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


Cowards Are Oppressors …

Many years ago, I did a campaign for Australian ‘youth’ radio station, Triple J.

Triple J was a government funded radio station, but what set it apart was that it had a mandate to play new artists, preferably Australian, who were definitely not part of the mainstream crowd.

Think John Peel, but Australian.

What I loved about them was how much they divided opinion.

To some they were hope. To others they were noise.

But as we delved deeper, it became apparent the people who thought it was noise were basically proud the followers of the mainstream. The focus-group designed. The beige and the blunted. The average.

Now I appreciate that sounds massively judgemental … but what I found interesting was how companies had basically messed with the meaning of average in a bid to make more cash from customers.

In the old days, average was an achievement.

The meeting point between quality and cost.

Democratisation.

Progression.

Access.

But now average wasn’t that at all.

It was mainstream mediocrity.

Designed for easy, passive appeal. Mindlessness. A strategy of making beige act like gold.

Which led to the point of view of the work: The enemy of average.

Directly targeting anything that had been designed to dumb down rather than lift up.

We got into all sorts of mischief …

From placing warning stickers on all ‘easy listening’ artists in HMV [that saw us being threatened with legal action] … to running ads during mainstream TV to tell viewers they’re being murdered by averageness … to images of mainstream mediocre products being placed in public toilets so you could literally piss on them. [Beige Volvo anyone?]

And while this may all sound madness – and this was the 90’s so tastes were very different – we knew the only way to attract more listeners was to ensure we did it in a way that made our existing fans see we were fighting for what we believe, rather than pandering to popularity.

The old reverse psychology trick.

And it worked because ultimately this was just an extension of who they truly were.

Stubborn, opinionated, mischievous, audacious and uncompromising.

A teen who was very comfortable in playing with the uncomfortable.

And what this did was help build the cult of the brand … helping Triple J enter a new phase of growth while never looking like they were chasing fame.

Of course, they’re not the only ones who have pulled this off.

Playstation did it … NIKE have done it … Supreme do it … but the key to pulling this off successfully is knowing who you are and knowing who you’re for and frankly, not many can brands – or agencies – say that, especially these days.

What makes this even more amazing is how many agencies and companies bang on about their authenticity and purpose … but the problem is they can’t see what they’ve become: a mediocrity pleaser machine.

Of course the signs are there if you just scratch the surface.

Generic, mass audiences.
An aversion for sacrifice.
A desire to remove any sharp edges or opinion.

And while many think making a brand as easy to buy is the greatest way to achieve success, the thing they need to remember is the future goes nowhere in the hands of cowards.



Back To The Future …

Brand experience.

An exciting and new discipline in the brand building space.

Except …

Before some of you had started work.
Before some of you were even born.
SRVT – better known as Sargant Rollins Vranken Tereakes – were not only talking about it, but also doing a ton of stuff with it as well.

Now they were an agency ahead of their time.

An exciting, creative and progressive agency.

One of the very best I had the pleasure of working at.

But still, 23 years have passed since the slide at the top of this page was part of their credentials, so can we stop banging on about experience like it’s the newest, new thing in marketingland?

All we’re really doing by talking about it in these terms is highlighting how slow we actually are.

Especially as many brands – especially in the luxury space – were doing it decades before even SRVT … and certainly better than the ‘lowest level of consistency’ format seemingly favoured and promoted by so many.

God, this week has got off to a positive start hasn’t it, hahahaha.



If Companies Want To Know About ‘Agile’, Ask My Son …

3 different nationalities.
4 different countries [In 4 different continents]
5 different homes.
4 different schools.
Two major long lockdowns.
All of this in just 6 – but soon to be 7 – short years.

And yet despite all that change … all that waving goodbye and learning to say new hellos … he remains a happy, curious, cheeky and compassionate kid.

And while he loved his life in China, America and the UK … he is blossoming in NZ.

Sure, some of that is because he has been able to get back into some sort of routine, meet new friends and play with other kids his own age – at least until Delta struck and he got locked down with his parents for weeks on end – but it’s more than that …

Outdoor life is a way of life here.

Being outside is no longer a conscious choice.

The line between indoors and outdoors is now very slim.

No need to change clothes. No need to wear shoes. Spontaneity is allowed to flow which – let’s be honest – is exactly how a kid should be able to live their life.

I’ve lived in similar environments before … in Australia and America for example … but whether it’s because I’m older or now live in a bloody treehouse or have a kid of my own, I appreciate it so much more.

