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.

Thursday, 10 May 2012


My father was in advertising.

And when my son Felix was born 14 years ago people asked me whether I wanted him to go into the same business too.

My answer at that time was ‘probably not’.

I didn’t want to appear churlish; I enjoyed what I was doing. It was very interesting.

It’s just that it didn’t look like it was going to get any more interesting than it already was.

We’d worked with the same tools for years: press, posters, TV cinema and radio. It felt like the future was going to be more of the same. That every ad had been done. And that we were simply rearranging Lego blocks to make slightly different objects.

Scarily too, the real innovation through that period was to be found in the research companies.

They’d spent their time building up a deep understanding of the consumer and a set of metrics that meant people felt they could use a formula to create ads to sell to them.

It seemed like this conventional wisdom would only ever lead to conventional work.

Then along came an oddly named company called Google.

And soon after that something called YouTube.

Then Facebook.

And Twitter.

These things were all awesome. But not really mainstream. 

At this time there was a sub culture of cool, ‘in the know’ technorati who inhabited this murky, other-world called ‘digital’ and who all understood what the majority didn’t. The early adopters.

And there were some incredibly enlightened people in advertising companies trying to explain to marketers how the world had changed and this new stuff was going to revolutionise everything.

But they were fighting a primarily uphill battle. In the margins. With only a sliver of a budget. 

Then the gods of technology gave us 3G!

And the iPhone.

And the app store.

And boom!

The ‘late adopters’ began to play with digital things.

And love the experience.

The marketers began to pull at their agencies rather than be pushed by them.

They began to insist on innovative, creative answers to their problems using new technologies and the behaviours associated with them.

Things that had never been done before.

Until now, every day sees new technologies and platforms that offer marketers and their communications partners new ways to flex their creative muscle and delight their users.

Indeed, they have to do that. Because their consumer is now a communications expert.

Everyone is. Everyone who has a smart phone. Or a computer.

Communications today is all pervasive.

It's so much more than advertising. 

It affects everything everyone does. 

It’s the one thing that connects the whole world. 

And it’s constantly changing.

And, ergo, changing the world.

So now, when people ask me if I would be happy if my kids to go into the same industry I’m in, guess what I say?

Monday, 23 April 2012


Since returning from the South By South West Interactive Festival last month a few people have told me they didn’t bother going all the way to Austin because they’re planning on going to Cannes, “and they’re basically the same kind of thing really aren’t they?”.

To me the two entities seemed so wildly different these comments appeared misguided to say the least. 

These people turned out not to have actually been to both, but perhaps the subject matter alone might have given a bit of a clue: Cannes, despite having changed its name to The Festival of Creativity is basically about advertising, whilst SXSWi is basically about stuff you can do and make in the digital realm.

However, when you set aside the cost of a delegates pass (£2400 for The Cannes Festival of Creativity / £370 for SXSW), the accommodation (The Ritz Carlton on Le Croissette / The Holiday Inn, Downtown) and the locals (Ferrari driving playboys in Cannes / Harley riding bikers in Austin) you know what? There are plenty of similarities.

They both have seminars and panels.

Cannes has around 60 events. Clients, agencies and production companies discuss case studies and talk about valuable lessons learned.

SXSW has around 2000 events. Philosophers, journalists, designers, neuro scientists, TV stars, writers, buddhist monks talk about how the world is evolving due of technology and how human beings are evolving in turn.

They both have awards ceremonies. 

At Cannes, for those who have managed to blag a delegates pass or are sober enough to pick theirs up, these are the highlights of the week: the fruits of the hardworking jurors labours. They offer the opportunity to view winning work, and boo the winning creatives on their way to the podium.

The prize giving in Austin is a little different. It’s on the last night, tucked away in one of the many event venues. No one really knows it exists. Indeed there’s no guarantee the winners will bother turning up. The recognition that comes from winning things isn't why they’re there.

They both have exhibitions.

In the basement of the Palais de Festivals are laid out all the entries the Cannes juries have deemed worthy of awards and commendations.

