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YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the last


…Continued from Part, the second.

Now that you’ve informed your buzzword CEO what Collaboration is actually about, you better catch them before they start tooting the horn of Empowerment.

This concept is spewed forth across the agency, with chunks sticking in the hair of juniors in all departments, like Jackson Pollock ate one of his own paintings right after a bad kebab.

When your CEO gets tired of making decisions all the time, putting out the infernal supply of fires, and dealing with employees’ problems – despite much of that being their actual job – ‘empowerment’ becomes their motto, their catch-cry, and their shield that allows them to run away into a ‘very important meeting’ where they usually end up discussing shoes for half an hour.

Like it’s mutant twin sibling Collaboration, also drooling from the lips of the poorly informed, Empowerment is often perceived as meaning “we can all make big decisions without needing approval, even though most of us are terribly inexperienced and on junior salaries! Yippee.”


It becomes a license for Account Executives to set up committee meetings to review the first round of concepts before the Chief Creative Officer has even seen them. It emboldens mid-level Planners to immediately stand up at that meeting and say “These are the two concepts we’re going to present to client” without even asking the CCO what his inestimable experience might recommend. It drives the Account Manager to sneak off alone to the client and present only the concept they like while disregarding the recommendations of everyone else, including those more senior.**


Empowerment should not be a dismantling of the agency hierarchy

Your agency’s org chart is laid out like a pyramid, with the most experienced individuals in their fields at the pointy top for a reason: they are responsible for the decisions which lead to the success, or failure, of the agency.  Empowerment is not the authority for everyone to behave like those at the top of the pyramid – the CEO, the CCO, the Chief Strategist or the Chief Client Officer – and make primary decisions without a career of experience to de-risk the result.

Empowerment is the endorsement to be part of the process. To not ask permission to be involved. To not wait to be invited into a collaborative moment. To feel free to express one’s own opinions. But all the while respecting the authority of senior staff and management, remembering that it is not a democracy and knowing where the buck stops.

It is also the charge for everyone to be stronger and more confident in their voice, to claim the right to the skill for which they were hired in the first place. Which reciprocally means also respecting the rights of others who were hired for their skills. Different skills. A healthy mix of voices in which NOT everyone is creative.

Everyone can have thoughts.
Everyone can have ideas.
Everyone can have creative ideas.

But not everyone IS creative.

Not everyone has the capacity to think laterally every minute of every hour of every day, solving complex briefs that connect the seemingly disparate elements of product, audience, time and place. Not everyone sees beyond the sheets of paper to the potentially beautiful and disruptively unique solution to the client’s business problem. Not everyone can do that constantly and consistently enough to be paid (well) for it.


Not everyone can be expected to produce an endless consciousness of imaginative and original ideas that are continually artistic, inspired, visionary or clever. Not everyone can endure the pressure and rigour of such an expectation.

Which is why those same people who flippantly remark “…but everyone is creative” are the first to fall back on “I don’t know, you’re the creative” when they encounter a particularly tricky brief, or their own idea falls flatter than Mr Pickles on the A40.

You can’t have it both ways.

Creatives would never dream of being an Account Director. They aren’t (usually) the kind of people to build and maintain complex business relationships on which a million-dollar retainer relies. That is a unique skill for a different type of person.

Creatives would never claim “everyone is strategic”, because they know their brains aren’t wired the same way as someone who can marry the psychology of consumer behaviour with the data of purchase mechanics. That is a unique skill.

Not everyone is capable of managing the finances of an account – or an entire business – with the mathematical precision to balance forecasts with actuals, while not over-promising and incurring the wrath of the holding company. Unique.

Not everyone is adept with rapidly eroding timelines against an ever-broadening production schedule. Skill.

Not everyone is able to see the code before it has flowed from their fingertips.

Not everyone is suited to navigating the ocean of legalities.

Not everyone is a career-managing, people person.

Not everyone is creative.

“Creativity” is the most valuable asset of professional Creatives. It is their brand. Its exclusivity is what sets Creatives apart. If our industry gets to the stage where Creatives no longer have that, the brand of Creativity is finished.

Imagine where your agency would be without specialist creativity. Or specialist planning, production, account management, finance, or development.

Accept your place within the engine of an advertising agency.

Your place is important and just as valid as everyone else’s, otherwise the agency wouldn’t have you in the first place. You are unique for what you bring to the table. That is your power.


Don’t trample on the unique skill-set of others. Praise it. Respect it. Draw upon it and use it, like Mars used Hershey’s chocolate (see Part, the second), to make yourself famous in your field.

In the beginning of this three-part treatise, I hypothesised this is why so many agencies struggle to breakthrough. They have been led to believe (usually by a CEO who once attended a conference in Barcelona) that their agency culture will be improved if everything thinks everyone is creative, everyone piles into a room together to collaboshite™, and everyone starts pretending they have the jack-of-all-trades skills from every specialist sphere to make decisions like a boss.

They end up diluting their agency’s skills, frustrating their specialists, disenfranchising their most senior staff, and dismantling the engine that relies upon many different parts doing their own specific thing – in unison. Ironically, and fatefully, they end up disempowering so many amazing people that the psychological walls rise in a turf war that kills any hope of teamwork.

Feel empowered to claim the right to your own specialist skill, to speak with authority on your area of expertise, and collaborate with others who have different specialist skills and areas of expertise. You have a lot to give to your agency: insights and information, viewpoints and opinions that others don’t have. You have a virtuosity of your own.

