‘Change at the Chalkface’ in the AFR’s BOSS Magazine


Today The Australian Financial Review has published a short article on the need for change in schools (also available on their website). It’s the first piece I’ve written as the executive director of The Schoolhouse Centre for Progressive Education (or be our friend on Facebook).

Great response so far – I’m very excited about getting more out there to encourage this kind of important conversation.

Unshackling the Beast

Any seasoned nineteenth century explorer would tell you that there’s a world of difference between encountering a fully grown West African lion on the savannah, and seeing one at Astley’s Circus from the front row of the London Hippodrome. In the interest of providing entertainment, the circus industry had utterly domesticated, commoditised and institutionalised the poor beasts, leaving them caged, toothless and timid; pale reflections of their raw, animalistic glory.

And so it is with advertising and the commoditisation of creativity.

Advertising creativity is the art of the thirty second spot. Making sure the talent holds the product just so. Telling a joke in between two shows someone cares enough to watch. Making the picture sexy enough, the copy witty enough or the music catchy enough that advertising is forgiven for the intrusion of it’s very existence. Keeping the tills ringing, keeping the agency lights on, and keeping the madmen of today cosy in their Aeron chairs.

The naked flame of creativity, on the other hand, burns with a brilliance and passion that pays little regard to the carrier or their personal wellbeing. Raw creativity is the regular bedfellow of insanity, substance abuse, rejection, and people setting fire to you. None of which looks too good on a LinkedIn profile. It’s no wonder that advertising, in its quest to be a good, sensible business that gets invited to play golf with the chairman settles for ‘domesticated creativity’. The kind that will dance for the crowd, and roar on cue. Can we do the roar a little throatier, more like the roars the kids are listening to these days? Of course we can.

So perhaps (spoiler alert) advertising isn’t really that creative. Why do we care? Why not continue sticking a couple of failed novelists and wanna-be film makers into the darkest corner of the office, chain them to Macs, and carry on churning out ‘creative’ work?

Because, like the virgin savannah and the London Hippodrome, the business landscape has changed. We live in a world where Google can become your biggest competitor overnight; where you go to lunch and come back to find that three teenagers in a garage have invalidated your business model; where you worry less and less about your competitors, because at least you know who they are.

There are different ways to succeed in this new world – but maintaining the same old approach to communication isn’t one of them. Marketers are looking for bigger and better ideas. For ways to challenge the status quo and get on the front foot. Solutions that go deeper than advertising, to product innovation, process change, or even business disruption. And well they might, for only with this level of dynamic, responsive change can businesses hope to continue to compete.

So it’s time to unshackle creativity. To let loose the beast, and consequences be damned. But not quite, because we still have a job to do. We don’t want pure creativity, we want applied creativity. Creativity in the yoke of our business problem – strategic creativity, if you will. To get here we will still have to journey to the constantly liminal space between order and chaos where creativity lives.

To unlock this wellspring of potential, businesses need to be aware of the risks in dealing with more extreme forms of creativity. Their unpredictability doesn’t rest easily on a balance sheet. However, expecting agencies to take on the risk of creativity is naïve in a world of hardball procurement and continual pitching. Advertisers will need some skin in this game.

For their part, agencies (or at least those who want to play in the deep end of the pool) need to figure out how to do two things. Firstly, to create spaces in time and place that sit at the edge of chaos, the powerful and generative origin of creativity. Such spaces are exciting yet dangerous – approaches like ‘skunkworks’ and ‘labs’ suggest the difficulty of embedding them comfortably within an organisation. Secondly, we need to build a dynamic, iterative engagement between this creativity and the strategic lens of the problem to be solved. At Naked we strive to do this through the diversity and flexibility of the people we employ, through agile teams and processes, and always through the constant challenge to do things differently and better.

Perhaps a third challenge facing agencies is to wrap this strategic creativity in a layer of account service and an accountable, attractive financial model. This is left as an exercise for the reader.


– Originally published in AdNews | October 31st, 2014.

The Schoolhouse Project

While I’m very excited to have an incredibly short opportunity to share some thinking at TEDxSydney today, unfortunately it doesn’t give me much of a chance to explain the ‘why’ behind my comments on education innovation.

On the off chance that you have stumbled here after hearing me speak and are curious, it’s all about The Schoolhouse Project. Here’s the blurb…

The Schoolhouse Project is an initiative to open a K-6 primary school in 2016. The project is inspired by many different and amazing progressive education projects around the world, and motivated by our desire to raise kids with competencies and attitudes that prepared for the world they will inherit. Rather than being informed by a particular philosophy or style of teaching, the project draws on many different ideas and learnings to create a truly unique educational environment.

