Nicholas J. Johnson knows how to fool you. But at least he’s honest about it, unlike some of the people he writes about in his first novel, Chasing the Ace.
The 34-year-old former Canberran – a magician, comedian, writer and consultant – says, “I basically have spent most of my life doing research about con artists and scams.”
He wanted to write a true-crime book about some of the people and scams he had encountered but says, “It was difficult to separate fact from fiction.”
Chasing the Ace is “about the nature of con artists – why they do what they do”.
And unlike confidence tricksters, he has scruples about telling the truth and ripping people off.
“I used to think it was because I was a coward but the real reason is because I feel really bad for people who are conned. It’s a horrible experience.”
While a home robbery is an invasion of space, he says, being the victim of a scam is an invasion of the mind.
Nicholas Johnson performed in the former Knick Gnat Circus, as a youngster. Photo: supplied
So he decided to write a novel that would admittedly be fiction while still incorporating what he had learned.
Set in Melbourne, Chasing the Ace alternates chapters by two narrators: veteran con man Richard Mordecai, who’s old and tired and jaded and ready to retire, and 19-year-old Joel Fitch, who loves movies about confidence tricksters like The Sting, Matchstick Men andCatch Me If You Can and wants to join their ranks. Richard scams Joel but the younger man sees it as a learning experience and they form an uneasy partnership that eventually leads to danger for both of them.
How can international or Australian brands flourish in China?
I think from an advertising standpoint the most important thing is for brands to stay curious about this culture and be respectful about it.
I’ve worked on many global brands where they’re from the perspective of New York or London or even in this region, and far too often there are people who still talk about ‘one size fits all’, ‘why can’t we just re-cast in Asians but in the same spot?’ Or ‘oh yeah, this is a universal truth it will work everywhere’. No it isn’t, the nuances are so different.
Even within China itself, the different tier markets have very different cultures and even local brands have a hard time grasping that. So for an Australian or any international brands trying to come in here, it sounds cliché, but you need to have the right insights, and by insights I don’t mean putting a few people in a room and asking what’s up, it’s really having your finger on the pulse of what’s happening and being able to ask the right questions. The thing about China is that the truth lies in what they’re not telling you versus what they are telling you, you really have to read between the lines and find out what that is and once you get that you can really connect with them.
Just to give you an example, Johnny Walker came into this market nine or 10 years ago officially. There was no affinity with the ‘Keep Walking’ campaign, which was a campaign that worked everywhere around the world easily, but in China ‘Keep Walking’ meant nothing. They go ‘what has keep walking, inspiration, achievement and success got to do with drinking?’ They couldn’t connect the two. So from an outside perspective it’s so obvious, but they couldn’t understand it. It’s when we did that campaign and we explained to people in the right kind of narrative that success comes when your buddies help you achieve it and then they go ‘oh, now we get it!’ And then we started building that bridge, the first couple of years were terrible. We spent a lot of money, it was winning awards but no one was understanding it!
The conditions in China, they’re not short of choices right now. Everything has a million choices for them right now, once upon a time you had two choices of athletic shoes, now two pairs come out every other week. You’re talking about a very saturated market right now, it’s not about managing the loyalty of your consumers, it’s learning to manage the disloyalty. You know for a fact that they’re going to pick other things, but what’s going to make them come back to you? That’s a very different perspective.
For Australian agencies looking to open up in China, what would be the key thing to remember when looking at the market?
There are so many choices right now. When I was in New York, there were certain agencies that go ‘well I’m not going to be in New York, I might be in San Francisco or LA’, but China, for some reason everybody wants to be there. You’re talking about competition from all of Europe, all of Australia and New Zealand, all of the US, all converging in the same place.
The question they should ask is all China needs right now is a new ad agency – what is your point of difference? There has to be a new model of an agency, what is the next model is a very critical question.
Everyone assumes money grows on trees in China, it’s big, there’s opportunities. It is a huge market and there are lots of opportunities but the model of which you make money is very very different. You find yourself working on a car account that pays you the fraction of what you would get in Australia, so would you then be able to set up an agency and put in some top-gun creative directors, but you’re making a fraction in terms of the revenue, how do you reconcile that? If you can’t figure that out, don’t start an agency in China.
What is your take on the state of creativity in the region?
There’s a lot of work being done, words like digital and content are being overused. There are a lot of work being done in those areas. If you were to ask me right now name me two pieces of work out of China in the last year that is amazing, I don’t think I can name that, which is shocking. There is a lot of work done, but a lot of average work. What you see in awards shows is not reality. I would like to see famous campaigns that win at Cannes that I have seen in the market.
In Asia what could be done to better prevent scam?
The failure to sell work is the first reason for people to resort to scam because it’s an easy way out – ‘why do I have to go there and learn about the client, the business and partner with them and build something when by agency wants me to win something, I’ll go do that’. It’s painful.
