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


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”.



Adland Does More Than Just Sell, It Makes You Feel …

When I hear people say ‘TV ads are dead’, I laugh.

Especially when – in the same breath – they talk about the importance of content.

But what makes me hysterical is when they talk about content in terms of volume rather than emotion.

How many different ways it can be cut. How many different platforms if can be carried on. What it allows you to say and show.

That sounds even worse than a bad TV ad to me.

And as much as I love technology and what it is allowing creativity to do and impact in marketing, a great piece of film still has the power to have more impact on what people think, feel and do than 10,000 eco-systems that have all been designed to remove every possible element of friction rather than ignite it.

What’s also amusing is that while the industry loves to focus on the new, new thing – even though in many cases, the new thing is simply an old thing, albeit with a new name – it’s the same, arguably ‘older’, agencies who use creativity in the most consistently powerful, thought-provoking and emotionally igniting ways.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking them – quite the opposite actually – and I bloody love them all, however while everyone justifiably talks about the Wieden’s, Uncommon’s and Mother’s of the world, I think we should all take a moment to acknowledge the incredible work AMV is doing right now.

Of course they’ve always been one of the best but right now … they’re coming out swinging.

Not only did they make the best Christmas ad ever written for Plenty paper towels – yes, a bloody paper towel brand – and the incredible Wombstories for Bodyform, they’ve just launched this masterpiece for MacMillan Cancer Support.

Amazing isn’t it?

Almost 2 ½ minutes long and yet it never feels it.

In fact, you watch it over and over again.

Even though it makes you cry.

Properly sob.

Maybe it’s because in this repetitive life of isolation, it lets us feel human … connected to someone or something in a way that we’ve not had for a long time. Or maybe it is a reminder of how fragile life is or how lonely it can be.

Whatever it is, this is more than just ‘an ad’, and so, so much more than the contrived content designed to work across multiple platforms that so many people in the industry seem to think is the way forward … because this incredible piece of film allows us to glimpse the fine line that exists between life and death and the amazing souls who do their absolute best to try and keep them as far apart for as long as possible.

It had a huge impact on me.

Because like AMV did with Plenty – albeit from a VERY different perspective – their eye for detail was immense.

You may not notice all of them.

You may only notice them if you’ve lost someone.

But they’re there and they’re real in all their beauty and tragedy.

The exaggerated happiness to try and disguise the worst situations for the sake of those who don’t quite understand.

The need to be strong for those who know their reality but don’t need that being brought into their reality.

The joy of giving someone a second of happy distraction in a life surrounded by bleakness.

The despair of seeing a child come to terms with their parents mortality.

The elation and gratitude of victory.

The intense fear you think this may be the end and you are petrified you may be alone during your final moment.

But it’s the last scene – where the family say their final goodbye to a woman they obviously love so much – that truly ripped me apart.

From the hand reaching out, struggling and desperate to find the hand of the person they love – a final touch before they slip away – to the intense, shocking loneliness that engulfs you when you realise they’ve taken their final breath.

It reminded me so much of my Mum.

As I sat next to her, after she had come out of her operation, only to see everything collapse in front of my eyes.

The attempt to make sense of something that made no sense.

The shattering of life as someone I loved with all I got went away.

A death that was as unfair as it was untimely.

And what’s strange is I keep watching the ad to relive that feeling.

To be reminded of that final moment with Mum. The sadness and the pain.

Because while it makes me cry deeply every single time … taking me to a place I never want to relive … it has this weird effect of letting me feel closer to her.

A moment where we are together again.

Some kind of private moment.

So I look at it again and again and again. Not just that final scene, but the whole thing … watching events unfold in front of me as if it was for the first time seeing it. Being moved, uplifted and devastated at the exact same moments every single time.

Until that final moment.

Where even though the music reaches its crescendo, everything feels silent.

Where I gasp for air while wanting to scream to try and break the reality of what’s happening in front of me.

