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.



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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Adland Does More Than Just Sell, It Makes You Feel …

When I hear people say ‘TV ads are dead’, I laugh.

Especially when – in the same breath – they talk about the importance of content.

But what makes me hysterical is when they talk about content in terms of volume rather than emotion.

How many different ways it can be cut. How many different platforms if can be carried on. What it allows you to say and show.

That sounds even worse than a bad TV ad to me.

And as much as I love technology and what it is allowing creativity to do and impact in marketing, a great piece of film still has the power to have more impact on what people think, feel and do than 10,000 eco-systems that have all been designed to remove every possible element of friction rather than ignite it.

What’s also amusing is that while the industry loves to focus on the new, new thing – even though in many cases, the new thing is simply an old thing, albeit with a new name – it’s the same, arguably ‘older’, agencies who use creativity in the most consistently powerful, thought-provoking and emotionally igniting ways.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking them – quite the opposite actually – and I bloody love them all, however while everyone justifiably talks about the Wieden’s, Uncommon’s and Mother’s of the world, I think we should all take a moment to acknowledge the incredible work AMV is doing right now.

Of course they’ve always been one of the best but right now … they’re coming out swinging.

Not only did they make the best Christmas ad ever written for Plenty paper towels – yes, a bloody paper towel brand – and the incredible Wombstories for Bodyform, they’ve just launched this masterpiece for MacMillan Cancer Support.

Amazing isn’t it?

Almost 2 ½ minutes long and yet it never feels it.

In fact, you watch it over and over again.

Even though it makes you cry.

Properly sob.

Maybe it’s because in this repetitive life of isolation, it lets us feel human … connected to someone or something in a way that we’ve not had for a long time. Or maybe it is a reminder of how fragile life is or how lonely it can be.

Whatever it is, this is more than just ‘an ad’, and so, so much more than the contrived content designed to work across multiple platforms that so many people in the industry seem to think is the way forward … because this incredible piece of film allows us to glimpse the fine line that exists between life and death and the amazing souls who do their absolute best to try and keep them as far apart for as long as possible.

It had a huge impact on me.

Because like AMV did with Plenty – albeit from a VERY different perspective – their eye for detail was immense.

You may not notice all of them.

You may only notice them if you’ve lost someone.

But they’re there and they’re real in all their beauty and tragedy.

The exaggerated happiness to try and disguise the worst situations for the sake of those who don’t quite understand.

The need to be strong for those who know their reality but don’t need that being brought into their reality.

The joy of giving someone a second of happy distraction in a life surrounded by bleakness.

The despair of seeing a child come to terms with their parents mortality.

The elation and gratitude of victory.

The intense fear you think this may be the end and you are petrified you may be alone during your final moment.

But it’s the last scene – where the family say their final goodbye to a woman they obviously love so much – that truly ripped me apart.

From the hand reaching out, struggling and desperate to find the hand of the person they love – a final touch before they slip away – to the intense, shocking loneliness that engulfs you when you realise they’ve taken their final breath.

It reminded me so much of my Mum.

As I sat next to her, after she had come out of her operation, only to see everything collapse in front of my eyes.

The attempt to make sense of something that made no sense.

The shattering of life as someone I loved with all I got went away.

A death that was as unfair as it was untimely.

And what’s strange is I keep watching the ad to relive that feeling.

To be reminded of that final moment with Mum. The sadness and the pain.

Because while it makes me cry deeply every single time … taking me to a place I never want to relive … it has this weird effect of letting me feel closer to her.

A moment where we are together again.

Some kind of private moment.

So I look at it again and again and again. Not just that final scene, but the whole thing … watching events unfold in front of me as if it was for the first time seeing it. Being moved, uplifted and devastated at the exact same moments every single time.

Until that final moment.

Where even though the music reaches its crescendo, everything feels silent.

Where I gasp for air while wanting to scream to try and break the reality of what’s happening in front of me.

Where I feel my whole body is tightly wound in a futile bid to hold things together.

It’s a tragic feeling of familiarity that I wish wasn’t.

And yet I am grateful for it. I truly am.

Because despite all this raw emotion, I never feel the ad exploits.

Yes, it challenges and confronts, but it never ventures into shock while also – somehow – never feeling like it is keeping anything back either.

