Monthly Archives: August 2010


Jack Stevens is a copywriter.
He’s a funny guy.
He used to work at Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow.
This was London’s most fashionable agency at the time.
(Think of Fallon, Wieden, Mother, that sort of thing.)
Like all of these, it was surrounded by mystique.
Because Jack was there, all his friends wanted to know what it was like.
So, sitting in the pub, they used to cross-question him.
What were Mark Denton and Chris Palmer really like to work for?
They’d heard they were a couple of crazy creatives.
Was the whole agency weird and eccentric?
What really happened there?
So Jack told them.
“Mark and Chris have a big fish tank in the centre of the creative department.
When we have a brief to crack, we all sit in a circle round the fish tank.
They give each fish a number.
Then they write all the numbers on a sheet of paper with a different word by each number.
Then Mark and Chris point to a fish at random.
Whatever number that fish is, that’s the number of the word that the department has to work on, that’s the brief.”
I said to Jack, don’t tell me your mates fell for that.
He was laughing his socks off.
He said, “They lapped it up mate. Couldn’t get enough of it.”
Hard to credit anyone would believe that isn’t it?
And yet.
Murray Chick had been working at Ogilvy.
He was one of the best planners in London, and he joined GGT as Head of Planning.
When he joined he hadn’t met me.
But he’d heard a lot of stories.
I was a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a teetotaller, with a group of brain washed followers, generally a bit of an all-round nutcase.
Naturally, he was a bit wary.
So he waited a few days before coming down to the creative floor.
When he did, he came round the corner and stopped.
Murray saw us holding a séance in the middle of the creative department.
Standing silently, in a circle, with our heads bowed and our hands clasped in prayer in front of us.
That proved everything he’d heard.
So he backed away and didn’t come near the creative department for weeks.
Eventually he found out what we’d actually been doing.
We were playing ‘Spoof’.
The same thing we did every morning.
Spoofing to see who went out to the Italian café to get the cappuccinos.
In Spoof, everyone gathers in a circle.
Then you hold your closed hand out in front of you.
You can each hold between 0 and 3 coins in your hand.
One-by-one, you each have to guess the total number of coins everyone is holding.
After each round the one who guesses correctly drops out.
The last one left in is the loser.
They have to go and get the cappuccinos.
We took it fairly seriously.
Well, no one wants to walk through Soho carrying up to a dozen cappuccinos.
Especially not when the entire creative department is hanging out the window, watching and jeering.
And playing Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” on loudspeakers.
So we were each concentrating really hard on working out the answer.
Part calculation, part intuition.
A bit like poker.
But not quite the same as a séance of brainwashed followers.
But of course it didn’t look like that to Murray.

The mind makes the evidence fit its preconceptions.


Editor’s blog: Getting the UK out of the doldrums

The Government needs to be careful that it doesn’t go overboard with this guilt trip.

We’ve got the glums in the UK. A poll by Ipsos Mori has shown that consumers in the UK are among the most pessimistic in the world when it comes to their country’s economic situation. The UK economy was thought to be in “a very bad state” by 34% of domestic consumers. Only the Spanish (63%) and the Japanese (41%) were more down in the mouth than this.

In the developing world, by contrast, life appears to be a bowl of cherries as everyone heads for the sunny uplands. In India, an extraordinary 85% of consumers see their country’s economic situation as good. In China that figure is 77%, and in Brazil 65%.

Indians are amazing. In a country where 40% of the population live below the international poverty line – that’s 456 million individuals making do on less than $1.25 per day – nearly nine in ten of them still think everything’s great. That is a classic developing world phenomenon: when you’re down, and have been down for time immemorial, the only way is up.

Traditionally in the UK, we’ve been quite a sceptical nation. Steady and phlegmatic. We’re not quite as dour as the Finns but we don’t do wide-eyed, optimistic whooping, thigh-slapping and ‘way to GO!!’ stuff. (Neither do the Americans, any more. They are, according to the survey, only marginally less miserable about things than us at the moment: 13% of Brits see our economic situation as “good”, but only 18% of Americans feel that way.)

Part of our problem at the moment is that the Government is going out of its way to make us feel bad, not good. We have all been very naughty indeed, Brits have been told, ad nauseam. So we have to stand in the austerity corner, without sweets or the full range of social security benefits, until we see the error of our ways.

