How not to kill your clients.


So impressed and inspired was I by Atul Gawande’s astonishing book, The Checklist Manifesto, about how a seemingly mundane tool such as a checklist can reduce deaths on the operating table by half, that I’ve been pondering on how the same could apply to the world of advertising.

His inspiration was the world of airline piloting and he took the principals of this industry and applied them to his own.

I’ve done the same for the advertising industry and will be sharing them with an audience of account handlers at The Leith Agency on May 6th.

My presentation covers all aspects of advertising strategy and how to minimise your chances of getting it all horribly wrong, and contributing to the 89% of advertising that, according to Dave Trott, simply does not get noticed and consequently has no chance of working.

If you’re interested I could potentially be persuaded to share it with you.

(But only after The Leith Agency have had first dibs.)

“With Creativity you don’t need to scream to be heard.” (Dave Trott 01/02/2016)


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.

I love it when Dave Trott nails stuff. Ideas versus execution and the role of planning today.


Why should ideas not have a role in today’s communications industry?

Is it because digital marketing is taking over and merely becoming about reaching people in the right place at the right time? (As Trott alludes to in this recent blog post in Campaign.  He  cites Marshall McLuhan to make that point.)

Or is it because ideas are harder than executions to create, to consider, to nurture because the breakneck pace of briefing (if that even happens) to delivery no longer leaves any room for ideas?

I read a lot about 21st century advertising being all about the ‘execution’.

But I’m with Dave Trott here.  It’s utter bollocks.

Here are Trotty’s words in full

Recently, I heard about a talk given by one of the most respected planners in London.

He is retired now but, apparently, he said he realised his job had never been about ideas.

It had only ever been about execution.

In fact, he realised that advertising isn’t about ideas at all.

It’s only ever about execution.

Wait a minute, have I got this right?

The idea is unimportant; all that’s important is the execution.

That’s from one of the most respected heads of one of the most respected strategic departments.

If so, I’m confused. 

I thought the “idea” was what we communicated and the “execution” was how we communicated it.

Surely, what we communicate is the “strategy” and how we communicate is “tactics”.

I thought the planning department did the strategy.

I thought the creative department did the tactics.

But, apparently, that’s dinosaur thinking.

Is he saying planning has abandoned strategy to concentrate on tactics?

That execution is all there is, so planning concentrates on execution?

Which presumably means marketing, account men and clients also concentrate on execution.

Hopefully, creatives are still allowed some input into execution.

If so, that means no-one is doing ideas.

So advertising has no ideas.

Isn’t this exactly what Stephen King warned against?

Stephen King was the man who invented planning.

He invented it to provide exactly the strategic thinking that no-one else in advertising could provide.

He wanted planners to be about the big picture, to distance themselves from the detail.

He had one main warning for future planners: “Don’t become mere ad-fiddlers.”

He knew it was tempting for them to offer an opinion on the execution: the script, the editing, the casting, the actors’ facial expressions, the soundtrack, the props, the dialogue, the typeface.

But he warned that this was execution and would detract attention away from the strategy, away from the idea.

I wasn’t there when the distinguished planning director spoke.

But I’m guessing he would say that, nowadays, we realise emotion is more important than logic.

I’m guessing he would quote Daniel Kahneman on Type 1 and Type 2 thinking.

I’m guessing he would say that, nowadays, the execution is the idea.

The how is the what.

And no doubt that’s a very seductive intellectual argument.

The only problem is, of course, intellectual argument doesn’t work on ordinary consumers.

But that’s the place where advertising has to work.

And what works on simple consumers is simple common sense.

“The medium is the message” may be a seductive intellectual argument, but “don’t become mere ad-fiddlers” is simple common sense.

And that is what we are short of in advertising.



Relax. You’re only a brand.


Dave Trott’s blog post in Campaign today is one of the best I’ve read in a very long time.

Trotty has the knack of getting to the nub of an argument and making his point eloquently and, well, pointedly.

In this he talks about how the Movember movement, when in its infancy, approached a Prostate charity to offer them the proceeds of their fundraising and asking for endorsement to do so.  They told them they were a serious charity and this was just silly.  (They were essentially ‘above’ it.)

They went elsewhere and have now raised $300million for the second choice (Prostate Research).

The lack of spontaneity in marketing, or the strict adherence to brand guidelines, the unwillingness to take chances, to act like humans act with the occasional throwing of caution to the wind infuriates me at times because great ideas, like this one, are passed over.

My ‘favourite’ response to unorthodoxy?

“Oh I don’t think we could do that.  It’s too creative.”

Well, tell that to the marketing manager at an unknown and struggling Prostate Cancer charity .



I had the not inconsiderable pleasure of spending Thursday evening meeting, introducing and then listening to Dave Trott present at Robbie Smith’s studio in Leith in my role as Head of Client Services at STV.  Thereafter we had a beer or three in the Cafe Royal.

Since then I have been inundated with messages of thanks proclaiming him the best speaker people have ever heard.


Because although ostensibly this was a talk to creatives about creativity it was, in actual fact, a potted guide to strategy development (which is, of course, at the heart of all creativity).

In his speech he poo pooed the notion that creativity starts with impact.  Because vacuous impact creates no effect other than fueling the egos of lesser art directors.  No; creativity starts with persuasion, by identifying what he often referred to as the, usually disregarded these days, USP, then working through communication (ie the content of the message) before gilding the idea with impact.

Created in this order ads of any kind (and any medium – digital or otherwise) have the ability to “go viral”.

It was all done with a deep and committed single mindedness and lightness of touch that was jaw dropping in its simplicity, but eye opening in its possibility.

Dave Trott. You are a genius  Just like Cloughie!

And then to top it all off Doug Cook sent me this astounding picture.

But we are meat, not metal.


Dave Trott writes some great things in his blog.

But the title of this log really blew me away. He was talking about human beings can be hypocritical (They diss speeding, then speed, they decry Maradonna’s hand of God but celebrate England’s equally dubious 1966 World Cup winning goal.)

And he sums it all up by saying “But we are meat, not metal.”

How brilliant an analogy is that?


Go Dave go…