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


P-P-P-Pick Up A Penguin …
December 7, 2022, 8:15 am
Filed under: A Bit Of Inspiration, Attitude & Aptitude, Death, Empathy, Love, Loyalty, Otis, Sentimentality

This week has seen quite a lot of sentimental posts so far.

Or should I say, has seem more sentimental posts that usual.

The reason is likely because it’s Otis’ 8th birthday on Sunday and I’m building up to it.

I’ll be writing a big post about that – and him – on Friday, but this post continues the sentimental theme.

Except this has nothing to do with me and is just something I couldn’t help be touched by.

A story of love and loss.

Friendship and light at moments of loneliness and darkness.

No, it’s not the storyline for a documentary.

It’s not even about humans.

But it is real. And I do love it. Especially as the world feels more divided and broken than I’ve ever experienced it and so any sign of genuine emotion and love goes a long way.

Have a read of this … though the real impact comes in the form of the photographs.

Those beautiful, gentle, loving photos.

Especially the one with the ‘wing’ around the other.

Who knew that we could all do with being a bit more penguin!

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The Difference Between Brand And Band Strategy …

I was recently interviewed by a music company about the work I do for artists.

They – quite rightly – wanted to know what I did and how it was different to what I normally did.

And I explained the difference was made clear pretty much in my very first meeting.

Because I was told this …

Now I can’t be sure they used those exact words, but that was the general premise.

And that was what was amazing.

Because when working with brands, they want you to use creativity to engage audiences, but with bands – at least the ones I’ve been exposed to – it’s the opposite.

I don’t mean they want to alienate people – though they understand the importance of sacrifice better than almost any brand marketer I’ve ever met – it’s just they are the creativity … they are the product … and so the last thing they want is some fucker placing a layer of ‘marketing’ on top of their artistic expression which can be twisted, diluted or fucked with so what they want to say and what it means to them, has no consideration whatsoever.

Now I admit I’m very fortunate the artists I’m working for are of a scale where they have the power to not just consider this issue but do something about it.

Many don’t.

However by the same token, when you’re of that scale, the potential for things to get messed up in some way is much greater.

Which is why they ensured I knew my role was not to market them, but to protect their truth.

Do and explore things that amplify who they are not just flog more product.

And because what they create is an expression who they are … they can express their truth without falling into endless streams of cliched brand consultant speak.

+ So no buzz words.
+ No ambiguous terms.
+ Just stories, experiences and considerations that have defined all they do.

And that’s why they don’t really care if you like their music. Sure, it helps, but they don’t want fawning fandom, they want people who understand what they value, believe and give a fuck about so everything associated with what they do expresses it.

Or said another way, they want people who can ‘speak their tongue’.

Now I am the first to admit there have been some mistakes.

Some things you go, “why did you do that?”

But in the main, I’ve not seen much of it and even when I have called stuff out, they have [generally] appreciated it, because – as I was also told on my first day – I’m being paid to give them truth not comfort.

I’ve always said people should not aspire to be a planner, but get away with the things a planner can get away with. And I’ve got away with a lot as a planner. Done all manner of weird and wonderful.

While I’d like to think that’s what helped me get this gig … the reality is I got it because of an introduction from someone I know.

And while in theory any strategist could do what I’m doing, how I do strategy and how I have been asked to view what it’s role is, has highlighted that’s not the case.

Not because of capability, but what the industry currently wants and expects.

And this is manifested in increasingly not being given the time, support or standards to do things right.

Where speed is more important than substance.

Process more valuable than output.

I wrote about this and more, here.

But it’s more than that, it’s also what clients think strategy is for …

Packaging rather than changing.

Wanting quick wins rather than long term value.

Targeting needs, not a point of view in the world.

Chasing convenience not authenticity.

If anything, doing this work has made me even more grateful to the bosses, agencies and clients I’ve worked with over my career.

Because when I look back, the truly great ones were basically like a band.

Born of belief. Defined by a point of view. Wanting to attract not chase anything popular.

And that’s a big part of why they have been able to remain at the forefront of their individual discipline, category and/or sub-culture.

Because they never saw strategy as a tool for marketing, but to amplify their truth.

