Why People Don’t Like Advertising, Part 2: The Solutions.

The recent and excellent mini series Chernobyl contains a beautifully written piece of advice that could save the advertising industry from its current malaise:

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

I humbly suggest that we’re paying that debt right now.

As I mentioned last week, advertising has spent a lot of its existence lying on behalf whoever pays for it. Exaggeration, greenwashing, the kind of bullshit that needs to be supported by small print for legal reasons… That’s most of what we’ve done, and the debt has been steadily accruing for decades.

People don’t believe what we say, they don’t like being lied to, and when they find out the truth their anger and antipathy multiplies (and of course, those ‘people’ include all of us).

So what can we do about it? Here’s a radical suggestion: start telling the truth.

When I was learning how to write ads at West Herts College back in the 1990s, our excellent tutor Tony Cullingham spent much of the time explaining that good ads contained truths; engaging expressions of what the product actually does:

Honda’s engineers hated noisy diesel engines, so they made a quieter one.

It really is good to talk to your friends and family, especially if you’re far away from them.

Paralympic athletes are more impressive than the usual ones.

See? Great ads, rooted in truth, memorably expressed.

On the other hand…

By making products for menstruation, Always has the right to lecture us on sexism.

P&G ‘sponsors’ moms.

Guinness has something to do with being cool, brave and stylish.

I deliberately chose three highly-awarded, well-loved examples to demonstrate a lack of truth. That’s because this effect of distrust is sneaky. We don’t usually notice when we’re being taken for a ride, especially when the vehicle is really, really good. You get the messages in a brilliantly realised way, but what’s underneath? Always has nothing to do with confidence during puberty. Although P&G products make a mom’s job easier, you could make the same case for cannabis or Netflix, but none of them should be running ads claiming credit for something to which they are only tangentially related. Drinking a pint of Guinness is entirely unrelated to the amazing strength and attitude of the Sapeurs.

But every lie incurs a debt to the truth. That debt won’t necessarily need to be repaid before the next awards do, but it will need to be repaid at some point. When people have a real experience of Always, Lynx or Audi, they’ll be disappointed. They may not consciously connect that experience to the ad, but they’ll trust other ads a little less. Then the effect will accumulate until their belief in advertising dissipates enough to make it much less effective.

So truth is the key. Yes, it’s a harder path to take, but there must be something good about your product or it would never have been made.

A great person once said, ‘Interrogate the product until it speaks’. That’s what you’ll have to do to make advertising that helps the product and the industry.

No more cars that are so beautiful they distract you from a nearby fire. No more phone graphics so realistic it’s like being inside the game/movie/concert. No more beer that will supposedly lead you to have a ridiculously great time with impossibly attractive people in a bar so perfect it could never exist.

I know you didn’t incur the debt that needs to be paid (or maybe you did. I know I did, and I apologise), but until you start paying it back, nothing will improve.

(Just to be clear, I’m OK with ridiculous exaggerations that bear no relation to the truth. That’s like your friend coming back from a fishing trip and explaining with a wink that they just failed to land a Great White. No harm done.)

OK. So that’s the fundamental underpinning that will help everything else, but what about the ‘everything else’?

There are lots of things we can do to make people hate advertising less (or, heaven forbid, actually like it), but let’s start by looking at the maths:

90%+ of advertising is crap, yet 100% of those who make it are supposedly intelligent people who don’t want to make or experience crap. So how does that happen?

I look at projects I’ve worked on over my career, and the funny thing is, no matter how gloomy things appear, I always start off by bringing my A-game. Call me a naive old fool, but I genuinely look at every brief I get and imagine the gleaming result of it sitting on the pages of an award annual, all witty, original and aesthetically stunning (I know awards aren’t the only thing we should be aiming for but it’s a deeply ingrained ideal endpoint for me, and I try to get there by coming up with a very good real ad that will solve a proper brief).

And yet, my good intentions end up being eroded by all sorts of things. In no particular order, here’s the top 5:

  1. Shitty Client.
  2. Shitty CD.
  3. Shitty Process.
  4. Shitty Priorities
  5. Shitty Me.

Let’s see what we can do about them.