It is an extraordinary piece of film that reminds us the people who try to keep the thin line between life and death as far apart as possible for each and every one of us, are also people.

Doing whatever it takes to help the people suffering and the people watching, move forward to wherever a better place exists.

It didn’t just make me send it to people, put it on social, look up the team behind it and write this post – it made me sign up to make regular donations to MacMillan Cancer Support.

Don’t tell me TV ads don’t work. When they’re like this, they can change the world.



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.



Driving With The Brakes On …

When I first started working in London – just as I was starting out in this industry – I commuted about 5 hours a day.

A DAY!

To be fair, that was of my own making because the company thought I lived in London because I’d given them my aunts address when I applied and got hird.

When they eventually found out I lived with my parents in Nottingham, they were livid.

And they had every right to be.

But as they were giving me the first of my long history of written warnings, I asked the question: “would you have hired me if you knew I lived in Nottingham?” … and didn’t hear a word back.

And while I knew I deserved it, what pissed me off was that I generally was always the first person in and last out. Driving up and down the M1 in my shitty Ford Fiesta with one wing mirror and a radio that couldn’t drown out the sound of my engine. But the fact was, I was a bloody idiot and as much as they probably wouldn’t have hired me if I’d be honest with them from the start, I was fortunate not to be kicked out of an industry I still love.

Well. Most of the time.

And while I was young and having a car felt amazing … even then I knew 5 hours a day – 25 hours a week on a good week – was too much.

Winter was the worst.

Bad weather meant it could take almost double the time to get there and back and many a time I slept on a friends couch or a motorway service station, in my car under a mountain of coats and blankets I kept in the boot ‘just in case’.

My parents were not happy about it, but I think because my Dad’s brother-in-law was travelling 8 hours per day [he was head of traffic control at Gatwick airport] it somehow made them feel a bit better about it.

What’s interesting is that after that job, I vowed never to be more than 30 minutes from work.

And I wasn’t.

Until, of course, I came back to London.

Even though I was in a much better position personally and professionally than I was the last time I worked – and eventually lived there – no one drives into Central London anymore. And while I genuinely enjoyed catching the tube or the bus – helped by the fact that the stations I got on at meant I generally always got a seat – it still was a 80+ minute journey each way, each day.

Given our house was only 7 miles from work, that made my old 2+ hour journey over 120 miles, look positively effective.

And this was life for me.

Out the house before the family woke up.

Back at home as the family – or at least Otis – was going to bed.

And while we made it work and weekends were sacrosanct, the fact I was spending a minimum of 13+ hours a week going to and from work was – and is – ridiculous.

So when COVID started and we all started working from home, I was – for the first time in my life – able to have breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day with my family and I can honestly say I found it pretty confronting.

You see I loved it.

Absolutely loved it.

It was – and still is – one of the most wonderful times of my life.

And while I enjoy working, I started to question what the hell I was doing spending so much time away from them just to get to and from work.

Then R/GA did the nicest thing they could do for me.

They made me redundant.

And while there are things I could say about how they did it and why they did it, the fact is, I’ll always be grateful to them for the opportunity they gave me to come back to England, develop the team I got to work with and then – at the end – hand me my redundancy so I could rediscover and reclaim my priorities, passion and creativity.

Right now, I feel more fulfilled and excited than I have in a long time.

I’m spending more time with my family than ever before while working on a range of global projects that are some of the most creative I’ve ever been involved with.

Mad, mental stuff – from ads to products to art installations – which involve some of the most talented creative people in their field … from an icon of dance/electronic music to the most notorious developers in the gaming category and a bunch in-between.

Then, of course, I have the brilliant excitement of NZ and Colenso to look forward to, too.

It’s all simply amazing.

While I appreciate I am in an exceptionally lucky and privileged position, I can’t help thinking about this quote:

“The problem with life is we sacrifice what we really want to do with what is available right now.”

We all do it.

We might have different reasons causing it, but we all do it.

And while there are many considerations, situations and expectations that push us down these paths, I hope if anything comes out of the craziness of 2020, it’s that we think why we’re doing it rather than just blindly following it.

Because it’s only when we question our choices can we start seeing where we’re going.

And then we have a little more control. Or choice. Or even peace. We all deserve that.