Because you are NOT creative.

And that is a good thing.



** All three of these things honestly occurred in an agency at which I once worked, as a result of mislaid ’empowerment’ and a belief that ‘everyone is creative’.

YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the second


…continued from Part, the first.

Your CEO returns from a conference in Barcelona and starts banging the drum of ‘collaboration’. It will help us build a culture of working together and get to the great ideas faster. Because, after all, everyone is creative.

Meanwhile, in the back of their mind, they’re actually saying,

“I got caned for not meeting our quarterly forecast, so we need to reduce our project timelines, crunch billable hours together, get the work out the door sooner so we can move on to the next revenue source. Oh, and that’ll help us win some awards, right.”


Collaboration may overtly be the act (or culture) of working with others to produce something with a joint effort, but in the sense of business – improved workflow, shorter turnaround and better output – it is the act (or culture) of working with other skill-sets to produce something that is better, faster, bigger.

In an agency, it means producing something more effectively, more profitable, and more creative.

My favourite tale of collaboration in business is the story of M&Ms – the little candy-covered chocolate that melts in your mouth, not in your hand. They were the invention of Forrest Mars Snr, son of the Mars Company tycoon Frank C Mars with whom he had a fractious relationship, both personal and professional. Forrest was a visionary whose ideas for new products and global expansion were not readily accepted by his father, even though Forrest introduced the Milky Way and Mars bar to the old-man’s company.

Forrest’s latest confectionery concept was patented in 1941, and a small batch was produced to prove its viability, but he didn’t have the chocolate to mass-produce his amazing new product. The US Government’s implementation of war-time rationing gave complete control of chocolate to Mars’ rival confectioner – and then market leader – Hershey’s Chocolate. [queue: dramatic music]

Mars needed Hershey. So Forrest found a partner in Bruce Murrie, the son of Hershey’s President. He got a quick gauge of the young Murrie, working for Hershey’s in a mid-level role under the shadow of his eminent father who was bestowed the leadership by his mentor and best friend, the original Willy Wonker, Milton S Hershey himself.

Bruce was intrigued by Forrest’s little sample wrapped in his kerchief. Forrest even suggested to Bruce that they call the little chocolate beads ‘M&Ms’ to stand for ‘Mars and Murrie’. Partners.

The resulting handshake gave Forrest access to and endless supply of Hershey’s chocolate and the machinery that Milton had introduced to the US for making the best. They collaborated to produce what is now one of the world’s leading confectionery products.


Each brought their own specific purpose to the joint venture, and each brought their own specific wants. Mars had a revolutionary idea and ingenious technique that would see him step out of his father’s shadow, but he needed chocolate and machinery. Murrie had chocolate and the means of production, but needed a breakthrough idea that would see him step out from his father’s shadow.

Each collaborator understood what they uniquely had, and what they could gain from combining these individual assets. Joining forces for a common (and selfishly personal) goal.

Back to that agency CEO banging the drum about ‘collaboration’ for producing better work: what they are trying to say is that by better combining our unique skills and individual assets the agency will produce better work.

Unfortunately, it is often poorly explained and misinterpreted agency-wide as: “Let’s all jump in a room together and brainstorm because everyone is creative! Yippee.”



The first step to collaboration, as both Forrest and Bruce knew, is to recognise your unique asset and respect the unique assets of others. Know what you bring to the table, and accept what others will bring to the table. Know what you want to get from your collaborators that you could not do yourself.

The very notion that everyone is bringing “creativity” to the table either means you have nothing unique to bring, or you have all the same type of people in the room.

If you have nothing unique to bring, you shouldn’t be there. Unless you’re subconsciously admitting no-one has anything unique to bring, a bunch of monkeys could probably solve this, and therefore it’s probably not a big enough challenge to require the multiple billable head-hours gathering in a room together in the first place.

Alternatively, if you have all the same type of people in the room, then you don’t have a complementary mix of skills and you’re wasting multiple billable head-hours by arriving at the same solution that one or two people could have conceived at the pub, far quicker and cheaper.

Collaboration is the joining of interdependent and distinctive assets to provide differing viewpoints and thoughts toward a unified solution that, ideally, is better than any solution that could come from a single viewpoint.

It requires people from different but inter-related disciplines. Creatives, Strategists, Business Managers, Technologists, Producers, or whatever. Not everyone can represent ‘creative’.

Each collaborator must leverage their own discipline to provide suppositions that shed light from alternative angles.

Each collaborator must also respect the lights from others.

And in doing so, respect that those lights come from different disciplines.

Sometimes a creative one, that can shine upon your light and make something even brighter.


The collaborative discussion (read: debate) with a colleague that inspired this treatise, inevitably included the defence that there’s a difference between saying “everyone is creative” and “everyone is A Creative.” True dat. But as with telling Usain Bolt “everyone runs” rather than “everyone is a Professional Runner” (see ‘Part, the first’), the notion of claiming any sort of athletic equivalence within the context of his professional environment is extremely dismissive of his athletic ability and prowess.

Within an agency environment, where there are people employed solely for their creative ability and prowess, it is as equally dismissive to say “everyone is creative” as it would be to say “everyone is A Creative.”

The phrase, even though it is supposedly disarmed as a more generalised statement, is still a declaration that “everyone can do what Creatives do.” That to be creative is not a unique skill that others rely on. That the work relies on. That the agency could fire every single professional Creative and instead bring in a teenager, that guy who hangs around the supermarket toilets, your mother, and a walrus. Because, after all, “everyone is creative.”