To be honest, and no disrespect to clients, you find clients who are very risk adverse, they have a huge amount of pressure. At any given point of time clients presented with the safer route, ensuring yourself 15 per cent growth, versus taking a more brave route that you could get 80 per cent growth, would choose the safer route. That’s the situation, that’s the conditions.
It takes time, if you really want to make a significant difference in this market, this industry, take the harder one. Get good work out that really effects culture. No one ever remembers the Grand Prix that never ran, they want enduring campaigns that continue to change peoples lives, there’s so few of those now. There’s so many talented people out there, which is why I think it’s a crime.
The first issue is the inability to sell and I think there are agencies now that are completely built around winning awards, staffing people just to win awards, that’s not helping either. Worst of all, it’s not helping a new generation of creatives coming through the business because they think that’s the way to go. If we continue doing that we’re going to get a lot of ‘oh yeah, here’s China winning another 23 Gold Lions that have never seen the light of day, what’s the point?’ I find that to be pretty tragic. If this keeps up then no one wants to be in award shows any more, we’re seriously thinking about not doing them any more, what’s the point?
Apart from scam, what are the biggest challenges facing creatives?
Having talent is actually the major issue for me right now. As a creative director, I’m having trouble finding guys who are bankable people, who understand the culture and can just do great ads, great work. They are few and far between. I find it difficult because of inflated salaries and guys who have risen through the ranks of creative directorships through scam, and I go ‘do I really want to give you a $50m account when you’ve never done anything that’s seen the light of day?’ To be honest, it’s not the agency saying it, it’s the clients. They’re going ‘no, I’m sorry but I need my numbers, my KPIs met, I don’t trust that guy’.
That’s a hard thing from a creative director’s standpoint, finding the right people who can understand the culture. Since I’ve gotten to China I’ve been trying very hard to create the Chinese brand of advertising, what is that Chinese voice? I don’t think we’ve actually cracked that yet, which is a shame. If you look at Thailand they have a very distinctive voice in advertising, likewise with Australia. There’s a distinctive brand of communications, a certain humour, a certain scale and production value. I don’t know how to describe that China brand of advertising, which is an issue.
Challenges faced by creatives could be a number of things. They face very difficult clients, very difficult circumstances. You have huge brands in China, in Asia for that matter, who are spending huge amounts of money. Research has gone from a point where it’s used prevalently to where it’s used in a really stupid way, it’s demoralising for a lot of creatives. It’s killing the industry. Great marketers aren’t making any decisions that are based on market experiences any more, it’s all based on what 12 monkeys said in a room. That is one of the biggest problems. It’s a cyclical problem because agencies then find it hard to hire people, they say ‘Oh you have a Coca-Cola account, I’m not working on that, they research everything.’
Also research has other problems, research drains a lot of resources in the wrong places. You’re just burning out the creatives, that’s why we have people dying from overwork. These are serious issues. People are doing all these revisions and when they’re not creating they break down. It’s a contagious problem in the industry. Clients haven’t acknowledged that and not enough agencies have raised their hands and said we’re not going to do business like that.
I for one have my guys work really hard, we make it a point to strike that right balance. We are very careful about our choice of clients, we say ‘look you have to behave a certain way and if you don’t, then you’re not our client’. We have to make those tough decisions. And again, this is a cyclical problem because than you have your mothership coming in and looking at you and saying ‘China’s a big market, you should be making a lot of money’ and I have to say, no I can’t work my guys anymore. It effects the quality of work, it effects the creatives who want to do great work.
There is more talent in Asia then anywhere else in the world, they’re just going down the wrong path.
In terms of talent, what type of skills are you looking for?
I’m looking for guys who are good creatives, who know how to make a good ad, period. You’d be surprised how many people come out of school and we’re hiring them when they have these nice case studies and portfolios and we look at them and ask what’s the idea? They don’t know how to make ads, they know how to make great case studies but there’s not an idea in it. So people who are extremely talented who know how to make ads, communicators, be an expert.
The problem is specialisation is completely underrated and faded away, I like to think I’m an expert communicator and I like to think a kid coming out of school, graduating with a degree, says ‘I’m in advertising, I need to communicate really well’. I don’t find that’s easy to find these days, I’m looking for people like that. I’m looking for people who want to change the world, I’m not looking for creatives who want to win awards.
The Sindh education department’s alleged agreement with the United Kingdom to offer around “30,000 prestigious British Bachelor’s degrees without students having to travel to the Britain” appears to be a scam, The Express Tribune has learned.
A press statement by education minister Nisar Khuhro, which was released to the media on Wednesday, claimed that “the department has, despite strong opposition from other countries, won a provisional five-year contract with the UK.”
Dr Fazlullah Pechuho, the additional chief secretary of the Sindh education department appears, however, to be on a different page. “The Sindh education department has not made any such agreement with the UK,” he said.
