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People respond well to original, adventurous, slightly mad ideas.

This applies equally to marketing communications and to fundraising events.

As Tim Fitzhigham said during his talk at the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh on Saturday night,

Tell someone that you’re going to run 40 miles in the desert, or that you’re going to row across the English Channel and they’ll say, “Uh, that’s not that hard”. But tell them you’re doing it in a 40 kilogram suit of armour in 40 degree heat, or in a one third of a tonne copper bathtub and they instantly become inspired and engaged.

Original, adventurous ideas don’t grow on trees.

They’re not easy to have.

And they’re not easy to make happen.

Indeed, it’s a characteristic of original, adventurous ideas that “some people” seem to go out of their way to erect additional barriers to make it even less likely that they will see the light of day.

This applies equally to marketing communications and to fundraising events.

You’d think that rowing the English Channel in a bathtub was difficult enough, without various authorities on both sides of the water doing their best to make it even more so.

For instance, the French authorities decided that they didn’t like the idea of their bit of the Channel being rowed in a bath, so they passed a law specifically outlawing this very eventuality.

Undeterred, Tim Fitzhigham found himself a friendly Admiral in Whitehall (a story in itself) and worked a solution whereby he was able to register the bath tub as an official British shipping vessel.

In order to make the bath into a ship he had to add a mast (he installed a shower head), he had to have a sealed cabinet for electrics (he installed a sink unit), and he had to fly the Red Ensign.

His indefatigable attitude and his creativity in the face of adversity allowed him to sidestep this particular barrier whilst retaining the madcap integrity of the idea.

When it comes to making adventurous ideas happen, indefatigability is good, creativity is good, and so is a bit of bravery. Tim Fitzhigham had to stick his neck out several times just to get to the start line. He then had put his body on the line to row across the busiest shipping lane in the world.

The first attempt ended in rough weather during which the bathtub and Tim both took a bit of a beating. The waves tore a section off the top of the bath tub and the resulting serrated edge tore into his shoulder to the point that he lost all sensation in his arm.

In true Chumbawamba style he got knocked down, but he got up again and completed his epic round trip journey on the second attempt with a lot of guts and a little ketamine.

(He proved his bravery yet again when he asked a Scottish audience if anyone in the room was a Morris Dancer!)

At the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh : "Is there a morris dancer in the house?"

Here then are the qualities required to help an original, adventurous idea see the light of day.

Optimism.

To me this auditorium is half full.

Infectious enthusiasm.

Tact and diplomacy.

Creativity.

And the occasional bit of bulldozer-style brute force of will.

These all apply equally to marketing communications and to fundraising events.

Thanks to The Adventurists (those lovely people that brought you the Mongol Rally) for making the evening happen in their own, inimitable, eccentric style.

Thanks also to Hendrick’s Gin for some splendidly curious libations with which we washed down the post-talk cake and sandwiches.

Inspirational stuff from the organiser, the sponsor, the venue and, of course, the speaker himself.

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This tweet appeared amidst a Tweetdeck sea of grief and eulogies, prompted by the death of Steve Jobs.

I caught my breath a little. And I was caught in two minds.

On the one hand it was classic, no-holds-barred Mash satire. Funny, frankly.

On the other the Mash tweet “broke” at the same time as news of Jobs’ death was breaking for many people. It wasn’t just topical satire. It was real time. I wish I had grabbed an image of my Tweetdeck screen at the time to show the context in which the tweet appeared. Too early? Too disrespectful?

I thought about it but decided not to retweet.

And I thought nothing more about it until I saw this xkcd cartoon, entitled ETERNAL FLAME. I have included both the animated gif version and a static image showing the rollover text.

On reflection this is all about context.

The context in which the Mash tweet appeared was created by me.

Twitter is primarily a professional tool. It is a highly efficient means of accessing and disseminating relevant information. And its efficiency in this role is a direct result of the people whom I’ve chosen to follow.

Given the industry in which I work this highly efficient information transfer network contains more than its fair share of evangelical, earlier-than-early adopters of just about any object that Apple decides to produce. It’s not surprising therefore that, on the morning of Thursday 6th October, Tweetdeck resembled a 140 character wake.

The Daily Mash doesn’t share this context. Its church is much broader than mine. As you can see from the image above, more than 100 people took a different path to me and did retweet it.

