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What the media industry can learn from David Bowie

By Geoff Tan

Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Singapore, Singapore


Commencing countdown engines on. Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.” R.I.P. David Bowie.

Although the world has lost a multi-talented artist, there is much to learn about creativity from the way Bowie lived his life. Eleanor Black’s article entitled “David Bowie: a creative force like no other” speaks of him as a “brilliant, kooky, highly original storyteller.”

And if this sounds familiar as it should, we as publishers who wield instruments that tell the most compelling stories to the readers who buy our titles can take a leaf out of the life of the “Starman” himself.

David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, from liver cancer. The character "Major Tom" was featured in several of his songs.
David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, from liver cancer. The character "Major Tom" was featured in several of his songs.

If you dig a little deeper into what Bowie really embodies, you will discover that not only was he an accomplished singer and songwriter, he also made a name for himself in the wider spectrum of the arts – painting, film-making, acting, fashion, and yes, publishing!

The first thing that came to my mind after reading about his nuances was that his creative flair seemed to be very much inspired by his indulgences. He invested in the art of Rubens, Damien Hirst, and Gavin Turk, just to name a few. The works of Victor Varsarely, Gabriel Rosetti, and Paul Klee influenced many of his album covers.

His eccentric personal style is seen in how he fashionably projects himself, whether it was in the make-up he wore or the outfits he was seen in. He was a voracious reader, consuming everything from Homer’s Iliad and Lady Chatterley’s Lover to non-fiction classics.

The way Bowie lived his life testifies to the fact that creativity knows no boundaries. As media owners, there is every reason for us to continually believe in the power of the idea. In this day and age that we operate in, conscious of the overbearing challenges beleaguering our industry, the art of ideation is no more an option for us – it is definitively mandatory!

Long gone are the days when the telephones in our advertising sales department would not stop ringing and brand owners were fighting to pay us a huge premium for a front half right hand advertisement position in tomorrow’s edition of the newspaper. The simplistic analogue paid media environment of yesterday is deeply threatened by the digital and converged media world of today.

In the same way Bowie creatively stretched his mind to embrace a gamut of expressions, newspaper publishers must challenge the confines of the box to seek out new and novel ways of telling and selling the story.

If not long or short form, could it be cartoons or comic strips? If not flat and two-dimensional print, could it be virtual or augmented reality? If not a full-page or half-page advertisement, could it be an engaging piece of paper engineering? If not the smelly whiff of lithographic inks, could it be the sweet smell of encapsulated scents?

If not a block of text comprising headline and body copy, could it be an imbedded sound chip? If not a cardboard free-standing leaflet stuffed into the spine of a newspaper, could it be a “tactile” brochure (a piece of leather, a sheet of sandpaper, a direct mailer printed on bubble wrap) that further amplifies the advertising message? If not a tantalising photo of a wood-fired pizza in the advertisement, could it be an attached taste strip that you can pop onto your tongue to provide a flavour of the product?

On the content side, consider two-way storytelling – one perspective from the editorial team and the other from the reader or the person in the street. Are we brave enough to devote half of our newspaper to user-generated content?

How about a daily half-hour programme on radio hosted by the chief editor? What about a junior version of your business newspaper aimed at teaching financial literacy to kids? How about birthing a chain of “newspaper” cafes aimed at delivering content via multi-media platforms amidst a caffeine-infused environment?

What about kicking off an accelerator programme to suss out start-up companies that can drive an upside for your business? How about investing in non-traditional outdoor platforms (for example, helicopter banner messaging) that stand out amidst the increasing noise in the marketplace?

On the circulation side of things, how about partnering an FMCG brand to bundle the day’s newspaper together with it? What about sticking your content into the cloud and, following what Coke and Nutella did, allowing the consumer to customise his or her physical publication?

How about printing the news on mineral water bottle labels that reach out to the youth market? What about gamifying your news content to target teenagers?

“Space Oddity,” which Bowie wrote and performed, was released in 1969 five days before the Apollo 11 mission, which resulted in the world’s first manned moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Truth be told, Bowie was a man caught up in a futuristic mind-set, an out-of-the-box thinker, a prolific hacker! Rhana Devenport, director of the Auckland Art Gallery, refers to the man’s multi-faceted expressions as “all part of an incredible woven fabric of his creative output.”

Bowie sings: “This is Major Tom to Ground Control, I'm stepping through the door, and I'm floating in the most peculiar way. And the stars look very different today.” This is a stark reminder for us to tread outside our comfort zone, stride ahead into unexplored territory, and spawn profitable new stars neatly strewn across our business galaxy.

It’s nice to see how a man who was decades ahead of his time can inspire the people of today to invent for the future! Thank you, Ziggy Stardust!

About Geoff Tan

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