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


The Fine Line Between Hero And Horrible …

Back from a nice long weekend.

Hey, if this makes you feel bad, imagine how my poor colleagues feel.

Anyway …

I recently read the book Hype, by Gabrielle Bluestone.

It is depressingly brilliant.

While it covers a huge range of topics, it centres on the actions and behaviours of Fyre Festival founder [or should I say, scammer] Billy McFarland.

Now I appreciate with worldwide coverage and 2 documentaries on the subject, you may think you know all that needs to be known, but apart from Gabrielle bringing some new information to the table, what makes it especially interesting is how she compares his actions to others who are regarded as business geniuses.

Like Elon Musk.

Now you might think that sounds like the actions of someone desperate to create hype for their new book. But no. It’s incredibly well written and researched … and as you turn page after page, with hustler/liar story after hustler/liar story, you come away thinking the whole world has fallen for the Emperors New Clothes trick.

Not to mention that either Billy McFarland is unlucky to be sentenced to jail or Elon Musk – and countless other business people and influencers – are lucky not to be.

Society loves its success stories.

It loves trying to ‘codify‘ the system.

But while only a few ever succeed, it doesn’t stop people blindly following some ‘proven’ rules. Often losing themselves in details rather than appreciating context.

All the while making the originator [or person who shouted the loudest, quickest] even more powerful and famous … before they end up a caricature of what they once were.

I’m seeing a lot of this in marketingland at the moment.

Now, I am not suggesting these people are doing it to ‘con’ anyone. Far from it. In fact their intentions are pretty wonderful. But somewhere along the line, their perspective has developed into a ‘system’ and that system now has a number of unquestionable and unshakeable rules attached to it which, ironically, is starting to negatively affect the very industry they want to help.

To be fair, they are not entirely responsible.

They are a bit … because they give their ‘system’ names that suggest intellectual superiority when it’s really ‘an educated beginners guide’, plus they conveniently turn a blind eye to how many of their students are executing what they learnt – without context or real audience understanding – so it ends up just being lowest common denominator thinking. But the real reason this situation is occurring is too many companies aren’t investing enough in talent or training, so they send people off to do courses with fancy names so they can all look and feel like they are.

Putting aside the fact this also highlights how many companies lack a philosophy regarding their approach and value to marketing, what this ‘one size fits all’ approach is doing is educating a whole generation of marketer/advertiser/company that talent, standards and creativity are not nearly as important as having people who can follow – and police – process, formats and parity.

We’re in danger of getting to the point where independent thinking is seen as dangerous.

Or weakness.

Or anything other than strength.

And while understanding how things work is important, creating a singular approach and process where building brands and creativity is approached like an airfix model – where the outcome is always the same, albeit with different brand names/colours attached – seems to be more about undermining the purpose of marketing rather than liberate it.

What makes this even more amusing is the brands who are attracting the greatest cultural momentum, loyalty and brand value right now are not following any of these ‘process rules’. More than that, they’re building their reputation and value through the creation of distinctive brand ideas that talk directly to their audiences rather than focusing on brand attribution that aims to be slightly memorable among their category.

[Please note, I’m talking about brands with a real business behind them, not just social hype]

Now I appreciate the context and circumstances of cultural brands and the brands who are adopting a marketing ‘system’ are very different … but what I’m trying to highlight is that we now find ourselves in this weird situation where the ambition for many brands is to not find ways to get ahead but to not be left behind – all the while bombarding the market with claims of innovation, new thinking, new opportunities.

And that’s why I loved reading Hype so much.

Not just because it pulled back the curtain on the hypocritical bullshit of so many self-appointed ‘business icons’, but it revealed where we’re all heading if we’re not careful … even though I know there will be people out there who read it and see it as their goal rather than their ruin.



You Don’t Get What You Pay For …

The picture above is a well known internet image that reflects the value of using professionals.

It’s right.

But where it’s not entirely accurate is that in the real world, what’s happening more and more is that rather than ending up with an image of a horse drawn by a blind, drunk, 5 year old … clients are getting a beautifully image because the professional has been forced to lower his price to get the work.

It’s shit.

What’s worse is that many of these highly talented, exceptionally trained professionals have been made to forget their own value.

It doesn’t happen immediately, it’s often a slow, drawn out process – but the end point is the same, they treat their craft as a commodity. Not because it is, but because they’ve been made to think that way.

When I started working with Metallica, their management asked for my rates and costs.

I gave it to them.

They told me I was a fool and I needed to triple it.

Let me be clear, I thought it was a fair cost – I wasn’t knowingly lowballing myself – and yet here I was being told it wasn’t just low, it was THREE TIMES LOW.

I said I couldn’t do that, it was in-line with market rates and I felt it was fair … to which they asked me a question that changed the way I value what I do.

“Do you think your work and your experience is better than the market?

