Archive for the ‘ business ’ Category

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!

 

 

 

 

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?

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!

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.

Forcing it never works

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I feel sorry for Marissa Mayer because if she was a man, no one would expect her to be anything other than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

But she’s not a man, she’s a woman. One of the only women to hold such a powerful post. One of the few female leaders in silicon valley. And because of her rare achievement, she’s now a high profile role model – whether she likes it or not.

Which means everything she does will be scrutinized from the perspective of gender, in a way it literally never is for a man. And as unfair as that is, it explains why there is such disappointment when she appears to be setting back progress for working women. Hard won gains like time flexibility and remote working, which have allowed mothers to take care of children while also maintaining a career. The fact is however, while it’s clearly a hot issue for women as long as they are still the primary caregivers in the home, at it’s heart it’s an issue for everyone.

Penelope Trunk, who I always enjoy reading though frequently disagree with, wrote a piece on the issue which was incredibly depressing, with passages like this:

The reality of today’s workforce is that if you want to have a big job where you have prestige and money and power, you probably need a stay-at-home spouse. Or two full-time nannies. Which means most people don’t have the option to go on the fast track, because most people have not set their lives up this way. So let’s just admit that most of us are not on the fast-track. Stop bitching that people won’t let slow people on the fast track. Stop saying that it’s bad for family. It’s great for family. It means people will not continue operating under the delusion that you can be a hands-on parent and a top performer. People will make real choices and own those choices.

This is definitely a reflection of professional America’s unhealthy relationship with work, but it also spills into many fields across Europe. The idea that people are either fast track or slow track is ludicrous. There is a huge spectrum in between and often the most talented and creative people are exactly that because they have a wide range of interests and influences in their lives. They’re out in the world, aswell as the office.

So a reality check.

It’s the 21st century and in the affluent developed world at least, we are fortunate to have never lived in a more peaceful, comfortable and educated society. Technological innovation has given us unprecedented ability to work effectively and efficiently at any time or location. Why  on earth would anyone want to work like a slave in shackles, or only develop one aspect of their lives at the expense of all others?

Coming back to Marissa’s main issue however, she clearly is trying to figure out how to galvanize Yahoo and stimulate creativity and innovation, and this is a valid problem. What both she and Penelope are missing however, is any simple human insight into how companies instill this passion and dedication in their staff. Because their strategy definitely won’t work.

Whether you lead with the autocratic perfectionism of Steve Jobs or the geeky humanistic spirit of Sergey and Brin, people make a decision to buy into the purpose of a company and give their time and skills towards building it. As Penelope herself writes:

In Silicon Valley, home to Facebook, Google, Airbnb, none of most desirable companies make room for a personal life. They don’t have to. They have plenty of people hoping to give up their whole life to the company.

The point here is that this professional commitment is voluntary. It can’t be forced.

And if passion is lacking in your company, as it evidently seems to be in Yahoo, sending a mandate isn’t going to fix that. Especially one that in reality only affected a small fraction of employees, yet sent a huge message to the rest of the company. A message which frankly smacked of self interest on the part of their management team. It sounded like they cared more about the company, than the people within it. And that’s never going to win people’s hearts and minds.  Richard Branson says for him the priorities go: staff, customers, shareholders. If I were Marissa Mayer, I would put that on my wall.

How Creative Agencies Can Become More Creative

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Advertising agencies talk a lot about their culture. They’ve rightly identified that getting the culture right is half the battle when it comes to getting the work right. The tricky part is that it’s so damn elusive. And often our attempts to influence this sensitive eco-system have the same results as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 

One of my favourite London organisations, the innovative School of Life, are running an interesting sounding seminar on “living with a creative mind” and they’ve identified five principles for getting the best out of creative people. It makes for an interesting checklist when assessing how well your agency is set up:

 1.   Affirmation

Apparently creative people need a lot of encouragement. Because they may appear confident but are also plagued with insecurities. I would say this rings true, but is also true of pretty much every human being – some people are just better at hiding their self-doubt. Affirmation (real, genuine, positive comments rather than false flattery of course), is the easiest and cheapest way to motivate your staff. And yet so many managers haven’t mastered it yet.

