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


Be Metallica, Not The Eagles …

I was recently in a client meeting where we had a discussion about ‘scale’.

The person in question was suggesting – as many do – that the only way to achieve it was to make sure you offer something for everyone.

Now there’s two ways you can do that …

Literally offer something for everyone or be so bland that you don’t alienate anyone.

And when we had this discussion, it reminded me of the Ferdinand Porsche quote that – paraphrased – reads something like:

“Be everything to someone not something to everyone”.

But it was early in the morning for me.

I was talking to clients in America.

So instead, I gave the worst analogy I may have ever used …

I pointed out The Eagles are the best selling American band in history.

That their ‘easy listening’ songs were designed to literally appeal to the widest audience possible. That their repetitive approach has been used to reinforce their position.

Or lack of one.

However the second best selling American band of all time is Metallica.

OK, I’m biased, but no one can say their music is designed for mass appeal.

Even their more ‘audience friendly’ albums still targeted a particular type of music fan. A fan that is anti-mainstream and anti-easy listening.

And yet Metallica’s fierce focus on who they are and what they believe – matched with their desire to continually explore and experiment with formats and approaches for their music – has resulted in them attracting ever bigger audiences rather than chasing them.

But its even more than that …

In the fickle, fast-changing world of music, Metallica haven’t just been able to maintain their credibility and authenticity, they have managed to still be seen as a contemporary band.

A band that is more popular now than they’ve ever been, while not changing who they are, what they believe or who they’re for.

I finished this rant off with the words:

“Be Metallica, not The Eagles”.

Fortunately, given I was doing this call at stupid o’clock, people let it pass.

However, while the analogy may be bollocks, the reality isn’t.

We live in an industry that is increasingly falling into rules of how things should be done.

And there are some – without doubt.

But we are in danger of ignoring the power of culture and creativity in favour of box-ticking and formulas and yet it’s the brands and bands like Nike, Metallica, SKP-S, Kanye, Liquid Death who not only hold – and set – the cultural attention and narrative, but continue to fast-track growth and profit compared to a category who blindly follow a system designed to play more to the ‘safety’ of the middle rather than the power and influence of the edge.

I’m not saying it’s easy.

I’m not saying it’s not without risk.

I’m not saying it happens in a smooth, straight line.

But when you do it well … when you know who you are, who you’re for and what you believe, it’s definitely worth it, against pretty much every metric you can measure it against.

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The Taste Of Bullshit …

I’ve written a ton about brand purpose over the years.

Not as viciously as my beloved Martin Weigel. But close.

It’s not that I am against brand purpose, It’s when it’s used as a marketing tool and ‘updated’ to whatever trend is currently popular that my hate boils over.

It’s why I have always advocated for belief rather than purpose.

Belief is demonstrated by what and how you do things, not what and how you say things.

Or give things away.

Belief drives change. Purpose hopes for it.

Which is probably why so many brands prefer purpose.

The ability to look like you care without always having to demonstrate it.

Take this from Unilever food brand, Knorr …

“Our purpose is to reinvent food for humanity by being healthier for both people and the land. 
 Knorr brings the power of flavour to good food to 
overcome barriers that stop us from eating for good”

Sounds good doesn’t it.

Sounds purposeful.

But for those who are not sure what Knorr make, let me enlighten you …

Yeah, when I think of flavour and good food – not to mention being good for humanity and the land – the first thing I think of is cheddar broccoli rice sides.

But maybe I’m wrong, how do you cook these things that help us ‘eat for good’?

Here’s the instructions …

Microwave directions: In 2-quart microwave-safe bowl, combine 2-1/4 cups water, 1 tbsp. margarine(optional) and contents of package. Microwave uncovered at high about 12 minutes* or until rice is tender, stirring once halfway through. Stir and serve.

Yep, thought so. Utter rubbish.

The reason I am writing this is because I recently saw a post from an ice-cream brand.

Have a look at this …

While those words sounds trite, purpose-for-marketing … food and culture are incredibly entwined and so there is a real chance it may be a badly worded version of what they really believe and do.

Let’s look at their website.

For those too lazy, here is a screenshot of their flavours …

Hmmmmn … doesn’t seem too much about people, places or cultures does it?

There’s a lot about ingredients.

Some even seem interesting. But absolutely no mention of people, places or cultures.

But is that surprising when it’s so obviously an absolute load of purpose-washing?

And what a missed opportunity.

They could truly make that into something that could change something.

Educate, unite, challenge, inform … tell the stories of the people, places and cultures that were the inspiration of those flavours through the flavours.

Ben and Jerry’s meets Tony Chocolonely.

And what makes it worse is their intentions sound honourable. They’re already a B-Corp certified business, choose ingredients that are direct-trade and believe in diversity.

All great and important things except nothing to do with what they claim they do on their packaging.

Many years ago, at Wieden, we were invited to pitch for an ice-cream brand.

We said yes because hey, it’s ice cream.

Anyway, when we got the brief, it read like a purpose fluffer.

My god, it was literally dripping in claims and terminology that not only had nothing to do with their category, but had nothing to do with any of their actions, behaviours or products.

We spoke to them about looking at ice cream another way.

If they had to have a ‘purpose’, make that purpose about what ice cream is supposed to be.

