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


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.



Charging For Your Creativity Doesn’t Make You Evil …

Of all the blog posts I’ve written over the years – and let’s face it. there’s been loads – there’s been a few I have constantly referred to.

One is Harrison Ford’s the value of value.

The other is Michael Keaton’s if you’re an employee, you’re still a business owner.

If you hadn’t worked it out by now, both are about ensuring you are not just paid for your creativity, but paid fairly.

You’d think that was obvious, but so many people seem to have forgotten that … including the creative industry, who have decided their value is better placed on the process of what they do rather than what they actually create and change.

Insanity.

But underpinning this is the creative person’s insecurity.

Somewhere in our psyche is the belief that if we charge money for what we create, we’re not being truly creative.

That we’ve sold out.

That we are imposters … capitalists in creative clothing.

Now there is an element of truth in all of this – because the moment you are working for someone else’s dollar, that someone has some influence over what you create. But that’s not unique to the creative industry. Nor does it mean you are selling out on your creative integrity by accepting payment for what you do.

Please note I said ‘payment for what you do’.

That does not mean we should be ignoring the needs, ambitions and goals that our clients want us to help them achieve, but it is acknowledging we should also be paid well for the creativity, craft, experience – and unique way of looking at the World – that goes into creating the work that allows us to achieve their needs in ways others can’t.

The reality is as much as many – especially in the creative industry – like to suggest money is the enemy of creativity, it’s not.

It can allow us to do amazing things.

Break new ground.

Explore new possibilities.

But more than that, while it may be differing amounts, we all need money.

And – to a certain extent – we all want money.

There is nothing wrong with that, just like there’s nothing wrong with being paid for what we do.

The real question should be how did we earn it and what did we do with it when we got it.

That’s how you can judge a persons integrity, not the fact you got paid for what you did and the talent you invested in it.

Sure, struggling may sound romantic in a Hollywood movie, but few of us want a lifetime of that and who can blame them!?

I still remember when Lars Ulrich of Metallica copped all manner of shit because he was the face for recording artists fighting against the role of Napster on the recording industry.

The insults he copped.

The distain he was thrown.

And all he was doing was trying to protect the value of his – and millions of other bands – creativity.

Why was that wrong?

Was it because, at that stage, he was already wealthy?

Is there some sort of rule to say that there is only so much you’re allowed to make before creative people need to shut up and be grateful for what they’ve got?

And what is that amount? No doubt, somewhere between ‘enough to live but not more than the rest of us’.

However somewhere along the line, society has decided to reposition creatively minded people as idealists … naive or even weak. Ignoring reality so they can wank-off on some self indulgent project that only interests them.

Which is total bollocks.

Apart from the fact I’ve never met a creative who isn’t insanely focused on the challenge they’ve been given – even if they have a very different opinion on how to get there to the client or the rest of the agency – the fact is we’ve now surrounded them with 10,000 different types of ‘strategist’, with 10,000 different opinions and agendas … which forces the conversations to be more about the importance of a discipline than the actual potential of the work.

And don’t get me even started on the fact a lot of these new forms of strategy are either [1] not really new or [2] not doing actual strategy, but executional management!

However all that aside, the reality is in all this, creative people have to take a responsibility for the situation they find themselves in.

Or, potentially even more specifically, the people who are training and developing them.

Because they are complicit in maintaining the belief your creative value and integrity is somehow linked to not being ‘diluted’ by payment. Which, when you think of it, is utterly ridiculous given value is created by what others will pay for it.

Schools … universities … agencies … everyone has an obligation to change this.

Not just for the future of their students or employees, but also for their own value.

Appreciating the economic value of what you create and what that creates is not dirty … it is the opposite of that.

It’s purity.

It means you have power in the conversation.

A right to fight for what you believe rather than what is convenient.

Creativity comes in many forms but right now, the form of ‘engineering’ is winning.

Where it’s less about what could be created and more about how you create something that has already been defined. Worse, something that has already been done.

So if you’re in the creative industry or thinking about it or know someone already in it.

Or, alternately, if you’re a teacher involved in the arts – or any subject for that matter – or careers advisor or a parent of someone who is in, or wanting to be in, the creative industry … then please read this article by Alec Dudson [the founder of Intern] because in it, he explains why ‘the economic value of creativity’ skill still remains largely absent from creative education … the impacts of that omission and, most usefully, how you can change it.

