Archive for April, 2010

Hats off to the BBC for its series The Story Of Science.

I stumbled upon it tonight and ended up a happy licence fee payer.

Tonight’s first episode, presented in a passionate and accessible way by Michael Mosley, looked at the history of our understanding of the physical machinations of the solar system and the universe beyond it. And it discussed the societal and political machinations that influenced how that developing knowledge was gathered and disseminated.

It was all sufficiently compelling and accessible to separate my 13 year old daughter from Facebook for the best part of an hour.

I was most taken by a 10 minute passage, at the end of which I was struck by the similarities between how Galileo’s heliocentric theories (the sun at the centre of the universe) were developed and shared back in the 17th century and how ideas are being developed and shared in our digital age.

His ideas were fueled by emerging technology (the telescope).

This technology was effectively open source, which allowed him to develop, refine and apply that which had been started by someone else.

Through painstaking observation this new technology generated large volumes of data.

Galileo then painstakingly proved himself to be a dab hand at data visualisation as he drew and engraved his observations and discoveries.

New media (the printing press) allowed him to distribute his controversial Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems to a mass audience.

The attempt by the Catholic Church to control (i.e. ban) his intellectual property, and their conviction of him as a heretic, effectively ensured a powerful underground word of mouth movement to share and discuss his ideas.

The internet – another little bit of history repeating itself.


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I am indebted to the Damn, I Wish I’d Thought Of That blog for posting a leaving speech from a guy I’d never heard of.

Chris Pullman was “design visionary” at Boston based public broadcast service WGBH in Boston.

This, Point 7, from his What I’ve Learned speech really resonated with me.

Variety is the spice of life.

When I came here in the early 70’ s the trend was toward monolithic design programs governed by a thick and sacred style manual. As I got to understand the business, this strategy seemed to me to make no sense for WGBH. With programming as diverse as The French Chef, NOVA and ZOOM, no one mode of visual expression could logically suite this range of content. It occurred to me that in fact variety itself can be a kind of consistency. But when the visual expressions of a company are always and rightfully different, you have to have some other constant that binds the work together, something that lets individual expressions be different, but makes them recognizable as a family of related materials. The goal in this game is to strive for the smallest number of constants and the largest number of variables. And you have to turn to non-visual sources of consistency.

“Variety itself can be a kind of consistency”.

“Strive for the smallest number of constants and the largest number of variables.”

I love these ideas, and I tend to admire the brands that successfully espouse this philosophy.

In fact I often quoted the (ok, obvious) example of Nike when trying to explain this approach to clients when I worked in advertising. There is very little in terms of executional detail that unites a reel of 10 Nike commercials. But they and it absolutely hang together as campaign and brand respectively.

I am equally indebted to Gareth Kay for posting this now widely distributed  presentation about the creative brief in the post-digital age.

It includes this (slide 86) point about brand coherency being more important than brand consistency.

The example on Gareth’s slide is Starbucks, but it could equally well be Nike, or indeed Google which he references in the slide that follows about Distributed Identity.

The traditional, consistency, approach to brand management either doesn’t work any more or it seriously holds brands back in an environment in which brands should be “exploding” onto multiple stages.

Exploding coherently that is.

So there is danger in unexploded brands.

What they gain in consistency they lose ten times over in missed opportunities to express themselves and engage.

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On my last trip to the Netherlands I took the train from Schipol into Amsterdam.

If my kids had been there, they’d have been all excited about the double-decker train carriages.

But what I like best about Dutch trains is the lack of gratuitous, pseudo-service announcements.

The Dutch treat you as an adult and assume a modicum of intelligence on your part.

They assume that you can read simple instructions and get yourself onto the right train.

They assume that you know which stop to get off at.

And they assume that you’ll remember to take your stuff with you when you leave the train.

Progress is serene on Dutch trains.

No processed, insincere protestations of customer love.

No intelligence-insulting and conversation halting announcements.

They appreciate that silence is golden.

They know when to shut the fuck up.

Would that some people would do the same in social spaces.

I’ve posted before about what I see as the heinous crime of live tweeting from events – the presenter loses, you lose, and the people who follow you lose as you bash out a bunch of posts that mean nothing to anyone who isn’t there.

But there are other equally heinous crimes.

I’ve come so, so close to unfollowing and/or unfriending several otherwise funny, informative, nice people who insist on posting absolutely everything to Twitter AND Facebook AND LinkedIn.


Just because they can.

Well, just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.

In fact, viewed from the receiving end, you definitely shouldn’t.

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Begins here first account of operative me, agent number 67, on arrival Midwestern American airport greater xxxxxx area. Flight xxxxxx. Date xxxxxx. Priority mission top success to complete. Code name : Operation Havoc.

Chuck Palahniuk is an extreme dude.

Correction, I have no idea what kind of dude Chuck Palahniuk is.

But he writes extreme books. No taboo left unturned. All outlandish themes and concepts happily considered.

Think Fight Club.