I knew if I said no, they’d ask why they were working with me, so of course I said yes.

I have to admit, I felt a bit weird saying it, but there were 3 reasons that pushed me to do it.

1. I really wanted to work with them.
2. It was obvious they thought I was worth that amount.
3. Without being arrogant, my experience is pretty huge.

Now the reality is my fee was still a fraction of what many people in the industry charge, but for them to do that when they could have just accepted my fee and said nothing – especially as they knew I wanted to work with them – is something I will forever be grateful for.

It also means I work harder for them, to both repay their faith and keep justifying my rate.

Clever sods.

Since this moment, my relationship with charging for what I do has literally done a full 180.

It’s why I was able to take on a procurement department when they tried to position me as ‘just another supplier’.

It’s why I enjoyed doing it.

It’s also why I was happy to do it in such a mischievous way.

For people who worked with me before – especially at cynic – this shift is amazing.

I was always George’s worst nightmare.

Agreeing to any price if the opportunity excited me.

It’s why I was banned from my own company when dealing with clients about money.

It’s why I still apologise to George for what I did.

Because I was not just undervaluing my talent, but everyone else’s too.

I know it’s hard, but the only way we will educate clients to pay what creative talent deserves – which, let’s not forget, it still a fraction of what they happily pay consultants who don’t ever do the work they recommend – is to give them the standard their budget actually should pay for.

For example the horse at the top of this page.

Because craft is not an expense but an investment.

An investment that doesn’t just lead to better work, but work that lets your client achieve more from it. Whether that’s charging a price premium or simple making more people more interested in what they do.

As Harrison Ford said, the most important thing we can learn is the value of value.



Don’t Want Something So Much That You Do Something You Don’t Want …

When I was at cynic, I wasn’t allowed to talk money with clients.

The main reason for this is that while I like money, I like doing weird and wonderful things more … so I used to agree to terrible terms just because I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss out on doing something we were really excited by.

Now I get we like to think there’s some sort of logic to this approach, but as George kindly told me – while punching me in the head – what I was doing was undermining our position.

For a start, your relationship with the client is impacted. That doesn’t mean they don’t value you, but it means they don’t value you as much as they should. They see you as a ‘cheap problem solver’ rather than a valuable problem solver.

Then there’s the fact all your additional time and passion will never be rewarded to the level it deserves. The worst part is this is your own fault as you already set the precedent for how much you are worth by lowering your fee to such a great degree.

And then there’s the dilution of the projects importance.

In essence, when something is made much cheaper, the effect is its value goes the same way. Going from something significant to just another thing being done. From having a strong focus within the company management to being delegated to people who don’t really have the same decision making power.

Before you know it, clients start questioning other things you’re doing.

Asking why certain things need to be done. Challenging the time or expense on the elements that show the real craft.

Leaving the end result a lesser version of what it should have been.

Now this doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens a lot.

And while I get we are in a highly competitive time, where everyone is looking to save cash – the ease in which we undermine our own value is both astonishing and debilitating.

George’s brilliance was his ability to have us walk away.

I have to be honest, we had many arguments about this over the years … but in the main, he was right.

His point was ‘why would someone value us if we’re not valuing us?’.

It’s a pretty compelling argument.

This doesn’t mean we weren’t open to negotiation, but George’s position was ‘never forget we have something they want because we’ve shown them something they need’.

Another pretty compelling argument.

And while this approach helped us not only win all manner of great creative projects – but helped us be a profitable, sustainable company – I still found it hard to deal with.

Hell, on the occasion we didn’t win a project because somebody said they could do it for cheaper, I was a bloody nightmare. George used to say it was because I am an only child – which may be right – because I hated not getting what I really, really wanted.

And even then, George was the voice of reason.

“Why are you upset about losing a project with a client who wants to go down to a price point rather than up to a standard?”

ARGHHHHH!

What makes it worse is he meant it.

He, more than any of us, knew our value and wasn’t going to let us let go of something we had worked so hard to earn.

He’s right of course.

It’s the reason the best work comes from people who share the same goal.

To aim high, not cheap.

Sure, money comes into it … but the focus is always the quality of the output not just the price.

It’s why Cynic was so exciting.
It’s why Wieden+Kennedy are so special.
It’s why Metallica’s management are so influential.
It’s why all the work I’m doing right now is so fascinating.

George taught me so much.

While I appreciate I’m in a much more privileged position than many, nowadays I am totally comfortable with walking away from a project if I feel the vision, ambition and value for a project is not shared.

And what’s weird is that while that approach has resulted in me walking away from a lot of potentially interesting projects that were worth a lot of money to me – especially over the last 6 months – it has brought me a range of fascinating clients and projects [and cash] that most agencies would kill to have a chance to work on.

I’ve written about knowing the value of your value in the past.

