Embracing modernity - change & creative agencies

Any business that deals with consumer attention, and communication media (which let’s face it is most businesses) is facing huge change.  And as we all know, in facing huge changes you either adapt or you die. Or as Charles Darwin may or may not have said “it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”.

“it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”. Charles Darwin (maybe)

However, it is very hard to change organisations that already exist quickly enough to compete with new entrants who are starting with a blank sheet of paper. Especially in markets like creative services where there are very low costs to entering the market.  Clayton Christensen’s distinction between sustaining vs  disruptive innovation applies to all! 

To stand any chance I think you have to be very, very clear about the nature of the change needed.  So I’ve written myself a kind of rough checklist of things to think about and questions to ask to help keep an eye on changing the right things and changing fast enough…..I’m definitely not doing all of this, but if the bar isn’t set any higher, you can’t invent the Fosbury flop.  

1. Iterative

The first step in dealing with rapid change is to make sure that you are properly keyed into the change that is happening.  There is no point developing something for several months or even years without getting real-world feedback because by the time you have finished, the world has moved on.  Iterative development practices can help with that.  The principle of build/measure/learn and MVPs as popularised in the “lean start up” way of thinking can ensure that development is based on something real and tangible and not mistaken assumptions about attitudes , needs and behaviours.

So are you testing your ideas in the real world and iterating?  Do you use data signals to tell you what is working and what isn’t?  Do you publish your work now and adjust and invest more as you go based on what is working, rather than working behind closed doors and betting the farm on a hunch informed by a tiny sample size like a focus group? 

2. Dis-intermediated

Digital technology empowers end users to interact with the services and products they need in a frictionless, immediate and direct way.  Most of us prefer to use the self-service check out (57%) and to book our holidays online (80%).  This fundamental preference extends into the business space, with services like Quickbooks replacing an accountant, and things are changing in the creative and marketing space too.  Savvy, capable marketing clients sometimes prefer to work directly with creative producers like directors and photographers.  Why would they want to have a middleman when they can have the control and cost efficiency of going direct?

So are you focusing on value-creation rather than mediating processes out of habit? Are incentives and remuneration tied in to taking a cut, charging a “rent” on services and being a go between or do they allow for direct working relationships.  Are you getting out of the way when it helps the overall mission?

3. Networked

“No man is an island entire of itself”  said John Donne.  Well, the same is true of a creative agency.    Value comes from networks and network effects.  Monolithic, impermeable organisations that try to capture and retain value struggle. Nimble, porous organisations that create and share value thrive.  The best creative agencies have always been plugged into a network of creative producers, from photographers to developers, but as the industry has diversified, capabilities have been hoovered up into singular agency brands or operating holding companies.  The problem, is that incentivises stasis….the “factory” needs filling up with work, because the “machinery” has been bought and paid for.  But in a network of smaller players, capabilities can come together and disband more fluidly and more rapidly to cope with the changing context.

So are you adapting your offering and way of working to allow more flexible and bespoke relationships?  Are you trying to get paid for the impact of your ideas and thinking as part of an ecosystem rather than jealously guarding every part of the process and the associated man hours? Are you forging new relationships and partnerships?

4. Disruptive

Like it or not, it is novelty, innovation and difference that creates attention, and generates word of mouth.  Doing a slight variant of what worked last time is a sure fire route to irrelevance in the long term.  It is obviously a very hard thing to do, creating something genuinely new or different,  after all good is the enemy of great.  It is easy to settle.  This isn’t particularly new, but in a rapidly changing, complex, attention economy it is more important than ever to strive for difference.  I know this is hard from bitter experience, some days you have to dig really deep to find the fight inside yourself, and the knowledge that it is not optional helps.

So are you trying to disrupt with everything that you do?  Are you trying to entertain, arrest attention, engage?  Are you pushing for a better idea, crafting it even better than before? Is anyone going to give a fuck about what you are making?

5. Vested

There are no prizes for being non-committal.  Having a stake in the outcome is the best route to deciding what to do.  It focuses the mind on the essential, on the effective, on something that is bold enough to make a difference.   In a world where things are more likely to stay the same than to change, then the safe bet, not upsetting the apple cart and business as usual all work out just fine.  In a world nothing is certain, the only thing that is, are tangible and incontrovertible results.

So have you got a view on how the work needs to work?  How is this creative solution going to answer this business problem? And crucially what is the measurement methodology?   How will we know if this has worked?  Are the KPIs set? (It really is incredible how often this is skipped over….). And most importantly, do you have skin in the game? Are there consequences if things don’t work out?

