There is no magic formula to helping your brand stand out amongst the crowd. But if there is one takeaway from today’s episode on how to get your brand noticed it is to take some fucking risks.
Today’s guest, Paul Mellor, founder, and design director at Mellor & Smith, shares with us why their brand and ad agency is successful by keeping it simple, breaking the rules, and you guessed it, taking fucking risks.
It's the antidote to marketing bullshit.
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Louis: Bonjour, bonjour and welcome to another episode of Everyone Hates Marketers.com, the no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast for marketers, marketing consultants, founders, and tech people, who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I'm your host, Louis Grenier.
In today's episode, you'll learn how to take some fucking risk, so you can get noticed. My guest today is a founder and design director at Mellor & Smith, which is a brand and ad agency, who are not afraid to take some fucking risk. They like to keep things simple, to break the rules, and take some fucking risk. I've said it three times already. I think you can remember the topic of the show.
In fact, they also started their own speaker series and events two years ago called, you guessed it, Take Some Risk, Take Fucking Risk, excuse me. They had 400 attendees at a time for their events, so there's quite a lot of demand for this type of no bullshit event in the marketing world. That's why I'm super happy to have Paul Mellor on board. Paul, welcome aboard.
Paul: Cheers, man, thank you very much. That's a great intro.
Louis: Yeah, of course, it is, what do you think? Why do companies struggle to get noticed in the first place? Why do you think it's such an issue for companies to stand out in this day and age?
Paul: Because, they all look the same. It's as simple as that. Everyone, and I mean pretty much everyone, in every single industry, in every country across the world, looks and sounds exactly the same.
Louis: Can you give me an example of a, let's say, specific industry and, maybe, name some companies? If you're not afraid of doing so, to show that it's actually true, this statement.
Paul: Well, you don't even have to name industries. The research backs it up. If I start with the stats, because I do like to start with real science before we talk about calling people out, so the average Londoner, and this is the same if you're in any built-up area, any city, but the research was done in London, the average Londoner sees 1,000 ads a day. That's radio, TV, print, mobile, whatever it is. Of those 1,000 ads, 89% of them are forgotten, immediately. That is a fucking joke. That is ridiculous.
Then, of the remaining 11%, 4% are remembered positively and 11% remembered negatively. Can you imagine if there was an engineer where 89% of their bridges fell down? It would be a serious problem. They would be run out of town.
Yet, it's okay, if advertisers, where 89% of them are forgotten. It seems like it's, people just, "Yeah, that's fine, whatever." They're quite happy, or they'll skew the numbers to make it seem like they're not being forgotten, but they are.
It's just wallpaper. That's what advertising has become. It's just wallpaper on the side of the street, on the side of a bus, on the side of a webpage, if it's a banner, whatever it is. It's just wallpaper.
Louis: 89% seems like actually too little. That means 11% actually remember them, whether it's positively or negatively. When you say remember, what's the criteria here?
Paul: To recall it. I think the test, I don't know the exact numbers, but I think the test was within 24 hours. That means it was a recall within 24 hours.
Paul: Yeah, it's just, it's mind-blowingly, we as an industry are mind-blowingly shit at our job. Yet, nobody's prepared to talk about it.
Louis: You seem to be, yeah, you seem to be prepared to talk about it though, that advertisers are doing a very poor job.
Louis: But, it seems like, and that's what we were talking about in the intro, it seems like we, the problem of being noticed and creating ads that actually stand out or creating marketing or being a marketer that stands out, to me doesn't seem like it's a marketing strategy issue or tactic or tactical issue, or the fact that they don't really understanding marketing.
Sometimes, it feels like the biggest issue is the mental block here to actually take some risk, take a stand and actually stand out with your own convictions.
Paul: Yeah. There's two points to that. The first is that there are a lot of ads out there. There are a lot of brands vying for people's attention, so I get it. It's difficult. I'm not saying that it's easy. But, it is possible.
The point being across the world where people, it's the avoidance of risk. Companies are run by accountants and procurement people, and they're not run by people that understand the craft of getting noticed. There's the projection of fear. Marketers are far too worried about the internal politics. There's design by committee. There's the tactics before creative.
Marketers are far more interested in the channel, the media spend, the tactics, way before they're interested in the creative. It should be completely the other way around. The media buy, the strategy, sorry, not the strategy, the channel, the tactics should not inform the creative.
The evidence, anecdotal or not, is just think about, try and name me 10 ads that you saw in the last 24 hours that you liked, that you can re...
Paul: ads from the '80s you probably could. You probably could reel out 10 ads from 30 years ago.
Louis: Yeah. Let me think about it. Let's do the actual exercise right now. Yeah, it's incredibly difficult. I remember this ad from, I remember it, because I put it in my swipe file recently this ad from, you know the pencil, the highlighter, the yellow highlighter?
Louis: In the news-
Paul: I don't know the name, but yeah.
Louis: Yeah, and there is this connection between the highlighter, the use of it in the scientific world and the NASA and the massive things they've done with it. I can't even fucking describe it properly, and that's just one.
Paul: That's you as a marketer. That's you, somebody that looks at marketing through the lens of a marketer. You're not the average person on the street.
The average person on the street could not give a fuck about advertising and marketing. They do not care about brands. They do not care about what you stand for.
