All posts by Adam

I am so bored of brand purpose

Arghhh. It’s total bullshit. I’m so, so bored of it. Somewhere out there in the ether, at the intersection where sustainability, irrelevance and populism collide, every brand under the sun decided it needed a lofty purpose to make it matter to everybody, everywhere, all of the time, forever.

I present Exhibit A: the new Cadbury Heroes ad. Off the back of a tenuous link about “the little things that bring us together”, we get a cloying, overblown, honestly insipid TWENTY-ONE MINUTE VIDEO from a fucking chocolate selection box brand, about the lengths that a few parents will go to in order to reconnect with their slightly distant kids. This is it: we have reached the zenith of doe-eyed brand values that look well-meaning but have this weirdly sinister edge to them, like one day Cadbury might run your local foodbank or some shit.

Okay, look, I’m swearing a lot. But I am so tired of every business deciding it has a high-reaching, emotive raison d’etre. “Families Reunited” sounds like a now-defunct crossover between a genealogy website and a 90s social media platform. This is not the right level for a box of chocolates to be playing at. Know your place, for god’s sake.

There is, to be clear, a world of difference between this campaign and the 2018 Cadbury “Mum’s Birthday” TVC, which was born from the same notion of generosity as the above monstrosity, but delivered it in a beautiful, emotional, satisfying minute of advertising. One is rooted in real life; the other is contrived. One is honestly moving; the other is eye-rollingly cheesy. One lasts sixty seconds; the other drags itself out for twenty-one minutes. Okay, fine, there are much shorter cuts in the media plan. But Cadbury Heroes do not deserve twenty-one minutes of my time unless I am eating them.

Why do you care so much, Adam? Well, aside from the fact I have to wade through mountains of this happy-clappy nonsense every week in my role at Finn, I care because this purpose-y trash is killing creativity and it has to stop right now before it’s too late. Can’t be bothered to develop a real idea that people will find genuinely interesting or exciting? Just save a kitten or something (and then dress it in a t-shirt with your logo on it, probably).

On one side of the marketing mix, you’ve got performance media, which everyone has agreed has crippled creativity by pulling the focus to algorithms and efficiency. We’re just about learning how to get over that.

But on the other side, you’ve now got this whole new dimension of excuses not to think about stuff. LGBT sandwiches for Pride. Pepsi x Kendall Jenner. Whatever this is. It all comes from the same dull place: a firm belief that brands should be saving the world, but no conviction behind it and consequently no grounding in reality.

None of this is to say that brands shouldn’t know what they stand for, or do good things in the world. I am genuinely all for it. This is about the pervasiveness of purpose as an ideal for all marketing to aspire to, the idea that if something (to the naked eye) has its “heart in the right place”, then it deserves adulation and attention. We’re past that, now. Way, way past it.

It’s an alternate universe where all content is created by brands, all causes are sponsored by NPD, and all our existing emotions are the product of advertising. If this example seems innocuous, that’s my whole point; purpose is the new wallpaper, and if you don’t have anything worth saying, then for heaven’s sake shut up.

How to build the right agency roster

Agencies have gotten very good at talking about how complicated the marketing mix is nowadays and, for the most part, it’s a defence mechanism that clients need to be confident in seeing through. Fine, fine; there are theoretically more channels than ever before. But that’s no excuse for rostering 8 different agencies and letting them do each other’s jobs. So here’s some thoughts I’ve had this year about what an effective (and not inefficient) agency blend looks like.

Don’t just expect everybody to play nice

Ah, I’m serious. Find agencies that aren’t dicks, obviously – and by all means impress upon them the need to collaborate. Cross-agency collaboration is, as we’ve all read so many times, the future.

But getting teams to work together in a way that’s both sustainable and progressive isn’t easy, so set boundaries, and be clear about the value you see in each agency partner.

If you disparage one agency’s work in front of another, it’ll only lead to opportunism and a breakdown in trust between the people who should be focused on doing great work. If you see issues, raise them and act accordingly. But keep all-agencies constructive. Anything else will cause more pain than it’s worth.

