The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]


Stop Thinking Like Engineers …

This is a topic that I’ve been bothered by for a very long time.

I touched on it last week in the post about my recent webinar for WARC.

It also formed part of the presentation I did with the amazing Martin Weigel at Cannes in 2019 … also for WARC.

Frankly, I’m seeing far too much work that is literal.

Literal in the problem.
Literal in the strategy.
Literal in the execution.

It’s like all the work is repackaging the client brief and just adding some fancy words, a bit of a gloss and that’s it.

No real understanding of the culture around the category.
No real distinctive expression of the brand behind the work.
No real lateral leaps in the creativity to make people give a shit.

It’s dot-to-dot communication based on lowest common denominator logic … and while I get it will pass research processes and client stakeholders without much pushback … what’s it actually doing for anyone?

Few will remember it.
Even fewer will respond to it.
And no one feels good at the end of it.

Don’t get me wrong, we have to make work that makes a difference for our clients.

I get that.

But that means finding out the real problem we need to solve rather than the solution we want to sell. Means finding out what how the subculture really uses the category in their life versus how the client would like them to use it. Means allowing the creatives to solve the problem we’ve identified rather than dictating the answer. Means being resonant, not relevant. Means having a point of view. Means dreaming of what it could be rather than what it already is. And – most of all – means letting people feel rather than just be told.

It’s why you remember Dancing Pony over that Vodafone spot.

Because while I’m sure both overcame all manner of research obstacles and client stakeholders requirements, there is one thing one campaign remembered, and it’s what Martin once said:

“You can be as relevant as hell and still be boring as fuck”.



Does Colour Theory Reveal Your Insecurity?

One of the things I have always found fascinating is hearing how agencies explain their work.

It’s always so brilliantly detailed.

So articulate and precise.

So different to how any of the work I’ve been a part of came about.

In my personal experience, the process to the creative work has looked like this …

That’s right. A bloody mess.

Chaos rather than clarity.

Back and forth rather than a clear line.

Exploration and rabbit holes rather a smooth and efficient act of precision.

Got to be honest, I prefer it that way.

The idea of everything being so pure that you know the answer before you get to the answer scares the hell out of me.

Maybe that’s why I like giving creatives the best problem rather than a good solution.

Let them work out a way to solve it rather than expect them to just execute my answers.

The reason I say all this is because I recently saw this colour chart …

Putting aside that some of the brand/colour associations they’ve suggested make no fucking sense at all [ie: Nike = neutral/calm balance] it is interesting and frightening how much brands align with a colour stereotype.

Or should I say, a suggested colour stereotype.

OK … I’m being a dick, I know there is a lot of research in this field, but that doesn’t mean that just because your brand logo is in a character defined colour, you automatically convey that character.

But of course, this is what a branding company would say in their pitch …

“We chose orange as orange is a colour that conveys friendliness and we believe this makes you even more accessible”

But the reality is colour theory is the driving force behind logo colour recommendations, I would say it’s because of 2 reasons:

1. It’s how the brand wants to be perceived. [Ego]
2. It’s to hide how the brand is really perceived. [Fear]

Am I being a prick?

Probably. But as they say in the movie Dangerous Liaisons … people don’t answer questions with the truth, they answer questions in ways that protect their truth.

This is why I’ve always talked about ‘dirty little secrets’ … because often insights end up being about ‘convenient explanations’ of actions/behaviours/beliefs whereas the real driving force is something more personal. More conflicting. More interesting.

It’s why I find it far more interesting BP are in the green colour – nature, health and growth – than Animal Planet.

It’s also why I find BP far more differentiated than the friendly, orange colour of Gulf Petroleum.

Because while colour choice for logo design is important, anyone who tries to claim it defines what the brand is and/or how it is perceived in culture is either a fucking bubble-dwelling idiot, a ‘category convention’ sheep or someone who believes the Pepsi logo design strategy is up there with Leonardo Da Vinci.



Identity Is More Valuable Than Discounts …

Loyalty.

One of the most overused, misunderstood words ever used.

At least in marketing.

Too often companies/agencies think the word – or, the modern version of it, ‘membership’ – gives them the right to churn out all manner of contrived marketing under the guise of it being for the benefit of their members … when we all know it’s just a badly disguised attempt to get people to spend more money with them.

It’s so transparent you could put it in your garden and call it a greenhouse.

But recently I saw an example of a brand that understands what being a member should mean. How it should feel.

Because contrary to what many companies seem to believe, membership is as much about give as it is take.

I’ve heard far too many people narrow it down to ‘transactional value’.

What a company gives you is in proportion to what their audience gives them.

Data for discounts.

Purchases for discounts.

Information for access to stuff. And discounts.

Mechanical. Contrived. Commercial. Soulless.

And while I get the commercial value in this approach and acknowledge some do it very well … apart from the fact it’s now condition of entry for any commercial organisation, that’s not what real membership is about, just the illusion of it. And often, this illusion isn’t even for the audience, but for the marketing department of the brand and their agency.