When someone goes to the shopping center or the mall on a Saturday shopping with the family, they're interested in: Is there going to be parking? How long is this going to fucking take? How much it's going to fucking cost. They're not interested in whether your dishwasher soap is having a conversation with millennials or not. They do not give a fuck.
Yet, marketers have this delusion that they're so important in people's lives. It's a great line that I wish I'd written, but the fantastic Ryan Wallman, he's Dr. Draper on Twitter, calls it "delusions of brandeur." This idea that brands that think they're so fucking important in people's lives. They're not. People...
Louis: Sorry, you're breaking up again. Yeah, an example of this actually is in the kitchen of the co-working space I like to work from. There is this coffee box on the top of the fridge, and I always think about it. It makes me laugh, because that's exactly the example. On the side of the box, it's written, "Join the conversation on Facebook," and then the name of the Facebook page.
Paul: Aw, fucking give me a break.
Louis: Every time, it makes me laugh. Who gives a fuck about joining a conversation with a coffee brand? What conversation in the first place? Do you put sugar or not in your coffee? Do you put milk or not, and then what? It's nonsense.
Paul: Yeah, that would have probably been through, what, maybe a month's worth of meetings.
Paul: Around the benefits of or the... that, than they are in actually come out with something novel.
Paul: What's really the acid test in that respect, and they get pulled out as an example all the time, but there's a reason for it, because it's absolutely brilliant, is Innocent Smoothies.
They were the first guys, you rewind, what, 15, 20 years ago, they were the first people to just write some nice copy on the back. Now it's copied all over the place. But, they grew a business out of doing something completely different to everybody else.
Nobody else was writing quippy, funny one-liners on their packs. No one was doing that. Yet, Innocent were the first guys to do that. I know it's a bit of a tired, tested model to pull out Innocent Smoothies as an example of someone doing it really well, but they did it fantastically. They still continue to do it today.
Louis: Yeah, I think that's a good example. I think they have offices in Dublin, and their cars, actually, they all have fake grass on them. They run around, and they're the only one doing it as well. Now, does it make sense? Does it connect with their brand? Probably. Do I remember it? Yeah, I just fucking said it.
Louis: I guess, yeah, people remember innocent. Where you don't really remember the others.
I think you've, in the marketing lingo, you've agitated the problem quite a lot at this stage. We understand the problem. We know that it's a problem. We know it's a painful one. Let's come up with a solution together, shall we?
Paul: Yeah, let's do it.
Louis: When you start working with a company, a client, and they are in this position, let's say, they want to go against, or they want to stand out in their category, such as, I don't know, they do orange juice as well.
How do you go from you don't stand out, nobody would notice you, to, we are launching a campaign that we know, fairly sure it's going to be noticed, or, at least, a bit more certain than any other stuff you've done? What is the first step? What do you like to do first?
Paul: I put all the other bullshit to one side, and we focus 100% on ideas, creativity. There isn't a problem in the world that cannot be solved by creativity. It is the number one, it's the last legal, unfair advantage that any brand has against its competition. If you are not, as a marketer, as a brand, if you're not putting ideas at the absolute heart of everything that you do at the start, then you've lost already.
Louis: Now, that sounds nice. But, you first, you probably need to know who the business is who their customers are and stuff. Maybe we should start with that, because, I guess, even though that's the meat of the thing, it's the idea and the creativity of it, you still need to understand who they are. What type of things do you like to know about a business before you dive into the ideas?
Paul: I don't take the word of the marketing team. I go and meet... Let's say it's, I don't know, a brand of orange juice. I'll go down to the shops. I'll go down to Tesco's or Sainsbury's or something, and I'll just watch people buying their orange juice, see the kind of people that they are, see how much care and attention they take, as they walk up and down the aisle, before they choose that brand of Tropicana, rather than, I don't know, Tesco's own or whatever.
I'll see that people don't give a fuck. They don't walk up and down the aisle and spend maybe 10 minutes looking at which orange juice to buy. No, they walk up to the orange juice section, they might have a look at the prices first. They might look at two options before they plumb for one. Invariably, they will choose the one that they've bought before, so convenience, or they may... it through the eyes like the marketing team think that they do.
One of the things that we do really early on is go and observe real people buying, interacting, depending on the brand what we're working for, depends what they're doing, but either buying or interacting with that brand.
Louis: Right. That's a noble concept, isn't it? For a marketer to actually give a shit about the people buying their product.
Paul: I know. It's shock horror, actually go and speak to the people that buy the product. But, you would be surprised at how often the marketing team go, "What, you don't want to see my 30-slide deck on who we think our customer is?" "No, mate, I have no interest. I have no interest in sitting through your 30-slide deck. I'm going to go down to Tesco's, and I'm going to watch them. I'll learn more doing that, than I will sitting through your 30-slide deck."
One of the tactics that we use before we brief in, we've only got a team of 10 in the studio here. We're quite small. Everyone works on every project, which is quite novel as well. But, before I brief everybody in, and let's continue to use the example of Tropicana, before I brief everybody in on their Tropicana brief, I'll say, "Right, I want everyone to write down everything that they know about Tropicana."
