On simplifying complexity

 

Eight a.m. last Tuesday morning, I had just completed my morning run on the beautiful Mont-Saint-Hilaire. It took me about an hour and it felt good. I felt relax and happy to take care of myself.

But, wait a minute. Something was really wrong. I had no clue how fast I went, how many kilometres I did or if I did better than my last run. And I did not post any data to Facebook. Am I crazy? I must download this app, be part of a community, be told how to run my next trail and improve my stats. And naturally share it with my friends. OMG, what am I waiting for? It’s so now. So hot – especially for me, a son of the Internet, a social media power user, an innovator at heart.

Well, thanks, but no thanks. See, I can run without an app and enjoy it. Who knew it could be possible?

I wrote in an earlier piece that technology is empowering us to innovate and change our lives for good – and I truly believe it can. That app I referenced could be great for someone training for a marathon or someone struggling to meet their goals. But I can’t stop thinking that we invent so much other artificial stuff, crap we think is good for us. Crap we take for granted. Crap we gave permission to, to shape our lives.

As a trained designer, an internet geek and a mad advertiser, I saw my craft evolve from sketching with colour pencils on a nice and big drawing table to inventing some wicked (if I do say so myself) branded and technologically-empowered live experiences. I had no remorse whatsoever to trash my table for a nice black and white Mac SE that cost me $5,000. I can tell you I made the best of it and it was a blast.

Until yesterday.

You see, yesterday I stopped doing what I was doing. For a brief moment (well, a year) I looked around me and talked to people and read lots (like that piece in strategy about this guy who sold his company because he felt advertising became so darn complicated).

I took some time to look at what we were doing collectively with our lives and within our lives. I looked at what we were doing in our craft and I saw complexity. I saw a desperate attempt to seduce and attract the masses and the individuals with new, improved, artificial marketing means, big and small. I saw virtual social platforms made to sell us stuff that have successfully become the true fabrics of our life, interlocked with it (with so much ease and with our full consent, I might add). No questions asked. Oh, maybe one. (Is your life better since the advent of video on your wall? I know, I know, maybe a little more socially guilt-free if you took the ALS challenge, but what else?)

I also saw old advertising agencies struggle to adjust for a new world made for digital agencies. I saw digital agencies, happy to take on this huge piece of cake, doing crazy cool stuff that lacked the fantastic efficiency of a simple VW ad made in the ’60s. I remember judging the very best cyber projects at Cannes and thinking, “Damn, this is all so fucking great, so many great experiences, we are the future all right, but what a pity that it all means next to nothing – that most of it poorly communicates whatever it was intended to.”

I can still think and say the same for a big part of today’s digital advertising. Too much of something is just not good enough.

Bad crap works. It’s a fundamental truth. Look everywhere.

I believe simplicity is the key to achieve better work. Not yesterday’s simplicity – I’m not reactionary, nor Luddite. But remember that amnesia is, and will remain, one of the great characteristics of humanity. We tend to forget everything, good and bad, and start over, repeating mistakes.

I choose to remember and build the future, my future on reinventing this revolutionary Bernbach idea of simplicity and honesty. An idea big enough to be embraced and re-engineered for today’s fast-pace, technologically-empowered society.

Don’t take me wrong. Simplicity does not exclude complex, back-end solutions. Look at Hans Wegner’s wishbone chair – itis complex to build, but it’s so pure in simplicity in the end. Complexity is not necessarily complicated.

As for honesty, well, I don’t think I will try to teach you lessons here. Just ask yourself if what you do is truly shaping our society in the right direction, if you are contributing to something bigger with the task at hand.

I know you are young and restless. But please don’t be reckless. Take a moment to contemplate this idea of simplicity and honesty. And question yourself whether or not we are on our own track or on someone else’s. Then, only then, we can together harness properly, job by job, idea by idea, this future of ours. Don’t be the blind that leads the blind. Seriously.

 

Published in Strategy Magazine, September 12, 2014

A modern tale about the Bluenose and Robin Hood

 

I work from home. From my basement, actually, (sometimes from a Tim Hortons) in the suburbs. Un-sexy, right? I know, my garage would make for a sexier, iconic story, but I need it for my car.

