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


You’re Not Fooling Us …


Just before Christmas, I was asked to help a company understand what they were doing to stop attracting talent.

While I must admit I found this request a bit bizarre – especially as they have a huge HR division – I knew it would be fun.

The good news for them is they do a lot of things right.

However there were a few things that were fucking them up and one of the biggest was their inability to understand why any employee may be cynical to their actions and claims.

As I said to them, their surprise indicates either naivety, arrogance or utter privilege.

Probably a bit of all three.

Of course this situation is not unique to them, I wrote about it here … however there was one point that really shocked them and it was their unlimited vacation days policy.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know when they instigated this a few years ago, it was for all the right reasons.

As a company, their original vacation policy was not the best and this was an attempt to put things right.

However, like many good intentions, the implications of that were either not considered or disregarded.

Because unlimited vacation is not an act of corporate generosity.

They may say it is.

They may have wanted it to be.

But right now, in most places offering it, it’s anything but.

Unlimited vacations benefit companies far more than employees.

There, I’ve said it.

There’s many reasons for this.

First is no one actually means ‘unlimited time off’.

If they did, you could take a year off and still get paid.

We all know that wouldn’t happen, just like we know if a company thinks we are taking too much time off – they’ll question if the role is still needed.

So the first issue is there’s no such thing as unlimited days … it just sounds good, especially when accompanied with some contrived public statement claiming to ‘our staff are our our greatest asset’.

Then there’s the fact that too many companies still think vacation days are a gift not a right.

So it doesn’t matter how many days you can take off in theory … if they don’t want you to have them, you’re buggered.

But what is the really devious thing about unlimited leave is employees end up being their own worst enemy.

You see when you’re told you can have any amount of days off, the value of taking them gets diluted. Of course you still want them, but you become more open with when you take them.

The urgency just isn’t there so we end up being more focused on ‘what is coming up’ versus ‘when will I go’ … and before you know it, we have taken even less vacation days than the times we had a limited number of fixed days.

Now you could argue this is our own fault – and it is – but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest this is a common, negative occurrence of unlimited leave … and yet even armed with this information, many companies stick with it.

And this is why so many employees don’t trust the companies they work for.

Because unlimited leave has a number of great commercial benefits for the company.

The first, as I just wrote, is the amount of people who take LESS time off rather than more.

The second is vacation times no longer have a commercial value attached to them.

If there is no limit to the number of days you take, there is no need to carry an value of them on your balance sheet.

No value on the balance sheet means no payout when you leave the company.

No value on the balance sheet means no payout if you are made redundant.

No value on the balance sheet boosts the value of the balance sheet – helping companies achieve greater profit without having to lift a finger, while being able to smile at their employees and claim ‘your wellbeing is our priority’.

And if you need more proof of this, then you just have to look at how many companies messed with their employees vacation days over COVID, trying to force them to use them up … even though they couldn’t go anywhere. While the good organisations were doing it for mental health reasons, a bunch were doing it because they didn’t want to carry that amount of ‘value’ into next years liabilities and then still had the nerve to dictate when – and how long – it could be used for.

Look I get it, money matters – especially in a pandemic – but it doesn’t feel right when you are bullied into doing something on someone else’s terms rather than your own … especially when it revolves around something that is your right to decide.

Now I am not suggesting this is why unlimited days were created.

Nor am I saying all companies who offer it, do it for bad reasons.

But what was originally claimed as empowering employees to have more time out of work has resulted in the absolute opposite.

There are alternatives.

Maybe the best is a minimum leave policy … where you HAVE TO take a certain amount of time off each year.

But even this has issues, given there are people who rely on the ‘value’ of their vacation days as a way to save [and if a company is paying you so little you need to use your holidays as savings, then there are bigger issues with that company] … but what is clear is companies can’t do something for good reasons and then stick their head in the sand when problems reveal themselves.

I know that’s the way many companies operate these days – exemplified by Boris Johnson and his inept government – but it is hardly surprising there is so much skepticism from employees when they see policies change without consultation and then enforced in a way where all the rhetoric of it being ‘a better way’ proves not to be.

Now of course companies don’t want to piss off their employees. Many try really hard to make them feel valued and secure. And I genuinely don’t believe any company sets out to be bad.

But distrust occurs when decisions are made – often without warning – that feel more for corporate PR than employee value.

Unlimited vacation days is a perfect example of this because whatever way you look at it, it’s simply not true.

If you want to build trust, practice honesty.

No hype. No populism. No contrived rhetoric. Honesty.

Listen to your people.
Communicate with your people.
Consult your ideas with your people.
And finally, do things with transparency, openness and a willingness to change if it doesn’t turn out as you hoped.

It’s not hard – especially that’s how you build all relationships – but it is seemingly rare.