Find a lead agency that will focus on the big picture

Someone needs to lead the conversation when you’re not in the room, and whoever that is needs to know they’re being judged on the overall plan that gets delivered, not just their specialist segment of it.

Do not expect this selection to happen naturally; all you’ll get is a bunch of egos butting heads and rolling their eyes as soon as you leave the room.

Some agencies are good at playing the lead; others, though hugely talented in their specialism, are useless at it. Their role should be a strategic one that covers the overarching approach. They don’t need to be your creative partner – although having the two under the same roof can be hugely effective.

Get as much execution out of that lead agency as you feel comfortable with

If you feel there are channels that your lead agency can execute from farm to table, I highly recommend making use of that. Don’t approach it as a cost-cutting exercise, even if you might be tempted. You might save a bit on account management costs, but the real value is in the quality of the work you’ll get, and the time it will (won’t) take to get there.

If they can’t take something from concept to delivery, though, don’t ask them to do half of the job. Get the lead agency to brief off channel-agnostic strategic & creative thinking to someone who can adapt and deliver it, and make sure to listen to their opinion on how well the channel response meets the brief.

Set overall budgets in collaboration with your lead agency

As your objectives shift, your budget breakdown should do the same. But agencies are pre-disposed to pitch for as much budget as is available. They also have a tendency to think everything looks like a nail, just because they’re holding a hammer.

Work out the role and importance of channels before you brief executing agencies. This might mean you have to start a little earlier, but it’s worth it; going to your PR agency with a £50k budget and asking them to respond to a sub-brief (drive trust on a regional level, say) is much more effective – and efficient – than throwing everyone the same document and “working out the details” further down the line.

By all means, remain flexible; if someone comes back to you with a golden idea within their specialism, but it’s £15k out of budget, there will be a decision to make as to where that budget can be found. But don’t get wowed by stretch budgets as a rule; stick to the principles you’ve laid down.

Build for the long-term

One of the biggest issues with building sustainable agency rosters is that every piece of that puzzle is continually trying to grow what it can do for you. Sometimes that’s a land-grab on other agencies’ territory; other times it’s a new direction altogether.

This behaviour is deep-seated, and it causes problems because: what if the next 12 months don’t call for any experiential? What if the website isn’t the priority this year? Your agency partner will try to convince you that their discipline is still super-relevant to the mix, and you have to be savvy enough to see through the bullshit.

But one useful way to counteract this can be to find trusted partners and set expectations at the outset of the relationship. Agencies have a tendency to panic when budgets get cut; make sure they know it’s not because you don’t see the value in what they do, but just that you need a different kind of value this time out. Be open to being proven wrong, but base your decisions on evidence.

You Get To Grieve And You Get To Love

You get to grieve, and you get to love. That’s all.

Your hate has no place; your anger has no place. I’m no Jedi, but if I were (and I am) I would say those things are for the dark side.

The timeline bends thus:

1 minute after impact, the world is awful and evil exists, for one of those rare moments. Fear is natural and fear is human and fear is okay.

10 minutes after impact, the world is beautiful. Look for the helpers. Nothing unites like a threat to divide. The tragedy persists; the pain persists. But through it, the story is one of community, of resilience, of togetherness.

10 days after impact, the love wears off, and the cowards start talking.

Stop it. Stop them.

You get to grieve, and you get to love. That’s all.

If these people had a mission statement (and they do) it would say “to divide”.

Update your definition of “courageous” to stretch beyond that of “bold”, to be conscientious and level-headed.

You get to blame the specific, disgusting humans that did it and facilitated it. But beyond that, you get to grieve, and you get to love.

