What the whole Christmas bunfest tells us about the wider world of advertising

The one time of year UK advertising gets a big shot in the arm is Christmas:

Thanks to Adam and Eve DDB’s stewardship of John Lewis we now have this kind of 2-month British Superbowl, where each of the big retailers squeezes out a couple of minutes of heartwarming loveliness for our collective delectation. As it’s been going for quite a long time now, it’s easy to dismiss certain efforts as ‘not as good as last year’, or ‘not as good as that other client’s’, but I think it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that the whole shebang actually has the entire country (and some parts of the world) talking about advertising, and that’s a rare thing these days (I even heard Russell Brand mention John Lewis’s Christmas ads on his existential-angst-themed podcast).

Hats off for that, but is there something we can learn from the phenomenon?

Well, here’s an obvious point: pretty much all the talked-about ads are long TV commercials. Sure, they sell the odd toy alongside, or make a concomitant (love that word) donation drive, but none of those extras would exist without the 500lb gorilla: a long, usually expensive, TV ad with a big media spend. That might just nudge us into thinking that TV advertising is both far from dead and still the best way to create famous work.

And you’d have to assume that these ads work, otherwise there wouldn’t be more and more of them, year after year. If John Lewis’s Christmas sales had tanked into the toilet these ads would have done the same.

Another point: good old traditional ad agencies have still got it, as long as they’re trusted to come up with the goods. A&E DDB produces great stuff every year, alongside AMV, Grey and the others. Has an agency with a strange single noun name (Mother aside) come up with the goods? Maybe, but have they matched the big boys in fame and craft? Nope.

And have these ads needed a huge amount of intrusive internet surveillance to be effective? Are they behind the indiscriminate harvesting of our personal details? Is each one laser-targeted at our eyeballs via an in-depth analysis of our every last fart and nose pick? I don’t think so.

So the upshot seems to be: good old fashioned TV ads from good old fashioned agencies still kick ass. Yes, they are the tip of the pyramid as far as ads go, but that’s looking at it backwards: clients could have more tips of more pyramids if they trusted great agencies and their creative departments to produce more great TV advertising during the rest of the year.

And yet all the natter is about programmatic, data and Googlebook.


Corporate ethics: a moral imperative, good financial sense, or both?

There’s a lot of noise these days about ethics, especially as they pertain to the corporate world.

Back in the Noughties, corporations simply functioned as they wished (within the law, or however they could afford to stretch it) but some added an element of Corporate Social Responsibility. Did every corporation that provided these acts of kindness do so out of the goodness of their hearts? Possibly not, after all, there’s no such thing as altruism. But the good deeds were done, so does it matter why?

Maybe, maybe not. There are actually dozens of nuanced arguments on either side. If you want to have a good read of them, check out the CSR Wikipedia page.

But now the conversation had moved on. Pretty much every industry has a perspective on its own ethics, particularly insofar as they relate to climate change, and, latterly, sexual harassment. Are they taking that interest because the public demands it, and it therefore affects the bottom line, or because of some moral aspect that affects the future of the planet?

Generally it’s a mixture of the two, and just like CSR there are vast swathes of grey in between them.

Here are some of the questions that don’t have easy answers:

Many companies have been incorporated with the financial imperative as the most important issue. If they do something that prioritises anything else above the generation of money they can be sued by their shareholders. But what if they were to lose money in the short-term by closing a coal-fired power plant and switching to solar? They might make more money in ten years’ time and beyond, but the immediate losses won’t please shareholders that need to cash out soon, or may not be alive to see the long-term benefits. So does the company risk the litigation to do what is most helpful to its future existence/moral stance, or just go for the money now?

What should the extent or nature of your ethics be? If you’re a person you can be omnivorous, vegetarian, vegan or even fruitarian (only eating fruit that has naturally fallen from trees). Is a vegan ‘better’ than a vegetarian? In terms of resource usage, yes. In moral terms? That’s debatable. In the corporate equivalent you might use your financial resources to treat your staff better by paying them more or giving them more benefits, but what if that compromises your environmental efforts? Such expenditure might mean that you can’t buy energy-saving lightbulbs or insulate your factory. Is one better than the other? That’s an impossible question to answer definitively.

