You can’t be what you can’t see

When you have children, you become acutely aware of certain things that you most-likely rarely ever thought about.

Things like free time, silence, lie-ins, spontaneity, and responsibility. Things that you take for granted until you suddenly have to look after one or more little humans.

I’m not saying people without children don’t think about these things, but I certainly know that I think about them now more than ever; either because I never have them any more and miss them dearly (a lie in on a Sunday morning for instance), or they’re front of mind 24/7 – responsibility for their well-being.

Here are my two; Jake aged three and a half, and Millie, one and a half:

They’re absolutely amazing.

They’ve enriched my life in unimaginable and indescribable ways.

They constantly surprise me with their creativity, their humour and how smart they already are.

There is however one thing that I absolutely loathe about bringing up children, and that’s the mental conditioning that happens from such a young age, from things like their toys, their clothing, and the TV shows created for them – even the food that’s promoted to them.

I like to think that we’re bringing them up to know that boys and girls are equal and capable of achieving anything they put their minds to, but this is challenging when so much of what they’re exposed to from the moment they can think for themselves is geared towards making them think and behave in certain ways – purely based on gender.

The other day, Jake brought a toy car to me and went “this is for boys, Millie can’t have it”.

I know for a fact this isn’t something we would ever have taught him but at three and a half, he’s starting to think for himself a lot.

I quizzed him as to why he said this, to which he replied “only boys drive cars”. Now, he typically spends the majority of his time in a car with either his mum or his nanny driving so I knew this wasn’t his point of reference.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it was in fact the various shows he watches:

Paw Patrol:

Noddy:

Peppa Pig:

Postman Pat:

Blaze:

Cars:

In the majority of children’s shows and films, the cars and/or the drivers are male.

It made me feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable that in 2019, things that are created for children are still full of ridiculous stereotypes.

It’s an outdated view of the world and absolutely not representative of real life. For instance, in the UK, 46% of drivers are women.

It needs to change.

And whilst it’s the responsibility of us adults to recognise it and make the changes, the change they need to effect starts with children.

Children’s TV shows need to stop stereotyping based on gender.

Children’s food needs to stop stereotyping based on gender.

Children’s toys need to stop stereotyping based on gender.

Children need to be shown that whether you’re a girl or a boy, you are capable of doing and achieving anything. That whilst your gender might define who you are, it certainly doesn’t define what you can do.

Some of the best loved brands – like Nike, get it. They don’t just get it, they’re doing something about it. But when it comes to children and the brands aimed at them, based on what I’m seeing and experiencing, we’ve still got long way to go.

As Marie Wilson famously said; “You can’t be what you can’t see”.

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.

True connection

The biggest challenge every brand faces, is connecting with people. But despite global advertising spend in 2018 being a gargantuan $543.71 billion dollars, very few get it right. For context, 543 billion dollars is roughly the same as the entire GDP of Switzerland as ranked by the IMF. It’s why the majority of advertising, as Dave Trott expressed so eloquently is nothing more than wallpaper.

Ever since I started my career in planning, everywhere I’ve worked, there has been an obsession over ‘the insight’. There’s been so much written about insights by the likes of Rob Campbell, Martin Weigel and Mark Pollard in far better ways than I could ever aspire to. As such, I won’t go into detail, other than to say that the longer I’ve worked in the industry, the more I’ve come to realise that almost every insight isn’t really that insightful, and instead, merely an observation about a group of people.

(I’m getting to the point of this article I promise)

Recently, I’ve had to go through a period of my life of fairly intense self-reflection, and recognise that it’s OK to not be OK all of the time. I think that the nature of the industry I work in has meant that I’ve simply tried to pretend I’m fine, when sometimes I’m not.

My natural reaction is to go online and seek out information and advice – of which, there is plenty. But rarely does it give me the answer I want. Not because it doesn’t say the right things, but because it’s dry, and cold, and only connects with me on a rational level.

Actually, I can probably count on both hands, the number of times something I’ve read has connected with me on a genuinely emotional level, but recently this has changed – a few of the articles I’ve read have smacked me round the face like a ton of bricks. They’ve connected with me on a deep, emotional level. Made me look inwardly. Made me stop, think and reflect.

Triggering that sort of response is nirvana for any brand’s advertising, but if any brand’s survival is predicated on their ability to connect with people, then why does so much of all advertising fail to do this:

Martin Weigel – Escape from Fantasy

As you can see, it’s getting worse. People don’t favour advertising in the same way they used to. Despite having more channels and mediums that we know what to do with, the drive seems to be on creating more and more wallpaper, and that simply doesn’t feel right.

There are however, a few brands who do get it right, almost every single time:

Nike is the brand synonymous for one that gets culture. A brand that has a view on the world, and the eyes and ears of its audience. A brand that understands that to connect with people you need to really understand and empathise with them. You’ll notice that in much of Nike’s above the line advertising, products are rarely featured. They don’t need to be. People get what Nike is about and who they are for.

Perhaps it’s time for more brands to escape the confines of their own echo chambers, and start really focusing on people, see how they can be more relevant in people’s lives, how they can communicate with people in ways that are authentic, and believable – not patronising.

Perhaps it’s time for brands to start seeing the true potential of connecting with people.

The power of imagination

When I was young, like most children I loved playing with Lego.

I had two enormous tubs of it, every type of brick you could imagine – all different shapes, colours and sizes.

To this day, playing with Lego is one of of my most vivid memories, because I can associate moments in time with the different things I made.

Over time, the types of thing I used to make changed – much of it was based on what I’d seen on TV, or in a magazine – submarines from James Bond, and a huge X-Wing fighter after watching Star Wars (the original one).

This was back in the 80’s, a time when we had one television in the house, with four channels, about an hour of children’s TV a day, and where, the channels used to shut down and stop broadcasting overnight.

Everything I used to do with my Lego, from building things, to playing with them afterwards, was down to my imagination – and a lot of patience/frustration in working out how to create my next masterpiece made of plastic bricks.

I love Lego, because it is truly one of those things where your imagination is the only limit as to what you can create – that and how many bricks you have.

Today, on Instagram, I saw an advert for an augmented reality Lego app. The idea is, you build something, then point a phone, or a tablet at it the thing you’ve made, and it turns what you’ve created into a game on the screen.

At first I thought “that’s cool”, but after a few minutes it felt at-odds with what Lego is all about. Lego is about unleashing your creativity and building something awesome, then letting your imagination take over when you play with it.

Playing some sort of pre-defined game based on what you’ve made, feels completely removed from what Lego is all about – certainly from my perspective. Actually, I felt a bit sad to see it… Does Lego feel like its core product is no-longer satisfying its core user-base? Does Lego feel like it needs to diversify to stay relevant in this technology-obsessed world in which we live?

I’m sure many who see it won’t agree with me, but I’ll leave you with this one additional thing…

Tonight, Jake, my three year old son, came and joined me in the kitchen whilst I was cooking dinner. He doesn’t really know it but he’s got so many things I could only dream about as a child. I’ve worked hard my whole life to give him and my family everything I didn’t have growing up – every toy you could imagine. But tonight, he didn’t want to play with his toys, instead, he wanted to stand on his much-loved IKEA stool, and make shapes with the seeds from a pepper I’d just chopped up. Something he did for half an hour.

So I say to Lego, please don’t feel like you have to embrace every bit of technology going, because deep down, a child’s imagination is so amazing, so incredible, that all you need to give them are a few seeds (or bricks) and they’ll do the rest.

Interestingly, I also saw this ad, done by Ogilvy Canada, so I like to hold out hope. Because this is the Lego that I know and love:

This is not a strategy

Graham Kenny provides his thoughts on the subject on HBR here

One of the best bits of advice I ever received is that, when scrutinised, most strategies aren’t really strategic in the slightest. In fact, they’re most-likely to be objectives, or actions, or activities. 

A strategy is not:

  • A presentation
  • A chart
  • A metric
  • A percentage
  • A goal
  • A sales target
  • A model
  • A diagram
  • An aspiration
  • An objective
  • A survey

A strategy is the best possible way to achieve a desired outcome, and you should be able to articulate it in a simple sentence. Everything else is either the means (to help deliver on the strategy), or the end (the result, the outcome).

If you can’t articulate your strategy simply and clearly, it probably isn’t a strategy.