6. Optimistic 

Optimism is everything.  Cynicism is one of the great enemies of creativity, because its start point is that and idea can’t work or it’s intentions aren’t honourable.  Its cold water puts out any chance of a fire.  And whilst technology doesn’t have all the answers, if you aren’t curious and keen to experiment, you’ll never find out what answers it does offer.  Scepticism on the other hand can help make ideas and the arguments for them stronger because it encourages open-minded questioning.  The best ideas are forged when they survive the fire of well-meaning doubt.

So are you educating yourself on what is new, what is possible with the latest technology and innovation?  Are you experimenting to see what new possibilities emerge and what works and what doesn’t work? Are you embracing what’s new whilst challenging, questioning and improving on it?

There we go, that’s my list.  It’s not complete, or particularly well crafted, but it is a start and a rough guide that I think  can be used to push things in the right general direction.

What we can learn from Extinction Rebellion about growth and brands


I hesitated before writing this post.  Could there be anything more cynical than studying and co-opting the methods of Extinction Rebellion for commercial gain? Given the personal sacrifice made by so many activists who’ve tried to shock the world into dealing with the existential threat of unchecked commercialism, probably not.

Then I realised there is another way we can learn from this movement that blasted onto the scene in 2019, with an impact most marketeers dream about. 

Worldwide Search Volumes for Extinction Rebellion (Blue) and Climate Change (Red) - Source: Google Trends

Worldwide Search Volumes for Extinction Rebellion (Blue) and Climate Change (Red) - Source: Google Trends

Firstly, it can force us to take a hard look at our own role in tackling the climate crisis we are facing, and how we can change the advice we give clients and the ideas we create to make a positive change to the world around us.   In their recent open letter to the industry some of the organisers of Extinction Rebellion made this same point with a call to arms for those of us working in the industry to create positive change.

And secondly, once we have got that right, we can use learnings from what Extinction Rebellion have achieved in a very short space of time to sharpen our skills and techniques.


It is actually quite an empowering thought process. We are privileged to be in a position at work to do more to change things than we can achieve at home when we just change our own personal behaviours. That’s because we can influence potentially millions of people with powerful ideas that get shared and discussed, and we can influence industry to recognise and meet emerging consumer needs and opinions.  That’s a potentially much bigger deal than no longer buying plastic stemmed q-tips or other micro-consumerism changes we make ourselves (although we should do those as well!)

Change will happen more rapidly if we accept that consumer consumption driven growth is part of the problem.  Encouraging people to do more, eat more, drink more, drive more, buy more, upgrade more, replace more - all puts a greater burden on the planet’s limited resources, and stresses the already crumbling ecosystem we rely on.  The simplistic view that advertising’s only role is to get people to buy things they don’t need, overstates its power.  Advertising is a tool. It is how we choose to use it that is important. Increasing consumption and consumerism is not the only role that brands, branding and communications can play in culture.  Instead branding, design, communications, social media and advertising can be used to influence and create value in other ways. 

Ways advertising can be used to solve the problem

  1. Creating intangible value - we can help people value the products they buy more, by building a perception of value, that isn’t solely reliant on environmentally costly physical components of a product.  

  2. Helping people choose - we can help people make a choice between brands, making them more distinctive and memorable, by addressing new needs for products that are sustainable. 

  3. Changing behaviour - we can help people change their behaviour and encourage lower consumption and better choices.  The rapid switching away from single use plastics is evidence of people’s ability to change behaviour.

  4. Move to experience - we can help customers see the value in experiences and great service as the benefit of buying into brands, rather than purchasing goods being seen as the only possible reward.


Things we can learn from the Extinction Rebellion movement

We can also learn from the incredible impact of Extinction Rebellion in a very short space of time.  There have been lots of interesting tactics and techniques deployed.  Some of the highlights have been.

  1. Visual stunts that are newsworthy - sit down take overs that shut down city streets have a unique power to get attention.   Whilst getting arrested as a consequence of fame is not something most marketeers would put up with,  Extinction Rebellion have also used impactful visual stunts to get the message across. Whether that’s a big pink boat with “Tell the truth” emblazoned on the side, or activists super glueing themselves to the London Stock Exchange

  2. Modern identity - Extinction Rebellion also created a distinctive, modern and appealing visual identity that would appeal to supporters, but also didn’t pull its punches or compromise on its core message. Very often cause-based marketing prioritises the seriousness of the message and as a result fails to create brand imagery that consumers would be happy to have as part of their lives or share on their own personal social channels

  3. Powerful and easy to copy logo - The Extinction Rebellion is a work of genius.  It perfectly encapsulates the core message of the movement…that time is running out to save the planet.  And it is a bold visual symbol that is instantly recognisable.  Its real genius, though, is that it is very easy to replicate in any media even if it is just some electrical tape and a traffic light!