It is often said when ideas need to be rapidly formulated:

“Just grab a bunch of people to crack this fire brief.
After all, everyone is creative”

or when someone in management thinks the only way to make the whole agency feel part of the process is to homogenise:

“Remember, people: ideas can come from anywhere. Everyone is creative.”

In both instances, the speaker is attempting to boost the morale of the staff by assigning them with a positive quality, hoping to foster a creative culture by merely telling people they are imbued with that desired attribute. Sadly, it seems many believe all it takes to be creative is that someone has told them they are.

Unfortunately, in both instances, the claim (and pursuant self-belief) is actually that one of the specialist skills that has flourished in our industry, our agencies, isn’t a specialist skill anymore. Everyone can do it. It’s not innate, it’s not learned, it’s not practiced and honed. It’s naturally within us all, like breathing, eating, shitting. Or running, writing, flying. Or, closer to home, planning, producing, managing.

And if the specialist skill of creativity isn’t specialist anymore, what’s to stop any specialist skill becoming genericised too? What would a former Planner, Producer, Account Manager, or Developer be valued for if everyone else could do what they do. Or what you do.

Because you are NOT creative.


Continue to the third part, in which we emancipate empowerment to see how it should, and shouldn’t, work.  And why it’s linked to the misperception “…but everyone is creative.”

YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the last

YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the first


I had an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day that gets to the heart of why so many advertising agencies struggle to break through. And it started with her saying that little catchphrase we’ve all heard:

“…but, everyone is creative.”

Those four little words contain so many powerful sentiments, they are an earthquake that shakes the very foundation of our industry. They are misplaced, misrepresentative, offensive and ignorant. That little phrase is dismissively hurtful and an egregious chimera.

Because it says so much.

It says that we have devalued creativity to the point where we no longer think it is a skill. While the industry still quotes Bernbach and Ogilvy, applauding these giants for revolutionising advertising with the miracle of creativity, and simultaneously championing the tech inventors who have revolutionised our digital world, the storytellers who fill us with awe, we have slipped into a miasmic coma in which we believe everyone – particularly those who utter the phrase – is just as creative as each other.

It says that many in our industry (and possibly the world at large) don’t actually know what the word ‘creative’ means. Firstly, it’s quite telling that we use it as a noun for any piece of work that is produced. “Show me the creative,” says the Account Manager. “It’s a shitty email template, my friend,” the Art Director thinks (because he’s too damn polite to utter the words aloud).

When did we start calling the mundane minutiae of our business by a word that was once reserved for the ideological goal of our business? Creative actually means “relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas.

Not every piece of work produced in an ad agency is related to or involves the use of the imagination or original ideas. Accept it. That’s why we have terms like “business-as-usual”. BAU is a far more appropriate and acceptable nomenclature. That shitty email template needs to be done, it’s part of our business, a common fixture, usual. But it is not creative.

I know we have an entire sphere of roles within ad agencies – myself included – that go by the noun ‘creative’, but that is a modernised truncation of it being an adjective in a longer and more descriptive title like Creative Director and Creative Department – one who directs creativity and a department that produces creativity.

Traditionally, and thankfully still to this day, the Creative Director was so named because he (or she if she’s in the miserably tiny 3%) oversaw, managed and made the ultimate decisions on the output of those within his Creative Department – Artworkers, Copywriters, Graphic Designers – which was described as creative work, or the creative output. The creative product. The creative solutions. The creative use of an adjective to describe the quality of work, output, product or solution.

Somehow and at some point, this collective of specialist skills were unified under the adjectival noun ‘creative’. That was acceptable, because indeed these people were in fact creative by nature, definition, profession, and talent.

It should have stopped there. But it didn’t.

Over time, the adjectival noun started to lose it’s meaning as a descriptor and began being applied to anything and anyone who perhaps even held for a moment something that might have once started out as creative.

Like Xerox, Hoover and Taser, the term became genericised. And once that happens, it loses all meaning of its quality and uniqueness. Those brands suffered tremendous losses as a result of their trademark names being popularised. Xerox even ran ads with the sole purpose of trying to claw back their brand.


BBC Business Reporter, Simon Tulett, wrote:

“It may seem like a fairly innocuous linguistic slip to confuse brand and product – indeed, you might think it a compliment to the company behind such a successful name – but it could be the sign of a brand in its death throes.”

Death throes? Uh-oh, that doesn’t sound good.

But it might be apt. With everyone using the word ‘creative’ to passively describe the work that no-one in their right mind, including the client, would actively and consciously describe as “creative”, aka imaginative and original, or even artistic, inspired, visionary or clever, then we are establishing that shitty email template as the benchmark of creativity. Once that becomes the barometer of originality and imagination, then it’s easy to see why non-creatives like to think “everyone is creative”. Because they think they can do shitty emails too.

Worse, they think that’s what our industry aspires to creatively.

“If consumers understand the trademark to be the name of the product itself, as opposed to identifying its exclusive source, that trademark loses its distinctiveness,” writes Tulett.

Creatives have lost their distinctiveness. Their stock in trade has been diluted. Their specialist skill devalued. Their purpose and expertise has been commodified.

If you say “…but everyone is creative”, then you’re saying you don’t need Creatives. They don’t matter. They are no longer of any use.

But if you can do it, if everyone can do it, then why are Creatives still here?

