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More-ing is boring. Keep messages to a minimum

Why too much info is worse than not enough

The human brain. So clever it named itself. The most complex structure in the universe, some say (those people have obviously never been trapped in the ever-shifting maze of the IKEA shop floor).

Yep, the brain is a beautiful thing. Not aesthetically, of course, but in what it’s capable of. But one thing our minds aren’t so hot at is focusing on multiple things at once. Apparently “the brain can’t effectively handle more than two complex, related activities at once”.

Well, let’s test that theory out – try to multiply 13 x 17 and remember the name of the guy who played Tony Soprano and envision the colour of your front door and conjure up what your high school gym teacher looked like…your beautiful brain just turns to a formless buzz of white noise.

Our brains filter out what they can in order to accomplish one or two tasks at a time effectively. That’s why when Derren Brown gets his cards out and starts to ask for your National Insurance number, you don’t notice that he’s nicked your watch.

Keep messages to a minimum or we won't catch them all

Throw us a ball, and we’ll catch it. Throw us three, and we will more likely than not (unless circus performers are currently reading this blog) drop them all.

This is exactly why we need to keep messages to a minimum in advertising. If a t-shirt says:

–– Best deals on old cars in town ––
‘We always match competitors’ prices’
£££ Get a quote today £££
“Don’t pay more than what you’re here for”

There’s no telling which message you’ll remember. If any. So even if you do remember something, it might not be the important part.

In the over-saturated world of advertising, it’s tough enough getting people to take in one message, never mind five. Keep your communications single-minded, straightforward, and as soak-up-able as they can possibly be.

Think of it like texting your ex – keep the messages to an absolute minimum.

Lessons learnt from Mark Ritson 9 top take-aways from his Mini MBA in Marketing

9 top take-aways from his Mini MBA in Marketing

We love to learn and in a normal year you’ll find us on a tonne of training courses. Whether it’s trying something new or just hearing a fresh perspective on something we do every day, training keeps the wheels turning. Last year was a little different. Neither us, nor our wheels, were going anywhere. So we committed to remote learning and four of us studied Mark Ritson’s Marketing Week Mini MBA in marketing.

It was extremely valuable. To anyone thinking of doing it – go for it. It’s quite a big time commitment on top of a busy work life but you won’t regret it. Here are a few little gems that have stuck with us…

1. Embrace the humility of marketing.

The second you take a job in the industry you lose your genuine opinion. You’re no longer a normal customer and your opinion is biased and dangerous. The trick is to know you’re not the customer and make sure you connect with them. Understanding your weakness becomes your biggest strength. Once you accept that you’re in the dark, you’re going to want to switch the lights on. Enter Market Research. One of the first things you’ll learn is that while your brand means everything to you – it means almost nothing to your customers.

2. Don’t take it out of the horse’s mouth

Research insights are most powerful when you don’t paraphrase them. Ideally present video footage or audio recordings… if not try direct quotes – ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

3. Kill the hypothetical customer.

The ‘hypothetical customer’ never surprises us, does exactly what we want, and somehow always has the needs we want them to have. They’re all basically the same so they make marketing plans very easy to develop. Unfortunately they don’t exist. And marketing plans built on them are doomed to fail. Segment your market based on real data not stereotypes. And remember they’re individual people. Never, ever try to average them out – the average person in the UK has one testicle.

4. Segmentation is making the map. Targeting is taking the hike.

Good market segmentation should be purely descriptive not strategic – it’s not about you, it’s about the market. Once you have the market segmented up then you can pack your bag and trek onto targeting – where you’ll be glad to hear it is all about you. You can’t please everyone though so think carefully about where you want to go. And where you don’t.

5. Don’t be in a rush to position your brand.

Be disciplined and make sure you do your strategy in the right order. Segment the whole market first, pick your targets second, and only then should you think about how to position your brand. Otherwise who are you positioning it for? And how could it possibly be relevant to them if you didn’t know who they were when you did it?

6. Don’t get carried away with all the brand fluff.

When you do come to position your brand don’t get bogged down by all the latest lingo (DNA, essence, promise, purpose, proposition, beliefs, values, principles, personality, voice – we could go on). Keep it simple and make sure you’ve answered the important question: “What do we want to stand for to our target customer? What should they think of when they think of us?”. Remember, this has to be clear enough to unite a tonne of people with conflicting priorities and different backgrounds and experiences. If your computer died just as you were about to save your positioning slide, you should be able to remember it word for word.

