The Spaces in Between

  A mate started a gig at a company that bigs itself up as innovative.

After he’d been there a few weeks, I asked him what he thought and he said, “I think they confuse innovation with novelty.”

For some reason his answer came to mind after the death of Johan Cruyff.

Cruyff was a football genius who died last week following a battle with cancer.

One of the first and probably the best exponent of total football.

Circa 1970, total football was revolutionary because it treated space as an element that’s just as important as the ball.

As a player and later a manager, Cruyff thought about football almost in terms of design thinking.

Today every team tries to create space when they have the ball and close it down when the opposition has it.

At the 1974 World Cup, Holland was playing Sweden.

In the 23rd minute Cruyff, was one-on-one with Swedish defender Jan Olsson.

Feinting to pass, he gently touched the ball behind his own standing leg, swivelled 180 degrees and accelerated in a blur of orange.

A collective gasp swept around the stadium as Olsson flailed backwards into a space, which surely hadn’t existed a moment ago.

The move was more like a magician’s trick and the crowd was stunned.

It was promptly christened the Cruyff Turn.

And swiftly became mandatory for any aspiring top-flight footballer.

You could say it marked the beginning of modern football.

Just as surely as DDB’s Think Small ad, marked the beginning of modern advertising.

Helmut Krone famously devoted 80% of the page to white space and the result was equally simple and brilliant.

Both Cruyff and Krone saw where others couldn’t see, they worked in the spaces in between.

As Bill Bernbach said, “Creating advertising is very simple but creating simple advertising is the hardest thing there is.”

Actually Bernbach never said that.

Cruyff said it, but about football, “Playing football is very simple but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”

It probably fooled you because it feels like something Bernbach would have said.

And one thing he most definitely did say was, “Good advertising builds sales. Great advertising builds factories.”

Which is echoed by Pep Guardiola’s comment referring to Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, “Cruyff built the cathedral; our job is to maintain and renovate it.”

There was advertising pre-and-post Think Small.

There was football pre-and-post the Cruyff Turn.

Nothing would—or could, be the same again.

You couldn’t confuse either with novelty.


‘Tis the Season for Pressure

Bring it on! The English Premier League is simply—the most high pressure pro-sports league in the world.

One reason for this is the chance of relegation.

Unlike major leagues in the U.S., each season the bottom three clubs get demoted to the lesser universe of the Championship.

The drop is the worst thing that can happen to a club and their supporter’s pride.

Financially it costs each of the unfortunates around £50 million in lost revenue every year until, and if, they win promotion back to the elite.

So the pressure on the bottom feeders is possibly greater than the pressure on the title contenders.

It’s a high stakes game, and Christmas ups the ante big time as the spectre of relegation looms like a rancid ghost of Christmas Future.

Only once in 21 years has the bottom club at Christmas avoided the ignominy of relegation.

And the coming of Santa heralds a footy bonanza, with clubs playing 4 matches crammed into 10 days.

That’s 10.5% of a 38 game season with 12 points at stake.

It’s the tipping point, and by the time New Year's Day arrives over half the season will have been played out.

Fortunes can change dramatically over this period, especially for clubs with less depth in their squads or carrying injuries.

This intensity is great for fans because every game is played at breakneck speed and demands physical toughness and mental sharps.

On top of this pressure at both ends, the Prem is the league where professional athletes also face the most public personal abuse.

It goes way beyond opponents trash talking each other, although that happens too.

This is abuse that comes in the form of chants sung by thousands of the opposing clubs fans.

Unless you’re playing badly, in which case it could come from thousands of your own club’s supporters.

And nothing is off limit in these bawdy sporting folk songs.

A player’s weight, mental health, sexual proclivities, are all considered fair game.

Hell, a player’s wife’s weight, mental health and sexual proclivities, are all considered fair game.

Here’s a chant they used to sing about Mrs. Beckham:

 Oh Posh Spice is a s*apper,

She digs another fella,

And when she's s*agging Beckham,

She thinks of Mike Grella!

Posh Spice is a s*apper,

She likes to suck a d*ck,

And when she's s*agging Beckham,

She thinks of Michalik!

