Archive for the ‘Hindsight and experience’ Category

This Lancashireman is struggling to compete with the extreme, and extremely competitive, privations described by the four Yorkshiremen.

Working a twelve hour overnight shift in the (now defunct) Rathbone’s Bakery in Wigan may not be as bad as licking a motorway clean before breakfast, but it felt pretty close at the time.

It was an Easter holiday student job, which promised to pull in a tidy sum by the standards of the mid 80’s.

My shift ran from 6pm to 6am, punctuated by a couple of short rest breaks.

My job was to move bread from the end of the production line to the waiting trucks in the loading bays.

The baking, slicing and packaging of said bread was a fully automated process. And said bread came off the end of several lines in plastic pallets containing, from memory, about sixteen loaves.

Along with several others I collected these pallets using a manual trolley-cum-forklift. You slid the forks under a pile of pallets, used a foot pedal to raise the bread tower off the ground, and wheeled the lot round to the lorries with a quick stop en route to weigh a random sample of loaves to ensure that they were within the prescribed tolerance levels.

Whilst (I assume) the production lines were state of the art for their day, the building itself lingers in my memory as a red-brick, Victorian, dark-satanic mill of a prison to which I was sentenced for twelve hours of hard labour every night.

And high on the wall behind the production lines was a large, Victorian clock with Roman numerals.

A round trip from the production line to the loading bays and back took around two minutes.

So this clock had the drip, drip, water-torture-like effect of breaking twelve hours into 360 two minute segments.

There were no Walkmen in those days, let alone iPods.

No music, no podcasts, no talking books to alleviate the monotony.

So I devised a coping strategy based on repeatedly lowering my personal best time for a round trip.

But this strategy was brought to an abrupt halt before I’d had the chance to really push the envelope of what was achievable.

My coping strategy had drawn attention to me.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

The shop steward looked me in the eye and said, “Slow down son. You’re making the others look bad.”

I hadn’t been looking to increase productivity. I’d been looking to stay sane. And now I was fucked.

I think I lasted no more than three nights.

But it was the best piece of university-of-life learning I’ve ever had.

I determined to always have a job that would have me bouncing of of bed in the morning. Life is way too short for any other attitude to work.

Indeed that bakery job is why I did a handbrake turn straight out of university from engineering to advertising. And I can genuinely count on the fingers of one hand the number of days in the last twenty three years when I haven’t wanted to get out of bed.

Unfortunately this sample-of-one personal experience has also deeply coloured my attitudes to trade unions. But that’s another story.

Everyone should have a “worst job I ever had” story. What’s yours?


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Competitive agency X sent a bespoke new business mailer to Blonde client Y.

The creative thrust of said mailer was that Agency X would give its right arm to work on Client Y’s business.

And the mailer included a fake arm.

Only it wasn’t a right arm.

It was a left arm.

Client Y invited us to join in their department-wide laughter at Agency X’s expense.

Rude not to really.

And it’s too good a story not to share.

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Those responsible for various recent super injunctions might well be asking themselves this question.

And I suspect that a “certain Premiership football player” will have no doubt whatsoever that there is such a thing as bad PR.

There certainly appears to be such a thing as bad PR advice from lawyers. Social networks have made the law look like an ass. And super injunctions appear to have much in common with badly made terrorist bombs – as likely to blow up in their makers’ faces as to achieve their intended objective.

This topic has been covered extensively elsewhere and I wouldn’t normally have added to the noise, were it not for a blast from the past reminding me that there has always been such a thing as bad PR.

A famous* advertising creative bod from the early nineties appeared, retweeted, in my Twitter feed earlier today.

(*famous = big news in Toy Town)

And a brilliantly executed but poorly planned PR stunt by said creative came flooding back to me.

Back in the early nineties – I can’t remember which year – I attended the British Television Advertising Awards (BTAA) as the token BBH account manager on a table full of BBH creatives. An honour indeed.

It was a black tie dinner.

I think, but I can’t be sure, that Angus Deayton (oh the irony in the context of this post) was the master of ceremonies.

Awards dinner tradition dictates that most “creatives” do their best, within the boundaries set by a secret code of unwritten rules known only to them, to laterally interpret the definition of “black tie”.

