First Glimmerings: a brilliant paper on the creativity of margarine


This is an archive paper for Ogilvy by Michael Jacobs, a member of the company for many years and still a friend who now does excellent work in conflict resolution. It dates from 22 June 1998. The context was a conversation with a senior Ogilvy executive we met, in which Michael was challenged to turn margarine into something conceptually creative and imaginative.

Creativity is a product of the imagination, which in itself is a faculty that we as human beings possess. It seems important to make this distinction. Creativity emerges from the process of imagination. Which means that creative depth can be measured in terms of the depth of imaginative connection. It is probably safe to assume there are various levels of connection.

Certainly in ordinary circumstances the imagination can become active under the influence of a variety of impulses.

It is a relatively common experience to be ‘driven’ to imagination. This is reflected in the adage “Necessity is the mother of all invention”. This condition may be brought about by a deadline or a situation in which a solution must be found. The imagination is engaged literally because it is the last resort – when the rational mind finally gives way to other options. There is clearly an element of discomfort here – the imagination struggling to asset it’s right to participate as an equal.

My sense is that sometimes, driven into such corners, the imagination relishes the challenge of finding a way out. There may be some cultural or gender bias in this observation, but it is also reflected in Emerson’s statement that “Every wall is also a door.”

Imagination comes home to itself during periods of play. Play is an expression of the imagination delighting in its own activity. There is no goal in play except to extend, deepen, and enrich the play. This is not to say that play can’t be beneficial or even therapeutic, because it clearly is. But these benefits usually arrive post-play – rather than being made conscious during the playing itself. It has been said that the human being as “homo luden” is at their most natural. There can be a sense of freedom experienced in play that can be truly liberating. And conversely, play can feel extremely cramped when squeezed into predefined goals – witness the effect competition can sometimes have on the human beings engaged.

As a creative practice it is undoubtedly important to play. It is also undoubtedly not enough.

The imagination can come alive in the service of love. This can be in ‘ordinary life’ or within an artistic discipline. In either case, there is a desire to bring something into existence, to nourish it and ultimately to grant it an independent existence in its own right. In this sense the ‘solution’ (whether child or sculpture) does not belong to the solver, but the creator bears responsibility for their creation. A sense of guardianship exists in order to help the creation achieve its fullest potential/expression.

In its healthiest manifestation, this can be seen in the parent/child relationship – as well as in the artist who actively ‘listens’ to what her/his creation needs to come into completion. Love presupposes a relationship between subject and object (almost to the degree that the object is itself metamorphosed into another subject) founded on a sense of responsibility. The faculty of imagination no longer operates for its own sake, but serves something other than itself.

In our conversation last week, it was not difficult to see how certain products can seem ‘imaginatively rich’– such as Porsche – and how other products appear ‘ imaginatively poor’ – our friend the margarine for example. A recent article in the Independent advanced the idea that some products have ‘soul’ and that this was key in their marketability. This of course begs the question as to whether other products have no soul? And if soulless, what does that say about those who created them or those who have to try and market them.

Can margarine really be a creative imaginative subject ?

Can margarine really be a creative imaginative subject ?

In Hasidic lore there is a story which says that at the beginning of the world, at the moment of creation, the light of Divine magnificence shattered, and the resulting sparks fell into the material world. It is said that the task of the human being is to use/relate to every object (including animate ones) so that the spark within it may be ‘raised back up’. This process cannot happen without  conscious choice. A choice which establishes both a connection and a responsibility. The only way that such a choice does not become an unimaginable burden is to embed it in love. This choice may need to be re-affirmed repeatedly – but what it leads to is a picture of  ‘co-creation’ with the human being engaged in re-assembling their divine inheritance.

This is not a theoretical process. Perhaps one of the most powerful examples, is how Mother Theresa managed to ‘sell’ the poor. The poor are almost by definition marginalised, not valued. And yet, it is well nigh impossible to imagine the poor amongst whom Mother Theresa moved as shiftless, worthless, unimportant human beings. Through her relationship we were able to see those people in a different light, they became visible and worthy of dignity and respect. Our very perceptions were cleansed, transformed. Out of her love (and by all accounts it was very much ‘tough love’) Mother Theresa allowed us to establish a relationship not based on curiosity, or entertainment or moral superiority. In this dynamic there seems a seed of how to use the imagination to uncover the ‘soul’ of a person or a product.

Alternately, the ‘poor as product’ could easily be romanticised, softened around the edges. Sentimentalised values could be attached to them. Images of bucolic rural life complete with picturesque beggars. It seems to me that a great deal of creative energy is used to find just such associations – creating pictures of a fantasy world where values are meticulously glued to products. This seems very different from Mother Theresa’s approach.

Products, like people, surely do not get their worth from having something affixed from the outside. Such a process of adhesion may demonstrate a significant degree of creative input – it may in fact solve the marketing problem. But I’m not at all sure this is using the imagination in the way in which it was intended. There seems an enormous gulf between selling well designed, well researched entertainment and the act of redemption. A big word, I know, but it seems to fit. I believe redemption is the natural consequence of a fully awakened imagination. An alchemical imagination capable of transmuting reality – finding the possibility of gold both within itself and in the surrounding world. Redemption is a process that seeks to keep alive the connection between creator and created in a conscious, responsible and actively interdependent manner.

