Think Hard

Inconvenient truths unwrapped a little
March 7, 2016, 11:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

santa claus.jpg

I wrote a post a few days ago that seems to have gained a little traction, so I thought I might expand on what I mean when I say I often have to tell my clients inconvenient truths (and by inference so should you, with yours).

By way of illustration, let’s rewind to 1995 or so.

The scene is an oak panelled boardroom. (Not mine.)

 “I’ve been thinking about the music track you commissioned for our new (£600,000) commercial and, you know, I play a bit of guitar myself. Have a modest studio in the house… and my best mate is a composer, so… we’ve had a little go ourselves. What do you think?”

My client pressed play as our hearts sank.

[90 seconds later…]

 “Well, I think David Bowie will like it because it’s his tune.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s essentially Heroes*.”

[Long pause]

“Of course it isn’t…and I love it…so that’s the soundtrack for the new ad.”

[Another long pause]

“Well, you’ll have to sign a legal disclaimer that you are going against the advice of your agency because I will not be held responsible for what a musicologist would say was a copy of someone else’s song.”

This is not a typical conversation in my career.

[*I’ve changed the name of the song and the artist in the story for obvious reasons. But the rest is true. The disclaimer was signed. We never made another commercial for that client.]

I’ve carried out a number of fairly significant consultations. In one I was asked to conduct a feasibility study for the expansion of a new service into a market I knew well. The client was clearly very excited about the prospect. I came back with the news that it sucked and not to do it. I gave the client a robust alternative.

The clients went with their own view.

Two years later the service closed down and was re-launched exactly as I had suggested and was a commercial success from then on.

These responses were both extremely inconvenient for my clients. In the first case they got lucky that Mr Bowie didn’t come knocking. In the second they could afford the mistake but it needn’t have been made.

On a daily basis I’m asked for my opinion. And one client actually described me as jaggy (definition: Scottish Pricklya jaggy sweater) when describing my style.

What he meant was that I told inconvenient truths, and you simply can’t do that with a smile on your face.

Telling an inconvenient truth is a jaggy jumper moment. Sorry about that.

The rest of the time I’m pure cashmere.

“We’ve rejected concepts a, b and c because they are too creative and we’re going with concept d as it’s a lot safer.”

Now, what you read above is a mash-up, but it’s composite feedback I’ve heard time and again in a variety of formats and requires the strongest response in the consultancy book. (I should point out that, technically, concept d should never have been presented in the first place, but we all have our weaknesses.)

The inconvenient truth here is that if you truly believe that your work, or the work of your colleagues, will be more effective because it will stand out more and be noticed you need to fight with all your heart and soul for concepts a, b and c.

This is where the word ‘No’ comes strongly into play. As in “No, I think you are making the wrong decision” followed by a convincing argument as to why.

Dave Trott writes again and again and again in Campaign magazine about why over 90% of advertising isn’t even noticed, never mind ineffective.

Most ads are concept d.

Go on. Pick up a copy of today’s paper and see how many of the ads in there actually make you think “that’s interesting”.

Less than 1 in 10.

I know that for a fact.

Digital marketers get all frothy mouthed at 1% click through rates

That means 99 out of 100 people ignored their ad. (No doubt these were all concept d’s.)

But it’s hard to argue with your client who’s paying your or your bosses bill. I know that.

Think of it this way though, you’d respect an interior designer who robustly challenged your choice of pink and green for your living room. You’d bow down to your hairdresser who told you the mullet you so desired was not the best choice of cut in 2016.

These people take inconvenient truths in their stride and we marketers, advertising people and digital marketers would do well to recognise this. And to find ways to articulate why their clients need to know the truth, no matter how undesirable it might be.

We need to stand firm in our professional opinions that concept d should never have been presented in the first place and that it will be bad, not good, for your business to play safe, to be invisible, to become wallpaper.

And it’s not about being brave when we share inconvenient truths with our clients.

It may be jaggy, yes.

But most importantly it’s passionate and honest.

Why Emotional branding and Behavioural economics are so tightly associated with the marketing of sport.

I’m going to share an experience with you that made me realise I was so completely immersed in a brand that even though I thought I could wean myself off it, almost completely exclude it from my active pursuit of life, entertainment and cultural consumption a single shot, like an alcoholic, brought me right back to an almost preternatural state.

A state of dependance.

My following of Hibernian Football Club is not, of course, preternatural because I’m not from a ‘Hibby’ family.  I wasn’t wired before birth to scream 7 – 0 as my first words.  And I haven’t indoctrinated my kids into the ‘Hibby’ way.

But for many years it was part of my Saturday ritual with friends; beer, fags, football (the Hibees), beer, fags and a Chinese Take Away. That’s what I did.

Then inexplicably, I stopped.  Family got in the way, golf got in the way, theatre got in the way.  Ticket prices got in the way.

