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


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.

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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.

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Brand In 10 Words.

I am a massive fan of Rick Rubin.

Actually that’s not quite right.

I am a massive disciple of Rick Rubin.

I think he is incredible. His ability to help others express their most powerful creative voice is amazing.

So much of this is down to how he see’s his role.

Not as a music producer, but as a sophisticated fan.

Someone who wants the band he loves to be their shameless best.

Protecting them from ever feeling they have to compromise on who they are or what they want to say because he fiercely believes the greatest return comes when you express your honesty and authenticity rather than play to be liked.

It’s why the artists he’s worked with reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the most culturally significant artists of their time.

Those who either defined a genre or validated it.

LL Cool J
Run DMC
The Beastie Boys
Slayer
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Rage Against The Machine
The Black Crowes
The Dixie Chicks
Johnny Cash

Look at that list. Look at it.

Hip Hop. Rap. Rock. Metal. Thrash. Blues. Country. Funk.

No one should be able to be so successful with that range of genre and artist.

It’s hilarious and yet there are so many more artists I could mention because for almost 4 decades, Rubin has helped artists not only express their truth but recognise the economic power from doing so.

He has created icons.
He has revived icons.
He has shaped, pushed and provoked culture.
He has influenced, shaped and changed music forever.

When we hear agencies talk about ‘creating culture’, most haven’t come anywhere close to what he has helped create.

But what I love the most about Rubin is how he decides who he is going to work with.

Basically his entire decision making process is based on one simple process.

Taste.

If Rubin likes what he hears, then he’s up for it.

It doesn’t matter whether it has any connection to anything he’d done before, he see’s it less about the music and more about the artist needing help to express … find … or rediscover their voice.

Not their singing voice. Their soul.

It’s not that far off what we as an industry say we do for brands.

Except we’re increasingly forgetting what brand is because we sacrifice it time and time again for the quick win.

I get it, we’re fighting for our lives … but in our quest to show we have value, we’re destroying what makes us valuable.

Oh I know we won’t admit that.

We’ll point to words like purpose, experience and membership as proof ‘we get it’.

We’ll say they’re representative of modern brand building and all else is old.

We’ll show 1000 page decks that show how our unique processes ‘guarantee’ success.

And some clients will buy this, which means we can go away thinking we’ve got it all sorted out and we’re legends.

Except we haven’t and we aren’t.

Yes, all those elements play an important role in building a modern brand … however they’re never the lead, always a supporting actor because …

Sales without distinction doesn’t build a brand.

Purpose without sacrifice doesn’t build a brand.

Data without understanding doesn’t build a brand.

User journeys without nuance doesn’t build a brand.

Eco-systems without an idea doesn’t build a brand.

Personalisation without being personal doesn’t build a brand.

Wanting to be something to everyone rather than everything to someone doesn’t build a brand.

The harsh reality is we’re dangerously close to confusing commoditisation with brand building. Of course this is not all our fault, but continuing to perpetrate it, most definitely is.

While I appreciate Rick Rubin didn’t mean the photo/quote that appears at the top of this page to be interpreted this way … he pretty much sums up how to build truly distinctive and definitive, culturally resonant brands.

And he does it in 10 words.

TEN!!!

And that’s part of Rubin’s magic.

He understands how to get to the simplest expression of his viewpoint, because he knows the simpler it is, the less obstacles to deal with.

Simple lets truth speak and rise.

Simple lets possibilities flourish.

Simple lets distinctiveness be expressed.

Simple is unbelievable power.

Now the irony of simple is it’s not easy to pull off.

Simple is definitely not simplistic. To be simple requires a hard work, experience and confidence … and while as an industry we have known this and advocated this for decades, we seem to have recently decided the opposite – where we celebrate complexity.

What the hell?!

Maybe it’s because we’re making more money from this approach. Or just feel more important. But the endless playbooks, frameworks, processes, tools and strategies we’re producing aren’t building better brands, just bigger obstacles.

Again, there’s a place for them. But the way they’re being used – they’re more like hammers than brushes – forcing them into the process, competing with all around them and ultimately leaving people lost with what they’re following, what they’re building and what they’re actually doing this all for.

As someone recently said to me – someone hugely successful in business – when companies make the solution more complex than the problem, they’re just creating another problem.

Please don’t think this means you skimp on standards or rigour.

If anything, it’s the exact opposite … but because everyone knows what they’re working towards [rather than doing their version of what they think everyone should be working towards], it means they can be sharp and focused and that means your work can be expressed in ways that lift things up rather than bogs them down.