But the blast-from-the-past, famous creative had gone a little further. He was not I hasten to add an employee of BBH.

The gongs at the BTAA come in the form of arrows. Gold, silver and bronze arrows.

And said famous creative had obviously been nominated in a number of categories and was clearly confident, overly confident as it turned out, of heading home with an Agincourt’s sufficiency of arrows.

His over-confidence had led him to eschew the lateral interpretation of black tie in favour of a beautifully made Lincoln green Robin Hood outfit, complete with an empty quiver to hold the anticipated clutch of awards.

He looked like a tool.

Those that knew him (I didn’t) reckoned that this was entirely in character.

Everybody, and I mean everybody, the great and the good of the London advertising scene, was laughing at him. Most behind his back. Some to his face.

No-one was laughing with him.

And he won fuck all.

The best part of twenty years later when his name appeared on Twitter this was the crystal clear, spontaneous and indelible association that it called to mind. His “clever” PR stunt has forever branded him as an idiot.

When highly memorable, negative episodes like this become indelibly associated with a brand or a person, there most definitely is, and there most definitely always has been, such a thing as bad PR.

Ask Cheryl Cole.

Also known as “That Brit singer that got fired from American X-Factor before it even started.”

For someone who has been looking to build a career in the States, I struggle to see a “no such thing as bad PR” angle to that particular story. Or am I wrong?

Although I guess it could have been worse…

Image borrowed from onlygoodmovies.com

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There’s a fine line between healthy cynicism and bonfire pissing.

And it’s a fine line that the experienced creative industry practitioner has to tread carefully. Especially when she or he is dealing with the fresh-faced envangelism of a young, thrusting brand manager.

Marketing can be a ridiculously up itself business sometimes. And a sense of perspective born of experience is usually a good thing.

But one man’s sense of perspective is another man’s pissed-on bonfire.

Young, thrusting brand managers don’t do healthy cynicism.

By and large young, thrusting brand managers are not rewarded for health cynicism.

Quite the opposite in fact.

The young, thrusting brand manager’s brand IS the best thing since sliced bread.

(It fucking well is, ok?)


Your average young, thrusting brand manager is incredibly sensitive to the tiniest slight, real or imagined, on their brand.

In the eyes of a young, thrusting brand manager, if you’re not 100% with the brand you’re 100% against the brand.

The world of the young, thrusting brand manager is one of extreme black and white contrast.

They don’t do grey areas.

Which could be tiresome before the world went social.

(Tiresome to the extent that you’d occasionally have to play some silly bugger political games to ensure that a sense of perspective informed strategy and execution through the back door even if the brand manager were blocking the front.)

But now it’s a pretty big problem.

Put another way, if brands talk about themselves in social spaces in the way that brand managers talk about them there will be lots of Facebook-induced corporate nose bleeds.

All the things that are counter-intuitive to the young, thrusting brand manager are exactly all the things that make brands more human in social spaces.

  • Humility.
  • A sense of perspective.
  • Self-awareness.
  • The ability to say sorry.
  • (And mean it.)
  • Preparedness to accept that the competition can occasionally do something right.
  • Self-deprecation.

There needs to be a radical mutation of the brand management genetic code in order for the profession to evolve quickly enough to deal with the demands of social spaces.

Of course, and in the interests of perspective and healthy cyncism, I’m not saying that agencies are immune to the young, thrusting, anti-social mentality.

There are plenty of people in our world who have had the full frontal healthy cynicism lobotomy.

It’s no wonder that, as we’ve seen recently, agencies are just as prone to howling social media faux pas as our client-side counterparts…

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I pay you for your opinion.

So said a client of mine way back when.

(Maybe it’s just me but I never fail to be pleasantly surprised when someone is explicit in placing value on my point of view.)

In this instance it wasn’t any kind of strategic input that said client was seeking. It was counsel. More specifically he wanted a candid point of view on a mutual acquaintance.

And “I pay you for your opinion” was a not-so-subtle indication of his irritation at my hesitance.

I actually think that hesitation in these circumstances is natural and desirable. There are issues of integrity and fairness at play when it comes to talking about other people.

But the main point my client was making has stuck with me ever since.

Candour is a scarce resource and therefore carries a high value.

And candour is scarce because it has consequences.