Creativity can change outcomes, possibilities and culture.

It has played a pivotal role in every great brand, product, idea and invention.

To devalue that is insane.

But not as insane as the people capable of creating it, also being complicit in it.

Know your worth. Charge your worth. Build your worth.



The Fine Line Between Victory And Vulgarity …

Let me start by saying I have a lot of respect for Charles and Maurice Saatchi.

What they did … the legacy they created … is, even now, amazing.

Their agency was responsible for so many of the ads that went on to define my childhood – both in good and bad ways – however, as I got older and entered the industry, I started to understand just how audacious they were in terms of what they thought the ad industry could be. And do.

Back then, their mantra was ‘Nothing Is Impossible’.

And they certainly lived up to it.

But while this led to some truly incredible work, it also led to the brothers ultimate downfall when they tried – amazingly and brilliantly – to buy Midland Bank.

There have been many reasons written about why their plan didn’t work out … and what happened subsequently … but I have to say, I’d imagine working for them at the time – with their sheer confidence, swagger and ambition – would have felt pretty intoxicating.

However this post isn’t about that, it’s about what happens when, in your quest to keep moving forward, you lose your values or self awareness and end up being a caricature of what you once were.

I’ve seen it happen.

I once worked with an advertising great who ended up believing everything they did was great, simply because they did it.

It didn’t take long before they were phoning in their work.

Not caring about what was going on around them.

Saying whatever they wanted because they believed whatever they said was wanted.

It was pretty tragic and I remember a very horrible conversation between us, where I said he had become the beast he had been obsessed with slaying.

It didn’t go well for me.

And, within a year, it didn’t go well for him … when his deluded arrogance took a step too far and his actions and behaviors couldn’t be ignored any longer.

Nowadays I occasionally see him spouting racist shit about immigration and foreign workers, which I find even more shocking given he spent so many years living across the World, not to mention – if rumours are to be believed – doing unspeakable things with certain people when he was in Asia.

But this isn’t a post about an old, short-lived, delusional colleague – nor it is to suggest the Saatchi brothers are anything like my old, delusional colleague … however this is about the moment [at least for me] when the Saatchi brothers revealed they may have not grown with the times, but were lost in old times.

This.

It was early Jan, 1990.

Saatchi was – I believe – the biggest agency in the World.

And the World was changing.

The party of the 80’s was over and everyone was trying to work out what the next decade had in store. One thing that had already started to happen was the fall of communism.

Protests had been happening throughout 1989 and they continued to gain momentum when, in November of that year, The Berlin Wall – a symbol of Communist/Western ideals – fell.

And it was on that wall Saatchi had placed that ad.

Not on the Western side, but the Eastern.

It wasn’t up for long, but they paid to have it there.

A way of showing their mantra.

An act of deliberate provocation for shock value.

An attempt to keep the spirit of 80’s excess alive.

A claim it was welcoming East German’s to independence and choice.

But the problem was, it wasn’t the 80’s anymore and so it came off as an act of commercial vulgarity. An act of cynical shamelessness to try and capture the headlines. And suddenly, the agency that could do no wrong suddenly went from being audacious to trying too hard.

Or said another way, Saatchi’s were trying to hold on to the past rather than lead the future.

Can you imagine an agency doing that now?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of them out there that have a complete lack of self awareness … not to mention another bunch whose entire business model appears to be ‘doing things first’ … regardless of its value to culture, creativity or commerce … however I doubt even those guys would think doing this would be a good idea today.

Or at least I hope not.

And that’s why I believe a positioning is not as good as a point of view.

Because positioning’s are set in stone.

They don’t move with the times … they stand firm, shouting their same tune regardless of what is going on. But a point of view is different. There’s flex in that. It lets you express what you believe, but how you express it is shaped by what is going on around it.

There’s longevity in a point of view.

There’s resonance in a point of view.

There’s less need to shock, because you always speak what others are trying to say.

Saatchi’s continue to do great work.

Saatchi’s continues to be filled with great people.

But I’ll always wonder what they could have been if they’d not crossed the line from audacious to caricature.

You can read the story of the Berlin Wall ad, here.



Showing You Care Is More Important Than Saying It …

Throughout COVID, we’ve been inundated by companies saying they care.

Banks.

Supermarkets.

Pharmaceutical companies.

