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


When Life Gives You Angostura, Make A Cocktail …

Recently I read the story behind Angostura’s strange bottle.

For those of you who don’t know what Angostura is, it’s a bitters used in cocktails.

For those of you who don’t know what is strange about their bottle, it’s this:

Yep, that’s their normal product.

A bottle, hidden inside fucking massive packing.

The story – as told by Abraham Piper – is the business was taken over by the founder’s sons in 1870.

To help grow its awareness, they decided to update the ‘look’ and enter the finished product into a competition in the hope the exposure would drive the business.

They didn’t have much time so to maximise efficiency, one brother designed the label and the other, the bottle.

One slight problem … they didn’t discuss the size.

Another slight problem … they didn’t realise until they brought both sides of their work together and by then, they didn’t have enough time to alter things before the competition was due to commence.

So they decided to enter it anyway.

Unsurprisingly, they lost.

Except one of the judges told them they should keep it exactly as it was because no one else was going to be stupid enough to make that sort of mistake … which means it was unique and would stand out.

So they did.

And that dumbass mistake – the sort of dumbass mistake that captures Dan Wieden’s classic Fail Harder philosophy, perfectly – was the foundation of a business that continues to evolve and grow to this day.

Now there is a chance this is not true.

They don’t mention it in their history timeline on their website for example.

But history is littered with happy accidents … from making Ice Cream to making Number 1 hit records … so there’s just as much chance it is.

And if that is the case, I’d bloody love it.

Because in this world where everything is researched to within an inch of its life, the products/brands that gain a real and powerful role and position in culture – not to mention whatever category they operate in – are increasingly the ones who keep the chaos in, rather than actively try to filter it out.

Whether that’s because they know it’s better to mean everything to someone rather than something to everyone is anyone’s guess. There’s a good chance they’re just lucky-accident dumbasses. Or they might understand the value of resonating with culture, rather than being relevant to the category.

Whatever it is …

The brands with the strongest brand attribution, assets and audience are increasingly the ones who never have to talk about it, let alone spend their marketing dollars trying to create it.

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Is Adland Turning Into Liz Hurley. Or Dan Bilzerian?

As many of you know, I HATE the band, ‘The Smiths’.

Hate. Hate. Hate. Hate. Hate.

However, I recently saw an old article from their guitarist – Johnny Marr – that I really like.

I should say that I’m not saying this because he also now hates the racist prick that is Mr Miserable Morrissey … or that he lives in Portland and has been known to play with some old W+K’ers … but because I absolutely love the last line of this quote:

Maybe I like it because I’m reacting to the many people in the industry who are achieving acclaim for not actually doing anything other than repeatedly spouting very deliberate, very self-serving soundbites … or said another way, for being famous for being famous … but the idea of someone working hard at something for the sheer desire to be good at something seems a relic of the past.

I know, I sound the grumpiest of grumpy old men.

The reality is I don’t begrudge anyone who is doing what they can to make a living.

Even if it’s utterly strategic and contrived in its motivation.

And I also know there’s people out there who do have a ‘work hard to just be better at something I want to be better at’ work ethic … people like Maya Thompson and Joel Goodall to name but 2.

But the bit that bothers me is the industry is placing so much value on people who shout stuff rather than do stuff that it is actively encouraging more people to behave this way.

Being good at something – just because it feels good to be good at something – seems to becoming more and more of an outdated concept.

In some ways I get it.

Just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it. Or good to the level that it could serve you well. So why would you put in all that effort when it may not move you forward?

I also appreciate I am the last person who should be talking about this.

When I learnt the guitar, I did it because I wanted to be a rockstar.

Sure, I also wanted to write songs and play them with my bandmates, because I loved doing that … but the ‘benefits’ of stardom were definitely a major influence in my decision to pick up the 6 string.

I used to look at old guys playing in bands [ie: people who are my current age] as pathetic.

I used to think they were hanging on to dreams they’d never achieve and it was all a bit sad.

But now I’m at their age, I realise it’s no longer about that, it’s about pure enjoyment.

That regardless of what might – or probably might not – happen, the joy of doing something you love, like and are quite good at, is fulfilling enough.

Sure, there are better guitarists out there than me.

Guitarists who will achieve success, money and fame … but that’s OK, because just being able to play to a good standard is OK with me.

It’s a demonstration that I committed myself to something.

Didn’t take the easy option.

Didn’t give up.

It’s the fact I can play the guitar that makes me happy.

Of course it’s nice if others recognise that, but that isn’t important.

Neither is the case that a long time ago, I played guitar for a few semi-famous people.

In fact, given I no longer play for any semi-famous people, you could argue I’ve got worse … except I don’t think that way. Not just because so much of that is down to luck, but because I am happy that I found something that gave me – and gives me – pleasure through a constant feeling of challenge and achievement and that is not to be underestimated.

