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.

Planners and detectives

In 1928, a sleuth writer called S.S.. Van Dine set down what he thought were the Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.

Rule #19, for example, is that the motive should always be personal.

Rule #11 is that the culprit must be a decidedly worthwhile person – one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

Rule #14 is that the method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific.

I really like this list for a number of reasons. First, it reminds us that lists have been used as a device for editorial content since long before the internet made them blog catnip. Second, it’s pretty tangible. Most of the reasons generate that warm glow of recognition common to any insightful writing. As planners we’re often guilty of fashioning ‘principles’ that are pretty vacuous – this list reminds us that if checklist reflects actual creative work our audience knows, we’ll be a whole lot more convincing.

There was another reason I liked this list, though.

The parallel between planner and policeman is pretty old. Perhaps even hackneyed. But Van Dine’s list is an entire ‘how to’ of that idea. Once I’d got this in my head I couldn’t get rid of it.

Instead of ‘reader’, I saw client. Instead of ‘crime’ I saw ‘brief’. Instead of ‘culprit’ I saw ‘solution’.

And instead of ‘detective’ I saw ‘planner’.

See if you agree.

Rule #6: A detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

Translation – don’t rely on received opinion. Every brief is different.

Rule #12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

Translation – find the single biggest thing that will make the single biggest difference.

Rule #16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

Translation – focus on the issue; colour in the story only as much as the story needs

Rule 19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal…It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

Tranlsation – make it matter to the client

Rule #9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his co-deductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

Translation – the client is a partner, not an opponent to be defeated

Rule #15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should re-read the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

Translation – by the time you get to the solution, the client should already be with you

Really, though, this is all summed up by Rule #1.

The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery.

Translation – we add value when we use the same raw ingredients that have the client scratching their heads.

When we make sense of it in a way the client perhaps hasn’t been able to.

A sense that is elegant and yet inevitable.

Our point of difference is the perspective, clarity and direction we bring to a seemingly irresolvable problem.

As Alice Spawls puts it in the London Review of Books, the protagonists of detective novels “mix deduction with intuition and observation, making the impossible seem not only logical but obvious”.

There’s nothing magic to what planners do.

It’s just that the good ones just see things a certain way.

What’s the biggest myth in advertising?

I was lucky enough to talk at Adweek Europe earlier this week. The Advertising Association hosted a Last One Standing debate. Each speaker was invited to give their answer to the question, what’s the biggest myth in advertising, and what do you propose to do about it? We were given ten minutes, and asked to be provocative but actionable.

Below is the talk I gave as my answer.

The biggest myth in advertising?


Marketing plans. Media plans. Business plans. Each of them a myth.

Not because they don’t exist. We’ve all seen them. We’ve all written them. But we’ve all re-written them too. Plans are a myth because we believe them to do one thing, when in reality they do something else entirely.

Plans no longer drive what we’re going to do. They just reflect where we are.

We have become better at version control than we are at setting direction in the first place.

And it’s a widespread phenomenon, too. We surveyed clients and agencies, through the Advertising Assocation, to find out how true it was.

We asked them whether they finished 2013 with the same plan with which they started the year. 90% said their plan had changed. We then asked by how much the final plan differed from the original. 30% said it had changed by at least 30%. Half our respondents said it had changed by at least half. That’s an extraordinary amount.

Now, no one doubts that change happens. Cliché tells us it’s the only constant. Of course we need to respond to developments. But adapting to change isn’t the same as changing the plan. Changing the plan pretends that change doesn’t happen. We use it to delude ourselves that we’re in control. We need a new approach, one that embraces uncertainty. Organisations must recognise the need to adapt and institutionalise the ability to do so.

It’s always been this way, of course. It’s not just the changing nature of the media and technological landscape that has revealed the myth of plans. A hundred years ago, before marketing adopted its military language, an actual military strategist called Helmut von Moltke said this: “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force”.