What if there’s a clash between morality and law? Most countries have not codified stringent ethics into legislation. they might provide recycling bins or sign the Paris Accord, but will they treat people of all religions in exactly the same way? Will they ensure a reasonable equality of pay via proper corporate taxation? Will they allow democratic elections on a regular basis? As those of us who follow the news have seen, solid arguments backed by millions can be made on all sides of these questions. And if that’s the case, how will the finer points of subjective corporate morality survive such debates? Clearly it will be impossible to please everyone, so who gets to impose their morality, why and how?

And those are just three questions in an area with thousands. The fact that there isn’t a clear solution makes it obvious that there isn’t such a thing as ethical absolutism, only ethical relativism.

But that shouldn’t lead to paralysis. Within each question is a choice to live up to your own standards. That might mean financial compromises, or a difficult legal fight, but you simply have to decide what you want more: the benefits of the ethical decision, or an easier life in a world that doesn’t work for you (and perhaps millions of others).

Damn, I think I just posed another annoyingly difficult dilemma…

The split personalities of advertising people

When it comes to assessing advertising, some of those in the industry divide themselves into two people:

Person A

They have an excellent idea of what advertising needs to be for the general public. They gain this insight by looking at the advertising they experience on a daily basis and saying, ‘Wow, that’s really annoying. Being followed around the internet as a result of having your privacy invaded and your conversations spied on really sucks. There’s no way I’d ever recommend my clients to advertise in that manner because it would leave their brand with a sheen of negativity that encompasses untrustworthiness and general dislike.” They realise that big logos make them turn pages faster, cramming lots of stuff onto billboards makes them impossible to take in, and preroll makes people hate brands because they are responsible for a tedious delay in gratification. They know that programmatic digital buys can often result in ads appearing in unsavoury places where they are ‘watched’ by bots that the client then has to pay for.

Person B

They take an ad brief for preroll without question. They say that it’s just a little 5-15 second ad that’s kind of the price of running a site like YouTube. They increase logo sizes because they were asked to by a person in a slightly bad mood, and anyway, they’ll be able to enter the ‘awards’ version that ran once somewhere obscure and cheap. They recommend programmatic because it’s a great way to reach a lot of people for not a lot of money, and besides, everyone’s using it so can it really be that bad? They don’t really mind the idea of their ads following people around because the public understand it’s how ads work these days, and besides, it’s not their problem if the general public dislikes their client as a result – the general public hates all ads, so this one won’t really make much difference. They’ll make a poster with seven different typefaces and four different messages because it means their bosses will chill out and it won’t really affect their wages or career prospects because the aforementioned ‘award’ version will win a Creative Circle Bronze.

Of course this isn’t everyone, and of course I’m exaggerating (ever so slightly), but I do wonder why we often look at our work like ‘ad people’ and then get annoyed at the results when we look at them like ‘consumers’.

Unlike others, we can actually change the things that annoy us. We’re often there in the room with the people making decisions (hell, we might even be the people making the decisions), so we can use the facts to persuade clients to do what’s effective, interesting, disruptive, memorable and beautiful. Bus drivers, civil servants and zookeepers don’t get that privilege; they just have to suck up the bad stuff.

It’s like being in Number 10 Downing Street every day and saying ‘Yes, Theresa, Brexit is a great idea that will advance Britain’s position in the world and bring economic prosperity for all of her citizens,’ and not, ‘Hang on there, Theresa. Can I just show you this graph and these documents that prove Brexit is going to be a disaster for millions of people?

I’m not saying that 100% of clients will listen 100% of the time, and they might well have some pretty good graphs and documents of their own, but if you don’t fight the good fight you have to continue having the annoying experiences.

Next time you get the chance, do yourself several favours and make something both of you will enjoy.

