Do the dishes.

A few months ago. I'm in San Francisco with my family, and my mother-in-law, as a way of entertaining her out of town guests, books us a cooking lesson. It is madness. The last thing I want on my holiday is someone telling me that I've incorrectly measured my flange-beans or failed to crimp my kale or whatever. But the lesson turned out to be a massive surprise: the teacher showed us how to cut well, to peel garlic better; techniques for roasting and zesting and other -ings. She told us to eyeball ingredients and tinker with things until they looked or felt right. There were lots of tips and tricks, and very little precise kale-crimping. It was fun. There wasn't a right or a wrong, and we were messy and we played. Plus, we had some exceptionally good food at the end, and we enjoyed all the more for having made it ourselves.

And then... we did the dishes. Because she hated the conventional wisdom: "I cook - you do the dishes." And that really stuck with me. Her point was that it puts the two activities on a par; it makes them both into chores. Cooking is a pleasure. If you got to cook, you have to do the dishes. It is only fair.

I've worked on a lot of food marketing: spices and stockpots, brands and generics, supermarkets and categories. I've also not worked on a lot of food marketing, that is, a lot of lost pitches. (Sigh.)

Without giving away any trade secrets, I can say that every single one of them came down to one word: inspiration.

In fact, most of the time, the marketing brief reads a bit like this:

Get: Millennials 
To: Buy more x
By: Inspiring them with recipes

(Goddamn Millennials, who care too much about the ecosystem/veganism/organics to eat a good old-fashioned meal of chemicals and paste.)

Part of this, and I say with the certainty of a few dozen lost pitches under my belt, is absolutely justified. Those pesky Millennials are breeding now, which means their dietary habits - their ecoglutenicveganism - is going to be passed down to their children. If we can't get them to eat eels now, the eel market is DOOMED. So, let's get to inspiring. 

For decades - literally decades - the food market has equated inspiration with recipes. Maybe in the 1950s a higher proportion of the food market consisted of new products ("MEAT IN A CAN"), so clear instructions were needed. Or there could be something sociological in it: everyone required uniformity in their meals, and there was a right and a wrong way to prepare eel. However it happened, there's a long tradition of inspiration through dictation.

Recipes work because they can be tailored to an audience need. You analyse the audience requirement (money, time, ingredients, servings, diets, etc) and provide the output: a meal that solves that problem. A meal that feeds 6. A meal that costs a fiver. A meal that contains exactly 350 calories, or doesn't use dairy, or builds muscle, or adds, I dunno, mindfulness. Recipes are about working towards exact results - and the key word there is "results". Recipes don't middle.

What do we lose when we don't middle in this space? We're turning cooking into a functional process. Something that should be reduced, avoided. If you remove the middle, you're in a world of ready-made boxes and takeaways. We've turned cooking into doing the dishes.

If I were a food brand now, I wouldn't be inspiring with more recipes or waiting for some sort of external fad to strike ("Eels are the new positronic mega-food!"). If there's one thing we do know about the wibbly-wobbly segment that is millennials, it is that they are killing everything they 'enjoy experiences'. So why don't we celebrate this one? 

Give tips that make cooking more fun. Demonstrate spices and flavour pairings, rather than formal recipes. Teach techniques that speed up the more menial aspects. Have Alexa sing them sad songs while the chop onions or play them two minute comedy sketches while they wait for water to boil. Encourage people to screw around. Ultimately, the goal should be to build confidence, so the audience enjoys themselves in the kitchen. There is no wrong way to cook, and the sooner we teach that, the more cooking they'll do.

Cooking isn't about the output: it is good fun in its own right... and you get a meal at the end. 

Then do the damn dishes.

Get: Everyone
To: Challenge assumptions
By: Showing how timeless wisdom can, eventually, expire


Last week I mentioned how particular industries avoid middling in their marketing - so naturally I was sent a handful of examples:

Thanks to M&C Saatchi's Vicky Farrell for, yet again, putting me back in my box.

The Halifax ad is particularly middling, and plays up to the fact that, from the opening frames, it is a work of fantasy. Of course, the process is more complicated than this (where's Top Cat's paperwork and references?!) it says, but, at the same time, emphasises service and humanity.

The Corsa spot is delightfully functional: they've dressed up a shopping list of all the car's perks in an entertaining way. But the middling is buried in there as well - they like the car, so they buy it. There's a financing message in there, but it is also about the click-and-drive simplicity. 

Of the three, I find the Virgin spot the most inherently dubious. It is in the same territory as Halifax - in that it uses surrealism to cue the fantastic - but it is still implicitly promising reclining seats and lounge access. Still, what it says is the holiday begins once you board, which is a hefty step closer to the middle than the fun starts when you land. And Virgin, as a brand, may have the chops to go there.

What do you think? Have you spotted any other middling ads? Let me know.


Michael Lewis is coming to the UK. I'm feeling a bit fanboy. London tickets start at a mere £37. Manchester tickets at £5. Hmm. 

Five "rules of business", via Anne. Really, really like these. I think "every job you do has your signature on it" is an immensely valuable lesson. My grandfather (above!) always, ALWAYS made his grandchildren sign everything. Every doodle, every story, everything. It was sweet and charming, and also - I've now clocked - a really important life-lesson. Everything I did: I was responsible for it. 

Nice insight from Deadspin on Nike's Kaepernick campaign. Start from the position that companies like Nike are ruthlessly amoral (important distinction: moral nor immoral) and work from there...