A leap into the unknown

A few months ago, I, along with two of my most trusted friends, decided to take a massive leap and set up our own business; Cord.

I say massive leap, because it meant leaving the security of a full-time job; the regular income, the paid holiday, sick pay… all the things that provide some degree of assurance that each month you’re going to have enough money to pay the mortgage, feed your family and, well, live.

It’s a massive leap because, despite what some people seem to profess on LinkedIn, setting up a business is complicated. To begin with, there’s a ton of admin that you have to start doing, and for someone like me, it isn’t something that comes naturally. Not only am I not that good at the financial and operational side of things, I’m not particularly interested in it either — I just want to do good work.

By running your own business, you absolutely have to be interested in the admin and the numbers, because without a strong understanding of what’s going on under the bonnet, you’re doomed.

Thankfully, these days, there are a ton of brilliant tools, apps and solutions that make everything, from accounting to invoicing a doddle. God bless SaaS and the cloud.

Cord is now two weeks old. We decided to set it up because we became disillusioned with the traditional agency model; a model developed a long time ago, when life was simpler and you could count your choice of media on one hand. Whilst this model might have been fine in the 60’s, it isn’t fit for purpose today.

The need for a different way of doing things has never been greater; a new model, better suited to getting to creative solutions for businesses. Solutions that are developed faster, in a more efficient and effective manner.

The three of us all worked together previously, and despite our varied expertise, we saw the power of strategy and creative working as one to solve problems and develop creative solutions.

We believe this is the only way to work when creativity is concerned, and we believe so strongly in it we’ve given it a name; Collective Thinking.

No more production line.

No more planning briefing creative.

No more back and forth.

No more egos protecting their discipline.

No more land grabbing or internal squabbles.

No more departments.

We’ve even done away with job titles.

At Cord, we are all creative and we are all strategic and we all work collectively to solve your biggest marketing and advertising challenges.

We’ve already been working on some brilliant projects; from running a creative comms planning workshop at TBWA, and a brand and creative strategy workshop for Carlsberg in Ukraine.

The work has been exciting, fascinating, challenging, creative and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a joy to work in this way, and Cord has rekindled my love for the industry – at a time when I was ready to chuck it all in and go and do something completely non–advertising related.

In going through this process, I’ve also learned something about myself; that the thing I thought I’d hate most is actually something I realise I absolutely love; the hustle.

Being able to go in to a prospective client and talk with authority and confidence about what you do, and what you can do for and with them is an amazing thing.

Another platform I’ve only really recently started to see the true potential of is LinkedIn. Since launching Cord, I’ve been consistently surprised at how many people have got in touch to find out more. As a tool for promoting your business and networking it’s really come to life for me.

The first few weeks have surpassed all of my expectations. Whilst I know that it’s not always going to be a series of highs, I will say that if you’re sat at a desk in your day job, feeling bored, unappreciated, disengaged, whilst dreaming of setting up your own business, then do it.

Yes it’s scary.

Yes it can be complicated.

Yes it takes over your life.

Yes you lose any sense of certainty from a financial perspective.

Yes you have to learn a fuck-ton of new things.

But the very fact it’s yours, forces you to embrace it, and dive head first into everything.

This post isn’t about touting for business. It’s about sharing my experience of what it means to set up your own business. However, if you’re reading this and do have a strategic or creative challenge you think we might be able to help with, or you want to find out more about our Collective Thinking model, or you just fancy grabbing a coffee and a chat, feel free to get in touch.

Do something most others aren’t doing: Look.

If you’ve never seen The Big Short, then I highly recommend you watch it. (It’s on Netflix). Other than incredible performances from Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale, it provides a unique look into the chain of events that led to the monumental clusterfuck that was the 2008 global financial crisis.

Steve Carell as Mark Baum in The Big Short

Unlike some docu-movies that attempt to dramatise real-life events but end up skimming over the detail, The Big Short does a brilliant job of bringing the financial complexity to the big screen, treating the viewer with respect in the process. Even if you don’t fully understand what a CDO is by the end, there’s a strong chance you’ll open Google and find out.