Just like the consumers, the closest they can be to a consumer. Because, as soon as we get briefed in on, and they get briefed in on Tropicana, that's it. They're no longer... It's much more difficult to put their feet in the shoes of a customer walking down the aisle at Tesco's, because they can read the insight documents, and they can read the strategy decks, and all that kind of stuff.
The customer doesn't have that. We write down everything, and you'd be amazed at how much people don't actually know about products.
That's why marketers think that everyone, customers think all these different things about their brand. But, they actually don't. They don't care.
Louis: This is why it's incredibly difficult when you start in a company, or when you've been in a company for two, three, five years, to take distance out of, the fact that people actually don't give a shit about 99% of the things you think they give a shit about.
As you said, when you look at them buying and all of that, you realize it. This is also why, when you start as an in-house marketer, or with a client as you mention, it's much better to get a lot of stuff out of your system and ideas right now, because you're not polluted by the marketing bullshit around you.
Paul: Yes, 100%. You'll be amazed at how quickly the clarity of thought comes when you get rid of all of the crap, and you just focus on going down to the shops and looking at someone buying your product. You'll be amazed at how quickly you cut out all the crap, and you get straight into coming up with decent ideas. That goes on to my point about ideas have to be the absolute center.
Louis: Let's go back to this example of, okay, in a B2C scenario, B2C context, it's fairly easy and even in the FMCG, the fast-moving consumer group, it's fairly easy to see people buying your stuff. You can go, as you say, to the supermarket to Tesco and whatnot.
Now, what if you work in, I don't know, a service industry or agency, and it's a bit more difficult to observe people. Have you worked with clients like this?
Paul: Yes, we work with B2B as much as we do B2C. If I had a pound for every time a marketing director of a B2B brand said, "Look, that works in B2C, but it doesn't work in B2B," then I'd be a far richer man. Because, it is just another way of people adding more complication to something that doesn't need to be complicated. It's so fucking easy to make something complicated, and it's much harder to make something simple.
There is no difference between B2C and B2B. These are still people buying goods, services, whatever they may be. Of course, the difference is that they're spending somebody else's money. They're not spending their own money. But, other than that, there is no difference. If marketers... They just fall over themselves to make it more complicated.
I actually think that it's easier to get noticed in B2B world, because, even more brands, 99.9% of brands are doing exactly the same thing as each other. All you need to do is be 20 degrees different to stand out from the crowd. But, that, unfortunately, takes some balls from someone. They've got to have some guts to actually stand out.
This is where I go to this point, people have got, these marketers, especially when you get to CMO or VP of marketing or marketing directors, brand directors, that kind of thing, then people are earning pretty good wages by this point. They've probably got a mortgage, probably even a second mortgage on that second holiday home. They got kids in private school. It's a lot to lose by making...go against the grain [Want to go against the grain with radical transparency? Read this.]. It's much easier to sit in the crowded group where everyone's exactly the same, where you don't really stand out. But, no one ever got sacked for not standing out.
Louis: That's a good point. That's actually, sorry to cut you, but that's something that I haven't really thought about before. Because you're a good marketer, and you know your stuff, you can empathize with those VP of marketing and CMOs, who have two mortgages and all of that. I understand why, from their perspective, as you said, you don't get fired if you don't stand out. You get fired, you might fear of getting fired, if you try to stand out and make a mistake, and your brand going AWOL and just getting this bad rep, that you don't want to have, right?
But, I want to go back to the B2B example again, and I know it's the same thing, but I'm more thinking of a buying process that could take longer than just going to the shop and buying an orange juice. How do you understand the buying process there, or how do you get to the core of the thing you want to know? Why people buy, how they buy, and all of that?
Paul: Yeah, so, I try my best to be a fly on the wall in those longer processes. If you think about a consumer side of things, rather than B2B but a longer buying process, I don't know, let's say, buying a house. That's quite a long process. You do quite a lot of research. You don't just walk down to the shops. Maybe some people do, but most people don't just walk down the shops and buy a house or a car. You be a fly on the wall in those kind of situations.
You'd be amazed at how many estate agents I've just loitered around in, while I listen in on people's conversations, or car showrooms that I've loitered around in, not actually buying a car, but observing other people. The point being that as long as, as soon as somebody knows that I'm there to be...if I went to the car showroom, and I said, it was agreed, it was a trip that was agreed from head office, then I'm going to be treated differently.
Whereas if I'm just milling around, and I'm trying to blend in the background and listen, then I'm going to find out a lot more and be able to learn a lot more about the reality of the situation, than I would do if I'd been on their, an organized trip.
Other ones as well, we've worked with some retailers, some really big retailers, some of the biggest in the world. They've got huge stores, and I just hang around in the store. It makes me look a bit weird. If I'm hanging around in a store for two or three hours and don't buy anything. But, then, that's what you need to do.
I think that not enough creatives, not enough marketers are doing that, where they just on the... how people buy... How the hell do people walk around IKEA and buy furniture and pots, pans, glasses, whatever else they're buying? Nobody does that. They just don't, because they think it's beneath them. I don't know what it is. But, the amount of people that are not doing that.
And, if they are doing it, they're doing it on work time, Monday to Friday where it's an organized trip for the agency to go down to the local IKEA. That's bullshit. You're not going to get anything real like that.