How and why I use LinkedIn

I have to admit that for years I was pretty sniffy about LinkedIn. I used to think it was the boring Facebook for nerdy squares (or something). Then again, I used to think Facebook was the boring Facebook for nerdy squares, so what do I know…

Anyway, I’ve got into LinkedIn much more in recent months. Why and how? Read on…

  1. I always link to everyone who asks. This is partly because I don’t want to appear rude, but also because you never know who might be a useful or interesting connection. I wonder how many of you keep your networks ‘manageable’ rather than open. Does that mean I’m inundated with posts? Not really, but there’s always fresh stuff on my feed.
  2. Having an open network means I get articles and posts from a wide range of people with all sorts of jobs who live all over the world. I don’t think I’ve met more than about 10% of them, so I’m always reading about unexpected things that keep my mind broadened.
  3. I got into LinkedIn when I was gainfully employed. I don’t know how important this is, but a sudden appearance on LinkedIn can often denote the end of a job. If you don’t want to denote that, jump in now (unless you just lost your job. Actually, never mind – just do it whenever you like!).
  4. I have a feeling there are vast slices of super-LinkedIn that I have no idea about. Sometimes a post appears in my feed with 10,000 likes and 2000 comments and I wonder how the hell that happens. I think I’m also a bit of a relative LinkedIn newbie, so I may be missing a bunch of interesting nuances and skills.
  5. The big LinkedIn dude in my feed is a guy called Tom Goodwin. He’s Head of Innovation at Zenith USA and he seems to do several interesting posts a day which then get 5000 likes and 500 comments. But he seems like a good bloke and I think a drink with him would be fun.
  6. LinkedIn often feels like a D&AD annual from 10-15 years ago. When I wander through through the names of people LinkedIn thinks I might know they tend to be very interesting creatives in the Autumn of their careers. I find it very interesting to see what they’re up to now.
  7. You can apparently link with all sorts of fascinating CCOs, CEOs, Presidents, Chairpeople etc. of past and present. A case in point: I’m not entirely sure why Mark Wnek linked to me a few months back, but I find his new project fascinating.
  8. There are in-jokes on the site, like being rude about Gary Vaynerchuck, but I’m 100% certain Gary doesn’t care about that. In fact I think he wears such attention as a badge of honour. People also like to complain about those who use LinkedIn to express political opinions or as some kind of dating site. I don’t see much evidence of either.
  9. There’s a lot of public proclamation of worker availability and worker need (that might be kind of the point). I think it’s great that a forum to connect workers and recruiters exists that allows both to express themselves creatively (or not, as the case may be).
  10. I once asked a couple of questions that spread around the site like wildfire. They asked about the existence of ad agencies that had female or minority names above the door (not many do, at least compared to the number with just white guy names). The reaction made me realise just how fertile the diversity debate is. Anyway, I wonder how much this post will be shared around, but if I want to give it an extra push I’ll need to finish with a LinkedIn in-joke question.

Do you agree?

How an unhinged cartoon character with a pocketful of mayonnaise made me reassess the nature of freedom.

To explore this subject I’m going to have to take you into The Amazing World of Gumball, so bear with me…

TAWOG is a cartoon that’s been running for several years. The plot concerns the fun and games of a cat called Gumball and his goldfish adopted brother, Darwin:

It’s very funny and creatively animated in mixed media.

But this post isn’t about them; it’s about one of the minor characters, Sussie:

She’s odd, so much so that there’s an entire episode about her called ‘The Weirdo’. This is how it starts:

Gumball and Darwin try to change her so that she fits in, but it doesn’t work, so instead she offers them a chance to see the world through her eyes and sings a song about it:

For those of you who are wondering why I’m trying to make a somewhat serious point with the use of kids’ cartoons and are thus not bothering to watch the clips, a quick précis: the animation goes utterly crazy in a charmingly naive way, then Sussie starts singing a song about how she’s fine not fitting in because she doesn’t care what people think of her. The chorus says:

‘Cause I am free!
It’s the key, doesn’t matter what people think of me.

My kids love this song and I love the message, but it raises an interesting idea: would you rather have what you want, or not care about what others think of you?

There are dozens of quotes about why being ruled by other people’s opinions is a BAD THING (Eg: “The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.” ― Virginia Woolf), but that seems to be hard to do. I mean, have you ever had a time when you really couldn’t care less about the thoughts of others? So much of our lives are affected by them, from what our husbands/wives/kids think of us to the assessments of our bosses and colleagues. There often appears to be a huge amount riding on the opinions of others.

