Now, more than ever…

Now, more than ever, in these difficult times, we are all in this together. In such uncertain times, we have to reset normal, be well, and now, more than ever, find a new normal. Because now, more than ever, we must stay strong and stay safe in what are (in case you missed it) unprecedented times. We’re here for you.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been drowning in cliché: soundbites that may have started with sincerity but seem less so every time you hear them, especially when they’re espoused by billionaire CEOs or massive multinationals. All trying to show they have heart, soul, and that most ethereal, most zeitgeist of brand essentials… a PURPOSE.

My colleague, collaborator and [dare I say it?] bloody good chum and all round top chap [ooh that was a little more than expected!] Mr Oliver Caporn wrote a blog recently (which you can find here – he’s very good) about how every single piece of consumer advertising is following the same exact formula (check out the film that proves this point here) and how actually, in searching for a way to show “purpose” when no one wants ads that say “buy more stuff”, consumer brands have actually ended up looking and sounding a lot like brands in healthcare used to look and sound (before they got a bit more sophisticated and less samey).

but now, more than ever, in these uncertain times etc etc

Working in healthcare marketing, as Olly and I do, the ‘purpose’ bit is a lot more simple as you might imagine, even in these difficult times. Our clients make things that, one way or another, are designed to help people. Whether that’s by developing drugs that actually save or prolong or otherwise change the lives of patients, or by creating cutting edge materials, products and services that enable laboratories to do some good science [did I ever mention I don’t have a science background?] they’re all there to do good, to help, to improve lives.

[I’m not going to deep into the “big pharma” argument here, but just to cover it off quickly: I’ve worked for the pharmaceutical industry in some capacity for the last 20-odd years and the vast, vast majority of people I’ve met have been genuinely committed to improving the lives of patients, not the bank balances of investors. I’m sure there are exceptions, and I’m sure some companies are better than others, and I know some mistakes have been made over the years… but I get a little tired of the negative press that pharma always, always fail to effectively counter. If you want to slag someone off, try cigarette or weapons manufacturers. Or Über of course – if you’re not sure why, listen to this podcast.]

So from a brand perspective, I think we probably know a good deal more about what purpose is all about, and how to talk about very general positive intentions without getting quite so generic and seeming so self-serving.

Which, of course, is precisely where the big consumer brands end up. Because as much as they want to be authentic, and say something nice, no one really gives a fuck if “Big Multinational Brand X have been here for you for X number of years and are still here for you, now more than ever, in these trying times”.

It’s self-serving because it’s just a desperate attempt to say something, to stay relevant when you’re just not.

“But we’re Nike – we need to have a POV about these unprecedented times”.

No. No, you don’t.

No one is buying new trainers, because we’re trying to survive a global pandemic. [Even me. And I bloody love trainers.]

And trust me, now, more than ever, no one is looking to huge multinational corporations for moral support.

But the desire to be relevant? That I do get. Because there’s no question that being an inclusive, emotional business leader in these crazy times is really, really weird.

How can you lead people anywhere if you don’t see them? Do people even really need leadership if that leader can’t really do anything practical to make things different or better? A leader can’t home school your kids, or sort your wi-fi, or get you to see your parents.

So what’s the purpose of leadership in these difficult times?

Well, it starts with showing the desire to double down on the things that can actually carry an organisation through such unprecedented times – intangible, uncountable and often overlooked things like shared values, belonging, togetherness.

Sometimes all this stuff gets called the “soft measures”. And it’s true, none of these pay the bills on their own. But when we come out of the far end of this [and rest assured, this too shall pass] trust me when I say that it’ll be the organisations with a clear sense of collective strength that do the best.

And the leaders who can come out of this into a new normal with the emotional integrity of the group perhaps even stronger than when they went in? Well, that would be something special.

With that aim in mind, it becomes crucial to really embrace the juxtapositions that are inherent in the concept of emotional leadership. To show resilience alongside vulnerability. To balance total honesty with credible optimism and hope. To be the cheerleader and the counsellor. To pull people together, and to push them on.

