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


Standards Not Speed …

So while I was at Deutsch, the brilliant WARC – for reasons that I don’t quite understand – asked me to contribute to their paper regarding the future of strategy.

To be honest, these sort of things tend to do my head in because ultimately, when you’re talking about the future – you can say anything you like and no one can say you’re wrong until the future is the present.

However as WARC are ace [present contributor excluded] and a bunch of my much smarter friends were also going to be a part of it … I happily agreed, even though my version of ‘the future of strategy’ has ended up being less about what we can be and more about how we should be looking to the past for how we should be doing it.

You see I worry that, as a discipline, we’re working more down to a speed than up to a quality.

I get it … the competitive landscape means clients and agencies want more stuff in less time for cheaper prices … but it’s a false economy because if our job is about opening possibilities for the clients we partner with, the only way we can truly recognize the creative opportunities for them – whatever they may be – is if we really understand culture.

Not just the big or functional things, but the nuances of attitude and behaviour.

And while we now have many ways of doing this, I don’t think many make up for good, old fashioned, rigor.

Not just in what we do, but who we get to do it.

I’ve seen too many people interpret data without truly understanding data.

I’ve seen too many people think they’re the audience when they’re the opposite of it.

I’ve seen too many people think focus groups reflect reality as opposed to exploring reality.

I’ve seen too many people evaluate culture from outsider positions, rather than insider understanding.

I’ve seen too many people think society doesn’t know what they want when most of the time, they just don’t know how to express it.

Rigor changes everything.

The level of understanding. The ability to see what’s possible. The quality of the creative response.

It’s something I worry we are sacrificing in our bid to keep up with what we think clients want.

And while speed is a competitive advantage, quality builds sustainable change and we should never just focus on the quick fixes because that is ultimately running to stand still.

If our industry is to get back to where we deserve, we have to do what’s right and that’s more than just doing the job, it’s doing the job with knowledgable and dangerous minds. It’s why Martin Weigel and I started our school and why I wrote this as my ‘future of strategy’.

PLANNING IS AN OUTDOOR JOB

So WARC asked me to write a piece on the importance of spending time outside the office.

Not in the quest for a decent lunchtime sandwich, but to better understand what’s going on in people’s lives.

In some ways, it’s kind-of horrifying to be asked to do this because it should be bloody obvious. Even the author John Le Carre, understood it with his famous quote, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the World”.

And yet, it seems fewer and fewer planners spend much time in the real World, preferring to observe it from the comfort of a research report and google search.

Look I get we live in times where we can access incredible amounts of data.

And I appreciate in this competitive World, things need to happen quicker than ever before.

But – and it’s a big but – spending time outside the bubble of adland is also a necessity.

Not just for planners … but for the clients you’re working with and the audience you’re unleashing your creativity on.

When I first joined Deutsch, I wanted to understand what the hell was going on with American youth so I sent 3 of my colleagues – Maya, Armando and Leigh [along with Sarah, a photographer and co-supported back at HQ by the wonderful Kelsey] backpacking across the US to spend about a month in some of America’s most opposite cities.

Specifically, the richest/poorest … fastest growing/shrinking … most/least diverse.

The only stipulation I gave them was a bit of advice my Mum once gave me, ‘be interested in what others are interested in’.

And so off they went.

A month later and they were back with experiences that had challenged them on deeply personal levels. Stuff that was incredibly uncomfortable to witness and experience.

But they also came back with stories that changed the way they looked at what was going on in America. Stories that added colour and context to how people live… stories that filled the gaps between data and research reports … stories that made them laugh, cry, despair and feel excited with what’s going on in the shadows of society.

No nice hotel rooms. No fancy travel. Just a month listening and learning straight from the mouths, lives and streets of youth. No wonder we called it America in The Raw.

We are all better for the experience.

Better planners, better department, better agency.

Better at helping our clients understand their audiences more intimately.

Better at identifying creative opportunities that would otherwise not reveal themselves.

Better at making work that stops telling people what to think and starts resonating with how people are thinking.

Of course, nothing in this approach is new.

Nor is necessary to go to such extremes to get cultural understanding and nuance.

