Thursday, March 31, 2005

Tub Thumping Tom

I went along to the opening Keynote speeches for the Better by Design conference. It was unmissable opportunity to hear Tom Peters. Quite franky it could have been a conference about water retriculation in South Otgao and I would have gone along to see him in action. In 1984 When I left my first job in advertising (Brown Christenson DDB - where I had the odd moniker Conceptualiser - my colleagues had a whip around to buy a gift. They asked if there was something I would like. I said without pause 'a copy of In Search of Excellence ' by Tom Peters. They thought I was nuts - what would a creative guy want that for? Not much has changed, they still think I'm crazy and I still think that changing processes and the way we THINK and ACT is more likely to achieve worthwhile ends than 'creative' expressions of the wrong things. What would a 2005 'best of breed' buggy whip look like? Who cares?

The first thing you notice about Peters is that he's older than you might expect. He cuts an unassuming figure in his business suit and comfortable shoes. I initially wondered about his choice of shoes until his performance began - at which point it became obvious - they are the management guru equivalent of Air Jordans. Peters is on the move from the moment he takes the stage (and take the stage he does). I'm not sure whether he possesses it or it possesses him. He kind of uncoils into his speech, which he has clearly delivered, in one variation or another, many times before. But that hardly matters. The message is salient regardless. A wake up call for business to change its mindset; to change or be made irrelevant; to put design in it's proper place - at the soul of the organisation - great tub thumping stuff.

Peters' energy seems boundless. He uses pauses in his delivery to bring the audience down, assuming the contemplative posture of an elderly Vermont man troubled by the changes in the world that he has proclaimed, but which have not always been heeded - then blasts into another stratospheric tirade. It was thrilling to watch, perfectly modulated - he had the design industry audience eating out of his hands. Pure gonzo, rock'n' roll business.

Tom Peters is definitely The One & Only™ - a point made painfully obvious by the speaker who followed him - Tim Brown of the design firm IDEO. His talk was interesting, but, really,he should have been first, not second on the roster (and he knew it). It was like eating the appetiser after the main course. But I guess the design orientation of the organisers meant they would have seen it in the opposite order (a hidden message perhaps?).

Links for this post

Better by Design
(The powerpoint slides from Peter's talk can be downloaded for free.)

Order a copy of Tom Peter's latest book Re-imagine from Amazon. (this is not your father's business book).
Click Here

Ideo Design
Order a copy of The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO (an outstanding insight into the PROCESS of design)
Click Here

Feel free to add comments to the postings on this Web Log.
Remember that you own your own words. I won't interfere with any remarks, unless they are offensive - that's my prerogative.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Step Right Up

Every night on television there is a slew of advertising that makes me wonder about the process of creating advertising.
You know the kind of ad I'm talking about, barker ads. The broadcast equivalent of fairground sideshow. I won't name names, but I'm thinking sports goods, 'everyone gets a bargain' and Australian automotive accessory retailers.

I recently read an interview in Herald with Rod Duke, the owner of a Briscoes and Rebel Sports - some telling remarks from one of New Zealand's most canny retailers:

"Rebel Sport, in particular, had suffered from competing relentlessly on price and bombarding consumers with "50 per cent off" advertising. Research showed the chain was the "most preferred" sports outlet, but the marketing strategy had backfired as brands were devalued in the eyes of consumers. Briscoes Homeware was also suffering from its reliance on price-driven marketing and Tammy Wells - the brand's face.
Duke said offers needed to focus on ranges, quality and brands rather than just price."
Herald Article

To get back to my point: what goes through the minds of the people responsible for pumping this garbage into my living room? It seems the key question is "How loud can I shout?" or perhaps what dim-witted cliche can I deploy to name this week's sale. How many times can we hear 'March Madness' without wondering about the sanity of it all?

How can a retailing organisation employ The One & Only™ strategies? Well, for one, stop shouting. In a room full of people waving their arms it is the individual who is calm that stands out. And I seriously suggest finding some other way of connecting with me other than price.

End the madness now.

The One & Only™ Tom Waits

Here's a Tom Waits lyric that kind of sums things up. Great song. Great artist (The One & Only - unmistakeable sound, unmistakeable lyrical style and complete ownership of the subject matter).

Step right up
step right up
step right up
Everyone's a winner, bargains galore
That's right, you too can be the proud owner
Of the quality goes in before the name goes on
One-tenth of a dollar
one-tenth of a dollar
we got service after sales
You need perfume? we got perfume
how 'bout an engagement ring?
Something for the little lady
something for the little lady
Something for the little lady, hmm
Three for a dollar
We got a year-end clearance, we got a white sale
And a smoke-damaged furniture
you can drive it away today
Act now, act now
and receive as our gift, our gift to you
They come in all colors, one size fits all
No muss, no fuss, no spills
you're tired of kitchen drudgery
Everything must go
going out of business
going out of business
Going out of business sale
Fifty percent off original retail price
skip the middle man
Don't settle for less
How do we do it?
how do we do it?
volume, volume, turn up the volume
Now you've heard it advertised, don't hesitate
Don't be caught with your drawers down
Don't be caught with your drawers down
You can step right up, step right up