And, to do all that with an openness, transparency and authenticity that’s so obvious that it doesn’t matter if a couple of clichés get dropped in now and then because there’s purpose behind them.

None of this is about being in an office. It’s about enabling and then truly being part of something that doesn’t have to have a physical home, a neural network of people disparate in geography but united in their determination and connected by their values.

Soft measures my arse – these things are as solid as the big, brash, barren buildings we once made our way to every day.

People don’t need leadership per se, they need genuine, honest connections with other people. The leader is just there to help make that a possibility, a shared passion and a collective aim, and then get out of the way and let things happen.

That’s leadership with purpose, and that’s relevant not just in these unprecedented times, but always. The constant drive to be building something that doesn’t just exist in a building.

Hmm, that’s kind of catchy. Perhaps I might do an ad myself. I’m sure Nike are waiting to hear that now, more than ever, I’m here for them.

[Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.]

Forged In Crisis

Nothing will ever be the same again. How we think about ourselves, our families, our friends. How we connect, how we work. What we value, whom we value. What we’re prepared to sacrifice or forego, and what fulfils a basic need.

This will be how our time is remembered. Everything will be pre- or post- in a way that we can’t comprehend and could never have imagined. Any more than people living in the 1920s and 1930s could have imagined their time would be talked about as “between the wars”. [Imagine the dread, if they had known – that after the devastation of “The Great War” as they knew it, there was another to come…]

With such a seismic shift, and a world economy that will take years to recover, the business decisions we make will also change. Businesses that have just hung on will find the road ahead a tough and bumpy one. Even seemingly strong organisations may find that their customers have moved on, priorities changed. Jobs that seemed “essential” in their own way before may simply cease to exist.

Across our country we are already seeing that small businesses are really struggling. The independent coffee shop which may not ever open their doors again, the small theatre, the local pub.

And even the big boys will creak, across the board. Of course we’ll lose a couple of high street stores which were holding on by their fingertips anyway; maybe an airline or two won’t make it back. But every business will be affected. There will be unemployment – already we see people who used to walk down the aisles of intercontinental aeroplanes stacking shelves in the aisles of the local supermarket.

It doesn’t feel like a time for trying something new, for innovation. Certainly not a time for risk. It’s a fact of life that, in times of financial struggle, many companies – big and small – will be tempted, encouraged, mandated even, to “play safe until things settle down”.

Let’s go with what we know. Don’t rock the boat. Low risk, yeah?

In this context, is there time or space to be thinking about this diversity stuff? Really, shouldn’t we just come back to that when things are a little more settled?

Especially when it was kind of hard to practically implement anyway…

And we’ve all done the unconscious bias training and had those rainbow flags up for Pride month…

Hmm…

In her book Forged In Crisis [it’s very good, I’d read it if I were you] Harvard history professor, Nancy Koehn, describes crisis as a “crucible” for courageous leadership in turbulent times, where the means may be flexible but the end has more dedication and determination than ever. Great leaders are born from necessity in a crisis.

And innovation is born from crisis and tension too. The Renaissance (French for “re-birth”, of course), an explosion of art, literature, and learning across Europe, came out of the crucible of a culturally barren and brutally war-torn Middle Ages. The incredible advanced of the second half of the last century came, in part at least, out of the crucible of a world decimated by two wars.

Our world is shaped by its crises. Always has been. Ask the dinosaurs.

Perhaps in a world where everything is new and different and nothing will ever be the same again… perhaps that’s actually somewhere that we need new thinking, new ideas? New ways of solving new problems?

So in this context, isn’t the real risk in trying to recreate the old? In reverting to what used to work, what used to make sense, before everything changed?

When everything is up in the air, the ability to adapt to ambiguity is the most precious quality we can hope to find. Innovation isn’t about sameness, it’s about newness – new thinking, new outlooks, new ideas. You don’t get that by trying to recreate, reverting to conservative, non-inclusive, type. You get that by embracing inclusive thinking, creating the environment for a diversity of ideas to flourish.

