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


Why Wrong Reveals The Systems Limitations Rather Than The Participants …

I recently saw this piece of brilliance …

Isn’t it awesome?

Of course some people will think it’s cute … but wrong.

Whereas others may think it’s cute … and smart.

Putting aside the fact the responsibility for clarity of communication is with the communicator, not the recipient – which means the exam board have to accept their role in the answer given – it also highlights how one persons ‘normal’ is another persons ‘lateral thinking’.

I know that sounds a big leap for what is a young kids incorrect/correct answer to an exam question … but at a time where the British PM wants to kill the arts and freedom of expression for kids in schools – in favour of even more logical and rational studies – it’s a sign how early we try to destroy/control/devalue the imaginations of the young.

What I find ironic about the British PM’s stance is that he seems to be of the belief that having people study maths for longer will make everything better.

Putting aside the fact that much of the UK’s global influence – ignoring the violent invasions of other countries – has come from the arts, that’s a big call to make.

Even more so when you consider the financial mess the UK is in right now, has come from the hands of the very people he wants to encourage more of.

As a parent this situation is very difficult.

Of course we want our children to be set up to embrace life. But if they’re all being taught the same thing … in the same way … without consideration of what their own personal talents, interests and abilities are … then are you actually preparing them to thrive or simply survive?

Recently Otis got diagnosed with a learning difficulty.

I say difficulty, but really it’s a complication.

It’s called Dysgraphia.

While this doesn’t affect his ability to learn, it does affect how he does it and what he may be able to do because of it.

We are incredibly grateful the school he goes to – Birkenhead Primary – not only embraced this situation by changing the way he could engage and present his schoolwork. They did it by specifically tailoring their classes and approach to ensure Otis could participate in ways that actively played to his strengths while maintaining the pace of everyone’s learning. And if that wasn’t impressive enough … they were the ones who first noticed there may be an area of challenge for him and were proactive in acting on it.

The impact of this approach on Otis has been enormous.

Not just in areas of his schoolwork that were being impacted because of dysgraphia, but in his overall confidence, enjoyment and willingness to participate.

He has always been a kid who tries hard and wants to do the right thing [so definitely more like Jill than me] … but thanks to his teachers, he now feels he can express himself fully rather than having to become a smaller version of himself in an attempt to find a way to get through certain areas of class that challenged him because of his dysgraphia rather than his ability.

Frankly I doubt this would have happened if we were still in the UK.

Not because the teachers aren’t as good, but because the system doesn’t allow the sort of deviation of approach that Otis’ school created for him.

What’s scary is Sunak’s attitude towards education will only make this situation for kids like Otis, even harder.

Either actively leaving them behind or setting them up for a life of anxiety, guilt and feelings of inadequacy. And yet it doesn’t have to be that way.

So many of these complications aren’t barriers to learning capacity, just accessibility.

A bit of flexibility can unlock the full potential of a child, especially with the power of technology these days.

But the schooling system is increasingly about ‘targets’ rather than learning.

Preparing you for exams rather than life.

Systems rather than needs.

And while I totally accept creating an education system that caters to the masses as well as the edges is incredibly difficult, having a one-dimensional system that ‘succeeds’ by forcing compliance and oppression is not the solution either.

What the British PM needs to understand is making kids study maths for longer isn’t going to solve the UK’s economic woes. But maybe designing an education system that enables teachers to help kids learn how to play to their strengths, is.

Or to paraphase Sir Ken Robinson … see creativity and imagination as a strength, not a weakness.

We’re so lucky Otis’ school values potential rather than parity … but I can’t help but wonder how many other clever kids are out there who have been written off simply because the system would not allow for them to be recognised, embraced and helped.

When will certain governments understand an educated generation is a successful nation?

Probably when they understand school should be about learning not teaching and it’s an investment rather than a cost.

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People Who Think They’re Genius, Probably Don’t Know Their History …

A company in the UK was recently invited to be part of a big pitch in China.

A very big pitch.

Because I know the founder of the company – and she knows my history with China – she asked if I could cast my eye over what they were proposing.

She’s a good friend so I said yes.

So over a few hours on zoom, they took me through all their work.

They’d been very busy …

Huge amounts of research.
Huge amounts of analysis.
Huge amounts of thinking.

It was really good, there was just one problem.

It was all wrong.

Not because what they’d discovered wasn’t true or accurate, but simply because they’d fallen for what I call, the planners achilles heel: What you think is interesting and new, isn’t interesting or new for the audience you want to engage’.

Look around and you see it happening everywhere.

From people who think they’ve discovered a new brand that’s been around for years, to consultants who proclaim they’ve invented a new business model that other industries have been using for decades to adfolk spouting theories their predecessors were applying before they were even born.

And while I get there can be innocent reasons for this happening, the inconvenient truth is it’s driven by a pinch of arrogance here … a sliver of laziness there … and a big dollop of the issues that continue to undermine the value and potency of the discipline of strategy within business and agencies.

There is craft in what we do.

A set of practices, standards and values that are designed to help us do better and be better.

Practices, standards and values that were developed over time by brilliant women and men.

Now that doesn’t mean we can’t add to it … play with it … challenge it or reinvent it …but it seems the goal for many is less about what is created and more about how they appear.

Hey, I get it …

We all like recognition and right now, the industry rewards that more than it rewards those who create the work that gets the recognition. Which is utterly terrifying.

But while I would never want to stand in the way of people making a truckload of cash, the desire to satisfy our ego is having an adverse, negative effect on the work we make and the audiences we serve.

Put simply, we’re boring them to death.

Because what we think is cutting edge innovation – whether in creativity or consideration – has been seen before, done before, known before and replaced before.

Or said another way …

Regardless what we want to believe, dDuplication is not innovation and degrees of change is not revolution.

I genuinely believe this industry can be great, innovative and valuable.

But it won’t happen if we continue to ignore rigour and reality in favour of believing if it’s new to us, it must be new to everyone.

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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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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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