But the people who genuinely seem to be unbothered by such things do tend to win our admiration. They seem brave and strong in the face of something so difficult to ignore. It’s the rebel archetype of the movies, from Robert De Niro in Mean Streets to Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, but it’s also all the artists, writers and musicians who produce work apparently unintended to please a wide audience. When those people follow the herd or go for the safe option they seem to be less deserving of our praise because its easier.

I think people would rather have all the things that society generally admires (some version of fame, wealth, respect or achievement) than simply not care what those things are and forge a path defined by an inner voice, untainted by the judgements of others. People concerned about their appearance would sooner look like George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence than look like themselves and be OK with that. Many people obsessed with fashion would rather have all the coolest clothes than dress ‘badly’ and not care about it. And there are plenty of parents out there who would rather be seen bringing up their kids in a way most people would think was ‘right’ than go their own way and ignore the negative opinions of others.

But I think we could learn a lot from Sussie (I don’t necessarily mean we should go around singing to cartoon cats, but it couldn’t hurt). She doesn’t live her life by an arbitrary set of standards imposed on her life by society. None of those things have any intrinsic meaning, so why should they guide her or us?

And besides, having what you want is pretty much impossible, and when you get it you might well discover it wasn’t what you wanted anyway. Take Andre Agassi, for example: he won everything in tennis but hated it all so much he turned to smoking crack because those wins couldn’t fill the hole inside him created by the way his dad treated him as a kid. All the money, fame and success in the world didn’t get rid of Michael Jackson’s demons. And if dozens of Oscars, millions of dollars and a beautiful wife really did the trick, we wouldn’t currently be reading quite so much about Harvey Weinsten. Sure, we may not have lived through whatever made those lives so painful, but we all have our versions of those invisible drivers.

But here’s the really interesting thing: you can have ‘not caring what others think’ right now, and it’ll cost you nothing. Maybe, once you realise the true weight of what’s pushing your thoughts around, you’ll wonder why they mattered so much. Maybe you’ll stop chasing that thing you think you want. And maybe, as the Buddhists say, you’ll see that desire is the cause of suffering.

And you’ll be free.

Like an unhinged cartoon character with a pocketful of mayonnaise.


regeneration over sustainability.

A few weeks ago my wife and I popped up to Ventura, home of the ethical outdoor clothing company, Patagonia.

We soon found their receptionist/cultural ambassador/surf teacher, an amazing man called Chipper Bro (really).

We discussed many things, but one concept was so blindingly obvious that it made me wonder why it wasn’t more widespread:

True environmental responsibility isn’t about sustainability; it’s about regeneration.

Chipper meant that we shouldn’t be keeping things as they are (sustaining); we should be regenerating the world as it used to be and needs to be to ensure its future existence. We don’t just need to stop the inexorable overuse of the globe’s resources; we need to reverse it.

Funny, because the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ are the ones you’ll hear all over the environmental conversation. But as this article (shit! It’a from 2013) says, they’ve been stretched to meaninglessness. And what has a commitment to sustainability got us? Are we in a good place, heading back towards a beautiful planet with enough resources for everyone, surrounded by a consistent, workable climate?


As Jaques Peretti explains in this fascinating episode of Russell Brand’s Under The Skin Podcast, scientists have worked out that we may only have 60 harvests left:

That’s because soil needs time to regenerate its nutrients, but we just aren’t giving it the chance to do that. Instead we’re growing far more food than we need (and throwing away 1.3 billion tonnes of it, a third of which never even reaches our tables. Find out all about that here).

So we can’t just sustain. We must regenerate.

And that’s not just an environmental message. It’s something that applies to all sorts of areas of life: don’t just work; make sure you’re giving back some education or mentoring for the next generation. Don’t just call a friend to see how they are; ask how you can help or support them in whatever they’re trying to do. Don’t keep your books on a dusty shelf; spread them around to people who can learn from them.

The only way to go forwards is to go backwards.

Start here.

When it’s through, it’s through fate will twist the both of you. So come on baby come on over. Let me be the one to show you the weekend.

Shower thoughts.

Cool shadows.

