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


Sacrifice Is Love …

Before I start, I need to warn you this post is long.

It may be the longest post I’ve ever written, so there’s a TL;DR at the very end.

Anyway, this post is about my Mum. And my wife.

Two amazing people who provided the foundation that allowed their husbands to go all over the place.

I’ve written about how my Dad had a bunch of radically different careers.

Not degrees of change, whole fucking protractors worth.

And while my career has been more ‘stable’, in so much it has pretty much revolved around the same industry … the fact I’ve been able to live and work literally all around the World is as much down to my wife as it is to any opportunity I have been given.

Put simply, none of what Dad or I have done could happen if Mum or Jill hadn’t enabled it.

And enabled is the perfect word … because this is more than just ‘supporting’ someone’s quest for adventure.

They actively enabled it to happen by choosing a path that offered them – and the family – a greater level of stability and consistency so their partner could follow the path of curiosity.

What an amazing act of generosity and love.

It is something I have been aware of for a long time …

And while Jill has loved the adventure we have been on, it has come at some personal sacrifice.

She is far from her family.

She built her career as much around the environment she was in as the interest she had in a particular area.

And while she did brilliantly with all of it – especially with her cake design business in Shanghai – I am perfectly aware she could well have gone on to even more amazing things if we had just stayed in one place rather than moved all around the World.

She has never complained about this.

She has always embraced the journey and the countries we have lived in.

But the reality is I took her away from her family supposedly for a year, which turned into 16.

Or said another way, she has shown me a level of love and support that I find hard to fathom.

So now it’s time to pay things back a little. Kinda.

You see when I got made redundant, I was inundated with generosity.

Some of it was words of support.

Some of it was offers of projects.

Some of it was even offers of jobs – albeit all overseas in America, Europe, Asia and Australasia.

Frankly, it was overwhelming and wonderful.

And while all the gigs were amazing opportunities, our first reaction was to say no.

Part of it was because of the wonderful family home we had just bought. Part of it was our desire to set down real roots for the first time. And part of it was because two famous rock bands, a wonderfully eccentric Chinese billionaire, an amazing German home appliances brand and the World’s most notorious/desired video game company stupidly asked me to work with them on long-term creative projects, meaning I could continue to earn a good living in the country my family now considered home.

Hell, in the last 9 weeks I’ve done presentations to the boards of TikTok, Rockstar, a fashion superstar and a Silicon Valley VC while also helping some mates on 2 pitches … one in Australia, one in Italy … and we won both of them!!!

As weird as it is to say, unemployment – for me – has been amazing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know what I’m saying is the definition of privileged-as-fuck.

I absolutely acknowledge I’m in an extremely fortunate position and, if I’m being honest, I’ve found that hard to reconcile with, given how many people – many my mates – are having a hard time right now. To help deal with that, I’ve been finding ways to bring some of them into the projects I’m on because not only do I want to share the good fortune I’m experiencing, they all make me – and the work I do – so much better.

But it also revealed something I had forgotten.

As much as I love the work I’m doing and who I’m doing it for, I love it more when I’m doing it with a team. If I’m being honest, I suck when I’m on my own and given the personal projects I’m doing will never demand 8 hours a day – let alone 5 days a week – there’s a lot of ‘on my own’ time, I have to deal with.

I know, that sounds like the dream doesn’t it?

And it is. But while I absolutely love spending so much time with my family and adore working with Rock Stars and eccentric billionaires, I also love – and probably need – to collaborate with other creative people on other creative things … which led us back to the ‘real’ jobs people were talking to me about.

Frankly they all offered something unique, interesting and valuable to my career, my family and our overall future.

And, importantly, they all involved working with interesting, passionate, creative people.

Plus – in theory – I could still deal with the crazy ideas and needs of rock stars and billionaires.

So Jill and I discussed them again.

Some were pretty easy to decide …

Not because the job or the companies were bad – they were all wonderful – but they were based in the US and frankly, given all that’s going on there right now, that’s not somewhere we wanted to go back to at this time.