But given how few planners seem to get the time – or have the inclination to get out into the real World – I hope this serves as a gentle reminder that planning is an outside job, because in a World while clients want agencies to help them stand out from the competition, the real opportunity is to help brands truly resonate with their audience… and as great as sitting in a nice office can be, you’ll never achieve that – or the creativity that can come from it – if you’re sat behind a desk.

You may wonder how you get your agency or client to pay for you to do this?

Well – apart from the fact it doesn’t cost anywhere near what they may think – you just need to point out the commercial value of having a level of intimacy with culture that few others will ever have. Plus there’s the fact this understanding leads to more interesting creativity with more powerful results.

But as I said, it doesn’t have to be this huge, formal thing, it should just be a natural part of how you do your job which is why if you’re a planning head, you should push your team to get out the door and if you’re a junior planner, you should push your boss to let you out the door.

It will change your life. And career.

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Another Chapter Ends, Another Chapter Begins …

So today is going to be my last post for a while.

As you know, I’m leaving America and moving to the UK … and that all happens over the next 12 days.

Next week I say my goodbyes to Deutsch and then, 6 days after that, we move to the UK.

Because we have a bunch to do – from packing up to finding a new place to live – I need to focus on my family more than writing rubbish blog posts, hence while I endure a momentary period of maturity pain, you get to experience a momentary period of peaceful gain.

But don’t get too comfortable … it’s definitely going to be momentary as I’ll be back up and running on October 1.

Oh yes. Be afraid, be very afraid.

That aside, I have to say the last few weeks have been pretty hard.

Not in the sense of getting everything together for the move – though that is still an utter pain in the ass, despite the fact we have done it so many time – it’s just that the life in LA is pretty spectacular.

As I wrote once before, I’ve had better weekends in America than I may have had pretty much anywhere in the World and to say goodbye to that is hard.

Of course a big part of it is the amazing weather and that we had cars for the first time in 15 years [and trust me, after all I went through to get my car, saying goodbye to that has been a pain too] but the other key element is that LA is an outdoor city and to be able to spend so much time with my family in the fresh air has been an amazing gift.

Of course London will offer us alternative wonderful experiences, but that sunshine is a pretty addictive thing.

The other hard part is saying goodbye to people.

OK, not goodbye for ever – technology ensures that doesn’t have to happen – but goodbye in terms of seeing you each day.

All of my family have met people here who have become incredibly important to us.

Jill has made friends here that have become incredibly important to her. Friends that will stand the test of time and distance. Friends that have made my wife truly happy and supported … and for that, I send a personal big thanks to Emma, Zoe and Amber to name a few.

Otis is inundated with them – thanks to his magnificent school – but no one will be missed as much as his beloved Elodie.

To be honest, we’re not sure if he truly understands what moving to London means in terms of implications. While technology means he will be able to still see and talk to Elodie, it will obviously be very different. I have to say we’ve handled this move with him very gently. Even though he’s already moved from China, he’s only 3 years old so his World is both huge and small. To try and make him feel as comfortable as he can be, we’ve made sure his feelings have been taken into account at every stage of the process – from creating a book of all the things he has seen and done in LA to showing him pictures of the things he will see in London to asking him to help us decide where our new family home will be.

Despite having moved countries more times than I care to remember, the fact is I never left home until I was 25 and I remember how traumatic that was for me. For a kid of 3, it must be insane … which is why he needs to feel his family unit is stronger than superglue while everything around him is changing.

I wish I didn’t have to put him through this, but apart from it being linked to work [more of that at a later date], part of this move is because Jill and I [and even the cat, probably] want him to be somewhere he can build real, longer-term roots.

As much as we loved LA, it was never going to be our long term home.

It was/is great, but we just didn’t really have an emotional connection to the place because we came here for work more than anything else.

Sure, if we had stayed longer, that might have changed – but England offers us roots. A place with some deep connections thanks to my background and – to a certain degree – Jill’s.

We have old friends there. People Otis knows and loves. And while I don’t think England will be our last stop on our journey, I do think it will be a significant one … a place where my family can build real roots and my son can find someone who becomes as important in his life and history as my beloved Paul is to me.

