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Celebrate the mavericks


  • Someone who exhibits great independence in thought and action.
  • A rebel, recusant, nonconformist – someone who refuses to conform to established standards of conduct
  • Independent in behavior or thought; “she led a somewhat irregular private life”; “maverick politicians”
  • unorthodox, irregular
    unconventional – not conforming to accepted rules or standards; “her unconventional dress and hair style”

People labeled maverick are people who dare to say ‘no‘ not people who tow the line and say ‘yes‘.

Design is the belief in the ignorance of experts

You can’t squeeze innovation out of a sausage factory controlled by people who believe in ‘doing things properly‘, that’s just not how it works. The truth is very different and by accepting the truth you can go and change the status quo.

I’ve always compared good design to charging headfirst into the unknown – the shock of becoming a parent for the very first time or riding a knuckle-biting rollercoaster without being strapped in. It’s about enjoying the ongoing struggles, the risks and challenges and the ‘what the f*** am I doing?’ moments rather than fearing them.

You’ll find most maverick people love to buck a trend, so maybe it really is time to celebrate the mavericks and back the risk takers rather than try to confine them, in order for businesses to successfully move forward.

The large agencies and companies that have a very rigid definition of the route to success are in big big trouble. That approach tends to emulate the way we’re brought up;

  • When we first enter into education at the age of five, we’re taught to obey the rules and fit into a system.
  • We’re forced to specialise early in our schooling (who knows what on earth they want to do at the age of 14?) and learn how to succeed in every exam by following a precise and prescriptive formula.
  • We’re deemed successful if we achieve good GCSEs, A-Levels and degrees. Then hip hip hooray, chin chin, three cheers all around if we’re chosen for a graduate scheme with a reputable and established company.
  • At home, we’re brought up to believe security and stability are the keys to success. Do what others do, fit into the mould and for God’s sake don’t rock the boat

But these norms are diametrically opposed to what makes change and innovation happen. The big companies despise rule breakers because they often fail more often. In these companies failure seems to be something to be ashamed of, hidden or forgotten and the stigma and embarrassment can often force you out of the door.

Sure, work needs to be won and delivered to high standard – first and foremost we’re a service industry. But there can be different ways of thinking that can produce results quicker, change perspective, get to market more efficiently and break the norms. Ironically clients seem to prefer working with the mavericks. It’s the odd few who get called upon the most. That should tell you something.

Designers have to be willing to take risks and embrace the unknown. They need to get things done without any structure and thrive in an environment where there are no rules. They need courage to innovate and the nerve to forge their own path – and agencies need to support that spirit even armed with the knowledge that occasionally there’s a chance they might be pouring their own and sometimes clients money down a plughole.

Across the sea

In developing countries, leaps forward are extremely high because risk taking and high levels of innovation are greatly encouraged and not frowned upon.

In these countries failure is often worn as a badge of honour and seen almost as a form of success. I would consider failing an experience, rather than a shameful indicator of incompetence.

Alternative thinking should be valued, a self-starting attitude encouraged and where the ethos that hard work pays off no matter where you’re from and what you do is ingrained in the mindset of every person in an organisation.

It’s incredibly important in modern businesses to try and minimise barriers to multi-disciplinary working and to provide a creative and innovative learning process. Encourage staff to take courses outside of their domain and engage in projects with those from other disciplines so they can draw upon expertise from across disciplines.

Throw out the rule book

So how do big companies get their acts together for the greater good of the staff, the clients and the end customers?

Firstly, get rid of this preconception of how we should behave; this notion of sticking to the rules, specialising and one size fits all is inherently bad for business.

Companies need to emphasise the importance of critical thinking, problem solving and ingenuity. Give designers the freedom and flexibility to treat each other as individuals and do what they think is right and not what they think is expected. We should encourage talent to be resourceful and creative and give them the courage to throw off the herd mentality. We have to foster an attitude that anything is possible and that failure and screw ups are all part of a learning curve. If we get this right at the core of a business (the management) – it’ll carry through into the culture of a company and furthermore into the work. Tricky decisions need to be made about those members of management who criticise people for not conforming and being maverick. What they showing is a fear of change.

Empower staff to make decisions, champion ideas and create a culture of questioning the norm. It’s not just about listening to them either. It’s also about letting them do it.

We need to inspire others to get on that terrifying, exhilarating rollercoaster ride. The design world needs people willing to take risks and face their fears.

To the naysayers who force us mavericks out of the door: stuff your rules and rigidity and let the mavericks do their bit for the world. You’re holding the company back and limiting innovation. To label someone maverick and not celebrate that is an act of pure fear. So be careful if you do use that term to describe someone in a negative context, you might just be putting yourself into the 10% that is wrong and out of touch.

