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.



If You Don’t Know Your History, Everything Is The Future …

Burning On Fire GIF by Barbara Pozzi - Find & Share on GIPHY

When I was at R/GA, we got invited to do a big pitch in China.

I was travelling a lot so asked some of my brilliant colleagues to help me with developing the overall strategy.

When I came back, I found they had done a ton of work.

Huge amounts of research.

Huge amounts of analysis.

Huge amounts of thinking.

It was fantastic, there was just one problem.

It was all wrong.

Not because what they had done wasn’t true or accurate, but simply because they’d fallen for planners achilles heel.

‘What they thought was interesting and new wasn’t interesting or new for the audience they needed to talk to.’

While they will never make that mistake again, you’d be amazed how much this happens.

I used to see it in China all the time.

Westerners coming into the country for the first time and throwing down all the things that they found fascinating without realising what they were saying was just normal life for anyone there.

The vast populations of cities.
The local alternatives to twitter, youtube and facebook.
Wechat’s amazing array of features that are embedded in everyday life.
The incredible migration of the country during the New Year festival.
The amount of money spent on 11.11

Yawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwn.

It’s such an easy and dangerous mistake to make.

Driven by a pinch of arrogance here … a sliver of laziness there … and underpinned by a big dollop of what I wrote about a while back.

I see it all the time … doesn’t matter whatsoever if it’s strategists talking about cultures of other nations or cultures in other parts of their own nation.

Hell, some of the stuff I heard spouted in London planning circles have been bordering on embarrassing.

From using data without any element of context to allegedly reveal ‘why Northern values are unique values’ right through to a continuous barrage of repurposed and reclaimed ‘trend reports’ which enables them to state with utter certainty they know how ‘TikTok is shaping culture’ … despite never once referring to China, where the platform has been in operation for years and where culture there are literally light years ahead of the West in terms of how they use it and how they are influenced by it.

Seriously, when I see or hear this stuff, I wonder if they realise it say’s far more about them than the people they are supposedly expertly explaining?.

Look, I totally appreciate there are many reasons why this situation is occurring.

And as I said, there are many parties guilty of this situation.

But – and it’s a big but – we, as individuals and a discipline, have to take some blame for it.

Thinking we don’t have to interact with people to talk about people.
Believing having an answer is more important than having understanding.
Valuing individual revelation more than contextual appreciation.

All this does is lead to work that satisfies our ego while boring our audience to death.

We can be great.

We can be valuable.

We can push the potential of creativity.

But it won’t happen if we continue to think if it’s new to us, it must be new to everyone.



When Hijacking Becomes Criminal …

I’ve written a lot about the ‘hijack’ strategy.

Where a brand pushes itself into a cultural event or topic to either attempt to change the narrative or leverage the narrative.

Some brands do it brilliantly … Nike or Chrysler for example.

However some are a bloody car crash.

At its heart, the difference is simply whether your hijack ‘adds to culture’ or just ‘takes from it’ … however given this approach is now so common among brands, I have to ask whether it can even be considered ‘hijacking’ anymore when most of society expect someone to do it.

That said, it is still a powerful strategy when done right … the problem is, most brands aren’t doing that.

Case in point … social media GAP during the US election.

What the hell?

I know why they did it.

I know what they hoped would happen from it.

But all I can think about is when your own brand of clothes don’t know who they are for, you’re pretty fucked.

And that kind-of sums up GAP’s problem.

Who are they for?

It’s no surprise they are facing incredible pressure in the market these days, to the point there’s talk of them pulling out the UK altogether.

They’re not distinctive enough for people to want to pay a premium for. They’re not cheap enough for people to use them as a foundation for whatever fashion they want to express that day.

In fact, the only thing they have going for them is a collab with Kanye.

It could be amazing.

Reimagining the future of what e-commerce is and how it works.

Combining it with art, not just functionality.

Though whether it will end up making GAP’s clothing range look even older and blander is anyone’s guess.

If they want to learn how to really hijack a moment, they should look at the Four Seasons Landscaping company in Philadelphia.

This is the place where President Trump’s team recently held a press conference, mistakingly booking it thinking it was the Four Seasons hotel.

With all this global attention, they’re leveraging it by selling merch that mimics Trump’s messages.

This is real cultural hijacking.

This is done by adding to the experience rather than just taking it.

Making a landscape company a brand of culture. Albeit for a short period of time.

But let me say this, it’s still more fashionable than the stuff GAP are making right now.

You can buy it here.



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.



Give Me Something To Believe In …

One of the things I’ve found fascinating over the years is how many companies think all they need to do to keep employees happy is cash and perks.

Don’t get me wrong, cash and perks are very nice – and for some people, that’s all they need – however for a certain type of employee, there is another attribute that has equal, if not even greater, appeal.

Pride.

Pride in what they do.
Pride in how they do it.
Pride in who they do it for.
Pride in who they work with.
Pride in the actions of the past.
Pride in the ambitions for the future.
Pride in the standards the company lives by.
Pride in the companies standing in their field.

Now I get the C-Suite may like to think their employees are proud working for them – probably reinforced by countless questionable ‘monkey surveys’ sent by HR – however more often than not, they are confusing ‘having a job’ with ‘being proud of the job they have’.

Nothing highlights this more than when a company feels morale is down, because that’s the moment the spot-bonuses and/or impromptu office parties begin.

Does it work?

Sure. For a period of time.

However employees are no fools, they know the real reason for these ‘additional benefits’ is to keep them quiet rather than force the C-Suite to open up a set of issues they absolutely don’t want to have to deal with.

Why?

Because in the main, the issues are about them.

Specially the work they aspire for the company to make.

Look I get it … no one likes to face their potential failings, so if they can avoid it with spending a bit of cash, why wouldn’t they?

Well I’ll tell you why, because money can’t buy pride.

I say this because I recently saw a video of Steve Jobs talking about standards.

He’s made similar speeches over the years – with his ‘paint behind the fence’ being one of my favourites.

However I love this one because there’s a bit of bite in it.

A clear perspective on what standards he holds Apple too, rather than what the competition hold themselves too.

Sure, to some it could come across as arrogant, but I imagine to the people at Apple at that time, it induced the same feelings I have when I work for a company whose standards and ambitions were at least the same as mine or – hopefully – even higher.

Pride.
Confident.
Togetherness.
A sense of ‘us against them’.
That feeling you’re part of a place playing a totally different game to the competition. A special place. A place that does things right, even if people don’t quite get it yet. A place that attracts the best to do their best … but not in a way where you then feel ‘you’ve made it’ for being there. Instead, it’s a feeling of responsibility to keep the standards of name moving forwards. An intoxicating mix of expectation, judgement and encouragement all at the same time.

You can’t fake that.

You can’t buy it either.

So when the C-suite hand out promotions, payrises and parties in a bid to boost morale because the claims of doing great work are not convincing anyone … my advice is to save their cash.

Not just because the employees know exactly what they’re doing.

Nor because whatever they end up receiving, it still won’t buy their pride.

But because they could save a ton of cash by simply committing to doing things to the highest standards rather than the lowest … because at the end of the day, these people don’t need certainty, they just want possible and if they have that, morale will fix itself all by itself.