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February 22, 2019

An article by Jason Harrison, Founding Partner: Group Managing Director at M&C Saatchi Abel & Africa for Marklives.

 Several years ago, a young account manager set up a meeting with me, to have a ‘catch-up’ [in our industry, “catch-ups” are a great euphemism for 1) I’m resigning or 2) When am I going to be promoted? Interestingly, catch-ups never seem to be about how I’m doing].


‘Life dominoes’

This catch-up was different. He came into my office, jittery, highly animated, sweating quite heavily and immediately blurted out that he was planning to get married in five years’ time. Yip, he had discussed it with his girlfriend (and his mom) and they all agreed that five years was the proper time to get things lined up and planned properly. Before I could even get a word in, he started working back from their big day, by lining up his metaphorical ‘life dominoes’ in front of me.

“You see, Jase, before we get married, we need to move into her place to test the waters, but before that we need to see if our cats get on, but before that we need to buy an engagement ring, but before that we need to start a joint saving account for the honeymoon, but before that we both need to earn more money, because I’ve worked out the costs to get married in five years at a Nett Present Value and I’m not going to be able to make it happen. So, Jase, I need to know when I am going to be promoted to account director?”

There it was, the first domino piece. His promotion. #catchups

Ticked all the boxes

To prove he was worthy of being promoted to an account director, he pulled out the checklist for being an account manager and confidently informed me that he’d ticked all the boxes. (Impossibly, he seemed to be sweating even more now. You could tell his future life depended on this conversation.)

I looked him in the eye and said, “I’m with you, but checking all the boxes is what I pay you for; it’s not what I promote you for. Promoting you is about everything you do that is NOT inside a box and that depends on just one word: indispensable. So, you have to answer one question for yourself: what have you done that no one else can do?”

And, just like that, I knocked over the wrong domino of his future life, as he contemplated the horrific reality of having to live alone. With his cats. FOREVER.


Indispensable <adjective>: Something or someone that is so good or important that you could not possibly manage without it, him, or her. — Cambridge English Dictionary.

That one word is the only job spec you should ever need as a suit. Your title is not your job. Your job spec is not your job. If you want to make yourself valuable and a success, your job is to make yourself indispensable.


  1. Have a deep well
  2. Connect the dots
  3. Own your magic


  1. Have a deep well

You can’t be indispensable if you aren’t well-read, across a huge variety of topics. In any conversation or meeting, you need to have an interesting, intriguing or inspiring point of view. That point of view comes from tapping into a very deep well of knowledge, every day, to help solve the problem in the moment. If you can’t put two-to-three solutions on the table, then my view is that you lose the right to pass that problem on to others.

  1. Connect the dots

Let’s be clear: Job bags aren’t dots. Timing plans aren’t dots. The Loeries doesn’t have a category for ‘best contact report’, because contact reports aren’t dots. The best suits have the ability to take seemingly random dots and weave them together into a beautiful story or a unique way of thinking about a problem or to align disparate people together around a common goal. It is a suit’s job to see and connect those dots in fresh and relevant ways.

  1. Own your magic

When I interview people, I always ask them, “What’s your freak flag?” You didn’t spend 21 years living and getting educated to come work in an agency to eat the biscuits in meetings. Diversity of thought is the most-powerful tool for solving problems. Bring your madness, your charm, your culture, your sense of humour, your insights, your life to work. Being indispensable means standing out. Fly your freak flag.

If that sounds like hard work, it’s because it is. It takes conscious effort and planning. But, in an economy that is ever-spiraling and in an industry that’s going through dramatic change, the opposite definition is chilling:

Dispensable <adjective>: Able to be replaced or done without; superfluous. — Oxford Dictionaries.

PS That account manager never did marry his now ex-girlfriend, but he has become an indispensable suit with a stellar career ahead of him. I count him as one of the very best. He still has his cats, though.



February 7, 2019

An article by Jason Harrison, Founding Partner: Group Managing Director at M&C Saatchi Abel & Africa for Marklives.

25 March 2001. The day the first ad I ever made ran in The Sunday Times. Full Page. Full colour. It was glorious (as a suit, there is nothing quite as thrilling or terrifying as signing off a final DTP laser and then waiting for it to appear in the national newspapers). It was for Old Mutual Unit Trusts.


