To own the future, Labour must galvanise the Nandos generation

About a year ago whilst I was working at one of London’s larger ad agencies, it was decided that we should have a team lunch-out. Naively, I threw Nandos into the ring as an option. There was some enthusiasm for this and my deciding vote steered our inital course towards spicy chicken and peri chips. By the time we had reached the bottom of the escalator towards our downstairs reception however it had been decided that we should instead go to the restaurant at the top of Harvey Nichols where I was to enjoy some boring and expensive white fish as the least objectionable option. What had happened was that our Business Director, who’s income she had once accidentally disclosed as being in the top tax bracket and who had lived outside of the United Kingdom for most of her life in various centres of commerce across Asia, couldn’t fathom why on Earth we would want to eat relatively simple chicken in a busy restaurant where you have to ‘go up’ and order your food, fix your own soft drinks and grab your plate and cutlery yourself. That’s not to say that great food doesn’t exist in informal setting in Asia, it certainly does, but that our uniquely British fixation with Nandos is difficult to comprehend for those that haven’t spent a significant amount of time in these isles.

Nandos is a unique and interesting success story in the United Kingdom. It is essentially cheap chicken smothered in seasoning and sold at a large markup but it has massive cultural cache with a diverse yet definable demographic. If you walk into a Nandos restaurant in any urban centre (for that is where you will find most of them), you will see an eclectic mix of diners from headscarf young muslim women, young men and teens clad in outfits reflecting the recent sportswear resurgence- neat Nike tracksuits, Adidas trainers, Ellesse t-shirts, Reebok Classics etc, young professional couples and a strong BAME presence- including groups of students, teens and families. This is a diverse group indeed but what they all have in common is having grown up or come of age under New Labour and the following Lib-Con Coalition Government. Their experiences will have been defined by the earlier hopeful years of the Blair government- many will have been the first in their family to have gone to university after passing through a struggling yet decent school system. Multiculturalism will have been the norm during their lifetimes and they will usually be more accustomed to and positive towards immigration. The flip-side is that many will have been directly affected by 2008’s crash and the subsequent era of austerity and dwindling economic growth which has manifested itself in poor wage growth, struggling public services and astronomical house prices. Their economic outlook is poor and unstable with many of the hopes and dreams that their parents optimistically held for them in the early noughties seeming completely out of reach. This is an aspirational sub-group includes a large proportion of college and university-educated people however many are under-employed and almost all will be underpaid compared with previous generations at the same age. Home ownership will be out of the reach until their parents die and those who do make the foolish decision to live away will be burdened with extortionate rent which renders any attempts at monthly saving futile. With Brexit now in front of them as this age’s defining economic obstacle, it is difficult for many to be optimistic.

To understand how Nandos profits from the business of this demographic, it’s important dive into what the brand represents to them, not the brand that the marketing team and their agency partners work so hard to craft and present but the brand as perceived by regular customers. Firstly there is the positioning. Nandos is above your high-street fast-food mainstays, i.e. MacDonald’s, KFC, Burger King etc. yet far more casual than Pizza Express or Prezzo. The fact that the humous and halloumi brigade are likely to swing by occasionally whilst out-and-about in town rather than picking up a bargain bucket or sitting down for a Big Mac lends a certain prestige to the chain. The chain’s popularity with younger Black Britons and Halal-Friendly menu (in a fifth of their locations) tell us that this is an inclusive space. It’s an easy option for a muslim group of friends in, say the Trafford Centre in Manchester which spares them having to route out a quality and fairly-priced independent establishment. Another consideration is its economic accessibility. Diners can come to Nandos with a range of budgets and find a suitable food and drink combo. Nandos essentially exists in the sweet-spot where economic accessibility, prestige and inclusiveness overlap. It’s aspirational without being pretentious, affordable whilst enjoyable and serves a diverse customer base.

