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


Remember, We’re All Living In A Hollywood Set To Some Degree …

I’ve been watching a lot of movies that made a big impression on me in the late 80’s/early 90’s.

What a massive mistake.

Apart from Die Hard, Terminator and Point Break … everything else has been pretty horrific.

Seriously, either we had really, really, really low standards back then, or someone was putting something in the water.

Face/Off, Bad Boys and The Rock are particularly bad.

I LOVED those movies when I was younger. I thought they were amazing … but zoom forward 30 years and you want to scrub your eyes and brain with a wire brush.

It’s not the bad effects – I can understand them being rubbish – it’s everything else.

The lack of subtlety. The horrific dialogue. The insane levels of over-acting.

It is obvious that directors back then thought audiences were as thick as shit because the way they signpost every moment in the movie with overt ‘clues’ is insane.

From clunky dialogue that attempts to explain the implausible, to off-centre camera angles to highlight the ‘bad guy’, to music that blatantly tries to communicate how you’re supposed to feel or what you should be ready to experience.

One of the worst of all the moves I’ve seen recently is the 1991 Julia Roberts movie ‘Sleeping With The Enemy’.

I remembered this movie as one that tackled domestic violence at a time where it was hardly ever discussed.

That might be the only bit of it I remembered correctly.

Quite simply, it’s pants.

Filled with more holes than Edam cheese and more over-acting than an episode of ‘Crossroads’ from the 70/80′ … the only positive elements are the name of the film, Julia Roberts amazing smile and the house that features heavily in it.

What makes it all worse is the trailer doesn’t give any of that away.

I know trailers are designed to do exactly that, but the difference between what they set up and what you get is dramatic.

Here’s the trailer.

OK, so you either have to trust me this is setting you a false experience or you have to watch the movie for yourself and know it with all certainty … but none of this is actually the point of this post.

You see when I watch movies, I have this annoying habit of having to investigate their history while watching it.

The thing that caught my eye when I was watching Sleeping with the Enemy was that house.

Look at it.

So grand. So imposing. So much a symbol of wealth.

And while I saw places like that when I lived in the US, I was surprised to learn it was made just for the movie.

Of course I know this happens, but they tend to be on a set, not on a real beach … but here we were, with that exact situation.

And while it looks the home of the wealthy from the front, when seen from behind – it left a different impression.

That’s right, it looks like the sort of rubbish they used to make on Blue Peter with some cardboard and sticky black plastic.

And while this shouldn’t surprise me, it does highlight how much of life is an illusion.

From the social media we read to the pitches we embark on to the relationships we forge to the jobs we covet.

Of course, not everything or everyone is like this.

Some are like the famous Steve Jobs quote, “paint behind the fence”. … where their standards, values and attitude means they will do things others may not ever know or see, but is important to them as it not only gives them confidence of a job well done but let’s them feel they’re working for a company they can believe in.

However they are sadly the exception, even if they should be everyone’s ambition.

So as we enter 2021 with our hopes and dreams, it may be worth remembering so much of life is like the Sleeping With The Enemy house. Where what we are asked to see is not a true indication of what it going on.

And while that doesn’t mean it’s all bad, it does mean you can go into things with open eyes, you can avoid disappointment, you can set some boundaries, you can identify the real opportunity that will excite you, you can stop feeling bad if you have questions or doubts and you can be OK if you’re not living up to what others claim they’re living up to.

Because when we talk about a healthy work/life balance, it’s worth remembering it’s not just about time, it’s about attitude.



Corporate Schizophrenia …

During these COVID times, we’ve heard a bunch of terms that are supposedly the foundation of survival – the most widely used being ‘pivot’.

While I get it, the problem I have with this terminology is that it is expressed in such a way as to suggest people or organisations should be willing to let go of everything they have been doing for decades and embark on a totally different activity that may have more important commercial value at that time.

Been an airline for 80 years?

Let it go and start delivering groceries.

Been in hospitality for 3 decades?

Let it go and start working in a supermarket

Been in finance for the last 5 years?

Actually – stay as you are – you’re always going to find a way to make money.

OK, so I’m exaggerating … but I have read so many decks from strategists who throw around buzzwords without either seemingly understanding what they’re actually saying in them or – worse – what the implications would be if people actually did what they said.

Reframing your proposition is not pivoting. It’s reframing your proposition to existing or potential clients.

It’s airlines moving from carrying passengers to carrying freight.

Or restaurants moving from eating in to delivering out.

Pivoting is a fundamental change of direction … and who the fuck would do that?

Well I say that but then I saw this …

Yep, this person is a human pivot.

From digital marketing to being a magician with almost every profession in-between … including MIND READING!!!

From my perspective, he can never be out of work.

Not just because his range of talents means he’ll always be useful to someone – from boardrooms to kids parties – but because if you can mind-read, I expect every one of this marketing recommendations is EXACTLY what clients want.

Maybe this is what planners should be learning instead of frameworks and tools?

