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


Here’s To Those Comfortable With Uncomfortable …

I recently saw the above quote in The Athletic magazine.

The idea that Manchester City – albeit during their less successful period – had to provide ‘rain charts’ to show potential signings that their city was not wetter than London surprised me.

Then I came to my senses.

Society has an incredible knack of trying to lift themselves up by putting others down.

Obviously racism is the work example of this, but we do it everyday in lots of little ways.

From blanket attitudes such as …

“People from the North are backwards”.

To city affirmations such as …

“Manchester is the musical capital of England”.

To hierarchy comparison such as …

“I may be from Nottingham but at least I’m not from Derby”.

It’s not only bollocks, it’s also often stated by people who have never gone anywhere near the cities/countries they are negatively judging. Now I know people will say it’s all a bit of a joke – and I appreciate between mates, it can be – but there’s a lot of perceived truth in those sorts of statements, which has been exploited by all manner of organisations, especially politics.

When I lived in China, I was shocked how hard it was to recruit people from outside of Asia to come and work at Wieden+Kennedy.

OK, it may have been because they didn’t want to work with me … but even then, the amount of people who started off claiming to be interested and then said ‘it wasn’t for them’, was incredible. [Though maybe you will still find it understandable. Bastards. Ha]

There was a time where I almost gave up wanting to hire people from outside the region due to it being so much hassle. But the reality was I always felt it important to have a real mix in the gang. Sure, the vast majority of them had to be from the country/region – but by incorporating people from outside of it, I felt it created a tension that led to better and more provocative thinking. In addition, it could also help stop the blind and blinkered views we kept seeing and hearing from the West … because the more Westerners we got to experience the crazy, infectious magic of the nation, the more positive voices we would infect the rest of the world with.

But many people we talked to weren’t interested in changing their blinkered opinion.

So many didn’t even bother to investigate more about China, they were just happy to keep making their false judgements.

Oh they were all very happy to work for Wieden+Kennedy, they just didn’t want it to be in China and would often say, “but if you could connect me to people in London/Portland/NY/Amsterdam” etc.

And if they were really interesting and had a valid reason to not leave their country, I would.

Didn’t happen often.

I find it amazing that people – especially planners – don’t want to explore the World.

Planners go on about curiosity but what they mean is they are curious under certain conditions of personal comfort.

Behind a desk.
Surrounded by people and things they know.
Never venturing outside of the bubble they’ve created.

Of course not everyone is like this, but there’s a lot who are. Viewing the world and passing judgement on it via Twitter rather than experience.

In the case of China – as with anywhere I’ve lived – if the issue became about the country we were in, it probably wasn’t going to work. Of course it was OK to have concerns and questions, but if I sensed you saw it as a hardship rather than an opportunity or you thought you knew everything when you would have to relearn everything, you were not going to be someone I wanted on the team.

I was, and still am, eternally grateful to everyone I’ve had the honour to work with – and I’ve been incredibly fortunate with the incredible and diverse talent I’ve inherited and nurtured – however those in China will always have a unique place in my heart.

Because whether they were from China, Asia or further afield, all of them knew what they were taking on with the job. Not just in terms of the standards and expectations of Wieden+Kennedy, but the inherent perceptions, prejudices and lies that existed in society – and the ad industry as a whole – towards China and Asia.

And it’s for this reason that I fucking loved seeing them do work others could only dream about, especially when the industries perception was ‘China doesn’t do great work’ or ‘there’s no good planning in Asia’ … often muttered by people who have neither been to China or done great work.

But even that doesn’t make me as happy as seeing where they have all ended up …

Not just in terms of the level they’re at – from running departments, big pieces of business or companies – but the actual organisations they work with or have worked with.

Nike. Ideo. Tik-Tok. Wieden. Mother. 72. Anomoly. Supreme. Playstation. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Facebook. Google. Net-A-Porter. Instagram.

Not just in China but in countries that include America, Taiwan, Holland, UK, Singapore and Australia. Not forgetting the mob who decided to start their own thing and are now working on a bunch of fascinating projects from gaming to research.

I’m not just proud of them, I’m excited for them … because I truly believe they will do stuff that is interesting, intriguing and valuable for the rest of us.

And while most of their achievements are down to their talent and graft, another part is because of what China gave them.

Unique knowledge, experience and understanding of people and situations.

Some will never understand that.

Some will never value that.

But for those who were there – and the companies who hired them – they absolutely do.

Because while some make choices based on not wanting to leave things behind, this group of wonderful fools made their decisions based on what they could gain … and they didn’t need a rain comparison chart to convince them.

Thank you to all of them.

Thank you to anyone who runs towards the challenge not the comfortable.



Stock Shot Schlock …

When Phil Spector died, I went down a rabbit hole of his life.

On that journey, I spent some time looking into the life of Lana Clarkson, the woman he murdered.

Which led me to this …

Find the perfect Lana Clarkson death photos!!!???

Seriously, what the fuck?!

