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


Let’s Have Another Bonfire …

A few weeks ago, the lovely/stupid folks at WARC asked me to be part of a conversation to discuss whether strategists were well equipped to embrace the opportunity that clients valued brand strategy more than any other discipline.

If you’re a WARC member, you can watch the whole discussion here, but all the panelists were asked to give a 5 minute introductory talk about their perspective on the issue.

I used no slides, but if I had, I’d have used the image at the top of this page that comes from a presentation I recently gave to Rockstar Games. Not because it’s arresting, but because if no one paid any attention to what I said, they’d still get a good idea about where I stand on things.

But for those who want to know a bit more detail, this is what I said.

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“We are in an interesting situation.

We have more flavours and capabilities in strategy than ever before.
We have more opportunities to learn the craft of strategy than ever before.
And – according to reports – we have more demand from clients for strategy than ever before.

That all sounds fucking fantastic for the strategy discipline, except we continue to see …

+ Strategic thinking being given away or discounted.
+ Tighter and tighter deadlines for strategy to be concluded.
+ The abdication of strategic thought to ‘whatever the data or platform owners say’.
+ More value placed on the process of strategy than the outcome of it.
+ A reduction in strategic training and development from agencies and companies alike.
+ Huge swathes of strategists being made redundant every single day.
+ A continued reluctance to hire people of colour or people born outside of capital cities
[and when we do, we tell them they’ll only be valued if they act exactly like the incumbents]
+ And from my view, less distinctive, disruptive and long-term strategy than we’ve seen before.

So when I compare the claims ‘the strategy future is rosie’ with the reality going down all around us, something doesn’t add up.

Which leads me to think there are 3 possibilities.

1. The strategy clients want is less about strategy and more about repackaging what they’ve already decided or simply don’t want to have to deal with.

2. The strategy companies/agencies want is less about strategy and more about doing whatever will keep the client relationship happy.

3. The strategy strategists do is less about taking lateral leaps forward and more literal shuffles towards the justification of whatever our clients want to have justified.

OK, I’m being a prick … but only partially.

Somewhere along the line we all seem to have forgotten what strategy is and what it is supposed to do.

To quote my planning husband, Mr Weigel, strategy should …

+ Make things happen
+ Move things forward
+ Create new possibilities
+ Create greater value for the audience and the business.

Or said another way, strategy is about movement, momentum and direction. Where the day after a strategy is engaged, the behaviour of the company or brand is fundamentally different to the day before. A distinctive, sustainable difference designed to deliver breakthrough results born from identifying a real business problem, nuanced understanding of the audience [rather than convenient generalisations] and commercial intimacy … by that I mean knowing who the company actually is, how they operate and how they need to in these modern times.

Prof Lawrence Freedman, the author of A History of Strategy … said it best:

“Strategy is about revolution. Anything else is just tactics.”

And we’re seeing a lot of tactics these days.

And while eco-systems, frameworks, brand onions, data, D2C, UX, creative briefs, ads and comms are all parts of the strategic journey, they’re rarely THE strategy.

Nor is creating endless sub-thinking for every decision, implication or possibility because, at best – they can paralyse the potential of the strategy and end up just creating incremental change rather than fundamental or – at worse – just cause mass fucking confusion.

And don’t get me started on optimisation or user journeys or white-label solutions or writing endless decks that go nowhere … because they’re often more about keeping things the same than moving things forward.

This discipline has been my life. I believe in it and I’m employed because of it. It can create incredible opportunity and value and has some incredible talent working in it and – more excitedly – wanting to work in it. But the reality is for all the people who have strategy in their title, few are setting the stage for brilliantly creative, commercially advantageous, progressive revolution … most of us are simply executing a small part of someone else’s thinking and then going off thinking we’re hot shit.

What this means is as a discipline, we’re in danger of becoming like a contestant on Love Island, initially interesting to meet but ultimately blunt, disposable and forgettable.