At the time, Old Mutual Unit Trusts was going through a difficult trading period, with a lot of investors wanting to pull out at a low point in the fund’s performance. It was a totally counter-intuitive move over the long term, which my client, Helen van der Rede, had foreseen and briefed me to sort out as her new account executive. Armed with some fancy graphs and not a clue what a unit trust actually was, I ran down to the creatives to brief it in.

Stopped me in my tracks

Exactly three days later, the copywriter, Gordon Ray, called me to say the ad was done and I was to present it to the client tomorrow as he couldn’t. I sprinted down and, the closer I got to his desk, the more horrified I became because there was a crowd of very excited creatives all crowding around the work oohing and aahing. The headline stopped me dead in my tracks:

“At the moment, everybody is saying don’t touch unit trusts. We couldn’t agree more”.

Now surrounded by the whole creative studio, I started to explain that there must be some kind of misunderstanding. This is a unit trusts ad. The client is expecting a really big graph showing the long-term upside of unit trusts. The answer back was simply, “It’s FRESH — she will buy it” and I was handed the porti bag.

After a completely sleepless night spent rehearsing how to tell her why the graph was so small I met with Van der Rede the next morning. I pulled out the 54×10 board and placed it on the table facing up (rookie error) as I prepared my ‘sell’. But before I could even start, she grabbed the board, read the headline and said, “Now this is completely FRESH. I LOVE it. We HAVE to make it.” Then she picked up the layout, told me to follow her and walked into her boss’s office next door and said, “This is the work I want us to make.” And they did, because she had total conviction for a brave, category-challenging idea.

Two key lessons

I learned two key lessons that day:

  1. Great clients make great work, not just great agencies
  2. FRESH was actually a common and shared acronym to evaluate creative work

As a junior suit assessing creative work, I had never considered anything deeper than “I like it and it answers the brief” which, by every conceivable measure, is woefully inadequate. We make the intangible tangible, so surely judging if we’ve been successful needs some clear and objective measures?

What I found out after the presentation when I returned to the office (#thanksforthatchaps) was that FRESH stood for: First, Relevant, Engaging, Single-minded and Hot.

  • First:Does this work actually tap into a cultural insight or category truth that feels completely new?
  • Relevant:Will this work bridge the gap to consumers hearts and minds to change how they think?
  • Engaging:Does this work really make me feel something after seeing it?
  • Single-minded:Is the selling message clear and have we stripped away everything unnecessary?
  • Hot:Is this work disrupting the category or challenging the consumer in an interesting, inspiring or intriguing way?

Shared ambition

Obviously, just because the work is FRESH doesn’t always mean the sell is easy. As suits, the planning, approach and alignment to the strategy are critical to get it across the line. And not every piece of work will tick all the boxes every single time, but it should always be our shared ambition to ensure the things we put out there stand up to some kind of rigour to make it the best it can possibly be.

It’s certainly been a useful and simple framework that’s stood the test of time to evaluate creative work in all its shapes and forms, helped pay due respect to all the hard work that has gone into creating the idea and given it the best possible chance of seeing the light of day.

Ultimately, for that unit trusts ad on 25 March 2001, both the creatives and the client knew that it ticked all the right boxes and were utterly convinced it was the right thing to do.

That is how it should be, because great work, when meticulously planned, sells itself.

PS That piece of work is still in my porti. I fished it out 17 years later. The paper has faded completely. It’s still one of my proudest.



November 29, 2018

An article by Jason Harrison, Founding Partner: Group Managing Director at M&C Saatchi Abel & Africa for Marklives.

 I was just a 24-year-old account executive (a title which my mother thought was very important), going about my business writing a very important contact report. Then he called — a very senior and important client who couldn’t get hold of anyone else, so he got put through to me by the receptionist. He was pissed off. Very, very pissed off.


Source: Pixabay

He used the first 10 minutes of the call to tell me how rubbish the agency had been on a job and then he used the next 10 minutes to then tell me how rubbish I was, too. He was swearing, demeaning and out of control.