Why a #TAG made me switch banks

There’s been a fair bit of buzz around the agency (and agency-land) about #unexpectedtweet …that totally irreverent campaign from First Direct that instantly struck a note with a lot of people. It really did and here’s the proof – It made me switch my bank account to First Direct after being with my current bank for 18 years.

I saw the abstract advert that didn’t even tell the viewer it was First Direct (The one above with the Beatboxing Bird – I didn’t even catch the Platypus one till almost a week later!) and hit rewind on the TiVo about 4 times trying to work out what the hell it was and who the hell it was for (The wife was going spare – “what the hell are you doing, I want to finish watching Kirsty & Phil you moron!“). Nada. Nothing. I went on Twitter and got stuck into the conversation… I shared the advert on Facebook with my friends; “check it out, it’s brilliant… no idea who it’s for”. When I finally found out it was for First Direct I literally went straight to the website and applied for a new bank account. No bribe, no bung, no special offer and promise of a killer app. They bought me with entertainment.


The debate raged at work for a while too; “Oh, it’s because it’s showing that First Direct is a better bank, more in tune with the populous because they do this kind of advertising!” and rhetoric along those lines in various flavors.

Well in reality it’s nothing of the sort – It’s a lot more basic than that… and here’s my thinking;

Banks all do the exact same thing. They always have and they always will; You give them your money, they put it into a big virtual, intangible vault (where they profit from you) and they keep it safe for you. It’s always been that way;

“BANK”: An institution for receiving, lending, exchanging, and safeguarding money and, in some cases, issuing notes and transacting other financial business.

Money goes in. Money goes out. Your money.

The toughest decision you have to make when you start earning money is where to dump your hard earned wages & that’s usually somewhat dictated somewhat by who your parents bank with. Most banks are all reasonably competitive on product & benefits package (excluding credit & investments products, I’m just talking EVERYDAY BANKING here) and they all have a very similar channel strategy (bank with us and you’ll get access to Mobile, Online and Branch etc). Some are ahead in some areas and behind in others, but they’re all heading in the same sort direction. Virtual wallet. Banking on the move. New ways of moving your hard-earned virtual currency from one person or company to the next blah blah blah. It’s just banking & long may it continue to be that basic!

Lets have a look at a really simple experience model called Prochaska;


At the moment most financial institutions (and in fact most companies) have 2, 3, 4 & 5 in the prochaska model reasonably sown up. They advertise to make you contemplate at point 2 or you might have had a bad experience and you’re hunting for something new and the bank gives you offers on aggregators; it pulls you into 3 which then converts you & locks you into the cycle 4, 5 & 6. That’s the easy bit (in theory). It’s banking (and marketing) 101.

So here’s the kicker. Most institutions have totally forgotten about steps 1 & 6 (or in reality 6 and 1 in that order). Most people are apathetically floating around in 5 doing all they’ve ever known. They get reasonable service & utility, it does what it says on the tin, when you were robbed it took a couple of days and you got reimbursed yada yada. It’s all very banky. You’ve no real need to switch banks and it’s the devil you don’t know that alludes most people.

That’s where First Direct (well JWT the advertising agency) got it bang-on. They never really talk about ‘Banking’ in the adverts and they don’t really need to talk about it, because nobody cares. To get into peoples Pre-Contemplation at point 1 you need something really disruptive that makes you think “oh that’s different, who the hell would do something like that?” (Think Different – Apple anybody?). It’s as crude as that. I’d never even contemplated First Direct before because I figured they were just like the norm & I know the norm. They’re not the norm… they’ve got my attention. I’ve switched to them because MAYBE, just MAYBE they have the chops to do things a bit differently and I’ll be on the edge of innovation the whole time (where-as in reality it’ll be the same stuff – Look after my money in the same way!).

They got into point 6 (relapse) by making me think the bank I was currently with hasn’t done anything to make me notice them for 18 years, then they made me notice them by showing me something that I’d never seen before. That was it. No extra utility value and no app that sends money using blinking or toe-wriggles… just straight forward, old school disruptive marketing. I didn’t even get the £100 for switching offer. The rest as they say is history… in I go and there I’ll stay until the next wave of marketing from an equally disruptive bank comes along (or maybe it won’t even be a bank who get to keep my money safe next!). But be warned… I’m fickle enough to have a love affair with good advertising… My old account stays open & I can turn on a penny & switch back in a heartbeat!