 2.   Permission to Fail

I imagine this varies quite a bit from agency to agency depending on their appetite for risk and glory. For an agency like Wieden & Kennedy, embracing failure is part of their DNA. Whereas the established safe pair of hands BBDO, may have more to lose from a wild departure from best practice. At a more micro-level, agencies need to watch out for blame culture. The best managers protect their teams. This gives people the security to fully focus on the win, instead of obsessively guarding against minor losses.

 3.   Freedom from Fear

Linked to number 2. Fear and anxiety cause the brain to narrow in on the immediate threat. That’s convergent thinking, rather than the expansive divergent thinking that’s required for creativity. In other words, when our backs are up against it, survival is the only thing we can focus on. That doesn’t leave much brain space for connecting random interesting thoughts. So if you want to increase creativity, look at the daily interactions of your teams. If they are tense, anxious or defensive, the resultant work will be shit. It’s also another reason why “talent doesn’t excuse temperament”. Regardless of technical ability, if there’s someone who’s a negative influence on others, they’re dragging your overall creative output down.

 4.   Room to Explore

This is a principle most agencies seem to be quite aware of – in theory, if not in practice. Creative people need both time and often physical space to explore random ideas and stimulus so that they can make new connections. It’s why we’re all allowed to watch Youtube and pop out to a coffee shop for a meeting every so often. But it’s also the first thing to fall by the wayside when people get busy. Given that creative thinking is part of what we’re paid for, this should be a mandatory requirement and way of working, not a luxury.

 5.   Sticking with their Tribe

Now this one has implications for agency layout. A number of people I’ve spoken to recently have mentioned the benefits of putting the creative department back together. And arguably the planning department too. There are clearly benefits from sitting in account teams, but I suspect they err on the side of efficiency rather than creativity. Putting like with like, raises everyone’s game within their discipline. Both through comparative competition and more innocuously through casual chats and sharing inspiration. The downside of course is finding other ways to encourage good working relationships across departments and avoid ghettos. But as the advertising process becomes more collaborative and iterative, hopefully this will follow naturally – from necessity if nothing else!

Learning from Everyone

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It’s funny how it’s usually the meetings where you’re completely lost and haven’t a clue what’s being talked about, that you’re most reticent to ask a question. A stupid question will just expose your ignorance. Better to stay quiet and be thought a fool, than speak and remove all doubt.

And the more senior you are, the harder it is to reveal a lack of understanding or expertise in front of colleagues. Part of this is because our cultural image of great leaders is about being in control, all knowing. We’re programmed to think that asking for advice or asking for help, is an admission of weakness, instead of strength.

In the real world though, the greatest leaders are those who show humility and often vulnerability too. You can’t inspire people if you don’t connect with them. And it’s hard to connect with superhumans. They’re just too different from the rest of us.

That’s why one of the biggest things holding back leaders today is that pressure to maintain an unflappable public face. It creates distance between management and staff. It creates barriers to open conversations. And it’s an out-dated approach from a different time. A time when companies were run on top-down authoritarian leadership. Where employees did what they were told, stayed in their boxes, clocked in and out, left their soul at the door every morning to be picked up again at 5PM.

Now we live in a different world. It’s a world where education and access to information are no longer the preserve of the powerful few, but are increasingly democratised. Which means the person at the top may no longer know best. It means more people will be questioning authority and the status quo. It makes it likely that people won’t be content to keep their head down and climb the progress ladder step by step. After all, that’s what happens in the kingdom when the peasants learn to read…

And rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, the best companies are evolving to gain the benefit of a workforce with higher expectations for their jobs.

Like having reverse mentorship schemes where management buddy up with junior staff, not to appease them, or pretend to be listening, but to genuinely learn new skills and new ways of thinking.

Like abolishing performance reviews (which if we’re really honest, are more about keeping salary costs down than genuine staff development – they tend to be quite rubbish at that), and even replacing them with bottom up staff appraisals of how the company is performing and what could be improved.

There’s a lot to learn from everyone if we’re open and interested enough to want to listen. None of us is smarter than all of us – the collective knowledge of all staff will only help businesses do better. And it comes with the happy side effect of happier staff too. Motivated workers and shared responsibility for success.

The only wonder is that in 2013, this is still relatively rare practice. So there’s definitely a first mover advantage up for grabs – the best leaders will take it.

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