It seems to me that the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ serves as a useful touchstone in this matter. If selling more margarine is the ultimate goal, then morality has no real say in the matter. One can design a clever, creative campaign and rest safe in the knowledge that you are not going to be troubled by the demands of a brotherly relationship or responsibility. Answer yes to that question and immediately you are locked into a relationship that cannot easily be put aside. The imagination is not asked simply to make-something up, or put the best face forward, but to participate in a process of re-creation. To uncover whatever soul forces that exist in the margarine by directly linking one’s own soul to the product. When seen this way, the role of marketer is transformed into an almost religious calling. A long stretch of the imagination? Perhaps. But perhaps the imagination is waiting for just such a stretching. Waiting to practice that most fundamentally imaginative act – the art of redemption.

Practical Implications

Overall, it seems less likely to be able to teach someone how to love, than to work towards a practice of creative redemption. In reality there may be little or no difference between these positions, but at least redemption is more easily seen as something you do – rather than just something you feel (though numerous people have argued that love is not primarily a feeling). As far as the imagination is concerned, redemption includes two of the most important elements. Firstly, a desire to get inside of the person/product and help ‘draw forth’ the inner meaning and significance (this is literally what the word ‘education’ means). And secondly, to recognise that the imagination only grows to its fullest strength within the context of a reciprocal relationship – where both sides are open to being touched, moved, transformed.

So, is it possible to have such a relationship with a pat of margarine? In other words, does every product that human beings create get invested with some portion of ‘soul’? If so, how can we recognise/awaken this element?

Mother Theresa could speak for and with the poor of Calcutta because she willingly tied her destiny to their destiny. I don’t believe that her work in transforming the horrendous conditions that she found in India, would have been possible without an equally profound transformation of her own inner capacities as a human being. Specifically in her ability to enter ever more deeply into the faculty of creative imagination.

Much of what she saw and did on a day-to-day basis would be unbearable to many of us. I believe that for Mother Theresa any sense of horror and revulsion were quite clearly identified as her own and therefore only one very small part of a vastly larger picture. Faced with a world teeming with poverty and disease, she neither ignored this reality, turned away in despair nor applied a cosmetic solution. Instead, she was able to imaginatively enlarge her perspective to include the divine presence even in the midst of that suffering. This meant that when she looked into those faces she had no need to pretend that they and she were not indissoluble linked. She used her imagination not to cast a manufactured image out onto the world, but to see in the world the truth about ourselves. Such is the path of creative redemption.

Meanwhile, back to the margarine. It is less a question of what cosy images can we attach to this pat of margarine, than to ask whether we can bear to see ourselves reflected in this product? Such an attitude forces us to awaken from the unconscious relationship we usually have with our creations. Of course not all reflections will necessarily be flattering. One might say that margarine as a product reflects back to us our tendency to dissemble, to value convenience over patience, to show we are not beholden to nature or natural processes. It is equally true that margarine might mirror our desire to create sources of abundance, honour religious traditions (margarine is kosher), or to take responsibility for our own health and physical well-being.

In seeking to bolster our own self-images by accruing image laden products we run the potential of diminishing both ourselves and what we create. What is needed is the courage to look both at ourselves and our creations without embarrassment or shame. For as much as we might fear that we have created a hollow consumer society, we fail to remember the hidden sparks. This means being willing to allow ourselves/our products to give voice to the full range of their reflections. To know that soul is not simply a feel good factor. Without honouring this essential truth we shall never penetrate to the imaginative heart of the matter and the sparks will remain fallen.

The first step is about being able to bear the truth – or at least as much of the truth as we can currently apprehend. To look squarely at what we have done. To own up to those reflections of which we are proud and those that we find less palatable. It seems to me that unless we create a platform for a circumference of meanings we will forever fall prey to the temptation to blinker truth. And having seen the worst, we may then be ready to remember the rest of the story.

If we return to our lonesome pat of margarine, we have sketched out a very mixed genealogy. In a strange way, the richest vein for exploration seems to be in those reflections that initially appear most negative. I don’t know why this surprises me, in retrospect it seems obvious – especially in the context of redemption. Being mistaken for something you are not is both pretence and a practice in self-effacement. To come into existence through an ‘artificial process’ either means you are somehow branded as less than real or that there is a clear need for which you have specifically been called into being to serve.

To evoke the qualities of humility and service is to give rise to a multitude of imaginative pictures – from the faithful retainer, to the invisible forces of the universe which make life itself possible. When such imaginations are brought into consciousness a very different relationship is established between creator and creation. Any sense of ownership or superiority is replaced with a sense of gratitude and thankfulness. As we imaginatively redeem our creations, we ourselves are redeemed.

Will the consumer experience the same response? I think they probably will.