I know they don’t mean to be so disrespectful.

I know it’s a standard Getty Image response to any image search – except I was looking for Lana Clarkson, not Lana Clarkson death photos – but this is what happens when you automate a process to maximise your profit potential.

And while I get Lana’s photos were topical given the death of Spector so many media outlets may be looking for them … it doesn’t make them look good. And god knows how it would make Lana’s family feel, if they saw it.

For all the talk about brand experience, it’s amazing how much bullshit is said.

Do I think experience is important? Absolutely.

Do I think experience is done well? Not that often.

For me, there is one overarching problem.

Brands would rather be OK at a lot of things than stellar at a couple.

Before people have a meltdown, let me just say this.

I am not questioning the value of experience.

Believe it or not, it is not a new concept … it has been practiced by great brands and strategists for decades.

However experience loses its impact when the goal is to be OK at everything rather than amazing at some things.

Oh I know what people are going to say …

“But every interaction should be an experience of the values of the brand”.

Yeah … maybe.

It’s great in theory but doesn’t seem to be realistic in practice.

I mean, how many brands really have achieved that?

Let me rephrase that.

How many brands that have a clear, desirable position in culture have really achieved that?

I would say it is a handful at most.

Now compare that to the brands who have focused on doing some things in a way that is exceptional and memorable?

I’ve written about the Virgin Atlantic Lounge before.

Imagine if Branson had said, “Create an experience that is commensurate with the values of the brand for the business class customer” versus, “Create a lounge people will want to miss their plane to stay in”.

Do you think they would have got to the same place?

Do you think the former would have helped drive the brands economic and repetitional success as well as the latter?

Don’t get me wrong, Virgin Atlantic have a lot to do to improve their experience.

Their booking and loyalty schemes are a fucking mess for a start. But while I appreciate I am biased, I would gladly sacrifice that for the lounge experience that makes me look forward to every trip.

An experience that is distinctively memorable, not just corporately comfortable.

The reality is there are more highly profitable, highly desirable brands who offer an inconsistent brand experience than those who offer a consistent one.

More than that, brands that offer a consistent brand experience across all touch points do not automatically become a brand people want to have in their lives.

Part of this is because their version of consistent tends to be using their name or colours or slogan everywhere.

Part of this is their version of ‘brand experience’ is the absolute opposite of what the word experience is supposed to mean.

[Seriously, can you imagine the sort of parties they would have?]

And part of this is because they want to talk to everyone which means their experience appeals to no one.

Because while it might not be fashionable, great brands are built on an idea.

Something they believe, stand for, fight for.

This is very different to ‘purpose’.

Purpose – at best – is why you do something.

Belief is how you do it.

The sacrifices you make. The choices you make. The people you focus on.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean great brands shouldn’t want to ‘fill the gaps’ that reside in their experience eco-system, but it does mean it should only be done if each element can be done brilliantly and distinctively.

Anyone who has read the book ‘Why I Hate Flying’ will know the vast majority of brand values are basically the same – which means the vast majority of brand experience strategy ends up being predominantly the same.

However the brands who command the most consistently vibrant cultural interest and intrigue are the one’s who have a point of view on what they do and what they believe. They have a real understanding of who they’re talking to rather than a generalised view of them. They have values that step out of the convenient blandification that so many companies love to hide behind – where the goal is to look like you care without actually doing something that shows you care. And they absolutely know it’s better to do some things that will mean everything to someone rather than lots of things that mean little to everyone.

The obsession with 360 brand experience is as flawed as the 360 media approach from a while back.

Frankly conveying the same message everywhere felt more like brainwashing than engaging.

Experience is a very important part of the strategic and creative process.

Always has and always will be.

It can make a major difference to how people feel about a brand and interact with a brand.

But like anything strategic, sacrifice is a vital part of the process.

While in theory it is nice to think every interaction will be something special and valuable, the reality is that is almost an impossible goal.

Different audiences.
Different cultures.
Different needs.
Different times.
Different budgets.
Different technologies.
Different interactions.

So anyone who thinks experience should be executed ‘down to a level that allows for mass consistency’ rather than ‘up to a standard that allows key moments to be exceptional’ are creating another layer to get in the way of making their audience give a shit.

Or said another way, you’re adding to apathy rather than taking it away.

OK, I accept that for some categories unspectacular consistency can be valuable – hospitals for example – but the reality is in the main, audiences care less about consistent brand experience than brands and their agencies do.

That doesn’t mean you can’t make them care by doing something great – like Tesla did with their ‘dog and insane’ modes for example – but you need to understand you’re playing as much to your audience standards, as yours.

Now I appreciate I’ve gone off on one, given this post was originally about a search engine response to a murdered woman’s photograph rather than brand experience … but while they’re very different in many ways, there is one thing that is the same.

They’re all focused on satisfying an audience need … and while standardised processes can help ensure we are ‘dumbing up’ with our approaches to the challenge, when that manifests into a standardised experience, then you are dumbing down the value of who you are and who you can be.