But there was one opportunity that caught Jill’s attention.

Not just because of the job, but because of the place.

Jill knew I was already excited by it because the company involved was one I had revered and raved about for years. In fact I had almost joined them a few years ago, but Mum had just died so I was in the wrong frame of mind to make any big changes in my life.

So why did this place catch Jill’s attention?

Because, in simple terms, it was nearer to her Mum, who lives in Australia.

You see while she talks to her daily, it’s obviously not nearly the same as seeing her a bunch of times a year.

I totally understood this, not just because I had been in a similar situation with my parents … but because now we were so close to my beloved best mate Paul and his epic wife Shelly, I felt an even deeper connection with them, simply because we got to hang out a shit load more than we had for the past 25 years.

And so this got us talking.

As I said, I absolutely adored the company. And I loved Jill could be closer to her Mum. And we loved the idea Otis could spend his primary school years in an environment that is safe, natural, liberal, creative and culturally diverse. Plus I loved I could do something that would – in a super small way – repay Jill for all the love, consideration and sacrifice she had given to allow me to keep us moving forward … not to mention I loved that I would have a whole new list of people I could make Facebook friends.

[OK, not that last bit, more like a whole new list of people I could be an instagram terrorist to]

Are you wondering what the fuck I’m going on about?

Well this is my very convoluted way of saying Jill, Otis, Rosie and I are all moving to Auckland in New Zealand, and I‘m pathetically happy to announce I’ll be the head of strategy for one of the most wonderful agencies in the World – in fact, one of the Cannes agencies of the decade – the utterly brilliant, beautifully ridiculous, infectiously creative … Colenso.

I have loved this agency for so long.

They’ve consistently made work that I’ve not just been insanely jealous of, but I’ve not seen anywhere else.

From creating a radio station for dogs … to stopping speeding by letting kids design the speed dial in the family car … to making drinking a beer the most romantic thing you can do on Valentine’s Day – or an alternative fuel for cars – they’re imaginative, audacious and wonderfully bonkers.

While saying ‘no’ to them 5 years ago was the right decision because of my state of mind after Mum died, I always felt I’d missed out on an opportunity that could be very special for me, so to be offered a second chance is … well, put it this way, it’s something I’ll always be eternally grateful to their idiocy for making happen.

Frankly, when I got made redundant, I never imagined something like this could happen … but, as I said at the time, the last time this happened to me, it led to one of the most creatively rewarding times of my life and in my post, I wondered out loud if lightning could strike twice.

Amazingly, it seems it can … but that’s the best thing about life, because if you’re open to everything, anything can happen.

That said, being in England has been amazing, far more than I imagined or hoped.

I don’t mind admitting when we came back I had a sense of trepidation.

Part of it was because I never thought we’d live in England again, part of it was because I didn’t want it to signify ‘the end’ of the adventure [and yet so many people thought it did] and part of it was that I felt guilt coming home after Mum and Dad died … because if I was going to do that, what didn’t I do it when they were both still here.

But as we spent more and more time in England, those concerns were replaced by feelings of belonging and connection that I thought I’d lost the ability to feel or experience, regardless where we lived … so while the UK may a complete basket-case of a nation, it’s my basket-case and I can take that newly formed sense of connection with me wherever we go.

But what about our new home?

The one I’d written so much about when we got it?

The one we moved into SEVENTEEN DAYS AGO!

Well, the fact of the matter is we’re in it and we love it and we don’t want to lose it … so while we will taking a detour via a wonderful adventure in New Zealand, I can categorically say we will be back living in it at some point. Don’t know when – we never make plans about timing – but we just know we will one day.

You see the reality is the house was always more to us than just an asset.

We wanted somewhere where we could settle … a place where our roots could grow and become established and entwined. It’s why I took the decision to sell Mum’s home, not just because it helped us be able to afford it, but because it was the sort of place Mum would want for us.

A family home rather than a house my family lived in.

I look forward to continuing to enjoy that until we go.

I look forward to continuing to enjoy that when we eventually come back.

But when do we go?

