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


Here’s To Those Comfortable With Uncomfortable …

I recently saw the above quote in The Athletic magazine.

The idea that Manchester City – albeit during their less successful period – had to provide ‘rain charts’ to show potential signings that their city was not wetter than London surprised me.

Then I came to my senses.

Society has an incredible knack of trying to lift themselves up by putting others down.

Obviously racism is the work example of this, but we do it everyday in lots of little ways.

From blanket attitudes such as …

“People from the North are backwards”.

To city affirmations such as …

“Manchester is the musical capital of England”.

To hierarchy comparison such as …

“I may be from Nottingham but at least I’m not from Derby”.

It’s not only bollocks, it’s also often stated by people who have never gone anywhere near the cities/countries they are negatively judging. Now I know people will say it’s all a bit of a joke – and I appreciate between mates, it can be – but there’s a lot of perceived truth in those sorts of statements, which has been exploited by all manner of organisations, especially politics.

When I lived in China, I was shocked how hard it was to recruit people from outside of Asia to come and work at Wieden+Kennedy.

OK, it may have been because they didn’t want to work with me … but even then, the amount of people who started off claiming to be interested and then said ‘it wasn’t for them’, was incredible. [Though maybe you will still find it understandable. Bastards. Ha]

There was a time where I almost gave up wanting to hire people from outside the region due to it being so much hassle. But the reality was I always felt it important to have a real mix in the gang. Sure, the vast majority of them had to be from the country/region – but by incorporating people from outside of it, I felt it created a tension that led to better and more provocative thinking. In addition, it could also help stop the blind and blinkered views we kept seeing and hearing from the West … because the more Westerners we got to experience the crazy, infectious magic of the nation, the more positive voices we would infect the rest of the world with.

But many people we talked to weren’t interested in changing their blinkered opinion.

So many didn’t even bother to investigate more about China, they were just happy to keep making their false judgements.

Oh they were all very happy to work for Wieden+Kennedy, they just didn’t want it to be in China and would often say, “but if you could connect me to people in London/Portland/NY/Amsterdam” etc.

And if they were really interesting and had a valid reason to not leave their country, I would.

Didn’t happen often.

I find it amazing that people – especially planners – don’t want to explore the World.

Planners go on about curiosity but what they mean is they are curious under certain conditions of personal comfort.

Behind a desk.
Surrounded by people and things they know.
Never venturing outside of the bubble they’ve created.

Of course not everyone is like this, but there’s a lot who are. Viewing the world and passing judgement on it via Twitter rather than experience.

In the case of China – as with anywhere I’ve lived – if the issue became about the country we were in, it probably wasn’t going to work. Of course it was OK to have concerns and questions, but if I sensed you saw it as a hardship rather than an opportunity or you thought you knew everything when you would have to relearn everything, you were not going to be someone I wanted on the team.

I was, and still am, eternally grateful to everyone I’ve had the honour to work with – and I’ve been incredibly fortunate with the incredible and diverse talent I’ve inherited and nurtured – however those in China will always have a unique place in my heart.

Because whether they were from China, Asia or further afield, all of them knew what they were taking on with the job. Not just in terms of the standards and expectations of Wieden+Kennedy, but the inherent perceptions, prejudices and lies that existed in society – and the ad industry as a whole – towards China and Asia.

And it’s for this reason that I fucking loved seeing them do work others could only dream about, especially when the industries perception was ‘China doesn’t do great work’ or ‘there’s no good planning in Asia’ … often muttered by people who have neither been to China or done great work.

But even that doesn’t make me as happy as seeing where they have all ended up …

Not just in terms of the level they’re at – from running departments, big pieces of business or companies – but the actual organisations they work with or have worked with.

Nike. Ideo. Tik-Tok. Wieden. Mother. 72. Anomoly. Supreme. Playstation. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Facebook. Google. Net-A-Porter. Instagram.

Not just in China but in countries that include America, Taiwan, Holland, UK, Singapore and Australia. Not forgetting the mob who decided to start their own thing and are now working on a bunch of fascinating projects from gaming to research.

I’m not just proud of them, I’m excited for them … because I truly believe they will do stuff that is interesting, intriguing and valuable for the rest of us.

