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The corportate gentrification of Britomart and the working man’s beer.

28 Sep

New Zealand is experiencing a rebirth. So far it has been concentrated here in Auckland, where the Britomart development seems to be spreading like the Early Roman Empire. It’s a distinctive style – a look and feel born of design agency, Shine. A look and feel that has been emulated by everybody since.

For the most part, it’s good. Auckland is looking better than ever. You’re never far from a half-decent cafe with a funky fit-out. The new retail spaces are quirky, but slick. Pop-up spaces are popping up, and interesting things are popping into them.

I remember the first time I visited Shaky Isles in Kingsland – the first of Shine’s interior projects. It felt great, special, like nowhere else in town. I remember wishing that more spaces in Auckland looked like that cafe. And now they do. All of them. Even the High Street fashion designers – Karen Walker, World, Kate Sylvester – have upped and moved, adopting the Britomart style in the process. The ubiquitous ‘slick and quirky’. The look and feel of New Auckland.

Premium design? I call it corporate gentrification.

And recently it’s reached the threshold where instead of making Auckland a nicer place to be, it’s making it feel conformist, devoid of spirit, actively shittier.

I feel the same way about New Zealand beer. As the craft community has risen from obscurity, mainstream brands have been attempting to take on the small guys by positioning their faux-craft beer in the premium space. The packaging? Slick and quirky premium design. All the while, the very same brands have been driving their generic lagers into the premium space to compete with Heinekin. The premium space is occupied. It’s full. There is no more room here for new entrants.

After a decade of breweries harping on about ‘premium mass-produced lager’ (as if that even exists), they’ve succeeded only in creating for themselves a competitive gridlock. A Mexican standoff. And no one is willing to back down.

My incredibly stylish cool-hunting brand genius pal Laura Ford and I have been discussing this conundrum, and what New Zealand beer brands ought to do about it. The solution is part comms, part design restoration job. It involves bringing heritage brands back to life – harking back to simpler days, when beer was cheap but hard-earned.

The working man’s beer. A lost cultural artifact in the over-gentrified Auckland City.

Here’s an American brand that is doing it well.

And as far as Auckland cafes go – I’ll stick to the usual, thanks. Mmm. Dank.


The one where I get a bit feminist.

3 Jul

About five years back, I thought it would be awesome to start some kind of campaign to help the common man relocate his place in society. To find a modern definition for masculinity that on one hand didn’t merely equate to ‘how many babes you’ve boned’, but didn’t subscribe to the (at the time) prolific trend termed metrosexuality (the idea that a sexy man was a man who waxed his body and owned a blow dryer to use on the parts of his body that were not waxed but faux-hawked).

To boil it down, its inspiration shared some things with modern feminism: namely, that men should not be told to conform to an unnatural ideal, and certainly not by a corporate world intent on wriggling into the slightest crevice of human insecurity. But where it departed from feminism was that (again, at the time) men seemed to be increasingly disconnected from their traditional roles. No longer were we bread-winners, we were eyebrow-pluckers. We weren’t wood-choppers, we were interior-decorators.

For some men, a penchant for personal grooming might have been a lifelong ambition. But what infuriated me was the trend itself. Suddenly men who had previously pursued masculine tastes and hobbies were feeling the pressure to participate in this societal pegging.

Suddenly their heroes waxed their butt cracks, and the pressure was on to hit the salon. It had all the symptoms of a subject you could have a lot of fun with. Primarily because the men themselves were uncomfortable with it. They just sort of… went along with it. Simply by trying to embrace their sensitivity, and dare I say, femininity, they succeeded only in proving why men should never wear eye make-up: because unless you’re in an awesome band, or are a fashion brand in your own right, people will correctly assume you are an attention-seeker with a poor sense of judgement.

But I needn’t have worried.

