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You learn a thing or two as the managing director of an advertising agency.

Like what makes a good agency tick.

Like what motivates good people.

Like how it feels when the agency’s heart is in the right place.

I was fortunate enough to be given temporary stewardship of such an agency for six years of my career.

The agency in question was a bona fide challenger shop. It was based in Edinburgh but regularly won pitches against London and international agencies. And its client list was choc full of challenger brands in markets such as beer, cars, banks, soft drinks, media, whisky, you name it.

I must have taken about a hundred staff meetings during that time, covering all sorts of topics, sharing both good news and bad.

In effect, and with hindsight, those staff meetings were a series of all-agency focus groups.

I prepared a discussion guide for each one.

And I observed collective and individual reactions to a range of stimuli and messages.

Here is my debrief of that research.

Here, in reverse order of importance, are the four things that matter most to the staff of a healthy agency.





4. Good news about money

Glad tidings about the financial performance of the agency, glad tidings about pay rises, or glad tidings about bonuses tended to receive a lukewarm reaction. That does not indicate a lack of gratitude or a lack of concern. Rather it is the lukewarm reaction one gets when people’s minimum expectations have been met.

Everyone here is talented.

Everyone works hard.

The output is good.

We’ve done our job. And if management has done its job, why wouldn’t the agency be profitable?

Why wouldn’t we all share in the spoils?

Financial good news is a hygiene factor in a good agency and is treated as such.


3. Good news about new business.

The agency always responded well to pitch wins.

It responded to what we had won, and it responded to whom we had beaten to win it.

Looking forward, what kind of opportunities would this new client afford? (What’s in it for me/us as employees?)

And looking back, against whom had we been weighed, measured and not found wanting? (Affirmation of the calibre of my employer.)


2. Personal recognition and progression.

Loud, heartfelt cheers, always, when individuals were called out for great contributions and when promotions were announced.

It’s a decent acid test of culture, I think, how people react to colleagues and peers doing well.

Of course there will be an element of professional jealousy and that is no bad thing if it is constructively channeled.

But it speaks volumes when the overriding emotion is one of vicarious pleasure. Confident, secure people draw comfort and inspiration when they see evidence that they are working in an environment in which progression is possible or probable, even if it is not their turn this time.


1. Showcasing new work.

By a mile, by a country mile, the best, the warmest, the loudest and the longest lasting reactions were reserved for new work.

(It goes without saying that we only showed work of which we were proud at staff meetings.)

“We did this.” (spoken.)

“And every other agency in the UK is going to be as jealous as hell.” (not spoken but understood and appreciated by everyone in the room.)

The work mattered more than all the other types of good news put together.

The work was our Why as well as our What.

Everything else was about How.

And that is the way it should be if an agency has its purpose, it’s priorities and its people right.









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There is an implicit disclosure in the title of this post.

Here is the explicit version: I am the subject of Chapter 5 of Heather LeFevre‘s book called Brain Surfing. I have a small reputational (not financial) vested interest in this book doing well.

But there are much more important, non-vested reasons to buy this book. Many of them relate to the content. One of my favourite blogs, Futility Closet, describes itself as “an idler’s miscellany of compendious amusements”. Well, Brain Surfing is a compendium of miscellaneous advertising strategy tricks of the trade AND an amusingly candid travelogue.

From my perspective, however, the most compelling reason to buy the book is not what is in it but who wrote it.

This is an author review rather than a book review.

Whilst Heather stayed with me in Scotland, whilst she surfed my brain, she agreed to give a talk to the Scottish branch of the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising).

She spoke about her career, about the global Planners (Strategists) Survey which she founded, and about this (at that point un-named) nomadic book project.

I sat a few rows back, in amongst the bright young things of the Scottish advertising scene.

Heather was interesting, arcticulate, charismatic and candid. As well as talking about the great campaigns in which she’d had a hand Heather also talked about the failures in her love life. As well as sharing success stories she also shared regrets. As she mentions in her chapter about Rob Campbell, a man whom I’ve never met but would dearly like to, vulnerability is not a weakness.

I overheard a twenty-something girl behind me whisper to her companion, “I want to be like her.”

At the end Heather was mildly mobbed, mainly by other twenty-something girls, all of whom had been inspired by what they had just seen and heard.

Only then did the penny drop that an important female role model had been staying at my house.

Heather has “done well” at some top class agencies, including CP+B in Miami and Strawberry Frog in Amsterdam. And she is definitely a “strong woman”. But her strength is of a distinctly feminine variety. She does not conform to that horrible cliché of women acting like men in order to get on. I think that is what her audience were responding to, a role model whose success can be aspired to not just in and of itself but also because of the uncompromised, feminine means by which it was achieved.