I think Cameron and Osborne need to be careful as their Government advances into its next phase. Because if they continue to lay the ‘feel-bad’ edict on with a trowel, then consumer confidence – already pretty badly dented – will fall even further. That won’t benefit anyone. Vince Cable may have many virtues, but helping a nation feel good about itself isn’t among them.

Our economic plight is not as bad as the Spanish or the Greeks. If I was a Greek, I’d feel there was quite a lot to be miserable about at the moment – with next to no light at the end of the tunnel. I just hope that our low score on this survey is just a reflection of our slightly more cautious outlook generally, rather than the possibility that we’re all collapsing into an apathetic depression.

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Look at the top row of letters on your keyboard.
Reading from the left they are Q W E R T Y.
Have you ever wondered why they aren’t A B C D E F…etc?
Well, it’s all because of the way typewriters were invented around 1870.
The keys were connected to long pieces of metal that each had a letter on the end.
When you hit a particular key it raised that letter.
The letter banged onto an inky ribbon and onto the paper.
And that letter got printed.
Now originally typewriter keys were arranged alphabetically.
The problem was that some typists were really fast.
This meant the metal arms were flying up too quickly and getting jammed.
Fast typists were constantly having to unjam their keys.
So the people who made typewriters looked for a solution.
They couldn’t find a mechanical way to speed the typewriters up.
So they did the opposite.
They found a way to slow the typists down.
They put the most commonly used letters in the hardest to get places.
They actually designed the keyboard to be as inefficient as possible.
Which is why your keyboard starts QWERTY and not ABCDEF.
And it worked.
Typists were slowed down.
And typewriters stopped jamming.
As the technology improved typewriters became electric.
In fact, with the IBM ‘Golfball’, there were no individual arms with keys on.
There was nothing to jam.
But the keyboard always stayed QWERTY.
Even though we don’t even have typewriters anymore.
We have laptops.
No keys, no ink, no moving parts at all.
So now we don’t need to slow anyone down.
Now everyone can type at top speed without fear of anything jamming.
But the keyboard is still QWERTY.
Why is that?
Why don’t we have the most efficient keyboard layout on our modern laptops?
Why do we still have a purposely inefficient layout, designed over a hundred years ago to slow typing down?
I think it’s because we can’t be bothered.
No one’s ever questioned it, so one ever questions it.
In fact no one even notices it.
Everyone just goes along with it.
How much of that do you think there is in our lives?
Things that we don’t question.
We accept them because that’s the way they’ve always been.
So it must be right.
Meanwhile we all, me included, carry on typing on our metaphorical QWERTY keyboard.
Take what we’re given.
At best we might grumble.
But that’s about it.
Our life is like sitting in a restaurant being shown the menu and choosing from the range of options available.
We never question the options.
We never decide what we want without looking at the menu.
We let our choices be dictated to us.
Whether by other people.
Or by circumstances.
Or complacency.
It could be a lot of things.
But one thing it isn’t.



Editor’s blog: The difficulties of mega-philanthropy

I’m all for wealthy individuals giving their money away. But the issue isn’t straightforward.

John D. Rockefeller said: ‘It is a poor man who dies rich’. Well, by this measure Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are going to die poor. Or rich. Or whatever. The news that Gates has organised a get-together of a few dozen of his billionaire friends and persuaded them to hand over half their wealth to worthy charitable causes has created a minor sensation.

Buffett himself has promised to give away 99% of his wealth. ‘We called 70 to 80 people in the Forbes list,’ said Buffett. ‘It was a very soft sell but 40 signed up’. Those who have failed to sign up will find the old boy from Omaha on their tails as he continues to pursue them to do the right thing with their lucre. ‘Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future, so we’ll keep working,’ commented Warren over his cheeseburger and cherry Coke.

The whole extraordinary phenomenon of celeb-philanthropy has really taken off in the US. The super-rich compete against each other to give the most – it’s philanthropic willy-waving of the highest order. The latest offers are expected to inject at least $60 billion (£40 billion) into charities, and you can bet there will be more to come as they fight for a generosity mention in Vanity Fair.

I don’t for one minute want to dissuade wealthy individuals, from the UK or the US, from giving away money and these people should be applauded for their generosity. But the issue isn’t entirely straightforward.