I’ve talked about how that lets you play procurement at their own game.

And while it feels scary to stick to your standards when someone is threatening to take away something you really want, it also makes you feel alive.

Butterflies of excitement. A taste of power and control. Nervousness of being in the game.

And while it might not always come off and while you may be able to justify why it would be easier to just take whatever they want to give you … it’s a beautiful feeling to feel you matter. That your work matters. That the way you look at the world matters. That what you want to create matters. That you won’t allow yourself to do something simply because you’re the cheapest. Or allow a bad process to force a diluted version of what you were hired to do. Or let yourself be evaluated by someone who doesn’t care about what you’re creating, just that it’s done. That you matter enough to not allow others to negatively judge you for terrible conditions they put you in.

It can take time to come to terms with this.

It took me almost 20 years to really get it.

And while some may call you a pretentious or stubborn or commercially ignorant, the reality is dismissing the value of your value simply to make things commercially viable for everyone else is simply the most stupid thing you can do.

Because to paraphrase something Harrison Ford once said, when you devalue the value of something you’ve spent your whole life working at, you’re not just being irresponsible, you’re not valuing the value of the time, experience and expertise it has taken to get you to that point.

George knew this.

George helped me benefit from this.

George eventually got me to understand this.

And I’ll always be grateful for that gift.

________________________________________________________________________________

I’ve removed comments. Not just because I’m scared of the mountain of abuse the ex-cynic alumni who comment on here may/will give me. But because I’m even more frightened they may bathe George in even more praise and that would be too much for me to deal with.

Comments Off on Don’t Want Something So Much That You Do Something You Don’t Want …


Brand In 10 Words.

I am a massive fan of Rick Rubin.

Actually that’s not quite right.

I am a massive disciple of Rick Rubin.

I think he is incredible. His ability to help others express their most powerful creative voice is amazing.

So much of this is down to how he see’s his role.

Not as a music producer, but as a sophisticated fan.

Someone who wants the band he loves to be their shameless best.

Protecting them from ever feeling they have to compromise on who they are or what they want to say because he fiercely believes the greatest return comes when you express your honesty and authenticity rather than play to be liked.

It’s why the artists he’s worked with reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the most culturally significant artists of their time.

Those who either defined a genre or validated it.

LL Cool J
Run DMC
The Beastie Boys
Slayer
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Rage Against The Machine
The Black Crowes
The Dixie Chicks
Johnny Cash

Look at that list. Look at it.

Hip Hop. Rap. Rock. Metal. Thrash. Blues. Country. Funk.

No one should be able to be so successful with that range of genre and artist.

It’s hilarious and yet there are so many more artists I could mention because for almost 4 decades, Rubin has helped artists not only express their truth but recognise the economic power from doing so.

He has created icons.
He has revived icons.
He has shaped, pushed and provoked culture.
He has influenced, shaped and changed music forever.

When we hear agencies talk about ‘creating culture’, most haven’t come anywhere close to what he has helped create.

But what I love the most about Rubin is how he decides who he is going to work with.

Basically his entire decision making process is based on one simple process.

Taste.

If Rubin likes what he hears, then he’s up for it.

It doesn’t matter whether it has any connection to anything he’d done before, he see’s it less about the music and more about the artist needing help to express … find … or rediscover their voice.

Not their singing voice. Their soul.

It’s not that far off what we as an industry say we do for brands.

Except we’re increasingly forgetting what brand is because we sacrifice it time and time again for the quick win.

I get it, we’re fighting for our lives … but in our quest to show we have value, we’re destroying what makes us valuable.

Oh I know we won’t admit that.

We’ll point to words like purpose, experience and membership as proof ‘we get it’.

We’ll say they’re representative of modern brand building and all else is old.

We’ll show 1000 page decks that show how our unique processes ‘guarantee’ success.

And some clients will buy this, which means we can go away thinking we’ve got it all sorted out and we’re legends.

Except we haven’t and we aren’t.

Yes, all those elements play an important role in building a modern brand … however they’re never the lead, always a supporting actor because …

Sales without distinction doesn’t build a brand.

Purpose without sacrifice doesn’t build a brand.

Data without understanding doesn’t build a brand.

User journeys without nuance doesn’t build a brand.

Eco-systems without an idea doesn’t build a brand.

Personalisation without being personal doesn’t build a brand.

Wanting to be something to everyone rather than everything to someone doesn’t build a brand.

The harsh reality is we’re dangerously close to confusing commoditisation with brand building. Of course this is not all our fault, but continuing to perpetrate it, most definitely is.

While I appreciate Rick Rubin didn’t mean the photo/quote that appears at the top of this page to be interpreted this way … he pretty much sums up how to build truly distinctive and definitive, culturally resonant brands.

And he does it in 10 words.

TEN!!!

And that’s part of Rubin’s magic.

