Category Archives: Advertising

Why Manage, When You Can Coach?

This year I will complete my RFU Level 3 coaching badge. Look out Eddie Jones. I’ve been a rugby coach for 15 years and it’s only now that I’ve begun to see how my coaching life informs my business life, and where ‘coaching’ might be more effective than ‘managing’.

Photo of ndrew Barrington rugby coach

Coaching is a craft that you hone every day

The course involved a mix of classroom learning and practical, mentored training sessions. Among the many things I have learned and taken away with me are:

  • Coaching is a craft, like pottery, or brewing beer. With experiment and experience you continually hone that craft, to become a more effective, more useful coach.
  • It helps to know what you are coaching, and you can learn how to deliver a coaching session, but to develop as a coach it really helps to understand why you are coaching. What are you motivated by, what is your coaching philosophy?
  • You can’t divide who you are as a coach, from who you are as a person. What brought you to that place, your upbringing, your life experiences, will affect the kind of coach you are. Being aware of this can make you more aware your craft and the likely effect on the people you’re coaching.

Applying coaching in sport to managing in business

What’s interesting is when you take this learning from my sporting life and apply it to my business life.  I’ve spent 30-odd years in account leadership and management positions; in that time I’ve heard creative people refer to their ‘craft’, but never management. In managing we ‘hold a position’, we have different styles, but essentially we are expected to have reached a certain level, with a requisite amount of expertise. However, if we treat managing as a craft, we can be more open about being a work in progress. We can recognise the things we do brilliantly (our superpowers) and the things we need to hone (our work-ons). I worked mostly in offices where it wasn’t wise to admit weaknesses, and I wish I’d had the courage to be more open and honest.

In the communications industry we spend a lot of time identifying what makes a brand tick – why it was put on this earth and what makes it more distinctive, more relevant and more desirable than the competition.  The word ‘purpose’ is earning a poor reputation, but I think it’s a good idea for brands to think about why they exist, how they make the world a better place, and why their staff should turn up for work every day. (See Are Today’s Brands More Truthful? for more on brand purpose.) Conversely, I never really spent much time reflecting on my own motivation – my own ‘why?’ Over the years I have developed a blurry set of principles which guide my behaviour, and I believe I would have had a more rewarding, more successful career in managing if I’d listened more closely to the ‘why are you doing this?’ question at the back of my mind. Developing your own philosophy helps you decide what you will always do, and what you will never do.

Throughout my career I have played the role I imagined others expected of me. It has been tiring, stressful and not very effective. My happiest and most effective periods have been in teams where I’ve relaxed into just being me. This has nothing to do with how senior you are – in fact the more senior I became, the more I thought I needed to play a part. Now, I have an image in my head from the coaching course I took; what others see and hear is the tip of an iceberg. Below that, is the life that made me; it is unchangeable. How I craft the visible ‘me’ depends on how I mine the unseen ‘me’ – right or wrong, good or bad, it is a product of the authentic me. I know this makes me a more effective rugby coach; I also believe it makes me a more effective business person – and a happier one.

Playing games is the best way to learn

The final area I would like to translate from my coaching life into my business life is around the use of games.

When I learned to play rugby, we queued up for our turn to run a drill, which was then pronounced by the coach as a good, or a bad execution. A series of poor repetitions resulted in a ‘punishment’ like 20 press-ups. So, the drill became a boring ordeal where the outcome could be humiliation and the lesson learned that press-ups are a punishment, not a privilege.

Playing games enables players to experiment and take risks in a safe environment. They are more realistic to the actual sport; they give the coach flexibility to introduce different conditions or rules, to vary the levels of chaos, and to challenge individual players on different elements of their performance. Moreover, games are both competitive, and fun. By playing games we identify players’ superpowers, and their work-ons, and we can then isolate those work-ons in a more focused ‘skill zone’ – to the benefit of the individual and to the team.

