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


There’s Confidence, And There’s Drug Dealer Confidence …

One of the questions I’ve been asked more than any other is how do I tell clients what is wrong with their brand.

The first time this happened, I kept asking for clarification because I couldn’t work out what they were asking.

But over the years, it has become apparent that to some, offering clients honesty and transparency is seen as potential threat to the business rather than creating the foundation to answer what is needed.

For me, giving clients honesty and transparency is a demonstration of how much you want them to win.

How much you want them to win, better.

That doesn’t mean you have to be a dick about it, but it does mean you have to be open about how you see it … and in my experience, if you do it in a way where they understand your reasoning and your ambition for them, then more times than not, it’s welcomed.

That doesn’t mean they will agree with you, but it’s amazing how much respect they’ll have for you … because frankly, they’re surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear and so someone coming in and saying, “actually, we have a different view on this situation to you” is a breath of fresh air.

Hell, even if they hate what you say, you’d be amazed how many times they’ll remember you. I can’t tell you the amount of times people I once pitched for and lost have come back to me/us at a later date.

But I get it can be daunting, even more so if your bosses are saying. “just do what they want”, which is why the next time you’re in this situation, I encourage you to look at the photo at the top of this post.

That photo is Pablo Escobar.

Columbian drug-king Pablo Escobar.

And yes, that photo is him with his son outside the White House, taken when he was the US Government’s most wanted criminal.

So if you think telling a client how to be more successful requires confidence, imagine what it takes to have a photo with your son outside the building where the President of an entire country wants you dead?

Not so hard now is it?

Have fun …



The Problem Vs The Real Problem …

A while back I wrote a post about the best bit of advice I’d ever had regarding solving problems.

Or should I say, on how to present how you are going to solve a problem.

But this is dependent on knowing what is the right problem to solve … and quite often, it ends up being the problem we want to solve versus the problem that needs solving.

Now of course, we can only solve the problem that relates to our particular discipline.

For example, as much as adland likes to claim it can solve everything, we can’t build a car.

[Trust me, I’ve tried]

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Too often, when there is a huge piece of business on the table, our goal is to get all of it.

Every last piece.

Doesn’t matter if it’s not our core expertise.

Doesn’t matter if the work won’t be interesting.

We. Want. It. All.

Now there’s many reasons for this – mostly around money – but what it often ends up doing is destroying everything we’ve spent decades trying to build up.

It burns out staff.
It undermines the creativity of the agency.
It forces quick fix solutions rather than ideas that create sustainable change.
It creates a relationship based on money. rather than creativity.
It positions the agency more as a supplier than a partner.

Now don’t get me wrong, money is important, but when you let that be the only focus – it is the beginning of the end.

Before you know it, the money becomes the driving factor of all decisions and – because you have had to scale-up to manage the huge business you’ve just won – you end up looking for similar sized clients to ensure the whole agency is being utilised rather than chase the business that can elevate your creative reputation.

Oh agency heads will deny this.

They’ll say they still value creative, regardless of the size of client they work on.

And maybe I’m utterly wrong.

But as I wrote a while back, we had a [small scale version] of this situation when we had cynic … and while we were making more money than we had ever earned, it had made us more miserable than we’d ever been.

Thank god we noticed in time, because we were in danger of seeing more economic value in the processes we were creating for the client than the work and then that would be it.

People would leave.
Our reputation would be damaged.
We’d have to pay more to bring people in to deal with the situation.
The profit margin money we were making from the client would be impacted.
Soon we would be doing work we didn’t like without even the excuse of making tons of cash.
The client would call a pitch.
We would have to do it because we were so dependent on them financially.
They’d pick someone who would do things cheaper.
We’d crash and burn.
We would hate ourselves.

OK … OK … that is a particularly bleak possible version of events and I know there’s a lot of big agencies that have found a way to manage doing work for big clients while marrying it with maintaining their creative credentials [but not as many as they would like to admit] but I am surprised how few agencies say which part of a big job they want to do.

I get why, because there’s fear the client will write you off because they want a simple solution rather than a complex.

But if you’re really good at something, then you have the power to change that mindset from complexity to effectiveness.

Of course, to pull that off, you have to be exceptional.

A proven track record of being brilliant at something few others can pull off.

Which means I’m not talking about process or procedures … but work.

Actual, creativity.

In my entire career, there’s only been 3 agencies I’ve worked at – and one of those I started – who have told clients they only want a slice of the pie rather than the whole thing.

More than that, they also told the client how they believed the problem should be handled rather than simply agreeing to whatever the client wanted in a bid to ‘win favour’. Of course, the slice they focused on was not only their core area of brilliance, but also the most influential in terms of positioning the entirety of the brand – the strategic positioning and the voice of the brand – so what it led to was a situation where the benefits for the agency far exceeded just an increase in revenue.

