One day, while sat in a large conference room with a group of clients — I started sweating.

It wasn’t because I was nervous about speaking. In fact, I was nothing more than ‘room meat’ at this particular get-together. My job was to sit quietly and nod along.

However, one of our senior people was taking the clients through a PowerPoint presentation about the business. And the beads began to trickle when he clicked onto a slide entitled AGNECY OVERVIEW.

It was a summer day, so the sweat really began to flow when he clicked onto the next slide and it had the same title. And the next. And the next. And the next.

When he wrote it, I guess he just copied the title each time, rather than type it out.

Overall, we went through about seven AGNECY OVERVIEWs. Each one lit up on a 60-inch plasma screen.

Oh well, these things happen eh?


Yes, they do happen. They happen to me. They happen to you. They happen to everybody. And they’re a right pain in the arse.

The word ‘typo’ is a truncation of ‘typographical error’ and its first known usage was in 1878.

Typos have a rich history.

Apparently there are 500 year-old bibles which say “Thou shalt commit adultery” and refer to Judas being nailed on the cross instead of Jesus.

Surprisingly, The Guardian had a massive reputation for typos back in the day. That’s why Private Eye still refers to it as ‘The Grauniad’.

So why are some typos so hard to spot?

Well, I’ll come on to that. Before then, let me just share two of my favourite typo stories with you.

The first is from one of my mates. He was working for a financial analytics company called Curation. It was his first job out of Uni, and after a few months he was given the task of compiling the weekend progress report. This report was sent out first thing every Monday morning to all the company’s clients.

And one Monday morning he was called into his boss’ office and asked to explain this…


Quite impressive really: squeezing two typos into a four-word subject line.

Anyway, he no longer works there, he’s doing a PHD now. (That’s true)

My next favourite typo story is much quicker. It comes from a friend of mine who works for Sky News.

One afternoon she received an all-staffer from her boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. And in part of the email, the gentleman tried to explain that he, and two other senior gentlemen needed to align on a certain issue. His email read: “…so Stewart, Peter and I are going to try and get our dicks in a row this week.”

You never know, maybe he didn’t mean ducks…

Anyway, I think most of you could explain why you don’t notice typos in your own writing.

And the psychology department of the University of Sheffield has investigated the very question and confirmed what you probably already realise: when you’re proof reading, you’re not properly reading.

According to the Sheffield bods— writing is a very high-level task. And as with all high level tasks, your brain generalises simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas).

So instead of taking in every detail, you take in sensory information and combine it with what you expect to be there, and then you extract meaning.

When you’re reading other peoples’ writing, this helps you arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. But, when you’re proof reading your own work, you know the meaning you want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. So the reason you don’t see your own typos is because what you see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in your own head.

That’s why the best tips are to change the typeface; point size; and even colour of your text; print it off and then proof-read. Or better still, give it to a friend to do it for you.

That way, there’s a good chance you won’t be causing impromptu clamminess in your agnecy colleagues any time soon.


I met one of my mates for dinner a few weeks ago. He’s training to be a clinical psychiatrist. That means he’s been a bona-fide ‘medical doctor’ for a few years, and now he’s going to specialise.

Over a starter of spicy chicken wings, he told me all about his tuition. He’s been in and out of NHS psychiatric hospitals around London for the last six months. He even spent a few weeks at Broadmoor, the infamous hospital-cum-prison for the criminally insane.

“Honestly mate, some mornings you get the urge to say, ‘Look, just stop being silly!’”

Anyway, as the main course arrived he asked how my work is going.

subliminal—    “All good thanks. It’s great fun you know, advertising.”

Leaning back in his chair, and nonchalantly tossing a sweet potato fry into his mouth, he replied:

“It’s mainly subliminal though right? That’s how a lot of adverts work.”

Now, dear reader, you may think that my mate is a dickhead for thinking this. I’ve often been tempted to ponder his dickhead’ery myself. He’s a ‘medical doctor’ after all, and hoping to be one that deals exclusively with the human brain.

But I reckon that’s because you probably work in an area related to advertising or marketing.

And we haven’t just seen behind the curtain, we live behind it.

I’ll wager that when average people hear the word ‘advertising’, many minds jump to a myth that first arose from a bestselling book by Vance Packard called The Hidden Persuaders.

Here he is. And here’s his book.


It was first published in 1957, and the overall message is that advertising shamelessly exploits the general public, manipulating them into buying things they don’t really want or need.

subliminalIn his fourth chapter, Packard refers to research that aimed to find out why a man repeatedly chose a certain make of car. And how under hypnosis he “was able to repeat word for word, an ad he had read more than twenty years before”.

Then having raised the reader’s concerns about how vulnerable we are to mind-probing techniques such as hypnotism, Packard described an experiment reported in the Sunday Times. This experiment apparently happened in a New Jersey cinema and comprised pictures of ice cream being shown at a “sub-threshold” level, meaning below the level of conscious perception.

