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”.



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.



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.



Challenger Brands That Challenge …

I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work with challenger brands.

Some were overtly challenger … some were more in terms of their internal attitude and approach … but in all cases, they were up for a fight and were happy to take it straight to the competitor they wanted to play against.

Now forcing people to pick a side is not a new strategy … it’s been around for ages.

From religions to rock bands to sport to almost everything in-between.

And while some of the challenger brands I’ve worked with over the years became the beast they were created to slay, what united them all wasn’t just their ambition, but their dedication to doing something that fundamentally challenged the convention.

I’m not talking about an ad that said they were different.

Or a single product ingredient that claimed they were different but were still exactly the same.

I’m talking about a fundamental, distinctive alternative to what has been there before.

From features, to behaviours, to values to standards to design.

All in commitment.

Shit or bust.

Now we have a lot of brands today that claim to do that and be that.

Brands that go direct to the customer.

Brands that offer their services on the internet.

In the majority of cases, they’re not real challengers.

They might like to think they are.

The people who led the change probably are.

But having an internet bank that claims to be different but offers exactly the same products and services – albeit with a ‘cool name and choice of ATM card design’ – is not challenging much.

Nor is the 15th razor/toothbrush/haircare company who go direct to their customers.

They’re definitely an alternative, but they’re not a challenger.

In fact, given in many cases, they offer no distinctive element to their product or service to build something bigger than simply supplying razor blades/toothbrushes/haircare products to people at the lowest rate possible, all they’re doing is commoditising themselves to oblivion.

No, challenger brands don’t enter the market with an attitude of ‘minimal viable product’ – which basically translates to “we’re interested to see if it works, but if it doesn’t – no biggie”, they enter it with fully focused, fully engaged commitment.

You can read a lot about these in Adam Morgan’s brilliant book Eating The Big Fish … though, because of when it came out, it only refers to a challenger brands from a certain period of time rather than the ones of the modern era … whether that’s Tony’s Chocolonely, Fenty, Fortnite or even Greta.

But the reason I’m talking about this is because of that picture at the top of the post.

The iconic ‘we try harder’ announcement by Avis.

Maybe the first example where marketing embraced being a challenger.

We forget how impactful this campaign was when it came out in the 60’s.

Back then, the industry was all about superlatives … the biggest, the most successful, the most loved etc etc.

For a brand to come out and say, “we’re not the first choice”, was a big thing.

But this was not a mere marketing trick, Avis did indeed have big ambitions and knew that the only way they stood any chance of making it was if they indeed, ‘try harder’.

From making sure every car was washed before it went out.

Checking that the glove boxes and – because this was the 60’s – ashtrays were emptied.

Customer service people trained to help, not just take your money.

Not having to wait for ages to get given your rental.

All sounds the standard now, but back then? No way.

And on top of that, they then ran ads telling people to complain if they found the experience didn’t match the promise … because they never wanted to be seen as having the passive attitude of a number 1 brand – where their goal is to protect their revenue rather than reward their customers.

Which leads to the point of this post.

This.

Yep, it’s a continuation of the We Try Harder campaign.

Though, calling it a ‘campaign’ cheapens it, because it was their purpose. I don’t mean that in the wank way it is being used today. At no point were Avis saying. ‘We Try Harder To Make The World Better’. No, this was all about them trying harder for them. Which is not only more believable, it had a genuine benefit to the people who used them.

Which leads back to the ad.

Specially, the ad that features the President of Avis’ phone number.

So you can complain.

Directly to them.

Imagine that today?

You can’t can you, because not only do companies – including Avis – give customers who wish to complain the absolute runaround with endless email forms, faceless processes and protocols – all while claiming this is a more ‘helpful and efficient’ process for their customers – but because you don’t feel many companies are really trying harder at all.

Now it’s all about efficiency.

Removal of friction.

Basically making you do it all yourself but charging you as if you weren’t.

Now I have to admit, I don’t know if this ended up being the real President of Avis’ phone number … even though I really hope it was … but I know this ethos drove that brand to continued growth for decades.

Sadly, at some point, it went from purpose to a tagline and then Avis as a cultural force was done.

Which is the big lesson for us all.

Because while few would ever start a company to be like everyone else, the reality is many end up doing just that.

And while we hear people all talking about being the next Apple or Nike, they have to understand you don’t get there with a playbook, you get there with a singular focus on what you believe, what you value and what you are going to destroy to create.



Why Do So Many European Confectionary Ads Leave Such A Bad Taste In Your Mouth?

We have had some amazing ads for confectionary over the years.

Trio. And the follow up.

Rolo.

Boost.

Maltesers.

Then, of course, the pinnacle … Cadbury Gorilla.

However one of the things I still haven’t quite understood is how we have also had some of the absolute worst.

I mean, for years, it was Ferrero Roche’s Ambassadors Table that was top of the shitness charts. An ad so bad, that it became great for its utter kitschiness.

And while no one ever really believed they were the chocolate favoured by diplomats, royalty and Ambassadors … it was a strategy that worked for many – from After Eights to Viennetta.

However there’s another ad that I’ve just seen that puts Ferrero firmly in second place.

They’re not saying they’re sophisticated.

They’re not claiming to be for special occasions.

They’re saying they are ‘so much fun’.

SO. MUCH. FUN.

Now don’t get me wrong, they’re a nice tasting bite, but fun?

They’ve never played video games with me.

They’ve never watched movies with me.

They’ve never even suggested you can use them as chess pieces.

What the hell is fun about it?

To answer this, let’s have a look at the ad they’re running shall we.

Did you watch it?

Did you survive watching it?

If it’s any consolation, that is still better than the one they ran last Christmas.

So, based on that monstrosity, they think they’re ‘so much fun’ because when you open up a pack, everyone comes out because they want to shove one of the caramel, chocolatey-hazelnut, nougat things right down their throat.

Which highlights 4 issues I have with this premise.

1. The client and the agency have no idea what fun actually is.
2. Even if it was ‘so much fun’, wouldn’t all confectionary be able to say that?
3. Where I come from, sharing something you like is cause for a fight, not fun.

So to dear old Toffifee … may I humbly suggest you sort yourself out.

Your ads are pants.

Your ingredients aren’t that unique.

The spelling of your name is absolutely horrific.

And most of all, your product is fair, but not fun.

Sort that out, and you can make Ferrero ads the most stupid again.

You’re welcome.