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

If You Can’t Beat Them, Turn Them …

I have now had time to get over the Euro finals.

While my Italian/English heritage meant I was going to ‘win’ regardless of the result – and while the result, at least to me, was probably fair – I was gutted for the England team.

Ironically, the disgusting behaviour of the fans after the match – fired up by the equally disgusting behaviour of the British government – kind-of made me happy they lost.

It’s at these moments teams – or brands – can fall away and so what happens next becomes unbelievably important.

It reminded me of 2008 when Chinese hurdler – and gold medal contender – Liu Xiang, broke China’s hearts by injuring himself during the race.

Remember, this was the year the Olympics was held in Beijing and in many ways, it was the governments ‘coming out’ party to the rest of the World. A chance to showcase the nations abilities, talent, skills and sophistication. A declaration a new superpower was here.

While that might have been news to the rest of the World, for the people of China, they had known this for a long time which is why when Liu Xiang faltered through injury, people – like in the UK – started to turn on him.

While he did not face the disgusting and disgraceful racist abuse certain members of the England team have encountered, he did face claims that by pulling out mid-race, he had not tried hard enough, had embarrassed China and sold the people false hope.

Because Liu Xiang was a NIKE athlete, overnight W+K Shanghai created an ad that aimed to reframe the loss for the people across China.

To shift emotions from anger to pride, love, support.

The next morning, this ad ran in most of the papers …

It is still widely acknowledged as one of the pivotal pieces of communication.

Not just by the industry.

Not just by NIKE.

Not even by Liu Xiang.

But by people across China who woke up to that ad the next morning.

Turning anger to sympathy.

Turning abuse to respect.

Turning sport into culture.

I say all this because on the day England finished runners-up in the Euro’s, the English FA released – what I consider – the modern version of our Liu Xiang ad.

I hope it works for England and their players.

But mainly the players.

Because they did bring something home …

Every one of them.

Pride. Unity. Hope.

Until those racist fucks robbed it off them … off the rest of us.

And while the media may like to suggest those responsible are a small minority of hooligans, the reality is it’s not a small minority and hooligans are not some cartoon villain.

In fact the problem is these pricks live amongst all of us. They are invisible because they look, live and work like so many of us. They’re fathers. Sons. Brothers. Uncles.

They’re also racist scum.

Exemplified by their hate towards the 3 England players who missed their penalties.

These 3 brilliant and inspiring men are young.

Hell, Bukayo Saka is 19.


At that age I couldn’t even ask out a woman who worked on the till at Asda, West Bridgford … so anyone who gives him shit when he’s playing for the England national football team, in the final of the Euro’s, at the most intense and pressured moment of the entire tournament, with billions watching can just fuck off.

Winning FIFA 2014 on Playstation doesn’t make you a winner, it makes you a fantasist.

And to them I am glad football didn’t come home.

I just wish football could take them far away from it.

Just Show You Give A Damn …

I hear so much about brand experience these days.

How the focus is to ‘remove the friction of purchase for the customer’.

That they genuinely believe this means they’re being valuable to their audiences.

And while that is rather misguided – given it is done to ultimately be in their own interests – if brands genuinely want to do right by their customers, then all they have to do is something their customers find valuable.

I’ve written a ton about this over the years.

From Timpson dry-cleaning suits/dresses for free if you have a job interview to the Co-op ensuring their food delivery staff make time to talk to lonely householders and almost everything in-between … but nothing made an impact on me like the experience I had with Texas Instruments.

Brand experience isn’t something you simply outsource to an ecosystem.

Sure, that can help improve overall efficiency or engagement … but in terms of offering an experience that helps people actually connect to the brand, then the brand has to do something that actually connects to the customer.

Something personal.

Something valuable. [To the customer, not just to themselves]

Something that demonstrates going out of normal practice.

Something like this.

Now I know what you’re thinking.

“But brands can’t do this sort of thing on an ongoing basis”.

And you’re probably right.

This sort of thing costs money.

But there’s two sides to this.

1. As H&M have shown with their free suit hire campaign, the return of acts like this can be significant both in terms of driving affinity and awareness.

2. If everything you do is based on the perceived ‘value exchange’ you’re making between brand and customer [which is always bollocks, because brands always over-estimate how much their actions are worth in the eyes of the people they’re dealing with] then you don’t really care about your audience, you only care up to a set amount of money and/or time.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate there are many aspects brands need to manage to keep their business going. But like companies who claim their staff are their greatest asset before treating them like shit, brands better know that they can’t say they care about their customers when they evaluate them purely by a financial transactional value.

It doesn’t mean you have to go crazy, but it does mean you have to actually give a shit about what they value not just what you want them to value.

Which is why I love the Marvel example so much.

Because they did it.

More than that, they did it and didn’t make a huge song and dance out of it.

No wonder they’re the home of the superhero.

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.

Comfort Kills Character …

There’s a well-known phrase that says. ‘it’s easier to get to the top than to stay there’.

I couldn’t agree with it more.

That’s not to say getting to the top is easy, but staying there requires a very different mentality.

However, while it should mean you’re always pushing forward … looking for ways to push and provoke possibilities … understanding where culture is heading rather than where you wish it was … defining the future rather than just following it … a lot of companies do it in a very different way.

Abusing their scale.
Buying market share.
Pricing competitors out.
Focused on size not change.

But what makes this ‘optimise the position’ approach even more fascinating is that a lot of these organisations who are like this, were not like that in the beginning.

In fact, they were the polar opposite.

Founded on changing something in their industry they felt was wrong.

They wanted to create change by offering a real alternative.

Something that drove them and defined them.

Where over time, they became distinctive and definitive.

And then … the more comfortable they became, the less they could see what they were turning into.

Silencing the alternate voices that used to fuel their drive.

Replacing the misfits with the people who look just like them.

Seeing a point of view as alienating rather than a beacon for those they once served.

Looking at cost rather than value.

Optimisation over innovation.

But this isn’t just in terms of operational behaviour.

It also affects the people within the operation.

Playing politics more than performance.

Protecting their position rather than growing those around them.

Following the process rather than focusing on what they want to do … create … change.

It’s a question I love to bring up with clients.

Especially when we’re talking about brand and positioning work.

The good ones are open to the uncomfortableness of the conversation.

I’m not saying they like it.

I once asked it to the founder of a rather well-known, global sports brand and he DEFINITELY didn’t like it … but based on the hard, honest, passionate and open debate it stirred – let alone the shifts it later encouraged – it was definitely worth it.

As for those organisations who are too far gone?

Well, they tend to shut down that conversation very, very quickly.

Then try to position you as bad for daring to ask it.

That everything is perfect with them and you should respect them and embrace them.

Of course, asking that question is the ultimate sign of respect.

You’re putting yourself on the line because you do like them. You do want them to do well.

You have recognised something may be misbalanced and you want to help them get that back.

Which may explain why the vast majority of companies I’ve asked this question have been open to it.

That doesn’t mean it has always led to different actions or behaviours, but it has been something they’re willing to debate. And while some may consider this approach ‘career suicide’, the great irony is it has had a huge and positive impact on the majority of my client relationships … because they know I’ll always give them the truth and I know they will always give it the time.

So while I still believe it is harder to stay at the top than to get there … if it means you’ve turned into the beast you were created to slay, then ‘the top’ is really rock bottom.

The Middle Is A Dangerous Place …

So this is the end of the week so this is the final Rules of Rubin.

To be honest, I’ve got at least another 3 weeks worth of posts I could do, but I want to write about some other stuff.

Yes, less valuable, less relevant, less interesting stuff.

Hey, this blog hasn’t got to where it is by writing stuff that is good. That’s why where this blog is, is at the bottom of everything.

But in all seriousness, maybe I’ll write more about the lessons from Rick later – I’ve certainly enjoyed it – but if you are interested, below is the list of quotes I’ve used and if you click here, you can read my write-ups on all of them.

However this last one is one of the most important.

One of the things I’ve never understood are brands consistently playing to the middle.

I get their thinking.

It’s a mass audience.

It’s a relatively safe audience.

It increases the odds of scalable success rather than risk.

But the thing is, playing to the middle is just the illusion of safety.

Apart from the fact lots and lots of brands are all playing there, all you’re actually doing is – at best – staying where you are, but more likely going backwards.

You might not notice it at first.

You may think everything is fine and dandy and slap yourself on the back for being so brilliant and successful.

But what starts off slow eventually turns in the blink of an eye as the brands or people who play and push to the edge take away all the safety you thought you had.

And what’s worse is because you’re high and dry and left far behind, your legacy and capabilities are impacted.

You’re tainted with being part of the past rather than the present, but even worse than that, your operational capabilities have been built around optimising rather than advancing so the best you can achieve is to play catch up.

This is a nightmare situation, based on one simple reality.

When you are playing catch up, your starting point is where everyone else is. But the problem is that by the time you get there, everyone is even further ahead and you’re back where you started.

A bit like Kyle in this episode of South Park

Of course it doesn’t have to be that way.

Some get that the only way to truly catch up is to leap frog current standards to set the next standard, but few companies have the courage to do that, let alone the money.

Oh they’ll suggest they can.

They’ll make all the right noises.

They’ll invest in some new technology, research or corporate ‘tagline’

They’ll even hire the odd new person from a new discipline with new ideas [though in many cases, they’ll then get moved on with the excuse ‘they weren’t the right cultural fit’] … but the reality is they’ll remain in this endless cycle of catch up.

I’ve seen it.

Hell, I’ve worked in some companies that have practiced it.

Because for all the desire to not get left behind, nothing feels as good as feeling in control.

Even if that’s just an illusion.

Because doing this means their position is protected.

It means they don’t have to look at their entire business model.

But more importantly, it means they don’t have to take a long hard look at their contribution for being in this situation.

So while I totally get why choosing to stand still may sound like the wisest option for so many, the problem with it is that it ignores one pretty vital consideration.

Culture never stops moving.

If you don’t want to get left behind, always play to the edge.