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


Being Positive Means Nothing If You’re Denying The Truth …

Toxicity.

It’s a great word to describe a terrible thing.

It perfectly captures the strategy so many companies, people, governments have adopted to get ahead regardless of the cost.

But what a cost it is.

As the stories of Corporate Gaslighting highlight, it is destructive, debilitating and harmful and its rightfully being called out more and more.

However one of the byproducts of this rightful shift has been the increasing number of companies and agencies who will only accept ‘the positive’.

I’m not talking about them wanting to offer optimism in a challenging world, I mean they are actively dismissing or ignoring anything that they deem as bringing negativity into the conversation.

Questions about decisions.
Realities about their audiences.
Considerations about the categories.

No … no … no … no … no!!!

It’s the ultimate sign of privilege. Not to mention arrogance. An ability to simply close eyes and ears to the realities millions face every single day, just so they can continue living in their own Disneyland of the mind.

Actually Disneyland isn’t right, because their stories involve struggles and challenges … so we’re talking about organisations who make Disney look negative.

Jesus Christ!!!

And yet in the same breath, they will wax lyrical about wanting to have ‘deeper connections with their customers’ as well as ‘living their brand purpose’.

Of course it’s complete bollocks.

Deeper understanding equates to ‘how can we sell more stuff to them’.

And brand purpose is …. well, you know my view.

Can brand purpose have value?

Absolutely.

But brand purpose isn’t something you can ‘invent’ on a whim.

Nor is it a marketing tool to drive sales.

And it absolutely isn’t about saving the world.

It can be.

For some.

But it probably isn’t for most.

Which is why pharmaceutical companies saying stuff life, ‘We exist to rid the world of pain’ … makes me laugh so much I get a headache.

The reality is pain makes these companies oodles of money. The last thing they will ever want to do is rid the world of it.

And you know what … I’m cool with that.

Pain happens and they help it stop.

Cool.

But to say they want to get rid of it all?

Forever?

Are they forgetting how pain can actually be useful to people.

How it can help us understand our limits?

Can guide us to better decisions?

Without pain, can you imagine the trouble we would be in?

Which all explains why I – and shitloads of the planet – don’t believe a word they say when they, and countless other companies in countless other categories, go on about ‘their purpose’, especially when it’s obviously the total opposite of what funds their business?

And yet this delusional positivity of purpose is everywhere.

And what’s worse is we’re seeing more and more companies and agencies actively celebrate it, encourage it and demand it.

I cannot tell you how many planners I’ve spoken to about not being allowed to bring truth to their meetings and conversations.

I talked a lot about this – and the reasons behind it – in my rant at WARC, but it still blows my mind that companies and agencies expect planners to adopt this approach when it’s literally the opposite of what our jobs are about.

Planners are not blind cheerleaders.

We liberate through filter-free truth.

That means we’re supposed to question, challenge, have a hint of cynicism, push buttons.

Not to be dicks, but to help you be better.

It you want a planner to just accept whatever alternative reality you live in, go hire a bunch of Alexa’s.

You can say as much as you like that …

“We don’t really have competition”.

Or

“We don’t like negative insights”

Or

“We don’t want to talk about negative comments about us”

… but that doesn’t mean we should just accept it.

I don’t get why some people have this belief questioning is wrong.

At its most basic level, questioning is about wanting to understand more and surely that’s a good thing.

And even if we challenge what we’re hearing … it’s not to cause upset, it’s to get to truth.

Real truth, not corporate.

The truth that helps create great work. Not just in terms of creativity and cultural resonance … but commercial value.

If you don’t want to hear that, then frankly, you don’t want to grow. Or evolve. Or do something that can genuinely mean something.

Anyway, the reason for this post is because I was recently talking to a couple of creative mates of mine and they introduced me to the most perfect expression for this new attitude of only wanting and accepting ‘the positive’.

It’s this …

Oh my god, how good is that!!!

I cannot tell you how much I love it.

Not just the expression of Toxic Positivity, but the definition.

“The belief no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life.”

Both are utterly, undeniably, absolutely bloody perfect.

Because both are utterly, undeniably, absolutely bloody true.

When I heard it, it immediately helped explain why I found so many things in LA, so annoying.

Don’t get me wrong, there were amazing people there. And the country is amazing in many ways.

I absolutely feel a deep sense of gratitude for the experience my family and I got to have there.

