Monthly Archives: March 2010


When I was a junior copywriter at BMP, I wanted to know how advertising worked.

In fact did it work at all?

Sure everyone liked the ads, they were entertaining.


The tomorrow people

With the price of education rising by the minute, it’s tempting to think of today’s university students as disgruntled nihilists preparing to face a bleak future of crippling debt and unemployability.

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“A Perfect Storm” wasn’t much of a movie.
Typical Hollywood: Lowest Common Denominator entertainment.
But the book was absolutely brilliant.
Thoroughly researched in massive detail.
Right down to detailed accounts of what happens when you drown.
Bit by bit.
How every cell in your body reacts.
I learned a lot from the book.
Working on those boats is a seriously dangerous job done by macho guys.
But there was one female skipper.
Can you imagine how hard it was for her to even get a crew?
The comments in the bar, between fishermen:
“Hey, your boat needs a new coat of pink paint.”
“After you pee in a storm, do you put the seat back down?”
But all that changed after the storm hit and most of the other boats sank.
And most of the macho skippers, and their crews, died.
Except for the female skipper.
Her name was Linda Greenlaw and her boat was the ‘Hannah Boden’.
They came back untouched by the storm, with a record catch.
Her crew made a lot of money, while the other crews died.
Suddenly everyone wanted to work on her boat.
No one made cracks in the bar any more.
She wrote a book about it.
Reading her book, I learned something really interesting.
Her book was boring.
And that’s why she was successful.
She wrote the book the way she caught fish.
Thoroughly, carefully, conscientiously.
Bit-by-bit, making sure everything was right as she went along.
She was only interested in making sure every detail was covered.
She wasn’t interested in being exciting.
She wanted a nice, dull, safe, profitable fishing trip.
No surprises.
I can’t quote her exactly, but this is the general drift.
“I wasn’t trying to be macho, so I didn’t leave anything to chance.
I checked and rechecked everything.
The night before we sailed all the other captains were in the bar, getting drunk.
I was on the boat, making lists and double-checking everything again.
During the trip I listened to all the weather warnings on the radio.
I didn’t try to tough it out, I didn’t take any chances.
I relied on my sonar and my charts, and the radio reports, to find the fish.
I paid careful attention and used all the information I could find.”
That’s not an accurate quote, but you get the drift.
She tried harder.
Simple as that.
She was thorough and conscientious and hard-working.
She didn’t want to take a chance on anything slipping through the slats.
Unlike the guys.
Their weakness was they had to appear like they knew it all.
They thought making lists and double-checking would signify they weren’t confident.
And these guys didn’t want to show any weakness.
So instead of the reality, they just played the part.
They faked it.
They kept up the pretence and it cost them their lives.
Their ‘strength’ was their weakness.
There are people like that in every business.
Especially in ours.
People who have closed minds.
People who aren’t interested in finding out new information.
People who have to appear as if they know it all.
People who rely on faking it.
You can usually find these guys down the pub.
Getting drunk and complaining about what went wrong.
Telling you why life is so unfair.
Telling you it was the account man’s fault.
Or the creative director’s fault.
Anyone’s fault but theirs.
You won’t find people like the female skipper down the pub complaining.
They’re too busy getting a result.


Editor’s blog: Go easy on the kids

Beating up on our feckless youth appears to be back in season again. I think we should give them a break.

With everyone feeling a bit grumpy at the moment, having an irritable nag at the up-and-coming generation seems to be in vogue. Yesterday the daunting figure of Lucy Neville-Rolfe, director of corporate and legal affairs at Tesco, made a speech in which she had a go at school leavers, claiming they suffered from a poor attitude, didn’t understand time-keeping or teamwork, and turned up for interviews looking a mess, while their degrees were devalued. ‘They can’t read, can’t write and think the world owes them a living’, was the Mail’s solemn headline. The woeful state of our education system seems to be a particular bugbear of Tesco: their normally reserved CEO Sir Terry Leahy recently expressed similar dissatisfaction with the output of our schools. It’s worrying that they think this, because they are the UK’s largest private sector employer.

Hot on the heels of the Tesco attack comes another Mail report that I found hard to disentangle. It was slamming Generation Y for, amongst other sins, ‘valuing leisure time far more highly than older members of the workforce’. Well, blow me. Put them into detention for wanting to have a nice time after 5.30pm.

