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

If You Think It Would Be Mad, It’s Probably Got Something Going For It …

Before I write today’s post, I want you to listen to something …

Yep, that’s the White Stripes with their now classic, ‘Seven Nation Army’.

I say classic, because it is.

It was recorded in 2002 as a bit of fun and yet now it is deeply entrenched in culture.

Sung at concerts.

Sporting events.


It’s the modern equivalent of Smoke In The Water … the go-to song for any guitarist starting out. [And the nightmare for any guitar shop employee]

But the thing about it that I never realised is that it’s a song without a chorus.



It’s deliberate, because one day Jack White liked the idea of – in his own words – “creating a compelling song without a chorus”.

And he did.

A song that will no doubt outlive him because – like Queen’s We Will Rock You – is a simple, repetitive riff that allows audiences to not just join in, but be an integral and active participant in the music.

When you look at the ad industry, while we have evolved from talking AT audiences, our version of audience involvement is still largely based getting them to be an extension for what we’re doing rather than be an integral part of it.

Now of course, I get an audience doing stuff for a band they love is very different to getting people who are mildly interested in a brand, to do something for us … but the main point here is we are not pushing any boundaries right now.

Oh of course there’s agencies constantly pronouncing they have just executed a ‘world first’, but apart from the fact it’s often just a slight variation of something that has previously been around, it’s almost always done to benefit the agencies and clients ego and no one else.

But where is the bolder stuff?

The writing a compelling song without a chorus stuff?

If adland was about writing music, you can bet EVERYTHING would have a chorus.

It would also probably be a pop-song, 3 minutes long [MAX], as simplistic as they can make it and designed to be so palatable as to not offend a soul.

It would be this song …

Hell, even Matt Beaumont thought so in his brilliant book, E.

OK, I’m being a bit mean because its not like there aren’t some agencies doing amazing pieces of work using the ‘traditional’ model not to mention those who are genuinely trying to push the boundaries of what creativity can be – and do – for clients, like this brilliant Planned Parenthood campaign we did at R/GA recently … but in the main, the focus is not about breaking new ground it’s about treading carefully over the old.

Look, I get it … this stuff costs a lot of money.

There’s a bunch riding on it.

But where this ‘minimum risk’ approach fails is when brands talk about wanting to make a big impact in culture … something that powerfully differentiates themselves from the competition … an idea that change attitudes and behaviour … because the most effective way to increase the odds of this happening is to literally do something that runs counter to traditional norms.

An airport lounge that is modelled on a Rock Stars house.

An electric car with an insane button.

A ravioli where the pasta disappears.

An ad that talks about failure.

Now I know what you’re thinking, most companies will never do that.

And you’re right.

But what I find amusing is that we all know doing the same as everyone else produces, in the main, even less chance of breakthrough success than walking into the unknown or unexpected.

The harsh reality is that while many companies talk about breakthrough … innovation … provocation … what they really mean is – at best – being a degree or two better than their competition or – at worst – simply playing catch-up

Or as Lee said, they confuse innovation with modernisation.

And while I know there is a lot of talent in our biz – talent who use creativity to create incredible ways to either deal with old problems or create new normals – we are in danger of letting ourselves just become executioners of clients transactional requirements, and if that happens, we lose any chance of regaining/retaining our seat at the boardroom table. Because in my experience what the best C-Suite want aren’t companies who simply execute their requirements, but those who see the World differently to them, so they can help them get to places in ways they never imagined possible.

In other words, creative people with commercial appreciation rather than commercial people with creative appreciation.

Now the problem is we live in times where the money men value consistency more highly than boldness … which is ironic given they them place them under immense pressure to keep finding new ways to grow, transform and unlock new revenue streams.

An oxymoron if you will.

Which, for me, highlights 3 things.

1. Independence is power.

2. As Martin and I talked about at Cannes last year, chaos can achieve what order can’t.

3. The only things worth doing are the ones that can break your heart.

29 Comments so far
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Brilliant post Robert. So much in here to think about and learn from. It should be mandatory reading for anyone working in the creative industry. And the lack of chorus in seven nation army was a surprise. I had to listen to it to check your claim. ; )

Comment by George

It’s very long. But fortunately and surprisingly very good.