“You have no right”

As the saying goes, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” and I just thought to myself, “I’m not going to be disrespected like this.” So I very calmly interrupted him and said, “You have every right to be angry, but you have no right to speak to me like this,” and I put down the phone on him mid-blowout.

Then I started crying.

My first job. Blown. I was going to be fired. The agency was going to be fired. I was in so much trouble. And what was my mom going to say, seeing as I was no longer an “account executive”? At that moment, my boss (and my boss’s boss) came in and, seeing my ugly crying face, asked what on earth was going on. I relayed the story, fearing the worst, but they simply replied, “Leave it with us,” and walked straight out.

Thirty minutes later, the same client phoned me. He said that my boss had in no uncertain terms told him he was completely out of line and was to phone me immediately to apologise, which he was now doing. I was stunned. How had this happened? How had they managed to turn this around?

The first lesson

It was the first, and most-important, lesson I have learnt as a suit in advertising: respect. It is the start, middle and end of being a great suit. When it exists, great partnerships, great work and great friendships flourish in an open and honest manner. When it doesn’t, everything is stillborn.

As a young suit, you come up against disrespect in all shapes and forms in this business because it’s easy to shout at the person in the middle. I have seen average suits disrespect themselves, their clients and their creative partners in these situations, all in the hope of “being liked”.

Your first job as a suit is not to be liked. It is to be respected. Then liked.


The very best suits demand and command respect. How? They know their client’s businesses better than they do. They know everyone in the client’s organisation, from the receptionist to the CEO (and remember all their birthdays, too). They study their client’s category and their competitors’ every move. They love, debate and share great ideas with them. They get under their skin. They build their foundation off a deep and smart knowledge of the business.

They obsess about the work

They share their passion and knowledge inside the agency, continually trying to align business problems and creative opportunities. They never try to curry favour or play both sides. They obsess about creating and making the best possible work, because they love the work more than anything else. They understand that the product that gets made in the end might not have their name on it, but it does have their indelible fingerprint on it. They build their foundation off a deep and passionate knowledge of the power of creativity.

They care deeply

They understand that both clients and agency people are human with the same fears and dreams. They know how to connect with all of them in a real and authentic way. They call them on their nonsense and help them when they are in trouble, using a persuasive mix of intellect and compassion to align everyone behind the same goal: the best possible work. They build their foundation off a deep and authentic human understanding of what makes people tick.

Will it get rid of the sometimes-rampant disrespect in our industry? Not always. But now it’s a decision, because it’s very hard to disrespect someone who has the confidence and knowledge that comes from a strong foundation and the right attitude.


April 5, 2018

An article by Wouter Lombard, Head of Talent at M&C Saatchi Abel for Business Live.

Brands like Banana Republic and Tiffany & Co have successfully featured same-sex couples and LGBTQ audiences in their advertising as part of an attempt to include gay audiences. And yet SA, famed for its diversity, continues to represent homosexuals either as clichés or stereotypes.


Source: Pixabay

Marketing budgets need to work extra hard these days, and the LGBTQ audience is a decidedly niche market. Put these two facts together, and it’s understandable why so few brands have created advertising specifically targeting this market. That’s fine. I don’t expect brands to reach out to every single market segment – funds simply don’t allow for it.

What’s not fine, though, is that our “normal”, mainstream media is noteworthy for its lack of inclusivity. This means that gay people – especially young gay people – seldom (if ever) see anyone they can identify with, either on screen, online or in print. Imagine how that feels. Apart from further isolating young people struggling with issues of identity, it also skews heterosexuals’ view of what it means to be gay, because they have very few references – and that only further fuels the stigmas.

In my opinion, one of the contributing factors in SA is that big brands want to play it safe. They’d rather avoid anything contentious, in case it alienates their audience. In this instance, it means keeping the LGBTQ community out of advertising.  And, when they do include the LGBTQ community, they often do so in a way that isn’t altogether appropriate. Gays and lesbians are either stereotyped (think of the flamboyantly camp Harold of the Netflorist campaign), or used as comic relief. Any attempt at normalisation gets buried under hype (remember how Sewende Laan’s onscreen gay kiss in 2017 made headlines?).