Because those four words are an outrageous lie.

I’m not saying that in the broad context of being a human that you’re not creative in some capacity. In that context, yes, everyone has the ability to be imaginative, have original thought, be artistic, inspired, visionary or clever.

But in the context of our jobs, our professional skills, that thing we each get paid for… NO, you are not creative.

It is like saying “… but everyone can account manager”. No, they can’t. That is a particular skill that is learned and developed (for the good ones, at least) over the course of that person’s career. Not everyone is an Account Manager, or a Developer, a Designer, a Financial Controller, Photographer, Chef, or Athlete.

Only a complete ass would approach Usain Bolt after he sprinted 100m in 9.58 seconds and say “…but everyone can run”.


While technically a statement of somewhat wobbly correctness – everyone can run – Usain has done it far better (and obviously faster) than anyone else. He’s not the fastest man on Earth without reason. In the world of athletes, he matters. He is talented. His innate physical composition led him on a path of years of hard work and experience, honing his skill, to be better at something than everyone else. While everyone may run, not everyone is a Runner.

It would be an immense disrespect to say such a thing to Usain.

Sure, your typical advertising Creative may not be the “creativest man/woman on Earth”, but their innate physical* composition led them on a path of years of hard work and experience, honing their skill, to be better at something than everyone else.

Even those professional athletes who aren’t top in their field – aren’t Usain, or Serena, or Phelps – are still better at their skill than almost everyone else. James Patterson, Agatha Christie, J.D. Salinger are better at writing than almost everyone else, which is why, even though you can string words together in sentences, perhaps you cannot write.

Advertising seems to be the only industry that wants to genericise a core skill across different members of the team. Imagine if your heart surgeon stepped back mid-aortic-splice because the anaesthetist suggested “…but everyone is surgical.” Try knocking on the cabin door at 38,000ft and asking them to give the steward a crack because “everyone can fly”. After all, the steward is indeed flying, probably even knows what some of the buttons and levers in the cockpit do. But they would never presume to be a pilot.

In the context of advertising agencies, among an amazing mix of professions, all specialists with their own skill-sets formed from a physical* composition that led them on a path of years of hard work and experience, it is an affront to say “…but everyone is creative” – or any other specialist skill that defines different roles within an agency.

What is most perplexing is this misplaced sentiment is espoused by the same industry – even the very same individuals – who also stand on the soap-boxes of Collaboration and Empowerment.

These two managerial concepts, the new axioms of the advertising landscape, are wildly fallacious or misemployed at best. In practice, both ideals conflict with the notion that “everyone is creative”.

Continue to the second part, in which we collectively focus on collaboration to see how it should, and shouldn’t, work.  And why it’s linked to the misperception “…but everyone is creative.”

YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the Second


* I say “physical” composition because the brain is an organ comprised of a set of physical parts and chemistry that work together in ways as individual as each person: sometimes forming a human who is innately adept at numbers, sometimes a human who is innately adept with interpersonal relationships, sometimes a human who is innately adept at lateral thinking. Science.

Seems Legit

The email scams never end. The latest one to befoul my inbox is purportedly from Google’s very own Lawrence “Larry” Page to advise me of my random prize. Woot!

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 09.04.45

Wait a minute… something’s not quite right here.

  1. Why is there no Google branding? It’s Google. If anyone has brand guidelines for digital marketing it’s Google.
  2. Why is there no subject line? Surely Google understands the important of properly worded subject lines to ensure the avoidance of spam filters and get the recipient’s undivided attention.
  3. Why would Larry Page be emailing me? Surely he has more important things to do.
  4. Would Larry really sign off as Lawrence “Larry” Page?
  5. Hang on. Larry says he’s randomly selected my email address for this prize. So why did he send it to my Yahoo email rather than my Google-supplied Gmail account?
  6. Uh-oh, that doesn’t look like Larry’s email address. Who is sgalarraga@hojo.com? Hojo.com is the site of Howard Johnson hotels which has nothing to do with Google or Larry Page.
  7. Why is Larry’s email footer written in Spanish?
  8. Why does Larry still think he’s the CEO of Google Inc when he stepped down from that role in August 2015 to let Sundar Pichai assume the role of CEO?

Poor Larry. He seems so confused.

Perhaps I better download and open the PDF attachment to see what Larry is talking about as it may shed clues to his mental health. And it probably won’t contain any kind of Trojan horse virus that sets my hard drive afire.


It strikes me as odd that these scammers have enough digital savvy to construct or find viral attachments, build or use software that searches for email addresses and stream emails to unwitting recipients, then also supposedly have the technological wherewithall to extract data from said recipients’ hard drives to be able to access online bank accounts or other sensitive information and perhaps even steal an entire identity… but they don’t know about Wikipedia where they could read Larry’s bio to see that he’s no longer the CEO.

Ironically, they didn’t even use Google to see what Hojo is. Or to find some Google branding. Or maybe even the names of genuine marketing staff at Google. Or examples of email marketing from a world of brands.

It’s not that hard. And now I’ve provided a bunch of links for them to get it right.

You’re welcome, Mr Scammy McScamscam.


P.S.  The Spanish footer translates as:
This message has been scanned by MailScanner for viruses and other harmful content , and is considered to be clean.”
Either ironic or sarcastic. Maybe both.




Mind-Reading Musicians

Tech-junkies, creatives, music lovers, and people just looking for inspiration should enjoy this project. It’s what happens when you combine all of these elements. Without an agency or any budget.

