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

And You Thought Corona Virus Was The Worst Thing Happening Right Now …

So recently, I got an email from a guy called Fergus at On Strategy.

He’s a planner, but more importantly, he’s a planner who wants to help all planners get better, more confident and more capable in their jobs.

Not in terms of giving them models or processes or other stuff that often takes the creativity out of strategy, but giving access to the stories, conversations and people who are often only accessible to those with a very expensive subscription to various industry platforms … which is ironic given most of these platforms claim to exist to raise the bar for the industry as a whole.

The reason this is so important is there’s a distinct lack of investment by agencies in training and industry events/membership – not to mention most of them don’t have a philosophy on how to look at the world of planning and creativity – so we end up with way too many planners thinking the only way they can learn the stories and craft of the discipline is by following the ego-filled rantings of various people on twitter.

While I’m definitely one of them, you’ll soon have another reason why this is a terrible way to ‘grow’ for most planners. Existing or wannabe.

So while Fergus is doing a very good thing – exemplified by the huge range of truly great planners he’s had on his show – he made a fatal error by [you guessed it] asking me to rant about the state of strategy and what I think we’re doing wrong and right.

While I’m sure Fergus won’t make that mistake again, I’m grateful he did and you can pick fault with all I said by listening here … though if I were you, I’d check out the much better and smarter stories from either my old mate Britton at W+K Portland, the brilliant Lucy Jameson of Uncommon – whose shadow is smarter than most planners brains combined (Fact!) – or ex-R/GA London’s Simon Wassef who explains how this office helped design, build and create the brand, story and system for Beats By Dre.

Much better uses of your time.

But then you already knew that.

Research Is Great …

I heard a great story recently about the iconic movie, Die Hard.

Apparently in early test groups, viewers were confused why the lead character was pitched as a hero when he “keeps hiding and calling for help”.

I must admit, I laughed out loud when I heard this … mainly because it was a viewpoint that I don’t think I would have ever come up with, even if I was working on it 24/7 for a year.

It also probably says more about where the minds of American men were back when the movie came out than anything else.

And while learning this has ensured I will never watch the movie in the same way again, it does highlight the best and worst of focus groups.

I must admit I’m not a fan of this approach.

To be fair, it’s less the methodology and more about how clients are using what they find/hear.

Treating it as undeniable fact … something that needs to be followed to the letter.

But the reality is focus groups are – at best – a guide, rather than a blueprint.

Factors like group dynamics, vacuum thinking and the focus on answers, not understanding all combine to ensure there are a number of major flaws with this approach, and yet some blindly believe this is pathway to success.


To be fair, I feel this way about pretty much all research methodologies.

Not because I’m a prick, but because context and dynamics continually shape our viewpoints and behaviours, which is why I don’t like relying on one form of research but a combination of different kinds … as long as one is spent out in culture, talking … listening … learning from the way the core of subcultures live.

Not just in terms of the specific thing we are working on, but life in general.

The language.

The associations.

The labels they use.

The pressures, laughter, fears and concerns …

Clothes … music … games … hashtags … iconography …

Their thoughts about situations not just their reactions or behaviours …

What they’ve started doing rather than what they’ve always done … the ‘edge effect’ that Martin and I talked about in our Cannes talk on Chaos last year.

But that approach is still seen as the exception rather than the rule.

Interacting with real life is still viewed as a novelty rather than a reality.

Which is why, if you have to use research, I like the way Dreamworks does it.

They don’t care about what people think about their stories or characters … they don’t give a shit about the highs or lows or things they’d change, they ask just one simple question …

Were you entertained?

That’s it.

It’s the only thing that matters to them.

Simple. Focused. Clear.

Because while they want people to enjoy what they do, they don’t want people to decide what they do …

Sure, they listen to what is said.

Sure, they sometimes decide to make changes based on what is said.

But they never do what they don’t agree with because you can’t steer a ship to port when you have a thousand captains all telling you where to go.

There’s a lot of people who could learn from this.