We all know that it’s difficult to make room for diverse thinking – it takes time, and effort, and active decisions, and it often comes down to committed individuals driving initiatives on their own time, crowd-sourcing/funding their activities, using their own energy.

So this is a time that those committed individuals should look to assemble like-minded people around them, to connect, convince and then collaborate in new ways. To lead us out from this crucible.

A clever dude with a beard* once said:

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change

*Sir Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species, 1859

Responsive to change, eh?

Hmm.

Feels like right now we might actually need a bunch of people with different ways of seeing the world to help shape a new world, doesn’t it?

Now, dear leader… go and lead.

Time flies

We all know the feeling of time just flying past. Every year, around September, offices all over the world are filled with conversations about how they can’t believe that it’s September already and hasn’t the year gone quickly and it’ll be Autumn/Spring soon (deleted as geographically appropriate).

And I know I’m not alone feeling like this January went way beyond 31 days. When asked, a friend of mine claimed it was the 87th of January with everyone around giving a “I know, right?” sigh or tut or roll of the eyes.

A meeting about the timeline for a project which seems to go on FOR EVER.

That same project a month later when there’s suddenly a week to go and where the hell did all the time go?

And it’s something we’ve all experienced since we were kids – the extra half an hour before bed that goes by in a split second; the car journey where it feels like you’re going to get to bloody Greenland before you get to the next motorway junction on the way to the Highlands of Scotland from Cheshire when your dad piled you into the Vauxhall Carlton before dawn to “beat the traffic” [sorry got carried away for a second there].

So how come we all still have an unshakeable certainty in the “fact” that time is this constant, steady, objectively measurable thing? When every single one of us has personally experienced something different to that? It’s the exact opposite of faith – rather than believing in something we can’t prove, here we are disbelieving something we have personal proof of, in our own lives…

I know that according to Einstein time is relative (see here for proof that he was actually right) but I’m talking about a more personal relativity here – time being related to an individual’s own experience of a situation.

[By the way, I do believe that one day people look back at our beliefs about constant, linear time with as much derision as we look at the idea of the flat Earth – as something that people used to believe before we knew more and left such fantasies behind us… wait, what? Seriously?? Oh. Oh dear.]

And here’s the thing – my experience of time isn’t the same as yours. Your hour isn’t the same as mine. It depends on what we’re doing. That’s true even if we’re in the same room.

If I find the subject fascinating and wide-reaching and challenging, then the time we’ve got to talk about it goes way too fast. If you’re thinking it’s all bullshit and you’ve got something more important to be doing, then you can’t believe we haven’t ended yet.

It all related to a single, human truth – something that defines every interaction we have with the world in which we live and the people within it:

Perception is reality.

If I think it’s difficult, it’s difficult for me. The fact that you get it really easily doesn’t change that (and you telling me that really doesn’t help!)

If I think it’s hot in here, I’m hot. The fact that you are cold doesn’t change that.

[If anything, it probably reflects that I’ve spent the last twenty-odd years surrounding myself in a protective layer of fat just in case I fall into the North Sea. Always prepared, that’s me.]

If I think it’s boring, then I’m bored. The fact that you think it’s interesting doesn’t change that

And lo and behold if I’m not silently judging you for not thinking it’s boring when it clearly is because that’s my perception and [all together now]…

Perception is reality

I’m not sure that’s getting us anywhere. So let’s rewind, shall we?

Instead of accepting our own, personal perception as the only reality, how about accepting that everyone has their own perception. Their own reality.

Then how about considering what someone else’s perception might be? Trying to see the things from their perspective, understanding their view of the world?

You have to stop for a moment. It’s not always easy to take a step back from your own reality. It’s not always easy, and it takes a good deal of imagination.

But that’s the start. The start of of connection, of empathy, and ultimately of trust. It’s the start of inclusive thinking, and seeking out diverse perspectives on the world. Not less challenge, but more.