At the end of the chapter about her stay with Suzanne Powers, Heather laments the fact that Suzanne was the only woman to take part in the Brain Surfing project, and she speculates as to why this might be. It is an interesting perspective on an issue that continues to hold the advertising industry back.

Buy this book if you want to support a female role model in the advertising industry.

Some time later Heather and I meet for drinks on a February night in London. After the small talk I share some things that are on my mind, which are not related to work. She listens well and counsels well. The counsel involves her opening up in an intimate way about some very personal episodes in her past life, which allow me to view my current situation in a different light.

As was often the case when she stayed at our house, the intended roles are reversed. The mentor becomes the mentored.

At first glance, Heather is super confident, super poised, super strong. But she is also a great listener. She has deep reservoirs of empathy. And she is prone to the same insecurities as the rest of us. I am very glad to have met her. I am lucky to call her a friend.

Buy this book safe in the knowledge that you are supporting a very nice person.

It is a cliché that everyone in the advertising industry has a book or a film script or, these days, a technology start-up in them. The day job is just a way of making ends meet and biding time until the big idea lands.

For some people that big idea never seems to arrive.

For others the idea comes but the gumption to do something about it doesn’t.

Heather had the idea and the gumption to make the Strategist Survey happen.

And she had the idea and the gumption to jack her job in and go Brain Surfing.

She is the bona fide maker that we all want to be.

Buy this book if you have “maker” aspirations. It is almost a moral obligation to support someone who has turned a great idea into brilliant action.


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The conditions for a worthwhile panel discussion are seldom met.

Therefore panel discussions are usually disappointing.

From personal experience I struggle to recall a single exception to prove this rule. I can think of several great speeches. I could rattle off a long list of great talks and presentations. But great is not a descriptor that is often applied to panel discussions, other than in ridiculously hyperbolic tweets from SXSW.

There’s a reason why panel discussions don’t feature on TED.

This is realism rather than cynicism.

The conditions for a worthwhile panel are as follows. And, unfortunately for worthwhile panels, at least five out of six of these conditions have to be met.

  • A topic that is of value to the audience.
  • Charismatic panelists.
  • Research and preparation to inform points of view.
  • A preparedness to be outspoken or controversial or revelatory.
  • A skillful moderator (aka fire-starter).
  • Non-inane, provocative questions from the audience.

These conditions are rarely satisfied because panels are an inherently lazy event format.

Panels are easier than talks. You can get away with going through the motions as both panel organiser and panel participant. And that’s what most panel organisers and participants do. They take the path of least resistance.

Why put time and effort into preparation when I have lots of other work to do and there are three other panelists to hide behind and I sort of know the subject and I can wing it?

Why rock the boat with a controversial point of view? The long term risks far outweigh the short-lived reward.

Why choose a subject or panelists that might offend and deter sponsors?

Why share some valuable, original thinking in an environment where minimum credit will accrue?

The preparation (lack of) issue is perhaps the least forgivable, even if it is understandable. It shows a lack of respect for the audience.

At Festival Number 6, actor and comedian Steve Coogan gave an interview in front of a jam packed central piazza in the village of Portmeirion. It was effectively a single-panelist panel discussion.

It was disappointing. With hindsight it couldn’t have been anything other than disappointing.

The highly talented Mr Coogan and his no-doubt clever biographer-cum-interviewer went through the motions of talking about his talent and his creative output, when what we all wanted was for him to show his talent and perform some of his creative output.

High expectations plus lazy format equals let-down.


But also revealing.

At one point an audience member shouted out something along the lines of “be funny”.

Coogan’s response laid bare the harsh reality of the interview/panel format.

You have to pay real money for that.

In other words, if you want me to write original material, if you want me to rewrite and edit and rewrite again to make it really good, and if you want me to prepare and rehearse to deliver a great performance, then you have to pay real money. Not the kind of money you pay for a quick, bit-part interview on a lesser stage at a star-studded, three day festival.

Ten out of ten for transparency.

Ironically this moment of outspoken candour was one of the high points of the session. It’s not enough to be charismatic. You have to be provocative too.


"You have to pay proper money for that."

“You have to pay proper money for that.”


The other high point was generated by a non-inane, provocative question from an audience member.

As an Alan Partridge fan, Steve, I’m interested to know whether you live in a hard water area or a soft water area.

The question itself got a big laugh from a knowledgeable audience. It was very Alan Partridge. We all knew it.

