Saturday, 7 November 2015


Liam Keaveney, the Chairman of the British Karate Kyokushinkai (BKK) asked me to write a few words on my experiences at the BKK Summer Camp I attended in August 2015. These are they.

"Why do you do karate?"

The question asked by Shihan Liam Keaveney at the National Grading course he held five weeks before Summer Camp.

“Why do you want to do your Sandan grading?”

The question I asked myself over the years since attaining my Nidan.

The first of those two questions is a profound one, the answer to which being undoubtedly as personal for each karateka as the words I’m writing here are to me.

When I was 15 I read a book by Sosai in which he talked about the importance of aspirations, having goals to aim for. He also mentioned that whatever you do, you should do it as well as you possibly can.

It was clear to me that both those things are inexorably linked. And his words ended up influencing not just my karate, but every part of my life since.

So for me, above all the other reasons to do karate, the main one is this: to get better.

That being the case, the answer to the second question was simple.

If the grading system is a way of proving that you are improving, then I had to see if I was or not.

There was only one time and only one place I could do that.

And so, eight months before Summer Camp began I made to the decision to take my Sandan grading.

I’d experienced a few National Gradings in the past, five to be precise. (Yes, 2nd kyu, 1st kyu, Shodan and Nidan only add up to four. I actually failed my Shodan the first time round, but more of that later), so I had a good idea of what I was in for.

Immediately I felt that familiar sense of pressure.

Only this time the stakes were higher than they’d ever been, so the pressure was greater.

That pressure led to a kind of tunnel vision, an intense focus on that day up there in the distance. And there was a lot of work to do to get there.

I’m sure I’m not alone amongst karateka in saying that the hardest part of training is finding the time to train.

Working 12 hour days after having recently started my own business, plus trying to remain a decent husband and father, made navigating the journey to August a complex one.

Parks, hotel rooms, toilets, lifts, all became my dojos. Anywhere I went, my grading came with me.

Kata played a huge part of my training. Constantly referring to the kata book, with the odd question emailed to Shihan Janine. (By the way whether you’re going for grading or not you owe it to yourself to go to her kata courses. You won’t believe how much you’ll learn.) It helped with sharpening technique and increasing power as well as stamina. You can see why Hanshi says that kata was the hardest part of his training for his 100 man fight.

Of course, one of the greatest pressures of the Sandan grading is the creation your own personal kata.

I started work on mine with a basic framework and kept building and tweaking as the weeks went on. Until finally I was able to lock it down, write it up and spend the final few months practising it.

The course Liam Keaveney ran before the Summer Camp was invaluable.

Where no question was too dumb (despite the merciless mickey-taking) and where the plan for the grading and expectations were laid out clearly.

Quite simply, the course removes your excuses.You come away knowing what you need to do and what you’re going to go through.

It was also impressed upon us that the actual grading would be only part of the grading. The whole Summer Camp is an opportunity to be scrutinised. And passed or failed accordingly.

There would be no let-up. The pressure would be on for the whole camp.

"When you go into that grading you're going into war." Shihan Liam explained.

He was right.

But it wasn’t war with the instructors examining you, nor with your fellow students.

In the grading you're at war with your own mind and body.

You’re fighting the years you have on the clock. The voices in your head that tell you you can't do it. Every imperfection you have tried to iron out but haven't quite managed to.

And winning or losing that war dictates whether you pass or fail.

No matter what training you’ve done, it’s your mind that makes the difference. As the saying goes “if you think you can or you think you can’t you’re absolutely right”.

So training six days a week, sometimes twice a day helped my mind believe that it was ready to win the war.

As the countdown continued the pressure increased, ramping up in the days immediately preceding the camp.

My biggest fear became not the grading but not making it to the grading. Getting knocked off my motorbike, catching a cold, pulling a muscle.

Over those eight months I’d overcome pulled hamstrings, tennis elbows (needing injections in both arms), chest infections and numerous other attempts my body made to stop me.

All I wanted to do now was make it to the grading in one piece.

And so it was with much relief that, almost 34 years after I first walked into a dojo, and seven years to the day after gaining my Nidan, I walked into the last grading I will ever take.

We lined up and were given our numbers.

