Going on a Birss-a-thon

I met Dave a couple of years ago when I had booked to go on the Spark.me conference on a  whim. It was in Montenegro. I didn’t know what to expect but it was great for a number of reasons. I came away inspired, enthused and excited. One of the stand-outs was the working sessions with Dave who introduced us to his way of generating ideas and debunking a lot of myths. You can read my thoughts on it at the time here.

But you can also see that I couldn’t quite remember as the diagram of aiming for the non-obvious is wrong. Always aim for upper right, not bottom right! Admittedly, I was doing all of that late at night after a full day, after quite a few drinks and trying to recall. Dave talks fast… I bought Dave’s book… I got distracted by life…

So, fast forward to this year and all the same kind of feelings were hitting. A need to recast the net to find some inspiration. Serendipitously, Dave’s course popped up – a course he was doing with Shama Rahman on innovation. Lockdown had kicked in, I was seeing lots of people taking advantage of up-skilling and while humbled that we were busy (insanely busy it turned out) while others were – and still are – being furloughed or worse, I wondered how I could take advantage of the sudden stop in commuting time or business travel time to get some of that inspiration. 

It turned out to be the best investment in time. An hour or more every day for 5 days of creative thinking to unblock. 

And here’s that same diagram in the correct manner:

“A mixture of inspiration and personal business therapy that could be summed up by re-booting the way you think by unlearning the way you currently think. The blend of creative thinking, neuroscience primers and actionable exercises that get you out of the comfort zone we all find ourselves in equips you with strategies and tools to push you into more creative and innovative thinking.” 

This is what I wrote after the course. I have tons of notes. 30 plus pages in my Google Drive. All of it gold. I even did the exercises at the end of every session. This is something I haven’t done for ages. It felt great to let loose and explore away from the day to day but clearly seeing where you could apply the principles.

I then went on a weird kind of Dave Birss-a-thon. I couldn’t get enough of Dave. I read his book. Twice. It also makes a great mouse mat and while that may seem a little weird, it’s a good reminder to follow his principles. I then took every Dave course on Linked In.

What I really enjoyed was they cement and build on the book and the course. If, like me, you find yourself having tons of ideas but procrastinating on them (yes, it is six months since the course and I’m only writing this now), then this combo of reading and listening/watching Dave really helps.

I’ve become a bit of a fan boy. Not in a weird, stalking way. But a tiny little Dave head pops up in my brain when thinking about problems. Dave has been a little voice that keeps saying:

“What’s the judging criteria?”

“Aim for the non-obvious”

“No, you have to give it the time and the status otherwise you’ll just get the uninformed first thoughts”

And obviously I do hear it in Dave’s distinctive voice.

We’ve all had to pivot in this uncertain world but Dave’s remote workshop course on Linked In is really the only place you need to look if you’re wondering how to do a good workshop over the Zoom airwaves. I feel fortunate to have participated in his online course early on in-person, it added some invaluable real life/live experience that assisted us as we moved our highly successful workshops into the tiny box of a computer screen. 

Do yourself a favour, spend some time and money watching Dave’s courses. Buy his book. And join me in hearing Dave whisper in your head.

Thanks Dave for spending the time talking to me about my own personal situations and for giving me some clarity. It meant a lot at the time. It still means a lot. Thank you.

I should point out Dave hasn’t paid me. He once did get me a beer in Montenegro but I’m pretty sure it was still a free bar at that point in the evening.

gin and football – a tale of two brand experiences

Gin and football. Not necessarily two things you would put together. Nonetheless I found myself experiencing them in a very different way this Bank Holiday weekend.

Gin has had a massive resurgence in recent years. Long-lamented for being ‘mother’s ruin’, the rise in all things artisan and some audacious flavour combinations has seen the gin category rise some +20% while vodka and whiskey flat line. The small, craft distillery has taken on the corporate giants and is hurting them: a 167% rise in artisan gin versus +30% in mass-produced. We’re interested in trying new things. Craft beer led the way tempting us from the staples into something that actually tasted different. Gin offers a blank canvas for distillers. Once you get the basic combination, it’s down to your own imagination and perseverance to make something stand out. Which is exactly what Warner’s do.

We stumbled across Warner’s a year or so ago. I’m pretty sure it was in the Oak’s in Highcliffe when we had a rhubarb gin which the waiter recommended. Since them it’s become a staple. We’ve sent birthday gifts from them, bought in bulk when lockdown happened – and it’s been needed to survive home-schooling – and received gifts from them. Being a somewhat cynical marketing type, you kind of take the marketing guff with a pinch of sat. “Made on the farm”… is it really? Well, you bet it is.

