Disruptive Thinking


For the last twenty years I’ve been dreading my 2-3 weeks at the family cottage. The 1st time I went there, just after my wife and I got married, I was impressed with the rustic charm of the 30’s era cottage and the setting; a beautiful peninsula in the Lake of The Woods region with classic Canadian Shield topography. What drove me crazy were all the piles of garbage and wood hidden in the bush, and in storage sheds, representing over 50 years of procrastination and “out of sight, out of mind” thinking. 

Every year I’d chip away at these piles taking toxic liquids and useless metal items to the municipal dump, and burning some of the wet, rotten wood that’s so inviting to termites + carpenter ants.

In no time my 2-3 weeks at the cottage were over and we’d pack it in for another season. Year after year I'd leave frustrated by how little I got done; sewing the seeds of frustration for the next year where I’d once again make almost no progress.

Enter the burn barrel – my low-tech miracle.

Two years ago my son brought in a burn barrel like this.

Coupled with four rainy days + nights (which make outdoor fires much safer) this burn barrel enabled me to eliminate years of procrastination. And it changed how I look at my next cottage holiday.

  • I'm getting a second burn barrel.
  • I'm going to hire a few local summer students (with a truck) to clear + remove brush.

There are some classic business lessons here:

  • unconventional thinking is often required to sort out old issues (that others ignore or see as part of the business terrain),
  • not knowing what I didn’t know led to failure + frustration,
  • sharing my frustration, with my Son, led me to define the "problem" and what a "good outcome" would look like,
  • sharing got others, in this case my Son, thinking and problem solving on their own,
  • my Son's solution didn’t look like mine because he has a different background and a different problem solving process,
  • his solution (the burn barrel + student labour) is far better than mine, is on strategy, on time + on budget, and . . . 
  • it’s a great example of why I prefer to work with people who are not at all like me: age, gender, ethnicity, religion, blah, blah, blah because two or more heads really are better than one. Especially if they’re all different and just a wee bit schizophrenic.  




in flanders fields



Listen more to sell more

All of my creative sales presentations begin with consensus building: I ensure that we’re all in the room for the same reasons. Then I cut to the chase and get everyone to drop their own (personal) agendas and focus on the job at hand – by focusing not on their own wants + needs, but on what is best for the brand / customer relationship. I don’t present and creative process or concept work until I’ve got all heads nodding and following my lead.  

The next step is to ensure “we” all agree on superior product or service insights described in the creative brief and that the challenge today is simply to choose the most appropriate manner in which to tell the story, not which story to tell.

I take a lot of notes as I work with each individual in the meeting to ensure that I understand all of the client's issues and the modalities in which they express their concerns. As I walk and talk to the client team (or board) I’m constructing a logical + emotional sales argument that addresses ALL OF THEIR ISSUES USING THEIR MODALITIES.

Then I ask them to suspend judgement for a few minutes and come on a journey of discovery with me. The journey takes them to, and then beyond what they wanted and expected from the meeting.

By the time I’m done, they’re all on side and buy the work that works best for their brand + customers with little or no changes 98% of the time. 



Consensus vs. discord

Recently one of the creative directors I work with told me she was frustrated by the fact that “not all of those on my team see things my way”. “Lucky you I thought” as I was transported back in time to a meeting in which I was told that I wasn’t a good fit for Ogilvy’s Direct Marketing Account Service team because (while clients liked my work and asked for me by name) I saw + thought differently than Ogilvy’s other (Sr.) team members did + was a threat to their culture.

In the world of advertising there’s a time and place for consensus: client service, accounting, media, production and traffic + talent payment departments are constrained by their obligations to fulfil a (legally binding) project contract on time, budget + strategy.

Agency creative teams have the most latitude, but even they can feel pretty constrained when working on large accounts where the brand standards dictate, tone, manner, typeface options, colour palate and acceptable layout options for all media as well as the “required legal and disclaimer copy”. These brand standards can be hundreds of pages long and suck the life out of any creative ideation session. In these cases the challenge for the agency as a whole is to pull together a VERY tight brief (with the client) that enables the creative team to quickly understand and creatively interpret the USP (as opposed to just playing with nice pictures + superlatives and then seeing what sells). 

In the smaller agencies I support the creative briefs are not informative or insightful and the account service managers are not very experienced. In turn the creative teams are forced to fake it: they’re asked to find some nice pictures + add some nice superlative headlines, present them to the client as an insightful solution – and “let’s see what happens”.

The short answer is very little. Poorly thought out ads don’t sell.

I’m meeting more and more people who are prepared to forgo the heady international agency big brand building experiences in favour of lesser known brands or products that are still in the self discovery phase of their existence. With brands like these, creative teams get to pull out all the stops and do some genuine clean sheet-of-paper thinking. They get to put more of their skin in the game and make a real difference.

When you get to invent, reinvent or reposition a product or service don’t try to get the whole team seeing + doing the same thing. Celebrate and explore the different ways in which they manage to solve the problem (on strategy). Then present their variety with enthusiasm, not with an apology.

Don’t judge – curate!



The return of "authentic" communications


When I worked at McCann this was ALWAYS the first + last slide in every presentation deck.

In the olden days (the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s), before the internet, there were many local, national and international research houses that worked closely + ethically with ad agencies and their clients to identify the intersection between the consumer’s life and their product(s). They wanted to know what would make you stop, consider, try, buy, buy again and recommend one of their products. And how much the brand halo from one of their products might affect your attitude towards other products they have to sell.

While some research houses still exist, a lot of their work and insights were set aside when Google came along and told the new aspiring generation of ad agency folks that there was a faster + cheaper solution: make up a bunch of ads – not just one or two – run them all, and just pay a few cents for those that your prospects “clicked” on.

The rest is history.

Google got very, very rich.

Hundreds of thousands of stupid people around the world, that had taken a graphic arts course and the Google ad word course but couldn’t get a real ad or media agency job, went back to their basement and became Google’s retail PPC sales team.

While some of these people were bound to do well because they were smart, insightful and driven men + women caught in the millennial demographic + technology evolution squeeze, most did more harm to our industry than good.

There was a time when Media Directors, Creative Directors and Account Directors used research to “light the way” as Master D. Ogilvy used to say. They prepared for client meetings like defense lawyers prepare for a strong defense.

But Google convinced a generation that they should just throw anything and everything at the wall – and see what sticks - or clicks. 

Perhaps the tide is finally turning again.

Millennial teams appear to be re-learning the two cardinal rules of advertising (that were written by their great-grandfathers) given their rejection of superlative based "headline" copy (that does not work) and their new preoccupation with “authentic narratives”. A new term for what their parents and grandparents called positioning and U.S.P.

1.  You can’t shine shit (twice).

2.  The best story (or sales strategy) is still a simple Truth Well Told.