Well, that’s an interesting question with COVID … but hopefully in the first part of 2021.

If you asked me if we would ever live in New Zealand in the first half of 2020, I would have laughed and said no … and then added., “not unless Colenso offer me a job again”. But here we are, about to do just that … and I have to admit we are all hugely excited about it.

Not just for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but because living in another country and culture is an amazing privilege and we’re excited that the journey we’ve been on for the last 25+ years, still has a few more chapters to be written.

[That said, our cat is not happy as this this will be her SIXTH country in 13 years]

I’m so grateful to Colenso for giving me – and my family – this opportunity.

I’m so grateful to Jill for thinking of me even when this is supposed to be more about her.

I’m so grateful to R/GA for giving me – and my family – this experience in England and, by making me redundant, opening the door to exciting and rewarding things I never imagined could happen.

I’m also so grateful to all the people who have been so kind with their generosity and support while I’ve been in England, especially when I was made redundant. There’s loads and I’ll write a post about them when we leave but quickly, a massive thanks to …

My old planning gang at R/GA. Nils, Lucy and the incredible team at Uncommon. Matt Tanter. The Brixton Finishing School. John Dodds. Joel Keene. Emma Clark. Jonathan Nwauzu. Phil Jacobson. Judd Caraway. Caroline Seifert. The delightful nightmares Mike and Sam. Claire Pickens. David Tiltman. Munraj Singh. Kay and the team at SMILE-ing Boys Project. Michael Roberts. Karrelle. Louise Jack. Nick Ellis. Paul C. Nick Hirst. Richard Greene. Jed Hallam. Ms Bloodworth [although technically she is now in PDX]. Trudie McNicholl. Omar at The London Business School. Larissa. Sam Clohesy. Hanan. Giles Edwards. Asher. Tom Roach. Tarik at On Road. Sara Tate. Stefano. My beloved Mr Weigel. Ally McKenzi. Vince Aidoo. Neil Perkin. Graeme Douglas. Nick Owen. Nic Owen. Sam Brookes. Dave Alberts. Ayo and Group Think.

There’s tons I’ve missed but as I said, I’ll write a proper thing about them closer to the time we go [even though I appreciate this is turning into a Ms World acceptance speech] but I would be wrong if I didn’t give a mention to my oldest, dearest friend – Paul – and his wonderful wife Shelly, who made – and are making – this chapter better than I dared imagine.

I can’t really put into words how wonderful it has been being close to them again. While it had been 25 years since we were in the same country, it never felt like it – though being so close definitely made things even better. [The photo above, taken in our new garden when they came to visit, is one I’ll always treasure]

The one really sad thing about going is not seeing them as much as we have been able to over the past 2 years … but I keep reminding myself we’ll be back and I know when that happens, it will be exactly like it has been – wonderful and silly – because that’s exactly what happened when we came back after a quarter of a bloody century.

I know this has been a super long post. Like, Gwyneth Paltrow Oscar-speech long.

And I know most of you won’t have read most of it.

Or you just skipped to the TL;DR at the bottom.

But that’s OK, because it’s not for you, it’s for me.

And for Otis. For when he’s older. So he can properly understand the reasons behind his childhood, family adventures.

However even I’m getting over it so with that I’ll leave you with this …

Once upon a time, Dan Wieden asked me if I would ever live in Portland.

My response resulted in him saying, “I should fire your ass” and repeating it every single time he saw me from there on in.

I never had anything against Portland.

It’s an absolutely lovely place, but for me – especially as I was living in Shanghai at the time – I felt it was too small, too quiet, too natural and just too nice.

Well, we’re going to find out who was right.

I’m pretty sure we’ll find Dan was. As usual.

TL;DR

Bought a house in England but moving to NZ.
Off to play at the wonderful Colenso and let my wife be closer to her Mum.



When You Realise You’re The Joke …

Great advertising ideas – like any form of success – tend to have a thousand authors.

Of course, we all play a part in the journey to something being awesome, but it’s fair to say some play a bigger part than others.