This was it. The beginning of the end.

“Fudo dachi.”

What all that training and studying had been for.


Whilst we had no idea of the time (the clock had been removed from the hall), as the hours went on, thanks to Shihan Liam’s course, we could always tell where we were in the running order: kata, kihon, renraku, conditioning (press ups/squats/sit-ups/jumps over the belt), pad work, fighting.

All the while Hanshi along with Shihans Liam and Alex Kerrigan, and Sensei Moss Agneli prowled the hall, eyes boring into us, spotting (and often, due to their intense gaze) prompting mistakes.

I remember quite a bit of what I did in those eight and a half hours. But nothing of what anyone else did.

That’s because of that Shodan grading I failed back in 1987.

What happened there was really interesting.

There were about 30 of us. We completed all the techniques. All the excercises. Everything by the book. But as the grading went on the kiais got quieter. Then stopped altogether. The power dissipated. Everything just got a bit ‘soft’.

Everyone was being influenced by everyone else. In a bad way.

Hanshi failed every one of us. For ‘lack of spirit.’

I was tremendously upset, but quickly understood why it happened.

So what did it teach me?

Ignore everyone around you. Be influenced by no one else. Trust yourself. Plough your own furrow. Oh, and shout like your life depends on it.

Eventually we heard Hanshi’s words echo round the hall:

“That’s it. Your grading is over.”

Of course it wasn’t really. We knew we still had the rest of the camp to prove ourselves. So the pressure remained.

Two hours later, with gi still soaking wet, we were back in the hall for an evening session with Hanshi. This time with the rest of the camp attendees.

The next morning at 6.30 we lined up on the field for a warm-up with Hanshi before splitting into groups for different activities.

Those of us who were grading ended up squashed into a squash court nose to nose with Shihans Liam and Alex and Sensei Moss who proceeded to point out exactly how rubbish our techniques and stances were.

This was at once terrifying (clearly we’d all failed our grading the day before if we can’t even punch a decent chudan zuki) and enlightening (no matter how long you train there is always so much room for improvement. We are striving to achieve that unachievable perfection after all).

The rest of the day was split into different sessions comprising self-defence, pad work, kata and technique ‘polishing’.

On the final day we had another 6.30am squash court session, followed by training on the field, with Shihans David Pickthall and Nick da Costa offering up some really useful knockdown combinations. And then came the fighting.

Those grading had to line up for five fights, then everyone else was allowed to fight each other, finishing off with another five fights for just the grading group.

I didn’t count how many rounds we had. It felt like a thousand, but it might have only been 20.

From there it was back into the big hall to cheer as the results of the gradings were read out and those successful jogged happily up to collect their signed licences.

Brown belts, Shodans and Nidans. They all heard their names called out.

The three of us attempting our Sandan just sat and sweated.

The pressure now reached an all time high.

There was one final hurdle. We each had to perform our personal katas for the assembled group.

It was us performing our own creation in front of people who knew infinitely more about what made a good kata than us. (I later had a nightmare in which I was training in the dojo totally naked. Not sure what that meant…)

Afterwards we stood there convinced of two things: that there was nothing we could have done better, and that our best just wasn’t good enough.

Then, one by one our names were read out.

Mine was last.

Finally the self-inflicted pressure that had started eight months earlier was lifted.

It was replaced by a feeling I had not expected.

That the grading had not been the end.

But simply the end of the beginning.

That I’d finally completed the basics.

And there was only one thing left to do now:

Get better.

Monday, 19 May 2014


David hired Mary Wear and myself back in 1995.

We had the honour of being the last creative team he ever hired.

In the time we spent with him we did some of our best work.

And learned many things.

Stuff that, only on reflection since his death two days ago, I realise has had a huge effect on me.

These are a few that spring to my, rather sad, mind:

1. Only work with great people.

Every single member of David’s creative department was so good and so experienced they could have run departments in their own rights. 

That allowed David to relax and in effect just say yes or no (usually yes) to the greatness that his teams produced, thereby giving him the space to run the business and write the occasional ad.

He also wasn’t afraid to work with big characters.

