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


Hello, End Of Days …

Artisan.

A relatively recent addition to the marketing lexicon.

The attempt to make an everyday product sound special.

The goal to appear you are offering individual craft and care.

The ambition to charge a premium for the smallest possible addition.

And that’s why we now have artisan burgers, cakes and now fucking peanuts … even though the reality is one has swapped a bread roll for a [bought] brioche bun, the other has put some hand-piped icing on the top of some cupcake and a packet of peanuts have had some salt and pepper chucked on top of them.

They’ll be claiming the artisan experience extends to the lorry drivers who chuck boxes of nuts in the basement of the local shop. Though they’d describe it as ‘our highly trained delivery operatives gently hand deliver our artisan nuts to establishments of repute, allaround the country, to maximise the taste experience and customer accessibility’.

This sort of shit does my head in.

What’s worse is it works. At least for some people and brands.

Not because people believe it’s really an artisan product, but because they want to believe they’re special and worth the ‘extra’.

Which says as much about the state of humanity as it does the state of marketing.

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Collabs Are Becoming A Circle Jerk …

Before I start, I’ve been a huge fan of collabs over the years. Seeing what happens when two different artists or brands or artists and brands come together has been fascinating.

And for every terrible LG x Prada phone, there’s a Nike x Ben & Jerry’s sneaker.

But … but … it feels we’ve moved from collab to labelling.

Where it isn’t about what two parties can create with each other, but just renting space for another brand to slap their logo on.

Take these Travis Scott x Playstation x Nike sneakers …

Jesus Christ.

Where the Ben & Jerry’s felt crafted and cared for this is just … well, put it this way, it feels more like a bad promotional item than something that represents a true collab.

And the thing is, this approach is happening more and more – across all manner of categories – which is why I kinda love what Nobuaki Kurokawa has done with their first product launch from their CUGGL label.

Let’s be honest, they’re taking the piss.

Like, blatantly and unashamedly.

Not only does it look like it say’s Gucci, by making the design resemble graffiti, it feels like they’re also sticking two fingers up at the terrible and contrived Gucci/Balenciaga collab.

The Gucci x Belenciaga is especially horrific because individually, they’ve not really laid a foot wrong in building the value and position in culture of their brands. And then they do this.

Lazy.

Fake.

Obvious.

Out-of-date.

Dad at the disco rubbish.

Basically, the fashion industry version of this.

Which is why I like what CUGGL have done so much.

Punking the brands pretending to be punking fashion.

Of course, Diesel did something like that before – though their mischievous eye was aimed at the counterfeit industry [even though it kinda said ‘fakes may be real’, which is the last thing they needed to do] however in terms of greatest accolade for mischief, that prize should have gone to the band Blink 182.

I say ‘should have’ because they ended up pulling out of potentially the greatest burn ever.

In the early 2000’s, Axl Rose was making a new Guns’ n’ Roses album.

It was unique because the only original member of the band was Axl himself.

He had fired all the band and was basically at his most indulgent ego best.

The only thing he’d announced was the album was going to be called ‘The Chinese Democracy’.

For years and years nothing came out.

The album postponed time and time again.

At one point, his record label, Geffen, pulled funding … and yet the recording still went on.

Enter Blink 182.

They announce they were recording a new album and guess what they were going to call it …

That’s right, The Chinese Democracy.

Better yet, because Axl was taking so long to release his version – they could be sure they’d be first, so history would always make it look that Guns n’ Roses copied Blink 182.

Alas they went cowardly on the idea, which is a shame … because that would have set a benchmark CUGGL and Diesel could only dream of reaching.

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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 Great Effectiveness Swindle …

There’s so many agencies, consultancies and self-appointed guru’s out there who talk about how to be successful at business.

They all have their models, eco-systems, philosophies and proof points.

And yet so few have ever done it for themselves.

They’ve chosen to ‘succeed’ under the safety-net of anothers money, reputation or effort.

That doesn’t mean what they do or think doesn’t have value – of course it does – but it also doesn’t mean their viewpoint is the only one worth counting.

And yet, every single bloody day, that’s how it is presented.

Recently someone wrote a piece on how they had used their proprietary research methodology on a Cannes winning TV ad and declared it would not deliver sustainable growth for the brand in question.

Putting aside the fact they were judging work that had won a creativity award rather than an effectiveness one … the thing I found funny was their confidence in proclaiming their view was the ultimate view.

I am not doubting their smarts.

I am not doubting their data.

But I am doubting their breadth of business appreciation.

And yet somehow, the voices of a few have positioned themselves as the be-all and end-all of effectiveness.

Don’t follow us and you fail.
Don’t follow us and your brand will lose.
Don’t follow us and you will be labeled foolish.

Now I am not denying these people do have a lot of experience and lessons we can learn from, but they’re not infallible.

But that’s how the industry approaches them.

Lording them like they are Yoda’s of the future.