Fun and tasty.

Not deeper meaning. Just that.

And then prove it in the product, not just the experience.

You may think that is overly simplistic, but by then the entire category had gone purpose insane and no one was actually owning what they were and what people actually wanted.

Put it this way, it had gone a looooooong way from the days where BBH had brilliantly changed the way people looked at ice cream and did it in a way that was sexy, powerful and based on a real truth. [A campaign so good that is was spoofed brilliantly by Fosters Lager]

Anyway, for us, the way we could get back to what ice cream was but in a way that proved the fun was down to flavours … so unlike Jeni’s ice creams, we actually went out and talked to all manner of people about their weird tastes. Things they love others think are a bit mental. Things that make them deliriously happy for whatever reason or whatever duration. Because we saw an opportunity for the client to be more like a taste and colour experiment lab than a manufacturer of everyday ice-creams and flavours with an unbelievable purpose attached.

So we worked it all up and I remember it for 2 main reasons.

+ We used a picture of a cat in the presentation with an inverted cross on its forehead … which is still my favourite mad presentation image ever used. And I’ve used a lot.

+ When the client wanted us to justify our idea, we simply showed this …

It may not be the deepest reason you’ve ever read.

It may not even be the most exciting.

But it was definitely more believable than all the shit they were saying.

And with the flavour combinations we had and how it all came together with the creative work – which had some weird ice cream flavour meme generator at the heart of it … generating all manner of taste sensation madness out into the internet … it was something that not only would help them differentiate from the competition, but have a place and role in culture.

They hated it.

Instead they went with some bollocks about ice cream being ‘a gesture of love for those who are not rich’.

No, I’m not joking.

Which may also explain why they … Haagan Daaz and Jeni’s talk a lot about their purpose in society but are – with the possible exception of Jeni’s – increasingly irrelevant ice creams brands whereas that old, dumb favourite, Ben And Jerry’s, still has some sort of position in culture, because despite selling out to the death star Unilever, they try to do shit rather than just say it.

Emphasis increasingly on try.

But even with that, the reality is – as is the real test of any brand that claims to have purpose – they show what they believe through every aspect of what they do, even when it’s inconvenient, rather than market what they claim their purpose is, only when it suits them.

Enjoy your day. Be careful you don’t eat any bullshit.

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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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Punk Progress …

Recently I came across this photo.

I have to be honest, I absolutely love it.

Two extreme sides of society coming together.

Or that’s what I first thought because after a bit of consideration, I realised that maybe they’re not that different.

Because while the context, history and day-to-day realities they faced were very different, they shared a desire to break a system actively working against their recognition, individualism and progress.

Similar to when the LGBTQ+ community supported the miners strike in the UK in the 80’s … and then, later on, the miners came out in force to back the LGBTQ+ community in their fight for rights and a future.

Different Worlds brought together by a common objective/enemy and realising the power both bring to each other in their goal.

Now the reality is all the groups mentioned in this post continue to face challenges and oppression from the establishment. They continue to be dismissed and attacked by the powers-that-be.

But while you could argue that means this approach doesn’t work, I disagree.

Because even when the result doesn’t go the way you want – or at least, in the timeframe you want – knowing you are supported goes a long way.

It keeps you believing.

It keeps you fighting.

It keeps you hoping.

And the more people who see what you’re fighting for is simply a different context to things you are fighting for, the more the momentum of change can swing.

I get this may sound idealistic.

I get the World right now is pretty shite.

But in the last few years we have seen issues that were previously ignored by companies and governments, gain awareness, acceptance and advocacy.

From mental health, to the climate crisis to trans-rights to countless other issues … change is happening that not long ago was not even recognised as an issue worth talking about.

We could do with more of this.

Because when we recognise the issues being faced rather than get distracted by the individuals involved, we may just see we are far more alike than different.

And then the establishment can’t blindly and wilfully ignore change that threatens their control.

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Keep Them Mean To Keep Them Subservient …

As it is the first of August, I thought I’d change the tone of the posts from the rather heavy ones of July to something a bit more ‘light’.

Which is why today I’m writing about cats.

As you know, I love those feline sods.

Specifically my feline sod … Rosie.

The things I’ve done for her.

Taken her around the World.

Got an import licence in China so we could get her her favourite treats.

Built custom ‘penthouse cat houses’ for her, so she could enjoy the outdoors in safety.

Got a company to make a bloody stuffed toy version of her for us.

In fact, it’s so realistic a client once thought she was stuck on a wardrobe during a zoom call.

And what do I get in return?

Complaints.

Demands.

Distain.

And a distinct lack of love or emotion.

Oh I know she loves me really.

Not as much as we love her, obvs … but there is affection there. Deep down.

However I recently saw something that not only summed her up, but summed all cats up which perfectly explains why some people hate them, and why some – like me – are at their mercy, will and command.

If humans treated humans this way, it would be considered an abusive relationship.

But cats powers of manipulation has managed to reframe that as ‘personality’.

Seriously, if you want to know the art of strategy, forget the Weigel’s, Bloodworth’s, Ritson’s and Collin’s and just study cats.

They’re bastards. But they’re brilliant bastards … as demonstrated by this photo that, for me, is the best encapsulation of cattidude you will ever see.

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