Clearly a glutton for punishment, he’d worked with one of the biggest, my father Ron, twice in the past. First at DDB, and then to be his art director at his first agency French Gold Abbott. 

To be one of the few people to have successfully wrangled my old man deserves a place in history all of its own.

2. Creative people can run successful companies.

In an industry that’s infamous for seeing founding creative partners ousted from their own agencies David’s power and influence was unheard of. 

When Mary and I got to AMV he was Creative Director, Chairman of the agency and Chairman of the PLC board.

Years earlier, when DDB was at its ‘Mad Men’ prime, he was both the agency’s Creative Director and Managing Director.

You don’t keep roles like those for long if you don’t know what you’re doing.

3. Start a business with brilliant friends.

I could never get over the love David and Peter Mead had for each other.  

Love borne out of respect for each other that meant they could relax and get on with their jobs knowing they had each others’ backs and wouldn’t fall victim of boardroom politics.

4. Have the courage to leave your comfort zone.

To be honest, when Mary and I were asked to go to AMV we had to think twice.

The agency had always done lovely work, but for us the place had an aura of middle class gentleness about it. (Unsurprising bearing in mind who ran the place.)

But what made up our minds to go was the existence in his creative department of Tom Carty and Walter Campbell.

David had backed them when they wanted to work with the, at the time, black-balled Tony Kaye, and had approved what is, to this day, the most bonkers (and seminal) piece of advertising ever: Dunlop’s ‘Unexpected’.

And that belief in and support of Tom and Walter led to them producing work that changed AMV's reputation of being the best print agency in London to being the best TV agency in London.

5. Keep your word.

You could never accuse David of being flaky.

He made a point of following through on his promises.

Even when that included leaving the very agency he helped found.

For years he told everyone he planned to retire by his 60th birthday. 

True to form he waved an elegant goodbye to us all two days before the event.

I never told David how much I learned from him.

So, in his leaving us I have learned another lesson: 

Don’t wait til it’s too late to thank someone for having a profound effect on your life.

Sunday, 22 September 2013


I admit it.

I have a problem.

It all started back in 1995 when I clapped eyes, and feet, on Nike’s newest iteration of their famous Air Max running shoe.

You’ll know them. 

The ones with the black/neon yellow/white colourway with graduated suede panels and nylon mesh and 3M reflective strips, coloured visible air-units with PSI pressure reading and speed-lacing system with high density mesh eyelets.

To this day considered by many to be the best trainer ever made, they were a technological marvel, a design masterpiece and comfy as hell.

Moreover they succeeded in hooking me, and numerous other poor sods like me, into a world from which there’s no return.

These were by no means the first trainers I’d owned. 

I’d had many pairs of Vans in the past. 

But those Nikes marked the first time I’d not worn a pair of shoes til they plain wore out.

They become the the first pair of what would end up as ‘a collection’.

More specifically, a Nike collection.

(I do actually own a pair of Reebok Pumps, the result of an early bit of experimentation, but they rarely see the light of day.)

My desire ignited by these neon masterpieces, I soon found myself making regular trips to the newly opened Nike Town on Oxford Circus.

When I’d exhausted their selection I ended up skulking round back alleys of soho looking for limited edition releases in the exclusive and highly priced trainer boutiques.

New colourways and fabric versions were purchased as a matter of course.

Business trips to the States took on a new exciting angle. Would the Nike Town on East 57th Street have a slightly different selection to its European counterpart?

Then, in 1997 my first child was born. 

I was forced to temper my purchases. Funds became rather annoyingly re-directed towards less important things like nappies and babygrows. 

More practically, a new baby meant I no longer had the time needed to cruise the shops to snap up any new releases.

But just when I thought I’d got out, those pushers in Portland pulled me back in.

Nike created the most amazing web utility the world has ever seen: Nike ID.

The opportunity to create a totally bespoke, utterly unique pair of Nikes was irresistible. 

I indulged myself whole-heartedly.

Throughout all this, I felt I’d avoided ‘going overboard’ by not keeping my shoes in their boxes like many sneakerheads, who end up annexing spare rooms or renting lock-ups for their stockpiles. 

No, I just kept mine stashed around the house. 

And basement.

Eventually I was forced to face my problem when my wife and son staged an intervention.

