Author Archive

There are 48 ways to transform creativity; here’s #6

Monday, May 23rd, 2022

There are 48 techniques that can transform the creativity of the work that you do.  Here’s the sixth technique:  What if we exaggerate?

Take an idea, take a problem, take a question and exaggerate it to help you find a creative outcome.

One of the most iconic pieces of advertising did this beautifully.  The Sony Bravia ad featuring huge dollops of colour cascading through the landscape took the literal idea of enhanced colour and exaggerated it into something that would not just transform your TV experience, but which would transform your whole physical and emotional experience.  The art director Juan Cabral reportedly wanted to exaggerate even more than the final shoot allowed, he wanted to throw a million balls through the streets.  In fact they couldn’t find a million balls in time for the shoot, and so a mere 250,000 were used. 

Apple’s 1984 commercial.  Conformity exaggerated into a dystopian nightmare relieved only by Apple’s revolutionary new computer.  Old Spice’s The man your man could smell like.  Not really, of course, but yes in your wildest dreams.

Beyond the realm of advertising exaggeration can drive creativity.  Peaky Blinder’s writer Stephen Knight took the real lives of a Birmingham street gang and exaggerated the characteristics of one gangster: Sam Sheldon and by making him smarter, prettier and more heroic created the show’s magnetic protagonist Tommy Shelby.

Exaggeration of threats can lead to creativity in business problem solving.  This might seem unnecessary in these times of change and disruption but change is less difficult if you can get ahead of it.  Re-imagine customer service by auditing best in class service, not in your competitive set only but beyond the sector that you operate in.  What would happen if your closest competitor delivered at that level?  What actions do you need to take now in order to ensure competitive advantage? 

Risk management requires not only imagining the worst that could happen, but also working through the business’ appetite for risk, should the worst occur.

New  product development and increased satisfaction can be accelerated when you pre-empt a potential client or customer re-pitch by offering a solution to a problem that the client isn’t even aware they have yet.  How about imagining the client in question as the most unreasonable client you’ve ever met.  Consider them to have the standards of the princess in the story of the princess and the pea and the patience of a toddler.  

When we were answering the brief for the Cannes Lions Creativity for Good competition we applied exaggerated thinking to one of the insights.  To quote Francesca Ranieri, one of my Team Wriot team mates, “if women received as much business funding as men, and if they combined their business worth, they would become the most powerful economy in the world”.  From this exaggeration of the economic facts we created the award winning campaign  – you can find out more here.

If you are having a tough time, creative exaggeration can be surprisingly helpful.  Dreading something?  A difficult meeting?  A speaking engagement?  A networking event?  What is the worst thing that could happen, and if it did, how bad would it actually be?  Was inspired by this years ago by asking my brilliant daughters how they were so good at networking (my particular bete noire).  They replied: “we just think, if it goes badly, we don’t ever need to speak to that person again”.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy includes this technique too as a way to stop worrying – exaggerate to the worst case scenario and then go further and work out what your reaction might be to that: “If the worst-case were to happen, what would you do to cope with it? ..If you do have a bad meeting, you might be disappointed for the rest of the day, curl up on the couch with a pint of ice cream and watch T.V. Get back on that horse the next day.”

Looking for a creative solution: Exaggerate

Creativity does not have to be limited by zoom

Monday, March 28th, 2022

nasdaq“You can’t be creative on Teams or Zoom.”

“You can’t bond with people without meeting them.”

“You can’t expect brilliant work from people working remotely.”

I’ve heard all of this said over the last few months, and I have proof positive that it’s not true.

In mid-November 2021 I signed up for a new global creativity competition.  For the first time ever Cannes Lions launched their Creativity for Good competition.  It is open to anyone and. everyone in the world (not just creative agencies but any member agency).   My own recent experiences have been in judging awards (including the prestigious Campaign Media Awards.)  Despite this, I decided to put myself forward as a candidate to answer the brief.

The Cannes scheme was deliberately designed to connect people with people they don’t normally work with.  Steve Latham, head of talent at Cannes Advertising Festival, told me that he believes that networking is all well and good, but that “nothing really drives a connection better than peer to peer work on a brief.”