Louis: I'm glad you're talking about all of this stuff, because I don't know if... Let's be clear, I don't want to bash marketers that much, because I am one. I know, I can empathize with why they are not necessarily doing it.
I think people are getting a bit too comfortable with the digital technology we have nowadays, the Google Analytics and all of those stuff. Where you can get stats and data from any sources you want, and you feel you understand people.
But, unless you see someone else telling you or showing you how it's done, and unless you take this leap of faith to actually get out of your comfort zone and do it, see how people actually behave, and then seeing how people actually behave, then you're going to get some serious, serious clarity.
Louis: I know that recently, I didn't go and sit and meet with some of the customers of our business, but I spent some 30 minutes on the phone with a few of them. Oh boy, it gave me so much more clarity than I ever thought I had about: why they buy, how they talk, what they care about, what they don't care about.
It's so much easier to do marketing once you have an actual vivid idea of who you're talking to. You remember the person you talked to. You remember the person in the car dealership or in the shop. You can see this person, and it's so much easier to come up with a campaign based on this person, isn't it?
Paul: Correct, 100%. For the record, I'm not hating on marketers. I think this goes far deeper than just bashing marketers. There's a massive problem with agencies, where they're just lazy. That's my competition, and it's very easy for me to trash-talk my competition.
But, this is just, it's endemic in the industry. I think it's endemic right to the core. Awards juries, awards that are given out for absolute shit work.
... CMOs, 18 months now. You've got bullshit like Audi putting the advertising account out for review and putting BBH under review, after 30-odd years of doing some of the best work, some of the best car advertising ever in the history of car advertising. It's mad.
It's mad how fucked up the industry is, and people just following it and accepting it like lemmings. It's not the way to do it. We need more people to... We need more troublemakers. We need more people to challenge the status quo. We need more people to take a fucking risk. We need more people to stake their claim on an idea and fucking go for it.
Nobody, I've not come across anybody that took a risk and then got fired for taking that risk, if it didn't pay off. The vast majority of the time, it does pay off. Occasionally, people take a risk, and it doesn't pay off. But, they didn't get the sack. But, the fear of the fact that they might get sidelined or fired, it stops people from producing work. That's why 89% of it is completely forgotten.
Louis: Yeah, the pull of being in a comfortable position, this inertia that you feel as a marketer versus the push of, what if we do something outstanding, is just too big, isn't it?
Louis: A small example, and I'm not trying to position myself as a fucking brilliant marketer who knows how to set out-
Paul: You should do, Louis, honest. You should be positioning yourself as a brilliant marketer at any possible opportunity.
Louis: All right, as the brilliant marketer that I am, I took a risk two years and a half ago with this podcast and the name. I remember vividly the feeling I had before I pressed live and before I started to talk about it. I had butterflies in my stomach. I was nervous as fuck. I was afraid that nobody would give a shit. I was afraid people would say, "This is a shitty name." I was afraid people would just say, "I don't agree with you," and whatnot. I was afraid that the people I would ask to interview would say, "No."
But, I pushed through this fear, because I really, really believe in this, and I'm so fucking glad I did it, because that's, I reaped the rewards of it after that. People connect with something when it's genuine, when it's out there, when it's something that is just beyond the status quo and all of that.
I know it's a small, small case study of what you're trying to describe, and there might be some much better, wider, more grandiose type of things. But, I want to just say to you, if you're listening to this right now, if you're on the verge of creating something, and you're a bit afraid of it, just do it, because that's a good sign. If you have those butterflies in your stomach, you need to chase this nervousness, because it's a sign that you need to do it.
Paul: Yes, 100%. It's 100% agree with you. That nervousness, that butterflies is the telltale sign, that you're on to something that is different to everybody else. Because, you don't get nervous when you're putting something out there that's the same as everybody else. That doesn't get anything. That doesn't get a reaction.
The reason why Everybody Hates Marketers has been, not the reason, but one of the reasons is, because it uses language that people use down the pub. That's real language used by real people. That's one of the reasons why you've been successful, and why it stood out, and why I started listening to it. I've been listening to your podcast for a little while now, and I really like it.
Paul: Can you still hear me?
Louis: Yes, I'm just digesting the compliments.
Paul: I think, not that I want to plug, I didn't come on here to plug my event series, but Take Fucking Risks, the event series that I started, or I started with Cookie Tabinor, who's one of the designers here at Mellor & Smith, we started it two years ago on nothing. We spent £300 on some beers, booked the upstairs room of a pub, and that's now, probably, one of the biggest, if not the biggest creative event series in London. We're getting 450 people to an event now, which is ridiculous, and it's just a side thing.
But, the reason why people like it is, because we use language like, Take Fucking Risks. We talk like people talk down the pub. We don't talk in corporate jargon, where you just talk around problems and use really long words and obfuscate. None of that, no one talks like that down the pub. But, people respond when you're honest, and they can feel the honesty in the language.
Louis: That's something I haven't really shared before openly in the podcast, but I feel the reason why I talk simply, and I interview people, and they in return also talk simply, because they know they can't really bullshit much. We need to simplify things. It's, because English is not my first language, right?
Louis: Even if I wanted to use clever words, I don't have them. I don't fucking know them. I just keep it simple, because that's what I understand. It's true.
I think that's an advantage for me, the fact that English is not my first language. If I was educated in a private school in London, even if I wanted to be like everyone else, I probably would struggle.
