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


Planets And Suns …

Running a company is hard.

There’s so many things that influence and shape how it runs, it’s no surprise they end up being such complicated beasts.

Different departments.

Different responsibilities.

Different requirements and budgets.

A bunch of different planets all operating by their own gravitational pull.

But here’s the thing … they shouldn’t be.

Because while each of those planets needs to circle the sun.

To be part of something bigger than themselves.

In our industry, the sun would be the creative work.

Or said another way … each and every department in an agency is there to enable the best creative product to be consistently created.

That’s it.

Doesn’t matter if you’re in Finance, HR, IT, Production, Planning or Creative … your purpose is to assist the creation of great work.

And while there are people who are more directly involved in the creation of that work, I don’t mean them …

I mean the end result.

The thing all that energy, tension, time, thinking, travelling, hiring, accounting, system managing, fee negotiating and creative developing has produced and will be judged by.

But sadly that is happening less and less … because on top of there often being a lack of clarity on what ‘great work’ is, as infrastructures grow, different departments end up believing they’re the sun.

The most important ingredient.

The element that decides failure or success.

And while we cannot deny each discipline plays an important role in the operational ability of an organisation … when they think – or are allowed to think – they’re the single most critical part in the whole process, that’s when it all goes to shit.

Which is another reason why independent agencies have a huge advantage over corporations.

Because they have the power to ensure their business is designed to specifically serve the work … ultimately driven by the belief great work delivers great profit whereas a focus on profit diminishes the value of the work.

And it’s true … though that doesn’t mean all independent agencies live up to that – just like not all corporations are ignorant to it – however in the main, that’s generally how it turns out.

Which is why I keep going back to what the film director Michael Mann told me about producing excellence.

He said that when he starts a movie, he talks to everyone in the production team.

Everyone.

He explains his vision for the story … his goal for it … what will be really important to him.

Then he tells them he needs them.

That they all play a critical part in the fulfilment of quality.

That he wants them to help make his vision even better than he could imagine.

But – and it’s a huge but – its about what HIS vision for the movie is, not theirs.

And that’s the key.

Freedom within a vision.

Planets going around the same sun … not going in whatever direction they want.

Remembering your role is to help make something bigger than you better, rather than just caring about how you look.

Working to enable your colleagues to succeed rather than get in the way with needless process or ego.

Making decisions based on what helps serve the ultimate goal, not just your personal preference.

And while I accept protocol and policy will impact our lives and jobs, that’s where leadership comes in.

Ensuring the things that are adopted – or have to adopted – don’t get in the way of what you’re all there to create.

Or said another way, it’s asking one simple question: Will it make the work better?

And that’s why who you hire is so important.

Not just in terms of ability … but in terms of their standards, values, vision and focus.

Because your goal is to build potency not simply capability.

Because the reason a focused company is often a better company is simply because people don’t waste so much of their energy dealing with the internal bullshit of departments who have been allowed to believe they’re the sun, rather than a planet.

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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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The Difference Between Brand And Band Strategy …

I was recently interviewed by a music company about the work I do for artists.

They – quite rightly – wanted to know what I did and how it was different to what I normally did.

And I explained the difference was made clear pretty much in my very first meeting.

Because I was told this …

Now I can’t be sure they used those exact words, but that was the general premise.

And that was what was amazing.

Because when working with brands, they want you to use creativity to engage audiences, but with bands – at least the ones I’ve been exposed to – it’s the opposite.

I don’t mean they want to alienate people – though they understand the importance of sacrifice better than almost any brand marketer I’ve ever met – it’s just they are the creativity … they are the product … and so the last thing they want is some fucker placing a layer of ‘marketing’ on top of their artistic expression which can be twisted, diluted or fucked with so what they want to say and what it means to them, has no consideration whatsoever.

Now I admit I’m very fortunate the artists I’m working for are of a scale where they have the power to not just consider this issue but do something about it.

Many don’t.

However by the same token, when you’re of that scale, the potential for things to get messed up in some way is much greater.

Which is why they ensured I knew my role was not to market them, but to protect their truth.

Do and explore things that amplify who they are not just flog more product.

And because what they create is an expression who they are … they can express their truth without falling into endless streams of cliched brand consultant speak.

+ So no buzz words.
+ No ambiguous terms.
+ Just stories, experiences and considerations that have defined all they do.

And that’s why they don’t really care if you like their music. Sure, it helps, but they don’t want fawning fandom, they want people who understand what they value, believe and give a fuck about so everything associated with what they do expresses it.

Or said another way, they want people who can ‘speak their tongue’.

Now I am the first to admit there have been some mistakes.

Some things you go, “why did you do that?”

