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


Valued Rather Than Value …

I’ve written a bunch about clients who have gone out of their way to make me feel valued.

Like the signed Wayne Rooney shirt I was given to give to a cab driver I met in Atlanta.

Or the green M&M’s so I could live out my Van Halen fantasies when they asked me to do a talk with little notice.

Or the years supply of Coke Zero because they knew I really, really love it.

Or the amazing custom built guitar with unique detailing to say goodbye when I left China.

Or – most recently – that photograph at the top of this post.

Of Rick Rubin with the Beastie Boys outside Radio City in NYC by Josh Cheuse.

From 1985.

Autographed by all.

Which was a gift from the management team of musical gods.

Like, what the hell?!

Yes, I know this means I have a lot of clients that are obviously bonkers, but the most valuable thing they did with all this was teach me the difference between valued and value.

Because with all these clients, I was a pain in the arse to them.

I demanded a lot from them.

We would ‘debate’ over stuff.

And yet, rather than complain about me, they let me know they appreciated it.

Because they knew the reason for it was because I wanted them to win better.

And I did. And do.

Because win better is not about simply ‘fulfilling the requirements of the client brief at a price that represents value for money’ … it’s about pushing for change, standards and possibility.

Because when you do that, you open the door to work that can take you to totally new places with totally new possibilities.

Now I’m not saying it’s easy.

Nor am I saying I’m the only one who does it.

Weigel is the master of it.
Wieden was built on it.
And Colenso haven’t won agency of the decade twice in a row by accident.

But what is common to all is dealing in truth rather than pandering to ego.

Playing up to standards rather than down to compromise.

Having the hard conversations rather than the convenient ones.

And with this means sometimes having to deal with gut-wrenching fails.

But here’s the thing, I’ve learned …

Great clients want great. Great thinking. Great ideas. Great results.

But it’s more than just wanting it …

They actively encourage it and help it through their systems.

They are transparent and honest while being open and ambitious.

They rely as much on their experience and taste as they do their research processes.

So even if things don’t quite end up where you all hoped, they understand, appreciate and protect what you did together and keep internal minds focused on what it achieved rather than just what it didn’t.

And they do this by not just looking at the numbers, but the audience.

And when I say that, I don’t mean they define their ‘customers’ in some faceless, colour-coded, generic set of terms.

They know and invest in understanding the sub-culture of their category and brand.

Not just what they buy.

Or how they use product.

But what the hell is going on in their life.

Because it’s not just about ‘shifting product’, it’s also creating change.

Something that opens up the future rather than just continually trades from the middle.

My old Nike client, Simon Pestridge – who I’m so happy is my client again – said something to me once I’ve held on to.

“Middle management want to be told they’re right, senior management want to know how to be better”

Because he is so good, he didn’t realise how he behaves is not representative of all senior management. But in my experience, it is of the truly great.

And that’s why they don’t look at value simply in terms of ‘economic return x input cost’, they look at it in terms of ‘are you making us better’.

The industry seems to have forgotten that.

Too many appear to have chosen pandering as a business model.

Too many bosses demands compliance rather than curiousity.

And that’s what we need to change …

Because challenging the client doesn’t mean you are an asshole.

It means you give a fuck.

Play to be valued.

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You Can’t Stand Out If You Want To Be The Same As Everyone Around You …

Tone of voice has always made me smile.

A list of cliched terms that somehow supposedly captures the distinctive characteristics of a brand, despite using 90% of the same language.

Fun … but aspirational.
Premium … but approachable.
Smart.
Human.
Innovative.

Blah … blah … blah …

What ends up happening is two things.

1 It ends up all coming down to a ‘look’.
2 It ends up with some people ‘getting the brand’ but never being able to articulate what it is beyond those same cliched words every brand uses
.

That’s why I loved when Dan Wieden said …

Brand voice was given a huge amount of focus and time at Wieden.

It wasn’t some scribbled words shoved on a brief at the last second that everyone ignored … it was really delving into the soul of the brand.

How it looked at the world.
The Values and beliefs.
It’s point of view.

Oh, I get it, that sounds as pretentious as fuck doesn’t it … but that’s why you can tell a NIKE spot within 1/10th of a second … regardless of the sport, the audience, the language it’s in, the country it represents or even the style of ad.

That’s right.

They get brand attribution and can be as random as fuck.

And before you say, “oh, but that’s just NIKE” … Wieden [who are/were the undisputed champions of this] did the same thing for Honda, P&G, Chrysler, Converse and any number of totally desperate brands.

The reality is, when you really invest in getting the brand voice right – both from an agency and client perspective – it becomes something far more than a look or a tone, it’s a specific and individual feeling.

And that’s why I find this obsessive conversation about ‘brand attribution’ so amusing.

Oh I get it, it’s important.

