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


Don’t Want Something So Much That You Do Something You Don’t Want …

When I was at cynic, I wasn’t allowed to talk money with clients.

The main reason for this is that while I like money, I like doing weird and wonderful things more … so I used to agree to terrible terms just because I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss out on doing something we were really excited by.

Now I get we like to think there’s some sort of logic to this approach, but as George kindly told me – while punching me in the head – what I was doing was undermining our position.

For a start, your relationship with the client is impacted. That doesn’t mean they don’t value you, but it means they don’t value you as much as they should. They see you as a ‘cheap problem solver’ rather than a valuable problem solver.

Then there’s the fact all your additional time and passion will never be rewarded to the level it deserves. The worst part is this is your own fault as you already set the precedent for how much you are worth by lowering your fee to such a great degree.

And then there’s the dilution of the projects importance.

In essence, when something is made much cheaper, the effect is its value goes the same way. Going from something significant to just another thing being done. From having a strong focus within the company management to being delegated to people who don’t really have the same decision making power.

Before you know it, clients start questioning other things you’re doing.

Asking why certain things need to be done. Challenging the time or expense on the elements that show the real craft.

Leaving the end result a lesser version of what it should have been.

Now this doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens a lot.

And while I get we are in a highly competitive time, where everyone is looking to save cash – the ease in which we undermine our own value is both astonishing and debilitating.

George’s brilliance was his ability to have us walk away.

I have to be honest, we had many arguments about this over the years … but in the main, he was right.

His point was ‘why would someone value us if we’re not valuing us?’.

It’s a pretty compelling argument.

This doesn’t mean we weren’t open to negotiation, but George’s position was ‘never forget we have something they want because we’ve shown them something they need’.

Another pretty compelling argument.

And while this approach helped us not only win all manner of great creative projects – but helped us be a profitable, sustainable company – I still found it hard to deal with.

Hell, on the occasion we didn’t win a project because somebody said they could do it for cheaper, I was a bloody nightmare. George used to say it was because I am an only child – which may be right – because I hated not getting what I really, really wanted.

And even then, George was the voice of reason.

“Why are you upset about losing a project with a client who wants to go down to a price point rather than up to a standard?”

ARGHHHHH!

What makes it worse is he meant it.

He, more than any of us, knew our value and wasn’t going to let us let go of something we had worked so hard to earn.

He’s right of course.

It’s the reason the best work comes from people who share the same goal.

To aim high, not cheap.

Sure, money comes into it … but the focus is always the quality of the output not just the price.

It’s why Cynic was so exciting.
It’s why Wieden+Kennedy are so special.
It’s why Metallica’s management are so influential.
It’s why all the work I’m doing right now is so fascinating.

George taught me so much.

While I appreciate I’m in a much more privileged position than many, nowadays I am totally comfortable with walking away from a project if I feel the vision, ambition and value for a project is not shared.

And what’s weird is that while that approach has resulted in me walking away from a lot of potentially interesting projects that were worth a lot of money to me – especially over the last 6 months – it has brought me a range of fascinating clients and projects [and cash] that most agencies would kill to have a chance to work on.

I’ve written about knowing the value of your value in the past.

I’ve talked about how that lets you play procurement at their own game.

And while it feels scary to stick to your standards when someone is threatening to take away something you really want, it also makes you feel alive.

Butterflies of excitement. A taste of power and control. Nervousness of being in the game.

And while it might not always come off and while you may be able to justify why it would be easier to just take whatever they want to give you … it’s a beautiful feeling to feel you matter. That your work matters. That the way you look at the world matters. That what you want to create matters. That you won’t allow yourself to do something simply because you’re the cheapest. Or allow a bad process to force a diluted version of what you were hired to do. Or let yourself be evaluated by someone who doesn’t care about what you’re creating, just that it’s done. That you matter enough to not allow others to negatively judge you for terrible conditions they put you in.

It can take time to come to terms with this.

It took me almost 20 years to really get it.

And while some may call you a pretentious or stubborn or commercially ignorant, the reality is dismissing the value of your value simply to make things commercially viable for everyone else is simply the most stupid thing you can do.