I don’t think Peyton Manning has to put up with that kind of vulgarity about his missus.

Here’s another classic fans sing when their team plays Liverpool:

In your Liverpool slums

In your Liverpool slums

You speak in an accent exceedingly rare

You wear a pink tracksuit and have curly hair

In your Liverpool slums

In your Liverpool slums

In your Liverpool slums

Your mum’s on the game and your dad’s in the nick

You can’t get a job ‘cos you’re too f**king thick

In your Liverpool slums

And these are among the less abusive examples of a terrible poetry and savage wit.

Football’s working class roots are still the foundations below the shiny surfaces of the multi-million pound stadiums.

Wages are always quoted in pounds per week, as in Luis Suarez just signed a new contract for $200,000 per week.

This is a hangover from the days when a workers wages were paid weekly as opposed to management who got a monthly salary.

But the international oligarchs, who increasingly like buying Premier League franchises, don’t always appreciate the nuances of the game’s social history.

When you've got the private jet, the supermodel and the superyacht, you're not dropping half a billion to buy a bunch of losers.

And it’s not just players who can feel an owner’s wrath.

Managers get fired after the shortest string of bad results and even after decent results that don’t meet expectations.

So far in 2013, 5 out of 20 Premier League managers have been given the boot.

Only 2 out of 38, have held the same job since 2011, as opposed to 14 NFL head coaches.

There’s no such job security in the Prem, but there's loads of gut churning excitement.

So turn on the TV, pull up a chair, enjoy the pleasure that comes from pressure and good luck, unless you’re playing Spurs.

{ We score when Santa wants to}

A very merry Christmas to one and all!

Brand it Like Balotelli

After Italy’s Euro 2012 semi-final win against Germany no one can deny that Mario Balotelli is a superb footballer. In case you missed the match, he scored twice within 16 minutes of the first half, effectively killing the game and propelling Italy into the final.

The first goal was good – the second was spectacular, a contender for goal of the tournament.

Granted, Italy hasn’t won it yet but Balotelli has already eclipsed Ronaldo, as the striker of an admittedly somewhat lacklustre Euro 2012.

Of course what’s got everyone talking as well as the goals is his celebration.

The history of goal celebrations makes an interesting footnote in the annals of football history.

From Roger Milla’s dance in the 1990 World Cup, to Bebeto rocking the baby four years later or Jurgen Klinsmann’s satirical dives in the mid 1990’s, goal celebrations are about taunting and intimidating the opposition just as much as celebrating goals.

They’re about imposing the striker’s personal brand by being smarter, cheekier, more outrageous, more athletic, more…something.

But this celebration is different.

It’s a negative celebration, a celebration that isn’t.

A beautiful example of less is more.

By standing as still as a statue of a svelte Mr. T and impelling his team mates to come to him, Balotelli has defiantly re-defined the category with an inspired example of predatory thinking.

And if you score spectacular goals, they will come running.

He’s out-competing by not competing, by literally doing nothing.

There’s confidence verging on arrogance in this demonstration of apartness.

And as much as the ritual is calculated to gain our attention and maybe our animus, it is also evidence of steely self-awareness and presence of mind.

Because the natural thing to do, the thing you’ve been doing since you were a kid, is celebrate a goal in motion with your arms raised.

And when Balotelli first started scoring for Manchester City that's exactly what he did.

But sometime during the 2011/12 season the celebration evolved into his current celebration of minimalism.

Overcoming the natural impulse to actively celebrate and overturning a life-long habit can’t be as easy as it looks.

And I think we can learn some lessons from Mario that have nothing to do with football and quite a lot to do with branding.

Because whereas Balotelli the footballer is all about power, skill and athleticism, Balotelli the brand is great example of contrarian positioning with a goal celebration built on stillness.

The thinking is every bit as predatory as his footballing instincts.

As a brand Balotelli is a brand leader that still thinks subversively like an emerging brand.

That’s how to dominate a category.

That’s how to distinguish your brand.

And sometimes it doesn't take much.

But you need the intention.

You need the confidence.