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


Remove The Wires …

I recently wrote a post about the situation with youth culture in NZ. How such a brilliant country that does so much right is failing its youth at an epic level.

Not all is its fault.

It is a small country, far from other nations with an incredibly small population so for many brands – especially more youth culture focused – it is a market that offers little profit potential or industry influence so it is a very low priority to go there.

Hell, if IKEA or Amazon aren’t here, you can be sure Supreme etc won’t be.

So what this means is what is in NZ is – in many ways – the very same things that have always been in NZ … resulting in a belief among youth, there’s not much here that is specifically for them, reinforced by the internet allowing them to see what is happening in other countries, which all contributes to a feeling of isolation, a lack of opportunity and pressure to conform.

While this is not the only reason for the terrible statistic of being the number 1 country in the World [per capita] for youth to die by suicide, it is one of them … and when I wrote about this a while back, the beautiful and generous Nils from Uncommon sent me the brilliant poem above by Philip Larkin, which pretty much sums up the issue NZ needs to deal with.

Because whether for protection or control, wires make your World smaller, which eventually will make a smaller World for everyone.



Layer Cake …

I was talking to a couple of mates recently.

Both of them are a couple of incredibly talented, highly regarded, multi-award winning creatives and they were asking me what it was like working in NZ.

As we were chatting we came to a revelation about what was causing the decline in advertising standards.

This is a topic that has been debated a lot over the years with a myriad of possible causes. But with the experience I have seen in NZ – plus the experience I have working directly with a number of famous bands and billionaires – we realised there was actually an underlying cause that trumped all other considerations.

It’s not digital.
It’s not consultants.
It’s not holding companies.
It’s not eco-systems or playbooks.
It’s not the wild inflation of strategists.
It’s not cost.
It’s not effectiveness.
It’s not in-house alternatives.
It’s not direct-to-consumers.
It’s not data.
It’s not rational messaging.

It’s the layers within companies.

The multitude of people everything has to go through and be approved by.

Might be on the client side.
Might be on the agency side.
Might be on both sides … but each layer is like a mini-focus group where ‘success’ is when the representative of that particular layer feels something can then be passed on to the next person in their group without it making them look foolish for their decision or choice.

And as the work passes each layer, the work gets diluted or chipped away until the ultimate decision maker gets to see something that is a pale shadow of what was originally intended.

An object that is a trophy to self preservation rather than potency and truth.

And as companies and agencies have grown in their complexity, the work has faced more layers and opinions. Doesn’t matter if you’re independent or part of the most networked agency/company in the history of networked agency/companies … the decline of creative standards is down to the number of organisational layers that now exists within companies.

And why has this happened?

Well, part of it is because of complexity, but the main part is because companies have got into this mad position where the only way they can grant a significant payrise is if the person is promoted.

So we’re in this mad situation where we have increased layers, headcount and complexity simply because we have viewed money as something commensurate with promotion rather than quality.

Now I appreciate you could argue promotion is a sign of quality – but I don’t think that’s right.

Being good at something doesn’t automatically mean you will be good at something more senior. Hell, there’s a lot of people who don’t even want to do something else. They just want to do what they love and they’re happy at.

I remember at Wieden where – for one mad minute – they thought I’d make a good MD.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

They didn’t come to their senses even when I told them I wasn’t even the MD of cynic … and that was a company I actually founded.

I didn’t want to be an MD.
I wasn’t interested in being an MD.
I just wanted to do what I loved and was good at.

And while they finally came to their senses [good call, Luhr, as usual] the reality is a lot of companies have a bunch of layers simply because they needed to promote someone to justify a payrise.

And before you know it, every task has to go through multitudes of layers … where most are designed to dull an idea rather than sharpen it.

While I don’t know this for a fact, I would guess the companies or agencies who are doing the most interesting work … the stuff that attracts culture rather than chases them down then beats them into submission … are the ones where they deal with the ultimate decision maker.

We get to do a lot of that in NZ.

I definitely get to do that with Metallica, Gentle Monster and the GTA team.

And the difference is huge.

Because while some of these clients are genuinely exceptional – especially when I’m talking to the founders of the organisations because that gives them a level of power and authority most other clients could never hope to get – I imagine a lot of the others are no different to the clients everyone who reads this blog deals with in London or New York or Tokyo everyday.

It’s just the big difference is instead of work having to appease the comments and judgement of 20 different people, it only has to agree with 4 … so the idea that gets made resembles the idea on the table to a much greater extent.

So next time you have a client that talks about wanting great work, don’t talk to them in terms of what processes, systems or people you can add to the mix, talk about what both parties need to take away.

