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


Who Is Fooling Who?

Being old, I’ve done more than my fair share of judging awards.

I enjoy it.

Yes it’s a major investment in terms of time, but when you come across an absolutely devastatingly good submission, it’s worth every second.

However it is also fair to say that over the years, there have been some real painful experiences. Either in terms of average papers being seemingly entered into every category in a bid to increase the odds of winning something or papers that have such a strong scent of scam, even Ray Charles can see how suspect they are. [Sorry Mr Charles]

I always laugh when I come across those. Specially at the agencies submitting them … because while they obviously think they are geniuses – or the judges are idiots – the reality is they’re wrong on both counts.

But here’s the thing, people can slag off awards all they like, but they matter.

For Colenso for example, they’re important.

We’re a small agency on the other side of the planet and being able to show our creativity and effectiveness is vitally important to keep demonstrating our validity to attract global clients.

But – and it’s a big but – it only works if its real.

And that only works if all the winners around it are also real.

Now I appreciate that different clients have different needs and budgets.

I appreciate different markets have different cultural traits, behaviours and media.

I absolutely appreciate some entries use a language that is not their native tongue.

And I think that is all brilliant – though I also think none-native English speakers are at an immediate disadvantage and the award organisers should be looking at ways to change that.

However, if you need to write 8456738585463 words to explain your problem or your idea or your insight or your results … you’re not helping yourself.

Nor are you if you are using the pandemic as your strategies main adversary – often followed up with the words, ‘how do we grow in an era of the new normal?’.

Of course I am not doubting the pandemic has caused havoc among categories of business all over the world. It’s definitely happened to me too. But if we don’t explain what the challenge is – how it has affected behaviour or values or distribution or competition or anything other than it ‘made things more difficult’ … then it’s as lazy as the time I judged the Effies in the US when Trump came to power and the opening line of 85% of all submissions was:

How do we bring a nation divided together?

[My fave was when a whisky brand used that as their creative challenge. HAHAHAHA]

I take the judging seriously because I want the awards to be valued.

I want the awards to be valued because I want the industry to be valued.

And I want the industry to be valued because I want clients to win, creativity to win and the people coming up behind me to have a chance of taking us all to better and more interesting places that we’re at right now.

And I believe they can if we don’t fuck up the chance for them.

I get awards are nice to have.

I get they can drive business and payrises.

But if we keep allowing bullshit a chance to shine – and let’s face it, we have time and time again – then all we’re doing is fucking ourselves over.

I’m fine with failure.

In fact I’m very, very comfortable with it.

Especially when it’s because someone has tried to do something audacious for all the right reasons … because even if it doesn’t come off, it’s opened the door to other things we may never have imagined. There’s even real commercial value to that.

But when agencies create, hijack or exploit problems to just serve their own means – then fuck them. Maybe – just maybe – if they did it at a scale that could make a real difference, you’d be prone to encourage it. But when it’s done to achieve just what is needed to let the creators win an award … then frankly, the organisers and judges have a moral obligation to call it out.

Asia gets a bad wrap for this. And over the years that has been deserved, but I can tell you no market is immune. Hell, I’ve even seen some in NZ recently – or one in particular – and what made it worse was it wasn’t even any good.

But as rubbish as that example was, at least it didn’t stoop to the levels we have seen previously.

Let’s remember it’s only 4 years ago an agency WON MAJOR AWARDS for an app they said could help save refugees on boats by tracking them in the sea … only for them to then claim – when later called out – that the app was in beta testing hence the information being sent back to users was not real.

Amazingly ignoring the fact they didn’t say that in any of their entry submissions and if they had, they wouldn’t have been eligible for the awards they entered in the first place.

Creativity can do amazing things.

Advertising can do amazing things.

But we fuck it up when we put the superficial on the podium.

Of course, this is not just an agency problem. Clients are also part of this. Because if they let agencies do what they are great at rather than treating them as a subservient production partner … maybe we’d not just see more interesting work, but even more interesting and valuable brands.



Fempowerment Fails …

Years ago I worked on the shampoo brand Sunsilk.

I know. Me.

A bald bloke.

Hahahahahahahaha.

Back then, it was in a two brand fight for dominance with Pantene.

They went back and forth trying to get one over the over.

Apparently the brands had legally agreed how each one could show the ‘shine’ of the hair they washed in TV ads. A slight deviation that allowed each one to build their own distinctive look.

Back when I was on it, albeit for 2 mins, Sunsilk was a big, mature brand.

A powerhouse.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw this:

What in gods name is that?

What is it?

It’s like the worst Barbie ad I’ve ever seen.