And Coogan knew it too.

He couldn’t help himself. He laughed and acknowledged that this was exactly the kind of issue that would interest Alan. But then, guard down, he went on to explain that the reason Alan Partridge would find it interesting was that he, Steve Coogan, had a nerdy interest in this sort of thing too. He then basically ad-libbed a pretty funny routine about soft water in Manchester, where he was brought up, and hard water and descaling kettles in Brighton, where he currently lives. We got a telling insight into just how much of Steve Coogan went into Alan Partridge, without having to pay proper money for it. Sucker!

For two brief moments the panelist and the audience combined to satisfy enough conditions to make the format work. But, sadly, the session was not inherently satisfying throughout.

By contrast, Howard Marks, aka Mr Nice, the infamous drug baron and famous author was an intensely gratifying panel of one interviewee.

When I first tried LSD at Oxford in 1964 I asked the guy what it was like. He said, "It's like a weekend in Paris."

When I first tried LSD at Oxford in 1964 I asked the guy what it was like. He said, “It’s like a weekend in Paris.”

Interesting subject matter?

Try drug smuggling. Try the sixties. The Manchester music scene. Youth culture. Doing hard time in a United States penitentiary.

Charismatic panelist?

Even suffering from terminal cancer he had a twinkle in his eye and easily enthralled his audience.

Research and preparation?

It is probably trite to say that his whole life has prepared him to talk like he did. But he has also written a new book, called Mr Smiley: My Last Pill And Testament, in which he apparently spills all sorts of beans.

Prepared to be outspoken and controversial?

Are you kidding?

Skillful moderator?

He was interviewed by his friend Greg Wilson and he obviously felt totally at ease as a result.

Audience provocation?

Well, aside from some very good questions (candidly answered) the audience also provided him with a spliff that was apparently strong even by his standards.

Six out of six conditions satisfied.

It was a great panel (of one).

It was that elusive exception that proves the rule.

But, as a rule, panel discussions still suck.



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My name is Sheila Doherty and my friends say that I am loquacious to a fault.

They mean that I talk too much. And I guess they have a point. I can be overly forthcoming at times.

They would have been impressed by my entry to the United States. It was perfunctory and prosaic. There was no embellishment on my part.

Everyone is loquacious in New York. But no one there seems to find fault in that. In that respect at least, I felt normal.

Nonetheless, I figured that the wrong side of passport control was neither the time nor the place to start making myself at home.

When asked I stated simply that the purpose of my visit was tourism, which was the truth but not the whole truth, and I resisted the urge to elaborate. I stepped onto American soil without let or hindrance. Her Britannic Majesty would have been pleased.

I considered myself a dark tourist of sorts. And it pained me not share this with the mirthless Border Protection Officer. But I exercised restraint. One person’s morbid fascination is another person’s moral turpitude and to be refused entry would have been a disaster.

Dark tourism is also known as grief tourism or black-spot tourism. Sites of special sinister interest like Auschwitz or Alcatraz are the new holiday hot spots. There should be a Loathsome Planet guidebook.

But death, grief, and tragedy are not my bag. I was a different kind of dark tourist. I wasn’t interested in places where bad things have happened to other people. I was interested in places where bad things might happen to me. To be precise I went to New York because I was interested in places where I was convinced that bad things would happen to me.

I have spent most of my life as an acrophobic you see. I’m afraid of heights. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I do know that it got worse over time. It went from being a thing, to an issue, to a problem. It started out as apprehensiveness. But it became a destructive paranoid obsession.

Heights didn’t have to be high to be fearsome. Changing a light bulb was a challenge. Mounting a stepladder could trigger dizziness, nausea or even a full-blown panic attack. I would plan my journeys to avoid driving over bridges. It even took the fun out of holiday planning. I would get all anxious if I thought I might be allocated a room with a balcony on a high floor of a hotel.

It got to the point where I couldn’t hide it. My friends were sympathetic for a while. But their patience ran out when it became obvious that I lacked the gumption to do anything about it. They stopped making allowances. And, because there are no grey areas when it comes to a phobia, we more fell apart than drifted.

Then fate intervened. I had an epiphany. An epiphany from a bible no less. Not any old bible, mind you. Not the bible. The Good Book may be an obvious source of epiphany for some, but it is an unlikely source for me. The bible in question was given to me by my Godfather and the epiphany happened by chance.

One day, on a whim, I picked the bible off the bookshelf to thumb nostalgically through a few delicate pages. It fell open at a picture of a serene looking Jesus surrounded by children. The legend underneath was a quote from Matthew, Chapter 19, verse 14.