The result was apparently a ‘clear and unaccountable boost in ice cream sales’ — the first ever documented case of subliminal advertising.

But it was all bollocks.

We now know that the boost in ice cream sales was due to exceptionally hot weather. And that Packard’s arguments were conflated with another experiment, set up in the same year by a chap named James Vickery.

In Vickery’s experiment, phrases like ‘Drink Coke’ and ‘Hungry? Eat Popcorn’ were exposed at 0.3 milliseconds, and apparently created an increase in Coke and Popcorn sales of 18% and 59% respectively.

But that was all bollocks too. Vickery later admitted it was a hoax.

We now know from continuous experiments that ‘sub-threshold’ messages repeatedly exposed at a frequency below about forty milliseconds, don’t have any enduring effect on us whatsoever. Certainly no ability to affect our brand choices.

subliminalBut Packard’s book set a ball rolling which clearly rolls to this day.

Despite ‘subliminal advertising’ being banned in the UK and USA from 1958, as recently as the 2000 US presidential election, the newspapers were plastered with stories about a TV ad aimed at the Democratic Party candidate, Al Gore, in which the word ‘rat’ had supposedly been inserted below the level of conscious perception.

Again, bollocks. (And I’m sure you’re gratified to see that American politics has become far more grown-up and sensible since then)

One of America’s most influential admen of the 1960s, Rosser Reeves, wrote a book named ‘Reality in Advertising’.

Here he is. And here’s his book.


In a chapter titled ‘The Freudian Hoax’, Reeves wrote (in shouty capitals):


Perhaps I’ll send a copy to my psychiatrist-to-be mate this Christmas.

Well, that’s it. I hope you think this was a good blog.



Sorry. What’s the f**king question?

I thought I’d get topical this week.

Because the Olympics is plastered all over the telly-box, you may’ve noticed.

And with televised sport comes the obligatory post-event interview.

Stuffed with the same old platitudes, it’s rare these interviews provide any insights into anything.

All I’ve been able to gather so far is where each athlete grew up, and I can only do that by listening to their accents.

Let’s face it, a lot of these Olympians seem markedly inarticulate.

And I used to be a little smug about it.

To make up for my sense of inadequacy, I would secretly think:

“For all that athlete’s fame and perfectly toned abs, he’s a bit of a rambler isn’t he…a bit tedious. Not like me.”

Was my smugness misguided?

Yes it was, and I’ll tell you why.

Because TV sport interviewers don’t ask questions any more. They make statements.

And as a result, sports men and women look boring and clumsy when they’re forced to spout banalities in response.

If you don’t believe me, listen closely to a post-event interview from Rio this week, and count how many times you hear one of the following words:

Is; Are; Am; Was; Were; Will; Do; Does; Did; Have; Had; Has; Can; Could; Should; Shall; May; Might; Would.

These are the words you need to make a question.

And I bet you won’t hear many.

Instead, you’ll hear the interviewer state the bleedin’ obvious, and then just press the microphone into the athlete’s face.

So the poor athlete has just one option: say “Yeah definitely” then garble the bleedin’ obvious back.

And because there’s no focus to the interview, they feel compelled to just carry on talking….and talking.

They’re lucky if they get interrupted. But usually the monologue is allowed to simply waft and flutter to a close. End of interview.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Writer-O is getting a bit worked up about this isn’t he. What’s his problem?”

Well I’m venting, because in my own small-fry way, I’ve had personal experience of this.

You see, that smugness I described was dashed to pieces on the one and only occasion I was interviewed by BBC radio after a rugby match.

I’m no Peter Ustinov, but I’d never considered the business of putting one word in front of another as a weakness of mine.

However in that interview, I sounded like a fucking numpty.

And while my friends and family took the piss, I listened back and realised that it was an interview without any questions.

At one point the journalist even said, “So the front row then…the ‘dark arts’…” then just thrust the microphone under my nose…and off I went.

From then on, I started noticing the same thing on every sports programme I watched.

You may be sceptical, so I thought I’d bolster my argument with some evidence from the world wide web.

It didn’t take long to find examples.

That’s why I decided to create a little compilation, just for you.

Roll VT!

Watch out for the same thing in Rio. I guarantee you’ll notice it now.

How Reading the Newspaper Made $8.3 Billion

Okay I’ll admit it – that’s a slight exaggeration.

But $8.3bn is the surge in revenue that Nike experienced from 1988 to 1998 – the decade after they launched their ‘Just Do It’ slogan.

Dan Wieden wrote that slogan. Here’s a picture of him looking a little smug…

Dan Wieden of Wieden & Kennedy

Last year Wieden came clean about his inspiration for the slogan.

He was about to present five TV ads to Nike top-brass. It would be Wieden+Kennedy’s first big TV campaign.

