We're trapped in a net, says ad pioneer

By Paul Charman

Web-surfing, email and Facebook are seen as stifling creativity

The Mad Men's pre-computer office had advantages over today's electronic work environment.
The Mad Men's pre-computer office had advantages over today's electronic work environment.

Personal computers, the internet and mobile phones have transformed office work, but not for the better, says Bob Harvey.

The former Mayor of Waitakere claims the internet saps productivity by distracting workers with unnecessary emails and social media trivia. Harvey also blames too much gazing at the web for a paucity of original ideas.

Back in the day, with little more than drawing boards, typewriters and wall-mounted telephones, he and his high-achieving colleagues created some of New Zealand's most successful advertising campaigns.

"We were enormously productive, working hard all day and partying hard after hours," he says.

Harvey founded one of the country's largest advertising agencies, MacHarman Ayer (formerly MacHarman Advertising), for which he worked from 1962 to 1992. This agency won a string of international advertising awards, including the first Cannes television award for a New Zealand television commercial.

"We were Mad Men look-a-likes. Our agency was bursting with creativity, with the most amazing group of artists, film-makers, musicians and others - all leaders in their own right. And I doubt we would have achieved it all had we been obsessed with the online world."

His colleagues included artist Dick Frizzell, film-maker Roger Donaldson, AUT manager Vivien Bridgwater, musician John Hanlon and many other creative types. Harvey recalls that their world contained fewer communications, "because we didn't spend all our time on the internet, or on BlackBerrys.

"Now it's paralysis by analysis - I look at offices and I'm in despair of productivity. Young people - who I think are just bloody terrific - are obsessed and distracted with the world of the internet; with the dreaded filthy Facebook and Twitter, which I just think are just appalling. Anyone aged over 10 needs their bloody head read to even go there.

"Emails are cold impersonal things and there are far too many of them. I think direct and meaningful human contact is rapidly being lost, that we're prepared to dedicate our lives to the internet, which is entrapping us in a zone fatal to our creativity. The muse of creative thinking is being taken over and lost by the electronic world.

Bob Harvey
Bob Harvey

"You don't need the internet to be creative - the human mind just needs to be touched by creative magic and then it's perfectly capable of doing the rest."

But some around in the 1970s would disagree. Northland gardening columnist Leigh Bramwell believes journalism is one job which has never had it so good, thanks to the advent of information technology.

Bramwell started work in 1969 at the Otago Daily Times in Dunedin.

"I was one of a small crop of girls (yep, we were called girls then) who were taken on as cadet reporters and given in-house training in journalism.

"When it comes to ideas and creativity, I think that as a journalist and columnist I produce better work because of the internet. It's so easy to access quirky, interesting information which can add spark to a story.

"You can quickly put together panels and boxes of interesting stats or quotes which give a page a lift. In the 70s, you had to go to the library to get that kind of information, so what takes five minutes today would have taken a couple of hours back then, which is why we didn't do it."

Harvey's criticisms have been acknowledged for a long time.

With the filing cabinets long gone, modern offices always face the possibility of a catastrophic data loss because of the ephemeral nature of hard drives. Workers have long complained of RSI and - as Harvey points out - everyone gets distracted by Google.

There are disturbing reports of our most trusted electronic tools letting us down. Xerox recently issued a software patch to tackle the fact that numbers and letters can be changed in saved files from scans made on its Workcentre copiers.

This fault has been blamed for odd outcomes such as changing room sizes on house plans, and there have been claims it could put lives in danger.

Meanwhile, close to 90 per cent of those infallible-looking spreadsheet documents apparently contain errors. The Roosevelt Institute says that as there are close to a billion Office users worldwide, errors in spreadsheets are pandemic.

Even the most efficient electronic tools waste our time when they're abused.

BBC presenter Lucy Kellaway blames a couple of Americans who in 1985 worked out how to put graphs, bullet points and flow charts on to slides and called it "Presenter".

"And two years later the idea was sold to Microsoft and renamed PowerPoint and now any old fool with nothing interesting to say can do a bit of cutting and pasting and give an interminable presentation. And they do. All the time. Everywhere," she laments.

None of the IT critics can land a killer punch, because few of us would be prepared to ditch our computers.

But give the Mad Men era its due - Harvey's work hard/play hard 70s offices had one enormous advantage. As the staff used typewriters and drawing boards, the likes of MacHarman Advertising could (given a natural light source) work right through a power cut.

And that's a hard trick for a 21st century office to match.

- NZ Herald

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