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


Are Warc Berks?

Last year, WARC made the terrible mistake of inviting me – and Martin, though he is never a mistake – to talk at their show at Cannes.

While our talk on chaos seemed to go down rather well, I was still amazed they invited us.

Well, me.

Amazingly, they still haven’t come to their senses, because last month they asked me to write something about how COVID-19 was affecting business. And while they wisely edited down what I’d written, you’d have think they would have learned their lesson by now.

But no.

And while I would love to say the reason I am posting it on here is because I feel it is a worthy read, the real reason is I am too tired to write a post today so this solves that ‘problem’ nicely.

I know this gives you no incentive to actually read it, but it does talk about Pornhub in it.

And penis shaped pasta.

And David Lee Roth.

Oh who am I kidding, you don’t even read the short posts.

Damnit.

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If You Think Change Only Happens When There’s A Global Pandemic, You’re Not Paying Close Enough Attention.

COVID COVID COVID. That’s all I’m hearing.

Of course I get it … it’s a terrible situation with ramifications that could fundamentally change the way we live, work and operate forever.

Hell, just a few weeks ago, the head of the Automobile Association, Edmund King, suggested the demand for travel – by road or rail – will reduce so dramatically [due to companies and employees recognising the ability to work from home] that the government may be better putting money into broadband instead of bolstering infrastructure.

That statement, if true, would have a seismic impact on an incredible amount of industries … from car manufacturing, train services, commercial leasing and banking to name but a few. And then, when you add in the expectation’s [some of] society is placing on the actions and behaviour of brands through websites like didtheyhelp.com, you see why some are saying the societal reset button has been pressed.

But I’m not going to write about that.

Not because I don’t believe it, but because everyone is writing about it.

My point is less dramatic. It’s simply that how we live, work and operate is always evolving, so if you only think it is happening now, you’ve been asleep at the wheel.

If You’re Not Moving Forwards, You’re Moving Backwards

I don’t want this to be a big piece for R/GA, but we’ve always loved playing to where culture is heading rather than where it is.

It’s part of the reason why we’ve continually reinvented ourselves as a company and why we’ve been able to fuse creativity with technology to either define the future normal or open the door for it to start establishing itself.

Some of these ideas required us to be ridiculously audacious – like when we created Fuel Band for NIKE to start changing the way everyday athletes train and develop or when we created one of the first digital banks – NEXT in Brazil – because we saw how the values and aspirations of 20-30 year olds were totally different to the products and services the established banks were offering.

And while those two are on a grand scale for liberating change, the reality is it doesn’t matter what the size of the project is, we always place huge value on exploring cultural and sub-cultural changes because pandemic or not, people are always evolving.

While I really didn’t want to talk about COVID-19, the fact is the biggest shifts occur when there is a crisis and it’s fair to say, that’s what’s going on now.

Put simply, crisis collapses time.

What could take decades to evolve can happen in years, months, weeks or minutes.

For example, after arguably centuries of being denied, women were finally recognised as societal equals* after people [read: men] saw the vital role they had played in the war effort of WW2.

[* acknowledging that women are still continually denied equality in so many aspects of life]

Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Newton’s 3rd law, which states ‘for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction’ has been around since 1686. But some had started to believe these shifts only occurred through technological revolution when the reality is cultural adversity is equally as powerful … and the reality is COVID-19 is creating some major changes of attitude and behaviour.
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At the time of writing …

35% of Britons are worried about their employment.

The average Londoner is saving over 2 hours per day of commuting time working from home.

The top 10 fastest growing products being bought on the internet right now are in the categories of healthy eating, medicine and gym equipment … though chips, popcorn and snack foods are also all experiencing triple digit growth.

64% of people believe their community is stronger now than pre-COVID-19 … with approx. 1/3 of people offering to help vulnerable neighbours.

Families are now spending approx. 16 hours awake together compared to a previous average of 2.5.

Google searches for ‘meditation’ has reached its highest level in history.

Visits to Pornhub.com has risen globally 11+%, with ‘corona virus’ searches in the site reaching 1.5 million on March 5th alone.
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These are all big shifts with major implications. And while I accept there is a chance things will return to the ‘old normal’ when the situation becomes a bit more stable – there are 3 things to remember:

1. The longer this goes on, the more likely these new attitudes and behaviours will become established and self-sustaining.