Because if you want the work to be potent, kill the layers of filtration.



Creativity Vs Complicity …

So many ads today end up just being fancy sales brochures.

A nondescript, stylish image that either has some meaningless line thrust upon it or a literal lift of the proposition from the brief to become the headline.

Clients love it because they think there’s no wastage.

That there’s no ‘thinking’ that the audience has to do to ‘get the message’.

I remember years ago – when I was working on SONY – the client kept referencing Mr Bean.

No, I’m not joking.

They kept saying Mr Bean is understood by all. Loved by all. Communicates a message without saying a word. They were really trying to push this until I pointed out that while that’s the case, no one would spend thousands buying a TV made by Mr Bean.

Then Balls got made and undermined my argument for years. Hahahaha.

And while I hate looking backwards, I can’t help but think the past was far more interesting creatively than where we’re at today.

These days Audi talk about ‘Future is an attitude‘ when once they talked about Vorsprung Durch Technik.

We have Chivas Regal going on about ‘every taste is an experience’ when once they talked about ‘giving Dad an expensive belt‘.

Heineken now ‘open your world‘ when they once ‘refreshed the parts other beers can’t reach‘.

We have countless other brands who were once so powerful with their brand voice who have now become bland.

[Nothing sums it up like this Audi ad for the same car with pretty much the same line]

What really gets me, is we have the talent in the industry to change this.

We have the hunger as well.

But while there are exceptions – and I mean it in terms of agencies who consistently bring the work rather than the odd bit of work getting through – somewhere along the line, we seem to have chosen a path of complicity.

Without doubt the research techniques becoming more and more favoured by companies plays a part in this. As our clients who are more focused on not making a mistake than making an impact. But it cannot be ignored that agencies have a lack of desire to stand up for what they believe is right. Preferring to be complicit rather than respected.

Which may explain why so few of them believe it is worth investing in finding out what is really going on in culture – preferring instead, to either outsource it or just accept the viewpoint of whichever ‘paid for’ 3rd party the client has hired to do the work for them.

What brought this all up was seeing an old Honda ad from the late 70’s/early 80’s.

OK, so Honda have a long history of doing great work – especially from Wieden London – but it’s always been a brand that has run to its own rhythm with its own idiosyncrasies. But even they – these days – are falling into the trap of rubbing off the edges that defines who they are to become like everyone else.

This ad – like so many of the truly great early 80’s ads – came from Chiat/Day.

My god, what an agency they were.

Sadly I say ‘were’ because as much as they still have great people in there and pull off the occasional truly interesting bit of work, when you compare them to what they were like decades ago, there is no comparison.

Brave. Honest. Distinctive. Creative as hell.

Hell, even when they lost, they did it in a way where they would win.

Every single person in adland – especially at C-Suite level – should read this brilliant article by Cameron Day, son of Guy Day … one of the founders of Chiat.

‘How Big Till We Go Bad’ is a fantastic guide on how to build a truly great agency. And then destroy it.

Anyway, I digress.

The Honda ad I saw of theirs was this …

No, your eyes are not deceiving you.

Once upon a time, car manufacturers – or at least some of them – understood equality.

No cliches.

No pandering.

Just treating their audience as adults and equals.

It’s not really that hard is is, but if you compare it to what we see today, it feels we’ve regressed. [Read more about car ad devolution – with a few exceptions – here]

I do not want to look in the past.

I believe my best creative work is ahead of me.

Or at least the potential of it.

To paraphrase Death of a Salesman – or the equally brilliant Nils of Uncommon – we shouldn’t be interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, you understand? There’s a big blaze going on all around.

But the problem is, people have to see the woods are burning and I worry a bunch of the fuckers think it’s a sunset. Then again, it will be … because if we don’t push forwards, it will be the sunset on our industry and that will be the ultimate insult, because the past should never be more exciting and interesting than the future.



Stock Shot Schlock …

When Phil Spector died, I went down a rabbit hole of his life.

On that journey, I spent some time looking into the life of Lana Clarkson, the woman he murdered.

Which led me to this …

Find the perfect Lana Clarkson death photos!!!???

Seriously, what the fuck?!

I know they don’t mean to be so disrespectful.

I know it’s a standard Getty Image response to any image search – except I was looking for Lana Clarkson, not Lana Clarkson death photos – but this is what happens when you automate a process to maximise your profit potential.

And while I get Lana’s photos were topical given the death of Spector so many media outlets may be looking for them … it doesn’t make them look good. And god knows how it would make Lana’s family feel, if they saw it.

