Blogging Break

 

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After five brilliantly enjoyable years of blogging, from my first post on The Influentials to starting my own blog Room435 when I moved across the water, I’ve decided it’s time for a little break.

This blog has been instrumental in coaxing me to write regularly – fellow bloggers will recognise that gnawing feeling of guilt you get when a new post is overdue.

It’s helped sharpen my thinking skills.  It’s helped hone my insight and instincts. It’s definitely helped me become better at my job.

And it’s helped me understand myself more. Browsing through past posts is a little glimpse into my personal history,  all the preoccupations of any given point in time, so starkly clear in retrospect.

It’s been a genuine gift to have had so many loyal readers of Room435. Those that followed me from Dublin, newer readers from London and the exciting unexpected bump when the blog was featured on Freshly Pressed.

That people not only read, but also take the time to respond to posts, either in person or digitally, never ceases to amaze me.

A massive thank you to everyone who has been reading so far.

I’m taking some time out so I can concentrate on some other writing projects (without the gnawing guilt of a transgressing blogger)

But I’ll be back at some stage in the future, so I hope to welcome you back again then!

 

 

 

 

If money were no object

I’ve been a big fan of Alan Watts ever since I discovered this video (music and life). The video above is another wonderful piece of wisdom.  In it, he offers his advice on how to decide what you want to do with your life. And it is incredibly simple:  ask yourself what you would do, if money was no object. Write a list. Look at it. Then do that.

Most people’s first response is to reject this, and blame money. I can’t do that because it doesn’t pay, or it won’t pay as much as I earn now, or it would at the very least it would require a temporary drop in salary before I would be earning the same kind of money again.

And it’s true that the higher you go and the more you earn, the harder it is to consider dropping your income. Especially if you feel that you did your scrimping when you were younger, and now that you’re finally enjoying the fruits of a grown up salary, the thought of sacrificing those cappucinos is painful. Or maybe you’ve got a mortgage to pay for, or save for. Or you’ve got children and suddenly safeguarding their future becomes your biggest concern. Ultimately, the money seems essential to maintain your lifestyle.

Except we rarely step back and consider how much we really need to earn in order to live the kind of life we want. I did an interesting task once, where you write a list of the best things you did the last year, your fondest memories. And then you plot them on an axis in order of best experiences and level of expense. The results were surprising. My absolute favourite memory was a weekend away in the country with friends, which had certainly cost some money, but nothing compared to other major purchases I’d made that year which cost a great deal more but were quickly forgotten.

The other major barrier to choosing another path, more subtle, less acknowledged, is self identity. Whether starting out on a career path, or as a veteran in a profession, your view of yourself is often wrapped up in the status or comfort and familiarity of being X.  You’re used to introducing yourself as that. Other peoples’ perceptions of you are shaped by that. And perhaps what you’d really like to do, wouldn’t garner the same kind of response. Or maybe it would be equally respected, but you would not be, because you would be the novice instead of the master.

Yet the conclusion of Alan’s entreaty is simple and it echoes the sentiment of “music and life”. A life spent with money and with status but without enjoying what you do every day, is a wasted life. It misses the whole point of life, which is made up of minutes in the present, not memories or aspirations.

And if that isn’t provocation enough, the most common regrets of the dying offers us a Scrooge-like glimpse into our own futures:

I wish I didn’t work so hard.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Top Posts of 2013

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Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you all!

So 2013 was a really busy –  and exciting –  year for me (new job, new flat, new husband!) but as a result I confess my blog has been a little neglected relative to other years.

But I still managed to pen a few thoughts here and there. For those of you who might have missed these posts the first time round, or those of you who are just escaping into the internet for a few hours to gain a break from all the family festivities – here are the most popular Room435 posts from last year.

Hope you enjoy, and look forward to more in 2014!

1. Learning from everyone

2. How creative agencies can become more creative

3. Good and bad autopilot

4. Mudblood planners

5. Forcing it never works

6. Why do we make bad Ads?

Art or Vandalism?

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For me, one of the greatest luxuries of being on holidays is just sitting around and watching the real world pass by. It’s a rare pleasure, to have time on your hands, to have space in your head.

Here in London I sleepwalk. Too fixated on getting to my destination, my mind lost in work or errands or needless stresses. When I’m away, I’m aware. Everything’s different and everything’s interesting.

In Argentina (where I’ve just returned from honeymoon), there was no shortage of fascinating scenery, particularly in Buenos Aires where the streets are fast becoming a living tapestry of politics and art. The city is becoming one of the graffiti capitals of the world, flooded with every kind of expression from crappy name tagging to stunning large scale murals.

