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

The Chemistry Of Creativity …

One of the things that rarely seems to be mentioned in the creative process is chemistry.

Where different people – often from different backgrounds and disciplines – just know how to work together.

I don’t mean in terms of their craft. Or understanding the process as to how things work. But in terms of being on the same wavelength of the people around them and respecting what each other does and what they need to do to help them be as good as they can be.

I don’t mean some corporate ‘kum-ba-ya’… where everyone is superficially polite to each other so as not to offend. I mean a group of talented people coming together with the same values and vision. Who know the importance everyone brings to the party. Who have such regard for the abilities of each individual, they are equally as comfortable pushing, provoking as they are listening and encouraging. Where everyone is given the space to experiment and explore … because everyone respects who they are, what they do and how they do it.

It’s also worth pointing out that there tends to be one person who ignites it all.

Someone who you all respect that little bit more.

Not for what they’ve done, but for how they think.

So they act as some catalyst to make everyone come together.
To be better together.
To want to be better for each other.
Elevating standards, ambitions and possibilities simply because of their presence.

It’s rare.

Very rare.

That’s not to say every time in-between is bad or fractious … far from it … it’s just that sometimes, a certain combination of people just click in a way where the capabilities of what can happen and be achieved are greater than when you’re apart.

In my professional life, I’ve had 4 occasions where this has happened … though I didn’t really realise it with 2 of them, until they had ended.

And it tends to end … because life has plans for each and everyone of us, so you accept it, enjoy it and hope something like it will happen again.

In the main, if it does happen again, it’s rarely with the same people.

I’m not sure why …

Changing times.
A change of personal circumstances.
A pressure to make it happen rather than it just happening.

Not always, but often.

I say all this because I recently watched an interview with ‘The Revolution’ … the backing band for Prince from ’79 to ’86.

Though ‘backing’ isn’t the right term … because even though they played Prince’s songs, Prince valued what they all brought to them.

But that said, they haven’t played together in decades.

They are all at different points and places in their life.

But there is a bond. Bound by history, experience and the realisation that what they did together – albeit with ‘the master chef’, Prince – became immortal.

Not in an egotistical way.
Not even in a sales of record way.
But in terms of the intensity of what they created as individuals, to elevate the whole.

Different people.
Different backgrounds.
Same chemistry, values and vision.

If you are lucky to find this, hold on for as long as you can.

Because magic rarely happens on its own and some combinations keep casting the spells.

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It’s Not What You Do, It’s How You Do It That Reveals Who You Really Are …

In the UK there was an adult comic called Viz.

It was filthy, hilarious and – for a long time – very successful.

And while they had many ‘star’ characters … from Sid the Sexist to errrrm, The Fat Slags … my favourite part of the magazine were the publishing company details.

Tucked at the bottom of a page, in extra small font, were a list of the people behind the magazine. Most people wouldn’t even see it, let alone read it … but if you did, you found magic in that small print.

Mischief. Personality. Information.

Nothing told you how much this was a labour of love for the people behind the magazine than their dedication to instilling their personality into every nook and cranny they could find … whether people would see it or not.

Brilliant stuff.

I say this because I saw a label a friend had put on a product they were selling at their shop.

Ai Ming was a planner in my team at Wieden+Kennedy.

She was very good … but decided one day, it was time for a change and so she went back to Singapore to open a Cheese Shop.

I know … sounds a bit random … but wait, it get’s better.

You see Ai Ming had an idea.

A way to combine her love of cheese and travel and be paid for it.

So she started The Cheese Ark … a cheese shop in Singapore, dedicated to selling cheeses from small, independent makers across Europe.

Oh but that’s nowhere near the end of the story …

So when she left Wieden – and before she returned to Singapore – Ai Ming went to work on a small farm in Italy for a few months. [I think]

While there, she discovered how amazing cheese tasted when it was made by people who loved and nurtured their product.

To her, it was a whole new world of taste and made every other cheese she had tried, feel unworthy of being labelled as such.

But she also learned something else …

You see she discovered many of these small, independent cheese makers were in danger of going under, because they didn’t have a way to compete with the big boys.

Said another way … this incredible tasting cheese could become obsolete.

So rather be sad, she decided to do something about it.

Enter The Cheese Ark … a shop that only sells cheese that originates from these small independent farms. A shop that is one of the only places in the World where you can get your hands on this incredible produce. A shop that charges enormous amounts of money to own a piece of their incredible cheese … not simply so you can have your taste buds tingled in ways you could never imagine … not simply because it allows you to show off to your friends about your good taste and status … not simply because it pays for Ai Ming’s travel, shop, employees and profit … but because by buying so much from each of these small farms across Europe, she can ensure that these small, independent cheese farms not only survive, but thrive.

