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”.



What Adland Needs To Learn From Oprah …

Adland talks a lot about diversity and inclusion.

It talks about wanting to make a difference.

But while I appreciate the intentions are genuine, the actions often aren’t.

Too many superficial acts designed to make us look good without actually doing much good.

Self-indulgent acts that are designed to change nothing but make us feel like heroes.

Pieces of work that tell people what they already know so we can claim we are ‘living our purpose’ at the next global conference get together where the loudest applause is for ourselves.

I wrote about this recently when I found out Cocoa Girl – the magazine for little girls of colour in the UK – was the FIRST magazine for little girls of colour in the UK.

The first!!!

Well here’s another example of how poor we are as an industry following through on what we so loudly and proudly claim.

The top of this post features one of the 26 billboards Oprah has purchased around Louisville, in the US.

For those who don’t know the story of Breanna Taylor, you can read it here … but in simple terms, it’s another case of US Police racism that resulted in another innocent African American being murdered with – initially – no implication on the officers involved.

[And then, after a huge protests, the officers involved were arrested but ended up facing a fraction of the justice they deserved … meaning it was another insult to the Taylor family]

This is a case that has shaken America and beyond.

This is a case that needed pressure putting on the authorities to investigate rather than look in another direction.

This is a case that showed again the deep disadvantage people of colour have in America and all over.

What Oprah did is amazing but I can’t help but think adland could have done this.

Should have done this.

But we didn’t.

And while I am pointing fingers at us, I’m also pointing them at myself … because if we are serious about D&I, it’s about doing things that are in the best interests of the people we want to connect with rather than making it all about what is easiest for us.

Or said another way:

We have to commit … rather than just show interest.

Go out of our way … rather than make others go out of theirs.

What this brilliant act by Oprah reminds me is that creative and cultural inspiration does not come from just looking at ourselves. If we want to survive, we can only do that by letting more diversity in and letting them thrive on their terms rather than ours.



Some Advertising Forms Memories That Never Leave You …

I remember when the ice cream above first came out.

It was 1982 and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

For a start it was sold as a lump of ice cream.

Oh no, Viennetta was a ‘dessert-cake’ … a blend of sophistication and excellence, crafted by experts for the most special of occasions.

I wanted to try it soooooo badly, but I remember having to wait an age before I could … but as it was light years from any other ice cream I’d ever had, when I finally got it in my gob, it absolutely lived up to the anticipation.

38 years later, and I know this ‘sophisticated dessert cake’ is only £1 at the local Co-op – which means it’s about as sophisticated as an episode of Tipping Point – however it still feels like I’m having a very, very special ice-cream experience whenever I have one. Which isn’t often because somehow, I still think it is only for rare occasions of celebration.

What’s interesting is that when I had it, I posted a photo on instagram and the response was of equal adoration.

And then people went into celebrating other low-rent, mainstream shite we thought was the height of sophistication.

Like After Eight Mints.

Or Ice Magic … the sauce you poured on to your shitty Asda vanilla ice cream [or Neopolitan, if your Mum and Dad were feeling extravagant] that then TRANSFORMED INTO A SOLID LAYER OF CHOCOLATE TO ELEVATE YOUR SHITTY ICE CREAM EXPERIENCE.

Incredible.

But of all the comments I got, my fave was from Kev Chesters with this …

And while I loved it for a whole host of reasons, the main one was his order of using a teaspoon.

Not a dessert spoon.

Not a table spoon. [Though this might be the same as a dessert spoon]

But a teaspoon.

Because regardless how old you are.

Regardless how many Viennetta’s you could buy and eat.

A teaspoon was the psychological way of making your favourite desserts last longer.

Smaller spoon.

Smaller amounts of food on it.

More spoonfuls to enjoy.

I still do it and it made my day to know Kev did too.

Which all should act as a reminder that advertising is an incredibly powerful force … especially when it’s targeting people who know no better but dream of being more than they think they will end up being.

Thank you Viennetta. For the memories, the experience and the taste.



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.