The brief was an ambitious one, as you would expect from Cannes – which is the pinnacle of advertising festivals and of peer reviewed work worldwide – our global Oscars as an industry.  In summary the client – the World Woman Foundation led by ceo Rupa Dash, set out their moonshot mission to create an equal future for women by activating economic opportunities through entrepreneurship.  She explained their belief that “today, women represent the most significant disruptive force of the global economy — and the world is unprepared. Women are also the single largest productive economic force and drive almost every economic indicator for businesses. To ignite higher value, reach audacious goals, and building more purpose-driven ventures demands a new kind of thinking.”

Our challenge as a team, was to deliver that thinking in a competition with more than 30 other teams worldwide.  That’s competition at scale.  I had my day job to do, plus my team was 3 complete strangers from similar time zones but 3 different countries across EMEA who also had very busy day jobs.

Luckily for me my team mates turned out to be the best in the world.  Luka Mavretic from Magreb, Croatia, Francesca Ranieri from Milan, Italy and Ifeanyi Dibia from Ikeja, Nigeria.

Let’s jump to the happy ending.  We won, and the chair of the extremely distinguished and very intimidating jury, Jonathan Mildenhall, Co-Founder & Chair TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, went so far as to say that our idea was the stand out winner.

Was it tough to bond as a team, to work cross disciplines (I’m a CTO, a comms strategist by background, everyone else is a copywriter), to produce world class work in a very limited time frame?

We began our journey by ignoring the Cannes team’s advice to use icebreakers, although I will definitely revisit these on another occasion.  Instead, the biggest icebreaker for us was to define our team name.  This in the UK has fairly obvious associations with toxic team dynamics on The Apprentice, but for us deciding that we were team WRIOT (RIOT because we were going to break rules and start a revolution, and W for WWF and Writers as we all write as part of our jobs), was a strong signal of the work we would do together.  And as with all the best teams I have worked in there were no silos, no status concerns and no worries about stepping out of roles.  As Luka says: “we didn’t have assigned roles within the team.  We were very flexible and we all contributed both creatively and strategically.”

It was tough, late nights, Sunday afternoons, short deadlines, no art direction, 100% Teams and Zoom calls, but we delivered, got shortlisted, pitched our idea and of course won.

Team WRIOT worked well together because we served a single aim – to change the world through creativity.  No politics, no borders, no personal ambitions, one goal.

Can you be creative without meeting up in person?  Yes, all the way to winning at Cannes.  If you get the chance to experience this exciting challenge and journey, whatever your role, title or experience, you should jump at it.  We hope to meet IRL in June – and maybe we’ll do the icebreakers then!




Take a breath.

Tuesday, March 8th, 2022

breathIt’s all about breath.

Athletes and actors both know this

Participants in the superb RADA for business executive presence for women course are taught four breaths to change your state, reputedly recommended for statesmen and presidents before they speak to their nation.  (Techniques of course learnt by RADA alumni like Tom Hiddleston, Ken Branagh, Ben Whishaw and Nazanin Boniadi.)

Breathing is also crucial for allyship at work.

It’s almost impossible to bring your best effort into the workplace when you feel that you are not included for whatever reason.  It might be because of your skin colour, race, sexuality, age or any of the protected characteristics.  It might be because of your personality.   If you like a public debate for instance when the consensus is, well just that, consensus.

If you’re anxious that you may be left feeling stupid when you need to ask a question for clarification then it’s hard to get on with the task in hand ( if you don’t understand it how are you going to achieve it well?).

And if you want to be a good ally for a colleague who is on the receiving end of classic media land banter then each interaction could be loaded with tension.

The excellent Ad Association cross industry All In Action Plan which launched in January 22 lays out a programme of initiatives to tackle improvements in the experiences of women, Asian and older talent.  The initiatives came about as a result of the latest data showed a disparity in gender experiences especially for working mothers; a shocking statistic that 27% of Asian respondents states they were likely to leave the industry because of lack of inclusion or discrimination; and because of an entirely missing generation: only 4% respondents were aged 55-64 (versus 17% of the population).  How many businesses in our sector can claim their age profile matches that of the city in which they are based?