This is partly thanks to some funny planning laws in BA which mandate that buildings can only have entrances on two sides, leaving large uninterrupted walls just begging to be filled in. And it’s partly because of a strong anti-establishment vibe in a country which has had huge political unrest and economic instability.

But what’s interesting about the street art scene here, according to my insightful graffitimundo tour guide, is that unlike the US movement in the 80s and 90s, it’s never had that hard subversive edge and it isn’t driven by territorial gang warfare. The Argentinian scene was started by the rich middle class kids, who in Argentina’s wealthier times, travelled to places like Miami and New York and wanted to copy what they saw there.

As a result, many graffiti artists are professional graphic designers and fashion designers, people with a nine to five job that paint outside on their off-time. And street art is not just tolerated, but increasingly encouraged by the community and the government. In London, we see stencils and spray paint dominating, because graffiti artists here have to work at lightening speed before someone calls the police. In BA, artists can use paint and rollers and even scaffolding, creating intricate designs over a few afternoons. They can collaborate in groups, meshing different artistic styles together.

While traditional graffiti is often full of private in-group messages, only understood by a niche community that get the codes, in BA, many of the artists are trying to reach a wider mainstream audience. Whether through positive and beautiful images of hope, or through thought-provoking themes like that of Jaz, a prolific artist who creates striking images of battling beasts in football shorts, always two identical sides of the same coin, a commentary on the violent football hooliganism within the country.

In truth it’s a mixed bag – and this is where I think it draws a parallel with advertising. There’s the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Some would debate whether there’s enough artistic merit overall to justify the vandalism, the public intrusion. And it’s so totally ephemeral. As artists continually churn out new work, they paint over the pieces that were there before. It’s a rare piece which is respected enough to be left untouched by other artists or taggers. Painstakingly created, casually painted over and forgotten.

But like everything else, the good stuff stands out, makes an impact and lasts the longest.

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Battle of the airlines

In full disclosure I’m obviously a little biased as I was involved in making this campaign, but I do think our new easyJet Ad is much better than BA’s  – on a fraction of the budget, a shorter second length, and with much less pretension. But see what you think!

In praise of great clients

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Most clients don’t tend to read advertising blogs and that’s probably a good thing because it would be hard for them to not be offended by the frequent and barely disguised bitching about bad clients. Adland are terribly guilty of villanising their clients and framing the creative process as a battle between the illogical demands of their paymasters and their desire to make outstanding work. And that’s probably because sometimes that’s a little bit how it feels.

But what is not talked about enough, to our immense discredit, are all the really great clients that are out there. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of them over the years and a celebration of their virtues is long overdue.

Great clients are always great in their own personal way, but in my experience they share a number of traits:

1. They know their stuff

Invariably the best clients I’ve worked with have been very smart thinkers with an intuitive and learned understanding of how marketing works. This sounds like it should be agiven, but unfortunately it’s not. There are a shocking number of top marketers that haven’t done any homework since they learned about the 4Ps, and the worst of them peddle the type of waffle and jargon that give the discipline it’s bad name with finance directors. (I should add that there are plenty of people agency-side that are guilty of the same).

2. They also know they don’t know everything

Because they know their stuff, the best clients are confident enough in their own abilities to admit when they don’t know the answer. This makes for much more open and honest conversations because no one is worried about losing face.

3. They trust other people

The best clients are empowering, both with the agency and with their own team. They have the humility to recognize that other people may have expertise they don’t and they actively seek out other’s perspectives to add to their own.

4. They’re motivated by the potential to win, not fear of failure

This is a crucial factor in buying genuinely creative ideas. Great clients are almost always ambitious. They want to win awards. They want to upturn the market. And they recognize that limiting risk is limiting reward.

5. They can look at advertising as a marketer, and as a human being

And finally, the best clients can judge creative work well. They’re able to analyse it strategically from the perspective of what they need as a marketer and what they can sell into the business. But they’re also able look at the bigger picture and judge the Ad the way a normal person would. They can tell the difference between the details that will make an actual difference to the effectiveness of the Ad, and the details that are just ticking a box to make people feel better internally. And they go with their instincts when they feel the power of an idea.

These are all the reasons we love the great clients out there – now we just need more of the same, from many more of them, please!

Why do we make bad Ads?

Watching Ad breaks on TV can be a pretty depressing indictment of your chosen career when you work in advertising. It’s so often a painful showcase that prompts your friends and family to wonder why on earth you would choose to dedicate your professional life (she had such promise, sigh) to such meaningless rubbish.