  4. Provocative memorable idea - but the most powerful part of Extinction Rebellions campaign is the simple, memorable and shareable idea that drives activism - that we are experiencing mass extinction and that rebellion is needed now to prevent it.

Whether we can harness  the persuasive power of creative communications to tackle the climate emergency, will depend on our individual and collective will to do so.  And it will require tough conversations and sacrifices.  We will need to ask our selves the question whether working with a new client, or answering a new brief - is this going to have a positive or negative consequence for the environment. The future of the fragile planet we live on relies on action now, not tomorrow.  This is a principle we need to live by.  And as Sir John Hegarty says “A principle isn’t a principle until it has cost you something”.  We will come to realise that the short term cost of acting now is far far less than the long term cost of doing nothing.

Introducing Strata. A concept for a full stack marketing service for start ups.

Imagine this, An automated brokerage service that allows start ups to access full stack marketing services from leading agencies and experts in exchange for sweat equity.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about Growth Hacking and it’s very similar cousin Full Stack Marketing . The idea being that start ups need individuals with a full range, or stack of marketing skills, just like they need full stack developers who can create technology stacks from top to bottom including UX, front end , back end, database management etc.  The full stack of marketing skills ranges from skills in the understanding of building brands, design work, social media, SEO and PPC, eCRM, analytics, banners, content creation and distribution and even dare I say it advertising.

It strikes me that all those skills exist within many creative agency businesses and of course across the industry as a whole.  So how might it be possible for a cash-poor start up business to access those skills.  After all, start ups, even those that are well funded, are unlikely to have the capital to spend on agency fees given all the other things they need to spend on to maximise their runway.  An answer to that challenge is that start ups contract with marketing services companies  or individuals with a sweat equity arrangement.  That is nothing new, and obviously this is entirely possible at the moment on a one to one personal basis. There are plenty of people from the marketing and advertising community working with the start up community in this way already.  But the problem on the marketing services supply side is that there is a limit to how many start ups you can work with, and therefore a great degree of uncertainty and risk as to whether the sweat will pay back with equity that is worth anything.  As Ben Horowitz puts it "1% of nothing is nothing". And so many players are forced into a part fee, part share of revenue and part equity arrangement, which adds friction into the system of connecting up supply and demand.

One possible solution is an online brokerage service that connects start ups  who have marketing needs, with marketing services companies who can help them, and which automates the financial side, spreading the risk across multiple deals.  The service would be part matchmaker, part legal service and part hedge fund.  How it would work is that the start up would input their needs on the demand side, and the service would recommend the best partners on the supply side.  The service would then allow the start ups to contract services in exchange for an equity share or a share of revenue.  The service would take on the responsibility for the deal, and aggregate the returns across a number of deals when they reach maturity, and then pay out to the supply side companies a share of income.  In this way the supply side is insulated from the risk of working with individual partners and can share in the overall returns, when as is highly likely most deals return little, and a very small number pay out big.  The whole thing would work best at scale, 10s if not 100s of deals, and multiple partners.  It isn’t going to make any one individual a millionaire, but it is a way for supply side marketing services companies to add a revenue stream, and increase the utilisation and productivity of its people, often on interesting, different and challenging projects.  The service would take a commission/cut for its part in bearing the risk and brokering the deals.

So it’s a concept, no doubt the legal hurdles are substantial, but it would be incredible to connect up supply and demand in this way and do so at scale so that it is financially viable for everyone.

If you would at all be interested in something like this, and maybe participating in a trial or experiment if there is enough interest, get in touch!

Content - the best word we have to describe what we should be making


“content"   [kon-tent]. Noun.

 something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech,

writing, or any of various arts:

"a poetic form adequate to a poetic content."

significance or profundity; meaning:

"a clever play that lacks content."

substantive information or creative material viewed in contrast to its

actual or potential manner of presentation:

"publishers, record companies, and other content providers; a flashy

website, but without much content."

Philosophy, Logic. the sum of the attributes or notions comprised in a

given conception; the substance or matter of cognition.

Source. dictionary.com   http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/content

Richard Huntington wrote a great piece of content on his blog the other day about how the word content is useless, Richard and I work together and nearly always entirely agree with him ;-). But not this time.