Watching him be able to run around outside is a real privilege.

Of course, for people born here, that’s a normality … but I have lived in environments where that’s not the case, which is why even seeing him watch his iPad in the sun is something I don’t take for granted.

We cannot discount the importance of being able to play outside, but sadly many governments and councils seem to.

Viewing it as ‘a favour’ rather than a fundamental right.

Playing outside helps kids in so many ways.

Bond … learn … imagine … express … play … explore … compete … respect.

It’s not a ‘waste of time’, it creates a deeper foundation for life.

An ability to think outside of lines and others definitions.

Giving kids an environments where they can be outside is basically an investment in a countries future.

A nation of curious, interested, healthy people.

But not everyone gets this.

Some actively try to stop this.

Often people of immense privilege who either associate outdoor life as something for either the elite or the rough.

Fortunately NZ does not see it this way.

They revel and celebrate it.

They have the best parks I’ve ever seen in my life.

Parks made to enjoy and encourage kids to push their boundaries.

A new discovery of what you’re capable of with every visit.

And while for most kids it’s about developing, for Otis it’s also about grounding.

A place he can feel is his.

A connection to where he lives in a way he’s not had before.

Because while he is young, I do not underestimate what he has been through.

Fuck, there’s people I have worked with who have literally freaked out when asked to move office desks … and yet here’s my kid, who has moved countries, homes and friends and still embraces the possibilities of every situation.

So much of that is down to his brilliant Mum who has helped that change happen in the most comfortable, seamless way … but it still requires a mindset to look at what you’ll gain rather than just what you lose.

And while I know one day I’ll no doubt be dragging him off for another adventure somewhere else on the planet [but don’t worry, it won’t be for ages. Probably] I want you to know that I love you from tip to toe and let you know I’m so, so proud to be your dad.

Thank you Otis, you’re a little legend.



Happy Birthday To The Woman Who Isn’t There, But Is Always Around …

Today would be my Mum’s 89th birthday.

EIGHTY NINE.

My god, that would have been something to celebrate.

I sometimes wonder if we’d have come to NZ if my Mum was still alive.

There’s a chance we would, but it would have been much harder to go, especially with COVID.

I just don’t know how I’d have been able to leave, given all she would have had to deal with in the last 18 months.

There were days – when we were in the UK – where I found myself being relieved she wasn’t here to experience the horror of COVID.

That’s incredibly hard for me to admit, but the idea of my dear Mum being on own and suffering ill health, without me – or anyone – being able to be near to protect, reassure or support her for over a year, literally ignites my anxiety.

Of course, millions of people had to go through just that, which is why I have nothing but admiration and compassion for all they went through. To not be able to see your family is unbelievably painful. To worry that if you do, you may kill them, is a burden that no one should have to deal with.

But if we were here in NZ … and if Mum was still alive … then today would be a day where not being with her would be one of the most painful of them all.

It certainly wouldn’t be for lack of trying, but the reality is if I did find a way to get back to the UK, then there would be no guarantee of when NZ would let me back in the country due to the quarantine situation.

I would feel torn in two.

And I know this because it almost happened in 2014.

Mum was going to have a major heart operation at around the same time Otis was due.

As in literally, a cross-over of time.

The idea I would have to decide whether to be at my son’s birth in China or be at my Mum’s side in England was something I was genuinely terrified of.

Fortunately, I found myself in England about 5 months before Mum’s operation and accompanied her to a meeting with her surgeon.

There she explaining the situation to him to which he said he felt Mum could wait another 3 or 4 months for the operation so she could be in ‘tip-top form’ to meet her grandson.

I am so grateful to him.

Not just for removing an obstacle that no one should have to deal with, but because it gave me 4 more months with my Mum – months that she got to see her grandson via Facetime – because sadly, she died of complications when she ended up having the op.

And as sad as that is, I smile at the thought of being with her today.

Not only can I imagine how it would go, I can even hear her voice.

She’d be saying how she can’t believe she’s 89.

She’d gently brush off my excited, “and next year you hit the big 90”, with a calm explanation that, “you never know what may happen in the future”.

My god I miss her voice.

Her kind, compassionate, warm, curious voice.

How I would love to hear her asking questions about Otis, Jill and Rosie the cat.

I remember the times I flew home to surprise her from Australia or Singapore or HK or China.

I’d knock on the door and then I’d hear her walking towards it – asking “who is it?” before she saw me.

She would look for a second in shock. Amazed her son … her beloved only child … was standing in front of her.