A string quartet was fitted with EEG headsets to record their brainwave activity as they played an incredibly difficult composition, then the data was visualised to create a sensorial experience of the complex vs the simple.

The Ligeti Quartet was formed by four classical musicians, united by their fascination with the music of György Ligeti (1923-2006) who was renowned for his complex compositions that merged music with soundscape and is best known for his work in the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Shutter Island (2010) and Heat (1995).Ligeti’s music is difficult to play, so the quartet pride themselves on being able to turn such complex compositions into easily enjoyed experiences. To this end, our group of creatives undertook a proactive but audacious project to bring the Ligeti Quartet’s proposition – and Ligeti’s compositions – to life, visually.


In a large warehouse space, we fitted the four musicians with a Mindwave headset which detects EEG power spectrums (alpha waves, beta waves, etc), attention and meditation levels, and eye blinks. The data was transmitted in real-time via bluetooth to a laptop running NeuroSkyLab proprietary software which recorded eight different brainwave frequencies and converted them to CVS data which was then used to generate the visualisation of their thought patterns as they played.

The resulting film combines the auditory experience of a Ligeti composition with the visual stimuli of the musicians’ mental activity in real-time data-based art.


This project was part of a program I developed for my (former) creative department to connect the talents of unsigned musicians with the combined talents of the creative teams. The program gave the teams the freedom and opportunity to do the kind of creative work the agency wasn’t providing them, and gave musicians access to free content to build their own awareness. It was all done after hours (late nights and weekends), with their own equipment, and a few favours here and there. Plus £100 out of my own pocket for the warehouse space.

Please share this post. My team deserves it.


The Ligeti Quartet:
Mandhira de Saram: violin 1
Patrick Dawkins: violin 2
Richard Jones: viola
Valerie Wellbanks: cello

Concept and production by Billy Bernhardt, Milan Desai, Ale Miasi, Andrea Foresi, and Stefanie DiGianvincenzo
Directed by Matt Batten and Alex Zeeman
Composition by György Ligeti
Sound Engineering by Paul Bishop
Audio Production by Tom Green
Post Production by Alex Zeeman

Visit ligetiquartet.com and mrchickenfilms.com and zeeman.com.au

Throw Away Your Gold


Clients often accuse advertising agencies of being obsessed with awards. But perhaps it’s a simple matter of perspective. And it starts with throwing out all your gold. And silver. Even the bronze.

It’s no secret that the advertising and marketing industry has a long list of award shows throughout the year – enough for us to refer to “the awards calendar”. But the multiple award shows haven’t been a catalyst to cause an obsession. They are more a symptom of the decades-long fragmentation of the industry with ever-broadening definitions of the roles of agencies and divergent philosophies at every turn.

It only stands to reason that, as much as advertising and it’s practitioners have developed into specialist fields, there be equally specialist award shows, be they focused on a certain media channel (like press or TV), a group of channels (social or digital), a marketing strategy (promotional or experiential), or a marketing philosophy (like direct response or engagement).

It is also logical that individual markets develop their own advertising award programs, not only for national or regional flag-waving, but also because cultures are as fragmented as media. While the business of identifying an audience and targeting them with communication remains the same, the language, ethnology, habits, folklore, society and human nuances (new and old) vary from one region to the next, one country to the next. That’s one of the primary reasons global advertising is rarely ever as effective as local advertising, and why those incredibly colourful and effective Pikachu-esque campaigns from Japan rarely get a prize from the mostly western juries of the international award shows.

Speaking of those international award shows, they are the all-encompassing crème-de-la-crème. The big guns: Cannes Lions, D&AD, OneShow, Clio, et al. They have grown and expanded to reflect the ever-broadening boundaries of advertising, introducing categories for direct, digital, content, data and most recently ‘technology’. These shows have become so large, they have developed their own mega-brands that attract the lion’s share of competitive desire. They are ‘harder to win’; partly because their global scale means you’re up against so many others, partly because they have very strong and unwavering views on what is worthy (rightly so). Having judged Cannes Lions and been a foreman on the D&AD jury, I can attest to the pressure the judges feel to only award the work that ‘meets the standard’.

While none of that has been directly caused by an agency obsession with winning trophies (for the most part), it has unfortunately created the impression of an obsession.

So let’s take it back to the root of it all: winning.

Five year olds want the smiley stamp or the gold star sticker. Twelve year olds want the little league trophy. Sixteen year olds want the YouTube video with a million views. Why? Because it’s the mark that they’ve done something none (or few) of their peers could do. It makes them stand out from the crowd, even just for a moment. It provides the satisfaction of knowing they’ve been great and, even better, the satisfaction that others know who’s been great. And who hasn’t.

It’s the same reason sport is a trillion dollar business around the world, with every team in every league in every pursuit vying for an over-sized cup with a little person atop, frozen in the gold-plated position of the athlete. They won.

And why do we want our achievements acknowledged? Aside from any psychological hang-ups dating back to each of us being five-year olds clinging to the desperate need for validation in the shape of a smiley face on the corner of a page covered in Crayola, awards are the badges with which we show our peers, competitors and audience that we are the best there is at that thing we did.

Brands, products and services aren’t immune to this desire for acknowledgement. Clients revel in the validation just as much as agencies, and use it to their advantage.