The premise of the movie is about how a small group of investors saw what no—one else did in the run up to the financial crisis. That the US housing market was nowhere near as healthy as it was pretending to be. That fraud in the US financial system was rife; from banks, mortgage companies and even credit ratings agencies, the housing market was built on lies.

The film begins with a length narrative from Ryan Gosling, but the best bit is what he ends on, saying:

“These outsiders saw the giant lie at the heart of the economy, and they saw it by doing something the rest of the suckers never thought to do: They looked.”

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) — The Big Short

It’s a pretty simple thing when you think about it; looking at the detail to see the glaringly obvious, but what I love most about it is it’s a brilliant reminder to anyone who works in marketing and advertising.

In this turbo-charged, time-pressured, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world that we live in, throwing yourself into a task, allowing yourself to really get into it, and spending time obsessing over the detail seems like an unattainable luxury. It’s far easier to jump to conclusions, base theories on assumptions, fill in the blanks with conjecture, research passively (or not at all), and create strategies and ideas that aren’t really grounded in anything more than a hunch.

Of course, sometimes hunches pay off and everything comes together as planned, but sometimes they don’t, and this can have catastrophic consequences.

Wouldn’t it be great then, if every bit of work out there had the sort of thinking that comes when you’ve got the time and inclination to throw yourself into the problem. Richard Huntington wrote a brilliant article about what he coined ‘Deep Thinking’ — it’s well-worth a read.

There’s a saying that goes; ‘failing to plan, is planning to fail’. On the whole, it’s something I can categorically say is true — certainly when it comes to marketing and advertising. Because only when you look, really really hard at something, do you give yourself the best possible chance of getting to a really good answer.

When the sugar goes to your head

I love ice cream. Soft scoop, Mr Whippy, Walls, Ben and Jerry’s, Häagen–Dazs, Kelly’s, Jude’s… the list goes on. In fact, not needing to find an excuse for eating ice cream almost daily is one of my favourite things about Summer.

Unfortunately, I saw an advert that left a bitter after—taste in my mouth:

If the brief was to simply cram as many advertising clichés into a 30 second spot as is humanly possible. then they nailed it:

  • Attractive woman seductively eating ice cream – check
  • Metaphor for eating ice cream – check
  • Position ice cream as some sort of escape from reality – check
  • Using the word ‘indulgent’ – check (‘indulge your curiosity’)

I totally get there’s a need to bring product features to life in ways that aim to connect with the viewer, but this advert feels completely at odds with the authenticity people want and expect from brands today.

I’ll leave you with this quote:

Happy on the outside

Tim Bergling (Avicii)

Last night, I watched Avicii: True Stories on BBC iPlayer.

Even if you’ve never heard of Tim Bergling (Avicii), or, you have but you don’t like his music, I implore you to watch it. At one-and-a-half hours long, it’s not a quick watch, but it’s an incredibly valuable one for a number of different reasons — the main being it helps you to see the effects of mental health in a way that so few programmes have ever been able to ever do.

I can say this because, like 25% of the population of the UK (16,500,000 people) my mental health has suffered at various points in my life.

It’s a hard thing to write about so publicly — particularly working in the advertising industry where it still feels taboo to talk about mental health for fear of being judged, but to be completely honest, if this helps even one person then for me that’s a good thing.

Avicii: True Stories does what so few have succeeded to do in the past because not only does it show you how mental health can so adversely affect someone’s life, it helps you to begin to really feel what it might be like (unless you’re a complete sociopath).

It succeeds where thousands of images found online that try to convey mental health issues fail. Google ‘depression‘ and click on ‘Images’ and you’ll see what I mean.

Like many of the tired, lazy cliches you see in advertising today, the images on Google couldn’t be further from the truth of what mental health is really like for lots of people suffering from it.