An ad that claims to ‘rethink’ pink but doesn’t really rethink anything.

Oh they may think they are, but the people behind this need to know you can’t just say pink now represents possibilities, future, strength and shiny [gotta get those haircare ad cues in there, even if it makes even less sense to the premise of the ad] … you actually have to make it mean that.

It’s a commitment.

A focus.

Acts beyond advertising.

So sadly, when you make an ad so bubblegum it looks like the bastard love child of the movie, Legally Blonde and a packet of original Hubba Bubba, you’re not really going to convince anyone.

On the positive, they cop out by saying ‘pink is whatever we make it’ and so I would like to tell the people at Unilever and Sunilk they did exactly that, because they have made pink brown.

Shitty brown.

Am I being mean?

Yep.

But then this is a multi-billion dollar company who has profited by putting women across Asia in cultural jail by promoting white skin as the right skin … used COVID to maximise profits for their antiseptic products and continually used stereotypes to promote it’s products … so I don’t have much sympathy for them.

Especially when they’re now trying to connect to young women by saying ‘pink’ is powerful while using all the same tropes, styles and themes that means what they’re actually communicating is ‘pink is the same old girly cliche they’ve been profiting from, for decades’.

There’s some absolutely incredibly talented people at Unilever.

Including some very good friends of mine.

There’s also some brilliant systems and processes within the organisation.

Sadly, there’s also a blinkered reliance on some questionable research methodologies, which results in a lack of self awareness so they end up with work like this.

They have done some brilliant work in the past.

Some truly brilliant.

But – in my opinion – not so much right now. Made worse with the sort of underlying messages that undermine people rather than elevate them.

If it wasn’t for their huge distribution and pricing power, it would be interesting to see what would happen to the brand.

But the thing is I want them to do well.

I want them to make work that changes and positively impacts culture.

They’re a huge spender on advertising.

They have the ability to change how culture feels and how the industry is perceived.

A Unilever that does great advertising is a Unilever that will have positive knock-on effects in a whole host of other areas and industries.

I’d even be willing to help them – for free, for a time – if their starting point was about building change through truth rather than their messed-up, manipulative version of purpose.

However given they made this ad after saying they wanted to stop the stereotypes in their advertising, it appears their view of reality is more blinkered than a racehorse.



Beware Of The Quiet Ones …

Once upon a time, I worked with a guy called Kim Papworth.

He was the co-ECD of Wieden London at the time, with the irrepressible Tony Davidson.

Now I am sure Tony wouldn’t mind me saying this, but he has a reputation as a bit of a madman.

Brilliantly creative.

Deliciously stubborn.

Fiercely challenging.

And slightly bonkers.

OK, so in their early days – when they were at BMP and BBH – this ‘unique’ reputation was allegedly shared … however as time went by, Kim started being seen by many people as ‘the nice one’.

While they are both ace, I get why.

Where Tony is loud, Kim is quiet.

Where Tony is chaos, Kim is clarity.

Where Tony is intense, Kim is calm.

Where Tony is random, Kim is considered.

Let me be clear, Tony was – and is – amazing and has always been so good to me, however many viewed Kim as the more approachable of the two … the one you could reason with … the one you could chat to … the one you could have a debate with and it’s this that was his most powerful move.

You see Kim … wonderful, kind, compassionate Kim … is steely as fuck.

Sure he doesn’t shout or rant or gesticulate or throw tantrums.

Sure he doesn’t swear or throw toys out the pram or act aloof.

But he was stubborn as fuck about letting the work win.

He wouldn’t let ideas be killed on an individuals whim.

He wouldn’t let ideas be changed to satisfy personal ego.

He wouldn’t let ideas be diluted to appease a committee.

He wouldn’t let ideas be burdened by politics or agenda.

He wouldn’t let ideas be sold short by timelines or small mindedness.

He wouldn’t let anything win other than the purity of the idea.

I once watched him keep a campaign on the table after a client had spent 30 minutes saying it was wrong and they hated it. Better yet, he did it in a way where the client was OK with him doing it.

He didn’t bully, lie or manipulate to get his way.

He did it by listening.

Intently.

Then he slowly but methodically went through each of their issues and talked about the options he saw to solve them … always ensuring they elevated the idea he believed in rather than diluting it.

It was – quite simply – one of the most amazing pieces of creative negotiation I’ve ever seen.

Actually, negotiation is the wrong word.

Because it was never about dumbing down the idea to keep a version of it, it was always about solving the problems the clients had but in ways that ensured the idea would be able to shine.

