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


The Fine Line Between Guidelines And Dictatorship …

I recently came across the above ‘guidelines’ for the cartoon RoadRunner and Cayote.

Admittedly they read more like a list of rules than guidelines, but there’s two things that really struck me:

1. How well they knew their characters.
2. How they only needed 9 ‘guidelines’ to truly encapsulate the characters of the cartoon.

Now you could say that I shouldn’t be surprised.

It’s a cartoon.

They draw it every day.

But I deal with companies all the time who have been making stuff and couldn’t articulate the key characteristics that ensures their product is distinct to them.

Many could talk about the process in which they make it, but few would be able to highlight the context needed to ensure their is a consistency in the ‘experience’ for the audience.

Which reminds me of a story I’ve told many times before.

The time we interviewed chefs for Tabasco Sauce and one said,

“The more confident the chef, the less ingredients they need.”

I guess that can be paraphrased for anything … even cartoons.

Which reminds me of another story I’ve written before.

The one where Ronald Reagan articulates how you know if you’ve done a good job in expressing your perspective or point of view.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing”.

Planners … creatives … brands should take note of both.



Originality Wanted …

I still remember buying a movie soundtrack only to discover none of the songs had actually featured in the movie.

When I looked at the cover, I saw “songs inspired by the movie” … in other words, the film company couldn’t get the rights to release the actual music, so they got some two-bit band to write some nondescript music supposedly after watching the film.

It wasn’t as bad as those albums where they got a covers band to sing a well known song – rather than the actual artist – but it was close.

The reason I say this is that I’m seeing a bunch of ‘write-ups’ of ads that seem to adopt the same position.

“Inspired by”.

“Influenced”

“Reinterpreted”.

Now there’s nothing really wrong with this … it’s something that’s been done by all manner of industries for centuries … however while there’s a common belief that ‘genius steals’, the counter to this is ‘lazy borrows’.

I know … I know … I’m being deliberately assholey, but the beauty of our industry is when we allow creatives the freedom to create.

To allow their crazy minds to take us all to crazy intriguing places.

But instead … thanks to budgets, timelines, dictatorial research, corporate fear, layers of management – and countless other things – we don’t.

Which is why we see so many pieces of work that are replications of a film, a meme, a song, a TikTok idea … basically a version of an album of popular songs that haven’t been played by any of the original artists.

Our industry is capable of brilliant things.

But we’ve sold creativity down the river in a bid to make things easier for people who don’t even value the power of creativity.

Nothing smacks of madness as much as that.

Meanwhile, culture leads change of behaviour, attitudes and choices through its endless energy to explore and express.

So while being inspired is one thing, duplicating is another and when certain brands expect people to spend hundreds or thousands on their products, it blows my mind they want to under-invest in the way they actually present themselves in their communication.

Oh they won’t see it that way.

They’ll talk about the celebrity they hired to front the campaign.

Or the music they licensed.

But underneath it all, they’ll they’re taking shortcuts.

They’ll kid themselves it’s working with charts on optimisation or efficiencies … but the reality is they’re trying to work out how long they’ve got before it all falls apart, because the difference between leading and chasing is not about spend, it’s about attitude.

Or said another way …

You either make music or you’re just a cover band.



Layer Cake …

I was talking to a couple of mates recently.

Both of them are a couple of incredibly talented, highly regarded, multi-award winning creatives and they were asking me what it was like working in NZ.

As we were chatting we came to a revelation about what was causing the decline in advertising standards.

This is a topic that has been debated a lot over the years with a myriad of possible causes. But with the experience I have seen in NZ – plus the experience I have working directly with a number of famous bands and billionaires – we realised there was actually an underlying cause that trumped all other considerations.

It’s not digital.
It’s not consultants.
It’s not holding companies.
It’s not eco-systems or playbooks.
It’s not the wild inflation of strategists.
It’s not cost.
It’s not effectiveness.
It’s not in-house alternatives.
It’s not direct-to-consumers.
It’s not data.
It’s not rational messaging.

It’s the layers within companies.

The multitude of people everything has to go through and be approved by.

Might be on the client side.
Might be on the agency side.
Might be on both sides … but each layer is like a mini-focus group where ‘success’ is when the representative of that particular layer feels something can then be passed on to the next person in their group without it making them look foolish for their decision or choice.

And as the work passes each layer, the work gets diluted or chipped away until the ultimate decision maker gets to see something that is a pale shadow of what was originally intended.

An object that is a trophy to self preservation rather than potency and truth.

And as companies and agencies have grown in their complexity, the work has faced more layers and opinions. Doesn’t matter if you’re independent or part of the most networked agency/company in the history of networked agency/companies … the decline of creative standards is down to the number of organisational layers that now exists within companies.

And why has this happened?

Well, part of it is because of complexity, but the main part is because companies have got into this mad position where the only way they can grant a significant payrise is if the person is promoted.

So we’re in this mad situation where we have increased layers, headcount and complexity simply because we have viewed money as something commensurate with promotion rather than quality.

Now I appreciate you could argue promotion is a sign of quality – but I don’t think that’s right.

Being good at something doesn’t automatically mean you will be good at something more senior. Hell, there’s a lot of people who don’t even want to do something else. They just want to do what they love and they’re happy at.

I remember at Wieden where – for one mad minute – they thought I’d make a good MD.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

They didn’t come to their senses even when I told them I wasn’t even the MD of cynic … and that was a company I actually founded.

I didn’t want to be an MD.
I wasn’t interested in being an MD.
I just wanted to do what I loved and was good at.

And while they finally came to their senses [good call, Luhr, as usual] the reality is a lot of companies have a bunch of layers simply because they needed to promote someone to justify a payrise.