And I don’t just mean clients …

Valentine’s Day Is A Moment, But The Future Is Forever …

One of the things that frustrates me is when companies talk loudly and proudly about their ambition but then follow it up with, “but we have to take baby steps to get there”.

The only thing that annoys me more is when agency folk say the work they’ve made isn’t great, but it does, “push the client a bit further than they were before”.

Look, I get it … there are many implications to what we do, but as much as this ‘softly, softly’ approach may sound like it makes sense, it often ends up being counter-productive.

Being slightly better than where you were means nothing if everyone around you is taking huge strides forward.

But of course, just blindly rushing ahead often ends up with people getting burnt … just like planning your progress while constantly looking through the rear-view mirror.

At some point, you have to take a leap.

A step-change from what is known and established to something that changes how you, your audience and your competitors look at what is possible.

For me, this is what innovation truly is about, not micro-improvements designed to keep a company or product up to date with what the category and their competitors are doing.

I get for the company involved, that may feel like a big step – and for them, maybe it is – but it’s not really moving them ahead, it’s just keeping them closer behind the people leading – and owning – change.

To make it worse, culture don’t really care how big a step it was for you, they care about what’s in it for them – so if it’s not done to move them forward, you’re basically putting the ‘no’ in innovation.

So how do you leap forward without falling?

Well, on one level, you can’t.

Innovation of any kind runs the risk of failure … that is inherent to anything that is trying to dramatically move forward.

However you can improve the odds of success.

I’m not just talking about having an open attitude towards failure … where you look at it as a way to learn and progress rather than to lose due to unnecessary risk.

I’m talking about the power of insight.

Insight gets a bad rap these days.

Some of it is because a lot of things people claim are insight are anything but.

However I have been noticing an increase in the number of people using the Henry Ford quote of, “If I asked people what they wanted, they’d say a faster horse” … to basically try and undermine the value of insight.

But as I’ve talked about for years, if someone couldn’t tell from that quote that people wanted to get from A-to-B faster than they currently are able to do, then they’re a fucking idiot.

Sure, there is a lot of work to do to get from ‘speed of mobility’ to the creation of the motor vehicle, but the foundation of what people are looking for is right there for all to see.

Or hear.

Contrary to what many say, I personally believe people do know what they want … they just don’t know how to express it.

It might be said in hidden ways.

Or through actions written off as stupidity.

Or via behaviours that push against tradition.

Or with associations that feel random or misunderstood.

Or simply the core of a subculture inventing their own approaches.

It could be anything.

Which is why I believe our job is to listen, explore and investigate … recognize the clues culture expresses through their secret codes so you can work with your creative friends to translate this into something that defines something new.

Creates step change not a degree of change.

Reveals a new possibility rather than remakes something old.

Basically resonates with the speed and direction of culture, rather than tries to be relevant to the present rules.

And while that may indeed still fail or just require a shitload of hard work to evolve the idea into something infectious or – eventually – inevitable, it means you are leading change rather than being shaped because of it, which has the potential to change your future in ways no one could ever imagine.

Of course, the problem is not just that many people claim to want pragmatism but insist on micro-progress based on established behaviours, rules and habits … there’s the issue that some people evaluate something that challenges convention by the standards of what is already in place – ignoring the fact the idea they are evaluating it against has been given literally decades to hone their offering and establish their role.

Or said another way, some people happily kill something before it has been given the chance to be something, because they’re basing it on what they think rather than translating the codes of what culture want.

Like Blockbusters, who passed on Netflix.

Or Nokia who dismissed the threat of the Apple iPhone.

Or VW who basically laughed at Tesla and their electric car.

And while I accept anyone who wants create the future – rather than have it created for them – has a lot of obstacles to jump, there is good news.

Because for those who have competitors who believe progress only comes through refining and optimizing what they already have, they have been given the gift of time to create something that redefines the rules.

Leapfrogs established behaviours.

Create a new set of standards and expectations.