Cue, of course, a man-sized wave of manvertising that matched my sentiment exactly. Job done. Crisis averted. Metaphorical penis reclaimed. Congratulations to the male-dominated world of media and advertising for bringing back the beard, the flannel shirt and the alcohol addiction. Short of championing the tobacco pipe, I’m pretty sure the spirit of masculinity has, by now, fully recovered from its brief foray into the feminine. And while one day I would like to write a book that examines masculinity through the ages, the state of emergency that once surrounded the subject has subsided.

A few things have happened this week.

  1. I read this Nextness article on feminism by the talented Hila Shachar
  2. I listened to a whole lot of Placebo
  3. Someone sent me this:


Before anyone gets a rush of estrogen to the bicep, it’s a piece of shit.

I am mortified to think that the resurgence of masculinity I discussed above has found its natural apex in women-hating. It is not remotely funny. Yet it is imbued with the same tone, and that same critical, cynical objective eye, that made a lot of the early manvertising so witty and (worryingly) so popular.

It scares me that young men might endorse messages like this one as a result of a conversation that we in media and advertising are responsible for sustaining. We were just having a bit of fun, but today’s teenagers have come of age to the sonorous voice of the Old Spice Guy. And they were groomed by the onslaught of manvertising that followed.

With the benefit of hindsight, let’s take a look back at these three commercials from the 2010 Super Bowl. Stripped from the context of 2010, and considered alongside this discussion, these ads suddenly look like works of Satan himself.

Remember, these are mainstream commercials, for mainstream brands, in the most mainstream ad break there is.

As an industry, we often underestimate our power of influence. It’s okay to delve into the dark, it’s good to start conversations about ideas from all over the political and social spectrum – but it’s never useful to take the message to a place of hate. Unfortunately, it’s hardest to know where that line is when everyone else is taking stabs in a similar territory. I should know – I am the unchallenged king of gnawing on my own feet at dinner parties.

So what can we conclude about the poster above, which seems to take what manvertising created and push it unflinchingly off the cliff?

Obviously, it’s hateful. Potentially, it’s hurtful. But the fact that it even exists betrays its own message (i.e. If the Prince was so cool, why did he stay up all night making this stupid poster).

Besides all that, what it may have cemented for me is my personal outlook on feminism (i.e. If this type poster had been made by a woman it would have looked way better).

I appreciate the implicit irony in my obsession with the masculine throughout a post that aimed to tackle the thorny subject of feminism. But maybe that’s just another thing that women are much, much better at.

If there was a movie about the two-thousands this would be a scene.

20 Mar

Everything looks better retrospectively. Everything looks safer. And cooler. Everything looks more culturally significant. Everything seems to click into place better with everything else, which helps us to understand it. We can now be proud of our nation’s suffragettes. We tip our hats to those who fought to stop the tour. Heck, travel overseas and you may even find yourself beaming proudly in defense of legal brothels. But it’s important to recall how we as a nation felt about these things at the time. Isn’t it hard to believe now that in 1981, there were people who would rather watch a game of rugby than put a stop to apartheid in South Africa? (Prime Minster, John Key, for example.)

But this isn’t a political blog.

I want to draw your attention to something that is happening right now, in your city. It’ll be easy to miss, because for one reason or another, when it comes to bandwagons, we New Zealanders prefer to jump aboard at the very last minute. But I don’t want you to miss it. It’s too important to miss.

It’s the music of your place and time.

This post is the first of several featuring artists you may not be aware of. These posts aren’t just some indulgent PR exercise on behalf of bands I like. Think of them as evidence in an attempt to prove the significance of New Zealand’s contemporary cultural product.

Anyone who spends every night of the week at The Wine Cellar will tell you the same thing: Anthonie Tonnon is New Zealand music’s most incisive social demographer. He’s also one of its few decent storytellers. His band isn’t half bad either.

With a new album ready to launch, Tono and the Finance Company will be looking to capitalise on the very solid foundations Tono has worked to establish since leaving Dunedin a few years back, sans-band, for the promised land of Auckland. Sometimes it feels like a whole generation of Dunedin musicians followed him here. Either that, or they are breeding brooding songwriters somewhere in Grey Lynn.

