Interview with Philip Morley - Why do you do what you do? (6 min read)

I first heard about Philip Morley when I attended TEDxAarhus in September 2016. 

After a few weeks It’s Ok to Fail hosted a creative workshop provided by the one and only Philip Morley. The workshop was about Lateral Thinking, it was a simple, easy to use and fascinating methodology that could be applied for many different things, including of course, Entrepreneurship. 

After the event I connected with Philip on LinkedIn and Facebook and asked him, if he would be willing to have an interview with me. He didn’t hesitate for a second - “Absolutely, count me in” -. 

I meet Philip in his office downtown in Aarhus, the location is perfect but somehow I managed to be late as Google Maps lied to me - seriously, not joking -. 

A bit stressed I arrive to the office, I shake his hand and he offers me a coffee, which I accept gladly as it is -2 degrees outside. Philip shares office space with a well known media production company. While I wait, a bit nervous, as I don’t do interviews often enough, I look around at the decoration and facilities and I think to myself, “Boy, I would really enjoy working in an environment like this.”

Meanwhile Philip brings the coffee and without further delay we get to work. 

I introduce myself once again and outline the purpose of the interview, providing him with a bit of background about me to break the ice. Then I kick off with some questions. We talk about Denmark, Advertising, Brexit and pizza, here is the result.

Juanjo (J): Once again, thank you for having me today.

Philip(P): My pleasure.

J: So let’s start from the beginning, you were born in England, how was Philip during childhood?

P: (Laughs) Wow, that was a long time ago. I was born in a mining town almost in the North of England, where most of the people were involved in coal mining, although not my family. My dad was a welder and my mother was a company secretary and they both worked for the same company - I think they both met at school - but they worked for the same sort of engineering company in this place. I went to a school fairly locally, then I went to a secondary school, which was a catholic school. 

J: Is that a common thing in England? to attend a Catholic school?

P: Yes, it is fairly common. Catholic education is regarded as being very good. At the time you could take an examination and if you pass you get in free, you could get a grant, so that was one of the reasons why I attended this school. That was pretty much it because I started to work straight from school, so that was it.

J: When was the first time that you thought you wanted to do a creative job? I read somewhere that you sold your first ad when you were 17?

P: 16 I think. A long time before that, I mean, I can remember when I was a lot younger than that being interested in thinking of thought processes and this Edward de Bono thing, I think I was about 12 when I read the first book, which is quite unusual to be able to get that book in the time that I came from, not the kind of book you would expect to get in my town. So, very young,  I mean, I actually wanted to be a psychiatrist first (smiles) you could say that is a similar thing, but, I’ve always been conscious of this, for as far back as I can remember and, I guess psychiatry and psychology was an attempt when I was younger to try to find a way to do something that was something interesting. I’ve always been interested in thinking. 

Advertising, I actually went to the library, and I found a book, and again, ridiculous that I found this book, which is called “How to put your portfolio together and get a job in advertising”, I followed it and I got a job almost immediately.  

J: So books work.

P: Definitely, instructional books work. It is strange isn’t, I never thought about it until recently but, I’ve always been conscious and interested in thinking.

J: And then you studied in Sheffield, is that correct?

P: Yeah, but not in university, the school was close to Sheffield.

Don’t follow the money, is a trap

J: Where did you go from there?

P: Leeds, which is the next big city from there. I left town, and I started what was then one of the biggest ads agencies outside London. I was put with someone who was quite experienced, I got a baptism of fire, but it worked, and then from there I went to Manchester, which is even bigger, then I think I went to Edinburgh, where I joined an ordinary agency and then Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore and then back to the UK where I started on my own. So I haven’t had a proper job for over 20 years now.

J: So you have been working as a freelancer for agencies?

P: Freelancing has always been there, unfortunately, it is a bit of a fall back option, but independently I worked directly with clients. I worked a little bit with agencies, I don’t really enjoy that anymore, I think it is a lot better if you can deal directly with clients, you get paid more, quite frankly (Smiles).