And while most of their achievements are down to their talent and graft, another part is because of what China gave them.

Unique knowledge, experience and understanding of people and situations.

Some will never understand that.

Some will never value that.

But for those who were there – and the companies who hired them – they absolutely do.

Because while some make choices based on not wanting to leave things behind, this group of wonderful fools made their decisions based on what they could gain … and they didn’t need a rain comparison chart to convince them.

Thank you to all of them.

Thank you to anyone who runs towards the challenge not the comfortable.



Clarity Not Assumption …

So this is a few weeks old, but IKEA recently opened a store in the Middle East.

This is what happened …

While IKEA dealt with the situation with grace and self depreciation, it highlights the potential problems of different cultures – and departments – working together.

It’s all to easy to assume the designers should have read ‘same text, but in Arabic’ and worked out their job was to write IKEA in Arabic. But apart from the fact many designers believe their job is about the craft of what they’re given rather than the reason for it, language structure is hugely different in cultures and so many people feel it is better to take words literally than risk making the wrong assumption.

When I lived in China I had a shirt I loved.

I’d worn it so often, it was covered in patches basically holding it together and so in the end, I realised that if I wanted to keep wearing it, I’d have to get another one made.

Fortunately, the fabric market had loads of people who did this so I went there and asked them to make me the same shirt.

A week later I went to collect it, and what did I find?

A shirt that was identical to the one I had given them.

Right down to the rips and patches that was on the original.

In other words, I’d had them make me a shirt I still couldn’t wear.

And it was my fault.

Because when I said, “could you please make me a duplicate of this shirt”, I assumed they would get without the worn out bits … but that’s on me, not them and that’s why anyone who wants to work in other cultures or with other cultures needs to understand they have to communicate on the audiences terms, not on theirs.



So Much For Planners Having All The Smart Thinking …

One of the things that has always bugged me about planners is that some think they’re the only ones who are curious enough to see the World in interesting ways.

I’ve written about how much bollocks it is – not to mention how much it pisses me off – but in this world of social, it feels we are seeing more and more of the interesting points of view coming from outside the discipline than in it.

More than that, it feels we’re even seeing more and more of the interesting ideas coming from outside the industry than in it too.

From Rihanna creating make-up foundation that is suited to African American skin as well as white through to meme creators – such as Unchisenpai – questioning what is considered cheating in a world of global competition.

[Though their observation on how we came up with the word ‘boob’ is genius]

Now I appreciate that some of this is less to do with the talent in the industry and more the limitations placed on us by clients – though how that came about is another discussion for another day – but in an industry that is seemingly talking to itself more and more [see: planner twitter] the rule to creative inspiration remains the same:

Look for those who are doing or thinking interesting things rather than those who just know interesting things.

The things I’ve learnt from my time with China, Metallica and The Kennedys have been monumental in terms of seeing what creativity truly is, what it can do and what it can be.

It’s also helped me have a deeper understanding of how to nurture it, protect it, encourage it and liberate it.

This is not meant as a diss to adland.

I love the industry and accept it has been amazing to me.

I’ve learnt – and continue to learn – so much from the many amazingly talented and generous people who work, or have worked, within it. I detest how much the industry has been undermined and undervalued by so many when – given the freedom to do what it does best – it is capable of achieving equally incredible things.

This is simply a reminder that some of the most interesting expressions of creativity – and commerciality – exist outside of our bubble and if we continue to close ourselves off to it, or think we’re superior to it, then we’re literally limiting ourselves in terms of seeing and understanding what creativity can help us create, build and change.



Happy Birthday Dad …

Today would be my Dad’s 82nd birthday.

That means he’s been gone 22 years.

In a few years, I will have lived longer without him in my life than in it.

Yes, I know that he is still in my life, but I just find that fact so hard to deal with.

I live in fear that one day, I will only think of him when a significant date occurs.

That he will become a figure of my past, rather than my present.

Of course I don’t believe that will really happen, but to be coming up to the point where I will have spent more of my life without him in it, is really tough to take.

What’s worse is he died just as my life was getting started.

The only thing he knew – mainly because he and Mum pushed me to continue with my plans, despite his stroke – was that I moved to Australia.

