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


A Brand Is Ultimately Defined By Culture, Not Owners …

I have a confusing relationship with Amazon.

I use them a lot.

I admire what they do.

I appreciate how they operate.

But I don’t know if they’re a great brand.

Without doubt they’re a great company and have created a clear role in people’s lives … but in terms of brand, I’m not so sure.

That’s weird, because in many ways, they have achieved all the things a great brand requires, but at the end of the day – I have no emotional relationship with them, it is entirely functional.

Does a brand need to have emotional value to be great?

No. But I think it is the difference between being seen as a great transactional brand and a great brand.

But what surprises me most is Bezos understands business and brands better than many.

Not just CEO’s, but marketing folk … exemplified by this statement he made.

Which leads to the point of this post.

Brands.

As I’ve said a billion times, I’m an unashamedly huge believer in them.

If done well, they enable differentiation, cultural connection and economic power.

But the emphasis is ‘done well’.

And frankly, I don’t see a lot of that.

What I do see is a lot of companies spending of an awful lot of time and money on what they want to talk about.

What they think people should care about.

What audience should buy their product.

What they want their product to be used for.

What they want people to discuss about them.

What words they want people to associate with them.

What they want people to view as a threat or a competitor.

Them. Them. Them. Them. Them.

Now don’t get me wrong, you have to know what you stand for. What your values are. What your role is and why you do what you do, well. Not to mention what your point of view on the World is.

But you don’t just churn them out like some political manifesto brochure. Boring people into submission.

And yet that is the practice of so many … minus the point of view, which would at least make it relevant to culture instead of using a ‘proposition’ that is like a cement block, standing firm regardless what the headwinds that surround it are.

But it gets worse.

Because often what they do is wrapped up in some contrived ‘purpose/manifesto’ message in an attempt to make it look like it’s not all about them, which doesn’t convince anyone because it’s all about them.

Everything.

And it comes across exactly like that.

Self serving. Self indulgent. Self important.

Because the people behind these campaigns live in a bubble of corporate complicity.

Where ‘real life’ is closer to a sitcom sketch than anything resembling reality. Where families are always perfect and together. Where there is no problem that can’t be solved with [insert brand here] and their [insert meaningless ingredient]. Where the undertone of the work is to scare/shame/blame audiences into purchase submission – regardless how happy the soundtrack is or how saturated the images. All backed up and reinforced by a research report that has been specifically designed to fit in with the clients processes than representing truth.

Welcome to the world of marketing truth – a parallel universe to real truth that exists next to the Marketing solar system.

And that’s why, love him or loathe him, you have to respect Bezos.

Yes he has a world of data. Yes he has a universe of information.

But he knows it’s what people say when you’re not watching or listening to them that really reveals what they think of you.

At a time where so much work is done behind the desk, there’s never been as important a time as to get out, talk to real people, understand the texture, nuance, and chaos around the category … so we can help our clients with the most important foundation you can have in getting to great work.

Truth.

Of course, it is not always easy for clients to swallow.

Of course, they may prefer agencies that pander sweet bullshit to them.

But as Mr Bezos knows, you don’t get culture to truly buy into you, if you don’t know what culture really thinks of you.



Art Writes New Rules …

One of the things I love about this industry is our way of re-writing rules.

I don’t mean that in terms of post-rationalisation.

I don’t mean that in terms of rebellion.

I mean it in terms of letting creativity take us to new places.

That said, I think a lot of people forget this.

Clients and colleagues.

Specifically the one’s who encourage work to go where others have gone before.

Or where the brand has previously been.

Or just killing ideas before they’ve had a chance to start to evolve.

Of course I appreciate what we do has a lot of implications on our clients business.

That to get it wrong has serious ramifications.

But – and it’s a big but – doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t move you forward.

The opposite in fact.

They know this.

We know this.

And yet I hear words like ‘optimisation’ far more than I do ‘creativity’ these days.

Now I get it, you want to get every bit of value from something that you can, but our obsession with models and processes just limits our ability to invent and move forward.

Please don’t think I’m discounting the value of experience.

There’s a lot to be said for it.

But basing the future purely on what has happened in the past – specifically your individual past – is not experience, it’s blinkered.

Case in point.

Mouldy Whopper.