My wife received a wonderful present from some friends. A live gin tasting. The pack arrived with many miniatures and mixers, a request to get glasses and ice and a time to turn on the zoom. Which we almost forgot.

Peering through what seemed a Vaseline-smeared screen, we saw two people in what looked a field. Rain pouring down, the screen in and out of connection. The sound largely out. And then it held out long enough to hear Tom and Tina Warner unleash their personal passion for saving the world from mediocre gin. A passion that started on their farm in 2012 and clearly has not gone away.

We saw the fields, the botanical gardens, the distillers, the dogs, the people, the rain, the bees, the bar, a cocktail being made in the great British bank holiday rain that none of us watching had a clue what was going into it because the rain was so loud we couldn’t hear but wanted to give it a go nonetheless.

But what we saw – even if you couldn’t hear a lot through the rain – was passion. Pure, unbridled passion. I have no doubt that they’re a successful commercial organisation if our contributions to their turnover are anything to go by but it’s so much more than a commercial operation. It’s a passion, a drive and energy. A passion that created the first-ever rhubarb gin and made a big dent in the corporate giants and big waves in the gin market. It’s passion that have seen them experiment and fail a few times too but keep going – I’m quite excited by the dandelion tease in the tour. I’ve been on brewery tours before. They’re largely formulaic – you see the big machines, you smell the ingredients, you see it at each stage and then you retire to the bar and sample the various delights/get hammered and forget all the knowledge you acquired. This felt different. This was personal. The tour wasn’t managed by someone in the organisation on a roster. It’s the owners. It wasn’t a stage-managed corporate performance. It was them in their environment doing what they do. Filmed by the team who also work there. Introducing you to the stories, people and the real behind the scenes.

Passion for what they do. Not written in a 200 page brand book or flip charts in a boardroom. Just 20 seconds into a conversation with the owners in a rain-drenched field on a glitchy zoom call was all you needed to be persuaded. We loved their gins before. We love them that bit more after this.

And then there’s the opposite. It’s been a funny old season in football terms made sweeter by the mighty Liverpool finally climbing back on their perch. August was to see a frenzy of european matches. Not the drawn–out nonsense of previous years but one-off games in a mini-tournament to settle both the Europa and Champions Leagues. Unfortunately both exclsuively on BT Sport. But for £25 for one month of football – why not? Easy to add. Just click a button on the website. Done.

Fast forward to the end of August. Is it just as easy to remove it as had been insinuated? Not a chance. Click to remove – oh, here’s a phone number. Call number – out of office hours. Call number next day – queue messages about staffing issues and taking longer to get through to you and hey, it’s really easy to make changes online… I know, but you won’t let me. Voice prompts for what do I want to discuss today – they never work do they? Eventually I get through to a human being. After verification, what do I want to do today? Why did your system ask me if you then don’t get that information?

“I’d like to remove BT Sport please.”

What then ensued was over 15 minutes of obfuscation, up-selling and increasingly annoying me with my repeated attempts to re-align the conversation to “I’d like to remove BT Sport please.” Along the way I learned you had a 31-day notice period which isn’t signposted particularly well anywhere so what started out as a make the most of all the football in August should have come with a notification that if you really only wanted it in August you should have also cancelled it the same day you ordered it. Which really doesn’t make sense and has just annoyed me further.

I just wanted to do one thing. The sales agent on the other end I am sure has targets and scripts a-plenty but I just wanted to do one thing quickly. I didn’t kick up a massive fuss about the extra month because I guess I’ll see a few of the games in the first weeks of the new season which I wouldn’t have done ordinarily. But where was the human element? Where was the passion of Tom and Tina? It was just script and up-sell. Boring. Far from making me feel part of the brand, it made me feel like a revenue stream. Of course I know I am for anything I purchase but there’s a way of dealing with it. We had some terrible issues with our Volvo when we first bought it but the service level at the garage was exemplary which over-rode some of the issues. Compared with friends who purchased a Land Rover and had a terrible brand experience and will never buy another. Without getting all theory on you, you think of a brand as one thing but your real-world experience of a brand, products, services and people across the myriad touchpoints of today changes your opinion. And your loyalty.

Next time you think about real people interacting with your brand, think of Tom and Tina in the pouring rain versus the person whose name I can’t remember trying to upsell. I know which one I would go back to.

business not quite as usual


Working closely with an Italian team means seeing your future before it happens. I’ve seen them react to their evolving situation including travel restrictions, school closures, shops closing and working from home. In almost daily update video calls, over the last few weeks it’s been clear that this was going to be the new normal for all of us. And now it’s here.

