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.



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.



The Power Of Presence …

So recently a friend of mine sent me this video of Prince performing at the Brit awards in 2006.

I don’t just love it because I miss his talent.

Nor do I just love it because it reminds me of what a phenomenal musician he was – with his guitar playing in particular being of Rock God standard.

And I don’t just love it for the beautiful moment he and Darling Nisi sing the chorus of Purple Rain – even though her smile shows how joyful she feels at the moment.

No, the main reason I love it is because of his stage presence. The sheer commitment to performance. The spectacle that is impossible to ignore.

This is more than just being a famous musician performing in front of others – I’ve seen many do that and bore everyone to tears – no, this is about his magnetism.

All eyes are on him. Despite a stage of dazzling talent and dance, you never move your gaze off him. You end up feeling all your emotions have been given a thorough workout despite him being on stage just 12 minutes. I haven’t seen anything like that since Queen’s iconic performance at Live Aid … where in just 20 minutes, they secured their place as music icons.

There are actually less people who have this talent than you think, but one who had it in ‘the real world’ for me was a guy called Chris Jaques.

Years ago I wrote how I had to hold my hands together under the table at our first pitch presentation together because he was so amazing, I just wanted to clap.

I also wrote how anyone who ever worked with Chris who saw the carousel scene in the TV show, Mad Men, thought it could have been him.

He was that good.

But it wasn’t just because he was exceptionally smart.
Nor because he was also exceptionally talented.
But because he had an energy around him that you could not ignore.

He had the incredible ability to make you think he was only talking to you, even in a crowded room. He was clear, open and pragmatic with his opinions. He would go out of his way to ensure everyone felt included and involved. But there was never any doubt he was the leader. You wanted to work for him. Be better for him. When he walked in a room you felt his presence before he said a word. Not because of his power or wealth or standing … but because you felt it was going to be a valuable moment.

But what was even more special about Chris is that he never let this adulation go to his head. OK, not much anyway … certainly less than the people who think they have this impact … which meant he was always approachable but always valuable.

While there are some amazing people out in adland, there’s less Chris’ these days. Whether that’s because they have chosen different industries or this industry hounds people like Chris out is up for debate … but I do feel it’s a great loss.

Many like to refer to them as dinosaurs … people of another time who are no longer relevant. But people who say that have never worked with people like that. They probably wouldn’t want to as they would be challenged and questioned.

But what they don’t understand is their comments wouldn’t be about them.

They would just be talking about the work.

Wanting to help them be better by pushing their own boundaries.

And that’s why everyone should listen to this interview by the irrepressible Tony Davidson of Wieden London.

Tony – along with Kim – basically made that office and his interview is special.

He reminds me a lot of Chris.

Sure, their methods and approaches were very different, but the impact he had on me was very similar.

But after 20 years, Tony is leaving Wieden. While I am in no doubt that he will go on to do other amazing things, the reality is another person who made this industry interesting is going.

And while there are still some out there – Nils Leonard at Uncommon, Angela Watson at Colenso, Jorge Calleja at CPB, Ellie Norman at F1, Susan Hoffman at Wieden and Ryan Fisher at Wieden London to name a few – the industry still seemingly likes to give more face-time to the faceless and beige than the people who make things wonderful and weird.

Maybe that’s the industries insecurity showing [again] but as much as we are talking about mental health and work/life balance in a bid to lure people back to us [which is important and well over due]… maybe another way would be putting the weird, interesting and intriguing in the spotlight again.

Because you don’t attract the creative with even more logic, you attract them with people who have made ridiculous powerful and effective.



Smiling As A Weapon …

So after yesterday’s post about releasing your inner Adele, I have another post about the workplace.

Or should I say, the toxic workplace.

The reason for this is that I’ve spoken to a lot of people recently who – whether it’s because of COVID, or people’s slow return to the workplace or just people getting hired again after a year of being pretty much shut down – have all experienced a similar situation.

Which leads to this message to all managers …

Whether someone has a different view … a less favourable view … or just questions about your view … IT IS NOT A PERSONAL ATTACK.

It doesn’t mean they’re trying to undermine you or piss on your parade.

If anything, it means they care enough about you to want you to be even better though expanding your perspective.

But what is worse is I’m hearing more and more people dealing with it, through toxic positivity.

You will remember from this post, toxic positivity is the belief that “no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life.”

While being intimidating towards people who have different perspectives is equally as bad, at least you know where you stand. Toxic Positivity does it’s damage because it not only immediately undermines you, it makes you feel your opinion literally doesn’t matter.

I can tell you, people who always look on the bright side are far more damaging than those who keep asking questions.

Of course, how you ask – like everything in life – is important, but it’s worth remembering you don’t get to great without debate. And you don’t get to debate without an environment where people are free to be honest with you and themselves.

So if you’re getting this treatment from your manager and you’re starting to question your value and worth … go to yesterday’s post and follow Adele’s excellent advice.

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