7. The only difference between a brand and a commodity is meaning.

Both have a function, and both have a price, but brands add meaning where commodities don’t. Deviate too far from the meaning you’re trying to build and you’ll erode your brand back into a commodity – which is, of course, a race to the bottom.

8. You’re more likely to be too cheap than too expensive.

Pricing is tricky, with risks of going too high or too low. But if you’re on the fence take heart in knowing where history stands on this: 80-90% of pricing errors are underpricing.

9. Look at the job before you choose the tool.

A plumber who arrives at the job with only one tool is a bad plumber. A good plumber looks at the job and goes back to the van to get the right tool. The same is true for creative. An open-minded, output-agnostic approach will always beat a prescriptive, fixed approach. All media plans take into account your audience, but the best ones take into account your brand and your idea too. A brand built on being ‘big, bold, and untamed’ might suit outdoor more than editorial. While a brand built on being ‘discrete and personal’ should maybe only be seen in private – like on mobile ads.

Embrace the mess of good ideas

Why creating and editing should be kept separate

Imagine a football coach marking out areas for exercises. He’s whistling away as he innocently lays out those cheap, plasticky little UFO-cones. But, with every cone he picks from his mesh sack and lays out, one of the annoying little kids sneaks behind him and puts it back in the bag. Cone after cone he places delicately on the astro, cone after cone the kids pick it back up. After five minutes of graft, he looks up to get the lay of the land, and he’s got nothing. Not a marker on the ground. Everything he put out there – gone.

This is what happens when you have a ‘nae sayer’ in a brainstorm. The aptly-named devil’s advocates may be trying to help, but ideas, especially freshly-born ones, need space to breathe. They’re barely formed, and someone’s already saying they’re not right.

These delicate little ideas need to be nurtured, cultivated, and actively grown in a safe place – a creative greenhouse where nothing is thrown away.

Editing while you’re still coming up with the ideas is a very dangerous game.

Imagine opening your Lego pirate ship set and throwing away bits that don’t immediately look useful. Then, when you get to the end, you realise you needed all those unassuming little pieces to actually hold the mast up and set the sails.

It might not be immediately clear why an idea is relevant, or where it’s going to go, but even if you’re taking a line from that idea you were gonna chuck, or a word, or a ghost of a whisper of a rumour of a thought. It still deserves its place at the table.

Original ideas are messy. They don’t arrive the right way up. Quite often they don’t even have an obvious start, or end, or shape.

Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull described them as “ugly babies” that “are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete”.

But with an open mind and a little patience, an idea can go anywhere.

John Steinbeck said “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.” And this guy won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Whatever you do, don’t be the fireman at the BBQ dousing the glowing coals before we even get a sniff of a sausage.

Stay positive and let ideas do their own thing. You’ll be surprised where they go.

Introducing our Better half: Better Company

Introducing our Better half

When Andy and I started StudioLR 18 years ago, we had no idea how many inspiring people we’d meet along the way. From our agency team-mates, to our clients and collaborators, we’ve worked with so many talented and creative people over the years – many of whom we’re lucky enough to call friends.

From our early days in a little basement room to our recent international brand development for the likes of Volvo and Jura Whisky – the work, the team, and the business have all gone from strength to strength. Andy and I are both so proud of how far we’ve all come.
And the journey’s far from over.

As many of you will know, I’ve always been motivated to make a big impact on society, especially with an emphasis on collaboration and inclusive design. This social purpose is what really fires me up, and over the last few years I’ve focused more and more on this kind of work.

In that time I’ve been lucky to lead some incredibly inspiring projects – from co-designing signage that helps people with dementia live more independent lives, to working with The Promise, set up to transform the wellbeing of Scotland’s young people, to most recent commissions with the teams developing Scotland’s Covid Memorial and the new Women’s Facility at HMP&YOI Stirling.

Now I’m launching my own exciting project – StudioLR’s new sister business Better Company – 100% dedicated to making the everyday better for people from all walks of life. A creative studio built on collaboration and co-design, working exclusively on projects that make society better for people.

StudioLR is the strongest it’s been in 18 years and the new leadership team will take the business on to a whole new level as the world’s most gutsy creative agency. I’m thrilled to start this next chapter of my career collaborating with the most inspiring, diverse and creative minds to make a big impact for better.

