Strategy – what the #@*! is it anyway?

A presentation I gave at Bristol Media’s Masterclass session the other day.

It’s about strategy, obviously, and re-visits a few subjects I’ve explored here before.

Law, learning and culture

It’s never just the talks that make Firestarters so valuable. It’s the conversations.

An idea may have begun to form during Paul Feldwick’s lecture on what advertising thinks about itself. But it only really took hold once it had been allowed to audibly work itself out later.

The verbal thinking-throughs this time were thanks to Google minglers, the pub chat later, and my mate Jason after that. He not only put me up, he also put up with me. He’s a lawyer, and as I was bending his ear later, this perspective helpfully illuminated the premise of this week’s talk.

Paul Feldwick says that in advertising you rarely need to prove anything. Knowledge is not so much accumulated as asserted. Multiple narratives compete for primacy and the best story teller gets the headlines. Different ideas of how advertising works – and even of what it is – echo through our processes and practices with little shared understanding of where they come from. Ideas graduate with minimal friction to the status of ideology. Meaningful debate is difficult, because it’s driven by dogma rather than a derived understanding of what is effective. Best practice is less a religion than it is a faith. No one expects you to have any knowledge of what came before.

In law, without that knowledge you can’t practice. Qualifications speak to your education and expertise. The relationship between specific cases and general theory is debated with delicate nuance and forensic attention to detail. There is a cumulative baseline of knowledge and craft. That craft is applied within strict guidelines yet remains subjective, creative and rigorous.

I’ve written before – sort of – about advertising’s reluctance to accept lessons from its forbears. But I’ve never really thought about it properly. Paul’s thesis is rigorously researched, illuminating and appears one of those theories that seems so obvious once it’s explained that you feel a little bit silly for not having it recognised it before.

You might even CHANGE EVERYTHING if that wasn’t so obviously falling into the Year Zero narrative trap that Paul specifically pointed out.

I’m looking forward to reading the book, and this mulling has already got me thinking about where our institutional tendency might come from. Advertising isn’t quite like law, just like it isn’t quite like a lot of other things: science, art, entertainment. It acts like and learns from each of those realms at times. But as Paul was talking it struck me that maybe advertising behaves more like something else.


Culture isn’t codified like law. Culture, specifically youth culture, often defines itself against the past even as it remains haunted by it. The new dismisses and denies aspects of the old; it reclaims and revives others. In particular, in the world of pop music this impulse is generational and ideological. Punk’s patricide of peace and love, or the radical reinventions in jazz that would render the previous style instantly obsolete – these moments are more than fashion. They are an obsession with and an expression of the new.

Since at least the 60s advertising has been populated by thrusting young things. It offers them a natural habitat situated halfway between youthful rebellion and corporate adulthood. The industry’s history is punctuated by periodic injections of that cultural exuberance and frequent hits of technological change. Maybe that’s why we’ve institutionalised the kind of narratives that dismiss, deny and misinterpret the past. We like to think of ourselves as always changing.

The IPA’s flagship training programme, the Excellence Diploma, embodies this duality. Students are tested rigorously and intensively on the canon of marketing and advertising. It then culminates in a dissertation where they are asked to come up with an entirely original theory of brands – a new way of seeing that might give rise to a new ideology or dogma.

Is this culture comparison a useful one?

My own love of music and youth culture was – is – all encompassing. I would fall for the aesthetic, influences and ideologies that my favourite musicians espoused. I would willingly get tangled in the tendrils of the musical family tree. This led to that by way of this which is against that which hated that. Sometimes this led to conflicts. Could I like this and that? Things I loved came from different worlds. But they were so compelling that it was inevitable I would fall under both spells. The inconsistencies just had to work themselves out.

Sometimes advertising feels like that. Opposing ideologies each as seductive as the other. Long term effectiveness, yeah! Test and learn and agile – you bet! Which one am I today? With music these multiple identities would influence how I dressed. Maybe today it affects my thinking and my powerpoint.

Of course, with time and distance the stylistic tribalism dissipates. You pan out. Up close the differences are everything. But at a distance it’s the similarities that resonate. You realise the dogma is a distraction. You search for deeper meaning and better connections.

I was sharing this theory (the one about music) with Phil in the pub. (At least I think I was, it was the pub.). He acknowledged that when he was at school you could either be punk or heavy metal. Never both. Yet zoom out – from further away you could maybe squint and just about make out some blokes with guitars. Another example – imagine a mod and a disco fan. Superficially different, but essentially the same – which is why Quadrophenia has exactly the same plot as Saturday Night Fever. (Although more specifically, this is the real reason for that.)