For Tono, the move has paid off. His tight new live band secured a career-defining spot on Beirut’s recent New Zealand tour. This is the kind of opportunity for exposure that every local band needs in order to step above the figurative plateau that is Auckland’s Karangahape Road. But for all sorts of reasons (many self-inflicted), few bands are so lucky.

I believe that (respectable) advertising is one force with the power and resources to raise the profile of local artists. I’m not talking about those musicians bent on imitating international trends, I’m talking about the ones responsible for some of the best, most relevant, and most exciting local social commentary available to Aucklanders today.

It makes sense that the words that resonate closest with us, in terms of our personal experiences, should originate from just down the street. From the perspective of an advertising creative, I feel like brands are blatantly missing opportunities to align themselves with local songwriters. And from a musician’s perspective, it hurts to watch far-better local bands passed over by the advertising and entertainment industries in favour of some six-month old flavour imported from a trendy Brooklyn loft, or worse, a beach-side Santa Monica mansion.

The cringe days of the New Zealand cultural product have supposedly passed on, and while the stigma may have dissipated, what stands firm is the notion that foreign culture reigns supreme. This flies violently in the face of the everyday reality. Certainly Flight of the Conchords may have transformed the international perception of New Zealand telly, but how did it make you swell up with pride to watch Insider’s Guide To Happiness for the first time? How much more gripping was growing up with the sci-fi of Maurice Gee, knowing that every new installment had arisen from our own spooky landscape? How infintely more important is Forgotten Silver to the way we view ourselves as a cultural entity than Lord of the Rings could ever be?

There are chunks of our cultural history that we have grown satisfied to celebrate. The Flying Nun era of music, for example, is something brands are perfectly willing to pair themselves off with. As an inherently risk-adverse industry, advertising seems delighted that a dozen or so of these classic songs test well in research. I’m not suggesting we argue with the research, they’re great songs.

But would they have appeared in a Hallensteins TVC circa 1986?
And are they relevant songs, now?

To me, the music created for us here, and now, will always be more important than that which is written for other places, and other times. It’s a damning insight into the workings of New Zealand’s advertising industry (and even our national psyche) that the only way we can ever enjoy our country’s musical talent is in retrospect.

It must be even more frightening for artists like Tono, who deserve the recognition (and could probably put a decent publishing cheque to good use) right now.

Tono and the Finance Company’s new album is set for release via listening party tomorrow evening (Wednesday 21 March) at D.O.C. Bar. Get down there and shell out for the record – it’ll be amazing. Oh, and pop back here soon for the next rant.

Suspend disbelief.

10 Mar

Free time is a strange thing. The knowledge that any given day might stretch on ad infinitum has proven to be the single most crippling force to ever take a hold of my poor nerves. I don’t sleep at night. I don’t achieve anything by day. I’ve taken to committing to a semi-normal schedule of daily activities not because I want to, and certainly not because it is good for me, but because I simply can’t keep myself feeling inspired and engaged with my private work. It turns out that being busy is the only way I can motivate myself to use my free time wisely. The universe can be cruel in the way it chooses to dispense its irony.

The one thing I have had plenty of time for is over-analysing. This is my favourite pastime. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the potential for auteurship in advertising. Some would say that the best creatives in the world are strategically and aesthetically neutral. By that I mean they move between projects with such energy and flexibility that every brand, every job and every advertising problem is treated as a new challenge with an entirely new solution. Their personal style does not affect the end result.

To me, that seems to fly in the face of motivation, to work tirelessly at something while intent on leaving no trace of oneself – not a fingerprint. Most of the creatives I know have some area of specialty. Mine might be the over-wrought, over-earnest nonsense that decorates my prose. One freelance writer I worked with was an absolute master of horrible puns. There was the senior art director that would grade photos himself, usually with just a wash of green, so as to make everything look like a freeze-frame from The Matrix.

