We can be heroes: Agencies and Brands in the age of Trump

Purpose is a an overused word in the field of Advertising, PR, Marketing and all other forms of corporate creative communications. It is not only overused, be it in the industry press, unimaginative briefs or conferences where overpaid trust-fund gurus and tech evangelists bandy the term around freely, it is deliberately evasive, almost cowardly. By pontificating about ‘purpose’ industry leaders can pay lip service to the fleeting ‘good causes’ that come around in cycles via your social media feeds without any long term commitment to real social and economic change. A nice write-up in Campaign or The Drum will follow shortly, your business director will see it and ask you to pull together some examples of brands doing ‘purposeful’ things for a power-point deck that your client won’t ever read.

The stakes are high at the time of writing. The free world is lead by an individual who believes that complex and multifaceted issues can be resolved through the blunt instruments of forceful rhetoric and wall-building. In order to do this he had surrounded himself with a ghoulish line-up of arch conservatives and proto-fascists, cherry-picking the most reactionary individuals from the upper ranks of military and industrial institutions as well as politicians with proven records of racism, misogyny, homophobia and climate change denial. As with Brexit and other reactionary populist movements sweeping the western world and beyond, the recent developments have lent legitimacy for a range of views that have been largely confined to the fringes for decades.

Agencies are predominantly places where the political spectrum ranges from centrist liberal to social democrat. Sure, your boss complains about the 40% tax rate that he pays and there’s that young copywriter who joined the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn and occasionally retweets articles from the Daily Mash mocking Theresa May , but essentially everyone is happy to turn up to work and make something cool that a corporation can use to sell household products and we’re all cool with immigration, women’s rights and gay marriage. It should strike us as ironic, or perhaps tragic, that most ad agencies are dominated by middle and upper-middle class white people and that women are traditionally kept out of the creative department at senior management level. It has gotten to the point where clients are telling us to be more diverse which is embarrassing because we are meant to be the cool kids and they are meant to be ‘the man.’ It is common for petitions to be passed around work email accounts and social media feeds among right-on colleagues but it is extremely rare to hear any of us consider that we might be where we are at least partly due to circumstances relating to the advantages of our birth and upbringings and that real change can only happen through decisive structural adjustments. Many agencies are trying, this has to be noted however it is not enough to mandate light-touch Diversity and Inclusion seminars which seem to be constructed to cause the least amount of discomfort possible to privileged people.

Structural change, like the brilliant initiative employed by Saatchi & Saatchi where entry level salaries have been raised to enable new starters from more disadvantaged backgrounds to feel economically stable enough to pursue a career in the industry are needed now more than ever. Another fantastic example is the recent initiative at Ogilvy & Mather whether planners are dispatched to areas around the country to immerse themselves in communities that are often radically different in terms of lived experience, perceptions and economic reality to what we know in London. Despite this, we need to be going further. We are in a position to influence culture and the broader social consensus so we need to be influencing the beliefs and behavior of our clients at the same time as working on ourselves because we make brands much more famous more than we make ourselves.

There are two levels to which we can push brands to take moral leadership in the communications that we make for them (we can’t unfortunately make them pay the level of tax that they’re meant to but that’s a debate for another day). Firstly, let’s insist that a certain percentage of our creative output actually commits to a long term project that does something worthwhile for society’s most vulnerable (wherever they may be in the world). The  client’s short term business, marketing and campaign objectives obviously have to be met and/or exceeded but real rigorous strategy and groundbreaking creative work can and will do that whilst also being able to produce something that serves a more noble purpose. An obvious example would be Grey London’s Volvo Life Paint work from 2015 which saw a multinational automotive giant tackle the issue of safety head-on. This campaign demonstrated how agencies and brands can work together to break advertising orthodoxy and carve out exemplary models of behavior for brands. We can also point to how traditionally female-targeted brand Rimmel has followed L’Oreal and CoverGirl in embracing a more inclusive attitude to gender with the help of BETC or J Walter Thompson has created the 10th Month campaign for Bayer which includes a website ran in partnership with motherhood journalists which is packed with useful articles for first time mums and their partners.

Volvo Life Paint- Grey London

Bepanthen 10th Month by J Walter Thompson London

 

The second level to pushing our clients to become moral leaders in an age of ugly political rhetoric and even uglier policy proposals that threaten to divide us even further is through leveraging pop culture in order to connect with the public. We are currently seeing a phase of heightened political activism among pop culture figures. Beyonce might be the obvious example but we should also consider how Kendrick Lamar has been able to balance commercial success and artistic integrity creating art that brings a nuanced and story-based approach to stark socio-economic realities. The younger activists who make up a huge chunk of those you might see out on the street protesting against Trump or the rise in xenophobia after Brexit often express their sentiments via popular culture motifs. Popular youth trends such as the re-emergence of the Grime scene are strongly anti-establishment without the complications of ideology and mirror the grim realities currently facing racial minorities and the working class. The recent collaboration between artists such as Skepta and Wretch 32 and Levi’s (The Levi’s Music Project) is a scheme which aims to deliver greater access to music in the famously underprivileged yet creatively dynamic area of Tottenham. The reason why this scheme is so important is that it demonstrates how brands need to be beneficial to society in order for consumers to allow them to exist and grow in the long term.

