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.



A Reminder About Humans To Everyone Dealing With Humans …

No matter how well planned you think you are.

How detailed you’ve been.

How many case studies you’ve watched.

How many focus groups you’ve sat in.

How logical your argument is.

People will always do what works for them, not works for you.

So think about that next time you try and claim your comms plan/user journey is a true reflection of how all people engage with brands and make purchase decisions.

For the record …

I get the role and value of comms plans/user journeys.

I have no issue with them. In fact they can make a real difference to the work.

Where I get pissy is when they’re presented as ‘fact’ rather than a guide. Acting like they represent how ALL people behave – while ignoring factors like personal situation and circumstance as well as competitive activity.

Of course this attitude of ‘unquestionable, unbendable, superior intelligence and logic’ is prevalent in many planners … probably driven more by clients wanting certainty and consistency than personal ego … however by refusing to acknowledge we’re dealing more in frameworks than blueprints, we’re not just undermining our discipline and inadvertently placing barriers on new approaches and experiments, but ultimately selling generalised convenience rather than personal intimacy which means it’s set up to be average from the outset.

Madness.

As I said to a client recently about insights …

They’re not perfect.

They’re not infallible.

They’re not all encompassing.

But when done right, they increase the odds of good things happening because they reveal the ridiculous truth behind people’s beliefs and behaviours … and I swear if we all adopted this attitude towards what we do, we may just end up making things that are more interesting and more effective as well.

We won’t. But I just like to think we might.



In The Rush To Succeed, You Can Go Right Past What You’re Actually Looking To Achieve …

I’ve written a lot about craft.

The value of it.

Creatively, culturally and commercially.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate speed can have a competitive advantage – but it’s also important to remember so can craft.

In all honesty, you can easily tell those who think ‘good enough is good enough’ and those who are focused on doing things wonderfully.

They may look similar.

They may perform in similar ways.

But there’s something that separates them.

Maybe it’s the quality of materials or the attention to detail when your look closely or maybe it just feels differently … something that feels like someone sweated everything all the time.

But what is interesting is why.

Because it’s not just so they can charge someone more for what they’ve done … but, as Steve Job’s referenced in his paint behind the fence story … so they can feel they’re valuing their own talent and standards.



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.