Having a card that gives you discounts or questionable points that – if you’re lucky – can be used for some supposed benefit or other, may increase the amount of times you transact with a brand, but it doesn’t mean the audience give a shit about them.

And maybe companies don’t care about that, they just want your money.

But they should.

Because if people are transacting purely for convenience or routine, you may find they’re susceptible to going to someone who shows they understand who they really are, not just how much money they have to spend.

Nothing highlights what real membership is like, like sport.

Yes they expect stuff from their team.

Yes they can be vocal when things go wrong.

But …

Members can deal with loss.

Members can deal with pain.

Members can even deal with scandal.

All they really want is to feel their presence counts.

That they’re seen. That they’re valued. That they’re respected.

That both parties are putting in equal amounts of graft for the common goal.

Not so the club can flog them more of their stuff, but so they can feel they play an acknowledged and accepted role in making the team better, more distinctive and more special.

And while there’s a bunch of programmes that do this – and some do involve giving discounts and access to products before they hit the market – the most powerful are where teams target members hearts, not just their wallets.

Doing stuff they value, not what they want you to value.

Stuff they didn’t have to do, but still did.

Stuff that means they went out of their way rather than expecting their members to always go out of theirs.

It doesn’t even have to be a grand gesture, it just needs to be a gesture that proves you get how important it is to them, rather than just say you do.

But here’s the best bit … when you do that properly, you find those members will want to buy more of your stuff anyway.

No need for any contrived ‘membership’ marketing.

No need to claim you are as loyal to them as they are to you.

No need to push ‘signing up’ every time they spend any amount of cash.

Because ‘transactional value’ is a byproduct of the emotional relationship you have together, not the cause.

You’d have thought brands would have got this by now, especially as the approach so many currently favour is not that different to when the internet first started and people would get inundated with ‘e-newsletters’ from brands, simply because they once handed over their email address because they were interested in a single thing they said.

I often wonder if the brands that follow this approach think Argos has the best membership program in the Universe, simply because people keep stealing pens from their stores.

If you are one of those wondering this, let me help you.

They don’t. People just steal their pens from them. Because they can.

Me included.

And yes, I appreciate someone could say that’s ‘transactional value’ but actually it’s just shitty free advertising from a shitty free pen. It’s the same approach Virgin Atlantic had with their Upper Class salt and pepper sets that literally had ‘stolen from Virgin Atlantic’ printed on the bottom of them.

Because it was free advertising. Literally included in their cost of operations.

Look, having programs in place that drives sales value is a smart thing to do.

But doing the same as everyone else and claiming people have some sort of deeper connection with you because of it, is ridiculous.

Transactional value is the opposite of what membership is really about.

Because membership isn’t just about what you have, but how it makes you feel.

Or said another way, who it makes you feel you are … who you are a part of.

And with that, have a look at this …



A Picture Paints A Thousand Words …

For reasons I am unsure of, I have been asked to do a lot of presentations over the last few weeks.

From the board of directors of the World’s most notorious video game company to Silicon Valley VC’s to the social platform Trump is petrified of and a whole host in-between … I’ve been asked for my POV on all manner of things.

The role of technology in sexual education.

How technology can evolve how we tell stories.

Why the best way to be wanted is to be banned.

How experience design is increasingly built on efficiency not emotion.

How to create the environment where the best creative is allowed to be born.

It’s been so much fun …

Not just because it made me think about things or that I got to meet a bunch of amazing people, but because I could do the presentation entirely as I felt I wanted to.

It’s not that I have felt I couldn’t do what I believe was right, but over the last few years, there’s been a few people who have tried to convey a ‘this is how you should say things’ attitude.

Now don’t get me wrong, it takes an army to make an argument and you should always be open to other people’s thoughts and suggestions … but if you’re made responsible for giving the presentation, then you should get the final call on how you express it.

Having people more obsessed with how you’re saying things rather than what is being said is pretty depressing, but not as depressing when you realise colleagues can be more of an obstacle to great work than your clients.

When that starts happening, you start questioning things.

Often yourself.

Are you good enough?

Are you worthy enough?

And then, before you know it, you’re chipped into complicity by the constant stream of criticism … leaving you with no confidence, no self-belief and not much hope for where you’re heading.

I wrote about this a short while ago which is why I want to just reiterate, when you do the presentation you want, the feeling is infectious.

Not just to you, but to who the audience is.

Here’s some examples of the pages I’ve presented in the last few weeks …

And here’s the thing, they all went down very well.

Sure, some of them made the audience gulp.

But they also loved it because they knew I was saying was to try and help them win better rather than just kick them in the head.

And that’s the key.

Show you really give a shit about them.

However, while some seem to think you do this by pandering to the audience, I believe it is by giving them utter transparency and honesty.

Let’s face it, if you’re willing to do that to a client at a formal presentation – albeit doing it in a way where they understand why you’re doing it – then most of the time they’re going to respect you, even if they don’t agree with you.

I’ve had so many clients come to me/us who initially didn’t.

Because as my old, brilliant head of NIKE marketing said to me once,

“Middle management want to be told they’re right. But senior management want to know how to be better”.