I wondered if I could identify one trait that connects the work I like to see and the work I would personally like to do more of. I’ve always been a fan of the absurd, the challenging and the obtuse. Very simple ideas executed in a way that does not necessarily subscribe to logic or the popular position. The more laws of the universe broken in a commercial, the more chance there is I’ll like it. For some reason, advertisers that are brave enough to subvert reality or suspend disbelief rapidly become my favourite brands.

This means ignoring the single most prominent trend in advertising (the desperation to conform) and doing the exact opposite. I understand perfectly the desire to produce work that looks familiar. In order for a marketing manager to feel in control, the brand must feel in order. Dear Reader, I am sure that you too feel surrounded at times by artists or filmmakers or musicians whose innate ability to see order in disorder, beauty in chaos, even joy in depression, reduces you to hack status. This level of foresight is a skill that most, including people like us, who work as commercial creatives but privately imagine ourselves as so much more, do not possess with any real purity. This vision takes a lifetime of sacrifice to hone, which (aside from that really tough six months in 2004 you spent as an unpaid intern (living rent-free in your parents’ Parnell dream home)) we, who couldn’t hazard a guess at what figure currently stands as the legal minimum wage (much less survive on it), would never hope to experience.

The trouble is, when the only place you can find beauty is in order, you end up producing a lot of spectacularly shitty art.

I think that goes some way to explaining the persistent disappointment that all too often accompanies creative presentations. In the end it all comes down to two things. (1) The ability of the marketing manager to suspend disbelief, and (2) Your ability as a presenter of concepts to affect this phenomenon in said person. There is a sort of stink that follows certain marketing managers around. They quit the job with the telco and that stink shows up again across town at some car company. Their whole careers they will carry that stink with them everywhere they go. In case you’re wondering, the smell is shitty art.

But the best marketing managers, and most creatives I have met, have developed techniques to see beauty in chaos. They can be presented with an idea that makes no factual sense, defies the laws of physics, would be deemed by any rational thinker to be impossible, and rather than flinch, they will chuckle. This, Ladies and Gents, is The Best We Can Hope For.

In this realm, I am pleasured by the simplest of gestures. I like it when animals do human things. I adore anthropomorphic inanimate objects. I love it when a character betrays his official role to the disgust of others. Hell, I’ll give a giggle if someone falls over and hurts himself.

When a brand is prepared to embrace the unexpected it can incite a moment of genuine excitement in the viewer. It’s one of the reasons great commercials go viral. It’s easy to observe this phenomenon through the wrong end of the telescope, which can easily result in a wild goose chase when that dreaded brief for ‘a viral video’ lands on your desk. But videos like these don’t go viral because they are weird. They go viral because we didn’t expect them to be weird.

Put it this way, there’s a lot of weird shit on the internet. Case in point:

It’s a great video. Nicely produced. It takes us by surprise. But I’ll bet that this is the first time you’ve seen it. What I’m saying is, if Masterfoods had stuck their logo at the end of it, they’d be famous by now. As advertising creatives, this is the advantage we have over bona fide artists.

Sad But True: It’s not so hard to surprise our audience, because they expect nothing of us. When preparing client presentations (and even, God forbid, within them), I’ve heard the most obvious ideas, the work that makes creatives prickle with embarrassment, referred to as ‘safe’. This is the ‘safe’ idea. The one the client will definitely buy. I’ve even heard clients refer to concepts as the ‘safe route’.

But here’s the saddest bit. The only stakeholder for whom that work is safe is the advertising agency. A piece of work they know won’t challenge the client is an easy sell. The relationship won’t get ruffled, account service won’t have to work so hard and everyone can go home a bit early. It’s easy to predict how the process will go. But it’s actually very, very hard to predict the results.

Because when a concept follows convention to the letter, it becomes wallpaper. Giving a client a ‘safe’ concept is like handing them a loaded shotgun. Eventually, someone is going to die.