Because the only way to counter money, heritage and distribution is to innovate past it, in the knowledge that you know you’ve found something interesting when everyone feels the impact of your pragmatism …

Like a lightbulb compared to an optimised candle.

Before I go, to ensure I leave you in the Valentine’s Day spirit, here’s what love is in the modern age – as described by the wonderful Amelia – who DID give me permission to post this, so keep your insults to yourself.

Got to be honest, I’m glad I am married because if I wasn’t, I’d either end up single or in jail.

And yes John, I did say prosperity instead of posterity. Deal with it!

You Can’t Say You’re Curious If You Want To Stay Where You Are …

Living overseas is something people often say they want to do, but don’t.

I get it, it’s a big thing, and for some people – they have obligations and responsibilities that mean there is no chance of being to embark on an adventure, even if they were able to.

But there’s others who are in a totally different situation.

Where there is nothing really holding them back but don’t because they spend their time focusing on what they’ll leave behind rather than also appreciating what they’ll gain.

One of the things you get from taking the leap – beyond the incredible experiences, lessons, values, creativity and madness – is friends.

And that’s why a few weeks ago an English/Italian, Russian/Australian and Taiwanese/American – who all met and worked together at Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai but now all live in different countries – were able to meet in London for a steak, a laugh and a glorious bitch session.

This would literally not have been able to happen if we all had individually chosen to stay in our home countries rather than embrace the unknown and the uncertainty … but we did and a lifelong friendship were formed.

I say lifelong, but as they are both now bigwigs of strategy at Apple, I bought them each one of these special edition ‘Apple Watches’ …

… so there’s a good chance I may never see or hear from either of them again.

Which is why if this story isn’t the best ad for planners to go and experience and explore working in other countries, then I literally don’t know what is.

Fuck Off Martin …

So today we say goodbye to Martin.

While I’ve only known him for 16 months, he made quite the impression on me.

Not because of his talent.

Nor is it because of his brilliant attitude and hunger to help create great.

Not even because I was the one that got to take him to Din Tai Fung for the fist time.

In China.

Christ … it’s not even because his Mum is from Nottingham and he studied there.

It’s because he was the very first person at R/GA to tell me to “Fuck Off”.

This might sound a bit weird, but I was really happy when he did it.

I’d been here a couple of months and – as it always is the case when you start a new job – everyone was still feeling each other out.

While I can’t remember what it was I said to him – but, let’s be honest, it was probably something unprofessional and mischievous as shit – I do remember he looked at me and laughingly told me “Fuck Off”.

And that’s when I knew it might work out here.

Or at least work out with the team.

Because while we were obviously bantering, I am a big believer in us being able to say what we think to each other.

Of course it has to be respectful to the other person, but it also has to be truthful.

There’s no time for managing up or playing office politics – not if the goal is to do truly great work – and the moment Martin told me to go away in his unique style, I knew we could get somewhere good.

Now of course it’s not just his swearing ability that has made me sad to see him go.

He is – as I mentioned earlier – a genuinely great talent.

Sure he is smart, creative and committed to culture.

But he’s more than that …

He’s authentic, genuine, compassionate and a genuine decent human.

He is focused on the work not his ego and always pushes the work to get to new places rather than what is easy and safe.

In fact, when I started at R/GA, I told someone the moment Martin realises how good he is, we’re all doomed.

Well, he still hasn’t quite grasped that, but my beautiful bastard friends at W+K have and he heads there to let them benefit from his magic.

They are lucky to have him.

They are one of the few places I would let him go.

They know I’ll always be loyal to WK, so if he ever slacks off, they can tell me and I’ll come over and kick his arse.

So Martin, you might be a pie-cheating, Crystal Palace fan who looks like a double-glazing/car salesman on the [very] rare occasions you wear a suit, who is seemingly always on holiday and throws a tantrum when his Nintendo Switch breaks mere hours before having to go on a 12 hour flight to London from Beijing … but you’re also top human with top talent and I’m very glad I got to have you in my team and my life.