I get some people won’t like this.

I get some people won’t agree with this.

I get some clients would never sign off on this.

But apart from the fact I doubt any of them will have come close to influencing, shaping or creating culture in the same commercially infectious way Rubin has, if they really believe selling the complexity of intelligence is a smarter way to operate, I’ll leave you with something my dad – who was pretty good on this whole intelligence thing – used to say to his lawyers:

“If you have to show how clever you are, you aren’t that smart”.



Attitude Drives Output …

Once upon a time, Nottingham Forest had a manager called Sean O’Driscoll.

He was an excellent manager. Someone who understood the game and got his teams to play attractive football.

Everything was going well until our then owner – the insane Fawaz – decided to fire him, despite us being at the top end of the table and having just beaten Leeds 4-2.

The reason I mention this is that I recently read an interview with him about how Forest are playing now and in it, he says something that really impacted me.

This is the piece:

The bit that really hit me was when he said:

“Bournemouth expect to win, Forest hope to win”

He’s right. But his point is far bigger than being just about football teams.

A lot of people mistake confidence with arrogance.

I get it’s a fine line, but there is a big difference between the two.

One of the things I found really interesting when I was at Wieden was how many people viewed us as arrogant.

People who often had no experience of working with us in any way.

OK, so there was the odd one or two like that – probably me [hahahaha] – but the reality is/was, it’s a pretty humble place … filled with good, talented humans who love creativity.

But here’s the thing.

When we went into meetings, we generally expected to win.

Not because we thought we were better than everyone else, but because the work we put forward was always what we truly believed was the right thing to do.

We didn’t let politics get in the way.

We didn’t let egos get in the way.

We didn’t weigh the work down with things that sounded good but ultimately just got in the way.

The only thing that mattered was allowing creativity to solve the problem in the most interesting, intriguing and culturally provocative way possible.

Some people found that hard to deal with.

They found our confidence in the work confronting.

But the thing was, it wasn’t because we were big heads, it was because everything we presented was something we had sweated and pushed. Every detail was in there for a reason. That didn’t mean we weren’t open to discussion. Or opinion. It’s just we wanted it to be a discussion, not a dictation … because to throw something out just because someone didn’t like it or misunderstood it meant we were dealing in politics not creativity and that’s not something we subscribed to.

Some misunderstood this.

They interpreted the belief we had in what we were presenting as arrogance.

But arrogance is when you expect to win without putting in the effort.

And that was never the case with Wieden – or countless other places of repute.

The reason I like that O’Driscoll quote so much is he shone a light on the difference between belief and hope.

Hope is when you have worked hard.

Belief is when you have worked hard based on a philosophy.

Not a purpose, a philosophy.

Something that is more than effort or direction, but a distinctive way to play. A style you believes gets better results. A philosophy everyone believes in and is committed to. A standard you all want to reach to show respect to where you are.

If some people mistake that for arrogance, then so be it.

Because the work born from those who play a certain way to win, is far better than those who hope they don’t lose.

Thanks Mr O’Driscoll.



A Year Like No Other …

So this is it. The final post of 2020.

Congratulations on making it to here. Especially after a year like this one.

I have to say it feels kind-of bitter sweet for me, because as I’ve written before – this year has been pretty special for me and my family.

Sure I turned 50.

Sure, Forest still fucked up the promotion hopes they’d held onto all season in the last 15 minutes of the last game of the whole season.

And sure I lost my job

But even though they’re all pains in the arse, compared to what others have – and are – suffering, it was nothing. Hell, even turning 50 gave me the chance to do this.

When I originally wrote this post, I’d listed all the things that had happened to me this year.

It was a very, very long list.

And while I am super grateful for each and every one of those things – from new jobs to new houses to family happiness to Paul doing Frothy Coffee full time – it just felt wrong.

Not just because there’s a whole host of people going through a terribly shit time right now. Nor the fact I’m a over the self-promoting, self-congratulatory, soapbox shouting by people on social media. Or even because the brilliant Mr Weigel wrote it better than I ever could achieve [as usual] … but because of something I read in The Guardian Newspaper a few weeks ago.

Specifically the very first sentence.

Which was – utterly bizarrely – about me.

No seriously, and it went like this.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in July, Rob Campbell, 50, received a Zoom call from his boss at the advertising firm where he worked as a head of strategy.

When I read it, the number 50 stood out.

Like it was 50 stories high.

It confused and confronted me.

Part of it was because I don’t think I am that age.

Part of it is knowing I am.

And maybe it was at that point I realised just how lucky I am.