So, if you want to do good, why not get in touch and do Better?


Caution paper cuts ahead

10 razor-sharp reads to whet your creative whistle

Towards the end of last year, we took the leap and decided to overhaul the office. Before we got the sledgehammers out and started knocking down walls (fun!), we finally had to sort out the bookshelves (no fun).

What started as a boring task quickly became a pleasure. Sifting through pages we hadn’t seen for years, we found a few favourites to share:

Marty Neumeier – The Brand Gap

The brand-building bible. A sermon on substance. Marty closes the gap between business strategy and brand strategy – making it easy to see how all the parts fit together. Thousands of us have tried to explain that a logo is not a brand, but never quite as well as this…

Razor-sharp reads: The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier

David Crystal – Words Words Words

If you like words you’ll love this book. Where they come from, what they mean, why we enjoy them, how they evolve, how we play with them. It’s just a lovely little book packed with great anecdotes and guaranteed to rekindle your love of language.

“Words aren’t harmful. They are, after all, only mouthfuls of air, handfuls of marks on a surface, or clusters of pixels on a screen. It is the people who control the mouths, hands, and screens that are the problem.”

Matthew Syed – Rebel Ideas

This one’s a real eye-opener. From the CIA to Johan Cruyff, via the Google HQ and an Everest rescue operation – Syed shows us how diversity can help remove blinkers and reveal blind spots. It’s a warning against building a kowtowing culture – and a little glimpse into the power of diverse teams who have the freedom to disagree.

Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace – Creativity, Inc

A must-read for anyone building a creative business. Half handbook on running a creative company, half behind-the-scenes exposé on life at Pixar. Packed with a tonne of useful little nuggets and funny stories.

Alan Fletcher – The Art of Looking Sideways

The heaviest book on the list, this is one to keep handy – in case you ever need a weapon, or just a little boost of imagination. 530+ hardbacked pages of playfulness, this self-proclaimed ‘primer in visual intelligence’ reads like a giant scrapbook of ideas, words and visuals. All jumbled together and bound into a paper soup. In a good way.

Razor-sharp reads: The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher

Les Binet & Sarah Carter – How Not to Plan

There’s no shortage of thought-leading nonsense in the world of strategy and planning. This book is the perfect antidote. A myth-busting guide, each chapter takes an often-repeated, seldom-worthwhile slice of ‘wisdom’ and rips it up. Challenging assumptions, using evidence, and setting out a better way of doing things. You’d be hard-pushed to find a more practical and useful planning book.

“Anyone could be called Les Binet or Sarah Carter. But over time our names accrue meaning. And we grow to own them. So let’s stop ducking responsibility. When next presented with a potential end-line, the right question isn’t ‘Is it own-able?’, it’s ‘How can we own it?’”

Dave Trott – One + One = Three

A collection of immensely readable anecdotes of creative thinking in all walks of life. The book’s philosophy and content can be summed up in this one quote from the intro: “The more varied the input, the more unexpected the combinations, the more creative the ideas.”

Jeff Tweedy – How to Write One Song

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s book of songwriting tips serves as a great little intro to any creative pursuit. He strips away the mystery and fear, and gives away practical tips to get started, to make creativity part of your everyday, and to keep going despite the tricky bits.

“We have a choice – to be on the side of creation, or surrender to the powers that destroy.”

John Hegarty – Hegarty on Creativity

A collection of 50 provocative little thoughts gleaned from decades at the top of the ad industry. All the advice you could ever need is in these pages.

“Inspiring people isn’t a mathematical process. You’ve got to surprise yourself as well as your audience. There is a randomness to creating that must be celebrated not scorned.”

James Webb Young – A Technique for Producing Ideas

Just 48 tiny pages. And with big writing too. First published in 1965, you can dust this one off in an hour or so but it’ll be a really valuable hour. A step-by-step guide to coming up with new ideas. Love the notion of the ‘mental digestive process’.

Provenance is not a place

Last week, our Head of Creative and Strategy, Dave King, chatted about branding and food provenance at The Knowledge Bank, delivered by Scotland Food & Drink Partnership.

Provenance is more than a place

Dave’s talk, part of the Profiting from Provenance session, focused on what we do best – getting to the guts.