What makes me laugh is when people who had nothing to do with the work suddenly – and publicly – start associating with it.

Not just in terms of being employed by the same company, but in having some magical, pivotal role … even though when the spotlight turns off, they’re back to their usual obstacle-creating, idea-destroying self.

But there’s something worse than that …

It’s the people who were pivotal in developing the idea but are not acknowledged for it.

They tend to be young teams …

Too junior to feel they can say something, surrounded by people who think this is just part of the right of passage.

And it is. But it shouldn’t be.

For me, this is where management need to take responsibility.

Ensure their people share the spotlight.

Let them enjoy the feeling of doing something good.

Make sure they understand the responsibility they have, not just the glory.

But too often that is not what happens …

Too often, they see their manager take the credit – and while they definitely played a role in helping their team play to that level – the real rewards should be saved for those who did the work, rather than those who happened to be in the same room when the work was being made.

A friend of mine has recently experienced this.

Ideas dismissed, then slightly rephrased by another, more senior person, to take the praise and credit.

And the people around them all knew it was happening but they let it continue happening.

“It’s just their way” they say.

“They made it better” they claim.

What makes it even worse is the reality of the situation soon gets forgotten and it’s the person who claimed the work who gets placed on a pedestal for all the great things that happened.

Leaving the originator behind.

Wondering what the fuck just happened. Questioning their ability and talent. Losing their confidence to keep going.

I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen it not that long ago.

Hell, I’ve had it happen to me … and when I stood up to the person doing it, I got in trouble with my then boss for being a ‘disruptive force’.

This taught me a valuable lesson – reinforced by some of the amazing leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with – and that is the true value of management is ultimately defined by how well the team does.

Not personally.

But collectively.

And by well, I mean in terms of the work that is created, rather than the documents written.

Don’t get me wrong, decks have an important role to play – but I’ve seen far too many managers only care that their ‘bit’ goes down well with the client, forgetting if it doesn’t help those around them get to better, more intriguing or provocative work, it’s nothing more than self-serving vanity.

Which is why I believe a managers role is to create an environment that lets their people be vulnerable, audacious, experimental and exploratory … as well as forging a culture that ensures the team feels backed, supported, acknowledged and pushed – rather than ignored, misled or stolen from.

And if they do that, then they’re doing their job.

Not a great job. Just their job.

Please do not mistake this as condescending compliments at all agency meetings.

Nor patronising pats on the back at team get-togethers.

I mean they actively fight for the career development of their team individually and as a whole.

Not just money or title or promotion …

But exposure, experience, possibilities and opportunities. So when a member of the team leaves – and everyone does at some point – they get a job that is better than they ever imagined they’d get.

One where they’re hired for how they look at the world rather than just filling a position.

Now you don’t get this easy. People have to earn it. They have to graft for it. They have to have awareness about what they’re doing and where they’re at.

But if they do that, the least a manager can do in return is back them, support them and push them on every step of their journey … even when they fuck up.

Which they will do at some point, because we all do.

And frankly, if they don’t … then they’re not trying hard enough.

The young of this industry are often used as cannon fodder.

Run to exhaustion.

Given huge demands.

And while not everyone will be the same in terms of skills, ability or outlook (which is a good thing or you’ve got a department of one dimensional robots) … they all need to be protected, nurtured and supported, because the future of this industry will be built on the standards and experiences we pass on to those we are responsible for, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves with all that they do.



I’m Watching You …

When I was at R/GA, I hired this brilliant planner called Joel.

It was weird how we met because it all started at a Google Firestarter meeting I was talking at.

At the end of my presentation, it was opened up to the audience for questions.

I couldn’t see who was asking anything as the lights from the stage were shining straight into my eyes. Anyway, there was one question that shone out from the rest of the questions of the night – basically challenging the London bubble of planning – and while I didn’t know who asked it, I wanted to find who did to say I liked it.

Alas I never found out who did.

A few days later, I got a message on LinkedIn from the person who asked the question.

His name was Joel.

I invited him for a coffee later that week and suddenly the person who asked the best question of the night was asking the best questions of the day.

