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


Back Where It All Began …

So today I start my new job.

In England.

The last time this happened was in 1989 which blows my mind.

Of course, this situation is quite different to the last situation.

I’ve had a family.

I’ve lived around the World.

I’ve worked – and started – a bunch of companies.

I’m slightly better off than I was back in the late 80’s.

And while I enjoyed my time in the US, I’m very excited about what I’m going to be doing because whereas previously the big opportunity for me was more around understanding different cultures, this new role gives me that while also challenging and teaching me about possibilities that go beyond my areas of experience, because today I start as the head of strategy for R/GA for EMEA.

There were a bunch of reasons for leaving America, but one thing we knew was that there was no point if I wasn’t going to be enjoying myself.

For enjoying myself, I mean pushing me, challenging me, educating me and helping me make a bigger difference than I thought I could make.

I’ve long admired R/GA – especially R/GA London – so when we started chatting, I was fascinated about the opportunity and was incredibly happy/surprised, to learn they seemed to feel the same way.

Quite frankly, while all agencies talk about ‘creating cultural change’, R/GA seem to be the only one trying to make it happen on an ongoing basis. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some agencies out there who definitely help shape cultural behavior and attitudes – like my beloved W+K – but R/GA want to create the ideas, systems and communication that can encourage longer term cultural change rather than momentary effect.

At the end of the day, the idea of working with smart people who want to use creativity to impact the future and smart clients who want to walk towards the future was hugely infectious for me, especially at my age.

What makes it even better is that my remit means I’ll still get to work and discover different cultures, which is something I’ve done for the past 20 years all around the World … though given it’s been 24 years since I’ve lived in the UK, I’m pretty sure I’m going to find it fascinating understanding what is making this country tick.

All in all, I’m super excited.

At the interview I was asked why I wanted the job and I told them about a friend of mine who works for architect extroidinaire, Sir Norman Foster.

My mate is disgustingly epic … smart, charming and as handsome as hell … but despite all those enviable attributes, the thing I’ve always been jealous of is that his job requires him to create stuff that will outlive him.

I love advertising.

I think it is massively undervalued.

But the way the industry is going – focusing on the present, not building for the future – is scary as hell.

Not just in terms of the longevity of adland, but the ambitions of brands.

So to have a chance to work for a place that attracts clients who want to build rather than just plunder is very exciting for me.

Especially if there’s a shot of creating something that could outlive me.

Let’s just hope I can fool them into thinking I’m worth keeping around for more than a week …

Given my love of chaos, that might be over-ambitious.

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That Friday Feeling That Lasts A Whole Week …

So next week, I’ll be in Hong Kong.

For the whole week.

Yes, that means absolutely no posts whatsoever for the next week.

But to make sure you don’t get too happy, I’m going to leave you with one final post.

This is about the importance of mistakes.

Now I appreciate the word ‘mistake’ is often viewed as a negative, but I have a very different perspective on them.

Mistakes create standards.

Mistakes open opportunities.

Mistakes reveal who we can be.

OK, so depending on the mistake, some people may feel very differently about the positive effects of them, but in my experience big, small, life-changing or just momentarily ridiculous … they all have a benefit as long as you go into them and come out of them with the right attitude.

In short, if you’re making mistakes for any other reason than trying to do something great, you’re wasting everyones time and effort.

Making mistakes out of laziness or stupidity doesn’t help anybody, especially yourself. But doing it because you went for awesome … had a desire to push boundaries … wanted to see what other possibilities are possible … then each one of those mistakes should be celebrated and embraced by all.

Unless, of course, you’re just doing things for personal and selfish reasons then you’re a bit of a dick.

But that aside, this attitude is especially important in relation to being able to come out of your mistake with dignity and sanity intact.

Dignity and sanity are big words.

You can’t bullshit those.

For me, the only way you can walk out with either is if you went go your mistake with a clear reason for doing it and come out with a real learning from having done it.

That’s it.

And while others may never understand your reasoning, if you are clear on your motivations going in and your learnings coming out, then what others may call a ‘mistake’ may be one of the most important and valuable things you can ever do … something that has the power and potential to change, shape, reveal and create every new path you take from here on in.

Dan Wieden used to call this ‘fail harder’, he was right because whatever anyone says, mistakes matter.

See you in a week …



Rob Channels Jerry Maguire …

So a while back, someone asked me what I thought made a ‘good planner’.

To be honest, all I really remember is that they caught me on a bad day and so I kind of went on an all-out rant.

By pure chance I recently came across my reply and while I definitely sound a bit of a mentalist – not to mention I miss out talking about a whole bunch of stuff I believe is super-important, like empathy – there was a lot in there that I felt had some value, if only to open a debate about what our discipline is supposed to do and what it can be.

So with that in mind, here I rant …

__________________________________________________________________________

Planning is one of the most overused terms in the industry these days.

Everyone is now a planner … except in truth, many are either ‘packagers’ – taking the clients info and packing it into easily digestible chunks – or media people who tell you where to put your work based entirely on numbers rather than any true audience understanding.