He understands how to get to the simplest expression of his viewpoint, because he knows the simpler it is, the less obstacles to deal with.

Simple lets truth speak and rise.

Simple lets possibilities flourish.

Simple lets distinctiveness be expressed.

Simple is unbelievable power.

Now the irony of simple is it’s not easy to pull off.

Simple is definitely not simplistic. To be simple requires a hard work, experience and confidence … and while as an industry we have known this and advocated this for decades, we seem to have recently decided the opposite – where we celebrate complexity.

What the hell?!

Maybe it’s because we’re making more money from this approach. Or just feel more important. But the endless playbooks, frameworks, processes, tools and strategies we’re producing aren’t building better brands, just bigger obstacles.

Again, there’s a place for them. But the way they’re being used – they’re more like hammers than brushes – forcing them into the process, competing with all around them and ultimately leaving people lost with what they’re following, what they’re building and what they’re actually doing this all for.

As someone recently said to me – someone hugely successful in business – when companies make the solution more complex than the problem, they’re just creating another problem.

Please don’t think this means you skimp on standards or rigour.

If anything, it’s the exact opposite … but because everyone knows what they’re working towards [rather than doing their version of what they think everyone should be working towards], it means they can be sharp and focused and that means your work can be expressed in ways that lift things up rather than bogs them down.

I get some people won’t like this.

I get some people won’t agree with this.

I get some clients would never sign off on this.

But apart from the fact I doubt any of them will have come close to influencing, shaping or creating culture in the same commercially infectious way Rubin has, if they really believe selling the complexity of intelligence is a smarter way to operate, I’ll leave you with something my dad – who was pretty good on this whole intelligence thing – used to say to his lawyers:

“If you have to show how clever you are, you aren’t that smart”.



Why We Should Be Like The Blues Brothers …

Yes, this post really is about the movie The Blues Brothers.

The one where paroled convict Jake — and his blood brother Elwood – set out on a mission from God to save the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised, from foreclosure.

Where to achieve their goal, they not only have to reunite their R&B band and organise a concert so they can try to earn the $5,000 needed to pay the orphanage’s tax bill … but also have to navigate around a homicidal mystery woman, a bunch of Neo-Nazis, an entire police department hellbent on stopping them and a Country & Western band.

And yes, I am really saying we should be like them.

However this is not because I am advocating violence against authority [ahem], or even a return to the true definition of rhythm and blues [versus the sanitised version being flogged by record companies left, right and centre] but because of how Dan Aykroyd – the writer and actor of the movie – ensured the creative value of the artists appearing in the film was rewarded rather than exploited.

Music has a long history of exploiting artists.

Where their talent is used to fund the lifestyles of everyone other than themselves.

It’s been going on for decades and affected everyone – including those who got to ‘the top’ like The Beatles and Elvis Presley [there’s also a great book on how badly Bros got ripped off, which is worth checking out] … however no group of musicians has been as badly affected as black artists.

From not being paid to not being played … black artists has consistently been exploited and abused by white music industry leaders, from record companies to MTV.

To give you an idea of it, here’s a clip of David Bowie challenging MTV about their lack of black artists on the channel …

Bowie, as usual, was right.

Recently I watched a documentary where legendary musician, Herbie Hancock, talked about his iconic Rockit video and how they purposefully created something that didn’t really show his face to ensure MTV would play it in heavy rotation.

THIS IS NOT A LONG TIME AGO!!!

And while you may think the music business is now dominated with black artists, the reality is they are still getting screwed by organisations who want to profit from their talent.

Which leads me back to the Blues Brothers.

You see this movie was dominated by African American musicians – and while many studios would try and underpay them by saying the worldwide exposure they’d gain is commercially valuable to them, Dan Aykroyd did something else.

That’s right, he let them keep their publishing rights.

Which means every time a song or the movie was played, the artists behind the music would get paid.

Not the studio.

Not the writer.

Not the networks.

But the artists.

What’s sick is that 40 years later, this act by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi is still rare.

Since then, we have consistently seen people of colour have their creativity exploited and profited from by others.

Whether that is through acts of cultural appropriation to corporate intimidation to down right theft.

Frankly, nothing highlights this more than the plight of Dapper Dan and his store in Harlem during the 80’s and 90’s. Here was an individual who created fashion that changed and impacted culture on an almost unprecedented scale … and yet he faced a constant barrage of abuse, exploitation and theft from organisations who appreciated his talent but just didn’t want to pay for it or acknowledge it.

Given black culture is the driving force of almost all youth culture around the World, it is disgusting how little of the money it helps generate ends up in the pockets of the black community … which is why I suggest another way companies can demonstrate their diversity and inclusion ambitions is to follow the approach of the Blues Brothers.

Included.

Represented.

Acknowledged.

Respected.

Paid.

Enabled.

Empowered.