However quite a lot of people I met had this ability to blatantly ignore reality in favour of repetitively repeating some superficial and delusional positivity while trying to look like they weren’t annoyed when I asked what the hell they were talking about.

Even the mere suggestion that everything was not quite as perfect as they are trying to claim was met with an icy smile.

I think I’ve written about it before, but America taught me the difference between truth and honesty.

For me, truth is often uncomfortable.

It doesn’t mean it’s done to be harmful, but it does force situations to be seen, explored, discussed and dealt with.

But honesty – at least the version of it I experienced in the US – was different.

Honesty there, was truth with so many layers of sugar-coating on it, you didn’t taste any bitterness or sharpness.

What it meant was everything was designed to be easy to swallow … to give the impression of openness without being open.

Silicon Valley are particularly good at this approach.

White people – dealing with issues regarding race – are exceptionally good at this approach.

An ability to ignore reality by communicating an alternative version of it.

One that bursts with positivity and happiness. And if they could add a Unicorn to it, they would.

But it seems Toxic Positivity is becoming more and more prevalent.

And while the picture above shows Zuckerberg, it’s not specifically about him.

It’s about any organisation who deals with the raw realities of life with a thin, pained smile while they slowly and calmly explain to you everything is great and everything their company does is great and to even suggest otherwise – even if it comes from a desire to help make things better – is an act of intolerable aggression.

As much as toxic negativity is a dangerous act, so is toxic positivity.

It denies the truth for the people who need it the most.

And while I get why some companies would rather not deal with that, actively shutting it down to spout some inane and delusional ‘happy clappy’ message is equally as destructive, debilitating and harmful as it’s more negative cousin.

The reality is truth and transparency makes things better.

Nothing shows greater respect than giving someone objective truth for the single reason you want them to succeed more powerfully.

I appreciate it might not always be easy, but it’s always worth it.



Happiness Isn’t Perfect …

I recently read an amazing interview with the actor Ethan Hawke.

There’s many reasons he’s a fascinating person, but one of the main ones is that despite being hyped up to be as big as Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, he didn’t get there.

However this is not because he failed or came off the rails … it was because he made an active choice not to go down that path.

There are many reasons for this.

One is because his Mum pushed him “towards a British understanding of acting as a craft and away from American ideas of celebrity” and the other is seeing what happened to his friend, River Phoenix.

And while many would deviate from their resolution the moment they saw the benefits available to them, Hawke has been steadfast in his resolve.

One of the ways this manifested itself was him never moving to LA.

Having lived there, I get it.

On face value, it’s a spectacular town.

A stunningly beautiful place where dreams can literally come true.

And there’s a bunch of truth in that. Kinda.

Because while it makes you feel more welcome than almost any place in the World, it comes at a price. And once it feels it has gotten its value out of you … or had all its fun with you … or simply got all the benefits out from you, then it will spit you out, forget you were there and move on to the next in the blink of an eye.

For me, you go to Las Vegas to gamble with your money to make it big.

But in LA – at least to a certain degree – you go there to gamble with your life.

I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true.

What’s more, it’s all there in plain sight. The issue is people – especially those chasing the Hollywood dream – like to ignore it because, let’s be honest, people like feeling special or lucky or smart enough to not let that shit happen to you.

And that’s why the way Ethan Hawke sums up LA is – as much as I enjoyed my life there – pretty damn perfect.

People think getting what you want will make you happy, but a sense of self, purpose and love don’t come from the outside. You can’t get distracted by this culture that celebrates things that sometimes aren’t what they seem”.

So why am I saying all this.

Well, contrary to how I’ve made it sound, it has nothing to do with my respect for Ethan Hawke. Or my cynicism to Los Angeles. It’s because recently, someone sent me this and said it reminded them of me.

I have to say, when I read it, I felt a bit overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed because it really did capture how I think about things.

Overwhelmed because it meant someone got me, rather than believed I was just a nosy prick.

OK … so there’s a selfish element to why I’m like this.

You see, if my colleagues or team mates have issues or worries, then it means they’re not able to perform as brilliantly as they usually do. Which means the work they do won’t be as brilliant as I want, need and expect from them. So wanting to give them an environment where they can feel safe to be open and vulnerable while also actively wanting to help, listen and change situations for them, has as much to do with my needs as there’s.

I know, what a selfish prick eh?!

But it’s not all for self-serving reasons.

Because ultimately I am a big believer people should be able to express how they feel.