That's right, it filets, it chops
It dices, slices, never stops
lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn
And it mows your lawn
and it picks up the kids from school
It gets rid of unwanted facial hair
it gets rid of embarrassing age spots
It delivers a pizza
and it lengthens, and it strengthens
And it finds that slipper that's been at large
under the chaise longe for several weeks
And it plays a mean Rhythm Master
It makes excuses for unwanted lipstick on your collar
And it's only a dollar, step right up
it's only a dollar, step right up

'Cause it forges your signature.
If not completely satisfied
mail back unused portion of product
For complete refund of price of purchase
Step right up
Please allow thirty days for delivery
don't be fooled by cheap imitations
You can live in it, live in it
laugh in it, love in it
Swim in it, sleep in it
Live in it, swim in it
laugh in it, love in it
Removes embarrassing stains from contour sheets
that's right
And it entertains visiting relatives
it turns a sandwich into a banquet
Tired of being the life of the party?
Change your shorts
change your life
change your life
Change into a nine-year-old Hindu boy
get rid of your wife
And it walks your dog, and it doubles on sax
Doubles on sax, you can jump back Jack
see you later alligator
See you later alligator
And it steals your car
It gets rid of your gambling debts, it quits smoking
It's a friend, and it's a companion
And it's the only product you will ever need
Follow these easy assembly instructions
it never needs ironing
Well it takes weights off hips, bust
thighs, chin, midriff
Gives you dandruff, and it finds you a job
it is a job
And it strips the phone company free
take ten for five exchange
And it gives you denture breath
And you know it's a friend, and it's a companion
And it gets rid of your traveler's checks
It's new, it's improved, it's old-fashioned
Well it takes care of business
never needs winding
Never needs winding
never needs winding
Gets rid of blackheads, the heartbreak of psoriasis
Christ, you don't know the meaning of heartbreak, buddy
C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon
'Cause it's effective, it's defective
it creates household odors
It disinfects, it sanitizes for your protection
It gives you an erection
it wins the election
Why put up with painful corns any longer?
It's a redeemable coupon, no obligation
no salesman will visit your home
We got a jackpot, jackpot, jackpot
prizes, prizes, prizes, all work guaranteed
How do we do it
how do we do it
how do we do it
how do we do it
We need your business
we're going out of business
We'll give you the business
Get on the business
end of our going-out-of-business sale
Receive our free brochure, free brochure
Read the easy-to-follow assembly instructions
batteries not included
Send before midnight tomorrow, terms available
Step right up
step right up
step right up
You got it buddy: the large print giveth
and the small print taketh away
Step right up
you can step right up
you can step right up
C'mon step right up
(Get away from me kid, you bother me...)
Step right up, step right up, step right up
c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon
Step right up
you can step right up
c'mon and step right up
C'mon and step right up

If you don't have any Tom Waits music in your collection I heartily recommend that you get some:

Monday, March 28, 2005

Better by Design?

(I wrote this as an article in the New Zealand Herald 3 March)

I wonder if anyone in the history of the world actually woke up one morning and thought: Today I shall design something truly bad. Not just bad, terrible. Can I see a show of hands? Didn't think so.

And yet there are plenty of dreadful products. Who's to say what is better or worse though? Who gets to make the value judgment? Eastern Europe was filled with dreadful Trabant cars - possibly the worst thing ever designed - but they mobilised millions of Eastern Bloc motorists. On the other hand, Fiat's ultra-designed Multipla makes babies cry at the mere sight of its grotesque profile. Is the Fiat better by design?

For better or worse, design is inherent in every manufactured good and every fungible experience. I'm going to stick my neck out here, no one in their right mind sets out to create experiences that suck.

When designers promote the idea of Better by Design and invite business people to $1500 dollar-a-head, government-subsided lectures and cocktail parties, I hear the gentle ringing of alarm bells - or are they cash registers?

I'm wary of sloganeering especially when the slogans are expressed grandly for the elite using the taxman's plunder. The concepts of design and better are ambiguous on their own, let alone uttered in the pithy maxim "better by design" which suggests orthodoxy and the dead hand of central planning. Beware of intellectualism. Alessi, a successful design-led businesses, is premised on design as fun. Their Philippe Starck-designed orange squeezer was functionally useless, but it squeezes one's thinking about why an object should conform to a Germanic modernist norm.

People aren't rational. Searching for an absolute model of perfection is a fool's errand. The Better by Design conference makes much of Formay's excellent Life Chair. But where is the After Life chair? I discarded a Herman Miller Aeron in favour of the Life Chair ... yes it's true - I sit around. But there are aspects of the chair I'd like to see improved. Perhaps when it comes down from its pedestal?

Let's celebrate the bunts that keep the game moving as well as the home runs. It is easy to be convinced that media darlings like Formay and Icebreaker are ne plus ultra. Or that high profile design behemoths like Ideo are more worthy than the hard-working, one-man band whose budgets are minuscule, barely covering costs and student debts.

We have width and depth of design in New Zealand - what if we could interconnect at grass roots and create a fast-moving, interactive market for design rather than a titanic, strategic, elitist, schmooze-fest.

If Better By Design becomes a centrifuge to separate and discard the flavours and smells of local creativity for a homogenised, normalised, internationally standardised future, shrink wrapped into the worthy, cerebral, rational and utterly predictable (boring), then we'll be infamous for our conferences and junkets.

