For 20+ years, I was a copywriter and creative director—in Norway, Australia, Singapore and China (with some back and forth between these countries). Some of you may remember my rant against the advertising industry in Campaign a couple of years ago, titled Why I left advertising. I guess one could say it was my ‘Jerry McGuire’ moment. A big F-off to the industry that I had been part of for so long.
I admit it, I was fed up. I was tired of representing brands that had so little understanding of their own role in the world and tired of an industry that was determined to self-destruct through focus on its glory days. I was sick of how little ad people cared about the actual consumer, worn out by the concept of ‘ideas’ that would disrupt people’s day and get them to think of a brand, and tired of technology being used only to continue shouting at people, never really improving people’s lives. I was even tired of the self-important ‘last minute client change (or pitch), have to work until 2 am’ nonsense that some industry folks still like to indulge in.
Most of all, I was sick of perpetuating a lie I kept telling myself—that I was doing something important. That what we did made a difference in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t. Finally, I had to take the consequence of my own realisation. Slowly, I moved from communications to consulting, focusing on ‘digital transformation’ (an expression I am extremely ambivalent about) and customer experience. It wasn’t easy shifting focus like that, and I will openly admit that the results were mixed. I still struggled to get through the clutter of consultant (agency): client relations. I wanted to help companies make quantum leaps, but in reality, we ended up playing skipping rope—a whole lot of jumping, but never moving forward. It wasn’t fulfilling, it wasn’t profitable enough, and it wasn’t sustainable for me. Most importantly, it didn’t change the businesses I was working with for the better.
So, I decided to start again. From scratch. With something new, in an industry I have very limited experience from. At the age of 51. While going through a divorce. It wasn’t the best of timings. But I pushed reset, focusing on what had been a ‘hobby’ for me throughout the years—thinking of ideas that could solve actual problems people were facing. Not necessarily the big problems, but small things that made life a little bit more complicated than it had to be. Unfortunately, I had a hard time figuring out which idea to run with; I have the drawer full of concepts that never became more than just that, concepts. I was very close to settling on a business idea but hadn’t really committed. Luckily, the answer didn’t come from my drawer, but rather through meeting some really smart people.
Chance led me to a group of people with dramatically different backgrounds from mine (professionally, at least). I was invited by a consultant I knew in the payment industry to join him and a few others in Surrey, UK, to discuss opportunities in banking and payment. Fintech wasn’t at the top of my list, but when I got there, all my prejudices disappeared. This was a meeting of minds. Six people who truly wanted to focus on solving problems for the consumer or the business owners. All of them had extensive experience from payments and banking, they had worked for the schemes (Mastercard and Visa), for banks and been consultants in the space. We even had an accountant in our midst. I, with my years in advertising, and a couple in consulting, felt rather lightweight. But since I had nothing to lose, I became the guy who kept interjecting “why is it done like that?” and “ok, this may be totally unrealistic, but what if we did this…”. I waited for them to laugh and be condescending, but it turned out, my thoughts weren’t stupid. Together, the six of us carved out some ideas that we thought would make life easier—especially for anyone running a business or working in one.
It was then clear to me what I wanted to do when ‘I grow up’. It was fintech. Not because it’s cool right now, or because some fintechs have ridiculous valuations, but because I could really do something. We decided to disrupt not just the established banks, but to disrupt how fintech disrupts as well. That meant that rather than going up against banks on our own, we decided to help banks deal with the threat of new players, new technologies and new legislation (mostly around “open banking”, such as the EU’s PSD2 regulation). We started creating products that would give banks what they needed to become truly customer centric, a term that many speak of, but very few deliver on.
My long journey after advertising took me back to some marketing basics, like the original 4Ps: product, price, promotion and place (I’m keeping the later addendums out of this). I knew that ‘place’ wasn’t so important anymore, since we can get anything from anywhere. I saw that ‘price’ didn’t matter that much either, since we can compare any price at any time, thus forcing everyone to keep the same price. And, as you already know, I had lost most, if not all, faith in ‘promotion’ or marketing comms, since the credibility of the message has gone down the drain. So, the only P left was ‘product’. Making products that people want to buy and use is really the only thing that really matters. But very few companies want to disrupt their ‘golden goose’, so innovation is always held back by the fact that it can kill the current revenue stream. But if history has taught us anything about failing to innovate while the world was changing (Kodak, Nokia, Blockbuster, Yahoo, Blackberry, Myspace, Borders, to name a few), it is that changes in technology, legislation or consumer trends can happen overnight and the only way to combat it is to disrupt yourself. Again and again.
Out of the six who met up outside London in April 2018, five of us continued to create the company that has now become EedenBull, a fintech startup that is as much ‘fin’ as ‘tech’. Starting something new as a middle-aged man can be scary, but it’s damn fun. You don’t have to be 24 to be an entrepreneur, in fact, we believe that experience gives us an advantage. And it definitely gives us the confidence to follow our dreams.
I have gotten over my anger with the advertising industry, but I have not seen much change. And, at least once a week, I tend to shout ‘Who writes this sh*t?!’ every time I see a really bad billboard, or when I am forced to watch a cheesy commercial in the cinemas. But, hey, my blood pressure is at normal levels now. I have something else to focus on. A dream. A life. It makes it all worth it.