The wisdom of taxi drivers

  • Voices
  • June 16, 2017
  • Damon Stapleton
The wisdom of taxi drivers

“All the stories I’ll ever need are right here on Main Street.”  
– Robert Cormier

Many years ago, I was in New York for the first time. I was in a yellow cab I had seen in a hundred movies. It was like cinematic déjà vu. From the journey, I remember two things. The first thing was that the suspension of yellow cabs in New York often make you feel like you are driving in a large swimming pool. The second thing I remember was the answer the cab driver gave me to my first question.

I was a little overwhelmed. We had driven for a while from JFK International Airport and the first time you arrive in New York there is a lot to take in. The skyscrapers, the poverty, the wealth and the unmissable perfume of potential.

My cab driver was an older Jamaican gentleman and he was listening to talk radio. The discussion on the radio was about wearing a weave and if that made you a fake. It was just one more detail I strangely still remember.

I leaned forward and asked him this question. What is the difference between New York and Los Angeles? He looked into the mirror and instantly responded.

New York is theatre. L.A is T.V. Yes, sir.

The perfection and simplicity of the answer hit me between the eyes. 20 years later, I still think it might be one of the best answers I have ever heard.

Since that day, I have always had conversations with taxi drivers. Recently, I was in San Francisco and I wasn’t disappointed. The first guy, Ahmed, told me what it was like to be a Muslim in America right now. How people are frightened of him and how he sometimes pretends to be Mexican. The second was a Nigerian man who you can see in the photo above. He told me about moving to America in 1979 and how there was a large Nigerian community in, of all places, Dallas. When I asked why he said because there was a direct flight from Lagos to Dallas. It was the first city you reached, so people stayed there.

I mention these stories because in each one there are fragments and details that make them interesting, specific and very human.

Interesting. Specific. Human.

I think about these words a lot at the moment. There are many articles and discussions about data, personalisation and process at the moment. We use the word insight in just about every presentation we ever make. We talk about storytelling and its importance.

A lot of words. A lot of questions.

My feeling is that instead of all this making the work more interesting and specific, it is making it more generic.

Now, it would seem other things are more important than quality right now. Cost and the ability to make a lot of stuff very quickly. Fair enough. But I can’t help but wonder. Where does this go? Let’s fast-forward as an industry five years into the future.

We make content cheaper; we make more of it and we put it everywhere. This very process will make what is made more generic and boring. Mark my words. There will be a sameness that will grow into an epidemic. What will be made will become less and less memorable. We are talking about a lot of work that nobody will notice despite all the measurement saying otherwise. It will also not sell anything to anybody. And when that happens, there will be three questions that will have to be answered. Firstly, is making thousands of things of average quality really the answer? Secondly, does memorability and distinctiveness matter anymore? Thirdly, if it does, what can be done to fix the situation?

It will be interesting to see what the answers will be. Things are pretty uncertain in this industry right now but if there is one thing I do know it is that clients never just want parity with competitors.

So, the first lever that can be pulled makes something cheaper. The second will make more of it. The question is what happens when everybody can pull these levers? The answer is you have to change the game. And creativity is always the answer to that question. You only have to look at history to see this seemingly new paradigm has happened over and over.

Be distinctive. Be interesting. Be noticed. Have something to say. And say it well. Those things don’t change.

A memorable Rastafarian taxi driver I will never forget taught me that 20 years ago.

  • Damon Stapleton is the chief creative officer at DDB. This post originally appeared on his blog.   

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