It is also the nature of Twitter that you see Daily Mash headlines out of the context provided by the full content of each article. If you read the Mash article in full you’ll see that there is no disrespect for the man. Indeed, Paul Stokes, founder of the Mash was kind enough to confirm this for me.

We don’t make fun of tragedy on the Mash. Yes the headline might bring some people up sharp, but the piece is probably as close to an affectionate tribute that you’ll ever get from the Mash.

The Mash piece was written by site editor Neil Rafferty and is modestly described by Stokes as…

…a brilliantly constructed and perfectly judged piece that summed up in a few hundred very funny words what other commentators struggled to get to in thousands.

A sentiment echoed by at least one Mash reader…

Which begs the question what exactly was the Mash article satirising?

Looking at it again I think the Mash anticipated and highlighted the ridiculous over-reaction of a small but vocal group of Apple devotees. It’s one thing to admire the man. I personally think it was a little over the top for people who had never met him to gush publicly and uncontrollably to the extent that they did about the extent to which he had changed their lives. Maybe it wasn’t actually that far fetched for some commentators to compare the reaction to the death of Jobs to that of Princess Diana.

This (over?) reaction, not the man, was the subject of their satire. A point I missed because of the insular context I had created for myself.

Satire is about providing much needed balance. Indeed, it often fills a vacuum left by the serious coverage of an issue in this respect.

When it came to balanced serious coverage of Jobs’ death, one article stood out from all others for me.

Unlike so many of the tweeters who provided my initial context, Stephen Fry had actually met Steve Jobs. And, unlike said tweeters, his measured assessment of the man and his contribution was both heartfelt and objective. It is a dignified and insightful piece of writing.

The Mash, xkcd and Stephen Fry all read the context better than I did.

My dad used to work for the Fibreglass division of Pilkington. His business cards were made out of glass fibre. They were well cool.

My mate Mark runs Sandstorm Kenya. His business cards are made out of leather. If anything they’re a little bit cooler.

Contact details deliberately blurred out.

These business cards leathers are made from off-cuts from the process of making luxury, “safari grade” luggage. Potential waste is efficiently recycled into something useful.

These business cards leathers cause a stir. Apparently the five minute conversation between five people that ensued when I was given this one is not unusual.

And here I am blogging about it.

These business cards leathers are most definitely social objects.

In the hands of a naturally engaging, natural storyteller like Mark I’d imagine that these business cards leathers are an efficient sales tool. Who needs a 20 slide Powerpoint presentation when people can enjoy the tactile feel of a piece of your product whilst you use it as a prop from which you can talk brand, product quality, ethical manufacturing and any other corporate back story?

What’s more these business cards leathers are much smaller than an iPad, they don’t need recharging and they are presentation and leave-behind aide-memoir rolled into one. They are distinctly non-digital but they have versatility, utility and interactivity in spades.

These business cards leathers are an elegant solution that speak directly to the engineer in me.

In engineering, a solution may be considered elegant if it uses a non-obvious method to produce a solution that is effective and simple. An elegant solution may solve multiple problems at once, especially problems not thought to be inter-related.

Source : Wikipedia (where else?)

Thanks to Neil Perkin for curating another highly topical, highly relevant, highly provocative Firestarters event on behalf of Google.

And thanks to Mel Exon, Martin Bailie and James Caig for providing said provocation by way of three alternative views on The New Operating System For Agencies.

This is not a summary of the evening.

This is a personal reflection on some themes that resonated with me whilst they’re are still fresh in the mind.

1) Outcomes, being asked the right questions, and “agency”.

Martin highlighted several differences in outlook between clients and agencies. One of these was that agencies focus on outputs, whereas clients are more concerned with outcomes.

More specifically, clients in marketing departments brief agencies to deliver outputs. They ask questions of agencies that demand outputs as an answer. And agency brief templates and agency systems are predicated on the expectation of delivering a specific kind of output.

However, if the client CEO or CFO rather than the marketing manager were to brief an agency on the issues keeping them awake at night they might pose different questions, questions that focus on commercial outcomes.

For instance there was a conversation about the (apocryphal?) story of JWT inventing the Mr Kipling brand in response to a brief that was actually about selling more flour.

Shifting said flour mountain was an outcome-based brief that generated an unexpected creative output from the agency.