Or, as Mike Tyson put it, perhaps even more eloquently: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Trouble is, these days, that hostile force could come from anywhere. It can come when and where you least expect it. Which gives me a rather tenuous excuse to play my favourite clip from The One Show. This is David Cameron, almost home and dry after another cosy interview on the sofa. If you doubt the unexpected nature of the final question, check the look on the co-presenter’s face, as well as Cameron’s.

It’s an impressive recovery. Cameron turns a question about his morality into an answer about his stamina and his fitness for the job. He uses the temporary threat to re-assert his own leadership. It’s a lesson many brands and organisations could learn from.

What’s strange about the way brands are behaving is that most marketers know precisely what’s coming their way. IBM surveyed CMOs globally and asked them which issues do they feel most under-prepared for, and which issues do they think will affect marketing the most.

The answers to each question were the same. The explosion in data. The changing landscape of social media. The proliferation of devices and channels through which businesses need to conduct their consumer relationships. The constant shift in consumer demographics.

CMOs are caught in a perfect storm but apparently paralysed to do anything about it. How do we tackle this?

I’m currently reading Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. It’s a book everyone working in or interested in strategy should read. Towards the end there’s a great anecdote about Andrew Carnegie. He was a steel magnate and a powerhouse industrialist of the US. In 1890 he was at a reception, holding court, when he was introduced to a man named Frederick Taylor, an expert on organizing work. Carnegie, the skeptic, offered Taylor $10,0000 if Taylor told him “something worth hearing about management.” That was an awful lot of money then.

Taylor said, “I would advise you to make a list of the ten most important things you can do. And then, start doing number one.”

Sounds obvious. But, so the story goes, a week later a cheque for $10,000 arrived on Taylor’s desk.


This wasn’t about the list. It was about the process of constructing it. Carnegie was forced to focus on the intersection between what was important and what was actionable – what you need to do and what you can do. It asked him to reflect on the more fundamental purposes of his business, and to devise ways of advancing them based on his current reality.

In short, defining our priorities is incredibly valuable. It gives us a direction of how to address the multiple issues we face in a co-ordinated but multi-disciplinary way. It gives us a broader, more purposeful view of the business.

You can see the effect when this is applied to marketing. In another IBM survey, the State of Marketing, leading marketers were those identified as being able to impact each of the 4Ps. They influence the product itself, its pricing and place as well as its promotion. Leading marketers have a broader, more purposeful view and make their presence felt everywhere.

This is the top 20% of marketers. They are the ones who don’t run away from the issues for which everyone else feels under-prepared. Rather, they run towards them. They are proactively influencing the customer experience across channels. They are innovating in their use of new technologies. These are the businesses that embrace uncertainty. They learn from what’s happening in the market and act on new inputs. They identify challenges and address them. They don’t have a plan simply for mobile, or for social, or for media. They know what they want to achieve but can adapt in their approach to achieving it.

And they are not only leading marketers compared to their peers. They’re also driving growth for the businesses they work for, which are outperforming the market when it comes to growth in income, profit and stock price.

They are businesses that epitomise Jeff Bezos’ idea of an organisation that is “stubborn on vision, flexible on details”.

And this is our way out of the plans myth. A new dual approach. There will always have to be certain elements of what we do that will need to be fixed: the vision we work to; the outcomes we want to generated; the priorities we agree to. But we should become better at being flexed in others: the actions we take in pursuit of our vision; the means of generating our desired outcomes; the roles and responsibilities we give to people who fulfil our priorities.

This adaptive approach allows us to track progress in an actionable way. Real-time metrics that allow us to identify opportunity. That way, when we do change, it’s for the right reasons.

Easier said than done, you say. And you’d be right. Simple is hard. The bigger your organization, the harder it is. But I’ve sat in workshops recently with global clients who want their marketing departments to think just like this. Everyone needs to get going.

And  on that note I’ll leave you with this final thought, from Elbert Hubbard. It’s another 100 year old quote that’s even more relevant today than it was then.


Thank you.


Being human

Bob Crow died last week. Somebody, presumably a member of RMT, wrote this at Covent Garden tube station the same day. Tube tribute to Bob CrowIt may be written on a ‘service information’ board. But it’s written as a social media post.

