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”.



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”.



The Fine Line Between Victory And Vulgarity …

Let me start by saying I have a lot of respect for Charles and Maurice Saatchi.

What they did … the legacy they created … is, even now, amazing.

Their agency was responsible for so many of the ads that went on to define my childhood – both in good and bad ways – however, as I got older and entered the industry, I started to understand just how audacious they were in terms of what they thought the ad industry could be. And do.

Back then, their mantra was ‘Nothing Is Impossible’.

And they certainly lived up to it.

But while this led to some truly incredible work, it also led to the brothers ultimate downfall when they tried – amazingly and brilliantly – to buy Midland Bank.

There have been many reasons written about why their plan didn’t work out … and what happened subsequently … but I have to say, I’d imagine working for them at the time – with their sheer confidence, swagger and ambition – would have felt pretty intoxicating.

However this post isn’t about that, it’s about what happens when, in your quest to keep moving forward, you lose your values or self awareness and end up being a caricature of what you once were.

I’ve seen it happen.

I once worked with an advertising great who ended up believing everything they did was great, simply because they did it.

It didn’t take long before they were phoning in their work.

Not caring about what was going on around them.

Saying whatever they wanted because they believed whatever they said was wanted.

It was pretty tragic and I remember a very horrible conversation between us, where I said he had become the beast he had been obsessed with slaying.

It didn’t go well for me.

And, within a year, it didn’t go well for him … when his deluded arrogance took a step too far and his actions and behaviors couldn’t be ignored any longer.

Nowadays I occasionally see him spouting racist shit about immigration and foreign workers, which I find even more shocking given he spent so many years living across the World, not to mention – if rumours are to be believed – doing unspeakable things with certain people when he was in Asia.

But this isn’t a post about an old, short-lived, delusional colleague – nor it is to suggest the Saatchi brothers are anything like my old, delusional colleague … however this is about the moment [at least for me] when the Saatchi brothers revealed they may have not grown with the times, but were lost in old times.

This.

It was early Jan, 1990.

Saatchi was – I believe – the biggest agency in the World.

And the World was changing.

The party of the 80’s was over and everyone was trying to work out what the next decade had in store. One thing that had already started to happen was the fall of communism.

Protests had been happening throughout 1989 and they continued to gain momentum when, in November of that year, The Berlin Wall – a symbol of Communist/Western ideals – fell.

And it was on that wall Saatchi had placed that ad.

Not on the Western side, but the Eastern.

It wasn’t up for long, but they paid to have it there.

A way of showing their mantra.

An act of deliberate provocation for shock value.

An attempt to keep the spirit of 80’s excess alive.

A claim it was welcoming East German’s to independence and choice.

But the problem was, it wasn’t the 80’s anymore and so it came off as an act of commercial vulgarity. An act of cynical shamelessness to try and capture the headlines. And suddenly, the agency that could do no wrong suddenly went from being audacious to trying too hard.

Or said another way, Saatchi’s were trying to hold on to the past rather than lead the future.

Can you imagine an agency doing that now?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of them out there that have a complete lack of self awareness … not to mention another bunch whose entire business model appears to be ‘doing things first’ … regardless of its value to culture, creativity or commerce … however I doubt even those guys would think doing this would be a good idea today.

Or at least I hope not.

And that’s why I believe a positioning is not as good as a point of view.

Because positioning’s are set in stone.

They don’t move with the times … they stand firm, shouting their same tune regardless of what is going on. But a point of view is different. There’s flex in that. It lets you express what you believe, but how you express it is shaped by what is going on around it.

There’s longevity in a point of view.

There’s resonance in a point of view.

There’s less need to shock, because you always speak what others are trying to say.

Saatchi’s continue to do great work.

Saatchi’s continues to be filled with great people.

But I’ll always wonder what they could have been if they’d not crossed the line from audacious to caricature.

You can read the story of the Berlin Wall ad, here.



If You Don’t Like The Blues Brothers, Be Like A Supermodel …

So this is a continuation of yesterday’s post.

Specifically in terms of people in a position of power creating the physical and economic conditions for people of colour to prosper.

I don’t just mean giving people of colour a job, I mean fighting for them to have the platform to win in terms of respect, influence and pay.

Yesterday I wrote how Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi ensured the musicians in The Blues Brothers kept their performing rights for all the music they wrote/played, so they – and their families – would continue to profit every time a song or the movie was performed.

Well I recently heard of another example of this.

Naomi Campbell is an icon of the modelling industry.

But it wasn’t always like that.

In fact, if the industry had its way, it would never have happened.

In an interview, she said this …

“I used to have to fight for the same fee as my [white] counterparts doing the same job”.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Still happening each and every day in each and every way.

In fact it’s worse for the average person of colour – or woman – because they don’t have the scale of awareness or influence an international model has. So when they speak up about pay discrepancy, they immediately get labelled a ‘trouble maker’ or a ‘not a team player’ and find themselves either sidelined or, in some situations, fired.

But back to Naomi …

You see after she’d talked about the situation she faced in the early days of the industry, she went on to add …

“Thankfully, my friends Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington called out this treatment and told designers that if they didn’t hire me, they wouldn’t work for them”.

It is important to note this is not white saviour shit.

Or charity.

Linda and Christy never talked about what they did, nor have they ever sought credit or payment. In fact, had Naomi not talked about it, it may never have come out at all. But it is important it did because like yesterday’s post, it’s another example of people in a position of privilege – ie: white people – recognising and valuing the talent of someone they know the industry will chose to ignore and actively using their power to force a situation where they will be treated and paid well for their talent, expertise and influence.

There are some other examples I’ve heard – blues great, B.B. King said Elvis did a similar thing to ensure he cold play in the profitable venues of Las Vegas – but frankly, it’s still the exception rather than the rule and the situation is not getting any better.

In fact I could argue it’s probably getting worse because there is more awareness and supposed openness than ever before and yet things are still not happening.

But here’s the thing, it’s not enough to want to change the situation.

Just like it’s not enough to not be racist.

The reality is you have to hate racism enough to act against it.

Not just with words, but with actionable behaviour … where we use our inherent white privilege to not just talk about diversity and inclusion, but actively fight to create real, sustainable, economically prosperous opportunities for people of colour to win.

Not because we want to look good.

Not because we want people to be in our debt.

Not even because it’s the right thing to do.

But because their talent, their way of looking at the world, their understanding of what culture and creativity is – and can be – and their understanding of others will make us all better.

Literally.

And what’s more, they’re happy to share the benefits of this with all of us.

Maybe giving the industry we all work in a chance to not keel over and die.

Hell, we don’t deserve any of it but they still are willing to do it.

Christ, we don’t even have to give anything up, we just have to make space for them to be respected and rewarded for their talent, expertise and influence.

Which means there’s now only one thing to decide.

Are you going to be a Blues Brother or a Supermodel?