Don’t Want Something So Much That You Do Something You Don’t Want …

When I was at cynic, I wasn’t allowed to talk money with clients.

The main reason for this is that while I like money, I like doing weird and wonderful things more … so I used to agree to terrible terms just because I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss out on doing something we were really excited by.

Now I get we like to think there’s some sort of logic to this approach, but as George kindly told me – while punching me in the head – what I was doing was undermining our position.

For a start, your relationship with the client is impacted. That doesn’t mean they don’t value you, but it means they don’t value you as much as they should. They see you as a ‘cheap problem solver’ rather than a valuable problem solver.

Then there’s the fact all your additional time and passion will never be rewarded to the level it deserves. The worst part is this is your own fault as you already set the precedent for how much you are worth by lowering your fee to such a great degree.

And then there’s the dilution of the projects importance.

In essence, when something is made much cheaper, the effect is its value goes the same way. Going from something significant to just another thing being done. From having a strong focus within the company management to being delegated to people who don’t really have the same decision making power.

Before you know it, clients start questioning other things you’re doing.

Asking why certain things need to be done. Challenging the time or expense on the elements that show the real craft.

Leaving the end result a lesser version of what it should have been.

Now this doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens a lot.

And while I get we are in a highly competitive time, where everyone is looking to save cash – the ease in which we undermine our own value is both astonishing and debilitating.

George’s brilliance was his ability to have us walk away.

I have to be honest, we had many arguments about this over the years … but in the main, he was right.

His point was ‘why would someone value us if we’re not valuing us?’.

It’s a pretty compelling argument.

This doesn’t mean we weren’t open to negotiation, but George’s position was ‘never forget we have something they want because we’ve shown them something they need’.

Another pretty compelling argument.

And while this approach helped us not only win all manner of great creative projects – but helped us be a profitable, sustainable company – I still found it hard to deal with.

Hell, on the occasion we didn’t win a project because somebody said they could do it for cheaper, I was a bloody nightmare. George used to say it was because I am an only child – which may be right – because I hated not getting what I really, really wanted.

And even then, George was the voice of reason.

“Why are you upset about losing a project with a client who wants to go down to a price point rather than up to a standard?”

ARGHHHHH!

What makes it worse is he meant it.

He, more than any of us, knew our value and wasn’t going to let us let go of something we had worked so hard to earn.

He’s right of course.

It’s the reason the best work comes from people who share the same goal.

To aim high, not cheap.

Sure, money comes into it … but the focus is always the quality of the output not just the price.

It’s why Cynic was so exciting.
It’s why Wieden+Kennedy are so special.
It’s why Metallica’s management are so influential.
It’s why all the work I’m doing right now is so fascinating.

George taught me so much.

While I appreciate I’m in a much more privileged position than many, nowadays I am totally comfortable with walking away from a project if I feel the vision, ambition and value for a project is not shared.

And what’s weird is that while that approach has resulted in me walking away from a lot of potentially interesting projects that were worth a lot of money to me – especially over the last 6 months – it has brought me a range of fascinating clients and projects [and cash] that most agencies would kill to have a chance to work on.

I’ve written about knowing the value of your value in the past.

I’ve talked about how that lets you play procurement at their own game.

And while it feels scary to stick to your standards when someone is threatening to take away something you really want, it also makes you feel alive.

Butterflies of excitement. A taste of power and control. Nervousness of being in the game.

And while it might not always come off and while you may be able to justify why it would be easier to just take whatever they want to give you … it’s a beautiful feeling to feel you matter. That your work matters. That the way you look at the world matters. That what you want to create matters. That you won’t allow yourself to do something simply because you’re the cheapest. Or allow a bad process to force a diluted version of what you were hired to do. Or let yourself be evaluated by someone who doesn’t care about what you’re creating, just that it’s done. That you matter enough to not allow others to negatively judge you for terrible conditions they put you in.

It can take time to come to terms with this.

It took me almost 20 years to really get it.

And while some may call you a pretentious or stubborn or commercially ignorant, the reality is dismissing the value of your value simply to make things commercially viable for everyone else is simply the most stupid thing you can do.

Because to paraphrase something Harrison Ford once said, when you devalue the value of something you’ve spent your whole life working at, you’re not just being irresponsible, you’re not valuing the value of the time, experience and expertise it has taken to get you to that point.

George knew this.

George helped me benefit from this.

George eventually got me to understand this.

And I’ll always be grateful for that gift.

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I’ve removed comments. Not just because I’m scared of the mountain of abuse the ex-cynic alumni who comment on here may/will give me. But because I’m even more frightened they may bathe George in even more praise and that would be too much for me to deal with.

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Hello, Hope …
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Brand In 10 Words.

I am a massive fan of Rick Rubin.

Actually that’s not quite right.