Now I am not saying those folks aren’t important, of course they are, but for me planning is about ignition to bigger opportunities and possibilities.

For me, a planner understands 3 fundamental things:

+ What the real business problem is.
+ Who the core audience is.
+ What the creative opportunity is.

Those 3 things form the foundation of making things … things that don’t just solve the problem, but help the client have a sustainable position in culture that ultimately makes their marketing work harder for them.

Great planners care about creativity rather than advertising.

Care more about authenticity of a brand rather than marketing of a brand.

Want to uncover why people do stuff rather than just what they do.

It’s not about convenient answers, but ones that really understand the madness of how we all think and do and what we value and believe.

Of course when you’re spending billions of someone else’s money, the temptation to choose convenient, mass-acceptance answers is high and while that can get you results, breakthrough only comes when you resonate with culture rather than just try to be relevant to it.

The un-said.
The hard to explain.
The not easy to hear but it’s true.

It’s for this reason I always tell clients they shouldn’t focus purely on the methodology being used to uncover this stuff … but the person leading it, the people they’re talking to and the questions they are asking.

There’s a reason why a brand like NIKE is still at the top of its game after so long.

Sure, they have ups and downs along the way, but to still have that energy and pull 54 years after they were founded is remarkable.

Of course the biggest part of this is they make great products, have a focus on innovation, have incredible distribution and enjoy the benefits of their market power. But arguably, other companies can lay claim to doing this which is why I believe their ‘secret sauce’ is their commitment to the culture they believe in and are a part of. The culture of the athlete.

Everything they do goes through this lens.

Everything.

And that’s why their marketing doesn’t follow the usual strategic approaches of looking for ‘white space’ or ‘getting to as broad an audience as possible’, but to have a deep connection to the lives and minds of the athlete so they can bring the lessons to life in the most inspirational, yet deeply authentic way possible.

This approach dictates everything, including how they choose and use their agency partners.

From a planning perspective, I know I placed far more value on someone who has a deep love of sport and creativity than anyone who could talk process or methodologies because for me – and NIKE and Wieden and every other agency on their roster – their job was to inspire great creatives to do something audacious for a client who fundamentally believes in the power of their brand voice and sport.

All this highlights 3 things.

1. Great planning comes from truly understanding the core audience.

2. Great work comes from knowing how to be useful to the creative team.

3. Great brands differentiate themselves by their authenticity and distinctiveness.

I’ve written a lot about differentiation.

While the goal should always be to ensure your clients stands out from their competitors, if the approach is to ‘own’ a position that hasn’t been taken, then ultimately you’re letting your competitors dictate your future rather than deciding it for yourself.

For me, great brands embrace their truth in fresh and exciting ways.

They attract culture rather than chase it because they are the culture, not observers of it.

It means they are always moving forward rather than remaining stagnant.

It means they’re always relevant rather than fighting for it.

Planners play an important part in this.

But only if they remember the work is the key, not the ego.



Don’t Fall In Love With Your Own Voice …

So I know that the first reaction most people will have reading the title of this post is, “Pot. Kettle. Black.”

And I get it, I can talk. A lot.

But the thing is, in actual client meetings, I’m much more surgical.

There’s a couple of reasons for this.

The first is I am genuinely interested to hear what others in the room think.

The second is it allows me the time to truly consider my point of view in consideration of all we’ve heard.

And thirdly, I can ensure my POV has the opportunity to be shaped by others perspectives that I may not have considered.

However there are 2 occasions where I don’t follow these rules.

The first is when the room requires some sort of ignition to commence debate.

I know we live in times where everyone seems to have a point of view on everything, but there are occasions when silence happens and when it does, my role is to kick things off so a topic finds its natural rhythm and momentum with the rest of the attendees.

The other time I enter the fray earlier is when we have the self-appointed expert.

Now as I’ve said many times, I’m a huge fan of ‘intelligent naivety’ … people who experience/situation affords them a unique perspective on a subject matter, despite not being employed or trained in it.

For example, years ago when I was working with Dreamworks to define what ‘entertainment’ was, one of the people we invited who had a fascinating perspective, was a mother of 8 kids who regarded anything that kept her kids quiet and still for 15 minutes was the pinnacle of entertainment.

But I’m not talking about these folk.

The beauty of them is they tend to speak very much from their personal perspective, situation and experience and never try to claim their opinion is valid for a different set of circumstances.

I’m talking about the people who don’t understand that their perspective is simply their perspective rather than something that is universal and can be transported to others.

The millionaires who talk about what it’s like to be a kid in a low income home, based on what their kid likes.

The ad folk who talk about what life is like in the suburbs because they read an article about it in The Guardian.

The white guys who talk about understanding what it’s like to be an African American because they aren’t racists.

The men who tell women what they want because “my Mum was one”.

The businessmen who talk about what an ad should look like because they know business.