Let's be famous for problem-solving ideas - executed to within an inch of their lives.

Some Links for this blog

Formway - Creators of the excellent Life chair
Better by Design site

Sex doesn't sell

Reading a Reuters article about sex in movies I was surprised, but not very, by the simple truth that sex doesn't sell.

It seems that movies in which sex is a central and serious component sink without a trace. Closer, Mike Nichols' superb, unflinching look at 21st Century relationships has been critically aclaimed but didn't do much business at the box office.
Apparently we like our sex to in movies to be either violent or funny - rather than an integral, beautiful, anxiety inducing part of the intimacy within a relationship. Movies like American Pie or There's Something About Mary do so well because the sexual element is a pantomime about life, rather than a mirror. According to the article we have become a puritanical society. We like our porn at home.

I'm neither a libertine nor complete stiff, but I have to confess to feeling awkward sitting next to a complete stranger in a darkened room while 25 foot high actors simulate intercourse. I'll never forget slipping away from the office to catch a film festival showing of the French movie Betty Blue. I was seated next to a pair of precadaverous old ladies who had brought their own packet of Cameo Cream biscuits with them (and I had a distinct, disquieting feeling there was a thermos of tea stashed somewhere). One of the opening sequences was a particularly sweaty encounter to establish the intensity of the main character. I felt bad for the ladies, how awkward. No need. They loved it. As Billy Conolley sung in one of his old routines "Yer Granny's not only said it, she's done it as well."

Going along to see Stanley Kubrick's final flick "Eye's Wide Shut" made me feel I should have been wearing a raincoat. I could rationalise it away with protestations of wanting to see the film titan's magnum opus. But there has to be the lingering doubt that I might actually have some prurient interest in seeing Nichole Kidman naked. As it happened I thought the movie was a bit of a flop on all counts.

Let's be clear. I like sex. I have no qualms about it being up there on the big screen. People should be free to make sexy films and free to buy a ticket . How noble of me. I can empathise with Hollywood. Why make a movie with high principles if it is going to suck at the box office.

'Gotcha!' I hear you cry. Isn't that the opposite of what you've been saying about The One & Only™?

Not exactly. I say go ahead and make sexy movies. Movie makers have to take risks. No risk no reward. Create! It just makes sense to recognise that your fillums aren't going to be marquee blockbusters. There are now so many outlets for viewing movies that I don't think where they are shown is the point. Have you seen the latest plasma screens? In the context of the privacy of your own home they are as impressive as the silver screen.

If I want to watch artsy movies, where human sexuality is treated in an adult way (I don't mean porn - simply not the infantilisation that typifies most of Hollywood's homogenised, processed, dumb-assed teen fodder) with DVD and huge home screens the opportunities to see more intimate stories is probably greater and a better experience at home. There is the added attraction of avoiding the crunching and slurping and rustling of other people's snacks.

Isn't it bizarre, though; the US produces and consumes a vast percentage of the worlds pornography? Their citizenry run riot with weapons whose only purpose is can only be killing other humans and protest their Constitutional Right to bear arms. I have to wonder how the pursuit of happiness can be reconcilled with dodging bullets from automatic weapons in schools and churches. The same governor who attempts to intervene in the death of a brain dead woman by removing her feeding tube based on her funadmental 'right to life' also signs death warrants for prisoners in his jails. The Oscars Ceremony broadcast has a five second delay to censor any unscripted ideas (supposedly because of Janet Jackson's breast exposure at the Superbowl), but according to another online Reuters article :

"On the one hand, commentators predict that the more networks are forced to sanitize shows, the less people will be inclined to watch. But at the same time, the more a show's producer warns viewers they may be offended, the more they are likely to tune in.
"The entertainment industry is figuring out how to spin and use this paranoia we've encountered since the Super Bowl," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"People wanted to make sure they were present if the next Janet Jackson moment happened."

It all reminds me of a quote "I have principles. And if you don't like those I have others." (can't remember who uttered those cynical words).

But I prefer these - from the great American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Whoso would be a man must first be an independant".

Sunday, March 27, 2005

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Clearing out my garage in preparation for a shift to a new home in Auckland City (escape from the 'burbs) I came across a cassette tape of The Clash - The Story of the Clash.

The Clash were important to me when I was growing up. I saw them perform in about 1982 - I think. It was towards the end of their career as a band and not long before I made the transition from rebellious punk student to working stiff - though I couldn't have foreseen that at the time - because surviving into my twenties conflicted with the live fast die young punk ethic - and I only had a year to go. The Clash had a wild, riotous sound that I found particularly liberating. Musically more controlled and with more of a thinking punk's edge than, say, The Sex Pistols.

Although it is Easter Sunday I was driving across the Auckland Harbour Bridge, heading for work and hoping to have some quiet time for the admin that I am so lousy at doing when there is anyone around me to offer even the most vague of distractions.