Paul: Yeah, so French has come to your advantage.
Louis: One of the ways, it came to my advantage. Multiple other ways, but I can't share that.
Paul: Multiple ways.
Louis: It's for another episode.
Going back to the steps, going back to what we're trying to achieve, first of all, as you said, observe people, observe how they buy, be a fly on the wall, don't be afraid to get outside of comfort zone, and just observe what people do. Now, what is the next step? What do you like to do after that?
Paul: We then take it into the studio. I brief in the team, and we'll work on the briefs. Like I say, everyone in the studio works on every brief. Either myself or Jim, the Smith of Mellor & Smith, will run the project, and at the absolute heart is ideas.
We will spend probably 50 to 60% of the time, if we were to look at the amount of time that's used on a campaign, 50 or 60% of the time is used coming up with the idea. We put the absolute emphasis on coming up with the idea. We will come up with hundreds of ideas, until we find the one. Then, with skill and experience, you become better at knowing which one is the one.
Then, we'll develop that, get it to a point where it's able to be presented to the client. We'll then present it. Then, if the client likes it, which, gladly, fortunately, a lot of the time, most of the time, they do. We'll then run with it and produce it, depending on whatever it is.
But, we don't produce multiple ideas. We produce one idea. We place value on what we do.
We don't present, "Here's gold, silver, bronze." What quicker way could you have for devaluing what you do than say, "Yeah, this one, you could buy it, but it's the third worst. It's not the best." You're like, "Fuck," just language like that, you're just like, "How the hell do people think that they should be valued, if you present gold, silver, bronze?" It's just madness.
Louis: I'm laughing, because I've sat through those meetings. I understand exactly what you're saying, yeah.
Paul: It's an absolute belief in our ability, and our ability to come up with the right idea and, therefore, the right campaign for that client for that problem. Clients, they trust that. A client knows when you don't believe in an idea. You can tell when someone doesn't believe in an idea.
Louis: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: They know when you're just giving them the sales patter to buy it, so you can get the invoice in and bank the check. I just think that's such a, that does so much damage to our industry.
You got to really believe in what it is that you come up with. You have to have absolute belief that you will come up with it. There hasn't been a brief thus far, that we haven't been able to resolve. Maybe one day there will be. I hope not. I hope not soon. But, yeah, you have to have belief in what you're doing. I think there's not enough people that really, really love what they're doing.
Louis: Right, so-
Paul: People that talk about passion, I'm passionate about brands. Is he the fucking girlfriend? If you're talking about, yeah, being passionate for brands. But, yeah, you have to really want it. You have to really want it.
Louis: Now, for people listening, who are eager to know, how the fuck do they come up with a hundred plus ideas and select one? Let's try to break down the steps even more. Now I know that coming up with ideas is a muscle you need to flex, right?
Louis: I know that you have plenty of experience, very much like your team does. I also know you have probably a proprietary process you're using that you can't necessarily talk about in detail here, because we don't have two hours or three hours left, and you don't want your competitors to copy you necessarily.
But, I'm pretty sure you can distill for us a few pointers that would make people turn from, "I don't have any ideas. Where the fuck do you get the ideas?" to, "I have so many ideas. How the fuck do I pick one?" How do you come up with that many ideas?
Paul: Well, the first thing to say is that we don't have a proprietary system that we have trademarked, because that is the wankiest thing that you could possibly do. The amount of agencies that do, and I just want to scream into a pillow. But, anyway, that aside...
Louis: Why? Why, why is that?
Paul: A proprietary system does not equal ideas. A proprietary system is just a way that you can add a zero onto an invoice to show that there's some sort of process that an accountant can go, "Oh, well, they've got ABC trademarked as their process. Therefore, it must be correct." It's bullshit.
The best way of getting ideas, the best way to come up with ideas is to have a diverse, talented team. There is no shortcut to talent, hard work, desire. Those characteristics in people are the best characteristics.
We have people in the studio that are opinionated. They're obstinate. They're difficult. They're funny. They're snarky. They're observant. These are not words that you see on job adverts today. These are not things that your average recruiter is looking for when they're looking for creative people, and that's exactly the type of people that are the best creatives.
When you have writer's block, if we're going to come on to that, the idea that you go, "Oh shit, how do I go from zero to a bunch of ideas?" Getting away from a computer. A computer is like the fastest way to no ideas. Google is the fastest way to no ideas.
You want to get outside, walk down the street, go for a walk on the seaside, go to the pub. I used to spend quite a lot of time going to the pub at midday in my misspent youth, before I decided to set up an agency. I used to get fired quite a lot from various agencies that I worked at, because I was a pain in the ass.
Louis: I'm not surprised.
Paul: Yeah, I used to just go to the pub at midday. Sometimes, when I was supposed to be at work, which is why I got fired, and other times, after I'd been fired, I'd go to the pub.
But, yeah, the people that you see at the pub at midday, they're the people that buy orange juice. It's not some metropolitan, liberal elites that buys vegan sausages on a Saturday. That is not who buys your orange juice. But, if you walk into an agency or into a brand, that's exactly who they think buys their orange juice. It's mad.
