Be the odd one out

bollard with flyer

Truly great ideas seemingly come out of nowhere. Flashes of inspiration that suddenly fight their way into your cerebral cortex and out of your mouth or on to the page.

Only it doesn’t really work like that. Every idea you have, no matter how left-field or out-of-character it may be, is a product of your environment, your learning and your past. Nothing is created in a vacuum, so you will wear your influences, whether that is on your sleeve or deep in your heart.

In many cases, this is great. You can create the new out of the old. After all, punk rock in the UK was part Situationism, part glam, part pub rock, part Angry Brigade and part leftover stock at the clothing shop that Malcom McLaren’s ran with Vivienne Westwood.

But you also risk simply imitating what has gone before. Playing it safe. Playing the percentages.

Legendary ad man Dave Trott has spoken about this in the past and how when ads that look like X are selling, you certainly notice when someone produces on that looks like an O. Trott has done this himself, notably with the Lipsmackin’ Pepsi Cola campaign. Here is something cooler than Coke, that you can attempt to recreate in the playground. See also MeowMix (which I don’t think was Trott’s) or those arty Guinness ads that became an anchor around the neck of admen for years. An original that became something that people tried to imitate.

Being different is as important as being right or being good. Maybe even more so. Your clients may want a ‘me-too’ campaign or copy, but imagine how much more inspiring something original will be. Both for you and the client. You have to innovate.

That brings me to the picture above, which was taken in my neighbourhood. The council were scrubbing the massage parlour stickers off the lampposts and applying anti-stick paint.

So one masseuse (or their flyer/sticker kid) decided to innovate. Sticking their ad to the bollards put up to ensure the street and lamppost clean went smoothly. Sure, it was temporary. But it certainly showed some original, daring thinking.


You’re shit (and you know you are)

pointing woman

A fellow writer recently posted a question. Someone had sent them a woeful press release. Spelling mistakes, dire copy, factual errors. The whole lot. Should they say anything to the PR company who sent it?

Some time ago, my answer would have been to ignore it. Let it go. But I have changed my tune in the last couple of years, not least because I have seen so much poor work and sloppy execution of half-baked ideas, in both PR and journalism. ‘Will this do?’ is not even a question uttered by the untalented any more. They just press send (often CC-ing all).

So, I’ve started to tell people their work is shit.

Now, this sloppiness may be a consequence of cost-cutting and corner-cutting in both fields. But there is no excuse for not taking the time to check and review work, especially in PR or advertising. After all, we’re not talking typos here, it is the entire work that is causing a stink.

For this reason, as well my own taste for a little subversion or shaming, I have started to point it out. After all, if someone wants me to go to the trouble of opening their email, reading their copy or listening to their ad then they should expect some push back if that is sub-par.

I was expecting the odd ‘you got me’ or mea culpa, mixed with the odd instruction to go forth and multiply. But something quite odd started to happen instead. The insulted parties have started to ask to hire me. In some cases this has been to improve upon the work I had criticised. But in an increasing number of cases they wanted to know more. They wanted a damn good kicking.

These CEOs and bosses were simply so busy  attending meetings, signing contracts and managing the business that they were often ignoring 50% of their output. They thought someone else had it. They didn’t.

To put it bluntly, no one was calling them on their mistakes or quality, nor their lack of imagination or ideas. They had busy yes-men (and -women) to spare, but no one who wanted to stop the presses, or kick up a stink. So, this random guy calling their work a huge steaming turd was actually refreshing to them. Who could have guessed?

So, now, part of what I do work-wise is to continue working for these businesses, being the bullshit detector and the little boy who says that the Emperor has no clothes on.

Occasionally they’ll ask for a deep dig on their sites, strategies or campaigns. But what they always want is a list of misfires, errors, potential problems and downright lazy or unimaginative work. Singing ‘you’re shit and you know you are’ is something I used to save for the football. But now I shout it loudly in the boardrooms and CEO’s offices across the UK and even globally.



Writers are horrible people, which is exactly why you need to hire them

writers at work

Writers are seldom good people. You would only need to take a cursory look at their emails, messaging accounts or notebooks to see that.

It is the job of writers to push the envelope and think so far outside the box that it may as well be on fire, in another country. They think the unthinkable, share gallows humour of the worst kind and live in fear of their Google search and internet histories being revealed. They’re awful. Don’t let your son or daughter marry one. They’re maniacs.

But, what all of this does add up to is an ability to think what those in your business cannot. The term ‘storyteller’ has become popular among PR professionals and branding specialists, but if you really need a story telling or new ideas imagined you need a writer. Just don’t invite one into your house, let alone your office. At least not on a regular basis.

By a writer, I mean someone who writes all the time, for a living. Someone who is incapable of doing anything else. They may be a journalist, author, novelist, poet or writer of non-fiction. They spend 50% of their time staring into the middle distance. The middle distance is where all the best ideas are. Only they can see them. They don’t even need to be on drugs to do so. Though, you know, they may be. They’ll at least have had a sniff of a marker pen that day.

Writers can be obstinate, feckless or reckless, but they can also be brilliant, funny and genuinely inspiring. Why else do we enthuse to our children about them? Why else would we dedicate whole university courses to their works? They may prefer to spend a day in a pub or a library than turn up to work in a half-decent outfit. But you don’t look forward to reading the accounts or a marketing report on holiday do you? No. You look forward to reading the work of writers. They free your mind. They take you places, even when you’re stuck in the airport.

Writers were disruptive before anyone uttered that word at a start-up funding round. They literally make you stop and think. So, it amazes me that more businesses don’t use writers to help out their business. It’s a win-win. Writers usually need the money (for pens, drugs, rent, murder weapons) and business generally lacks any kind of genuine inspirational input. Even creative agencies can be devoid of true creativity and ideas that go beyond recycling some old Guinness ads and hoping Vice pick it up.

