A letter to my daughter

Dear Pats

You’re going to start out in this industry with no idea whatsoever.

As crazy as it sounds, you’ll have no idea for the first few years that what you say isn’t always as important as who’s saying it. No idea that people may react differently to a 21 year old in a mini skirt (who, by the way, knows the data inside out) than a man in a suit.

But then you’ll get that bit older. Maybe you’re more confident, maybe you’re more impatient, maybe others are more threatened. Maybe it’s a little of both. But words like “dismissive”, “opinionated”, “stubborn” will start to creep into your appraisals. Because you’re a good student, and anything less than perfection is failure, you’ll take this very seriously to heart. You’ll onboard the lesson that you’re highly capable but not that likeable. It’s a narrative highly familiar to any student of American politics.

But it’s not a narrative many men will be familiar with, because men are allowed to be very senior and very successful and have a “but”. “He’s super bright but not that great with people”. “He’s amazingly creative but he has a bit of temper”. “He’s fantastic on the commercials but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly”.

Women don’t get to have a “but”. We have to be the whole package, and we have to do it, as Ginger Rogers said, backwards and in heels.

The tricky thing of course, is that some of this feedback is valuable. One of the most valuable lessons you’ll learn, and play back to the many passionate, bright, utterly convinced young planners you’ll work with is “it’s not enough to be right, you’ve got to take people with you.” (Thank you Jim Carroll for that one.)

Building consensus is incredibly important. Forsaking rigid thinking, getting comfortable with chaos, allowing other people in before the perfect edifice of impenetrable logic is created is important.

But for a time younger Pats you’re going to overcompensate. You’re going to worry so much about being liked that a few years later a group of your peers are going to tell you that you’re just too nice. Your boss is going to tell you that “You ask way more of yourself than you do of your teams” and you’ll know they’re right.

You’ll have two incredible children and you’ll learn so much from them about gender, nature, nurture and how men and women make their way in the world. Learning more about how boys and girls navigate the school system will crystallise an idea you call the Good Girl Trap.

The Good Girl Trap is what happens when women in the workplace adapt to a model of female accomplishment that is socially and culturally acceptable. That model is the good girl model-diligent, conscientious, hard working, agreeable. The good girl model is rewarded for a time but it ultimately represents a huge opportunity cost both to women and to businesses.  Because at a certain point in anyone’s career trajectory, male or female, it becomes more important to (constructively) challenge the rules, to be an agent of change, than to follow the rules in a perhaps broken model.

So for a while you’re going to want to tear your hair out.  But at some point in all this, you’re going to find a balance between too nice and too opinionated, too difficult and too deferential, too argumentative and too agreeable.

At that point, you might just have some useful advice for your younger self that goes a bit like this:

Storytelling is a superpower: Telling people the story of where the business is going. Telling disparate groups the story of why they’re stronger together. If you can tell a story, you don’t need to be the loudest voice to be the most powerful, or the most memorable.

You can be too nice, you can’t be too kind: Women, in particular, can be too nice. Too nice, for me, is when accommodating and agreeable behaviours start to become self- destructive and ultimately value destructive for the business. Too nice is when super smart, super qualified women over compensate or don’t hold others to account-meaning the business never sees what they can really do. So, yes, we can be too nice. But we can’t be too kind. Over the years you’ll find extraordinary reserves of kindness in some of the industry’s most superficially fearsome characters.

Generosity is an operating system: You’ll be lucky enough in your career to work at Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty for eleven extraordinary years. You’ll work in a culture shaped not only by a tireless commitment to excellence but by John Bartle’s passionate belief that “The best strategists are generous at heart”. Over the years you’ll learn that giving things away-ideas, coffees, time, credit-comes back to you a hundredfold. The industry will start to agonise over integration and you’ll have a hunch that it’s actually pretty simple. Hire generous. Hire curious. And get out of the way.  

The truth will set you free: Women are phenomenally adept at picking up social cues and fitting in. We’re inundated with advice on beauty norms, how tos, what to wear, how to speak, how to sign off emails, seven habits that are killing our credibility….

The truth is, Authenticity is one of the most valued characteristics in successful leaders. Interesting people have interesting ideas. Interesting people make interesting connections. Interesting people connect others.

To wrap up….. One of the many benefits of having young children is that you have a great excuse to watch Disney movies. We watched The Little Mermaid recently, and I started to fume. To walk in the world, to find love, the mermaid has to give up her voice. But then (spoiler alert) it turns out that it’s not until she finds her voice that she wins the prince (if you like that sort of thing), kicks ass and ultimately saves the day.

And so, I have a point. If you have to give up your voice to be liked, to fit in, that’s too high a price. You might find, over the years, that there are better and more effective ways to make yourself heard. Different tones, different techniques. That’s okay. But don’t give it up. Your voice is invaluable. You have a point.

Thank you.

In praise of girly swots

This article first appeared in Campaign magazine, January 2020

The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is Climate Emergency. As pedants among us may point out, that is in fact two words but a worthy and important winner nonetheless. I can’t help feel, however, that the real word(s) of the year were Girly Swot.