From shouty tack based on the premise that telling people what you want them to think is the best way to persuade them, to bland wallpaper that is little better than sticking your logo onscreen for 30 seconds, to cringe-worthy self-important brand manifestos – Apple, you should be deeply ashamed. No wonder everyone from our focus group participants, to our clients, to our Mum, thinks that they could write a better Ad than most agencies are capable of.

What’s our excuse?

It’s not from want of financial investment. Despite the tightening of production budgets, most 30 second Ad campaigns still benefit from more cash than your average independent film makes do with.

It’s not from lack of expertise on what makes for effective advertising. We have more evidentiary back up than ever before to support Adand’s longheld intuition that creatively interesting and emotionally potent advertising will deliver superior business results.

It’s not from lack of talent. Creative agencies are crammed to the rafters with smart analysts, lateral thinkers, passionate craftspeople and despite our shortfall in diversity, we’ll still doing better on that front than our friends in law and banking.

It’s not our clients. Aha! I hear some pushback on this one. There’s no doubt that some clients are tough work and wouldn’t know a brilliant creative idea if it hit them in a head with a gold lion, but that’s too convenient a cop out. Yes clients get the work they deserve but that statement is true the other way around too – agencies get the clients they deserve.

I think the real issue is that we’re too easy on ourselves. We feel overworked and under-appreciated (by our bosses, by our clients, by our waiting public) and too often we just give up the fight early. It’s easier, and more profitable to our careers, to play politics and allow poor work to slide out the door if everyone else in the room seems happy. It’s the ultimate game of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Meanwhile everyone has the same eye out for the same award winning opportunity that they can all fight over for credit, stick on their CV and tell their mates they made it.

The reputation of our industry continues to plunge, the creative benchmark is set by the tripe on TV now and we wonder why Google is suddenly winning all the prizes at our festivals.

I think we deserve better for ourselves. It’s not enough to make one great Ad that we can hide behind. We need to make all Ads, across the board, that little bit better. Our self respect is on the line. Our livelihoods too. Because we’re not just competing amongst ourselves anymore.

Good and Bad Autopilot

One of the reasons I moved to London was to slow down time.

Your teens and twenties are full of first-times, new experiences, surprising occurrences. We have a memory peak around that time called the reminiscence bump, because it’s such a unique period in our lives. Once you settle into adult-hood however, you start forming regular routines of work, leisure and socializing. And this repetition means the days and months and years can start to blur into one. The experience of being fifteen years old was a lifetime away from my experiences as a seventeen year old. In contrast, was life at 29 really so different from 27? If you’re not careful, it can quickly start to feel very same-ish.

So I’d read somewhere, that moving to a new place makes everything fresh again. You have to figure out a new routine, a new workplace, a new culture. You can’t slip into autopilot. The logistical challenges force you to be aware. And it’s this awareness of the present, that slows down the passage of time.  And it’s true. London has added a new and interesting chapter to my life. But that only lasts for so long, before the autopilot mentality comes creeping back in.

The wonderful words of David Foster Wallace are finding a new lease of life online at the moment, thanks to these guys. And in his speech one of the things he talks about is the evils of autopilot. The dangers of sludging through life in a numb, self-centered cocoon. It’s so easy to do.

Bad autopilot is letting life pass you by, because you live for the end of work at five o’clock, and you live for Friday evening when you can escape the office, and you live for your two week holiday when you can escape your regular life.

What Wallace is encouraging is a conscious awareness of your surroundings and your daily life. It’s the same practice of mindfulness that’s rooted in Buddhism and encouraged by psychologists as a way of increasing happiness. It’s something I have to constantly remind myself to do.

But there’s another kind of autopilot that’s the polar opposite of the type described by Wallace. It goes by many names and descriptions: “being in the zone”, “hitting your A game” or just “flow”. Flow is when you’re unconsciously engaged in an activity at that perfect balance of challenge and mastery. You get so absorbed in a task that it’s effortless and yet you’re completely motivated throughout.

Modern life can make achieving flow really difficult. Our noisy open-plan offices, our always-on phones and our “multi-tasking” conspire against us, and rob us of the opportunity to get into a flow state at work. And after such an exhausting day, it’s no wonder that in the evenings, all we want to do is choose passive activities like watching TV, over more effortful hobbies like playing sport or music or reading or gardening or painting, even though they would bring us more satisfaction.

Yet understanding these two versions of autopilot is so important for happiness. We need to break the mindless version of autopilot described in the video above. We need to slow down the passage of time by becoming aware of what’s happening in the present moment, avoiding the zombie life at all costs. But alongside this we need to pursue the positive, enriching autopilot state of flow, where we sometimes lose all track of time because we are so enjoyably engaged in what we are doing. Because in the end, it doesn’t really matter how much time we have, what matters is whether it was time well spent.

