Football therapy


It has long been my belief that football’s feverish popularity demands more explanation than the usual sport / tribal / male bonding stuff we hear.

For some years, I took my young son to watch Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.  The main result was that he learned to swear convincingly and with the correct intonation.  The experience should have provided a clue.

This classic photo of Dele Alli taunting the crowd, after scoring the winner for Tottenham against Chelsea, makes everything clear and should put our minds at rest.  Just out of shot is a big guy being physically held back by his mates – was he actually going to burst out and attack Alli?  Or was it just bluster?  A few weeks ago, there was a genuine crowd invasion at West Ham, with accompanying low level violence, leading to all kinds of condemnation and hand-wringing.

The role of football (please don’t call it soccer, even if you’re American) is to give a safe place to vent the pent up vitriol which would be unacceptable in normal daily life.  A few minutes in the stands at any Premiership match should verify this.  The hatred expressed   – typically at your own players rather than (though also in addition to) opponents and, of course, the referee, can only be explained as some kind of perverse therapy.

The most unpleasant people I have ever met were parents watching (and screaming at) their sons in junior football matches.  Here were people who would get into fights with each other in between taunting and belittling eleven year olds, with language to make your hair curl. I fully expect if you met those same people in any other walk of life, they’d be fine polite, upstanding members of the community.

So the fans screaming and gesticulating at Alli are probably the nicest of people, if you met them socially.  Just avoid them on match day.


Nasty Leeds (LOL)

It’s no accident that The Guardian’s satirical football bulletin refers to Leeds United as ‘Nasty Leeds’.  They had previously been known as ‘Dirty Leeds’, which was, for some reason deemed insufficient.  Leeds is one of those football teams who manage to pick a fight with anyone and everyone.  Every match they play seems to be a grudge match of some sort; either a fierce local derby or an re-enactment of some past rivalry, injustice or unsavoury incident.

When “feisty” Dennis Wise became Leeds manager a few years ago, he stated that he wanted them to recapture their true character: “I want them to be horrible and nasty, like the great Leeds teams of the past”.

So it was with a slightly bashful smile that I observed Leeds’ latest embarrassment.  Last week, the Club introduced a new badge, which was immediately lambasted by large numbers of fans, through social media.


The coverage has focused on the fans’ reaction.  The club has promised to consult more widely and review the design.  That’s code for “start again, ‘cos we screwed up”.

The original rationale for the badge is that the ‘chest thump’ is an action known as the ‘Leeds salute’.  The not-always-explicitly-stated issue is that it looks a lot like a kind of fascist salute.  “And nobody wants that” as the armchair football critic might observe.  (But clearly not an accident either, as the armchair Leeds-watcher might observe.)

On the other hand, I would contend, the Leeds badge has a certain “comedy Fascist” quality, which is more funny than threatening.

It’s almost perfectly represented by the characterisation of would-be Black shirt leader Roderick Spode, in the Bertie Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 12.45.26 (2)

If you don’t believe me, enjoy the clip.

Better to laugh at these things than to get upset, I often feel.






How to Buy a Gorilla

Procurement is back on the agenda in agencies (not that it ever went away).  Saw a review today (in the trade mag Campaign) for a new book by David Meikle.  It’s (among other broader themes) about how to make procurement work as a force for good, not just to drive down price.


Procurement is killing advertising, but not for the reasons most people think.

There are four problems with the way procurement has influenced how clients commission marketing communications:

  1. The increasing emphasis on price competition – this has had both upside and downside.  On the upside, it’s good to make agencies aware that they are in a competitive market.  On the downside, quality sometimes does command a higher price and procurement is not necessarily well equipped to evaluate that trade-off.  Moreover, agencies often have to pitch for projects without knowing the budgets involved, so it’s impossible to make realistic judgements around allocating resources and consequently how to cost the project.
  2. Pitching is often driven by procurement.  Again there are two sides to this.  On one hand, the process has become more professional – sometimes.  On the other, the pitching process itself has become a lowest-common-denominator exercise which misses many of the less obvious opportunities to solve the problem better.  There is often no clarity on the budget, there is minimal chemistry or collaboration, time is shortened to the point where quality is compromised.  And another thing…. the whole thing happens in a vacuum. And breath. All these points are either well-rehearsed or at least, fairly obvious.
  3. Less obvious is the way a relationship driven by or through procurement misses the traditional opportunities for agencies to add value.  Years ago, big agencies were challenged to have initiatives – things the clients wouldn’t have thought of (and therefore procurement won’t have commissioned).  Some of these (perhaps many, perhaps too many) don’t see the light of day. Others would occasionally bring a refreshing new perspective to a staid category or a rejuvenation to a stale brand. It’s the antidote to the risk aversion which is inevitable in a modern marketing department.  You can’t do this where every project is briefed separately and scoped within an inch of its life.
  4. Finally, the project-by-project scoped approach militates against the development of  client ‘experts’ within the agency.  The old fashioned idea of brand stewardship is no longer deliverable where everyone’s time is budgeted and accountable.  In ages gone by, new agency staff would spend days out with the sales reps or observing focus groups, not as part of a (chargeable) project but as part of a broader ‘immersion’ into the business.  Sadly that’s unlikely to be feasible now that every penny is under scrutiny.

So, if you want to know how best to buy a gorilla, the answer is probably to avoid or sidestep procurement.  If you’re an agency, I’m afraid you’re probably buggered.

Like bumping into old friends; some you like….