How a bean becomes a fart (thanks, K):

Baroque portraits of black hair to show how amazing it can look (thanks, D).

Skeptical reactions to early revolutions.

Morty’s funniest insults:

The fluidity and longevity of obsession

I think you could make a case for the fact that one’s drive and interest in any area can grow and wane depending on all sorts of extraneous circumstances.

I had a bit of an advertising obsession in my youth: I bought old D&AD annuals when I had very little spare cash, I knew all the greats and was able to to surprise certain creatives by explaining how much I liked old, obscure ads of theirs. I don’t know if it was a conscious thing, but I think that in the back of my mind I believed that a lot of effort in the early days would set me up for an accelerated career. That knowledge also came in handy when I needed reference or proof that a certain path of creativity might lead to success: ‘Look, this team did something along similar lines ten years ago and it worked out great!’ (I don’t mean nicking old stuff, but perhaps a line construction or editing style was then proven to work.)

Then, with that knowledge safely tucked away, there was less need to continue poring over those books. My attention turned more fully to current work, or to more lateral areas of inspiration that could be combined with the good old stuff to make unusual combinations: Italian art galleries, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Carl Dreyer movies, Cuba, the sports section of The Sun etc.

Was my obsession waning, or was I just looking for other ingredients?

Then my job changed, requiring more management and less actual creativity. That meant I needed to fill up the tank with an entirely different fuel: advice from other CDs, books and memoirs from great creative people, mentors both inside and outside the industry etc. Obviously, continuing to read old D&AD annuals at the rate I used to would have been a less efficient use of my time, so it might have felt like the obsession was declining further still, but it was really just continuing to move elsewhere.

Later still, my job changed again, and the need to evaluate new creative ideas became reduced as I worked even further up the management ladder. Finding, hiring and nurturing new people was more important than knowing who won the 40-second TV Pencil in 1987. Again, it might have been subconscious, but I actually sold my annuals in 2011 (remember, I still had my interpretation of their contents sloshing about in my cerebral cortex).

Many times since, I’ve had to return to evaluating, improving and even creating new work, and I’ve happily found that the older muscle needs only the slightest of jump starts to fire on all cylinders. It’s as if the early foundation is strong enough to allow it to last for decades.

But do I feel obsessed as I once did? Well yes I do; just about different things: what are the needs of the bigger picture or the long-term vision? How can I make a deeper, more substantial difference? How can I best use my experience to inspire others?

That place is where the blog and the podcasts come from. They take a lot of time and dedication – far more than I spent reading old annuals. But the old curiosity still exists. It has to, otherwise my creativity would be like a slowly drying leaf, ready to collapse at the slightest sign of stress. And if I didn’t care about improving the industry and its output I’d have stopped typing long ago.

But I’d love to know your own point of view: do you find a previous obsession in a certain area of advertising has now changed direction? Has that change come from you or the industry? Or is it still the ads alone that scratch that itch?

Answers on a postcard/comment section.

What we can do to improve advertising: part two.

So about that post I wrote a couple of days ago about how bad advertising was ruining advertising as we know it

I know I left it with a call to arms about doing better ads but how many of you are really going to do that? Maybe loads (I hope so), but I just wanted to give your efforts the same shot in the arm that inspired me:

Back in the forties advertising was even worse than it is now:

Then this guy called Bill Bernbach came along. He actually started in advertising in 1939, but he spent nine years at Grey, despaired of how crap it was before starting his own agency – Doyle Dane Bernbach. From there he revolutionised advertising as we know it by making sure DDB’s output was intelligent, beautiful and persuasive. Here’s what he had to say at the time:

“There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this short or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

Sound familiar? Could he be talking about the current preeminence of data? (More incredible Bill quotes here.)

Anyway, he kicked the industry up the arse and is the reason why every ad you’ve ever liked got made. Literally. No exaggeration. No Bernbach, no Surfer, no Man Your Man Could Smell Like, No whatever won the Titanium Grand Prix this year, or any other year.

So what?