I am a massive disciple of Rick Rubin.

I think he is incredible. His ability to help others express their most powerful creative voice is amazing.

So much of this is down to how he see’s his role.

Not as a music producer, but as a sophisticated fan.

Someone who wants the band he loves to be their shameless best.

Protecting them from ever feeling they have to compromise on who they are or what they want to say because he fiercely believes the greatest return comes when you express your honesty and authenticity rather than play to be liked.

It’s why the artists he’s worked with reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the most culturally significant artists of their time.

Those who either defined a genre or validated it.

LL Cool J
Run DMC
The Beastie Boys
Slayer
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Rage Against The Machine
The Black Crowes
The Dixie Chicks
Johnny Cash

Look at that list. Look at it.

Hip Hop. Rap. Rock. Metal. Thrash. Blues. Country. Funk.

No one should be able to be so successful with that range of genre and artist.

It’s hilarious and yet there are so many more artists I could mention because for almost 4 decades, Rubin has helped artists not only express their truth but recognise the economic power from doing so.

He has created icons.
He has revived icons.
He has shaped, pushed and provoked culture.
He has influenced, shaped and changed music forever.

When we hear agencies talk about ‘creating culture’, most haven’t come anywhere close to what he has helped create.

But what I love the most about Rubin is how he decides who he is going to work with.

Basically his entire decision making process is based on one simple process.

Taste.

If Rubin likes what he hears, then he’s up for it.

It doesn’t matter whether it has any connection to anything he’d done before, he see’s it less about the music and more about the artist needing help to express … find … or rediscover their voice.

Not their singing voice. Their soul.

It’s not that far off what we as an industry say we do for brands.

Except we’re increasingly forgetting what brand is because we sacrifice it time and time again for the quick win.

I get it, we’re fighting for our lives … but in our quest to show we have value, we’re destroying what makes us valuable.

Oh I know we won’t admit that.

We’ll point to words like purpose, experience and membership as proof ‘we get it’.

We’ll say they’re representative of modern brand building and all else is old.

We’ll show 1000 page decks that show how our unique processes ‘guarantee’ success.

And some clients will buy this, which means we can go away thinking we’ve got it all sorted out and we’re legends.

Except we haven’t and we aren’t.

Yes, all those elements play an important role in building a modern brand … however they’re never the lead, always a supporting actor because …

Sales without distinction doesn’t build a brand.

Purpose without sacrifice doesn’t build a brand.

Data without understanding doesn’t build a brand.

User journeys without nuance doesn’t build a brand.

Eco-systems without an idea doesn’t build a brand.

Personalisation without being personal doesn’t build a brand.

Wanting to be something to everyone rather than everything to someone doesn’t build a brand.

The harsh reality is we’re dangerously close to confusing commoditisation with brand building. Of course this is not all our fault, but continuing to perpetrate it, most definitely is.

While I appreciate Rick Rubin didn’t mean the photo/quote that appears at the top of this page to be interpreted this way … he pretty much sums up how to build truly distinctive and definitive, culturally resonant brands.

And he does it in 10 words.

TEN!!!

And that’s part of Rubin’s magic.

He understands how to get to the simplest expression of his viewpoint, because he knows the simpler it is, the less obstacles to deal with.

Simple lets truth speak and rise.

Simple lets possibilities flourish.

Simple lets distinctiveness be expressed.

Simple is unbelievable power.

Now the irony of simple is it’s not easy to pull off.

Simple is definitely not simplistic. To be simple requires a hard work, experience and confidence … and while as an industry we have known this and advocated this for decades, we seem to have recently decided the opposite – where we celebrate complexity.

What the hell?!

Maybe it’s because we’re making more money from this approach. Or just feel more important. But the endless playbooks, frameworks, processes, tools and strategies we’re producing aren’t building better brands, just bigger obstacles.

Again, there’s a place for them. But the way they’re being used – they’re more like hammers than brushes – forcing them into the process, competing with all around them and ultimately leaving people lost with what they’re following, what they’re building and what they’re actually doing this all for.

As someone recently said to me – someone hugely successful in business – when companies make the solution more complex than the problem, they’re just creating another problem.

Please don’t think this means you skimp on standards or rigour.

If anything, it’s the exact opposite … but because everyone knows what they’re working towards [rather than doing their version of what they think everyone should be working towards], it means they can be sharp and focused and that means your work can be expressed in ways that lift things up rather than bogs them down.

I get some people won’t like this.

I get some people won’t agree with this.

I get some clients would never sign off on this.

But apart from the fact I doubt any of them will have come close to influencing, shaping or creating culture in the same commercially infectious way Rubin has, if they really believe selling the complexity of intelligence is a smarter way to operate, I’ll leave you with something my dad – who was pretty good on this whole intelligence thing – used to say to his lawyers:

“If you have to show how clever you are, you aren’t that smart”.