Brands, and the companies of which they are the face and intangible essence, are not the answer to society’s problems. They do however find themselves in the critical position of being the one of the things that individuals in a free society use to define themselves. As our new and disorientating reality takes hold and the social, political and economic impacts become apparent in people’s every day lives, brands will have to prove that they are worthy of the public’s attention, their tolerance and their money. If agencies cannot lead their clients to act and lead in the interest of decency, tolerance and fairness then they are not doing their jobs.

 

 

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Lil’ Dicky and embarrassing ad agencies

Advertising agencies have a responsibility to foster culture, to capitalise on memes as the basis for selling products and help brands reach their desired audiences. Passing fads, novelties and limp parodies do not provide the basis for enduring and connective advertising or branding campaigns. It should be a truth universally acknowledged that comedy rap is seldom funny and often terrible, especially when being done by a privileged white person. Nevertheless the chronically unfunny Lil’ Dicky was not only born of an Advertising agency (Goodby Silverstein), he was actually rehired from Account Management to copywriting after they saw one of his parody rap videos.

Lil’ Dicky, who differentiates himself from those other [read black] rappers who ‘rap about going to the club and popping bottles’ as being a ‘normal [read white and middle class] guy’ that [white] people can relate to, is from a wealthy background a slid into a career in advertising, first as suit then as a creative. Much like Macklemore’s Thrift Shop and your aunt’s Facebook posts about Black Friday, Lil’ Dicky’s denunciation and parodying of consumerism in Hip Hop and in a broader cultural context is both classist and racist. It’s the implied ‘look how stupid and desperate these people are to get a cheap TV’ and ‘oh aren’t these rappers so garish and tacky with their gold chains and Grey Goose bottles’, it’s Iris Worldwide’s ‘Iris on Benefitsflyers but with an added racial dimension. There’s no nuanced or considered take on why consumerism is a central lyrical and visual feature in commercial Hip Hop, just a case of using comedy to browbeat the black nouveau rich and signal the distance between those without the social capital and those with all of the capital, be it economic, social or cultural. In providing an outlet for this pernicious punch-down kind of satire Ad agencies are only demonstrating how out of touch they are with today’s world and specifically with today’s America. Today’s ‘woke‘ generation are ready to pick things apart, to rally around purpose and elevate causes to the top of the cultural agenda. They crave authenticity and are ready to tear down messaging that marginalizes and belittles people.

Brands are still working out what their relationship to culture is. The days in which they could rent-out ‘cool’ by way of celebrity appearances in 30 second TV spots are gradually subsiding due to the surprising cultural elevation television whereby agencies are under more pressure to match the standard of programming with more clever and creative ads. Brands are now holding the reigns over a lot of the western world’s cultural output due to my generation’s refusal to pay for any kind of artistic or cultural produce.It is therefore important for both culture and brands that any work produced that has any pretension to being culturally relevant or artistically valid must be original, well crafted and able to resonate with its audience. This is more succinctly put in an article by upstart agency KRPT LDN in a blog post:

This battle between art vs advertising is one that could be resolved if we lived in a more transparent world where brands have a clear mission and focus on being part of culture instead of using it.

This is why I take issue with Lil’ Dicky and his cheerleaders in US Adland and this is why I feel the need to point out the contrast between the Red Bull Music Academy approach of working in a direct, organic way with artists such as A$AP Rocky, Skepta and PC Music against, the support that sportswear brands such as Adidas, Puma and Nike have shown the grime scene or how Vans remain connected to their association with the Skate scene with some of the more blundering attempts by brands and agencies to connect with the broader culture.

Part of the problem seems to be rooted in the lack of general diversity in the agency world where the old guard still very much seem to be in control of a lot of creative initiatives. The very fact that Lil’ Dicky’s mediocre comedy raps were enough to get him hired by Goodby Silverstein creative department is telling of the tone-deafness that plagues many parts of the industry. Take for example Lucky Generals’ completely over-egged collaboration with UK Hip Hop act Rylo for Pot Noodle which forces the poor aspiring rapper to create a lukewarm banger called ‘Winner’ which amounts to how your mum imagines a rap video to be.

Another instance that caught my eye was a piece in Campaign by Paul Burke which considers the creative legacy of working-class lads David Bowie and Alan Rickman.The writer makes some valid points about the status of working class creatives in the ad industry and bemoans the trend of ‘bloking down’- i.e. sticking to coded class behaviours. The problem with the article is that the cultural aspiration that Paul Burke believes to have been lost in today’s talent is largely irrelevant to today’s cultural landscape. Distinctions between high and low culture are being rapidly eroded as the ‘digitally native’ (sorry!) generation have been able to access and interpret art from both cultural spheres with ease. Beyonce videos are now written about in Pitchfork, Selfies are discussed in The Atlantic as a legitimate art form and Grime artists regularly perform at the ICA. The article in itself presents a valid argument about class but is misses the point in seeing culture as a ladder to climb up; today’s creatives are grabbing what they like from wherever they can find it and throwing it into the mix.

The challenge for creative agencies and marketers is to understand these underlying cultural trends, to engage meaningfully with today’s creatives and most importantly to not be embarrassing.

