I went to one of the best events I’ve ever been to last month: APG’s annual conference. The theme? On the Contrary – ‘A celebration of creative and contrarian thinking,’ the blurb told us ‘to sharpen strategy and inspire creative’. It did not disappoint.

What follows is a whistle-stop tour through each of the seven world-class, hour-long talks with links to relevant resources. OK, so it’s 1,200 words. My whistle broke. Sue me.

Talk one: Professor Nick Chatter

Like a friendly, academic, detail-oriented Boris Johnson, Professor Nick showed us study after study that proved that we are really very shallow beings. Unconscious thinking is a myth, and mental depth is an illusion. ‘We don’t know what we know’, we idly move from thought to thought – making them up each time.

It gets worse: We’re almost completely controlled by our hormones. For a laugh, I recommend you look up the ‘love on the high bridge test’. The key point here? Just check if your adrenaline might be up before opening your mouth.

Talk one - Professor Nick Chatter

And the point of the whole talk – understand how you, and others, think (a key point for every subsequent talk as it goes.)

Talk two: Tor Garnett

As the guy sat next to me said, ‘I think we’ve just seen a future prime minister!’ A copper with counter-terrorism experience, Detective Tor was fed up with the nepotism within the police and so created a group of like-minded optimists to try and take it on.

The police suffer from the nature of the job – a love of hierarchy, a blame culture and being ‘the violent wing of government’. There’s too much to cover here, but I would point you to this video on what blame is and how damaging it is for accountability, this on Non-violent communicationand the Take 90 campaign (it takes 90 seconds for anger to pass).

Talk three: Nils Leonard

Talk three - Nils Leonard

Arch creative chief, Nils Leonard, gave the first marketing talk. Eye-catching slides combined with an engaging, emotive plea for us in agency land to get angry, to stop doing average work and work for companies that ‘the world is glad exist’.

A few soundbites…

  • Look for trouble because it is inspiring. Go after the hard stuff, the stuff that is likely to scare clients.
  • Create a company (agency, really) with the belief that if creativity fails, we die!
  • To the planners – the brief is the culture of the project. Ask yourself, when creating the brief ‘how do we want it to feel and run?’

Lots of good stuff from Nils. One for the agency types. This interview of him and John Hegarty in a cab is also worth a read.

Talk four: Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford

You know you’re doing important work when, at various points in your talk, you have to ask the cameras to stop recording for fear of breaking the law. Clive defends people on death-row and has spent his life fighting judges and a system which loves to kill people. ‘It’s a unique experience,” says Clive, ‘when the State has decided to kill you’.

The lessons I took from his talk was just how inhumane the prison system is, and how creative people like Stafford have to be to stop people getting killed. For example – the detainees of Guantanamo Bay had no rights, but environmental policies still existed, so he successfully fought the US on the basis that they were giving more rights to cockroaches than humans.

Check out his charity and, if you ever get the chance to see him speak – go. He left us with this aphorism:

  1. Those with power are generally afraid.
  2. They behave badly to protect their power.
  3. The worse things are, the better it is (for them).

Talk five: Margaret Heffernan

We’re big fans of Margaret’s here at Future Content (we worked with her to support the launch of her book A bigger Prize some five years ago), and she’s been a significant influence on me personally ever since. Margaret is a contrarian, and she takes a dim view of competition and corporate culture.

In this talk, she tied together her work on diversity in the workplace, Wilful Blindness, and the dangers of competition, to paint a bleak picture of the state of corporate leadership.

“Work is a machine that stops us having ideas.”

“When we go to work, we stop thinking about how to be a good person and think only ‘how can I do a good job?’”

To fight these forces, we need friends who challenge us. Collaboration is not about getting along, it is about challenging, about making things uncomfortable. The next time you’re in a leadership meeting and everyone’s being all polite and agreeing, try one of these questions:

  • What would it take for you to change your mind?
  • What are we missing?
  • What if we’re wrong? What would we see?

Talk six: Mark Ritson

The star of the show and he knew it. Mark Ritson gave the talk only Mark Ritson could give, and it was excellent. Here’s a brief synopsis.

  • Brand management is important. It hasn’t changed since 1931 – we have a blueprint – and yet ¾ of UK companies don’t have a brand strategy
Talk six - Mark Ritson
  • Communification is a problem. Communification is the trend of all marketing to be reduced to comms (even though pricing is one of the biggest determinants of success). Equal weight should be given to diagnosis (e.g. customer and competitor research) and strategy and tactics (of which comms is ¼).
  • Market orientation is a black hole. Meaning – don’t go in with your own ideas of what your brand is, or means, or is positioned. You are literally the worst person to assess your brand. The moment you signed your employment contract you lost all objective perspective. ‘Your perspective on your own brand isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous’. Invest in customer research.
  • Marketers are not the market. On a similar note, marketers are a weird bunch. We consume media differently from the rest of the population. We are not our customers. (again, invest in customer research)
  • ‘There must be no mention of tactics in the strategy tent.’ If anyone interrupts your strategic planning with mention of tactics before you’ve ‘mapped the battlefield’, send them home without any tea.
  • A good strategy is one with 1-2 objectives. “D-Day was nine months of planning translated to half a slip of paper for the soldiers”.
  • Plan on a 12 month basis. “…we need less agility, motherfucker – we need agility like a 3rd nipple…”

Targeting and penetration are not binary. Big debate between him and Byron Sharp on this. Conclusion? They’re both right. Sales activation and brand building must happen at the same time.

Mark Ritson - Targeting vs Reach

You have two goals – 1. Do all our target market know about us? 2. What do I want to stand for in my customers mind? You have a maximum of three things, deliver against those three things again and again, and you’ll grow.

Finally, brands are tiny, tiny things. Don’t get above yourself. Your customers aren’t anywhere near as engaged as you are with your brand. Accept that truth, and your marketing will perform better.

Finally, Mark Ritson is convinced that The Long and the Short of It is the classic marketing text of our time.

Final talk: Martin Weigel

Final talk - Martin Weigel

Wieden and Kennedy’s head of planning is not happy with the state of advertising. ‘We are creating for audiences that do not exist’ – we create these customer persona’s with jargon-filled explainers and no real research, no empathy and no experience of the real world. We agency types need to go eat chips in Blackpool, we need to read fiction like Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, and we need to do work that adds to life, and doesn’t simply take.

It was an impassioned plea for advertisers and marketers to take seriously the work that they put out into the world.

As I say, so much rich detail from each talk that it’s difficult to do it all justice.

Suffice to say, if you get the opportunity to see any of the above talks, do so.

I’m off to Weston Super Mare for a chip butty.


This piece was originally published on LinkedIn.