Not that I was naive to it before, but it became more apparent.

Because losing your job at 50 is shit.

It doesn’t mean it’s all over, but it’s unusual to have so many good things happen and frankly, it all made me feel a bit embarrassed which is why I deleted the list of stuff.

It happened. I just don’t need to share it because I lived it.

And while it would only have been there to act as a reminder of all that happened should I – or Otis, later in his life – wanted to jog our memory about it, the spirit of this post and those before it say all that needs to be said.

So instead, I want to use the rest of this post to say thank you.

There’s so many people I am grateful to have in my life.

So many people who made the worst year, in many respects, one of my best.

People on here.
People in the industry – some I knew, some I didn’t.
People who just read my instagram and got in touch.

You may not realise it, but it made a huge difference to how I saw the future.

Then there is my amazing family. Their unconditional belief and support meant I never had to panic. I never had to worry. I mean, I did have moments of it – but that was all because of me, never them. Jill never expressed concern. She gave me confidence by simply being confident in me so the whole experience never felt scary – which is incredible when you think about it. Then there’s Otis. God, I love that kid. Seeing him come home from his new teeny-tiny school in the country filled with stories and giggles meant the house never had a chance to feel bad.

My mates were ace. A check-in here, a word of advice there, a dollop of pisstaking and a whole lot of love. They ensured I never felt alone, and while I was perfectly fine with the situation I found myself in, they made sure I stayed perfectly fine with the situation I found myself in.

Of course I can’t forget my old colleagues. Not just from R/GA … but also Deutsch, Wieden+Kennedy and Cynic. So many got in touch. Offered to help. Made me laugh. They didn’t have to do that – especially the way I had treated them when we worked together, hahaha – but they did and it meant more to me than they may ever know.

I want to give a particular shout out to Blake Harrop.

Not only is he the most handsome, clever man in the whole universe but he is also the MD of Wieden Amsterdam.

When he heard what had happened, he sent me an absolutely epic note. I’ve always regarded him as a special man, but this just took it to another level and I will keep that note forever.

And then my clients.

Past. Sort-of present. And now, future.

Fuck me … what an impact they had on my confidence.

Not just in their kind words, but in their actions. Signing long-term contracts, introducing me to others and – in the case of two in particular – collaborating with me to start Uncorporated. As I’ve noted in other posts, the work it has let me be a part of is unprecedented and I cannot say thank you to them enough.

Finally to the wonderful folk at Colenso.

To have one of the agencies I’ave always loved reach out and ask me to join them was simply the icing on the cake. They were open, warm, encouraging and honest throughout the process before topping it off with most well written job offer letter I’ve received in my life. Seriously, it was a work of art and if there was an award show for this sort of thing, it would be a Black Pencil winner for sure. I can’t thank Scott and the team enough for the opportunity to play with them and I can’t wait to be there in March and cause some trouble.

What all this means is that I have been surrounded by wonderful people.

Not just the ones I know, but people who just reached out to see if they could help.

I don’t know what I have done to deserve it all to be honest [it must be Jill and Otis] but I totally get why people say it’s better to be lucky than rich.

So to each and every one of you, I want to say thank you.

Jill, Otis, Paul, Michelle, Mr Weigel, Mercedes, Paula Bloodworth, David Lin, Carina, Winson and Wanshi, Nils, my wonderful old planning team at R/GA London, Lesley Cheng, Ryan and Sam, Mike and Sam, Trudie, Matt Tanter, Group Think, Scott and Levi and all at Colenso, Blake Harrop, Karrelle Dixon, John Rowe, Mr Ji, Richard Green, everyone at Q-Prime, Metallica, RHCP, Richard David James, Paul Colman, Flash, Rodion, Charinee, Debbie, Leon, Jorge Calleja, George, Andy, Baz, Lee Hill, Simon Pestridge, Steve Tsoi and PT Black, Patrick the Dirty Ram fan, Michael Roberts, Ben Major, Holly Day, Lindsey Evans, Dan Hill, Rach Mercer, Donn the grandpa jumper wearer, Ben Perreira, Maya, Chelsea, Bree, James Thorpe, Lani, Tarik at Onroad, Leigh, Nic Owen, Bassot, Judd Caraway, Gareth Kay, Pickens, Wes, Hoala, Brixton Finishing School, Mark Lester, Ros and Hiro, Lea Walker, Phil Jacobson, Maria Correa, Sam Clohesy, Ian Preston, Doddsy, Lee Hill, the inspirational Murray Calder, Wendy Clark and every single person who has insulted, laughed or ridiculed me on here.

