I Teach Disrespect And This Is Why It Is Important

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Boris Johnson’s own Wormtongue was clear, he wanted “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”. Of course, he got one who might have been able to hit the ground running and fitted the bill as far as Cummings was concerned but was just a bit too much of a misfit for the “people’s Government”. It is not clear whether Cummings is still interviewing for the “unusual” as part of his mission to “improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant” (a mission many civil servants could get behind), or whether the Civil Service has taken recruitment back in the house. It is also not clear whether Cummings and his Prime Minister really want “super-talented weirdos” and “cognitive diversity”, whether they are serious about “not car[ing] about trying to ‘control the narrative’ and all that New Labour junk” or just characters from William Gibson novels who speak their kind of weird, and who say their kind of thing.

Would the boy who called out the Emperor for having no clothes be the right kind of weirdo?

I train the weirdos. Rigorous and professional but just a little bit weird. My team (including our industry partners) trains them to see things differently, to question, to call out and speak up, to have the confidence to raise the Roger Moore eyebrow of incredulity. We teach disrespect.

Disrespect is common, even respected, in some areas of the industry. Mark Ritson is not known for doffing his cap to received wisdom nor tugging his forelock before the Emperor.

Bob Hoffman’s latest book makes even his previous contrarian calls sound restrained. The skeptics here are not quiet and respectful. They are weirdos, proud they miss fit.

But Ritson and Hoffman are, how do we put this in a respectful way? … of the previous generation. They have earned the spurs they jab into the side of the industry. Whether they are tolerated or feted, humored or honored, they’re taken seriously and invited to speak. But what of the New Gen, the talent that the industry spends so much time discussing and demanding? Are they invited to be different or expected to fit in?

Now when I use the label ‘New Gen’ I don’t mean ‘people of a certain age’, I mean people with a certain point of view. For me, New Gen is an attitude, not an age. It is a way of seeing the world, the industry and its issues. It has little to do with youth or being digitally native, it’s about a willingness to question, a need to think differently and refuse to accept tradition just because…

Giving my New Gen students Oblique Strategies cards is not an exercise in kicking them out of a rut but rather giving them (Eno’s) permission to do what they were going to do anyway. It’s not that they don’t know their industry’s traditions and history. They do and have a healthy respect for it but not deference towards it. It’s not that they don’t listen to experience. They have to, but they also must question and challenge that way of doing things, seeing things.

I believe that the industry needs that new way of seeing. Facing frenemies rapidly dropping the pretense of friendship; media spaces demanding new forms of language and storytelling; short-termism and the tyranny of metrics requiring a response – someone has to say something and Ritson and Hoffman can’t do it all. If the industry is to create strategy and creativity appropriate to new times it needs new thinking and maybe the New Gen can deliver that if the industry wants it and puts the structures in place to support it.

I’m proud of my weird miss fits but I have a duty to get them jobs and I believe give the industry the sort of talent it needs.

And here’s my problem. Do I train my students for deference and respect? Do I tell them to hit the ground running, to fit in and follow the company’s house style? Or do I tell them to add real value, to bring new ways of seeing and to use the power of why, as many times as they say when? Do I tell them they need to be professional and to deliver but to earn their position through a healthy dose of disrespect – not for people but for received wisdom and sacred cows?

That’s where you come in? Do you want misfits? Do you want people to see things you might have missed? Do you want to be challenged? Or do you want New Gen to fit in, to act as a millennial focus group able to catch linguistic faux pas or understand TikTok but not join the discussion at the top table? Is your on-boarding strategy designed to mold team members or build team resources? Is your mentoring program top-down or more dialectical and dynamic? Are your career paths and promotion tracks based on fit or flair? Is there room at your business for the weird, the wonder-full and the respectfully disrespectful?

There is no room in modern business for someone who argues for the sake of it, puts roadblocks in the way of a deadline or won’t take a decision or an instruction. But neither is there room for yes (wo)men, the cowed and the under-used resources.

In typical bombastic fashion, Cummings said of his dream weirdos: “We need to figure out how to use such people better without asking them to conform to the horrors of ‘Human Resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire).” With the challenges we face as an industry, maybe we don’t need a bonfire, but maybe we need to look differently at what are ‘human resources’ and how they fit in… or don’t.

Editor’s Note: 

Dr. Paul Caplan, some of his wonderful students and some fantastic industry talent will be at Advertising Week Europe on this panel. If you happen to be in London or are attending AWEU, I can’t recommend this enough.

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