That is our goal. That is what my family needs. That is something we’re excited about.

But moving on means leaving things behind and for me, I am going to be saying bye to a bunch of people that have become very important to me.

The weird thing about LA is that by the time we moved here, an incredible amount of old friends and colleagues had also moved here. In fact, it meant LA was the place where I knew more people than anywhere else in the World.

Madness.

And as much as I’ll miss those guys, I’ve gone through this with them before so they don’t get to fuck with my heart that badly a second time. However there are a bunch of new people who I am going to hate to say bye too.

From our wonderful neighbours Kim and Dave to the lovely Elena – who Otis adored and trusted in no time at all – to the people at Noah’s Bagel’s who kept giving me free coffee because they found my t-shirts ‘amusing’.

But in particular I want to say a big thank you to some folks who made my weekdays better than I deserved.

There’s a bunch of them, but in particular I need to single out the amazingly talented and beautiful Jorge, the always happy [despite my shit] Zaid, the ‘Bake Queen’ Dana, the brilliant, patient, supportive and precious BCG [you know who you are, what you did for me and how much you mean to me] and – of course – my planning team.

Having spent 7 years with an incredible group at Wieden Shanghai, I didn’t know how I’d feel working with a totally different bunch, in a totally different country with a totally different context in terms of planning and creativity … but I can honestly say, it’s been an absolute pleasure working with them.

They’ve been incredibly good to me.

Putting up with my ‘ways’ and embracing my approaches.

And while all of them have played an important role in pushing the department forward, I have to give a special thanks to Kelsey, Rachael, Maya, Leigh, Heide, Lani, Ben, Mitch and Armando [and Donn, who fucked off for a pot of gold and a Lexus] for simply putting up with me on more projects than anyone else without – as far as I know – reporting me to HR.

There’s a lot of talent in this team, talent that can push them – and the agency – a long way, so I hope they continue being mouthy, opinionated, curious fucks … because as we saw in our brilliant America In The Raw study/book … when you stand for something, it stops the masses falling for anything.

I hope they feel I made a difference.

I hope they feel they’re in a better place than before I arrived.

I hope they can see bigger possibilities for who they are and what they can achieve.

For me, that’s the most important thing, even though I wish I could have achieved more.

For them. For me. For the agency.

[Though I have to say, I’m particularly proud that I got the office billboard changed, hahaha]

In all seriousness, I feel I’m leaving America a better person than when I arrived – which is the best way to leave any place – and that’s why I’m so grateful to all my planning team for what they did for me and helped me do.

Honestly, there’s a bunch of people here I’ve enjoyed working with, but this is already getting into Oscar speech territory, so in the interests of boredom, I’ll end this post with this.

Thank you LA.

Thank you for giving my family an experience we will always remember and treasure.

Thank you for the friendships, the memories and the opportunities we got to explore and enjoy.

I will always be grateful for the time I spent here, however short.

I hope America sorts itself out.

It’s an amazing country that deserves better. Needs to be better.

To do that, it needs to stop fighting as enemies and start talking as friends.

I don’t know if that will ever happen, especially under the current regime, but a united America is a good America and I want everyone I’ve met here to have the opportunities they deserve.

It’s been an honour and a privlidge and we’ll be back … for a visit, if only to prove to Otis that once upon a time, he really did live in [lifestyle] paradise.

London … here we come.

______________________________________________________________________________

Oh hang on, there’s one last thing before I go.

I know … I know … this post is going on forever.

In the tradition of leaving companies with my indelible mark, the good people of Deutsch LA have received 2 things:

Every member of my wonderful planning department have been given a copy of the highly enlightening Ladybird Book Of Meetings [for future ‘self protection/preservation’ purposes] while the rest of the agency have been left with these highly desirable, culturally bold [Ahem!], future collector item badges/buttons.

I think it’s how they’d like to remember me.

Or should I say, how they will remember me.

Look, I know as horrible as these things are, they’re still less painful than the 600 stickers I hid throughout Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai, but then Deutsch only had to endure a year of my pain where the lovely folks in China suffered for over 7.