I’ve run my own ad agency from there for more than six months now – super small but with big balls. No employees, but plenty of seniors freelancers and great talent from all over the place – art directors, writers, proofreaders, designers, producers, account managers, photographers, illustrators, artists…

The agency already has many great clients – national brands even. I do strategic planning for them, not to mention TV, radio, print, OOH, stunts, social media and content marketing. I do whatever their brand needs to be successful – the whole shebang and the full monty, or something plain and simple if it’s what they really need.

We, my partner and I, aim for success, results, money, the best of show. We aim for fun. And we like it small and human. Is this possible? Is this sustainable? Are we dreaming in colours?

Maybe. But we are definitely not alone.

Plenty of very small shops are opening everywhere, freeing themselves from the traditional agency models of the last century. They trash the old ways and start fresh from the start. They invent the future. Seasoned professionals are quitting the big agency circuit after too many years of frustration to open their own agile shops. They reinvent their future.

Without boundaries or tracks laid out in front of them, small agencies can be more innovative – in both their business models and in what they do. With agility comes the idea of invention. With a closer relation and greater proximity to their clients, small places can find inspiration to innovate and find new solutions by simply spending some time in the field with their clients.

Remember the field, guys?

Timing is everything, and the time is now. Economy is down. Clients can’t afford to pay top dollars for empty PowerPoint presentations from too many people with nice suits.

The gold rush is history. Sorry again, guys. Clients need entrepreneurs who understand their business and daily challenges. They need more and better for less. They need stuff that lasts. They need results. They need all their dollars to be working dollars. They are already jumping ship, leaving the majestic steamboats for the fast and elegant Bluenose. But mostly, they are ready to work hand-in-hand with people who, actually, are on the deck.

The world needs advertisers to be more honest. We need to stop bullshitting, and being “nice” once in a while to please an ad jury somewhere. We have too much power over the way people live their lives. I like to believe that smaller shops can take advantage of their new-found agility and liberty of actions to be leaders in this New “possible” World. We can influence the way things are done, the way things are made. We can definitely influence what’s being said. Smaller shop can also say “no way” way more easily.

Last, but not least, to change the agency model is not only to change its organizational model and size, it’s to change its economic model too. I like to think that one can redistribute the money more fairly to the project’s “real” contributors, the ones who actually work on the mandates. Let’s call it the Robin Hood effect.

I know, I know, I’m a dreamer, but like a famous guy said, I’m not the only one.

 

When David kicks Goliath’s butt

 

Today, I have a story for you, a bedtime story for advertising moguls. A classic revisited; new and improved, naturally.


Once upon a time Goliath was big, strong and rich. He was powerful. He was the undisputed master of his kingdom. His wealthy neighbours respected him. He was not really a great sport, nor was he that good with his subjects. But hey, when you rule, who cares? He didn’t.

One day, he caught a little guy kicking at his butt. He felt nothing really. He had more important things to which to attend. So Goliath just ignored him. He did what he had planned that day. He had a big party with his big neighbours to talk about big ideas and some big business. He might have smoked a cigar, but no first-hand, nor left-hand witnesses recall it for sure.

That night, at 4 a.m. flat, he remembered the little guy. You see, he couldn’t go to sleep. Something was bugging him – a weird sensation. He never felt it before.

But you know Goliath. The next day, he went on doing his big business. It was another lovely day on Earth.


Once upon a time David was clever. That’s about the only thing he was. He didn’t run fast. He couldn’t fight (he was kind of weak since his early childhood). On top of that, he was really small. Not just small. More like tiny small – tiny, mini small. He lived in a kingdom ruled by some big giants who nobody really liked. So it had been like that for more than a century.

One day, when he felt he had nothing to lose (he never had anything anyway), he decided to kick some butt – the big ones. So he chose to start by kicking Goliath’s. You see, David didn’t care if the ruthless big dude couldn’t feel it the first time. And it was a good thing to say the truth. So he went on, undisturbed.