For all the talk about brand experience, it’s amazing how much bullshit is said.

Do I think experience is important? Absolutely.

Do I think experience is done well? Not that often.

For me, there is one overarching problem.

Brands would rather be OK at a lot of things than stellar at a couple.

Before people have a meltdown, let me just say this.

I am not questioning the value of experience.

Believe it or not, it is not a new concept … it has been practiced by great brands and strategists for decades.

However experience loses its impact when the goal is to be OK at everything rather than amazing at some things.

Oh I know what people are going to say …

“But every interaction should be an experience of the values of the brand”.

Yeah … maybe.

It’s great in theory but doesn’t seem to be realistic in practice.

I mean, how many brands really have achieved that?

Let me rephrase that.

How many brands that have a clear, desirable position in culture have really achieved that?

I would say it is a handful at most.

Now compare that to the brands who have focused on doing some things in a way that is exceptional and memorable?

I’ve written about the Virgin Atlantic Lounge before.

Imagine if Branson had said, “Create an experience that is commensurate with the values of the brand for the business class customer” versus, “Create a lounge people will want to miss their plane to stay in”.

Do you think they would have got to the same place?

Do you think the former would have helped drive the brands economic and repetitional success as well as the latter?

Don’t get me wrong, Virgin Atlantic have a lot to do to improve their experience.

Their booking and loyalty schemes are a fucking mess for a start. But while I appreciate I am biased, I would gladly sacrifice that for the lounge experience that makes me look forward to every trip.

An experience that is distinctively memorable, not just corporately comfortable.

The reality is there are more highly profitable, highly desirable brands who offer an inconsistent brand experience than those who offer a consistent one.

More than that, brands that offer a consistent brand experience across all touch points do not automatically become a brand people want to have in their lives.

Part of this is because their version of consistent tends to be using their name or colours or slogan everywhere.

Part of this is their version of ‘brand experience’ is the absolute opposite of what the word experience is supposed to mean.

[Seriously, can you imagine the sort of parties they would have?]

And part of this is because they want to talk to everyone which means their experience appeals to no one.

Because while it might not be fashionable, great brands are built on an idea.

Something they believe, stand for, fight for.

This is very different to ‘purpose’.

Purpose – at best – is why you do something.

Belief is how you do it.

The sacrifices you make. The choices you make. The people you focus on.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean great brands shouldn’t want to ‘fill the gaps’ that reside in their experience eco-system, but it does mean it should only be done if each element can be done brilliantly and distinctively.

Anyone who has read the book ‘Why I Hate Flying’ will know the vast majority of brand values are basically the same – which means the vast majority of brand experience strategy ends up being predominantly the same.

However the brands who command the most consistently vibrant cultural interest and intrigue are the one’s who have a point of view on what they do and what they believe. They have a real understanding of who they’re talking to rather than a generalised view of them. They have values that step out of the convenient blandification that so many companies love to hide behind – where the goal is to look like you care without actually doing something that shows you care. And they absolutely know it’s better to do some things that will mean everything to someone rather than lots of things that mean little to everyone.

The obsession with 360 brand experience is as flawed as the 360 media approach from a while back.

Frankly conveying the same message everywhere felt more like brainwashing than engaging.

Experience is a very important part of the strategic and creative process.

Always has and always will be.

It can make a major difference to how people feel about a brand and interact with a brand.

But like anything strategic, sacrifice is a vital part of the process.

While in theory it is nice to think every interaction will be something special and valuable, the reality is that is almost an impossible goal.

Different audiences.
Different cultures.
Different needs.
Different times.
Different budgets.
Different technologies.
Different interactions.

So anyone who thinks experience should be executed ‘down to a level that allows for mass consistency’ rather than ‘up to a standard that allows key moments to be exceptional’ are creating another layer to get in the way of making their audience give a shit.

Or said another way, you’re adding to apathy rather than taking it away.

OK, I accept that for some categories unspectacular consistency can be valuable – hospitals for example – but the reality is in the main, audiences care less about consistent brand experience than brands and their agencies do.

That doesn’t mean you can’t make them care by doing something great – like Tesla did with their ‘dog and insane’ modes for example – but you need to understand you’re playing as much to your audience standards, as yours.

Now I appreciate I’ve gone off on one, given this post was originally about a search engine response to a murdered woman’s photograph rather than brand experience … but while they’re very different in many ways, there is one thing that is the same.

They’re all focused on satisfying an audience need … and while standardised processes can help ensure we are ‘dumbing up’ with our approaches to the challenge, when that manifests into a standardised experience, then you are dumbing down the value of who you are and who you can be.

