So long, and thanks for all the fish

Just over six years ago, in the midst of ‘The Great Recession’, I was struggling to find a job after returning from my obligatory overseas jaunt. I’d spent all of my money on goat’s cheese, petrol, novelty hats and too much foreign fun, I was living in Christchurch with my future in-laws and all the CVs and cover letters I sent out were fairly safe, standard descriptions of my career and achievements that stuck to tried, true and fairly boring techniques. That strategy wasn’t working, the phrase ‘how’s the job hunt going?’ was leading to an existential crisis and I was starting to get pretty desperate, so, when I saw a job come up for the position of editor of NZ Marketing and StopPress, I decided to take a risk and submit a much more honest—and far more interesting—application.

Rather than talk about my ‘great inter-personal skills’, I instead tried to stand out from the pack by making mention of my unbridled love of free things, edible bowls and stealing jokes off friends; my ability to stay out late while binge drinking (which turned out to be quite handy in this industry); my hatred of fruit cake and almond icing, open sandwiches, bottled water and that feeling of old, dry newspaper; and my ridiculous (potentially multi-million dollar) ideas and various inconsequential achievements, such as pie warmers in taxis, temporary balsa wood couches that can be purchased specifically for burning, and my autobiographical Tasteful Nudes calendar from 2008*.

As you can probably tell, my strategy worked. And this long-winded personal tale is a poor attempt to link my own experience with the one simple but seemingly often overlooked rule that sticks out for me after six years of writing and learning about this industry: no matter the sector or discipline, and whether brand or individual, if you’re consistently more interesting than the next option (and if there’s a good strategy to guide you over the long term and a solid product or service to offer), you’re more likely to stick in people’s minds and be successful. 

This attitude is summed up evocatively by Martin Weigel in the quote above and more succinctly in this year’s Axis campaign: ‘interesting wins’. And it’s an attitude we try to adhere to with our titles. We serve up your industry greens, but we try to sprinkle some sugar on top where appropriate and be consistently more interesting than the next option. I’m biased, of course, but I’m proud that our small but perfectly formed team has created a lively community around a suite of media properties that reflect the industry’s creativity, vibrancy, skill and, often, irreverence. We also have fun and make some money along the way (no small thing in this Rapidly Changing Media Landscape, which will be the name of my mid-life crisis band). 

Of course, ‘interesting’ can take many forms and it’s a fairly abstract concept for the bean counters to grasp, so, like religion, it requires a degree of faith from everyone involved for it to work. But humans are fairly simple creatures and, as Rory Sutherland, a vocal proponent of using behavioral science in the public and private sectors says—and as I firmly believe—“there is no sensible distinction to be made between value created in a factory and value created in an advertising agency”. For him, “our perception of, and reaction to, reality is subjective. How you feel about products, or even about your life, is at least as important, and probably much more important, than the product or your life’s objective characteristics”.

Over the summer break, I listened to a great Planet Money podcast about the confounding popularity of Hermes’ Birkin Bag. In it, Josh Weltman, a co-producer on Mad Men and long-time creative director was asked why people would spend so long trying to get—and so much on—a bag and he summed it up nicely: “Everyone wants to be part of a club that’s just out of reach. That’s the soft part that we’re poking at.”

Many see the sinister side of this poking. But, as he says (in what would have to be one of the most positive descriptions of marketing you’ll ever hear): “They didn’t put the soft spot there. You’re the one that has the itch, they’re just letting you scratch it. It’s providing a service.”

I find it endlessly fascinating looking at how many of our decisions are beyond our consciousness, how many of our decisions are, when looked at in detail, completely irrational, and how many of our decisions are influenced by clever marketing (even though no-one will admit to being influenced when asked). And while I often joke about needing to scrub myself down after work, I’ve loved writing about this industry and meeting the many great characters who inhabit it. Like all industries, it has its evil bits. But it is undoubtedly one of the world’s most interesting trades and, in this environment, I think its importance is often underestimated by the wider business community because if companies (and countries) hope to keep growing and/or solve their problems, the big ideas are unlikely to come from accountants finding ways to cut costs, they’ll come from those who can think creatively and create demand. 

As for me, I’ve skyrocketed through middle management and have taken over as publisher/editorial director of Tangible Media’s business titles, Idealog, NZ Retail/The Register and NZ Marketing/StopPress, where I intend to rule through fear and micro-management. I’ll still be writing when the muse (or horrible staff illness) strikes and StopPress will undoubtedly remain my favourite child. But the editorial baton has now been passed to Damien Venuto, who has been promoted from deputy editor and, in just over two years in the job, has established himself as one of the top marketing/media writers in the country. Let him know you’re still listening (and let the amazing sales director/my ‘office wife’ Vernene Medcalf know when you want to be listened to). And we’ll let you know if he does a nude calendar. Never fear, he’s a total dreamboat.

*Available on request, for a huge fee.

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