Firstly, proportion is all. A billion-dollar giveaway gets loads of headlines, and it will go a lot further than ten in the effort to discover a cure for malaria. But it’s the thought and the sacrifice that count. One should be no less impressed by the generosity of normal (and even quite poor) folk who give away chunks of their cash that they could quite easily spend on food or the necessaries for themselves. What, in god’s name, is Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, supposed to do with the half of his $13.5 billion fortune that he hasn’t donated to charity anyway? Such sums are superfluous to any requirement he’ll ever have. How many yachts, football teams, Faberge eggs or Frank Lampard signed gold Iphones can a guy have in a lifetime?

Secondly, very rich people rarely give away vast sums without influence or control over where it goes. They don’t just sprinkle it out of the window of the Gulfstream willy-nilly. This has a good side: the rich tend to be good with cash and making it work for its living, and many charities are poor at spending money. Nobody would argue with Bill Gates’ crusade to eliminate malaria. That is a good thing. How can it be anything but a good thing? But choosing malaria rather than, for example, helping kids with learning disabilities in Kansas is a political act. These are the tough choices to do with resource allocation – and they are especially tough at the moment – that governments make. And governments are elected by us. Bill and Warren aren’t.

But these are quibbles. Much of the money given will do good things and those who benefit from it will be grateful. Would that we were better at it in the UK, where giving to support charity or the arts is poor compared to the US. It’s actually been quite a bad ‘sleb’ giving couple of days. We’ve watched the wretched appearance of mega-rich Naomi Campbell at the war crimes trial in the Hague: she claims she gave Taylor’s diamonds to a flunky who was then to give them to charity, and what happened to the dirty stones thereafter is anyone’s guess. It makes you wonder what sort of a world people like Naomi live in. You would have thought that her advisors – legal and PR – might have recommended a touch of respect for a UN War crimes trial, even a smidgen of humility. Let’s hope she finds them fast and hands them over to Warren so he can hand (99% of) them back to the poor of Liberia.

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Imagine if we were trying to smuggle something past customs.
What’s the first thing we’d do?
We’d try to look as inconspicuous as possible, right?
We wouldn’t want to stand out.
We wouldn’t want anyone noticing us.
So we’d find out what everyone else was wearing.
Then we’d buy something similar.
Similar jacket, trousers, shoes.
Maybe give ourself a similar haircut.
Also similar luggage.
Check what everyone else is likely to be carrying.
Make sure ours fits in with that.
Not too expensive, not too cheap.
Not to shoddy, not too flashy.
If we’re lucky we can get through without being noticed.
We can blend in with the crowd and get away without being spotted.
Because if we’re smuggling something, the one thing we don’t want to do is be noticed.
Because, if we’re noticed, we might attract attention.
And if we attract attention, we might be stopped.
And, if we’re stopped we might be investigated.
And, if we’re investigated, they might find out what’s going on.
And then we’ll get arrested.
So, if we’re smuggling something, standing out isn’t what we want.
But hang on.
If we’re doing an advertisement that’s exactly what we do want.
We do want to be different so we stand out.
We want to stand out so we’ll be noticed.
We want to be noticed so people will be interested.
We want them to be interested so they’ll want to know what we’re about.
What’s going on.
We want to get arrested.
We want exactly the opposite of what we’d want if you were smuggling.
So why do we do advertising as if we were smuggling?
Why do we try NOT to stand out?
Why do we try to copy what everyone else is doing?
Why do we try to find out what the rules are for our sector, so we can obey them?
Why do we find out who are the most fashionable directors that everyone else is using, and use them?
Why do we make sure to find out what the awards juries voted for last year, and do that?
Why do we try to find out who are the voice-overs everyone likes, and use them?
Why do we ask panels of people to tell us what they expect the ads to look like?
Why do we try to fit consumers’ preconceptions?
Just the way all our competitors are doing.

Are we trying to get through unnoticed?
Do we want to get past without them spotting us?
To escape their attention?
Is it a result if no one sees us?
If so, why are we advertising at all?
Why don’t we just save all that money?
That way nobody will notice us and we won’t have to take any chances at all.
We can escape with no one ever having even seen us.
We can run our ads without ever having to worry or feel uncomfortable.

We can be absolutely certain we won’t get arrested.