Because to paraphrase something Harrison Ford once said, when you devalue the value of something you’ve spent your whole life working at, you’re not just being irresponsible, you’re not valuing the value of the time, experience and expertise it has taken to get you to that point.

George knew this.

George helped me benefit from this.

George eventually got me to understand this.

And I’ll always be grateful for that gift.

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I’ve removed comments. Not just because I’m scared of the mountain of abuse the ex-cynic alumni who comment on here may/will give me. But because I’m even more frightened they may bathe George in even more praise and that would be too much for me to deal with.

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Brand In 10 Words.

I am a massive fan of Rick Rubin.

Actually that’s not quite right.

I am a massive disciple of Rick Rubin.

I think he is incredible. His ability to help others express their most powerful creative voice is amazing.

So much of this is down to how he see’s his role.

Not as a music producer, but as a sophisticated fan.

Someone who wants the band he loves to be their shameless best.

Protecting them from ever feeling they have to compromise on who they are or what they want to say because he fiercely believes the greatest return comes when you express your honesty and authenticity rather than play to be liked.

It’s why the artists he’s worked with reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the most culturally significant artists of their time.

Those who either defined a genre or validated it.

LL Cool J
Run DMC
The Beastie Boys
Slayer
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Rage Against The Machine
The Black Crowes
The Dixie Chicks
Johnny Cash

Look at that list. Look at it.

Hip Hop. Rap. Rock. Metal. Thrash. Blues. Country. Funk.

No one should be able to be so successful with that range of genre and artist.

It’s hilarious and yet there are so many more artists I could mention because for almost 4 decades, Rubin has helped artists not only express their truth but recognise the economic power from doing so.

He has created icons.
He has revived icons.
He has shaped, pushed and provoked culture.
He has influenced, shaped and changed music forever.

When we hear agencies talk about ‘creating culture’, most haven’t come anywhere close to what he has helped create.

But what I love the most about Rubin is how he decides who he is going to work with.

Basically his entire decision making process is based on one simple process.

Taste.

If Rubin likes what he hears, then he’s up for it.

It doesn’t matter whether it has any connection to anything he’d done before, he see’s it less about the music and more about the artist needing help to express … find … or rediscover their voice.

Not their singing voice. Their soul.

It’s not that far off what we as an industry say we do for brands.

Except we’re increasingly forgetting what brand is because we sacrifice it time and time again for the quick win.

I get it, we’re fighting for our lives … but in our quest to show we have value, we’re destroying what makes us valuable.

Oh I know we won’t admit that.

We’ll point to words like purpose, experience and membership as proof ‘we get it’.

We’ll say they’re representative of modern brand building and all else is old.

We’ll show 1000 page decks that show how our unique processes ‘guarantee’ success.

And some clients will buy this, which means we can go away thinking we’ve got it all sorted out and we’re legends.

Except we haven’t and we aren’t.

Yes, all those elements play an important role in building a modern brand … however they’re never the lead, always a supporting actor because …

Sales without distinction doesn’t build a brand.

Purpose without sacrifice doesn’t build a brand.

Data without understanding doesn’t build a brand.

User journeys without nuance doesn’t build a brand.

Eco-systems without an idea doesn’t build a brand.

Personalisation without being personal doesn’t build a brand.

Wanting to be something to everyone rather than everything to someone doesn’t build a brand.

The harsh reality is we’re dangerously close to confusing commoditisation with brand building. Of course this is not all our fault, but continuing to perpetrate it, most definitely is.

While I appreciate Rick Rubin didn’t mean the photo/quote that appears at the top of this page to be interpreted this way … he pretty much sums up how to build truly distinctive and definitive, culturally resonant brands.

And he does it in 10 words.

TEN!!!

And that’s part of Rubin’s magic.

He understands how to get to the simplest expression of his viewpoint, because he knows the simpler it is, the less obstacles to deal with.

Simple lets truth speak and rise.

Simple lets possibilities flourish.

Simple lets distinctiveness be expressed.

Simple is unbelievable power.

Now the irony of simple is it’s not easy to pull off.

Simple is definitely not simplistic. To be simple requires a hard work, experience and confidence … and while as an industry we have known this and advocated this for decades, we seem to have recently decided the opposite – where we celebrate complexity.

What the hell?!