A couple of points spring to mind. If this feckless youth really is as bad as Tesco is making out, it’s hardly the fault of the kids themselves; it’s the fault of the education system that has worked them over and spat them out. I’m unconvinced that the 75% increase (in real terms) in the education budget since 1997 has led to 75% more output. Many nettles remain ungrasped; many children remain failed by their schooling.

Secondly, we’re hardly welcoming those in their late teens and 20s into the wonderful world of work with open arms at the moment. It hasn’t been as tough to get a proper job for a long while, and the dole queue is brimful of youngsters, many of whom feel understandably cheated by and disillusioned with the system.

Only last week the Mail, in its delightfully schizoid way, highlighted the way in which companies are exploiting this situation and using unpaid ‘internships’ to get real work done at no cost. It found ‘a prestigious PR firm’ at which a 22-year-old with a 2:1 from one of the country’s leading universities was given the task of directing incoming phone calls for eight hours a day. She didn’t even get her train fare back.

Moreover, grown-ups have been moaning about youth since time began. It’s programmed into us to think we had it ever so tough, and the next generation gets an easy ride. If you think it’s bad at the moment, look how the change in attitudes during the 60s went down with the oldsters. Those who had lived through the war and the misery of rationing into the 50s were none too pleased to watch kids enjoying some freedom, and replacing Vera Lynn, Russ Conway and powdered egg with the Rolling Stones, the pill and kilos of wacky baccy.

We don’t want our kids embracing the world of work too soon. Do you really want your child to be some freak who spends all their time in the playground trying to start a business selling conkers, or even dreaming of working a till at Tesco?

Equally, it’s no bad thing for kids to refuse to be supine and unquestioning of the status quo. Indeed when you look at the mess their elders and betters have made of the global economy and ecology, it’s hardly surprising that they’re not impressed. But in their own time, they’ll buckle down to the grind, as the rest of us did. They’ll lose the wide-eyed naivety of youth. They’ll turn into their parents, and there’s nothing much wrong with that because that is what growing up entails. As The Who said initially ‘The kids are all right’ – and then later (in ‘Won’t get Fooled Again’): ‘Meet the new boss – same as the old boss’.

Read more on Editor’s blog: Go easy on the kids…

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

I was at the 40th birthday drinks of a good friend and ex-colleague last Friday lunchtime, for the fifteenth consecutive year!

Now although I am considerably younger than the birthday boy, it does highlight the fact I have a circle of media contemporaries from a different generation to the twenty-something crowd who in many ways dominate thinking, or at least vocalise most, on where media is heading.

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Advertising doesn’t sell stuff

I always loved Bill Berbach’s advertising for the VW Beetle.
But I never bought one.
I loved John Webster’s Honey Monster advertising.
But I never ate Sugar Puffs.
I also loved John’s advertising the Guardian.
But I never bought it.
I loved David Abbott’s advertising for The Economist.
But I never read it.
I loved Saatchi’s advertising for The Conservatives.
But I never voted for them.
I loved Trevor Beattie’s ad for Wonderbra.
But I never wore one.
I loved Terry Lovelock’s ads for Heineken.
But I never drank it.
I liked Alex Taylor’s ads for The Army.
But I never joined it.
I like VCCP’s ads for Compare The Meerkat.
But I’ve never visited the site.
I loved BBH’s ads for Paddy Power.
But I’ve never been in their betting shops.
I liked Barbara Noakes’s ads for Dr. White’s tampons.
But I’ve never used any.
I liked Paul Arden’s ads for Silk Cut.
But I’ve never smoked them.
I liked Fallon’s Drumming Gorilla.
But I’ve never bought a bar of Cadburys Dairy Milk.
In fact there are loads of ads I love.
But often, I don’t buy the product
So where does that leave advertising?
Does that mean it doesn’t work?
Well it depends on what you think advertising’s job is.
If you think its job is to sell products to people who don’t want them then no, it doesn’t work.
If you define a great ad as making people rush out and buy something they could never imagine buying, then no, it doesn’t do that either.
So how do you define advertising?
I’ll tell you what it is to me.
It gives my client an edge over their competitor.
But that’s all it is, an edge.
And an edge can’t do the whole job on its own.
If you’re in the market for a car, maybe I can make you buy my brand.
But you’ve got to be in the market for a car in the first place.
If you’d never even consider a car, I can’t make you want one.
I can’t turn a core non-user into a core user.
Because advertising is just one of many factors involved in the process.
Factors like product quality, is it any good?
Factors like distribution, do they sell it near me?
Factors like cost, is it more expensive?
Factors like personal taste, is it available in a colour I like?
Advertising isn’t the be-all and end-all of selling something.
True, in a parity situation, advertising can give you an unfair advantage.
But advertising is just one of the factors that will influence selling.
That’s why many products sell despite bad advertising.
Because they’re good products.
Or they’re widely available.
Or they’re cheap.
Or consumers like them.
All advertising can do is influence a consumer.
But only influence.
All other things being equal, it can tip the balance.
But it can’t do the whole job on its own.
If you’ve got a good pitch for your product, advertising can get someone to listen.
It can get their attention and get your case heard.
At best it can create a ‘propensity to purchase’.
A willingness to buy, a curiosity to try.
If, it’s available where I shop.
If, the price is right.
If, it’s in my size.
If, it’s in a colour I like.
If, I like the taste.
If, I’m in the mood.
If, it’s the right time of year.
If, I’m the right age, sex, religious persuasion.
If, I have the right interest, habits, predilections.
If I tick all those boxes good advertising will work.
But most advertising doesn’t work.