Forget my rant from a few weeks back and get down the local magic club to learn a few tricks. Hell, at the very least you could say, “my marketing ideas are magic”.

Just for the record, I’m not taking the piss out of this person – I genuinely think it’s amazing.

But there are 2 questions I would love to know.

1. Which came first, the magician/mindreading or the marketing?

2. Does this broad range of talents attract or repel potential clients?

I admit I noticed him because of his breadth of skills – and in the old days, I did a similar thing by making sure my resume mentioned how I used to be a session guitarist for 80/90’s popstars – however while that captured potential employers attention, I don’t think they would have called me in for interviews if they felt that was still my life.

Who knows, I just find it fascinating this individual openly communicates they’re in the consultancy world and the trickery world [yes, I know, I’m calling out the legitimacy of magic] so I’d love to know more about his story, which – in this competitive world where everyone is being told to pivot – means he’s already ahead of many in the pack.



The Collab. A Better Twist Than The Sixth Sense Ending …

Recently we’ve been seeing a lot of collabs between brands and artists.

I don’t mean bullshit influencer social content, but proper collaboration in terms of product creation … albeit that it often ends up being just ‘logo swapping’.

Of course that is still marketing, but it’s a bit more effort than a celebrity just fronting a TV or print campaign.

Or is it?

You see, while the people at the brand all think they’re going to become cool and rich by associating with someone influential with millions of fans, the reality is somewhat difference.

Maybe once upon a time that was always the case … and when it’s done right it can absolutely still be the case … but for a lot of the bullshit collabs we’re seeing being pimped out by certain brands [you all know the ones, especially the tech bros desperately trying to look like they’re part of youth culture even though all they are is a fucking ‘productivity tool”], they don’t understand the artist and their fans have a very different view of the ‘partnership’.

To them, the association is not an act of endorsement.

Nor does it make the brand partner cool.

And it absolutely won’t define their loyalty.

The reality is the association is nothing more than a ‘get rich quick’ scheme for the artist and their fans love them for it.

Unlike previous generations, they don’t see it as an act of selling out.

In fact it couldn’t be more opposite because they see it as an act of awesome.

Taking millions off a brand for a moment in their day.

Something that will be forgotten as soon as it’s done.

A novelty for the fans to buy but not to keep buying.

Basically, playing the corporations at their own game but they end up the real winner.

That’s success right there.

Not that most brands understand that.

Most of them still think they’re playing the artist. That money means they can get whatever they want out of them. Why wouldn’t they, brands have been using, abusing and stealing from artists for decades.

But it’s very different now.

Years ago, I was working with a very famous brand who did a collab with a very cool, up and coming rapper.

The brand were beside themselves because they thought this association was going to change their fortune forever.

On set, the artist was a bit of a nightmare – not saying or doing anything the brand wanted them to do – in fact they even used their social channels to tell their fans they weren’t doing this because they loved the brand, but because they were getting big money.

Unsurprisingly, the brand team were not very happy about that, but they reasoned that the association would still be worth it for them in terms of awareness and sales.

And maybe it was … but the real winner was the artist because their fans thought what they’d done was even more cool.

Talking shit about the very people who had hired them and still getting paid millions upon millions for a few hours work.

That’s power.

That’s influence

That’s a life goal we should all have.

So while collabs can be cool when done for the right reasons and the right ways, many brands need to understand that while – at best – they may have a boost to their short-term profits, the cool doesn’t actually rub off on them. In fact, if anything, their desperate desire to look cool to millions has just made them the laughing stock to the very millions they wanted to appeal too.

Because while they think they’re hustling the artist, the artist and their fans are hustling them.

Welcome to the new definition of power.



Let’s Have Another Bonfire …

A few weeks ago, the lovely/stupid folks at WARC asked me to be part of a conversation to discuss whether strategists were well equipped to embrace the opportunity that clients valued brand strategy more than any other discipline.

If you’re a WARC member, you can watch the whole discussion here, but all the panelists were asked to give a 5 minute introductory talk about their perspective on the issue.

I used no slides, but if I had, I’d have used the image at the top of this page that comes from a presentation I recently gave to Rockstar Games. Not because it’s arresting, but because if no one paid any attention to what I said, they’d still get a good idea about where I stand on things.

But for those who want to know a bit more detail, this is what I said.

_____________________________________________________________________________

“We are in an interesting situation.

We have more flavours and capabilities in strategy than ever before.
We have more opportunities to learn the craft of strategy than ever before.
And – according to reports – we have more demand from clients for strategy than ever before.

That all sounds fucking fantastic for the strategy discipline, except we continue to see …

+ Strategic thinking being given away or discounted.
+ Tighter and tighter deadlines for strategy to be concluded.
+ The abdication of strategic thought to ‘whatever the data or platform owners say’.
+ More value placed on the process of strategy than the outcome of it.
+ A reduction in strategic training and development from agencies and companies alike.
+ Huge swathes of strategists being made redundant every single day.
+ A continued reluctance to hire people of colour or people born outside of capital cities
[and when we do, we tell them they’ll only be valued if they act exactly like the incumbents]
+ And from my view, less distinctive, disruptive and long-term strategy than we’ve seen before.