On the face of it, food provenance is about where the food is from. Scottish products aren’t shy about showing their colours these days. It’s common to see saltires on packaging and places in names – from Scottish salmon to Ayrshire bacon. But how can you take it further?

The origin story

It all starts with seeing provenance as more than a place…

The origin story

Your brand is a shortcut for shoppers. A hook that helps people remember you. From a brand point of view then, provenance isn’t a place. Provenance is your origin story.

It’s Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider. It’s Batman’s mum and dad getting gunned down in a Gotham alleyway. It’s your blockbuster biopic peeking behind the scenes of your formative years.

Closing the gap

Closing the gap

From Rocketman to Ray, biopics sell like crazy. They add context, layers, and depth to a star’s story but, most importantly, they reveal truth where there was mystery. And they add some much-needed empathy where there was apathy.

Getting back to food and drink for a second – the modern shopper is about as disconnected from food and drink production as we are from celebrities. A good origin story can close that gap, helping us remember you and choose you.

It takes confidence and transparency to show off your origin story, and that gives us shoppers confidence in the quality of your products and the ethics behind them.

But is it relevant?

But is it relevant

Work forward from your origin story and back from the consumer story. Rinse and repeat til they overlap in an interesting way. If you do, you’ll find you suddenly have something with genuine and intriguing depth and substance – we call it guts. You’ll have something people might just believe in and connect with, something uniquely yours that couldn’t belong to anyone else.

The relevance of your origin story is where your power really lies. How strong a link can you find between your origin story and your consumer proposition?

While competitors will always be trying to muscle in on your consumer proposition and your product range, it’s very hard for them to take your origin story with it. Can you honestly imagine trying to sell another story about a bloke getting bitten by a spider and turning into a superhero?

All killer no filler

All killer no filler

Like any good biopic, you need to find the drama – think of it like the Rocky IV training montage. Ok, the metaphor isn’t perfect – Rocky Balboa is, unfortunately for planet Earth, not a real boxer – but the montages are the perfect example of cherry-picking the interesting bits in a process. You don’t have to summarise the whole thing, you just need to find the little gems that tell people something about you. Rocky chops wood and runs in the snow, surrounded by his family and friends, while Ivan Drago is rigged up to a high-tech machine surrounded by stone-faced scientists with syringes. We’re supposed to believe Rocky is therefore more authentic,
harder-working – the everyman hero.

Find your provenance’s version of that. Who are you as a brand, really?

Your provenance story will be different if you’re, for example, a down to earth, homely brand or, say, a cutting-edge tech enterprise. The crucial part is to find your own version.

Provenance is not for sharing

Provenance is not for sharing

At a basic level, provenance can lift the whole Scottish food and drink industry. Saltires on stickers and place names on products are definitely effective. But if you dig a little deeper and find a real connection between your brand’s origin story and consumer proposition there’s still plenty of room to stand out with substance.

Real provenance should be yours and yours alone. Real provenance should give you an edge against the competition.

You can get your mitts on a handy PDF version of this blog here

Free download

Remember your 17th birthday?

Today is our birthday and we’re not likely to forget our 17th year in a hurry. Somewhere between the million Zoom calls and the ebb and flow of anxiety, we did some of the gutsiest work we’ve ever done with some of the gutsiest people we’ve ever known.

A huge, huge thank you to everyone who supported us on this rollercoaster year. 🙌

And since the world isn’t quite ready for blowing out candles and sharing cake just yet, we’ll save the party for next year. But for now we’d like to celebrate the two things that matter most to us – looking after our people, and making gutsy work for clients we respect and who respect us…

Substance and Standout

A few of our recent favourites

Who the LR are we?

A tight-knit team of total troopers. Some of this year’s highlights:

  • 🌟 Nic won Rising Creative Star at the Marketing Society Star Awards
  • 😎 The incredibly talented quartet of Mel, Ben, Joy and Lisa joined us, and instantly made us 50% cooler
  • 🙌 Andy was nominated for Inspirational Agency Leader of the Year
  • 👴 Dave celebrated 10 years at StudioLR
  • 🎓 Mark, Rhona, Andy and Dave all completed Mark Ritson’s Mini MBA in Marketing (and swear they didn’t copy each other’s answers)
  • ❤️ We were named the Marketing Society Scotland’s Employer Brand of the Year

Shout if you want to stand out
0131 454 3200

How to kick off a creative project with substance

Every successful project starts with a good brief. And every brief should be given a good shake. You never know what’s going to fall out.