Latest research for my book Belonging, the key to diversity, equality and inclusion at work, with co-authors Kathryn Jacob and Mark Edwards, gives a bleak view of many people’s experiences at work in our sector.  In an update for the paperback which is out in May, we’ve seen experiences of bias, harassment and inappropriate behaviour increase in the broad sector of marketing, advertising and pr.

We’re returning to real offices and in person encounters and we know from the Time To survey that there are many who fear a “pent up demand” in terms of physical sexual harassment.

Our industry prides itself on a culture of fun, hard work and hard playtime.  We must transform this culture in to one of zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour and where inclusion is paramount.

Everyone of us must take personal responsibility for this, and this is where breathing like an actor or an athlete comes in.

Breathing can change your state and give you the equanimity to speak up for a colleague even if the person who you’re challenging is your boss or about to fill in your peer review.

As we write in Belonging: “The simplest way to stop yourself from being triggered or to pull yourself back after you’ve been triggered is via the breath. It sounds too simple to be true, but it does work.

We’ve all either told someone or been told ourselves to take a deep breath. It’s great advice, but you have to know how to take a deep breath effectively. If you simply gasp a deep lung-full of air, you’re making things worse for yourself. A rapid in-breath maintains or exacerbates your fight or flight mode. What you need to do is focus on your out-breath. A slow prolonged out-breath is a powerful biological signal to your body that the threat is over and that it’s okay to relax.”

The impact of breathing is even more relevant after a bout of COVID.  But whatever challenges you face in the workplace a few breaths can change your ability to navigate stormy waters and face your fears.


How busy are you? How busy should you be?

Monday, February 14th, 2022

georgeAd people love to look busy.  Busy means needed, important and valued.  Looking busy means needed, important and valued often too.

A recent Economist article referenced the brilliant Seinfeld episode where George gets a proper job, but works out that if he acts irritated he doesn’t need to do any actual work saying: “When you look annoyed all the time, people think you’re busy.”

The columnist, Bartleby, then goes on to claim that there are even more ways to pretend to look busy in a hybrid world.  He says that work has become more “performative”.  You can do less by appearing virtually: making comments on documents, responding to round robin emails, looking attentive on camera.

This is a nuanced argument.  In our industry work has always been about how you show up, as well as how much work you do.  To claim this is easier virtually goes against the statistics of growth which we have seen in advertising and media (+35% growth in the UK ad market doesn’t just happen without people doing any work), and is somewhat dismissive of the sterling efforts the home workers who were also home schooling had to deliver.  Bartleby writes: “Its not what you do. It’s how ostentatiously you do it”.  It is however true that in our sector this has always been at least one route to promotion.

In my second book, The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business, we recommend that you must be seen to have done good work, it isn’t enough just to have done it. Of course, good managers “should” recognize this, but should does not always translate into “do”.

In other jobs how busy you seem to be is not an issue, because the output is more simply measured.  In a factory job I had one summer I had to keep up with the component parts that were passed to me for assembly.

In my first job in Dolcis shoe shop in Brent Cross my productivity was measured by the amount of Scotchguard shoe protection I sold. Not shoe sales, not customer satisfaction, not good fit. Cans of rain proof spray were where the margin was.   In many sales jobs beating targets is directly rewarded with bonuses.  There is nowhere to hide in terms of fake busy-ness there.

Other sectors pose other challenges.  Do we want our caring services to be run on the basis of number of appointments achieved, or on the basis of dignity and warmth, or on a balance of the two? As chair of Healthwatch England, Sir Robert Francis says: “To focus exclusively on performance measures can leave services with a false belief they are succeeding without any real idea whether people’s care and support needs are being met or where things might need to change.”

The Economist warns of the comfort zone of so-called “Optimal Busyness” where executives are neither overwhelmed with work, nor have too much time to think, where there is a “buzz” of rushing from meeting to meeting whether or not anything productive gets done.

Agile ways of working have a remedy for this (as for so much in terms of productivity in the workplace).  The scrum master, or servant leader, calculates burn down charts where productivity is predicted, and then reviewed and optimized for each scrum.