That night, at 4 a.m. flat, he decided to make this affair official – he made a big decision. He would start a mini, tiny business of his own. Kicking ass would be his main line of business. He told everybody that the best way to kick ass was to stay small. Remember, David was very clever.

Kicking ass worked! Suddenly, and in no time, many villagers and farmers wanted to do business with him. They loved him. He shared the work and the fame – a real sport. It was good and he felt good.


David defeated Goliath. It’s a fact. The story says it. The legend says also Goliath felt so much pain in his butt he had to retire to the Côte d’Azur. But nobody knows for sure. Just before he left he was such a pain in the ass and so needy, even his big, rich neighbours preferred the company of the little dude.

In the end, Goliath never met David. He just had the sensation of his existence.

 

Published in Strategy Magazine, May 20, 2014

 

Modern advertising alchemy

 

I know you. You’re a junior creative on a job no one wants. Maybe even a creative director (but not the executive one), on the same job that really, really, no one wants. You’rea brand marketing director on a not-so-cool product. You’re a sucker.

Well, that’s what you think.

Life sucks. Oh yes. You want to meet Doc Emmett Brown and get in the DeLorean to start over, in a time where the budgets were obscene or maybe to go in a distant future to have all the A accounts, the slick brands with the fat budgets and even better, have all the glory and walk the red carpet at Cannes.

Good luck.

Life sucks. Sorry to be the party-pooper this time, but if this is your master plan, time travel won’t be available for the next few months.

Maybe Google is on the case. Who knows?

But you got it all wrong. Life’s sweet. You’re lucky and you don’t know it. The easiest way to get what you want is to pull when someone pushes.

Judo. I was 10. I hated it. My opponents smelled and it was sometimes painful. But I learned to get the best out of my misery. I learned to pull  – the main concept behind the fighting style. It’s a simple dynamic: pull when someone pushes.

Wow. What a revelation. No need to be strong or to have the extraordinary DNA of a winner. I just needed to be clever; to change my point of view and act accordingly. I WILL win because ALL is against me. Neat, nest-ce pas?

I know you. I was you yesterday. I was an expert at ending up with the lost leader accounts. For, well, almost 20 years. I had the little, the ugly, the no-time, no-money projects. And when there was money, I had to split it between French and English or do a year-long project. But guess what? I asked for them. I wanted them. Unlike you, I was not whining, I was winning – often and with small stuff. I was winning more often than my colleagues with the nice juicy mandates.

Life’s sweet. You have the best job in the world and you don’t know it. You can surprise everybody where they least expect it. And it’s easy – well, kind of.

You’ve just got to turn lead into gold.

Consider this if you want to be a modern alchemist:

1- You’ve been given a budget to achieve something. And you are paid to do it. That’s a good start.

2 – That same money, and it probably isn’t much, can be used to hire the best talents. Yes, the best. You need them. Trust me. They will agree to jump in your boat if you’re passionate. The word passion is the secret weapon here.

3 – If you want to innovate, or you have the will to push some boundaries, #2 will be a walk in the park.

4 – Perspective. Mindset. Stop seeing problems. See opportunities. Create opportunities. Be a leader. Show what you are made of.

5 – You need a great idea. A shit idea always creates a shit job. Don’t waste your precious time. Our job is also to prevent those shit ideas from existing.

6 – Think small. It worked then and it’ll still work today. Don’t spread yourself thin. You don’t have a big budget. Learn to do only what is important, what is necessary.

7 – Sometimes, perfecting an “old” media is okay. Or at least try to be as good as the “old” ad masters. Your money will be put on the strategy and on the best execution instead of trying too hard at some new tech despite not having enough money to do it properly. I guarantee you, this is as good a path as other ones.

8 – Talking about strategy, please, please be strategic. Don’t sell your soul. Don’t settle for cheap gold. No sympathy for the devil. Do the right things. Even a small, very strategic project, very well executed is better than a false, fake project building nothing. Resist. Represent.