Louis: Yeah, and I very much like what you said about the diverse team. I guess if you only hire people who have the same MBAs, who came from the same school, or are all white males in their 30s, who all were born in the same area, it's going to be a bit more difficult for you to come up with some proper creative ideas, right?
Paul: Yeah, you're just talking, it's just bros talking to bros, and that's never going to be a recipe for a good idea.
Louis: Then, you're not in front of a computer. Do you get together as a team in front of a whiteboard, and you start saying, "Okay, come up with shit. Let's go. Let's just write anything. Nothing is stupid," right?
Paul: Yes, yeah, yeah. The classic, no idea is a bad idea. There are obviously some bad ideas. But, the safety that no one's going to laugh at you when you come up with a shit idea. The amount of times where an absolute pearler of an idea comes out of something that was a really average idea, it happens a lot.
We have a technique that we call, and it's used widely, "Yes, and... " Whenever, someone comes up with an idea, nobody says, "No." They say, "Yes, and... " Then, they'll develop it, or they'll come up with something else. That makes people feel comfortable.
Talented people want to work with talented people. They'll nurture other people's ideas. People might get halfway through an idea, and then they get stuck. They'll get halfway through talking about it, and then somebody else will pick it up and go, "Yes, and what about this," or, "Yes, and what about that." That culture, that breeds ideas.
Louis: Right, so, once, you look at people, how they buy, you ask your team before you get the brief, before they're polluted by the company you're going to work with, you ask them about, how do they feel about the brand, do they remember anything about them, whatever, whatever. Then, you just step away from your computer, and you say, "Okay, let's just come up with shit. It's going to be bad. Some of the stuff we're going to say are going to be bad." But, you then ask, "Yes, and... " Right? You make them develop the idea.
Then, from my small experience, what happens is someone will say something, it could sound very bad, but then someone else will say, "That sounds like, yeah, but if you do this instead, that looks like a much better idea," and whatever. You start to play off each other, right?
Louis: This is when the magic happens.
Paul: Yes. 100%.
Louis: Okay, so, you come up with stuff. You just write stuff on the whiteboard. How long does it typically take you to came up with a list where you think, "Okay, there is something there in this list?"
Paul: It can completely vary. Sometimes, it can come up, within a couple of hours, you can be, "Bam, that is it. That is it." Then, others, it might take a few weeks.
There's no formula. Other than some of these things that we've talked about, there's no magic formula, which is why so many bean counters, accountants, procurement people don't, they can't... Because, you can't put a... They can't put a timeline, "Well, I want ideas by X day." It's the old...
There's a very famous advertiser, David Abbott, who was fantastic. I'm going to bastardize his quote, because I can't remember it exactly. But, he said, "Who the fuck came up with a good idea when they had brainstorming at Tuesday, 11 o'clock? No ideas ever came good from having... "
The idea being that just because the client puts, "Hey, we're going to have a brainstorming session, Tuesday at 11 o'clock." That isn't when the good ideas happen. Good ideas come from when you go out for a walk, when you're down the pub, when you're in the shower, when you're having sex. Whatever it is, when you're doing things that are not in a brainstorming session.
Louis: How do you note your ideas when you're having sex?
Louis: Don't answer this.
Paul: I’m happy to tell you.
Louis: All right, go ahead now.
Paul: But, yeah-
Louis: No, don't answer.
Paul: I scream it at the top of my voice.
Louis: Remember that, okay, once it's done. Remember it.
Louis: Let me cut you there. I need to go back to something you said, right? You come up with all of those ideas, this list and whatnot. I'm going to forget what I wanted to say, so that's beautiful. You have a list. You don't necessarily set up a brainstorming session for two hours and then decide at the end, this is it.
Give me an example of a transition from shit-tons of ideas to a concept that you fell in love with, with past clients. Give me a concrete example of this.
Paul: Okay, a good example is we started working with a theater production company that puts on immersive experiences in London, and, obviously, the theater scene in London is huge.
What is it? Second biggest to Broadway or whatever.
They were, what, about a 30 years old production, and they run these immersive experiences. It's Fawlty Towers. Fawlty Towers, the TV show, they have a theater immersive experience, where people can interact with the characters and meet Basil and Sybil and Manuel, and et cetera, et cetera.
We were given the brief. "We're 30 years old. We've been the top of our game for a long time, but we've got a new competitor that's come into the market, and they're starting to nibble away at our market share. That's a problem," That's not, lots of businesses have that kind of problem.
We toyed with hundreds of ideas, all sorts of different ideas. I knew that we hadn't nailed it. I knew that we hadn't hit the nail on the head. I knew that we were close, but we hadn't hit the magic idea.
Then, it dawned on me. I was out for a walk. I've actually recently moved to France, and I split my week between France and London now, and I was out for a walk in the mountains, I live in the Alps. It just dawned on me.
I thought, "What are we doing? We're forcing this far too hard. What's the biggest asset?" That is, the interaction between the actors and the people that buy the tickets, the theatergoers. "All right, well, let's put on, really, big immersive theater productions, what they do, but just in unusual situations."
We took over the Tube. We took over the Bakerloo line, and we ran Fawlty Towers. There was Basil, Sybil, and Manuel causing havoc on the Bakerloo line in the middle of rush hour, all up and down all up and down the Bakerloo. People went mad for it.
