Curiosity the Cure

November 14, 2018

The desire to learn more is an elixir to many many ills. Its a powerful driver that has created some of the hardest questions to answer and given some of the most inspiring answers. It is the diametric opposite of ignorance (while, in a Hegelian sense, is actually the same).

Curiosity in marketing and advertising is essential. We don’t know enough about influence, about persuasion, about how attitudes are formed for our industry to stop being curious. Least of all strategists and planners. As professional problem solvers it is our duty to be curious, to seek new answers, new ways of seeing. This is why Mark Pollard tells us to read, but not just marketing books, everything.

Last week I attended the incredible MSIX conference. The conference is a kind of portal for practicing marketers and advertisers to meet with and discuss the more academic and deliberate side of studying the effects of marketing. It included amazing talks from Prof. Rachel Kennedy who spoke on the need for intelligent frameworks that study effectiveness in pre-testing. Prof. Karen Nelson-Field  discussed the value of attention as a key metric for understanding the success of communications, and how when we look at ads through the lens of attention, logos become more and more important. One of my favourite discussions came from Arron Child who argued for the use of Neuroscience principles when developing communications, the importance of priming an audience to receive messages and the ability for brand personification to communicate brand attributes in easy to read behaviours.

The conference challenged me and engaged me in thoughts I had never previously entertained. It inspired me to read new material and to apply new fields of thinking into the way I solve problems in my day to day work. It’s started me into a journey to become a better strategist and a better marketer.

But the day left me with one rather pressing question. Where were the planners? Looking across the room and looking at the list of participants on the Linkedin Group after the event, I saw clients, content producers, independent agency owners. In a sold out group of over a hundred people, I felt that agencies and particularly strategists and planners were under represented.

Why has the skill set that requires the most curiosity lost its desire to learn? Are we too busy, too expensive to send to a conference? Let me know what you think in the comments.

In a time when our industry is under intense scrutiny for our effectiveness, curiosity and the desire to learn, having a scientific approach might be the only panacea.

Photo by Annie Spratt

What’s your One-ness?

October 22, 2018


Before the invention of the directory you only had to be unique within a certain distance, on your street or within your small community.

When the Yellow Pages hit critical mass you only had to be unique in the directory, stand out on the page from the other options, be that one plumber in your town or region that had the best reputation. The one place people knew they could get what they were looking for.

Now you have to be unique on Google. You need to be the most relevant to the search that your customer is doing, be the one business that can answer their specific question. This has two important outcomes for people.
1. As long as your business isn’t a service that you personally have to deliver, you can now have a customer from nearly anywhere in the world.
2. You are competing with every business that does what you do, in the whole world.

There is really one thing to do in response to this. Be more relevant to less people. Find a way to be more specific to an audience that can really get behind what you do. Know what Google searches you will be found for. Or better yet. Get to know the people you serve really well, be part of their life and have them talk about you.

Image by Veronica Benavides

Call it an organised crowd

May 4, 2016

Struggling to explain what role a hashtag plays in social chatter?

Explain it to your client this way. Imagine a huge room with a few million people in it. They are all trying to have conversations, but there is no organisation to where people are, so they are just kind of talking and sometimes people hear each other, but generally its all a bit chaotic.

Hashtags are a way of shouting out to the crowd that you are talking about something specific, so you can wade through the crowd and gather together to have that one conversation. So if I want to have a conversation about Polish Post-Punk from 81 to 83, I can find the other 4 people who also want to talk about that from the crowd of millions, simply by using a hashtag.

What if the conversation is about a brand though?

Well if the conversation is about your brand, of course it makes sense to use the hashtag with your brand name in it. But brands almost never want to talk about themselves, they want to talk about the problem they solve, the area in life they add value.

Much of the time brands actually want to start a new conversation. So how does #yourbrand help me find my people?

Serving the Burnt Sandwich

March 15, 2015

This is a touching scene from the movie Chef, where Jon Favreau’s character Carl Casper, amidst a professional breakdown takes a moment to teach his son a life lesson.

The son has burnt a Cuban sandwich and is prepared to serve it to their waiting customers. Casper takes the son to the side and explains how his love and passion for cooking has made him the man he is today. He explains why you can’t compromise, why you can’t make exceptions.

It’s interesting because it’s a point of view that is commonly expected from chefs. We expect for chefs to have great pride in their work, a raging passion for their craft, a knowledge of the world that informed them. Watching reality cooking shows we see professional chefs berate their amateur contestants if it’s not fantastic, don’t serve it.

Why is this not the culture of communications? Why do we serve the burnt sandwich?

We’ve all been there, the client wants a few changes, so we do them. We haven’t cracked the idea, but the deadline is approaching, so you put together whatever you have. The messaging isn’t quite there, but the execution is really fun, so we’ll let the client decide. We want to win a Lion, so we need to get this done regardless of what it is. This new technology came out and we want to use it, so we’ve jammed it into the idea.

These are the excuses we create for giving our customers a big ol’ burnt sandwich. It’s wrong, it’s unethical and, even though they might take a few bites, in the end you have a client who is unhappy, looking for a better sandwich.

Imagine a world where advertising practitioners were seen to be like a chef. A passionate subset of crafts people, who took the care and the time to get their job done right. Experts who had a love for the history, principles and tools of their trade, hard working but in it for the love of the output, because they know how great it is to see a satisfied customer who got what they deserved.