Google’s trademark change is common sense

Google’s new trademark policy – in place from the 14th September – is a big deal that changes the way paid search is bought but it’s also common sense that will ultimately result in a better experience for users.

The policy allows qualifying advertisers to not only bid on other companies’ brand trademarks (a change made on 5th May 08), but to now include the trademarked term in the ad text. Primarily it means resellers of a product, companies that sell spare parts or compatible products, and information sites like reviews and news can now include trademarked terms in ad copy. For instance, a search for ‘Dell Streak’ could result in paid search ads for the product from a range of other non-Dell sites, like online shops and review sites, without asking Dell for their permission.

All changes to Google’s trademark policy affect brands but are mainly about improving user experience and choice. When a user searches for a ‘Breville Cordless kettle’ for instance, they may be looking for reviews, opinion, comparisons etc. In fact, to be presented with alternative options is actually a good thing from a consumer perspective. A ‘real life’ example would be securing shelf space in a shop. When you go to B&Q’s drill aisle looking for Black & Decker parts, you’re also presented with a range of relevant products.

User experience is echoed in one of the caveats Google has announced, that the only ads to be considered for removal will be those that don’t adhere to the new guidelines or, if they do, those that confuse users. For instance, a site advertising a brand of mobile phone when the site you clickthrough to doesn’t actually sell it won’t be allowed. Nor would a car manufacturer be allowed to mislead users by claiming to have information on a competitor brand in order to generate traffic when in fact it has none.

Brands will potentially face competition on trademark terms previously reserved for their exclusive use in ad text but there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. There may be increases in auction costs for brands on their own trademarked terms, but they are likely to be marginal thanks to Google’s own quality score and relevance system. This ensures the most relevant sites to the search term are up weighted in paid results, significantly reducing cost. A Nokia website will almost always be the most relevant site for that trademark for instance. Likewise, if a user is genuinely only interested in a particular brand site, they will still clickthrough – if they don’t, they probably had an alternative motive for searching in the first place.

The change is in line with European law and will be rolled out across the UK, Canada and Ireland, bringing each territory up-to-speed with the US’ year old policy. In many ways, this move shouldn’t really be a surprise for any brand using search marketing. The best place for full information is Google’s own FAQ.

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I love to go into Muji and look around.
It feels like the design shop at a museum.
I’ve seen their stores in London, Tokyo, New York, and Paris.
The cool people go to Muji.
They like to shop there.
They like other people to know they buy stuff at Muji.
Because Muji is a very cool brand.
But is it?
Do you know what the name Muji means?
In Japanese, it’s short for ‘Mujirushi’.
Which actually means ‘no brand’.
There are no branded goods in Muji.
That was why it was founded.
That’s what makes it different.
Muji is for people who are not impressed by brands.
Muji is anti-brand.
And, that’s the brand it’s become.
See, brand is just another word for image.
And you can’t not have an image.
Even if your image is no-image, that’s your image.
We all learned in school that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’.
As soon as there’s a space with absolutely nothing in it, something rushes in to fill it up.
That’s how it is with our minds.
That’s all a brand is.
It’s whatever rushes in to fill the space.
We can’t be aware of something and have no image of it.
So awareness is image.
And image is brand.
So we can’t not have a brand.
That’s how it is with Muji.
Muji became a non-brand brand is for people who see themselves as too intelligent to be impressed by brands.
For instance, one of the first things Muji sold was U shaped spaghetti.
It was the same quality as the best straight spaghetti, but much cheaper.
This is because the U shaped pieces are usually cut off straight spaghetti and thrown away.
Muji repackaged them in simple cellophane wrappers with hand written labels.
The quality was identical at a fraction of the cost.
So they weren’t ‘cheap’ products, they were quality products for smart people.
And that became their image.
Discerning, confident, minimalist.
The diametric opposite of the WAG culture.
In fact minimalist pretty much describes every aspect of Muji.
Basic, no frills, understated.
This became a style of its own, cool and confident.
Very Bauhaus.
Form follows function.
Less is more.
The Japanese version of this is called ‘Kanketsu’.
Which means calm.
And that’s exactly the sort of feeling Muji has.
They started with just 40 products, now they have over 7,000.
They have nearly 300 stores in Japan alone, with nearly 4,000 employees.
You can find the Muji non-brand either selling or associated with: clothing, stationery, music, food, watches, flowers, furniture, phones, yoga, campsites, cars, and house construction.
All when conventional marketing wisdom says you can’t launch anything without a brand.
And you certainly can’t be successful without a brand.
When most marketing conversations are about the brand.
When most research is about the brand.
When most advertising is about the brand.
Muji not only started with ‘no brand’.
It also started with ‘no marketing’.
And continued with ‘no advertising’.
Because Muji observed a basic truth.
When everyone else is all doing the same thing, don’t follow them.