And while there’s many reasons for this – some beyond our control – we are contributing to it by acting like our own worst enemy. Doing things like arguing about which ‘flavour of strategy’ is the right ‘flavour of strategy’ for the modern age.

Apart from the fact most of the ‘new flavours’ are just re-badged versions of old strategic rigour – albeit with some more consideration and expression in it – this is just an argument of ego that’s distracting us from the real issue …

We can be so much more than we think we are.

We need to be so much more than we think we are.

But to realise this we need to stop thinking of strategy as if it’s engineering or simply the act of being able to think strategically … and get back to objective, distinctive and focused revolution.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Prof Freedman:

“Strategy is getting more from a situation than the starting balance of power suggests”.

If we’re not doing that, then we’re not just kidding ourselves … but also our entire discipline and our clients trust.

And while they’re many reasons for it – as I have already mentioned – we’re all kidding ourselves a lot these days.

As with everything, what happens next is up to us. But I hope it results in us being strategically dangerous because when we’re in full flight, that’s when we’ll show how much value we can add to commerce, culture and creativity”.



Your Past Never Hides …

So after the rather big news for me and my family on Friday, I thought I’d write a post that gives my new gang at Colenso an idea of what they have got to look forward to.

A few weeks ago, I was messing around on YouTube when – by utter chance – I came across a video of one of my old planning gang from R/GA.

It was unbelievable.

In fact, I had to watch it twice as I couldn’t believe I had been so lucky … I mean, fortunate.

Not only were they young.

Not only were they smartly dressed.

But they were in full-on corporate toady mode.

Fortunately for them, I am a kind, caring and considerate person … so rather than let this piece of video suicide hide in plain sight for any innocent person – or client – to stumble across, I decided to take the selfless path and notify them of what I had found.

Sure, I might have done it with a bit too much glee.

Sure, I might have milked it a little too much.

But it’s the thought that counts.

Or at least I thought it was, until I got their reply …

Oh I can’t tell you how much I loved this reply.

It literally made me spit out the drink I was having at the time.

It’s not just that he thinks I was doing some z-grade CIA check on him in an attempt to get material to humiliate and Ambar as him, it’s the fact that while I haven’t shown the celluloid car crash to anyone else [which even I’m surprised about], he knows that I know it exists.

I believe it’s called, ‘leverage’ … though I think they would refer to it as blackmail.



When McKinsey Turns You Into An Influencer, You Get To Feel Your Privilege, Not Just Experience It …

So a few weeks ago, I saw a tweet that asked about ‘most awkward’ presentation.

Given I’d just read a terribly superficial [and out-of-touch] document they’d written on China, it reminded me of something that happened with me and McKinsey in China a few years ago.

So I wrote this:

As soon as I posted it, I knew it had hit a nerve as my phone was continually buzzing – but whereas it normally stops after about 4 seconds, this carried on. In fact it got more intense. So intense in fact that within 48 hours, it had achieved this:

22,000 likes.
5,500 retweets
300+ comments

In addition to that, I got contacted by people in the US, Mexico and China who said I had set off a vibrant debate in their respective countries via their respective versions of Linkedin, Instagram and Twitter.

Hell, I even got contacted by Consulting Humour [which is apparently ‘a thing’] who wanted to post it.

MADNESS.

But what’s even more mad is that almost everyone who commented was nice to me.

Even the people who disagreed with what I’d written.

And yet, despite all that, I found it overwhelming … like being in a car that’s on the edge of going out of control.

It got so uncomfortable that I had to delete my Twitter for a few hours so I could catch my breath.

But what was obvious was a lot of people have a lot of issues with McKinsey and consultancies as a whole.

The main issue seemingly being they get paid a fortune for their advice but don’t have to take any responsibility for what they recommend.

This was the message a huge range of people working in a huge range of industries said … from small businesses to multinationals to entrepreneurs to ex-McKinsey consultants.