In two massive hangar like spaces at SXSW are demonstrated all the apps and games that will be changing the world over the coming months. (Things like the next Twitter or Foursquare, both of which were originally launched there.)

They both offer excellent networking opportunities.

Cannes allows creatives from agencies all over the world to meet with old friends, make new ones, and, with a bit of luck, get offered their next job.

SXSW allows entrepreneurs who have an idea, but no financial backing or partners, the exposure to potential investors and tech businesses that could make their baby fly.

Yes. There are many similarities. 

But there is one big difference.

The look in peoples’ eyes.

Most of the Cannes-ites are in relaxation mode. When they’re not lying by the pool at their agency’s villa or playing golf, they’re having lunch. Or dinner. Or cocktails. For the Cannes ad fraternity business and pleasure do mix.

The only people with a slightly predatory stare are the ones who believe they’ve done a piece of work that year that might just sneak a Lion.

The Cannes festival is all about celebrating the past year’s greatness. Looking back on the best work the world has produced and giving credit to the craftsmen behind it.

The SXSW-ers on the other hand are far from relaxed. 

They couldn’t give a flying fuck about the past. Last year? Pah! This morning was decades ago. These are serious business people, most of them have their livelihoods on the line, having brought to life some idea or other with nothing but sweat and code. They have a look of controlled panic in their eyes as they rush from panel to panel (there are a lot of them remember) desperate to learn where’s next in tech and human behaviour, how they can add value to their existing products, how they can make new ones and, and hopefully, how they can make a bit of money. 

They may take a few hours off to relax as the night draws on. Once they’ve filed their blogs, fixed a few bugs and gathered as many business cards as their wallets can carry.

These guys'll will celebrate when they fulfil their dream. When their business takes off. When they make their first billion.

If you haven’t been to both Cannes and SXSW you should. 

If only to experience the contrast.

For all their similarities they really are two wonderfully different worlds.

Monday, 5 March 2012

My biggest and most satisfying challenge at RKCR.

So, Friday was my last day at RKCR.

And when I reflect upon the four years I spent there, probably my biggest and most satisfying challenge during that time was not helping the agency win awards or new business.

It was something far more profound.

When I accepted the job I hadn’t set foot in the agency. I didn't feel I needed to. I’d met Richard Exon, the CEO, and liked him. We shared the same vision for the agency and agreed there was a huge amount of potential that needed to be tapped. That was all that really mattered.

When I turned up in January 2008 however one thing was blindingly obvious. Something needed to be done with the environment.

There were cubicles and corridors and offices and meeting rooms and little cut-off corner areas. On different floors.

And despite its bright primary colours and jaunty angled meeting room windows, it felt corporate and old fashioned.

Worse, the place encouraged segregation. Bigger offices for 'senior' staff making them appear more valued than others. Not good if you’re trying to build one big, powerful, conjoined team.

Also, rather tellingly, when I polled the staff, asking if the place inspired them and they felt proud to bring their mates or their mums into the office the answers weren't positive.

The first mountain to overcome was getting a budget.

The Finance Director went to work and after months of negotiating with head office managed to get a pot of money specifically for the refurb. It wasn’t enough, but it would have to do.

We invited three architects to compete, eventually choosing Spacelab.

They understood the way space could and should be used in an office such as ours, offering opportunities for random encounters as well as space for concentrated thinking.

They also shared my feeling that we should bring back some of the original integrity of the building. It used to be The Black Cat cigarette factory (hence the two big, Egyptian style statues out the front). It was also the first reinforced concrete building in the country of its size with massive beams and uprights.

At my previous agency I’d experienced the benefits of open plan working both culturally as well as operationally.

No walls means no politics - no corner offices for the management; it speeds everything up - if you need to speak to someone you don’t need to get your PA to call their PA and arrange a time, you just stand up and walk over to them; and most importantly, open plan encourages chance encounters, helping make new friends and with them the possibility of fresh cross fertilizing of ideas – you can’t simply walk, head down, from the lift to your office door without bumping into people in the morning.