The Shitty Client is a tough one. You might be working into someone who’s been the client for quite a few years and will never change their ways; you might have a ‘new broom’ who wants to do things their way, which is often worse (cutting fees, putting everything into SEO, triple bidding everything etc.); you might have a CMO who has little or no experience, and therefore little or no skill in evaluating work and giving helpful feedback.

All I’d say here is that every interaction with a client is an opportunity to improve the status quo. Your job is to persuasively present arguments that effect behavioural change, so make your client your target market and see what you can do to bring them over to your way of thinking. It might not be an immediate success, it might even take years, but not doing it simply leaves you in a situation that doesn’t work for you, or the ads (throughout this post I’m going to presume that your intentions are pure and you’re aiming to create effective advertising, not win a Bronze Clio with some dismal scam).

Show them examples of the good stuff. Tell them that the fame and increased sales are possible, but only if they buy work that is noticeable, original, likeable, memorable and persuasive. Yes, those adjectives tend to be subjective, but if you can get any kind of agreement that they describe your work, you’re already going to be streets ahead of almost anything currently out there.

And the attitude needs to be one of collaboration. If you come at them like they’re a tasteless pig who prefers McDonald’s to Le Gavroche, this will not end well. If you make someone wrong you will get the opposite of what you want. Instead you should bring them along with you so they feel a degree of ownership and trust. Again, this may not give you Honda Cog levels of approval first time, but this is a marathon, not a sprint (MNAS), and any steps in the right direction now might improve things for you or another team at some point in the future. It took 8 years of DDB existing before this ad happened. Patience is essential:

‘Shitty CD’ could be even trickier. It might not be your ultimate ECD or CCO that’s the problem, but maybe there’s an over-promoted writer or AD who lucked out by having their name on something good they had nothing to do with. In addition, great creatives don’t always become great CDs because the skillsets are very different. Making great work is not the same as letting people down gently while simultaneously inspiring brilliance for the next round.

But you have your CD and you’re kind of stuck with them, so how do you get around them if they’re shitty? When I was at AMV I was fortunate enough to work in a department with many excellent creatives, so no matter who my official CD might be, I could unofficially ask another senior creative for advice (I should make clear that at AMV I only had excellent CDs, so this was just a way of honing work before a review). If it was appropriate I might drop the name of the unofficial CD into the review; sometimes that helped, other times not so much.

If you’re thinking ‘Sure, but there’s no one good in my department’, I have a suggestion: use LinkedIn or Twitter to find people you think are good, then ask very nicely if they’ll look over your stuff. Buy them a drink, wash their car, offer to babysit… Be creative. If you really want to make this happen you will find a way to tap into the best people in the industry. It’s far easier now than it used to be, and people are usually happy to help the enthusiastic and dedicated.

Yes, you still have to get past ‘Shitty CD’, but ideally armed with better stuff, and good advice on how to protect it. And yes, this may not work first time, but remember – MNAS.

‘Shitty Process’ is a problem that doesn’t get discussed much. Back in the day you’d get a brief from a planner, come up with some ads, show them to a CD and they would hopefully approve them to enough of an extent that you would make them. These days there seem to be lots of steps in between: how does your idea dovetail with the social agency’s? Whose idea will be chosen? Does a Shitty Planner have undue influence? Is your deck pretty enough? What about your ripomatic? Have you incorporated the brand guidelines from the in-house design team? Are there nine levels of internal review? Etc.

Here’s a story about John Webster, the most awarded TV creative in UK advertising history: when a brief was knocking around the agency he’d let the other teams produce ideas, which would then go through various rounds of approval. This tended to mean that by the end of the process people were bored of the ideas they liked initially, so that’s when John would present his: a nice, fresh solution from the agency’s ad genius, offered close enough to the deadline that there was no time to get bored of it, or to mess around with layers of questions and amendments.

That took experience, but John was such a good creative, he even approached the process part of his job with effective originality. Again, I’ll remind you that you’re a creative. Find the solution to your problem and find a way to make it happen. If you listen to the Peter Souter episode of Dave Dye’s ever-excellent podcast you’ll hear a story of how he overheard a creative being crabby about feedback in the office next door. He then sprinted around the floor to get to the elevators as the disappointed account person was leaving and offered to help solve her problem. One D&AD Pencil later (and a few other things) Peter was the ECD of the largest, most awarded agency in the country.