Where I feel my whole body is tightly wound in a futile bid to hold things together.

It’s a tragic feeling of familiarity that I wish wasn’t.

And yet I am grateful for it. I truly am.

Because despite all this raw emotion, I never feel the ad exploits.

Yes, it challenges and confronts, but it never ventures into shock while also – somehow – never feeling like it is keeping anything back either.

It is an extraordinary piece of film that reminds us the people who try to keep the thin line between life and death as far apart as possible for each and every one of us, are also people.

Doing whatever it takes to help the people suffering and the people watching, move forward to wherever a better place exists.

It didn’t just make me send it to people, put it on social, look up the team behind it and write this post – it made me sign up to make regular donations to MacMillan Cancer Support.

Don’t tell me TV ads don’t work. When they’re like this, they can change the world.



Attitude Drives Output …

Once upon a time, Nottingham Forest had a manager called Sean O’Driscoll.

He was an excellent manager. Someone who understood the game and got his teams to play attractive football.

Everything was going well until our then owner – the insane Fawaz – decided to fire him, despite us being at the top end of the table and having just beaten Leeds 4-2.

The reason I mention this is that I recently read an interview with him about how Forest are playing now and in it, he says something that really impacted me.

This is the piece:

The bit that really hit me was when he said:

“Bournemouth expect to win, Forest hope to win”

He’s right. But his point is far bigger than being just about football teams.

A lot of people mistake confidence with arrogance.

I get it’s a fine line, but there is a big difference between the two.

One of the things I found really interesting when I was at Wieden was how many people viewed us as arrogant.

People who often had no experience of working with us in any way.

OK, so there was the odd one or two like that – probably me [hahahaha] – but the reality is/was, it’s a pretty humble place … filled with good, talented humans who love creativity.

But here’s the thing.

When we went into meetings, we generally expected to win.

Not because we thought we were better than everyone else, but because the work we put forward was always what we truly believed was the right thing to do.

We didn’t let politics get in the way.

We didn’t let egos get in the way.

We didn’t weigh the work down with things that sounded good but ultimately just got in the way.

The only thing that mattered was allowing creativity to solve the problem in the most interesting, intriguing and culturally provocative way possible.

Some people found that hard to deal with.

They found our confidence in the work confronting.

But the thing was, it wasn’t because we were big heads, it was because everything we presented was something we had sweated and pushed. Every detail was in there for a reason. That didn’t mean we weren’t open to discussion. Or opinion. It’s just we wanted it to be a discussion, not a dictation … because to throw something out just because someone didn’t like it or misunderstood it meant we were dealing in politics not creativity and that’s not something we subscribed to.

Some misunderstood this.

They interpreted the belief we had in what we were presenting as arrogance.

But arrogance is when you expect to win without putting in the effort.

And that was never the case with Wieden – or countless other places of repute.

The reason I like that O’Driscoll quote so much is he shone a light on the difference between belief and hope.

Hope is when you have worked hard.

Belief is when you have worked hard based on a philosophy.

Not a purpose, a philosophy.

Something that is more than effort or direction, but a distinctive way to play. A style you believes gets better results. A philosophy everyone believes in and is committed to. A standard you all want to reach to show respect to where you are.

If some people mistake that for arrogance, then so be it.

Because the work born from those who play a certain way to win, is far better than those who hope they don’t lose.

Thanks Mr O’Driscoll.



If You’re Not Fighting Against Racism, You’re Complicit To Racism …

So I know we’re only in day 2 of this blogs 2021 life … but I gave you a couple of weeks of peace to ease into the year and wrote an exceptional bad post – even by my low standards – to prepare you for the onslaught so I feel I’ve been very respectful.

Talking of respectful, here’s an example of people doing the absolute opposite of it.

OK, this happened last year – the year where everything was shit – but it still blows my mind this shit is still being spouted.

What’s worse is when I first saw it – and tweeted about it – a person I vaguely know stood up for it.

