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


Why Tears Show Leadership …

A few weeks ago, in a supermarket in New Zealand, there was a terrible incident where a man entered a store in Dunedin and stabbed people.

While no one fortunately died and the assailant was apprehended, the reality is there were a number of people’s lives that were changed forever – specifically a number of the staff who were working at the Countdown store at the time.

Obviously this would be news anywhere in the world, but in New Zealand – a place where there is an overall feeling of safety and humanity – it’s a major story.

When the manager of the store – Kiri Hannifin – appeared on the nightly news … rather than present herself in the emotionless, beige voice of the corporate mission statement, she did something different …

She cried.

Not the fake tears of Matt Hancock … but real, raw emotion.

She was devastated her colleagues had been hurt.

She was distraught she felt she had let them down because as their manager, she believed her job was to protect them.

She was tormented that the pain of the tragic events would be felt by families throughout the community.

At a time where so many companies look at employees who express their emotions and feelings as weak or a pain-in-the-arse … the honesty of Kiri Hannifin was a welcome change, despite it being born from such a horrible reason.

In addition, the comments that accompanied her interview were almost entirely positive – which compared to the tsunami of hate that tends to follow good news stories in the UK and US – brought some hope from a tragic situation.

While I don’t know her, Kiri Hannifin appears to be a brilliant human and a brilliant manager. And Countdown – which is, let’s not forget, a supermarket – seems to value and employ people who value people.

So to all those companies who want to ‘connect’ to the public, maybe you need to hire more people like Kiri rather than faceless execs who are media-trained to within an inch of their life.



A Year On From A Half Century …

This time last year, I was writing about how I only had 11 days left of my 40’s.

That I would soon be reaching my ‘half century of age‘.

To say a lot has happened since then is an understatement.

A year ago, I was living in Fulham, working with R/GA and stuck in the first lockdown.

Since then, I have gone through redundancy, bought a beautiful family home in the countryside, watched Forest fuck up the best chance for promotion that they’ve had in 20 years, been in The Guardian newspaper, got ‘The Hoff’ to make a video for my beloved Paul’s big 5-0 birthday, started Uncorporated with Metallica’s management … worked with even more rockstars and billionaires … as well as some fashion icons, music producer legends and the most anticipated video game in history … bought a house in New Zealand that we never saw, moved to New Zealand in the middle of a pandemic, started working at the wonderful Colenso and got to see my family start living a ‘normal’ life again.

And that’s just the big bits.

So here we are again.

The beginning of the month of my birthday.

I hope to fuck this year is not as traumatic.

I’m fine with the variety, but please, not as traumatic.



Nothing Shows Respect Like Letting Someone Argue With You …

A career is a funny thing.

I mean literally, as a concept – it’s quite bizarre.

The idea of working in one industry and hoping to move up a fictional ladder and somehow hope that by the time you’re pushed off it – and we’ll all be pushed off it at some time – you’ve built up enough reputation or cash to keep you going through till the bitter end.

Hahahaha … Mr Positive eh!?

Anyway, by hook or by crook I’ve somehow managed to have what I’d call a career.

Admittedly, I fell into it – but overall, I’ve had a pretty good one.

I’ve worked at some amazing places.
I’ve got to live literally all around the World.
I’ve met people who have literally changed my life.
I’ve been part of work that still excites me years later.
And somehow, I’m still doing all those things, which is insane.

But as wonderful as all that is, one thing I am particularly proud of is how many of my old team mates are now at some of the most highly regarded creative companies in the World doing all manner of interesting things.

Of course, I had little to do with it – it’s all their talent – but the bit that makes me proud is that they are forging their own careers based on their own ideas and their own opinions and their own voice.

About 2005, I realised how lucky I had been with previous bosses.

All of them encouraged me to find my own voice rather than duplicate someone else’s … and while that often got me in trouble, they never strayed from their path of encouraging independent thought.

Now I appreciate a lot of companies say this, but this wasn’t some PR bullshit they could spout in a magazine, they lived it – openly and actively welcoming, encouraging and igniting debate.