[The photo at the end of this post is from that meeting, where Kim awkwardly humoured me and my demands to commemorate the moment of magic]

While Kim was – and is – a brilliant, brilliant creative, one of his greatest skills was the art of listening, because he always saw it as ammunition that allowed him to keep ideas safe.

While there are others that practice this – including a bunch at Colenso for example – a huge amount of the industry simply hears stuff.

Listening and hearing are very different.

Listening is understanding.

Not just the words, but the context and the details.

But hearing …

Well, hearing is simply about sound and that’s why we often end up with divisions.

A battle between ‘what I want’ and ‘what you want’.

A war between creativity and client.

No one wins.

Sure, someone may in the short-term, but not long.

That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree or debate … nor does it mean you will always succeed in convincing someone to change their mind … but listening increases the odds.

It ensures the other party feels they have been understood.
It ensures your response is efficient and focused on the issue.
It ensures you are keeping the work on the table for as long as possible.

[And if he feels the demands being asked of the work undermine the power of the work, he’d just take it off the table and we would start again. And I believe in that to this day]

I have had the great pleasure of working with a whole host of brilliantly talented creative people.

People in adland, music, fashion, gaming and sport.

But the ones I find the most fascinating are the ones like Kim.

Who have the ability to feel like velvet, even when their focus is forged in iron.

Not because of manipulation, deceit or trickery.

But because they know, nothing is as forceful as the power of listening.



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.



Wanted. Liars With Straight Faces …

The industry likes to talk a lot about purpose.
The supposedly unwavering commitment to its higher purpose, even if it only turns up in marketing.

It likes to talk about agility.

The ability for a company to change focus to maximise opportunities even, if often it’s done to hide a lack of strategy.

And let’s not forget pivoting.

The ability to shift from one area of expertise to another, even if the reality is its because you need to survive rather than you are forward thinking.

Now of course, there are some companies who have purpose, agility and an ability to pivot without using it as an excuse to hide their shortcomings. Companies who have embodied and expressed all these traits, often before it became another marketing or business buzzword.

Or – in the case of pivoting – there are some companies who openly admit why they did it. That if they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist any longer. Netflix for example.

But there’s some organisations who see the writing on the wall, but ‘pivot’ to such an extent that they literally show themselves for the lying, cheating, manipulative organization they have always been.

The best example of this I’ve possibly ever seen is cancer champion – Philip Morris.

You see the tobacco company has decided that their core cash cow doesn’t have the same profitable future as it once did so have decided – to loud fanfare – to pivot.

“What to?” I hear you ask?

Hold on to your hats, because it’s a Health and Wellness company.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

No, that’s not a joke … well, it is, but they don’t mean it to be.

Yep, Phillip Morris – owners of brands including Marlboro are supposedly pivoting to a health and wellness company.

It’s the equivalent of the Trump Organisation becoming an international aid charity.

Or kids TV show, Playschool pivoting to a rival of Pornhub.

How can they say this with a straight face?

They’re even lobbying for a ban on cigarettes within 10 years.

This is worse than poacher turned keeper.

This is an attempt for death to turn doctor … conveniently ignoring all the shameful acts they undertook – and still undertake – to keep their tobacco business killing its customers.

Look I get they have to continue making money.

I get a lot of ‘health and wellness’ companies are as questionable as a cigarette company.

But come on …

Apart from their bullshit being utterly transparent and sickening … what about all the scientists and doctors they paid off, bullied and sued to keep their kill sticks in market.

Do they think they’re just going to nod and think, “hey, we won?”

Will there be a follow up to the Michael Mann movie, The Insider … where Russell Crowe spends 2 hours saying, “I was wrong, Philip Morris are lovely guys really and I forgive them for trying to crush and threaten my life.”

And that’s before we get to the scientists and doctors who work for Philip Morris who must be wondering how a company committed to tobacco can just expect them to change their focus to fixing the illnesses they helped cause in the first place.

But do you know what the sickest part of it all is?

The markets won’t care.

They won’t cast doubt or suspicion.

As long as they make money they will support them.

They’ll call them a poster child for ‘purpose’ and ‘wellbeing’.

It will see the CEO, Jacek Olczak, celebrated and revered by the business press.

It will see him earn millions from bonuses, consultancy and speaker engagements.

We’ll watch holding company CEO’s jostle for position.

We’ll see even more agencies pitching for their business.

We’ll read fawning editorial about their shift in industry magazines.

We’ll hear strategists talk about them as proof of the power of pivoting.

And it will make me hate even more people for the willingness to support hypocrisy for profit.

Philip Morris. You can say you are a health and wellness company, but we all know the only health and wellness you have ever cared about is your own bank balance.