A gift that has lasted 38 years and counting.

Throughout my life I have met people who have planned their life so well.

They knew their next step … they knew the skills they needed to acquire to get where they wanted to go … they worked everything out in excruciating detail.

I used to sort-of envy these people.

I used to wonder what was wrong with me because I sort of bumbled along, choosing things that interested me rather than necessarily rewarded me.

Please don’t think I am claiming to be a saint, but I can say that money was never the driving factor in my choices – except once, which led to one of the most soul destroying periods of my life which reinforced that my way of making decisions – however stupid – was perfect for me.

In fact, I realise more and more that what works for me is less about efficiency of progress and more about emotional satisfaction.

And that’s why I love that Johnny Marr quote, because he captured that while people who have gained the highest job title or have been put on the highest hype pedestal are good … the real stars are the folk who simply get on with what they do.

Who take pride in a job well done because that’s the standards they operate by.

Not for progress or cash incentives, but because they believe that’s what’s right.

They view it as a testimony to their hard work and experience.

That being good at something is – to a large extent – good enough.

Sure, some of these people also sit at the top tables of companies … but most tend to be people who let other people shine through their abilities at doing something well.

I am not one of these people.

I want to be.

I try to be.

But I’m not.

I write a blog and court attention.

I try to do it for the right reasons – I genuinely do – but, let’s be honest, I also do it because for some mad fucking reason, it’s also become quite good for my career.

To be honest, that’s pretty sad and pathetic.

And that’s why I am so glad I play the guitar.

Because while my reasons to pick it up may have been flawed, it was the sheer joy of wanting to get better at something that gave me sheer joy that kept me going with it.

I hope everyone finds that thing.

We will all be better for it.

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Big Enough To Matter, But Not Big Enough To Count …

Recently I was reading an article on Brexit when I came across a comment that stopped me in my tracks.

The reason for it is that in a few words – literally a few – it not only highlighted the issue with many of the shortsighted fools who voted for leaving the European Union – and likely voted for the election of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – but also could be used to explain the decline of so many companies, institutions and individuals.

This is it …

What a perfectly constructed sentence.

A devastating set of words that places you perfectly in a corner you can’t get out of.

It’s almost a Hollywood movie line it’s so crafted in its underlying viciousness.

But of course, the people it challenges won’t accept it.

They will continue to refuse to acknowledge their complicity in the situation millions now face.

Because as I’ve written before, people has difficulty understanding something when their credibility and reputation depends on them not understanding something.

It’s why they will continue to cast blame on everyone else.

Why they will continue to claim the opposition are more dangerous than the government they voted in … the government that has brought an entire nation to its knees.

But let’s be honest, the reason for their attitude is even uglier than not wanting to own up to what they contributed to. Because for all their claims of wanting a ‘better Britain’ … the real reason behind their choice was to create a barrier between them and people they think are beneath them.

A way to feel socially, morally, professionally superior to those around them, while conveniently choosing to ignore they were either given great advantage from birth over the vast majority of people or seek to mitigate their situation by blaming everyone else for what they have not achieved, despite starting from greater advantage.

I get it. It’s kind-of human nature. It’s also the unspoken truth of democracy – where the reality is we tend to vote for what works for you rather than what’s right for the nation.

Of course the unspoken truth is still better than the alternative … however given the way politics and business are increasingly allowing spin, vitriol and lies, it seems we’re seeing ‘post truth’ as an accepted and embraced business strategy.

And that’s why the independent voice has never been so important.

Not just in the public domain, but within organisations, governments and individual groups.

Not to attack, destroy or dethrone – as is the current trend – but to protect.

To ensure the people making decisions – or the people asking to decide on the options – are aware of the range of possibilities and outcomes that could occur rather than just blindly following a blinkered promise of what will happen.

Not delivered with hyperbole or exaggeration, but with quiet, informed context and facts … delivered by an individual or organisation without political affiliation and respected for their independence.

It doesn’t mean it will stop things like Brexit happening, but it will ensure people who knowingly bend the truths to suit their own agenda or were deliberately ignorant to the choices they made are held to account. Because without that, we carry on down this sorry path where governments, organisations or individuals can choose to ignore previous choices they made, ignore the passing of time that changes the context of everything and ignore the realities others may have caught up and left us behind.

I am under no illusion that the truth hurts, but delusion damages us forever.

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Don’t Let Their Lack Of Achievement Undermine Yours …

A few weeks ago I did a presentation to a bunch of advertising students in London.

While I enjoy this sort of thing, I also appreciate I’m a ‘senior’ old white man … so I’m very conscious of the privilege I have – and had – throughout my career.

With that in mind, I wanted to ensure whatever I said was about as usable as it could get … regardless of where you come from, what you do or whether you lived in London, Liverpool or Lima.