For the majority of my career, ‘training’ was something you did outside of the everyday activity of the office. It was often on ‘receive’ at the foot of a dull powerpoint presentation, given by an outside training ‘expert’. Team games were known as ‘team bonding’ and didn’t have much to do with the job we did day-to-day.

Image of teacher and pupils for Breakfast Town blog about management

I have never reacted well to ‘being trained’

I think it would benefit all businesses if they played more games. If I were managing an office now I would build in time to play games and encourage my managers to develop their coaching craft – setting up situations with clear objectives and clear conditions, in which the players can develop their skills and hone their craft. In games, players solve their own problems and don’t just look to the coach for the answer (and, crucially, the coach can be honest about not always having an answer). No need to leave the workplace, no need to pay for external trainers.

What I’ve learned, I’ve learned by doing

In fact, the closest I ever came to experiencing this was at Saatchi & Saatchi, where training was highly valued and run by a coaching guru called Paul Burns (find him at The Burns Unit). The principle was that ‘What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing’ – a quote from Aristotle which, when I mentioned this on the RFU Level 3 course, I was roundly mocked for.

There is a hell of a lot that I’ve learned in business and called upon in my coaching (next blog?), but there is also so much that we can learn from sports coaching that can make us more effective in business. In truth, what is business but one huge sport, with players, competitions, winners and losers? For me, I just think it needs more coaches.

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What Is The Value Of Creativity In Communications?

Photo of Sistine Chapel in Breakfast Town blog about how can you value a great creative idea

“How much is this paint job worth?”

Discussion about the ‘decline’ of the Economist campaign made me re-consider what a creative idea is in the communications industry, why they are important, how they are nurtured and what they are worth.

A creative idea should be worth what people are prepared to pay for it

A few months ago Banksy messed with everyone’s head by putting a self-destruct button into one of his paintings. When it went to auction (for around £1m), the shredder set to work as the auctioneer’s hammer fell. Drama!

Photo showing how Banksy's Girl With Balloon was shredded at auction and increased the value of the creative idea

As a result the Girl with Balloon now sits half mauled, flapping below the frame. It has a new name, ‘Love is in the Bin’ and also a new value. Despite being ruined, the value has gone up and I assume this is because ‘Love is in the Bin’ is a brilliant creative idea. I’m not quite sure what the specific idea is, but it’s something about daring to question the value of art, the value of fame and the gullibility of the commercial world at the heart of the art world.

In the case of the Girl with Balloon, the idea is bigger than the execution. By ruining one piece of art, Banksy can make a comment about all private art (or about all people who buy art). We can put a value on that idea because the value is whatever people are prepared to pay for Love is in the Bin. The painting is ruined – but the idea commands whatever someone is prepared to pay for it.

Creative ideas in the communications industry are harder to define and measure

It’s harder to judge the value of a creative idea in communications, because the idea is a means to an end, not the end in itself. When AMV created the Economist print campaign, did they know the significant effect the idea would have on the business and the brand? Could they have charged more – or rather, would the client have paid more? Did the client even actually pay for the idea, in the same way they paid for the media space, or did they pay for a slice of people’s time, recorded and cross-referenced against a ‘scope of work’? Did they realise that those people, at that agency, led by that man, creating that campaign, deserved more?

I don’t want to disappear down the rabbit hole of how agencies get paid, but I’ve always found it weird that you can get paid more for getting it wrong, or taking longer. Having recently spent time at a design agency, payment for creativity was often based on the principle of “Oh, you didn’t like that and you want some more work? Cool, we’ll send an estimate in the morning.”Red and white Economist poster saying I Never Read The Economist used in Breakfast Town's blog about pushing for great creative ideas

I’m sure a lot of data went into the conception, creation, execution and placement of the new Economist campaign. I agree with Mark Gorman’s analysis of this new Economist campaign and I am distressed that so little creativity, or even basic care went into bringing the core idea (‘Question everything’) to life for the greater glory of the Economist brand (see my blog Making Ads: Does Anyone Care?). The work may be efficient, but will it be effective?