In this case I kind of agree that the word content is in danger of being over-used,  and in danger of becoming an empty buzzword and generally bandied around.  But I don’t agree that it is completely redundant and a completely useless generic label for all sorts of creative products like film, telly, journalism, apps, and advertising.  For me the word “content”  is a powerfully loaded with positive meaning and can help to create an essential mindset shift for brands trying to operate in a digital world.

As we all know, it used to be that brands could buy media space and interrupt peoples' lives to get their attention.  People could then try to mentally edit out brands and their messages, and the brands that succeeded were the ones that interrupted people in the most engaging and entertaining way, such that people actually quite liked being interrupted - this was the fabled and I suspect apocryphal era when the "ads were better than the telly programmes".  But then media fragmented and digital technology came along which enabled people to physically edit their now vastly more varied media diet. And so the ability of brands to interrupt was much reduced.  Telly advertising hasn't died of course, it remains a massively important part of any large brand’s marketing mix because it is really important to people and still the best way of reaching a mass audience.  But peoples' relationships to brands did shift. They became more able to chose the things that mattered most to them.

In this context the reason the word content is so useful is that, as per the dictionary definitions above,  it connotes something that is useful or entertaining, something that someone might chose,  and it implies the consumer is in control of whether the content is consumed and shared or simply ignored.  And so thinking of the output of the brand's creative activities as content  - whatever that stuff is - means a massive mindset shift.

That mindset shift is from that of being an interrupter, crassly dressing up commercial announcements with the wafer thin patina of emotion.  To the adoption of the mindset of the producer of culturally relevant and welcomed entertainment, or utility. Moving from thinking "what do I want to say", or "what do I want people to hear", towards "what might my brand have to offer" or "what could I do that might be interesting to people?"

Quality does matter with content, because the form that content takes is a format like advertising, video, social media posts, or even film, music and TV shows. And so it is competing for attention against all of those formats, to get viewed, or to mean something to someone and be shared. It isn’t a separate thing from the rest of culture, it competes with culture for attention.

It would be lovely to think that as an industry we’ve always thought about the things we make in this way in the past and so it isn’t necessary to use the word content, and therefore more explicitly just talk about specific format instead, i.e. if we are making a film lets just call it a film rather than giving it the generic label content. And from time to time this has probably been true. However,  in the main, old habits die hard. The marketing industry has relied on paying for eyeballs for so long, and remains so desperate to prove a short time ROI rather than drive long term growth, that it is all too easy to end up serving your own corporate agenda and under emphasise the need to genuinely delight people with content that is high quality and worth them having in their lives.

As such the word content it is a really powerful tool for forcing us to keep thinking differently about brands and how they should interact with the world and consumers. To bastardise Google’s phrase -  to keep putting the user first, and create content that connects them with the magic at the heart of the brand by making things that are relevant, distinctive, and worth people’s scarce attention. And thinking like that should also help us face into the future, where the longevity of reliable channels that deliver mass attention which are underpinned by an ad business model, like TV airtime, are less assured.


What I learnt about CVs from a year as Head of Account Management at Saatchi & Saatchi

After over a year as Head of the Account Management department at Saatchi & Saatchi London, I have seen a lot of CVs.  And it's the second time I've tried to do the tricky job of finding great talent, the first time being at Dare. I have seen a ton of CVs in that time, at all levels and across most specialisms in Account Management, so I thought I would share what I look for and find helpful in choosing people to interview.

CVs are shit , but really important...

A creative agency is a simple business. It is about great work, and there are two ingredients that create that work,  culture and talent.   So the quest to find great people is crucial, it is not just about filling a gap, your people are the talent and they create the culture.  The sad fact is that the humble CV is a really bad place to start that quest, given how hard it is to get a sense of what someone is all about from two sides of paper/PDF.  However, there is a limit to the talent you can find through personal recommendation and networks, and churn in advertising remains high, so the CV is a necessary evil.  So lets take a look at the context and then look at what works and doesn't work....

CVs are all the same...

You would be surprised how similar most CVs are, until presented with hundreds of them.  By the time a CV reaches the inbox of a head of department at an agency , along with the other couple of hundred other emails received that day, to sit alongside the 10-20 other cvs received that week,  it has been through a filtering process . Firstly the person who wrote it has filtered themselves, deciding they might be the right person for the job.  Secondly, they've written their CV to match what they think are the agency heads expectations following a formal format.  Thirdly, the recruiter has filtered the candidates to put forward ones they think might be suitable, and have even edited the CV along the way sometimes without telling the candidate, to fit their in-house style. What this means is that most CVs are converging on the same space, and so there ends up not being much between them - it ends up being wall-to-wall well educated people , with relevant experience, at interesting companies, presenting themselves in a professional manner.  The context makes it very hard for great talent to stand out.