“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

I was struck by the incongruity of the word suffer. Why would Jesus want children to suffer?

I took down a dictionary and discovered to my surprise that the archaic definition of suffer is to tolerate or allow. Allow little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.

To suffer is to tolerate or allow! I had allowed this fear of heights to define me. I had tolerated its debilitating effects. And in that moment I resolved, in the biblical sense, to suffer no more. Hark at me!

My trip to New York would be a form of self-administered exposure therapy. Skyscrapers would be my medicine, one a day for three days before meals, and I was determined to complete the course.

Determined is an easy thing to say, but it’s a less easy thing to be. Could I walk the walk?

Well, on my first day, the walk to be walked was seven blocks of 5th Avenue from 42nd Street to The Rockefeller Centre – “The Rock”.

Most people soon forget to look up in Manhattan. Even a tourist is quick to take for granted just how blessedly high and mighty and vertical and vertiginous everything is. Not me.

It was a beautiful day. The sky was clear and cloudless. It should have lifted my spirits, but all I perceived was an ominous expanse of 9/11 blue. I had walked two blocks with my neck craned and my throat constricting. At close quarters the scale was bewildering. It was staggering. I was staggering. The buildings appeared to sway and I felt myself swaying with them. My legs were giving way and so was my resolve.

I forced myself to look down in an effort to regain my balance.

In that same moment a woman screamed and kicked a rat into the road.

It was mesmerising. A crowd quickly gathered, full of morbid curiosity. We had effectively ruled out retreat to the sidewalk, but I figured that a New York rat would be an apex survivor, in the top percentile for street wisdom and cunning. I expected it to improvise an escape across four lanes of unyielding traffic.

But it didn’t.

It froze.

In its terror it hunkered down, made itself as small as it could and hoped for the best, or maybe just accepted the worst. Rodent fatalism!

It was a most un-American tableau. Loser vermin. The sewer rat that choked.

My heart went out to the rat. It was a metaphor for the old me, the old Sheila that had spent too much of her life paralysed by fear. I ran a mental checklist of relevant phobias. I couldn’t help myself.

Musophobia – a fear of mice or rats.

Agoraphobia – a fear of open spaces.

Agyrophobia – a fear of crossing the road.

The air was thick with fears. It was a visceral sensation. So thick you could cut it with a knife.

Aichmophobia – the morbid fear of sharp things, including knives.

I could feel my anxiety beginning to run away with itself. I was heading for meltdown. So I recited my New York, New York exposure therapy mantra.

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you new Sheila.”

It was pretty thin as coping strategies go but panickers can’t be choosers, and that last line doesn’t scan. The two syllables of my name mess with the melody. Normally that would mess with my obsessively precise head. But just then it gave Sheila the pedant the ammunition she needed to distract Sheila the phobic.

After several repetitions I felt the vertigo retreat and my resolve return.

I picked my way to the back of the crowd and slipped sideways along marble and glass to a point where I could move freely once more.

I didn’t look back. I couldn’t bear to see it. But I couldn’t help hearing it. Pop went the weasel-like rodent, followed by a mix of excited cheers and disgusted groans from the mob. Ugh!

At least my panic had subsided, but I was shaken and fragile and there were still five blocks between this hard place and The Rock.

I improvised a distraction, a variation on my mantra. I walked to the catchy refrain of New York, New York – ba ba bah ba-da, ba ba bah ba-da. I matched my steps to the beat, two normal, one long, two short. And I negotiated the remaining five blocks of 5th Avenue five syncopated steps at a time.

The next time I looked up it was to contemplate The Rockefeller Centre, although it was more a case of it confronting me than me contemplating it. Seventy floors is a lot to contemplate for someone who struggles with seven steps on a ladder. Could I really make it here?

I thought about the rat. It had suffered in the very sense that I had resolved not to. Was that my fate too?

No! The rat had given its life so that I might be saved, so that I might have a life again.

I chided myself for this mildly blasphemous train of thought, but this second epiphany was suddenly more powerful and more spiritual than the first.

New Sheila stepped into the lobby.

And, one escape-velocity elevator ride later, New Sheila stepped out onto the viewing platform at The Top Of The Rock and took in the breathtaking view of downtown Manhattan.

Ba ba bah ba-da!

I had made it there. And, if I could make it there…

I stepped up to the thick glass barrier and looked down onto 5th Avenue. The people looked like ants.

Or maybe rats.



