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


Peak Planner Cat Lady Who Is A Bloke …

As you know, I love my cat Rosie.

I have written A LOT about her over the years.

Like this.

And this.

Or this.

And this.

To name but a very, very few.

But recently, I got the opportunity to give a presentation about her to senior members of our clients.

Better yet, it was about what they could learn from her.

Yep … an entire presentation about my cats superior brand building capabilities.

Of course it went down well …

By ‘well’, I mean they didn’t report me to my bosses or the Police.

Which is why I am of the opinion I’ve achieved all there is to achieve and can now bask in the glow of having just achieved the top level of the classic planner game ‘things you can learn about brands from _________’.

And I can tell you, that is better than winning any Cannes, Effies or WARC Grand Prix.

Oh, have to go, there’s a knock on the door and I can Doctors and Nurses outside holding a jacket that has no arms in just my size …

Have a great day.

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If You Want Sustainable Success, Don’t Hold On Too Tightly …

Brands love to say they know their customers.

They love to go on about the research they do to ‘get’ the needs of the people who use them.

And some genuinely do. Looking to understand how people live not just how they use, choose or buy their brand or a competitive product.

But sadly this group seem far more in the minority these days … with the preference being to outsource research needs to a ‘for profit’ external partner, who are asked to provide answers to drive immediate sales rather than to build long-term understanding.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive fan of research, but I’m reading far too much that seems to be about telling the client what they want to hear rather than what they need to understand.

To be fair, that is also true of agencies as well, and so much of that is because a lot of companies have already decided what they want to do and say and they expect everyone else to fall in line with it. And I get it, in a quest to streamline process and maximise productivity, that makes perfect sense.

Except it doesn’t.

Because as George used to say ALL THE TIME, it’s like going to the doctor and prescribing your own medicine. And as much as people/brands may think they know what’s wrong, that doesn’t mean they know how to fix it …

Agencies and research companies should be paid for their independent thinking and approach to solving problems NOT paid to execute what someone else wants the solution to be. The great tragedy of brand communication these days is that somehow, independent thinking has been labelled as dangerous when the real danger is when there isn’t any.

When solutions are decided by financial hierarchy rather than expertise – and by expertise, I mean that in terms of what an organisation is actually an expert on, rather than what they think they are – you tend to end up with a pile of shit that then ignites a game of blame storming.

Here’s a perfect example of it …

Now I appreciate printer, photocopier, fax [?!!!] sales must be very difficult.

I get companies may only give them a second thought when they go wrong or run out of ink.

But … but … who the fuck approved this shit?

I mean, it’s bad enough they say they know what we need – which makes them sound like some sleazy office colleague – but then they come out with this gem of bollocks.

“Like twins who understand each other completely”.

What??? WHAT???

Apart from the fact it’s utterly, utterly pants. if they really had a telepathic understanding of ‘what we need’, surely they wouldn’t have to pay to have this shit printed in a magazine and they’d just turn up at their customers office with the requirements of their machine – even before their customer knew they needed it.

But that’s not the case because they don’t know their customers, they don’t know what they need and they sure as shit don’t know how to communicate to them.

I get people think communication and creativity is easy.

I get people think they know their customers better than anyone else.

I get they want everything to be as efficient as is physically possible.

But if anything should tell them what they think and what is true are very different, it’s rubbish ads like this. And while I appreciate this is especially bad, there’s a whole lot more expensive versions of this wherever you look.

Great creativity and research is born from independent thinking.

A desire to create value by giving you what you need not what you want.

Which is why companies who place greater value on what they can make their agency partners do – including how they do the job, how many people can do involved in job and how long they’re allowed to do if for – the more complicit they are when things are less effective than they could be.

I’m not saying agencies and research companies are perfect.

And they sure-as-hell aren’t all the same standard and quality.

But they’re much better when they can give you truth and possibilities than blind complicity.

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Why Commitment Beats Interested …

I recently saw the above photo and immediately fell in love with it.

Not because it’s slightly bonkers – but it helps – but because I love the commitment of them.

Now I have no idea if they were booked to appear with that look.

I have no idea if they’re a real band, though I know ‘rock bands that play kids parties’ exist because the wonderful show Z Rock was based on one. [In fact the actors in the show, were the actual band]

And I don’t know if the music they play reflects how they look.

But I love it.

I love every bit of it.

Because rather than pander, they’ve committed.

Committed to who they are.

Committed to what they believe.

Committed to what they want to do.

There’s not enough of that. Oh we hear so many brands – and bands – talk about their ‘purpose’, but that’s just a PR headline because their actions often demonstrate the only thing they are committed to is whatever is needed to make money.

There is more authenticity in this trio of rock crazies than 99% of the companies who profess to be driven by their purpose.

But here’s the thing, commitment is about inconvenience.

Doing – or not doing – the things that reflect your belief.

Of course there are implications to that …

But while others may be more successful or richer, there is one thing you’ll have they won’t …

The ability to sleep at night.

And given we are also seeing more and more people choosing those who are committed to their belief, regardless of inconvenience, there’s a chance you could be more successful and richer too.

You can’t fake commitment.

You can’t be temporarily interested in it.

You can’t use it as a marketing platform.

Because commitment shows up in what you say, what you do and how you do it ALL THE TIME IN EVERY WAY.

Commitment achieves things interested can’t.

Commitment gives you standards, interested can’t even see.

Commitment pushes possibilities, interested will never understand.

Commitment wants you to succeed in ways interested will never get close to.

That’s the difference between the imposter purpose pedlars and the real deal.

It’s not something different every 12 months.

It’s not simply expressed through their marketing.

It’s not only doing things if you can make money from it.

It’s not changing direction when things don’t go exactly as planned.

Of course, that doesn’t mean people will only choose the committed. The fact is humans are all hypocritical beasts who like their moments of easy and cheap. However, in this superficial, short-cut, high-cost, hype world … commitment has a way of standing out in ways they will never even understand.

Which is why I love the people in this photo more than I do other kids entertainers.

Not because those other entertainers don’t have talent or a right to make a living … but because this trio of rock band musicians know who they are rather than are selling themselves as whoever others want them to be.

In a world where you don’t know who you can rely on, I say choose those who are committed, not interested.

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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.