Maybe this was just me. And it doesn’t matter all that much. But let’s stretch the analogy anyway.

When I started buying and listening to music, you chose from what you found in the record shop and connect it what you read once a week in NME. No one taught you taste. Apart perhaps from some influential and clued-up people you were lucky enough to know in person. You had to learn and graduate from there. You guessed there were rules but you had to work them out. You certainly wouldn’t let anyone know you weren’t really qualified. Looking back you realise how little you knew and cringe at some of the things you said. You thought you were inventing this. What you loved you thought was entirely original.

Now with Spotify, blogs and whatever else you can realise there is nothing new under the sun. And it’s never been easier to be inspired by what came before. You can choose from an endless present, with no boundaries in style or time. You can see where it all came from but not be burdened by history. The pressure’s off because you can realise more quickly how it all connects. You can research about it all in private and not pay quite so much for your inevitable mis-steps. There are rules, but you can focus on what works for you. You needn’t be trapped by the dogma that happens to prevail when you start. And you realise how much there is to know and how impossible it is for anyone to have and apply all that knowledge all the time.

Why would you even try?

Thanks to Paul Feldwick’s talk – and the conversations it sparked – I feel like someone who’s just opened up Spotify for the first time.

The art of winning

You couldn’t call it a conversation, exactly. More an exchange in two parts.

Part one was when I was one of an audience of a few hundred at the Guildhall in Bath, and I asked Alastair Campbell a question from the floor.

That looked like this.


Part two was when I queued up to get a copy of his new book signed and he apologised for his “crap answer” to my question.

And that looked like this.


I laughed. His answer wasn’t crap. It wasn’t conclusive, but it certainly wasn’t crap. His book cover is, though, a bit.


And I think now that should have been my response. “Your answer wasn’t crap but your book cover is.”

I don’t know if he would have laughed back.

Except maybe he would. I reckon that cover is cheesy enough for me not to have bought the book had I only seen it in a shop. But I felt compelled to buy it once I’d heard him talk at the Bath Literary Festival. But as I paid for that too, Alastair Campbell has now taken my money twice for something I instinctively might not have wanted.

I think he would laugh at that. I think he’d also call it winning.

Alastair Campbell knows a lot about winning. He loves winning, and he loves winners. His new book – and its crap cover – is filled with them. In it he examines winners from different fields (mainly politics, business and sport) to see what they have in common and what we can learn from them.

Campbell was a commanding and funny presence. You feel like you’re learning a lot – the power of some insightful anecdotes and a convincing way with words. Maybe that’s not surprising. He is a journalist and a storyteller after all. But one of the pleasures of knowing someone has the ability to charm and influence is allowing them to charm and influence you.

So he not only wins, he wins you over.

He’d been talking about what he sees as the fundamental element of winning, what he calls OST: Objective, Strategy, Tactics.

A clear objective. A defined strategy. Tactics in line with each. So obvious it should barely be worth writing about. Now, time will tell whether the book hits the heights of Richard Rumelt, but for now, as a 30 second distillation of what I do each day, this is pretty damn good. I’ve been using the construct all week, on the fly and with others. It’s so simple and accessible.

And as Dave Trott pointed out again this week people often ignore the simple solution. We are seduced by the most complicated solution available.

Our tendency is to widen focus. A strategist’s job must be to reduce it. And to maintain that focus, continually. Even, or perhaps especially, when things change.

My question to Campbell was about that moment of change. He’d said that part of leadership was the ability to adapt. What, then, is the difference between a wayward tactic and a smart adaption of strategy? And, how do we recognise which is which?

He answered by contrasting two winners who see adaptability very differently.

Gary Kasparov is a chess master. He says you should change strategy only if absolutely necessary. Of course, ‘absolutely necessary’ is a pretty mutable concept. But his point is that the strategy should be rigorous and good enough that it can withstand the onslaught for which it’s been prepared. Have faith in it, it should be good enough.

But then he would say that. He’s a chess master.

Jose Mourinho is a football manager. He devises a ‘tactical model’ for every match. The model is based on the premise that at any point in a football match there are very few options for what could happen next. If a goalkeeper has the ball, he can choose to roll it to a nearby player to left or the right or middle, or kick it long. If a team loses possession of the ball they will go forward or back. Every match that Mourinho’s teams play is planned to the extent that each player knows what to do at any of these moments. His teams are conditionally programmed. They’re like an 11 human IFTTTs.

Mourinho’s view is that if the tactical model isn’t working then you need a new strategy. So he will shift models mid-match and get his team playing to a different set of variables. These are also programmed, and practised. The players just have to switch system.