I came home to find they’d gathered every pair of shoes I owned and lined them up. The line stretched all the way from the front of the house to the back.

But far from halting my habit, this action, combined with the fact that we had actually run out of storage space at home, just prompted me to 'go underground'. I vowed from then on to keep all new purchases at the office.

There is, however, a line I just won’t cross. 

I absolutely refuse to queue for days like the many other trainerholics you can often see filling the pavements for days outside the likes of Nike’s 1948 in Shoreditch or Soho’s Foot Patrol. 

I must confess however I have found myself counting down the seconds at my computer waiting for the ‘one minute past midnight’ online release of certain pairs.

The sneaker bloggers haven’t helped matters. 

They’re busy whipping up a frenzy of excitement for addicts with their sneak previews, sometimes months ahead of their actual release date, documenting in minute detail every mouth-watering new innovation. 

And there’s always a steady stream of those. 

In recent months alone Nike has given us woven shoes, knitted shoes and a pair made out of cork.

They have a name for these: Quick Strikes or QSs. Released in tiny numbers. They go for 300% of their initial cost on eBay almost immediately.

Relatively recently, a new and shockingly powerful tool has emerged to help those pushers tantalise their prey.

Instagram has led to photos of new shoes being pumped straight to addicts’ eyeballs the precise second each new pair is exposed to the world.

The numbers are astonishing. 

The feed of trainer blog The Drop Date for example is being followed by 3,000 people. 

Soho boutique Foot Patrol has 7,000 followers. 

As does Nike’s 1948 space in Shoreditch. 

Crooked Tongues has 9,000. Sneakerfreaker 10,000. 

Daily sole 11, 000. 

And Nike’s hidden-away New York store 21 Mercer has 42,000 people hanging on their every shot. 

And then it starts getting scary. 

Kicks On Fire has 238,000 followers. 

Nice Kicks has 530,000. 

And the almighty Sneaker News, 746, 000. 

There is one thing about these bonkers statistics I find comforting however.

They prove quite conclusively that I’m not alone.

They also prove that this kind of habit isn’t simply a fashion thing.

It’s more profound than that.

Is it about a love of design?

Of technology? 

Of innovation?

Or perhaps it stems from something more deep-seated than that? 

Satiating some fundamental deep human need?


But I’m fucked if I know.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Look at what they make you give.

This week a creative team in India was fired for creating and publicising some ads they’d done for their client, Ford.

They weren’t fired because their ads were bad. And they were. Terribly.

They were fired because they’d released them to the press without them having run, or, allegedly, without their client even being aware of them. And these facts meant that when the world complained about how offensive it found them, the client was able to point the finger back at the agency who in turn poked its finger straight into the creatives' eyes.

Before the shit hit the fan they must have felt very pleased.

They’d managed to get the ads ‘out’ just before the Cannes entry deadline.

And anyone whose ever worked in the creative department of a network agency knows just how important that is.

Since the launch of the Gunn Report in 1999 being seen at the top of its agency list has become  an obsession for agency networks communications 

The holding companies see the Gunn Report as an empirical means to quantify their creativity.

They task their agency networks with winning awards.

Who bonus their global creative directors to win awards.

Who pressurise their regional creative directors to win awards.

Who end up pressuring their creative departments to win awards.

The emerging markets are especially susceptible to all this pressure. Awards propel their people and agencies onto a global stage and gain the much needed attention of their network paymasters.

The Cannes awards are famous for being populated with scam ads. 

(The Cannes juries are famous for being populated with cheats. This year they’ve announced they are reviewing they judging procedure to stop cheating.)

Creatives have had to master the art of coming up with ads, finding photographers or directors to make them and finding clients to run them.

In their desperation to win they can sometimes lose their way and take short-cuts. 

Like these poor guys in India.

There’s a line in The Bourne Identity where a hit-man who’s tried and failed to kill Jason Bourne lies dying and says to Bourne: “Look. Look what they make you give.”

You’ve got to feel for those guys in JWT India.

They’re told to win awards at all costs.

And these poor sods paid the ultimate price.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The future is here. For a while.

Here’s a scary thought.