Here was a campaign that was attempting to do something differently. But rather than be curious about how it would be received, industry people – the same folks who are supposed to be pushing for creativity – were violently writing it off from the beginning. And when I pointed out that no one really knew what the campaign was trying to achieve – I copped it too.

Hell, I didn’t even like it very much, but I appreciated they were doing something different and evidence showed it was getting people to talk about preservatives in food – which was a positive for BK – so at the very least there were something positive in that. But then a senior industry person challenged me – said it was only people in the bubble of adland doing that – so when I proved he was wrong, he just disappeared. Happy to throw out personal opinion but not happy to be shown it was just his personal opinion. And that was my issue, we didn’t know how it would go. We had thoughts, we had opinions but we didn’t give it the time to see how it played out and apparently, it did pretty well by a whole range of metrics.

Of course, the great irony is that when you do have a brand that believes creativity can move things forward in unexpected ways, then you get accused of your job being easy.

I can’t tell you the amount of times people said to me, “it can’t be hard working on NIKE, they love being creative”.

Of course, the people who say this have never worked on NIKE and tend to be the first to criticise anything they think is ‘too creative’.

My god, when Da Da Ding came out, the wave of, “I don’t get it”, “it’s indulgent” was amazing.

But not as amazing as the fact that a lot of the abuse came from white men not based in India.

But I digress.

I love creativity.

I use that word specifically as I see it as being much bigger than advertising.

At least in terms of where the inspiration can come from and how it can be applied.

I am in awe when I see ideas taking shape. Things I never imagined coming together in the aim of changing something rather than just communicating it.

One of my greatest joys was running The Kennedys, because I saw that in possible its purest form.

From making takeaway coffee cups into dog frisbees to re=programming Street Fighter to represent the lessons they’d learnt over the previous year … was epic.

Sure, sometimes it was scary, frustrating and painful.

Sure, there were arguments, walk-outs and moods.

But as I wrote before, great work leaves scars and while that doesn’t mean it can’t be an exciting journey to be going on, it will have many twists and turns.

Or it will if you are pushing things enough.

And that’s what this post is about, because recently I read a story about John Kosh.

John was the creative director of Apple.

Not the tech company, but The Beatles.

John Lennon loved him and at 23, he found himself art directing the cover of their iconic album, Abbey Road.

What many people fail to realise is the band name was no where on the cover.

And while John had logic behind that decision, many in the industry thought differently.

Especially at their record company, EMI.

In fact, the only reason it ended up happening is that timing was so tight that it was allowed to slip through before anyone else could stop it.

Another example of chaos creating what order can’t.

What a story eh?

And before anyone starts saying I’m wrong …

I’m not saying the decision to remove the bands name from the cover made the album successful. This was The Beatles after all – the biggest, most successful band of all time – so it was always going to sell by the bucketload. However I am saying the decision to remove the bands name from the album cover helped make it iconic … which arguably, helped make it even more successful.

Not to mention make the zebra crossing on Abbey Road one of the busiest in the World.



Just Because You’re Talking Doesn’t Mean You’re Communicating …

I’m writing this post on the 28th May, so who the hell knows what’s happening a month from now. Actually I’m lying, as I have a pretty good suspicion about a few things, at least to do with me, so it will be interesting to see how wrong or right I am.

But I digress.

This is about the British Government’s communication strategy, specifically when they went to phase 2 of their COVID-19 strategy and launched these guidelines to help the British public deal with the pandemic.

As we all know by now, there was a lot of debate.

Some said they were clear.

Some said they were ambiguous.

And so rather than help the nation as a whole understand their situation and what was needed to help us move forward, they ended up igniting the nation in debate about wording, leaving people to interpret what the hell they wanted.

A conspiracy theorist may suggest this was done to stop people looking at the huge death toll that had happened due to Boris Johnson’s shambolic handling of COVID. A theory only made compelling by the way Johnson suddenly announced the UK was ‘re-opening’ mere hours after he had publicly backed his advisor, Dominic Cummings, for breaking the rules he had helped force upon the entire British public in an obvious attempt to distract the public’s attention. Made even worse by the fact Johnson had apparently almost died with COVID, so he knew first hand how dangerous it was and as such, should not back anyone who had the symptoms and then knowingly broke the rules. And as a final insult, the way he backed Cummings – suggesting it was what ‘all parents would do’ literally pissed on the faces of the parents and children who went through incredible hardship [from not seeing loved ones, to not attending loved ones funerals] to obey what was asked of them. An utter, disgusting way to behave.