That we all have good and bad days and you should never feel bad for how you are.

I was incredibly fortunate to be brought up in a house that followed this belief and I will continually advocate it.

Even when people think I am being a nosy prick.

But it does have benefits beyond just personal, emotional wellbeing.

It means you can connect better to others.

It means you can be open and honest rather than political and wary.

It means you can disagree in ways that never become personal or destructive.

It creates something special.

A bond where deep trust is formed.

It doesn’t happen every time.

It doesn’t always happen in the same way.

But if you’re lucky, you will meet some people on your professional journey who this approach will end up having a profound affect on both of you.

Not just in terms of how well you click. Or work together. But a deep understanding and acceptance of who you are without criticism or ridicule.

They will make you better and be someone you want to be better for.

United by a deep respect and belief in what each other brings to the table while still allowing you to argue, debate and challenge without it ever being personal or destructive.

When that happens, what you can create together – either in collaboration or just through each others support – is amazing.

You feel a real honour to know them, work with them and understand them.

I’m very fortunate I’ve had a few people in my life, but one of them is the brilliant Paula Bloodworth … who I first had the privilege of working with at Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai.

And that’s why receiving that quote from her was so, so special to me.

I hope you all have a Paula in your life.

Someone you deeply connect with and yet disagree with all at the same time.

Because not only does it make your work better, it makes you a better person.



Big Week For A Little Kid: Day/Year 3 to 4 …

In many ways, this was a big year for Otis.

While he had moved from Shanghai to Los Angeles, he was so young that he probably didn’t take it all in.

But by the time we left Los Angeles for London, he had made some deep connections.

His friend Jack.

His love Elodie.

His school mates and adventurous life in the sun.

And yet he took it all in his stride.

Sad to say goodbye, but happy to explore somewhere new, boosted by the fact he would get to see his ‘Oddparents’ – Paul and Shelly – a lot more often.

And within days, he was a Londoner.

Sure he had a strange American accent.

Sure he kept talk about dollars rather than pounds.

But for all the upheaval he was going through, he embraced it all.

New home.

New school.

New friends.

New way of living.

It was here he started to identify what he loved.

We wanted him to experience a range of things so he could discover what he liked.

And while he liked being a ‘ninja’, he didn’t want to do martial arts.

And while he enjoyed watching football with his dad, he didn’t like organised sport.

Instead he loved acting.

LOVED IT.

Watching him practice his lines was a bloody delight … the focus, the commitment.

And while he would get a bit shy at the point of performance, you could see how much his whole being lit up when he was doing it.

I have no idea if he will continue to love acting or performance.

Right now, he’s into video games in a big way.

But whatever path he chooses in the future … as much as I don’t want him to have a life of struggle, the thing I want most for him is fulfilment.

Not comfort.

Not content.

But fulfilment … as my parents always drilled into me.

To be honest, I didn’t really understood the difference between fulfilment and contentment till I was in my 30’s. But now I realise it has a totally different imputes when you go from the ‘receiver’ of that intent to the ‘giver’.

I hope I can help Otis understand it.

But more than that, I hope I can witness Otis embracing it.

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What Happiness Looks Like …

Tomorrow I’m on holiday.

For over a week.

I am also turning 50.

Both of these pieces of news are no doubt going to fill you with happiness.

[Though there is a post tomorrow, so don’t get too excited]

Well, that is good, because this post is about just that.

Happiness.

One of the best things that has ever happened to me is Otis.

I loved the idea of kids – and at 18, I actually tried to adopt, hahaha – but after that, the idea was put on the back burner because frankly, I always thought I was too young.

I swear part of that is because Paul, my best mate, also didn’t have kids … so I was in some form of arrested development.

Anyway, one day Jill – who had been very patient – pointed out I wasn’t getting any younger so we decided to go for it.

Of course we then discovered the only we would pull this off is if we had IVF.

ARGH!

But then we got 2 pieces of luck.

First was being able to have the treatment in Australia. This was important because the process in Shanghai was so unbelievably weird, complicated and confusing, that we’re not sure we would have ever stood a chance there.

Secondly, the treatment worked first time. We are under no illusion how fortunate we were … though there was some sort of cosmic comedy karma in the fact we discovered Jill was pregnant on April 1.

Now I don’t regret being late to the Dad party.

The reality is I didn’t feel ready before.