The project is a community endeavour – we’re always looking for people who want to get involved, whether that means parents who are looking for a school for their kids that aligns with their ideas, or creative and passionate people who want to be involved in a truly inspiring and audacious project. We look forward to hearing from you.

Things are only just getting started but I’d love to keep you informed if you are interested, and hopefully get you involved. To stay in touch you can like us on Facebook or drop me an email at brett@schoolhouse.org.au

TEDxSydney: What would school be like if we invented it today?

Looking forward to 30 seconds on the TEDxSydney Stage tomorrow, as part of the Fast Ideas segment. I’ll be talking about education innovation, saying something like…

What would school be like, if we invented it today?

Would school buildings look more like prisons or cottages?

Would we have thirty kids in a class, or ten?

Would problems come out of text books or imaginations?

Would diversity be a challenge, or an opportunity?

Would teachers be trying to control kids, or inspire them?

We take school for granted, but it shouldn’t be that way. We need to create schools that teach the skills kids really need, like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication.

What would school be like if we invented it today? Well, what’s stopping us?


Technological Innovation and How to Avoid It

Don’t innovate.

Seriously, if you can get away without any innovative technology in your marketing, by all means do so. Marketers should use it as a last resort. This may sounds like heresy when we hear so much about it, but no one acknowledges the dark underbelly of innovation.

To understand just how abhorrent innovation really is, you need to consider the two different ways you can do it – the easy way and the hard way.

With the easy way, you take something that exists somewhere else, and repurpose it for marketing.

There are two catches with this. First, you need to be looking well outside the usual ‘research sphere’ to find an emerging technology to repurpose. This means spending a lot of time hanging around bio-technology trade shows and digital art conferences.

Then, when you find some fantastic novelty, you need to engage non-advertising partners to make it happen. That means companies that often don’t understand the timelines of ad campaigns or the foibles of CMOs.

That may sound problematic, but it pales in comparison to the hard way. This is the real deal, where a truly new invention is born, within a piece of marketing.

Recent Australian examples would include Finch’s ‘Donation Glasses’ for the Pedigree Adoption Drive and Snepo’s ‘Fundawear’ for Durex. We saw something we’d never seen before, and we saw it in a piece of advertising. So just how bad is this ‘real’ innovation?

Think about it like this. First you have to invest significant resources well ahead of the curve. Second, this investment is high risk with no guarantee you’ll actually develop something viable. Third, there’s the struggle to protect your IP from knock-off happy competition. And finally, while most innovation pays off through scale, you’ll have difficulty getting much re-use out of your innovation in the novelty-obsessed world of advertising.

With all this doom and gloom is there ever a time when innovation is justified? Absolutely.

There are many reasons to push the limits of creative marketing through technological innovation. From invigorating a stale category to breaking through as a new entrant, from forcing brand re-evaluation to simply differentiating yourself in a cluttered market.

If you do find yourself going down this road, here’s three simple tips to minimise the pain:

  • Innovate the product, not the communication. Nike+ (and Nike Fuel) is a great example of a technology innovation that has created ongoing business value.
  • Make your agency do the hard work. Someone has to invest resources and  take on risk. Surely that’s the kind of reckless behaviour you pay your agency for?
  • Acknowledge that technology innovation isn’t the same as everyday marketing, nor is it the same as product development (unless you’re a technology company).

So getting it right probably means treating it differently – breaking with the traditional process to create Skunkworks-style operations where innovative magic can happen.

It can be done, the proof is there for all to see. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.



What’s next?

So earlier this year I made a deal with myself that my education oriented projects would be on hold so that I could focus managing digital and youth strategy for the Labor party’s federal election campaign. Given that this has come to a sudden halt in the wake of some ill-informed, over-enthusiastic, misguided journalism, I guess it’s time to move on – and back to education.

The two projects I will be working on with be;

  • creating skill building course content to enable parents to be more effective volunteers in the primary classroom
  • developing games for the classroom, to deliver on the new national curriculum (with an initial focus on History and Mathematics)

Watch this space.

Oh, and vote Labor. No hard feelings, Kevin.

Fire Your Creatives. Hire Innovatives.

By and large, advertising is an industry of convention.  The creative teams at the core of many agencies have changed little since Bernbach put art director and copywriter together in the ‘50s. So it should give us pause to see the diversity of work being lauded as successful advertising at Cannes in recent years.