Outcomes like this have commercial value. Commercial value to which the client will be able to attribute an accurate financial figure.

So if clients were to ask agencies more outcome-based questions there would be potential for agencies to earn outcome-based revenue for applied creativity.

This makes me think of “agency” as a state of mind rather than an office containing people. Most other agents – literary, theatrical, sporting, musical – are paid to make things happen for their clients. They take a cut from the proceeds of delivering specific outcomes. Why can’t we do something similar?

2) Indefatigable optimism

Mel talked about the dogged refusal of the BBH team to accept that the ASOS Urban Tour project was not technologically possible.

I think all agencies have that “nothing is impossible” attitude and there is nothing more exhilarating than being part of an agency team that is pulling in the same direction and pulling out all the stops to achieve the apparently impossible.

A long time ago when I was an account director at BBH we were in a very tight corner with one particular client. We were in a perfect storm of problems (“challenges” as we now have to call them). TV airtime booked, no client approved script, production budget issues, broadcast clearance issues, groundrush in terms of timings, you name it. In the midst of this storm John Bartle took me aside and said, “We’ll get through this. Agencies always do. The alternative is unthinkable.” And get through it we did with what turned out to be not one, but two award winning commercials that made a virtue of the situation we had been in.

We’ll get through this. Agencies always do. The alternative is unthinkable.

Mel went further, suggesting that this attitude could/should be crystalised into a specific role within the small, nimble, outcome-oriented, multi-skilled teams that work best in agencies large and small.

She described this role as that of “broker”. An entrepreneurial deal-maker and  partnership-former who can broker the team’s access to extraordinary inputs to, and extraordinary outlets for, its thinking.

3) Apollo 13

"Houston, we have a problem."

In summary, last night’s talks, the subsequent structured “unconference” sessions and the subsequent-to-that unstructured pub conversations left me thinking about NASA and how, in many ways, it is an interesting role model for agencies.

NASA is tasked with delivering specific outcomes. It has “missions”.

NASA applies creativity to deliver these outcomes.

NASA invests in R&D to enable its creativity. (James talked about our industry’s pitifully low levels of R&D investment).

Quite often NASA R&D that is initiated to achieve one outcome delivers new thinking/technology that can achieve other unexpected outcomes. These unexpected outcomes can often be monetised independently of the original mission brief.

As the crew of Apollo 13 found out NASA has that indefatigable optimism in spades.

So…

“Agency” should be an outcome based state of mind.

Clients should ask us better, more interesting, outcome based questions.

Achievement of specific outcomes can be assigned a specific value which is not related to the time cost of delivering the solution.

We should organise ourselves to deliver unexpected outputs in response to outcome based briefs. There was a lot of talk last night about ideas coming from anywhere. Agency structures need to reflect that if we’re serious about this outcome stuff. The mere existence of copywriter/art director teams suddenly smacks of “the answer’s an ad, now what’s the question”.

Intellectual Property developed as part of the solution delivering process, but which is not part of the final solution, should be independently developed, prototyped and monetised by the agency.

Lots to think about. I just hope that when we get back to the day jobs we’ll have time to hone and apply that thinking.

Kevin Kelly’s post on the Technium blog has just taken over my Friday evening.

It includes a link to the Google Ngram viewer.

The what?

The Google/University Consortium has digitised over 15 million books so far, and the Ngram viewer allows you to investigate the frequency of use of various words in various languages over two centuries.

It’s absolutely addictive.

Here is the somewhat frivolous example from which this post draws its title.

(Interesting to note that the popularity of “madonna” falls away significantly in the final years of the 20th Century.)

(And that “beatles” was as popular in the early 1800’s as it was in the 1960’s.)

Here’s a less trivial example, comparing the frequency of use of “machine”, “rocket”, “computer” and “automobile”.

Utterly fascinating.

Signing off to keep playing. Cheerio.

Actually make that time lapse photography with Instalapse, Hipstacase, Gorillapod, a large Velux window, a 30m extension cable and several volumes of the 1955 edition Chambers’s Encyclopedia.

Sophisticated time lapse photography rig.

Instalapse first.

