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”.



A Dictatorship Is Not A Community …

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had 2 very unpleasant interactions with LinkedIn.

The first was when I discovered my personal account had been blocked by them.

No warning.
No reason.
Just blocked.

I had to look on Google to find out how I could get in contact with them, and after discovering that I had to submit proof of my ID – they got back to me to say that someone had found a post I’d written offensive due to it’s adult content … and as they felt it contravened some LinkedIn policy I’d never heard of, they needed me to apologise to them before they would reinstate me.

Now I appreciate the image I chose was provocative, however it was not just for shock value … it was part of a presentation/post I was giving about the terrible, sexist, bullying behaviour men subject women to in the work place every single day – so I found it remarkable they ignored the context – which was clear – and just banned me and demanded an apology.

I told them I refused to apologise because it’s a genuine presentation about a genuine issue … however, as they appeared to be OK with that sort of behaviour, I would report them to the workplace commission for equal rights as well as the #MeToo organisation.

Unsuprisingly they reinstated my account saying ‘they appreciate I wasn’t trying to be offensive’, despite having previously said they agreed with whoever complained about my post and – contrary to most legal protocols – regarded me guilty, even though they had not sought any information or context about the post from the person being accused.

But pathetic and annoying but that was nothing compared to what was yet to come.

So a week later – which seems a very strange coincidence – the Corporate Gaslighting LinkedIn account was banned.

Again no warning. No explanation. Just banned.

So I went through the same thing and then they got back to me with this …

Yep, the issue is simply the account is under Corporate Gaslighting’s name rather than my own – despite all contact details are.

But here’s where it gets even more annoying.

“Due to the nature of this account, we won’t be able to remove the restriction and/or merge this account with another one.”

That’s right.

It’s blocked. Forever.

Not because they couldn’t link it to my account but because they didn’t want to. Because of the ‘nature’ of the account.

And this is where I’m confused because surely the nature of the account is perfect for LinkedIn?

In fact, when I read the LinkedIn ‘purpose’, which states:

‘Connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful’

… then I can’t think of a more perfect partner for LinkedIn.

But no. They don’t want it.

It’s fine to have shady recruiters taking money from their clients to spam anyone they can get to. It’s fine to have men use their site to hit on women. It’s fine to pretend you’re a z-grade shrink with a guaranteed answer to everything you could ever wish for. It’s fine to allow ‘members’ to spout blatant lies about their achievements or sales tools. It’s fine to have people use the platform to talk about the conformity of professional appearance … but it’s not OK to have someone who is dedicated to helping professionals being systematically undermined by bad leaders, because the way I filled in their form is a violation of the LinkedIn User Agreement and Professional Community Policies.

I’ll tell you what’s a violation – LinkedIn’s claims they are a community. That they want to help people succeed. That they want to connect people together.

LinkedIn wants everyone to follow their orders. What they have decided is right. What works in their best interests. And if for some reason that doesn’t happen, then they let their god complex run riot – before hiding behind anonymous people and policies that don’t allow for context or conversation … just a brazen and contrived ‘computer says no’ guilty verdict, with all the humanity and consideration of an ATM machine.

Dear LinkedIn. You are in danger of becoming the absolute opposite of what you claim to be about, because if you were, you’d have created your own version of Corporate Gaslighting, but no, you’d rather just ban it. But then, when you’re paying your CEO almost $14,000,000 per year, I appreciate the last thing you’d ever want to do is to take any sort of stand against any sort of professional misconduct, for fear of alienating the companies who allow your CEO to be paid such an obscene amount.

Linkedin has incredible potential to be a real force for good.

Not just for corporations, but employees too.

It could influence real, positive change.
It could drive shifts in values, attitudes and rewards.
It could challenge the rules of what ‘professionalism’ supposedly means and looks like in the modern age.
It could help shape the future of work in ways that benefit all.

And while some could say they are doing this in their own way, the past few weeks have suggested to me their focus is on keeping the C-Suite happy rather than helping people create a new version of the C-Suite.

It’s a shame, because the whole industry is begging for some sort of major change but instead, they not only prefer to keep things exactly the same … they are using their power to ensure it does.

If you – or someone you know – are having your confidence systematically undermined, by colleagues … you are not alone. There is help out there. Not at Linkedin.com but at TheyTriedToKillMeButI.Live



When Things Don’t Make Sense, They Sometimes Lead Us To Somewhere Better …

One of the things I loved about R/GA was they were one of the few agencies who truly understood creative tech.

It was never an add on. It was never just about the ‘shiny, new thing’. It was central to the creative process … enabling ideas to explore places you may never have thought about.

It was one place where I really felt I might be able to be part of something that outlived me and while I’m not there anymore, I still think that’s pretty cool.

I say this because in the world of innovation – and I mean this in the broadest sense of the word, not just within the marketing industry – so much of it seems small.

Yes, I know innovation can be executed in multiple ways.

The process.

The technology.

The integration.

But for the people on the street, if innovation doesn’t result in an experience or product they’ve never seen before, too often they end up dismissing it out of hand.

That’s hard for companies.

Especially when the moment they do make something new, the public fawn in delight for half a second, then go off in search for the next new thing.