Most often, it’s treated as niche advertising for a niche market, appearing only in niche media – such as gay publications. Or, most egregious at all, the gay and lesbian characters included in advertising have little going for them besides their sexuality – it’s as if they have no purpose besides, well, being gay.

So, what needs to change? For a start, it would be great if a big brand with a big budget stepped forward to show the rest how it should be done.

As for how it should be done, the answer is, with authenticity. I don’t want “gay ads” aimed at me because I am gay. I don’t want everyday products repackaged with a big gay bow just so they can appeal to my “pink rand” (as marketers have referred to the value of the LGBTQ market). And I don’t want to have to seek out gay publications (usually of poor quality, because of a lack of funding) or go to gay events just to find messaging that appeals to me or see other people who are like me.

Instead, I want advertisers to recognise that being gay is the least interesting thing about me. I want normal ads, which just so happen to feature LGBTQ people. As soon as gays and lesbians are featured in an ad in a way that makes them appear to be separate to the mainstream community, they become stereotypes. And the advertiser loses out on a chance to tap into real, powerful insights about the community.

Ideally, we should see greater representation throughout all media, not just in advertising – especially in a country as diverse as SA. So, let’s start the conversation. Let’s throw away those stereotypes and start creating content that displays society in all its real, diverse glory. After all, it’s our diversity that lies behind the magic that is the Rainbow Nation. So, let’s not forget the rainbow flag either.


January 8, 2018

An Article by Diana Springer, a Partner and Head of Strategy at M&C Saatchi Abel for Business Live

The festive season is an opportunity for brands to create advertising that taps into family and human connections and makes consumers feel something positive.


Image source: Pixabay

It hasn’t been an easy year for retail, and festive season trade can make or break a company’s results. In the past few weeks a number of UK and US brands have released their Christmas campaigns, including Amazon, M&S, Debenhams, House of Fraser, and of course the annual John Lewis blockbuster.

So far these campaigns have included big budgets, big directors, huge tracks, Paddington Bear and a monster under the bed. Most have been a little disappointing, perhaps, with few new story lines or insights, other than Tesco’s “Everyone’s Welcome” reflection of diversity and the celebration of sisterhood by both Boots and House of Fraser. Like them or not, their one commonality is that they’re all entertaining and full of emotion.

What can we expect from local brands this year? Will we have to endure more of the same heavily promotional festive ads and plenty of products packed into a 30-second television commercial ending with a promotional tag, all wrapped up with a remix of a Christmas jingle? Or will we be treated to some more emotional work?

Black Friday exposed consumers to lots of big sales and “door busters” adverts; and as much as I love a sale, the real question is whether an even bigger discount than before will be enough for a brand to stand out from the festive clutter, create an enduring connection or drive a repeat purchase. In these times a great price has become a right to trade, but beyond that, is there not an opportunity to deliver some emotional promotional work?

Mike Abel, CEO of M&C Saatchi Abel, is fond of reminding his staff: “We’re in the job of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.”  So, at this time of year, when much of the merchandise is commoditised, is there not an opportunity to drive preference with communication that really resonates?

Given the current state of anxiety in South Africa, I can’t help but feel that this festive season is a great opportunity for brands to create work that reminds us of our strength in community, that taps into the family and human connections that this time of year allows.

While I’m not a huge fan of local “nostalgia” work, perhaps now is the time for a big SA retailer to create work that makes us feel something positive or unifying.  Some good old-fashioned storytelling, perhaps; but authentically South African and not a sunny version of a European Christmas.

The brands that will win this season will offer not only deals to excite the wallet but stories that engender a sense of hope and positivity, delivering not only great Christmas trade but some equity to last long into the New Year. Takealot’s latest television commercial, a heartwarming SA story about the joy of giving, is a good example.

With online sales forecast to break the US$100bn mark in America this year it will be interesting to see how many South Africans shift their spend to take advantage of the amazing value, choice and convenience being offered online.


October 24, 2017

An Interview by Mike Abel for Wanted Online

Mike Abel treats us to one of his deep and meaningful Q&A sessions with Cape Town artist, Pierre Vermeulen, whose work mostly involves gold leaf, sweat and doing drag.