Anyone under 15 can’t remember dial-up internet. (Those long hours spent trying to download anything accompanied only by the brrr-brrr-ting-ting-ting-ting of the modem plugged into the phone socket.)

Anyone under 10 can’t remember life without 3G. (That dream that one day we’d be able to access internet and email on our phones, to be set free from our offices and work anywhere at any time.)

Anyone born after next year won’t remember life without 4G. (“Daddy, in the old days, did you really have to wait to download films on your phone?” “Mummy, what’s ‘buffering’?”)

Yes, for all their amazingness, our phones, with the 3G that we adored so much only a few short years back, will soon seem like the equivalent of a black and white TV with a crappy aerial you have to tweak to get a decent picture.

Today EE introduced 4G to the UK. (That’s a lot of acronyms in that there sentence.)

We were treated to demonstrations of its speed in comparison to 3G. 

And it is indeed much faster.

Sodding fast in fact.

The other networks of course were swift to point out that what EE have isn't really ‘the best kind of 4G’ and that theirs will be even more sodding fast when they launch next year.


Today was a momentous day.

One which means that soon enough, like always happens when new technology is introduced that truly supersedes the old, we’ll forget just how amazing what we have now is, just how lucky we are to have it, and life will become 'un-livable' without something we couldn’t even imagine we’d need or might even exist only a few weeks earlier.

And we'll love it. And cherish it. And value it.

Right up until 5G comes along...

Saturday, 1 September 2012


Words said to Richard and I soon after we resigned from our last jobs.
Interestingly the person who said them was someone who’d started their own, not unsuccessful business.
But he did have a point.
I mean, as jobs go, they didn’t come much better. 
We were earning a decent living. We’d had a great run at RKCR: Top of the new business league. Top awarded agency in the UK.
And it was also true that the economy was not in the best of health. 
So what the hell would induce us to want to jump out of a safe, secure, corporate job into that maelstrom of the unknown that is entrepreneurship.
Everyone has their own reasons, but in taking the above question seriously a few answers came to mind. Answers which still held true nine months later when we were finally contractually allowed to open our doors.

First, I felt ready.
Ready to put into practice what I’d learned over the last 26 years. I’ve worked for some amazing people in some amazing companies, and throughout that time I’ve attempted to assimilate the good bits whilst learning from the bad.
Sure, you don’t need 26 years experience to start your own business. But if I were a client I’d like to know that the people I’m working with are not just able to do funky, cool, creative things, but also understand the commercial imperatives, having come across, and solved, a load of business problems comparable to mine. And also that they’ve done enough good work and won enough awards to have got glory hunting out of their system, whilst still staying passionate about the value top quality creativity can add to their business.

Second, and probably most importantly, I’d found a kindred spirit.
In Mr Exon was a like-minded soul also chomping at the bit to do his own thing. And that, I can tell you, is a rare and beautiful thing to find.

Another thing I realised during my contemplation: everyone I truly respect has started their own business.
Dave Trott, Paul Arden, Maurice and Charles Saatchi, David Abbott, Frank Lowe, Robert Saville, Mark Roalfe. And those are only the people I’ve worked for. In the little old world of advertising. The list outside those small confines goes on and on.
There’s something brave and special about what these people did. They didn’t start up for the money. They did it because they felt they ‘just had to’. Most had become too big a character to live in captivity. Their vision and ambition outgrowing that of the organisations they were working for. Their personal happiness, not merely their wealth, depended on their starting their own business.
I know myself well enough to realise that if I didn’t at least give doing my own thing a go I’d end up respecting myself just a little bit less.

A few more reasons:

The world of communications is more exciting now than ever before. Technology has unleashed upon the world wave upon wave of inspiring startups in all manner of spheres.
Over the years I’ve become obsessed with tech and the increasing part it’s playing in everyone’s lives. For me the opportunity to meaningfully partner and collaborate with some of the most amazing experts in their field was becoming overpowering.

I began to feel the need to create something. Something special. Something I can look at in years to come and be proud that I helped create it. Something that doesn’t just have value, but that is valuable. 

Finally, someone once gave me some advice about starting your own business: if you don’t really, really want to do it, for God’s sake don’t. 
And I guess that was the clincher. I really, really do.