So here’s a call to action for you.

Think of a conflict you’re in at the moment. Find that person and take a minute to ask them to share their perception of the world – without judgement. Accept that, for them, that perception is 100% real and, to them, 100% right. Then share your own.

I can’t promise that it’ll solve things in a minute. But I can promise that it’ll open up a much better conversation than the one you were (or more likely weren’t) having.

And I reckon that’s worth a minute of anyone’s time, right?

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.

Time To Talk Day: my anxiety

Today is Time To Talk day in the UK. It’s part of the Time To Change campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/) which aims to change the way people think and act about mental health problem, led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

It does what it says on the tin really – a day where people are encouraged to be more open about their own mental health, talk about the mental health of others and try, piece by piece, to remove the stigma that exists around mental health issues. At home and at work.

I’ve always been able to handle a lot of stress. Even when things are kicking off, I can get through okay. Maybe a bit tetchy with people at work, snappy or grumpy (or just plain exhausted) at home, perhaps lose a bit of sleep here and there. Still able to have a joke and a laugh, just maybe a little unpredictable I guess. I’m sure I’m like a lot of people in that when I’ve got a lot on it’s tough to turn off or relax, especially when you’re going through all the possible scenarios in your head and they get worse each time you do it! Nothing a couple of glasses of wine before bed won’t help eh?

Yup. That’s been me, for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes it takes something big to change the way you see the world. A birth, a death. Perhaps love.  For me it was a little post on Facebook whilst on a business trip somewhere in Germany.

A little context…

For a good few months, I’d been rolling through the mantra at the top – I’m fine, just got a lot on, nothing I can’t handle, etc etc, you know the drill.  I was almost snapped out of that one morning early last year.  I’d woken up in the middle of the night, work stuff rattling through my head like an old train, unable to get back to sleep and getting more annoyed about the fact that I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about work and all that. So rather than wrestling with the bed clothes and waking my wife I decided to just quietly get up, get dressed in the dark, and go to work. 

I live about 90 minutes from the office door to desk, and I was at that desk by about half 6. God knows what time I woke up originally, but by mid-afternoon I was grumpy as hell and dead on my feet.  I got home that evening and my wife asked me what time I’d left and I’d explained the night time scenario. I could see her worried face and tried to reassure her.

“I’m not stressed out, I just can’t stop thinking about things and I’m finding it hard to sleep”.

To which she quite rightly replied: “that is stress, you idiot”.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll have a think about that.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’m sitting on a perfectly on-time, quiet and non-rattling train going through the German countryside, alongside a colleague and [dare I say it] friend [yes I dare]. It’s the end of a long day and I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed, wondering why I’m friends with people on Facebook with whom I’m not actually friends in real life, and wondering if I should just immediately unfriend anyone who uses #hashtags on Facebook post (#holiday #celebrate #blessed #lovemylife) when I come across this…

It’s like I’ve been slapped in the face.

I read the list again. I can tick off maybe a dozen of these without thinking about it. Another handful if I do.

I turn to my amigo/co-worker and show him.

“This is me”, I say.

Those words, on that train, were the start of a journey of my own. The very first step was admitting to myself that being really, really good at dealing with lots of stress whilst simultaneously hiding it isn’t the superpower that I thought it was. 

In fact, it’s bloody Kryptonite.

Left unacknowledged, unspoken and undercover, that stress can damage everything I hold dear – my work, my family and ultimately my life.

I won’t bore you with the details of precisely what happened next, but the first step for me was talking. Talking to colleagues, friends, my wife [hey honey – how’s your day going?], then my GP, then a counsellor. Then back to my GP and since the beginning of last year I’ve been on some medication which I’ve found really helps.