They say a week is a long time in politics. Right now, 24 hours can feel like a lifetime. So it may be hard to cast your mind back to more innocent times (September) when it was revealed that Boris Johnson had referred to his old school friend and predecessor David Cameron thus.

In a febrile political climate, where facts, evidence and expertise can feel like relics of a bygone era, women seized on the apparent slur and embraced it as a badge of honour. In our industry too, it feels that the hour of the girly swot has come.

Girly swots, it is important to note, are not the same as good girls.        

I have written in the past about the “good girl trap”. The good girl trap, for the uninitiated, is the danger that successful women become trapped by the very behaviours that led to their initial success-diligence, conformity, agreeableness. 

Women learn early in their school careers not to raise their hand unless they are thoroughly prepared. Recent data shows girls in the UK have one of the highest fear of failure levels anywhere in the world. They learn quickly in their professional careers that challenging the status quo can be seen as disruptive. Strident. Shrill.

As a result many become trapped in a cycle of doing their diligent and dedicated best to make a broken system work rather than make a change. This takes these brilliant women a long way-annual reviews will describe them as hard working, meticulous and dedicated-but not all the way. Because at a certain point, the ability to constructively challenge and creatively disrupt becomes more important than following the rules.

Girly swots share many characteristics with good girls. Girly swots have a plan, and a plan B. Girly swots do their homework. Girly swots know what the data says, and yes thank you, they know the sample size and the methodology. Most importantly, girly swots don’t have to be, well, girls. Some of my very favourite girly swots are boys.

The difference is that girly swots are not afraid to raise their hands, or their voice. Angela Merkel, Elizabeth Warren, Greta Thumberg? Girly swots all. Hermione Granger? The patron saint of girly swots.

In a world of heightened rhetoric and vitriol, of polarisation and clickbait, girly swots bring much needed nuance to the conversation. That’s needed in our political discourse, but it’s also needed in our industry.

We too live in world of polarisation. Brand purpose is dead. Brand purpose is king. Data is the new oil. Data is the scourge of creativity. Content is king. Content is wallpaper.

Moreover, we live in a world where trust is scarce. Where our credibility as an industry is compromised by fake news, fake views and fake influencers.

So across our industry, regardless of gender, perhaps it’s time for a swottier style of leadership. Where we value preparedness, nuance, and thoughtfulness over bluster and blagging.

So what can we all learn from copying the girly swots’ homework?

Complexity is not a bad thing

No one ever lost a speaking gig or a byline by taking a polarising position, but the reality is almost inevitably more complicated. Girly swots know that. They may be excited about the new but they understand the power of “traditional” channels and the enduring power of a story well told. Most importantly, they know the power of “and”.

But obfuscation is a bad thing

While we may embrace complexity, we must reject obfuscation. Girly swots love explaining things. They love bringing others on the journey. They embrace the complex, and they make it simple.

Curiosity is invaluable, passion is cool  

We talk a lot as an industry about restless, relentless, paranoid cultures. Perhaps a more positive, more inclusive way to think about it is curiosity. Curiosity about the new, curiosity about the old. Curiosity about theories, curiosity about people. Girly swots embrace curiosity, disappear down rabbit holes, and come back with inspiration from everywhere from poetry to politics, physics to stand up, Blake to Bauhas.

“I don’t know” is not a weakness

As an industry, it can sometimes feel that we are terrified to admit that we don’t know. To our colleagues, or to our clients. Just as we’ve learned in recent years that it’s okay sometimes not to be okay, let’s agree that it’s okay sometimes, not to know.

There is enormous credibility in admitting, in a post truth world, that we don’t know something but we’re going to go away and do our research. There’s powerful vulnerability in admitting to our colleagues that we don’t know something (or anything) about their area of expertise and asking them to teach us something.

So, will Girly Swots be the word(s) of 2020? Who knows. But let’s try, at least, to make it a little of the spirit of 2020, building a more thoughtful, nuanced, fact based and curious business. Swots, raise your hands.

What’s in a brand?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet

So Shakespeare said tongue, I suspect, in cheek.

 The advent of Brandless, however has made me wonder, what’s in a brand?

Launched in July this year, Brandless is a range of grocery and healthcare products, exclusively available online. All foods are non GMO, and a majority of products are organic. Every item, from honey to handsoap, costs just $3. The company can offer these savings, it argues, by eliminating “Brand Tax”: “the hidden costs you pay for a national brand”.

Commentators were quick to announce the death of the brand (again).  Yet Brandless, ironically, has the hallmarks of a powerful 21st century brand.

A simple and compelling sense of purpose: Everyone deserves better.

A purpose enabled by the power of technology to disrupt supply chains, distribution models and customer relationships.

An elegant and distinctive brand identity; it’s easy to imagine these products becoming minimalist status symbols.

Continue reading

The imperative of hope

A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian, 18th October 2016 

Back in July, Barack Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention and ended perhaps the last great speech of his presidency by going back to the beginning: to “the audacity of hope”.

Stark dividing lines have been drawn in the US election contest between hope and fear, between a yearning for simpler times and a belief that the best is yet to come. It is not hard to draw a parallel with some of our own political challenges; the tension between those excited by a more global and connected future and those who fear being left behind in this brave new world.