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The Great Effectiveness Swindle …

There’s so many agencies, consultancies and self-appointed guru’s out there who talk about how to be successful at business.

They all have their models, eco-systems, philosophies and proof points.

And yet so few have ever done it for themselves.

They’ve chosen to ‘succeed’ under the safety-net of anothers money, reputation or effort.

That doesn’t mean what they do or think doesn’t have value – of course it does – but it also doesn’t mean their viewpoint is the only one worth counting.

And yet, every single bloody day, that’s how it is presented.

Recently someone wrote a piece on how they had used their proprietary research methodology on a Cannes winning TV ad and declared it would not deliver sustainable growth for the brand in question.

Putting aside the fact they were judging work that had won a creativity award rather than an effectiveness one … the thing I found funny was their confidence in proclaiming their view was the ultimate view.

I am not doubting their smarts.

I am not doubting their data.

But I am doubting their breadth of business appreciation.

And yet somehow, the voices of a few have positioned themselves as the be-all and end-all of effectiveness.

Don’t follow us and you fail.
Don’t follow us and your brand will lose.
Don’t follow us and you will be labeled foolish.

Now I am not denying these people do have a lot of experience and lessons we can learn from, but they’re not infallible.

But that’s how the industry approaches them.

Lording them like they are Yoda’s of the future.

But they’re not.

Don’t get me wrong, they are very good at evaluating effectiveness from a particular perspective and set of behaviours. Offering advice that can be hugely important in the decision making process.

But there’s a whole host of brands and business that have adopted totally different models and achieved ‘effectiveness and success’ that leaves others far behind.

Incredible sustainable success.

From Liquid Death to SKP-S to Gentle Monster to Vollebak to Metallica to name but a few.

Oh I know what some will say …

“They’re niche”“they’re young”“they’re not that successful”.

And to those people I would say maybe you don’t know what you’re talking about … because in just that list, it includes the biggest selling brand on Amazon, the fastest selling brand in their category on earth and the second most successful American band in history.

But there were two things that really brought the issue of mindset narrowcasting to me …

The first was the launch of a book that was basically about creating future customer desire for your brand/business.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that … but no shit Sherlock.

Has the market got so short-sighted and insular that the idea of doing things that also drive your future value and desirability become a revelation?

It’s literally the most basic entrepreneur mindset, and yet it was presented like it was Newton discovering the laws of gravity.

This person is super smart.

They’ve done a lot of good stuff.

But it just feels the actions of some in the industry are driven by the fetishisation of icon status … even though, ironically, what it does is highlight their experience may be narrower than they realise.

But at least the book had good stuff in there.

Stuff that could help people with some of the basics.

A desire to look forward rather than get lost in the optimisation circle-jerk.

This next one was a whole lot worse.

Recently an ex-employer of mine went to see a current client of mine.

Specifically the founder and CEO.

Apparently they went in to tell him he was missing out on a whole host of business and they could help him get more.

They then proceeded to present a massive document on how they would do it.

He looked at them and told them it was very interesting but they were wrong.

He told them their premise was based on a business approach he doesn’t follow or believe in.

A business approach that didn’t reflect the industry he was in, only the industry they were in.

He then informed them he had the most profitable store on the planet and so while he appreciated their time, he had faith in his approach and it was serving him well.

But it gets better.

As they were leaving – and I’ve been told this is true by someone who was apparently there – the person showing them out informed them their boss had a personal net worth of US$36 billion and based on their companies current share price, that meant he was more valuable than their entire group.

Was it an asshole thing to do?

Yep.

Do I absolutely love it?

Oh yeah.

Will I get in trouble for telling this?

Errrrrm, probably.

My point is the industry has decided ‘effectiveness’ can only be achieved and measured in one way and any deviation from that is immediately discounted or considered ‘flawed’.

Often by people who have never actually built a world leading business themselves.

Again, I am not dismissing the importance of what is being said, it’s HUGELY important – which is why I’m proud we won the Cannes/Warc effectiveness Grand Prix – but, and it’s a huge one, if we think that’s the only model and only use that one ‘model’, then we are literally adopting a single approach to solve every one of our clients every problems.

One.

That’s insane.

