Fighting the ‘prove branding works’ brigade

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Kevin Chesters is a partner/founder of Harbour, a brand communication collective. He’s worked in many roles as a Chief Strategy Officer, as well as being a frequent keynote speaker, lecturer and author of “The Creative Nudge.”

Biggest fuck up?

I’ve got two.

The first was a fuck up when I was in my very first job. I think, looking back on it now, that it wasn’t much of a mistake, really, but I really paid the price for it.

When I was a graduate trainee, I made an error on the price of a property in a regional press ad for a client. The company had changed their prices from the previous week, and I hadn’t double-checked before sending the ads off by fax (it was 1995, give me a break). 

I couldn’t fix it in time. The ad ran in some godforsaken local press title, and it meant that the client had to honour a cheaper price for the house advertised. The agency was made to carry the cost, and I basically got sacked because of it. Nice, eh? Firing a grad trainee for a simple mistake, anyone could have made.

I suppose it all worked out well because I didn’t want to work in the agency anyhow (it was based in Birmingham, and all my mates weren’t), and it meant I could move to London and get a job at a better agency. 

How did I feel at the time? Gutted. What did it teach me? Make sure you double-check everything. Oh, and in retrospect, the person running the agency was a bit of a prick. What should it teach others? Everything will be ok in the end, and if it’s not ok, then it’s not the end.

The second one is bigger and much funnier. I was now a CSO. I was running a pitch, and we were down to the last two to win it. It was a really important pitch for the agency, and we were finalising the strategy so we could make one of those big-assed strategy mood films for the final presentation. I emailed the final words detailing our core strategy and big idea to my creative partner for approval. This creative partner just so happened to share a first name with the CSO of the agency we were pitching against. That CSOs name happened to come before my creative partner’s name in my email address book (he and I were former colleagues). 

So……I accidentally sent our entire pitch strategy to the agency we were pitching against a week before we were pitching. The bloke in question emailed me back to point this out, or I’d never have known! I was mortified. I was convinced I’d messed up the pitch. 

But I was in luck. The CSO was a mate of mine and also happened to be on holiday, so was pretty checked out at the time. He also was a decent bloke, so he deleted it (or told me he had, and I believed him).

What did I learn? It’s never that important, and some people are really decent humans. 

We won the pitch, by the way. 


Awards season annoys me, especially Cannes. So many things get on my nerves about it, but I really hate how many of the traditional players just shamelessly and transparently get out all their silly spam bollocks in April. 

We all know the suspects. Same brands, same agencies, same silly made-up press ads and campaigns that never ran anywhere.

I have nothing against awards per se. I think people should be rewarded and recognised for the work they do, for both creativity and effectiveness. But I can’t stand how loaded the odds are in favour of the big network agencies who are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for case study videos. The small agencies don’t stand a chance. And then the networks carpet-bomb every category to ensure that they get enough points. I saw it at its absolute worst in my last network job. It was as if eleven months of the year didn’t matter as long as June went well. Urgh.

The other thing that angers me as a planner is having to spend so much of my time justifying why people should invest money in their brand. There is so much evidence to prove people buy things from people they like. There is so much evidence to show that people make decisions with emotion first and logic second. There is so much evidence to show that people don’t bother to read reams and reams of pointless body copy detailing loads of RTBs. 

Basically, I get angry that the job of the modern planner is to repeat the argument of ‘The Long and the Short of It’ every four weeks. But I’ll tell you what gets my goat even more. It’s the fact that the ‘case for the defence’ for spending money on brand must turn up with armfuls of data and proof. Yet the case for the prosecution seems to simply have to bring a large bag of hubristic over-confidence and a podcast of Gary V saying that he doesn’t believe in ads (despite running ads for his own company.)

Anyway…’s too short for anger. Breathe. Breathe.

Useful advice 

I’ve received loads of advice about our industry from some brilliant people in our industry, but I think the best two pieces of advice I ever received weren’t from people in our industry.

The first was my grandma, who always told me to make sure I was useful to people. Being clever is OK, but useful beats clever every time.

The second was from a vicar I was interviewing about the science of storytelling for a project. He said to me that he didn’t care one jot whether anyone listened to a single word he said. He said that the more important thing was how he made people feel when they left his church after his sermon. I think this is a lesson that every CMO needs to understand about their communications. Feelings first, messages second. Just get people to feel something about your brand.


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