My generation

I’ve worked in pharmaceutical and healthcare advertising for 20 years this year. It’s a funny niche of advertising that I sort of stumbled upon, and ever since I did, I’ve been excited and engaged by the challenge of having to create impactful, surprising, charming and beautiful creative advertising and communication… AND do it whilst telling the truth. In a highly regulated market you can’t say you’re “The Real Thing” without proving it, and that intellectual rigour is something that has kept me interested all along the way. 

It’s also meant that over the years I’ve met some of the most fascinating people I could imagine – people who can balance deep understanding of science on one side of the brain and passionate creativity on the other. Working with people in whom the left brain and right brain work in harmony has been one of the great pleasures of my working life.

Twenty years is a long time, and yet it’s always surprising when I realise that somehow I’ve gone from being part of a new up-and-coming generation to being part of the establishment, to the point that now many of the leading agencies are led by my contemporaries and former colleagues. 

Just as you don’t notice your own ageing process until you look down at your hands and for a second you see your father’s hands [true story], the shifting of the work generations is imperceptible and gradual but inexorable nonetheless

My actual hand

[Wow that was an unnecessarily complicated sentence wasn’t it? I must squander less time perusing the thesaurus]

It occurs to me that the people I knew from ‘back then’ were people I spent many a long hour chatting with in local pubs putting the world to rights, saying how we’d do things differently when we were in charge.

And now we’re in charge. What are we going to do with that… well… power?

We call it seniority, or authority, or influence, but these are words we use because we shy away from the word… POWER.

We shy away because it’s a word which feels bigger and somehow darker than it should; that it’s more likely to be abused rather than be put to good use. That’s because we know that throughout history, as long as stories have been written, those in positions of power have been intoxicated by it, only thinking how they keep their power, increase it, use it for their own gain.

But you ask my young sons about great power, and they’ll tell you the truth:

Now the idea of “With great power comes great responsibility” probably didn’t start with Spider-Man (if you’re interested it likely dates back to decrees from the French National Convention in 1793) but it’s been repeated over the years by Presidents, Prime Ministers and more recently superheroes because there’s inherent truth in it.

Now I don’t have any superpowers [that I’m going to admit here, anyway] but I do feel the responsibility keenly.

I think we all do.

It’s something to be respected, and lived up to. Now we have that responsibility. There’s no excuse not to do the right thing if the right thing is there to be done. We said we’d do things differently if it were down to us, and now it is. Let’s make these places into the places we’ve always wanted to work, shall we?

I look at my contemporaries and see the leaders of our industry in the future. I see the people coming through and I know they see the value of an inclusive, caring, supportive environment where individuality is celebrated because that’s the stuff we all talked about back then.

And I don’t just mean the people I personally spent time in the pub with (although there are a fair few of those) but the people of my generation.

We are coming through and we are bringing with us new thinking and new ideas that are coming, slowly and surely, just as my hands turn into my father’s and his hands turn into his father’s [again, true story].

An idea whose time has come eh?

That’s quite some responsibility.

One I’d be happy to chat over any time.

What the hell am I doing here?

If you want an example of not ‘belonging’ [see previous blog] then you’d be hard-pressed to get something more heartfelt, more forlorn, than the words of Radiohead’s quietly building then scorchingly angst-ridden debut single released in the autumn of 1992.

[If you don’t know it then a) shame on you and b) please take a few minutes to acquaint yourself with a cracking example of early 90’s defiant melancholy here]. 

I was 17 when it came out, and I can remember smashing around crap nightclubs on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent with my mate Nobby (amongst other reprobates) singing the words out like they had been written for us.

Ironically, that was somewhere we did feel we belonged – where we did ‘dance like nobody’s watching’ (whilst probably secretly hoping that people were actually watching – I was 17, remember?).

But “I don’t belong here” is a phrase we all recognise. Something we all know.

You can call it imposter syndrome if you like – that feeling that one day someone’s going to work out that you’re actually pretty new to all this, and you probably don’t know as much as other people do who might actually have experienced something of the world and whilst we’re on the subject what makes you think you have the right to have a point of view anyway when you should just be minding your privilege and leaning out rather than taking centre stage again and again and again like the bloody egotist you are…

[Whoops, I think my own insecurities might have slipped out for a second there. Do excuse me]

It’s a fact that despite all the work I’ve done, all the conversations, all the learning, I’m still not really feeling I belong in this arena of inclusivity and diversity. Despite the fact that everyone I’ve met along the way have been bloody lovely, and that more recently I’m being asked for my opinion about things, I still don’t feel like I know enough to have an opinion really.

Part of that is because there’s an inherent tension in giving a point of view about a subject which you observe from the outside. I’ve talked before about my privilege and how I see my role in inclusivity conversations in relation to that, but just because I’ve got my head round it doesn’t mean that the tension just goes away. I just have to push through it.

But by doing that, I can find myself in conversations that I don’t just think I know nothing about, I can find myself in conversations that I actually don’t know anything about.

I can’t begin to know how years of feeling like the world is stacked up in the favour of another group that isn’t you slowly starts to build up, getting heavier and heavier with every thoughtless question or comment or look until you’re carrying around the whole thing all the time and it’s just… fucking… exhausting.

I can only imagine what that must be like.

But I can imagine.

I might not know anything about what it is that you’re going through, but I do know that imagination is the start of empathy, and empathy is the start of compassion, and compassion is really the only thing that is going to make our world a better place. That’s what makes us reach out, and connect.

I can only imagine.

And perhaps that, my friend, is what the hell I’m doing here.

So maybe, just maybe, because of that… maybe I actually do belong here too.