But I digress. Again.

The point I want to make is that while all this argument was going on – specially around what ‘Stay Alert’ meant in practical terms, Vic Polkinghorne, @vicpolky on twitter, wrote a tweet that put the debate to rest.

They wrote:
____________________________________________________________________________________

Note on clear/unclear communication (one area I do have some experience)

If some people find it unclear, it’s unclear.

If you find it clear and some people find it unclear, it’s unclear.

The responsibility for clarity of comms is with the communicator, not the recipient.
____________________________________________________________________________________

That’s a good lesson for anyone in the communication industry.

An even better one for the British Government.

Now if only they were open to constructive criticism or gave a shit about anyone outside of their chummy little privileged gang.



If You Are Uncomfortable Talking About Race, It Means You Are Comfortable With Racism And Are A Shit Planner …

So last week, I was invited to talk at GroupThink’s planning conference.

I like the people there and said yes.

Originally I was going to take people through an old presentation because I didn’t really have much time to write something specific for you. They were OK with it and so wrote it into their program.

Then the situation with George Floyd happened.

Following so shortly on the heels of other racist motivated murders, like Ahmaud Arbery – who was murdered in cold blood by a father and son while out jogging.

At this point, quite frankly, the idea of doing a presentation on strategy seemed so utterly pointless.

So 2 days before the day of the event, I wrote something new.

Something that was about why Black Lives Matters is the only thing that really matters to me right now.

How the ad industry HAS to change.

How the ad industry may talk a lot about diversity and inclusivity but its actions are racist.

I’m not saying that is their intention or that they even realise it, but it’s racist.

And I’ve been complicit in that.

Again, not intentionally, but still done it.

Anyone who is white has … because we’ve let our privilidge create a gap between our actions and our self awareness.

Finally, I talked about 6 things people could do TODAY to make a positive difference to any person of colour … whether that’s through education, responsibility, judgement or action.

Now I must admit I was scared to write this presentation.

Not because I was worried it would make people feel uncomfortable, but because I’m a white male who has had every privilege going and the last thing I wanted to do was come across as if I was claiming to be an expert on this matter or whitesplaining anything.

Which is why I didn’t write the presentation.

I co-wrote it.

In addition to capturing some of the lessons I learned from the brilliant people of colour I’ve worked with and known over the years [which is a lot given how long I spent in China and Asia], the main bulk of the presentation was put together – after seeking their permission – with the irrepressible, wonderful and take-no-shit-from-anyone-especially-me … Maya Thompson, Breanna Jones and Chelsea Curry.

I’ve written and talked about them a lot.

They changed my life.

Literally.

I genuinely believe I can never thank them enough, but one way I try is to take on the issues I should have taken on years ago but thought not being racist was enough.

It isn’t.

So here it is … it’s my usual picture rubbish, but hopefully the bits that are there will make sense to everyone.

The real presentation starts at page 28, the previous slides were linked to the talk I was going to give so I could lull people into a false sense of security so they would get comfortable before I talked openly, emotionally and plainly about an issue that should be the focus of every human right now, but isn’t for a whole host of unimportant or self-serving reasons.

Should anyone want to know more about the presentation, please get in touch.

But most importantly, please act.

Black. Lives. Matter.

Slides 1-5: Just introducing me and why I am happy to be invited to present.

Slides 6-10: How the standard of work being created is generally very poor and how we are all contributing to it in terms of the things we are talking about. Which isn’t the standard of the work and sounds more like us trying to be clients than people valuable to clients.

Slides 11-23: Insights matter because people matter and if you want to make work that is intriguing, interesting, provocative and fresh, you have to care about people, culture and subculture or you’ll get nowhere.

Slides 24-27: I talk about how I was going to talk about the wonderfully crazy project we’ve recently done in China and how understanding sub-culture made building something specifically designed to look like ‘future Mars’ was perfectly sensible but ….

Slide 28: I need to pause the topic of the talk because frankly, the events of the past week have really upset me – specifically the reaction of many agency leaders – and I want to talk about something that matters more to me.