Making the best out of our time is our responsibility. Your influence on our field of work won’t start when you finally get up the marketing ladder. It starts now. Enjoy your time there and make the most out of it. It’s fun and totally rewarding.

Take your time. Stop complaining. Go do some alchemy. Turning a lost cause into gold doesn’t mean only winning the top award, it means you know the basics laws of physics.

You might sweat a little at first, but you’ll learn to pull in no time.

Published in Strategy Magazine,April 21, 2014

How to reinvent the wheel in three easy steps

I can’t stand people who have all the answers. I don’t read their books either. I never get it anyway. Do you? Really? I must have lost a bolt or two at some point I tell you.

I prefer people with questions. People wondering. Curious people. They put my brain to work way more than any bestsellers out there. Oh, and I ask questions too, you see. Important ones. Like why violets are blue – things that make me wonder.

So here’s the first and most important step toward the reinvention of your world, toward innovation:

1) Empty your mind. Or make space. Please don’t fill it with crap or stuff already made or already thought of.

American futurist Buckminster Fuller (who is taking on a definite mentor quality to me), once said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

In short: Forget what you know. Start fresh. Make a clean slate. I know that it’s not easy to go cold turkey, but here’s a trick if you’re addicted to the data dump: read half the book or listen to only half the TED Talk. Let your mind fill the missing part.

THIS IS WHERE YOU WILL BE THE MOST CREATIVE. This is the place where you will have your own ideas. This is the space where you can innovate. If your brain is an 11-by-17 sheet of white paper, leave at least a square inch unfilled. You never know when you will need it for your own thoughts.

2) “What is it about fire that’s so lovely?” asked author Ray Bradbury.

Set it (your mind, or this sheet of paper) on fire. A blazing fire of ideas. In my “internet” years, I had a boss ask me to have one idea everyday (a very clever boss indeed). Seemed easy at the time. Hey, one idea only. Pfff. Piece of cake for a cool internet dude like I was.

Well, it’s not easy. I probably ended up having a worthy idea every six months. Why? Because I wasn’t trained yet.

My mind was cold and analytic at the time. It didn’t burn. Over time, I was able to keep the ignition alive – always on the lookout for an interesting thought or some fragments of my life experiences that would set a wildfire of ideas on top of a problem I was trying to crack.

So, next time you stumble across something interesting (like those blue violets), make sure the burner is alive. But be careful, fire also “destroys responsibility and consequences,” as noted in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Be good.

3) “That’s another side of me. When people go in one direction, I go the other way. By curiosity,” I said in a very interesting correspondence I’m having with Vancouver marketing consultant Marc Stoiber. Stoiber also writes about innovation, life and brands.

Here’s my final advice if you want to achieve something more important than the latest video you saw on Facebook.

Defy the rules. Always. Fire doesn’t stop at any obstacle. Here’s what music producer/collaborator Giovanni Giorgio Moroder said about inventing the “Sound of the future” in Daft Punk’s Giorgio by Moroder: “Once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So, nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.”

Like Giorgio, you must go in places where vertigo is the name of the game. Once a goal is set, nothing should stop you from trying. Curiosity is of utmost importance. Failing is more than possible.

Act fearlessly.

Who knows, you might find another world out there. And please, don’t listen to party-poopers, they are numerous and they are the ones who miss all of the action in the end.

To reinvent the wheel is not for everyone. After all, it’s only for the dreamers. Only for the fools on the hill. No rules apply to them, not even these steps. Are you one of them?

 

Published in Strategy Magazine, March 17, 2014

Making love last: Advice for the jaded shopper marketer

Dear Dominique,
I’m a marketing director for a major Canadian food brand and we have body image issues. The look of our main product line feels plain and inadequate. I’ve been tasked with a redesign of the packaging but the trouble is I have no idea what’s in fashion. Do you have any suggestions to help our product get its groove back?

Low self-esteem

 

Dear Low self-esteem,
That’s an easy one. First, go to a supermarket and look at the shelves where your competitors are. See how they shout at you and compete for your attention? Make sure you shout loudest. Forget the trends or what’s in fashion. Just be big and bold.