We’ve all seen clients come and go. Sometimes the loss of a big account spells the death of an agency, other times, it’s a relief for everyone involved. The one thing I have never heard upon a client’s departure is, “We’re putting the account up for pitch because we want more generic ads.” And yet, in every case I can remember, that has been the primary pressure on the agency throughout the relationship – to dial down the element of surprise in favour of the ads we call ‘safe’. This pursuit of the ‘safe’ is something from which we, as stakeholders in the creative integrity of this industry, must consistently deter our clients.

It’s not hard to surprise someone watching an ad break. So let’s show the human race some respect, even if it is just an end frame on an absurd or obtuse video. Because by attaching a regular old brand to a piece of content that might not be ordinarily considered a ‘safe’ alignment, we create the surprise.

And all because, for one glorious minute, everyone in the boardroom was able to suspend disbelief.

My personal brand purpose.

6 Dec

One day I had a rare epiphany at my desk: that the lessons I have learned in my time bringing brands to life might also help me to better understand what it is I want out of my own existence.

What resulted was a truckload of self-doubt, although in many ways this helped me to clarify a handful of my ambitions. The problem is, it turns out that most of the things I have been wanting are just really, really hard to come by.

So before you read this, I feel like I should warn you of exactly how completely miserable this mantra has kept me over the last 27 years. And also reinforce what an exciting, and at times productive, life it has made for.

Carrying an excruciatingly heavy set of personal expectations with you everywhere you go isn’t always practical. Nor, I imagine, is it particularly healthy or sensible. But I think it is probably good practice to examine your principles and try to reduce them to a clear purpose. A reason for being.

Why is it important to the world that you exist?

This is the first question you’d ask every brand you work with, given the chance. When a brand has a purpose, everyone with a responsibility to that brand has some tangible way to measure the things they say and do.

That sense of clarity is one of the reasons I have aspired to a brand purpose for myself. I can assure you it is born more out of curiosity than any kind of obsessive compulsive disorder. And anyway, the point of the exercise is not for me to modify my behaviour, because as chief executive of my existence, I am vetoing the fuck out of anyone who thinks they can tell me what I ought to say, or how I ought to behave. This is not about fooling myself into being a better person, either. It’s just about finding a flag to carry into battle.

As I worked through the architecture to reach my personal brand purpose, I began to see a few flaws in the exercise. How long would I need to stick to this purpose before I was entitled to a re-brand? Was it a problem that my current brand purpose was bound to differ from my brand purpose as a pre-23-year-old (the age at which I finally became an actual person)? What would this mean for me in the years beyond my inevitable mid-life crisis? If occasionally bending the rules around how my brand behaved (say at 4.00am on a Saturday morning) would I be undermining my fundamental principles – or just ‘keeping it fresh’?

Aside from shattering all of the very rigid ideas I had around the benefits of a brand’s architectural process, what I realised is that I had to seek a more flexible tool with which to measure my reason for being.

What I eventually arrived at was a question I could ask myself at any point during the during the week, amidst the annual moment of clarity I call ‘The Christmas Break’, or on my death bed, provided I still had cognitive function, which given the geriatric dementia that seems to run in my family I somewhat doubt.

Answers may scale from the slightest of tiny achievements – like writing a song with which to serenade a woman, right through to life’s great victories – like causing that woman to exit a baby from her sexy canal. The important thing is that I must be able to answer this question with something convincing – anything – or else it’s time for a new agency. So to speak.

Here is my personal brand purpose. A micro-architecture for being me. The heavy set of expectations I like to carry around, in spite of all they do to ensure my life is as difficult as is humanly possible.

Perhaps it will serve to inspire you also. Or perhaps you can dispute its relevance in the comments section and set me free.

Whatever it is.

2 Dec


The strange sensation of losing something you never had.

1 Nov

The most frightening thing about being in control of your life is the unavoidable onslaught of events that helps you to understand most everything is entirely out of your jurisdiction. I’m no fatalist, but isn’t life fatal sometimes?

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