Maybe it’s because we’re making more money from this approach. Or just feel more important. But the endless playbooks, frameworks, processes, tools and strategies we’re producing aren’t building better brands, just bigger obstacles.

Again, there’s a place for them. But the way they’re being used – they’re more like hammers than brushes – forcing them into the process, competing with all around them and ultimately leaving people lost with what they’re following, what they’re building and what they’re actually doing this all for.

As someone recently said to me – someone hugely successful in business – when companies make the solution more complex than the problem, they’re just creating another problem.

Please don’t think this means you skimp on standards or rigour.

If anything, it’s the exact opposite … but because everyone knows what they’re working towards [rather than doing their version of what they think everyone should be working towards], it means they can be sharp and focused and that means your work can be expressed in ways that lift things up rather than bogs them down.

I get some people won’t like this.

I get some people won’t agree with this.

I get some clients would never sign off on this.

But apart from the fact I doubt any of them will have come close to influencing, shaping or creating culture in the same commercially infectious way Rubin has, if they really believe selling the complexity of intelligence is a smarter way to operate, I’ll leave you with something my dad – who was pretty good on this whole intelligence thing – used to say to his lawyers:

“If you have to show how clever you are, you aren’t that smart”.



When Hijacking Becomes Criminal …

I’ve written a lot about the ‘hijack’ strategy.

Where a brand pushes itself into a cultural event or topic to either attempt to change the narrative or leverage the narrative.

Some brands do it brilliantly … Nike or Chrysler for example.

However some are a bloody car crash.

At its heart, the difference is simply whether your hijack ‘adds to culture’ or just ‘takes from it’ … however given this approach is now so common among brands, I have to ask whether it can even be considered ‘hijacking’ anymore when most of society expect someone to do it.

That said, it is still a powerful strategy when done right … the problem is, most brands aren’t doing that.

Case in point … social media GAP during the US election.

What the hell?

I know why they did it.

I know what they hoped would happen from it.

But all I can think about is when your own brand of clothes don’t know who they are for, you’re pretty fucked.

And that kind-of sums up GAP’s problem.

Who are they for?

It’s no surprise they are facing incredible pressure in the market these days, to the point there’s talk of them pulling out the UK altogether.

They’re not distinctive enough for people to want to pay a premium for. They’re not cheap enough for people to use them as a foundation for whatever fashion they want to express that day.

In fact, the only thing they have going for them is a collab with Kanye.

It could be amazing.

Reimagining the future of what e-commerce is and how it works.

Combining it with art, not just functionality.

Though whether it will end up making GAP’s clothing range look even older and blander is anyone’s guess.

If they want to learn how to really hijack a moment, they should look at the Four Seasons Landscaping company in Philadelphia.

This is the place where President Trump’s team recently held a press conference, mistakingly booking it thinking it was the Four Seasons hotel.

With all this global attention, they’re leveraging it by selling merch that mimics Trump’s messages.

This is real cultural hijacking.

This is done by adding to the experience rather than just taking it.

Making a landscape company a brand of culture. Albeit for a short period of time.

But let me say this, it’s still more fashionable than the stuff GAP are making right now.

You can buy it here.



Finally, I Give You A Way To Shut Me Up …

When you’re my age, you get to look at your career and see the different phases that it passes through.

I remember one year at Wieden, we seemed to make more beautiful, highly-crafted physical books on culture than we did ads.

Now I’m a huge fan of these – and still do them – but that year I think we made about 10, which was frankly ridiculous.

Then there was the year I got told I’d spoken at more conferences than anyone at Wieden.

It wasn’t said as a diss, more a fact – though I do remember Luhr looking at me with the face of someone who couldn’t work out why anyone would want me to talk at their event.

He wasn’t wrong.

Then there was the year I seemed to be in every bloody Asian marketing book or article and then of course, The Kennedys.

It happens. It’s rarely an intentional thing, but the nature of the business means it can be like that … and while I’ll always prefer to be involved in creating stuff, it does let you feel things are evolving and that’s a good feeling.

Well this year is another one of those years.

Part of this is because of the situation the World is in and part of it is because of the situation I have found myself in.

However, whereas previous years have seemingly had singular focuses, this year has had two.

Icons of culture and podcasts.

Both have been pretty awesome.

