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


You Can’t Stand Out If You Want To Be The Same As Everyone Around You …

Tone of voice has always made me smile.

A list of cliched terms that somehow supposedly captures the distinctive characteristics of a brand, despite using 90% of the same language.

Fun … but aspirational.
Premium … but approachable.
Smart.
Human.
Innovative.

Blah … blah … blah …

What ends up happening is two things.

1 It ends up all coming down to a ‘look’.
2 It ends up with some people ‘getting the brand’ but never being able to articulate what it is beyond those same cliched words every brand uses
.

That’s why I loved when Dan Wieden said …

Brand voice was given a huge amount of focus and time at Wieden.

It wasn’t some scribbled words shoved on a brief at the last second that everyone ignored … it was really delving into the soul of the brand.

How it looked at the world.
The Values and beliefs.
It’s point of view.

Oh, I get it, that sounds as pretentious as fuck doesn’t it … but that’s why you can tell a NIKE spot within 1/10th of a second … regardless of the sport, the audience, the language it’s in, the country it represents or even the style of ad.

That’s right.

They get brand attribution and can be as random as fuck.

And before you say, “oh, but that’s just NIKE” … Wieden [who are/were the undisputed champions of this] did the same thing for Honda, P&G, Chrysler, Converse and any number of totally desperate brands.

The reality is, when you really invest in getting the brand voice right – both from an agency and client perspective – it becomes something far more than a look or a tone, it’s a specific and individual feeling.

And that’s why I find this obsessive conversation about ‘brand attribution’ so amusing.

Oh I get it, it’s important.

But the simplest way to get it is to simply do something interesting.

An expression of how you see the World without constraint.

A point of view others may view as provocative but actually is born from your truth.

That’s it.

It’s not hard and you’ll get attribution automatically.

And not just any attribution … but the sort that has short and long-term commercial value rather than begrudged and meaningless familiarity.

However so many brands – and the brilliant Mark Ritson has to take a lot of the blame for this – think attribution is built on the repetition of brand assets.

And while there’s some truth to that … the difference is when ‘brand assets’ ARE the idea rather than born from it, then you’re not building a brand or creating change, you’re literally investing in complicity and invisibility.

Especially if those brand assets are so bland and generalistic that to not make any impact in the real world whatsoever.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth …

You can’t have commercially advantageous attribution and be traditional at the same time.

Oh I know there’s a lot of agencies and consultancies who say you can, but they’re literally spouting bullshit.

I’ll tell you something else …

If you’re relying on opening logos, watermarks or number of brand name mentions per execution to ensure your work is being attributed to your brand … then you’re not just likely to be showing your neediness and desperation, you’re probably admitting that you’re not saying or doing something that is worthy of making people care.

In fact the only thing worse is if you hire a ‘celebrity’ to front your campaign, then have to label who they are because no one knows them.

Sorry.

Now I appreciate this sort of approach may get you a ‘Mini MBA’ from the Mark Ritson school of marketing … and it may help with internal consistency and familiarity … but I can assure you that it won’t get you a sustainably disproportionate commercially advantageous position in your category, let alone culture.

And maybe that’s fine, and that’s OK. But if it is, then own it … rather than put out press releases announcing your leadership position in the market when really what you’ve done is dictate the blandification of everything you say or do because your marketing strategy is based more on ‘blending in, than standing out’.

And nothing shows this more than tone of voice.

An obsessive focus of playing to what you think people want rather than who you are.

It’s why I always find it interesting to hear how planners approach what a brand stands for.

So many talk a good game of rigor but play a terrible game of honesty.

Spending weeks undertaking research and holding ‘stakeholder’ interviews to learn who the brand is – or wants to be – rather than going into the vaults and understanding not only why they were actually founded … but the quirks of decision they made along the way.

Don’t get me wrong, research and interviews have a place, but for me, learning about a brand at the start of life is one of the most valuable things you can do because it reveals the most pure version of themselves. Or naïve.

No contrived brand purpose … not ‘white space’ research charts … just a true expression of who they are and what they value.

Or wanted to be.

And when you start piecing those things together, you discover a whole new world.

Better yet, you get to a very different – and authentic place.

Oh, the things I’ve learned about companies over the years.

Not for contrived, bullshit heritage stories … but to understand the beliefs and values that actually shaped and dictated the formation and rise of the company, even if down the line it failed and/or modern day staff don’t know any of it.

There’s a reason The Colonel purposefully chose bigger tables to be in his restaurants when he started KFC. There’s a reason Honda made their own screws for their machines. There’s a reason Prudential helped widows and orphans.

It’s not hard, it just needs effort, commitment, transparency and honesty.