Remembering David Bowie: Creative innovator and lasting cultural brand

It was with great sadness this morning that I found out about David Bowie’s death through a push notification on my phone from the Guardian app. I don’t think I’ve ever been this sad about a famous musician dying before- perhaps because his artistry was so moving and immersive, maybe it was in seeing the cross generational reactions including everyone from rock dads to pop stars to electronic and dance music heads chime in with their favourite Bowie tracks, interviews and images on social media- I can’t say for sure.

There is definitely a lot to be learned from Bowie’s legacy artistically, personally and maybe even spiritually but we can also learn a lot when we assess David Bowie as a brand. The lazy option in doing this would be to characterise each incarnation of the icon in his artistic journey from psychedelic folk singer through to hard rock, art rock, glam rock, soul, funk, experimental, new wave, pop, industrial, drum n bass and then back to art rock using a plethora of different characters including Major Tom, Ziggy Startdust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke as being rebrand after rebrand. The fact however is that David Bowie, through all of his reinventions, musical and visual experiments, interests and pursuits was an incredibly consistent brand. Reinvention and that constant need to explore, experiment and take risks, along with high-artistry and carefully-crafted cultural experiences, is the cornerstone of the Bowie brand. It’s difficult to reduce this electrifying personality to a mere brand and an extended discussion of rockstars as brands so I’ll leave it here for now but R.I.P. all the same to an artist whose work has defined the last 50 years and whose legacy will inspire the next.

 

 

 

 

 

Notes on the ad agency of 2016

Happy 2016 (well let’s hope so!). These are my notes on what the ad agency of 2016 should look like. Inspired by Nils Leonard’s great piece in Campaigand Jamal Edwards of SBTV’s piece in that same publication as well as this one by Clive Martin at Vice, this is very much a work in progress and may be subject to amends throughout the year.

The ad agency of 2016 knows that it traffics art and culture between true innovators and brands.

The ad agency of 2016 knows that it constantly needs to justify its existence to a weary public and to its clients.

The ad agency of 2016 knows the difference between a highly relevant piece of art and a short-term gimmick

The ad agency of 2016 works directly with great artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, technologists and designers.

The ad agency of 2016 knows that it is nothing without a thriving, constantly developing and innovative cultural landscape so it gives back accordingly.

The ad agency of 2016 respects solid academic credentials in its talent but looks beyond high ranking universities and unpaid internships when recruiting.

The ad agency of 2016 never practices nepotism.

The ad agency of 2016 is proud of its outreach initiatives to schools in deprived areas, to those who may have been written off academically and to those who haven’t quite found someone to mentor them and foster their talent.

The ad agency of 2016 has creatives with the irreverence of Kanye West, the cultural bravery of Bjork and the refined craftsmanship of Jamie XX.

The ad agency of 2016 has planners as thoughtful as David Foster Wallace, as immersive as James Joyce and as questioning as George Orwell.

The ad agency of 2016’s suits are entrepreneurs who try to emulate the visionary nature of Steve Jobs, the creative businessperson credentials of Vivienne Westwood and strong leadership and steady resilience of Larry Page.

The ad agency of 2016 has no use for buzzwords or jargon.

The ad agency of 2016 has a senior management team who foster a culture of trust, the look of the office is controlled by the staff and is ever evolving and the music plays loud.

The ad agency of 2016 knows that it has to fight to keep its talent and uses purpose, development and responsibility as its bargaining chips.

The ad agency of 2016 is a brand in itself.

The ad agency of 2016 starts with one brave client and a small team of highly intelligent, confident, creative and diverse people.

Go!

 

The best and worst things that happened in advertising and popular culture this year

2015 has been many things to many people. Kanye-less, Frank Ocean sophomore-lacking, ‘disruptor brands,’ gentrification, #Blacklivesmatter, Jeremy Corbyn, The Weeknd as off-beat popstar, Pig-gate, terrorism, refugees, Kendrick Lamar, Caitlin Jenner, John Lewis Christmas ads, Ed Sheeran, Hotline Bling, Adele returns- I’ll stop before this becomes a Sgt. Pepper’s cover. If there was a sentiment to encapsulate the spirit of the year it would be that people seem to generally give a fuck about stuff and high and low culture has merged into one- just ‘culture.’ The access that the Internet allows us to all forms of culture for free which has been facilitated and broadcast by popular news and ‘content’ outlets on social media has created a general public who are both more culturally rounded and aware and simultaneously more clueless than ever thanks to the overload of information which is neither fully verifiable nor fully disprovable.  It’s BLM activists who listen to Taylor Swift, English lit students you thought were cool sharing thinkpieces about the Hunger Games gender body politics, Starbucks cups being held by anti-capitalists at anti austerity marches, Where are U now?House Every Weekend, fashionistas in Reebok Classics- it’s confusing and inconsistent, maybe even hypocritical- but it’s now.:

THE BEST

Creativity fights back

The discourse around advertising in 2014 was dominated by crap pieces in The Drum about the advent of data, ‘Big Data’ and ‘Math Men.’ It was interesting for about five minutes before becoming, like Oasis’ output since Be There Now , repetitive, uninteresting and culpable for inspiring many talentless dickheads.

