Category Archives: Work

On snobbery about content marketing and the John Lewis ad

Every so often there’s a backlash against ‘content’. It’s kind of boring because it’s not content’s fault.

Content is just content, it’s what fills the space.

It’s up to strategists, creatives, writers, film-makers to make it good.  And then of course, ‘good’ is subjective.

In the last couple of weeks, a new backlash has been gathering apace.

For example, Brent Smart of Saatchi in NYC said in the Drum

I hate the word ‘content’. It’s an excuse to make any old crap that we think the world needs, but in most cases the world doesn’t need more content. Just because you could make it doesn’t mean you should make it.

Most content is pollution. It’s a waste of people’s time; it’s interruption. And even though we have said we have moved from the interruption model, we are still trying to attract people, we’re just interrupting them in new and cunning ways. It’s still interrupting. It’s not stuff that is worthy of people’s time. Great content is, but most of it is shit.

P&G is not competing with Unilever, General Mills is not competing with Kellogg’s, and Wallmart is not competing with Target. We are competing with culture for people’s time and most of the stuff in culture is way more entertaining and useful than advertising. Advertising at its best can get into culture in many forms but at its worst it’s not even close. I hate that word!

And Richard Huntington also likened it to guano, saying:

And then all of a sudden, though I’m not entirely sure when, people started to use the word ‘content’ to mean something entirely different. They actually started to use it as a synonym for culture, for film and music and art and literature and photography and poetry. Anything that could be rendered in digital form, whatever its original name, now became content, just plain content. Even the BBC started to talk about cutting edge comedy, first run British drama or moments of sporting genius as mere ‘content’. In a staggering act of philistinism the infinite universe of culture was reduced to a limp and lifeless two-syllable label.

And then marketing got in on the act and clients decided that what they really wanted was ‘content’ and agencies started thinking that its would be a good idea to make it for them. Particularly those agencies that had been alienated by the quality standards implied by the monikers of film, drama, comedy and general awesomeness. If everything was simply content, to be ordered up by the yard or pound and in which quality was of no consequence then anyone could turn their hand to cranking out the stuff.

This is all true.  You can’t call Blackadder, Das Kapital or Match of the Day content. It’s sacreligious.  These things are not the same as the content we develop for marketing purposes.

There is a lot of crap content out there.   It’s written, repurposed, used as a filler.  Someone in the marketing team says, we need a page on our site about hammocks because our competitor has one, so one gets hurriedly written.  Someone in the digital marketing team says, we need more keywords in here, render this article dull please.  Someone at the agency says it would be good to make a video series.  Because they want to make a video series.

The crap is so voluminous, it’s giving good content – sorry Richard – good articles, films, podcasts, tools, quizzes, lists (I like lists) – it’s giving all the good stuff a bad name.  This is Huntington’s point.  I wholeheartedly agree.  And I feel dead inside when you hear ‘content’ in everyday parlance, when the BBC refers to it, when my mum says she’s trying to define what will be the most effective content of a get well soon card.  Actually she doesn’t do that.

The trouble is that many of us are engaged in developing content strategies and content marketing strategies because the good ones work.  And there can’t not be content (sorry, articles, films, podcasts, tools, lists, etc.)  When they are well planned, joined up stories across different channels, on and offline, they really do engage audiences and build brands, drive consumers towards conversion points and build links and so on.

So everyone’s in violent agreement that there’s a lot of dross out there on the internet, but there are good articles, films etc etc.  So what is the problem, really?

I think (and you can shoot me down, argue with me, diss me, whatever) that there’s a lot of snobbery around ‘marketing’.

I’ve come across this a few times.  Marketing is a dirty word.  It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s exploitative, it’s invasive.  (As well as a backlash against content, there’s also a backlash against data.  I’ll write about that in my next installment.)