Adland Does More Than Just Sell, It Makes You Feel …

When I hear people say ‘TV ads are dead’, I laugh.

Especially when – in the same breath – they talk about the importance of content.

But what makes me hysterical is when they talk about content in terms of volume rather than emotion.

How many different ways it can be cut. How many different platforms if can be carried on. What it allows you to say and show.

That sounds even worse than a bad TV ad to me.

And as much as I love technology and what it is allowing creativity to do and impact in marketing, a great piece of film still has the power to have more impact on what people think, feel and do than 10,000 eco-systems that have all been designed to remove every possible element of friction rather than ignite it.

What’s also amusing is that while the industry loves to focus on the new, new thing – even though in many cases, the new thing is simply an old thing, albeit with a new name – it’s the same, arguably ‘older’, agencies who use creativity in the most consistently powerful, thought-provoking and emotionally igniting ways.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking them – quite the opposite actually – and I bloody love them all, however while everyone justifiably talks about the Wieden’s, Uncommon’s and Mother’s of the world, I think we should all take a moment to acknowledge the incredible work AMV is doing right now.

Of course they’ve always been one of the best but right now … they’re coming out swinging.

Not only did they make the best Christmas ad ever written for Plenty paper towels – yes, a bloody paper towel brand – and the incredible Wombstories for Bodyform, they’ve just launched this masterpiece for MacMillan Cancer Support.

Amazing isn’t it?

Almost 2 ½ minutes long and yet it never feels it.

In fact, you watch it over and over again.

Even though it makes you cry.

Properly sob.

Maybe it’s because in this repetitive life of isolation, it lets us feel human … connected to someone or something in a way that we’ve not had for a long time. Or maybe it is a reminder of how fragile life is or how lonely it can be.

Whatever it is, this is more than just ‘an ad’, and so, so much more than the contrived content designed to work across multiple platforms that so many people in the industry seem to think is the way forward … because this incredible piece of film allows us to glimpse the fine line that exists between life and death and the amazing souls who do their absolute best to try and keep them as far apart for as long as possible.

It had a huge impact on me.

Because like AMV did with Plenty – albeit from a VERY different perspective – their eye for detail was immense.

You may not notice all of them.

You may only notice them if you’ve lost someone.

But they’re there and they’re real in all their beauty and tragedy.

The exaggerated happiness to try and disguise the worst situations for the sake of those who don’t quite understand.

The need to be strong for those who know their reality but don’t need that being brought into their reality.

The joy of giving someone a second of happy distraction in a life surrounded by bleakness.

The despair of seeing a child come to terms with their parents mortality.

The elation and gratitude of victory.

The intense fear you think this may be the end and you are petrified you may be alone during your final moment.

But it’s the last scene – where the family say their final goodbye to a woman they obviously love so much – that truly ripped me apart.

From the hand reaching out, struggling and desperate to find the hand of the person they love – a final touch before they slip away – to the intense, shocking loneliness that engulfs you when you realise they’ve taken their final breath.

It reminded me so much of my Mum.

As I sat next to her, after she had come out of her operation, only to see everything collapse in front of my eyes.

The attempt to make sense of something that made no sense.

The shattering of life as someone I loved with all I got went away.

A death that was as unfair as it was untimely.

And what’s strange is I keep watching the ad to relive that feeling.

To be reminded of that final moment with Mum. The sadness and the pain.

Because while it makes me cry deeply every single time … taking me to a place I never want to relive … it has this weird effect of letting me feel closer to her.

A moment where we are together again.

Some kind of private moment.

So I look at it again and again and again. Not just that final scene, but the whole thing … watching events unfold in front of me as if it was for the first time seeing it. Being moved, uplifted and devastated at the exact same moments every single time.

Until that final moment.

Where even though the music reaches its crescendo, everything feels silent.

Where I gasp for air while wanting to scream to try and break the reality of what’s happening in front of me.

Where I feel my whole body is tightly wound in a futile bid to hold things together.

It’s a tragic feeling of familiarity that I wish wasn’t.

And yet I am grateful for it. I truly am.

Because despite all this raw emotion, I never feel the ad exploits.

Yes, it challenges and confronts, but it never ventures into shock while also – somehow – never feeling like it is keeping anything back either.

It is an extraordinary piece of film that reminds us the people who try to keep the thin line between life and death as far apart as possible for each and every one of us, are also people.

Doing whatever it takes to help the people suffering and the people watching, move forward to wherever a better place exists.

It didn’t just make me send it to people, put it on social, look up the team behind it and write this post – it made me sign up to make regular donations to MacMillan Cancer Support.

Don’t tell me TV ads don’t work. When they’re like this, they can change the world.