So Campbell answered my question by sharing the approaches of two very different winners. Each takes a different view of what constitutes strategy and tactics, but each shares an assumption that strategy cannot exist in theory or in isolation. It must plan for the unexpected. It must plan for change.

A strategy is only as good as how it is crafted for the real world.

I wrote recently about how a good strategy should account for the very human way in which it is to be executed. But equally, Campbell reminds us that strategy is never actually done. It can’t accommodate every eventuality. As well as being clear and decisive, it is also fluid, always becoming.

Campbell highlighted the fuel crisis and the foot and mouth outbreak as examples when his own team underestimated the significance of unexpected events. The government thought these issues required a tactical response. As the events grew in duration, scale and intensity it became obvious that they represented a bigger shift. Something had changed in the discourse. A fresh evaluation of the strategy was needed.

Perceiving the difference between adaption and distraction is not easy. Even Campbell got it wrong (on bigger things than foot and mouth too). It’s fuzzy. There’s no hard and fast rule. Maybe it just comes with experience. Perhaps that’s why his response to my question came in the form of two different case studies rather than a snappy sound bite. Perhaps that’s why he thought it was crap.

But I don’t agree. I think it’s OK to be a little unsure. Because if strategy is fluid, we must be open to possibilities. And while we can be seduced by complexity, certainty can make us blind.

An announcement

This isn’t one of those game-changer posts. The type that is being published a lot right now.

It’s not designed to force the industry to confront its entrenched structural problems. I have no epiphany with which to inspire you to do great work in new ways. I’m not advocating a new future for yourself, nor am I revolting against the agency model. I wouldn’t presume to know the answer, or have that much clout.

But I do have some news. And it is about a different path. It’s small for the industry. But big to us.

I am leaving Isobar – and London – at the end of October.

We are moving to Bristol.

It’s been a bit of a shock to some. Others have responded with warmth and, sometimes, envy.

Some people get it straight away, but lots of reactions often come in the form of questions. Why, since when, why, what, how soon, why? Why sure does crop up a lot. You feel obliged to provide a clear narrative when, of course, there isn’t one. There are just multiple characters, many different motivations and competing sub-plots.

But here’s my best effort.

My wife and I have been in London for fifteen years. We were just kids when we arrived – 23, 24. We’ve picked up friends and put down roots, owned two houses and had three children. My mum says we’ve given the lie to the idea that London has to be lonely. The opposite is true, in fact – we’ve had an amazing time. I would recommend it to anyone.

But now we are going.

Lots of working parents in London leave. Particularly, I suspect, those who didn’t grow up here. Maybe they return to what’s familiar. Maybe they choose the commuter belt as the door to a better quality of life. Most chase the middle-class ideal of ‘more space’. We can identify with that. The bigger children get, the more space you crave – inside the house and beyond it.

We love urban living, though. The buzz, the culture, the coffee. Community and anonymity.

We also want fulfilling work alongside a home life that doesn’t feel like it’s squeezed into the gaps in between. And while I have enjoyed my work more in the last few years than at any other time in my life, at some level I think all five of us felt we were paying for it.

In time, mainly. Time with and for each other.

I think we’re ready as a family to make a new contract with ourselves. One with different terms for everyone.

Our vision was a city life with home, school and work all within 15 minutes of each other. Sounds simple, but as with most things that are simple, it took a long time to get to. About five years of talking about The Future. Trying to agree on what’s important and working out how we might build a life around that.

And that’s before you work out whether it’s possible.

But we got there. And we settled on – arrived at – Bristol.

We used to live there, but it’s been long enough to feel like new as well as familiar. It’s a fertile, creative city. Graffiti and green space in equal measure. Annual festivals named after and celebrating the important things in life – like balloons! and ideas! It’s the European Green Capital for 2015. The Watershed has a Playable City award to reward initiatives that celebrate the use of technology to help citizens reclaim their civic space.

It’s a cool place. The sort of place we like.

And there’s a brilliant scene of smart, creative, digital businesses, too.

From November I will be head of strategy at one: True Digital, a full-service digital agency based in the heart of Bristol. They are ten years old, independent and keen to expand. They are smart, analytic and friendly. They understand that insight powers creativity, and that creativity is an essential ingredient any client needs from its agency to help deliver commercial success.

I’m excited.

But I’m also sad, and a little scared too.

Sad because London is the place we’ve made our home. Our friends and memories are here. That’s hard to let go of.

And then there’s the agency. Isobar is about to have an amazing couple of years. In Nick, Jon and Pats it has gifted, inspirational leaders that will create something brilliant. They carry people with them and I’m envious of the people going on that journey.

But as Scott said to me recently, any decision worth making has a lot at stake. To gain something you need to give up something. Acknowledge the discomfort, but don’t second-guess yourself.