I'm sure a lot of people who are listening to this have traveled on the Bakerloo line at rush hour, between five and eight in the evening. There are no happy people on that train. They're all grumpy, fuck off, don't talk to me, don't even look at me type people.
It was amazing, the reaction that we got. People loved it. They were interacting with it. They were acting, ad-libbing with the actors. Because, we set up a dining room, a Fawlty Towers hotel dining room on the Bakerloo, so people could have a drink. They could sit down to a pretend meal. The actors were serving them. People were taking videos, photos. It was amazing. The reaction was fantastic.
That's great from a feel-good factor, but they solved their problem. Ticket sales went through the roof. The good will that had been borne out of the stunts followed through into ticket sales. The client's really, really happy, and we're still working them today.
But, that's a really good example of you've got loads of ideas, but I know that we don't have the one, then getting away from it and thinking about it from a different angle. Not being satisfied with something that was almost good enough, which is what a lot of people would do, they go, "Oh, it's kind of there. I'm kind of happy with it." But, I knew that it wasn't the one.
It's that desire I think. That's not just me. There are plenty of people down the years who have had that desire. But, I think that's what sets good ideas from the idea.
Louis: If you had to deconstruct the way you selected this idea, if I remember what you said a few minutes ago, you said, "We complicated this way too much, and we focused back on the biggest assets."
Louis: Is it something that you tend to go back to, which is, what is the main differentiator? What is the main value, the one thing that people usually remember from this brand or this product?
Paul: Yes, so, we have, our briefing template... We get sent briefs by brands all the time, which is fantastic. It's great when people send you opportunities to work together. But, the amount of briefs that come into us, where they're seven, eight, nine, 10 page Word documents, that's what they are.
We won't work with a client, unless they're prepared to allow us to assimilate all that information down into, and I will do that with the client, so I don't brief in the guys at that point, I'll assimilate that down into a one-pager. Our briefs are one page. In there, there's a few questions that have to be answered, and they purposely force the brand to think down into ones. Then I say-
Louis: Give me a few questions that you're asking.
Paul: What is the aim? What is the number one... One sentence to write down, what is the aim? What is the one selling point? If you ask them that, and they're, "Oh, well, there's three or four." Well, then you got to choose one. You have to choose one, because you can't say three or four. You can say three or four, but nobody will... It's difficult enough to get somebody to remember one thing, never mind three or four. No one will care.
The best ads in the world, the ones that people remember had one message. That's because people don't care, and they will only care if there's one. If there's three, they just won't.
We purposely, and we have what we call three magic questions. It purposely forces the client to think about their brand, and what they're trying to say and achieve. Only from that can you get good ideas.
Without sounding arrogant, we sound like we're quite difficult to work with. But, we're really not. We're just very honest with what produces good work. If a client isn't prepared to do that, then we'll say, "Look, we're not the agency for you. You're better off going finding somebody else." I say it in way that I'd rather they went and did that now rather than wasting both of our time.
I think that's a really valuable, that honesty is really, I think, it's really valuable. People value the fact that you're like, "Look, this is what we stand for. This how we work. If you want to work with us, this is the way it needs to be." The results speak for themselves.
Louis: That's a great lesson I think for consultants, freelancers, agencies who are struggling, because they work with clients they don't like, on things they don't like, with deadlines they don't like. They feel like shit when they go back to their partner at night in the evening, because they don't feel like they're doing good work.
Now, it takes some guts to do it. Obviously, it takes some time to develop a reputation to have people sending you briefs all the time and being able to say no to some of them. But, I guess, this is what you need to do, if you really want to make some work you're proud of, and where you can take some fucking risk.
Paul: Yeah, we weren't always like this. The agency Mellor & Smith is 10 years old. We were 10 years old in January, a few months ago. For the first four or five years, we were just like everybody else. We just did average work. We did as we were told. Everything was designed by committee.
It got to five years, and me and Jim, we just turned around, and we're like, "This is not what we set out to do." The pressures of running a business had forced us into doing work that we didn't want to do, we weren't proud of.
It was about that time that both of us started having kids, not together, but separately. We have our own wives, because that would be weird, because we spend enough time together as it is. But, we just said, "I want to be proud of the work that I, a body of work that I can show my kids," and Jim said the same.
It was at that moment, we just thought, "Right, that's it. We're going to completely change. We're going to do work, and we work in this method." It's been really successful. It has been very successful, since we made that change.
We got rid of about 70% of our clients at that point, and we'd grown a pretty successful business to that point. We got around, yeah, got rid of about 70% of our clients. We applied a series of questions, and if they didn't, if we didn't score them by a certain level, then we just said, "Look, guys, this is not for us. This is not the kind of relationship we want, and I think you should go find somebody else."
We kept, yeah, just 30% of the clients. But, they were the ones that believed in this approach, and, subsequently, we've grown really well with those clients and more. But, yeah, it takes, you have to be honest with yourselves, when you're making those kind of decisions.
Louis: How did it feel to take this decision and go for it?
Paul: It felt, yeah, it's not an easy decision. It was scary. But, you talk about that butterfly feeling.
Louis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Paul: Yeah, it had that. It had all of those kinds of feelings. I knew it was the right decision, but I had to take a deep breath, and we went for it, and it paid off.