But in the main, I’ve not seen much of it and even when I have called stuff out, they have [generally] appreciated it, because – as I was also told on my first day – I’m being paid to give them truth not comfort.

I’ve always said people should not aspire to be a planner, but get away with the things a planner can get away with. And I’ve got away with a lot as a planner. Done all manner of weird and wonderful.

While I’d like to think that’s what helped me get this gig … the reality is I got it because of an introduction from someone I know.

And while in theory any strategist could do what I’m doing, how I do strategy and how I have been asked to view what it’s role is, has highlighted that’s not the case.

Not because of capability, but what the industry currently wants and expects.

And this is manifested in increasingly not being given the time, support or standards to do things right.

Where speed is more important than substance.

Process more valuable than output.

I wrote about this and more, here.

But it’s more than that, it’s also what clients think strategy is for …

Packaging rather than changing.

Wanting quick wins rather than long term value.

Targeting needs, not a point of view in the world.

Chasing convenience not authenticity.

If anything, doing this work has made me even more grateful to the bosses, agencies and clients I’ve worked with over my career.

Because when I look back, the truly great ones were basically like a band.

Born of belief. Defined by a point of view. Wanting to attract not chase anything popular.

And that’s a big part of why they have been able to remain at the forefront of their individual discipline, category and/or sub-culture.

Because they never saw strategy as a tool for marketing, but to amplify their truth.

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Pitch vs Reality …

We’ve all been there.

Being promised the world.

Amazing service.

The involvement of the most senior members of the team.

Promises matched by effort.

So you agree and then …

Damp squid.

A cavalcade of unimpressive under-delivery.

From feeling important to feeling an irritant.

Now sometimes that is met with a ‘corrective’ intervention. A chance to get everyone back on track. Though they’re rarely as explosive as the time the account director at Saatchi & Saatchi called in the executives of their newly won Black & Decker business and told them:

“Your account has been in this agency for only a few weeks and it’s already a joke account here. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because you’re acting like a bunch of cunts.”

For the record, that’s apparently a word-for-word articulation of the conversation as captured in the wonderful Chutzpah & Chutzpah. While one of the clients supposedly fell off the end of the armless sofa they were sitting on, apparently the showdown did the trick and Black & Decker went on to become a very successful, award-winning client for them.

Now ad folk and estate agents often run a tight race for who is the least trustworthy …

To be honest, I’ve not met many who were like that, however in terms of false promises and social manipulation, this has to be one of the very best/worst I’ve seen.

Here’s the estate agent pitch …

Sounds good, doesn’t it.

You’re interested. In fact, screw the interest … you’ll just buy it.

It sounds exactly what you want and you know you have to be quick these days.

And the estate agent is so kind and helpful.

Running around getting you all the information you need for the bank.

Brilliant.

Everything is going so well.

As ‘moving in’ day approaches, your excitement rises.

The removal people carefully pack up your house into their lorry and you all drive towards your well presented, detached bungalow near the local golf course.

Then you pull in and you see this.

What. The. Absolute. Fuck.

OK, at least they didn’t say ‘close to ammenities’ in their ad but still …

That motherfucker estate agent.

Also known as a pitch vs reality moment.

[For the record, that house did sell … and for hundreds of thousands of quid. Cancer included]

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Why I Am So Glad I Didn’t Get Everything I Wanted For Christmas …

I had a blessed childhood.

I had unconditional love … continuous support and a caring, family home.

But I never got Electronic Battleships.

Hell, I didn’t even get to play shitty paper battleships.

And frankly, I didn’t care except for the fact when I was a kid, the idea of an ‘electronic’ version of anything was cool so I wanted it.

Then there were the sounds it made.

Or at least the sounds it made on the TV ad.

Holy mother of god. This was 25th century technology.

Kinda.

But did I get it?

Did I hell.

Oh don’t get me wrong, I was spoilt over the years with a lot of electronic stuff …

Blip. Demon Driver. Astro Wars. Philips G7000. Game and Watch. Merlin. Tin Can Alley … which was the most rubbish thing ever made.

But no Electronic Battleship.

And the only reason I was able to deal with it is because I never really liked board games and my Dad hated them even more … so even if that wasn’t the case, only my Mum would be available to be an opponent and war was not something she rightfully wanted to encourage.

For 52 years I lived perfectly well without having Battleships in my life until one day I came home and found Otis had got a set and wanted to play.

Not Electronic Battleships [still being denied all these years later] but battleships all the same.

So we sat down at the table … facing each other and prepared to unleash naval hell on one another.

I should point out Otis had never played Battleships before.

I should also point out he’s 7 years old.

So you’ll understand why my view of Battleship has evolved from indifference to hate because 37 minutes after commencing our game, my son had blasted all of my stupid, crappy, cowardly ships out the water.

Crap game anyway.

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