J: I read this quote on your LinkedIn profile. “I give clients more than they're expecting or paying for. I am, conceptually, over-generous. This is something my accountant says is bad (Philip laughs) but I disagree. I could make more money but making money is not why I do what I do.” So the question is, why do you do what you do?

P: Why do I do it? (He pauses and thinks for a second) because I enjoy it, I think the money comes when you got reputation, and obviously If I hadn’t got job for this amount of time, obviously I must have earned some money, but is not the motivation. I think there are quicker and more reliable ways of earning money. 

I don’t know and I haven’t known for all those years, how much money I’m going to have the next month, which is sometimes, very very rarely, quite stressful. Because it seems to me, it is quite tempting sometimes to think all these people, they moan about what they do, but at least they know when they go to the ATM there is going to be money there. 

I think I do it because I think it is already working, but it will work extremely well at some stage, I think the thing that is taking me by surprise, is that I was quite successful when I was very very young and because I left the advertising industry I started from scratch, and I’m not used to feeling like I’m doing Start Up, now 53 years old. I don’t feel like I should be doing Start Up, but I am, it seems to be like a continuous start up phase, because I’m trying to sell something that is not obviously what people want, but sometimes is what they need, it is a constant education job to try to convince someone and people in Dragon’s Den would say “That’s a bad idea” but it just isn’t. 

I mean, I do have a value with the clients that I have, and those clients would say that, but it is not the obvious thing, it is solutions selling most of the time. I’m always the wild card when I’m against another company anyway, I don’t want to be chosen because I’m interviewed to do something. If you are going to be independent you gotta do it your own way. 

J: In that sense, do you pick and choose the companies that you work with?

P: I have a special interest - and this wasn’t why I did the TED Talk that I did - in things that people would call boring or mundane, so the clients that I have make ingredients, my biggest client is a bakery, but I don’t really do anything to do with bread, in the end it is all about the ingredients or protein or glue or the components that hold things together. The infrastructural things as I would call them. 

First of all, it is too easy, too competitive and all of the big creative companies want the glamorous stuff and I think the stories are better with infrastructural things, and also, people who makes infrastructural things make more money, you make more money out of zips than you do out of the jeans, you make more money out of shoe laces than shoes probably, because just like hairdressing is everywhere, it is the little things in the background  that make the money and I think they are just more compelling to me because handbags and glasses and things like that, I’ve done that already.

This is where no one else is, this is what I do. I think there is people around that serves those clients but not very well, I’m trying to change that. So I do pick them on that basis, you know, do something that I’m interested in, kind of get excited about, in a sort of school boy way and kind of produce something in the end. Because essentially what I do is, I help business explain what they do, how they do it and why they do it. So I don’t really produce anything other than those explanations.

J: You collaborate, on a regular basis, with ordinary people like me, like It’s Ok to Fail, like Crewators, and you do that for free. You don’t charge students, you don’t charge people that want to talk to you seeking advise and you are open to all kind of projects really, so the question that comes to mind is, why do you do that?

P: (Laughs) Loads of people ask me that question. I’m in a country where I need to build a profile, I did this in the UK but not quite so much. One of the things I do is I help companies to explain what their values are, and someone said, “what are yours?” so I decided that I had to write them down. 

One of them is my school boy enthusiasm. 

The other one is generosity and the explanation of that being that not everything I do you get an invoice for. I think in the end you get it back, because if I think about the help that I’ve given to people, the good will that has come back has led to connections in some way, that’s not why I do it, because I think if you deliberately try to do it, it doesn’t work. 

The other value that I have is wit, there always has to be something slightly amusing about it, otherwise there is no character, there is always some sarcasm or humour on the work I do so to try to make people smile in their mind. 

As for helping people, I don’t have any other option here, I don’t really like traditional networking and I’m in a town where the age level… is a very youthful town, so, it is nice to be out. I don’t mind at all. If I’ve I got the time, although my time is getting more limited, if you can give the time, then, what’s the problem? (Laughs) I could waste it in a lot of other ways.

It is useful to test things out as well, particularly with Entrepreneurship, the people are much more questioning and demanding at that stage than they are later on, so if you can get past that group of people, you can probably get past people twice their age a lot easier. 