They had the relationship with the c-suite.
They set the agenda everyone else had to follow.
They were paid for quality rather than volume.
They made work that enhanced their reputation rather than drag them down.
They were more immune from the procurement departments actions.

All in all, they ended up having a positive relationship rather than a destructive one.

Now, I am not denying that in all 3 cases, the relationship lasted less time than those who were willing to take everything on. In many cases, once the initial strategy and voice work was done, many companies felt we were no longer needed. Not all, but a few.

And while many will read this and say my suggestion to choose the part of the work you want rather than take it all on is flawed … my counter is not only did all 3 agencies enjoy a reputation, relationship and remuneration level that was in excess of all the other agencies they worked with – and often delivered in a fraction of the time – but they ended up in a position where they attracted new business rather than had to constantly chase it.

In all business, reputation is everything.

Don’t make yours simply about the blinkered pursuit of money.



Passive Aggressive Professionalism …

I know I am the last person in the World who should talk about professionalism – and I appreciate what I’m about to write about highlights my absolute lack of it – but there’s one thing I hate and it’s meetings.

More specifically, meetings about meetings.

For reasons I won’t bore you with, I’ve found myself increasingly getting into these positions over the past few years and while I quickly extract myself from them, I have got myself some notepads that ensure – in the short time I am there to ascertain if I should be there – I can feel some sense of quiet retaliation for being in the position in the first place.

It’s not big. It’s not clever. But it’s a nice feeling.



The Value Of Being Lateral, Rather Than Literal …

Yes I’m back.

If anything will help you be excited about the oncoming weekend, it will be that.

So the picture above is from a presentation I give to planners.

The reason for it is because I find it fascinating when ad folk try to be like their client.

Exactly like their client.

The way they speak. The way they dress. The way they think.

Of course, I understand the importance of knowing your client, their business and their challenges, but the problem with mirroring your client is that you end up looking at the World in the same way as them … and as much as some people may think that’s a good thing, it’s not.

You see when you focus on being like an insider, you ignore the benefits of thinking like an [informed] outsider. You know, the perspective the client actually hired you for in the first place.

As one of my old senior Nike clients once said to me …

“Senior management need and want to be challenged because that’s how we keep things moving forward. If you’re not doing that, then you’re not doing anything for us”.

Now I appreciate not every client thinks this way, but this shift to client mirroring is – in my opinion – another thing that has undermined our industry.

I swear the reason for it is an attempt to be taken seriously as a client partner when the easiest way to achieve that is to do work that shows we are a serious client partner.

Do the people who say, “we’ve lost our seat at the boardroom table” seriously think this approach will change that?

Maybe … but then they will be wrong because there’s only 3 things that will do that.

1. Talk about the things that are important to the client rather than important to us.

2. Know their audience/culture better than they know their audience/culture.

3. Solve their business challenges in creatively imaginative, distinctive, culturally resonant and sustainable ways.

Oh, and there’s a 4th point … prove it.

Not just in the short-term, but in the long … where client can see the economic value of investing in their brand voice. Not just through ‘brand campaigns’, but in how they approach everything they do.

Now I know some of you may think this whole post is my attempt to justify wearing shit t-shirts and birkenstocks to client meetings for the last 25+ years – and maybe it is – but if we are to get back to where we belong, I passionately believe it’s not going to happen by behaving more like clients, but by getting back to the things they need and no one else can do.



Strategy Is Knowing What Not To Do …

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, when I was in NY, I was invited to speak at design gods … Pentagram.

Whenever I’m asked to speak at something, the first thing I think is ‘why?’

The second thing I think about is ‘what right have I got to talk about this subject?’

And the final thing is ‘what am I going to talk about’.

In the case of Pentagram, I didn’t know what I could say that would be of any interest of them.

Then I remembered the only reason they asked me to come is because of my relationship to a certain, famous rock band so instead of doing a deck – where, let’s be honest, they would be judging the design of each slide rather than listening to what I said – I bought 12 iconic albums on vinyl [they’re the ones in the picture above] and talked about the relationship they had with the music and the fans of the music under the heading, ‘Design is not decoration’.

Now I have no idea if they actually learnt anything from my talk, but it certainly created a bunch of conversation and debate and for me, that’s a big win.

Actually, getting out alive was the big win, but seeing some of the most talented design people in the World talk about the relationship between music, design and fans was something I’d pay for just to witness.

Which is why one of the best lessons I learned about strategy is less about what you are going to do and more about what you’re going to sacrifice.