“You’re no a proper fan.”

“You just turn up for the big occasions.”

Yes, all true.  Guilty as charged.

But it changes nothing.

Because it became clear to me on a wet and windy  Tuesday night, last week, that I remain completely consumed by the emotional strength of this magnificent brand.

Some of the explanation can be found in Behavioural Economics theory and its explanation of emotional branding.  The words of Dan Ariely from his paper, Behavioural Economics: An Exercise in Design and Humility, is quite apposite..

“There are lots of biases, and lots of ways we make mistakes, but two of the blind spots that surprise me most are the continuous belief in the rationality of people and of the markets. This surprises me particularly because even the people who seem to believe that rationality is a good way to describe individuals, societies and markets, feel very differently when you ask them specific questions about the people and institutions they know very well. On one hand, they can state all kinds of high order beliefs about the rationality of people, corporations, and societies, but then they share very different sentiments about their significant other, their mother-in-law (and I am sure that their significant other and mother-in-law also have crazy stories to share about them), and the organizations they work at. Somehow when we look at a particular example of life up close, the illusion of sensible behavior fades almost instantly. And the more we look at the small details of our own life, the more our bad decisions seem to multiply.”

Of course Behavioural Economics is designed to ‘Nudge’ people away from bad or dangerous decisions.  But what could be more attuned to Ariely’s theory than football supporting.  Sensible behaviour is jettisoned the second we get into the (fan) zone.  We over indulge.  We endure extreme weather conditions.  We neglect family life for our own gratification.  We spend way more than rationally the product is worth (on tickets, memorabilia and stadium food).

But then this happens.

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To mark this momentous occasion the Club’s ‘unofficial’ song was sung by 16,000 home fans as the away end, where moments before your natural born and sworn enemy were congregated, emptied,  as if by magic.

Before I share this moment of total brand immersion with you I need to explain the lyrics.  It’s a song by The Proclaimers.  Bespectacled (some would say geeky) twins with broad Scottish accents.

They are Hibs fans.  Everyone knows that.

This, then, is their Magnus Opus.

The opening stanza is a lament.  appropriated by the Hibernian fans as a total metaphor for the last 114 years in which we have not won the ‘Big’ Cup in Scotland.  Or the sixty or so that the ‘Big’ league had evaded our trophy cabinet.

My heart was broken, my heart was broken
Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow
My heart was broken, my heart was broken

Although verses 2 – 4 were clearly written about the arrival of a woman into a man’s life it has been anthromorphosised into our love of our team and its restorative qualities in only a relatively minor victory (nothing as big as winning the ‘Big’ Cup for example);

You saw it, You claimed it
You touched it, You saved it

My tears are drying, my tears are drying
Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you
My tears are drying, my tears are drying

Your beauty and kindness
Made tears clear my blindness

But the killer stanza is this one.  The one in which our declaration of faith, devotion, love recognises that Leith is the spiritual home of Hibernian FC and the central role of this great brand in our lives.

While I’m worth my room on this earth
I will be with you
While the Chief, puts sunshine on Leith
I’ll thank Him for His work
And your birth and my birth.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Then we do it all again.

My heart was broken, my heart was broken
Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow
My heart was broken, my heart was broken

You saw it, You claimed it
You touched it, You saved it

While I’m worth my room on this earth
I will be with you
While the Chief, puts sunshine on Leith
I’ll thank Him for His work
And your birth and my birth.

yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Now, here’s how it translates into a brand mantra.  The greatest brand emotional call and response that even Liverpool, and Celtic cannot match, try though they might.

Because they sing a hymn.

We sing a Gospel.

And it’s ours.  Only ours.



Speculative work in design and advertising and its absurdity.
February 3, 2016, 12:16 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I am grateful to Dean Happel for bringing this film to my attention.  It’s a rhetorical polemic on the absurdity of our industry.

The trouble is we have made our bed for many years and the vast majority of us now have no choice but to lie in it, or be absurdly ‘go to’, or persuasive to take the ‘take’ out of pitching.

Great work from Zulu Alpha Kilo in Toronto, Canada.

My board responsibilities. And why they are important.
February 1, 2016, 10:34 am
Filed under: business, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,


I have chaired a charity for children for six years.  A musical theatre company for the record.

I am a trustee of a professional theatre co.  Another charity.  And have been for seven years.

I chair a creative membership organisation.  For four years so far.

I have been chair, advisor or council member of several more.  And part of my day job is providing advice to company boards.  Usually micro/small enterprises.

I am no guru but I take my responsibilities very seriously and have learned a great deal about governance from a number of highly responsible individuals.

It has been my privilege.