The following image I saw the other day on Instagram was interesting, because it shows how many people suffering from mental health do a brilliant job of internalising it. Yes, it’s not as black and white as this, but it certainly provides a fresh perspective on such a serious issue:

This was especially true of Tim Bergling.

At the time of his death, his net worth was $85 million.

On paper — and from the outside he had it all; fame, fortune, success, travelling the World by private jet, a team of people at his beck and call, and the admiration and adoration of millions of fans.

But when you watch the documentary, you’ll see why the most important thing in your life isn’t material, it’s your mental health. Tim knew it.

Throughout the documentary, he continuously expressed the fact that the expectation and pressure placed on him (by others and by himself), was slowly but surely killing him:

Avicii: True Stories, BBC iPlayer.

It was really difficult to watch.

On April 20th 2018, aged just 28, Tim tragically passed away, reportedly taking his own life, shocking the world in the process.

Since his death, his family have set up the Tim Bergling Foundation, with the aim of addressing mental health in the music industry. They also released the following statement:

“Our beloved Tim was a seeker, a fragile artistic soul searching for answers to existential questions. An over-achieving perfectionist who travelled and worked hard at a pace that led to extreme stress. When he stopped touring, he wanted to find a balance in life to be happy and be able to do what he loved most – music. He really struggled with thoughts about Meaning, Life, Happiness. He could not go on any longer. He wanted to find peace. Tim was not made for the business machine he found himself in; he was a sensitive guy who loved his fans but shunned the spotlight. Tim, you will forever be loved and sadly missed. The person you were and your music will keep your memory alive.

We love you,

Your family.”

But the sort of pressure he felt doesn’t just exist in the entertainment industry. It’s rife everywhere — speaking from experience, it certainly exists in the advertising industry.

Whilst it has been shown that parts of the Internet can exacerbate mental health issues, I still believe that on the whole, the Internet is a brilliant thing, and for every negative, there are tens, if not hundreds of positives, and today, the Internet has meant access to the best possible information, support, help and advice has never been better.

From charities like CALM that exist to eradicate suicide in men, to Corporate Gaslighting — a site set up by Rob Campbell to address the effect of systematic abuse from bad management on employees whilst hoping to help those who have been victims of it. Check it out if you haven’t already, because, whether you work in advertising or not, it’s likely you’ve either experienced or witnessed the behaviour the people who have contributed so bravely talk about on there.

So please, try to remember, just because someone looks happy on the outside, doesn’t mean they’re not going through a world of pain on the inside. I’ll leave you with this quote, also pinched from Rob’s blog (why does he have to be so fucking smart):

“If we knew the troubles that weighed on the minds of the people we talk to, we might react to what they say in a very different way”

Source

You only ever get one, so live it well.

Increasingly, we spend our lives checking, scrolling, updating, scanning, browsing. constantly looking for something that’s going to occupy our attention for a few milliseconds and distract us from our day-to-day.

But for what?

To pass the time?

Alleviate our boredom?

Give us that little dopamine hit the devices we carry around are increasingly designed to give us?

In 2018, Marks and Spencer launched a campaign entitled: ‘Life’s short, so let’s spend it well.

Whilst their purpose was about instilling the notion that because life is short you should indulge and enjoy nicer food, i.e. M&S food, I loved the sentiment — because it’s true.

Life is short.

I know this because, (and speaking from personal experience) people close to me have been taken too young – like my friend Charlie from school, who passed away a few years ago.

Life is precious.

I turn 40 in a few weeks.

I own a big house in the country, and I’m lucky enough to own a few nice cars. I have all the things I thought I wanted in life that would make me feel content.

But the truth is, material things don’t make you happy.

They might make you feel good in the short term, but they rarely have lasting appeal.

Unlike the things that really matter. Like friends, and family.

Like my wife; a smart, incredible, wonderful, amazing, beautiful woman.

Like my two amazing, funny, kind, loving and beautiful children; Jake, aged 3, and Millie, aged 1.

Before I had children, I used to wonder why people who did have them, never came to company parties, or stayed out late, or went out drinking at the weekend.