J: You moved to Aarhus at the end of August 2015, what was the decisive factor that brought you here?

P: There weren’t any really. We got fed up of the UK, we wanted to make a big change, we didn’t think that moving within the UK in itself would be sufficient. 

I have 4 children, 3 are older, between 19 and 24, two of them live in Germany, the youngest one is working in a hospital in the UK, they are all independent travellers so they can come and see me. I wanted the closest possible foreign place where I could work in English. 

I worked for Maersk on a project a few years ago, I read loads of stuff about Denmark’s quality of life, so, me, my partner and my little girl came to Copenhagen probably a year or two before.

We thought Copenhagen was a little bit too urban for us, we thought that Denmark seemed ok. Then my partner looked online and found some pictures of beach houses, found out that was the coast here, so we say, ok let’s give it a try.

So we came here, we stayed in a hostel in the forest of Risskov. Got on the bus the wrong way (I laugh, he smiles) and instead of coming to the city we went up to the coast, we got off the bus before it was too late. We looked down a path to the sea and there was a beach house, Sarah my partner said “If I could live anywhere it would be there” 

We got back to the UK, got on the computer, found that place, phoned the woman up here, it was in an Airbnb, asked her if we could stay there, she said yes. 

Then with a bit of planning over the trip, we put our house up for rent, got in the car with a few boxes and drove there (Risskov), with no connections whatsoever.

I met one person in Aarhus, who eventually became a client, but I had never worked for him, we got a place in the international school for Daisy. I’d seen it, they hadn’t. The week that we arrived I was in Chicago, they went to the school, they had never seen it before. No connections, no funding, no language, nothing. 

I don’t actually believe that much in over-planning anyway, because I think if we did the research that we should’ve done, we probably wouldn’t have been here. We read a book called “The year of living Danishly" and that was our only background really. Straight out of the car, straight into school, I got an office down the road (downtown Aarhus) within 4 or 5 weeks before we found anywhere to live. 

We had to move 6 or 7 times, because students arrived, we didn’t have anywhere to live, we were moving from hostels to Airbnb, and that was it.

I think Brexit is a disgrace, I think the main thing is that it destabilise Europe and that’s the problem for me.

J: What is your favourite movie?

P: Monthy Python and the Holy Grail.

J: Favourite book?

P: That’s a tricky one, it could be either 1984 by George Orwell or The Great Gatsby. 1984 because I think it is amazing how historically accurate it has become and a lot of the language we use now, hate-crime, thought-crime, all that kind of stuff and double thinking. It has actually become part of the language because of the book.

Great Gatsby, I did it at school for my exams and I think it is a very lovely romantic novel. I don’t read as much as I should do, I hardly read novels at all. I read Business books, which is a shame, it is one of my resolutions this year, to read more recreationally rather than trying to get something out of the book.

J: Favourite dish?

P: Amazingly, pizza. There is something quite simple about it. I’m really into cooking but If I was in the death row and they ask what my last meal would be, it would be pizza I’m afraid (laughs). I think if it is good, it can be superb. If you go to Italy you wouldn’t question it.

The problem is now that you have actually no excuse to not know anything

J: I have a political question, feel free to pass if you don’t want to answer. What are your thoughts about Brexit?

P: Terrible. I’ve always been European, ever since I was about 13-14 when I went to visit a boy in France whom had been to my school in an exchange. I’ve always loved the idea of Europe and I don’t think Britain was ever in Europe really though, selfish members of the club. 

I think it is a great shame, if I think about it. One of the reasons that we are in Aarhus, is because suddenly my son was already in Berlin.

We had this chat before about how, when you think of somewhere else to go, if you don’t want to be in the UK, you tend to be influenced by America, you always look the wrong way and yet on the doorstep there is a place that has more culture than anywhere else in the whole world. With much more interest, great people, different people, yes, there is a language issue, but there are places like Australia and America, that we did look at, where you don’t have a language issue but you do have other kind of issues, and the main issue is that they don’t want you to go there (laughs).

Whereas in Europe we have the right to be here, or we did have the right to be here. I think Brexit is a disgrace, I think the main thing is that it destabilise Europe and that’s the problem for me. 