The Holiday Mindset

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Islington in the sunshine is one of my all time favourite places to be and I always feel lucky to live here every time the sun peeks out and the streets flood with people in shades and sandals and strappy tops, regardless of whether it’s actually warm enough to brave bare arms.

This weekend was one of those gorgeous sunny gifts.

And no matter how many times I see it happen, I’m always struck by how powerfully this good weather can affect people’s mood. They might have started out the week feeling busy and stressed and completely preoccupied by work and life, but if the sun comes out, all of those concerns are temporarily shelved. Suddenly, everyone switches into a holiday mindset.

Which makes the simplest things like taking an early morning walk down by the canal or sitting on some grass beside a busy road drinking coffee with friends, feel luxuriously pleasant. We savour every moment. We abandon the schedule and let time just pass us by.

And that’s really odd when you think about it, since the canal and the coffee are always there, all year round and cost next to nothing to enjoy. There’s no reason we couldn’t live this carefree lifestyle far more often, if we allowed ourselves to. But it takes the rarity of a sunny day in a country that can’t count on having a summer, to force us into letting go.

Leo Babauta from Zen Habits wrote a great post recently about cultivating a vacation mindset at work.  It seems like a crazy paradox on the surface, but actually you can see the productivity benefits immediately. Working without anxiety, fully immersed in the present, thinking about the big picture rather than sweating the small stuff and letting go of our clock watching obsession. Those behaviours are the recipe for flow, and high performance work.

But actually I would go one further. Not only could we all do with a bit more holiday mindset at work, I think many of us could use some more holiday mindset in our leisure time too. I know I have a terrible habit of turning my weekends into the same busy, self- pressured affairs as my working days. Feeling guilty if I waste away a precious day on nothing (even if excused by a hangover). Or else packing my weekend full of socializing and errands but watching the clock tick by until Sunday evening comes around again.

So, inspired by the kick in the ass this good weather has given me, I’ve decided to start practicing my holiday mindset. I’ll certainly give it a go at work, but most importantly I’m going to reclaim my evenings and weekends. And I’ll try to make the most of that lovely canal and coffee, whether or not the sun is shining.

Mudblood Planners

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Not so long ago I was talking to a well-respected planner, who spoke with pride about the day his colleague told him that he had successfully “shaken off that media guy reputation”. He, like me, had started his career in a media agency. At the time I was genuinely surprised to see that he carried this upbringing like it was some kind of stigma. I wondered why he felt so ashamed.

Another planner, who started out working client-side as a brand manager, told me she had toyed with the prospect of a communications planning role in a large media agency and was fiercely warned against it by everyone she met from recruiters to Heads of Planning. When it comes to industry reputation, it was made clear to her that media would be a backward career step.

This perception is at odds with my own experience – having worked on both sides of the fence I would still maintain that some of the smartest and most creative people I’ve ever worked with, are in media agencies today. But the prejudice is ingrained and though subtle, is hard to miss when you’re on the receiving end. Similarly the same once client-side planner spoke about the biases she sometimes faces. She isn’t seen as a “pure-bred” planner.

When it comes to planning, there’s definitely a preferred pedigree. It works off the assumption that more years in “traditional” planning, in the right kind of agency, will make you a superior planner. I wonder whether this is true?

Most interestingly, this assumption disregards the advantages that come with being a mongrel, mudblood planner. There’s a strong skill-set that people from client-side, digital, media or direct bring, from understanding research to understanding broader marketing and business, or the role of return on investment in advertising. These skills are often surprisingly weak in traditional planning departments despite their importance to making effective work and crucially, to selling it in to senior stakeholders.

But this assumption also overlooks another critical advantage. The creative advantage that comes with being an outsider.

Throughout history many of the best known creative thinkers have been outsiders, whether as foreign immigrants in a new country or misfits at the edge of mainstream culture. And there’s a good reason for this.

Outsiders see things differently. They don’t take the accepted way of doing things as agiven. They look at problems from a different angle. They identify new problems or solutions which insiders can’t see.  And they come with a bundle of unique influences, ready to collide and connect and form creative ideas.

There’s a whole host of mudblood planners out there now. They have muddled career pathways and it’s exactly this diversity that make them so valuable to both creativity and business. And as our industry evolves to take on new tasks and revenue streams, to regain a foothold in the C-Suite, these people may be offering exactly what agencies have been missing.

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