Marketing thinks it can compete with culture.  That there are cases where consumers will prefer marketing content to the stuff that they choose to read/watch/play/do.  I say bullshit, there’s marketing content out there that serves a useful or entertaining purpose, but the rest of it is there to do its job.  And marketing should get over itself.

There are marketers out there who don’t think they are marketers.  They believe they have a higher purpose, they believe they are changing lives, improving lives.  With their films, their widgets, their tools, their whatevers.  I’m not sure how they would label themselves but if they have a target of any kind, they are marketers, whether they like it or not.

Someone said recently that you couldn’t call the new John Lewis ad ‘content’.  It is too high quality a film, a form of storytelling.  It makes people cry.  This is a form of marketing that is held up so high that there have been rhapsodies written about it all over the industry, particularly since it is linked to the Age UK charity.  Alternatively, you could see it as the cynical commodification of loneliness to sell more stuff.

Everyone who watches it on YouTube – 11 million views so far, wow, will watch it once or twice and then forget about it, move on to the next thing. Does this change culture or does this make other advertising agencies jealous?  Is it even content, or is it just an ad?

Good marketers – and alongside this the good forms of content – create good experiences for consumers.  They don’t clutter the experience with the unnecessary, they provide useful, beautiful, entertaining routes in to the things consumers are searching for, either actively or passively.

Good marketers – and good content (and IMO the John Lewis ad is way up there, cynical marketing ploy notwithstanding) – make the web a better place to hang out, to do business, to plan your life, to buy stuff.

Good marketers create content to build stories and experiences around insight, real human insight from a variety of sources.  Personally I prefer qual, talking to real people in real life and understanding their true motivations, what will move them emotionally.  Thinking about how to weave that emotion into the brand story.  But it’s always important to back that up with data, since we all have targets we need to meet.

I need to stop writing now.  Suffice to say, I will be happy when the content backlash calms down a bit, and we can all go back to planning necessary pages, articles, films, tools, widgets, and whatever for our clients, supporting their consumers as they navigate their way to the answers that suit them.

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Don’t blame clients for the death of good advertising

I read this post on Medium last night, by a guy called Scott Morrison.  It’s a chapter excerpt from a book called Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s Next Generation.

I haven’t read the book.  It sounds pretty interesting.  I’ve got a pile of partly-read industry books gathering dust on my bedside table.  I prefer to read chapter excerpts and articles.  Most business books seem to me to be extended articles that should have stayed being articles.  But there’s not much money to be made from that, is there?  I’m not really all that cynical, because if someone asked me to write a chapter in a business book I’d be stoked.

Anyway, back to the point of this post.

This article, in short, bemoans the death of advertising that people want to talk about.

The kind of advertising people used to say they liked better than the TV shows.  Watercooler conversation stuff.

The kind of advertising that had a great big idea behind it.

And the article argues that clients (and agencies) are to blame for the end of the great advert.

You know, Smash, Hamlet (still makes me laugh), McCains (the song’s bloody well got stuck in my head now), FCUK, KitKat (perhaps my absolute favourite advert of ALL TIME), all those great campaigns that crop up in the ‘100 best’ compilation shows.

I think I’d like to counter this article in the following few ways:

  1. Is the big idea really gone?  I can think of some really fun, effective advertising campaigns from the last few years which have powerful ideas behind them, well planned and rooted in insight.  The brands that spring to mind are Lidl, Aldi, John Lewis, Volvo (watch this one if you watch any of them – amazing!)  People aren’t talking about this round the watercooler but they are sharing it in social media – sometimes in their tens of millions.
  2. The weird thing about this article is that it doesn’t mention how consumers have changed over the last 20 years.  They’re more sophisticated, they second screen, TV shows are much more interesting than the adverts and during the adverts they’re tweeting about the programme or IMDB-ing the cast…  They’re not seeing the adverts in the same way as they did 20 years ago.
  3. Thirdly, the article doesn’t talk about the power of integration – it’s thinking about old-school advertising, not the full integrated campaign.  It’s in an integrated campaign that the power of the central idea really comes to life.  Nowadays you have to be useful as well as entertaining, and the benefit of your proposition has to come across in what you do, not just what you say.  So the brands that stand out now are the ones who aren’t run by unrealistic expectations of their expensive advertising agency, they’re the ones who get their agencies to work together to ensure that ideas work across all channels, and in the way they behave in real life and on the web.

