much smoother. Melle Mel taught us the message, NWA spread the word about police brutality.

B boys and B girls confronted each other through dance. Breakers like the Rocksteady Crew made the music physical and the art of the subway gave the satire of Banksy the next stop on the line.

Show people how they could think, behave and be different and who knows where they will take your agency or your clients, or what kind of industry they could build.

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