Let’s Have Another Bonfire …

A few weeks ago, the lovely/stupid folks at WARC asked me to be part of a conversation to discuss whether strategists were well equipped to embrace the opportunity that clients valued brand strategy more than any other discipline.

If you’re a WARC member, you can watch the whole discussion here, but all the panelists were asked to give a 5 minute introductory talk about their perspective on the issue.

I used no slides, but if I had, I’d have used the image at the top of this page that comes from a presentation I recently gave to Rockstar Games. Not because it’s arresting, but because if no one paid any attention to what I said, they’d still get a good idea about where I stand on things.

But for those who want to know a bit more detail, this is what I said.

_____________________________________________________________________________

“We are in an interesting situation.

We have more flavours and capabilities in strategy than ever before.
We have more opportunities to learn the craft of strategy than ever before.
And – according to reports – we have more demand from clients for strategy than ever before.

That all sounds fucking fantastic for the strategy discipline, except we continue to see …

+ Strategic thinking being given away or discounted.
+ Tighter and tighter deadlines for strategy to be concluded.
+ The abdication of strategic thought to ‘whatever the data or platform owners say’.
+ More value placed on the process of strategy than the outcome of it.
+ A reduction in strategic training and development from agencies and companies alike.
+ Huge swathes of strategists being made redundant every single day.
+ A continued reluctance to hire people of colour or people born outside of capital cities
[and when we do, we tell them they’ll only be valued if they act exactly like the incumbents]
+ And from my view, less distinctive, disruptive and long-term strategy than we’ve seen before.

So when I compare the claims ‘the strategy future is rosie’ with the reality going down all around us, something doesn’t add up.

Which leads me to think there are 3 possibilities.

1. The strategy clients want is less about strategy and more about repackaging what they’ve already decided or simply don’t want to have to deal with.

2. The strategy companies/agencies want is less about strategy and more about doing whatever will keep the client relationship happy.

3. The strategy strategists do is less about taking lateral leaps forward and more literal shuffles towards the justification of whatever our clients want to have justified.

OK, I’m being a prick … but only partially.

Somewhere along the line we all seem to have forgotten what strategy is and what it is supposed to do.

To quote my planning husband, Mr Weigel, strategy should …

+ Make things happen
+ Move things forward
+ Create new possibilities
+ Create greater value for the audience and the business.

Or said another way, strategy is about movement, momentum and direction. Where the day after a strategy is engaged, the behaviour of the company or brand is fundamentally different to the day before. A distinctive, sustainable difference designed to deliver breakthrough results born from identifying a real business problem, nuanced understanding of the audience [rather than convenient generalisations] and commercial intimacy … by that I mean knowing who the company actually is, how they operate and how they need to in these modern times.

Prof Lawrence Freedman, the author of A History of Strategy … said it best:

“Strategy is about revolution. Anything else is just tactics.”

And we’re seeing a lot of tactics these days.

And while eco-systems, frameworks, brand onions, data, D2C, UX, creative briefs, ads and comms are all parts of the strategic journey, they’re rarely THE strategy.

Nor is creating endless sub-thinking for every decision, implication or possibility because, at best – they can paralyse the potential of the strategy and end up just creating incremental change rather than fundamental or – at worse – just cause mass fucking confusion.

And don’t get me started on optimisation or user journeys or white-label solutions or writing endless decks that go nowhere … because they’re often more about keeping things the same than moving things forward.

This discipline has been my life. I believe in it and I’m employed because of it. It can create incredible opportunity and value and has some incredible talent working in it and – more excitedly – wanting to work in it. But the reality is for all the people who have strategy in their title, few are setting the stage for brilliantly creative, commercially advantageous, progressive revolution … most of us are simply executing a small part of someone else’s thinking and then going off thinking we’re hot shit.

What this means is as a discipline, we’re in danger of becoming like a contestant on Love Island, initially interesting to meet but ultimately blunt, disposable and forgettable.

And while there’s many reasons for this – some beyond our control – we are contributing to it by acting like our own worst enemy. Doing things like arguing about which ‘flavour of strategy’ is the right ‘flavour of strategy’ for the modern age.

Apart from the fact most of the ‘new flavours’ are just re-badged versions of old strategic rigour – albeit with some more consideration and expression in it – this is just an argument of ego that’s distracting us from the real issue …

We can be so much more than we think we are.

We need to be so much more than we think we are.

But to realise this we need to stop thinking of strategy as if it’s engineering or simply the act of being able to think strategically … and get back to objective, distinctive and focused revolution.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Prof Freedman:

“Strategy is getting more from a situation than the starting balance of power suggests”.

If we’re not doing that, then we’re not just kidding ourselves … but also our entire discipline and our clients trust.

And while they’re many reasons for it – as I have already mentioned – we’re all kidding ourselves a lot these days.

As with everything, what happens next is up to us. But I hope it results in us being strategically dangerous because when we’re in full flight, that’s when we’ll show how much value we can add to commerce, culture and creativity”.