J: Thank you. After 2 years living in Denmark. What is your opinion about Danish society?

P: I love them. I think the default setting for what I have seen, seems to be friendly and nice. Aarhus is a very smiley place. I was walking through Bruun’s Gallery this morning and there was a situation when I was a the top of some steps, and a young woman was coming up the other way. We did that thing when we tried to move out each other’s way and we kept getting it wrong, and we both started laughing and then ran out of the door (laughs), and I am just thinking, this is the second biggest city and people do smile. 

I think Danes are very cooperative. I’m part of the volunteer group for the weekend for the 2017 opening (Aarhus is the European Capital of Culture 2017, the opening took place the 21st January) and on the rehearsals over the weekend, there were several hundreds people, with a little bit of instruction, standing in the cold for an hour and half outside, with no moaning and everything going well, they just get on with it. I really like that. 

I think Denmark is struggling to come to terms with what it is like to have “proper foreigners”. I don’t think they regard Brits and Spaniards as an issue. I think we both know there are regions from other parts of the world that they feel challenged by, part of it is inexcusable, but actually they never had it before, they are simply not used to it. I think because it is so direct, it is quite clear they are not used to it. I think it is helped by the fact that there is not a lot of people living here, I mean there is the same amount of people living in the south of London as in the whole country here.

J: What would you recommend students to do now for their future?

P: Tricky one. I think students they never had it so good and they never had it so bad in a way. The problem is now that you have actually no excuse to not know anything, and you see this quite a lot with the guys that I met from your place (Business Academy Aarhus) they kind of give themselves job titles, that you would expect them to have after being in business for 15 years. When you sit down and talk to anyone I met from there, the techniques that they use, text books, business planning, all that kind of stuff, they all look great. 

The problem is everyone else has got that and, when I was at the same stage you wouldn’t know all about that. I think because everyone else has got that advantage and everyone else has got the Internet, it is actually about how to be different. You see this when you see the local entrepreneurship events, it seems to be about all the things that people think entrepreneurs do, rather than, ”Have you got a good idea?” and “Can you make a business out of it?” 

it is very very hard to transform what you love into what you do for a living, very hard

That said, I think it is amazing that people so young can have all this technique. There is quite an emphasis on failure. I don’t think it is something you should look for. Sometimes I get the impression that people do because if you fail that proves that you are on the way to be an entrepreneur and I don’t think that’s what people is set up to do.

It is the same as when I started in advertising, you’ve got to have a hero, you’ve got to have someone who’s work you admire and to an extend you copy.

If you are a copywriter when copywriting existed properly, you enter advertising, you follow a particular ordering in copywriting. I could recite the words that were in a copy from other copywriters, and over time you begin to copy that style and then you develop your own, which is what musicians and footballers do, there is nothing wrong with that.

But you have to have someone who you regard as being the gold standard. If it was in business, pick someone who’s business you rather admire, or technique you admire, it could be someone famous like Branson or the equivalent in Aarhus or whatever. Rather than hero worship, rather than just admire them because they are famous, admire them because of the way they are actually doing something. Ask for example “What would Richard Branson do if he was running this cleaning company?” 

Also, try to meet people in business, if you can, because a lot of the networking events, not just here, everywhere, tend to put you together with other people that are also students in business.

Another thing I would do an ordinary job, working in a restaurant, not because it is hard - I never did it - do it so you can see what ordinary people do, because, in the end if you are successful in running a business, it is going to be ordinary people that you are going to hire, and when you realise what they have to do and what sacrifices they have to make and how they probably aren’t doing that job because they love it.

You should think yourself lucky that you have found something that you love and you can make money out of it. If you read Ken Robinson’s book “The element”, which is excellent, it is about people who found the thing that puts them in their element. In other words, that state where they are doing it because they love it and in brackets they happen to make money out of it. These books try to tell you how to find something that you love.

When you listen to someone like me, because I don’t regard what I do as work at all, apart from sending invoices and other horrible stuff, people say “you are very lucky to find something to do that you love”. I’m not lucky at all, it is very very hard to transform what you love into what you do for a living, very hard, and people say, “nobody would want to clean the toilets”.

