The Owl

It’s strange how some random moments can pull your mind right back to where it should be and remind you what life should be about.

It was Saturday. I was a single parent for the morning with my two year old daughter Gem. I decided around mid-morning to go out for a walk around our large complex with her. It’s always fun for us to spot lizards, cats and look at dogs behind fences. Little things along the walk have become like rituals. We have to stop at the house where the Mickey Mouse garden ornament is so that she can observe it and say hello. We have to jump up and down on the storm drain covers so they make a noise. We have to wave at ourselves in the convex mirror that guides vehicles around the corner.

On this morning I noticed a commotion of birds in a particular tree above a roof. I pointed and told Gem to listen to the birds. As we moved closer though, something much more interesting caught my eye. An owl. There it was, perched on the bottom part of the roof near the gutter. Really? At first I even thought it was a fake, put there by the home owner for some reason or other. But then it turned its head and looked at us. An owl, a matter of metres from us, in broad daylight. It was beautiful and almost mystical, but seemed a little out of place. This was exceptionally rare in South Africa.

I stood with Gem in my arms for ages, as we just stared at it. Gem was fascinated with the way it kept blinking, and she proceeded to imitate it, saying “Owl, blinking, blinking” while she was doing it. I was still fascinated by our luck in discovering it. She smiled at it. I smiled at her. The moment sort of hit me. There we were, just her and I, soaking in this moment with smiles on our faces, observing an owl together that nobody else in the world could see. She talked about it all the way home. When my wife came home both Gem and I couldn’t stop talking about the owl.

Little islands of beauty like this. Moments in life that make the bridges in between the islands seem completely worth the journey, no matter how long.


On Friendship

How do you know what a true friend is?

The introvert in me is very picky in who I spend my free time with. I’m even more picky with those who I call friends. I can probably count the number of people I consider to be good friends on one hand. My view on true friendship is one that not everyone would agree with. You should expect nothing from a true friend, and they should expect nothing from you. No obligations. Just voluntary respect, communication and shared experiences.

I’ve recently had two occasions where I’ve been able to briefly see old friends from my past. One from the not-too-distant past and the other one of my oldest mates. I hadn’t seen them in a while – in the one case it was over four years. What struck me afterwards on both occasions was this sense how we immediately just fell into how we always were as mates. No need for “Let’s catch up” or awkwardness in feeling obligated to ask all the right questions and acting interested. We just. . . were. Our comfortable old selves, like putting on your old favourite pair of shoes. It reminded me again that good friends don’t have to act interested in the other. They genuinely are.

How do you know if someone is a true friend? After contemplating this it’s fairly simple to me, they tick these three boxes:

  1. You can go a long period of time without getting in touch, or communicating at all – and that’s fine, it changes nothing.
  2. You can say no to them, and know they won’t be offended or take it personally.
  3. You’re always at complete ease in each other’s company and never trying to prove anything or be something you’re not.

Value your true friends. They are one of life’s essential elements.

Twelve marketing lessons from twelve years

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I’m one of those fortunate individuals who has been able to work my entire career in the field which I chose and studied – Marketing. Like all long term relationships, I find my relationship with marketing is one of fluctuation. At times it frustrates me. At other times I find renewed excitement about it. Sometimes I feel like I know it inside out, while on other occasions I wonder if some of that knowledge is perhaps unfounded. But like the best relationships and friendships, I seem know I’ll be involved with it for good. Or at least for a very long time.

Around twelve years ago, as a young university graduate, I got taken on by a growing Port Elizabeth agency. For the most part, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and realised pretty quickly that there’s a huge chasm between education and reality – a chasm I still hope to be part of rectifying in the future, because it’s still a challenge today, for graduates and companies alike.

I quickly learned the hard way, and feel like I’ve been doing that ever since. In the twelve years I’ve been in this field, working for brand agencies and as a head of marketing on the corporate side, I’ve learned some timeless marketing lessons, from which I’ll dispense which I think are the most important. Here they are:


  1. Don’t spend a single cent on advertising your product or service until your internal sales processes are running faultlessly and optimally. In particular, ensure that sales people and all customer-facing staff are entrenched with the correct messaging, philosophy and product knowledge. Also, can you deliver on what you’re advertising, every time? If not, don’t say it. You’ll never win the long game by false advertising.


  1. If you can’t measure it, don’t do it.


  1. If you’re going to partner with agencies, whether it be PR, Social Media, Design or Ad Agencies, make sure the agency is small enough that you’re one of the agency’s biggest accounts, and that you have constant contact with the top leadership of the agency. Beware of falling for a big agency with an impressive pitch, only to be handed over to a junior account executive, with you seeing the agency leadership once every 12 months.


  1. Sometimes the solutions to increasing sales don’t lie in advertising, sales, promotions or in any marketing area. Adjustments to staffing, product range or product attributes can often have a far bigger impact than an ad campaign.


  1. Every person in an organisation needs to be seen as a marketing person, right from CEO to floor operators. The biggest brand ambassador needs to be the CEO, and he/she must drive the brand direction and help instil it in all staff. Too often the brand strategy knowledge sits with three or four individuals, with the broader company never knowing what it is or how to live it out. Marketing departments are unique in that they need to function as a department, but need the freedom to be facilitators of the brand’s philosophy throughout the organisation.


  1. Trying to be everything to everyone leads only to being nothing to anyone. It’s tempting to package as many points of difference as possible into your brand positioning. This only leads to a lack of focus, and staff generally unaware of that single reason the company exists, or how to explain it. A company’s brand positioning should be compelling, simple and entrenched to an extent that the CEO can ask any staff member what it is and get the same answer each time. Company positioning strategies and unique differentiation points are never nearly as unique as the company thinks they are. Often they aren’t unique at all. Avoid merely rephrasing what everyone else is saying.