Describe the colour yellow to somebody who is blind.
For a warm yellow, stand in the sun on a hot day. Feel the top layer of the skin warm up and follow the heating of each consecutive layer. The smell of a yellow freesia can also be yellow.

What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your CV alone?
I do drag, her name is Rene Sans.

What are you known for?
Art wise: Gold panels, sweat and hair.

Teach me something I don’t know in the next five minutes.
Get present! Set a timer for 5 minutes. Sit cross-legged with your hands gently on your knees or lap and eyes closed (even better with an eye mask). Take note of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils. Try not to verbalise the action or count the breaths. Just observe the action as it is without liking or disliking it. When a thought comes to mind just allow it to pass by, by bringing the focus back to the breathing. Take harder, yet calm, breaths if you find it difficult to feel the air moving past your nostrils at first. When the timer pings, take a moment to feel your calm body and mind.

What inspires you?
Moments in which I’m completely present. The clarity of a meditated mind is incredible. My partner. Drag queens and Diskotekah. Time in nature. Nutrigenomics – eating according to your genes. Raw chocolate – eat a whole slab and feel the rush. And obviously good art and good conversation.

What’s the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it?
Nocturnal Animals by Tom Ford. I’m a fan of his debut film, A Single Man. Not the intensity I expected! Yoh!

What was the last gift you gave someone?
Amanda Lear’s record Never Trust a Pretty Face.

What do you think about when you’re alone in your car?
I endlessly ramble on topics concerning the human condition. Especially people’s perspective of themselves and how they see themselves fit on earth. I recently read the books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. It expanded my understanding of the human-earth-relationship. I also sing a lot, stretch the vocals – at the moment it is Erasure in the 80s.

You’re a new addition to the paint box. What colour would you be and why?
At the moment it is probably verdigris. It is the final colour of the oxidation process on the sweat and gold works – especially in high concentrated areas of sweat. I like the idea of a colour developing over time as a chemical reaction when materials touch each other. Although the actual latest addition to my paint box is a couple of large tubes of black and white oil paint.

How do you handle criticism?
By observing it. Getting upset about critique only wastes your own energy that can lead to health issues. So it’s really your own doing. Stay healthy and observe it.

What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
I slide out of bed to meditate for about 40 minutes. And then a bulletproof coffee.

Tell me about a time you did the right thing and no one saw you do it.
Saved goslings off the freeway. It was a quiet night and I wore dark clothes, so not too many people saw me.

What do you worry about, and why?
I try not to worry, but there are so many things to worry about. Especially climate change. The displacement numbers of people and wildlife in recent years have escalated and will only get worse: Extreme weather conditions of drought and flooding, desertification and ocean dead zones. Nuclear weapons are still being made, oil drilling is booming and everything is being wrapped in plastic.

Things are not looking promising at the moment unless a big change is made. Actual change. Not small finicky change – we need a change of perspective, to live along with nature. People are hoping for someone or something to bring the quick change and fix it when change is very accessible within yourself. We have to strive for greater collective enlightenment and aspire to increase the scale and scope of human consciousness.

I think it has got a lot to do with a warped fundamental viewpoint of the world. Many hold the view that they came into this world when actually everything and everyone came out of this world.

They view themselves as alien to the planet they come from and need to be defended from it – thus don’t respect it. This inspires self-disrespect as you ‘other’ yourself from the natural world.

Most people don’t even understand how much self-hatred they have accumulated and this gets projected outwards. Without respect for the world, this includes animals and ourselves, we won’t be able to live in harmony. For too long people have been trained lived the greedy way, with complete disregard to the laws of nature.

“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in the bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” By Alanis Obomsawin

How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?
To be a beneficial human for the earth and its beings. Nature is very successful, which I try to follow.

Give me an example of when you failed at something. How did you react and how did you overcome failure?
Being late has always been one of my failures. I feel terrible about it for a bit, acknowledge it and then get better for a while until a glitch forms in the new habit.

Would you rather be liked or respected?
We don’t have to like everything and everyone. Differences (dislikes) are what drive new innovative ideas. We do need to respect each other to live together.

What is the last book you read?
Homo Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. I recommend it to everyone. Perhaps read Sapiens a Brief History of Humankind, by the same author, first.