2. Not everyone’s situation is the same, including when isolation will end for them.

3. Even if things do return to the past for every single person, they will all continue on their individual journey of evolution … whether in attitude, behaviour, aspiration, ambition or a combination of all.

A New Value Of Money?

Once upon a time, the rock singer, David Lee Roth, said:

“Whoever said money doesn’t buy you happiness doesn’t know where to shop”.

While this may well have been the attitude for multiple generations, right now – across the entire World – the value of money is literally being re-written by society.

I’m not talking about what and where people want to spend their cash [though there are some fascinating facts emerging, such as Ann Summers – the adult romance company – revealing the shortage of pasta in supermarkets had led to them selling more of their ‘penis pasta’ in 1 week than they’d sold in all of 2019] … I’m talking about their relationship with it and, as a result, their relationship with their banks.
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At the time of writing …

55% of people are very or extremely worried about the national economy, with 35% very or extremely worried about their household financial position.

950,000 people have successfully applied for Universal Credit in 2 weeks.

In the UK, car sales for March 2020 have fallen 40%.

56% of Britons actively want to support local businesses over global business.

22% of Britons are already changing buying habits, especially for non-essential items.

And while on their own, these might not seem scary – even though they only represent the first 4 weeks of Corona impact in the UK – when you overlay it with some of the cultural narrative appearing on Mumsnet and Reddit …

“I don’t want to live in a city where I can’t afford a back garden”

“Why have investments when they go down when you need them most”

“Who thought I’d value a full fridge more than full wardrobe?”

“The government needs to see public services as an investment, not a cost”

… you start to realise the fundamental attitudinal changes that are starting to occur.

Of course, many of these shifts in attitudes regarding money may be being driven by their circumstances.

Maybe they can’t believe how quickly their financial situation has changed.
Maybe for the first time in their life, access to what they’ve always enjoyed faces obstacles.
Maybe the lack of human contact has highlighted how alone they are.
Maybe it’s seeing a business they built for years fall apart in days.
Maybe it’s not being able to leave their apartment and breathe fresh air for weeks.
Maybe it’s realising that how you live is becoming more important than what you have.
Maybe it’s realising this isn’t a matter of wealth or poverty… but life or death.

Whatever the reason, you start to think that just maybe some of the fundamental values, attitudes and behaviours entire industries have banked on – and actively fought to maintain – are starting to shift.

If that becomes reality, then not only are the ramifications going to be mind-blowing for business, it will mean Alvin Toffler – the futurist, writer and businessman – was right when he said the illiterate of the 21st won’t be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

While I readily admit I have neither the brains, vocabulary – or even the looks – of Mr Toffler, I wholeheartedly subscribe to his belief that change is the only constant … which is why I thought I’d end this piece with 3 ways we help our clients be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

1. The Most Valuable Thing You Can Give Your Client Is Honesty

When we were helping create Next Bank in Brazil – part of Bradesco – we discovered nearly 70% of the target audience would rather visit the dentist than go to a bank. No-one likes to hear they’re not liked, but knowing what people really thought of them allowed us to make decisions that could drive the biggest impact and value. In simple terms, it meant everyone was behind creating a bank that didn’t act or operate like a typical bank.

2. The Culture Of The Category Tells You The Direction Of The Category

We spend a huge amount of time understanding the culture around a category. Not just in terms of how people transact or interact … but how they live, act, talk and behave. From the music they love to the hashtags they use. For example, with NIKE Girlstalk, we use interviews, social listening and data to understand how athletes are talking about sport … because often shifts in language indicate changes in how they see or play sport. Some may not think this is important, but it’s the difference between talking athlete to athlete or brand to customer.

3. Use Technology To Be More Human, Not More Automated

We believe customer experience builds and defines brands. It’s why we look at technology as much more than a tool to drive efficiency and optimisation … but something that can engage audiences emotionally and distinctly. For example, COVID-19 is revealing a multitude of ways people are using tech to feel connected to others … from Zoom background hysteria to virtual pub quizzes to mega concerts on Fortnite. All of this shows the multitude of ways society plays with tech to provide them with emotional – not just functional – fulfilment, which should remind brands their customers need more than just, ‘category best practice’ digital efficiency.

