Back in 2004, I got a job working in PR, client-side, for Visa. I was based in London, but had to visit Africa on business.
On one occasion, we were doing a press trip of Soweto, the famous township just outside of Johannesburg. I was in a minibus full of journalists, all being fed, watered, and entertained by Visa bigwigs.
We stopped in Soweto. I wanted to buy something, but then something unexpected happened: My Visa card didn’t work.
I tried again.
It still didn’t work.
I got back onto the bus and complained to a senior vice president, a South African.
“My Visa card didn’t work.” He looked at me. “Just now. I was trying to pay, and it didn’t —”
He glared at me, gritted his teeth, and then almost hissed through them. “May I remind you that you’re on a minibus full of South African journalists? We’re trying to give them as positive an experience as possible of Visa payment solutions, and you’re loudly complaining about your card not working —”
“Yes. Oh. So shut the fuck up.”
I apologized and thought it was forgotten. But, on getting back to London, I was hauled into a meeting with HR and two senior managers. Bad news travels fast, they say, and this certainly did. I was hauled over the coals.
Did I mess up? Sure. Did I come across like a helpless child? Sure.
But it was a massive over-reaction.
I left that meeting promising a) I’d leave PR, b) I’d never work for a global corporate ever again. 18 years on, I’ve kept to both of those aims.
Oh, and I use Mastercard now.
One thing: Self-regard.
Advertising has long thought that it’s a hugely important part of our cultural landscape — reflected in the plethora of countless awards, the moody black-and-white pictures in Campaign, and The Drum‘s hilarious slogan that Marketers can Change the World.
I once asked my father-in-law what his favourite ad was. He squinted at me and said “you seem to think I watch those things.”
Was he being insulting? No, he was being honest.
My view is that advertising is about selling and entertaining: they’re two sides of the same coin. And entertainment is a key part of what we do when we do advertising well. Do you want an ad that bludgeons you with a blank call-to-action? Or do you want something that makes your life a little easier, happier, and fuller?
This was part of the reason I set up my consultancy, looking at how humour can best be used in ads. I draw on humour science, psychology, and neurology. And I’ve yet to meet someone without a sense of humour.
Years ago, I was living in a grotty house-share in North London.
It was the kind of place in which the landlord decides who’s living there and, one day, you wake up and find you have another housemate.
One day I came home to meet a tall Australian builder, Stu. He was a loud, brash, full-of-himself alpha male.
(It was not, I felt, going to be a lifelong friendship.)
But one day, he said something I’ve never forgotten: “Opinions are like arseholes. Everybody’s got one.”
If you work in marketing or advertising, you’re surrounded by opinions. Some people don’t like green in their logo. Some people don’t like sentences beginning with “And” or “But.” Back in 2020, people thought the metaverse would change the world (spoiler alert: it hasn’t).
Stu’s advice holds true. It kept me sane: it’s another way of saying know whose opinion to value and whose opinion to discard. But it’s also a way of saying, follow your calling. And that matters.