So I really do take offence at the behaviour of The Kids Company – a charity run by a highly charismatic lady who freely admits she is a loose canon (and that’s fine, were checks and measures in place to control her undoubted energy, enthusiasm and ability to engage with sponsors, funders and political and social/behavioural/societal influencers) but in this situation what she did not need were staff, trustees, a chairman and, believe it or not, even the Charity Commission – not to mention a government – that indulged her.  (In the latter case in the hope that some of Camila Batmanghelidjh’s charisma would rub off on them.)

This is the BBC article that exposes the findings of the The Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

It’s a disgrace frankly.


“With Creativity you don’t need to scream to be heard.” (Dave Trott 01/02/2016)
February 1, 2016, 9:54 am
Filed under: advertising, Blogroll, creativity, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,


I often share with you Dave Trott’s incisive insights that he publishes on his outstanding blog.  He really is a hero of mine and the best living writer on advertising (but really on creativity).

This is a remarkable blog post from him.  But before you read it take a moment to view this.


It happens to be one of my favourite songs of all time (if you can use favourite to describe a nightmare).

The film ‘Gone With The Wind’ was released in 1939.

Fine southern ladies and gentlemen living civilised lives in elegant houses on huge plantations, attended by grateful slaves who were thankful to their kindly masters for being so considerate.

Of course, the reality wasn’t quite like that.

The truth was, in the south over five thousand African Americans were lynched by white mobs.

Strung up from the nearest tree and left hanging.

Photographs were taken of the smiling crowd, much like a picnic or a barbeque.

Grinning for the camera, pointing at the hanging corpses.

But in that same year, 1939, Billie Holliday released a song that would begin to change all that.

Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, describes her song as the beginning of the civil rights movement.

And yet it didn’t scream outrage, it wasn’t a cry of horror.

It was softly, gently ironic.

Every evening, at the end of her nightclub act, Billie Holliday would have the room lights darkened all the way down.

Just a spotlight on her as she sang softly and gently what everyone assumed would be another romantic ballad.

She started quietly:

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit:

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

By the end of the first verse the audience were silent.

They didn’t know what to make of it, or the next verse:

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south:

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.

Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,

And the sudden smell of burning flesh.”

Now the crowd shifted uncomfortably:

“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck:

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck.

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and a bitter crop.”

Then the spotlight went out, and Billie Holliday left the stage.

No encore just stunned silence.

The unsettling words lingering like a surreal nightmare.

No mention of corpses in the song: just the sweet scent of magnolia and strange fruit hanging from trees.

Cognitive disonance.

Mass murder described in gentle irony.

It became the first example of a kind of music we would later take for granted.

The intelligent protest song.

Thirty years later, Bob Dylan would quote it as the song that influenced him most.

‘Strange Fruit’ is still quoted by every civil rights leader.

But it wasn’t written by a black man.

It was written by a white Jew living in the Bronx.

Abel Meeropol was so horrified by the images he’d seen on postcards, he wrote it and persuaded Billie Holliday to sing it.

In 1999, Time Magazine named it ‘The Song Of The Century’.

The quiet, intelligent song that started a movement.

The movement which eventually led to a black man being elected President Of The USA.

Proving that, with creativity you don’t need to scream to be heard.

Marketing done good. Making a difference for Autistic children the world over.
January 26, 2016, 10:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


Marketing is bad.

That’s drummed into us by the naysayers.

Advertising is evil. We all know that.  Maybe because it’s the bastard spawn of marketing.

But is it?

Me?  I’ve worked on behavioural change, mainly in the old school through (bastard spawn) advertising on smoking cessation, alcohol moderation, blood donation, healthy eating, organ donation and others.  Oh yes, and I’ve helped many charities fulfil their dreams, again through the bastard spawn.

But today the options are far wider.  Great marketing thinking comes in many shapes and forms. And with the arrival of apps less than a decade ago marketing was given a real chance to find new and exciting ways to further effect positive behavioural change.

Take this bloody brilliant thing that I stumbled upon today.  It’s a Korean campaign, based around an app, for autistic children.

Autistic children have difficulty making relationships and one of of the reasons is that they find it difficult to make eye contact and to then decipher emotional coding in people’s expressions.

But autistic children like hand held electronic devices and these DO hold their attention.

So Samsung has invested in an app that trains autistic children how facial expression works through a 15 minute daily programme.

It’s had a remarkable effect.

And you can see how and why here.

Now.  Is marketing so bad?

The Best Advertising Practical Fool Joke of all time.
January 7, 2016, 10:08 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I love Dave Trott; I really do.

This shows the less commonly perceived practical joker side of him.

I was involved in a few practical jokes in my time, perhaps the fart machine that I hid inside a colleagues computer and went off through a remote control that I used randomly either in rapid burst or once every few hours.  I could operate it from about three rooms away so my presence wasn’t a link to the problem.  That was my best one.

But this is FAR better.



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