But what made them extra good was he wasn’t doing it to show off or stand out, he was doing it because he was interested in the topics and interested to hear my perspective.

We talked about his background, his ambitions and then he did the one thing that almost guaranteed I wanted to hire him.

He called comprehensive school, ‘big school’.

BIG SCHOOL.

I hadn’t heard that since I was a kid in Nottingham and immediately I loved Joel for it. Because for all the time he had spent in London, he had not lost his Bradford realness … and then it became clear why he asked the question about the London bubble, why he was asking questions why culture rarely reflected how marketing department express it and why was the ad industry more interested in convenience than authenticity.

How could I not hire someone like that?

So I did.

And he never disappointed because apart from being culturally, creatively and strategically talented – with an obsessive focus on what life is really like for people, especially outside of London rather than the cliched, London bullshit a lot of marketing likes to portray – his greatest trait was he always wanted to learn.

Always.

Now don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t always the model student … he would push back, he would challenge, he would question … but what he doesn’t know is that was when I was the happiest working with him, because it meant he was believing his words rather than just following others.

And while we always have to be careful we don’t blindly think whatever we believe is the right answer, having confidence and conviction in your gut and your talent is an often underplayed, undervalued, under-encouraged skill in a strategist … which is why I was so happy to see when I left R/GA, Joel had a mug made with my face and my words on it.

Not because he missed my ugly face and lack of vocabulary, but to remind him to trust his smarts, his instincts and his authenticity … but never to be a prick about it.

If I was proud of him before. I am even prouder of him now.



When You Only Serve Those Above You, You Become The Enemy Of Those Around You …

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a police officer.

I was OBSESSED with becoming a police officer.

I read books. I talked to the coppers on the street. I looked up to them literally and metaphorically.

And while I absolutely believe the Police do an important job that is often undervalued, I also think the system they are made to operate in encourages behaviour that is not representative of the values and standards we have all been told they follow.

That is not a justification for wrongdoing – if they do the crime, then they should experience the full force of the law with absolutely no leniency whatsoever – however as police wrongdoing is happening on such a consistent basis all around the World, it does suggest the environment they are being asked to work within, is contributing to the situation in some way.

Which is why I found this comment on twitter interesting …

Now, I would imagine it was said with mischief in the eye … but there is truth in it.

Because where the Police are supposed to protect us, they have evolved into something that often feels more about controlling us … often for the good of the wealthy or the powerful.

I can’t imagine how difficult the job is … it must be a thankless task, especially with government leaders encouraging them to execute aggressive action rather than community integration … but something is obviously broken deep within.

Are all Police bad?

Of course not, just like criminals don’t follow the cultural or economic stereotypes the media, government and white people like to present us with.

And while blaming individuals or entire groups of people may make us feel better … safer … superior … more in control … the reality is so much of what goes on is because of the systemic and institutionalised systems so many people have to live and work within. Until that is accepted, investigated and fundamentally changed – rather than brushed aside as some sort of ‘liberal nonsense’ – we’re going to continue experiencing this pain, and quite frankly too many people have needlessly died and too many families have been needlessly destroyed to not accept there is a problem.

However much that puts the people in control in fear.

However much that shines a light on what we’ve all been complicit in creating.

However much that means governments become scared of the people rather than vice versa.



Which Came First: The Dumbing Down Of Marketing Or Creativity?

Above is a point of sale sign from a local supermarket.

Look at it.

LOOK AT IT!!!

What a pile of utter shite.

Noticeable for it’s stupidity rather than it’s inspiration.

The sort of stuff you would expect from a 5 year old writing jokes for a Christmas Cracker, than a company with well paid staff, responsible for the commercial growth of an organisation.

So who is to blame?

Well there are many who should feel a sense of shame – from ad agencies to research companies to clients – however when I think of who started this horribleness to begin, I can’t help but feel it was at the hands of the marketing department.

Of course even they are not totally to blame.

The C-Suite, with their demands and expectations have a lot to answer for … almost as much as the investors, who say they want the companies they invest in to be good companies but they better make increasing profits every quarter.

