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

Play To Provoke, Not To Pander …

So this is the last post till next Thursday.

I know … I know … I’ve only just come back from China but now I’m off to the US, so you get 3 more days free from me. Given this month has had an alarming lack of posts given I’ve found myself in Fiji, Australia, China and America, you should consider October my early Christmas present to you all.

So to make up for that, here’s a relatively long post.

Which by my standards, means extra long.

So recently I caught up with an ex-colleague from cynic.

Given they were a bloody nightmare when we worked together, I’m still in shock how they are now a very senior figure in a very high profile company.

Damn them, hahaha.

Anyway, we were chatting and they said how bad they thought agencies were in pitches.

Specifically, their desperation to be liked.

They said they thought the business plan for many agencies is to out-pander the competition.

It got so bad that apparently in a recent meeting, they asked the agency:

“If we’re so good and doing so well, why would we need you?”



Yep … but they have a point.

I remember once being told to not challenge the clients previous work as someone in the room might have made it … even though we were literally in a pitch to reinvent the clients work.

And while it was an exception in my career [which I ignored and – guess what – we won!!!] the reality is I am hearing this happening more and more, which is why my friends commentedjust seemed to underline its validity.

Which leads me to some questions …

What do agencies think our job is?

What do agencies want to do and change?

And for the companies that buy into this, what do they want their agencies to do for them?

I appreciate I have been incredibly fortunate throughout my career by working with/for/under people, agencies and clients [not to mention my parents] who deeply value debate and provocation to get to better places. I also acknowledge there is an art to HOW you challenge … rather than go in with fists and elbows.

But the idea of pandering rather than provoking seems insane to me.

Sure, you have to have a point of view rather than just have a desire to be controversial … but while you can’t be blind to the good stuff people are doing, neither should you be to the bad.

I swear part of the problem is this attitude we are part of the ‘service’ industry.

That our job is to serve.

To stay silent.

To satisfy needs.

And while we are there to serve our clients … it’s in the quest of helping them be better, not be subservient to. But increasingly it feels that is what a lot of people are expecting – and why a lot of agencies are pandering – which is why I will always treasure something my brilliant ex-NIKE/FFI client and friend – Simon Pestridge – once said to me:

“Middle management want to be told they’re right. Senior management want to know how to be better”.

He’s right.

He’s never been more right.

It’s why the people who worked for him are also great clients … because he set great standards, of which one of them was understanding that transparency, truth and challenge are ultimate signs of respect not confrontation.

Debate isn’t bad.

In my mind, it means you both want to get to somewhere better.

Where you’re holding each other to standards and ambitions you hold dear.

Of course, to do this properly you need to share ambition, standards and trust … not just philosophically, but in terms of the actual work and change you want to create together.

I mean … if you can’t be provocative during a pitch – when a client is literally looking for new ideas – when the hell can you be?

Which all reinforces something my parents used to say to me …

Everyone wants to be liked, but you go further when you’re respected.

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Modern History …
August 1, 2023, 7:45 am
Filed under: Airports, Brand, Childhood, Creativity, Cynic, Gaming, Holiday

Another month forward with a totally un-topical post.


So a while back, I was walking through Heathrow Airport and saw this …

A Top Trumps vending machine.

Top. Bloody. Trumps.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Top Trumps … hell, we even made some for a project cynic had with NASA … but I was surprised as hell to see a vending machine dedicated to them.

Of course they’re perfect plane/holiday material … but in a smartphone world, it was still a surprise to see them because they’re proper old school.

Mind you, so are Rubik’s cubes – which in a few days, you’ll read a post about – so maybe there’s a growing desire to get back to more simple but immersive stuff.


Whatever the reasons, I liked it and I like the line on the side of the machine: “Whatever you’re into, so are we”.

OK, so they could have dropped ‘so are we’ – and not just because it would make it sound better – but I like they’re basically communicating that they see everyone, regardless what weird shit they may be into. Better yet, they do.

OK, so while they definitely don’t have a pack for everything people are into [ahem] there’s an incredible range [see the Spitting Image pack] and there’s the chance to make your own, which would have been great if they had that 20 years ago, ha.

So well done TT … you may be old, but you’re aging better than most. Me for a start.

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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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Time Machines Suck …

I’ve written this blog consistently for 15 years.


My god …

But it gets worse.

Because bar a few weeks of holiday, it is something that has been written every single Monday to Friday.

That means there has been over 3,900 posts of utter gibberish for over 780 weeks.

And as tragic as that all sounds, there’s an awful lot of people who comment on here who have been here pretty much all that time.


Now, I have to say there are some lovely benefits to long term blog writing.

In some ways it’s like a diary … capturing what I was thinking or doing at any given time.

It also is a lovely way to see how my opinions and thoughts have evolved over time.

Plus there’s the hope that when I’m gone, Otis will still feel his Dad is close.

OK … OK … there are some posts I definitely DON’T want him to read, but there’s others I’d be glad for him to keep going back to.

Putting aside I basically write the same 3 or 4 posts over and over again … there is a lot of my life contained in these pages.

From getting married to losing my Mum to having my son.

Proper life-changing stuff … and that doesn’t even cover the moves to different countries, jobs and homes.

The best and worst of my life is detailed here which is why – despite all these big life events being sandwiched between endless amounts of shit – I still like it.

Occasionally I randomly click on a date and just see what I wrote.

Recently I did this and was reminded what a little shit I was.

OK, can be.

It’s this.

Yep, it’s the time I tried to auction off Martin Sorrell’s business card so people could send him stupid messages or texts.

On the plus side, I was offering to give any money to charity.

