Skills of the Rock Star Planner

I recently got asked by Piers Fawkes, the founder of daily inspiration site, trends research agency and frequent subject of this blog,  PSFK, to be part of a series of videos they were creating about the key skills of a brand planner.

Although certainly flattered to be asked- some of the cast of assembled planners they had invited were either individuals I had long since admired, or were founders and heads of planning at agencies I very much respect- I had a slight concern; and I’m not just talking about which cardigan I was going to wear.

The title of the video series was to be “Skills of the Rock star Planner.” I felt a little uncomfortable with the implicit suggestion that I was, or thought I was, a ‘rock star’ planner. And even if I was, I’m not sure that would make me qualified to tell a young planner what would make them rock stars. I certainly don’t think there are immutable laws of great planning.

Moreover, despite writing two fantastic books on the art of brand planning, I remember Jon Steel telling me that I could learn infinitely more about how to be a great planner by reading books on subjects other than planning. And there we were tossing around soundbites about how to be a great planner. Maybe my advice should have been just that. “Don’t listen to me. Go and read some Dostoevsky instead.”

With that said, I very much enjoyed being part of the project, and I’m genuinely hopeful that the videos will prove useful to aspiring planners.

All that remains is for you to take a look and tell me what you really think…

Living the brand

Ben Kay wrote an interesting post the last week entitled “living the brand.”

The post told the tale of some choice words aimed in his direction when he turned up to work at 180 Amsterdam sporting a pair of Nike Jordans. As their founding client, upon whom much of their success was arguably built, it was deemed disrespectful to be seen wearing the footwear of their arch nemesis.

It gets worse. Having bought himself a pair or fetching Adidas high tops to fit in, Ben experienced similar ignominy when spotted wearing said shoes at a freelance gig at Wieden and Kennedy, Nike’s long time advertising bedfellow.

Ben calls this expected devotion or respect “living the brand” and points to some even more extreme examples like the urban myth about the Ballantines whisky client who would not be seen drinking anything else in public.

He goes on to suggest that the everyday use of a client’s brand seems a logical means to convince them you believe in their brand.

I have a slightly different take on things.

Firstly, I think we should want to convince clients not that we believe in their brand, but that we believe in the potential of their brand. I don’t think that’s semantic nit picking. Like the best mate who tells you a friend that their breath smells, If you really care about your clients brand, you should be able to deliver painful home truths and tell them that you absolutely don’t believe in the efficacy of their brand in its current guise and that if they don’t fundamentally change it, they are going to be heading the same way as the Greece’s national debt.

Moreover, from a planning perspective I’m not sure I think living the brand, is necessarily in the best interests of your client.

I find that some clients can become so sated with their own brand that they can develop myopia and clouded judgment when it comes to objectively assessing it and its messaging strategy. I don’t intend this to sound like a slight on clients. I think it’s merely indicative of working in such a confined reality, similar to the way that when you’ve spent months making an ad and have seen it hundreds of times before it breaks, you can no longer tell if it’s funny or not.

One of the clients I currently work on is Bing, Microsoft’s new-ish search engine.
Pretty much anyone that knows me, and has been subject to me extolling its merits and virtues will testify that I am a genuine advocate.
But here’s the thing.  At work, though I primarily use Bing, I make a point of working on a Mac, using a blackberry and, shock horror, searching on Google from time to time. And if I had Google as client, be it Search, Chrome or Andoid, I would similarly try to use Bing, Firefox and an iPhone.

I don’t think this makes me some kind of renegade, and I don’t think this makes me disrespectful but I do think it’s only by truly understanding the enemy and becoming an expert not merely in your brand but in theirs, that you can hope to beat them.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the best way to love your client’s brand is to live their enemy’s brand.

Shepard Fairey: The oxymoron of a commercially successful street artist?

On a depressingly soggy Sunday afternoon, I dragged myself to The Brooklyn Museum to see a talk with one of my favorite artists, Shepard Fairey, who was being asked questions about his life and work by the museum’s Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Sharon Matt Atkins.

I first discovered Shepard, or Obey as I only knew him back then, about 10 or so years ago, stumbling across paste ups and stickers of his iconic character Obey Giant on holiday in California. It was about the same time that I was getting excited about the relatively small and inconspicuous stenciled rats I was increasingly spotting on corners of East London streets, signed by the curious moniker Banksy. I can still remember Googling Banksy and searching for him on ebay to find out more, and disappointingly only getting a list of returns about the legendary goalkeeper Gordon Banks (no offense Gordon). Seems unimaginable now.



My early interest in the two individuals who are now amongst the foremost artists in the street art scene, long before they had achieved mainstream success, is not some kind of brag, or badge of honor. Rather, it’s the beginning of some musings about what happens when purveyors of subversion go and get all famous on us.

Shepard briefly addressed the perils of ‘getting famous’ on Sunday, touching on the issue of losing some credibility in certain circles after his Obama Hope poster catapulted him to international notoriety- It should probably be noted that the same poster might well financially ruin him as he has an Associate Press lawsuit hanging over him for copyright infringement.