Now Fuck Off.

Own Your Truth …

When I was in Sydney at Christmas, I fell ill.

I know you may feel that is karma, but it was pretty shitty.

So after going to the doctors, I went to the local chemist and it is there I saw this …

Proud To Be Cheap.

Words you don’t hear very often.

Either because everyone is trying to come across as ‘aspirational and premium’ or they’re repositioning price to mean ‘smart and discerning’.

And yet, not only did those 4 words stand out from everything else, they made me smile.

It owned its truth.

It said exactly what it was.

It was, quite literally, proud to be cheap.

There is something incredibly refreshing about that.

But more than that, there is something incredibly valuable about that.

Not just because – as I mentioned earlier – it stands out.

Nor is it because it allows them to minimize their investment in store experience.

[Though, the service I got was brilliant, and not just because I was expecting shite]

And not even because by saying it, they rob the competition from trying to diss them for it.

The reason I think it’s valuable is because it immediately feels more inclusive and approachable than so many of the ego brands out there and so attracts a certain sort of customer rather than trying to constantly chase or seduce them.

It’s a bit like Dolly Parton [yes, I’m going there].

She is very self depreciating …

When she said, “It takes a lot of money to be this cheap”, she was proudly owning who she was and accepting her tastes were not what society likes.

OK, so she was talking about her cheapens from the sense she has a lot of money whereas this chemist is talking about themselves from the perspective they don’t cost a lot of money … but owning their truth has immediately separated themselves from the sea of competition.

Years ago I wrote about an approach to strategy that I had which I called unplanning.

I’ve talked about this a lot – from James Blunt to Eminem – but really this about authenticity.

Knowing who you are.

Being true to who you are.

Living by the values that shaped who you are.

And accepting that in a World where brands are often shaped more by what the competition force you to do than what you want to do, by being yourself you will be different.

Power Is Nothing Without Trust …


It can be super daunting because people feel it’s more about dealing with others shit than doing great work.

And sometimes it is.

But it doesn’t always have to be that way.

Whether I am a good manager is something my colleagues would have to tell you, but one thing I think I am good at is building a team. That’s not just down to who you hire – in some ways, that’s the easiest bit – it’s how you keep them all together while moving them collectively and individually forward once they’re in.

And for me, it comes down to one word.

It’s that one at the top of this post.


Small word.

5 letters.

Means everything.

But one thing I was taught that has served me well is that trust is earned not just handed to you because of your position.

Yes, Hemingway said the best way to trust someone is to trust them – and I get that, because so much starts with the attitude you have towards someone – but as a manager, I believe the key to achieving it is to accept you start with none of it.

Which is why if you’re at a point where you could be taking on a management position and are either fighting against it or daunted because of it, let me tell you what has helped me.

When you take the job – regardless how well you know you team – don’t expect them to trust you.

It would be nice if they do, but even then, don’t take it for granted.

Earn it by proving it.

Keep earning it by continually proving it.

Be transparent, honest, consistent, constructive and supportive.

Oh, and for gods sake give a shit about what those you are responsible for, give a shit about.

They can deal with you fucking up.

If it’s your first management gig, they almost expect it.

But they need to feel you support them, back them and want the best for them.

That doesn’t mean you pander or creep, it just means they know you want them to succeed better than they thought they could by finding ways to develop their talent to be better than they thought they ever could.

Earn their trust by investing your time in their lives. Listen. Be honest. Give a shit. Talk to them. Make space for them to grow, be inspired, fuck up and fail. Not to mention for them to change your mind on things you thought you were certain on. Never let good enough ever be good enough – for you, for them and the work being created. Know what you don’t know so they can learn from someone who does.

Yes, you will still have to deal with their shit – and they’ll have a ton to give you over time – but they will repay you by making the best work of their lives because ultimately, you’ve created the environment that enables them to keep performing at their best in ways that are better than they ever imagined.

And that’s when you discover management isn’t all filled with darkness, but also with brilliant light.