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Sources:
The Daily Mail, 6 April, 2020
Dynata: Global Trends Report, COVID-19 Edition
Office For National Statistics
Stackline Retail Intelligence
OnePoll on behalf of ChannelMum.com Survey
Prof Jacqui Gabb of the Open University
Google Analytics
Pornhub.com Corona Virus Data
Dynata: Global Trends Report, COVID-19 Edition
The Guardian Newspaper April 1, 2020
Reuters, April 6, 2020
Hall & Partners
Dynata: Global Trends Report, COVID-19 Edition
Topics of conversation on Mumsnet/Reddit during March 2020



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.

Pubs.

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.

Nothing.

Nada.

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.



When Collaboration Goes Waaaaaay To Far …

In these days of working at home, the possibility of making a video-conference disaster are quite high.

I’ve already had some ‘incidents’ …

For example I was on a concall recently and Rosie – our cat – decided that would be the perfect moment to release the World’s biggest hairball right by the microphone of the laptop.

That went down well.

Then there was the moment Jill and Otis thought it would be fun to fire water pistols against the window I was working from. What they didn’t know was that I – you guessed it – was on a concall again.

The photo at the top of this post captures that moment.

Then there was the second ‘cat’ incident.

I was on a video conference with a client when I noticed them smiling.

“Hey Rob …”, they said, “… your cat seems to have climbed your wardrobe”.

Now given Rosie is so old she won’t even jump on my lap, I looked behind me to see what he was going on about.

“Oh,” I replied, “that’s not my cat, that’s a cuddly toy”.

The client laughed and said, “Wow, it looks very life like” to which I responded …

“I hope so, I paid a fortune to have it made to look exactly like my cat”.

He quickly changed the subject, but he had that unmistakable look in his eye … the look of, WHY HAVE I LET THIS LUNATIC WORK ON MY BRAND?

But for all those incidents, nothing – absolutely NOTHING – compares to this …

Do I feel sorry for ‘Jennifer’?

Sure. But my god, it made me laugh.

I know for a fact if I was on a zoom call and did this in front of my team, not one of them would say a word.

Not because they would be wishing they were blind, nor because they’d be vomiting on sight … but because they’d be busy instagramming the shit out of it.

And I don’t mind telling you, I’d be very proud of them for their evil genius.

Then I’d release all the bad instagram photos I’ve taken of them.



Strategy Is A Direction, Not A Shopping List …

I am getting fed up of hearing strategy talked about in terms of a process.

Of course, there is one, but it seems people seem to value the process more than what it is supposed to deliver.

Which is clarity and direction.

Something that will change the behaviour of the brand/business from the very next day.

Something that will help create a clear position in culture, not just in the category.

Something that will contribute value, loyalty and appeal to the audience that will move them forward.

Something that is focused on the long-term, not just the next quarter.

That’s it.

That’s all strategy is.

And yet, I am meeting so many people who are getting lost in the process or worse, getting lost in the word ‘strategy’ … saying nothing can be done without it being deeply involved at every step – and I mean ‘every’ step – of the process.

Now don’t get me wrong, thinking and expertise is important – but to imply that only someone with the word ‘strategy’ in their title can do it, is wrong.

Actually, it’s insulting … especially when you consider that so much of the magic happens when you invite people who see the World differently to the party.

But it’s happening.

I’m seeing it everywhere.

And what it’s doing is creating so many strands to the strategy discipline, they’re getting in the way of each other.

That might be good for the agency fee, but not great for the work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these strands of strategy don’t have value – of course they do – but in many areas, it’s not actually strategy … it’s not delivering on any of the 4 areas listed above … it’s simply helping push along the process of the output to get to a [allegedly] more effective result.

In other words, it’s short-term tuning rather than long term creating.

Adding obstacles rather than taking them away.

Or said more cynically, it’s more tactics than strategy.

Doesn’t have to be.

Not everyone is doing that.

Not everyone thinks like that.

But my god, it seems there is a lot of it about … and when you look at the amount of work that is being produced because of it, you have to admit that while there’s a lot of optimization, there’s not a lot of distinctive, magnetic energy.



Nothing Makes You Feel Old Like This Chart …

Given my age, I remember when the internet went from a university thing to a public thing.

Because of that, I remember when so many of these companies launched.

What’s slightly concerning is that I worked on many of them and in the main, they’ve either disappeared or just fallen away which means the biggest threat to these companies is not data breaches or government interference, but me.

The human virus.

Now that’s an accolade. Or so I keep telling myself.