At the beginning, it made sense … we were in a new reality and everyone was trying to work out what the fuck was going on, let alone what we should do.

But now, coming up to 6 months into this thing, we’re still seeing companies say the same thing.

We care.

We really, really care.

Honest, we really do care.

And frankly, it’s all becoming shit.

Because while we always suspected it was empty words, now they are proving it … because the fact of the matter is this is the time they need to put up.

To do stuff.

To actually show they care.

Which, contrary to the multinational who is spending a lot on advertising right now, does not mean you can consider yourself a kind and generous organisation simply because you make and sell a large range of disinfectant products that are especially important right now.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting charity.

Making money is not a bad thing – and right now, companies need to do it to help keep employees employed. But adding something extra … something that can genuinely benefit the people you rely on would go a long way.

Not just because a lot of people need it right now, but because investing in your audiences wellbeing is investing in your own.

Take Timpson’s.

It’s a family-owned business in high streets and supermarkets up and down the country.

While they do a bunch of things, they’re most widely known for key cutting and shoe repairs.

That’s right, KEY CUTTING AND SHOE REPAIRS!!!

Of all the companies around the World, I would say this Key Cutters have led the way on how you should treat your people and customers in a crisis.

First of all, they made the decision to close all their shops – over 2000 of them – when COVID took hold. They wanted to ensure their staff were safe as not only do they deal directly with the public, all their stores are very small so social distancing would be almost impossible.

However, rather than making people redundant or putting them on government subsidised furlough, they covered the wages for every employee.

In full.

Every employee. Full salary.

To add some more texture to that, Timpson’s employ 5,500 staff … of which 650 come directly from serving a prison sentence … and their weekly wage bill is £2.5 million.

That in itself is amazing.

But then they’ve done something else.

Something aimed at their customers … specifically the one’s who have not been as fortunate to work at a company that takes care of their staff like Timpson and may now be struggling due to redundancy or loss of pay, hours, opportunities.

And what have they done?

This …

How amazing is that?

A genuine investment in their past and future client’s wellbeing.

Not empty words, something that will cost Timpson’s money – both in terms of time and cash.

Maybe it’s not a huge amount, but when you have all these huge corporations shouting their empty words in an attempt to look like they care, Timpson’s actions shows them up for who they are.

A long time ago there was a Michael Moore documentary called ‘Roger And Me’.

It was about the General Motors car company and them pulling out of Detroit.

There’s one bit in it that sticks in my memory.

On the production line, there were people being interviewed about what they’ll do when the factory closes. One guy – who was making one of GM’s most expensive cars – said this,

“What I don’t understand is if companies keep firing their workers, who do they think will be able to afford their cars?”

While I know there are many issues companies face, I know this.

The actions of a key-cutting, shoe repairer has resulted in me having more emotional connection and loyalty to them than I‘ll ever have towards multi-national organisations, spending millions of pounds on ads that attempt to show they care [read: express their designed-by-marketing ‘purpose’] but are so obviously self-serving, you can almost see them rubbing their hands in greedy glee.

Not because they want to make money to protect their workers.

Nor to look after the employees of their supply chain.

But to look after themselves and their shareholders.

And to them, I say this.

Your real ‘purpose’ is showing.

Try harder.



Purpose Before Purpose …

So I recently heard a story that should put companies who talk about ‘brand purpose’ to shame.

I’ve written a lot about this subject, but this does it so much better.

Hell, it may even make Mr Weigel – who hates the bullshit spouted about this area of marketing – nod in agreement.

So way back in 1939, the Kansas Wheat realised women were using their sacks to make clothes for their children.

Rather than consider this a strange byproduct of their product packaging, they decided they would start putting designs on the sack fabric so they could make nicer looking clothes.

For many companies, that would be enough … considering this a great way to ‘market their purpose’, but the Kansas Wheat company went one step further.

A step that proved they genuinely cared rather than cared more about looking like they did.

You see they printed their logo on the sacks with an ink that would easily wash away … so the kids wearing the clothes wouldn’t face any stigma they’re wearing repurposed wheat sacks.

Given how much has been said and written about brand purpose, I hope this stops people spouting shit that ‘purpose’ is new or that it means you have to relinquish your commercial requirements to demonstrate it.

Because the key to it is not about the scale you claim you want to achieve, but how you do what you do every single day.