Went on about how it’s hard to hire people of colour people there’s not many out there.

That he – as a small business owner – had to go for the best person who is easiest to get because he can’t spend time searching.

Bizarrely, this was his attempt to show he wasn’t racist – because “he saw no colour, just wanted talent”.

Of course he saw no colour, he was just hiring white people.

But then this is not a new excuse spouted by people being racist – whether conscious or not.

Putting aside the fact people who ‘see no colour’ are basically admitting they define and judge others by their own standards or expectations, which – by the nature of corporate hierarchy – are white standards. And putting aside the fact that maybe their attitude to want ‘easy’ stops any person of colour applying because they think they stand no chance of being given a shot. The reality is this abdication of guilt, blame throwing and deliberate ignorance are classic signs of racism.

Talent is everywhere.

Open the door and you will see them.

If you claim you don’t, it’s either because you’re not looking or they know you won’t let them succeed.

Adland is so guilty of this.

A few months ago – when Black Lives Matter was on the front pages of the World’s newspapers – the industry was screaming about how they wanted to make a difference.

Create huge change.

Well, adland … where’s the fuck is it?

Where’s the leadership changes?
Where’s the over-indexing of people of colour being hired?
Where’s the shifts in pay and promotion structures to create fundamental change?

Recently I wrote a tweet:

“Given adland has stopped being vocal about the need to be better with D&I practices, have we solved it?”

One of the people who responded told me how many agencies had actively changed their policies.

How committed they were to changing things.

And while that was nice to hear, the problem is the person who said this was white.

White people do not get to say if things are changing.

White people do not get to say if things are working.

White people do not get to place the burden of responsibility on others.

The only people who can say things are changing – or working – are people of colour.

That we fail to see this shows how far we have to go.

And the really worrying thing is people of colour may just give up on us.

They may take their talent and just go work in totally different industries.

One that sets them up for success.

Values their authenticity not their complicity.

Respects their talent and remunerates them fairly for it.

I wouldn’t blame them for it.

In some ways, I just wish they all got together and started their own company.

My god how amazing would that be.

It would also be the one thing that almost guarantees change would happen in adland.

Because while agencies may have good intentions, they suck at making things happen.

It seems most of the time the attitude is ‘how do we get all the benefits without the effort?’

If the situation was truly as bleak as they – and bank CEO’s – seem to think, why aren’t they investing in development of talent and operational change to liberate this incredible talent pool? Why do they get to just ‘bemoan’ the lack of talent rather than actually do something to change that situation.

I believe there’s two reasons.

1. They don’t want the hassle – professionally or economically.
2. They know there’s talent out there, they just don’t want to hire it.

Please note I’m not saying investment in education and infrastructure change would be wrong.

We know that people of colour are continually disadvantaged by a system designed by white people, for white people.

By changing that, we would see the potential of millions literally being realised … people who could and would make a difference. Not just for other people of colour, but all people … because while they should be prejudiced to those who have held them back for centuries, they’re not.

We can only dream of being that decent.

But it’s important to note that only embracing that view dismisses the huge number of people of colour who have defied every obstacle placed in their way to be ready to make a difference.

I don’t mean are ready ‘to be trained’ to make a difference, I mean are ready to make a difference.

People already doing amazing things – creatively and commercially.

Who have worked twice as hard to get half the benefits.

Expressing their talent in ways that go far beyond just making ads, but literally adding and creating culture rather than – as many of us white people do – take from it.

If the industry is serious about change, then the best thing we can do is stop spouting shit like ‘we see no colour’ and do the opposite … because one of the best ways to change this situation is to actually start seeing it.

Openning our eyes to the talent that is on our doorstep. In our offices. In our communities.

Because while those who choose to deny their existence may like to think they’re making a statement of fact.

Or expressing some sort of superior standard.

We know the the truth is they’re admitting they don’t look because they don’t care.

Fuck each and everyone of them.