But now I get it.

With the big 4-0 dawning. I get that no amount of material things will ever give me the pleasure that time with my family gives me.

Time doing things that I love doing, with the people I love being with.

When Marks and Spencer launched their campaign, it connected with me in a way so few campaigns ever have done.

Not because it featured amazing looking food (another passion of mine).

It connected with me because of the message.

A message that’s relevant to everyone.

Life is short.

Life is precious.

And because it’s short, you need to do everything within your power, to live it well.

They say you should never meet your heroes

…but I did – and I’m really glad.

Ever since I started out working in planning – about thirteen years ago, I’ve been on a continual drive to learn as much as possible from whomever and wherever I can.

I’ve always said that planning is unlike most other disciplines within an agency, for a variety of reasons. Project management for instance, you’ve got agile and waterfall methodologies to work to. The frameworks are proven and effective.

Whereas, planning is different. Whilst there are a plethora of books you can read, and different frameworks you can use, and courses by the IPA and APG to aid your thinking and your output, the actual way you go about actually doing planning is massively open.

It also doesn’t help that planning isn’t one dimensional, and instead, multi-faceted. It intertwines with and overlaps so many other specialisms in the agency, from analytics and business intelligence, to creative and copy, and even into client service… (hint – if you’re a planner and you’re not presenting your thinking to your clients, do something about it).

So you have to be an expert generalist, and on any day, wear a multitude of different caps to fit the many different contexts and scenarios you’ll end up in.

Planners will often pigeonhole themselves as ‘brand’ or ‘comms’ or ‘data’ or ‘creative’ and whilst I agree there needs to be these sorts of specialisms, I’m convinced most [good] planners – specialist or not, have a bit of everything in them.

With planners who I’ve managed in the past, I’ve always advocated them finding their own individual style for their planning. From how they approach a problem, to how they craft their thinking. I tend to find this is a far more effective way to help people develop that trying to force a one-size-fits-all way of doing their planning upon them.

But like those I’m managing today, I also had to start somewhere and beyond the many business, advertising, strategy and creative books I’ve bought and read, I found the Internet to be the best source for not only developing my craft, but also giving me a level head and keeping me in check.

As with most professions and hobbies, there’s a really strong community that exists for planning. Most planners I’ve ever met are generally quite emotional, deep thinkers who have a high degree of empathy and curiosity. The sort of traits that add a richness to some brilliant discussions you see about life+advertising on blogs and social media.

Over the years I’ve built up a fairly hefty list of planners who blog and planning resources, which I promise I’ll share one I’ve had time to update it as I’m sure by now many of the links no longer work. From the brilliant Nick Emmel’s irreverent guide to writing creative briefs, to Julian Cole’s Planning Dirty newsletter, Martin Weigel’s blog to Mark Pollard’s no-nonsense approach. As a planner today, you’re spoiled for choice.

But there’s one stand-out resource that for me, has been both instrumental in helping me develop my craft and which, has kept me sane. This resource has helped show me the importance of qualities such as integrity and honesty in my work. That it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I don’t think it’s the right thing to do’. That the obvious route is probably not the right, nor best way to go about something. That there’s always a better answer to a problem. That lateral thinking trumps literal thinking when creativity is concerned. That it’s OK to call bullshit on lazy planning and crappy advertising.

What is this resource I hear you ask?

Rob Campbell’s blog.

In December, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Rob – after a decade of reading his blog. I simply wanted a bit of advice on a number of different planning related things and despite not really knowing me, he offered to meet for a coffee and lend an ear. His advice and kindness was beyond words.

My only disappointment was he wasn’t wearing his trademark Birkenstocks. But it was December so I can probably just about forgive him.

So my advice to you is this; if you’re not learning from the people you work with, move teams. If you can’t move teams, move jobs. If you can’t move jobs, then find someone who can be your source of inspiration and guidance. It’ll do more for both your career and your mental state than any book or course ever will.

Keep hunting. They’ll definitely be out there.