For the record Getty, this is what Lana Clarkson looked like.

There’s no ‘perfect’ photos of her death.

But there’s plenty to signify the person she was.




If You’re Not Fighting Against Racism, You’re Complicit To Racism …

So I know we’re only in day 2 of this blogs 2021 life … but I gave you a couple of weeks of peace to ease into the year and wrote an exceptional bad post – even by my low standards – to prepare you for the onslaught so I feel I’ve been very respectful.

Talking of respectful, here’s an example of people doing the absolute opposite of it.

OK, this happened last year – the year where everything was shit – but it still blows my mind this shit is still being spouted.

What’s worse is when I first saw it – and tweeted about it – a person I vaguely know stood up for it.

Went on about how it’s hard to hire people of colour people there’s not many out there.

That he – as a small business owner – had to go for the best person who is easiest to get because he can’t spend time searching.

Bizarrely, this was his attempt to show he wasn’t racist – because “he saw no colour, just wanted talent”.

Of course he saw no colour, he was just hiring white people.

But then this is not a new excuse spouted by people being racist – whether conscious or not.

Putting aside the fact people who ‘see no colour’ are basically admitting they define and judge others by their own standards or expectations, which – by the nature of corporate hierarchy – are white standards. And putting aside the fact that maybe their attitude to want ‘easy’ stops any person of colour applying because they think they stand no chance of being given a shot. The reality is this abdication of guilt, blame throwing and deliberate ignorance are classic signs of racism.

Talent is everywhere.

Open the door and you will see them.

If you claim you don’t, it’s either because you’re not looking or they know you won’t let them succeed.

Adland is so guilty of this.

A few months ago – when Black Lives Matter was on the front pages of the World’s newspapers – the industry was screaming about how they wanted to make a difference.

Create huge change.

Well, adland … where’s the fuck is it?

Where’s the leadership changes?
Where’s the over-indexing of people of colour being hired?
Where’s the shifts in pay and promotion structures to create fundamental change?

Recently I wrote a tweet:

“Given adland has stopped being vocal about the need to be better with D&I practices, have we solved it?”

One of the people who responded told me how many agencies had actively changed their policies.

How committed they were to changing things.

And while that was nice to hear, the problem is the person who said this was white.

White people do not get to say if things are changing.

White people do not get to say if things are working.

White people do not get to place the burden of responsibility on others.

The only people who can say things are changing – or working – are people of colour.

That we fail to see this shows how far we have to go.

And the really worrying thing is people of colour may just give up on us.

They may take their talent and just go work in totally different industries.

One that sets them up for success.

Values their authenticity not their complicity.

Respects their talent and remunerates them fairly for it.

I wouldn’t blame them for it.

In some ways, I just wish they all got together and started their own company.

My god how amazing would that be.

It would also be the one thing that almost guarantees change would happen in adland.

Because while agencies may have good intentions, they suck at making things happen.

It seems most of the time the attitude is ‘how do we get all the benefits without the effort?’

If the situation was truly as bleak as they – and bank CEO’s – seem to think, why aren’t they investing in development of talent and operational change to liberate this incredible talent pool? Why do they get to just ‘bemoan’ the lack of talent rather than actually do something to change that situation.

I believe there’s two reasons.

1. They don’t want the hassle – professionally or economically.
2. They know there’s talent out there, they just don’t want to hire it.

Please note I’m not saying investment in education and infrastructure change would be wrong.

We know that people of colour are continually disadvantaged by a system designed by white people, for white people.

By changing that, we would see the potential of millions literally being realised … people who could and would make a difference. Not just for other people of colour, but all people … because while they should be prejudiced to those who have held them back for centuries, they’re not.

We can only dream of being that decent.

But it’s important to note that only embracing that view dismisses the huge number of people of colour who have defied every obstacle placed in their way to be ready to make a difference.

I don’t mean are ready ‘to be trained’ to make a difference, I mean are ready to make a difference.

People already doing amazing things – creatively and commercially.

Who have worked twice as hard to get half the benefits.

Expressing their talent in ways that go far beyond just making ads, but literally adding and creating culture rather than – as many of us white people do – take from it.

If the industry is serious about change, then the best thing we can do is stop spouting shit like ‘we see no colour’ and do the opposite … because one of the best ways to change this situation is to actually start seeing it.

Openning our eyes to the talent that is on our doorstep. In our offices. In our communities.

Because while those who choose to deny their existence may like to think they’re making a statement of fact.

Or expressing some sort of superior standard.

We know the the truth is they’re admitting they don’t look because they don’t care.

Fuck each and everyone of them.