He rightly pointed out that there is a tipping point for all street artists, and when their popularity crosses this threshold it will undeniably change the way some people view these supposed renegades. Some dislike the fact that Shepard criticizes the pervasive nature of advertising, yet accepts commissions from Saks Fifth Avenue and some get upset that Banksy’s art is on the one hand a social critique on the accepted establishment, yet he arguably joins forces with them in selling his art to the wealthy elite. Analogously, countless 70s Punk bands who stuck it to the man, were seen to have sold out when they signed to major record labels. Some purists will always feel let down by these individuals.

As my Dad explained to me:

There was a time in the early 1960s when outside of a very small group of folkies, Bob Dylan was our secret, our hero, our religion, and our recognition of the new. He bound us together, made us friends, and gave his followers a special status. When everyone else jumped on the bandwagon, it just wasn’t the same…..

The slightly conflicted emotions I now feel towards artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey are definitely not caused by any notion of hypocrisy. If anything, I would staunchly defend them from these barbs. And I don’t think the idea of a commercially successful street artist is necessarily an oxymoron. I think the discord I feel, if I’m totally honest, is one borne out of deeply harbored selfishness and elitism.

Part of my love of street art and graffiti was always that while thousands would walk past a D*Face piece or a Space Invador mosaic every day without barely a glance, my eyes would spot and appreciate what to others was simply invisible.

Yet now I think I selfishly lament the fact that this art is accessible to the masses. Walls with a Banksy piece are considered tourist attractions, street artist’s books adorn countless coffee tables, and graffiti is now the topic of many uninformed conversations. Is it wrong that I covet these artists being known and appreciated only by a select few?

I think this selfishness is the same reason that when my favorite Indie band makes it big, and start playing at festivals and arenas rather than local pubs, I feel pangs of disappointment and twinges of regret, rather than being predominantly happy that their talent has been deservedly recognized.

So, while I don’t pretend to completely understand how I can reconcile the conflict I feel at the success enjoyed by some of my favorite artist’s, I feel better for this confession. I’m not sure that these are uncommon emotions so if someone out there can better articulate what I’m feeling, I would be much obliged…

Meanwhile, Shepard Fairey’s new show, May Day, opens on Saturday at Deitch Projects on Wooster Street…and you know that I’ll still be one of the first in line to check it out…

Insignificant Objects

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend PSKF’s annual conference in New York. PSFK’s blog is one of only a handful that I unreservedly recommend friends, family and colleagues to religiously read. The breadth of speakers they invite to their conferences and events are as eclectic as the subject matter their blog covers, and after leaving last year’s NY conference with a head full of ideas and a more-than impending sense of my own utter mediocrity, I was excited to again be making the short trip down to battery park for another day of inspiration

The day and line-up definitely lived up to expectation. Graffiti artists, anthropologists, technology pioneers and graphic designers all shared the stage and were followed by an exclusive pre-release screening of Banksy’s film ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop?’

I thought I would scribble down a few thoughts about one of the speakers that got me head-scratching and pondering… and being about as concise as an elephant is inconspicuous, I’ll probably write rather a lot once I get going. Sorry in advance.

Rob Walker spoke about his project, Significant Objects, which seeks to examine the relationship between objects and value, analyzing the intangible reasons for the value we imbue items with.

He went about buying low value knickknacks from thrift stores across the country- and then asked authors to invent curious and fantastical stories about the lives and significance of these objects- before reselling them on ebay with their accompanying narrative (where they sold for vastly greater sums than their original price).

Storytelling is undoubtedly key to what we do as marketers. Indeed it is often by imbuing products with an additional meaning beyond their physical properties or functional capabilities that we are able to connect with consumers and propel our brands to triumph over competitors.

But there is no reason why this kind of storytelling should live exclusively in the world of products and the domain of marketers.

The other night I was at a great restaurant in Nolita for a friend’s birthday. Each dish was described to us with an unfathomable precision. Beautiful and elaborate articulations of every ingredient were punctuated, naturally, with words none of us had ever heard of. They could have been made up for all I knew, but as they poured out of the mouth of our sultry French waitress, each dish sounded increasingly irresistible.

I wont go on about each delicious morsel or this will turn into some kind of food porn. This was never my intention. It’s just that as I lay in bed that night, uncomfortably full, I realized that the food probably tasted better as a result of those descriptions and the context bestowed each ingredient. This was not purely psychological. It was physiological. Knowing what farm the cows were reared on, and who grew the Kale genuinely heightened the experience of tasting each dish.

Why aren’t more objects I buy and foods I eat bestowed with such rich? Everything has one. It just needs to be teased out and presented in the right way Clothes would feel more comfortable; films would make us laugh louder, and we might just be willing to pay more for them…

As Rob Walker pointed out in his speech, and I think we all probably know deep down, when the hurricane comes and you only have a minute to grab a few essential possessions, they will almost certainly not be those that cost the most, but instead that mean the most.