Do you think that clients would rush a person like that? Would a client give a person like that a 2 day deadline or would they respect their craft and give them the time (within reason) to get it done perfectly? I think clients would love to work with people like that and would be much more willing to have a trusting and respectful relationship.

In the end the burnt sandwich hurts us most, so why would you serve it?

When you think like a coder…

September 22, 2014

Coders don’t think about how something already works. They think about how they would make something work. They think about the building blocks and code snippets they could utilize or alter. The logic they would employ to run the mechanism. They think about the likely areas they would need to compromise and the strengths & weaknesses of each available option. They strip the idea bare and look at exactly all the bits that will make it happen.

Then they research and make sure they were right. They even volunteer to ‘fix’ other work if they find a better solution.

Advertisers and Marketers need to think like coders, but in order to do that, we need to first understand the functions and purposes of the code (read: buzzwords) and languages (read: jargon) that we use everyday. Only once we have broken these down into their tiniest most simple form can we begin seeing how our most successful peers have built their solutions and learn to develop our own.

As a strategist (comms planner, brand planner, creative whatever you do) you have a responsibility to be able to think in this manner, both conceptually and technically. This is why I always tell my friends and colleagues to learn code. Any code. There are plenty of free and easy ways of learning to code, even just a little. A small amount of HTML, CSS, Javascript or even just basic Boolean logic will be an eternally returning gift worthy of the time you give it.


P.S Shout out to my developer friend Aaron who did a sense check on this post and linked me to this great story about a designer who learnt code.

Advertising & Conceptual Art; a framework for understanding.

July 1, 2014

Sol Lewitt says “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

Replace art with advertising and artist with creative. What changes?

There is no difference. Particularly when we take the role of the practitioner. Our goals are the same; clarity of message, attention of the audience, engagement. Our outputs are the same; emotional response, informing opinions and validating behavior. Even the intellectual tools we use are the same; appropriation, cultural shorthand. 
With this in mind, it is in advertisers interest to look at conceptual art with a new framework. Rather than looking purely for your own subjective response, look at conceptual art with view to analyse its ability to communicate. 

It’s called a pitch

June 28, 2014

It’s not called a lob, or give it a go. It’s not called playing catch.

It’s called a pitch. Throw everything you have at it, because unlike baseball, you only get once chance.

Do it and do it well.


The Prodigal Son

June 26, 2014

When I was growing up I was taught by my parents about Jesus. One thing that always struck a chord with me was that Jesus knew how to teach. Jesus didn’t teach in rote. He didn’t read the Ten Commandments and get the Apostles to recite them. He taught in parable. Illustrations that though fictional, gave life to the point he was really making. The best example of this to me is the illustration of the prodigal son. A son who spends all of his inheritance on hedonistic pleasures and loses everything he has. At his lowest point he decides that his only option is to go to his father and beg for his forgiveness. The father takes him in and treats the son with loving affection. He sees the son’s repentance and cleans his slate.

The story gives many moral guides for lots of different types of people. These were never clearly defined, outlined and dictated by the storyteller. Jesus didn’t condescend his audience. He knew that they would understand without the need for him to dumb down his message.

The Bible has nothing to do with advertising obviously. But the way Jesus teaches in the Bible can teach us about how to deliver a message in advertising.
So often we see ads that labor over defining the exact message to us. They plainly outline what they want the audience to do, buy, change or think. They treat the audience like a tribe of lemmings, blindly following the light of mass media. Unable to think or process an idea.
To me it’s unconscionable to imagine our audience in this way. We all need to assume the best in our audience. Assume their intelligence, it will probably make telling your story a little more interesting.

Walking backwards, falling over.

June 1, 2014

“We look at the present through a rearview mirror; we walk backwards into the future.” – Marshall McLuhan

The first television broadcasts were live video recordings of radio readings. These days Google scans books and uploads them to the internet.

Human’s natural instinct is to always improve the old before creating the new. That’s why privacy and copyright are huge barriers to the success of the internet. They existed for a world that made money from physical limits.

There are two important outtakes here.  Sometimes the best new things will be something old first.

Maybe more importantly, don’t beat up on yourself if whatever you’re doing doesn’t feel original, just get it done, then do it again. Evolution takes millions of attempts. Falling over happens when you walk around backwards.

The Why

May 22, 2014

We live in Huxley’s New world. But instead of Soma we have media.

The never ceasing assault of messages that feed to us in every place, every device and every moment imaginable. A constant barrage of knowledge, thoughts, ideas and demands.

Sometimes they are resonant stories that pander to our emotional desires, pleading with us to feel as the author feels and then selling us the consumptive relief to our most base human concerns.

Sometimes they are abusive calls to action, dictatorial invocations that thoughtlessly blurt corporate commandments to buy or invest, download, upload, call now. Whatever it is, it’s varying demands are all connected by their desire for immediacy.

All of this noise becomes an opioid. A comforting drone frequency that rocks our minds to sleep, letting us construct a vision of our world defined by the products we have to purchase, the feelings we are supposed to have or the melodrama we need to keep the whole cycle interesting.

Occasionally, something stands apart from that. The mental version of a bird chirping above traffic, the melody of a familiar song heard distantly in a car park. This is all that advertising can ever aspire to. To raise itself from the daily milieu and speak to a person in a way that is both empathetic and self-aware.

These are the kind of thoughts I want to speak on here. How doing good and effective work in advertising is actually the most ethical and humane way to approach it. And of course the inverse.

Excuse me for provocation.