I flipped the tape into the deck and cranked the volume up near distortion levels (which, given the age of both the tape and the player wasn't all that loud). The music is still as exhilarating as it once was. The thing that surprised me was an interview with the members of the band - rough sound quality, profane language that would have once titillated me (yeah, I know - we were all like Beavis & Butthead once). Over twenty years later it's pretty tame. What struck me most was a comment made by Joe Strummer; if you didn't like the band's sound it didn't matter to him. He and his mates were exploring something for themselves. The band had been counselled by worthies at the label to try to sing more clearly. Mick Jones, lead guitar and vocalist says he tried and it just came out sounding like Matt Monroe. He used the example of 'Jamaican music' (I guess he was referring to Reggae) where you can't understand a thing they sing until you've heard it about twenty times.

You might think that kind of attitude isn't going to work if you want to find an audience for what you do.
The Clash sold millions of records, though their catalogue was small. Rolling Stone Magazine rated London Calling as the best album of the 80's (although it was released in 1979) and in the recent top 500 songs of all time edition Rolling Stone Magazine placed London Calling at number 15, Train in Vain at 292, Complete Control 361 and White Man at number 430.

The One & Only™ argument goes like this: If you don't please yourself how can you please anyone else?

Sometimes whole markets make a shift based on a simple, single truth. Before punk, rock had gravitated towards an obese, monstrous obession with overblown scale and excess. Bands like Electric Light Orchestra and Pink Floyd had mutated into gigantic circuses that totally alientated the audience. The rock dream began with people like The Beatles playing in tiny clubs and garages, with a love of the music and expressing their teen angst or raging hormones. While punk wasn't perfect or even the answer, it certainly pricked the bubble. It argued for autheticity and not artiface (even if it quickly fell into self parody - if you doubt that find yourself a copy of The Great Rock n Roll Swindle).

These past couple of days I read the autobiography of actor Michael J Fox. One quote stuck with me "What other people think of me is none of my business." You might think that sounds kind of weird for a performer who lives or 'dies' depending on what the audience thinks about him.

But both are true, the choices the performer makes for himself predicates the outcome. Presented with a bad script and an offer of millions to take the role, the outcome pivots on that moment of decision. Integrity or a quick buck.

A lot of very experienced marketers try to catch me on this point. "If it's not obviously profitable, why do it?"
My response is: if it is 'obvious' to you then the same strategy or execution is going to have occurred to someone else before you. You might well make a quick buck in your rabid anxiety to have a slice of the pie, but in doing so you miss the banquet that having a monopoly on an idea or its expression will give you.

Completing the third part of the triangulation From The Clash to Micheal J. Fox, to a fragment of the Self-help author and lecturer Stuart Wilde from his book called The Secret to Money is Having Some - Which I recommend, even if you're not a navel gazer … especially if you're not a navel gazer.

I have to admit that I like to read in the loo in the office and have gotten over the embarrassment of taking a book in with me. I'd like to suggest installing some shelves to the landlord. I randomly picked up this book from my shelf this afternoon. It fell open at page 120. Wilde is discoursing about service. He says the trick is to put your ego aside and get under other people. If you are in the business of serving then SERVE. Take care of your customer's every need:

"Would you like ice sir?, A twist of lemon perhaps, an extra napkin or bowl of nuts? What can I do for you? Can I get you an extra cushion? Would you like the morning paper? Can I take your canary for a walk while you are sitting here? In other words the waiter has come from a place of concentration, subjugation and complete, limitless service. Nothing is too much trouble. the customer is always right, even if he is wrong. There is not limit to what you will do to serve while the person is in your bar and in your care"

Now pay attention here, it's pivotal, Wilde goes on...

"To serve is honorable. But it is also crafty.
There is a hard way in life:
When you feel unsure of yourself.
So you have to project a seeking of people's affection and approval.
And there is the easy way.
You can serve in silence without it affecting your self-image. You are proud to serve and to do a good job.
You need no acknowledgement to yourself in advance, in silence. You want nothing for yourself. And in wanting nothing, other than to serve your customer, you get everything and more.

Life is simple. Mostly it's a matter of going in the opposite direction to the average twit. Nothing more."

You don't have to adopt a posture of splendid, artistic, non-commercial isolation to be The One & Only™. Quite the opposite is true. In making the decision to simply be yourself and to offer your gifts uninhibited by self consciousness or fear of diasproval is essential (makes no difference whether you are a server in a restaurant, the head of a multinational corporation with a portfolio of brands, or an artiste).

When Steve Jobs says let's make something 'Insanely Great' - then goes right ahead and does it with products like the Macintosh, iMac, Powerbook and iPod he was expressing a view of the world, a big idea that informs everything Apple does (not always entirely successfully, but hey, Apple is human too...) With a 'profit first' board without Jobs (who fell victim to a coup d'etat) Apple nearly tanked. Their products added no joy to the world. All of the great moments in Apple's history came on Job's watch.

When Sarah McLaughlin bares her soul through her music, I'm betting it's got not much at all to do with market research and exit polling and EVERYTHING to do with expressing herself creatively through music. Her audience found her and sticks with her like glue. They are FANS, not customers. They seek her out. When I hear Angel on the car radio I pull over and listen (It makes me think of Megan my son's mom who died of cancer - it is too special to multi-task to). By taking care to express herself and NOT to blend into the top selling genre in a scramble for her share of airplay and album sales McLaughlin not only remains true to herself, but true to us, her fans.

I guess it's like Bob Dylan says "You gotta serve somebody." But when you serve, you serve yourself.