But they’re not.

Don’t get me wrong, they are very good at evaluating effectiveness from a particular perspective and set of behaviours. Offering advice that can be hugely important in the decision making process.

But there’s a whole host of brands and business that have adopted totally different models and achieved ‘effectiveness and success’ that leaves others far behind.

Incredible sustainable success.

From Liquid Death to SKP-S to Gentle Monster to Vollebak to Metallica to name but a few.

Oh I know what some will say …

“They’re niche”“they’re young”“they’re not that successful”.

And to those people I would say maybe you don’t know what you’re talking about … because in just that list, it includes the biggest selling brand on Amazon, the fastest selling brand in their category on earth and the second most successful American band in history.

But there were two things that really brought the issue of mindset narrowcasting to me …

The first was the launch of a book that was basically about creating future customer desire for your brand/business.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that … but no shit Sherlock.

Has the market got so short-sighted and insular that the idea of doing things that also drive your future value and desirability become a revelation?

It’s literally the most basic entrepreneur mindset, and yet it was presented like it was Newton discovering the laws of gravity.

This person is super smart.

They’ve done a lot of good stuff.

But it just feels the actions of some in the industry are driven by the fetishisation of icon status … even though, ironically, what it does is highlight their experience may be narrower than they realise.

But at least the book had good stuff in there.

Stuff that could help people with some of the basics.

A desire to look forward rather than get lost in the optimisation circle-jerk.

This next one was a whole lot worse.

Recently an ex-employer of mine went to see a current client of mine.

Specifically the founder and CEO.

Apparently they went in to tell him he was missing out on a whole host of business and they could help him get more.

They then proceeded to present a massive document on how they would do it.

He looked at them and told them it was very interesting but they were wrong.

He told them their premise was based on a business approach he doesn’t follow or believe in.

A business approach that didn’t reflect the industry he was in, only the industry they were in.

He then informed them he had the most profitable store on the planet and so while he appreciated their time, he had faith in his approach and it was serving him well.

But it gets better.

As they were leaving – and I’ve been told this is true by someone who was apparently there – the person showing them out informed them their boss had a personal net worth of US$36 billion and based on their companies current share price, that meant he was more valuable than their entire group.

Was it an asshole thing to do?

Yep.

Do I absolutely love it?

Oh yeah.

Will I get in trouble for telling this?

Errrrrm, probably.

My point is the industry has decided ‘effectiveness’ can only be achieved and measured in one way and any deviation from that is immediately discounted or considered ‘flawed’.

Often by people who have never actually built a world leading business themselves.

Again, I am not dismissing the importance of what is being said, it’s HUGELY important – which is why I’m proud we won the Cannes/Warc effectiveness Grand Prix – but, and it’s a huge one, if we think that’s the only model and only use that one ‘model’, then we are literally adopting a single approach to solve every one of our clients every problems.

One.

That’s insane.

Not just because it’s stupid but because if everyone adopts the same approach, then impact will be influenced far more by spend and distribution that strategy.

Please note I am absolutely not saying we should burn the models or philosophies or systems that have proven their value to drive business. No. Absolutely not. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be praying at the feet of them … especially when many are simply focused on creating steady impact rather than spectacular.

Yes, I know ‘spectacular’ has a lifespan – which is why innovation is so important – but so many brands out there either aim for the middle … reinforced by processes, protocols and rules defined as ‘best practice’ by people in a particular industry … or they bake-in ‘limitation’ into their potential because they’ve blindly adopted rules they never challenge or explore from other industries or entrepreneurs.

At the end of the day, if a brand like Liquid Death can become the biggest selling water brand on Amazon because they found a way to make men actually want to drink water through a model and approach that is not only radically different to what so many of the industry experts say is ‘the only way’ … but is the opposite of it … then your brand may be inhibiting itself by following a model designed to make you fit in with it, rather than redefine how it fits in with you.

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It’s Not An Ad, It’s A Documentary …

So recently, someone sent me this from the US …

It definitely raised my eyebrows reading it.

Mainly because – regarding Prince Andrew – it was absolutely true.

And while it was definitely done for ‘attention seeking’ purposes … and the company behind it has, as far as I can see, absolutely no connection to the Royal Family in any way … it is STILL better than most brands trying to hijack a cultural moment for their own benefit.

Maybe it’s because of the subject matter, one few would dare to play with.

Maybe it’s because they went all in with their headline, rather than blandom bullshit.

But when a mini-storage billboard – using terrible font and imagery – still produces something much better than the ads from brands trying to ‘hijack’ the Boris resignation, you realise 3 things.

1. The corporate desire to blend in more than stand out.
2. The lack of pointed headlines in communication.
3. The phone-it-in approach to comms planning.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t advocate using Prince Andrew as a figure in any of my clients ads either … but I’ll remember that billboard far more than whatever BK and countless others did during a mass ‘high profile’ moment.

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