So a couple of months ago I was listening to Dave Dye’s excellent podcast interview with my old boss Peter Souter. Somewhere near the end Peter mentioned the effect Mr. Bernbach had on the industry in the 50s. He then said that he felt that there was no reason why a similar revolution couldn’t happen today, and he has indeed attempted to instigate such a thing in his role at TBWA London (it’s worth mentioning that it took Bill around a decade to achieve his aim, in an industry with far less competition and far fewer alternative distractions).

That passage really made me think that any improvement is truly possible. Sure, it once took a man as great as Bill, but that’s no reason why there isn’t another Bill (or ten) waiting among you. Bill wasn’t ‘Bill’ until he became Bill. He saw something in the world that he didn’t like and went about changing it. At first he encountered resistance, then he gathered likeminded colleagues, then they did what they thought was right, then other people saw it and agreed, then many followed suit (or tried to).

And that’s all it takes.

Gandhi’s suggestion that we should be the change we want to see in the world has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to be consistently present to what it really means. It’s even harder to act on it: you don’t like Brexit? Go and stand for your local council and keep going until until you’re President or Prime Minister. Fed up with massive companies paying no tax? Stop using them, and spread the word until enough other people follow suit and the company collapses. Think advertising is dreadful and getting worse? Start your own agency, enroll clients in what you’re trying to do and make the kind of advertising that’s consistent with your values.

You will inspire others along the way and the world will change.


Why don’t advertisers advertise themselves?

It’s an interesting truth that advertisers, supposedly the experts on advertising, don’t really advertise themselves.

Why would that be?

The surface answer is this: ad agencies need clients, so they’re really only talking to a few hundred people at the very most; in fact at any one time, and taking conflicts into account, it’s probably no more than twenty people. If you have to advertise in a way ad agencies normally do, you’re trying to reach a lot of people, perhaps millions. Trying to communicate to twenty people in the same way you communicate to millions is like trying to use a nuclear missile to play darts. So you use another method: schmoozing at industry functions, perhaps, or maybe a year of relationship building with occasional phone calls and birthday gifts. You might wait to hear a rumour of agency dissatisfaction before pouncing with a box of chocolates and a bottle of Veuve. Anything but a 96-sheet poster (unless you’re doing one of those stunts where you you buy the 96-sheet poster outside the Hamlet client’s house that says something like ‘Happiness is an agency called Spiggot and Flange’ or something. Do they still make Hamlet?).

Occasionally ad agencies create an ad for themselves. Very occasionally it’s good enough to get into D&AD:

But that’s rare and they’ll tend to feature in the trade press (circulation: maybe 10k).

So that’s the basic reason. Is there another?

Well, I wonder if ad agencies would be any good at advertising themselves.

Think about it: doctors who self medicate often go a bit too far because they don’t have the requisite objectivity. Similarly, lots of shrinks are basically a bit crazy and would you be cool with army veterans defending themselves in a reasonable manner back at home? Human traits of taking a mile when you’re given an inch (or taking lots of pills when you’re given the key to the prescription meds cabinet) and seeing every problem as a nail when you have a hammer (or seeing every argument as a reason to punch someone when you’re very good at that) can surpass the strictures of professional responsibility.

I think ad agency people might fret too long over the brief, finding it tricky to agree on exactly what they want to say about something as complex as their own ad agency. Then they’d come up against the creative problem: do you actually abide by ‘creative’ principles when you’re selling your own stuff? If you lose your dog, do you come up with a lateral campaign idea expressed with startling originality, or do you just stick up a photo of your dog above the words ‘LOST DOG’ and your phone number? I recall one situation where I was tasked with doing an ad for my agency to go in the programme of D&AD. When I put it together my boss actually asked me to make the logo bigger (when I pointed out what he’d said he changed his mind).

If you want proof of this kind of thing have a look at most agency websites. Although it’s a shop window into the creativity of the company, you’ll find that even the most out there shops tend to follow a fairly straightforward pattern of ‘About, who, work, careers, contact’, with some pictures from their most recent ads. Is this because they want to appeal to as many potential clients as possible, and most of them are fairly straightforward people? I’d say so. But does that ultimately undermine attempts to persuade the client to ‘take a chance’ or ‘do something brave’ when they’re selling the work? Hmmm…

Perhaps this is simply inadvertent honesty. After all, as they say, the way you do something is the way you do everything.