We were meant to be in New York last week for a global meeting but as the clock ticked towards take off, people dropped out as the situation worsened and then the client guidance was to stop all business travel and switch to remote meetings. Two days of meetings on video screens across New York, San Jose, Zurich, London and our base in the West Country. All successful if a little stop-start at times when it came to screen sharing (Teams or Zoom are much better). The funny thing being the team in New York had one of those cameras/sound devices that moves to who is talking. When one unfortunate person started eating crisps the camera shot to her 😉

We have had clients ask for our approach to contingency planning which we have advised them on. Some of our clients have either asked all their employees to work remote or to exclude visitors from their offices. One new member of staff joined our client on Monday and at midday they were sent home with everyone else to work remote. A tough start!

But we’ve been busy preparing. Considering our main client is based in Zurich and we have a network of people across Europe and the world, working remotely and via video or conf call is pretty normal for us anyway.  We’ve made sure that people have Teams set up, Slack working and are able to access the server remotely. We have a daily check in where we make sure everyone is all ok and where support is needed. There are virtual lunches and coffee time happening. Calls from a few doors or miles away to London, Turin, Zurich, Cologne, Brussels and Paris over the last two days alone. And we get to see inside the homes and work spaces of our colleagues and clients. And it’s nice to not have to apologise when your kids appear on screen too. That’s just how it’s going to be now.

And definitely turn your video on. You might think it weird looking at your own face but it breaks down the barriers and makes you feel connected. It stops you and everyone else being distracted by the email pings, the mobile phone and the Slack notifications. It’s much nicer than just staring at initials on a screen too.

On a lighter note, washing your hands more needs a bit of fun. You’re meant to repeat “Happy birthday to you” twice in your head to get to the twenty seconds of recommended wash time. But that’s a bit dull so why not print your own lyrics ?


And we’re enjoying this song from the Mexican government. Gets catchy from about 1 min

Stay healthy.



There are good people and not so good people. They’ve defined who I work for and who I am. It’s how I react to situations. It’s why I’ve run through walls for people and broken myself in the process – not necessarily as a result of those people but what happens in life. But what’s interesting is how people react to that. And sometimes being broken makes you take stock and realise what’s important. And defines how you look at life moving forward. This podcast gave me the opportunity to look back at what has driven me and to try and make the culture at my current business the best it can be.

It was difficult to talk about but it’s better to talk openly about things, right? You are fundamentally dealing with people. And people are flesh and blood, not machines. Let me know what you think. Have you experienced similar circumstances? How are you dealing with it?

My thanks to Stuart who inadvertently took me to places I have locked away for some time but have fundamentally shaped who I am – whether I wanted it to or not. It was quite hard listening to this again but made me realise some fundamental principles I live by. And my continued thanks to Chris, Norm, Scotty and Becky for being wonderful human beings who made such a difference to my life. I probably don’t think and don’t say thank you enough.

It feels quite raw. Still. Let me know what you think. I feel I’m more “me” these days though. Who knows?

Find the full podcast at Executive Juice.


Talk it out

Clear your head in 60 minutes? For free?

Absolutely. Chris Barez-Brown believes that a ridiculously simple approach to mental-health and wellbeing will benefit everybody. He openly admits its not the answer to everything but it can help. He’s so determined to prove it can work that he’s teamed up with a leading University to run a research project to assess the impact of a Talk It Out session.

Why is this important?

A recent survey found that almost double the number of people in the advertising industry showed mild to severe symptoms of anxiety and 20% more likely to show mild to severe symptoms of depression compared to the national average. Think about that for a moment…

Sure, there are times when being in a service business requires you to pull out all the stops and there’s nothing like the energy of a big pitch or a game-changing project deadline. But the machismo image of burning the candle at both ends is long-gone. We’re trying to be good at overall wellness and have a work:life balance rather than what we have experienced in former lives; the presenteeism approach to success and the over-bearing stress of management changes and mis-management and working for see you next Tuesdays who see you as meat with laptops rather than human beings. So this seemed like a great opportunity.

How does it work?

You team up in pairs, walk outside for 20 minutes with one person talking continuously with no interruptions or questions from the other, just acknowledgement that they are listening and encouragement. Then after 20 minutes, turn around and swap roles. A group session at the end to discuss how it felt, things they learned – not the content of the talk, just the feelings.

It was a really interesting experience. Some struggled with the one-way talking for a bit but others really enjoyed the challenge of just shutting up and listening, suppressing their desire to interject or ask questions or propose solutions. Talking for 20 minutes was a challenge for some, not so for others, but everyone found they started talking about interesting things after about 7/10 minutes. Where their consciousness took them from the superficial to the items of substance.