So, we’re riding the emotional wave. We’re four-fifths left already, and I finish at Isobar next week. We don’t fully know how we feel about it, of course, but I suspect we won’t quite know that for a long time.

That’s OK. It’s a decision for two, five, ten years’ time as much as it is for now.

And I’ve had enough people tell me they’re jealous that there might just be something in it.

Then there’s scared.

Scared is OK too, though. Scared can galvanise. As I’ve quoted before, boldness has genius, power and magic in it. You can’t learn what you’re capable of without leaps into the unknown. And I’ve had a few of those.

Moving to London and taking a graduate job in media sales. Jumping at the offer from MEC to get out of that and into agencies. And when someone like Pats offers you a role as head of social strategy at Isobar, it needn’t get in the way that you’ve never done social before, nor ever worked in a creative agency. Just go for it.

These leaps have allowed me to learn loads, from so many amazing people.

So, really, this is just the next scary leap. Only this time it hasn’t chosen us. We’ve chosen it.

Until recently, arriving into Bristol from London by car meant you would be greeted by a sign, featuring a quote from Tony Benn, a very Bristol sort of hero. I kept seeing it as we started our explorations a few months back. Whenever I’ve felt uncertain, it’s come back to me.

Tony Benn Bristol

Time to take the leap.

New formats and patterns

I’ve just finished a book, called Where’d You Go, Bernadette? It’s by Maria Semple, who used to write comedy for TV shows like SNL and Arrested Development. Now she’s writing novels.

Just as its creator crossed boundaries, so does the book. It’s an epistolary novel, a traditional form where the story is told through letters. Only it being two thousand and something, those letters take the form of emails, diary entries, formal letters and magazine articles.

At the back of the book, there’s a section that begins with this page.


In this section are a notes for discussion, a short interview with the writer, and suggestions for further reading.

I know this is pretty commonplace now. But it struck me: the book assimilates a vernacular style and written forms that most readers will be familiar with using themselves. It seems very appropriate therefore that the publisher, too, has assimilated new patterns of attention that have organically grown up around books.

Acknowledging reading groups is an interesting publishing innovation. It doesn’t necessarily add much to what a buyer is prepared to pay, I imagine. In fact, it only adds further value once the reader has finished the book.

But it accepts the reality that books can have a life for the reader beyond that moment. We lend and borrow them. They sit on shelves as mementoes of our cultural and imaginative life.

And, we join reading groups. As elsewhere, the life of a thing we consume is changing. It is extended. It is experienced in new formats. And that new experience which the thing inspired, is being incorporated into the thing itself.

It reminded me of something I haven’t seen much of yet, but have thought about trying out recently. Not with books, but with box sets.

We’re very used to DVD commentary incorporated into the experience, of course. But that’s less a new pattern of attention and more a technology-enabled value add. Supposedly.

And I keep thinking that some box sets would lend themselves brilliantly to the reading group format. The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking BadSix Feet Under. Shows like this have already inspired blogs and the community that grows up around them. Even, in the case of The Wire, a book inspired by the blog.

Also, are there enough shows that warrant getting a group together? How it would work? Would you do one season at a time? But then, one person’s selection of material would lead to half a year of your life being taken over. It would take you three years just to get the five I’ve mentioned.

So, perhaps a small band of viewers meeting physically isn’t needed.

But then, maybe it is.

Maybe it would be amazing to really, properly watch them, just as a reading group asks you to really, properly read novels.

Maybe it’s already happening.

Everyone I know would love to watch at least one again. Just to see if they really are as rich as the novels that sometimes inspire them.

What do you think? Have you done it? How would it work?

Progressive thinking

Morris Ernst was an American lawyer.

In 1933, he made it possible for James Joyce’s Ulysses to be legally published in the US for the first time.

By then, Ulysses was more than ten years old. Joyce had taken eight years just to write it. It was first published in book form by Shakespeare and Co, a book shop in Paris, but it had already been serialised in literary magazines as it was being written.

Those magazines had been withdrawn from circulation – the Ulysses excerpts were deemed obscene. The book itself was sold under the radar and distributed through the post. That too was banned.

The obscenity laws in America had been aggressively enforced for decades. This was down to the Comstock Act, a peevish piece of legislation named after a crusading puritan who ran the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Imagine Mary Whitehouse, but with actual power.

The Act outlawed anything “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent or disgusting”.

That’s a definition that is both comprehensive and vague – no mean feat. Needless to say, Ulysses, with its swear words and unprecedented portrayal of sex, fell easily within its sights.

But Ernst had a plan.

The avant-garde and the modernists loved Ulysess and a brave publisher called Random House wanted to print  it.