You’ll know this if your job function involves appraising and developing others. How a person is going to work with you and respond to you in the workplace will undoubtedly be affected by how sensitively you handle those areas where a candid examination of personal and professional qualities is called for. The fact that you have to have an ongoing working relationship with someone can mitigate against true candour.

I’ve recently agreed to mentor someone. And I’ve quickly discovered that mentoring is very different to managing. Separated from the day-to-day consequences of pointed questions and pointed observations, candour comes much more easily. For both parties.

And that degree of separation from the consequences of advice and counsel is one of the greatest privileges of agency life.

Marketing Directors and CEO’s ask you questions that they might be embarrassed to ask one of their own people. Or they ask you questions when they worry that the perceived consequences of a straight answer might deter their own people from giving one.

The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is to be less than 100% candid, no matter how much you think the truth might hurt. The truth might hurt but it shouldn’t hurt the relationship. Quite the reverse in fact.

Because they pay you for your opinion after all.

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Norman Mailer told me to stop being a fucking pussy.

I went to see him speak at the book festival and asked him a question at the end.

What did he most regret doing, what did he most regret not doing, and which was the bigger regret of the two?

I figured that if learning from somebody else’s mistakes is a rare skill, then the opportunity to learn from the regrets of someone with as many extreme life experiences as him would be doubly valuable.

He agreed to answer candidly but only if I shared my biggest regret with the audience first.

So I recounted a story from when I was 18 that, 26 years later, still lands a punch to the solar plexus of my shame, leaving me emotionally winded.

In return he surprised everyone by saying that he would give his answer to me privately over a bottle of whisky after the lecture.

Then it all gets a bit hazy. I have no recollection of his regrets (fuck!) but at some point in the proceedings before we rolled, steaming and stinking, into Centotre the following morning he definitely told me to stop being a fucking pussy.

The last thing I remember is Tim Read intervening to stop us being thrown out. Fortunately he recognised who I was with and pointed out the social media and associated SEO benefits of having one of the 20th century’s greatest authors on the premises.

Ripple dissolve…

What the hell does this dream mean?

More generally what the hell does it mean when you can remember a dream in such vivid detail?

Here’s how I think my bitter and twisted subconscious put the pieces together behind my eyelids.

1) I have been a fucking pussy over the last few days. Way too prone to stifling end of year introspection, with over a week still to go until Hogmanay.

2) I recently read this blog post – Stop Being A Fucking Pussy. The In Over Your Head blog is my most recent RSS subscription. Thanks to Rach for pointing me in it’s direction. You should check it out.

3) I gave a book to someone I care about. We had a brief chat about favourite books and Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead would be somewhere in my top ten. Although the book I actually gave was this one.

4) A client sent me a link to an idea that was very similar to one that we’d discussed earlier this year. Someone else had executed it. We hadn’t. The client described it as an “ah well” moment. I replied that 2011 should be about avoiding “ah well” at all costs. Regret avoidance has been on my mind.

5) Where else but Centotre would you go after an all night whisky drinking binge?

6) I have no fucking idea why my brain flicked through its mental Rolodex of EdCM regulars and decided that it should be Tim that stepped in to help us.

What (the fuck) else could this dream mean?

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Coffee with an ex-client turned into a conversation about “happening” agencies around the world.

And from there to a revealing, client-eye view of agency marketing, agency models, agency philosophies and the ™ packaging of agency processes.

Said client must have had thousands of cold calls, hundreds of chemistry meetings and dozens of pitches from agencies large and small, in all disciplines, from all around the world.

He likened agencies to religions.

All claiming to represent the one true God of marcoms expertise.

Follow the Shoe™!

Follow the Gourd™!

I have all sorts of mixed feelings about this.

There is never only “one true way” to approach a communications brief. And to suggest that there is only makes you look stupid.

So if you believe that a single approach, a single philosophy, a single positioning can be made to be right for every client, you are deluded.

If, on the other hand, you’re setting your stall out to only work with like-minded clients and brands for whom your philosophy is appropriate then that is not deluded. That is planning. That is targeting. That is segmentation.

Indeed the ideal model for growing an agency profitably and happily is a virtuous snowball. You do a certain type of work for a certain type of client. This attracts more of a certain type of client. For whom you do more of a certain type of work. Which attracts…

N.B. By “a certain type of work” I don’t mean a house style. I mean work that is based on a consistent philosophy. Like TBWA’s disruption model. Or the challenger theory of Eat Big Fish.

From the outside looking in, it always seemed that HHCL worked like this. It set out its stall to do radical work that broke sector rules and that spat in the face of received advertising wisdom. This in turn attracted clients that were looking for radical work. And so on.

But, in an over-supplied market, very few agencies seem to have the financial strength, moral fibre, or marketing nouse to deliberately exclude themselves from doing business with any kind of client.

They’ll happily (and correctly) advise clients that they can’t be all things to all men.

Then conveniently forget to take a dose of their own medicine when marketing themselves.

There’s a particular type of agency marketing about which I have the most mixed feelings.

It’s the ™ packaging of widespread best practice. Taking processes, tricks of the trade, or tools that are used in lots of agencies, giving them a fancy (Fancy™) name and then presenting them as unique Intellectual Property (IP).

The associated mixed feelings go something like this…

From the inside looking out I can’t believe that Packaging™ works. It is so transparently obvious what is going on. Surely clients can see straight through it?

But work it does.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Even though that something is actually “nothing special” repackaged as “That Special Something™”.

Packaging™ is practiced by agencies of all disciplines.

But a good friend of mine once illustrated the issue with a beautifully observed hypothetical media agency example.

Said media agency takes the client’s brief, objectives, audiences, market position, competitive set, brand values etc and feeds them into its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ model.

The farm of mainframe computers that occupy the entire basement of the agency’s building start to run the multi-variable, artificially intelligent, highly complex algorithm that sits behind Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™.

The machines suck power from the national grid to such an extent that lights are dimmed over a several block radius.

People make coffee, have meetings, have lunch, chew pencils, have meetings, and go home for the evening, leaving the model to crunch and run overnight.

In the morning the model presents its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ answer…

“Television for reach. Radio and posters to build frequency.”

A hyper-niche, bespoke, tailored media plan that uniquely meets the need of that client.


This is a funny, made-up story to illustrate a point.

But it’s not hyperbole.

It isn’t “deliberate exaggeration for effect.”

Packaging™ really can be that bad and that brazen. I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen it happen. I don’t like it. But it works.

Hence the mixed feelings.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Steve Henry talked about the importance of creative people to agency start-ups in a recent Brand Republic blog post.

I think if I were to start an agency I’d want a natural salesperson on board.

Because it certainly wouldn’t be me.

I’ve got a decent track record when it comes to converting pitch opportunities.

And I’ll happily pick up the baton of a warm inbound approach.

Keywords : converting, warm, inbound.

But generating pitch opportunities is an entirely different skill.

Keywords : generating, cold, outbound.

And, in my experience, successful business development people (agencies hate the idea of “salespeople”) are a breed apart.

They are usually cultural misfits. Very important, but different.

Like goalkeepers.

Or hospital managers.

If you want recent evidence of how bad agencies can be at marketing themselves, check out the responses to this challenge from Fuel Lines, a US based new business consultancy.

Responding agencies had to describe themselves in 6 words or less.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

“Not like every other ad agency.”

“Top quality marketing that gets results.”

“It all starts with a question.”

For me, the best of a bad bunch is the one that happens to be at the top of the list.

“Big agency vets for half cost.”

At least that statement makes a promise and includes at least two potential benefits to a prospective client. Even if I’m not sure about agencies that overtly position themselves on price.

Fuel Lines then ran a poll to see which statements were preferred by visitors to its site.

My favourite scored only 1% of the vote.

The top ranking statement in this opinion poll was “Fuelling brand activation”, which pulled 27% of the 139 votes at the time of writing.

So what do I know?

For what it’s worth, given how out of touch I am with with popular opinion on these things, my current favourite agency line is this…

It’s Gonna be Awesome is the bold, liberated, twinkle in its eye promise from The Barbarian Group.

I guess you’d have to be American to be entirely comfortable saying this about yourself.

But I love it as a cocksure (not cocky) promise of professionalism, and as an internal yardstick for assessing the company’s output, culture, people and processes. It’s a hard selling and hard working statement of intent.

And their work backs it up.


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