And they never ‘pulled rank’.

It was always a discussion of equals – which was one of the most empowering and liberating professional feelings I ever had.

It showed trust. It showed respect. It showed value.

And even though I’m an old fuck who has done OK in my career, I still get that same feeling when I am working with others who embrace the same value.

As much as rockstars and billionaires may have a reputation for demanding diva’s, I can honestly say the ones I’ve been working with have been amazing in welcoming opinion. They may not always like what is said, but they always value why it has.

And that’s why, when I saw a shift in planning from rigour to replication … challenge to complicity … and individuality to impotency [driven by the global financial crisis of 2008] I realised the best thing I could do is encourage my team to be independent in thought, voice and behaviour.

I should point out this was not selfless. By having great creative and cultural thinkers in my team, they would help make even better work and that would have a positive effect on me too.

I know, what a prick eh.

And of course, I acknowledge not every planner was following the replication path. Nor was every agency. But it was definitely happening and arguably, this is why Australian planners have risen in position more than those from other nations [ie: Tobey head of planning at Uncommon, Paula global head of Nike planning at Wieden, Andy head of planning at Wieden Portland, Rodi, head of strategy at Apple South East Asia and Aisea MD at Anomaly LA to name but 5] because – as much as the Aussie government may like to say they suffered – the country was largely unaffected, which meant training continued, standards continued, creativity continued.

So while there was a bunch of other values we continually encouraged and practiced, the desire to develop independent thinking, openness and debate were a real focus of mine and have continued to be.

Whether I was successful is up to the people who had the awkwardness of dealing with me, but I distinctly remembering being in a meeting at Wieden in Shanghai after Sue, Leon and Charinee had just challenged a bunch of things we had just talked to the agency about.

One of the global team was there and said, “they’re very outspoken”.

And while normally that could be read as a diss, it wasn’t … it was more of a surprise because many people in China – especially the young – tend to keep very quiet, especially in front of people who are at a more senior level to them and this mob had gone to town.

To which I replied, “I know. It’s a wonderful headache to have”.

And it was.

And it is.

Which is why I will continue to believe the best thing any head of planning can do is encourage independent thought and respect for debate and rigour … because while it can creates moments where it’s a right pain in the arse, the alternative is far more disagreeable.

Have a great weekend.



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.



There’s Three Types Of Old Person …

Contrary to the quote of Oscar Wilde above, I don’t think the young think they know everything.

Sure there’s some … but the vast majority seem to simply be curious to explore and learn. It’s why I have far more faith in the future of the planet in their hands than my peers.

In fact, I meet far more older people – normally white men – who have the attitude of being the font of all knowledge.

In fact, they all fall into one of 3 distinct groups …

Those who think they know everything.

Those who know they don’t know everything,

And those who do know everything.

Given the last group consists of one person – Mr Martin Weigel – that means the vast majority fall into one of the first 2 camps.

The scary thing is that there seems to be far more who think they know everything versus those who are open to keep learning. I do sort-of understand. A life lived is a life experienced. Except it isn’t … plus life is constantly moving and evolving so to come in with some condescending, self-important. “I know it all” attitude is literally the worst thing you could do.

And yet so many still do it.

The funny thing is, because they come in with an attitude of forcefulness, they rarely have people speak up against them so they go off thinking they’re right while everyone around them whispers how stupid they are.

My Mum – as usual – had it right.

She was always open to the new.

It didn’t mean she liked it.

It didn’t mean she understood it.

But she felt if it mattered to them, it should matter to her.

And that’s why she went out of her way to watch, listen and learn.

What’s even more wonderful is that people who saw her being interested in them were then interested in her.

She loved the idea that she could mess with the expectations people had of an elderly Italian woman.

Not so she could pretend she was young, but so she could feel she still was an active member of society. Someone who still had something to offer, even if that was to stop older people blindly discounting what was emerging in culture.

God I miss her.

Which is why her, “be interested in what others are interested in” should be something we all follow. Young, old, rich, poor … because the more we understand, the more we can actually create change rather than conflict.