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


A Conversation About Living. And Failing.

A few weeks ago, my friend – Philippa White, the founder of TIE – spoke to me about my life.

While many would say that is the single worst idea anyone could have, Philippa – for reasons that still escape me – thought differently.

TIE – or The International Exchange – is an amazing thing.

They link people from the commercial world [from big organisations to people from BBH and W+K] with social initiatives around the world, providing unique opportunities that will transform the lives of both parties.

It’s an absolutely amazing organisation and the people who have done it talk about how it has had a profound affect on their lives – for the experience they had, the realisation that their skills can benefit people in different ways that they ever imagined and the lessons they learnt about what they’re good at, what they want to be good at and the future they can now envision for themselves.

I have not done TIE, but Philippa and I bonded when we met over the power of overseas experiences and learning and for some reason she wanted to talk about my journey.

We cover a whole lot of topics, from family to friendship to failure and while it may only be interesting to those looking for a cure for insomnia, if you’re looking for development, growth and having more meaning and value from your life … I can assure you TIE is definitely going to be of interest to you.

Thank you Philippa. Thank you TIE.

You can be disappointed by it here.



Clarity Not Assumption …

So this is a few weeks old, but IKEA recently opened a store in the Middle East.

This is what happened …

While IKEA dealt with the situation with grace and self depreciation, it highlights the potential problems of different cultures – and departments – working together.

It’s all to easy to assume the designers should have read ‘same text, but in Arabic’ and worked out their job was to write IKEA in Arabic. But apart from the fact many designers believe their job is about the craft of what they’re given rather than the reason for it, language structure is hugely different in cultures and so many people feel it is better to take words literally than risk making the wrong assumption.

When I lived in China I had a shirt I loved.

I’d worn it so often, it was covered in patches basically holding it together and so in the end, I realised that if I wanted to keep wearing it, I’d have to get another one made.

Fortunately, the fabric market had loads of people who did this so I went there and asked them to make me the same shirt.

A week later I went to collect it, and what did I find?

A shirt that was identical to the one I had given them.

Right down to the rips and patches that was on the original.

In other words, I’d had them make me a shirt I still couldn’t wear.

And it was my fault.

Because when I said, “could you please make me a duplicate of this shirt”, I assumed they would get without the worn out bits … but that’s on me, not them and that’s why anyone who wants to work in other cultures or with other cultures needs to understand they have to communicate on the audiences terms, not on theirs.



The Annoying Prick Who Keeps Being An Annoying Prick …

When I left Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai, I wanted to do something that was a mix of mischief and love.

OK, mainly mischief.

So I had 600 stickers [like the the one above] and hid them throughout the newly refurbished office, Nike GCHQ, restaurant and bars near the office and – just because I was spending so much time there – Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo.

I have to say, hiding that many stickers can be quite difficult, but it forced me to get very creative with it … which is why for months afterwards, people would message me to say they had found one in the most unlikely of places.

Apparently all this tomfoolery really, really pissed someone off there – which, I must admit, made me smile for a whole host of reasons – and they went through the office trying desperately to find and destroy all the stickers they could find.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine – who had helped with the hiding – sent me the above photo.

Yep, it’s one of the stickers we placed.

Yep, it’s one of quite a few they still haven’t found.

Which makes me so, so happy.

Not just because if the person it annoyed so much finds out there’s still some there, they’ll not sleep for the feeling I got one over on them … but because after 3 years since I left, it surely means I qualify as the official cockroach of Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai. Which would be wonderful, because I loved every second of my time there.



A House Of Brands Or A House Of Cards?

Yes it’s real.

Yes, it has been out for at least 4 months.

And yes, there are so many things I could say about it … but I’m relying on you do it for me.

I will say this however …

When I worked on Old Spice at Wieden – which was only for Asia and had little to do with the great work from Portland – we were adamant that while the creativity should be allowed to explore all manner of mad worlds, the packaging/fragrances had to communicate stability because otherwise there was the danger the whole brand would look like one giant joke.

Or said another way …

The product had to allow madness around it rather than try to compete with it.

I’ll leave it there, over to you …



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”.