You can’t expect a huge boost sales off the back of an advert any more. TV advertising has its place but it’ll never have the impact it had pre-broadband, pre-smartphone.

Life’s not that simple anymore.

The answer isn’t to look for a more creative boutique agency, it’s to look for the best integrated team.

The best work comes from a tight team – and by that I mean where all agencies (including digital and media) and the client have had an input into the big idea from the initial drawing board stages.  Where all the different understandings of the audience, their behaviour throughout the customer journey, their needs, wants, goals, beliefs, prejudices, cultural ties, etc etc all come together and the best insight can be revealed and crafted.

So yes, it is down to clients to jump in and encourage their agencies to work together, to stop seeing the ad agency as the lead creative agency, to understand that the big idea can come from anywhere, and to see the value in the lots of little ideas that make connections that build a big idea in the mind of the consumer.

Perhaps there is a divide between clients and agencies that understand the best way to do integrated, and the ones that don’t.  As agencies we should blame ourselves for not articulating this better and for not standing up for what we really believe will have the best outcome for our clients.

I know I’m being idealistic – unrealistic – but I hope one day I am proved wrong.

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A lovely trip to London: meeting with the APG and BIMA (and a call to arms for Scottish strategic people)

I wrote the start of this article thousands of feet circling high above Gatwick.

Gatwick is one of the worst airports. I don’t know what makes it worse than, say, Stansted, which seems to be universally loathed. I quite like Stansted because it’s small and feels regional and therefore quite friendly.

Anyway, this isn’t about airports. I was just dreading getting off the plane and doing the Gatwick palaver, which was a total palaver. And I was annoyed that I forgot my laptop charger and the emergency one I bought cost sixty quid and doesn’t even charge my laptop, it’s just a power lead that stops it from dying. What’s a blog for if you can’t put your gripes and grizzles into it?

Thanks for reading this far. I promise it gets better.

I’m now having a much nicer trip back, on a Virgin train. People keep bringing me food and coffee and I’ve got loads of work done. The wifi even mostly works. I like trains so much more than planes.

ANYWAY. The main purpose of my trip was to attend the first meeting of the judging panel of the BIMA awards which was great fun…

…But before that, I met up with Sarah Newman of the APG to talk about building a stronger network of strategic minds in Scotland.

For those of you who don’t know the APG, they are the industry body for planners and strategists in the UK.  Here’s what they say about themselves:

The APG is a not-for-profit organisation run for and by its members: primarily account planners in advertising agencies, but increasingly the wider community of communications strategists, including media planners, channel planners, digital planners and DM planners.

Their training is top notch (I should know, I’ve done a few of their courses) and they run fab events which are all up on YouTube if you want to check them out. Both training and events are held mainly in London and that was what I wanted to talk to Sarah about – could we try doing some events and/or training in Scotland?

The proposed events and training sessions would feature world class thinkers from all corners of the industry(ies) and bring people together – any person who does strategy and planning, from traditional agencies, design agencies, digital, and also from client-side.

From all over Scotland there are lots of people seeking out insight and applying them to make their communications stronger, their businesses more effective and it would be fab to do more to support each other and build a network that is both competitive and collaborative.

Events where we discuss things like, ‘what is an insight’? from different perspectives, we look at how insights are developed into ideas, how we know whether an idea is ‘good’ or not… And of course understand how to build strong brands that mean something in the complex world we now live in.

These events would be distinctive from other events in Scotland because their primary focus would be on strategy and would be aimed at people who have a say in their brand’s or their clients’ strategies in some way.