2015 saw creativity become cool again. It turned out that the medium of TV in fact wasn’t dead and that you couldn’t just throw a few numbers at a Creative team and expect them to paint something pretty over them. There was a resurgence of first class creative work that didn’t look like it had been graphed, charted and infographic’d to death. Nils Leonard crashed into Adland’s collective consciousness as the Kanye of advertising with Grey London returning to the fore as a culturally switched-on, innovative and iconoclastic creative power house. Adam & Eve DDB continued to produce the kind of distinctive work that could take its place alongside actual entertainment content such as TV shows, films and music videos. Danny Brooke Taylor’s creative stewardship ensured that Lucky Generals went from the plucky youngster to an irreverent yet maturing agency really hitting its stride with excellent work produced for Pot Noodle, Paddy Power and Hostelworld whilst Caroline Pay and Nick Gill can be proud of the stunning work they have done for Audi.

With the strategic and cultural midwifery of high calibrate planners such as Saatchi & Saatchi’s Richard Huntington, Grey’s Leo Rayman and Craig Mawdsley & Bridget Angear at AMV BBDO and top level suits such as Wieden & Kennedy’s highly cultured Neil Christie, the brilliant provocateur Magnus Djaba of Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon fame, James Murphy of A&E with his stellar levels of commitment to his slippery Volkswagen client and Sarah Golding leading a resurgent CHI & Partners, we can also be thankful for the business leadership, strong analytical practice and talent fostering that drives agencies t do their best work. The ‘Math Men‘ were largely pushed to the side this year despite some loud posturing by David Jones with his new ‘Brand Tech’ group You & Mr Jones and the odd creativity vs data think piece in Campaign, and were largely drawn into the debate alongside media agencies about Ad Blocking.

Oh and it’s also won mentioning Ian Leslie’s fantastic piece about creativity and the centrality of brilliant TV ads to the marketing mix in the FT called How the Mad Men Lost the Plot.

Rap gets weird/Pop gets cool/Dance gets broader

2015 has been a fascinating year in music. The Weeeknd now plays shows where fans will be hearing Siouxsie and the Banshees samples one minute and be singing get along to an Ed Sheeran collaboration the next, Justin Bieber is now more likely to be played at a gathering of twenty something grime and house aficionados as they roll zoots and bosh MDMA than at a 12 year old’s birthday part, feminist veterans debate Taylor Swift, Young Thug has been donning tutus one minute and apparently plotting to assassinate Lil Wayne the next, Kendrick Lamar dominated critical discourse with his alt-jazz infused social commentary on To Pimp a Butterfly and Drake captured everyone’s attention by dancing like someone’s uncle in what became one of the biggest music videos of the year.

One of the most exciting things was Grime’s resurgence which saw Skepta rub shoulders with everyone from Drake and Kanye to Earl Sweatshirt, Jamie XX and ASAP Mob, Stormzy began to look like the next up for crossover success, JME’s Integrity album was a solid effort with the excellent ‘Man Don’t Care’ as Giggs- assisted lead single, Novelist kept it Avant Garde with the Mumdance produced bangers ‘Take Time’ and ‘One Sec’, Wiley was honoured at his old school in Bow with a commemorative plaque and Chip reminded us why he’s worth taking seriously with his Fire in the Booth, Believe and Achieve EP and strong responses to Tinie Tempah and Bugzy Malone.

Dance music also saw some interesting developments as PC Music continued to confuse, excite, irritate and amaze whilst entering in to partnership with Colombia Records. SOPHIE released the high octane Product EP which mixed hyper-pop and experimental in a novel way whilst Danny L Harle’s Broken Flowers received a luxury refix on the new EP of the same name. Whilst some view Dance music as one of the last remaining bastions of music snobbery there were some important figures in the scene who have been subverting  the purist status quo and challenging perceptions of taste . Hudson Mohawke’s Lantern was a roaring success in allowing the artist to reconnect with his roots whilst simultaneously exploring new territory. The explosive ‘Very First Breath’ makes whiny power-pop sound triumphant and melancholy at the same time whilst ‘Scud Books’ digs into the artist’s signature stadium-trap aesthetic but adds in a kitsch pop-friendly synth riff. Rustie, another Scottish power-trap auter managed to repurpose his Trance and Happy Hardcore influences into something very relevant with his EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE album. Jamie XX had a brilliant year seeing his long-awaited solo project In Colour which repackaged 20 years of UK club culture for the Instagram generation and scored a summer hit with the Young Thug and Popcaan assisted Good Times. Diplo continued to act as the bridge between club music’s innovative underground and the pop mainstream dabbling in everything from the seminal Bieber-assisted Where are U now? to the summer smash Lean on with Major Lazer and MØ whilst working alongside outliers such as SOPHIE and A.G. Cook. Elsewhere we saw electronic experimentalist and Kanye-collaborator Evian Christ take Trance to the ICA with his much lauded Trance War exhibition and Skrillex finally managed to gain some critical acclaim for his work with Justin Bieber and spectacular live events.

