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


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.

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“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.”



Eau De Toilet. Literally And Metaphorically …

The fragrance industry is fascinating.

I’ve written a bunch about this in the past [here, here and here for example] but nothing reinforces my view than the new fragrance bottle from Moschino.

Have a look at this …

On one hand I admire how the industry uses creativity to design distinctive bottles and packaging – mainly because the smelly liquid inside has little value – and I love the fearlessness they tend to embrace all they do, but there’s few industries as pretentious as the fragrance industry. Hell, they’re even more pretentious than a Swiss finishing school run by a Victorian father.

Now I accept some are being ironic – or have evolved to be that way, like Gucci for example – but the vast majority continue to have their heads so high up in the clouds, that even the biggest dope smokers couldn’t reach them.

I’m not sure which side Moschino are on, but anyone who makes a perfume bottle to look exactly like a disinfectant spray and proudly puts the words ‘toilette’ on it, suggests either the biggest misstep or act of fragrance genius I’ve seen in years.



The First Rule Of Marketing …

… is know your audience.

The second rule is let them know you know them.

For all the millions spent at agencies and consultancies, this food vendor at the recent Chelsea v Everton match. shows they get it more than most.

Now you may think, ‘who would shop at a place that publicly identifies them as a chubby’?

And I get it …

In these highly visual times, no one wants to associate with anything deemed socially negative.

But apart from the fact there are some people who take great pride in their unhealthiness, the reality is there’s something incredibly lovely about that name.

If you’re hungry.

If you need something to eat.

If you want something that’s going to make you full.

What better place is there than a food cart with the name Chubby’s.

Chubby’s suggests big portions. Lots of flavour [read: fat] Value for money.

But it’s more than that.

This is a food cart at a football match.

Food and football is never supposed to be fancy.

It’s supposed to be piping hot and insanely substantial …

This means even the most healthy minded individual can justify buying from there.

“It’s just this once” … they’ll say.

“It’s part of the footballing experience” they’ll claim.

And then, to make themselves feel less greedy, they’ll do what was the basis of one of my favourite ever campaigns – a bloody radio ad no less – they’ll go and order a Diet Tango to wash it all down with.

The weak and delusional fools.

[Cue evil laugh]

So while I doubt any naming consultancy would ever come up with such a choice of name for a football food establishment, I would say the owner of this cart is a better marketer than most of the agencies and consultancies put together.

And his hot dogs were a delight.

That is not a euphemism.



Saying You Care Means Nothing If Your Actions Show You Don’t …

One of the things that has shocked me since coming back to England is the amount of gambling that goes on here.

Not just in terms of people actually doing it, but brands trying to get people to do it.

It’s everywhere.

Football shirts. High Streets. Apps. TV shows.

I know it shouldn’t really shock me as there has been so much written about it in the papers, but the sheer volume has blown me away.

Another thing that has blown me away – for equally bad reason – is the way the gambling companies are trying to portray themselves as good citizens.

That all their ads say, ‘When the fun stops, stop’ – or some variant of it – might sound like they care, but apart from the fact there’s countless stories of them actively encouraging people who are demonstrating the have a problem with gambling to keep going, it makes no sense.

Because the moment you realise gambling has stopped being fun, you’re pretty likely to be in the grip of addiction.

Or said another way, it’s too late.

Once upon a time, I was in that place.

I was young and the amount of money we’re talking is minute … but I was in a full-on addiction to fruit machines.

I was still a student and working part time as a pot washer, and within seconds of receiving my weekly pay packet, I’d be feeding all of it into a fruit machine.

Occasionally I would win big (£25) but most of the time I’d spend my weeks earnings within minutes – leaving me without a penny.

Now I’m lucky, I was able to stop – mainly because credit was not readily available back then, because if it was, who knows what shit I would have got myself into – but I can still remember how much I hated myself when I lost but how excited I was when I was about to begin.

And yet, despite knowing what I was doing to myself, I was unable to stop myself for months.

While I would not wish that on anyone, it was a hugely valuable lesson.

It taught me I have an addictive personality and helped me to manage what I do and don’t expose myself too.

Sure, I buy a shitload of pointless gadgets, crap t-shirts, guitars and Birkenstocks. But it’s also why I haven’t tried any alcohol since my last taste 34 years ago, why I’ve never tried any drugs and why I never tried smoking – though that one was easier, as I’ve always hated the smell.

I do believe that people have to take some responsibility for the decisions and actions they take – but addiction is something we have to accept, skirts the rules of logic.

You become helpless and need controlled.

And given the impact certain addictions can have on people is loss of health and/or loss of livelihood and family … having a note in small letters at the end of an ad that has spent 29 of the 30 seconds celebrating the excitement and glamour of gaming – and then puts all the burden of managing addiction on the victim – seems pretty shit.