I predict that the Apple brand will be in the business of consumer electronics within five years - the computer part of their business will be important but not as definitive as it once was. I can see a demand for Apple personal communication devices, video cameras and stuff that I can't even imagine in the future. It will all be the coolest gear, because, at the end of the day, aside from functionality, that is what separates Apple from the pack. Always has, always will.

Links for this entry

The Clash - Check out their music
Micheal J Fox - Lucky Man Autobiography
The Trick to money is having some - Stuart Wilde
Apple Computer
Rolling Stone Top 500 Songs

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Hell On Heels

I interviewed the performer Helen Medlyn for the book yesterday. Helen is an exhuberant character and great fun. One of her stories made me think how extraordinary the Universe can be.

Helen told me about how she worked as a television producer for Saatchi & Saatchi advertising. She had been studying music and singing in her spare time. One day she found herself with the task of producing the voice-over for a commercial. The voice talent was the famous actor John Hurt who was in London. The time difference meant the recording took place in the middle of the night (local time) and that Helen had been working a 21 hour day to deliver the result needed by her boss, the reknowned creative director, Roy Meares. She was exhausted from the relentless pressure of her job and the long hours. While it paid her very well, more than twice the salary her father had ever earned in a year as a hard working butcher, Helen's love of music was not being fulfilled. She was not expressing her authentic self. Music was her first love.

Helen told her boss that she wanted to leave and gave a month's notice. I know first hand how good she was at her work, we worked together in an advertising agency in 1985. I also know how much her Roy relied on her (he was my creative director when I worked at the agency too). He said "What are you going to do? Where will you go? You're crazy." Helen didn't know. Her parents mirrored her boss' remarks, as did her friends.

Helen tells that removing the stress of her job and the conflict of repressing her true love in music left her open and vulnerable. She knew she had talent, she had performed amateur roles since she was quite young and had been training with professional coaches, but not knowing what would happen next was a new experience for her.

A call came from out of the blue from the well known theatre producer Raymond Hawthorne; was Helen available for a professional theatre role? I'd have to call that 'cosmic'.

Had Helen not taken the risk, backed herself, and quit her job she might have excluded herself from the first step on her path to becoming the unique perfomer she is today. She is the One & Only™ Helen Medlyn - or as she was billed in her first one woman cabaret show "Hell on Heels".

It's an honour for us all to have people prepared to take the risk to share their gifts with us - whether it is embarking on the vagaries of career in theatre or setting up a graphic design studio. It fascinated me to hear Helen talk about the addictive effect of performing, the anxieties and fear as well as the immersion into the flow of authoritatively plying her craft.

One hour easily telescoped into two, but Helen had to dash. She had a part to play in Shortland Street, the medical soap - playing a Diva.
Type casting,...surely not?

Helen Medlyn's web site

Monday, March 21, 2005

Basic Human Truth

The selection of books I read can sometimes be quite random. I'm attracted by a cover or a title, or , sometimes, a bargain. For all the time I spend using computers and the internet to communicate and research I also seem to be reading more than I ever have. I have a new love for the public library and the trestle tables heaped with remaindered books at the local outlet store. It is from these apparently opposite sources that two books have provided me with some interesting reinforcement of my faith in The One & Only™ Concept.

From The Meaning of ThingsApplying Philosophy to Life by AC Grayling I found the following in the introduction:

"Socrates said that an unconsidered life is not worth living. He meant that a life lived without forethought or principle is a life left vulnerable to chance and dependant on the choices and actions of others (so of little real value to the person living it). He goes further, that a life lived well is one that has goals and integrity, a life chosen and directed by the one who lives it, to the fullest extent possible."

And from the library to the clearance tables:

A Quaker Book of Wisdom by Robert Lawrence Smith:

"Shakespeare wrote 'Conscience doth make cowards of us all.' I think what he meant is that listening to and acting on our conscience is a scary and lonely experience. We fear our conscience for the same reasons we fear the truth. We know our conscience can expose us to ridicule and take away the props that make us feel secure - a group identity, conformity, anonymity. I would argue that letting your life speak through your conscience in the same way that truth telling is. It frees you from the the jusgement of others because you are answerable only to the God that is in you."

I wonder, sometimes, whether the journey of writing my book is worth it when I keep finding tracks that suggest others have trodden the path before me, though usually the tracks cross my path rather than head to the same waterhole. But it would be arrogant of me think that this is virgin turf. It has been the province of creative people, thinkers and artists since time began. My main aim is to bring a humanistic perspective back to marketing and to brands. I don't think it is right, necessarily, for everyone - but it is, at least, plausible.

The strands I am pulling together might well be basic human truths which have been forgotten in the drive to make marketing credible and 'scientific'.

If I can encourage a few people to 'follow their bliss'' and embark on a life's work - with no guarantee of success, but with a promise that a life lived honestly and a self expressed without manipulating others or cynicism is far more rewarding that creating mindless, cookie cutter experiences based on conformity, habit and worst of all, greed then I will have succeeded..

I recommend both books. You can order them from Amazon

The Meaning of Things by A.C.Grayling

A Quaker Book of Wisdom by Robert Lawrence Smith

I know you were probably wondering what Quaker humour is like. Seems Quaker's, like Buddhists have a sense of humour. How funny is it? 'Bout as funny as the Joey show.