The reason why it relates to Labour so strongly is that it is a manifestation of the goals of Tony Blair and New Labour. Blair wanted working class individuals to become upwardly mobile- a continuation of the social purpose that Labour has pursued since the dynamics of class and the labour market changed radically in the era of international capital and mass production. This goes some way towards explaining how the restaurant came to be the favoured spot of the Britain’s lower-middle class. It’s product proposition of affordable exotic(-ish) chicken dishes served in an informal yet visually interesting and somewhat sophisticated setting matches perfectly with the social and economic aspirations of a generation that were finally getting a real stab at economic and social prestige. Now that those who grew up in this generation is facing unprecedented economic challenges- it’s time for Labour to step up to the mark and communicate how they can make a real positive change to these people’s lives.

Unsurprisingly there hasn’t been any research into the political views of young people who eat at Nandos. Urban BAME individuals are more likely to vote for Labour, we know this, but turnout is still low compared to other demographics. Young people are also underrepresented as voters- something we saw play out during the EU referendum. The strategy of appealing to non-voters, as noted by Stephen Bush in the New Statesman, is not a winning one in itself. This is however a long terms strategy for attracting support for the party.

There really is no saving the Labour party in June’s upcoming election. I don’t envy the party, I don’t envy their comms and strategy teams and I certainly don’t envy the agency Krow who were picked specifically for this task. Corbyn, whilst undoubtably a hardworking and diligent constituency MP, is an ineffectual leader and stands before the public as someone with a past steeped in placard holding, fringe causes and association with unsavoury and subversive groups whilst having no previous experience or interest in governing. Labour needs a vision for how to galvanise those who have been let down and cheated out of a future that was meant to be exciting and prosperous yet stable and it needs solid policy positions that demonstrate how this vision can be actioned in ways that have a measurable impact in people’s lives. The Nandos Generation are only one of many groups that Labour need to win over but they will certainly play a decisive role as an electoral group in the fortunes of a centre-left party aiming to govern.

Advertisements

How marxist sociology can crack diversity for adland

Pierre Bordieu’s Forms of Capital outlines three main forms of capital which govern the class divides of western societies. These are Economic capital, Social capital and Cultural capital. A very simplified summary goes as follows:

Economic Capital: What you earn or own.

Social Capital: Who you know.

Cultural Capital: What you know.

It’s no secret that the ad industry has a lot of work to do in order to unlock the mostly untapped pool of creative talent that exists outside of the usual dens of privilege and inheritance. Everyone is trying but progress is slow. A big agency that I used to work for used ‘blind recruitment’, which replaced the CV at interview selection stage with five questions, but many of the people who worked hard on diversity initiatives were dismayed to find that this approach still attracted a disproportionate amount of privately schooled Oxbridgers. I can’t definitively claim that this was because privately educated applicants who go through the UK’s elite institutions are rigorously groomed for these kinds of processes from a young age and are fluent many of the social codes that appeal to their like-minded hirers, but that seems to be the most likely explanation. This is why I would argue that there is a strong need for ad people who build and manage teams to get a deep understanding of the various need states that ‘outsiders’ have.

So this is where the Marxist sociologist, philosopher and essayist Pierre Bordieu’s Forms of Capital thesis comes in. Firstly, it’s essential to understand the economic barriers that prevent potentially brilliant candidates joining and staying in the industry. If we can’t understand that only a certain types of people can afford to live in London as a junior creative we’re potentially shutting out hoardes of talent people. Secondly, we need to make nepotism truly taboo and understand that it’s still widespread in the industry. If we can’t understand that the next great strategic iconoclast might not have an uncle that went to Harrow with the CSO then we’re losing great minds. Thirdly, we need to make sure that we’re not consciously or unconsciously choosing ‘people like us,’ with similar educational backgrounds, accents, mannerisms and tastes. If we can’t understand that there’s a future Business Director who didn’t go to university, we’ll be poorer for it. These are basic points but something we seem to be missing them with our blanket approach to addressing diversity.

There are some notable examples of great practical intiatives. Saatchi & Saatchi have taken the honourable step of increasing entry-level salaries in order to attract those who would normally be put off by having to choose between London rent and food. Grey have followed up their bold renaming to Valenstine & Fatt with a broad and ambitious program which includes a bursary for two socially disadvantaged creatives and a scheme which involves working directly with state primary and secondary schools. The challenge for everyone else is to learn from these initiatives and develop rigorous strategies rather than short-term corporate efficiencies.