Musicians … Fashion superstars … Gaming Royalty … Billionaires.

Frankly people who should know a lot better than to ever want me to work with them … and yet, for reasons I don’t understand but am utterly grateful for, they have.

It’s certainly very different to the work I’ve done in the past, but it not only is introducing me to a whole new world of creative expression – from developing new concert experiences to video game design to stuff that is genuinely almost impossible for me to describe as it’s just plain beautifully bonkers – it’s letting me work with people who are recognised as being the best in their field so to be in this position … and to have Colenso to look forward to in addition … feels like winning the lottery.

I know this all sounds like humble bragging – but that’s not the intent.

To be honest, it’s more about me writing it down so I never forget this feeling.

This moment.

Because as tough as it is for people all around the World, I am very, very fortunate so many good things have come my way.

But that’s not what this post is about, it’s about the other thing I’ve been doing a lot of.

Podcasts.

I’ve done a ton this year.

[Here and here and here for example]

Why people want to hear from me – especially when I write so much bollocks about my life on here – is another thing I don’t get … but it’s been fun.

Recently the lovely/stupid people at Colenso had chat with me for their Love This podcast …

We cover all manner of subjects … from running a planning gang to developing creativity in a pandemic to how to be a fucking idiot … so if you’re bored, an insomniac or are jealous of Colenso’s brilliance and are looking forward to the pain they’ll experience with me in the building, you can listen to it at one of these places.

Apple.
Spotify.
Soundcloud.



Give Me Something To Believe In …

One of the things I’ve found fascinating over the years is how many companies think all they need to do to keep employees happy is cash and perks.

Don’t get me wrong, cash and perks are very nice – and for some people, that’s all they need – however for a certain type of employee, there is another attribute that has equal, if not even greater, appeal.

Pride.

Pride in what they do.
Pride in how they do it.
Pride in who they do it for.
Pride in who they work with.
Pride in the actions of the past.
Pride in the ambitions for the future.
Pride in the standards the company lives by.
Pride in the companies standing in their field.

Now I get the C-Suite may like to think their employees are proud working for them – probably reinforced by countless questionable ‘monkey surveys’ sent by HR – however more often than not, they are confusing ‘having a job’ with ‘being proud of the job they have’.

Nothing highlights this more than when a company feels morale is down, because that’s the moment the spot-bonuses and/or impromptu office parties begin.

Does it work?

Sure. For a period of time.

However employees are no fools, they know the real reason for these ‘additional benefits’ is to keep them quiet rather than force the C-Suite to open up a set of issues they absolutely don’t want to have to deal with.

Why?

Because in the main, the issues are about them.

Specially the work they aspire for the company to make.

Look I get it … no one likes to face their potential failings, so if they can avoid it with spending a bit of cash, why wouldn’t they?

Well I’ll tell you why, because money can’t buy pride.

I say this because I recently saw a video of Steve Jobs talking about standards.

He’s made similar speeches over the years – with his ‘paint behind the fence’ being one of my favourites.

However I love this one because there’s a bit of bite in it.

A clear perspective on what standards he holds Apple too, rather than what the competition hold themselves too.

Sure, to some it could come across as arrogant, but I imagine to the people at Apple at that time, it induced the same feelings I have when I work for a company whose standards and ambitions were at least the same as mine or – hopefully – even higher.

Pride.
Confident.
Togetherness.
A sense of ‘us against them’.
That feeling you’re part of a place playing a totally different game to the competition. A special place. A place that does things right, even if people don’t quite get it yet. A place that attracts the best to do their best … but not in a way where you then feel ‘you’ve made it’ for being there. Instead, it’s a feeling of responsibility to keep the standards of name moving forwards. An intoxicating mix of expectation, judgement and encouragement all at the same time.

You can’t fake that.

You can’t buy it either.

So when the C-suite hand out promotions, payrises and parties in a bid to boost morale because the claims of doing great work are not convincing anyone … my advice is to save their cash.

Not just because the employees know exactly what they’re doing.

Nor because whatever they end up receiving, it still won’t buy their pride.

But because they could save a ton of cash by simply committing to doing things to the highest standards rather than the lowest … because at the end of the day, these people don’t need certainty, they just want possible and if they have that, morale will fix itself all by itself.