Last year on holidays I read a little gem of a book by advertising legend Paul Arden “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.”

Arden was responsible for some of the most famous advertising campaigns in British history. To quote his obituary in The Independent “Arden was the ringmaster behind the whole creative circus (at Saatchi & Saatchi) that saw British Airways become ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’, The Independent become the new intelligentsia’s favourite newspaper, Margaret Thatcher the nation’s favourite leader and Silk Cut their favourite cigarette.”

One year on and I’ve just returned from holidays having read this book again. This time I felt compelled to write about some of the fantastic quotes in this book and how they relate to communications professionals.

1) “Give away everything you know and more will come back to you.”

“Ideas are open knowledge. Don’t claim ownership.”

Got an idea on how to do something or solve a problem? Tell people. Arden says that if you give away everything you know, it forces you to replenish and look for new things.

What does this mean for government communications and social media people? Share your knowledge. Get together with others and talk about what you do. You can showcase your knowledge to a worldwide audience by writing a blog for commsgodigital.

Remember that other government or non-profit organisations are not your rivals: we’re all in this together.

Even in the commercial world, giving away your ideas is not as silly as it sounds: American company Tesla made its electric car patents open source this year.

2) “Your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have.”

What is your ultimate career aim? To get a promotion? To become a director of communications? To set up your own communications consultancy? To work for Twitter or Facebook?

“Without having a goal, it’s difficult to score.”

Great words. Where do you want to be in a few years from now? Who do you want to be? Start talking steps towards that goal NOW.

3) “Don’t look for the next opportunity, the one you have in hand is the opportunity.”

We’ve all been guilty of churning out mediocre work to tick a box or get a client off our back – all while dreaming of an ideal brief.

Arden has some good advice: “Whatever is on your desk right now, that’s the one. Make it the best you possibly can.”

4) “It’s all my fault.”

Who’s to blame? You are.

“If you are involved in something that goes wrong, never blame others. Blame no one but yourself.”

It’s easy to play the blame game when something goes wrong. If the project you’re working on goes pear-shaped, be the person to accept responsibility and put it right.


Picture credit: Deshi Yin

5) “Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.”

How often in the office do we show off our newly completed comms plan / newspaper ad / Facebook post / other piece of work off proudly to our colleagues?

“Hey, look what I’ve just done, do you like it?”

It’s natural to do this, but it doesn’t encourage the most useful kind of feedback: constructive criticism. The real value is by asking others what’s wrong with it or how you can make it better.

6) “The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.”

In the words of Samuel Beckett “Fail, fail again. Fail better.”

Scientists are allowed to fail all the time: they call these failures ‘experiments’. Adopting a similar approach could be useful for communications, engagement and social media professionals.

Analyse your campaign or consultation. What worked? What didn’t work? Why did it fail? What can you do better next time?

My mate Dan Slee has written an excellent blog on Failing forward for comms people.

7) “To be original, seek inspiration from unexpected sources.”

What can you learn from professionals in other disciplines? What can you learn from comms people? From social media experts? From copywriters? From artists? From graphic designers? From web usability experts? From entrepreneurs? From customer service teams? From community engagement pros? From the public? From advertising legends?

Quite a lot actually.

Inspiration from the digital news media and the West Midlands Fire Service was behind our successful digital communications during the Straddie bushfires.

8) How you can make your organisation great

Morale can be a problem in any organisation. How do you make things better? According to Arden, the rot stops with you. Stop whinging. Be positive. Talk things up.

“Begin thinking and behaving like a winner.”

9) “If you get stuck, draw with a different pen.”

As an advertising man, Arden meant this point literally. However, you could interpret this advice figuratively.

The local paper isn’t taking any notice of your media releases? Send them a YouTube video.

The public aren’t commenting on your Facebook messages? Post an image.

Web pages not getting the message across? Create an infographic.

Tweets not cutting the mustard? Produce a 6 second Vine instead.


Picture credit: Deshi Yin

10) “Don’t hand your work over to a supplier hoping they will produce the magic. They won’t. You are the magic.”

Have a vision. Get talented people to exceed their own capabilities.

“It’s for you to lead your team along the path of enlightenment. All will respond if you help show a better way. ”

You are the magic. 

Win a copy of this brilliant book

The ten points above are just a small sample of the wisdom in Paul Arden’s book “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.”

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