Let me end with the out-takes… #LOVETHISCAMPAIGN

Agency Thought Shifting

Agencies have always done ‘campaigns’. It’s what we do… be that a massive one that lasts for years or a couple of tiny ones to support some above the line marketing hullabaloo. But paradigms change when we look at things from a different perspective. We often sincerely believe something from one perspective, but when we view it from another angle, our beliefs can change. It changes how we think, and how we react to something. What some people call “magic” is based on this same principle. Once you understand an illusionist’s “trick”, your paradigm shifts, and you will likely never see that trick the same way again.

So with that idea of ‘thought shift’ in mind what if a digital agency did things differently too. I had a fascinating debate with a planner at an agency I was working at who was suggesting the agency might sell 100 little experiences to a client instead of 1 big one. A brilliant idea. It fitted neatly into my distributed experience idea I was trying to sell the same client too… The client agrees to pay a wedge of money and the agency agrees to concept, design, develop, and launch 100 individual digital experiences (sites, apps, whatever) in 52 weeks rather than one huge one.

It makes sense when you consider that an agency for ‘now’ needs to increase their odds of creating a big hit when it’s impossible to predict what’s going to catch on?

Most digital agencies rely on selling the execution of a big beautiful campaign or website. The more complex the site is, the more expensive it is, and the better it is for the agency’s business. But, the market for that business is disappearing.

When an agency pitches to clients, they don’t just come up with one big idea, they usually come up with lots of ideas and then choose the best ones to sell-in hoping that one will make the cut. The ideas that got the chop originally might have the winning formula in there, so why not just do those as well?

No one can predict which idea is going to become and internet sensation. And not every potential hit will get approved by the client’s legal or PR department. These concerns don’t matter because you’re going to launch every good idea you come up with. Work for the client initially launches without the client’s name attached. If it takes off and becomes a hit, they get to claim it. If they don’t want it, the agency can either take it for themselves or kill it.

Everything is iterative – A tiny fraction of what you launch will be worth additional time and investment. Create strict qualifications for what makes the cut. Work on all of these select projects using an agile process, making small changes as you go. There’s no finish line, there’s just one improvement after another.

What do you think?

The Last Advertising Agency on Earth

You know me by now… so you get that I’m an advertising junkie. I actually see UX as a strand of advertising (call it marketing if you like!) and with that in mind I love finding things like this:

Company X

Here’s it is… my fantasy company… the utopia… now I need to explain what’s going on here before battle-lines are drawn and those that didn’t make the cut complain. A few of us do this every few years. It’s a nice way to stop & take stock. Get a little restrospective. The scenario we set ourselves is this:

  • 3 million quid to spend setting up the perfect digital advertising agency. Must take into consideration start-up costs.
  • Every person in the agency must have worked with you directly at some point in your respective careers.
  • Assemble a team of less than 50 people to work together to win a large, muti-national FMCG client.

I’ve built my fantasy agency around a number of my own criteria;

  1. I’ve put most of my fantasy company into the roles they were working in when I was working with them (there are even a few people here who I didn’t work with, but in fact work for me when I was their client, they impressed me!)… some of them have moved on, changed roles, been promoted since I worked with them… etc etc… I’ve even gone as far as to demote (in a fun way, not a bitchy way) some people in the roles I think would actually suit them better. If that’s ‘you’… remember you still made it into my fantasy company… so don’t moan! I’ve literally worked with hundreds of people, you’ve made my top 50.
  2. Note my company structure. None of my departments work in ghettos, it’s purely a split of discipline.
  3. Every member of the team will take an equal salary.
  4. I’ve selected people not just based on their raw talent, but based on how well I think they’d gel and work with all the other members of my fantasy company. I’ve missed off a lot of talented individuals – But this here is my ultimate mash-up… If I put you all in a room together it would set the industry on fire.
  5. A few people I’ve even thrown in just as geling agents, which in itself is an incredible, natural talent. It’s my belief that this fantasy company not only brings the very best of all the talents, but also with it an atmosphere of collaboration, fun, integrity & mutual respect that would make it thrive amongst a lot of sour, old-skool agencies littering the industry today.
  6. There is no board in my fantasy company… it’s a co-op… every member is equal and has earned that right by being individually brilliant at their own disciplines but more importantly by being an amazing team-player.

This isn’t necessarily a fait accompli… it’ll probably evolve and change. But up to now this is 15 years of career solidified into 42 individuals (well… 41 and me). Click on the picture below to see the full version.

Anyway… take it with a pinch of salt… this is just a bit of fun some of us have every few years. It is nice to note that these are the individuals who’ve made the biggest impression, impact & brought the most joy to my career & I’d happily go into battle with this little lot anyday:

Fantasy Company

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