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


Unexpected Friends …

A couple of years ago, I wrote about one of the best pieces of advertising I’d seen.

EVER. SEEN.

And you know what, I still feel the same way about it.

The MacMillan Cancer ad continues to have a powerful and emotional impact on me.

I still cry because of it.

I still talk to people about it.

I still feel closer to my parents because of it.

In my opinion, it is one of the best pieces of work ever made by AMV. It’s that incredible.

As you have guessed, I adore it. Truly adore it.

Which is why I was somewhat surprised and confused when I saw this …

Now don’t get me wrong, anything that raises money for charity is good.

But …. errrrm, what the absolute fuck?

A knife?

A Stanley knife?

As brand associations go, this is possibly one of the most unexpected I’ve ever seen … and I once wrote about Ducati lending their name to a bloody external memory card brand.

How did this happen?

Why did this happen?

I’m utterly intrigued and can’t help imagine there’s an amazing story behind this.

That said, I hope it raises Macmillan a ton of money because they one thing I can say for this colab is you definitely bloody notice it.

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Why Wrong Reveals The Systems Limitations Rather Than The Participants …

I recently saw this piece of brilliance …

Isn’t it awesome?

Of course some people will think it’s cute … but wrong.

Whereas others may think it’s cute … and smart.

Putting aside the fact the responsibility for clarity of communication is with the communicator, not the recipient – which means the exam board have to accept their role in the answer given – it also highlights how one persons ‘normal’ is another persons ‘lateral thinking’.

I know that sounds a big leap for what is a young kids incorrect/correct answer to an exam question … but at a time where the British PM wants to kill the arts and freedom of expression for kids in schools – in favour of even more logical and rational studies – it’s a sign how early we try to destroy/control/devalue the imaginations of the young.

What I find ironic about the British PM’s stance is that he seems to be of the belief that having people study maths for longer will make everything better.

Putting aside the fact that much of the UK’s global influence – ignoring the violent invasions of other countries – has come from the arts, that’s a big call to make.

Even more so when you consider the financial mess the UK is in right now, has come from the hands of the very people he wants to encourage more of.

As a parent this situation is very difficult.

Of course we want our children to be set up to embrace life. But if they’re all being taught the same thing … in the same way … without consideration of what their own personal talents, interests and abilities are … then are you actually preparing them to thrive or simply survive?

Recently Otis got diagnosed with a learning difficulty.

I say difficulty, but really it’s a complication.

It’s called Dysgraphia.

While this doesn’t affect his ability to learn, it does affect how he does it and what he may be able to do because of it.

We are incredibly grateful the school he goes to – Birkenhead Primary – not only embraced this situation by changing the way he could engage and present his schoolwork. They did it by specifically tailoring their classes and approach to ensure Otis could participate in ways that actively played to his strengths while maintaining the pace of everyone’s learning. And if that wasn’t impressive enough … they were the ones who first noticed there may be an area of challenge for him and were proactive in acting on it.

The impact of this approach on Otis has been enormous.

Not just in areas of his schoolwork that were being impacted because of dysgraphia, but in his overall confidence, enjoyment and willingness to participate.

He has always been a kid who tries hard and wants to do the right thing [so definitely more like Jill than me] … but thanks to his teachers, he now feels he can express himself fully rather than having to become a smaller version of himself in an attempt to find a way to get through certain areas of class that challenged him because of his dysgraphia rather than his ability.

Frankly I doubt this would have happened if we were still in the UK.

Not because the teachers aren’t as good, but because the system doesn’t allow the sort of deviation of approach that Otis’ school created for him.

What’s scary is Sunak’s attitude towards education will only make this situation for kids like Otis, even harder.

Either actively leaving them behind or setting them up for a life of anxiety, guilt and feelings of inadequacy. And yet it doesn’t have to be that way.

So many of these complications aren’t barriers to learning capacity, just accessibility.

A bit of flexibility can unlock the full potential of a child, especially with the power of technology these days.

But the schooling system is increasingly about ‘targets’ rather than learning.

Preparing you for exams rather than life.

Systems rather than needs.

And while I totally accept creating an education system that caters to the masses as well as the edges is incredibly difficult, having a one-dimensional system that ‘succeeds’ by forcing compliance and oppression is not the solution either.

What the British PM needs to understand is making kids study maths for longer isn’t going to solve the UK’s economic woes. But maybe designing an education system that enables teachers to help kids learn how to play to their strengths, is.

Or to paraphase Sir Ken Robinson … see creativity and imagination as a strength, not a weakness.

We’re so lucky Otis’ school values potential rather than parity … but I can’t help but wonder how many other clever kids are out there who have been written off simply because the system would not allow for them to be recognised, embraced and helped.

When will certain governments understand an educated generation is a successful nation?

Probably when they understand school should be about learning not teaching and it’s an investment rather than a cost.

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When Life Gives You Angostura, Make A Cocktail …

Recently I read the story behind Angostura’s strange bottle.

For those of you who don’t know what Angostura is, it’s a bitters used in cocktails.

For those of you who don’t know what is strange about their bottle, it’s this:

Yep, that’s their normal product.

A bottle, hidden inside fucking massive packing.

The story – as told by Abraham Piper – is the business was taken over by the founder’s sons in 1870.

To help grow its awareness, they decided to update the ‘look’ and enter the finished product into a competition in the hope the exposure would drive the business.

They didn’t have much time so to maximise efficiency, one brother designed the label and the other, the bottle.

One slight problem … they didn’t discuss the size.

Another slight problem … they didn’t realise until they brought both sides of their work together and by then, they didn’t have enough time to alter things before the competition was due to commence.

So they decided to enter it anyway.

Unsurprisingly, they lost.