I can’t offer specific solutions because I don’t know what your specific difficulties are, but here’s another chance for you to apply creative thinking to something other than an ad. If your Account Director wants you to lean towards the safer, duller option in the client presentation you could take a few moments to explain the negative long-term consequences of that decision; you could wait until the client meeting to remind everyone that so-called safety leads to anonymity and failure, and is, ironically, the riskiest path to take; or you could ‘accidentally’ leave the one you don’t like in the taxi. Anything is better than rolling over and waiting for your career to die.

‘Shitty Priorities’ is the most insidious problem because you may never know what those priorities are. As you think up a way of getting your client some more fame and increased sales, his or her real goal might be nothing of the sort. I’ve worked for companies that have literally run ads for no particular reason, just because they happened to have the media space. I’ve seen brilliant accounts leave brilliant agencies because of international realignments. I’ve produced work for people whose main motivation was to look cool to their colleagues. Did all those situations lead to worse work? No, but they made the process of coming up with ads much more difficult. If you’re trying to find a solution it helps to know what the problem is.

So the first thing you have to do is look for the signs. Does the brief mention the goal? If you ask what success looks like, are you met with blank faces? What kind of ads did the client buy before? Is this a proactive effort to get the client to spend money he wasn’t otherwise going to? Is it nearing the end of the tax year? Is the product a car, to be sold by many local dealers who might also be stakeholders in the advertising? Is it awareness or sales? Product or brand? All of the above?

What I’m saying is, do your homework. Forewarned is forearmed and a slight angle might be all you need to get another 5-10% buy-in or budget. Make friends with the people who might know. Remember that your job needn’t stop at ‘thinking up ads’ and ‘choosing directors’; there’s often much more under the surface that could help you succeed. Find out what it is and use it to your advantage.

Finally we reach the Shittiest of all Shitties: ‘Shitty Me’. You’ll find plenty of schools of philosophy and self-improvement that suggest things will only really improve when you start to take responsibility for everything that happens in your life. Of course it’s hard to do anything effective about the fire in the Amazon rainforest, but if you really wanted to stop it you could probably do a lot more than you’re doing right now. And that applies to everything, but it’s a tough chat to have with yourself.

Did you really put in the effort or did you kind up put in whatever amount of the effort would be consistent with going to the pub at lunchtime? Did you have that tough conversation or did you hope things would change while you watched Netflix? Did you write a personal letter to that director you wanted? And when she laughed at you for sending it, did you resolve never to do that again, or did you resolve to do it better next time? Did you go to that typography talk your CD arranged or did you go home early to maintain your back-of-the-bus cool? Did you fill in that form to be a judge on the D&AD website or did you think they’d never want little old you to do something as important as that? Did you start that blog or were you worried about what people might think of your opinions? Did you do your very best at every turn, or did you let your enthusiasm wane as each round of reviews chipped away at your original vision (my favourite)?

I’m not saying any of those options is the ‘right’ thing to do, but if you’re not where you want to be right now, producing great work that makes you proud, take a look at why that might be and consider the answer might be staring out at you from the mirror.

It’s fine to put in 40% effort and go to the pub. It’s fine to roll your eyes in client meetings. It’s fine to hide in the toilet while the traffic guy comes around with that radio brief.

What’s not fine is regretting what happens because of those choices.

This post contains all sorts of advice. Almost all of it might be rubbish, or it might not apply to you, or it might be too difficult, or it might be unlikely to succeed. No problem. But if you want things to be different to how they are right now, you’re going to have to stop doing things in the same old ways.

Change yourself. Change your industry, Change the world.

Or don’t.

It’s up to you.

In the sha-ha-sha-ha-low. In the sha-ha-sha-la-la-la-low. In the sha-ha-sha-ha-ha-low. We’re far from the weekend.

Great prank.

Why competition is bad.

Top editing/sound design:

Comparing Live Aid and Bohemian Rhapsody:

Macca breaking down his iconic songs:

Why people don’t like advertising, and what we can do about it.