Progressive opinion was on his side.

Ernst reckoned that if he could re-frame the debate he might have a chance.

He reckoned that if Ulysses was judged solely on its literary value, rather than whether it was obscene, he could change people’s minds.

It wouldn’t be easy.

The concept of ‘literary context’ didn’t exist back then. Judges weren’t obliged to consider any part of books on trial that weren’t offensive. They routinely barred expert literary witnesses from trials, so the literati Ernst had lined up for the trial might not even be called.

Ernst did the usual procedural stuff. He delayed and deferred the court date until the right judge – a literary liberal – got assigned to the case.

He waived his right to a jury. Which meant he was only dealing with one set of prejudices, not thirteen.

But the masterstrokes came before the trial.

Ernst needed the government to seize a copy in order to prosecute. That gave him an opportunity to engineer the situation to his advantage.

If he tried to sell the book, the book would be prosecuted under the Comstock Act. But if he imported it, it would be prosecuted under the Traffic Act instead.

The Traffic Act didn’t ban what was “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent or disgusting”. It only banned what was “obscene”.

So that meant one subjective adjective, not six. Which would make winning the argument a lot easier.

So Ernst boarded the ferry to Detroit himself and demanded to be searched.

They found the book.

But most brilliant of all was how Ernst engineered what book they found.

The government only required one book to find grounds for prosecution.

So Ernst only needed one copy.

That meant Random House saved an awful lot of money. (Incredibly, the US routinely burned books back then.)

But what it really meant was this.

He could control the evidence that made it into the courtroom.

The book wasn’t just the target of the prosecution.

It was Exhibit A of the trial.

Forget ‘literary context’. If Ernst could engineer the evidence, he could define the very basis of the trial.

Instead of calling expert literary witnesses, the literary opinions could already be in the book.

Ernst secured a copy of the latest edition. He cut out glowing reviews from the newspapers, and pasted them inside the book’s front cover.

That was what the Detroit border officials found. That was the evidence.

Critical opinion was smuggled into the courtroom.

Ernst had thought of everything.

The right judge, no jury, favourable terms of prosecution. They all contributed.

But, critically, he’d managed to engineer the content of the trial before it began.

And he won.

Sometimes winning an argument isn’t purely about what you say.

It’s about stacking the odds in your favour.






The Lives Of Others

I came across an incredible, and rather sad, quote from Charles Darwin today.

Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds…gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost almost any taste for pictures or music … My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact, but why this alone should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

That image, of Darwin recalling an emotion he once delighted in but now cannot will himself to feel, is a painful one. He understands the corrosive implications of the situation, too, which makes it even sadder. The great pursuit of his life – outlining the theory of evolution and creating the most profound scientific legacy of the last 200 years, is denigrated as ‘grinding general laws out of large collections of fact.’

If Darwin cruelly depreciates his own achievement, he at least celebrates an appreciation of other, more artistic pleasures – ‘the higher tastes’, as he calls them. He connects a taste for music, literature and art to the cultivation of a strong intellect, moral character and emotional intelligence.

That’s pretty profound. It’s a reminder that, as strategists, the ’emotional part of our nature’ is as important as our willingness to immerse ourselves in data. We should avoid merely grinding general laws. If Darwin can recognise the limitations of that approach, who are we to argue?

The quote comes from a book I’m reading called Small Is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher, first published in the 1970s.  The book’s subtitle is, Economics As If People Mattered. I recommend it.


The quote arrives when Schumacher is discussing the role of education. He asserts that it’s in people’s nature to think in opposites. He talks about the concept of divergent and convergent thinking and makes the case that life consists of problems which cannot be solved by logical reasoning.

Life is kept going by divergent problems which have to be ‘lived’ and are only solved in death. Convergent problems on the other hand are man’s most useful invention; they do not, as such, exist in reality, but are created by a process of abstraction. When they have been solved, the solution can be written down and passed on to others, who can apply it without needing to reporoduce the mental effort necessary to find it. If this were the case with human relations – in family, life, economics, politics, education, and so forth – well, I am at a loss how to finish the sentence. There would be no more human relations but only mechanical reaction; life would be a living death. Divergent problems force man to strain himself to a level above himself; they demand, and thus provoke the supply of, forces from a higher level, thus bringing love, beauty, goodness, and truth into our lives. It is only with the help of these higher forces that the opposites can be reconciled in the living situation.

The physical sciences and mathematics are concerned exclusively with convergent problems. That is why they can progress cumulatively, and each new generation can begin just where their forbears left off. The price, however, is a heavy one. Dealing exclusively with convergent problems does not lead into life but away from it.

