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


It’s Not A Revelation When You’re Late To The Party …

I’m back.

And I had a great, great birthday.

Hopefully, so did Jill and Paul.

And to make sure you don’t feel left out, you also get a present – and that’s the present of only having 2 blog posts this week.

You’re welcome.

That said, my great birthday was ruined when someone sent me this …

What the absolute fuck.

I mean … come on.

H2H.

H 2 bloody H.

It’s a bit like when Mondelez announced they were all about humaning or something.

Why is this a big thing to them?

Who the fuck did they think they were talking to before?

What makes it even funnier is that it appears they don’t seem to realise what this announcement says about who they really are.

Imagine what clients or staff think?

“Hey, we have gone from looking at you as emotionless, automated, programmable bots to now valuing your emotional needs. Which we have created a framework, playbook and eco-system to manage seamlessly and profitably”.

And yet I bet they still call their customers, ‘consumers’.

While I’m happy that big brands are starting to understand that people are not simply walking wallets to bestow even more ‘bonus bucks’ on their senior management, I don’t hold out much hope their work will get much better given it’s 2021 and they’ve just worked this out.

Seriously, for all the knowledge, research and information so many big companies have at their disposal, it’s frightening how much of the basics they simply don’t even understand.



The Music Industry Lifts Me Up By Putting Me Down …

A few weeks ago – thanks to Metallica’s managers – I was asked to give a presentation to another of the bands in their roster.

They’re not as big or as successful as their management mates, but they are definitely a name and had a lot of ideas about the future.

I was asked to give my perspective on what they were thinking so wrote a presentation called, ‘How to stop you becoming twats’.

To be honest, it wasn’t going to be called that, it was just an internal working title – designed to scare their management team more than anything – so you can imagine my surprise when they just laughed and said I should keep it.

I must admit, I was very, very suspicious about why they were OK with it but decided to go with it because at the very least, I could blame them, haha.

Anyway, despite the very curious faces on zoom as I presented to them at 4am New Zealand time, it seemed to have gone down well … which is why I was somewhat surprised when the day after I received this email from one of the team.

Putting aside the worry they may have actually told me to present that title because they thought I would get murdered for it, it’s quite nice to have delivered a presentation of blunt truth [albeit, well intentioned] and been thanked for it.

It’s not as good as the insult I got from Lars – which was part of this preso – but it’s still good.

Now you may wonder how I got away with it?

Well I don’t really know …

However I do have a long career of being able to be very blunt with clients in a way where they continually invite me back.

I don’t think it’s because they’re masochists.

And I certainly don’t do it because I am a prick.

It’s purely because my sole focus is to help them win better.

It’s amazing what you can get away with when the person knows your ambition is for them, not for you.

Or as one of my best ever clients said to me – the NIKE CMO, Simon Pestridge – “middle management want to be right, senior management want to know how to be better”.

I may not suggest doing it in the way I do it, but truth should never be hidden or sugarcoated to the point where no one can actually taste anything you’re saying.

And if anyone pushes back on you for wanting to do this, just point them to this post … because if senior figures in global brands and members of global rockbands can take it, anyone can.

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It’s a long weekend here for the Queen’s birthday, so enjoy the weekend and the exert day off free from my rubbish next week.



Nothing Shows Respect Like Letting Someone Argue With You …

A career is a funny thing.

I mean literally, as a concept – it’s quite bizarre.

The idea of working in one industry and hoping to move up a fictional ladder and somehow hope that by the time you’re pushed off it – and we’ll all be pushed off it at some time – you’ve built up enough reputation or cash to keep you going through till the bitter end.

Hahahaha … Mr Positive eh!?

Anyway, by hook or by crook I’ve somehow managed to have what I’d call a career.

Admittedly, I fell into it – but overall, I’ve had a pretty good one.

I’ve worked at some amazing places.
I’ve got to live literally all around the World.
I’ve met people who have literally changed my life.
I’ve been part of work that still excites me years later.
And somehow, I’m still doing all those things, which is insane.

But as wonderful as all that is, one thing I am particularly proud of is how many of my old team mates are now at some of the most highly regarded creative companies in the World doing all manner of interesting things.

Of course, I had little to do with it – it’s all their talent – but the bit that makes me proud is that they are forging their own careers based on their own ideas and their own opinions and their own voice.

About 2005, I realised how lucky I had been with previous bosses.

All of them encouraged me to find my own voice rather than duplicate someone else’s … and while that often got me in trouble, they never strayed from their path of encouraging independent thought.

Now I appreciate a lot of companies say this, but this wasn’t some PR bullshit they could spout in a magazine, they lived it – openly and actively welcoming, encouraging and igniting debate.