Just some initial thoughts, some of which might be wrong but I think the benefits of trying this could be as follows:

  • Creating a network of known ‘strategic minds’ – primarily for collaboration and support
  • Nurturing and growing strategic talent in Scotland
  • Building awareness of what strategy is and the value it adds
  • Enabling clients to understand whether their agencies are doing strategy right
  • Enabling agencies to find ways to improve their strategic offer

If you’re currently a member of the APG in Scotland you should have received an email from them asking your permission for me to email you – but if you’re not a member I’d still like to know if you would be interested in events/training that has a strategic focus. Let me know via the comments below, or via my Twitter or Linked In. You don’t need to be a planner or a strategist – I can see this appealing to designers, content managers, UX professionals, creatives, brand managers, insight peeps, analysts… So please get in touch if you would like to hear more as and when I get around to doing something.


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Can strategists learn from bad architecture?

A while ago, about five and a half years ago, I met this skateboarder who told me he was from Cardross, which is a village about forty minutes outside Glasgow, pretty much the last stop before the train terminates at Helensburgh.

I’d never heard of the place, and the first time we visited, we went to see his parents, but they weren’t in, so we went for a walk up a disused country road, which turned out to lead to the entrance of a twentieth century ruin, St Peter’s Seminary.

We had to fight our way through overgrown rhododendron bushes and trudge through some pretty heavy undergrowth, and then climb over some fences that said DANGER DANGER DANGER and then suddenly we were climbing into a crazy falling-down concrete brutalist building.

It was beautiful and awe-inspiring and kinda sad, and very intriguing and exciting.  I was very curious to look around.  There were lots of things to see, the skateboarder said.

We walked round into the main hall of the building where there had been an altar and you could see higher up there had been walkways where the trainee priests had had their rooms.  You could see where the grand staircase had been, now too dangerous to ascend.  We jumped over a gap where a wooden staircase had been and climbed to the second floor up concrete spiral steps and walked along where the balconies had been, peeking into burnt out graffiti-ed bedroom cells, some of which still had coat hooks and sinks in.

From there we climbed over into the lecture hall which was destroyed even more a short time after our visit which had once been supported by an impressive cantilever.  Some of the beautiful wooden beams still held and showed where the ceiling had long gone.

st peters seminary graffiti 2 st peters seminary graffiti

(Photos courtesy of Google Image search)

I was blown away by the place, and we visited it several times afterwards with friends, to take photos and look in wonder.  Each time we could go to fewer parts of the building because it was becoming more and more dangerous – and depressing.  It has been at the mercy of vandals, arsonists, nature, and the elements for over thirty years.

The skateboarder told me it had only been an operational seminary for about a decade, for most of the seventies, and he had  been there for mass when he was a little kid.  It had fallen into disuse as the Catholic Church realised that training priests in isolation was the wrong way to go, as they should learn in the communities they were going to serve.  After that it had had a brief stint as a drug rehab place but it wasn’t really suited to that purpose either, pretty much for the same reasons.

Anyway, this skateboarder turned out to be the guy I was going to stay with forever, so he’s still part of this story.  He works in architecture and we’ve been talking quite a bit about St Peters recently because it’s been getting a lot of press because the arts organisation NVA has worked to raise money to make it safe and turn it into a place a lot more more people than intrepid, brave (and stupid) abandoned building hunters would want to visit.

If you follow the chat about St Peter’s, there’s two main trains of thought.  One is that the place should be knocked down because it was a disaster, a folly, from the very beginning.  And they’re right – it was never really fit for purpose as the Catholic Church changed their training policy before the building was even finished.  The rest of this first group really don’t like concrete modernist buildings and want them all destroyed.  The second train of thought is that Gillespie Kidd and Coia‘s design was amazing and the naysayers are wrong and that the building must be saved and made into something that will be of use to people, even if that use is as of a site of historic interest that is safe to visit.

