Author: Neil Barrie (@neilbazza), Director, ZAG

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I spent the first half of my adult life to date, playing in bands and the second half planning brands, most recently at Zag, the brand ventures division of BBH.

After an awkward adjustment period where I tried to deny all existence of my previous life and its accompanying streaked mullet jpegs, I’ve recently been finding that I actually learned a lot of useful things in those years in the Highbury Garage. Here they are:

# 1 Develop your dynamics

Listen to any AC/DC, song, especially Back in Black and you are listening to a lesson in dynamics. The space, the drums, the shifts, the CRUNCH – you can’t help but be moved by it. Loads of massive rock tracks owe a lot to soft/loud dynamics from Babe I’m gonna leave you to Teenage Dirtbag. Boys in particular like this sort of thing. The laws of rock dynamics are directly applicable to any presentation.  It’s a good discipline to think “where’s the bit where the chords come crashing in?” and “how can I make this section feel more like ACDC?”

# 2  Your brain is a divining rod

Captain Beefheart (RIP) instructed us to “Think of your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over”, Keith Richards said he used to think of himself as an antenna. This is a useful way to think about getting to good insights and ideas. It’s less about thinking hard and more about pointing your divining rod in the right direction…..

# 3 Creativity loves constraints

If you want to get to interesting places pretty quickly then it really helps if you can limit your options. Rather than using PC/Mac based synthesizers with infinite sound banks, my band employed ‘dated’ synths like the Roland 505 which had 2 brilliant sounds and loads of unusable ones. Limited resources often produce better end results too. Just compare the White Stripes’ two piece original of “Fell in love with a girl” with Joss Stone’s 16 piece funk/rock version.

At Zag we’ve found that setting ourselves ‘constrained’ brand invention briefs has lead to better results. One thing we do from time to time is to set “piggy back briefs” along the lines of “Invent a brand that attaches itself to a popular behaviour, has an element of utility/style and is uncomplex to create”. The results have included Bo Peep boot cuffs which went on to be a UK high street phenomenon last year.

#4  Hangovers help (at times)

Hangovers, in my experience, obliterate a lot of the brain’s cognitive reasoning functionality, we can’t reason our way through things in the same linear fashion. This is good if you want really want to know whether you truly believe something is any good or not whether that’s a song, a proposition or a business idea. They are also really good for thinking up brand names.

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# 5 Your Charlie Watts are as important as your Mick Jaggers

The Stones would have been half the band without Charlie Watts, same goes for the Beatles and Ringo, Oasis went downhill after Tony McCarroll left. None of these guys are virtuosos or ‘stars’ but they give the songs and the stars the space they need to breathe properly. Every agency team needs at least one Charlie Watts to make beautiful music together.

# 6 A little ownership goes a long way

Planners often like taking problems off by themselves, pondering deeply and then coming back with ‘the answer’. A lot of songwriters are the same, particularly since sequencers mean you can kind of write all the parts yourself. But the tunes with the most energy in my bands were always the ones where I didn’t present them finished and everyone really put a little bit of themselves into it. Those are the ones which really lift off on stage. Luckily on Zag the planners don’t have much choice here being seated next to talented, interfering types like @stephenwake & @schnuffs…..

And if all else fails:

# 7 Start a beef

Starting ‘beefs’ with higher profile peers is a well-established career strategy in hip hop. 50 Cent has probably done this more effectively than anyone.  In one of his early tracks ‘How to rob’ he raps about robbing a variety of stars including Jay Z, Wu Tang Clan, P Diddy, Busta Rhymes and also Mike Tyson. A lot of them then responded in their own tunes and his profile started to build. You even see this in indie with Eddie Argos from Art Brut bitching about Bloc Party’s more famous Kele Okereke and benefiting from extra publicity. Planners are not generally the most aggressive types so this is a real opportunity to differentiate with minimal risk of actual violence. Pick someone higher profile than you and have a go…

If you made it through this post you may also want to take a look at Dan Hauck’s excellent post here in February on what agencies can learn from labels.