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

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.

When Creativity Was Used To Tell A Story Not Just Demonstrate A Product Feature …

Look at that ad.

Look at it.

Isn’t it marvellous?

Simple. Clear. Charming. Engaging.

Sells the product feature through a human benefit.

A simple story that works for kids and parents alike.

The photo and the headline do all the heavy lifting, namely because the photo isn’t a stock image and the headline isn’t a piece of generic twaddle. And yet it’s not like it has high production values, it is just a good piece of advertising.

It’s also from a bygone age.

Not just because this ad ran years ago, but because advertising has become about selling features rather than benefits.

Explaining rather than communicating.

Describing rather than imagining.

Telling rather than inspiring.

It’s not advertising … it’s a product brochure designed to please the board of directors rather than actual human beings.

Despite my music and clothes taste, I hate looking backwards … but maybe the industry needs to do that. Not because we should aim to replicate what has gone before, but because we seem to need to remember it was stories, ideas, creativity and craft that once made us so valuable, not being able to churn out cultural landfill at the lowest price per execution.

If You Think It Would Be Mad, It’s Probably Got Something Going For It …

Before I write today’s post, I want you to listen to something …

Yep, that’s the White Stripes with their now classic, ‘Seven Nation Army’.

I say classic, because it is.

It was recorded in 2002 as a bit of fun and yet now it is deeply entrenched in culture.

Sung at concerts.

Sporting events.


It’s the modern equivalent of Smoke In The Water … the go-to song for any guitarist starting out. [And the nightmare for any guitar shop employee]

But the thing about it that I never realised is that it’s a song without a chorus.



It’s deliberate, because one day Jack White liked the idea of – in his own words – “creating a compelling song without a chorus”.

And he did.

A song that will no doubt outlive him because – like Queen’s We Will Rock You – is a simple, repetitive riff that allows audiences to not just join in, but be an integral and active participant in the music.

When you look at the ad industry, while we have evolved from talking AT audiences, our version of audience involvement is still largely based getting them to be an extension for what we’re doing rather than be an integral part of it.

Now of course, I get an audience doing stuff for a band they love is very different to getting people who are mildly interested in a brand, to do something for us … but the main point here is we are not pushing any boundaries right now.

Oh of course there’s agencies constantly pronouncing they have just executed a ‘world first’, but apart from the fact it’s often just a slight variation of something that has previously been around, it’s almost always done to benefit the agencies and clients ego and no one else.

But where is the bolder stuff?

The writing a compelling song without a chorus stuff?

If adland was about writing music, you can bet EVERYTHING would have a chorus.

It would also probably be a pop-song, 3 minutes long [MAX], as simplistic as they can make it and designed to be so palatable as to not offend a soul.

It would be this song …

Hell, even Matt Beaumont thought so in his brilliant book, E.

OK, I’m being a bit mean because its not like there aren’t some agencies doing amazing pieces of work using the ‘traditional’ model not to mention those who are genuinely trying to push the boundaries of what creativity can be – and do – for clients, like this brilliant Planned Parenthood campaign we did at R/GA recently … but in the main, the focus is not about breaking new ground it’s about treading carefully over the old.

Look, I get it … this stuff costs a lot of money.

There’s a bunch riding on it.

But where this ‘minimum risk’ approach fails is when brands talk about wanting to make a big impact in culture … something that powerfully differentiates themselves from the competition … an idea that change attitudes and behaviour … because the most effective way to increase the odds of this happening is to literally do something that runs counter to traditional norms.

An airport lounge that is modelled on a Rock Stars house.

An electric car with an insane button.

A ravioli where the pasta disappears.

An ad that talks about failure.

Now I know what you’re thinking, most companies will never do that.

And you’re right.

But what I find amusing is that we all know doing the same as everyone else produces, in the main, even less chance of breakthrough success than walking into the unknown or unexpected.

The harsh reality is that while many companies talk about breakthrough … innovation … provocation … what they really mean is – at best – being a degree or two better than their competition or – at worst – simply playing catch-up

Or as Lee said, they confuse innovation with modernisation.

And while I know there is a lot of talent in our biz – talent who use creativity to create incredible ways to either deal with old problems or create new normals – we are in danger of letting ourselves just become executioners of clients transactional requirements, and if that happens, we lose any chance of regaining/retaining our seat at the boardroom table. Because in my experience what the best C-Suite want aren’t companies who simply execute their requirements, but those who see the World differently to them, so they can help them get to places in ways they never imagined possible.

In other words, creative people with commercial appreciation rather than commercial people with creative appreciation.

Now the problem is we live in times where the money men value consistency more highly than boldness … which is ironic given they them place them under immense pressure to keep finding new ways to grow, transform and unlock new revenue streams.

An oxymoron if you will.

Which, for me, highlights 3 things.

