As far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a pirate, which partly explains the fact that I’ve just published a book called Be More Pirate.
But it’s also been the underlying ethos of the last twenty years of my agency life, founding and running Don’t Panic and then Livity.
Today, to raise a rebel pirate flag over the launch of my first book, I’m taking the rule-breaking around its advertising to a new level.
As you read this, all being well, last night I didn’t get arrested and instead got away with donning a high-vis, waving around a clipboard in an official manner and secretly installing the pink fluorescent advertising billboard for my own book on the front of my publisher’s head office, despite having no official marketing budget or permission to do so.
Even writing the plan down now for Campaign, under embargo a few days beforehand, is making me nervous.
I couldn’t believe I got a book deal with Penguin Random House so "why risk the relationship, by doing this?" as my Don’t Panic CEO Joe Wade pleaded with me.
When the guy who marched into Tony Blair’s house to install a stained-glass window of St Tony is warning you away from a stunt, it’s probably worth listening.
But I believe in this book, I believe in its principles, I believe in its manifesto, and I believe we need some new rules when it comes to doing things differently.
Breaking the rules
I think we are all beginning to realise that the idea that Technology Will Save Us from this mess we’re in is looking increasingly undercooked and oversold.
Incomes fall and inequality rises. The march of the machines threatens mass redundancy, and a backdrop of almost guaranteed ecological disaster can’t seem to wean us off our addiction to consumerism.
No one is coming to save us. Take one look at our current leadership, and the alternative, and tell me you disagree. The leadership we need now is within.
We have to decide whether we’re part of the problem or part of the solution.
And when I say we, I mean you.
Advertising has to choose whether it wants to be the signature on humanity’s suicide note, or part of its wake-up call.
That’s why I want to talk about rule-breaking.
History tells us time and again that yesterday’s rebels and rule-breakers become today’s heroes and tomorrow’s legends.
At the same time, history views dimly those who followed orders and played by the rules.
For people living in historic times, do you feel confident that you will do what’s required when it’s your time right to NOT do what you’re told?
Will you flinch when it’s the responsible thing to break the rules and risk everything?
I didn’t write this book because I wanted to stage my own personal newsjacking stunt, risk my nice new career as an author or relive my club promoting days.
In fact I thought those days were long behind me. It’s 20 years since I fly posted anything.
But some of the spirit of those early days and the radical ideas that were at the genesis of Don’t Panic and Livity is back with me.
Be More Pirate is my first book and it’s published the same week Livity turns 17.
After nearly two decades at the helm of two influential youth-led marketing agencies, I am tired of witnessing young people being patronised by business, brands and society and not offered what they increasingly seem ready for: a more decisive stake in determining their own future.
That’s why I want to talk about pirates. What’s so profound and potent about the 18th Century millennials aka the Golden Age Pirates who outwitted the Navy from approximately 1690 to 1725, is that they didn’t just break rules in purposeless anarchy, they fundamentally rewrote them.
They didn’t just reject a society, the re-imagined it; and they didn’t just challenge the status quo, they changed everyfuckingthing.
I know most of us have a mental image of pirates and more often than not it’s informed by Hollywood, but I’d argue that the troublesome true history of Pirates, suppressed at the time by the Establishment they threatened, puts them alongside the working class heroes like the Levellers or perhaps even pioneers of civil rights like the Suffragettes in their fight for fairness and equality.
Bold claims I know, but I think it’s time to look further back for our lessons.
We’re increasingly too wedded to unproven short-term models.
For all the unicorns galloping out of Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of horse shit behind the scenes.
And I for one, think we need more than the uberisation of everything as the proposed future model of anything.
Dropping a vowel from your name, doesn’t make you fit for the future, but knowing your history could.
So come on an adventure with me, and 300 years ago you find a a discontented Gen Z of the early 1700’s who were fed up with the inability of a self-serving establishment to provide a decent wage, decent working conditions, or any sense of hope in the future. Their response was to take power into their own hands.
The lessons for everyone facing disruption are pretty profound, but they come into especially sharp focus for our industry, as these were, after all the great-great-grandfathers of global branding.
Not Coca-Cola as many think, but the Skull and Crossbones 150 years earlier, a deliberate meme designed go viral and maximise profit and contrary to popular opinion, to reduce violence.
There’s much more of Blackbeards rules of branding in the book, but now word counts and Campaign deadlines loom, and I need to go and approve this Routemaster sized billboard that could be the equivalent to my writing career of being hit by, well, a bus.
Which would be a shame, as we just hit bestseller status on Amazon based on pre-sales only, or will this pirate flag, albeit a bright pink one, do its job and bring more rebels to the fore, ask bigger questions of the way things are, and ask us to challenge further the way things could be.
I’ve lost track of the number of the rebellious responses I’ve received so far, from the resignations it’s triggered to a young woman who is using pirate principles to run a massive campaign to get her friend released from illegal detention by the Home Office.
This book has touched a nerve, because deep down I think we all know the biggest mistake we could make is assuming that the way things have always been is the way they still have to be.
Which only leaves the not insignificant matter of my publisher, and particularly its chief executive, Tom Weldon, a man I respect greatly, who recently asked me to talk at an event for which I’m charging him the £1,743 of the very banner that’s going on the front of his building.
(He asked why it was such a specific fee, I didn’t feel I could tell him.) It sounds counter-intuitive, but I wouldn’t be doing this, or indeed have signed with Penguin, if I didn’t respect them so much.
Amidst an industry facing great disruption they’ve held course and not lost sight of their historic values, those of Allen Lane who wanted ideas in the hands of the people and found radical ways to make that happen.
Fingers crossed they appreciate a little disruption on their doorstep in his honour.
And after all they did commission me to write a book about breaking a few rules to show how things could be done differently, so you could argue, what did they expect.
Sam Conniff is founder of Don't Panic and Livity and author of Be More Pirate