[By the way, it’s still a massive deal to “admit” that I’m on medication to help with my anxiety, because of some weird stigma and shame that exists about it. Perhaps I’ll unpack that in a separate post…]

Nearly 2 years on I’m a lot more content, more calm, more connected with the world around me, with myself and with my emotions than I ever thought possible. Sure, I still get nervous about things, and I still get pissed off about things – I’m human, not superhuman, remember? – but I know I’ll never confuse a superpower with Kryptonite so easily again.

And every single person I’ve told has been totally supportive. Just like I would be if it were the other way round. Turns out quite a few people feel the same. I know, right?

So over time, I’ve started talking about it more openly with my agency friends and family too. Because if I can show that I struggle sometimes, it makes it “okay to not be okay” and, hopefully, we can support each other through all the stressful times with a bit more honesty and vulnerability.

And I know I’m still on the journey I started that day, and that I probably always will be. That’s okay. That’s my decision and something I’m proud of, in a weird way.

But what I will say is this:

If you’re reading any of this thinking “fuck, that’s me”, then this is your slap in the face. From me to you.

You’re welcome.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Remember that the very first step is to talk.

And given that it’s #TimeToTalk day, maybe that’s something you might consider doing today?

Talk to someone who cares about you – a friend, a partner, a colleague – and you’ll find that they will be just as kind and thoughtful as you would be if they came to you.

Best of luck, and please, do take care of yourself.

Checking my privilege

I am The Man. By that I don’t mean that I am totally ace in every way, because I’m totally not. I’m not going for a “You’re the man!” vibe. Rather, I am The Man as in “stick it to The Man”. Because on the face of it, I am the classic authority figure, crossing pretty much every box on a diversity list. 

Male, white, straight, middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, neurotypical. Hell, I’m even privately educated. I’ve got a few mental health bits and bobs I’m bumbling through (more of that in a post in due course, methinks!) but on face value I am the establishment; an embodiment of The Patriarchy.

I am “THE MAN”.

Each one of those has got me some kind of advantage, in some way, big or small, that I didn’t earn in any way. All of it was just handed to me by nature or nurture. All of it is a privilege in some way.

I’ve always been aware of that privilege to a degree, but it’s not until I’ve found myself in more and more conversations around different areas of diversity that it’s been clear that I’m pretty much always in the majority rather than the minority. And on the whole it’s not the majority who get beaten down or overlooked or oppressed.

In Grayson Perry’s book “The Descent of Man” (read it, it’s good) he calls it “Default Man” – the ‘norm’ around which the world is forced to adapt.

That’s what privilege does for you. All of which sometimes makes for some interesting introspection. When you’re THE MAN, you’re the bloody problem – can you be part of the solution too…?

On top of that, there’s an interesting nuance to show that even if you don’t cross all the boxes, there might still be privilege, because it’s fluid and relative, as demonstrated by a story a good friend told me recently of his own experience.

He’s a highly intelligent and highly educated man who happens to be gay and decided to get involved in his work Pride event. At the first meeting, and for the first time in his life, he was faced with the idea that actually being a middle-class, white, gay man is a bloody breeze when you don’t have to layer on racial stereotypes or cultural expectations, or being transgender, or being disabled.

Suddenly “just being a gay man without anything else to worry about” was a privilege in itself: a new perspective, and one that was both surprising and humbling.

Cards designed by Fabiola Lara https://www.instagram.com/fabiolitadraws

Now, I’m hyper-aware of my privilege, across all the parameters outlined and probably a few more too. But rather than let it hold me back and be a reason not to have a point of view, I think it drives me on. Some of the advantages I’ve had have, in some way, got me to where I am today, with a point of view and a social conscience, outwardly confident, usually erudite (if a little verbose) and, now in my life and career, with something to say.

And so I believe I’ve got a responsibility – a duty even – to stand up and speak up. Because if I can’t speak up, with all the privilege I benefit from, then who can?

All any of us can do is be aware of our own privilege, and be respectful of the advantage that gives us. And, whatever privilege you have, use it for good if you can. 

Because from someone else’s perspective, there’s a good chance that you really are the lucky one.

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?