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.

_____________________________________________________________________________

“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”.



Happy Birthday Dad …

Today would be my Dad’s 82nd birthday.

That means he’s been gone 22 years.

In a few years, I will have lived longer without him in my life than in it.

Yes, I know that he is still in my life, but I just find that fact so hard to deal with.

I live in fear that one day, I will only think of him when a significant date occurs.

That he will become a figure of my past, rather than my present.

Of course I don’t believe that will really happen, but to be coming up to the point where I will have spent more of my life without him in it, is really tough to take.

What’s worse is he died just as my life was getting started.

The only thing he knew – mainly because he and Mum pushed me to continue with my plans, despite his stroke – was that I moved to Australia.

While both my parents missed me so much, they were adamant I had to go.

I had planned it for a long time.

They saw it as an opportunity and an adventure for me.

And they also – and rightfully – knew that if I didn’t go, I’d never go.

Of course there was nothing wrong with where I was.

I loved – and continue to love – Nottingham. But both my parents knew the possibilities for me outside of my home city were probably bigger than were in it, and they just wanted me to have a chance of exploring what it could – regardless what turned out.

That’s unconditional love.

A level of support and encouragement that – now I am a father – takes my breath away.

Oh the things I wish I could talk to my Dad about.

The adventures – good and stupid – I’d love to discuss with him.

I think he would be proud. He might raise his eyebrows at a few things, but I think he would be happy with the choices and decisions I’ve made.

He would love to meet Jill.

He would be delighted to meet Otis.

He would be thrilled to know my friendship with Paul is still rock solid.

He may even be happy to meet Rosie – the most well travelled cat in the universe – despite never really liking cats.

And when I was to tell him that journey to Australia led to me living in countless other countries – including Shanghai – he would be so happy.

He always found China fascinating.

Part of it was because back then, China was still an unknown quantity.

A huge place that was kind-of invisible to the World.

For me to have lived there … had for his grandson to be born there … would be a topic of conversation for years.

And I would love it.

Watching his eyes twinkle with curiosity.

Watching his brow wrinkle as he processed my responses.

Watching his smile as he held Otis and said, “Ni Hao” as if a local.

Oh Dad, I wish you were here.

What I’d give for one more conversation, one more hug.

What happened that night in Hong Kong is still etched in my heart … but I want more.

I’m greedy, but you were gone too soon.

For you, for Mum and for me.

Happy 82nd birthday Dad, I know none of us believed in God, but I do hope one day we can have that conversation.

Love you.

Give Mum a big kiss from me too.

Rx

Comments Off on Happy Birthday Dad …


Answer The Brief, Not Answer With Options …

One of the things I find really interesting is how adland has got into the habit of providing clients with multiple options for every bit of work.

Oh I get it.

Apart from the fact there’s always more than one way to answer any brief, we want – or should I say, we need – clients to be happy.

Except it doesn’t always end up that way does it?

We make alternatives that aren’t as good as the idea we think they should buy.

Clients demand diluted versions of the work we don’t really like in the first place.

We end up getting fired because the campaign they pushed us to make didn’t work as well as they wanted.

Who are the bigger idiots?

The people who don’t buy what the experts put forward or the experts that offer alternatives they don’t really believe in?

Which is why every single person should read the story of Paul Rand – the designer who Steve Jobs turned to, to design the logo for his NeXT computer company.

Not just because it’s a brilliant story.

Not just because he didn’t even bother to turn up to the pitch, he just sent a brilliant 100 page book with his idea in it.

But because when Jobs was asked what it was like to work with Rand, he said …

“I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said … no, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me.

You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people.’”

How good is that?

+ I will solve your problem for you.

+ You will pay me for my recommendation, whether you use it or not.

+ If you want options, go talk to other people.

While some may claim that makes Paul Rand arrogant or petulant, I would say it shows someone who knows the value of their experience … their talent and their craft.

More than that, I think it shows someone who really thinks about what idea is the right one for their client and then puts only that one in front of them.

Not countless options.

One.

A single idea that has gone through hundreds of possibilities to get to that single recommendation.

Something that has been created and crafted to answer the brief, rather than simply executed to satisfy the clients taste.

And while the article itself states the NeXT logo might not be a classic … the style, approach and attitude of the presentation certainly is.

Adland should take note.

Read it here.