1. Independence is power.

2. As Martin and I talked about at Cannes last year, chaos can achieve what order can’t.

3. The only things worth doing are the ones that can break your heart.

What Can Planners Learn From A Creatives Choice Of Music …

Sam, one of my creative colleagues, excitedly sent me a song that he said, clearly explains the relationship creatives have with planners.

He did add ‘bad planners’, but he was only feeling guilty after I bought him a Kit Kat.

While it would be easy to say he’s a prick – and he is, but more in his general behaviour and attitude than this moment of cheek – his point is an important one for planners to remember.

Our job is to be useful to the creatives.

Doesn’t matter what sort of creative they are – ad, design, tech, industrial, the answer is the same …


Not dictatorial.

Not demanding.

But actually helping them to do something interesting rather than just right.

That means giving them the right problem to solve rather than the answer you want.

That means talking to them about the brief rather than presenting it to them.

That means understanding the nuance of culture not the generalisations.

That means giving them a direction rather than a specific destination.

That means remembering your job doesn’t stop when creative development starts.

That means always looking for ways to give them more stuff that can expand or deepen their idea rather than think ‘working with the creatives’ means sitting with them and pretending you are one of them”.

That means building things up, not tearing things down.

That means focusing on the work, not your ego.

That means being open rather than closed.

That means pushing creativity not agendas.

That means being clear, not complicated.

That means giving space not pressure.

That means loving the fuck out the work.

The Best Bit Of Advice About Problem Solving You’ll Ever Get …


We love them.

The bigger and badder the better.

Of course you have to be sure you have the right problem.

And then you have to remember that as much as some people may want to claim it, business – and life, for that matter – can not be approached like one big engineering problem.

Well, it can, but the solutions are – at best – short term and – at worst – ignored for being utterly bland, boring and emotionless.

But that’s not what this post is about.

You see, in our quest to solve big problems, we like to show our solutions by overwhelming the client with our brilliance.

Brilliance of our considerations.

Brilliance of our proof points.

Brilliance of our brains.

I get it …

You not only want to lead the client through your thinking so they ‘get it’, but because you’re proud of what you’ve done.

But there’s 3 things wrong with this approach …

The first is – as my Dad used to say – if you’re desperate to show how intelligent you are, then you’re not that smart.

This has never been more true in the creative industry where the reality is the work should be doing the proving, not you.

And secondly, this ‘demonstration of intelligence’ approach more often than not, results in presentations that are hundreds of pages long.

Literally hundreds.

Slide after slide that takes people on an extremely long journey on how difficult the problem is you have to solve and how complex and detailed the path to your solution has been.

It is, at best, a strategy where the goal is to beat the recipient into submission.

And why am I saying all this?

Well recently, I caught up with someone who told me 3 things I absolutely love.

Three things that should change the way companies approach problems and communicate their solutions.

Now full disclosure …

The person who said this is not some random individual.

In fact I’ve known and worked with them for a long, long time.

But more than that, he is – and has been for 2 decades – at the top of his game.

The business leaders, business leader.

An individual with an incredible history of success through pragmatic decision making and investment in innovation.

I asked him if I could mention his name but he said he preferred if I didn’t. Not because he wants to be mysterious, but because he’s humble … which is another reason he doesn’t work in adland, ha.

That said, he has personally shaped the way I present …

Semi-structured, singular stories rather than a mass of slides.

Strong visuals rather than pages of information.

Clarity rather than confusion.

Spoken through the nuanced, authentic lens of culture rather than superficial generalisations of convenience.

Communicating as an informed outsider rather than a blinkered insider.

The language of people not corporates.

Provocative rather than comfortable.

Inspiring the possibilities of creativity rather than creating structures to stop it.

Now I appreciate not everyone appreciates my style – and that’s fine – however, it has led to a lot of success for me and now, I realise why.

You see what this individual said to me was this:

1. Make sure your presentation is focused on the opportunity not the problem.

2. Remember, solutions need to be simpler than the problem.

3. If you can’t sum your solution up in a sentence, you have either an ego problem or a problem with your solution.

That’s it.

Sounds obvious doesn’t it.

But how many of us are doing it?

How many of us are writing presentations that celebrate the complexity of the problem rather than the power of the opportunity?

How many of us are talk about our approach to executing the solution rather than what the solution actually is?

How many of us talk about solutions as a range of elements tasks rather than one overarching idea?

I would like to think I’ve been following those 3 steps for years, but even now – I read them and go through old approaches and see where I could have done things differently.

More concise.

Cleaner … at least in the articulation of the solution and how I got there.

One of the best bits of advice I ever got was ‘talk to a friend outside the industry about your idea. If they don’t get it, you might need to re think about it.’

This is not about dumbing down.

Or being simplistic and basic.

It’s about really thinking about what you’re doing and how you’re expressing it.

Because as Ronald Reagan said, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing”.