OK, so I don’t know if men ever feel ready, but that’s probably less to do with being a Dad and more to do with the fear of the responsibilities associated with being a Dad.

And even though we are 5 years down the road, I still feel that.

Sure, maybe we could have had a brother or sister for him if we’d done it sooner. Sure, there’s a part of me that would have loved to do that. But apart from the fact I worry I may not get to see him grow old given my age, I can live with the fact I am soon to be 50 and I have a 5 year old bundle of beautiful mischief.

And what a bundle of beautiful mischief he is.

Kind. Compassionate. Emotional. Creative. Curious. Imaginative. Cheeky. Full of energy.

He is a loving son who wants to see the best in everything.

Part of me worries a bit about that.

I’ve already seen how some kids try to take advantage of that generosity, but in the end – all we can do is prepare him for how to deal with things that are sadly going to happen in his life and he is generally handling those tougher situations pretty well.

The main thing for me is for him to be able to enjoy his childhood.

I get that’s an incredibly privileged way to live … but I also think that’s something every parent would want for their children.

The fact is life passes so fast, we want to try and ensure he is given the chance to enjoy the present.

Be silly.

Try different things.

Resist placing pressure on him to do things he doesn’t like.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love him to like playing football as much as he likes doing acting, but he knows to support Nottingham Forest, so I’m OK with it.

Which leads back to the point of this post.

Happiness.

When we lived in LA, we bought Otis a trampoline for his birthday

As you can see, he was very happy to get one.

In fact, he was so happy, he would want to do it all the time. Including at night, where he would go into the garage with a torch [where the trampoline was kept] and just bounce up and down.

For hours.

And hours.

And hours.

When we left America, I wanted to sell the trampoline and get another when we worked out where we were going to live. But Jill had other ideas. And as usual, she was right.

Because while the weather in London is not the same as the weather in LA, that trampoline was a guarantee of happiness for Otis.

Not just because it was a treasured possession from another place, but because he still loves to bounce on it.

For hours.

And hours.

And hours.

Which is a very long winded way to get to the point of this post.

As the weather is nicer, Otis likes nothing more than bouncing on his trampoline while being sprayed with water.

Yes, I know this sounds like the sort of torture the US government subjected inmates at Guantanemo Bay to, but he adores it.

Recently we captured a photo while he was doing it that, for me, sums up what happiness is.

As a feeling.

As a look.

As a parent.

As my son.

Which is why I hope this is one thing that never changes as he gets older.

Not just because I doubt it can be topped – regardless what he does – but because, for me, it is the definition of perfect.

Stay happy Otis.

You make your old man giggle with pride and delight.




If You Are Uncomfortable Talking About Race, It Means You Are Comfortable With Racism And Are A Shit Planner …

So last week, I was invited to talk at GroupThink’s planning conference.

I like the people there and said yes.

Originally I was going to take people through an old presentation because I didn’t really have much time to write something specific for you. They were OK with it and so wrote it into their program.

Then the situation with George Floyd happened.

Following so shortly on the heels of other racist motivated murders, like Ahmaud Arbery – who was murdered in cold blood by a father and son while out jogging.

At this point, quite frankly, the idea of doing a presentation on strategy seemed so utterly pointless.

So 2 days before the day of the event, I wrote something new.

Something that was about why Black Lives Matters is the only thing that really matters to me right now.

How the ad industry HAS to change.

How the ad industry may talk a lot about diversity and inclusivity but its actions are racist.

I’m not saying that is their intention or that they even realise it, but it’s racist.

And I’ve been complicit in that.

Again, not intentionally, but still done it.

Anyone who is white has … because we’ve let our privilidge create a gap between our actions and our self awareness.

Finally, I talked about 6 things people could do TODAY to make a positive difference to any person of colour … whether that’s through education, responsibility, judgement or action.

Now I must admit I was scared to write this presentation.

Not because I was worried it would make people feel uncomfortable, but because I’m a white male who has had every privilege going and the last thing I wanted to do was come across as if I was claiming to be an expert on this matter or whitesplaining anything.

Which is why I didn’t write the presentation.

I co-wrote it.

In addition to capturing some of the lessons I learned from the brilliant people of colour I’ve worked with and known over the years [which is a lot given how long I spent in China and Asia], the main bulk of the presentation was put together – after seeking their permission – with the irrepressible, wonderful and take-no-shit-from-anyone-especially-me … Maya Thompson, Breanna Jones and Chelsea Curry.

