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.



There’s Bad Day’s And Then There’s Bad, Stupid Days …

I know … I know … how stupid is that?

But believe it or not, that wasn’t the end of the tragic day.

It started badly when I booked an external room so the team could work on a project in peace only to discover the room was on top of a generator and it shook the whole place like we were on a boat for the entire time we were there.

Then, after the ‘cash gate’ incident [which the bank then charged me a further fee for as that account went wildly overdrawn, though – thankfully – Henry did pay me back] … I was going home and stopped at a traffic light when I looked to my left only to see a Police Car, with a policeman looking at me smiling.

“And why was he smiling?” I hear you ask.

Was it the beauty of my car?

No.

Was it the beauty of me?

Errrrm, no.

Was it because he was just being a friendly cop?

Well, he was, but no.

It was actually because I had picked up my phone to check an address and so – as soon as the lights went green – his lights went red and blue and I got stopped and fined.

Once upon a time there was a band called The Weather Girls who sang It’s Raining Men.

Well this day, it rained shit.

That said, I’ve had way worse days of shitty rain. Ha.

Let’s hope this isn’t an omen for the rest of the week.



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.



Obstacles Inspire Creativity …

I am a big believer in putting as few boundaries around creativity as possible.

That doesn’t mean it can ignore the problem it is trying to solve.

I just think the focus should be on solving a clearly defined problem rather than piling on a bunch of additional ‘mandatories’ that are often for no other reason than satisfying someone’s ego within the organisation.

The main reason for my view is because I know when creativity is given the freedom to solve problems, it can do it in the most imaginative and powerful of ways. In my opinion, too many companies are dictating the solution they want from their agencies – which not only means they are robbing themselves of the possibilities creative people could add to their business, they need to take some of the blame in terms of the lack of traction so many of their ads have in culture.

However, as we all know, when it comes to being able to save a client money – they suddenly become far more open to changing their behaviour. The digital and data industries have profited from this approach more than most – and while some of the things they have done are phenomenal, a lot is quite simply, flawed thinking … designed to drive short-term growth at the cost of long term profit.

Please understand, I am not saying digital and data are flawed. I’m saying many of the things digital and data agencies are doing is. From D2C models that are ore about driving commoditisation than distinctive brand value, to CX practices that are often designed to reduce transactional friction than reinforce brand experience through to user-journeys … which are sold as fact but are designed for mass convenience.

I’m not saying there’s not great value in this … when done well, the impact on brand and business can be huge. But too much isn’t done well. Sold as transformative but executed in productised form.

But I digress

You see I recently read a piece about some incredible lateral thinking.

Where creativity didn’t just overcome a huge obstacle that was eagerly embraced by clients with an open mind, but created an outcome that was better than they ever thought possible.

A few years ago, the US Air Force was facing huge budget cuts.

Their technology was out-of-date and the cost to update would place huge pressure on all the other things that needed investment.

Rather than sacrifice, they explored other ways to solve their challenge.

To cut a long story short, they discovered the answer was a SONY Playstation.

1760 Playstation 3’s to be precise.

1760 Playstation 3’s the came together to build the most powerful supercomputer in the entire US Department of Defense.More than that, it was the 33rd most powerful supercomputer in the world.

At the time, it’s performance was unparalleled … able to perform 500 million mathematical operations in one second and analyse over a billion pixels in one minute. Because of this, the Air Force used it to process high-resolution satellite images, identify unclear objects in space and deepen their research into artificial intelligence.

At the time, the Playstation 3 cost about $400 each.

The cost of buying approximately 2000 of the machines meant the entire project was approximately $2 million … which was between 5-10% of the price of a regular supercomputer of similar capability.

Of course to pull this off required a lot of incredibly talented engineers and computer programmers – not to mention open minded senior officers – but the reality was the end result was something that actually advanced their capabilities.

Not an optimised solution.
Not a short-term benefit at a longer term cost solution.
But something better than they had before at a price that enabled them to do the other things they wished to invest in.

So much of what we do is impacted by systems and processes that are designed to validate remuneration.

There’s value in that.

But when it ends up killing possibilities of effectiveness and value … simply because it doesn’t fit into their pre-determined evaluation criteria of an organisation, then you have to ask who is really mad.

The people who can see ways around the impossible, or the ones who want to stop them.



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”.