My tragic conclusion from the Economist campaign is that clients appear to pay the same for a bad idea as for a good idea; or that they don’t see a difference, or that they don’t care. In that case, from a commercial point of view, why should the creators? And if that becomes acceptable logic, then everything comes tumbling down; only provable, measurable data has a value, so everything hides behind precedent.

Less risk, less difference, less breakthrough, less creative.

What is a creative idea in communications, anyway?

Creative thinking is not the preserve of the creative department; creative ideas come in all shapes and sizes and I believe they come under the broader description of ‘commercial creativity’. They can be penetrating consumer insights, breakthrough strategic propositions, heart-wrenching communications platforms, or cut-through, un-missable executions. Think of a famous (Guinness) beer, a (BMW) car, a (Sony) TV, a (Cadbury’s) chocolate bar, and there will be a differentiating idea underpinning it. By which, I don’t just mean a well-made piece of advertising, I mean a relevant, distinctive, desirable brand idea.

Because there is no certainty of the commercial effect of creative ideas, it is impossible for agencies to know how much to charge for them, or for clients to know how much they should pay for them. The strongest ideas transform a business and become a reference point for everything the client does; they are a mantra for behaviour.

Creative ideas help consumers make choices

For this reason I respect the new Gillette campaign – We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.

Still from Gillette's TV ad showing men in a row. It's an example of a brave creative idea, discussed in Breakfast Town's blog on the value of creativity in communications

The world is changing and the way men behave is under the microscope. Gillette could have nodded to this ‘new world’, by toning down its ‘manly’ communications. Instead it’s taken the whole issue head on. It’s just as courageous as the Dove ‘real beauty’ strategy. If Dove was about celebrating the beauty of all women, Gillette actually highlights the ugliness of all men – and even admits that it may have been part of the problem.

It’s a man’s brand talking to men about men, so is relevant in a way that the nauseous Kendal Jenner Pepsi ad is not.

In a world where we lack credible reference points for appropriate behaviour (State? Church? Family? Neighbourhood? Twitter?), a brand has the opportunity (moral obligation?) to offer a positive framework for behaviour – a set of values by which I might navigate my life. Gillette my new moral compass – who’d have thought?

I have no idea whether the Gillette campaign is a one-off, or the foundation for a long term brand positioning. I read that sales may fall in the short term. But the idea made me think twice about the brand; it struck a chord with me about the ‘men’ issue in a way that hysterical social media hasn’t. It will change my behaviour.

Creative ideas are good business

I believe this is commercial creativity at its best; taking a brand and making me look at it in a fresh, positive, relevant way; espousing values from inside and outside the category and inviting me to share them; daring to stand out and daring me to stand out with them. I think the people who created this should be rewarded for this idea – I hope this reward comes in the form of a long-term relationship with Gillette, an opportunity to manage and explore the idea, accompanied by recognition for their work. I hope also that Gillette reaps commercial reward in the long term and that they share it with their creative partners.

Creative ideas can be right, or wrong. They can also be good, or bad. We need to insist on ‘right’, be prepared to recognise ‘bad’ and always strive for ‘good’. If we can harness data to serve creativity, not repress it, brands have more chance of generating exponential value from what we do. They should then reward the people who helped bring them to life.

Let’s shred ordinary.

Shredded Economist poster saying Industrial secrets for sale in blog on value of creative idea

Enjoyed this breakfast read about the value of a creative idea? For a chat over coffee about your brand, visit Breakfast Town or call +44 7950 257802.

Making Ads: Does Anyone Care?

Last year I was watching a new ad for MacBook Pro and really enjoyed it. The premise that ‘ideas push the world forward’, accompanied by a journey through some of the ideas that did (and some that didn’t), connected by a chain of exploding ‘lightbulb moments’ encouraged me to think that the MacBook Pro must be pushing at frontier of laptop technology.