Quaker Humour - some in side splitting Danish

The Joey Show - some in side splitting English

Friday, March 18, 2005

Never let facts get in the way of truth

I was reading about the Mexican Artist Frieda Kahlo on the web today - on the excellent PBS site.

Kahlo is famous for her glaring self portraits - she never flinched from showing herself with her monobrow and lip hair. There is something profoundly honest about her work.

It got me thinking about authenticity. What we choose to project of ourselves into the world. Think about your reaction when a camera is pointed in your direction or how you might respond when you meet someone for the first time. We put on our best smile. We try to make a good impression, right? Because first impressions count. Our culturally conditioned respnse is to put aside our true feelings. In my case I fight a fight or flight response when I'm confronted with a camera lens. I 'know' the camera can't capture my soul, but I'm not keen on taking more chances than necessary.
Unfortunately when the first impression we attempt to transmit is false then every interaction from that point on is going to induce a neurotic anxiety about being exposed as a sociopathic phony.

Think about how many brands you interact with that suffer from wasteful first impressions. Let's assume an ad is a first impression. It represent the brand through its products and services.

Take bank advertising as a case in point.
Banks spend a small fortune on projecting an image of themselves that is caring and engaged in your community.

ANZ have been here in New Zealand since 1840 and so understand New Zealanders better AND they give their employees days off to do good works in the community.

BNZ see things the same way you do - Your little fishing skiff is a gin palace in your mind (and with a hefty loan from BNZ could be yours).

Westpac co-opt a sort of simplistic Charlie Brown cartoon style that suggest that everything about money is simplified at Westpac.

Here's the rub. Banks, more than any other brands are motivated by financial imperatives (usurery) and like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice will have their pound of flesh. Most banks drop the pretence after the initial impressions are made. Once contracts are signed and collateral assigned. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone complain about the lax and inefficient service of their bank, or the scandalous fees charged for micoscopic benefits - well, let's just say I'd have a tidy sum on deposit.

Most people don't readily change banks because the return for their effort would usually negligible. The differences between bank brands are neglible. The associated costs and penalties soon eliminate any maginal percentage on deposits. And everyone knows that interest rates are matched in an instant by all banks - so why bother.

The advertising for banks is so utterly redundant in establishing any authentic connection with real people that if you're convinced to choose or change banks based on any image the bank projects, then you deserve all post purchase dissonance (buyers remorse) you will inevitably experience.

Perhaps if banks reduced the amount of money they spend on mind numbingly irrelevant promotion and returned the savings to lower fees and more tellers on the job at busy times -or passing on the savings of lower costs associated with electronic transactions...better still - why not nationalise them? Eject the money lenders from the temple? (I'm infused with the revolutionary spirit of Kahlo).

Here's my guide to choosing a bank.

Do you like Yellow? - Choose ASB
Do you like Red? - Westpac
Blue - BNZ
Light Blue - ANZ
Green - Kiwibank

Have I missed anyone?

First impressions count, to be sure. As part of the decision making process. But let's get real. I would rather know up-front that you are hard-nosed, sensitive, ego centric or altruistic...The cost of faking it is too great - imagine embarking on a relationship that seems perfect and loving only to find later that your lover, who has become your wife/husband and mother/father of your children is a pathological maniac (oops, that's 30% of all marriages...).

We need to reconcile ourselves to the simple fact that we won't have 'chemistry' with most people. Wasting time and money and every other form of energy faking it is utterly pointless. Pleasing behaviour is a form of neurosis. Don't engage in it.

And never let the 'facts' get in the way of the truth - we can usually modify our 'data' to match any given scenario - Chicken Little surmised that the sky was falling becasue an acorn fell on his head. If, say,you owned a music shop selling vintage guitars and amplifiers to middle aged men revisiting their interest in the blues (after their pathological wives have divorced them), and you see that the youth market is growing quickly. Attractive? Maybe. But how much shoehorning will you have to do to convince a snotty little punk (in the proper noun sense) to buy from you, rather than the store staffed by other snotty punks? You could; but the energy it would take would be soul destroying and your real customers, who already need a little love and attention, will not enjoy the neglect that is sure to follow as you make a fool of yourself.

Your truth is what you know to be true in your gut. Stupidity and greed? Leave it to the banks.

Stay real.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

So much to admire, so little to enjoy.

I recently listened to a young advertising creative person having a conversation with some colleagues. One of his remarks stayed with me after he had left - the expression "If I was a consumer...." innocent enough you might think, on its own. The thoughtless remark suggested to me the sense of remoteness that pervades in the world of advertising and design. Rather than being engaged in the process of creating a meaningful dialogue (both lasting and profitable) with the people who love your product, ad people and designers project their own tastes and sensibilities onto the audience. They ignore the nature of the brand and its interactions with its fans.

This thread was followed up with a conversation I had at the opening of HB Media's new central city offices.
The discussion turned to the aesthetic of the Warehouse's red shed identity. With all of the cash the company genenates why not invest a little in refreshig the dreary graphic identity?
I can't hink of anything that would be more wasteful and possibly destructive (in sales, profits and shareholder return). The Warehouse has a down-home aesthetic that is not only recognisable - but also iconic. More importantly, if the Warehouse was to tart itself up it would run the risk of confusing and alienating the people that trust the company to deliver on their promise that 'everyone gets a bargain'.