Have you ever noticed how people simply assert and accept that advertising is awful? Other than in exceptional circumstances, no one seems to like it or trust it, and its practitioners are routinely ranked alongside used car salesmen and (the shame) lawyers. Whether it’s from asinine billboards that spoil your view, or bovine clichés that clutter up your Instagram feed, it’s generally agreed that corporate messaging adds nothing positive to our lives.

And this is not a new situation. At some point in season three of Mad Men one of the supporting characters jokes to Don Draper about the extent to which people loathe his industry. They both chuckle in rueful recognition.

We all know there is a massive, widespread antipathy towards advertising. Hundreds of millions of ad blockers have been downloaded, and if we’re going to be honest, quite a few of those have even been downloaded by us. And if we’d rather remove advertising from our lives, why should we expect anyone else to welcome it into theirs?

Isn’t this ironic? An entire industry devoted to making sure people like things is routinely hated by everyone, including itself.

Three big points:

  1. People hate advertising for many excellent reasons.
  2. None of them are necessary.
  3. If we don’t address them, advertising as we know it is fucked.

We’ll get to the solutions in a little while, but first we need to take a long, tepid bath in ‘Advertising sucks because…’.

The first reason for this negativity seems to be the built-in mendacity that we convey. There is often a gap between the advertised experience of a product or service, and the reality. Whether that’s by omission, exaggeration or misrepresentation, we do tend to fib to our intended audience. For a clear and basic example, compare the mouthwatering image of a Whopper behind the counter of your local Burger King with the underwhelming mess you find when you open the box. That, in a nutshell, is most people’s experience of advertising.

I understand that it’s supposed to be our job to present the very best version of our clients to their customers, but if we look at the consequences of that we might understand that such a practice can leave those customers disappointed and resentful. We now accept the untruth of advertising messages so unthinkingly that we screen out the first, say, 20% of each communication. “Yes,” we say to ourselves, “But it’s an ad. Of course it’s bullshit to some degree”. (By the way, I think there’s a place for ridiculous exaggeration; it’s the relation to reality that seems underhand.)

Imagine if you had a friend who was always exaggerating about their new house, car or job. You’d probably feel a bit sorry for them, find them a bit annoying, and, quite soon, screen out that 20% and lower your expectations of their reality. Are any of those reactions positive? Of course not. Advertising is usually your sad mate who is so insecure they have to beef up everything they say for fear that you will be unimpressed if they don’t. Perhaps you’d avoid this friend, preferring instead to spend time with honest people who don’t feel the need to treat you like some credulous idiot who will swallow lie after lie.

A constant red flag for our liberal attitude to the truth is the legal type you find on most commercials and print ads. They are the small print of our contacts with the people who experience what we do, and they are necessary because the information included in the ads can often be misleading. So here’s the extra important stuff people need to know before jumping into a purchase they might regret.

But we can’t even be honest about that. This is apparently essential information that is so important the ad and its claims cannot appear without it. So not only are we saying that our claims require a huge paragraph of qualifying backup, suggesting that said claims are a little dodgy, we’re also printing this information at a size and/or speed no reasonable person can take in. We hide it away with annoyed scorn, ensuring that our readers and viewers will not benefit from it. Then we wonder why people hate what we do.

Again, imagine if you had a friend that suggested loudly and enthusiastically that you buy their car, but as you looked around it they mumbled some important information so quietly as to be inaudible. Then you bought the car and discovered a problem that had been covered by the mumbling. “Ah,” your friend might say, “But I did explain that the exhaust was knackered, so there’s nothing you can do about it”. What would you think of that person? Yes, you would indeed think that they were an arsehole.

Next? The portrayal of supposedly realistic situations. Yes, I understand that ads, just like TV shows and movies, are not documentaries, but how many times have we seen commercials that portray women as braindead housewives, or men as amusing idiots who have to be saved from their own stupidity by tolerant spouses or kids? Or people lit and shot and styled in a such a way that they look unattainably gorgeous? If that’s supposed to bear some relation to reality, why are those lives so frustratingly perfect? Yes, it’s that portrayal of the client at its best again, but every one of these examples is provides an impression of life for millions of people. If they’re patronising or sexist or nasty that will provide a blueprint for the future opinions of the viewers.