Do the opposite.


Editor’s blog: The not-so-green green grass of home

Despite my Welsh roots, I can’t see much for the Principality to be optimistic about at the moment.

The more observant among you will have noticed that my surname is not very English. It’s very Welsh. When they found themselves on their uppers in Pembroke Dock during the 1860s, my ancestors got on the Son of Glendower’s equivalent of a coffin ship and didn’t get off until it reached Chile. However, something went wrong out there – maybe they didn’t take to the Merlots of the Maipo valley – and the Gwyther parents appear to have perished, leaving the kids to return to the UK and settle with a maiden aunt in the East End of London.

So I take a distant interest in what goes on West of Bristol and Chester. And it’s not often that news from the Principality fills one with hope or joy. Economically, Wales is not in good shape. It’s hugely reliant on the public sector, and its private sector businesses are too small in number and in size (Wales’ largest quoted company is Admiral insurance with 3,000 staff). The Welsh don’t make as much noise as the Scots or the Northern Irish when complaining about the relationship with Westminster, and as a result, fewer taxpayer pounds have been flung at them. They blew what soft money they got from the EU and HMG trying to attract large manufacturers into Wales with grant aid; these perfidious people then promptly dropped the Welsh in favour of cheaper workforces in Asia or Eastern Europe.

The think-tank Oxford Economics estimated that in 2006-07 – before the crash – tax revenues of £19.3bn were raised in Wales, compared to Government expenditure of £28.2bn – a fiscal gap of £9.1bn. Public expenditure per head in Wales is higher than most of the English regions (although lower than in Scotland or Northern Ireland). Up to date GDP per capita figures make pretty grim reading, as well. The UK is led by Greater London on £35,000, while at the bottom of the scale come perennial underachievers Scotland on £20,000 and Northern Ireland on £16,000. But the wooden spoon goes to Wales, with £15,200. Oxford Economics predicts that Wales will take longer than any other UK region to get back to employment levels pre-crash: it will be later than 2025.

The issue of the Welsh language is a vexed one. Its supporters protest it’s good for the Welsh economy – it certainly created jobs for public sector pen-pushers when the going was good. But now times are tougher, worrying about getting everything translated into an ‘Insular Celtic’ language only spoken by 22% of the population looks like fiddling while Carnarvon Castle burns. It was a fair bet that George Osborne was going to set about slashing wasteful things Welsh faster than you could say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllantysiliogogogoch. So the axe has already fallen on a chunk of Welsh language TV station S4C. S4C is a Daily Mail news editor’s wet dream. It receives in excess of £100m a year from HM Government and is currently trying hard to explain how it officially recorded zero viewers on 196 out of its 890 programmes during one month earlier this year. (Indeed, just 139 of the station’s entire output for the period were watched by more than 10,000 viewers.)

The estimable Julia Hobsbawn of Editorial Intelligence invited me to the first of her ‘Names Not Numbers’ get-togethers in Port Merion. When we all arrived, we were addressed by the Presiding Officer of the Welsh parliament Dafydd Elis-Thomas. Despite the fact that not one member of his audience understood the language (and his fluency in English), Mr Thomas addressed us in Welsh. We were all supplied with expensive Sennheiser headphone and a simultaneous translation – all no doubt paid for by the taxpayer.

You could argue this was not only silly but slightly discourteous. Nelson Mandela didn’t open the World Cup with an oration in Xhosa. But apparently if it got out Lord Elis-Thomas had uttered a word in public in the language of the imperialists he’d have been lynched on his arrival back in the Caerdydd (Cardiff). Yaki da, (iechyd da) your Lordship.

All this, and Tom Jones didn’t even get to Number One this weekend. What hope is there for the Welsh when that happens?

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