While both my parents missed me so much, they were adamant I had to go.

I had planned it for a long time.

They saw it as an opportunity and an adventure for me.

And they also – and rightfully – knew that if I didn’t go, I’d never go.

Of course there was nothing wrong with where I was.

I loved – and continue to love – Nottingham. But both my parents knew the possibilities for me outside of my home city were probably bigger than were in it, and they just wanted me to have a chance of exploring what it could – regardless what turned out.

That’s unconditional love.

A level of support and encouragement that – now I am a father – takes my breath away.

Oh the things I wish I could talk to my Dad about.

The adventures – good and stupid – I’d love to discuss with him.

I think he would be proud. He might raise his eyebrows at a few things, but I think he would be happy with the choices and decisions I’ve made.

He would love to meet Jill.

He would be delighted to meet Otis.

He would be thrilled to know my friendship with Paul is still rock solid.

He may even be happy to meet Rosie – the most well travelled cat in the universe – despite never really liking cats.

And when I was to tell him that journey to Australia led to me living in countless other countries – including Shanghai – he would be so happy.

He always found China fascinating.

Part of it was because back then, China was still an unknown quantity.

A huge place that was kind-of invisible to the World.

For me to have lived there … had for his grandson to be born there … would be a topic of conversation for years.

And I would love it.

Watching his eyes twinkle with curiosity.

Watching his brow wrinkle as he processed my responses.

Watching his smile as he held Otis and said, “Ni Hao” as if a local.

Oh Dad, I wish you were here.

What I’d give for one more conversation, one more hug.

What happened that night in Hong Kong is still etched in my heart … but I want more.

I’m greedy, but you were gone too soon.

For you, for Mum and for me.

Happy 82nd birthday Dad, I know none of us believed in God, but I do hope one day we can have that conversation.

Love you.

Give Mum a big kiss from me too.

Rx

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It’s Not Just What You Say, It’s How You Say It …

I have always loved pitching.

I love the drama, the nervousness, the tension, the creativity.

I also love that it’s a chance to reinvent how the agency is seen every single time.

Because of this, I’ve always embraced using a pitch to try new ways to present your work.

I’ve done a lot of stuff over the years.

Some has – without doubt – been an unmittigated disaster, but far more often, it’s been successful.

Not because we’ve used gimmicks or theatre, but we’ve found an interesting way to get our point across without [hopefully] repeating what every other agency they’ve seen has said.

Some of my favourites have been when we won the launch of Disneyland Shanghai when we were the 18th agency to pitch and I had inadvertently insulted the head of procurement when I accidentally wrote ‘retards’ instead of ‘regards’.

Mind you, they got their own back when they fired us after 2 years – and just before some truly amazing work was going to be made.

Then there was the time we won the SONY global business based on a photo I’d taken of a sign they had in their HQ.

It was an arrow pointing to the right to show you where reception was … and I used that as the basis for our pitch which basically said SONY spent so much time looking at what their competitors were doing, they’ve forgotten the need to forge their own path.

And then there was our winning pitch to Virgin when they were going to start their F1 team.

The reality was they were unlikely to ever win a race – or maybe even a point – given the gulf in investment and technology between them and their competitors.

So our strategy was to model themselves on tennis player Anna Kournikova … because even though she never won a grand slam, she was one of the most recognised, supported and wealthy tennis players in the tournaments.

That was fun.

But recently I found a photo that reminded me of a time we were pitching for BEATS by Dre.

I was at Wieden Shanghai and we had a meeting to talk about the China market.

Instead of a presentation about culture or music or fashion, I had one slide that said, “If You Don’t Define Who You Are, Someone Else Will’ and then I gave them all a set of the fake headphones that are the photo at the top of this post.

And we won.

Some say what we did was ballsy … but it wasn’t really.

When you realise the client is going to be sitting through a bunch of meetings that often say the same thing – or worse, just talk about the agency rather than the client – you realise having a strong POV that can form the foundation for work that will resonate with culture is the most sensible thing you can do.

Of course it takes just as long to come up with that as it does writing the 1000 page decks of boredom, but when it comes to delivery … it not only helps you stand out, it helps ensure they remember your point of view rather than get confused with countless pitches that talk a lot but say nothing.