It’s this situation that paralyses a lot of companies.

They know they have to innovate to keep moving forward but the financial risks involved – both in terms of development, application, competition and audience adoption – mean it’s far more ‘sensible’ to make degrees of change.

So we end up with ‘new features’ that serve little or no purpose because they’re not innovative enough to make people pay attention and not useful enough to make people value what it does for them.

And it’s for this reason why I bloody love this piece of tech madness from Amazon/Ring.

Yes, I know it’s an evolution – albeit an evolution on steroids – of a home security cam.

Yes, I know it’s being sold as a solid and sensible piece of technology.

BUT IT’S A SECURITY CAM ON A DRONE!!!

How nuts is that?

I would have loved to have been in the meeting where that idea came about.

Not to mention the meeting where they had to ask for R&D funding from Bezos.

I wonder if it was a brainstorm and someone just threw the idea out there as a pisstake and then, after everyone laughed, someone said, “that could work”.

Do I think it’s a good idea?

Yeah … maybe.

I mean, they do make other security products that, arguably, are much better protection for the home because [1] you can see them outside the house which [2] acts as a deterrent, so a criminal is less likely to smash a window or door to get in.

But even then I still love it.

Even with one of the worst product demo films I’ve ever seen.

Because at the end of the day, the idea it got made.

An idea, that is frankly utterly bonkers, got produced … and in this world where too many companies are putting the no into innovation, that’s infectiously intoxicating.

But before you accuse me of celebrating creative tech security indulgence … there’s another important thing here.

Because almost regardless how well this sells – though I think it will do brilliantly, simply on ridiculous novelty – it has just opened the door to so many more things.

Not just in terms of what the next iteration of that product will be.

Not just in terms of what the competition will now create.

But in terms of what is possible.

From home security to medical supervision to stuff we haven’t considered yet.

A few years ago I read an article by a tech journalist who said the biggest thing he needed to remember was to not judge new technology by the standards of the established. He had to acknowledge things may not be seamless. That products may not be perfect. Because if he didn’t, he may contribute to killing an idea before it’s had a chance to become what it could be.

It’s an important lesson because all ideas start off fragile.

They need space and time to grow. To get strong. To evolve.

They need nurturing, crafting.

Hell, in some cases, they need humanity to catch up to where the idea already is.

While I fully expect Amazon/Ring to cop a load of piss-taking from people and the media, it’s worth remembering that Fuel Band – another product widely questioned by media and society when it came out – opened the door to creative uses of tech that directly led to NIKE being able to make products that are now relied upon – and loved – by millions of athletes all around the World.

Or said another way.

Without Fuel Band – developed by R/GA – we may be living in the athletic dark ages.

So here’s to more crazy creative tech ideas.

Because as mad as they may seem at the beginning, they might just be the things that push us all to somewhere greater.



Vorsprung Durch Details …

So I have an Audi.

I know … I know … what a wanker.

Well as we all know, German cars are well known for their quality of engineering, but recently I saw something that showed me it’s not just engineering where they pay attention to detail.

Have a look at this …

Can you see?

It’s the colour of the screws.

Where most cars have 4 yellow screws in each corner of the rear number plate, Audi have used 2 – one black, one yellow – placed in the middle of the number plate and designed to make sure they perfectly match with the area they’re screwing into.

Black to match the colour of the letter of the registration number.
Yellow to match the background of the rear registration number.

It’s an incredibly small thing, but if they care about that, you can be sure they care about every detail in the car.

Which helps reinforce why German manufacturing is so highly revered.

Or said another way, why craft is proved by the small things, not just the big.



The Past Is An Indicator, Not A Fact …

Have a look at that article.

It’s not that long ago really is it, and yet the fortunes of Apple are beyond comprehension.

Probably even beyond what Steve Jobs imagined … though I doubt, if he was alive, he would admit that.

But while the iMac was much more successful than the journalist suggested it would be … its greatest achievements were re-introducing Apple to the world, positioning them as a real alternative to Microsoft and creating a platform for the brand and products to keep rising.

Now it would be easy to laugh at how wrong the journalist was with their article, but the reality is most people in the industry at that time thought that about Apple.

However the reason had less to do with the launch of the iMac and more about the recent history of the brand.

The choices.
The decisions.
The products.

But in doing that, they highlighted four of the great mistakes so many still make:

1. Immediately skeptical of anyone trying to do something new.
2. Believed the standard for success had been set by the market leader.
3. Evaluated products against current audience needs, not future audience needs.
4. Forgot how much truly great marketing can make people give a shit.

I say this because our industry often operates like this journalist.

Basing our point of view on ‘facts’ that reflect what has happened rather than what is going to happen.

Now I get why … what we do costs a lot of money and has a lot of implications and so clients rightfully want to minimise their exposure to risk as much as they can.

But despite this focus on certainty, we still see missteps and failures every single day, largely down to us – and clients – evaluating everything by the same 3 mistakes the journalist did towards iMac back in 1998.

This is not to suggest we should ignore what clients need.

Nor is it that we should disregard costs.

It is simply a reminder that if we only judge/plan/justify/execute through the lens of the rear-view mirror, the only thing we can be certain of is we will be going in the opposite direction to culture and success.