Steel

Suddenly, I felt it:
steel, still,
a shard of ice thought melted,
in eyes
that had always found a way
to glitter when
my calm cried out for
friction, so
thanks, guess I forgot
what it was like to have a
nemesis, to be doubted, to clench my fists,
to feel that
fight foment;
and may well be that you
are not the threat,
but just the mascot of it,
not regret but some projection,
not iceberg, but apex of it –
either way,
we all tread water sometimes,
’til the waves form into sharp lines
and there’s teeth to swim away from
somewhere in the depths

So what I mean is thanks for baring teeth;
I hope it’s okay if I kick them in.

Spoiler

Your death is a spoiler,
heard and forgotten,
gathering dust
at the back
of the clubs you frequent,
things you “actually meant”,
and left to
go rotten.

Your life is a Walter
White,
rattled by tension,
just out of sight,
glimmers of evening that reflect the night,
and too short to mention.

What lies in
between is a whisper,
early to bed,
still a good listener.

What lies at the end
is a die,
always a number,
roll for
how high.

Writers write

But to be a writer you must write,
you said,
you fucking fraud,
how dare you summon up
the arrogance to soak up that applause?
Amid the heavy,
freezing hurricane
of post-truth and alt-fact,
get disconnected,
get dejected,
get your old placebo back,
the one that kicked you in your fucking face
and you,
just,
bloody,
grinned,
as every retina you’d ever burned
got clattered into, chinned,
you used to dream in vivid colour,
don’t the vivid hues feel nice,
doesn’t it feel comprehensively okay to simply
write?

Grovelling

One limb hanging off, a misfiring prosthetic,
a grovelling, desperate gargoyle,
pathetic.

A weather vane pointing to history –
let it;
a value that’s tested by trade deals –
forget it.

This 21st Century monologue nation
will run back to past loves
with no condemnation,
will find itself hoarse
with a wavering cadence,
will call drunk at midnight
in wound up temptation.

And all in a wretched attempt to make clear
that we’re fine from the break-up,
the blast threw us clear.

So hazy, we dance with a dangerous beast;
we are ugly,
disgusting,
deluded,
diseased.

Trump and the Problem with History Lessons

It’s 2017, and there’s literally no way to mention Hitler or Nazi Germany online without inciting several rolled eyes and at least a couple of avid proclamations of Godwin’s Law. Somehow, we found ourselves here, where the 20th Century’s worst atrocities lead a double life: a brand-name shorthand for true evil, moonlighting as a hackneyed joke from that other universe known as the Past.

It’s the fault, of course, of all those who coined the term “grammar Nazis,” or who lightly and carelessly compared a minor inconvenience to the Holocaust for a cheap laugh. It’s the fault of overblown comparisons related to local council bureaucracy. And mostly, it’s the fault of the way we teach history, where grand narratives and dramatic, symbolic moments supersede intricacy and qualification.

Apart from a minority (who, I cross my fingers, are subject to more and more punches to the face), we’ll all hopefully agree that World War II, the rise of the Third Reich, and the Holocaust, were unbelievably dark periods in human history that we should endeavour to avoid again at all costs. But while every schoolchild knows about Auschwitz and Anne Frank, what they don’t get taught – and it surely can’t be for the sake of protecting them from trauma – are the political and social conditions that made it possible.

If you were living in Germany during Hitler’s rise, you’d have fought back. You’d have spoken up as he cynically focused his political message towards groups impacted by the Depression, like farmers and the middle class. You’d have stood up and been counted when Hitler suspended many basic rights in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire. When Goebbels took control of large swathes of the mass media and began a campaign to dictate the concept of “truth”, you’d have seen through it and the revolution would have been televised.

Because the 1930s and 1940s were a different world entirely, and back then, people were stupid.

So when Donald Trump issues a media blackout at the EPA, it’s different. This can’t lead to that.

And when Sean Spicer uses his role as White House Press Secretary to distribute a press release with a list of positive coverage of Trump’s first week, it’s different. This can’t lead to that.

And when Trump signs an Executive Order announcing the publication of a weekly list of crimes committed by “aliens”, it’s different. I swear.