Not just because it’s stupid but because if everyone adopts the same approach, then impact will be influenced far more by spend and distribution that strategy.

Please note I am absolutely not saying we should burn the models or philosophies or systems that have proven their value to drive business. No. Absolutely not. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be praying at the feet of them … especially when many are simply focused on creating steady impact rather than spectacular.

Yes, I know ‘spectacular’ has a lifespan – which is why innovation is so important – but so many brands out there either aim for the middle … reinforced by processes, protocols and rules defined as ‘best practice’ by people in a particular industry … or they bake-in ‘limitation’ into their potential because they’ve blindly adopted rules they never challenge or explore from other industries or entrepreneurs.

At the end of the day, if a brand like Liquid Death can become the biggest selling water brand on Amazon because they found a way to make men actually want to drink water through a model and approach that is not only radically different to what so many of the industry experts say is ‘the only way’ … but is the opposite of it … then your brand may be inhibiting itself by following a model designed to make you fit in with it, rather than redefine how it fits in with you.

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Valued Rather Than Value …

I’ve written a bunch about clients who have gone out of their way to make me feel valued.

Like the signed Wayne Rooney shirt I was given to give to a cab driver I met in Atlanta.

Or the green M&M’s so I could live out my Van Halen fantasies when they asked me to do a talk with little notice.

Or the years supply of Coke Zero because they knew I really, really love it.

Or the amazing custom built guitar with unique detailing to say goodbye when I left China.

Or – most recently – that photograph at the top of this post.

Of Rick Rubin with the Beastie Boys outside Radio City in NYC by Josh Cheuse.

From 1985.

Autographed by all.

Which was a gift from the management team of musical gods.

Like, what the hell?!

Yes, I know this means I have a lot of clients that are obviously bonkers, but the most valuable thing they did with all this was teach me the difference between valued and value.

Because with all these clients, I was a pain in the arse to them.

I demanded a lot from them.

We would ‘debate’ over stuff.

And yet, rather than complain about me, they let me know they appreciated it.

Because they knew the reason for it was because I wanted them to win better.

And I did. And do.

Because win better is not about simply ‘fulfilling the requirements of the client brief at a price that represents value for money’ … it’s about pushing for change, standards and possibility.

Because when you do that, you open the door to work that can take you to totally new places with totally new possibilities.

Now I’m not saying it’s easy.

Nor am I saying I’m the only one who does it.

Weigel is the master of it.
Wieden was built on it.
And Colenso haven’t won agency of the decade twice in a row by accident.

But what is common to all is dealing in truth rather than pandering to ego.

Playing up to standards rather than down to compromise.

Having the hard conversations rather than the convenient ones.

And with this means sometimes having to deal with gut-wrenching fails.

But here’s the thing, I’ve learned …

Great clients want great. Great thinking. Great ideas. Great results.

But it’s more than just wanting it …

They actively encourage it and help it through their systems.

They are transparent and honest while being open and ambitious.

They rely as much on their experience and taste as they do their research processes.

So even if things don’t quite end up where you all hoped, they understand, appreciate and protect what you did together and keep internal minds focused on what it achieved rather than just what it didn’t.

And they do this by not just looking at the numbers, but the audience.

And when I say that, I don’t mean they define their ‘customers’ in some faceless, colour-coded, generic set of terms.

They know and invest in understanding the sub-culture of their category and brand.

Not just what they buy.

Or how they use product.

But what the hell is going on in their life.

Because it’s not just about ‘shifting product’, it’s also creating change.

Something that opens up the future rather than just continually trades from the middle.

My old Nike client, Simon Pestridge – who I’m so happy is my client again – said something to me once I’ve held on to.

“Middle management want to be told they’re right, senior management want to know how to be better”

Because he is so good, he didn’t realise how he behaves is not representative of all senior management. But in my experience, it is of the truly great.

And that’s why they don’t look at value simply in terms of ‘economic return x input cost’, they look at it in terms of ‘are you making us better’.

The industry seems to have forgotten that.

Too many appear to have chosen pandering as a business model.

Too many bosses demands compliance rather than curiousity.

And that’s what we need to change …

Because challenging the client doesn’t mean you are an asshole.

It means you give a fuck.

Play to be valued.

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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.