Happiness Isn’t Perfect …

I recently read an amazing interview with the actor Ethan Hawke.

There’s many reasons he’s a fascinating person, but one of the main ones is that despite being hyped up to be as big as Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, he didn’t get there.

However this is not because he failed or came off the rails … it was because he made an active choice not to go down that path.

There are many reasons for this.

One is because his Mum pushed him “towards a British understanding of acting as a craft and away from American ideas of celebrity” and the other is seeing what happened to his friend, River Phoenix.

And while many would deviate from their resolution the moment they saw the benefits available to them, Hawke has been steadfast in his resolve.

One of the ways this manifested itself was him never moving to LA.

Having lived there, I get it.

On face value, it’s a spectacular town.

A stunningly beautiful place where dreams can literally come true.

And there’s a bunch of truth in that. Kinda.

Because while it makes you feel more welcome than almost any place in the World, it comes at a price. And once it feels it has gotten its value out of you … or had all its fun with you … or simply got all the benefits out from you, then it will spit you out, forget you were there and move on to the next in the blink of an eye.

For me, you go to Las Vegas to gamble with your money to make it big.

But in LA – at least to a certain degree – you go there to gamble with your life.

I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true.

What’s more, it’s all there in plain sight. The issue is people – especially those chasing the Hollywood dream – like to ignore it because, let’s be honest, people like feeling special or lucky or smart enough to not let that shit happen to you.

And that’s why the way Ethan Hawke sums up LA is – as much as I enjoyed my life there – pretty damn perfect.

People think getting what you want will make you happy, but a sense of self, purpose and love don’t come from the outside. You can’t get distracted by this culture that celebrates things that sometimes aren’t what they seem”.

So why am I saying all this.

Well, contrary to how I’ve made it sound, it has nothing to do with my respect for Ethan Hawke. Or my cynicism to Los Angeles. It’s because recently, someone sent me this and said it reminded them of me.

I have to say, when I read it, I felt a bit overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed because it really did capture how I think about things.

Overwhelmed because it meant someone got me, rather than believed I was just a nosy prick.

OK … so there’s a selfish element to why I’m like this.

You see, if my colleagues or team mates have issues or worries, then it means they’re not able to perform as brilliantly as they usually do. Which means the work they do won’t be as brilliant as I want, need and expect from them. So wanting to give them an environment where they can feel safe to be open and vulnerable while also actively wanting to help, listen and change situations for them, has as much to do with my needs as there’s.

I know, what a selfish prick eh?!

But it’s not all for self-serving reasons.

Because ultimately I am a big believer people should be able to express how they feel.

That we all have good and bad days and you should never feel bad for how you are.

I was incredibly fortunate to be brought up in a house that followed this belief and I will continually advocate it.

Even when people think I am being a nosy prick.

But it does have benefits beyond just personal, emotional wellbeing.

It means you can connect better to others.

It means you can be open and honest rather than political and wary.

It means you can disagree in ways that never become personal or destructive.

It creates something special.

A bond where deep trust is formed.

It doesn’t happen every time.

It doesn’t always happen in the same way.

But if you’re lucky, you will meet some people on your professional journey who this approach will end up having a profound affect on both of you.

Not just in terms of how well you click. Or work together. But a deep understanding and acceptance of who you are without criticism or ridicule.

They will make you better and be someone you want to be better for.

United by a deep respect and belief in what each other brings to the table while still allowing you to argue, debate and challenge without it ever being personal or destructive.

When that happens, what you can create together – either in collaboration or just through each others support – is amazing.

You feel a real honour to know them, work with them and understand them.

I’m very fortunate I’ve had a few people in my life, but one of them is the brilliant Paula Bloodworth … who I first had the privilege of working with at Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai.

And that’s why receiving that quote from her was so, so special to me.

I hope you all have a Paula in your life.

Someone you deeply connect with and yet disagree with all at the same time.

Because not only does it make your work better, it makes you a better person.