Then I thought again and realised that I loved this commercial. I am not technically minded and I’m not in the market for a new laptop. I am not an Apple disciple. I don’t even think the creative idea is breakthrough.

The reason that I love this ad is because I believe that it was conceived, developed and executed with great care.

I don’t confuse ‘care’ with ‘talent’ and I don’t confuse ‘care’ with ‘bigger budget’. I don’t think ‘care’ costs anything and in fact is one thing we can apply with zero budget and zero talent.

Great advertising requires great care
Consider the care that went into this ad:
The idea
The narrative
The research
The choice of ‘inventions’
The photography
The set building
The lighting
The editing
The humour
The colour grading
The music
The typography

In my experience the final execution of an idea in the real world is usually a compromise. To avoid that, it takes a team of people who really care. These are people who believe in the idea and are prepared to stand up for it, prepared to work and work at every aspect of it. People who put their hands up – from the weird alliance that is born out of Marketing, Strategy, Creative, Producer, Director and Production expertise.

What other recent executions, in any channel, have you seen that feel like they were made with extreme care? In fact, does the chip paper property of some media channels work against the application of care? Do we give ourselves too many excuses not to care? – ‘It’s only social media’, ‘It’s only a sales/promotional/short term campaign’, ‘It’s only POS’, ‘It’s a low cost product’, ‘We don’t have much budget’.

I really hope that this team worked in harmony and is proud of the finished execution. For what it’s worth I think Apple should take the mantra ‘Ideas push the world forward’ and give that to their innovations department, with a small amendment to ‘Only pursue ideas that push the world forward’.

My recent experience is that key people are more and more worried to stick their necks out for fear of rocking the boat, by being ‘unreasonable’, ‘out of touch’ or worse ‘old school’.

Great care depends on a great client
It’s easy to spot when someone has taken great care over their ideas and I see this especially with start-up brands. In this case there is usually an individual client driving the bus. That person has conceived and brought their product or service into the world. They are driven to succeed and they really care. You can hear it in the way they describe the product, how it works, what is special about it, and why people should care.

Most recently I worked with a new brand of natural supplements called Hello Day and the care shown by the owner/founder was infectious. This exhibited itself primarily in the quality of the product itself, but also drove all of the marketing and design team to simply try harder when it came to packaging design and in-market assets.

I think it’s harder to identify a brand strategy that cries out ‘someone really cared about this!’ Sloppy or half-hearted execution might mask a brilliant piece of strategy, in the same way that weak strategy can be overcome by eye-catching creative work.

To me, caring about brand strategy means doing justice to the product or service and the client who hired you. Uncover a relevant consumer insight; discover what makes the brand distinctive; understand what will make the brand desirable for the audience.

Spot the irrelevant difference, avoid the undifferentiated benefit.

Basically, be suspicious of the easy option – banish what my old planning colleague Bobby called ‘fat’ words, like ‘Partnership’, ‘Innovation’, and ‘Passion’ from the brand model. Find the brand’s language, tone and spirit. Push harder with the proposition.

Finally, an apology to a previous planning director. I was working on the launch of a new shower gel, about which the client had said there was nothing special except it helped soften the skin. I tried to find how and why this happened, but the client wasn’t really interested. The planning director refused to sign off my generic ‘softens your skin’ brief until the creative director said ‘let’s just do a nice ad which demonstrates the softening effect’. The result was fine, actually it was just about average. By co-incidence it was also about the time the agency went into a nose-dive. I apologise now to everyone involved – I didn’t care and it showed.

The effort to chase ‘brilliant’ doesn’t cost more and in reality takes little talent – but it does help if you care.

Enjoyed this breakfast read? For a chat over coffee about your brand, visit Breakfast Town or call +44 7950 257802.

Are Today’s Brands More Truthful?

Are Today’s Brands More Truthful?

Is it true to say that 20 years ago the role of ‘branding’ was to create a buffer between perception and reality? Was the role of advertising and PR to ‘create’ the brand which customers, staff, commentators, politicians, journalists, pressure groups and regulatory bodies consumed? And is it possible that this creation might have had little to do with the reality of the product or the company behind it?