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Michael Caine was making a film with Sean Connery and director John Huston.

They were on the set of ‘The Man Who Would Be King’.

Caine said to Connery, “Have you noticed how John Huston never gives us any direction?”

Connery said, “You’re right, he doesn’t.”

Caine said, “Go and ask him what’s going on.”

And Connery went over to Huston and said, “John, how come you never give us any direction about how you want us to play our parts?”

And John Huston said, “You only have to do that when you get the casting wrong.”

Isn’t that a great take on teamwork?

If you get the people right in the first place everyone can trust each other.

And just get on with doing their own job.

I heard another great example of teamwork from James Stewart.

He was talking about acting in a Hitchcock film.

He said, “Hitchcock never gave you any advice about how to play your scene. He didn’t see that as his job.

He gave you a start position for the shot, and an end position.

What happened in between was your business.

You were the actor, that’s what you were getting paid for.”

That’s how a proper team works.

When you don’t keep looking over each other’s shoulder.

You trust people to do their job so you can concentrate on yours.

Tony Adams was a great example the proper way to work in a team.

He was in charge of the most successful Arsenal defence ever.

He said, “I’d never try to take the ball off the attacker.

If I did, I was committed and, if I missed, he was past me.

So what I’d do is just shut him down.

So he’d have to shoot from about 30 yards out.

And I knew I had a goalkeeper behind me who could handle anything from 30 yards.”

That’s what every member of a team should be thinking.

You trust the other person to do their job.

You haven’t got to constantly check they’re doing it correctly.

Because, if you do that, you’re not concentrating on your own job.

And you lose both ways.

No, in a proper team, the winger trust the centre forward to be there when the cross arrives.

The midfield trusts the defenders to pick up their man.

The defence trusts the goalie.

It’s like that in advertising when we get the team right.

The client trusts the agency to solve their business problem, not just do flashy, trivial ads.

The creatives trust the planners to have an insightful strategy, not just state the obvious.

The account handlers trust the creatives to do work that will cut through in a break, not just try to win awards.

In short, everyone trusts everyone else to do their job.

In the 1966 World Cup final, it was half time in the dressing room.

Alf Ramsey stood in front of Bobby Moore.

Ramsey said, “Look, you’re the captain. Tell Jack Charlton to get on his man quicker. Tell Ball he should be tracking back more. Tell Peters to start making diagonal runs out of midfield…..”

Bobby Moore just looked up and said, “Leave it out Alf. I’ve got me own game to worry about.”

That was the match where England won the World Cup.

Read more on Teamwork…

Doggy Smelly-Vision, Table Tops, BBC PR Spin and Exclusion Zones

A number of blog ideas have been swimming around my brain, or what’s left of it, this week. So, rather than the usual single issue rant, a few things I’ve noticed or thought about.

Read more on Doggy Smelly-Vision, Table Tops, BBC PR Spin and Exclusion Zones…

We don’t need more thinkers, we need doers

The act of creation is about making something happen,
from nothing.

That’s creativity.

Just making things nicer isn’t creativity.

That’s styling.

As Edward de Bono said, “There are lots of people calling
themselves creative who are merely stylists.”

Read more on We don’t need more thinkers, we need doers…