That’s it.

And while I could say this quick-fix, fast-turnaround, communication-over-change world we live in means good enough is good enough … the reality is for a lot of companies and agencies, they don’t think they’re sacrificing quality. They don’t think they’re sacrificing anything. They think they’re creating revolution and that’s the most fucking petrifying bit about the whole thing.

Inside the vaults lie the stories and clues that help you get to better and more interesting places. Not for the sake of it, but because of it. And when you get there, it will naturally lead you to bigger, bolder and more provocative acts and actions. And when you do that, then brands get all the attribution they could ever wish for, because by simply being your self, you will be different.

_______________________________________________________________________________

For the record, I truly respect Mark Ritson.

He’s smart, knowledgable and incredibly experienced.

He has also added a level of rigour in marketing that has been missing for a long time.

I also appreciate some of the issues I talk about are a byproduct of many other things – from talent standards, corporate expectations and plain misunderstanding.

However, when you say a course is the equivalent to gaining a Mini MBA, it not creates a false sense of ability – to to mention gets more and more brands thinking, behaving and expressing themselves in exactly the same way – it suggests the focus is on personal gain over industry improvement and you run the risk of becoming the beast you wanted to slay.

That said, he’s still much smarter than I’ll ever be.



Chased By The Black Dog …
July 22, 2022, 8:00 am
Filed under: Dad, Emotion, Empathy, Family, Health, Jill, Love, Mum, Mum & Dad, Otis, Paul

So this week has been a rollercoaster of posts hasn’t it.

Some daft … some attempting to be useful and far too many about postboxes.

So as the final post of the week, I’m going to leave you with something serious.

Suicide.

Specifically mine.

Just to be clear, I’m good. But something happened recently that reminded me of a time when I wasn’t.

A couple of weeks ago I was driving home pretty late when the song Nights In White Satin came on the radio.

Within seconds, I was transported back 37 years.

At my desk.

In my bedroom.

In my family home.

The reading lamp to my right hand side, shining brightly against the yellow curtains that were closed against the dark night sky.

That song playing in the background.

Deciding if I was going to kill myself.

I don’t mean that in the dramatic fashion of a 15 year old kid who is having a bad day. I mean it exactly as it is written.

I had never told a soul about this – no one – until I talked to my wife two days ago.

In some ways, I’d kind-of forgotten about it – or I’d convinced myself I had – except the moment I heard that song, it all came back. Tumbling out of me like an uncontrollable mass of messy feelings, memories and emotions.

Where every detail was so clear, I could almost smell it, let alone touch it.

The thing is, it was not even a particularly hard time in my life. I was to experience much more challenging stuff in the next 5 years, and yet I never considered ending my life then.

I distinctly remember thinking how Mum and Dad would feel if they found my dead body. Wondering if they’d understand it was nothing to do with them. Hoping they wouldn’t blame themselves. Then wondering how I’d get on with doing it.

My Mum and Dad were downstairs in the lounge. Literally beneath my feet so I knew I had to choose a method that wouldn’t attract their attention.

Obviously I didn’t go through with it.

In fact I didn’t go further than running the edge of the blade up and down the inside of my arm. But hearing that song reminded me how focused I was about it. How much I was considering it. How much I wondered if it would set me free me from the pain I was in.

And yet no one knew or would know how I was feeling.

To most people, I was happy and full of life. And I was … but there were times where I felt darkness would just turn up to fuck with me.

An all-consuming blackness that would envelop me in the blink of an eye. Set off by the smallest of triggers. Sometimes so small, I didn’t even realise it.

Then gone just as fast.

Something I’d put down to ‘getting out of bed the wrong side’ … when it was most likely depression.

Never diagnosed, but probably that.

It’s why the recent CALM campaign – where they showed the last photo of people who then chose to die by suicide – is so powerful.

None of the people look like they’re in pain.

None look like they’re struggling.

And maybe at that second they weren’t. Or maybe they were but had found a way to compartmentalise it. Or maybe they just didn’t want the people they were with to suspect – for reasons of compassion or to ensure nothing could stop their plan. I don’t know. Everyone is different. But whatever the reason, I think I get it … which is why this campaign is so powerful and so important.

The thing I don’t really understand is why some situations lead you to the absolute edge and some don’t. Why some cross that line and some don’t. Or can’t. I’m sure there’s professionals who can explain the reason, but all I know is I’ve faced a number of moments in my life that were of incredible pain and sadness and yet none of them came close to how I felt that day when I was a kid at home. Except once. Where I found myself in the same place. Wanting to rub myself out. Literally rub myself out. Like a stain. Over and over again. Believing – and hoping – that was the only way the pain could stop. Except in that case, I knew what had caused it and was able to talk to people before the idea took on a greater life of its own.

