A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world

As I sit here in the pub, enjoying a cold pint and a packet of crisps, seeing and hearing everything going on around me, the rich tapestry of life, it got me thinking about the famous John le Carre quote that is the title of this blog article. Over the years, lots of people have quoted it; usually people whose field is either research, or whom use research in their role. Like Planners.

It is however, an easy thing to forget when you’re in the daily grind. Even if you do remember it, it’s easy to ignore, because, getting away from your desk takes preparation, time and sometimes, even permission.

I’ve always been a huge advocate of not working from the same desk, or even place, day-in, day–out. Even when I’ve worked in agencies where I’ve had a brilliant view from my desk, like the 12th floor of Sea Containers, overlooking the Thames whilst at GTB, it’s rare you’ll find me sat at it.

I believe that in the context of work, in planning especially, familiarity breeds complacency and often, laziness. You see the same stuff and the same people every day and it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing the world one–dimensionally.

I think that a pre-requisite to any planning role is that you don’t have a desk, and instead, each day have to decide on the best place to work that best suits the context of whatever planning you’re doing at that time. Ideally, at least half of that shouldn’t be in the office.

As any good planner will know, a big part of the art of planning comes from observing the world and relating those observations back to the work you do. Often, the observations you make at the time won’t be relevant to the specific piece of work you’re doing, but they might be one day. So go work from a coffee shop and observe parents meeting up in the morning. Go work from the pub in the day (drinking soft drinks, obviously) and observe business people and pensioners enjoying a pint and a chat over lunch. Go work from a shared workspace and observe other business people. And if you get really brave, strike up a conversation with them. The value you’ll sometimes get far outweighs many statistics you see quoted every day on Twitter, masqueraded as ‘insight’.

Since starting Cord, I’ve had the privilege to work on a few projects that have recognised the value of going beyond simply using desk and online quantitative methods to inform strategies and ideas, and have instead placed a great importance on the value derived from observing and speaking to people. Seeing what can not be seen in a spreadsheet or a dashboard, or a beautifully written and curated report you and every one of your competitors can pay for online.

Just to be clear; I’m not dismissing any form of research you can buy (as long as it’s actually good), but you’ll only ever get part of the picture from it. If you’re simply researching by reading websites and reports, you’ll still have to fill in the gaps. Make assumptions. Form conclusions without a true understanding of the reality of seeing or speaking to the people you’re reading about.

I don’t need to write about the importance of doing this, because so many have written about it before.

What I do need to remind you of, is, in the age of unprecedented volumes of data, intelligent algorithms, digital tools, dashboards and quantum computing, sometimes the thing you really need to do is head to a pub, and have a chat over a pint and some crisps.

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.

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: