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


Collabs Are Becoming A Circle Jerk …

Before I start, I’ve been a huge fan of collabs over the years. Seeing what happens when two different artists or brands or artists and brands come together has been fascinating.

And for every terrible LG x Prada phone, there’s a Nike x Ben & Jerry’s sneaker.

But … but … it feels we’ve moved from collab to labelling.

Where it isn’t about what two parties can create with each other, but just renting space for another brand to slap their logo on.

Take these Travis Scott x Playstation x Nike sneakers …

Jesus Christ.

Where the Ben & Jerry’s felt crafted and cared for this is just … well, put it this way, it feels more like a bad promotional item than something that represents a true collab.

And the thing is, this approach is happening more and more – across all manner of categories – which is why I kinda love what Nobuaki Kurokawa has done with their first product launch from their CUGGL label.

Let’s be honest, they’re taking the piss.

Like, blatantly and unashamedly.

Not only does it look like it say’s Gucci, by making the design resemble graffiti, it feels like they’re also sticking two fingers up at the terrible and contrived Gucci/Balenciaga collab.

The Gucci x Belenciaga is especially horrific because individually, they’ve not really laid a foot wrong in building the value and position in culture of their brands. And then they do this.

Lazy.

Fake.

Obvious.

Out-of-date.

Dad at the disco rubbish.

Basically, the fashion industry version of this.

Which is why I like what CUGGL have done so much.

Punking the brands pretending to be punking fashion.

Of course, Diesel did something like that before – though their mischievous eye was aimed at the counterfeit industry [even though it kinda said ‘fakes may be real’, which is the last thing they needed to do] however in terms of greatest accolade for mischief, that prize should have gone to the band Blink 182.

I say ‘should have’ because they ended up pulling out of potentially the greatest burn ever.

In the early 2000’s, Axl Rose was making a new Guns’ n’ Roses album.

It was unique because the only original member of the band was Axl himself.

He had fired all the band and was basically at his most indulgent ego best.

The only thing he’d announced was the album was going to be called ‘The Chinese Democracy’.

For years and years nothing came out.

The album postponed time and time again.

At one point, his record label, Geffen, pulled funding … and yet the recording still went on.

Enter Blink 182.

They announce they were recording a new album and guess what they were going to call it …

That’s right, The Chinese Democracy.

Better yet, because Axl was taking so long to release his version – they could be sure they’d be first, so history would always make it look that Guns n’ Roses copied Blink 182.

Alas they went cowardly on the idea, which is a shame … because that would have set a benchmark CUGGL and Diesel could only dream of reaching.

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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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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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Belief Is Shown In The Weirdest Of Ways …

One of the great pleasures of my career has been working with NIKE.

What made it even more memorable is that I got to work with them in China … where the challenge and opportunity to develop sport culture was arguably their number one priority.

What it meant was their best people were there and their most senior global management were constantly there so I got to meet them, work with them, present to them and argue with them on a regular basis.

They were good.

As in proper good.

I still remember the first time I met the most senior of senior management and when back to Wieden and said, “Oh, I totally get why they are who they are”.

And I did.

They were incredible.

Sharp. Focused. Ambitious. Progressive and obsessed with culture, sport and creativity.

Then there was the time I met Rosemary.

She had just come to China from the US and I remember being in a meeting where I saw all the global guys go up to her, when normally you saw people go up to them.

I mentioned this to her when we were having a coffee later that week and she eventually admitted the reason they all knew her was because she had been Phil Kinght’s kids babysitter when he was starting the company and she had actually painted the swoosh on the first shoes they produced.

Amazing.

As was her knowledge of the brand.

The nuance, not the headlines.

Underpinning all of these people was a backbone of belief. A pride of who they are matched with a responsibility for where they were going. They were challenging, demanding and questioning … but you always knew it was to get to great rather than to tear you down.

Frankly I’d not seen anything like that, at that level, before – and being old – I had been exposed to some amazing people within organisations.

I will be eternally grateful to Simon and Steve who both invited me in to meetings and discussions I should never have been in … as well as them not killing me when I turned up in my Birkies.

Now it is fair to say, the brand – for all the success it continues to have – has faced some headwinds. Some are shifts in culture, some are shifts in internal culture.

And while there are many opinions and viewpoints flying about, there are many who say the company they are today is not the same company they once were.

Some of that is good, some … well, probably less so.

Too many amazing people have departed.
Too much focus on sales rather than sport.
Too great an emphasis on optimisation rather than progression.

But the great thing about Nike is they always come back.

Sure, some of the things – and people – that allow that to happen are no longer there, but it will be back because this is not the first time they’ve gone through something like this.

Whatever ‘this’ is.

And recently I saw a clue it was starting, bizarrely from someone at McKinsey of all places.

This:

Cool, isn’t it?

But not because of Adam’s interpretation of why it exists, but because it exists.

Someone did this.

Someone chose to do this.