This can’t lead to that.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we’re going to end up with concentration camps spread across the USA. That would be insane. Because nobody would use the words “concentration camp” in 2017.

White Workers and the Left’s Privilege Problem

It is, genuinely, difficult to imagine a person less qualified to be President of the United States than Donald Trump. This is not a paragraph or an article about him. The ire directed at him is entirely valid; he is infuriating, disgusting and incompetent. But this is an article about why people – predominantly white working-class people – voted for him. Because they did.

It is not enough to say that they are racist, though on balance they certainly are. If the left wants to reverse the current, worrying trend of right-wing isolationism, it needs to prevent people like Donald Trump from exploiting what lies underneath that racism, and using it as a base for his bigoted breakthrough messaging.

The context in which these voters – white, blue collar, many uneducated – find their grievance has three key facets. Firstly, they have been told, by cynical propagators of the American Dream, that they can achieve whatever they put their mind to in life if they work hard enough. Second, they have seen the ceiling for that power and wealth grow away from them, provoking inspiration and frustration in equal measure. And third, and most crucially, they bear the frustration of this dynamic most sharply because they have been told they are privileged.

They are, of course, privileged. They enjoy cultural and social acceptance, employers hire them, police don’t shoot them on sight, and they are more likely to have routes out of poverty. This is not an argument that the demographic in question is in some way beaten down. The sentiment that the white working man is an oppressed group is born from distinctly racist scapegoat narratives pushed by the beneficiaries of, yes, a “rigged” system.

And yet…

In the context of an American Dreamworld where such a tiny proportion of people climb the ladder out of the middle class grind despite the ever-present promise that it could happen, to hear the word “privilege” is to hear the word “failure”. The failure is the system’s, but the system doesn’t admit it. The trigger for white working and middle class frustration is the fear that, deep down, they’re not capitalising on the privilege they’re told they have. They see other demographic groups gaining ground on them and it scares them to be consumed into a mass of the “others” who haven’t made it and probably never will. And that’s when they start listening to somebody like Donald Trump, who tells them that the failure they silently feel can be fixed.

The fear and sense of failure is actually allayed on a raw, almost devastating level; what Trump’s message does is insinuate that he’ll put the people catching up back in their box. It’s a sleight of hand trick; he (and other right-wing leaders) make the best-off of a chasing pack feel like they’re moving forwards by standing them next to others on a backwards-moving treadmill. It’s never explicitly stated. It’s entangled with real-world rhetoric around jobs and security. But that’s the diversion. The core of the argument is: I will make you feel superior again.

The problem this poses to the left is crucial to winning back these people. Voting is an emotional activity for most of us, and fear is an enormously powerful emotion. Much of Clinton’s vote in this election was driven by fear of Trump. To untangle this emotional connection through carefully-crafted facts is impossible. Progressives need an equal and opposite reaction; they need to eliminate the sense of failure felt so keenly by this demographic. But how?

One way is to integrate communities more effectively. It is easy to think of this as cliché pandering in the direct aftermath of an election, but antagonism and a sense of division will only exacerbate the issue. If white working-class people (predominantly, but by no means exclusively, men) cannot win – and by and large, they can’t – then they won’t stop being angry, and if they can placate that anger temporarily by turning up the speed on the backwards treadmill next to them, they will do it. By merging the two treadmills, growing the pool of communities who feel disenfranchised, and interweaving people so they understand each other, it’s viable to create a broad church of people who punch up rather than down. This is easier said than done, but there are some general lessons to be had.

The second way is to stop talking about privilege. I’m a white guy saying this; I may get some flak for it. But while privilege is an accurate fulcrum for social discussion in 2016, it is an alienating one in the contexts described above and it is killing the left’s chances of winning back that enormous group of voters. I am not usually such a pragmatist, but what happened on November 8th seems so easily pulled from a history book that we need to stand the fuck still and rethink how we talk to 48% of the population. Some voters – the evangelicals, the anarchists and the dinosaurs – are beyond electoral persuasion. Most of them are not.