I’ll stop personifying the industry as various heartless bastards and daft idiots, but I think we can agree that the vast majority of portrayals of people by the ad industry have not benefitted society. Unrealistic body images turning teenagers to anorexia; the smug satisfaction of ‘aspirational’ lifestyles leading to mental health issues; the vast numbers of people either not represented, or conveyed in a token manner contributing to racism and sexism.

Anything else? How about promoting pester power by advertising sugary food and drink and endless plastic toys to children? Being a parent is hard enough without the persuasive might of massive corporations insisting your child needs Coco Pops and Nerf Guns.  And let’s not forget that some of us like to get ’em while they’re young to make lifelong customers out of them and keep that money rolling in for years to come. 

How many times have we pulled the wool over people’s eyes by describing a candy bar as a health bar? Thanks to the advertising industry, words such as ‘natural’, ‘fresh’ and even ‘organic’ have ceased to mean anything. We take words and kill them for the sake of fooling people into buying products that don’t deserve such compliments.

And talking of not deserving such compliments, it’s worth mentioning the extent to which advertising whitewashes, greenwashes and wokewashes all sorts of badly behaved corporations. Ad agencies can certainly take credit for building stellar brands by distracting customers from sweat shops, human rights abuses and mass exploitation. What about companies that employ armies of lawyers and accountants to avoid their tax obligations while underpaying their workers to the extent that they need government welfare to survive? These days no brand is complete without a ‘for good’ initiative that gives them some kind of flimsy soap box upon which to lecture the rest of us about equality, diversity or the environment, issues that meant nothing to them a few years ago (and in some hypocritical cases continue to mean nothing).

Yes, advertising has often been the best friend of bullies, thieves and cheats, accepting untold millions to present their best sides to the world in order to maximise profits and keep the status quo rolling along unquestioned.

Those are just some of ways in which the content we create harms people, leading to an understandable hatred of what we do, but what about how little advertising has a positive effect on our daily lives? 

For over a hundred years the vast majority of what we’ve produced has been boring, annoying, stupid or all of the above. We like to point to the 1% of the 1% of the 1% that gets awarded at Cannes, conveniently ignoring just how much of that has been created for the purpose of winning prizes (the two-minute version that ran at midnight on the Golfing Channel; the case studies that talk about a 300% increase because eight products were sold instead of two; creating ads for accounts you don’t even have to get a greater chance of juror votes…). But when it comes to the real stuff, how many ads have you seen in the last five years that added something to your day? How many were interesting or inspiring or intelligent or thought provoking? How many did you even notice, let alone remember?

We used to be annoyed at posters ruining the landscape, commercials interrupting our favourite TV programmes and radio ads so incessant we’re were forced to switch to another channel for the sake of our sanity. But now we have the delight of digital. Again, it interrupts what you’re trying to read or watch, but now it also funds crime, corrupts democracy and promotes hatred and division. 

The money is flowing out of the traditional ad industry to Google and Facebook because their cheap, basic ads are no worse than the crap we’d been producing for years. We can’t complain that poorly-written messages featuring starbursts and stock shots are eating our lunch when that’s most of what we fed people for years. And now those chickens have come home to roost, fueled by targeting data, and a degree of accountability we never provided.

And here’s the real kicker: we knew very well that people hated most of what we did because we were some of those people. Advertising’s lack of self-awareness is stunning. When most people in the industry decry the state of the industry you’d think they were talking about something in which they had no involvement. But it’s like corrupt politicians complaining about the backhanders in government, or lazy footballers who can’t understand why their team didn’t win. This is our problem, and the fact that we don’t do anything about it is another reason for the hatred.

Advertising people have become shorthand for the superficial, slick, self-obsessed, cynical and crass. If you want to know how society at large sees your job, check out how it’s portrayed in the movies. ‘Ad industry person’ has long been unsubtle code for ‘arsehole’. We’re never the good guys improving society. Instead we’re the glib boyfriends and girlfriends the main character needs to dump so he or she can learn a lesson and find someone better.

And what does all this hatred mean? If we all take ads with a pinch of salt then we automatically screen out the messages, reducing their impact, and that’s if we notice them at all. Almost all advertising is wallpaper at best and loathed at worst. That’s literally billions of pounds, dollars and euros that could be put to better use.