Louis: What was the trigger actually? Because, there's always a trigger. You know that. You watch people buy shit, so you know what's the trigger. What was the trigger for you?
Paul: We had a project, and I don't want to name names, because it's not fair.
Paul: I'm quite happy to call out other stuff, but for this particular one, I don't think it's fair. We were working on a particular project, and what should have been a two or three month at the most project turned into over a year, and it was killed. It was killed by indecision, design by committee, the brief changing halfway through, just all of the things that don't create good work.
We weren't strong enough, and we didn't fight back, and we just kind of took it. We tried our best to roll with the punches and keep the project going. I just got to the end, and we got it out, and I just thought, "Fuck this. I'm never doing that again. I'm just never going to put my name to something like that ever again."
Paul: Yeah, that was the trigger. Yeah, a couple of months later, it was all, the transition took, yeah, no time at all.
Louis: Hm, interesting. Yeah, that's what I wanted to know. There's always a trigger. Right, so thanks so much for going through those steps with me. I know it's difficult to turn a creative process into a step by step.
But, I hope that in this episode, if you're listening still right now, that you've taken some pointers, not necessarily in terms of what strategy should you take or tactics should you use, but about what mindset should you have, what emotions should you strive to feel when you do this type of work.
Also, showing you that people like Paul have been able and are successful taking an approach that is not trying to fit everyone's agenda, or not trying to please everyone, instead to try to pick a small portion of the businesses out there, who are willing to take some fucking risk, who are will to take a gamble. The world is big enough for you, even if you're choosing, I don't know, to work with 10% of businesses out there or 5%, right?
Paul: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. The people that we work with now, they really want to work with us. That's what... If you're looking at like business case, if you're looking at like a fucking bean counter would look at this, and this is the sort of thing they'd say, but there is a bona fide business case for the approach that we've taken. We didn't do it for that reason. We did it for the level of work that we wanted to achieve. But, yeah, you don't have to appeal to everyone.
Louis: You should not. If you do, then it can't work.
Paul: Well, you're just nobody.
Louis: Yep. In a sentence or two, what do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?
Paul: Creativity before tactics, before media. There's a Mark Ritson quote, people that look at media or tactics before creative, it's like, "I've got a hammer. I'm looking for my nail." That is madness. It's absolute madness.
The amount of people that come up, "Well, I want to do an AI campaign." What the fuck? Or, "I want to do something on the blockchain." That's fucking, like, do me a favor, fuck off, you are not a marketer. If people say shit like that, you are not a marketer, by any stretch.
What you're trying to achieve, put some talented creatives on it to come up with the idea, and the campaign that will deliver on the aim. Your job as a marketer, if you're brand side, is to facilitate that process and to make sure that it works internally within your brand, the mechanics of marketing. Your job is not to decide what bullshit piece of technology that is sparkly and then tell your agency that's what you'd like to do.
I'm in a glass room. That's makes me sound like, but my business partner has just walked up to the glass door and pulled down his trousers and flashed me a moony, which I think is his way of saying, "Shut the fuck up, and let's go down the pub."
Louis: All right, before you go down the pub, let me ask you two other questions, and then you're done.
Paul: Okay, yeah, okay.
Louis: What are the top three resources you'd recommend listeners?
Paul: Top three resources, you cannot go wrong with Dave Trott. I'm a massive fan of Dave's. I know him loosely, massive fan of Dave Trott. He writes a monthly column in Campaign, and then he also writes a blog on his own website, davetrott.com or davetrott.co.uk, I think. He is pretty much the godfather of advertising in London.
I think the, davedye.com. He's an ex, or he's an old advertising guy. He finds, it's called Things from the Loft, and that is old ad campaigns. He interviews old advertising and marketing people. He interviews old ad agency owners and creative directors and then, also, people brand side, so old people from the brand side of things, and finds old campaigns, dissects them, talks about them; why they were right, why they were wrong.
He also finds stuff that never ran, so ideas that were pitched that never ran. It's an absolute treasure trove of absolute gold really, because no one really approaches marketing like that, looking at what didn't run 40 years ago. No one ever talks about stuff like that.
Then, I suppose my last one would be Vikki Ross, Vikki Ross Writes. She's on Twitter. She's fucking amazing. I love her. She's a copywriter in London. She's on Twitter as, I think it's @VikkiRossWrites. If you just follow her, she runs all the copy for Sky, at Sky TV and Now TV, and all that sort of stuff. She is, and if you're walking down the street, you're reading her copy. She's very, very good.
Louis: Nice. Paul, once again, thanks so much for taking the time to be like, you shared a lot of interesting stuff there, and you've put your heart into this interview. I can feel it. I really appreciate that, because it's not often. Where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you?
Paul: I'm on LinkedIn, like Paul. Is it shock horror? I don't really go into any of the other social media stuff. I'm not on Twitter or Instagram or any of that shit.
You can find us at Mellor&Smith.com. Or if you want to buy tickets to the events that we have, then you can go onto tfr.events. That's T-F-R, for Take Fucking Risks, dot events.
Louis: If you haven't heard the take fucking risk enough today. I think we said it 20 times, so I think people got the message. One thing, right? One thing to remember, take some fucking risk. Paul, once again, thank so much.
Paul: Cheers, man, thanks very much.