Now I am under no illusion that McKinsey won’t give a shit about what I said – and I don’t blame them – but I do think they should be a bit nervous that an innocuous tweet could create such a shitstorm of commentary and engagement.

However on the off-chance that last sentence encourages the McKinsey lawyers to come after me, I should point a few things:

1. The talk I referred to in the tweet was not a presentation claiming advertising was better than consultancy. It wasn’t even about advertising … more about how cultural innovation can achieve more distinctive brand growth and business optimisation. I think.

2. And while it looks like I pissing on the value of consultants, I wasn’t. I accept, in the right situation, they offer incredible benefits to business … however, when they have no skin in the game – or are offering analysis on cultural behaviour without ever actually interacting in culture – then the effect of their advice can be called into question.

3. But most of all, while I was a cheeky shit in the presentation I gave in Shanghai all those years ago … I definitely said it with a twinkle I the eye and the audience knew that … rather than looking at me thinking I was purely an antagonistic bastard.

Emphasis on ‘purely’.

So while this viral situation was an interesting adventure, I learnt something even more valuable than ‘consultancies’ are the silver bullet to influencer status.

I’m not talking about the grudging respect I might have gained for social media influencers.

Nor the fact I am worried so many people aspire to be one, without maybe realising the mental anguish they will face and the pressure they will place on themselves to perform even better.

No, it’s this …

There are so many people out there who face abuse, judgement and prejudice just for being who they are.

Not just in social media, but in every aspect of their lives.

I can’t imagine having to deal with that level of scrutiny … hell, I couldn’t even deal with 2 days of it and my experience was good.

This not only highlights their strength, but also my privilege.

Of course I knew I had that – but this situation helped me understand it in a way I could feel rather than just understand.

I honestly think it would be worth every white, middle class person to experience … especially the Karen’s of this World, who have the audacity to claim being in their comfortable homes to protect them from catching a deadly virus is equivalent to slavery.

You think I’m making that last bit up don’t you?

I know, it sounds utterly insane to think that could be true.

But in America, insane is often normal.



Full Service History, A Few Semi-Careful Previous Owners, Needs A Bit Of Body Work But The Engine Is Tuned To Put A Smile On Your Face As You Hold On To The Edge Of Your Seat …

So if the title of the post didn’t give you a clue.

And if the photo above didn’t make what this post is about, obvious.

Today is my last day at R/GA.

Sadly my role has been made redundant. Thanks a lot COVID!!

And while it’s sad, I am glad it’s a senior, white, male who is being impacted rather than someone young or female or a person of colour who are often the ones who get hit first across the industry.

But while there will plenty of things I’ll miss, the biggest will be my team.

I’ve always been so lucky with the planners I’ve worked with and this lot are no exception.

They’re great. A talented bunch of creative fools who made me laugh, debate and rethink stuff every single day.

They were an honour to work with and they will continue to be epic in all they do.

They better be, because I’ll be watching them. Closely.

So thank you Lachlan, Nic, Rach, Anna, Joel, Amar, Erika, Laureen, Bassot, Ed, Megan, Nicole, Divya, Arda, Amelia, Severine, Marissa, Insa, Toby, Ben … and the others who helped make my time – and the gang – so much fun, including Anne, Valia, Eduardo and Michael.

So what next?

Well there’s a bunch of things.

We bought a house which we still need to move into.

I have my projects with the Metal Masters I need to deal with.

And I recently got an assignment with the Chilli’s, by which I mean the band rather than the food – which will be fascinating. Or headache inducing. I’ll let you know which, later.

Then I’ve registered a company I now need to work out what the hell I’m going to do with. I’ve got some ideas and I’ve even got some backers, but I owe it to my family to give it a bit more thought rather than just run full-speed to wherever my excitement orders me to go.

But for right now, all I’m going to do is take a couple of weeks off to enjoy being with the family and no zoom calls – which means you also get a week or two off – so all that leaves me to say is thank you to R/GA for the adventure and the airmiles … my team for their brilliance and their trouble making and … my wife, son, cat, clients and mates for their love, support and sarcasm.