Roots …

Nothing says privileged like an unemployed, 50 year old man moving to a new house in the country.

And I am that privileged prick, because today, we’re doing just that.

Given the terrible times people are going through, I appreciate how shit that sounds … and it is … but it’s also something my wife and I have been working towards for the last 15 years and why I sold the family home I grew up in, loved and inherited when Mum died so we could one day have this moment.

I don’t mean that just in terms of being able to afford the house – though that was a big part of it – but also because it meant my parents could feel they helped their only son create the family environment they always wished for me.

The reality is my Mum – my wonderful, beautiful, kind and compassionate Mum – told me the day before she died, that she wished she could leave more to me.

As I told her, she had given me the most amazing thing … a loving, supportive, encouraging family life and childhood.

When I was young, I didn’t know how special it was … but as I got older, I realised the upbringing I enjoyed with my parents was very different to many.

So to have that AND a house is like winning the jackpot.

I am not sure if Mum ever understood that, but I hope she did.

I hope she also understands that the wonderful family home I lived in for the first 25 years of my life and that she kindly and generously left to me, directly allowed my family to buy the home we’re moving into today.

So she gave me so, so, so much.

Plus the house has a stellar garden which would make Mum and Dad ecstatic … though I’m pretty sure they’d feel less happy about it when they see their son will have inadvertently killed everything within a month.

This is an important move for us.

Previously we knew we were only in places for a period of time, so while we settled there and enjoyed everywhere, there was something that stopped us truly connecting. Even if we bought the place we were living in, we knew we would be gone at some point so it was our temporary house … our temporary home … but this is different.

Not just because it’s in the countryside rather than the city, but because this is where we want our roots to grow. Where we want the walls to hold stories from our past and future. Where we want to be part of – and add to – the local community.

Now this doesn’t mean we will stay here forever, neither does it mean we will never move countries again … but what I can tell you is we buy this house with the view of it being our real family home.

Somewhere for the long term, not the short.

Somewhere we will always return, wherever we go.

Somewhere where Otis can blossom and connect.

And the fact we are moving into it on Jill and my 13th wedding anniversary just makes it feel even more special. At least to us.

Because of this, there will be no more blog posts till next Tuesday … we need to move, unpack and help Otis settle into his village school … another thing he’s never really had a chance to be a part of.

I have loved living in London.

I will always be a city person.

But I’m excited to experience what our first proper home, deep in the countryside, will do for my wonderful family, especially as the first thing my nature loving [and needing] Australian wife said as we got out the car to check the house out for the first time was …

“Listen, it’s so preciously quiet”.

Comments Off on Roots …


The Same People Take You To The Same Place …

Yesterday I wrote a post about the 4 mistakes we make when evaluating new ideas.

As you can see from the photo above, I am doubling down on that … except instead of talking about new ideas, I’m talking about leadership.

Well, I say talking about it … but what with Bill Gates quote and the post I wrote a few weeks ago that details what I think Bill is talking about, I think it says all I need to say.

But I will leave you with this.

There are some incredible leaders out there.

I’ve been lucky to work for and with a bunch of them.

But I guarantee you the ones who think they are, generally aren’t.

Not because they’re not clever.

Not because they’re not successful.

But because they place greater importance on how they look than those around them.

They believe only they have the answers.

They believe only they know how to write the deck.

They believe only they have the client relationship and trust.

And while that be true in the short term, that approach rarely lasts the distance.

Not just because clients change and business changes … but because you simply can’t keep moving forward if you don’t let new ideas come to the fore.

To push you. To challenge you. To excite you.

But generally these leaders won’t and don’t allow that.

In fact, they will actively reject and eject other views.

Because they think they know it all.

And know it better.

And did it first.

And while many may interpret this as the behaviour of someone fearful of their future – desperately trying to prove some sort of relevance to those around them – they’re wrong.

Because the leader Bill Gates describes in his quote is someone who thinks they’re a master of the Universe. Someone who is always right. Someone who is better than those around them. Someone who is the only one who can make things happen. Someone who holds the keys to everyone’s success.

And maybe for a time they are.

Until that stops.

And that’s when things get really scary.

Which reminds me of something my Dad use to say about how he chose which lawyers to hire:

“The people who need to show how intelligent they are, aren’t.”

Or said another way, the moment you think you can’t lose. You’ve lost.