The jazz-ing trap

So given this tough context and the need to stand out, it is often too tempting to jazz up the cv in some way to get some sort of cut-through. Maybe using some unusual fonts or colours , or maybe some quirky headlines or the dreaded word art.  Or maybe even turning the CV into a surprising object like printing it on a chocolate bar wrapper or record sleeve.  However the sole impact of this kind of thing is to cast doubt on the quality of the candidate.  All it makes you think is "well if they have to do that to get noticed then they can't be very good". It's the CV equivalent of putting a neon starburst on a shop window display.

The only way to avoid this trap and to still stand out is to ruthlessly focus on the quality of the content.  Here are some simple rules to keep in mind to try and achieve that:

The first rule is - make sure it is crystal clear.

What I need to get instantly from a CV is the length of time someone has been working in total since leaving education, the companies they have worked at and roles they have done in simple chronological order and what job they have performed at each. Include the date you graduated so it is obvious how many years you've been working.  If I have to do more than skim read to get that info, then I am clicking on to the next one, because I can't get a handle on your experience level.  Oh, and keep it to 2 pages at the most, because anything longer is just noise rather than signal.

The second rule is - assume nothing.

You might think the companies you've worked at are the best in the world, and they may well be, but there is still good possibility I have never heard of them, and this particularly goes for CVs from people from other countries.  Same goes for the brands you've worked for, people you've worked with and campaigns you've created. Context is everything.   So if I read "Jung von Matt" , I be like "who??" but "Jung von Matt, Germany's leading  independent creative agency" I be like "now we're talking!". Or "The Beldent Twins campaign" should become "Twins - an innovative social experiment for Beldent, the LatAm regions biggest gum brand".

The third rule is - don't tell me what you think I want to know about you, tell me about the real you

Substance is crucial. I personally like it when people list their interests,  it tells me a bit about why they might be fun to work with and what they might bring to the table.  But do you seriously think that it tells me anything to list "reading".  You might as well put down "skilled at breathing air".  Now "obsessed by graphic novels" or "addicted to horror maestro James Herbet" those are interesting interests.

I would also apply the same principle to the "introduction" paragraph that a lot of people include.  To be honest it is better that this is left to the covering letter or intro from the headhunter and to let your experience do the talking.  But if you must include it then make sure it has some substance.  What is it about you that is interesting? Nearly everyone is "highly motivated and energetic, strategically minded, with a passion for creativity". Instead try and say something about what makes you, you. What are your strengths and weaknesses, what do you really like and dislike.

The fourth rule is - make it tangible

When it comes to your experience, focus on what you have done that is tangible. What work have you created, what impact have you made, what results have been driven.  Again anyone can list a load of skills they think they have acquired and nearly everyone will think they have acquired the same skills.

The fifth rule is - G.A.B.O.S -   Game ain't based on sympathy

The final principle to keep in mind is  the acceptance that it is all a very unfair process. Hiring managers in all walks of life get tons of CVs, and they are very hard to pull apart so the smallest thing becomes a reason make a decision yes or no.  Typos are just that type of thing.  Of course everyone makes them, this blog is probably riddled with them, and of course it means nothing about your talent and suitability if you make a typo.  But if a decision hangs in the balance then it helps someone decide yes or no.  Same thing goes for inconsistencies and uncertainties.  If you took a break mid-way through your career to do nothing and sit in your pants, then say so, and ideally the reason why.  If you leave a blank with no explanation then the mind starts filling the blanks, like, maybe that time was spent in a maximum security prison or something.

So there you have it, some of the things I've noticed about what works and doesn't work in a CV this last year.  Good Luck!

Brands, sponsorship and the Olympic Games

Here are a couple of things I've written recently during the Olympic Games.....

First up some thoughts on how brand's have approached their advertising, and the benefit of making people laugh,  first published on The Drum......

The Drum  - Are the Rio Olympics ads living up to the greatest, most emotional show on Earth?

And second, is a piece on the BBH Sport blog about the opportunity brands have to take more responsibility in cleaning up sport......

Giving in order to receive – a different way to look at Olympic sponsorship

.....Any thoughts welcome!