Instalapse is an iPhone app that makes time lapse photography pretty darn easy actually. You set the interval between shots, set the number of shots (the app tells you what length of video you will generate for a given number of shots), frame your image area and press start. At the end of the shooting sequence you press a button to render the still frame shots into a movie. Then you can save, share, export etc at your leisure. It really is that simple.

And, despite some negative reviews in the App Store to the effect that the app kept crashing when rendering longer movies, I’ve had no problems whatsoever thus far. (Touches wood).

Obviously you need to keep the iPhone still whilst it takes its shots. The film below condenses about 75 minutes of cloud “action” into 23 seconds via roughly 575 shots at 8 second intervals.

Enter the Hipstacase.

Not only is the Hipstacase cool (IMHO). It is also functional in that it comes with a tripod adaptor that fits into a hidden slot on the case.

Hipstacase & Gorillapod

(Read this for the brilliant customer service encounter I had with the guys at Hipstamart – the analogue commercial end of the Hipstamatic franchise.)

As featured in the above shot, the Hipstacase allows the iPhone to be attached to the ultra-useful, prehensile piece of kit called the  Gorillapod. Awesome.

So now we’re rigged.

Here is the fruits of these labours. The skies over Fife. Brought to you by a great mobile device, a clever app, a cool case, the Action Man (with gripping hands) of the tripod world, some dusty books and a big window at the top of our stairs.

Three blog posts continually catch my eye for the level of ongoing traffic they pull into this blog via search engines.

What Spongebob Squarepants can teach us about modern ideas and capturing the imagination.

Page views since post first published.

This post was published on April 28, 2011. The graph above shows daily page views since publication.

At the time of writing 7% of all-time page views happened within a week of publication, 25% of all-time page views within the first month.

Already the majority of page views received by this post are “long tail” page views. And the search engine source of these views shows no sign of drying up.

The search terms generating these long tail views are variations on a very specific theme. They all come from search terms containing both “Spongebob” and “imagination”.

The episode referenced in my post is clearly of interest to plenty of others.

(If only they were interested in modern ideas too. I doubt it somehow. The vast majority will have been lured under false pretences in terms of the verbal content. But hopefully they found what they were looking for given that I found and embedded a copy of the the full “Imagination” episode.)

RSS. Social inside the circle of trust.

Page views per day since publication.

This post was published on January 7, 2011.

It garnered 6% of all page views to date on its first day. 7.5% of page views to date within a week of publication. And, at the time of writing, 12% of all-time page views within the first month.

Again the search traffic shows no sign of abating.

But this time there are no variations on a theme when it comes to the search term generating the traffic. Every single long tail page view has been driven by exactly the same search term. Namely “circle of trust”.

I assume that most, if not all, of these searchers had in mind the same film reference as me. Alas I also assume that, unlike me, they were not also wanting to use the term as an analogy for the intimacy of social interaction afforded by RSS and blog commenting.

Hopefully they were at least partially satisfied with a (borrowed) picture of Robert de Niro.

The method behind the madness that is @Betfairpoker.

Page views per day since publication.

A somewhat different pattern for this post, although the long tail principle remains the same.

This post was published on January 24, 2011. And it generated 25% of its page views to date on its first day. 38% of all-time page views at the time of writing were generated within a week of publication.

The post features an interview with Richard Bloch, the client behind the off-the-wall Betfair Poker Twitter account. The nature of the content (about Twitter) seeded on Twitter meant that it generated a lot of interest in the period immediately following publication.

44% of all page views at the time of writing happened within a month of publication. Which means that, even with a relatively turbo-charged launch, this post has had the majority of its views after its first month in existence.

The search terms driving this traffic all contain the words “Betfair” and “Twitter”. Most of them also contain the word “poker”.

And this time I’d say that the vast majority of visitors to the blog got exactly what they were looking for – some background detail on the thinking and the strategy behind the singular persona projected through the Betfair Poker Twitter profile.

I hardly need to spell out the obvious lessons here.

Very specific content and reference material is a good recipe for long tail search traffic generation.

Nirvana is matching this specific content/reference material to the likely needs of a relevant audience. I only managed this in one out of the three examples cited here.

That’s the obvious stuff.

But it’s obvious stuff that is missed or ignored by brands that put an increasing number, if not all, of their eggs in the Facebook basket.

No matter how engaging your Facebook content is at the time, it just does not give you the added benefit of this long tail effect.

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