So when I compare the claims ‘the strategy future is rosie’ with the reality going down all around us, something doesn’t add up.

Which leads me to think there are 3 possibilities.

1. The strategy clients want is less about strategy and more about repackaging what they’ve already decided or simply don’t want to have to deal with.

2. The strategy companies/agencies want is less about strategy and more about doing whatever will keep the client relationship happy.

3. The strategy strategists do is less about taking lateral leaps forward and more literal shuffles towards the justification of whatever our clients want to have justified.

OK, I’m being a prick … but only partially.

Somewhere along the line we all seem to have forgotten what strategy is and what it is supposed to do.

To quote my planning husband, Mr Weigel, strategy should …

+ Make things happen
+ Move things forward
+ Create new possibilities
+ Create greater value for the audience and the business.

Or said another way, strategy is about movement, momentum and direction. Where the day after a strategy is engaged, the behaviour of the company or brand is fundamentally different to the day before. A distinctive, sustainable difference designed to deliver breakthrough results born from identifying a real business problem, nuanced understanding of the audience [rather than convenient generalisations] and commercial intimacy … by that I mean knowing who the company actually is, how they operate and how they need to in these modern times.

Prof Lawrence Freedman, the author of A History of Strategy … said it best:

“Strategy is about revolution. Anything else is just tactics.”

And we’re seeing a lot of tactics these days.

And while eco-systems, frameworks, brand onions, data, D2C, UX, creative briefs, ads and comms are all parts of the strategic journey, they’re rarely THE strategy.

Nor is creating endless sub-thinking for every decision, implication or possibility because, at best – they can paralyse the potential of the strategy and end up just creating incremental change rather than fundamental or – at worse – just cause mass fucking confusion.

And don’t get me started on optimisation or user journeys or white-label solutions or writing endless decks that go nowhere … because they’re often more about keeping things the same than moving things forward.

This discipline has been my life. I believe in it and I’m employed because of it. It can create incredible opportunity and value and has some incredible talent working in it and – more excitedly – wanting to work in it. But the reality is for all the people who have strategy in their title, few are setting the stage for brilliantly creative, commercially advantageous, progressive revolution … most of us are simply executing a small part of someone else’s thinking and then going off thinking we’re hot shit.

What this means is as a discipline, we’re in danger of becoming like a contestant on Love Island, initially interesting to meet but ultimately blunt, disposable and forgettable.

And while there’s many reasons for this – some beyond our control – we are contributing to it by acting like our own worst enemy. Doing things like arguing about which ‘flavour of strategy’ is the right ‘flavour of strategy’ for the modern age.

Apart from the fact most of the ‘new flavours’ are just re-badged versions of old strategic rigour – albeit with some more consideration and expression in it – this is just an argument of ego that’s distracting us from the real issue …

We can be so much more than we think we are.

We need to be so much more than we think we are.

But to realise this we need to stop thinking of strategy as if it’s engineering or simply the act of being able to think strategically … and get back to objective, distinctive and focused revolution.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Prof Freedman:

“Strategy is getting more from a situation than the starting balance of power suggests”.

If we’re not doing that, then we’re not just kidding ourselves … but also our entire discipline and our clients trust.

And while they’re many reasons for it – as I have already mentioned – we’re all kidding ourselves a lot these days.

As with everything, what happens next is up to us. But I hope it results in us being strategically dangerous because when we’re in full flight, that’s when we’ll show how much value we can add to commerce, culture and creativity”.



When You Say It’s A Lie, You Can Say Anything …

I am doing a project about land ownership.

I know that sounds horrifically boring, but it isn’t.

Anyway, as part of my rabbit hole reading and research, I came across one of those sites where you can buy ‘titles’ … like Lord and Lady of the Manor.

And then I saw this …

Have you read it?

No, I don’t mean the bollocks testimonial, I mean the line near the top.

Yes, the one that basically says, ‘these testimonials may all be a pile of utter bullshit’.

Amazing eh?

I have to admit, I love their use of the word ‘illustrative’ … it’s as if they’re trying to say they want to add flair to their product story rather than just admit they’re writing lies.

Let’s face it, if you have to make up your ‘references’, you don’t have any references.

Believe it or not, the ad industry is more closely controlled than the newspaper industry … and while the owners of this company openly admit their references are illustrative rather than real, it still highlights how someone who wants to fuck with the system can fuck with it, regardless how closely regulated people may think it is.

But then even that doesn’t matter, because as I wrote in my post about Bernie Madoff, the people who fall for these scams are often – but not always, especially if they’re the elderly – complicit in some way.

Because as Bernie once said …

“I succeeded because when you offer people a deal that’s too good to be true, they never want to look too hard into the facts.

They say it’s because of trust. I say it’s because of greed.”