Longing for belonging

Culture is a funny thing to put so much time and energy into really, because really it’s totally intangible. Impossible to measure the return on the emotional and intellectual investment. The investment of time, and brain power. The books, the articles, the conversations. How are we really doing? And… whisper this quietly… what good is it really doing?

The dictionary definition of faith is:

…firm belief in something for which there is no proof.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Personally I’m not a religious person. I don’t have faith in that sense. Yet I do have incredible faith in the value of creating a really inclusive working environment.

How is that faith so strong, so unshakeable?

Well perhaps it’s because the end point is something we all recognise. Something we all know exists even if we could never touch it or see it or put a number against it on a spreadsheet.

We’re trying to get to a feeling. A feeling that can make us feel safe; that in its absence makes us feel exposed.

Think back to a time when you really didn’t feel you belonged. Maybe it was at school, or at a company where you felt you had to pretend to be someone you weren’t to fit in. Perhaps it’s when you find yourself in certain conversations, or in certain situations, or certain places.

It’s a bloody horrible feeling, isn’t it? Making you feel uncomfortable and uneasy and kind of small. And it stays with you.

So let’s leave that behind and go somewhere much nicer, shall we? Because the positive flipside is just as powerful as a connective tissue.

When was that time when you really did feel you belonged?

Perhaps it’s that time with that group of colleagues when it all just clicked. Perhaps it’s right in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by strangers, when the beat’s just about to drop. Perhaps it’s just sitting with your closest friends, laughing in that weird way you laugh sometimes with the little piggy snort at the end (you know who you are).

Belonging means you feel safe. It means you can just be yourself, dancing like nobody’s watching… when everyone’s watching.

That’s something to aim for, right?

And that’s why I’m doing this work in inclusivity and diversity: so that people can feel like they belong. And when they belong they will feel free to be creative and innovative and unique and weird in all their weird and wonderful ways.

Because (and promise you won’t tell anyone this), I’m actually quite weird too, in my own way.  So are you. We all are. And we all need to belong, for reasons that are hundreds of thousands of years old.

Human beings are pack animals. Strategically shaved monkeys really. We have created a civilisation more complex and complicated and confusing than any in the history of our planet – way more complex than we are designed for, in evolutionary terms. Which is why we are conditioned to yearn for belonging – so we are part of the tribe – protected and safe. Close to the camp fire.

I don’t care that it’s not measurable to be honest – I’ve got evolutionary psychology on my side.

So yes, let’s aim for belonging, and let’s have faith in its value through culture, and values, and connection, and love, and all the other stuff you can’t put a number on.

Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Happy New Year brothers and sisters. Love and peace.

Why this, why now?

I’ve always loved writing. When I was a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on, and then when I’d read everything I wrote stories and collected interesting quotations. When I was a teenager, I wrote poetry (of course). When I was in my twenties, I wrote a whole novel (which I only ever showed to one editor because they didn’t like it and I didn’t like them not liking it – not exactly JK Rowling levels of thick skin and determination).

And I’ve always been fascinated by the power of words. The power to move people, to support or cajole or challenge. To connect and to divide. To rise up or crush down.

Over the last few years, my own words are something that have started to bring more responsibility too. Whether that’s presenting to my clients about brand strategy or creative, talking to the agency about our values and vision, coaching or mentoring individuals to be their best, or (increasingly) talking to large groups of strangers about gender equality and building an inclusive workplace… my words have some of their own power of influence too.

Speaking at WACL Gather in May 2019 (picture ©BronacMcNeill)

It occurs to me that pretty much all of the people in the above groups kind of have to listen to me whether they want to or not – be that through politeness or payment. But you don’t have to read any of this, so if you’ve got this far I reckon you’re doing pretty well already.

Here I’m going to be using my words to try to make the world of work and life a better place. At heart I’m a dreamer and an optimist, and that has its strengths and weaknesses – all of which will be on these pages somewhere, asking questions and challenging on how we take things forward.

I’ll be blogging about things that make me want to speak up, but only things where I’ve got a perspective or something to add. None of us need more words about some certain subjects. I’m interested in asking questions and giving food for thought – how can we build truly inclusive working environments where people can be their best and do their best work? How can a shift towards modern masculinity improve the lives of both men and women? How do we turn the theory of all this into practicality?

Through doing this, I’d like to give people pause to think, and perhaps some positive ideas to take forward. If I can connect with some like-minded people then that would be great too.

Please note, there’s a decent chance I might swear a bit here and there, so if that’s not your cup of tea then I apologise in advance and suggest you quietly look away as I take the opportunity to shout #$@&%*! at the absolute top of my voice.

So without further ado, you’re reading, I’m writing… shall we?

My First Blog Post


If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants

— Sir Isaac Newton
Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com

So here it is – the very first post on my new blog. How exciting. For me anyway. Probably less so for you I’m guessing…

Oh look at that, I’ve started the self-editing inner monologue thing already haven’t I? Can be a bit much and I kind of promised myself I wouldn’t. I’ll do my best from here on in…

Throughout my life I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some amazing people. I am who I am today because of them, and so if I can see anything (let alone see further) then it’s them who take the credit.

So here’s to those who make me laugh, make me think, make me playful or pensive. Those who support me, or challenge me. Those who make me want to be a little better tomorrow than I am today. A better son or brother or cousin, a better colleague or a better leader. A better dad. A better man.

Every journey starts with a first step, and this is mine. Subscribe below to get notifications when I post updates.

Now all I have to do is press “Publish” on this. Which I’ve been putting off for at least a couple of weeks already. Here goes nothing…