National supermarket chain LIDL won the 2015 ‘Grocer of the Year’ Award and promptly smacked a gold logo at the end of their commercials. Their website boasts “Lidl has triumphed at this year’s Grocer Gold Awards after beating Waitrose, Asda and Aldi to be crowned the much sought after title of The Grocer of the Year,” and goes on to further validate the “top gong” by explaining the awards are a “prestigious ceremony held at Guildhall, London”. There’s even a lovely comment from their CEO, congratulating his teams across the UK.

FMCG giant Mars certainly wants consumers to know when they’ve won. For their ready-meal rice brand Uncle Ben’s, they spent the effort and money amending their product packaging and the endframe of their TVCs to tell us they were the ‘Lunch Pot Product of the Year’. In the advertising for another household brand in the Mars group, Dolmio was excited to tell us their lasagne kits were voted ‘Product of the Year’ 2014 in the “convenience meal category”. And for their Maltesers range of products, Mars needed us to know that Teasers also won ‘Product of the Year’ 2014 in the chocolate category.

It’s not just FMCG brands patting themselves on the back. As flaunted on their TV advertising and POS, the UK’s Nationwide Bank won ‘High Street Savings & Mortgage Provider of the Year’ at the Consumer Moneyfacts awards 2015.

I’ve worked on ‘creative’ briefs for automotive brand Ford in which the proposition was simply to advertise that their car was better than any other car in a particular class because they had won at the Car of the Year Awards.

Global giant P&G so desperately wanted consumers to know their Febreze car deodoriser was awarded ‘UK Product of the Year’ 2015 that they actually made a TV commercial entirely dedicated to this statement. Featuring people dressed up as a burger, a dog and a shoe, that ad probably wouldn’t even exist if they hadn’t been given a trophy. Just think of the marketing budget that was diverted to the creation, production and media placement of a commercial on the back of that award.

Advertising agencies don’t do that.

I don’t diminish any of these achievements, nor any of the thousands of other products or services that won an award. They set new benchmarks in their field, and should be proud of it. They invested and evolved to ensure their product was a standard higher than their competitors.

So why do brands leverage their accolades? Because it adds a point of difference, something that might just nudge the consumer from consideration to purchase. It is a stamp of quality, proof of the value of the product in the aisles saturated with competitive brands.

This is exactly the same reason why agencies participate in award shows, why they want to win, and why they want others to know they’ve won.

It is not about the shiny chunk of metal (or glass or wood) that your team are handed after one too many glasses of Merlot, only to be placed on a reception desk to gather dust. That’s why I suggested you throw away your trophies. Trophies aren’t the award. The real award is the recognition for doing something great. Recognition from peers, clients, competitors, and clients’ competitors.

In the case of advertising agencies, clients and potential clients are the ‘consumers and customers’ to whom our awards add a point of difference that might just nudge them from consideration to purchase. They are a stamp of quality, proof of the value of our product in an industry saturated with competitive brands.

When an agency creates a marketing campaign that has raised the creative bar and been more effective than previous campaigns for a client brand, this should be recognised and championed. It helps the overall industry improve. An awarded campaign for one brand helps other brands learn and improve their own marketing efforts, especially when fear of failure often prevents brands from innovating and pushing forward into uncharted territory.

When my team worked on the original Share a Coke campaign (names on bottles and cans) in 2011/2012 in Australia, the mammoth effort of personalising one of the world’s most mass-produced FMCG products – in the hope that it would increase sales – was a huge challenge and risk undertaken by the client. But it paid off immensely with a 7% increase in consumption during the Summer period. So effective that the program was replicated in more than 50 other markets around the world over the following two years. ‘Share a Coke’ won dozens of awards around the world including Cannes Lions Creative Effectiveness – proof of it’s creativity AND positive business impact.

Now this year we have seen Marmite and Nutella replicate the idea of ‘your name on our product’. Would they have undertaken this strategy to increase sales if it hadn’t already been proven so effective by Coca-Cola? Or recognised by the industry as an immensely effective campaign?

As Monica Geller once said “Come on! Tests make us better learners.” For agencies and brands, awarded acknowledgement makes us better practitioners. We can improve our efforts, which improves our products. And it helps our businesses if we leverage our proven capabilities for producing a high quality product to attract more business.

Some might say that their agency is more focused on winning the trophies than they are on helping their clients’ businesses. If that is the case, then perhaps they have the wrong agency. And while it might be true of individuals within the agency – especially creative, as should be expected because they only get hired if they have a portfolio of highly awarded work (still the same as a product label bearing their ‘product of the year’ laurels) – the agency itself probably isn’t sacrificing their duty to their clients in order to pick up some shiny doorstops.

Quite the opposite. The agency is most likely trying to create the best product they can – TVC, poster, experience, event, content, campaign, digital platform, whatever – because they know it will work. And if it’s effective AND creative, then it has a higher chance of being awarded, thereby proving that the agency has produced a product of a better standard than their competitors.

A client’s product may be a pot lunch or a bank account. An agency’s product is the advertising they create for that pot lunch or bank account. Both companies need to produce a good product – and have it known – to increase their profile and attract a greater ‘share of wallet’.

Clients, like agencies, want to win. Their brands, products and services need to win, so they gain a competitive advantage and show their audience they deserve to be purchased. Because they did something better than their competitors.

The only real difference is that agencies don’t have packaging on which to slap a blue ribbon, or TV commercials to feature a roundel on the endframe, or marketing budgets to create a campaign for the express purpose of telling their prospective customers that they’ve got a higher quality product than their competitors. And while agencies do have case studies to show off their work and websites to prove their calibre, a third-party mark of approval goes a long way to establishing credibility to a customer. Just like one brand’s lunch pot of rice sitting on a supermarket shelf next to another brand’s lunch pot of rice.