Except one of the judges told them they should keep it exactly as it was because no one else was going to be stupid enough to make that sort of mistake … which means it was unique and would stand out.

So they did.

And that dumbass mistake – the sort of dumbass mistake that captures Dan Wieden’s classic Fail Harder philosophy, perfectly – was the foundation of a business that continues to evolve and grow to this day.

Now there is a chance this is not true.

They don’t mention it in their history timeline on their website for example.

But history is littered with happy accidents … from making Ice Cream to making Number 1 hit records … so there’s just as much chance it is.

And if that is the case, I’d bloody love it.

Because in this world where everything is researched to within an inch of its life, the products/brands that gain a real and powerful role and position in culture – not to mention whatever category they operate in – are increasingly the ones who keep the chaos in, rather than actively try to filter it out.

Whether that’s because they know it’s better to mean everything to someone rather than something to everyone is anyone’s guess. There’s a good chance they’re just lucky-accident dumbasses. Or they might understand the value of resonating with culture, rather than being relevant to the category.

Whatever it is …

The brands with the strongest brand attribution, assets and audience are increasingly the ones who never have to talk about it, let alone spend their marketing dollars trying to create it.

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The First Is Always Misunderstood …

The photo above was taken by me in June 2006.

So sixteen years ago.

I found it recently in my flickr file.

I don’t know if I ever used it for a post.

I’m not sure where I took it – though I assume Singapore airport.

But I bet you I captured it because I found it weird to see someone playing games.
On their computer.
At the airport.

Remember, 2006 is way before the very first iPhone.

Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Google Earth had only just started.

Shakira was number 1 with ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ and the first Cars movie had just hit the cinema.

And while gaming was huge – and handheld systems had been around for years – the idea of someone playing on their computer – at an airport – was obviously strange enough for me to take a photo.

But would we think that now?

Well, maybe the idea of needing a big-ass laptop to do it may still be considered strange – for totally different reasons than it was in 2006 – but the idea of someone gaming at an airport at all times of day wouldn’t cause a blink of an eye.

And here’s the point.

We – as an industry – are quick to kill new.

We write off different without any hesitation.

Believing if it makes no sense to us, it can’t make sense to anyone. Like we’re the fucking gods of everything.

And yet history has repeatedly shown new needs time.

Time to grow. Time to find its place. Time to find its energy.

From Apple computers to the internet to electric cars to gaming culture.

And while sometimes it may burn out, it’s worth remembering what a Fast Company journalist once said about reviewing tech.

“The biggest mistake is reviewing new tech against established tech. It will never win that because it’s not trying to be that”.

Which is why when you see new habits, beliefs or trends emerge that make little sense to you, it may be worth remembering before you pass judgement that it’s not them who have got it wrong, it’s possibly you who has misunderstood.

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The Difference Between Brand And Band Strategy …

I was recently interviewed by a music company about the work I do for artists.

They – quite rightly – wanted to know what I did and how it was different to what I normally did.

And I explained the difference was made clear pretty much in my very first meeting.

Because I was told this …

Now I can’t be sure they used those exact words, but that was the general premise.

And that was what was amazing.

Because when working with brands, they want you to use creativity to engage audiences, but with bands – at least the ones I’ve been exposed to – it’s the opposite.

I don’t mean they want to alienate people – though they understand the importance of sacrifice better than almost any brand marketer I’ve ever met – it’s just they are the creativity … they are the product … and so the last thing they want is some fucker placing a layer of ‘marketing’ on top of their artistic expression which can be twisted, diluted or fucked with so what they want to say and what it means to them, has no consideration whatsoever.

Now I admit I’m very fortunate the artists I’m working for are of a scale where they have the power to not just consider this issue but do something about it.

Many don’t.

However by the same token, when you’re of that scale, the potential for things to get messed up in some way is much greater.

Which is why they ensured I knew my role was not to market them, but to protect their truth.

Do and explore things that amplify who they are not just flog more product.

And because what they create is an expression who they are … they can express their truth without falling into endless streams of cliched brand consultant speak.

+ So no buzz words.
+ No ambiguous terms.
+ Just stories, experiences and considerations that have defined all they do.

And that’s why they don’t really care if you like their music. Sure, it helps, but they don’t want fawning fandom, they want people who understand what they value, believe and give a fuck about so everything associated with what they do expresses it.

Or said another way, they want people who can ‘speak their tongue’.

Now I am the first to admit there have been some mistakes.

Some things you go, “why did you do that?”

But in the main, I’ve not seen much of it and even when I have called stuff out, they have [generally] appreciated it, because – as I was also told on my first day – I’m being paid to give them truth not comfort.

I’ve always said people should not aspire to be a planner, but get away with the things a planner can get away with. And I’ve got away with a lot as a planner. Done all manner of weird and wonderful.

While I’d like to think that’s what helped me get this gig … the reality is I got it because of an introduction from someone I know.

And while in theory any strategist could do what I’m doing, how I do strategy and how I have been asked to view what it’s role is, has highlighted that’s not the case.

Not because of capability, but what the industry currently wants and expects.

And this is manifested in increasingly not being given the time, support or standards to do things right.

Where speed is more important than substance.

Process more valuable than output.

I wrote about this and more, here.

But it’s more than that, it’s also what clients think strategy is for …

Packaging rather than changing.

Wanting quick wins rather than long term value.

Targeting needs, not a point of view in the world.

Chasing convenience not authenticity.

If anything, doing this work has made me even more grateful to the bosses, agencies and clients I’ve worked with over my career.

Because when I look back, the truly great ones were basically like a band.

Born of belief. Defined by a point of view. Wanting to attract not chase anything popular.

And that’s a big part of why they have been able to remain at the forefront of their individual discipline, category and/or sub-culture.

Because they never saw strategy as a tool for marketing, but to amplify their truth.

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