Mad Men’s swansong

Although it definitely did not satiate everyone, I found that the Mad Men ending was everything that I could have asked for. It was neither crowd-pleasingly conclusive nor ironic and cold; it was open-ended but you got some idea of where the narrative was headed once the characters ceased to exist on our screens. True to form Matt Weiner and his excellent team of writers made sure to produce something that didn’t exist in a historical vacuum. Don Draper’s closing hilltop meditation scene which may or may not have led him to go on to create the subsequently shown iconic I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca Cola ad- arguably the creative genesis of brand-based advertising- signals the beginning of the cultural shift from a more collectivist and ordered understanding of society to the dawn of individualist neo-liberalism where brands and products begin to exist as components of the individual’s unique identity and self-expression. As noted in a previous piece, Adam Curtis does a great job in identifying the hippy and New Age movements as an expression of individualism that birthed the small-government, supply side and self-sufficient economic culture promoted by Reagan and Thatcher that still predominates today in his documentary The Century of the self. Wiener’s use of a spiritual retreat as the narrative endpoint for the protagonist seems like a nod to this understanding of the late 20th and early 21st century.

 

The reason why these discourses seem so relevant has been seen across pop culture and (more downstream) society, politics, conflict and economics all year. Identity and self definition has seemingly been at the centre of everything; one can cite phenomena as diverse as Caitlin Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, Donald Trump’s jingoistic understanding of what it is to be American, the Black Lives Matter movement, the continued rise of the far-right in Europe and the Islamic State in the Levant, the conspicuous presence of selfies facilitated by ever-growing social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, changing attitudes to gender and sexuality- the list could be an essay in itself. These are a wide array of positive, negative and necessary happenings but what they all have in common is their rooting in today’s existential grey areas- the desire to craft one’s own unique identity whilst wanting to be a part of something in a world that is more connected than ever whilst paradoxically increasingly isolated. In placing Don Draper, the brilliant manipulator of human anxiety, on top of a cliff edge with a bunch of mentally conflicted and exasperated ‘modern’ individuals before cutting to that infamous Coca Cola ad, Weiner gave us an ending which emphasized the cultural vitalness of the whole Mad Men series.

Craig David and Kurupt FM

I’m usually weary of anything resembling starry-eyed nostalgia but Craig David’s return this year seemed like the righting of a cultural wrong. Like many black and asian artists in the UK Craig’s career was subjected to immature ridicule, miscategorization and ill-informed interference by record companies. When the brilliant Kurupt FM crew from the BBC Three/iPlayer cult hit People Just Do Nothing brought him into their Mistajam #Sixtyminuteslive session to perform his early noughties smash ‘Fill Me In’ over Jack U’s Where are U Now it began to seem like the stage was set for his return. Following the critical re-appraisal of R&B over the last few years and the resurgence of Garage, UK Funky, Deep House and Jungle into UK club culture, it appears that as this piece in Noisey suggests is the perfect time for the R n’ G veteran to reclaim his place in the UK’s homegrown dance music scene.

THE WORST

Adland’s diversity lack

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Despite some positive noises being made about the need for women to be better represented at all levels in the advertising industry, mostly thanks to the tireless work of top female ad people like Cindy Gallop with the 3% Conference and the WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications in London), there has been little improvement in making the Ad industry more diverse as a whole. Barely anyone is talking about the obvious domination of the industry by white middle class types both male and female- ethnicity and socioeconomic background features very little in any discussion that does take place.

It would be easy to pick out events and scrutinize happenings such as the incredibly classist ‘Benefits’ flyer that circulated at Iris Worldwide in London (above), this hilariously misjudged Robert Dyas spot or the Advertising Week panel called ‘Here are all the black people in advertising’ which was seemingly chaired by a bunch of white people (although as the link points out it’s more complicated than appears) but the real root of the problem is the lack of interest amongst the majority of the decision makers in the industry in reaching out to communities outside of their own. Our ‘creative industries’ which some might assume are very liberal and open to people of all backgrounds are in fact closed off to most people outside of the ABC1 bubble. One only has to look at the lack of outreach programmes aimed at youngsters from less privileged backgrounds, the extortionate subscription fees for industry publications and events and the way in which most agencies hide their job postings from any commonly accessible outlets. The whole things stinks of elitism and for all of the talk of attracting great young talent the system appears to be built to keep a certain types of people out. The whole ad industry is a lot poorer for it as powerful, evocative and effective campaigns that connect to a wider audience require a range of different inputs be they White, Black, Asian, Male, Female, Gay or Straight.

Guitar Music

The famously regressive online community in the UK was most upset about Kanye West performing at Glastonbury this year. How dare this uppity Black bloke be the Saturday night headliner at Glastonbury, proclaiming himself to be the ‘Greatest Living Rockstar’ without there being a guitar in sight!? Someone started a petition, Brian McFadden and Louise Thompson got involved, your smelly 15 year old cousin from Dudley posted a video of Dave Grohl performing with a broken leg along or a meme of him laughing or something, you know how these things tend to go…

The real issue and inconvenient truth here however is the simple fact that England and the world as a whole seriously lacks in any compelling guitar bands. I’m not yet ready to deem guitar music/rock n’ roll as completely redundant but it’s hard to see who else could have convincingly filled the headline slot or in fact be deemed as a ‘rockstar’ in this day and age. I mean who really is Dave Grohl? the former drummer in a seminal band whose importance hinged on the songwriting and general character of the now deceased frontman? A cuddly mascot for a bygone era of music? What about Matt Bellamy? Well even die-hard Muse fans couldn’t stomach their latest release. Do we really have to dig up another leather clad metal outfit from the eighties or some poorly aged wig-rocker? The Libertines can provide a cheery fifty minutes of throwback singalong fun but it’s hard to claim that Pete and Carl’s druggy Edwardian/Victorian lit-expired poncing-about would be an ideal show of rock n’ roll’s relevance today.Foals had some approving nods from critics and old indie heads this year but like the more interesting Everything Everything who emerged this year with the impressive Get to Heaven, they don’t quite hold enough weight for the number one slot.  You also shouldn’t listen to those ex-NME types who seem like they’ve managed to TUPE (Google it!) over to Noisey when they tell you that Sleaford Mods are worth your time.