For the record Getty, this is what Lana Clarkson looked like.

There’s no ‘perfect’ photos of her death.

But there’s plenty to signify the person she was.




Don’t Want Something So Much That You Do Something You Don’t Want …

When I was at cynic, I wasn’t allowed to talk money with clients.

The main reason for this is that while I like money, I like doing weird and wonderful things more … so I used to agree to terrible terms just because I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss out on doing something we were really excited by.

Now I get we like to think there’s some sort of logic to this approach, but as George kindly told me – while punching me in the head – what I was doing was undermining our position.

For a start, your relationship with the client is impacted. That doesn’t mean they don’t value you, but it means they don’t value you as much as they should. They see you as a ‘cheap problem solver’ rather than a valuable problem solver.

Then there’s the fact all your additional time and passion will never be rewarded to the level it deserves. The worst part is this is your own fault as you already set the precedent for how much you are worth by lowering your fee to such a great degree.

And then there’s the dilution of the projects importance.

In essence, when something is made much cheaper, the effect is its value goes the same way. Going from something significant to just another thing being done. From having a strong focus within the company management to being delegated to people who don’t really have the same decision making power.

Before you know it, clients start questioning other things you’re doing.

Asking why certain things need to be done. Challenging the time or expense on the elements that show the real craft.

Leaving the end result a lesser version of what it should have been.

Now this doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens a lot.

And while I get we are in a highly competitive time, where everyone is looking to save cash – the ease in which we undermine our own value is both astonishing and debilitating.

George’s brilliance was his ability to have us walk away.

I have to be honest, we had many arguments about this over the years … but in the main, he was right.

His point was ‘why would someone value us if we’re not valuing us?’.

It’s a pretty compelling argument.

This doesn’t mean we weren’t open to negotiation, but George’s position was ‘never forget we have something they want because we’ve shown them something they need’.

Another pretty compelling argument.

And while this approach helped us not only win all manner of great creative projects – but helped us be a profitable, sustainable company – I still found it hard to deal with.

Hell, on the occasion we didn’t win a project because somebody said they could do it for cheaper, I was a bloody nightmare. George used to say it was because I am an only child – which may be right – because I hated not getting what I really, really wanted.

And even then, George was the voice of reason.

“Why are you upset about losing a project with a client who wants to go down to a price point rather than up to a standard?”

ARGHHHHH!

What makes it worse is he meant it.

He, more than any of us, knew our value and wasn’t going to let us let go of something we had worked so hard to earn.

He’s right of course.

It’s the reason the best work comes from people who share the same goal.

To aim high, not cheap.

Sure, money comes into it … but the focus is always the quality of the output not just the price.

It’s why Cynic was so exciting.
It’s why Wieden+Kennedy are so special.
It’s why Metallica’s management are so influential.
It’s why all the work I’m doing right now is so fascinating.

George taught me so much.

While I appreciate I’m in a much more privileged position than many, nowadays I am totally comfortable with walking away from a project if I feel the vision, ambition and value for a project is not shared.

And what’s weird is that while that approach has resulted in me walking away from a lot of potentially interesting projects that were worth a lot of money to me – especially over the last 6 months – it has brought me a range of fascinating clients and projects [and cash] that most agencies would kill to have a chance to work on.

I’ve written about knowing the value of your value in the past.

I’ve talked about how that lets you play procurement at their own game.

And while it feels scary to stick to your standards when someone is threatening to take away something you really want, it also makes you feel alive.

Butterflies of excitement. A taste of power and control. Nervousness of being in the game.

And while it might not always come off and while you may be able to justify why it would be easier to just take whatever they want to give you … it’s a beautiful feeling to feel you matter. That your work matters. That the way you look at the world matters. That what you want to create matters. That you won’t allow yourself to do something simply because you’re the cheapest. Or allow a bad process to force a diluted version of what you were hired to do. Or let yourself be evaluated by someone who doesn’t care about what you’re creating, just that it’s done. That you matter enough to not allow others to negatively judge you for terrible conditions they put you in.

It can take time to come to terms with this.

It took me almost 20 years to really get it.

And while some may call you a pretentious or stubborn or commercially ignorant, the reality is dismissing the value of your value simply to make things commercially viable for everyone else is simply the most stupid thing you can do.

Because to paraphrase something Harrison Ford once said, when you devalue the value of something you’ve spent your whole life working at, you’re not just being irresponsible, you’re not valuing the value of the time, experience and expertise it has taken to get you to that point.

George knew this.

George helped me benefit from this.

George eventually got me to understand this.

And I’ll always be grateful for that gift.

________________________________________________________________________________

I’ve removed comments. Not just because I’m scared of the mountain of abuse the ex-cynic alumni who comment on here may/will give me. But because I’m even more frightened they may bathe George in even more praise and that would be too much for me to deal with.

Comments Off on Don’t Want Something So Much That You Do Something You Don’t Want …


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.