And she would say, “Oh Robert” before giving me a huge hug and then telling she was so surprised and happy.

Then before I knew it, she’d be asking if I’d eaten and say she had to make the bed up for me as there’s no sheets on it … hahaha.

Oh Mum, I wish I could be with you to celebrate.

I wish that day in March 2015 had turned out so differently.

But as I wrote over that week, at least everything had reached some beautiful finale … though you never got to see the new heating Angelo had put in for you, ha.

Mind you, with energy prices so high in the UK at the moment, you’d likely say, “I’ll just put on an extra jumper”.

Oh how I miss you Mum.

You were the best.

I hope Dad is looking after you.

Thank you for everything and happy, happy birthday.

The countdown to 90 now begins.

Love you.

Rx



Nothing Shows Respect Like Letting Someone Argue With You …

A career is a funny thing.

I mean literally, as a concept – it’s quite bizarre.

The idea of working in one industry and hoping to move up a fictional ladder and somehow hope that by the time you’re pushed off it – and we’ll all be pushed off it at some time – you’ve built up enough reputation or cash to keep you going through till the bitter end.

Hahahaha … Mr Positive eh!?

Anyway, by hook or by crook I’ve somehow managed to have what I’d call a career.

Admittedly, I fell into it – but overall, I’ve had a pretty good one.

I’ve worked at some amazing places.
I’ve got to live literally all around the World.
I’ve met people who have literally changed my life.
I’ve been part of work that still excites me years later.
And somehow, I’m still doing all those things, which is insane.

But as wonderful as all that is, one thing I am particularly proud of is how many of my old team mates are now at some of the most highly regarded creative companies in the World doing all manner of interesting things.

Of course, I had little to do with it – it’s all their talent – but the bit that makes me proud is that they are forging their own careers based on their own ideas and their own opinions and their own voice.

About 2005, I realised how lucky I had been with previous bosses.

All of them encouraged me to find my own voice rather than duplicate someone else’s … and while that often got me in trouble, they never strayed from their path of encouraging independent thought.

Now I appreciate a lot of companies say this, but this wasn’t some PR bullshit they could spout in a magazine, they lived it – openly and actively welcoming, encouraging and igniting debate.

And they never ‘pulled rank’.

It was always a discussion of equals – which was one of the most empowering and liberating professional feelings I ever had.

It showed trust. It showed respect. It showed value.

And even though I’m an old fuck who has done OK in my career, I still get that same feeling when I am working with others who embrace the same value.

As much as rockstars and billionaires may have a reputation for demanding diva’s, I can honestly say the ones I’ve been working with have been amazing in welcoming opinion. They may not always like what is said, but they always value why it has.

And that’s why, when I saw a shift in planning from rigour to replication … challenge to complicity … and individuality to impotency [driven by the global financial crisis of 2008] I realised the best thing I could do is encourage my team to be independent in thought, voice and behaviour.

I should point out this was not selfless. By having great creative and cultural thinkers in my team, they would help make even better work and that would have a positive effect on me too.

I know, what a prick eh.

And of course, I acknowledge not every planner was following the replication path. Nor was every agency. But it was definitely happening and arguably, this is why Australian planners have risen in position more than those from other nations [ie: Tobey head of planning at Uncommon, Paula global head of Nike planning at Wieden, Andy head of planning at Wieden Portland, Rodi, head of strategy at Apple South East Asia and Aisea MD at Anomaly LA to name but 5] because – as much as the Aussie government may like to say they suffered – the country was largely unaffected, which meant training continued, standards continued, creativity continued.

So while there was a bunch of other values we continually encouraged and practiced, the desire to develop independent thinking, openness and debate were a real focus of mine and have continued to be.

Whether I was successful is up to the people who had the awkwardness of dealing with me, but I distinctly remembering being in a meeting at Wieden in Shanghai after Sue, Leon and Charinee had just challenged a bunch of things we had just talked to the agency about.

One of the global team was there and said, “they’re very outspoken”.

And while normally that could be read as a diss, it wasn’t … it was more of a surprise because many people in China – especially the young – tend to keep very quiet, especially in front of people who are at a more senior level to them and this mob had gone to town.

To which I replied, “I know. It’s a wonderful headache to have”.

And it was.

And it is.

Which is why I will continue to believe the best thing any head of planning can do is encourage independent thought and respect for debate and rigour … because while it can creates moments where it’s a right pain in the arse, the alternative is far more disagreeable.

Have a great weekend.