I work with businesses on a regular basis, sitting in on creative sessions and attending meetings with clients. It nearly always makes the process less fraught for those who employ me, as the client can see creative happen before their eyes. It doesn’t rely on strategy or track records, it’s just live thinking. Sometimes they even invite me for a drink afterwards. Just so long as I haven’t sniffed too many pens that day.

5 ways to just have ideas

light bulb moment

Ideas are difficult. Everyone has some. But not everyone has enough, or enough good ones at least.

Of course, some are better at having ideas than others, but there are ways that you can find to help you actually have ideas in the first place. Some of them involve you creating space for thinking, whereas others rely on you distracting your mind and emptying your head. Both can work equally, but here are my five favourite ways to have ideas. My sure-fire guide to thinking creatively.

Exercise is good for you(r brain)

I have a lot of good ideas at the gym. Others get their best ideas when they are out in the countryside or pounding the city streets for a run. I find the gym boring, but I don’t have anything much on my mind when I am there, apart from times and effort. I usually have music on when I work out, but that is more a background hum than a motivation. It keeps the external sounds out.

Slower forms of exercise can be great for thinking too. Yoga is known for its meditative side, so it is ideal for creating the right atmosphere for thinking. All sorts of thoughts and ideas will slip into your mind as you try holding poses.

Travel broadens the mind

A little travel broadens the mind and it certainly gets you thinking. But, for me, the act of travel is more important for thinking than the destination. Waiting in airport lounges is great for being bored and opening up your thoughts. Similarly, being sat on a train, alone and with no wifi connection, is fantastic for open-minded thinking. I sometimes curse the easily-available wifi or good G4 connections on public transport, as I am prone to being distracted by emails and messages on my phone. So, be bold and switch your phone right off if you can.

Bath time for ideas

Laying in a warm bath is the classic place to have your best thoughts. After all, it is where Archimedes discovered one of the laws of physics. Even visiting the smallest room has become somewhat destroyed as a moment for thinking by our constant use of our smart phones. So, run yourself a bath, splash in the bubble bath and maybe keep a notebook to hand. Just make sure it is not your best Moleskine. You can even buy waterproof notebooks, which will save you trying to punch the passcode into your phone and then dropping it in the bath water.

Chill out

Netflix and chill has become something of a millennial mantra, denoting a do-nothing evening or weekend catching up on box-sets, bingeing on pizza and Better Call Saul or Game of Thrones*. But staring at a screen that is not your work laptop can help to free up your mind and the content you are watching may even provide inspiration. I find that playing video games can be great for emptying the portion of the mind that I use for thought. I get to relax and keep a notebook close to hand.  *The actual millennial definition is a tad more saucy.

Go Out

For some, a night on the town can result in a notebook full of ideas by the bed in the morning. Drinking, dancing and chatting can release endorphins, take your mind off work and free up your grey matter for thinking deeply. Just make sure you have that notebook to hand if you plan on drinking a lot, or those great ideas will be lost come the morning.

Personally, I have an odd thinking quirk that is very much time-bound. I have some of my best ideas at the cinema or the theatre in that strange limbo time between taking your seat and the action beginning. At the cinema, this can include thinking through the ads. But at the theatre I can achieve a relaxed reverie in the five minutes between taking my seat (notebook in pocket, G&T in hand) and the action beginning. All sorts of random thoughts go through my head, with some turning into great ideas that I have used for clients. The bonus is that you get to enjoy the entertainment too.

Ideas from in-house? How does creativity in an office even work?

office view

From time to time, I am offered a job. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe that someone would wish to have me in their office on a full-time, permanent basis. But it happens at least once a month now. It’s getting worrying.

This strange phenomenon happens despite me clearly stating on sites such as LinkedIn that I really do not want a ‘real’ job. The salaries are not bad either. Usually.

But, apart from a pathological hatred of being tied to just one job and to office hours, I really do not see how anyone could get value out of me in a full-time job. To quote someone or other, I tried it once and didn’t like it. I’m not dismissing those who work in offices as such, but I don’t see how great ideas can solely come from in-house.

I have certainly flourished in short-term contracts in other people’s offices, but never with a boss, a contract and an annual season ticket. I am a freelance creative person at heart. I lose interest, I don’t buy in to most workplace cultures and I detest the idea of being subjected to other people’s choice of radio station or music, for life.

Now, this may just be down to my own character, but I truly wonder how any truly creative person can thrive in an office environment for any length of time. How do you have good ideas on the clock? And how do you muster up enthusiasm for the novel when you are three years in and have meetings to attend?

For most jobs, it makes more sense to hire in ideas people and (the best) writers as you need them.

Creators of ideas need to wander about, have a pint at 3pm on a Tuesday, sit by a river, go abroad, compile a best of Bowie playlist, take some pictures and have a day out at the seaside eating chips and playing in penny arcades. Not many employers will put up with that.

We’re flighty, but brilliant.

Our best thinking often happens while our brain and our hands are distracted elsewhere. It doesn’t happen in a meeting room every Tuesday at 10am sharp. It happens in the shower, playing PlayStation, strumming a guitar, at the theatre or strolling around a museum or gallery.

We need distraction, not direction. Though that is not to say that we can’t be inspired by the odd meeting, brainstorm or round table. We still need to bounce ideas around.

But if you put us in an office then we’ll have our best ideas on holiday. After all, you wouldn’t expect to see your favourite novelists sitting in a cubicle from 9-5, or grabbing a Pret sandwich at their desk to impress their boss with their presenteeism.

I would prefer not to.

We’re free range. We need to breathe. We’re often a little odd.

So, don’t fence us in. You’ll get better work, at a lower cost. And we can go to the park.