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I was insanely privileged to be invited to speak at Google Firestarters 16, as one of the Magnificent Seven CSO’s and Planning Directors curated by Neil Perkin.

We each had ten minutes to talk about “The most useful thing you have learned in your career to date”, and to do so in a provocative manner.

It was great fun. And the talks were varied in content and style but all (self excluded) were uniformly brilliant in terms of delivery.

Neil’s write up of the seven presentations is very thorough.

He also put together a Storify post of the comments and images from the evening.

Meanwhile I have embedded a copy of my slides with speaker notes below. The notes are most legible when viewed at full screen size.


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Little did he know...

Ryan Van Winkle and Calum Rodger

If Chuck Palahniuk did poetry readings they might be like this.

Fifty eight people out of ninety in the queue are allowed into the Demonstration Room at Edinburgh’s Summerhall venue. We have been standing with our craft beers in a small car park surrounded by shabby Seventies offices. We look like a rag tag collection of jobbing actors waiting at the back of some Hollywood studio lot to audition as extras for a Seattle coffee shop scene. There is a high grunge factor.

Summerhall is a labyrinth of creative, studio, exhibition and event spaces. It used to be a school of veterinary studies. To find the Demonstration Room you cross the courtyard, head down the alley at the back left and turn right. Or so I’m told by the lady on reception. It doesn’t look like there will be an arts venue down there, and groups of the uncertain and the unconvinced loiter in the area outside the bar, waiting for someone to follow. It is cold and they are chilled, not chilling.

The Demonstration Room is a bleak, claustrophobic amphi-lecture-theatre with steeply banked wooden bench seats, which are arranged in concentric semi-circles. It is thrillingly grim. I can’t begin to imagine what heinous acts of brutality have been enacted on horses in here, using specialised instruments that belong in a museum of Victorian torture, all in the name of education. We have gone through the looking glass to a Dickensian house of horror, or maybe Pinochet’s Santiago.

The MC is a polite, well-spoken boy with a Just William haircut. He looks like he is not long out of flannel shorts and brown leather satchels. Or perhaps he is the man that the boy in The Sound Of Music grew up to be. He is a perfect Aryan specimen, a blonde Boy From Brazil. Just Wilhelm. He obviously likes himself. There is something of the peacock about him. He struts. I don’t warm to him. Fortunately he is low on ado.

We are here to hear original poetry collaborations as part of Edinburgh City Of Literature’s European Literature Night. Ten contintental duos will duet or duel their way through compositions that are being performed in public for the first time.

It turns out to be more riot than recital. The performers are swigging wine from the bottle and diligently working their way through bulging tote bags full of Tennent’s Lager. There is a high edge factor. We are flirting with chaos from the outset.

It is noisy.

The performances are noisy. They use noises. Several of the acts use a Heath Robinson collection of guitar effects pedals and synths to improvise a backing track to the words. They multi-task as poets and roadies.

The noise and sounds will be one of my abiding memories of the evening.

Random noises. And random words in random languages. It is compelling. It is fascinating. It expands my definition of poetry.

The linguistic highlight of the night is Seven Ways To Kill Sophie by Ann Cotten and Esther Strauss. It is clever. It is inventive. It is moving. It is funny in places. It is a genuine collaboration. The parts are great. The whole is greater.

Ann Cotten is clearly enjoying herself. She manages to stifle a fit of giggles. She swigs from a quarter bottle of Famous Grouse and describes an “episode of gaiety” with a Sikh barman. She has a German accent which makes the turn of phrase even funnier.

Calum Rodger, who performed earlier, laughs out loud. He is sitting right in front of me. He can’t sit still and he is drinking heavily and having banter with his burly hipster friend. He is animated. He is a ball of wired, fidgety energy. He has all the mannerisms of Sick Boy from Trainspotting. He is highly amused by Ann’s discussion of racism with the Sikh barman. He is Sikh Boy.

Seven ways to kill Sophie

Ann Cotten & Esther Strauss – Seven Ways To Kill Sophie

Sikh Boy has it coming.

Just Wilhelm is back, this time as performer. He is Steven (SJ) Fowler and he performs alongside Jorg Piringer. Their collaboration is, apparently, a metaphor for how the labour party catastrophically misjudged the Tory voting intentions of the British electorate a week earlier.

Fowler reads, shouts, screams passages of Shakespeare at the audience. But, despite his volume, he is barley audible over the wall of sound being created by Piringer.