On the negative, I was working for WPP at the time.

If you think that’s stupid, there was the time I wrote a post featuring a photo of Sir Martin with a picture of Toad of Toad Hall under the caption ‘Spot The Difference’.

And the weird thing is that while I don’t agree with his approach to creativity, I do respect him. I have met him on a number of occasions and he was very, very impressive.

Though it’s fair to say that respect was only one way, Especially when there was an agency Q&A and I asked him ‘what do you spend all your money on?’

So Sir Martin … even though I know you would never read this blog [more proof you’re clever] I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for my stupidity. It was ridiculous … but if it’s any consolation, at least it wasn’t as bad as this.

I know … I know … this was a terrible post even by my standards.

So celebrate in the fact that tomorrow is Good Friday so I’m off till next Tuesday and you’re not going have to deal with any more of this shit till then.

I don’t know about you … but it’s the sort of news that makes you almost believe in God, doesn’t it.

Happy Easter, enjoy the sugar rush.

Don’t Want Something So Much That You Do Something You Don’t Want …

When I was at cynic, I wasn’t allowed to talk money with clients.

The main reason for this is that while I like money, I like doing weird and wonderful things more … so I used to agree to terrible terms just because I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss out on doing something we were really excited by.

Now I get we like to think there’s some sort of logic to this approach, but as George kindly told me – while punching me in the head – what I was doing was undermining our position.

For a start, your relationship with the client is impacted. That doesn’t mean they don’t value you, but it means they don’t value you as much as they should. They see you as a ‘cheap problem solver’ rather than a valuable problem solver.

Then there’s the fact all your additional time and passion will never be rewarded to the level it deserves. The worst part is this is your own fault as you already set the precedent for how much you are worth by lowering your fee to such a great degree.

And then there’s the dilution of the projects importance.

In essence, when something is made much cheaper, the effect is its value goes the same way. Going from something significant to just another thing being done. From having a strong focus within the company management to being delegated to people who don’t really have the same decision making power.

Before you know it, clients start questioning other things you’re doing.

Asking why certain things need to be done. Challenging the time or expense on the elements that show the real craft.

Leaving the end result a lesser version of what it should have been.

Now this doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens a lot.

And while I get we are in a highly competitive time, where everyone is looking to save cash – the ease in which we undermine our own value is both astonishing and debilitating.

George’s brilliance was his ability to have us walk away.

I have to be honest, we had many arguments about this over the years … but in the main, he was right.

His point was ‘why would someone value us if we’re not valuing us?’.

It’s a pretty compelling argument.

This doesn’t mean we weren’t open to negotiation, but George’s position was ‘never forget we have something they want because we’ve shown them something they need’.

Another pretty compelling argument.

And while this approach helped us not only win all manner of great creative projects – but helped us be a profitable, sustainable company – I still found it hard to deal with.

Hell, on the occasion we didn’t win a project because somebody said they could do it for cheaper, I was a bloody nightmare. George used to say it was because I am an only child – which may be right – because I hated not getting what I really, really wanted.

And even then, George was the voice of reason.

“Why are you upset about losing a project with a client who wants to go down to a price point rather than up to a standard?”


What makes it worse is he meant it.

He, more than any of us, knew our value and wasn’t going to let us let go of something we had worked so hard to earn.

He’s right of course.

It’s the reason the best work comes from people who share the same goal.

To aim high, not cheap.

Sure, money comes into it … but the focus is always the quality of the output not just the price.

It’s why Cynic was so exciting.
It’s why Wieden+Kennedy are so special.
It’s why Metallica’s management are so influential.
It’s why all the work I’m doing right now is so fascinating.

George taught me so much.

While I appreciate I’m in a much more privileged position than many, nowadays I am totally comfortable with walking away from a project if I feel the vision, ambition and value for a project is not shared.

And what’s weird is that while that approach has resulted in me walking away from a lot of potentially interesting projects that were worth a lot of money to me – especially over the last 6 months – it has brought me a range of fascinating clients and projects [and cash] that most agencies would kill to have a chance to work on.

I’ve written about knowing the value of your value in the past.

I’ve talked about how that lets you play procurement at their own game.

And while it feels scary to stick to your standards when someone is threatening to take away something you really want, it also makes you feel alive.

Butterflies of excitement. A taste of power and control. Nervousness of being in the game.

And while it might not always come off and while you may be able to justify why it would be easier to just take whatever they want to give you … it’s a beautiful feeling to feel you matter. That your work matters. That the way you look at the world matters. That what you want to create matters. That you won’t allow yourself to do something simply because you’re the cheapest. Or allow a bad process to force a diluted version of what you were hired to do. Or let yourself be evaluated by someone who doesn’t care about what you’re creating, just that it’s done. That you matter enough to not allow others to negatively judge you for terrible conditions they put you in.

It can take time to come to terms with this.

It took me almost 20 years to really get it.

And while some may call you a pretentious or stubborn or commercially ignorant, the reality is dismissing the value of your value simply to make things commercially viable for everyone else is simply the most stupid thing you can do.

Because to paraphrase something Harrison Ford once said, when you devalue the value of something you’ve spent your whole life working at, you’re not just being irresponsible, you’re not valuing the value of the time, experience and expertise it has taken to get you to that point.

George knew this.

George helped me benefit from this.

George eventually got me to understand this.

And I’ll always be grateful for that gift.


I’ve removed comments. Not just because I’m scared of the mountain of abuse the ex-cynic alumni who comment on here may/will give me. But because I’m even more frightened they may bathe George in even more praise and that would be too much for me to deal with.

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