But the simplest way to get it is to simply do something interesting.

An expression of how you see the World without constraint.

A point of view others may view as provocative but actually is born from your truth.

That’s it.

It’s not hard and you’ll get attribution automatically.

And not just any attribution … but the sort that has short and long-term commercial value rather than begrudged and meaningless familiarity.

However so many brands – and the brilliant Mark Ritson has to take a lot of the blame for this – think attribution is built on the repetition of brand assets.

And while there’s some truth to that … the difference is when ‘brand assets’ ARE the idea rather than born from it, then you’re not building a brand or creating change, you’re literally investing in complicity and invisibility.

Especially if those brand assets are so bland and generalistic that to not make any impact in the real world whatsoever.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth …

You can’t have commercially advantageous attribution and be traditional at the same time.

Oh I know there’s a lot of agencies and consultancies who say you can, but they’re literally spouting bullshit.

I’ll tell you something else …

If you’re relying on opening logos, watermarks or number of brand name mentions per execution to ensure your work is being attributed to your brand … then you’re not just likely to be showing your neediness and desperation, you’re probably admitting that you’re not saying or doing something that is worthy of making people care.

In fact the only thing worse is if you hire a ‘celebrity’ to front your campaign, then have to label who they are because no one knows them.

Sorry.

Now I appreciate this sort of approach may get you a ‘Mini MBA’ from the Mark Ritson school of marketing … and it may help with internal consistency and familiarity … but I can assure you that it won’t get you a sustainably disproportionate commercially advantageous position in your category, let alone culture.

And maybe that’s fine, and that’s OK. But if it is, then own it … rather than put out press releases announcing your leadership position in the market when really what you’ve done is dictate the blandification of everything you say or do because your marketing strategy is based more on ‘blending in, than standing out’.

And nothing shows this more than tone of voice.

An obsessive focus of playing to what you think people want rather than who you are.

It’s why I always find it interesting to hear how planners approach what a brand stands for.

So many talk a good game of rigor but play a terrible game of honesty.

Spending weeks undertaking research and holding ‘stakeholder’ interviews to learn who the brand is – or wants to be – rather than going into the vaults and understanding not only why they were actually founded … but the quirks of decision they made along the way.

Don’t get me wrong, research and interviews have a place, but for me, learning about a brand at the start of life is one of the most valuable things you can do because it reveals the most pure version of themselves. Or naïve.

No contrived brand purpose … not ‘white space’ research charts … just a true expression of who they are and what they value.

Or wanted to be.

And when you start piecing those things together, you discover a whole new world.

Better yet, you get to a very different – and authentic place.

Oh, the things I’ve learned about companies over the years.

Not for contrived, bullshit heritage stories … but to understand the beliefs and values that actually shaped and dictated the formation and rise of the company, even if down the line it failed and/or modern day staff don’t know any of it.

There’s a reason The Colonel purposefully chose bigger tables to be in his restaurants when he started KFC. There’s a reason Honda made their own screws for their machines. There’s a reason Prudential helped widows and orphans.

It’s not hard, it just needs effort, commitment, transparency and honesty.

That’s it.

And while I could say this quick-fix, fast-turnaround, communication-over-change world we live in means good enough is good enough … the reality is for a lot of companies and agencies, they don’t think they’re sacrificing quality. They don’t think they’re sacrificing anything. They think they’re creating revolution and that’s the most fucking petrifying bit about the whole thing.

Inside the vaults lie the stories and clues that help you get to better and more interesting places. Not for the sake of it, but because of it. And when you get there, it will naturally lead you to bigger, bolder and more provocative acts and actions. And when you do that, then brands get all the attribution they could ever wish for, because by simply being your self, you will be different.

_______________________________________________________________________________

For the record, I truly respect Mark Ritson.

He’s smart, knowledgable and incredibly experienced.

He has also added a level of rigour in marketing that has been missing for a long time.

I also appreciate some of the issues I talk about are a byproduct of many other things – from talent standards, corporate expectations and plain misunderstanding.

However, when you say a course is the equivalent to gaining a Mini MBA, it not creates a false sense of ability – to to mention gets more and more brands thinking, behaving and expressing themselves in exactly the same way – it suggests the focus is on personal gain over industry improvement and you run the risk of becoming the beast you wanted to slay.

That said, he’s still much smarter than I’ll ever be.



It’s Better Oop North …

Ad blogging was once a rich, vibrant community.

It was amazing how much people looked out for each other.

A lot was driven by Russell Davies … but the effect of it was something pretty special.

I met a lot of people because of that community … some, still even come on here.

Occasionally.

But when you compare it to the toxic, ego-filled bullshit of ad twitter … I can’t help but feel the blogging community was a much more valuable and positive resource for adland.

Especially if you were a junior.

While there are many positives of social media, learning the strategy discipline through 280 letter tweets is not really going to drive the craft forward.