When privilege is discussed it is often invoked in a dismissive way; I’ve done it myself and so have most of the progressives I know. This toning and rhetoric and the immediate sense of division it causes are perilous for social cohesion. I understand it. I’m not lambasting any marginalised person for reacting with anger or passion or exhaustion when trying to explain how their experiences differ from someone else’s.

But those of us who have the choice, when we have the choice, must start being more inclusive about our anger, because while segments of it belong to people of colour or LGBT folks or non-males, a whole lot more of it belongs to practically fucking everyone.

 

An Open Letter From a Brexit-broken Brit to a Trump-trashed America

Sorry.

It doesn’t cut it, I know. But I know it’s what I wanted to hear waking up on June 24th after Brexit. They’re going to gloat – the racists and the isolationists and the misogynists. And you’re going to have to deal with weeks of “get over it”. So, passionately, from this side of the Atlantic to that side: sorry.

Sorry about the pride you’ve probably lost in your nation. A lot of young people don’t really feel patriotic because we were born and raised in an era where geographical borders never stood as the same barriers that they once did. But the sense of pride you’ve probably felt seeping away from you is a tangible thing to lose; from what we can tell in the UK, it scars and the sense of loss sticks around. It’s an awful feeling.

Sorry about the way the next month or so is going to play out. If it’s anything like it was here, the right will see a resurgence, racists will be emboldened, the economy will shake then stabilise in anticipation of further shocks to come. Sorry about the division that now exists in your country, and sorry that the people who won aren’t going to care much for sewing it back together. It’s going to be a rough few weeks. It’s time to buckle up and get out your coping mechanisms.

You will walk down the street and rightly wonder which 52% of people thought it was a good idea to put this lunatic in the White House. The people who did vote for him will largely be oblivious, ecstatic and insufferable.

Sorry for the long-term damage that it will cause. When all’s said and done, things will settle down, Trump will surround himself with people who actually have some faint clue what they’re doing, and get on, sort of, maybe, with running the country, in between opening hotels and grabbing women by the pussy. And there will be difficult times ahead with abortion, gay rights, immigration, trade and foreign policy. The rest of us get to look forward to those last two alongside you.

Sorry. On so many levels. I wish there were a solution to any of these things, but we didn’t find one, and I’m not sure you will either. It sucks to be that blunt about things. In all likelihood, there will be a President Trump. The next 4-6 weeks will be nigh-on impossible. The agenda will lurch towards the right. It will hurt, both personally and socially. And the only thing to do while it happens is stick together.

Stick together. You’re going to need all the support you can get to remind you that only just over half of the country felt compelled to elect a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women to the highest office in your country. “Only” just over half may sound glib, but in the next few weeks it’s going to feel at times like everyone except you ticked the Trump box. So make sure you surround yourself with enough people who remind you that fear and bigotry may have won this time but won’t always. Make sure you find ways to support other people and be supported by them.

Make sure you find the energy to keep fighting. It’s shattering. In the aftermath of Brexit, I declared myself done with politics, done with the UK, done with swathes of its population. I’m still jaded. I’m still shattered and exhausted by it all. But the one thing that does wear off given time is the tiredness. Give yourself some downtime. Get through the next couple of weeks. And then something will catch your eye and you’ll get angry again. It’ll be a painful process to navigate, but you don’t have an option, because you’re good people. Eventually you’ll clench your fists again, even if right now you only feel like sleeping for weeks.

Ultimately, the world carries on. It’ll look darker, dumber, dimmer, harsher, and more difficult than before. It’ll change the way you look at people and the way you think about “community” and other abstract concepts. It’ll change a lot beyond that. And so I don’t mean to be dismissive when I say that the world will continue to turn and you need to find comfort in the good people you know and love. It’s just the only thing worth learning that British progressives have had going for them in the 5 months since Brexit. I hope it’s enough to cling to while you work this shit out.