Unsurprisingly, clients have noticed this situation and have responded in a number of ways, none of which the industry is at all keen on. First, we get much less respect, so we have to battle harder for less time and less money to produce our work. Deadlines that used to give us a week now give us a few days, or even hours. Budgets have been cut to the bone, especially for ads that will only appear in digital media (sorry, but that’s now most of them). And they’ve also gone running into the arms of Google and Facebook, where so-so advertising can now be produced for much less money.

So you can see why they don’t really want or need us anymore. Our previous USP, transformative ideas brilliantly executed, happens so rarely that a client would have to be naively optimistic or ridiculously credulous to spend much more money in the pursuit of such elusive riches. And so the vicious circle spins, leaving us with even less cash to find even worse talent, to produce increasingly ineffective ads.


OK, that’s over 2000 words. There’s no way you’re going to read another 2000 on the solution, so I’ll post that next week.


It starts with one thing, I don’t know why. It doesn’t even matter how hard you try. Keep that in mind I designed the weekend.

Toni Morrison on The Art of Fiction.

Abandoned pianos in derelict buildings (thanks, J).

Relationships work when…

Tarantino’s LA.

Spending three days in complete isolation:

Susan Sarandon learns from Meryl Sheep:

We’re not storytellers; we’re better than that.

These days I often hear of advertising people as ‘storytellers’. Apparently we’re all telling stories of products and services in order to promote them.

On this very issue I hereby call bullshit.

I get it: many of us want to think we’re somehow better or deeper people than mere floggers of goods on behalf those willing to pay us. Perhaps we want to believe that running a Twitter feed for a bank that launders money for drug dealers is not a soul-destroying use of a life. Or maybe we need to know that our 25%-off ad for potatoes is critically important to somebody somewhere.

But overall the pretence that this industry is in the business of something higher order, as if we’re presenting bite-sized versions of Great Expectations, or ‘snackable’ Jane Eyres demeans us all.

You’re an intelligent person. You’re surely far too bright to fall for the baseless flattery that attempts to make this job appear to be something it isn’t.

Watch an ad break. Scroll down your social media. Open a newspaper. Are the ads you’re seeing ‘stories’ by any generally-accepted meaning of that word? Or are they just about, maybe, if you squint really hard and stretch the definition like Silly Putty, something possibly, vaguely story-ish?

If you asked a bus driver if that poster they just passed told a story, would they agree, or look at you as if you were fucking bonkers?

The general acceptance of advertisers primarily as storytellers seems really odd to me. Somehow a bright, skeptical bunch of people who spend their working days trying to get other people to believe products are more important and significant than they actually are has fallen hard for their own schtick. (I know you haven’t fallen for it, dear reader. As always, we’re talking about other advertising people who are unfortunately a bit gullible.)

So let’s get real: we’re copywriters, art directors and advertisers who sometimes tell stories for our clients, but usually do nothing of the sort.

We’re not storytellers who just happen to ply their trade on behalf of chicken drumsticks and betting shops.

The sooner we get honest with ourselves about what we do, the sooner we can do it properly. After all, there’s plenty of dignity and pride to be found in this industry. Every time we pretend there isn’t, we indirectly shame ourselves, and life’s hard enough without dealing with shit like that.

Snap back to reality, oh, there goes gravity. Oh, there goes Rabbit. He choked, he’s so mad but he won’t give up the weekend.

Comedy writers room lingo.

David Byrne interviews David Byrne.

The film snob’s dilemma.

This month’s top ten architecture sketches.

An explanation of the Dark Web vs the Deep Web:

How Tarantino writes a scene:

Hoe Kubrick adapted A Clockwork Orange:


I sent a picture to my CEO the other day:

For those of you who aren’t fans of Mad Men, it’s the shot of Peggy Olson joining a new agency at the end of the show: sunglasses indoors, cigarette jabbing perkily from a pair of bright red lips, groovy clothes, a box of random possessions, and a shitload of insouciant, defiant swagger.

That used to be the personification of the advertising industry, which is why so many of us wanted to be a part of whatever it had to offer. It was hard-drinking, long-lunching and Ferrari-driving. But it was also the creator of loved and famous additions to culture, and it inspired water cooler conversations, catchphrases and admiration.