Tyler, the Creator banned from UK

There are plenty of reasoned debates to be had about how we should receive and interpret Tyler, the Creator’s lyrics. Concerns that some of the lyrics in his earlier material might be harmful to women in the long term by normalizing and trivializing rape seem perfectly reasonable and should be discussed at length. There do however seem to be other forces at play in this case of kneejerk censorship exercised by Home Secretary Theresa May as Joe Muggs stated in his piece for The Guardian on the subject.

Whether the move to bar Tyler, the Creator was meant as a subtle nod to Middle England or a concession to our active feminist movement (which has done great work this year- see the newly formed Women’s Equality Party) is unclear but there’s a nasty racial undercurrent that we can see when we hold these judgments up to the light. Artists such as Tyler, Chris Brown and Snoop ‘Kick this evil bastard out’ Dogg/Lion have faced a much higher bar when touring across venues in countries like the UK, Australia and Canada than artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Cannibal Corpse and even The Decemberists all of whom have participated in either lyrical of real life misogyny and abuse of women.

There is also a point to be made about the context of Tyler, the Creator’s lyrical content. The lyrics in question which mainly feature in his early releases Bastard and Goblin are often uttered by a conflicted and disturbed alter-ego and are clearly not a reflection of the artist’s own views. Whilst these incidents of censorship are often presented as being a progressive must by responsible authorities more often than not they are at best a flimsy band-aid for the problem of systematic injustice and at worst a manifestation of a more sinister agenda.

Airbnb ‘is mankind?’

Oh man this one was bad! Despite simultaneously pricking people’s conscience and making their lives easier- a very lucrative brand position to occupy in the information age- the folks at Air B n’ B apparently see themselves as the champions of human connectivity, empathy and social justice. TBWA are a great agency with a strong legacy but they certainly misfired here in an overblown and highly pretentious campaign which wasn’t helped by a smarmy poster campaign in San Francisco addressing the recent ruling that the company had to pay hotel tax. For some reason they assumed that residents of America’s most left-leaning city would want to join in with their libertarian circle-jerk. Whilst I have no way of knowing how the company’s communications fuck ups have affected sales and growth this year- I do know that the health of the brand is vital to a startup that is starting to move into maturity.

 

 

Brand of the Year 2015: Drake

To quote the oft-overlooked mid-noughties white rapper Paul Wall, Drake has ‘got the internet going nuts.’ The Canadian multi-platinum seller has picked up where Kanye left off with 808s and Heartbreak and mixed-in the multisyllabic delivery typical of aspiring rappers eager to prove their technical chops and has, together with main producer and wingman Noah ’40’ Shebib brought R&B tinged sad-boy-meets-braggadocio to the forefront of Hip Hop’s mainstream. Now we’re a week or so into the ‘Hotline Bling’ dancing phenomenon which has seen a tidal wave of memes inspired by the music video hit our social media timelines it seems like it’s high time that we named Drake as ‘Brand of the Year’ for 2015 and take a detailed look into how the Toronto rappa-turnt-sanga-turnt-rappa-again has put his contemporaries in Hip Hop and pop culture as a whole to shame.

Creating Shareable Content

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The above sub-title looks like something you’d see in a Powerpoint presentation given by some dead-eyed social media ‘content’ manager’ (or some equally grating title), however this is exactly what Drizzy has done. From HYFR to YOLO to ‘Started From the Bottom’ to ‘Motherfuckers never loved us’ (Worst Behaviour) to  ‘Running through the six with my woes’ to ‘just hold on we’re going home,’ Drake has crafted intensely meme-able ideas and phrases which are applicable to an infinite amount of situations that you don’t have to be a millionaire rapper to have experienced. There could be an endless chicken and egg discussion of whether the Internet has turned Drake’s lyrics into memes or whether Drake has engineered his content to create instantly recognizable and widely relatable concepts. Either way it’s hard to argue that Drake hasn’t capitalized on this phenomenon.

In a similar vein Drake has used his music videos to put across imagery that will doubtless get people talking. From the awkward photo of him goofing around on the ‘No New Friends’ video shoot, to the Drake snr assisted Congolese Sapeur reminiscent ‘Worst Behaviour‘ video, to the intentionally OTT posturing, Mum-including and comedy-skit incorporating visuals for ‘Started From the Bottom,‘ Drake has always got people talking with his music videos and given the meme-curator class of the internet months of source material to work with. It comes as no surprise then that Drake would readily embrace Director X’s vision for his ‘Hotline Bling‘ video which seems him dance around like someone’s Dad (Uncle, granddad, weird cousin etc.) alongside ironically attractive sexline workers.

Managing Controversy

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Drake has never been one to dive head-first into a controversial issue, he’s seemingly ambivalent on politics and only seems to enter rap beefs when he’s been provoked. He does however, by his very being, his success, his artistry, his circumstances spark a wide range of conversations between fans and detractors. He has been drawn into debates about ghostwriting, his lack of ‘hood credentials, his apparent lack of respect for ‘real Hip Hop’ in naming a downtempo R&B-tinged song ‘Wu Tang Forever,’ his embrace of up and coming buzzworthy artists and his penchant for airing his vulnerability in a genre so obsessed with projecting a hypermasculine image. Drake has handled these difficult points quite masterfully neither protesting too much nor completely ignoring every criticism aimed at him, sometimes a diss song is required, sometimes silence, sometimes you can let your friends and collaborators do the talking.

Owning his contradictions

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Drake is many things. A rapper, a former soap star, a brand ambassador, an Art appreciator, a sports fan, a Ford Maddox Ford/Ezra Pound- style champion of up-and-coming artists, an Aaliyah obsessive, an enthusiast for everyone from UGK and Lil Wayne to Andre 3000 and Phonte (from Little Brother), a grime fan, black, jewish, privately educated, Canadian with roots in Memphis (on his father’s side), sensitive, boastful, self-deprecating- the list goes on. In a different world he might be seen as an unmarketable mess, however in 2015, an era of culture jamming and widespread access to an endless pool of influences, he might be seen as a fairly typical male in his late 20s.

Despite being largely apolitical in his content, Drake is a product of the post-war progressive tide, social mobility, the internet’s democratization of culture, the rise of easily-shareable content and the ongoing conversations about race and gender. Drake skillful draws upon these facets of his identity when and where it is required to make a certain point, portray a certain image or address a certain issue. The recent retort to Meek Mill, a former crony of whom Drizzy has fallen foul, ‘you getting bodied by a singin’ nigga’ on ‘Charged Up’ tells us a lot more than that Drake can still deliver a bruising ‘diss’ despite his penchant for singing. It tells us that he won’t allow himself to be solely defined by only one part of his identity.

Aligning himself with tomorrow’s innovators

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The Weeknd, Chief Keef, Future, James Blake, A$AP Rocky, Party Next Door, Dej Loaf, ILOVEMAKONNEN, Fetty Wap, Skepta and BBK, Kodak Black- all of these artists and more have been given Drake’s mighty cosign whether through remixing their songs, tweeting their lyrics and videos, inviting them to perform at OVO Fest or just mentioning them in interviews, Drizzy has been either a cultural connoisseur or ‘vulture’ depending on how you look at it. Aside from doing wonders for the careers of those he has supported it also makes Drake look both influential and in tune with the innovators of tomorrow.

Cool Shit Round Up 28.08.2015

The Ad

C’est shook by Grey London for Orangina

The Art

Back to Bed. A surrealist video game based on the work of Dali, Magritte and Escher.

The Song/Video

The Weeknd x Kanye West (on production)

The Article

The Internet’s Newest Plague: The Cult of Negative Viral Content by Clive Martin at Vice.

Misc

The Making of Jack Ü and Justin Bieber’s ‘Where are Ü Now’

Why is Ed Sheeran so popular? A Marketer’s analysis

It’s been a long journey for me, I’m still reeling from the disappointment of seeing Ed Sheeran on the track-list of the disaffected dark edgelord Abel Teysfare (The Weeknd)’s upcoming album Beauty Behind the Madness . I’m still praying that Kanye doesn’t lose his judgement and employ the Ginger bard’s services for the upcoming Swish. I’ll level with my readers here and admit that I do not enjoy the music of Ed Sheeran, I find it unbearably banal and disingenuous. The fake sincerity echoing the faux-depressing half-sincere wailing of Chris Martin or Sam Smith puts me to sleep and infinitely less offensive to me than any of David Guetta’s formulaic club muzak or anything the Bieb and gus associates put out (must reiterate that Where are Ü Now is a stroke of genius). The only stuff I can really get on board with is a couple of the funkier catchy tunes from the recent album X like Sing (watered-down Justified– era JT) and Don’t.

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This is not however an article dedicated to slagging off Ed Sheeran but one designed to be an analysis of his appeal to the masses and resulting success. Un-stylish, non particularly attractive and lacking in charisma, Sheeran is clearly a departure from the popstars of old. His sound shies away from any boldness or experimentation and there’s no real compelling back-story.

There are likely a multitude of causes for Ed Sheeran’s success but the most important, in my view, is the fact that his brand as an artist and public figure of note is based around encapsulating the character of Middle England and being a projection of their innate desires. Some analysts claim that the term ‘Middle England’ is not a particularly useful one, such as  Ben Page from IPSOS Mori’s Social Research Institute who dismisses the label as ‘a convenient shorthand for the 25 per cent of the population who are not surgically wedded to one of the main parties – and who happen to live in marginal constituencies.’ There is likely a certain fairness to this observation and it’s unfair to generalize but the Labour voting, cosmopolitan, often better-educated and more socially pluralistic Guardian/Vice/i-D reading 18-30 year-olds of the capital are liable to forget that they are the demographic exception rather than the rule. Middle Englanders are often written off by metropolitan left-leaning liberals as a bunch of closet-racist sexist homophobes (all the wrong types of ists, ics and obes) who’s small mindedness would match us towards a Conservative-UKIP coalition at the next election but there’s more to them than that. Certainly they march in their droves to pick up the Daily Mail from Tesco and Morrisons, they fear waves of invading foreigners coming here to absorb their tax money through the welfare state and ban their bacon, they worry about the state of public finances and are naturally suspicious of the supposed Metropolitan elite. They are however more complex than this simplistic caricature suggests due to being a diverse group in terms of class-origin. Middle England, in my view, seems to be made up of a mixture of those descending from families that were more well-off before the economic paradigm shift that took place in the late 70s and early 80s who retain their conservative hierarchical view of society despite having less considerable means, and descendants of the upwardly-mobile skilled working class who felt their quality of life improve during the Thatcher, Major and Blair premierships who value personal responsibility, hard toil and self-improvement whilst still feeling a sense of inferiority compounded by the aloofness of Cosmopolitan Londoners and remnants of the British class system. This cocktail of demographic shifts originating in the latter part of the 20th century means that those whom we call Middle Englanders are in fact as complex and contradictory as anyone else. This means that they are as prone to Like something such as a photo of Will and Kate with baby George or a meme about benefit money going on Anjem Choudry’s beard-cream rather than our brave troops on Facebook as they are to Share an article about homelessness or Tory excesses in NHS cuts/privatization. They make big financial sacrifices for their children, they don’t want someone who doesn’t want to work to be more comfortable, they feel like the Guardianista outrage over Jeremy Clarkson’s quarterly racist (sexist, classist, homophobic) jokes is an example of the PC establishment trying to diminish the genuine enjoyment that they get from watching Top Gear, they fear radical social change for the sake of themselves and their families and despite maintaining good relations with the patron of their local curry house and cheering on Andy Murray every year, they feel like British culture is under attack from Islam-via-the-EU-open-boarder and Nicola Sturgeon clambering over Hadrian’s Wall with the tartan hordes behind her.

Enter Ed Sheeran, not a typical ME (his parents are Art Curators) but one nonetheless (he’s from a Tory constituency). Going from relative obscurity collaborating with Grime legends such as Wiley and JME (I’m still crying a bit about this) and gigging daily for peanuts in half-neglected pub and bar venues across the country to writing songs for One Direction and Taylor Swift, Sheeran’s rise to the centre of the UK’s pop culture sphere provides with a combination of a safe amount of danger and a comforting amount of familiarity. He had gained attention and sympathy for apparently being homeless (something he has since been forced to deny) for periods while trying to make it as a musician and for speaking out against wealthy fans getting VIP seating at concerts whilst simultaneouly mastering the distinctly British art of banality and mediocrity so applauded by England’s silent everyone-knowing-their-place-majority. The fact that he’s a middle class white guy with a guitar forever plays out in his favour and the patronizing simplicity of early tracks like ‘A-Team’ where he doles our sympathy for homeless people plays well with Middle England’s platitudinous concern for the less fortunate. The obligatory celebrity philanthropy also allows Sheeran’s appeal to overlap with the outside-of-London bourgeois; those who own Small to medium sized businesses, members of Countryside Alliance, ‘Shy Torys’, small time Accountants and Solicitors living in the small town on the outskirts of big cities- they read the Mail but have a basic understanding of wine and went to better universities. His beaded necklaces, casual vagabondism and oblivious disposition remind them of the son they have that plays guitar all day in his room and volunteered building a school in Togo for 2 months. Ed is the nice kid who maybe smokes a little weed and wasn’t headed for a Russell Group Uni but did work hard with his music thing and deserves credit for not getting help from anyone and sticking to his guns. His humble manner also nicely reflects the inoffensiveness that the majority craves making him endlessly endearing.

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If there’s one parallel I can draw between the result of May’s General Election result and Ed Sheeran’s success it’s that like politicians and pollsters, marketers and Agency folk alike shouldn’t underestimate the quiet power of Middle England– our silent majority. I for one have learnt that there’s a world outside of the trendy weirdos and armchair socialist gender-theorists that make up my Facebook and Twitter feeds beyond my somewhat conservative grandparents.

Cool Shit Round Up 17.07.2015

The Ads

Greatest Moments by Brothers and Sisters for Sky Sports

Rewards by Adam&Eve for Harvey Nichols

The Art

I Feel Ya: SCAD + ANDRE ‘3000’ BENJAMIN Exhibit. The innovator-supreme Andre 3000’s infamous Coachella jumpsuits are being exhibited at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

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The Song

Toro Y Moi x Rome Fortune Pitch Black

The Article

Kanye West: why can’t rock ‘n’ roll’s old guard handle him? by Tim Jonze in The Guardian 

Cool Shit Round up 10.07.2015

The Ad

#WeGotYou by Hill Holiday for The Partnership for Drug Free Kids. We all know that anti-drug fear-mongering is a dead end but this is a clever campaign nonetheless!

‘It’ll feel like everyone is doing it’ and ‘I want to fit in but I don’t want to smoke.’

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The Art

Political Portraiture by Lola Dupre. See the full collection here.

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The Song

Regret by Everything Everything. Really enjoying the album, it’s not easy to find a relevant guitar band these days.

The Photo Collection

‘The History of Grime’ by i-D magazine