Our clients value this process – it usually highlights new angles and opportunities. At worst it makes sure we really understand the brief. Like a pitbull in a butchershop, we don’t stop til we get to the guts.

The line of questioning varies depending on the brief and the brand, but there are themes that always come up. Whether you’re a creative, strategist or marketer looking to bullet-proof your brief, here are over 50 questions to ask yourself…

What is the brief aiming to achieve?

What do we want to happen … what do we want people to do?
Why do we want that?
Is it possible and what are the barriers?
How will success be measured?
Are KPIs already defined and, if so, can they all be realistically affected by this brief?
Is it clear which KPIs are the real priority? (focus is key!)
Are there any other potential outcomes (positive or negative) that haven’t been considered?
Is the belly as big as the eyes? (does the project have the senior backing, timescales and budget to make the impact it aims to?)

What’s the context for the brief internally (for the brand)?

What’s the brand’s big idea? Its focus? 
How does this project tie into that?
Where does this project fit in the full plan? What else is going on around it?
Is it co-reliant on any other project’s progress? 
Why is it happening now?
Has this been tried before? If so was it a success? What can we learn?
Are there any ongoing projects we can learn from or collaborate with?
Are all the right people involved and invested in the project?
Are there any politics around it?
Does this message complement or clash with anything else the brand is doing or saying just now? If so, why?
Does the brand have a clear visual identity and tone of voice?
Is there any good reason to deviate from that? (eg. is it a collaboration?)

What’s the context for the brief externally (for the audience)?

Firstly, do we know enough about the audience? 
What research is available and is it up to date and relevant?
What do the audience currently think?
What led them to think that? 
How deep-rooted are those beliefs or opinions? 
What are we looking to change or build on?
Why should people believe what we say?
What else is going on that could affect the way they think about this? (it could be a competitor offer, new technology, new regulations, cultural/behavioural trends, seasonal changes/events)

Is the medicine right?

Is the brief prescriptive of outputs rather than outcomes?
If so, where did they come from? Are they definitely right for the job?
Is there a better way to reach the audience?

What do we know?

What experience do we have of this type of project or industry?
What can we learn from previous work? 
What precedents are there for this type of project? 

What don’t we know?

What doesn’t add up or make sense?
What are we missing?
Who could help bring this project to life with knowledge we don’t have?

The race to stay objective

Should you leave the sharp edges on your creative?

A good sound engineer is a marvel to watch. The pace they work at is incredible. They hear a problem, fix a problem, test the fix, and fix it again before you even notice the song had stopped in the first place. But it’s not just slick skills – it’s a necessity that we could all learn from.

In the world of sound production, it’s a race against time for objectivity. The longer you spend listening to a song in the studio, the further you drift from what the audience will actually hear. Every time you hear that drumbeat on your 500 quid headphones, it becomes less and less like the first time you heard it. It takes on different meanings, you notice tiny subtle details, you start to obsess over details that don’t matter, you stop noticing big things that do matter – and in the end you upset the overall balance of the song. Without even notice you’re doing it.

And the same goes for creative development. In the months a campaign or identity takes to develop, it can be almost impossible to keep a grasp on objectivity. We’re human. We can’t stop ourselves smoothing out all the rough edges and unusual details in the idea – changing a headline here, an image there. At last, every single part of our mix is unobjectionable.

This is when you know your idea is dead. 

Because there’s no such thing as a diluted idea – there’s just a dead idea. Even the best lager in the world tastes rubbish when you dilute it. 

Unfortunately, the audience never get to see all the strategy and conversations and initial thinking behind an idea. They haven’t heard the drumbeat a hundred times before. They’re not interested in what went into it. They don’t even care about the end result – they just happen to see it in passing. And boring and perfectly sanitised just won’t cut it. The only way to cut through is with a sharp idea. An idea without the edges smoothed off. 

hit the green button for objectivity

If you find yourself sanitising your ideas into boredom, don’t worry it’s natural. Just take the subjectivity out of it. You don’t personally have to like every little detail. Come back to your strategy – is this right for our brand? Does this reinforce the one sharp thing we want to be famous for? If the answer is yes, hit the big green button before you change your mind…

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