Well, somebody whose life is about obsessively cleaning or making people in the hospitality sector happy, wouldn’t object - brits would, but no one else would (laughs) -.

Some jobs, no one is gonna love, but as a student you have a choice. In essence, don’t follow the money, it is a trap (laughs). 

J: When was the last time that you asked yourself, “What if…?”

P: I suppose (when we moved to) Aarhus, but I think it is part of my job to ask that question quite a lot.

For example at the moment I’m just putting the finishing touches for the writing for the mission and vision for this huge global bakery business, that’s Swedish/Danish, and part of that process is saying “What if we say this…" or "What if we say that…” but if it is about personal things, it would have been at the time when we decided to do Denmark, because, most people that we knew thought it was a bit crazy, they didn’t know where Denmark was. It did seem like a bit wild, but like I said, we are not moving 10000 km away. This is foreign but it is not that foreign. 

I think you ask “What if…” less and less as you get older, people generally do. Most people I know my age are making sure their retirement is sorted out, making sure they have savings, pensions. I have very little of all of those, I’m going to have to work until I can’t work anymore because I don’t have any of those safeguards.

I think you become less risky as you get older and I can understand why that is, but I think it is a shame if you do. It must be incredibly dull to know what is happening next. If your expectation is that if you do something unusual it is going to end up in disaster, you’ll never make a step at all, and once you’ve done it once, I think it is easier next time around. What’s the worst that can happen? You are not going to die because you move to Denmark!

I suppose at the moment the “What if” is we have no plans to leave and we don’t have any plans to stay either. It is dependant on our daughter's education, she is only 9. We have a couple of years before we have to make any big decisions, by which stage, she would be fluent and it would be quite difficult to make these changes. If she is happy and if we are happy as well, I don’t know why we would move. If we did move, where we would move to? I’d probably go back to Asia. 

J: Can you make a prediction for the next 10 years?

P: I think conventional advertising will disappear, unfortunately. I think it is already as good as dead, because to me the channel is driving the new ideas. If you see a conventional ad in a bus shelter for example, at the bottom there is always a link to social media. In my mind, rather than get me to find out about something and decide whether I like it, why don’t you tell me why I should buy it? This is what advertising used to be about.

Advertising was a very admirable craft, with people that was persuading you to do things. That persuasion now is coming from your friends, I get that. But the relationship between a brand and a consumer is now completely tipped upside down. I’m not going to even try to get involved on that, I think it is necessary to do it, but I’ll get someone else to do it. I’ll concentrate on making the idea attractive enough. I’m sure there is a huge skill on it, but it is not a skill I want to have particularly, because everyone else seems to have it.

So, number 1, advertising will disappear.

Number 2, in terms of technology, I was very interested in Internet of Things (IoT), and I have been involved in a couple of products which never went anywhere. I think it will happen, I think it already is, when you buy Apple products it’s got a home kit and I believe it will become quite big.

Also healthcare and data, is going to play a part. I’m running spinning classes in my spare time and a lot of the stuff in spinning classes is heart rate monitoring and we use it as part of our health.

In all honestly, I think the biggest thing that most of us are concerned about is America.

J: Why would you say that? (Ironically)

P: (Laughs) I hope it is not as bad as people think, ironically, in some ways, because he is completely (Trump) inexperienced, he is really dangerous but actually he is not clever enough to be as provocative in the old sense of the word, so, I’m hopeful, not because I think he deserves the hope. I think Obama is one of the most amazing people, and to see Obama and Trump speaking side by side is ridiculous (laughs), it is like they are different species. It is very hard to make predictions when things are so uncertain, but I think in our sector we had a lot of change, it is very difficult to survive in it. All of my new business comes from referrals, but most of it is a job that would have gone to an agency, when in reality there was no need. 

J: Thank you so much for your time.

P: Pleasure. You are welcome, very interesting. 

Philip Morley, TEDxAarhus Speaker & Curator, Creative Director at .morley. Evernote Consultant.

LinkedIn Profile.