What’s required is a set of questions (or ‘points to consider’) that managers need to have in front of them when making personnel decisions which asses how candidates compare in terms of the privileges that they have had up to this point. This can then be compared to the achievements listed on their CV so that a fair assessment can be reached. This way agencies can get a real sense for the grit, perseverance and intelligence that candidates have demonstrated as well as having the opportunity to make their agencies a more representative place.

So why is Forms of Capital a good starting point? Whist I’m not recommending that all agency staffers start loading up their bookshelves with cultural theory tomes by Roland Barthes and Slavoj Zizek- we are busy people who deal in the real world and commercials solutions after all, it would be false to claim that a big part of what we do includes using models of understanding which we can use to evaluate problems and find workable solutions.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Diversity and Adland’s Brexit blind spot 

Let’s face it, barely anyone in UK Adland predicted Brexit. Now the dust of the actual referendum has settled a bit, we have a new Prime Minister and both major parties have seen their divisions rise to the surface exposing the deeply held resentments and ideological differences that had previously been papered over, we can have a proper look at how Adland both failed to anticipate and combat a popular decision that may set the UK back years in economic growth and social progress.

At the heart of the issue where the Advertising industry in the UK, and more specifically London, is concerned is the demographic makeup of agency staffers and their socio economic backgrounds. It’s no secret that advertising agencies are trying to focus more on diversity and any efforts in the right direction should be applauded. We’re seeing more ethnic minority participation from junior level all the way up to the key movers and shakers. Almost every agency head has made a commitment to expanding the female presence at leadership level and LGBT inclusiveness and visibility also appears to be on the up.

Progress in all of its forms should be applauded but there are underlying structural economic issues that cannot be ignored. Some efforts to to redress the gender balance have seen white middle class male leadership be replaced by white middle class female leadership in what seems like only an incremental improvement. Creative departments, Account Management and Planning across most agencies still exude a strong public school mafia vibe where everyone will have been to university and a disproportionate chunk will have been privately educated. It seems that in much of what has been written in the industry press on Brexit, very few have made the link between diversity and the tone-deaf nature of the creative output for the Remain side.

The results of the referendum have shown us that the ‘out’ vote was strong in working class communities outside of London where the benefits of EU membership, globalisation and technocratic forms of government and industry are not felt in terms of cheap city breaks, gap years and Air bnb. Working class Britons living in post-industrial towns across the country face job insecurity, wage depression and the depletion of previously existing community bonds in contrast to exotic restauraunts and cheap domestic labour. This is not to give credibility to the UKIPs and Britain Firsts of today’s Britain who seek to exploit and divide a wider sense of malasie but to point to a large section of the buying public who brands, including that of the defeated Remain campaign aren’t connecting with.

The comms that actually ran made for mundane viewing at best and they focussed on young people and their ‘future’ which made the grave mistake of preaching to the converted. The decisive misjudgement was in ignoring those among the general population who don’t feel that they have a future to protect in the first place. The double-thronged approach of regurgitating IMF warnings and employing Kiera Knightley and Lily Cole in drives for the youth vote seems to be aiming at simultaneously playing on people’s fear of potential financial insecurity and encouraging already pro-European cosmopolitan young voters to show up and vote. Whilst both sensible approaches on their own right, neither held any weight with people lacking any of the attributes of economic, social or political capital such as gainful employment, home ownership, a university education and the option to live and/or work abroad. Worse still yet altogether more indicative of the problem at hand were the ads that didn’t run, all of which from the image of Nigel Farage with a Hitler moustache to the image of key politicians from the Brexit campaign with the headline ‘Do you want to be left alone on a small island with these men?’ Here you can see a palpable sense of middle-class sneering and Mock the Week style wishy-washy social liberalism that smells a lot like one of those trite Question Time exchanges between an audience member and Nigel Farage where any kind of constructive and insightful criticism is cast aside for a damning cry of ‘but you’re racist!’

