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


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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Why Business Needs To Be More Seinfeld …

I was never a fan of Seinfeld.

Then I’ve never been much of a fan of Jerry Seinfeld either.

I always found him a bit of condescending, self-righteous prick.

Oh I get he is smart.

His observational skills are almost unparalleled.

But you can be a genius and still be an asshole. Step on down Elon Musk.

However recently I read something Jerry said that made me dislike him less.

Not simply because he didn’t know who McKinsey were, but because of what he highlighted is the problem with them. Or more specifically, the problem companies who use them, have.

Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate this paints Jerry as a control freak.

And I also acknowledge that many companies hire McKinsey because they think the challenge they face is hard – rather than easy.

But what I do like about what he says is he won’t outsource his responsibility.

Sure, he could trust those around him more … and sure, his words smack of egomaniac … but to be fair to him, the product he sells is himself – his personality, his character, his humour – so it makes perfect sense he is obsessive about what goes out under his name because he cares deeply about his reputation, values and his quality control.

And that’s a major problem these days.

Too many don’t.

Oh they’ll say they do.

They’ll run internal and external communication that reinforce they do.

But then they’ll go and outsource their responsibilities and decisions to ‘for profit’ external organisations. Either because they don’t want the pressure … the issue is beyond their abilities … or they want someone to blame if things go wrong.

And the issue with this is the external organisation who are now responsible for answering this challenge, often do it with little to no consideration of who they’re doing it for.

How their clients look at the world.

The nuances and quirks that define who the company is and how they act.

So they provide a solution that does exactly what has been asked of them and nothing more.

Solutions agnostic of client values, beyond some superficial characteristics.

And this has resulted in a world filled with identikit functional solutions. Solutions that answer the issue, but at the cost of commoditisation. And all because senior people – who are paid handsomely to be responsible for their organisations wellbeing and growth – decided to outsource their responsibility to another organisation, even though they know they will never care as much about them as they should care about themselves.

Of course not everyone is like this.

Some are as committed and obsessive about how they do things as what they do.

But there are far too many who look for quick wins.

Easy answers.

Less pressure or responsibility.

Which is why I have always thought whether you are a shareholder or an employee, knowing how much the most senior people understand, value and protect the standards, nuance and quirks of the company they represent – not simply the balance sheet – acts as a good indicator you’re with a company who respects the value of their own value.

Not simply in terms of profit.

Nor in reputation.

But in the standards and values that drives all they do and create.

Which is my way of saying that while I still think Jerry Seinfeld is a bit of a dick, I now respect him for knowing where his responsibilities lie.

To both himself, his future and his fans.

Now if only there were more companies and brands who lived by the same mantra.

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Planets And Suns …

Running a company is hard.

There’s so many things that influence and shape how it runs, it’s no surprise they end up being such complicated beasts.

Different departments.

Different responsibilities.

Different requirements and budgets.

A bunch of different planets all operating by their own gravitational pull.

But here’s the thing … they shouldn’t be.

Because while each of those planets needs to circle the sun.

To be part of something bigger than themselves.

In our industry, the sun would be the creative work.

Or said another way … each and every department in an agency is there to enable the best creative product to be consistently created.

That’s it.

Doesn’t matter if you’re in Finance, HR, IT, Production, Planning or Creative … your purpose is to assist the creation of great work.

And while there are people who are more directly involved in the creation of that work, I don’t mean them …

I mean the end result.

The thing all that energy, tension, time, thinking, travelling, hiring, accounting, system managing, fee negotiating and creative developing has produced and will be judged by.

But sadly that is happening less and less … because on top of there often being a lack of clarity on what ‘great work’ is, as infrastructures grow, different departments end up believing they’re the sun.

The most important ingredient.

The element that decides failure or success.

And while we cannot deny each discipline plays an important role in the operational ability of an organisation … when they think – or are allowed to think – they’re the single most critical part in the whole process, that’s when it all goes to shit.

Which is another reason why independent agencies have a huge advantage over corporations.

Because they have the power to ensure their business is designed to specifically serve the work … ultimately driven by the belief great work delivers great profit whereas a focus on profit diminishes the value of the work.

And it’s true … though that doesn’t mean all independent agencies live up to that – just like not all corporations are ignorant to it – however in the main, that’s generally how it turns out.

Which is why I keep going back to what the film director Michael Mann told me about producing excellence.

He said that when he starts a movie, he talks to everyone in the production team.

Everyone.

He explains his vision for the story … his goal for it … what will be really important to him.

Then he tells them he needs them.

That they all play a critical part in the fulfilment of quality.

That he wants them to help make his vision even better than he could imagine.

But – and it’s a huge but – its about what HIS vision for the movie is, not theirs.

And that’s the key.

Freedom within a vision.

Planets going around the same sun … not going in whatever direction they want.

Remembering your role is to help make something bigger than you better, rather than just caring about how you look.

Working to enable your colleagues to succeed rather than get in the way with needless process or ego.

Making decisions based on what helps serve the ultimate goal, not just your personal preference.

And while I accept protocol and policy will impact our lives and jobs, that’s where leadership comes in.

Ensuring the things that are adopted – or have to adopted – don’t get in the way of what you’re all there to create.

Or said another way, it’s asking one simple question: Will it make the work better?

And that’s why who you hire is so important.

Not just in terms of ability … but in terms of their standards, values, vision and focus.

Because your goal is to build potency not simply capability.

Because the reason a focused company is often a better company is simply because people don’t waste so much of their energy dealing with the internal bullshit of departments who have been allowed to believe they’re the sun, rather than a planet.

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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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