But… open plan working spaces do have a few issues. And if we wanted to take advantage of its good bits we needed to overcome these.

Open plan working. And the world's largest welcome mat?

Planners and creative people think for a living. And most of them like a bit of peace and quiet to do that. That’s why, traditionally they like offices with nice doors you can close to ward off unwanted visitors.

The truth is, of course, they don’t really spend every second of their day sitting in zen like contemplation.

Much of their time is spent in briefings, client meetings, presentations, reviews, edits, on shoots, paying bills, buying stuff on Amazon and ASOS, buggering about on Facebook, surfing YouTube, up-loading shit to Pinterest and chatting.

There are basically three types of work that planners and creatives do. I ended up created a traffic light system to help define the spaces they needed:

Pootling about on the internet, researching, paying bills, writing emails. Low pressure stuff. This required 'green space'.

Thinking. Discussing ideas. Concentrating. Writing. Meetings. These needed 'amber space'.

Action stations. “You’ve got an hour to crack this!” Total immersion. Do not disturb! 'Red space'.

If we were going to take away people’s walls we needed to provide everyone alternative spaces for these three types of working.

Green was easy. A section of desk and a chair.

To avoid corporate drone syndrome we went for a variety of surfaces, sizes and shapes: wood, steel and laminate, rectangular, round, six seater, 12 seater, 36 seater.

Amber spaces was where things started getting interesting.

We created various areas that could be used for informal meetings as well as places to sit alone and work.

These were:

Areas of the main ‘factory floor’ sprinkled with sofas, arm chairs and coffee tables.

A high level ‘kitchen counter’ to encourage drop-in chats.

A circular booth, furnished in red buttoned leatherette. (This quickly became known as the 'Strip Booth'. Don't know why.).

The Pit, a sunken amphitheatre, with bean-bags, grass carpet, projector and write-on walls.

But my favourite amber space ended up being The Club. A dark, sexy and surprising, wood floored antidote to the stark white and steel of the ‘factory floor’.

For cost reasons I'd been asked to choose from a selection of furnishings from via the 'preferred corporate suppliers'. But these weren't particularly nice, or particularly cheap. For the main space I'd sourced all the old Danish furniture myself from eBay etc, but for the club we needed something a little special.

We called on interior design firm White Linen to help us out. They designed bespoke sofas and chairs covered with lush, dark velvets and found some amazing wallpaper and curtain fabrics which finished the area off nicely.

The Club

The quiet working space, the red space, was the final, and possibly most critical challenge.

We designed banks of smallish work-pods, which ended up being known as Panic Rooms, that were big enough for two. Useful for creative teams who want to shut themselves away and talk the nonsense creative people need to talk with impunity.

Panic Rooms

For the planners, many of whom wanted total silence to operate, we created The Library. A silent space in which to really get down to some top level, high level musing.

The Library

The main works only took six months, but the ‘finalising' took a lot longer.

Magnetic paint, write on walls. Projectors to show stuff we found inspiring. Rugs. Light bulbs (don't get me started on light bulbs...).

Galvanised conduit baby, yeah.

The re-furb was basically a second job for over a year.

But it was worth it.

The new environment made staff proud to work there and clients enjoy being there.

Did it help make the work better?

Who knows?

Yes, it's true that soon after the office was finished the agency won a couple of BAFTAs, its first D&AD pencils, became the most awarded agency in the country and reached the top of the new business league.

But hey, that was probably just a coincidence.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Look straight ahead and shout like hell.

OK. So here’s a deep, dark secret.

I failed my first black belt grading.

I was 20.

I’d been training for months and was incredibly fit.

I knew the syllabus inside out, and had even been helping take the class when my instructor wasn’t able to.

So I was ready.

The grading took place down in Cardiff and the dojo was packed.

It was four and a half hours long.

We went through every technique, every strike, kick and block. Every kata.

We did all the stamina excercises, the jumps, press ups, sit ups. And the fighting.

By the end I was exhausted.

But pleased it was over.

And pleased with my performance.

However, despite all the hard work, I still failed.

Coincidentally, so did the guy on my left.