Human Telephone Boxes, Bogota

Strategic Planners- or whatever new term your agency has coined to label them- undoubtedly come in many different packages and flavors. Despite our many idiosyncrasies, one thing we all do seem to have in common, however, is an insatiable curiosity and ability to treat nearly any subject matter we were previously ignorant of, with utter fascination.

Having only just recovered from the shock- 18months later I might add- of discovering that moving from London to New York not only cuts my annual leave from 20 days to 10, but also requires me to refer to the days as vacation and not holiday, it was great to finally get an opportunity to do some travelling and see a new part of the world. The destination was Colombia. An exciting new culture to discover and explore. A world of curious behavioral traits and new products to get over-excited by.

A few months ago I saw the always inspirational Jan Chipchase, the former strategist at Nokia’s Los Angeles design studio who recently moved to Frog Design in Shanghai, talking about some of the interesting and quirky cultural norms he has seen on his expeditions around the world. His blog is littered with countless examples. The images at the bottom of the page are two of my recent favorites. The first is a shrine symbol which serves as a moral authority to deter drunks from peeing on the wall in Tokyo, Japan, while the second depicts seat annotations made my parking attendants in Chengdu, China.

Back to my own cultural expedition: In Bogota, I found myself captivated and completely intrigued by what I started calling Human Phone Boxes. What are they? Men or women with multiple mobile phones all connected to their body by a length of wire or string, walking around Bogota proudly espousing the rate at which you can make a call using their services (different neighborhoods and sellers seemed to offer differing prices).

As someone who can’t really sit still when on the phone, I loved the idea that these phone boxes afforded you the opportunity to walk and talk, either using the length of wire to do so, or by encouraging the movable human phone box to walk with you. When several people were all using the services of one Human Phone Box, they started to resemble a telecom Octopus of sorts. With the prevalence of mobile devices in North America, I’m not too sure there is a need for too many phone boxes, let alone human ones. If they ever do need them, however, I will be sure to throw my weight behind these curious private enterprises.

Be Stupid: Go buy a pair of $300 Diesel Jeans

Much has been written about Diesel’s recent ‘Be Stupid’ outdoor campaign. It seemingly adorns the walls of nearly every subway station in Manhattan, and love it or loathe it, I can’t imagine that there are many people in the city unaware of the now infamous oversized luminous copy and recognizable photographic style.

I have enjoyed many a conversation- or more accurately, argument- about both the creative and strategic merit of the work. Although I’m very tempted to give this issue a wide berth, partly because I could go on forever about it, partly because the work has been around for some time now and partly because this post is really to talk about something else, I might indulge myself and say just a few words.

While Diesel were once a true purveyor of cutting edge urban fashion, and as my friend Dan goes to great lengths to explain, were at the turn of the century, one of the few brands in the US selling what became known as ‘premium’ denim, they have undeniably lost their way and long-since lost their cache and any respect of stylistas they might have once commanded. As they expanded aggressively, and sales shifted from early adopters to the Gap-wearing masses, Diesel lost their way, their edge, and most importantly, their personality. No one knew who they were or what they stood for.

To me, this campaign is a clear attempt to once again re-create a personality for Diesel and to represent a particular lifestyle- In this case, it’s one of reckless abandon and impulsiveness; It advocates taking risks, not taking life too seriously, being young, carefree and living completely in the moment.

I’m not saying this is the right voice for the brand. I don’t know enough about their current base and target to make a judgment about that. But I do know that creating a strong and clear personality will mean that they are better positioned in the marketplace and don’t blur into the plethora of other personalityless fashion brands who stand for nothing, represent no one and say nada about who you are.

Okay, so I knew I might rant a bit once I started…I’ll stop.

The real purpose of this post was just to share this brilliant mash up of one of the Be Stupid posters on West 4th Subway Station which, rightly points out that the line Be Stupid is indeed apt for Diesel, as you would probably have to be out of your mind to spend $330 on a pair of jeans. The paste up is of significant enough quality and resolution that I genuinely wonder if all the passers by will even realize it’s not part of the campaign…

Sean Boyle on how to transform the Ad Industry @ Transformation 2010

Just back from the 4A’s Transformation conference in San Francisco.

When you create a conference with the lofty goal of illuminating and educating agency leaders (not me, but pretty much everyone else there) on how they can indeed make the necessary changes to revolutionize our industry, it is always going to be somewhat difficult to live up that.

Many of the speakers echoed the desperate need for change and cast dispersions on the current methodologies and techniques being employed by ad, media and research agencies alike, but despite some speakers articulating some thought provoking ideas, I felt that overall, there was a paucity of ideas on how we can in fact make these necessary changes.

Amongst the most interesting segments of the conference, were 5 minute speeches by winners of a competition initiated by Nancy Hill, to find individuals within the industry (Transformers) to talk about how they would personally change things.

Below, is Sean Boyle, a Global Planning Director at JWT, and a friend and colleague of mine, ruffling some feathers with his somewhat controversial Stop-Start 10 commandments: A guide to how to change the industry.

What do you think?