Much has been written about how to make globalisation work for all and a solution remains elusive. A challenge we can meaningfully wrestle with as an industry however is how we make an increasingly connected society work for the many, making technology a source of hope not a source of anxiety and exclusion.

Continue reading

Why women should know their place-at the top

This article first appeared in The Drum on 5th October 2015

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In a world of increased competition and diminished attention, breakthrough ideas are an agency’s only source of sustainable advantage.

But breakthrough ideas don’t come from hiring the same old people to work in the same old ways. Steve Jobs (the child, lest we forget, of Syrian immigrants) didn’t build the most valuable brand in the world by urging people to “Think Homogemous”. Yet there are more men named John (or Dave) leading FTSE 100 companies in the UK than there are women.

Embracing difference has never been more important to our industry. The days of the solitary genius are gone. Creativity today is about the collision of different disciplines: artists and technologists, fashion designers and data architects, behavioural scientists and product strategists. It is about hybrid talents and hybrid teams, working in nimble and collaborative ways.

Beyond the creative industries, senior executives across all industries are beginning to understand the business value of a diverse workforce. In a Forbes survey, 85 per cent of senior executives agreed that diversity is a key driver of innovation.

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Brand Building in the age of invisible technology

This article first appeared in Contagious Magazineon 31/07/2015

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One of the founding principles of technology is Zuboff’s law: “Everything that can be automated will be automated” 

One of the most beloved principles of technology is Clarke’s law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

We are seeing both these principles hold truer by the day-the more advanced technology becomes, the more invisible it becomes.

Ever smarter algorithms are building more dynamic, contextual understanding of where we are, what we’re doing and what we might do next. Today, Google Now knows where I am and where I need to be. It knows the weather and the traffic conditions. How long before, without asking, it hails me an Uber right when I need it? Continue reading

Forget eCommerce, the future is Brand Commerce

A version of this article first appeared in Marketing Magazine, 7/5/2015 

Breaking technology stories in early April is a challenge. The pace of change is so extreme, the advances in blurring the boundaries between real world and online experiences so extraordinary that it’s difficult to tell innovation from April Fool. So when Amazon Dash launched its buttons product late on March 31st, the confusion was understandable.

Physical “Buy Now” buttons for all your favourite brands, conveniently located around your home and synched to your Amazon Prime account seemed like an obvious-if well executed-prank.  Of course so too do delivery drones, a Google store on Tottenham Court Road, a bank account you unlock with your heartbeat and an Argos “concept store” that looks like a boutique hotel. In today’s retail environment, truth really is stranger than fiction.

The reality is an audacious play by Amazon to seize control of the grocery shopping experience. It’s a move that brings in to sharp focus some of the fundamental changes happening in the world of commerce. Continue reading

The winter of our discontent

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There’s been a reflective mood in the industry of late. A recurring theme in many end of year roundups was the need to stop, to look inwards, to step away from the perpetual motion of the stream. I was relieved in many ways to read it, to realise that I wasn’t alone in finding that the noise was increasingly drowning out the signal.

Like many others, I was struck powerfully by Alexis Madrgial’s post: “The Year the Stream Crested”, where he laments the rise of “newness” as the sole organizing principle for the web:

“The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on newness.”

It’s a fascinating read, that touches on any number of interesting themes, from the polarisation of our attention span (from 7 second Vine videos to “bingeing” on House of Cards) to the pursuit of disposability as a response to surveillance culture.

In response both to this post, and to an overall sense that enough is enough, lots of clever folk- from Mel Exon to Andy Whitlock to Toby Barnes-have come up with their recommendations for stepping back, for finding islands in the stream. I wonder though if there’s more at play here than simply feed fatigue. If the problem isn’t just the stream but the same-ness.

Like many of these commentators, I found myself feeling that what seemed exhilarating and dynamic just a short while ago was feeling not just overwhelming, but somehow stale-dulled by sheer volume and ubiquity. It was harder to get excited not only about the next post or list but about the next big acquisition or the next social sharing app-and I say that as someone who is deeply passionate about the power of technology to transform.

So what lies behind this broader sense of ennui? Continue reading

Why Big is still Beautiful

A version of this article first appeared in Campaign magazine on September 5th 

In recent years, the “Big Idea” has often seemed to epitomise everything wrong and backward looking about our industry.  As Joseph Jaffe, author of “Flip the Funnel”, put it:

“I’m sick and tired of this notion that there is a singular BIG IDEA out there…Big ideas are equated to expensive ideas…hence the word Big. Big ideas are similarly, full of hot air, fluff, inflated with self-importance, exaggeration and hyperbole”

How much more compelling the lean manifesto or the Agile movement have seemed – trim and nimble versus the bloated “Big” idea. We have been encouraged to develop minimal viable products, to test, optimise and iterate – all extraordinarily useful approaches when it comes to making things.

The danger is that we apply this approach to our thinking – that we start to think small.  There is huge benefit to making small. The challenge is to think big while making small.

Thinking big remains critically important for a number of reasons: Continue reading