Sarcasm, I love it.

I got you for a minute. I would never, ever, go down this road. As a trained designer, I believe you can break through the clutter by doing things differently. Instead of being part of this tasteless, ugly fight occurring in those infinite aisles of mediocrity, inspire with great design.

Skim the countless blogs and design mags for inspiration. All the fashion and trends are in there for you to choose from. Let those clean, crisp, modern, minimalist package designs brainwash you. After all, design annuals are the best manuals!

Double-sarcasm. Sorry. As someone once said to me, annuals are definitely not manuals.

No more kidding. Here are the steps I would take:

1) Understand why change is required. Are sales down? Is there fresh competition? Has your product improved? Are you freshening up a dusty brand? Pushing a new brand promise?

2) Get your story straight. A defined and clear brand promise is your best asset. Remember, your product is your best owned media, so ensure your packaging delivers the right story. It’s not just a nice graphic on a box, it’s your Trojan horse.

3) Make things right. If your promise and story are unique, you should end up with a unique design. Nothing will look like it and nothing will compare. You will stand out.

I triple-dog-dare you to follow these three steps. If you do, customers will recognize you, buy your products and share the love. Well-crafted, insightful communication always works.

Dom

 

Published in Strategy Magazine, March 14, 2014

Need for change

As far as I remember, I’ve always embraced change. You see, sometimes, it is bred in the bones. Way back in the ’60s, as a child, I literally “lived” and “listened” to my brother’s Beatnik Revolution. Then, soon after, I probably turned granola and green before anybody in my neighborhood. I was an early adopter of the “Apple” lifestyle in the ’80s and I naturally turned into an internet nerd in 1995. I remember trashing my TV not long after that.

It became my lifestyle. My “raison d’être.” But one can reasonably ask why should anyone pursue this quest for innovation and change? Why bother? It’s much easier to stay put and look outside the window or at a mobile screen. Or even worse, at broadcast TV.

Today, more than ever in the history of mankind, we, I, have the ability to change things, from bad habits in our daily lives to poverty and environmental problems. American futurist Buckminster Fuller’s dream of solving the planet’s challenges with modern means is possible more than ever. From now on, it’s in our own hands. This “newfound” ability is an old friend of ours: technology.

As much as necessity is the mother of invention, technology is now her baby sister. Technology is empowering and can trigger knowledge and innovation. And change. Technology enables new ideas and the speed of innovation is moving faster and faster.

Technology changes the way we are and how we perceive ourselves. Innovative ways of communication between individuals and communities, like social media and mobile devices, are having a deep influence on the way we behave and relate to each other. We exchange and create content at a rate never seen before on this planet. These new possible, efficient exchanges and powerful links are creating even more possibilities for innovation.

Two new major historical human quests launched this year on two different, yet so similar, levels: a vast network of interconnected computers and scientists are mapping our brain while mathematicians and astronomers are mapping the Milky Way. As Star Trek’s Spock would say: Fascinating. Even more fascinating, interconnected brains are just around the corner.

So you can watch, use and play at will with the world we now live in. Or you can stop and ask yourself how can you participate and be an actor, a change agent, in that new ever-changing state of ours. We can all make an impact in any given field. Innovation is human by nature. All it takes is to look around you, understand the world you live in, both in knowledge and practice. From there, you can operate change. Find ways to improve whatever you do.

Like I said earlier, the will to always try new stuff is instilled in me: I look at a pile of junk in the street and it makes me think of a new project. And I want to innovate with it. Or at least make a point. Most of all, I probably want to rock your boat too while doing it. You see, to embrace innovation is to embrace disruption. Not the artificial disruption that we, as advertisers, master so brilliantly, but another kind of disruption. One that can make a difference. One that can harness the wonders of technology. Maybe it is a disruption that changes some of our daily behaviour. Or maybe a disruption in how we interact with the outside world. Better, a disruption in our consumption pattern.

Why not a long lasting disruption? A disruption for good.

 

Published in Strategy Magazine, February 11, 2014