Slides 29-31: Black Lives Matter. There’s many lives that matter, but right now – for me – Black Lives Matter is the only one that matters.

Slides 32-34: Lived around the World, eventually moved to America and then met 3 brilliant women who changed my life. Maya Thompson. Chelsea Curry. Breanna Jones.

Slides 34-39: This is how they fundamentally changed my life for the better by helping me see how blind, stupid and complicit I’d been and then [with some values my Mum taught me] the journey we went on – and still go on – together.

Slides 40-49: Announce this deck has actually all been co-written by Maya, Breanna and Chelsea. Three main reasons for this. I don’t have credibility, I don’t want to come across as whitesplaining and I want any advice I give to be genuinely valuable to people of colour, not a white persons interpretation of what is valuable.

Slide 50: How my industry is racist. Doesn’t want to be. But is. And I use a recent ‘challenge’ put out by Cannes as an example. For the record, they launched a competition on how to attract more diversity into the industry and gave a media budget of £100,000. That’s right they were committing an amount of money most agencies would spend for dinners during Cannes for a topic that they claim is hugely important to them. They don’t intend to be racist but they – like the whole industry – is acting in ways that are.

Slides 51-58: What we have to do to stop being a racist industry including letting go of everything we thought we knew and starting again.

[Please note slide 54: Lots of people say they’re ‘colour blind’. By which they mean they claim they treat everyone the same. The point of this slide is that while we should absolutely treat and value everyone the same, we should do this in a way that acknowledges individual backgrounds and beliefs. Not doing this can result in one of 3 things. [1] We treat everyone the same but based on our definition of what ‘same is’. Which is often white, which means we expect people of colour to adapt to us and our standards. [2] We generalise groups for our convenience, so we call [for example] everyone who is black, “black” … ignoring the vast range of backgrounds, beliefs and nuances they could have BECAUSE PEOPLE OF COLOUR DO NOT ALL COME FROM THE SAME PLACE!!! Or [3] because of being ‘colour blind’, you see everyone the same [which we don’t, let’s be clear on that] so you end up making the same work for everyone thinking it will be resonant with everyone. It isn’t. See how Rihanna highlighted this when she launched her Fenty cosmetics and simply added colours for African American skin, fucking up the big cosmetic companies who had ignored this for decades]

Slide 59-60: Highlighting when you start from scratch it can work, because my son Otis is living proof of it. He has lived in 3 countries and loves them all equally, while accepting and respecting their individual differences.

Slide 61: If you need a commercial reason for why Black Lives Matter [and if you do, you’re a prick] it’s because people of colour can make this industry great again because on top of all influential culture being born from black culture, people of colour understand nuance, values, struggles and humanity better than anyone as they have to deal with this shit every day.

Slide 62-63: Thank you to all the people of colour who helped co-write this presentation – especially Maya, Chelsea and Breanna – and justice for George Floyd.



The Future Of Adland Is Warm, Fuzzy And Colourful …

And before you think I am taking the piss with that title – which I am, a little bit, especially as with Corona, few people are out on the streets and no one knows what is going to happen with the entire industry, though it’s not looking good – I noticed this more than the majority of ads, even though they have had millions of pounds spent on audience research, concept testing, UX development and communication planning.

That’s not to say that stuff doesn’t matter – it obviously – but when the objective is to ‘fit in’ rather than ‘stand out’, you end up with crafted beige rather than ideas that literally demand to be noticed and explored.

Of course, it’s better if the way you grab people’s attention is with stuff that emotionally intrigues them rather than just makes them snort in derission, but even that is still better than walking past and not even noticing it, let alone not giving a shit.

You can tell it’s going to be a positive week can’t you?

Well don’t be in too much despair as I have 3 bits of good news for you.

1. It’s my FIFTIETH birthday on Friday.

2. There won’t be any posts all of next week as I’m on holiday.

[Though there will be messages of love to Jill and Paul who both have birthdays that week]

3. I am on holiday because Paul and I thought we were going to have a joint 50th involving traveling to different countries, but with Corona, it means I’ll actually be spending it at home … with a cup of tea … watching loads of episodes of Come Dine With Me. Christ Almighty!!!

See … told you I could cheer you up, even if everything is on fire around us.