And they never ‘pulled rank’.

It was always a discussion of equals – which was one of the most empowering and liberating professional feelings I ever had.

It showed trust. It showed respect. It showed value.

And even though I’m an old fuck who has done OK in my career, I still get that same feeling when I am working with others who embrace the same value.

As much as rockstars and billionaires may have a reputation for demanding diva’s, I can honestly say the ones I’ve been working with have been amazing in welcoming opinion. They may not always like what is said, but they always value why it has.

And that’s why, when I saw a shift in planning from rigour to replication … challenge to complicity … and individuality to impotency [driven by the global financial crisis of 2008] I realised the best thing I could do is encourage my team to be independent in thought, voice and behaviour.

I should point out this was not selfless. By having great creative and cultural thinkers in my team, they would help make even better work and that would have a positive effect on me too.

I know, what a prick eh.

And of course, I acknowledge not every planner was following the replication path. Nor was every agency. But it was definitely happening and arguably, this is why Australian planners have risen in position more than those from other nations [ie: Tobey head of planning at Uncommon, Paula global head of Nike planning at Wieden, Andy head of planning at Wieden Portland, Rodi, head of strategy at Apple South East Asia and Aisea MD at Anomaly LA to name but 5] because – as much as the Aussie government may like to say they suffered – the country was largely unaffected, which meant training continued, standards continued, creativity continued.

So while there was a bunch of other values we continually encouraged and practiced, the desire to develop independent thinking, openness and debate were a real focus of mine and have continued to be.

Whether I was successful is up to the people who had the awkwardness of dealing with me, but I distinctly remembering being in a meeting at Wieden in Shanghai after Sue, Leon and Charinee had just challenged a bunch of things we had just talked to the agency about.

One of the global team was there and said, “they’re very outspoken”.

And while normally that could be read as a diss, it wasn’t … it was more of a surprise because many people in China – especially the young – tend to keep very quiet, especially in front of people who are at a more senior level to them and this mob had gone to town.

To which I replied, “I know. It’s a wonderful headache to have”.

And it was.

And it is.

Which is why I will continue to believe the best thing any head of planning can do is encourage independent thought and respect for debate and rigour … because while it can creates moments where it’s a right pain in the arse, the alternative is far more disagreeable.

Have a great weekend.



Layer Cake …

I was talking to a couple of mates recently.

Both of them are a couple of incredibly talented, highly regarded, multi-award winning creatives and they were asking me what it was like working in NZ.

As we were chatting we came to a revelation about what was causing the decline in advertising standards.

This is a topic that has been debated a lot over the years with a myriad of possible causes. But with the experience I have seen in NZ – plus the experience I have working directly with a number of famous bands and billionaires – we realised there was actually an underlying cause that trumped all other considerations.

It’s not digital.
It’s not consultants.
It’s not holding companies.
It’s not eco-systems or playbooks.
It’s not the wild inflation of strategists.
It’s not cost.
It’s not effectiveness.
It’s not in-house alternatives.
It’s not direct-to-consumers.
It’s not data.
It’s not rational messaging.

It’s the layers within companies.

The multitude of people everything has to go through and be approved by.

Might be on the client side.
Might be on the agency side.
Might be on both sides … but each layer is like a mini-focus group where ‘success’ is when the representative of that particular layer feels something can then be passed on to the next person in their group without it making them look foolish for their decision or choice.

And as the work passes each layer, the work gets diluted or chipped away until the ultimate decision maker gets to see something that is a pale shadow of what was originally intended.

An object that is a trophy to self preservation rather than potency and truth.

And as companies and agencies have grown in their complexity, the work has faced more layers and opinions. Doesn’t matter if you’re independent or part of the most networked agency/company in the history of networked agency/companies … the decline of creative standards is down to the number of organisational layers that now exists within companies.

And why has this happened?

Well, part of it is because of complexity, but the main part is because companies have got into this mad position where the only way they can grant a significant payrise is if the person is promoted.

So we’re in this mad situation where we have increased layers, headcount and complexity simply because we have viewed money as something commensurate with promotion rather than quality.

Now I appreciate you could argue promotion is a sign of quality – but I don’t think that’s right.

Being good at something doesn’t automatically mean you will be good at something more senior. Hell, there’s a lot of people who don’t even want to do something else. They just want to do what they love and they’re happy at.

I remember at Wieden where – for one mad minute – they thought I’d make a good MD.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

They didn’t come to their senses even when I told them I wasn’t even the MD of cynic … and that was a company I actually founded.

I didn’t want to be an MD.
I wasn’t interested in being an MD.
I just wanted to do what I loved and was good at.

And while they finally came to their senses [good call, Luhr, as usual] the reality is a lot of companies have a bunch of layers simply because they needed to promote someone to justify a payrise.