In terms of how you can get the best out of your own productivity it is personal.  Think of the new theories of healthy eating, which claim everyone is individual and needs to adjust to their own metabolism.  This is true of busyness as well.

My first boss in advertising claimed that there were only 4 hours of productive work in him in a day.  Therefore, working hard all morning, then going to the golf club made perfect sense for him.   His number two, my more immediate boss, insisted on an 8am start and 7pm finish with a tight hour for lunch.

I think the former might be right about the 4 hours of really productive work.  The question is how long you need to deliver that productivity – all day/evening, or a strong morning.  And looking after, and supporting your colleagues might be a crucial part of that productivity.  Thanks for reading this, after all, who has time these days to read a blog?

Beware being too busy to think, in the long run it won’t be productive.


48 ways to transform creativity #5: Think like a shaman

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

shamanThere are 48 techniques that can transform the creativity of the work that you do.  Here’s the fifth technique:  Ask yourself, beyond the brief, how does this deliver really long-term success?

Shamanism is one of the oldest belief systems.  Beliefs incorporate a strong sense of family, ancestry and animism, the idea that spirits exist in every natural object, making respect for the environment core.

“Mankind does not end its existence because sickness or some other accident kills it animal spirit down here on earth.  We live on.” Nalungiaq, Netsilik woman.

Clearly with this perspective comes responsibility to the spirits of your ancestors that still surround you, and a long-term perspective about your descendants and their environment, reaching aeons into the past and into the future.

Contrast this with the immediate and short-term results driving many careers.  Does your boss set you objectives with key performance measures checked monthly or quarterly?  Do you only get a reward or bonus for meeting or exceeding them in the next 12 months?

Is the brief you’re working on focused on immediate returns or does it have any kpi for the longterm?

The ad business is in sharp growth in the UK.  Brian Wieser, Group M’s Global president of business intelligence, has admitted surprise at the growth of the ad business in 2021, saying: “It is expanding much faster than we anticipated”.  The UK is the fastest growth territory with 35% forecast for 2021 (despite only 2.6% decline in 2020).  And no let up in 2022.   More than three quarters of ad spend is digital, digital media where immediate results are available fastest.

Does this mean short termism is inevitable in UK marketing and media?

Not of course if you take lessons from the IPA databank, where businesses are advised to split long versus short term investments 60:40, and where digital businesses are called out to a bigger long term cut of 70:30.

Not if you look to many corporate businesses’ recommitment to the long term in their annual reports.  Some chief executives now consider not only the triple, the quadruple but even the quintuple bottom line as a priority.  So not just profit (and stakeholder management), but also people, planet, ethics and equity (ie fairness for society at large).

Belonging, best seller in business ethics, is packed full of evidence that if you start with people, ethics and equity you will drive profits in the medium and longterm.

But, of course it’s not just about what your boss or business says.  Its what motivates you to get out of bed each morning and bring your best self to work.  Feeling like you belong is crucial.  You must also consider your personal legacy.

Best selling academic and business consultant Clayton Christiansen (creator of the theory of disruptive innovation) wrote: “On the last day of class, I ask my students to turn theoretical lenses on themselves, to find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? Though the last question sounds lighthearted, it’s not. Two of the 32 people in my Rhodes scholar class spent time in jail. Jeff Skilling of Enron fame was a classmate of mine at HBS. These were good guys—but something in their lives sent them off in the wrong direction…. One of the theories that gives great insight on the first question—how to be sure we find happiness in our careers—is from Frederick Herzberg, who asserts that the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements.”

Faced with any challenge, however short term the brief might appear, try and see the bigger, more long term, more expansive picture to get to a truly creative and truly satisfying solution.   Late in 2021 The Trade Desk SVP Professor Philippa Snare reported that one top marketer told her “I don’t think that you can build legacy brands without taking a longer-term view”.

Take a longer term perspective.  Ask: “How does this deliver really long-term success?”  Think like a shaman, consider what legacy your work on the brand delivers for the wider world and for the next generations.