I’ve written and talked about them a lot.

They changed my life.

Literally.

I genuinely believe I can never thank them enough, but one way I try is to take on the issues I should have taken on years ago but thought not being racist was enough.

It isn’t.

So here it is … it’s my usual picture rubbish, but hopefully the bits that are there will make sense to everyone.

The real presentation starts at page 28, the previous slides were linked to the talk I was going to give so I could lull people into a false sense of security so they would get comfortable before I talked openly, emotionally and plainly about an issue that should be the focus of every human right now, but isn’t for a whole host of unimportant or self-serving reasons.

Should anyone want to know more about the presentation, please get in touch.

But most importantly, please act.

Black. Lives. Matter.

Slides 1-5: Just introducing me and why I am happy to be invited to present.

Slides 6-10: How the standard of work being created is generally very poor and how we are all contributing to it in terms of the things we are talking about. Which isn’t the standard of the work and sounds more like us trying to be clients than people valuable to clients.

Slides 11-23: Insights matter because people matter and if you want to make work that is intriguing, interesting, provocative and fresh, you have to care about people, culture and subculture or you’ll get nowhere.

Slides 24-27: I talk about how I was going to talk about the wonderfully crazy project we’ve recently done in China and how understanding sub-culture made building something specifically designed to look like ‘future Mars’ was perfectly sensible but ….

Slide 28: I need to pause the topic of the talk because frankly, the events of the past week have really upset me – specifically the reaction of many agency leaders – and I want to talk about something that matters more to me.

Slides 29-31: Black Lives Matter. There’s many lives that matter, but right now – for me – Black Lives Matter is the only one that matters.

Slides 32-34: Lived around the World, eventually moved to America and then met 3 brilliant women who changed my life. Maya Thompson. Chelsea Curry. Breanna Jones.

Slides 34-39: This is how they fundamentally changed my life for the better by helping me see how blind, stupid and complicit I’d been and then [with some values my Mum taught me] the journey we went on – and still go on – together.

Slides 40-49: Announce this deck has actually all been co-written by Maya, Breanna and Chelsea. Three main reasons for this. I don’t have credibility, I don’t want to come across as whitesplaining and I want any advice I give to be genuinely valuable to people of colour, not a white persons interpretation of what is valuable.

Slide 50: How my industry is racist. Doesn’t want to be. But is. And I use a recent ‘challenge’ put out by Cannes as an example. For the record, they launched a competition on how to attract more diversity into the industry and gave a media budget of £100,000. That’s right they were committing an amount of money most agencies would spend for dinners during Cannes for a topic that they claim is hugely important to them. They don’t intend to be racist but they – like the whole industry – is acting in ways that are.

Slides 51-58: What we have to do to stop being a racist industry including letting go of everything we thought we knew and starting again.

[Please note slide 54: Lots of people say they’re ‘colour blind’. By which they mean they claim they treat everyone the same. The point of this slide is that while we should absolutely treat and value everyone the same, we should do this in a way that acknowledges individual backgrounds and beliefs. Not doing this can result in one of 3 things. [1] We treat everyone the same but based on our definition of what ‘same is’. Which is often white, which means we expect people of colour to adapt to us and our standards. [2] We generalise groups for our convenience, so we call [for example] everyone who is black, “black” … ignoring the vast range of backgrounds, beliefs and nuances they could have BECAUSE PEOPLE OF COLOUR DO NOT ALL COME FROM THE SAME PLACE!!! Or [3] because of being ‘colour blind’, you see everyone the same [which we don’t, let’s be clear on that] so you end up making the same work for everyone thinking it will be resonant with everyone. It isn’t. See how Rihanna highlighted this when she launched her Fenty cosmetics and simply added colours for African American skin, fucking up the big cosmetic companies who had ignored this for decades]

Slide 59-60: Highlighting when you start from scratch it can work, because my son Otis is living proof of it. He has lived in 3 countries and loves them all equally, while accepting and respecting their individual differences.

Slide 61: If you need a commercial reason for why Black Lives Matter [and if you do, you’re a prick] it’s because people of colour can make this industry great again because on top of all influential culture being born from black culture, people of colour understand nuance, values, struggles and humanity better than anyone as they have to deal with this shit every day.

Slide 62-63: Thank you to all the people of colour who helped co-write this presentation – especially Maya, Chelsea and Breanna – and justice for George Floyd.