Note I said ‘usable’, because sadly – for all the talk the industry goes on about with D&I policies – there still remains prejudice, whether conscious or not.

So in the end, my talk consisted of 3 slides … of which the one below was not only the most well received, but probably the most important.

Despite the headwinds it faces, this industry can be great.

It has a wide range of brilliant, talented, creative people.

Unfortunately it also has a bunch of bitter and jaded, self-appointed ‘gods’.

People who have achieved a level of ‘industry fame’ based on what they say, rather than what they’ve done. And by that, I mean what they’ve said on Twitter. Yet despite this, they seem to believe it has elevated them to a level of ‘sage’, that means the entire industry exists to impress them.

Of course everyone is entitled to an opinion.

And all experience is experience.

But if you’re starting out, you’re incredibly vulnerable to ‘experienced people’s’ judgement and that can have the effect of either conforming you to doing what they like or undermining your belief in relation to what you like.

Now don’t get me wrong, having your work – and eyes – opened to the views of people who have achieved at the highest level, is incredibly valuable to your growth and development.

But the emphasis is on highest level.

That’s not about someone’s job title.

Not the length of their employment.

But what they have created.

That’s literally it.

And while everyone thinks they have done stuff of note – and in their own way, they likely have – the reality is standards are a bit like Twitter. Your view of the world is in direct proportion to the people you follow … so while there are people on social media and industry blogs who have genuinely learned from the best and created the best, there’s a whole lot more people who have not. They just don’t realise it. Or their ego won’t accept it.

Again, that doesn’t mean they won’t offer some value, but it does mean their view is tainted by the limitation of the work they’ve actually created.

Which is why the best advice for anyone starting out in the industry is to do your homework.

Don’t like an agency or an individual for what they say or how popular they are.

Explore what they’ve actually done.

Was it a one off or has it been consistent?

Have they set standards or just followed others?

Do they push boundaries or just talk about doing it?

Have they done interesting stuff or just know interesting stuff?

This is an amazing industry. It can offer a huge amount. But if you want a career – a good career – you need to find and forge your own voice and you can’t do that if you let popularity silence your individuality or force their words into your mouth.

And that’s why if you face that, especially from people who have never done stuff that is creatively interesting – regardless of their title or experience – then there’s only one course of action to take.

Fuck ’em.

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Don’t Let Your Job Title Fool You Into Thinking You Have Respect …

One of the best pieces of advice I was taught was ‘always earn your right to be trusted’.

By that, they meant …

+ Lead by example.
+ Open doors for others to walk through.
+ Be fierce with maintaining standards.
+ Always protect, defend and grow your team.
+ Be transparent in your actions and interactions.
+ Encourage debate and independent thinking.
+ Create the conditions for everyones success.
+ Recognise the individual, not just the group.

That seems a lot of things doesn’t it, but that’s what real leadership is.

Or what I was taught it is.

Now whether I’m good at any of that is open to debate, but it definitely shaped my approach to things – even when I get it terribly wrong.

But my worry is a lot of people entering management today don’t get any advice whatsoever.

They’re plucked from being good in their job and told they now lead a team. Which basically sends out the message ‘do whatever it takes for the company to succeed, regardless of the cost’.

We’ve read the damage of this attitude in Corporate Gaslighting and yet it doesn’t have to be that way.

Of course a manager/leaders job is to do things for the benefit of the company they work for. But if they create an environment where the individual and the team can also succeed – not just financially, but in terms of growth, opportunity and possibility – it’s amazing how much everyone benefits.

But to do that well requires more that authority, but trust.

Trust you will lead them to somewhere better.
Trust you will look out for them not just yourself.
Trust in their opinion, not just your own.

The older I get, the less I see of this.

Instead of trust, companies put in hierarchy.

Where the expectation is to blindly follow what the more senior person demands.

I saw that when I lived in America … the most hierarchal place I’ve ever worked.

And while it may appear to work, it doesn’t really.

It either creates an echo-chamber of blinkered opinion – which is reframed as ‘company culture’ – or it relies on people who are in the terrible position of not having the choice to get out of where they are, with ease.

Which is why the other piece of advice I got – from my Dad – compliments what I said at the top of this post. Because if the goal of a manager or leader is to always earn trust from their team … then the role of the team is to “only respect authority that has been earned over time … not given, bought or provided by privilege or misinformation”.

It’s a lovely thought …

Proof not expectation.
Earned not just given.
Consistent not occasional.

It also explains why I must have been an absolute nightmare to the bosses I had who expected my loyalty rather than earned it. There weren’t many – thank god – but there were a few. And while I’m sure they were good people [probably], they definitely made the fatal error of thinking their job title demanded trustworthiness, when literally the opposite is true.

And with that, I’ll sign off with a link to an article I wrote for Little Black Book that sums this all up. It was – and remains so – one of the most valuable lessons and mistakes, I’ve ever had.

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