And the guy on my right.

And the girl in front of me.

And the bloke behind me.

And the guy beside him.

In fact everyone in the whole dojo, about 30 students, all failed to get their shodan grade that day.

Grading us was Shihan Steve Arneil (since promoted to the title Hanshi), the president of the organisation. He was, and still is, the most senior person outside of Japan in my style of karate, Kyokushinkai.

As we stood there sweating and spent, he explained why we'd all failed.

“There was no spirit here.” he told us.

An important part of karate is something called the kiai. Shouting, basically. Shouting at the point of impact tenses every muscle in the body helping release an explosive amount of power. It also forces air out of the lungs in turn forcing you to breath correctly during intensive training.

Importantly, a deafening kiai in the room proves that the students really mean what they’re doing.

What happened in that grading all those years ago was simple.

One person stopped kiai-ing.

He influenced those around him, who felt unsure of whether they should be too.

And so on.

And as the sound disappeared, so did the energy.

Until the room was just going through the motions. Without really meaning it.

We all influenced each other. For the worse.

It was a crushing disappointment and took a while to get over.

But it was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me.

It taught me something that would profoundly affect everything I did from that moment on:

Don’t allow yourself to be influenced by those around you.

That doesn’t mean arrogantly ignore everyone presuming you know better than them. There’s loads of great things and people out there we need to be open to and learn from.

It means, once you’ve figured out what you yourself believe to be right, set yourself going and don’t waver. For anything.

Once you’ve explored and learned and worked out precisely what you need to do...

Do it.

Don’t check what everyone else is doing to fit in with the throng.

Plough your own furrow.

What I learned that day has helped me since then in my personal as well as my professional life.

In both, there are challenges and temptations thrown in one’s direction that a clear vision of where you want to get to can help you circumvent.

When I tried again for my black belt grading a few years later things were different.

I had tunnel vision.

I knew exactly what I needed to do.

And I did it.

All the while, shouting so loud I couldn’t speak the following day.

People around me may well have thought I was bonkers.

If they did, I certainly didn’t notice.

Or care.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Don’t you dare squander your talent.

The other day I went to the funeral and memorial of a friend who recently died of cancer.

His name was Adam Green.

He was 43 and one of the most talented people I’ve known.

As a young boy in our school assemblies he’d strum a guitar and sing like an angel.

As a teenager we’d jam together in my parents’ garage.

And as a man he led a true rock star life. Touring the world with Eric Clapton, Grace Jones and his own band, Saint Jude.

Unlike so many of us, Adam lived the dream.

He found something he was truly great at and was brave enough and stubborn enough to realise his potential.

Adam’s funeral was incredibly sad. He left behind a wife, two beautiful little girls and many friends whom he’d helped over the years.

But it was also incredibly inspiring.

How many of us really make the most of a god given talent?

What could we achieve if we took what we are really good at and ran with it, 100 miles an hour?

You can recognise the those who do.

They’re the flames that burn the brightest.

And light up the world for the rest of us.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Why January rocks!

I love January.

Not the weather of course. That’s revolting.

Especially if you run, or ride a motorbike, like I do.

And not the dark, dark mornings. They’re horrendous too.

No, the thing I love about January is the wonderful sense of fresh beginnings.

Of possibility.

January’s all ‘out with the old and in with the new’.

It un-boxes a brand new year.

Revealing 12 months of potential fabulousness that await us.

Things we might not have dreamed of.

Who knows what joys this year holds? 

The iPad 3? 

The iPhone 5? 

Yet more new technologies that will change the way the human race behaves?

Not to mention, perhaps, the odd exciting new start-up business. Ahem…

January gives us the opportunity to dream of perfection.

Of stuff the way it should be.

Sure, by December we’ll be hanging in rags drenched in the reality the past 365 days has dumped on us. 

Hindsight is not always a wonderful thing.

But dreaming is.

(That’s the reason I’d never consult a fortune-teller. That and the fact they’re total charlatans.)

In January the future is unwritten. 

Anything’s possible.

Except, possibly, skiing through a revolving door...