The purpose of this post isn’t neccesarily to argue that M&C Saatchi needed to round up a bunch of white working class copywriters from the North with racist Dads for this campaign but instead to point to how the growing lack of opportunities for those from more marginalised backgrounds evident across society as a whole has become a key issue for Adland and the resulting creative output. The problem however is rooted in the highly insulated bubble that the clear majority of the advertising industry originate from and operate in. The issue goes deeper than whether or not agencies were able to fully grasp and meet the challenge of the EU referendum Remain campaign. If all departments at creative agencies are mainly staffed by one demographic it’s hard to see how work that speaks to consumers outside of that group can be produced.

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

Embedded image permalink

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.

 

 

 Please leave Generation Z alone until 2018

If you’re in the toy or gaming industry you don’t need to read this. 

I’m hearing more and more about the need for brands to appeal to ‘Generation Z.’ Otherwise known as ‘post-millennials’ or, if you prefer weird militaristic terminology, the ‘Homeland Generation, ‘ these are individuals born after 1998 (making the oldest ones 18). They have never known a world without easy internet access, e-commerce, financial downturn, smartphones, an African American leader of ‘The Free World’, legislation protecting almost all minorities, the minimum wage and the threat of terrorism. They will admittedly be an interesting bunch and will bring with them a heap of new challenges for marketers down the line however there does seem little point in trying to actively reach a demographic who, at this stage in their lives, don’t have any of their own money.

The counter-argument that I would anticipate is that brands are what people are increasingly choosing to define themselves with. For example, there is no shortage of brand-complemented narcissism on Instagram, Buzzfeed’s commercial partners manage to merge their ‘listcicles’ with lifestyle-base content and Apple’s marketing is largely based on the personal qualities that its target market aspire to. If we follow this logic then it would make sense to get in there early with Gen Z (sorry) however there is one major factor that is being overlooked and that is that kids and teenagers have not fully developed yet as individuals.

Sure, Generation Z likely enjoy Zoella videos and Minecraft or One Direction or whatever but these are things that they will grow out of and probably be embarrassed by once they reach an age where they have their own income- I used to think The Kooks’ ‘Naive’ was a brilliant song, I watched How I Met Your Mother and thought that The Libertines were a culturally pivotal band for Pete’s sake (pun intended). We also have no idea how this demographic will evolve once they start to have to deal with financial responsibility, career choices, marriage, voting, tax, parenthood etc. Might this impact their starry eyed social liberalism or their projected entrepreneurial spirit? Who can say?

By no means am I saying that Generation Z aren’t an important research topic for planners, marketing strategists and the like. There is no harm in trying to understand them or even making some speculations about what their spending habits and feelings towards various brands might be however it seems foolish to be putting time, effort and money into ‘reaching’ them with our advertising before they have any independent purchasing power, experience of adulthood or sense of what defines them as individuals. So back off until 2018 when some of them will be 21 and spending their Zero-Hour Contract wages on products that they’ll take home to their parents homes which they’ll still be living in because of the Housing Crisis.

Lantern, Hudson Mohawke reclaims his brand


When news of Hudson Mohawke’s Lantern tracklist first broke, many of us were surprised that there appeared to be no rappers featuring. Existing for the last couple of years as a sought-after beat-smith for A-list rappers such as Kanye, Drake, Pusha T and Rick Ross, it seemed logical that he would put out a release affirming his position as chief purveyor of Trap. Fresh from these huge Hip Hop releases and the short lived TNGHT project with Canadian fellow Trap avant-gardist Lunice, the Scottish wonder-kid has turned his back on Hip Hop-based releases in favour of electronic Power-R&B.
Throughout the record Mohawke riffs on popular EDM, pop, Hip Hop and R&B to create a kind of kitsch interpretation of contemporary dance music. The big drums from his Trap releases such as last year’s Chimes EP remain but they are matched with stadium synths and pop riffs. Mohawke makes it clear that this is the music that he wants to be associated with for now and seems keenly aware of  the potential for his brand to pigeon-holed into Trap producer to the stars and takes a radical left turn. This is not to say that he has a foolhardy approach to brand consistency, his trademark electronic sonic maximalism remains but the absence of the expected rap gods in favour of the subdued Jhene Aiko, Antony of Anthony and the Johnsons and Irfane tells us that he is more interested in building his own sound.