And before you know it, every task has to go through multitudes of layers … where most are designed to dull an idea rather than sharpen it.

While I don’t know this for a fact, I would guess the companies or agencies who are doing the most interesting work … the stuff that attracts culture rather than chases them down then beats them into submission … are the ones where they deal with the ultimate decision maker.

We get to do a lot of that in NZ.

I definitely get to do that with Metallica, Gentle Monster and the GTA team.

And the difference is huge.

Because while some of these clients are genuinely exceptional – especially when I’m talking to the founders of the organisations because that gives them a level of power and authority most other clients could never hope to get – I imagine a lot of the others are no different to the clients everyone who reads this blog deals with in London or New York or Tokyo everyday.

It’s just the big difference is instead of work having to appease the comments and judgement of 20 different people, it only has to agree with 4 … so the idea that gets made resembles the idea on the table to a much greater extent.

So next time you have a client that talks about wanting great work, don’t talk to them in terms of what processes, systems or people you can add to the mix, talk about what both parties need to take away.

Because if you want the work to be potent, kill the layers of filtration.



The Power Of Presence …

So recently a friend of mine sent me this video of Prince performing at the Brit awards in 2006.

I don’t just love it because I miss his talent.

Nor do I just love it because it reminds me of what a phenomenal musician he was – with his guitar playing in particular being of Rock God standard.

And I don’t just love it for the beautiful moment he and Darling Nisi sing the chorus of Purple Rain – even though her smile shows how joyful she feels at the moment.

No, the main reason I love it is because of his stage presence. The sheer commitment to performance. The spectacle that is impossible to ignore.

This is more than just being a famous musician performing in front of others – I’ve seen many do that and bore everyone to tears – no, this is about his magnetism.

All eyes are on him. Despite a stage of dazzling talent and dance, you never move your gaze off him. You end up feeling all your emotions have been given a thorough workout despite him being on stage just 12 minutes. I haven’t seen anything like that since Queen’s iconic performance at Live Aid … where in just 20 minutes, they secured their place as music icons.

There are actually less people who have this talent than you think, but one who had it in ‘the real world’ for me was a guy called Chris Jaques.

Years ago I wrote how I had to hold my hands together under the table at our first pitch presentation together because he was so amazing, I just wanted to clap.

I also wrote how anyone who ever worked with Chris who saw the carousel scene in the TV show, Mad Men, thought it could have been him.

He was that good.

But it wasn’t just because he was exceptionally smart.
Nor because he was also exceptionally talented.
But because he had an energy around him that you could not ignore.

He had the incredible ability to make you think he was only talking to you, even in a crowded room. He was clear, open and pragmatic with his opinions. He would go out of his way to ensure everyone felt included and involved. But there was never any doubt he was the leader. You wanted to work for him. Be better for him. When he walked in a room you felt his presence before he said a word. Not because of his power or wealth or standing … but because you felt it was going to be a valuable moment.

But what was even more special about Chris is that he never let this adulation go to his head. OK, not much anyway … certainly less than the people who think they have this impact … which meant he was always approachable but always valuable.

While there are some amazing people out in adland, there’s less Chris’ these days. Whether that’s because they have chosen different industries or this industry hounds people like Chris out is up for debate … but I do feel it’s a great loss.

Many like to refer to them as dinosaurs … people of another time who are no longer relevant. But people who say that have never worked with people like that. They probably wouldn’t want to as they would be challenged and questioned.

But what they don’t understand is their comments wouldn’t be about them.

They would just be talking about the work.

Wanting to help them be better by pushing their own boundaries.

And that’s why everyone should listen to this interview by the irrepressible Tony Davidson of Wieden London.

Tony – along with Kim – basically made that office and his interview is special.

He reminds me a lot of Chris.

Sure, their methods and approaches were very different, but the impact he had on me was very similar.

But after 20 years, Tony is leaving Wieden. While I am in no doubt that he will go on to do other amazing things, the reality is another person who made this industry interesting is going.

And while there are still some out there – Nils Leonard at Uncommon, Angela Watson at Colenso, Jorge Calleja at CPB, Ellie Norman at F1, Susan Hoffman at Wieden and Ryan Fisher at Wieden London to name a few – the industry still seemingly likes to give more face-time to the faceless and beige than the people who make things wonderful and weird.

Maybe that’s the industries insecurity showing [again] but as much as we are talking about mental health and work/life balance in a bid to lure people back to us [which is important and well over due]… maybe another way would be putting the weird, interesting and intriguing in the spotlight again.

Because you don’t attract the creative with even more logic, you attract them with people who have made ridiculous powerful and effective.