But the night before the big meeting, as Writer-K would say, ‘he got the fear.’ It struck him that there wasn’t a common thread in the ads, a unifying idea.

So he reached for pen and paper, and began scribbling some notes. Then he remembered reading newspaper reports about the execution of a murderer named Gary Gilmore ten years earlier. Here’s a picture of him smiling…

gary gilmore

Gilmore had requested a firing squad, which was still an option for Utah death-rowers in the late 70s.

As they placed him in front of the five riflemen he was asked if he had any last words. Gilmore shook his head, surveyed the room and said; ‘Let’s do it.’

Those words catapulted to the front of Wieden’s mind, so he scribbled them down, considered for a short time, then crossed out ‘Let’s’ and wrote ‘Just’.

Apparently the whole process took only a few minutes.

Campaign recently described the slogan as “arguably the best tagline of the 20th century…it cut across age and class barriers, linked Nike with success – and made consumers believe they could be successful too, just by wearing Nike products.”

I love this story – it’s the perfect illustration of why the creative person has a license to be interested in everything.

In most lines of work, reading anything other than the FT or a trade magazine is leisure time, a distraction.

For most people, a trip to the museum, the cinema or even an afternoon on the sofa with Heat Magazine is extra-curricular.

For the creative person though, all knowledge is good knowledge, because it’s all potentially useful.

James Webb Young makes the same point in ‘A Technique For Producing Ideas’. Here’s a picture of him looking pensive…


[Incidentally, I couldn’t find my copy of ‘A Technique For Producing Ideas’ this morning, so if anyone in the agency has it, I’d like it back please]

Anyway, this is what JWY wrote about the creative mindset, way back in 1940:

“Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested-from, say, Egyptian burial customs to Modern Art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.”

Perhaps Dan Wieden should’ve been doing some work on January 18, 1977.

Perhaps he should’ve been reading Marketing Week, just to keep abreast of industry news.

But he wasn’t, instead he was reading newspaper accounts of an execution in Utah the day before – for no important reason other than he found them interesting.

And ten years later, the time he’d spent unexpectedly repaid him; transforming his personal fortunes, his agency’s and his client’s, whose global revenue rocketed from $877 million to $9.2 billion.

So I suppose the lesson is, when you’re unsure if learning about something will be useful…


Marketing Means War!

Since the ‘Ministry of War’ rebranded as the ‘Ministry of Defence’ back in 1964, it seems the armed forces, and those who write about them, have become hooked on euphemism.

Take a look at today’s papers and you’ll see Admirals and Generals talking about Britain’s nuclear ‘deterrent’ (weapons); or ‘intervention’ (war) in the Middle East; or ‘air strikes’ (bombing) in Syria.

Fair enough I suppose, euphemism helps to soften what can otherwise be difficult and uncomfortable reading.

What really amuses me though, is how the paucity of militaristic language in the forces contrasts with its profusion in the marketing industry.

It seems marketing people are obsessed with all things soldierly.

Now I know what you’re thinking; perhaps we say ‘strategy’ and ‘targets’ too often, but surely that doesn’t mean we’re obsessed with military language?

Well, let’s start with the name of our esteemed trade magazine. The word ‘campaign’ comes from the Latin ‘campus’, which means ‘field’. It entered our lexicon from France in the 1640s, and literally meant ‘an army taking to the field’.

Now stop and think about it. How much more of our industry lingo has bellicose overtones?

We don’t introduce new products; we ‘launch’ them like missiles.
We aim to be ‘first movers’.
Our campaigns are ‘highly targeted’.
But they must still ‘battle’ for attention.
So we pioneer new ‘tactics’.
Or we aim for a ‘captive’ audience.
And we measure ‘hits’, ‘strike rates’ and ‘impact’.
If traditional channels are too costly – we drive ‘guerrilla’ strategies.
So we can ‘recruit’ customers.
And deploy our ‘sales force’.
Which can help us ‘outflank’ competitors.
And ‘steal a march’ on our rivals.

So how did this happen?

Samuel Johnson wrote “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.

Perhaps our military jargon is an expression of feelings of inadequacy. Maybe deep down we like to pretend we’re on the front lines fighting for freedom, rather than say, trying to grow sales of chocolate muffins in packs of four.

Or maybe we’re not culpable. Perhaps we’re simply using the language we’ve inherited from the explosion of consumerism in the 1950s. A time when boardrooms were stuffed purely with men, fresh from the war and national service.

In either case, I think when books like these were made required reading at business schools in the 1980s; we became stuck with warlike verbiage for at least another generation…

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 12.55.31

Perhaps I shouldn’t be sneering. Marketing and advertising are often described as ‘zero sum games’ after all. For one business to succeed, another must fail. So maybe couching everything in militaristic terms is appropriate; there are jobs and livelihoods at stake.

We’re in a serious business, aren’t we?