While I am sure I’ve forgotten some names, I assure you I haven’t forgotten your kindness.

To be able to have all this at 50, in one of the worst years the World has seen is insane. I definitely feel some guilt over it so I hope that in 2021, everyone out there gets lucky … and if I can do anything to help that, give me a shout – because it COVID has reminded me of one thing, we’re better together than separate.

May you all have an amazing holiday season. Or as amazing as it can be.

I send you thanks, love and best wishes.

And I leave you with the 3 ads that gave me hope that creativity still is a more powerful and deadly weapon than all the frameworks, funnels and optimisation put together.

See you on the other side. Specifically on the 11th.



Happiness Isn’t Perfect …

I recently read an amazing interview with the actor Ethan Hawke.

There’s many reasons he’s a fascinating person, but one of the main ones is that despite being hyped up to be as big as Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, he didn’t get there.

However this is not because he failed or came off the rails … it was because he made an active choice not to go down that path.

There are many reasons for this.

One is because his Mum pushed him “towards a British understanding of acting as a craft and away from American ideas of celebrity” and the other is seeing what happened to his friend, River Phoenix.

And while many would deviate from their resolution the moment they saw the benefits available to them, Hawke has been steadfast in his resolve.

One of the ways this manifested itself was him never moving to LA.

Having lived there, I get it.

On face value, it’s a spectacular town.

A stunningly beautiful place where dreams can literally come true.

And there’s a bunch of truth in that. Kinda.

Because while it makes you feel more welcome than almost any place in the World, it comes at a price. And once it feels it has gotten its value out of you … or had all its fun with you … or simply got all the benefits out from you, then it will spit you out, forget you were there and move on to the next in the blink of an eye.

For me, you go to Las Vegas to gamble with your money to make it big.

But in LA – at least to a certain degree – you go there to gamble with your life.

I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true.

What’s more, it’s all there in plain sight. The issue is people – especially those chasing the Hollywood dream – like to ignore it because, let’s be honest, people like feeling special or lucky or smart enough to not let that shit happen to you.

And that’s why the way Ethan Hawke sums up LA is – as much as I enjoyed my life there – pretty damn perfect.

People think getting what you want will make you happy, but a sense of self, purpose and love don’t come from the outside. You can’t get distracted by this culture that celebrates things that sometimes aren’t what they seem”.

So why am I saying all this.

Well, contrary to how I’ve made it sound, it has nothing to do with my respect for Ethan Hawke. Or my cynicism to Los Angeles. It’s because recently, someone sent me this and said it reminded them of me.

I have to say, when I read it, I felt a bit overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed because it really did capture how I think about things.

Overwhelmed because it meant someone got me, rather than believed I was just a nosy prick.

OK … so there’s a selfish element to why I’m like this.

You see, if my colleagues or team mates have issues or worries, then it means they’re not able to perform as brilliantly as they usually do. Which means the work they do won’t be as brilliant as I want, need and expect from them. So wanting to give them an environment where they can feel safe to be open and vulnerable while also actively wanting to help, listen and change situations for them, has as much to do with my needs as there’s.

I know, what a selfish prick eh?!

But it’s not all for self-serving reasons.

Because ultimately I am a big believer people should be able to express how they feel.

That we all have good and bad days and you should never feel bad for how you are.

I was incredibly fortunate to be brought up in a house that followed this belief and I will continually advocate it.

Even when people think I am being a nosy prick.

But it does have benefits beyond just personal, emotional wellbeing.

It means you can connect better to others.

It means you can be open and honest rather than political and wary.

It means you can disagree in ways that never become personal or destructive.

It creates something special.

A bond where deep trust is formed.

It doesn’t happen every time.

It doesn’t always happen in the same way.

But if you’re lucky, you will meet some people on your professional journey who this approach will end up having a profound affect on both of you.

Not just in terms of how well you click. Or work together. But a deep understanding and acceptance of who you are without criticism or ridicule.

They will make you better and be someone you want to be better for.

United by a deep respect and belief in what each other brings to the table while still allowing you to argue, debate and challenge without it ever being personal or destructive.

When that happens, what you can create together – either in collaboration or just through each others support – is amazing.

You feel a real honour to know them, work with them and understand them.

I’m very fortunate I’ve had a few people in my life, but one of them is the brilliant Paula Bloodworth … who I first had the privilege of working with at Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai.

And that’s why receiving that quote from her was so, so special to me.

I hope you all have a Paula in your life.

Someone you deeply connect with and yet disagree with all at the same time.

Because not only does it make your work better, it makes you a better person.