If someone wrote a biography about you, what do you think the title should be?
Do, don’t, ought to and should.

What makes you angry?
S.N. Goenka said: “When I generate anger, hatred, ill will, or animosity, I am the first victim of my anger. I am the first victim of the hatred or animosity that I have generated within. First I harm myself and only afterwards do I start harming others. This is the law of nature.”

What was the biggest risk you ever took and what did you learn from it?
The concept of risk is very important in expanding your life perspective. It’s stepping into the unknown, a space of new wonders. With all these internet algorithms curating our lives I think risk taking is even more important. Otherwise, you will become a whirlpool of your old self within yourself. Same-old-same-old. I don’t remember where I heard this, but it always reminds me to re-evaluate when I’m hesitant to change: Most people die after their studies but the body only gets buried at 75.

What’s your most significant project? Tell me about it, what did you get/reach? How?
You have to start with yourself and expand outwards. Existential crises have been a hobbyhorse of mine growing up. So to have found a way of life that makes sense to me was a significant change of path. My first Vipassana meditation course. You meditate for over 100 hours in 10 days, talk to nobody and repeat the same pattern of living for 10 days. No form of stimuli like books, notepads, obviously no phones, no nothing. Only yourself with your mind. I learned to understand my mind better and experience how powerful it can be. You rewire your brain’s perception of craving and aversion by learning not to react to it, but to observe it and see the sensation pass by. If I can recommend only one thing to everyone it would be to go on a Vipassana 10 day course. It’s very tough, but literally, life changing.

If you were a brand, what would your motto be?
I have two. The first one is a quote by Lao Tzu: “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” The second one is: Stand still and rot.


September 20, 2017

An Article Written by M&C Saatchi Abel’s Partner: Talent, Wouter Lombard, for The Media Online


Image source:


After spending my first 10 years in advertising working in account management, I moved into the people and HR space as Partner: Talent for the M&C Saatchi Abel group of companies in 2014.

One of my biggest priorities is to find and attract the very best talent for our agency. I’ve spent many hours and days reviewing every CV sent to our office and interviewing hundreds of prospective candidates.

Right from the start, it shocked me to discover that in this industry, ‘creativity’ seems to be reserved for the select few, as only designers, art directors and copywriters bring to interviews a portfolio of work that they have delivered against client briefs. After four years of reviewing CVs and conducting interviews, I am yet to see a strategist or a suit (as someone in account management is also known) proudly submit their portfolio as testimony to their role in helping to deliver brilliant and imaginative creative solutions for brands.

Suits can talk for an hour about their project management and people skills and brilliant relationships with clients. A select few will even throw in their strategic smarts and, if I am lucky, their business acumen, proved by running a profitable account. Yet to date, no suit has ever pulled out their computer to show me some ads as evidence of their hard work. It’s almost as if their role and responsibilities are disconnected from the very reason their job exists in the first place: to get great work done. 

This tension becomes even more transparent when I ask them to describe the role of account management. Hardly anyone focuses their purpose around creativity; instead, I will hear things like “my job is to hold the relationship with, and represent the client, in the agency”. I bet there’s not a single creative who would want another client on the project (as clients play that role well enough). So why on earth would suits position themselves that way? 

… to date, no suit has ever pulled out their computer to show me some ads as evidence of their hard work. It’s almost as if their role and responsibilities are disconnected from the very reason their job exists in the first place: to get great work done. 

Mark Winkler, one of our creative directors, summarises the role of account management as having to “facilitate the best possible work”. I think it’s a brilliant lens through which to view the single-minded purpose of account management, because whether you write a great brief, implement a smart process, manage your budgets carefully, present with flair or even write an accurate contact report – it’s all in pursuit of the best possible work.

And, as such, every suit should equally be able to talk proudly about the work in their portfolio, because they played a critical role in making it happen.

One could even argue that everyone’s role in an ad agency feeds into this purpose – to facilitate the best possible work – whether it’s in finance, HR, strategy or account management, or as a PA. Because, surely, an ad agency is a creative company, not just a company with a creative department. 

So, if you do come for an interview, bring your portfolio of work and let’s start the conversation from there. After all, if it’s not about the work, then what’s it about?