Comment by Bazza

“and surprisingly very good”. Funny.

Comment by Pete

Trust me Baz, no one was more surprised than me.

Comment by Rob

Hahaha … so did I when I first heard that snippet of info. Which makes it even better as I had convinced myself the bridge [which in songs, normally takes you to the chorus] was the chorus, which makes what they did even better and mindfuckery.

Comment by Rob

Confusing modernisation with innovation is a great quote. I miss Lee. When will Branson stop screwing everything up so he can come back again?

Comment by Bazza

I dropped him a line last week and he said he was OK. I suspect he is untangling mess, negotiating money and directing people in the brilliant way only he can do.

Comment by George

I did too. I didn’t get an answer. Ha.

Comment by Rob

he thought you were after another fucking freebie campbell.

Comment by andy@cynic

The other thing this post has made me think about is inspiration. I like the radical/lateral approach that are in so many of the examples you write about. It can feel the focus in companies today is practical progress rather than radical invention. It would be good to see more of that. Even the valley is tame. The only place I see it happening is your beloved China.

Comment by Bazza

Excellent point. Though I believe the issue is less about aspirations and ambitions and more about operational structure and how they are often designed for scalability so regard pragmatism as the enemy.

Comment by George

Both of you are right.

Comment by Pete

Great points. And yes, China is definitely running ahead with innovation. I heard that Huawei spend like 10 times the budget Apple have on R&D. Not sure if that’s true, but it would explain how they have gone from nothing to equals to moving ahead [at least in product and feature innovation] in the blink of an eye.

Comment by Rob

I don’t know the ratios but I have also heard they outspend many of the giants.

Comment by George

I love the story about the white stripes.

Comment by Jemma King

Really enjoyed this post Rob. Lots to think about but the 3 things that stuck out for me were the White Stripes story, your view the ad industry would write Barbie Girl and the lack of ambition brands have for engaging their audiences.

Comment by Pete

That’s all social media community managers humiliated.

Comment by George

Barbie Girl massively outsold Seven Nation Army, but the latter massively outstreams the former seventeen years later. How’s that for a marketing metaphor.

Of course, it’s entirely legitimate to argue that both have their place but, let’s be clear, discordant karaoke at gigs doesn’t.

Comment by John

You know your comment makes you part of the problem John? You’re looking at success purely in terms of singular impact … ie: sales.

By that reckoning, given Bohemian Rhapsody massively outsold Barbie Girl, it means operatic opus are even better than 3 minute pop songs and on we go, an endless stream of singular based comparisons.

But when you look at other elements – career duration, concert attendances, genre innovation, cultural impact, money in the bank … the declaration Barbie is better than Seven Nation gets torn down.

This is what is the problem with our industry. We kill things before they have a chance to work because we look short-term and in small contexts, hence we end up following what others have done before … except they’re never as good and ever more diluted.

So yeah, your comment represents everything wrong with where this industry is going.

Comment by Rob


Comment by Bazza

Did you not read the second part of my first sentence? I was agreeing with you.

Comment by John

I should probably have added that Seven Nation Army met short term goals by reaching number one in sales before proving to have a deeper impact and huge longeviity, but I’m biased against long copy.

Comment by John

Nice to see the old, short fuse, ready for a fight Rob back.

Comment by DH

I hate it when you write posts I like and I really like this.

Comment by DH

the best fucking part is saying adland is aqua. youre not wrong.

Comment by andy@cynic

Adland are an aqua cover band.

Comment by Billy Whizz

Rob. I watched your groupthink talk. You were amazing. Thank you so much for talking about the issue of race. It is inspiring to see someone of your status care so much but be so self aware. Thank you for seeing us and thank you to your teachers Maya, Chelsea and Breanna.

Comment by John Liu

If it was good, it was all because of Maya, Chelsea and Breanna.

Comment by DH

But good on him for talking about an issue no one in the industry is talking about. Not without their PR team checking it first.

Rob. Where can I see it?

Comment by DH

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