‘Scud Books’ and ‘Kettles’ both nod towards his signature maximalist approach whilst embracing epic stadium-level triumphantism, with ‘Very First Breath’ we get an RnB-tinged electro-pop effort with powerful evocative synth work and HudMo’s signature experimentalism is indulged on ‘Little Djembe.’ The Hudson Mohawke brand is demonstrated to be as fluid as Kanye West’s or David Bowie’s and like the aforementioned he retains his core creative values of immaculate execution, disregard of genre confinement and unabridged risk-taking.

The album isn’t perfect, I’d score it a strong 7/10 in terms of the final product, some of the clunky songwriting on ‘Warriorz’ and the underwhelming Jhene Aiko assisted ‘Resistance’ falls a little flat. From a ‘brand’ point of view however, the record proves to be a clever move by the producer to create something that clearly belongs to his own artistic ambitions, defies pigeon-holing and lays the foundations of a varied and exciting career.

The Great Beauty and the soul of the Ad Industry

Recently I watched Paolo Sorrentino’s 2014 film The Great Beauty on Netflix. A meditation on humanity’s relationship to beauty which has us following the dapper party-king and writer Jep’s existential crisis around the fading opulence of Berlusconi’s Rome, the film takes us into the lives of an ageing group of artists and intellectuals who have largely squandered their gifts in favour of hedonism and the status and power to be able to make parties ‘fail.’ This journey towards spiritual redemption through recognizing the sublime nature of existence and the power of beauty is an important film for those who care deeply about the advertising industry.

Jep, officially a novelist although he has writtern only one book some thirty years ago and relied on earnings from gossip-journalism and art reviews ever since for income, has become consumed by the narcistic stagnancy of Rome’s artistic community and finds very little that is geniune and nourishing to the soul. Triggered by the news that his first, and possibly only love has passed away confessing in her personal diary that she never stopped loving him, Jep is confronted by a sense of spiritual emptiness that can’t be filled by alcohol, partying, drugs, sex or religion. Reflecting on his youth in possibly Eurpoe’s most culturally and artistically crucial city, Jep visits everything from museums after dark to strip clubs. Being suave and intelligent has consumed the best parts of his character which manages to render him simultaneously sociable and aloof. Following the unexpected death of an ageing stripper with whom he was having a brief affair, an eldery woman stops to ask him ‘who will look after you now?’- and that’s what he has become, someone to look after rather than someone to actually live with and revel in life’s remarkable moments. He has created before and was a roaring success, his novel The Human Apparatus is lauded by his contemporaries as a modern classic and his journalism seems to be well recieved. There is however a sense of unfufilled potential that seems to have been suffocated out by his relationship to the city of Rome. He appreciates the beauty of the city through the lens of his own narcissism, seemingly more enthused that he is able to get exclusive access to the museums at all hours of the night than he is about the art itself. Jep goes treads a painful path through grief, bitterness and existential funk before his redemption culminates in starting his second novel at the end of the film.

It is not only the breathtaking cinematography of Luca Bigazzi and overall peerless aesthetic of the film that the men and women of the ad industry should try to observe and absorb but also the underlying theme- the redemptive qualities of beauty and the sublime nature of human existence.This is not a piece that aims to put creativity on a pedestal or minimize the importance of Sir Sorrel’s ‘Math Men’– technology should be harnessed for the benefit of agencies and their clients and the tools afforded to us by ‘Big Data’ may yet prove to be valuable. This is a call for creatives and those who got into the industry ‘to do great work’ as the agency Mother’s motto goes, to remember what it is they do and that all of the clients, data analysts, planners and account managers (including myself) can’t. Data collected and analysed properly is a great starting point for reaching the right people in the right way and the practical targets must always be the end point but we all got into this industry to make amazing, beautiful, innovative and striking work. Without this in mind creativity becomes relegated to after-work drinks posted on Instagram and well-worded emails.

Creativity exists in the conjecture between facts and can’t be painted in numbers. We’d all like to clock-off at six and slide into a rooftop party in some swanky European city but we must remember that we are in the business of creating the best work that our imaginations will allow and giving businesses the beautiful face that they need to seduce the consumer.