  1. If you’re not solving a problem, or communicating that you’re solving a problem, you shouldn’t be in business. Positioning statements that are wishy washy claptrap about who the company is or what the company does are pointless. No one cares what you do. Tell the market how you’re going to solve their problem – then you’ll get them listening to you.


  1. Never put full trust in a digital or social media supplier. With all due respect to most of them who make an honest living, there are nevertheless many operators out there who are not entirely ethical, and attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of their clients. Don’t be the damsel in distress with the broken engine on the side of the road. Equip yourself with a rudimentary understanding of concepts, principles and best practises, so that you know what you’re looking for, and to ensure that you’re driving the process and strategy. Most importantly, so that you’re not being taken advantage of. You must lead the agency. The internet is at your disposal, and has all the answers to anything you want to know more about. There are elements within marketing which are constantly changing, and this requires you to evolve with it. My university textbooks never mentioned the term ‘Social Media’ once. Yet now it’s a cornerstone of marketing. Re-educate yourself all the time, or you’ll fall behind. This may even require some unlearning.


  1. It’s too easy to over-complicate strategy. Don’t fall in that trap just to seem more impressive. Avoid creating strategy so filled with fancy diagrams, buzz words and jargon that it loses every reader in a few seconds. At its core, strategy is incredibly simple – What are we doing, Where are we going, When are we doing it – and Why? You should be able to put your entire brand positioning strategy on one page.


  1. Word of mouth will always be more powerful than branding and advertising. Always. If word of mouth is failing, your company will fail. Advertising and marketing have a huge role to play in business growth and consumer awareness, but will never make up for an inferior product or service. A happy customer is your strongest marketing tool. One enthusiastic, loyal advocate of your brand is worth more to you than 100 indifferent customers.


  1. If you’re not first to market in a particular category or idea, it will be almost impossible to supplant the brand that was first to market. Better to find a point of difference where you are first, and genuinely distinct.


  1. Research your customers, staff, market and competitors continually. Make a point of it once a year to do a comprehensive exercise. Even if 90% of the findings are what you expected, you’ll always find one or two golden nuggets – insights that come and slap you in the face. Ensure that the questions you ask are identical year on year, to ensure the ability to find trends or movements. Also, even though you understand your competitors fully, don’t fall into the trap of basing your strategy and offering around competitors. You end up being a follower. Base it on your capability and what will make the biggest difference to your customers.


“Follow Your Passion” is Dangerous Advice

“Follow your passion” . . . you’ve likely heard it and read it countless times, from the likes of whoever made a speech at your graduation, a range self help experts or multi millionaires when they’re trying to dispense life advice. Except it’s not always the best advice, and can often be very dangerous advice. There are practical arguments to be made against “follow your passion”.

Passion, by its very definition describes something intense, bold and uncontrollable. Something intense is very often short lived and burns out.

This idea of telling young people to follow their passions is something we should perhaps be steering away from, due to the fact that many passions offer an incredibly narrow chance of success. Also, is the passion a deeply rooted, long term urge to do that, or is it a passing phase? The following should be considered:

– Are there employment opportunities in it?

– What are the chances of actually being a success?

– Do you actually have the necessary abilities and talents?

– Is this something you’ve had inside you for a long period of time, or is it a  relatively new interest?

If your passion is writing, your chances of being published and making good money from writing is extremely slim. An absurdly small percentage of manuscripts make it to publishing. If your passion is Roman history, how easy would it be to forge a long term career in this field, and where would opportunities come from? If your passion is singing, it’s an unfortunate truth that very few singers ultimately make it big.

Young people need to be given the freedom to experience as much as possible as they grow. Let them try new things, experience different activities and get involved in a range of subjects. However, it seems to me that it might make more sense for us to be saying to them instead of ‘follow your passion’, rather find something which holds opportunities, jobs and career prospects. In addition to this, is it something you’re good at, have a respect for and can find some rudimentary enjoyment doing?

Passion is overrated. You can be an enormous success in a field while only mildly enjoying it. It’s easy for millionaires to dispense of the advice of “follow your passion”. For many of them, following their passion early on was perhaps more a case of following wealth and riches, and once the first couple of millions were made, they could actually start enjoying it.

Having things you’re passionate about are important and often a requirement of a fulfilled life. However, often these passions need to exist as long term side projects and creative outlets.

Embrace what you fear

The more you run from your fears, the bigger they get. The more you embrace them, the more you find they tend to disappear.

If presenting in front of people scares the hell out of you, volunteer to do it more, or put yourself in a position to do it more often. If a senior boss intimidates you, make a point of bumping into them more often so you can speak to them more.

It is only by doing that we improve our performance in areas where we are weak or fearful.

No great progress was ever made in the comfort zone.

Measure yourself against your own standards

Never judge your performance or benchmark yourself according to what your boss expects.

You end up just being a pawn for what someone else wants, while never pushing yourself – resulting in a lack of confidence and self-motivation. Instead, set your own high standards for your performance, and judge yourself according to those. Then be your own toughest critic.

You’ll find yourself more engaged and delivering more for your superiors than if you’re benchmarking yourself against what they want. Measure yourself based on your own high expectations. Your boss is the facilitator of your progress. You’re the master of it.

Give your opinion when it’s asked for

During your early years as an employee and thereafter, you’ll be asked your opinion on various aspects of the company and industry by your boss and superiors. It’s incredibly frustrating when young employees answer these questions with “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know”. Not only are you not contributing anything to the conversation, you’re also showing an attitude of disinterest.

When asked for your opinion, give it. Even if you haven’t thought of it properly, take a position and give an opinion. You reserve the right to change your mind later, but in the moment, your boss wants an answer from you, not a shrug of the shoulders.