I’m so considerate with my nastiness.

Which is probably why that after all this, they still have to put up with me for 4 days next week.

Cue: Evil Laugh.

It’s been a memorable adventure so a big thank you for everything.

See you America. See you soon England.



Down The Rabbit Holes …

So we’ve recently had some interns join the Deutsch planning mob.

They’re smart, passionate and enthusiastic as hell.

Far smarter than I was at their age. Arguably, smarter than I am now.

So I met up with them to see how they were going and they told me how they were getting to grips with things because initially, it was so overwhelming that they found themselves going down a lot of rabbit holes.

I get it, it was super daunting to me when I started too but the one thing that concerned me was their belief that rabbit holes were a negative.

As I pointed out to them, if they don’t go down rabbit holes, then they’re no use to me.

Rabbit holes are an essential part of the planning process.

Not just in terms of exploring possibilities to tackle the problem you have been given … nor to pressure test the strategy you have identified … but to also reveal if there is are more interesting ways to tackle the problem than you may have originally considered or identified.

Rabbit holes are as much about opening possibilities as they are closing them which is why if you don’t embrace them, all you’re doing is screwing yourself – and the client – over.

Sure, focusing on what you think the client will buy may get you quicker approvals and client compliments, but allowing your brain the space and time to wander can help you get to somewhere new … somewhere exciting … somewhere that allows creativity to take you to places no one saw coming … places that will attract rather than chase … and even if you don’t end up somewhere more interesting than where you started, at least you can be sure the strategy you’re recommending has been pushed and prodded, which is why I passionately believe rabbit holes aren’t a waste of time, but a key deliverable of what we do and have to do.



A Year Is A Long Time In America …

So today marks a year of being in America.

Or said another way, a year away from China.

It’s been a very interesting time for me … with a bunch of ups and downs.

Ups … in terms of the lifestyle my family get to enjoy and the people I now get to call colleagues and friends.

Downs … in terms of the state America is in and the way America is behaving.

Not just as a nation, but in the beliefs and habits that have infiltrated the working environment for so many people.

But all that aside, I still feel a deep sense of privilege that I get to have this experience.

The fact I’ve been able to live in different countries, experience different cultures and make a decent living out of it is something I will always be massively grateful for.

Of course part of this is because I’m white and male … and while I can’t change that, I can try and make sure those opportunities are available to those who aren’t either of those things.

Which has been one of the best things about being in America.

The massive wake-up call I had to the realities other people face.

Of course I wasn’t blind to it, I have seen it – and reacted against it – in every country I’ve lived, but the things I’ve seen and experienced in my short-time in America has been both confronting and enlightening.

Seeing how so much of white America deals with issues relating to African American and Latino rights – even when they’re in support of racial equality – proved to me that just saying stuff ends up being nothing more than compliance with established rules and behaviors.

It shames me to admit that it took me some time to realise that, but it’s absolutely true which is why I’ll always be grateful to colleagues like Maya, Chelsea and Bree for taking me to this point and place.

In all honesty, I don’t know how long we will be in the US.

It could be a year, it could be years … I’ve never gone to countries with a ‘time plan’ … but what I can say is the experience has been quite profound for me. OK, not in the way China was – in fact I still feel more Chinese than Western in many ways – but in terms of helping remind me who I am, what I value and what I am capable of doing or being.

You see, when I was in China, I heard murmurings that some people only saw me as someone for the Asia market.

While I absolutely love/d that part of the World and enjoyed having to relearn everything I thought I knew, I found that rumour annoying given I’d worked in a bunch of markets prior to China and in my role at Wieden, had worked with global clients for global markets all the time.

But rumours have a way of slowly getting into your head and while I do not deny there has been a bunch of stuff I’ve found weird/strange/annoying and plain fucked-up about working in America, seeing my department embrace their voice, their opinions and their beliefs and turn that into ideas, points of view and creativity that has made some people feel very uncomfortable has truly put a smile on my face.

That doesn’t mean I feel we are anyway done – far from it – but seeing change and, from my perspective, growth has been hugely rewarding.