He tears pages from the book from which he is reading. He bites the book and spits the shreds at the audience. He climbs into the audience, a-tearing and a-spitting . He returns to the stage. He is in a lather. He loses it. He launches into Sikh Boy. He rips the jacket and shirt from Sikh Boy’s back. There is beer everywhere. There is beer on me. The girl next to me is clearly shocked. There is a frenzied tussle. A girl behind me shouts “Was that staged Calum?” He says no. He had no idea. He is shaken. He makes like he enjoyed it. Maybe he did. Bawdy ribaldry? I’m not sure. Nobody is sure. It is awkward.

The rest of the show is relatively uneventful, inevitably so. Then it is over. Two hours have passed quickly. Just Wilhelm and Sikh Boy hug and make up. The smell of beer. A slightly stunned audience  is slow to leave its seats.

I’m not sure it was poetry but it sure was a trip.


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The exhibitionists

The National Museum of Scotland. Where exhibitions are made.

The National Museum of Scotland. Where exhibitions are made.

I have posted a second Salmon and Bear short story.

It is called The Exhibitionists and it involves a near-death experience for poor Salmon, who was just trying to live a little.

“I’m going to create a diversion,” said the boy, “Something that is temporarily more interesting to a bunch of school children than a seven foot bear reverse waterboarding a salmon.”

I was lucky enough to be chosen to read my first story at the 2014 Edinburgh Book Festival as an Edinburgh City of Literature Story Shop competition winner.



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"Tell me about any ads you can remember seeing recently."

“Tell me about any ads you can remember seeing recently.”


Advertising research has got much harder of late.

So says a researcher friend of mine.

As if it weren’t bad enough to have to schlep out to the suburbs three nights a week, and subsist on breakfast cereal for dinner, those pesky people just don’t want to talk about ads any more when you get there.

In fact it’s worse than that. They’re not just unwilling but also unable to talk about ads it would seem.

It used to be the case that you could warm up eight strangers gathered together in a ninth stranger’s living room by asking them to describe any ads they had seen and liked recently. Sit back, relax and watch the group bond for a few easy minutes.

Not any more apparently.

These days the hapless researcher is likely to be met by stony silence and bemusement. It’s an awkward tumbleweed moment.

Have we liked any ads recently? Sorry, we don’t understand the question.

The idea that people might have seen, liked and remembered any advertising does not compute.

Eight people can not recall a single remarkable piece of advertising between them.

It has happened to my friend in enough groups for it to become remarkable, a thing.

He now takes along some self-curated ads as extra stimulus material. Breaking the ice about advertising has become a laboured, prompted act rather than the effortless, spontaneous one it used to be.

Advertising’s credentials as a commercial art form are evidently not as strong as they once were.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a comprehensive essay on the ins and outs of why that might be.

But I will say that the industry is exercising too much restraint. Advertising, particularly television advertising,  is caught between a rock and a hard place.

You only have to watch an evening or two of prime time television to know that the processes and quality control procedures by which TV commercials come to be are not fit for the purpose of producing work that people want to talk about. Exceptions to this rule, the Yeo Valleys of this world, are depressingly fewer and further between. Lowest common denominator briefs that avoid the parapet at all costs, coupled with stultifying, over-intellectual approval procedures, restrain creativity and deny television the opportunity to do the job that it does best.

Another form of restraint is the tendency to view advertising, especially good old fashioned telly advertising, as the wrong answer, even when it is palpably the right answer.

Our brand is in desperate need of a shot in the arm. We need to get people to sit up and take notice of us again. We need overnight positive reappraisal.

If ever a brand were crying out for TV advertising…

And yet, even when the money is available, marketers are reluctant to do the right thing.

We want an innovative solution*. We want a shareable† content strategy that engages‡ our audience and drivesº word of mouth through social networks.

There’s another kind of awkward tumbleweed moment when the seasoned marketing communications professional recommends television as the right tool for the job to the thrusting young brand manager with an unhealthy innovation fixation.

Television isn’t innovation. Television isn’t clever.

This attitude conveniently forgets that television is big. Bigger than any audience you’re going to earn in social spaces.

It’s neither big nor clever to walk away from the obvious solution just because it is obvious. But brands are doing just that.

If advertising is unfashionable in marketing circles, should we be surprised that its status is similarly diminished on the sofas of Slough, Salford and Sheffield?



* If you recommend TV we’ll view you as lazy even if you’re right.

† You mean shareworthy. Any old shit is shareable.

‡ WTF does that mean?

º They are people not sheep.



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When business model is incompatible with brand experience. Repellent.