I recently revisited some of the fiction, I really loved as a teenager, with mixed results.

George Orwell, who I found inspirational as a youth, strikes me now as pessimistic to the point of debility.  Yes, of course, he makes some killing observations about the system being too powerful and too grim for any of us to resist.  I come away with a feeling best described as “don’t hate the player, hate the game”.  So overall,my response is now mixed.

I also revisited Graham green’s Our Man in Havana.  My younger self found this a harmless, whimsical jaunt, which was particularly nice because Greene’s other books – typically the ones you had to read for school – were a bit heavy.

Happily, my grown up self loves Our Man in Havana even more than before.  It was an absolute joy, with all the jaunty tumble into inevitable disaster so beloved of the best sit-coms.  The writing also reminds me of the ironic style that became popular among the alternative comedians in the 1980s.

“Shut in his car, Wormold felt guilt nibbling around him like a mouse in a prison cell.  Perhaps soon the two of them would become accustomed to each other and guilt would come to eat out of his hand.”


It depends….

Here’s another worry I have with marketing in the digital age – or any other, come to think of it.  We (well some of us) seem obsessed with providing a unitary explanation for how marketing works.

I recently attended an excellent seminar with some great speakers, each of whom described their perspective on how ‘Purpose’ was the key to marketing success.  There were case studies, award-winning campaigns and some neuroscience which purported to show that there are two key metrics which indicate the difference between success and failure.

‘Purpose’ is the solution.  Now what’s the problem.

This sort of thinking is everywhere at the moment.  Not just about ‘purpose’ but a range of supposed universal solutions.  I keep seeing research reports offering to reveal the three elements that will make your advertising memorable.  Or the five rules for achieving impact.  The claim seems to be that if you do this one thing (or these several things) it will work, whether you’re a multinational Pharma brand, a bank or an impulse purchase in the newsagent.  Somehow I don’t think it’s that simple.

Aha…. not so fast.  The final speaker (was it BBH’s former Chief Planner, Nick Kendall?) characteristically zagged, among all the zigging.  “It all depends” he said, enigmatically.

My attention was sparked.  Through the 1980s agencies railed against the ‘one-size-fits-all’ methodology which claimed there was a single metric to determine success.  In those days it was Millward Brown’s awareness index.  A decade of debate, dispute, bickering and mistrust ensued and finally, we emerged with a better way.  The ‘balanced score card’ was adopted as the route to providing a fuller and more sensitive explanation of what’s going on.

Because, and I don’t think I’m being controversial here, it’s not always the same.  At one time I worked on campaigns simultaneously for a double glazing supplier, a brand of tea bags and a paediatric analgesic.  tell me the one ‘key to success’ that’s common to those three.  It’s clearly bollocks.

So thank you, Mr Kendall, for bursting the balloon, even if it did rather spoil the party.


Well what do you know?

When I was a child, I thought my Dad literally knew everything.  “I know everything” he said, on countless occasions.  Others have proposed that the naturalist, Alexander Von Humboldt, was the last man actually to know everything, and he died in 1859.  The ‘last man to know everything’ mantle has also been attributed to a number of others, from Aristotle to Francis Bacon.


Needless to say, in the modern world it’s impossible for any one of us to know everything, nor even a large part of the body of human knowledge.  We can’t even know everything about the many things that affect us directly on a daily basis.  And that’s a problem.

Even the things we do know, we don’t really know.  We believe them, but what’s the basis of that? Without going all epistemological, sometimes it’s through empirical evidence, but mostly it’s because we learned it from a source which we trust.

It’s increasingly a problem, because trusting others has become a risky business.  Well, actually it always was.  Take any piece of supposed knowledge you have and really interrogate it.  Take the laws of physics.  Some of the sub-atomic particles I learned about in school have been superseded by new, sexier ones which are even less easy to grasp and even more likely to be replaced. And those are the very foundations of matter.

When it comes to more mundane stuff, we’re on even dodgier ground.  I worked for many years in the energy business and everything I saw reinforced my belief that climate change is happening, it’s partly induced by man’s activities and that it will likely lead to the end of civilisation.  How long that doomsday scenario will take is uncertain, but probably within a few dozen generations.  However, some people genuinely doubt this.  In response, I commonly cite the fact that all the reputable scientists in the area agree with me.  But, if I’m honest, that’s only hearsay.  I’ve only actually spoken to a handful of scientists.  Anyway, scientific theories evolve and scientists change their prevailing wisdom over time.  That’s the nature of science.

And now, the rest of the world has cottoned on to this Cartesian doubt.  Encouraged by idiots people like Michael Gove (“People in this country has had enough of experts“) it seems anything goes, and authority is history.  Anyone can claim any old nonsense and there’s no requirement for evidence.  And consequently we’re right in the shit.  Because all this plays into the hands of the demagogues and the hate preachers.  Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and The Daily Mail.  And Brexit.


This has implications for brands and businesses too.  Corporate reputation is fundamentally based on trust.  Historically, that trust was built on the behaviour and ‘body language’ of a brand over time.  I think it still is, but the pillars of trust seem to be in flux.  Transparency is the vogue, but that means different things to different people.  One man’s transparency is another man’s clever manipulation.

Indeed the idea of trust itself can become a subject for a new brand promise.  I like the recent campaign for fruit drink Oasis, which takes this and plays games with it.


So there you have it.  Politics, philosophy, climate change and advertising.  Everything I love, all in one place.  We’re completely buggered, but there’s a neat insight for some ironic advertising.