It has all the tropes of something made for sharing. An RIP tribute, a profound quote and scamped Twitter and Instagram logos. I saw it on the Guardian site.

It’s touching, though – whatever your politics. It’s personal. It’s human.

Service staff on London Underground have been doing this since long before last week. Passengers are used to seeing notices like these – not tributes so much, as personal messages that depart from the official tone of the service information board. So much so I’ve had a post on this sat in my drafts since January. I kept seeing them and wanted to think about what it might mean.

And I keep coming back to human. We talk a lot about human brands these days. Organisations that are more responsive, more empathetic, less top-down.

That’s difficult when you’re a complex organisation communicating its service or product at scale. It can feel contrived. Or it can descend into fourth-wall flirting between community managers. It’s not always particularly edifying.

But on the tube they seem to strike the right note. Here’s some examples.

Recently the Victoria Line was suspended because wet concrete spilled into a control room. The official line early on referred only to flooding. Word got out eventually.

Then this appeared at Warren Street.


At Halloween this appeared.

Halloween LU

Around the same time I took this photo at Earl’s Court on my way to a meeting.


And then I saw this, from the same station, in a Buzzfeed list.

buzzfeed tube sign

I love the idea that individuals at specific stations are doing this. It’s playful, subversive even.

Someone has used an official canvas to deliver a non-official message. Something to make themselves and others smile, or think, or reflect. There is no payback agenda. No behaviour change intended. No consumer out-take being tracked.

As with the classical music piped into the concourse of my own station each morning, I like to think this is impromptu. Organic, not top-down. The result of some rogue aestheticism rather than a centralised initiative.

More meme, less mandate.

So why is it happening? What does it achieve? There’s no brand preference to build. People either have to use the tube or they don’t. But maybe that’s it. Perhaps it just makes people feel more positive about doing something about which they have no choice. Perhaps it turns a functional experience into an emotional one.

Maybe people who work on the tube just wanted to brighten the day of people using the tube. Because they’re people and they experience empathy. Or because they’re people and they want others to empathise with them.

Either way, that’s very human.

Can that impulse be codified? Can an organisation mandate that at scale?

I don’t know whether they’re trying to but other LU initiatives do seem connected in some way.

You may have seen these poems.

etiquette poem2

So far, so health and safety.

But they’re linked to a campaign called  Travel Better London. It used poetry to get people to re-engage with travel etiquette. Poets-in-residence were installed at individual stations. Passengers could enter a competition to have their poems featured in the campaign.

It offers a human, interesting perspective on the tube experience. It uses empathy. It reframes the tube as a cultural experience we all share in, not just a functional  travel experience we endure.

Same with these.


They are books that were commissioned to celebrate 150 years of the tube. Writers were  asked to write about a specific line. They bring their perspective to the history and cultural legacy of the underground. They tell stories. You can buy them in the Museum of London. Or any bookshop.

I think they’re fantastic. Will they improve the ‘brand preference’ of a ‘tube rejector’? I doubt it. Are they only going to be read by people who already hold a romantic view of the tube? Probably.

But as content, as artefacts, do they allow different, richer stories to be told about the service and its place in our shared history?

Yes, surely.

Does their very existence confer some kind of affection or humanity on the tube?


Does it feel a thousand times more human than most advertising you might see?


True emotion

Along with a smattering of other people, I watched on the weekend the latest episode of True Detective to air in the UK.

Just, wow.

I subsequently found out about the famed six-minute tracking shot that brings the episode to a breathtaking close.

I say ‘found out’ because I hadn’t actually noticed as I was watching it.

I hadn’t noticed because a) I’m an idiot, and b) because I was so caught up in what was happening that I simply didn’t give any thought to how I was being manipulated into that state.

All the adrenalin and the excitement and the fear and the breathlessness was just as it should be.

It was true emotion. I experienced the effect the director wanted.

I just couldn’t give him credit for it.

Sometimes you only know you’ve done your job when no-one knows you were even there.


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