Of course there’s no magic formula to it …

From a personal perspective it’s about being open to what you don’t know and having the willingness and curiosity to keep learning and improving. From the departments perspective, it’s just setting a direction, defining the standards we are all going to live up to and then giving everyone the time, space and backing to explore, fuck up and be vulnerable, which is why in the journey to this point – which includes the choices and decisions I’ve had to make to deal with the situations and circumstances I’ve come to face – it’s acted as a really valuable reminder of who I am, what I believe and what I still want to achieve.

So thank you America.

For what you have done for me and what you have done for my family.

I don’t know if I’ll ever love you like I love some of the other countries I’ve lived in, but if you sort out the shit you don’t want to talk about, then you’ll truly be an incredibly special place. And even though I don’t think that can ever happen – at least to the extent it needs to happen – I’ll forever be grateful for the experience you’ve given us living here … even if you’re giving my son an American twang.



A Year In A Blink …

So today is a year since I left Wieden and – in 6 days – Shanghai.

That’s incredible.

In some ways it seems it was just a few weeks and in other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago.

While it was absolutely time to start a new adventure – something LA and Deutsch have kindly given me – I still miss China and Wieden very much because I had 7 years of brilliant things happen in my life [such as this] and career [such as this and this] there … though I have it on good authority this sentimentality is only one way, mainly because those stickers I left behind are still being discovered.

And they will for many more years to come.

Cue: Evil laugh.



Donn. Rohn. Is. Gone …

When you start a new adventure – be it a new country or company – it can be daunting.

Of course no one starts a new adventure without there being a reason for it, but that still doesn’t mean you don’t find yourself being pulled into looking at what you are losing rather than what you could gain.

But good things can – and do – happen, of which one of them is meeting new people who make your new adventure more fulfilling and exciting.

One of those people is a guy called Donn Rohn.

I never knew Donn before I started at Deutsch. In fact on my first day at work, when I saw him, I thought he looked a bit of a dick, despite the fact a guy who used to work with him told me he was good.

But once I got talking to him, I realised almost immediately that it was only his walk that made him look an asshole [I’m serious, his walk is a cross between Dirty Harry and John Wayne] because the truth is, he’s as honourable a man as I have ever met in my life.

Smart.
Defender of his team.
A leader not a manager.
Committed to doing the right thing.
Empathetic, passionate, a dry sense of humour that drives brilliantly evil turns of phrase … he’s just a great human being and that’s before I mention how great a colleague, friend, husband and father he is.

I say all this because he leaves us today.

As sad as that is – and it really is – he’s off to do something that will change the path of his life so I’m genuinely happy and excited for him and his family because they deserve nothing but good things.

While I would have loved our time together to be longer, I’m grateful I met him and even more that I get to call him a mate so while he leaves a huge hole behind – especially in his ability to rock ‘grandpa sweaters’ that take no prisoners [his leaving present is the picture accompanying this post] – he also leaves a legacy of how to be a good human in a business that often tries its best to destroy that in all of us.

Thank you for everything Donn, never change.



It Seems I Am The Fine Line Between Famous And Infamous …

How is your 2018 going so far?

I know it’s still early days – but is it looking good or bad?

Well, if it’s looking positive, I’m about to ruin it for you and if it is looking dodgy, I’m going to help you solidify your opinion.

Why?

Well, a few weeks ago, a nice guy called Paul McEnany asked if he could interview me about my career.

While I’m sure his reasoning for his request was to help planners learn what not to do, my ego said yes even before my mouth did … and while the end result is the bastard love child of rambling randomness and base-level swearing, it’s the perfect way to justify your pessimism for 2018 or to ensure your optimism for the new year doesn’t get too high.

So go here and errrrrm, enjoy [if that’s the right word for it, which it isn’t] and after you’ve heard my crap, listen to the brilliant interviews with people like Gareth Kay, Russell Davies, Richard Huntingdon, Martin Weigel and the amazing Chris Riley because apart from being hugely interesting and inspiring, you’ll get the added bonus of [1] undeniable proof I’m a massive imposter and [2] the knowledge that if I can have some sort of semi-successful career in advertising, you certainly can.

You’re welcome.