Fortunately those are the only occasions in my 52 years of life where I have gone to the edge. Where my thoughts were about how I’d do it rather than if I would. And while I still don’t really know what interrupted the path I was going down, I’ve learnt to not just recognise the signs when things may be going dark, but how openness and communication always lets in the light.

At least for me.

I have no problem saying I sought out professional help.

And there have been other occasions where I’ve gone for advice on things I’m trying to work out or seem to have a disproportionate hold on me.

I distinctly remember the first time I told my parents I’d been to see a councillor and they were shocked.

Shocked I felt I needed it.
Shocked I hadn’t gone to them first.
Shocked they hadn’t recognised where my head was at.

But it was good because it opened a conversation we would never have had. One that opened up understanding and support. And when I say understanding and support … I mean it in the sense they realised there were occasions when I felt talking to an outsider would be better for me than an insider. Not because they’d done anything wrong – because frankly, my parents gave me a level of love and encouragement that was breath-taking and unconditional – but it just was better for me.

A chance to talk to someone I didn’t care about.

No history.
No worry of upsetting.
No need to choose my words carefully.

I know my parents probably felt some sort of pain, sadness and guilt about me not turning to them … but they were also incredibly supportive knowing it was helping me … which is why I was able to talk to them openly about it afterwards.

And while I’ve never been in as dark a place as those two occasions – even when my parents passed – I know the circumstances for its emergence can be wide and varied.

Which is why I get very frustrated when people minimise the reality of mental health. That it’s a symbol of weakness. That it’s a ‘woke’ attitude. I also get upset when it is narrowed down to being ignited by a particular set of behaviours or situations.

Sure there are likely some common factors, but in my experience the trigger and the effect is personal not universal. To suggest otherwise not only minimises the impact but ignores the individual.

I was blessed to be born into a family that encouraged showing and sharing their emotions. Maybe if that wasn’t the case I may have ended up in a worse place. But it’s also why we place great importance on creating an environment for Otis that normalises it.

That doesn’t tell him, “boys don’t cry” or pushes him to play sport when he doesn’t want to play sport or discounts his feelings simply because he’s 7.

I’m not saying this will stop him having mental health issues in the future … but hopefully it will help him feel it’s normal. And let him know that with help – whether that is talking about it or getting professional help for it – he can better manage it.

And you can.

That said, I appreciate the privilege I have being able to talk openly about this. I am an old white man and so the ramifications on me being open about what I’ve gone through is far less than if I was a woman, a person of colour, non-binary, a member of the LGBTQ+ community or just younger in age.

And that’s kind-of why I am, because that’s fucked. Mental health can affect everyone … and while the triggers may be varied, the devastation of its impact can be the same.

To have people feel they can’t acknowledge or discuss their situation doesn’t make it go away. It makes it worse. Much, much worse. And for all the supposed claims from companies saying they are compassionate to those experiencing mental health challenges, many have found it’s either true until the company needs something from them or they just can’t risk any possible financial implications by speaking out.

[Which sounds awfully similar to how companies manage the redundancy process doesn’t it?]

Which is why if anyone out there feels they’re in a situation where they don’t know how or who to talk to … drop me a line. I am not qualified to help. But I would be very happy to listen.



It’s Only Classic If It Evolves …

So the cosmetic empire, Revlon, has gone bankrupt.

It’s a brand I remember from my youth with their big ads featuring big stars selling big statements.

But like Woolworths of old [how’s that for a linkage] they thought that was enough.

They thought they were enough.

But tastes change.

Evolve.

Hell, in just the past few years we’ve seen all manner of movements in the cosmetics space … from the nude look to the pastel and playful, both leveraged by brands like Maybelline and Glossier.

And then there’s Fenty …

Who came in and offered a foundation that had varieties specifically for African American skin as well as white – which shouldn’t be a surprise until you realise that until then, all major cosmetic companies excluded African American skin and expected them to use a foundation designed for white customers.

Seriously, what the fuck.

Of course, the success of Fenty saw many of the big players try to follow suit … but when actively you’ve ignored millions for 60+ years, you’re not going to convince them you suddenly care.

Which comes back to Revlon.

Who forgot the way you build a brand is not by communicating yourself over and over again, but doing things that earn loyalty.

Or at least prove you are working for it.

So many companies forget that. Either spending millions on what they want to say or ‘innovating’ with things that are what they want people to care about, rather than the things people care about.

It’s amazing how many brands fall for this.

But then, ego has that effect on people.