When business model is incompatible with brand experience. Repellent.


instead of giving me customer service you gave me a stern talking to and let me off with a caution

Ever had that feeling when someone you’ve known and liked for years inadvertently gives you a glimpse of their hitherto well-hidden or well-suppressed nasty side, and it irrevocably changes things between you? Something dies inside and, ever after, you’re inwardly more guarded in your dealings with them, although you probably decide not to outwardly say or do anything about it. It doesn’t suit you to let them know that you know.

Well in this instance, Direct Line, it does suit me to let you know that I know about your nasty side.

I ‘fessed up to a minor scrape with another car and instead of giving me customer service you gave me a stern talking to and let me off with a caution.


The Direct Line call centre script for these circumstances dispenses with any pleasantries.

It happened like this…

There was traffic mayhem when I dropped my eldest off at her Glasgow University halls of residence – dozens of luggage-laden vehicles vying against each other to make progress in opposite directions through the narrow corridor that was left between double-parked cars.

On the way out I had to reverse to let incoming traffic pass. I ended up trapped too close to a parked car on a corner and I stupidly scraped against it as I pulled away. It was so soft – the vehicular equivalent of two snooker balls kissing – that I almost didn’t notice it.

I pulled in at the side of the road as soon as I could and got out to check. The paint had been scraped off the rear passenger side wheel arch. So I was not surprised to see that similar damage had been done to the other car when I walked back to look.

After several minutes of waiting the owner had not returned and so I left my name and phone number under his windscreen wiper.

He left a message for me later that evening and, in return, I left him a voicemail with my insurance details. We didn’t get to talk and so there was no need for any awkwardness. It is uncomfortable to say the least to know that your insurance may be rendered invalid by the basic human decency of owning up and apologising when at fault. My Direct Line policy makes it very clear that, under no circumstances, should you admit fault to the other party and that you should inform them immediately if the other party does. I had a mini speech prepared that would have expressed regret in such a way as to imply an apology without explicitly making one, but I didn’t need it as things turned out.

I tried to call Direct Line to alert them to the incoming claim but their lines has shut at 5pm. I had a busy day on Sunday and didn’t get round to calling again. Ditto Monday.

On Tuesday they called me.

The Direct Line call centre script for these circumstances dispenses with any pleasantries.

“I understand that you have been involved in an incident.” (Tone of voice: matter of fact.)


“When were you going to tell us about it?” (Tone: accusatory and stone cold.)

My hackles were already up at this point and in my head I was saying to myself, “Just who the hell do you think you are talking to?”

But I kept it calm and explained that I had tried to call after they shut on Saturday.

“Well the lines were open until 5 o’clock on Sunday too.” (Tone: downright condescending.)


 Direct Line’s advertising promises The Wolf, but I got the Pit Bull.

I made a conscious decision to hold my tongue. The call was being recorded and I’m not sure what training purposes would have been served by, “I’m a widowed father of four and I had much better things to do on Sunday than be made to wait on the phone for ten minutes only to take crap like this from an upstart like you.”

And so it went on.

Direct Line’s advertising promises The Wolf, but I got the Pit Bull.



On the TV Winston Wolf solves problems. On the phone Direct Line was giving me a headache.


It’s called data you clowns and you’re meant to use it to make my life easier.

At some length I gave details of me and my motor that they already have on file. It’s called data you clowns and you’re meant to use it to make my life easier.

I then described the incident in detail to an audience that was more intent on affecting incredulity than helping its customer.

Then a standard issue Q&A that is clearly designed to give Direct Line the raw materials it needs to avoid paying out on my behalf if it can possibly help it.

Maybe they think they are helping you but even after I had clearly stated that I had collided with a stationary vehicle the questions were still of the wriggling on the hook variety.

“Was the weather a contributing factor?” (Tone: hopeful).

“No. It was a beautiful sunny day.” (Tone: triumphantly at fault).

Eventually she gave up.

“This will have to be an at fault claim then.” (Tone: the bitter resignation of someone whose KPI dashboard has just been spoiled. The tone of a site foreman who, after a minor bricklaying incident, has had to reset the “days since accident” sign back to zero when just shy of a company record).

She is clearly disappointed that I have had the foresight to protect my nine years of no claims bonus.  But she has the satisfaction of the last admonishing word, warning me that my no claims protection is now hanging by a thread for the next three years until my rap sheet is cleared.

I didn’t record the call but I made sure to remember it for blogging purposes. Hopefully Direct Line can learn from the experience.


An at-fault claim shouldn’t be the telephone equivalent of pleading with a sledgehammer wielding bailiff who has come to take your telly in lieu of unmet payday loan repayments.