And before you know it, every task has to go through multitudes of layers … where most are designed to dull an idea rather than sharpen it.

While I don’t know this for a fact, I would guess the companies or agencies who are doing the most interesting work … the stuff that attracts culture rather than chases them down then beats them into submission … are the ones where they deal with the ultimate decision maker.

We get to do a lot of that in NZ.

I definitely get to do that with Metallica, Gentle Monster and the GTA team.

And the difference is huge.

Because while some of these clients are genuinely exceptional – especially when I’m talking to the founders of the organisations because that gives them a level of power and authority most other clients could never hope to get – I imagine a lot of the others are no different to the clients everyone who reads this blog deals with in London or New York or Tokyo everyday.

It’s just the big difference is instead of work having to appease the comments and judgement of 20 different people, it only has to agree with 4 … so the idea that gets made resembles the idea on the table to a much greater extent.

So next time you have a client that talks about wanting great work, don’t talk to them in terms of what processes, systems or people you can add to the mix, talk about what both parties need to take away.

Because if you want the work to be potent, kill the layers of filtration.



The Illusion Of Creativity …

The picture above is in our office.

I bloody love it.

I love it because this industry is seemingly falling into 2 group.

Those who live to make work and those who live to talk around making work.

You can tell who is who.

The ones who want to make work just can’t help themselves.

They’re constantly looking for opportunities – or creating opportunities – where they can use creativity to do something exciting or interesting or weird or thought-provoking.

Then there’s the others.

The ones who hide behind decks.

Who always explain why something can’t be done. Who talk about problems rather than possibilities. Who respond literally to every brief. Who talk about what others have done rather than what they could do. Who show work that was done years earlier, not months.

And even though the industry is full of truly talented people, there’s sadly far too agencies of the former and far too many of the latter.

Which highlights how much the industry is its own worst enemy right now and how happy I am being at a place that can’t help itself to make and create.



Creativity Vs Complicity …

So many ads today end up just being fancy sales brochures.

A nondescript, stylish image that either has some meaningless line thrust upon it or a literal lift of the proposition from the brief to become the headline.

Clients love it because they think there’s no wastage.

That there’s no ‘thinking’ that the audience has to do to ‘get the message’.

I remember years ago – when I was working on SONY – the client kept referencing Mr Bean.

No, I’m not joking.

They kept saying Mr Bean is understood by all. Loved by all. Communicates a message without saying a word. They were really trying to push this until I pointed out that while that’s the case, no one would spend thousands buying a TV made by Mr Bean.

Then Balls got made and undermined my argument for years. Hahahaha.

And while I hate looking backwards, I can’t help but think the past was far more interesting creatively than where we’re at today.

These days Audi talk about ‘Future is an attitude‘ when once they talked about Vorsprung Durch Technik.

We have Chivas Regal going on about ‘every taste is an experience’ when once they talked about ‘giving Dad an expensive belt‘.

Heineken now ‘open your world‘ when they once ‘refreshed the parts other beers can’t reach‘.

We have countless other brands who were once so powerful with their brand voice who have now become bland.

[Nothing sums it up like this Audi ad for the same car with pretty much the same line]

What really gets me, is we have the talent in the industry to change this.

We have the hunger as well.

But while there are exceptions – and I mean it in terms of agencies who consistently bring the work rather than the odd bit of work getting through – somewhere along the line, we seem to have chosen a path of complicity.

Without doubt the research techniques becoming more and more favoured by companies plays a part in this. As our clients who are more focused on not making a mistake than making an impact. But it cannot be ignored that agencies have a lack of desire to stand up for what they believe is right. Preferring to be complicit rather than respected.

Which may explain why so few of them believe it is worth investing in finding out what is really going on in culture – preferring instead, to either outsource it or just accept the viewpoint of whichever ‘paid for’ 3rd party the client has hired to do the work for them.

What brought this all up was seeing an old Honda ad from the late 70’s/early 80’s.

OK, so Honda have a long history of doing great work – especially from Wieden London – but it’s always been a brand that has run to its own rhythm with its own idiosyncrasies. But even they – these days – are falling into the trap of rubbing off the edges that defines who they are to become like everyone else.

This ad – like so many of the truly great early 80’s ads – came from Chiat/Day.

My god, what an agency they were.

Sadly I say ‘were’ because as much as they still have great people in there and pull off the occasional truly interesting bit of work, when you compare them to what they were like decades ago, there is no comparison.

Brave. Honest. Distinctive. Creative as hell.

Hell, even when they lost, they did it in a way where they would win.

Every single person in adland – especially at C-Suite level – should read this brilliant article by Cameron Day, son of Guy Day … one of the founders of Chiat.

‘How Big Till We Go Bad’ is a fantastic guide on how to build a truly great agency. And then destroy it.

Anyway, I digress.

The Honda ad I saw of theirs was this …

No, your eyes are not deceiving you.

Once upon a time, car manufacturers – or at least some of them – understood equality.

No cliches.

No pandering.

Just treating their audience as adults and equals.

It’s not really that hard is is, but if you compare it to what we see today, it feels we’ve regressed. [Read more about car ad devolution – with a few exceptions – here]

I do not want to look in the past.

I believe my best creative work is ahead of me.

Or at least the potential of it.

To paraphrase Death of a Salesman – or the equally brilliant Nils of Uncommon – we shouldn’t be interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, you understand? There’s a big blaze going on all around.

But the problem is, people have to see the woods are burning and I worry a bunch of the fuckers think it’s a sunset. Then again, it will be … because if we don’t push forwards, it will be the sunset on our industry and that will be the ultimate insult, because the past should never be more exciting and interesting than the future.