Some quotes form people who participated:

“Felt like a weight off my chest”

“I feel a sense of calm after talking about things I wouldn’t normally talk about”

“I don’t think it’s solved my problems, but it has helped to organize my thoughts”

Universally everyone was enthused by the notion of being outside and walking. Just having fresh air, getting away from your desk and stretching your limbs and letting yourself go into a stream of consciousness was liberating.

I’ve asked people to think over if they would like to do it again. Personally I found it very invigorating. I also perhaps enjoyed it more and was able to talk more freely because of the partner I had and was able to talk about things that have been weighing on me for some time it seemed. I’d started 2019 without my usual zip and optimism. Since this day, however, I seem to have recaptured this. I wonder if I would have been able to go to the places I did with a different person listening? Maybe you explore different aspects of what’s on your mind? It would be interesting to do it again.

I can’t pretend it’s now a regular occurrence but I really would like it to be. I know a lot of our team head out for a walk at lunchtime anyway which is healthy but the structure of Talk It Out focusses the attention while liberating you at the same time. You don’t get to the same depth as quickly in a general conversation.

I also can’t pretend I now get away from the office every day. Years of ingrained habits including being a slave to the presenteeism and the ‘al desko’ approach to lunch with the ever-present ‘billable hours’ and ‘time is money’ mantras repeated ad nauseum from Finance Directors are hard to break. But I’m trying. We’re trying as business owners to create an environment that is a joy to work in. And work still being an important word. Advertising is hard work. It isn’t a place to coast or stick your feet up or for the faint of heart. But there’s no reason why you can’t do the best and most rewarding work of your life without being twice as likely to suffer symptoms anxiety and depression.

Talk it out. Go on, give it a try. Let me know how you get on.


How to live a remarkable life


This is Thalassa. Thalassa is happy. Not just because of the Tony’s Chocolonely in her hand. Because she’s engineered a way to make her work fit her life goals. Just look at her and how happy she is.

She always had a dream to live and work in Barcelona, a city she feels is home rather than her native Netherlands. (Apart from Tony’s Chocolonely which elicits the reaction you see in the photo). But life gets in the way… rent or mortgage… relationships… career… and then your goals become dreams… and then the dreams become unattainable because of the shackles of the life you created because of societal norms.

What would happen if you really focussed on making those dreams and goals happen?

Well, Thalassa is the result.

Although kick-started by a relationship ending, it gave her the momentum to make the change. She set out to start breaking the ties from needing to be present in an office to do her job. How could she take her skills and abilities and make them attractive to people to pay her money? How could she help people overcome the need for someone to be physically present? Partly she’s helped here by a shift toward more remote-working and organisations seeing the benefits of both giving more autonomy to people to work in a way that suits them best alongside an uptick in outsourcing to trusted partners rather than off-shoring for cost efficiency alone.

So she set out a plan to generate clients and to also create a passive income plan based on her experience to support or supplement as required. This wasn’t easy. Part of what you don’t see on the surface too is the investment in networking and talking to others in her situation, providing as much assistance as receiving.

And then the time came when she was confident enough to cut the ties, book the one-way ticket and move. She doesn’t have an office but uses the local co-working space in Barcelona which is hugely impressive, vibrant and is right next door the marina. A premium setting to work and to meet people. Which is exactly what we did when we went out to see her with our equally wonderful client who we all work with.

And you know why she’s managed to make this a reality? Because she’s damn good at what she does. She always delivers what she says. She’s smart, imaginative, creative and trusted. She’s flexible to work however we want whether that’s via Slack, using the community management tools clients prefer or on the phone. As a result we’ve grown our scope with her and the results and the way of working are just fabulous. What’s better is that she’s enjoying what she does, focussing on projects that also make her happy. Eventually getting to a place where she can pick and choose the projects that she wants to do, not just the ones that pay the bills.

So what’s my version of this? I think this is what I’ve struggled with for some time and why I’m now finally trying to work through this. To look beyond the immediacy. I don’t have the answers yet and I’m going to try and work through it but one thing that feels like it’s going to help me, at least to set the broad parameters, is Debbie Millman’s technique for living a remarkable life.

It’s pretty simple. Write a letter to yourself from the future. Ten years ahead. Write how you want to be, what you’re doing, be as descriptive as possible. And re-visit the letter every year. It’s uncanny how many of her students have realised their dreams using this technique. So I’m going to start here.

Here’s a neat site that summarises this technique and points to the interview with Debbie.

Here’s to a remarkable life… and here’s to Thalassa!

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