“The education minister is not authorised to sign an agreement under the rules of business that give this authority to the education department’s secretary,” Dr Pechuho told The Express Tribune. “I have not signed the alleged agreement.”
Dr Pechuho said that even if somebody has signed such an agreement he cannot endorse it. “We have our own Higher Education Commission-prescribed rules for awarding degrees as well as accreditation to foreign degree-awarding institutions,” he explained. “How can we offer UK’s degrees just like that?”
The secretary felt the minister must explain what happened but Khuhro failed to respond to any calls or text messages. His spokesperson, Shakeel Memon, failed to answer who the contracting party was and which British university will be giving these Bachelor’s degrees to the students in Sindh.
UK High Commission unaware
What had made the education minister’s announcement even murkier was the British High Commission’s unawareness of this agreement. Khuhro’s official press statement had claimed that the contract was an agreement between the “Sindh education and literacy department and the United Kingdom”.
Jonathan Williams, the press attaché and deputy head of communications at the British High Commission in Islamabad, stated that neither the British government nor the UK Trade and Investment, which is a government department that works with businesses based in the UK, had anything to do with this agreement.
“Nobody in our High Commission is aware of this contract,” Williams told The Express Tribune. “Universities, not only in Britain but across the world, do make agreements with foreign governments but there obviously are laws that govern such agreements.”
He added that the student scholarships offered by the UK government were given through the British High Commission but the UK entity mentioned in Khuhro’s statement, Higher Learning Partnerships, is a non-government organisation.
Credible or not?
This Newcastle-based organisation is running a single-page website for student registration, www.sindh.org.uk, which is being operated through the UK and was mentioned in the education minister’s press release. It stated that Higher Learning Partnerships in collaboration with the Sindh education and literacy department proposes to introduce United Kingdom Bachelors’ degrees commencing July 2015.
The organisation is a private limited company, registered in the UK on May 17, 2013, under registration No 08533906. The organisation, under the directorship of 53-year-old Philip Morris, has declared its Standard Industrial Classification of Economic Activities codes as 85421 (first-degree level higher education) and 85422 (post-graduate level higher education) for operations in the UK. But neither does it possess a website on its name, nor does it hold any record of achievements to its credit.
Against this backdrop, the Sindh education minister has asked potential students, aged between 17 and 30 years, to register via the website before October 14. ‘Sindhi students’ will not need to go to the UK but the learning and examinations will take place in Pakistan, the minister has claimed. The cost for the three-year course will be approximately Rs850,000 and 20% of the courses will be further subsidised through an endowment fund that, according to the minister’s statement, the UK has agreed to set up. According to Khuhro, the admission seats are limited to 6,000 placements per year.
“At present, only 3,000 Pakistanis are able to attend UK universities every year and this number is decreasing because of visa and other issues,” said the minister’s statement. For those who can obtain a UK visa, the total cost of education can be up to Rs16 million. “To obtain exactly the same Bachelor’s degree for only Rs850,000 while students can continue to attend to their responsibilities at home is a massive step forward for Sindh,” it added.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 28th, 2014.
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So I applied for a partnership at a network that gives Partnerships to channels.You know,you get the banner and custom thumbnails, ads, etc.On this one day, I got a scam email from a partnering network called Quiz Group Aggregator.Now at the time,I thought this was the confirmation for my network,being I signed their contract and everything.But this was a scam from this network and I linked my YT account to it.Now I waited and finally saw that my YT account was a partner.But low and behold,the ad money was going to the fake network and not me.Now on the same day I got this email,my real network got hacked.So I was never partnered by them,as they got scammed by Quiz Group aswell.So I have talked to the CEO of the network I am supposed to be on,We have talked for about a month on the situation and about 4 days ago,he said that Quiz Group was terminated because of multiple accounts reported.The network I am supposed to be on has gotten a brand new CMS and I have to wait until my channel goes to normal.Now Quiz Group has been terminated for over a week and my channel is still a partnered channel.I don’t know what to do and I am worried that my account is in jeopardy! Please someone help because I do not want to have this escalate further! Crysidox
I don’t really understand the scam at partnerships networks CMS? The Network you applied for was a sub-network of Quiz Group thus them inviting you to join their CMS. I don’t quite follow on the Quiz Group CMS Termination by Google, I haven’t heard of anything of that nature..? If you’ve been released from a CMS, YT servers takes a while to remove your features (sometimes up to a month). Gabriel
I was partnered by one of their sub-networks called VextileMedia.Vextile got hacked the same day i recieved the email from QuizGroup and now I am stuck with Quiz Group.Quiz Group has been terminated for around 2 weeks now.But I have no way of telling if I am still listed under their CMS.Maybe I can get a new contract from Vextile’s new CMS now? Any suggestions would be appreciated.Because I have no way to contact QUiz Group at all and as far as I know,YT hasn’t created a magic button to restore your channel to normal at will…Crysidox