And while there are a whole host of possible reasons why it happened, to me it’s a sign of a brand that still has people in there – beyond the few left I know/work with – who do what they believe is right rather than what their process now dictates they do.

At its best, Nike was always an infectious culture machine.

Making it. Championing it. Enabling it. Fighting for it.

I’ve not seen that as much as I once did.

Maybe, a txt.file is a sign I will.

I hope so.



A Boy Named Ben …

So I’ve decided to do a little thing every month where I write about a planner I love.

Full disclosure, the vast majority will be people I’ve worked with because I can then say honestly I know all their bad bits as well, hahaha.

Today I’m going to write about Ben Perreira.

I first met Ben when I moved to LA and worked with him at Deutsch.

Or at least I thought I did.

About 6 months in, he told me that he had written to me when on April 11th, 2014 … I put a post up on my blog asking if anyone was interested in working with me on NIKE at Wieden.

Embarrassingly I couldn’t remember him writing to me – though it was well over 3 years later by that point – but fortunately, I had apparently written him a very nice return email saying that while I liked what he was up to, I didn’t think he was quite what we needed at that moment.

As an aside, that is the job that led me to the brilliant Paula Bloodworth and so I don’t think anyone would feel hard done by losing out to her – given she’s one of the top 5 strategists on the planet. Probably higher than that.

But that doesn’t mean Ben isn’t amazing.

He is.

I liked him pretty much as soon as I met him.

And that’s quite amazing given he was a surly, petulant prick for our first few get-togethers.

Arms folded.

One word answers.

A lot of, “why would you ask that?”

But Ben’s problem was I’d seen that behaviour before.

When I joined Wieden, one of the people who would eventually be in my team, Rodi, was a carbon copy.

Same reaction.

Same responses.

And that was in the interviews.

But I soon discovered it wasn’t because they were assholes – well, not real ones – it was because they wanted to see if my standards were going to be high enough. If I was going to fight my corner or try to just be liked. To check if I was worthy of the gig and they may learn something from me or I was just a token figurehead who just wanted an easy life.

So when I saw Ben doing the same thing, I found it amusing rather than disturbing.

Which meant I just kept asking him more and more personal questions. Digging into his character before he could dig into mine.

Oh how awkward he found it. It was wonderful. Hahahaha.

Now you would have to ask him if I ‘passed’ his test, but he certainly passed mine.

Because what I soon learned – and loved – about Ben was he just wanted to do great things.

He didn’t want to take the easy path.
He didn’t want to just be liked for saying yes.
He didn’t want to simply churn out the same thing over and over again.

And I loved that.

I loved the questions and the debates we’d have.

I loved the way he dug into the business details to pull out the possibilities.

I loved the way he was a fundamentally good human, despite his dating escapades.

I miss Ben.

Not just because he’s disgustingly handsome, but because he’s a good human who happens to be smart.

He has high standards and wants people who have the same.

And if he feels he has that, he’ll go into any battle because he wants to make a difference.

Not just to the work, but the people doing it.

Lots of people will say that, but for him, it’s in his DNA.

In some ways, I imagine Ben was a natural leader from the day he was born.

He gives a shit about others.

He wants to see them succeed.

He won’t manage up simply for optics … and in the insanely hierarchal corporate structure of America, that’s not just rare, but beautiful.

Christ, the things I saw …

And yet Ben didn’t fall for that.

One or two others tried to do that shit, but never Ben.

In fact, I remember one day being told by someone my team were out of control.

Too full of opinions with too much desire to debate.

And when I said, “I know … isn’t it great!”, it was made pretty clear to me they didn’t share that perspective.

Hahahahahahahahaha!!!

Normally I wouldn’t feel proud about that.

I shouldn’t, because a planners job is to be a well-intentioned, pain in the ass.

Someone who pushes clients to be great not to be average.

But I found in America that wasn’t always the attitude.

I met far too many people there who told me “saying yes” – regardless of the ask – was far more valued by their managers than saying, “I think we can be better than this”.

I don’t know if Ben likes me.

I hope he does.

And if he does, I know the exact moment it happened.

He’d been in a huge meeting that had gone well.

The ECD sent an all agency email updating everyone on what had gone on and thanked Ben for [I think] ‘preparing the room for the meeting’.

I kid you not.

What was even more pathetic was I knew how much Ben had put into this.

How much blood, sweat and tears he’d poured into the project to give us a chance to make something great.

So I decided to respond with an all agency email reply.

Basically pointing out that as the planning department were apparently ‘so good at setting up rooms for meetings’ … if anyone had anything else they need us to do – from fixing a TV to washing clothes – just drop us an email and we’ll be there in the blink of an eye.

It didn’t go down well with anyone, except Ben.

And that’s all I cared about.

Because he’s smarter than he realises and kinder than he likes to admit.

I’m glad I didn’t miss out working with him when the Wieden gig didn’t work out.

I’m even more happy that he’s still in my life.