But what I found fascinating coming back to Western markets from Asian – specifically China – was how little ambition there really was.

Oh companies would talk about it – wax lyrical about it – but when you delved a little deeper, you saw there wasn’t much there.

Instead the focus was far more about defending rather than growing, corporate convenience rather than customer understanding, explaining rather than communicating and short-term conformity rather than long term change.

But of course, ad agencies need to take their blame for this situation as well.

Too many doing whatever clients want rather than what they need.

Profiting from process over creativity.

Celebrating speed over substance.

What makes it worse is some think this leads to good work.

Effective work. Using ‘proof’ that ignores the myriad of small, separate elements that combine to drive success so they can place themselves on a self-appointed pedestal.

But there are some who have a bit more self-awareness.

Who know what they’re doing is not as good as it could be.

Or should be.

But rather than face their responsibility in all of this, they blame others for how this came about … turning to questionable research that is based on a few tweets, a couple of chats around the agency or claims every single person on the planet can have their attitudes and behaviours characterised by a singular colour or some other bollocks.

And from this, they will claim the public don’t care about smart stuff.

That they ‘don’t understand’ good ideas and writing.

They they’re simply not interested in creativity and ideas.

Bullshit.

Bullshit.

Bullshit.

I’ve got to tell you, I’m absolutely over it.

I’m over the focus on the lowest common denominator.

Let’s face it, life would be pretty horrible and boring if that is how we really operated … and contrary to popular belief, we don’t.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of predictability in what we do, but to ignore the nuance … to suggest everything we aspire to is exactly the same, delivered via an identical approach … is just plain bullshit.

But here’s the kicker, because more clients and agencies seems to be adopting this approach.

White labelling, phoned-in solutions with a cool sounding names that actively destroys any sense of differentiation and distinctiveness of their brand from countless competitors while also directly insulting the intelligence of the customers they rely on to survive.

I get it’s less hassle to just agree with clients.

I get that having income coming in right now is very important.

I get that a single point-of-sale sign is not going to change the world.

But when we are willing to allow our standards to be determined by how quick we can make money, then all we’re doing is ensuring the long-term value of our industry – and the talented people in it or wanting to be in it – dies even more quickly.

And that’s why I am also over people being quick to piss on anyone trying to do something different.

Claiming it’s self indulgent.

Labelling it a failure before it’s even run.

Saying it won’t appeal to the audience … despite not knowing the brand, the brief, the audience or how people actually think or act outside of some hypothetical customer journey / strategic framework of convenience.

And yet, when you look at the brands, the work and the agencies who consistently resonate deeply and authentically with culture and drive long-term loyalty, growth and profit – it’s the usual suspects and a few newbies, like Nils and the fabulous folks at Uncommon.

Yes our job is to help our clients achieve more than they hoped. Yes our job is to attract rather than repel. But our job is also to help build the future for our clients … influencing, shaping and – sometimes – forcing dramatic change even before the masses are quite ready for it, which means doing work that challenges and provokes for all the right reasons … sometimes asking questions of the audience rather than boring them into beige submission.

And while I acknowledge there are risks in all of that, I personally believe it is far riskier to dumb everything down to it’s lowest common denominator, because every single thing we love, respect and covet has come from someone or something doing something different.

Whether that’s an idea, a product, a story or a new way of looking at the World … it has come from people who understood who we are but take us further than we imagined, pushing the journey and the story with every new chapter of what they create.

They could have taken the easy route.
They could have focused on optimising the rewards.
They could have spent their time ‘removing friction from the transactional process’.

But they didn’t. Or at least, they didn’t just focus on that.

They embraced the risk to create something bigger and more unexpectedly resonant.

Or should I say unexpectedly resonant by those judging them, because they knew exactly where they were going.

And this is why the people who are so quick to dismiss anyone trying to do something new need to understand their actions say far more about who they are and what they value than anything else. And in an industry that is fighting for its life, I put my faith in those using creativity to change the game rather than those who just talk about violation of some old rules.