When agencies and clients focus on achieving recognised creative successes, the physical lumps of metal, wood or glass aren’t as significant. They can throw away their gold… but keep their achievements.

Agencies aren’t obsessed with winning awards any more than clients.

It’s marketing.

Dear Qantas

Dear Qantas,

The romance is over. We’ve had a lifelong love affair, from my first few flights as an Aussie child to the first time I flew abroad to see the world, and then on to my proud career which has seen me travel to many corners of the globe. I always loved stepping aboard the flying kangaroo. No matter what far-flung place I’d just traversed, as soon as I heard the familiar accent of the flight attendants, I was already home.

But you killed it.

For all the miles, all my loyalty, all the years I’d spent being a comforted passenger, you tear it apart. I joined your loyalty program long ago. Why wouldn’t I? I was loyal.

But not you. You’ve mistreated me like a footballer’s wife. Sure, like the WAG, I hung on. I told myself it would get better – go back to the way it was. But you chipped away at my resolve until, today, I have awoken and will endure this relationship no more.

That’s the emotional parable. Now let’s talk business.

I’m in advertising. And I’m pretty sure I’m good at what I do. I understand brand dynamics and the business metrics. I’m all over the strategic intelligence behind marketing for acquisition and retention, the ROI of it all balanced against the imperative to build and maintain a brand.

Your ads sing the song. Your leverage the national heritage you have. You evolve with the landscape of the airline industry.

But you’re also scamming the very people you want to love you.

All the points I’ve racked up aren’t worth spit. No longer can a loyal flyer just convert those points into a well-earned seat. The limits on your ‘rewards seats’ are tight. You now fly through Dubai instead of Singapore, which has changed the entire dynamic of your market. It now means that no matter where a passenger flies from, the flight will be full on one of those legs (most often the Dubai to Sydney flight). Which means, there’ll never be a ‘rewards seat’ available.

How do I know?

One of your check-in staff at Heathrow International just told me. I’d always wondered why I couldn’t get a ‘rewards seat’, nor could I get an upgrade on any class seat I’d purchased. But when your staff member told me that the DUB-SYD leg is “always full” and that he’d “never seen an upgrade”, the penny dropped.

So my points are useless. But what about my member’s card? “To the lounge!”

Nope. That won’t get me in. Even the spare “With Compliments” card I have was rebuffed because it’s not valid at any One World lounge – only Qantas-branded lounges. But there isn’t one at Heathrow, one of the world’s largest and busiest airports. I wonder if there are any Qantas-branded lounges anywhere but in Australia?

So I write this in the British Airways lounge.

That’s right. I have a BA members card too. I guess I wasn’t the doting loyal romantic you thought. I kept a little affair on the side, just in case we didn’t work out.

And even though I’ve not flown anywhere near the number of miles on British Airways’ planes, and only been a member for 3 years (compared to the 20 years with you), they smiled and waved me in. I’m not even flying on a BA flight today. And I’m writing this on BA’s wifi as I sip BA’s gin.

This is where you’ve led me Qantas. You did this.

You drove me into the wings of another.



Social Media vs Crisis Control

I wrote this article in early 2015 but couldn’t post it at that time due to a potential conflict. Now I am able to publish it. While the actual incident may be out-dated by several months, the lesson remains as relevant as ever…

With all major brands now fully entrenched in the world of sharing content for customer engagement, especially via social platforms, the battle to win the hearts and minds of consumers is well and truly on.

But as in all battles: if you stick your head above the parapet, you may get shot.

DHL is the latest victim of this two-way exchange of content to build a connection between brands and consumers.

The international logistics company has amassed 191,348 fans on it’s Facebook profile. While it’s a far cry from Coca-Cola’s 90m (having long held the No1 spot) or competitor UPS’s 1.4m fans, it’s a valiant little effort from a brand in a low-interest utility/service sector. And they were proud as punch when they hit 50,000 likes back in June 2012.

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Their content has been the usual fare from such a well-known but emotionally undefined brand: pics of their plane transporting the Rugby World Cup trophy; a DHL drone delivering medicine (everyone needs a drone!); their new DHL car fleet in Serbia; and staff in yellow vests pushing yellow crates into a yellow truck. Their posts tend to attract between 50 and 1000 likes (the latter being when it’s connected to an event with it’s own mass following such as the Grand Prix), and an average of 100 shares.

So it would seem they’re doing what most brands do to engage with customers.

But all their efforts (over the past 3 years) can suddenly unravel in just 24 hours.

At the hands of a man called Pinky BuaChompoo.

Pinky (not his real name) is a kickboxer in the southern Australian state, appropriately named South Australia. On 3 November 2014, he happened to video DHL staff loading boxes in transit onto a truck at Adelaide Airport with the kind of deft handling one would expect if the task had been entrusted to wild gorillas who’d just been told Diane Fossey had been faking it.*

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See it HERE.

The video was posted online (as you do) and shared with DHL (as you do). In just 24 hours it had been viewed over 798,000 times, which is probably more than the cumulative total of all DHL’s social shares, likes, and comments over the past 3 years.

In that time, the video was  reposted on DHL’s Facebook page over 280 times by angry, frustrated, disappointed and otherwise upset consumers, thus spreading the harmful reputation. In fact, in the last 15 hours there was no other content or commentary posted BUT the video.