So, life attains meaning with problems that can only be solved at a higher, emotional level. Cultivating tastes for stimuli that speak to the higher, emotional aspects of ourselves makes us better at understanding and living life.

These higher forces and tastes lead us into life. They connect us to more experiences and the perspectives of more people. They make us more sympathetic to the lives of others.

In his collection of essays, The Form Of Things, A. C. Grayling says that “we often fail in our sympathies across barriers of inexperience, as when, for example, one who has never suffered bereavement sees less into another’s grief than one who has.”

He then asks, “by what means can [our sympathies] be extended?”

His answer underlines the point made by Darwin and Schumacher.

By encouraging exposure to narrative art – the novel, film, drama – the sympathies can be educated, refined, enlarged. To gain access to another’s perspective on life demands a certain kind of informed and interpretative sympathy. Most people can learn something about the needs and interests of others from their own experiences and from their own observation of people around them; but if this were the only resource, the scope of an individual’s sympathies would be rather limited. Exposure to the narrative arts overcomes that limitation: they greatly widen one’s perceptions of human experience, and enable one – vicariously, or as a fly-on-the-wall witness – to see into lives, conditions and experiences which one might never encounter in practice. This enlarging of the sympathies is a basis for richer moral experience and a more refined capacity for moral response.

Only if one has a rich array of possible narratives and goals to choose from can those choices and actions be truly informed and maximally free. Once again, exposure to stories – which in part represent possible lives – is a vital ingredient in the ethical construction of one’s personal future history.

I am not a philosopher. Nor am I a scientist or an economist. I’m not quite sure exactly what I am, to be honest. But I am paid to understand and be interested in other people. I’ve also long held a belief that fiction is a valuable tool in helping me be better at my job.

Fiction provides an insight into the lives of others. It offers different perspectives, mapping out reference points for the behaviour of real people. It explores motivations, relationships, adversity and emotions. You don’t find those in big data.

When I hear people in agencies say, I don’t really read books, I despair a little.

We need more fiction in agencies.

Agency book clubs shouldn’t just include the latest industry set text. They should include novels. You can learn a lot about how social mores govern individual behaviour from Middlemarch.

Box sets don’t only represent changing TV consumption. They represent a chance to discuss the difference between what people say and how they behave.

I think planners shouldn’t only meet at conferences. I think they should go to the theatre together.

Here’s to the lives of others, and the power of fiction to bring them to life.

GapJumpers interview




GapJumpers asked me to take part in an interview series they’ve been running. They want to make good careers for people, and find good people who  turn what they do into careers. Having been winning interviews with some very smart and influential industry types recently, they for some reason asked me to do an interview as well. These are pertinent questions for the commercial creative industries, to do with skills and experience of its people and the priorities of its leaders.

The interview is published on Medium here. Would be interested in others’ own answers too.

Design inspiration

Recently I went through a great pitch experience.

The intensity and focus of the previous few days were over. All the thinking and energy and ideas had been compacted down into the form of a presentation. Everything burst out into the room during an adrenaline rush that lasted less than 45 minutes.

It was actually rather exciting.

Afterwards we tried to articulate how it had felt, in that room. Since we did that in the pub, however, moments of clarity were rare. Certainly, they were short-lived.

Nevertheless, memories of the pitch ricocheted around. For once they sounded less like war stories and a little more like insights that might actually have some value.

We talked about the four hour conversation on the Sunday that none of us dare leave for fear of breaking the spell, so close were we to ‘enlightenment’ (don’t open the curtains! briefly became our newest refrain).

We talked about the bold and brazen idea that came from that conversation – two words that started echoing around the agency immediately. They were quoted back to me by Monday morning so I  knew we on to something.

We talked too about the leanness of the deck and its design, and of our argument. Everything was an exercise in keeping exposition to a minimum.

Whatever the outcome of the pitch, our output – and our experience in getting to it – had had a purity about it that epitomised…well, something, even if I wasn’t immediately sure what. A way to bond as a team? A new way of working? Tangibly, viscerally exciting work? Whatever it was, I’d like to have bottled it so everyone else in the agency could have experienced it.

As the boss said, he and I both still pub-bound: “Everyone thinks they know what good looks like. Very few people know how it feels.”

As someone who now thinks they do, I have spent no small amount of time trying to explain it to others. The drive has been part obligation, part evangelical impulse. Obviously my descriptive powers fall short, so I find that I keep coming back to three reference points. They are all designers, each of whom we talked a little about during the pitch. I am not a designer, by any means, but the process and presentation of our work is always better if we keep design principles close at hand. Few things are more inspiring at that moment than a tough problem solved with aesthetic elegance.

So where these people who provided such design inspiration?

