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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The Fine Line Between Evil And Genius Media Planning …

A few weeks ago I saw something on twitter that has deeply conflicted me.

It was this …

That’s right, they’re lawn bowl mats … sponsored by Co-op Funerals.

Now I don’t know much about bowls.

I know they attract a much broader age of ‘player’ these days, but I’m still pretty sure the majority still are of the more elderly variety.

And given I’m 52, we’re talking proper old.

I could be wrong.

But given someone thought it was a good idea for Co-op funerals to sponsor the mat, it seems I may not be. And this is what has had me conflicted for weeks.

On one hand, it’s just fucking genius isn’t it.

Old people.
Funerals.
Chance to make arrangements before someone else has to.

But it’s also just a bit evil, isn’t it?

Old people.
Out enjoying themselves.
Message to remind them of their impending demise.

If I allowed comments, this is the sort of post where I know they would come into their own. But I don’t … which means I’ll be getting extra emails of commentary and abuse from the same people who used to do that on here.

And I don’t mind admitting I’m quite excited about that, And quite interested in what they’ll say.

Because I have the sneaky suspicion they may think it’s clever.

And that old people may find it both slightly amusing and kinda useful.

And that by doing something like this, it becomes a social media campaign by fact of it being infinitely shareable.

Or … they may say no one will give a shit because all it will be to them is a free mat so they can rest their knee as they try to destroy that prick from up the road who always seems to win.

But to whoever did this, I admire both your smarts and your mischief … because I haven’t seen something so perfect since [I think] Naked got their client – cheap meat in a can maker – Fray Bentos to sponsor some local Darts Players.

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When Advertising Said More Than Simply ‘Buy Me, Please’ …

Once upon a time, when I lived in Singapore, I popped into the restaurant next to where we lived on Club Street, to get some takeaway.

As I was waiting for my noodles, I saw a man at the bar having a drink.

He had a nice face but the only reason I noticed him was because he had a mark on his head that made him look like Mikhail Gorbachev.

The next day I found out, it was.

While Club Street was blessed with lots of nice restaurants and bars, seeing the ex-head of the Soviet Union having a drink next door to where you live, was not the sort of thing you expect to see.

But then Mikhail was good at the unexpected.

Like the time, in 2007, he turned up in a Louis Vuitton ad.

Back in the days when being an ‘influencer’ meant you had done something to impact the world rather than existed to simply flog product.

But Mikhail was an inspired choice for a whole host of reasons …

One was the visual metaphor he represented for Russia’s journey from communism towards capitalism.

The symbolism of a new era in Russia. And the rest of the world.

And while this ad came out in 2007 – 16 years after he had seen the dissolution of the USSR – what he represented was still clear. Made even more obvious by placing him in the back of a car – in a photo taken by Annie Leibovitz – driving past the Berlin Wall … another symbol of capitalism triumphing over communism.

For many who read this blog, the impact of this change may fly right past you.

I get it, especially if you’ve lived in Western countries, so to give you some context, let me take you to Communist China.

The modern metropolis that you see in photos of China today is certainly not what I found when I first moved there. Especially when you stepped out of central Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. Though, to be fair, that’s still the case in many parts of the country – including Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou – despite the Middle Kingdom’s incredible modernisation and rise.

Anyway, when I first moved there, Louis Vuitton had a reputation – and nickname – of being ‘the mistress brand’.

There was a simple reason for it …

People who owned it were seen as ‘girlfriends’ of high-level business people or government ministers.

Basically the belief was that because their lovers were one of the few people who were allowed – or could afford to – leave China with ease, they’d buy LV products on their travels and then give them to their lovers as presents on their return.

Was it true?

Not entirely, but there was definitely a ‘second wives’ economy that existed and likely still does.

There was a street near where we lived where every shop was allegedly funded by a generous ‘benefactor’. And you could believe it, because we never saw a customer enter a single store and yet the owners – always young and attractive – were driving the latest Bentley’s. Ferrari’s or Maserati’s.

It was a different world.

And while China has been the centre of the luxury universe for decades, I still remember the Government banning all luxury outdoor advertising in Beijing every now and then to both show their power to the luxury brands who make billions from them as well as reminding the people who live there ‘they were still a communist land’.

Sometimes.

What is interesting is that when Russia and China opened up, Louis Vuitton were one of the quickest brands to see what this could mean for them and their category.

They recognised very early the importance – and confidence – luxury brands could play in culture and so they upped the branding on their products dramatically.

And that’s why these ads, from Ogilvy, are so interesting to me. Because at a time where the cult of luxury was on the rise, these ads attempted to separate LV from the competition by trying to position them with greater significance and purpose.

Presenting LV almost as something you ‘earned the right’ to have rather than something anyone could just buy.

Treating the LV iconography as a badge of honour, not simply wealth.

Reinforcing status as much about how you live, rather than simply what you have.

Maybe this was a reaction to the way Putin was starting to shape Russia to his will.

If you look closely at the bag next to Mikhail, you will see a magazine with the headline ‘Litvinenko’s murder: They wanted to give up the suspect for $7000.’

That headline was on the magazine, New Times, a liberal Russian publication that regularly criticised the Kremlin.

That headline was a reference to Alexander V Litvinenko – the former KGB spy who died in November 2006 after being poisoned in the UK. The former KGB spy who had accused Putin of orchestrating his murder.

While Ogilvy and LV dismissed the significance of that magazine headline, I think it’s pretty safe to say that’s bullshit.

There is no way that is a coincidence.

I get why they said it, but the symbolism of Mikhail … with that magazine poking out his bag … driving past the Berlin Wall … was a pretty blatant message of how far Putin’s Kremlin had taken Russia back to the ‘bad old days’ since Gorbachev had left.

It may have been a condition for Mikhail to feature in the ad.

Only he, Ogilvy and LV execs would know.

But I do admire their stance.

Let’s be honest, there’s absolutely no way that would ever happen now.

Which is as much of a statement on how safe advertising and brands have become as it is of the dangers of Putin and his actions.

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Why Being Dangerous Is A Business Strategy …

There’s a brilliant documentary on the band The KLF.

For those who don’t know who they are/were, they’re a band formed in the late 80’s who wrote some of the early 90’s biggest selling singles.

Except, if truth be told, The KLF were more artists than musicians.

I don’t mean that in terms of them having many different business interests …I mean it in terms of them expressing their creativity in ever-more dramatic, provocative and intriguing ways.

From burning a million pounds to sampling without permission to firing a machine gun full of blanks at an audience live on television to delisting every song they ever made … and a whole lot in-between.

It’s a truly fascinating documentary, where you realise that everything they did – while not planned – was definitely deliberate.

But there’s one quote about them that stood out for me.

Not just because it captured who they were, but because it revealed what is missing for me in so much of the work the industry is producing.

I love that.

I love it so much.

But sadly, many in my discipline of strategy – and all the self-proclaimed marketing gurus – have killed that in the quest to flatter their own ego.

And it gets worse.

No, I’m not talking about the clients who value function, logic and attribution over shaping or changing cultures opinion, attitudes and feelings – though I could definitely talk about that – but the agency creative departments filled with people who want to make ads rather than use creativity to push boundaries.

The KLF may have been seen by the industry as anarchists … but for a band who had a few – albeit massive – hits in the 90’s, their work still is remembered, stands up to scrutiny and can be directly associated with cultural change which is more than pretty much anything our industry, or most industries for that matter, produces these days.

Of course, given the untold billions brands spend to have culture know them, value them and want them … this is pretty ironic.

Oh I get these brands still make a ton of money.

More than even The KLF could burn.

But this isn’t about distribution, habit or media spent, but influence, change and ambition.

This doesn’t mean the talent isn’t there to make something like this happen.

It is.

But it means nothing if the role it’s used for is to give clients what they want rather than what culture can never forget.




Create Change, Not Ads …

One of the reasons I always loved Colenso was their approach to advertising.

Rather than always make the ‘ad’ the solution – or worse, use ads to promote the problem – they used creativity to solve the challenge in front of them and then created brilliant advertising to amplify awareness of whatever solution they’d come up with.

I’d talked about this approach in a presentation I did way back in 2008 for PFSK in Singapore.

We had just launched Sunshine and I was talking about the difference between solutions and ad solutions … all while Colenso had found a way to bridge both.

They used this ‘double dipping’ creative approach for everything.

Treehouse Restaurant for Yellow Pages.
Asscam for Levi’s.
Play for Spark.
Tally for State Insurance.
X-Ray Cast for Anchor.
Speed Dial for Volkswagen.
MyHooman for Pedigree
Brewtrolium for DB Export.
K9FM for Pedigree.

There’s too many examples to write about, and now I’m at the agency that did all this brilliance.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen this approach in action almost every day.

Of course it doesn’t always work … and it doesn’t always get bought … but the idea of bringing audacious solutions to problems rather than just audacious advertising is something pretty infectious.

There are a few really exciting things on the table, but recently we launched something – with our client Spark – that doesn’t just excite me, but makes me so proud I’m going to break my habit and actually write about it.

I know, who am I?

Beyond Binary is our way to create a better internet. A more inclusive internet.

In conjunction with our client, Spark – and working alongside rainbow communities – we developed a piece of code that anyone can download and easily add to their website.

What this code does is change the field formats on websites so they no longer only offer Male or Female options.

While to many this may seem a small thing, to the Trans and Non-Binary community – of which we are talking millions – it is important. Not simply because it represents them being seen and valued by organisations, but because it stops them being forced to misidentify who they are to fit in with established internet protocols.

In addition to the code, we made a film [see below] to help communicate why this is important for the non-binary community and business … as well as a website where you can download the code, learn how to add it to your existing site, hear stories from people who are affected by this situation every day and even access a pre-written presentation you can use to show your bosses why they need to do this.

A lot of people spent a lot of time working on this – which is why I was so thrilled when Campaign Asia wrote such a lovely piece about it.

I am not saying this because they used a competitor campaign to highlight how good ours is – though that helps, hahaha – but because they got it.

The understood exactly why we did it and how we did it … and that’s important because we sweated this. A lot.

Obviously we’re very proud of Beyond Binary but the key is getting companies to take part … so if you read this blog and work for a company with a website, please can I ask you to get involved. The more inclusive we make the internet, the better it is for everyone.

Thank you Colenso for being stupid enough to bring me over.
Thank you Spark for making this actually happen.
Thank you to the communities for helping and trusting us to do this right.
Thank you to anyone who takes part.

This is why it’s so important …