It even made it to the mainstream news media, getting column inches in the Adelaide Advertiser, Daily Mail and Herald Sun, and coverage on Channel 9 and Yahoo news.

To the Adelaide Advertiser, Pinky BuaChompoo said “I was just sitting in my mate’s car when I saw them doing it. I was really pissed off with their behaviour.”

“The reason why it bothers me is that I send stuff all the time internationally and domestically and the stuff ends up in damaged boxes.”

Interestingly, Pinky is no ‘influencer’ – that holy grail that brands are constantly wooing to help spread their company love to a large digitally-captive audience. He only has 5000 Facebook fans. Yet he managed to BE an influencer.

It used to be said “give good service and they’ll tell a friend, give poor service and they’ll tell 10”. This rule of thumb has been proven to be dramatically different with the advent of social media. A great (and somewhat identical example) can be read HERE. There’s probably some recent marketing maths that has worked out the ratio of epicentric influence one needs to spread negative brand commentary versus that required to spread positive brand commentary. Perhaps one pissed off Pinky with 5000 fans could achieve the equivalent but inverse impact on a brand as one happy vlogger with 5,000,000 fans. A 1:1000 difference between brand love and brand hate.

What did DHL do to stem the tide of brand hate?

Very little.

A spokeswoman responded to the Advertiser with the customary statement of being “shocked”, that this was “contrary to all of our policies” and that, of course, an investigation had begun. All fair enough in a press statement. Especially after a journalist has called your office to ask for a statement.

But this began in social media and could have been responded to in social media. While the left hand makes the obligatory corporate remarks to journalists, the right hand could be the professional yet more empathetic voice of the brand in social media.

That’s why brands participate in platforms like Facebook in the first place – to be a friend of the consumer. A chum. A buddy. A pal.

And be a quick wit, a friendly post, show a culture and personality that makes consumers think of themselves as – even just a little bit – a friend of the brand.

Scrolling back through the iterative posts of the video on their Facebook, DHL didn’t respond until the 94th posting of the video. Even then, rather than a broad announcement on their timeline to all concerned, it was this solitary comment to one random contributor:

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To add insult to injury, Pinky’s video went live about the same time as DHL shared a picture of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (LGO) entrusting the transportation of their instruments to DHL’s “TLC”. After that, they went silent. Total blackout. Even when people commented on the LGO photo to ask “is that like the TLC they give people’s parcels at Adelaide Airport?”. Nothing.

But how should DHL have acted?

Firstly, their social media and content strategy should have included a crisis management strategy, and possibly even some prepared and pre-approved posts ready to go. The fact that they did nothing instantly leads me to assume they had no such plan. One can only imagine their Content Manager sweating bullets as this outbreak spread across his feed, unable to respond because he hadn’t been authorized to do so.

Secondly, and this would have been easier with the aforementioned crisis strategy in place, they should have acted fast.

In a world of mobile-toting, quick-responding, soap-box-standing, social-media-dwelling consumers who can silently love a brand one minute and vocally abhor it the next, the 15 hours it took DHL to make any response was an online lifetime. The only saving grace here is that consumers often shrug and move on after firing their volley and receiving no return fire. Sometimes within hours. Even Pinky BuaChompoo’s Facebook timeline immediately returned to pics of his flexed abs and comments on Muay Thai sessions.

He did post this little comment, almost asking to be left alone now that his champion-of-the-people role has finished:

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But even though Pinky doesn’t want to talk about this – as much as DHL doesn’t – the evidence still remains. If the 280 people who posted this video on DHL’s page had moved on and not spared a second thought for what they’d seen, the video still exists for another 798,000 people to see, raise their fists, shout from their keyboards and touch-screens, and keep this lasting much longer than it took for DHL staff to toss a few boxes on a truck.

In a world full of Pinky BuaChompoos, who have a right to have an opinion, good or bad, and have the technological means to share that opinion, good or bad, then brands wanting to participate in social platforms need to be ready to respond to all comments, good or bad. They can no longer believe that social and content is a quick, easy, cool and fun way to interact with the people to show they have a heart beating inside their corporate logo-embossed chest, and then stick their head in the sand when their pool party turns sour.

Maybe I’ll send a presentation on all this to their marketing team. But I better send it via FedEx.

*She wasn’t. Diane was a true nature-loving legend of the century.

Hello, is anyone there?


In a world of data and automated systems, it’s getting harder to get good service from brands. They want information – a valuable currency – from us but sometimes aren’t willing to spend money – the other valuable currency – trying to get it. It’s called a ‘value exchange’.

Every now and then, I like to test the automated systems of brands. Just to see if anyone is watching. Or if anyone cares.

When the trusty old Yellow Pages (remember them in the days before the internet?) were trying to compete against online search, they implemented a freecall number with an automated system that allowed you to say the name of the company you were wishing to call. Voice recognition software then (hopefully) provided you with the right response and connected you to the requested company. In it’s launch period, it was a little glitchy. And the telco knew it so they had all calls monitored with a real life human being ready to jump on the line and help the caller – as I discovered when, instead of giving the company name to the auto system, I said “I fucking hate these things”, to which I heard the click of the human operator switch in and reply “so do I. What can I help you with?”

But now, pretty much all the auto systems are left to the 1’s and 0’s of a processor.

Here’s the SMS ‘conversation’ I had recently with Thames Water: