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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

Peep Show: What brands can learn from its unlikely success

Peep Show, the last season of which has returned to our screens, is something of an anomaly in British culture for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it  has somehow made it to 9 series’ (or seasons if you hail from across the pond) which is especially atypical for a British comedy if we consider the limited runs of critically acclaimed classics such as Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, The Royle Family, The Thick of It and The Office. It has also done surprisingly well considering the unorthodox use of point-of-view camerawork which when matched with the protagonists’ voiceover inner-monologues gives us an intimate acquaintance with their psychological profiles. The depths of cynicism, desperation and despair into which we see Mark and Jeremy sink lower and lower strikes somewhere between a modern day Dostoyevsky and a solitary night bus home to the suburbs at 4am. This level of dark humour and ennui in waiting for a sense of redemption that never seems to come is seemingly at odds with a British public more accustomed to camp and inoffensive whimsy and might go some way in explaining how the show has never enjoyed the ratings success of Miranda, My Family or Last of the Summer Wine.  Despite this, the series has done what Smack the Pony, Black Books and Green Wing never could- it survived, and in many ways in thrived due to DVD sales and eventually online streams via Netflix and All4. Peep Show has become not only a highly-regarded TV comedy but also a reference point for a generation that will likely go on to influence the British cultural landscape for decades. It is with this in mind that I have listed a few lessons below that brands can take from the show’s unlikely success.

Taking risks and maintaining a distinctive edge

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Whilst the POV camerawork has been phased-out, the voiceover monologues remain and are responsible for some of the most memorable lines in the show.The subject matter has always trodden a fine line between what is and isn’t acceptable for public broadcast (i.e. dog-eating, simulated mother-son incest in blackface, female-on-male rape) with outlandish situations that are somehow completely consistent with the characters portrayed. Instinctive reactions to awkward social situations are interlaced with profound existential truths and clever jokes and references cover everything from the highly topical (Jeremy Clarkson, the EU, Storage Hunters) to the randomly obscure ( an imagined night out as Christopher and Peter Hitchens). Peep Show is what one of those irritating bespectacled twenty something’s that most ad people will be familiar with from the big-table all agency meetings would refer to as a ‘disruptor brand.’ It sees the common formula and ways of operating and penetrates the market following entirely different rules and demands a higher standard from its competitors in order to survive. The influence of Peep Show is seen clearly in shows such as The Inbetweeners, The IT Crowd, Fresh Meat and Babylon- all of which deal in that painful space between one’s expectations of life and the reality.

Being topical but subtle

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You never get a heavy-handed reference to a current event in Peep Show or a cheap swipe at a failing celebrity- this is something that allows the show to have a timeless quality. You do however get a sense of correlation with the real world from the plot lines, dialogue and character’s thoughts which all nod towards the cultural, social, political and even economic realities. Mark’s downward trajectory from Loan Manager at an established Credit Company to Mexican restaurant waiter and precarious business partner to ex-boss Johnson seems to chime perfectly with the credit crunch and global recession and has been more than consistent with the show’s timeline from the mid-Blair years of cautious optimism and social liberalism to the belt-tightening of the coalition term and Cameron ministry. Mark’s anxiety towards political correctness, ‘EU Banana-Straighteners’ and the prospect of society degenerating to the point at which people throw faeces from their bedroom windows is an expression of Daily Mail-style small-c conservatism which is balanced by his aspirational careerist attitude to life and evangelising about ‘the miracle of consumer capitalism.’ David Mitchell recently put this very well in a recent interview with Shortlist:

“I’m very with Mark in that moment, in terms of his puncturing of nebulous alternativism. But it does come off as… well, very Blair’s Britain. Very pre-crash. Britain under Blair, there was a broader acceptance that stuff was OK, not a total disaster. Then the credit crunch reversed that consensus. I don’t think Mark would have put it quite like that now.”

Jeremy is equally maladjusted but in a completely different way. He is a highly deluded self-aggrandising ‘creative’ type who sits at the other end of the spectrum within the landscape of ‘Blair’s Britain.’ If the bankers were allowed to have their shady practices and uncurbed rapacious greed then the likes of Jez and his dropout countercultural friends were allowed their own version of the non-committal lifestyle of casual sex, drugs and brazen irresponsibility- only cloaked in different political stripes. Aside from the ‘nobody wanted New Labour’, ‘fuck you Bush‘ poem and ‘Blair on holiday’ shirt buttoning- Peep Show seems to have also captured some of the essence of today’s discussions about gender. Mark and Jez are both under-fathered (cue Johnson and Super Hans), insufficiently blokeish and romantically useless, whilst the former fills this void by ‘staring at women on the bus’, his career and his increasingly nerdy hobbies the former gets by on casual sex, drugs and constantly re-reading Mr Nice. A lot of the humour derives from the protagonists’ failings as men by society’s standards with Mark having to use FHM for research purposes in order to make friends with Jeff and Jez’s pandering to Mark’s childhood bully Foz. The female characters do not get off lightly either as Robert Webb explains in an excellent piece in the New Statesman

In Peep Show, there have been Toni (brittle narcissist), Nancy (manipulative American hippie), Big Suze (oblivious posh sadist), Carla (oversexed thief), Merry (certified lunatic), Dobby (awkward, Cheddar-loving über-geek), Elena (bisexual Ukrainian liar), Zahra (pseudo-intellectual bore), Penny (randy jam-making lost cause), Liz (vindictive Christian) and Cally (BlackBerry-obsessed control freak), to name a few. Characters are not people. They can only have one or two things about them and that goes for Mark and Jeremy, too. But to allow the women to be as flawed as the men is to allow them to be equally funny. And, while we’re at it, equally human. 

Like successful TV Shows, successful advertising has to be of its time in order to resonate with people. From Leo Burnett’s award-winning Like a Girl campaign for Unilever to Chipotle’s The Scarecrow work with The Martin Agency to Sainsbury’s Christmas is for Sharing ads by AMV/BDDO- there is an intrinsic need for campaigns to nod towards the issues of the day in order to be relatable enough for consumers to connect to the brand on an emotional level.

Knowing itself

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Coming back to a point made briefly earlier, no matter how inconceivable some of the situations that Mark and Jeremy get themselves into can seem, they are always believable in the context of the characters and their behaviour patterns. We believe that Mark might piss on someone else’s office documents as part of some petty feud and then regret his decision and attempt to cover his tracks by using a hand dryer in the men’s bathroom to dry the sodden papers. We believe that Jez would eat a dead dog’s leg or wank off an old man for petty cash and access to an X Box or that Super Hans would get a 15 year old boy to fellate him. Whilst co-creators and writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have created a highly unique TV sitcom they also keep a tight sense of control over the characters ensuring that they don’t drift away from the characteristics that the core audience is familiar with. I’m sure that they might have been tempted to write a scene where Mark actually does take Ecstasy with Sophie and her bohemian friends or where Jeremy actually makes a go of it with a long term girlfriend but the consistency is what allows the audience to know the characters so intimately.

Brands also need to be believable in terms of how they characterise themselves in their communications efforts. You only have to look at the recent General Election in the UK which had Ed Miliband standing in front of a giant slab of stone onto which his election pledges were engraved or the ill fated ‘Immigration mug‘ fiasco to see that trying to convince your audience that you’re something that you are not is ultimately futile. Campaign Magazine recently dubbed Air BnB ‘Is Man Kind?’ TV ads as ‘Turkey of the Week‘ with good reason- no one would buy the idea that renting someone else’s apartment in a foreign city is a profound act of humanism.

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.

What popular memes tell us about today’s cultural trends

Memes. You know what they are; those humorous things that you browse whilst going through your phone on the toilet. Those inspirational quotes laid over a picture of a night sky or a sunset beaming across desolate corn field. Those life lessons warning you about the haters, time wasters and girlfriend/boyfriend thieves. Those pictures of a shifty-looking bearded Muslim informing you that he’s planning to burn some poppies at the weekend along with your tax money that your racist uncle shares on Facebook. Those images of dying children being held by devastated parents imploring you to pressure your government to take action. Those ‘What are thooooooose.’ The point being that they take many shapes and sizes.

A meme is officially defined as ‘an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.’ Memes are the viral strains passed from individual to individual with minute degrees of variation that make up the cultural consensus and their very being certainly predates the internet and social media. The study of Memetics, largely popularized by the infamous Richard Dawkins, has been around for 30 years or so at this point.

It goes without saying why memes are so important to marketers. Richard Huntington of Adliterate writes brilliantly about the debt that Strategic Planners owe Dawkins for his work on Memetics. Now that most of us share a common dialogue via social media, internet memes have become some of the most prescient signifiers of the zeitgeist. Fortunes and profiles are made and destroyed on the ‘content farm,’ and marketers will often get into bed with internet personalities and curators just to try get a piece of the pie, just ask The Fat Jewish and Buzzfeed. There is however a different way that marketers could and should be approaching this modern phenomenon. Instead of trying to ape, appropriate and stand next to the shiny new thing, why aren’t we analyzing them as serious cultural propositions which tell us a lot about our shared values, passions and struggles?

Below I’ve gone and done a breakdown of the memes that I see regularly accompanied by my analysis of why they are so popular and what that tells us about the zeitgeist.

You are special and unique and someone needs you

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The above meme, one which has been Liked 118,348 times and shared 45k times is one which has clearly struck a powerful chord with a lot of people. Thematically it covers two basic needs, the first is people’s need to know that their differences or ‘quirks’ are nothing to be ashamed of, the second is the individual’s need to know that they have these points of uniqueness within their character in the first place. If we consider social media’s role in today’s world, the second of these needs seems infinitely more important. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter forces us to be both wildly individualistic and conforming. This creates a sense of cognitive dissonance which these kinds of sentiments help to reconcile. Nietzsche, Satre, Camus et al grappled with the question of life’s meaning and purpose incessantly in the 19th and 20th centuries but the social media age in which we are more connected yet somehow more isolated may be the one to give us the most interesting insights (excuse the pun).

People are shit

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Next up we have existential rage. The above meme shows us that most people, at some stage, begin to suspect that we are not truly needed by others, that we’re merely surrounded by opportunists and people those who would use and manipulate us for their own sordid purposes. We’re scared that other may have it easier than us, that maybe there isn’t a benevolent justice system which doles out everybody’s just deserts. This cynical anti-humanism, I would argue, is indicative of our political and economic landscape as the below meme demonstrates:

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Despite coming from popular American conservative Facebook page ‘Right Wing News’ I have seen the above meme countless times on my newsfeed posted by my predominantly British ‘friends.’ Aside from the political implications (anyone with half a brain knows that no one in the UK is taxed to ‘breaking point’ and very few people ‘refuse’ to work when they are able), what the meme really expresses in being shared by the largely nonpartisan public is a fear that honest (apparently) purposeful toil will never be rewarded as it should be and that the undeserving ‘other’ is reaping the rewards.

Fuck Politics

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You can’t have been on Facebook in the past 2 years if you haven’t seen the above meme. Yes it’s a completely made up assertion but considering the popular sentiment that politicians uncaring careerists only out for themselves the creator made the wise choice and printed the myth. The rise of nationalism, factionalism and populism in its many forms from Golden Dawn and Syriza in Greece, to Marie Le Pen in France to Nigel Farage,the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn (and even Russell Brand) in the UK to Donald Trump in the U.S. tells us that a lot of people are struggling with the social, political and economic effects of Globalization. Politicians from the long-established main political parties are identified as the culpable stooges of corporations and international governing bodies such as the EU, IMF, UN etc. The trend now is to say ‘Fuck it, they’re all the same! They’re all saying and doing exactly the same thing, and we- the little guys- are getting fucked by forces beyond our control!’ This may not strictly be true (it isn’t) but there is an element of truth, or wider theme at play, which allows memes like this one to resonate with people and become viral.

Kanye is a twat

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There is a great post on Reddit which lists and analyzes all of the reasons people really hate Kanye West. Personally I’ve always suspected that both Middle England and Middle America have trouble dealing with the presence of an audacious, iconoclastic and outspoken Black Man who deliberately appropriates symbols of White Male strength such as ‘the greatest fucking rock star on the planet’ and rudely hijacked the acceptance speech of Southern Belle Taylor Swift years after he called out the then-President of the United States George W. Bush. So when Ian Peters at Edwards&Sons Print Producers (made up person and made up business but you get the point!) sits down at his desk in the morning and sees a story on the Daily Mail about Kanye’s latest public spectacle, he can sit back in his chair, sip his morning coffee, let out an exasperated sigh and mumble ‘Kanye you twat.’

We’re Not Like Them

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Fuckboys, fuccbois, basic bitches, basic bros, hispters, ‘cunts,’ these are the people whom we must disassociate with at all costs otherwise we risk joining ‘sluts,’ fat people and people who don’t respect the armed forces in the internet shame bin. The irony being of course that anyone, if not everyone, can easily find themselves in one or more of these categories. Like the first meme in this list, this kind of post, when shared or liked on social media tells others that we are simultaneously above these broad categories of undesirable individuals and a part of the consensus that these people are idiots. They also function to protect us from not being a part of any distinct or identifiable group so that we do not feel too much like we are being excluded by either the ‘basic’ mainstream or the cool alternative kids.

Fuck you Katie Hopkins!

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Like a pantomime villain of old, Katie Hopkins, businesswoman and media personality, serves as a scapegoat or sacrificial punching-bag onto which we can project the worst elements of our culture. She is clearly a savvy individual and has managed to carve out a niche for herself which requires minimal original thought and effort whilst achieving maximal results. People who would normally complain about scroungers, immigrants (or ex-pats as they should be called), ‘chavs’, fat people and lesbians all suddenly release their vitriol at Mrs Hopkins with a hearty sense of self righteousness. KH gives them a reference point from which they can say ‘I know I have my opinions on certain things but this is just bang out of order!’ rather than confront some of their own prejudices and assumptions.

Cheeky Nandos

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This one will be lost on Americans. Along with the Grime resurgence, chart-friendly Deep House music, Wavey Garmz, Netflix &Chill, Instagram and going to the Gym, having a Cheeky Nandos has become a cultural signifier for young working and lower-middle class lads in suburban areas. There are countless variations of this meme including everyone from David Cameron and Ed Miliband to Hitler to Louis Walsh to Tumblr posts of people explaining the phenomenon to Americans. Someone even did a Cheeky Nandos rap which plays off the various stereotypes associated with patrons of the South African casual dining experience. The meme-ification of Nandos and its alleged cheekiness seems to be an offshoot of the much-maligned ‘Lad Culture’ which gives its adherents a more relevant and ‘urbanized’ version of the phenomenon where words like ‘cheeky banter with the lads’ remain but the background of the participants is largely different and the dress code, taste in music, taste in women and type of haircut is worlds away from the clean cut Hollisted-clad Ruby lad from Durham University.

Everyone knows their place around here

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To paraphrase Marx, Nostalgia is the opium of the British masses. Downtown Abbey, Cath Kidston, The Great British Bakeoff and Strictly Come Dancing tell us this quite conspicuously. Whilst the plight of East Londoners and West Midlander during the Blitz can’t really be compared to anything that we experience today, the sentiment of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ does carry some resonance for a population subjected to seemingly endless austerity that many of us suspect is not an equally shared burden. Another related meme category that ties in with this is the Queen doing various mundane tasks and pulling faces that us mere commoners are sometimes want to pull. For the benefit of any international readers, Queen Elizabeth II occupies a strange place in British life. The British (or English if we’re being accurate) have what Christopher Hitchens called a ‘fetish‘ for the Monarchy. There was a time when we ‘ruled the waves’, our Queens and Kings from House Windsor were recognized by our lowly colonial subjects as the governors of their everyday lives and we were prepared to take on the Sausage Munching-Bosch at the drop of an aristocratic top hat. Queen Elizabeth is like our beloved old aunt, politely fearful of change and too proud to use the NHS, who keeps that problematic family history alive in our minds. Coupled with campy English whimsy the result of this is memes like the below:

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