We were chatting about this today, and the skateboarder said that although the building was amazing, it was bad architecture because it wasn’t useful.  It can’t be defended as a success, it’s a folly, the result of architectural vanity.  The architects got it wrong (in conjunction with the client) by putting it miles away from anywhere, making it too beautiful to be comfortable – the trainees apparently didn’t like it all that much, and they had to sit around in the dark as the lighbulbs had to be specially ordered in from Denmark.  And so on.

I was thinking this was rather analagous to any kind of architecture – the planning phase of which is essentially strategy.  You need to challenge your client brief, identify what the best outcome for their investment is going to be, talk to stakeholders, target audiences and users and find out what they’re comfortable with, and think about the messages you want to convey with your design.  And you need to do all that properly and thoroughly before design even begins.

I think it’s daft that we have awards for design and awards for effectiveness in our industry – the design ones should be way more about effectiveness than they are and the effectiveness ones should celebrate the ones that were also fabulous experiences.  However, a good experience is likely to be more effective, so effectiveness awards have less to worry about in my opinion, and so should clients who choose agencies that go on about measurement and insight more than those who have stacks of design awards.

I know I go on about this a lot but William Morris’s thing about designs being ‘useful and beautiful’ is so true, and I find myself quoting him time and again.  (More about that quote here and here.)

Anyway, I do hope that NVA’s endeavours work out well, and they succeed in creating good architecture by making St Peter’s fit for a new purpose, one which delights and mystifies new visitors for generations to come.

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2014. A biased and subjective review.

I thought it would be good to look at 2014…  About 2 weeks ago, I started this article and then flu (mine and other people’s) and all that Christmas stuff got in the way.  And now, it’s 2015 and everything feels new and fresh so I’m not sure I want to harp on about the past but still, 2014 deserves a mention.  It was HUGE.  So here we go, this is what I wanted to say.

2014.  What a year.  There will be a million reviews out there of all the stuff that happened in internet-land, so I’m sticking to looking at my own year professionally and personally.  And actually, they are pretty much one and the same because they’re not that easy to keep separate (although when it comes to being a parent I do my best.)

Here we go.  5 things that made a big difference to me this year (in no particular order, the big things are sometimes the little things and the little things are sometimes the big things):

1. Going to San Francisco

Thanks to a bit of luck I was selected for the incredible Special Edition of the Cross Creative training programme run by TRC in Glasgow.  We did 8 months of training sessions here and then flew out to San Francisco which totally blew my mind.

It blew my mind in two ways.

One was personal. I’m half American but I’ve never really explored that part of my identity.  But my experience of America and Americans in SF was fab.  I wanted to be part of it.  I couldn’t help telling people that I was really half American.  But they liked the Scottish part better because that’s more interesting to them.

IMG_0087 IMG_0021 IMG_0075 IMG_0047

The other was work.  I wanted to move over there and work there immediately.  Drop everything and join the feeling that you were really part of something amazing that was happening.  But when I reflected on it, after I’d been back in flipping Glasgow for a couple of weeks I thought it would be way cooler to do something amazing here.  Perhaps because the summer of 2014 in Glasgow was completely amazing, it felt like we were at the centre of the universe here for a change.  There are fantastic things happening in Glasgow, we just have to be better at telling people about them.

2. Politics

We need more confidence about our own abilities and we need to move faster to make the world a better place, to progress rather than hark back to a past that discriminated against most people.  The referendum in Scotland showed that there is a sizeable number of people in Scotland who want to do things differently – just it’d be good if we could combine that desire for change with a bit more action and less talking maybe?  I don’t know.  I loved the power we felt we had during the referendum campaign and how social media allowed us to share information*, and feel like part of a movement, like we had a voice.  Our votes counted in 2014.  2015 is going to see some huge political shifts – hopefully positive ones.