The lesson is this. I want my experience of your brand to be consistently good. I want you to be as polite and considerate when dealing with me over an at fault claim as you are when I renew my policy without shopping around for a cheaper deal.

Here’s what Direct Line’s group website says about its Direct Line brand.


We target customers who have a high brand affinity and focus on a quick and straightforward customer experience.

That’s me.

And to be fair that was you too. Quick and straightforward until, after nine years of staying on the right side of you, you gave me a glimpse of your nasty side.

Here then, Direct Line, are some things that I’ve recorded for training purposes.

Your business model (only pay out as a last resort) is incompatible with providing a decent brand experience (we solve problems).

Your corporate vision (doing the right thing – see below) is incompatible with your customer service (treating hapless customers like criminals).

An at-fault claim should not be the telephone equivalent of pleading with a sledgehammer wielding bailiff who has come to take your telly in lieu of unmet payday loan repayments.

Consider this a stern talking to and a caution from a customer who, unlike you, is prepared to give the benefit of the doubt.


Direct Line's left hand gets it but its right hand doesn't.

Direct Line’s left hand gets it but its right hand doesn’t.





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Indy Goggles™.

The fence is not an option in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

To exercise your democratic right to vote is to get off your bum and jump down on one side or the other. Yes or No, black or white, the stark choice of the ballot box makes no allowance for the many shades of grey that characterise the majority of thoughtful voters.

I’ll be worried but also more than a little excited if Scotland votes Yes to independence.

I’ll be voting No because I remain unconvinced that the whole thing has been properly thought through. And the consequences of getting it wrong are dire, more dire than leaving things in the sorry state that they are in now.

But it will be beholden on all of us living in Scotland to seize the opportunity if it goes the other way. I’ll be tremendously excited. Hell, I might even go into politics!

I’ll make the most of it, wholeheartedly, if it happens, but I can’t bring myself to vote for it.

I dare say that this attitude will be a red rag to many Yes voters. They will see it as a form of have-your-cake-and-eat it abdication. I’m voting out of Fear rather than Hope.

This Fear/Hope dichotomy is another of those stark choices that have been conjured up by both sides of the campaign. Well, if that heavily loaded representation of the referendum is meant to goad people like me into voting Yes, it will backfire. Even if I were voting No out of fear, I would not be ashamed to do so. I’m not going over the top into no man’s land without a plan when Mr Salmond blows his whistle. Sorry but I’m not.

Regardless of whether your glass is half full or half empty, Hope and Fear are concepts born of uncertainty. They are functions of the unknown. And that is surely the point. There should be a more robust basis for voting Yes than vague Hope.

A momentous decision should not be made on the basis of momentary euphoria.

Voting Yes in the Scottish Independence Referendum should not be about street parties, nor the instant gratification of waving two fingers in David Cameron’s face.

For all the reasons I outlined in Scotland’s Dr Pepper Moment, a Yes vote should be more thoughtfully cast than a No, not less so. A Yes vote is a radical vote. It might be the ticket to a fairer, better society. But it might also lift the lid on Pandora’s can of worms. Look before you leap.

I can see the attraction of the radical option. I am spiritually drawn to it.

But I’m not going to vote for it. It remains, sadly, a leap of faith, which isn’t good enough with the stakes so high.

The burden of rational, objective proof lies with the Yes campaign. Theirs is the case to make. They have to remove reasonable doubt. There has to be a grand plan underpinning the grand idea. Salmond’s Plan B fiasco in the television debate is the most obvious example of the failure to provide one.

My first politically motivated post ever prompted several committed Yes voters to kindly point me in the direction of places to find more detail on how independence might work. But, sadly, the partisan tone of these “resources” undermines their credibility.

10 key facts that prove Scotland will be a wealthy independent country.

“Prove”? I don’t think so. I’m left with that same ill-equipped feeling that made me tend to No in the first place.

The White Paper is not a plan. It is a compendium of ideas and policies. And policies are just promises, political chat-up banter, if there is no maths to back them up.

We need to see your working out, not just your answers.

As the excellent Guardian leader said at the weekend, “The hard evidence is thin,” and “In the end it is a false prospectus.”

I’m not going into the polling booth wearing my Indy Goggles™.

All the self-determination hype has the political effect of too many pints on a Friday night. The referendum equivalent of beer goggles.

This idea approaches you at the bar. Its name is Yes. You think you fancy it and it looks like it wants you, so what the hell? But the idea appears more attractive than it actually is because your vision and your judgement are temporarily impaired. Carried away by the moment you go for it anyway.

Trouble is you won’t be able to kick this idea out of bed in the morning.





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