Hence it’s called ‘The Cheese Ark’ … because its literally saving the lives of cheese.

How fucking incredible is that?

But Ai Ming is not just a creative business thinker, she’s full of personality and passion … which leads me to the point of this post.

You see I recently saw something that reminded me of those Viz publishing details I loved.

Something that communicated more than just the necessary details.

It was this …

How good is that?

I bloody love it.

A notice on a packet of cheese that’s more interesting, engaging, compelling and charming than 99% of ads – or any marketing material – out there.

Sure, not many people will see it.

Most may actively choose to ignore it.

But for those who do, they’re not just rewarded with the thrill of discovering something as enjoyable as the product inside it, they know they’re dealing with someone who really cares about what they do.

And they do. Because what Ai Ming has created is the Noah’s Ark of Cheese.

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If You Want It To Be Easy, You Don’t Want It To Be Great …

Not too long ago, Campaign – in the UK – asked me for my point of view on Byron Sharp and the obsession with brand assets etc.

Specifically, they wanted to know if I felt he was hindering creativity as well as making it harder for small business to ever stand a chance of breaking through.

Now I have some issues with Mr Sharp’s character, but if I put that aside to answer the question, I said this:

First of all, I don’t think Mr Sharp wants to kill creativity.

From my perspective, he recognises its value far more than others in his position. If I’m going to talk about who is undermining the power of creativity, I’d say it can be aimed far more at the companies who outsource all their training needs to the same few individuals because it’s easier and cheaper for them to do.

God, that’s started off controversially hasn’t it?

The reality is what Mr Sharp says isn’t wrong, it’s just not the one-size-fits-all approach that so many seem to have interpreted it as.

And that highlights what the real problem is for me: conformity over possibility.

Or said another way, the modern equivalent of ‘no one got fired buying IBM’.

Look, I get it … marketing is expensive, complicated and influenced by a whole host of factors that you can’t control, so if someone say’s “this will stop you making stupid mistakes”, it’s pretty compelling.

But the reality is not making stupid mistakes doesn’t mean you are ensuring success. Worse, blindly following these rules creates a real risk you will commodify yourself … looking, talking and behaving just like everyone else. Let’s be honest, you don’t have to look too hard to see that already happening …

And that’s my problem with terms like ‘brand assets’ … they’re talked about as if you can buy them off the shelf.

Simply choose a single colour, add a logo and some category cues … then sit back and count your billions.

But people are confusing visual distinction with brand value.

Sure, being recognised in some way helps … but it only becomes an ‘asset’ if it has meaning built into it and to do that requires distinctive and deliberate acts, actions and behaviour over time.

Or said another way, you don’t ‘create’ a brand asset, things become a brand asset.

The industry is continually looking for shortcuts.

I get it … I really do … but the irony is the thing that can deliver so much of this, is the thing the industry continually tries to diminish or control.


At its best, creativity rewrites rules and changes the odds in your favour.

Creativity helped Liquid Death get men to want to drink water.
Creativity helped Gentle Monster become the fastest selling and growing eyewear brand across Asia.
Creativity helped Roblox go from niche player to the single most played game by kids and teens across America.
Creativity even helped Metallica use a 30 year old album to attract more fans resulting in them becoming the second most successful American band of all time.

They didn’t achieve this simply because of smart distribution of their brand assets. Nor did they achieve it by placing their logo as a watermark throughout their TV commercial [which has to be the laziest and most misguided attempt to achieve ‘attribution’]. They achieved it by allowing creativity the freedom to push forward in ways that – as a by-product – meant their voice created value in their numerous assets.

I get it’s not easy.

I get it requires real energy and openness.

But little can achieve what creativity can do when you commit to letting it loose.

My problem [and I appreciate this may just be me] is that many seem to have interpreted the words of Sharp [and others] in a way where they see creativity as simply the ‘wrapping paper’ to execute their rules and processes.

But creativity isn’t the wrapping, it’s the fucking present.

A gift that offers value to brands that goes far beyond the fulfilment of singular commercial objectives and goals.

There are countless examples of brands achieving incredible success and growth following different rules so much of the industry feel is the only way to progress.

That’s not meant as a diss to Mr Sharp, he is obviously very good – though I note he and his peers choose to not highlight that many misinterpret and misuse their guidance, which suggests there is an element of complicity and profiteering from the one-size-fits-all blandification that is happening all around us.

But even then, the real blame should be aimed at the industry for fetishising the learnings and viewpoints of the same few people, because however good they may be – and they are good – it means we’re literally choosing to narrow our own potential and future.

Don’t get me wrong, brand assets are definitely a thing. But they don’t make creativity valuable … creativity makes them an asset.

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What We Can Learn About Life And Work From The Band Soft Cell …

I recently read an interview with the members of 80’s art-pop band, Soft Cell.

Sure, I liked their song ‘Tainted Love’ but that was about it.

I thought they were try-hard and much preferred my heavy metal bands.

But as I’ve got older, I’ve realized how blinkered I was … how judgmental … and this interview rammed it home.

I love so much about it.

Their attitude to music.

Marc’s phenomenal and ferocious attitude to the frankly, horrific homophobic rumours that I remember hearing way back in my college days.

And their approach to their working relationship.

It’s funny with bands … you expect all the members to love each other. Have deep bonds that last a lifetime.

Of course part of that is cultivated by the record companies, but you still want them to be mates who hang out together … but often, they’re not.

It’s not that they don’t like each other – though that can happen too – it’s more their chemistry works in one environment and they’re good with that.

It was funny seeing it in print because it kind-of captured how I felt with Cynic.

While Andy, George and I talked every day … we weren’t close friends.

We didn’t socialize much together. In fact, we probably do it more now we’re not in a business together than we ever did then.

But it worked.

We liked each other.
We trusted each other.
We valued each other.

But it never really extended beyond the work environment.

And this probably helped us because unlike family – where the focus is not to cause upset – this situation allowed us to always tell each other the truth.

We would be considerate. We cared about each other. But we would never hold back.

And when I think of the best work experiences I’ve ever had, this has been the constant dynamic.

Blunt truth wrapped in visceral respect.

Where you felt you were better at your job when you were together, but had other enjoyable lives when you were apart.

And the joy of the working experience meant you kept coming back.

Not because you had to, but because you wanted to.

Or to paraphrase David from Soft Cell, a creative relationship rather than a creative marriage.

I didn’t realise how special that was.

It certainly doesn’t happen often.

And while you may ask why some of those relationships still end, the bigger question is why do so few ever begin?

For me, it’s all about trust and belief.

That you got together because of how you all see the world, not because you found yourselves in the same room or office.

And while you may share the same philosophy, you have different ways of embracing and executing it.

And that’s thrilling.

That’s the tension that drives both of you to be better.

That lets you say stupid stuff because it’s part of the trust you have of each other.

Part of the standards you hold each other to.

While I have some of that still, I miss some of the stuff I had.

And why I still feel a great privilege for having lived it .

But here’s the good news … because while many of those relationships are no more, the experiences, lessons and ambitions that were born from them remain and blossom.

So thank you to all of you who had – and have – that impact on me.

You know who you are.

And thanks to Marc and David for waking me up to it. Again.

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The Hammer And The Feather …

One of my pet hates is when people think the best way to brief creativity is to say what they want to see, not the problem they need to be solved.

Whether it was where I worked … or who I worked with … I didn’t encounter this much at the beginning of my career. But as marketing lost its clout – and so standards increasingly fell – I’ve seen it happen a hell of a lot more.

I wish I could say I deal with this sort of situation well, but let’s say there is ‘room for improvement’.

Oh I can hear Andy as I type this.

“If they don’t know how to do their job, you can do your job anyway you choose” … but fights don’t solve anything other than a temporary moment of relief.

I know … you’re wondering who am I?

Don’t worry, I did say I have room for improvement because frankly, I still suck at dealing with this sort of thing, even if I’m way better than I used to be.

One of the worst situations I ever encountered was in Malaysia when a client complained about the way an actors hand looked in a print ad.

I should point out the ad wasn’t about hands, didn’t focus on hands and the hand in question was perfectly normal … but for some insane reason, he wanted it reshot – at our cost – suggesting it would ruin everything.

I genuinely thought they were joking when they first said it, so laughed.

And then he looked at me like I’d just smashed his mother in the face and asked ‘what the hell was I laughing at?’

I’d love to say I responded in a calm, professional manner … however, well, you can guess.

That said, I also put a proposition to him that said if there was commentary about the hand when the campaign launched, we would not only pay for a re-shoot, but we would refund 25% of our costs to him. However if nothing was said, then he had to pay us an additional 50% of our costs.

He lost interest in his argument after that and – surprise surprise – there was absolutely no commentary about the freak hand that wasn’t freaky whatsoever.

I say this because I recently read about the 1994 movie, Street Fighter, featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme and errrrrm, Kylie Minogue.

The film was rubbish [though it’s now seen as a camp classic, like the Queen soundtracked ‘Flash Gordon’ that preceded it] and the making of it was a rollercoaster but writer/director Steven de Souza makes a comment that is not just insightful, but highlights how creativity not only solves problem … but can do it in the most bombastic or gentle of ways.

It’s a lesson we could all do with remembering.

Especially those who dictate what outcomes, not identify their problems.

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