And while those people absolutely have a right to an opinion, they need to be reminded it’s just that – an opinion, not a fact – because if you let them talk incessantly, they don’t just have the ability to derail a meeting, they have the ability to get otherwise sane people to agree to decisions that are utterly car-crash. Remember Pepsi?



What Agencies Can Learn From Otis’ Kindergarten …

So Otis goes to this amazing hippy kindergarten school near where we live.

It’s a co-parenting school which means that the parents have to help with the schooling of the kids, not just with the funding.

It follows a very specific philosophy defined by the founder and it’s a place where kids learn through expressing their creativity.

They even have a ‘mud room’ for the kids to cause mayhem when it rains.

Put simply, we love it.

A few weeks ago, we went there on the weekend to help decorate it during spring break when I came across these 2 signs in the school …

I love them.

It sums up everything we adore about the school.

It captures exactly why Otis feels it’s a safe and happy place for him to explore.

It also addresses something I have been looking into for a while, which is the lack of outlet American men have to express their feelings.

Everything is built on acting tough.

Crying is for wimps.

Hell, even the bars are full of sports TV’s basting out scores, which means people don’t have the quiet to talk to one another – something I had growing up in England that actually encouraged the sharing of feelings and emotions. Albeit often wrapped up in banter.

The macho pride that seems to underpin so much of American male society feels like it’s still the 1950’s … which is why I love that this school doesn’t tell kids to ‘stop crying’, but asks what is wrong and then sympathises with their predicament which remarkably, helps them stop crying far more quickly and in a more positive way than any shouting would ever do.

Now imagine if companies operated by the same ideals.

Listening.

Valuing.

Caring.

Developing.

Oh I know those words appear in a million mission statements, but we all know they’re often used more as an illusion than an action.

In the bid to build office ‘culture’, so many organizations forget it’s not just about what you say – or even what you do – it’s the practiced beliefs that defines what everyone values, which is why companies could learn even more from this school than my dear Otis.



A Year In A Blink …

So today is a year since I left Wieden and – in 6 days – Shanghai.

That’s incredible.

In some ways it seems it was just a few weeks and in other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago.

While it was absolutely time to start a new adventure – something LA and Deutsch have kindly given me – I still miss China and Wieden very much because I had 7 years of brilliant things happen in my life [such as this] and career [such as this and this] there … though I have it on good authority this sentimentality is only one way, mainly because those stickers I left behind are still being discovered.

And they will for many more years to come.

Cue: Evil laugh.



Age Is Attitude …

I’m old.

In fact by adland rules, I’m a bloody dinosaur.

That’s not because I’m switched off to contemporary culture – quite the opposite – but because the industry is ageist to the core.

The reality is anyone at my age tends to face an interesting dilemma in terms of how they are perceived …

Be old but think young and the industry sees you as a try-hard.

Be old and act old and the industry sees you as past-it.

Both things are wrong of course and it’s one of the reasons I always loved Wieden because they valued creativity rather than devaluing age. Of course, you have to keep the flow of new, exciting, dangerous talent coming into the place … but in my experience, when people have an open mind, the young learn from the old and vice versa and the end result is something even more potent than it would have otherwise been.

But maybe that’s just me trying to post rationalise my value.

The thing is, as I get older, I don’t want to subscribe to the ‘life’ I am supposed to have.

That doesn’t mean I aspire to living a long-term midlife crisis any more than I want to spend my time gardening, drinking wine or playing golf … if people want to do that, that’s fine, but I want to indulge in the things that continue to fascinate, intrigue and challenge me.

I wrote about this once before, but the best and worst thing about growing older is that you are continually discovering things you want to explore – in fact, the more you explore, the more you discover additional things you want to explore – but underpinning all this is the unshakable knowledge the time you have to do it is more limited than ever and so there will be paths that will be unexplored.

That’s quite the mindfuck.

Years ago a man I met said, “you know you’re getting old when you can’t feasibly double your age”.

At the time I remember laughing but now I’m in that situation, it’s confronting.

I have so much I want to do. See. Try. Explore.

Then there’s the things like seeing my son forge his own path.

While spending more time with my beloved wife.

More memories. Less dreams.

The idea that time is getting shorter can really fuck you up.

And that’s why for me, it’s about trying to ensure my family life a life of fulfillment.

I don’t want to subscribe to irrelevance.

Sure, one day I might be regarded as that for companies, but this is not about them – but me.

My Mum always had a desire live at the speed of contemporary culture.

She didn’t want to feel she was left behind.

That didn’t mean she did things she didn’t want to do, but she also didn’t want to live in a bubble where her context for life was far removed from the realities of life so she was open to the new and actively explored it … not in the bullshit way advertising portrays it, but in her interest in culture, from comedians and artists to music and politics.

That’s an amazing lesson to be taught – one I wholly subscribe to – which is why I think the industry is missing the point when it labels people over 40 as over-the hill. For me, rather than judge individuals by their physical; age, they should judge them by what they bring … what they challenge … what they change … because it’s the one’s who refuse to be labelled who can make exciting things happen.