There is certainly still a core of ‘traditional’ work. Beautifully crafted, well-told stories and eloquently expressed ideas – from Nike’s ‘Find your greatness’ to ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ and the eloquently simple Coca-Cola ‘Hands’. This is the work we expect from a copywriter who is able to turn a phrase, working with an art director who can turn that phrase into something visually compelling.

There are other well-told stories that draw on reality in unexpected ways – from Dove’s ‘Real beauty sketches’ to the Macedonian ‘10 metres apart’. If our copywriter and art director are to create work like this they need to be able to dig deep into our psyche and behaviour, unearthing insights rather than expecting to be handed them. And this is exactly what the best creative teams bring to the table.

The last type of work is of a very different nature. It’s hard to categorise because of the diversity of shapes it takes. It can be a fitness platform built on a wearable product innovation (Nike+ FuelBand), a radio show that repels mosquitoes (Go Outside), or a LED-covered car that vanishes as it drives by (Mercedes ‘Invisible F-CELL’).

While very different, these share a common trait. In every case, creativity has been applied not just to the content of the work, but to its form or function. Each breaks with what is expected, by deploying technology in new and unusual ways. And while this work rarely comes from traditional agencies, increasingly clients are turning to those agencies to deliver it.

The problem is that this requires a very different set of skills. Rather than crafting beautiful stories in established formats, it needs a deeper understanding of how those formats and technologies actually work, to challenge conventions and create new ways of doing things. This is the difference between creativity and innovation.

If we are expecting our creative teams to deliver innovation, we need to make sure they have the necessary skills. That means less storytelling and more tinkering. Less deep craft and more curiosity about how things work.  If we want this kind of thinking in our creative teams – and that’s the place it needs to be, right at the core of our ideas process – we need to stop hiring traditional creatives and start hiring ‘innovatives’. Creative generalists who surprise us with how far their thinking stretches.

Unfortunately, these innovatives are unlikely to be able to create a witty, well-crafted TV spot or a powerful, moving long-copy ad. And unless you work for a very edgy agency, there’s still plenty of that to be done. So let’s not fire all of the creatives just yet.

Which leads to an interesting thought. What we haven’t seen much of at Cannes is work that uses the storytelling craft of our more traditional creatives in concert with the functional innovation of innovatives. Having a suitable balance of people will be hard, and building processes that get them working together will be harder still. But agencies that succeed are the ones we’ll be writing about a few years from now.

Rogering your Agency

Good work comes from the marriage of a client, an agency, and a brand.

While a certain degree of friction can be productive, it’s important that the union also has plenty of common ground. Is it a Tom Jones and romantic dinners kind of marriage? Or more German techno and leather underwear?

One of the big factors to consider in searching for the perfect match is how innovative you want to be – both in your general approach to marketing, and to technology specifically.

The easiest way to think about this as a marketer is by placing yourself, your brand, and the agencies you work with on the well-known Rogers’ diffusion of innovation curve – from innovators through to laggards.

When deciding where you and your brand fall on the curve, it’s important to remember that there is no single ‘right’ answer. Not every brand should be at the bleeding edge.

There are opportunities (and challenges) at every stage on the curve. What you need to be sure of is that your agencies are comfortable playing in your part of the curve – otherwise the marriage is headed for confusion.

It’s also important to realise that your position is not permanent. Brands like Old Spice and Volkswagen have shown that a concerted effort can dramatically reposition a ‘tired’ brand through innovation.

Conversely, it’s not unusual to watch previously ‘edgy’ brands become mainstream, often in the search for larger markets.

If you see yourself toward the innovative end of the curve when it comes to marketing your brand, you need to consider whether you place yourself before or after what Moore described as the ‘chasm’ separating ‘visionaries’ from ‘pragmatists’. On one side are innovative visionaries like Red Bull and Burger King, venturing into unchartered territory and risking failure.

On the other side are progressive pragmatists like McDonalds and Nike, who may never be the first, but will strive constantly to be the best.

The way many agencies approach problems tends to situate them in a particular part of the curve. There are hype-chasing ‘pre-chasm’ agencies, constantly pushing the limits and creating new possibilities. There are strategic, progressive ‘post-chasm’ agencies adopting leading innovative best practice. And there are agencies who deploy tried and tested approaches and advertising technologies – including those that make some of the best and most effective (traditional) advertising in the world.

A good match is one between a client, an agency and a brand that is based on a shared point of view on innovation.

Get it right and you can build powerful brand communication. Get it wrong and you can end up looking like a grandmother wearing hot pants, arguing about Justin Bieber.