Causing them to place boundaries and blinkers around the comments that scream what people want you to do better at. What they want you to change.

But instead, companies choose to maximise short-term opportunities, rather than build things for the future. I get it … it costs a lot and there’s the argument it risks a lot.

Except it doesn’t cost or risk anything near what happens if you don’t do it.

And playing catch up never works because when you finally follow suit, you find out the others have already moved on.

Even the companies that promise ‘disruption’ never really go all in.

Often just focusing on one element the establishment do wrong rather than reimagining how they could completely evolve an entire category.

Function over benefits.

Product over brand.

That said, there are some out there who do it right.

Not just in the ‘cool’ categories, but in things like finance, health and paint.

Yes, paint!!!

Doing things where it shows they are truly watching and listening to culture.

Not just in what they want, but what is affecting who they are.

Once upon a time this was the norm. Now it’s all about promoting the condiments rather than focusing on the steak.

And while that can work in the short-term … giving you a few PR headlines you can leverage in the press … the brands who count succeed because they perpetually evolve culture – or evolve with the leading edge of it – rather than just keep them where they already are.



When An Ad For A Door Handle Is Better Than All The Super Bowl Spots Added Together …

A long time ago, I met a prospective client who absolutely loved Wieden.

They were besotted with them.

I was at W+K at the time and asked them what it was that they liked about us – expecting them to talk about NIKE or some other global work.

Instead they said this:

“Any agency that can make me care about a brand of milk is genius”.

The ad they were talking about was this:

Now while that was nice to hear, there were 2 things that led to them that point of view.

1. They worked in a different market and category to milk, so the fact they saw this, reinforced the stretch of great creativity.

2. They looked for the brand of milk in their local supermarket … which reflected the stickability of great creativity.

Of course, what they were really saying was the secret to great creativity … and that is it changes how you look at the world.

I say this because I recently saw a great example of it.

It may not have the charm of If Cats Had Thumbs.

And it certainly doesn’t have the budget.

But it’s up there with making you stop, think and reassess.

Isn’t that great?

A simple statement that has changed what I think of door handles and the importance of door handles.

Or said another way, it’s made me care – possibly for the first time in my life – about something I use every day of my life, without fail.

When you consider the ad is simply a photo of a bloody door handle, you not only realise how brilliant the idea of equating it to a ‘good’ handshake is, you realise how shit so much advertising must be when they’ve got tens of millions to spend and they still can’t make something you remember.



Depressing Inspiration …

Back in the 80’s, there was a real trend for companies to put up ‘inspiration posters’.

Corporate Yoda statements that were as contrived – and daft – as fuck.

Things like …

EXPLORE. Only those willing to leave shore can find new lands.

I’m not even joking. There was tons of them like this.

For a while they were all the range … so popular that a friend actually created a mass of pisstake versions in the early 90’s.

Here’s one of them:

They were soooooooo much better than the real thing.

And then, from the mid-90’s to around 2015, these empty statements died a death however – just when you thought it was safe – social media decided to bring them back with a vengeance.

However, if you thought they were bad before, they have reached a whole new level of terrible.

Or should I say a whole new depth.

So much of this is because of Linkedin …

I’ve written my views on the biggest fiction factory on earth before.

Seriously, it’s about as professional as me … that’s how bad it has become.

In fact, it feels more like a home for wannabe Tony Robbins than a place for professional interaction.

Nothing sums this up more than an ‘inspiration’ photo I saw on there a while ago.

Take a look at this.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

I mean, just how depressing is that?

Sure, I know it’s trying to be deep and meaningful but christ almighty.

And they are using a photo of Jim Carrey to demonstrate the point.

But I’m not quite sure why him.

Yes, I know he has suffered loss and yes I have heard he supposedly doesn’t try to ‘impress’ people anymore … except he works in Hollywood and has a history of being an attention-seeking, approval-needing, soul-sucking individual.

Maybe he’s past that.

Maybe I have to stop using the term ‘Jim Carrey syndrome’ … which is how I used to describe people who are successful in one field, but are so desperate to win the respect of their peers, they change their actions and behaviour to try and win their approval, only to fail because that’s not who they are or what they’re good at.

I hope he is.

I hope that is the case.

That would be good and healthy for him.

But even with that … it still wouldn’t clearly explain WHY he is the star of this ‘grimperation’ poster, WHY the creator thought this approach would motivate people or WHY the person who posted it on their Linkedin, thought it may make them look like a guru.

That said, when I saw it, I genuinely burst out into hysterical laughter so maybe … just maybe … that was the whole point of the thing and if that’s the case, it’s bloody genius.

You wait. Depress yourself to happy will be on Linkedin status updates any day now.