(Yes, the lifestyle did tend to breed and attract a few too many arseholes, and there were plenty of distasteful aspects of the industry that belong back in the egotistical 1980s, but this is about the good bits, so let’s concentrate on them.)

Did the salad days precede the swagger, were they born from it, or did they feed each other? Probably a little of all three, but the confidence of the people involved wasn’t misplaced; it existed because they were often responsible for confidence-worthy work.

Shall we get an Oscar-winning director to turn hundreds of people into a moving face for British Airways? Of course. How about filming an S&M based, hypercolourised acid trip on behalf of Dunlop? Sounds good. Any chance of making an epic helicopter trip through the Arizona desert to sell Benson and Hedges? Step right up.

Advertising thrilled, amused and stuck in the memory for decades. I even recall an entire cinema applauding Levi’s Drugstore, which was far better than the film they had paid to see.

Now, I can see you nodding along (or shaking your head at what might seem like some misguided, romanticised version of the distant past), but you’re probably thinking that the generation of swagger is not an easy task. You don’t just turn on the tap and down a pint of it when you’re feeling small.

That’s true, but it would be irresponsible of me to extol the virtues of massive amounts of self-belief without setting forth a plan for acquiring it, so here’s how it’s done:

First ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve when you create an ad? I suspect the answers differ depending on the client and the brief, but these days the words ‘win some awards’ will somewhere near the top because they’re still the only measurable currency of supposed excellence, and the fastest route to a raise. But what about… let’s see… fame? Or the country repeating your endline for the next ten years? Or a taxi driver reciting your own commercial back to you as you bask in the warm glow of his or her delighted appreciation?

Surely those situations would be better than a mere Cannes Silver.

If we aimed for such riches we would be infused with additional swagger. The mere setting of such momentous goals would put a spring in your step and twinkle in your eye. Perhaps just a little at first, but then the various littles would would combine to create something bigger, until eventually they’d add up to a lot.  

And that’s when the ball really starts rolling: the experience would start to become infectious as the rest of your agency saw how you rolled and wished they could knock back a shot of whatever you were drinking. And when they tried it they’d want more.

Then the people who currently design video games for Rock Star and algorithms for Spotify would wonder who came up with that cool, witty, deep human truth on the side of the bus that just drove by, and who made it look so damn eye-catching. And when they found out they would cast envious glances in your direction.

Newspaper headlines would make puns based on sentences you wrote. Tom Cruise and Graham Norton would mimic that funny dance you came up with. Lil Nas X would drop your jokes into his upcoming collaboration with Right Said Fred.

And the swagger would grow.

So let’s go back to the days when the country waited breathlessly for the next Levi’s ad, then sent its soundtrack to number one. Let’s paper our cities with Economist lines that make people think ‘Whoever came up with that is a fucking genius (and I now want a copy of The Economist)’. Let’s write scripts so good that Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis want to bring them to life.

Yes, there are benefits to fear if you use it in the right way, but swagger is what you should be aiming for. Now go to Selfridges, treat yourself to a Mont Blanc Meisterstück 149 Fountain Pen, crack open a brand new layout pad and show the world exactly what it’s been missing.

We were born before the wind. Also younger than the sun. Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic. Hark, now hear the weekend.

What’s it like living under gangs in Honduras?

The problems with social media.

Cinemaps (thanks, J).

How Tarantino steals from other movies (thanks, J):

The architecture of Game of Thrones:

ITIAPTWC Episode 56a, 56b and 56c – Rory Sutherland

If you’re familiar with Rory Sutherland you’ll know he’s fascinating, thought-provoking and full of incredible insights, just like his excellent new book, Alchemy. So here are three hours twenty-two minutes of that good stuff, where we discussed…

The pros and cons of corporate fame.

The value of noticing unnoticed things.

The unknown benefits of Uber and Air BnB.

The signaling of a legit brand.

‘The worst account executive ever hired’.

Laurel Canyon.

Ethics and B Corps.

Digital advertising.

More signaling.

We interact with brands subconsciously.

Far fewer packaged goods. Far more random services.

The Middleman Economy.

LA grocery shopping.


The American work ethic.

More Amazon.


Universal basic income.

The Climate Crisis/electric cars.


Economies of scale.

Doing good by stealth.

The brain looks for trade-offs.



Virtue signaling as counter-signaling.

How to be cool.

Machu Picchu.

Instinctive evaluations.

The S.C.A.R.F. model.

The adjective order.

The pratfall effect.

Unintentional brand explosion: Buckfast/Jagermeister.

More on brand fame.

Mistrust of advertising.


Timetable padding.

The fashion industry.

(There are a few disjointed edits as a result of splicing two separate chats together, and to avoid contravening various NDAs I’ve signed in the past. Apologies.)

Here’s the Soundcloud link if you want to listen to it in one big chunk. Thanks to the vagaries of WordPress I’ll have to split the iTunes upload and the one on this site into three thirds. They’ll basically continue on from each other. (Further apologies.)

Things were better before all the improvements.

When it comes to doing stuff at work we seem to be in some weird kind of somnambulation.

Whenever anyone (I wish I knew who these people were) introduces a new thing, it appears to find its way its way into the fabric of the advertising industry (and often many others) like the noise of an air conditioner: you notice it at first, then rarely again until someone turns it off, at which point you breathe a massive sigh of relief as you realise just how annoying it was.

But while it’s there you just put up with it. Sometimes it’s gets on your nerves, but mostly it’s just there, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do about it.

To be clear, I’m talking about recent beneficial ‘innovations’, from open-plan offices to Slack; tissue meetings to directors’ treatments; scamming for Cannes to the spirit of egalitarianism that ensures everyone’s allowed to contribute to the final ad; constant fucking email updates to the delightful, essential, ever-tightening strictures of HR.

OK. Maybe there’s a bat-squeak of merit in some of those, but they tend to lead me to the question: how did anything get done before we had each of these now-indispensable processes, methods and systems?

How, back in the late 1980s, was David Abbott able to come up with the Economist campaign without a word of advice from the planning intern? How did Guinness ‘Surfer’ grace our screens without Jonathan Glazer running his intention for every shot past a discerning client? How can Honda ‘Cog’ have been possible without constant updates on several Slack channels regarding the movement of the windscreen wipers?

And yes, if you hadn’t twigged my implication, the work was much better back then

With each new system it seems as if someone can explain what we have to gain, but there’s very little consideration of what we might be losing: the attention-sap of the supposedly time-saving digital tools; the degradation of the idea that we actually solve business problems that comes with every Cannes scam; the pointless hours spent in tissue meetings that could have been spent on a chat in a pub that sparked off a ridiculously good idea.

Those of you who didn’t work in advertising in the 1990s and before might be stunned to know that all creatives used to have these things called offices (they’re like your current office, but instead of the entire floor of the building, packed with people from finance, planning and account management, they were much smaller and featured only two people). These strange little boxes allowed you to close your door and work in the kind of peace that actually helped you write good copy. You could put your work up on the walls and have your colleagues take the piss out of it, or suggest a better endline. You could share ridiculous ideas with your partner without having to worry about the disapproving glances from the resources manager sitting to your left.

And those things increased the likelihood of better work.

Now we just have desk after desk of people looking at screens with their headphones on. Tap them on the shoulder for a chat and it’s like you’ve awakened a corpse, so you feel less inclined to do it again. Then the whole place is forever silent because the corpses have combined to create a morgue (but no decent advertising).

The funny thing is, you can find countless articles and think pieces on how to improve or ‘unleash’ creativity, but they all ignore the basic fact that things were better before all the improvements.

If you want to maximise creativity, find out what things were like when the creative output was better, and replicate them. Yes, it might cost money, but so do offsite bonding weekends, and architects who bring ‘breakout spaces’ the size of a phone box to your otherwise uncreative office. Have a single creative assessor (or ‘CD” as we used to call them before everyone in the department became a bloody CD) who has both the power and responsibility to champion work without getting cut off at the knees. Restrict Slack to the people who want to use it and find that it makes their process-based work easier. Ask yourself if that meeting/email/client awayday is actually necessary.

They say we see further by standing on the shoulders of giants. Climbing down off those shoulders, scuttling along the giant’s spine and hiding in his bumhole will not improve your line of sight.