Last thing.

Let’s be honest, these situations suck.

If people had the choice between having a job and not, the job is pretty much always going to win, especially at my age.

However not only am I absolutely fine, I’m strangely optimistic.

There are many reasons for this, but the main one is the last time this happened to me, it resulted in some of the best times of my career.

From starting and selling cynic and Sunshine to then working at Wieden+Kennedy and R/GA through to living, exploring and working all around the World.

Or said another way … when my role was made redundant, it was instrumental in helping me do stuff at the highest levels of creativity, culture and client all around the World.

From helping launch brands like Spotify in Japan to partnering with NIKE to create sport culture in China to inspiring Virgin Atlantic to build an airport lounge that people want to miss their plane to stay in to finding ways to redefine the rules of luxury which led to SKP-S building an experience specifically designed to look/feel like life on Mars to helping Metallica do all manner of weird and wonderful stuff from connecting deeper with fans to opening new ways to connect with the band. And a bunch of other stuff, from the small to the huge to the ridiculous.

I absolutely, unapologetically, love this stuff with all I’ve got.

Now whether any of this can happen again is anyone’s guess, but it is possible … and given the challenges and competitive nature of the world today, I feel my history of provocative and intriguing creativity to help brands around the world define their position in culture – and business – still gives me a strong and valuable role to play.

I guess this is all my convoluted way of saying if you’re an agency or a company – anywhere in the World – who is ambitious to grow or change or reimagine who you are or considering new markets [ie: Asia/China] or stuck on a mindfuck of a problem or want advice on building a cohesive, potent strategy gang or just want to win better … then give me a shout, because whether it’s about leading something, collaborating on something or just chatting about something … I’m going to be officially available for all of this very soon and I’d bloody love it.

Right, now my Gwyneth Paltrow Oscar speech is out the way, see you in a few weeks.

Comments Off on Full Service History, A Few Semi-Careful Previous Owners, Needs A Bit Of Body Work But The Engine Is Tuned To Put A Smile On Your Face As You Hold On To The Edge Of Your Seat …


Be A Champion Like Clough …

So a while back I was invited to do a talk for Isolated – the TedTalkesque site that raises money for charity.

I could have revisited a presentation I’d written I the past, but I thought I would take the opportunity to write the presentation I’ve always wanted to write …about why Brian Clough was so amazing.

Now I could have written a thousand slides, but as Isolated in linked to creativity, I decided to make it slightly relevant to that subject by framing the presentation about ‘why the creative industry needs more of Clough’s attitude towards success’.

Whether I pulled it off is anyone’s guess and frankly – I don’t really care – because I got to write about Cloughy, but if you fancy checking out a long, rambley, over-sentimental and biased talk about Clough and Nottigham Forest, then head over to Isolated and hear me bore you half to death.

Now I appreciate the idea of hearing my voice could be too much for you to deal with, and if that’s the case, I have an alternative plan …

1 Donate money to Isolated … because it’s for a good cause.
2 Look at the deck below.

Now I admit you won’t get much out of it just seeing the deck without my accompanying narrative because it’s my usual random ‘picture’ rubbish … plus the gifs don’t work.

And where there is some writing, the lack of context means it may come across as some sort of z-grade psychobabble [even though it is all from interpreting Clough’s beliefs and philosophy over his near 20 years running Nottingham Forest] … however if you can put that all aside and want to look at some amazing pics of some amazing Forest players over the years, then it may be the best presentation you’ll ever see.

Maybe.

Possibly.

Hopefully.

Anyway, it’s Friday so just humour me and even if you don’t agree with what I say [which would be hard because there’s no chance you’ll be able to work out what I’m trying to say, because even I’m not entirely sure] know my goal wasn’t to get your agreement, but just to write a presentation about Nottingham Forest and the incredible Brian Clough.