Thomas Heatherwick, Katherine Hamnett and Peter Saville.

Here’s why.

I once met the head of innovation at Heatherwick Studios, a exceptionally clever and very nice man called Stuart Wood. We were at a conference. Chancing my arm I asked him to come and speak at my then agency, MEC. Incredibly, he agreed. He talked about the bus, the cauldron, the bridge (no, not that one) and the pavilion. Many MECers told me it was the most inspiring thing they’d heard there. He left quite an impression. Expo2010-Heatherwick-4170-Thumbnail

He also left countless quotable insights into the way the studio worked. Including this:

We don’t start drawing until we’ve finished talking.

I thought about that line as we recalled our four hour conversation on the Sunday. It was Stuart’s dictum in practice, even though we’d done it back to front. We were two days out, the work was good, but it didn’t have a centre of gravity. We’d started drawing too quickly. (It happens.)

We had some unfinished talking to do. One person called it, another knew it, everyone else settled in. This wasn’t about process. There was no squirrelling away working on our own links in the chain – the strategist’s proposition, the creative’s big idea, team-mates divided by a common language. This was about one thought. It was collaborative thinking out loud…just some pen and paper…for hours…only one cup of tea in all that time…someone bruised their leg from sitting in the same position for so long…and then there it was. The air crackled.

Creativity thrives on contrasting views, but creating something together thrives on shared belief. Consensus takes time and discipline, especially when a hundred other things are calling for your attention.

But that day I learned there is no substitute. Find the people, the time and the space and get talking.

Katherine Hamnett is different. She makes T-shirts. She no doubt does other stuff  but it’s her T-shirts that were important to us. They feature bold statements. In fact, the T-shirts are bold statements.

katharine-hamnett-photo Simple is really hard. Short is hard, too. It’s one of the most important things we can learn, though. Saying more with less. Distilling meaning, not reducing it. Ideas don’t come hard boiled, you have to do that yourself. Our idea, by the end, was hard boiled. A lot of discussion and thinking had been compacted down into it. It stood for an awful lot but was contained within two words. It could have been printed on a T-shirt. In fact, it was. We may still have one somewhere…

Peter Saville, like his sleeve designs, is stylish and effortlessly enigmatic. Nothing is explained. Everything just is. Style is substance. Or rather (turn your head 90 degrees to the left), style is…


The first album I ever bought (on cassette) with my own money had a Saville design. So did the first vinyl LP. I’ve listened to Saville-designed records so much I’m struck by synaesthesia. The music is Saville’s design, and vice versa. So using Transmission by Joy Division in the presentation carried a certain expectation in my view. Fewer words, fewer charts, a leaner thrust to the argument.  It was an exercise in removing the unnecessary.  The idea presented itself. Not that we didn’t speak – we had to tell the story, but the idea, all two words of it, had to stand on its own. Like it would have to in the real world.

That leanness and aesthetic approach created some storytelling pressure. We had to know our stuff. The charts relied on the right segue expressed in the right way. The images had to be spot on. Everything did.

It was a pleasure to present. It was right, too, in the way that the covers to Closer or Technique are right. It was also effortless, despite, or perhaps because, of the effort that had gone into it. It must have seemed so obvious to the client. I remember wondering whether this is why everyone thinks advertising is so easy – because everyone works so damned hard to make everything so graspable within moments.

Three things I really enjoyed and found valuable. Three designers whose MO seem to capture precisely what if felt like.

The Heatherwick maxim that encourages conversation, discovery and consenus.

The Hamnett style that demands brevity.

The Saville philosophy that demands simplicity.

I hope this doesn’t read as self-congratulatory. It isn’t meant to be. It was simply an intoxicating and perhaps even enriching experience that I’ve tried to record in writing.

And really, apart from the experience, there isn’t much to congratulate ourselves about.

The client decided to choose another agency.

So we didn’t win.

But we gained an awful lot.

Pop goes the algorithm

The Pet Shop Boys have written an orchestral work about Alan Turing. It’s a perfectly Pet Shop Boys thing to do. If you don’t understand why then I recommend listening to this fantastic conversation with Neil Tennant from last year. If you do, I recommend you listen to it anyway.

I have long loved the Pet Shop Boys. When I was 14, at the very start of 1990, the moment we all stepped forward together into a decade that sounded like the future, I moved to a new area of the country and had to change schools.

Being 14, a regular question from my new classmates was, what’s your favourite music? Being 14, my answer was an instinctive but calculated curatorial spin on reality. I quickly learned a routine line that worked: New Order and the Pet Shop Boys.