I wonder if the brand existed to compensate for the performance of the product or service, or the reality of the organisation behind it?

Imagine a company as a three-layered entity
First, there was the brand, represented by the advertising we produced. In the alcohol category we talked about ‘drinking the advertising’ and consumers recognised, chose and recommended brands based on the latest slice of entertainment. The brand lay like a cloak over the reality of the product or service. The headline, or endline, or punchline, was all you needed to become familiar with a brand. A successful brand campaign created love, loyalty and a premium price.

Second, behind the brand lay the product or service – read here to see many examples of advertising claims that simply weren’t true to the reality.

To my memory, the actual functional delivery of the product or service wasn’t that relevant. You didn’t buy Sony over Phillips because their products were better. They just seemed more switched on. Heineken and Budweiser were seen at all the best places in all the best hands. Honda was clever to the point of being like a wizard or a philosopher. J&J understood a Mother’s love for her baby in a way that made any other purchase seem like negligence.

I think we accepted that most products or services in a category were similar – so we created difference in the brand and we believed that how a brand made someone feel was their justification to buy. Or, of course, we might have preferred to see things that way, because it was profitable for agencies.

Third was the unseen part of the equation – the organisation behind the product or service. This felt like an inner sanctum, a secret. Who owned the company, where did they invest, who was in charge, where did they manufacture and – the Achilles heel for many companies – how did they treat their staff?

I am sure I helped create campaigns for brands that espoused honesty, service, quality and love for all humans that were, in fact, rotten to the core.

Brands have become more transparent
For me, those layers are now as close as three wet sheets, clamped together and translucent. Customers scratch the surface of the brand and they can learn anything they want about the product, service and the company behind it. There is no hiding place and that has to be a good thing.

We used to say tell clients that a brand existed in the hearts and minds of its consumers. I think that’s still true, but it also exists in the unmanaged knowledge reservoir of the internet and the real-time collective conscience of social media.

I hope this means brands can’t lie, bad practice gets found out quicker and shared more widely and that, ultimately, people are held to account – most recently the emissions scandal at VW.

It’s why so many clients want ‘Authenticity’, ‘Honesty’, ‘Humility’ and ‘Partnership’ included in their brand model. Did they really think they would thrive by being ‘Fake’, “Dishonest’, ‘Arrogant’ and ‘Divisive’ (does that remind you of anyone?)?

Open scrutiny drives appropriate behaviours. It also becomes a challenge to strategists, because we are now working within the limits of reality.

Identifying a relevant point of difference is hard. But then, it was never meant to be easy. Expressing the brand in an inspirational and desirable way, takes discipline and sensitivity. To my mind, this process has never been so important and potentially valuable to commercial success.

A ‘value’ is now more than an adjective we might use to describe what happens in the advertising. It goes to the very heart of what a company stands for – a template and reference point for everything the company does or says. The product delivery, but also the manufacturing process, the recruitment policy and what colour the walls are.  What you stand for as a brand should mean as much to the staff, suppliers and business customers, as it does to the end consumer. These are no longer discrete audiences; they are all judge and jury of the single brand.

Here’s to the brands that have never seen it any other way – like the Co-operative Bank, who created a brand based on product truths and a code of ethical practice  which dictated what they would and would not do.

One final question to consider, in a ‘new world’ of truth. Why is it that in 2017 polls so many of the top brands for ‘authenticity’ are tech brands?

Is it that these companies are dedicated to delivering on their promises, to acting in tune with their brand and coming up smelling of roses under scrutiny? Or is it that they have greater expertise and more opportunities to control and manipulate their consumer interactions? Is the old ‘truth by managed perception’ now replaced by a new ‘truth by managed interactions’?  Is that the new branding buffer?

Enjoyed this breakfast read? For a chat over coffee about your brand, visit Breakfast Town or call +44 7950 257802.