Much as I personally find almost everything about the warehouse distasteful I have to refer back to my theory of eliminating ambiguity. The Warehouse is unambiguously a discounter. Ratcheting their aesthic up a notch at this point in their life would be a mixed signal. People know that eveything has a price. Especially fancy packaging.

It is a challenge when our clients expect us to have a refined sense of aesthetics. It is tempting to deliver virtuoso performances. We have a professional responsibilty to beware of creating messages that (in the words of Samuel Johnson) offer 'much to admire and little to enjoy'.

Part of the enjoyment is to share a vision with people that they can relate to and understand.

Which reminds me of another quote from that great philosopher Muddy Waters - "Jez cause dey pretty, don mean dey so nice".

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Revolutionaries and Looters

A busy week so far. I have been spending time working on the development of a media property IN2IT that will hit the airwaves soon. I have a feeling it will be bigger than Family Health Diary, the concept I created in 1998 that has gone on to be a multi-million dollar phenomenon and the most successful media property in New Zealand.

I've also become a little disturbed by the way that 'infomercial' style ads have almost become a default for marketers as though they were a silver bullet solution in their frustrated efforts to get noticed on TV. They are not. I have even noticed that Amway, the multi-level marketing company were promoting their Artistry and Nutriway lines on television using the talking head format. There is an important distinction between information that is genuinely useful and puff - or information that the advertiser wants you to hear.

Like any revolution there are going to be people who want productive change and others who simply want to burn and loot and have little regard for other people - other than as a means of exploitation. I see a risk that New Zealand's airwaves will become saturated with the looters - offering little and taking as much as their smash and grab raids will allow. Watching a commercial break will seem like watching news coverage of post-liberation Bhagdad.

Behind Family Health Diary was a commitment to creating a brand. In the earliest presentations I emphasised not only the value of the proposition: to bring brands with small budgets under one umbrella, but also the values of the brand: to be a trusted, loyal friend to the audience.

As a by-product of my thinking I have also developed an idea I'll be pitching that will change perceptions of infomercials again. It's slightly insane, but there needs to be some development in the whole category to adapt to the changing media environment - including the proliferation and clutter of Family Health Diary style messages. Watch this space.

Work on The One & Only™ book continues. I'm looking forward to interviewing the Diva Helen Medlyn, a mezzo soprano whose enormous stage presence dazzles audiences with bel canto opera or belters from Cole Porter. I worked with Helen in an advertising agency in 1984, she was studying singing at University while working as a TV producer during the day. The last time I saw her perform was at a genteel 'garden party' for a thousand of her closest friends in the grounds of old Government House - Helen arrived, roaring through the centre aisle of the crowd on a Harley Davidson. Helen has an incredible personality to match her incredible voice and I am looking forward to hearing her views on being The One & Only™

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Iconoclastic Magazines

Sunday, day of rest. relaxing, reading copies of the New Yorker.

At the moment one of my projects is to design a magazine. I'm working with the the publishers Auckland University of Technology Press to create a magazine that will serve people who 'think for a living'.

My research into magazine design has left me in something of a daze. The range is stupefying. On Tuesday evening I went to Borders Books - my favourite bookstore in Auckland - and grabbed a random pile of titles, took them to the cafe in the store (I don't like the coffee but it's comfortable and I can take books and magazines there without having to buy them - very bohemian).

I realised how similar the magazines are. Most follow standard approaches - depending on the category they are in. Design magazines look like design magazines, fashion like fashion etc. It is the quality of the content that sets them apart. The book really is a stage on which the articles and features perform.

Which brings me back to The New Yorker. I would have to rate it as a One & Only™ brand. The design is unselfconscious but aware of itself. The writing is to a dauntingly high standard, with contributions from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and John Updike. The cartoons are justly famous and, while words play the pivotal role, pictures make an entrance when they have something to add. A feature of Richard Avedon's frank images of Americans at the time of the presidential elections began with a slightly cock-eyed portrait of a young woman in a silly hat - then went on to portray with basic dignity of a range of subjects - many of whom seemed to have a penchant for silly hats (God Bless America).

But, for all of its high brow content, it is the knowing whismy of the New Yorker that I enjoy. Tucked away in an obscure corner, like the footnote to the article that surrounded it (Murder of Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh and the testing of Dutch tolerance) was this piece :

From the Wellesly (Mass.) Townsman.
On Feb. 13 at 5.35, an employee of Andrews Pharmacy on Weston Road called police to report he had just gotten a weird feeling from a customer.

A typographic cartoon?


Thursday, March 10, 2005

Confidence Tricks

Today I received an email from a fellow marketing communications professional. He was appalled by the content of my website. It was 'flippant' he said. 'Sure it is' I thought to myself. I made a decision a while back that I was just going to be me. Love me or loathe me, it's who I am. I can't even pretend to be Sam the Eagle (remember Sam the Eagle from the Muppets - all imperious and scowling monobrow?).