Nowadays there seems to be only 2 people still blogging.

Martin and me.

Or said another way …

Nowadays, only Martin writes a blog that has real value and depth for the industry and discipline.

One of the people I am saddest at having stopped blogging is Andrew Hovells. Better known as Northern Planner.

I’ve written about him a lot in the past.

From how much I respect him to how much I liked trolling him by sending him to see Queen in concert, when he absolutely hates the band.

But I revisited his blog recently and there’s just so, so much amazing stuff on there.

Stuff for people curious about planning.
Stuff for people just starting planning.
Stuff for people having a career in planning.
Stuff for people leading work and teams in planning.
Stuff for every level and need in planning.

And while there are many other resources for this sort information on the internet, Northern Planner’s is especially good for 3 reasons:

1. It comes from someone who could have worked at pretty much any of the best agencies in London, but didn’t and instead chose to stay ‘oop North’ and bring the planning discipline to a part of England that [i] didn’t have it and [ii] needed a lot of convincing to see it’s value. Not only did he achieve that – and validate the discipline for more people in the region to become a part of it – his work gave the supposed London ‘superstars’ a run for their money.

[He also turned down coming to cynic, which still devastates me, because he would have made such a difference to us. But it also shows how smart he is. Unfortunately]

2. He doesn’t give you a process to follow, he gives you a way to look at the discipline and the roles within it. Meaning you’re developing your own planning style and voice … not regurgitating someone else’s.

3. All of it is free. Every last bit of it.

Given the amount of amateurs ‘flogging’ their questionable, superficial and inauthentic courses that don’t have the right to even be in the same universe – let alone industry – as Andrew’s generous, considered and carefully explained lessons and insights … I know who I recommend people spend their time learning from.

I really miss Northern and his blog.

But the planning community should be missing it even more.



When Forest Were Great And Football Ads Were Poor …

Once upon a time, Nottingham Forest were magic.

So magic, they were Kings of Europe. Twice in a row.

So magic, they had a song about it.

So magic, Adidas used them as proof of their football credentials in ads …

That team was amazing.

I even remember those boots.

But I must admit I don’t remember Adidas being the ‘science of sport’ – even though that is the most German sport tagline ever written – all I remember is that at my school, Adidas stood for All Day I Dream About Sex”.

Even though I probably didn’t even know what sex was back then,.

And while I still find it hard to accept my beloved team wore the football gear of the enemy – though I did try to get NIKE to sponsor them, once even including it as a recommendation in a strategy deck which was met by howling laughter – I accept it is nice to see at least one international brand recognised their incredible achievements.

But for all that, Adidas – and Nottingham Forest – will never beat Nike for this.

Still the best World Cup spot. Ever.

Unlikely ever to be beaten.

And trust me, we tried. Hard.

Which maybe says more about what clients want these days than creative ambition.

Maybe,



Twisted Logic Is More Interesting Than Corporate Logic …

When I was living in Shanghai, I met a young guy who said to me,

“I think the Chinese government are rock n’ roll”.

Given I couldn’t imagine anyone less rock n’ roll, I asked why they said that. To which they replied:

“You told me rock n’ roll was about doing whatever you want to do, regardless what other people think. That’s the Chinese government”.

Mind. Blown.

Never in a million years would I consider the Communist Party rock n’ roll … and now that’s all I can think. I say this because recently I had another of these moments.

It was when I read this:

How amazing is that?!

Now whenever I talk to my friends named Tim, I keep imagining them as a moth.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

If you don’t leave space for conversations and understanding, you will miss out on these little gems of opinion. These things that can make you look at subject in a completely different way. That can take you to different place with even bigger possibilities than you could imagine.

And yet we – as an industry – aren’t leaving space for this.

We actually think getting into the real world is a hindrance.

Too messy. Too much time. Too many opinions.

So we actually advocate building creativity and brands from a weird sort of recipe book.

Where equal parts questionable data, brand assets and self-serving logic come together to make something that looks like a cake but generally tastes bloody awful.

Because we’d rather follow what everyone else does than create something everyone else wants.

Valuing attribution more than change.

Oh don’t get me wrong, I get the importance of all these things.

I agree and value their role in brand building and creativity.

But as I wrote a while back, it’s utterly bonkers that as an industry, we value the condiments of the meal more than the steak.

Recently, someone called me irresponsible for demanding my team spend time meeting, talking, listening and understanding people from all walks of life.

They literally used that word: Irresponsible!

Now I don’t mind admitting there’s many things I could be accused of being irresponsible for, but valuing the role culture has in liberating creativity and possibility isn’t one of them.

No wonder society is so bored of what we do.

No wonder brands have had to reframe bribery as loyalty.

Or membership.

Because while we think we have all the answers, culture has the interesting.