3. The Rapha Women’s 100

On July 20th I got on my bike and then a train (then jumped off the train and ran back to Starbucks where I’d left my purse, then ran back and only just caught the train) to catch a boat to cycle round Arran and do 100K at the same time as thousands of other women.  The Rapha Women’s 100 is a virtual event, made possible by how connected we all are through social media.  So although I was solo, I knew I was not alone.

Arran is pretty tough to cycle round.  I felt that doing it on my own was a pretty significant achievement.  Thinking back on how I was screaming inside by the last 10K but still made the 16.40 ferry home helps me when I need to muster up a bit more determination to get through whatever I’m struggling with.  Cycling’s like that.  A lot of it’s horrible and painful but the buzz you get afterwards is like nothing else.

4. Building a team

In 2014 our strategy team grew bigger by about 200% and we are now developing new skills and specialisms to add more value to the services we offer our clients at Equator.  I’m really excited about the things we’re going to do in 2015.  Watch this space!

5. The changing nature of what we do

One of the reasons for the growth of our team, in size and skillsets, was because what we do is changing.  We are adapting to the changing needs of our clients and the market – breaking down silos and  coming up with better, stronger strategies and ideas.  Again, watch this space!

6. Small blogging achievements

And finally, I recently found that my post on assimilation was listed by @misentropy – so that’s really inspiring me to write more.  More about what I do as a strategist than this kind of personal stuff, which is not so easy to write about, I guess because it’s more for my benefit than for anyone else.  So – hopefully you’ll hear from me a bit more this year.


Social media more influential information source

Scottish independence: how Facebook could change it all

What impact could social media have?



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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 5: assimilation

This is the 5th and probably final part of my series on craft skills of the digital strategist.  I say probably because I will no doubt think of some others which I might squeeze into an also-rans article at a later date.

Anyway, here it is.  And it’s a biggie.  And it’s perhaps the most under-rated skill of all.

5. Assimilation

When was the last time you ever heard of ‘assimilation’ as being a skill?  Well, someone once said to me that it was the most important thing a planner should be able to do.  At the time I said, ‘Oh yes, I can do that,’ and then I had to look it up in a dictionary.

Definition of assimilate in English:


Take in and understand fully (information or ideas): Marie tried to assimilate the week’s events

1.1 Absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culturepop trends are assimilated into the mainstream with alarming speed

(Of the body or any biological system) absorb and digest (food or nutrients):the sugars in the fruit are readily assimilated by the body

Regard as similar; liken:philosophers had assimilated thought to perception

3.1 Become similarthe Churches assimilated to a certain cultural norm

As I understand it, I think that for strategists, assimilation means a few things:

  1. Being able to use the available knowledge about a subject, decide what is relevant, and really understand it – and by being the expert on something make sure that everyone else on the team understands the important information too – e.g. the significant bits of the context, the direction, the vision, the challenges, and so on.  Get everyone on the same page, in a smart way.
  2. By being the expert as described above, to be able to truthfully and wholeheartedly put yourself in the shoes of the target audience, the client or even the brand.  Like method acting, it’s method planning.  Be your customer and ask, ‘why do I care about this?’  Be your brand and say, ‘Does this suit me?’
  3. Thirdly, assimilation is about making connections between all the bits of information, knowledge and insight – the more interesting connections you can make, the better chance you have of coming up with something that will be interesting to your creative teams, to your client, and most importantly, to your target audience.

This skill is not really something that can be taught.  It is something that comes with practice if you know what to practice, and it’s likely to be a thing some people have a head start on because that’s the way their imagination and understanding works.  It’s probably therefore the hardest skill for some strategists to learn, and for some strategists, it’s probably something they do without even knowing it is a skill.

I’d agree though, with the original point that person made to me quite a long time ago, that being good at assimilation is perhaps the most important thing that identifies a great strategist/planner.

Do let me know your thoughts on assimilation.  Do you think it’s a skill?

And please do also give me any feedback you have about the 5 skills I’ve talked about this week.  Can you think of any more?

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