When I was younger I guess I conformed, played by the rules that were set by the establishment. So, even though everybody made such a big deal out of 'creativity', I'd have to say there was way too much emphasis on execution and not enough time spend on thinking up new ideas to help clients solve their business problems. Wacky ads were the default, something to hide behind and obscure what was really going down. If I had a gold nugget for every time I heard the old nugget "It's a low interest category" I have me a mess of gold. But, in all honesty there are no 'low interest' categories. Every client has a story to tell. Because I wanted to express myself through my ads it was important for me to push my agenda and be dismissive of everything that didn't inch me towards the awards podium. I should have been listening and figuring out what made my clients tick.

I talked about this in my previous post, so I don't want to labour it again. But experience has given me confidence and I feel confident in myself to be able to express my ideas with a light hearted approach. The language on my web site is first person singular. It is my voice. It's how I speak.

Confidence is a wonderful thing.

So is coincidence.
I was pondering the meaning of confidence and its role in creating The One & Only ™ brand experiences for my book (I wish someone had told how hard it would be to write a book - it is progressing but I keep thinking about new connections and threads...more about that later). Where was I - coincidence: so I am sitting staring at the mobile I have hanging over my desk. I'm wondering about the very human concept of confidence and how it can apply to large companies and brands when my email makes that happy noise to let me know someone in the world has made contact. It is a newsletter from The Wizard of Ads (I love that name!) I enjoy reading their messages because they are thought provoking and usually zip to do with ads - not directly anyway. The topic on this mail:

Confidence - what is it? I kid you not.
The mail introduces me to a cantankerous Jesuit preist Baltasar Gracian who says:

Confidence comes from AUTHORITY

"…and the highest authority is that which rests on an adequate knowledge of things and long experience in different occupations. Master the subject matter and you will come and go with grace and ease and speak with the force of a teacher; for it is easy to master one's listeners if one first masters knowledge. No sort of abstract speculation can give you this authority; only continual practice in one occupation or another. Mastery arrives from an action done often and well... Authority originates in nature and is perfected by art. Those who attain this quality find things already done for them. Superiority itself lends them ease and nothing holds them back: they shine, both in words and deeds, in every situation. Even mediocrity, helped out by authority, has a certain eminence, and a little showiness can make everything come out right."

Keys to confidence:

1. Do your homework.
2. Tell the truth.
3. Be a Little Bit Showy.

So what gives me permission to be myself.

I am well versed in what I do.
I believe the truth sets us free.
I can't see the point of boring you with endless facts and balanced arguments. Their are no 'facts' only points of view - perceptions and, if you torture statistics for long enough they will confess to anything.
I may as well share my perceptions with you - however skewed (by experience, knowledge and preferences).

There's nothing else for it.

To the chap who got this ball of thought rolling - Thanks, I'm sorry if I don't communicate like you, it's just that I am NOT you.

But you go right ahead...

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


I just published my website. Or should I say re-published? It is tough putting myself out there. But then, if the creator of The One & Only™ isn't prepared to put himself out there - speak in my own voice and expose myself to criticism, then why bother with the darned thing in the first place?

I've kept the site pretty straightforward. No artiface. No Flash. Mainly words. Funny, for someone who thinks in pictures I find it more compelling to use the web for words and ideas. Compared to the time developing some little graphic ditty writing content seems more productive.

Writing the content for the site I realised what a kick I get out of my clients. S'funny, when I was an agency creative it was all about me - the ads were my ads - not my clients. I guess in a sense that's easy to understand. There were usually so many layers of management - power and control - between me and the client. I was wheeled in and wheeled out like a performing seal (on wheels). Clever, amusing, leather jacket, sunglasses in windowless rooms - remote and Creative with a capital C. It turned me into an insecure, overpaid, needy little snot. Thin skinned and passive agressive when challenged. Didn't they realise they were MY ads, that this was MY career? MY Awards? What the hell is wrong with you people? Those were the days.

I guess, if we're lucky, time and experience smoothes us. Well, I think it smoothed me. Somewhere along the way I took my power and said: "Well these are my ideas. They are based on the truth (as I see it), but if you want to discuss it, lets go, I'm here for you baby. It's your story. When I'm gone, you'll still be here."

Being able to choose my clients - rather than having them imposed on me by a manager or by some enormously important global account alignment - being able to choose makes the difference. Sure it's important, but nothing is so important that I have to be dishonest with my clients or myself. Big theme: honesty and openness. It leads to genuine discovery and innovation. I mean, what is the point of pretending to be a great research lab or a great engineer if the work you are doing is actually inferior? How much effort does it take to fool ourselves?

This evening I went to the movies and watched Mike Nichols' Closer. Talk about everything laid bare? I read an article in the newspaper about the director. He made a point that I've integrated into The One & Only™ book - will I ever finish the text? - Nichols talked about characters being 'likeable' (they are not) - It's a Hollywood thing all this likeability. To tell an authentic human story there has to be flaws. Achilles - one of the greatest heroes of ancient mythology - drags the body of the fallen hero Paris behind his chariot around the city of Troy. A war crime f'cryingoutloud. We're all flawed. That's what makes us human. The head of Enron denies responsibility and evades the consequences of his choices - which were legion - while Martha Stewart - a woman in her 60's steps up and says "No appeal I want to begin my sentence now." Her crime? A sixty thousand dollar mistake over the sale of some shares. She'll probably spend more on flowers for a dinner party in her home (while she completes her sentence in home detention).

Here's to humanity.