New Order, who no-one had heard of because World In Motion and Italia 90 were still six months away, were miserable and not really proper pop stars. The blank looks their name registered told me I was on to something. They were cool. They were my vinyl and NME-reading teenage future.

The Pet Shop Boys, who everyone had heard of, were pop stars of a strange and interesting type, and also miserable. They were my cassette and Smash Hits-reading teenage past. I had no idea whether they were cool or not. I still don’t. I still love them, though. Or at least my idea of them.

Later, I read someone describe them as ‘The Smiths you could dance to.’ That makes a lot of sense. They would make songs with found titles like What Have I Done To Deserve This? (very Smiths), sing it with a disappeared sixties icon like Dusty Springfield (ditto), and proceed to have a No 1 hit in the process (OK, but two out of three’s not bad).

More fundamentally they were very subversive indeed. They smuggled edgeland inspiration into mainstream spaces and combined them in extraordinary ways until no-one could see the join.

West End Girls is as much TS Eliot as it is Grandmaster Flash and Hi-NRG.

It’s A Sin is a repressed catholic priest fomenting his shame till it explodes, while God, in the form of Chris Lowe, smites him with Fairlight thunderclaps and portentous synths. Its video was directed by Derek Jarman.

These songs both went to No 1, too.

One which didn’t was my favourite even so. It was called Left To My Own Devices and imagined the sound of “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”. Of course, this is what all pop music should sound like.

I don’t know who called the Pet Shop Boys the ‘Greek chorus of the 80s’ but the description works for me. There they are, wryly commenting on the human damage wrought by that grasping, ugly decade. The AIDS epidemic (Domino Dancing), the financial Big Bang (Shopping), the lawless, economic horror of towns left to wither and die (Suburbia), the subjugation of happiness for money (Rent).

I love the Pet Shop Boys. Or at least my idea of them.

Why on earth am I telling you all this?

I’m telling you this so you have an idea of what goes on in my head when I listen to them, and perhaps therefore how I felt when I saw this.


Sorry, Spotify, I won’t. And I’m more than a little offended that you even think I would. Do you really classify the elegant art of the Pet Shop Boys with the sweaty ventriloquist’s goth-dummy that is Meatloaf? How could you?

How wrong could they get it, I thought? Surely some slip of the algorithm…

Well, apparently there are others.


What?! How is this even possible? ‘People who listen to the Pet Shop Boys are also listening to Foreigner’? Look at them. Look at them!

I started noticing this more and more. Spotify was surely playing a joke on me, toying with the uncertainty I had about the Pet Shop Boys’ cool rating by associating them with the worst acts of all time. To underline the insult, it even started taking into account that other pop obsession of my 14 year old self, New Order.

no supertramp

Of course. Nothing says ‘detached synth-pop with melodies the size of mountains ‘ like topographic fretsplorers and denim hairlords, Yes.

Still, somehow, there was more.


And, finally, what do you get if you cross Electric Ladyland with Introspective?

Well, I’d have thought more than ‘More Than A Feeling’ at least…

boston jh

Spotify can’t get everything right, I know.

I imagine all these other bands feature on 80s compilations alongside the Pet Shop Boys somewhere. I also don’t doubt that my own critic-driven view of the group doesn’t necessarily reflect the way others, perhaps the majority, see them. (I should also say that I’m a terrible snob.) After all, you don’t get to subvert the mainstream without the mainstream subverting you. Even this morning, announcing the Turing work, the news described them as an 80s band.

So I’m not questioning the algorithm. My point here isn’t that there’s a ghost in the Spotify machine.

It’s that there isn’t one.

There is no singular story to pop. Liking music isn’t just about taste. It is about nostalgia and emotion and stories and love and fear and hope and anything else you care to throw in to the kaleidoscope of feeling that goes to make any of us. It’s an endless landscape to which we all have our own individual map.

Our idea of music, and perhaps therefore anything we choose to consume, is more powerful than its substance.

Digital tools and services like Spotify are really  very clever, but we would miss the the human, curatorial touch if it became entirely absent. As digital services become more entwined with more intimate aspects of our lives, personalisation will have to stand for more than simply the next algorithmically served thing to consume.

We prefer the world editorialised. Being trapped in the uncanny valley of recommendation isn’t the same thing at all. Music streaming services can tag everything in their path but they will always struggle to define the meaning that listeners attach to the music. Perhaps we like knowing that someone cleverer and more applied than us — or just luckier and with more time — is in there somewhere, working, thinking about things.

Or perhaps we just sometimes need our idea of the world reflected back at us. Perhaps, now that the Pet Shop Boys are doing the Proms, more people will get a different idea of them, and maybe Spotify’s recommendations might come closer to reflecting my world, as well as everyone else’s.

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