Think Choke.

Think Rant.

Pygmy is no disappointment in this respect.

Pygmy is the derogatory nickname given to the diminutive 13 year old ‘hero’ of the book. He is a cultural exchange student from an undisclosed eastern nation who has been placed in the care of an uber-Christian American family.

He is also a highly trained terrorist, separated from his family and groomed for this purpose since the age of four.

The book is written in the first person from Pygmy’s point of view in a carefully crafted and beautifully sustained form of pigeon English.

The first person approach, combined with the use of  language, allow the book to explore its main themes of terrorism, racism and the dysfunctional aspects of American society (not to mention graphic descriptions of female sex aids and homosexual rape) in a way which is both typically Palahniuk in terms of its no-holds-barred approach and yet completely original and surprising.

Here, for instance, is Pygmy misinterpreting the ubiquity of Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets…

Along returning journey, encounter frequent memorial honoring American battle warrior, great officer similar Lenin. Many vast mural depicting most savvy United State war hero. Rotating statue. Looming visage noble American colonel. Courageous, renown of history, Colonel Sanders, image forever accompanied odor of sacrificial meat. Eternal flame offering wind savory perfume roasted flesh.

I’ve always liked my ideas served extreme.

I most enjoy working with unpredictable creative teams that might struggle to stay on brief on occasion, but who will always surprise and, more often than not, delight.

Chuck Palahniuk is the author equivalent of that kind of creative team.

But, as I discovered in preparing for this post, it’s a case of “nice books, shame about the website”.

I visited “the official Chuck Palahniuk website” in the hope (and expectation) of finding some personal feelings about the book, its themes, its inspiration from the horse’s mouth.

But, as far as I can see, there is very little of a personal nature on there.

Pygmy is written in the first person. But the website of Chuck (as opposed to Chuck’s website) is a distinctly third person affair.

At this time, Chuck has no plans to tour overseas anywhere for ‘Tell All’.

I have no idea what kind of dude Chuck Palahniuk is.

And “his” website leaves me none the wiser.

If I’m not careful though, it might leave me a lot the poorer.

It’s a lean, mean monetisation machine.

(Admittedly with an active fan forum and writers’ workshop thrown in).

The overall impression is of the website equivalent of the kind of restaurant that is more concerned with quickly processing its customers in order to squeeze in an extra cover before closing time than with delivering a rich, unforgettable, personalised experience.

It’s a missed opportunity.

Surely high profile authors will soon start to capitalise on digital technology and social platforms to engage directly with their audiences in a similar way to musicians such as Radiohead.

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Trepido, trepidas, trepidat.

Trepidamus, trepidatis, trepidant.

From the first declension Latin verb Trepidare.

(To hurry with alarm, be in confusion, be agitated, be disturbed).

All of the above currently apply to me.

“Be disturbed”

A good friend of mine recently paid a visit to the UK from his home in Canada.

He came to Scotland via Cardiff, where he collected a second hand ambulance which he had bought for £3,000 on ebay.

He and three others had decided to take part in the 2010 Mongol Rally in said ambulance.

Over whisky one night he pointed out that the ambulance has five seats…

And, to cut a short story even shorter, I am now officially an Ambecile.

The Ambeciles is an aptly named team of five people about to do a stupidly exciting thing in an ambulance.

Consider my hitherto quiet life well and truly “disturbed”.

“Be agitated”

There is a lot to do.

The ambulance needs a fair bit of servicing before it’s ready to hit the road.

(Forgetting for a moment that roads will be a luxury for large parts of the journey).

We need sponsors to cover the cost of the vehicle and the journey.

We need partners to help us with equipment.

And we’re raising money for several charities.

All of this to be fitted in around work and family life.

(Oh, and by the way, my wife and I are both Ambeciles. We’re splitting the journey between us.)

So agitation is indeed the order of the day.

Agitation in terms of excitement and anticipation.

Agitating in terms of generating interest and support.

Followed this summer by the physical agitation of the ambulance by hostile terrains.

“Be in confusion”

My passport is away for three months with The Adventurists (organisers of the rally).

They kindly do all the dirty donkey work associated with getting visas for the countries en route.

So far they have secured my visa for Kyrgyzstan, and my passport is currently at the Uzbekistan consulate.

I’m joining the team in Volgograd (former Stalingrad) in Russia and, in addition to the countries already mentioned, will be travelling through Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan on the way to Mongolia.

This is a Google Earth image of the rough route.

Some of these places I’d never actually heard of.

Let alone considered visiting.

To be in confusion?

Well it is all pleasantly bewildering.

Or maybe ignorance is misguided bliss.

“To hurry with alarm”

With any luck we’ll be making good speed (hurrying) in a vehicle that is equipped with flashing blue lights and a siren (with alarms).

Trepidare is obviously the Latin root of the modern English words trepidation and intrepid.

My feelings right now are a cocktail of both.

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Some people have bigger feet than others. Some people have higher IQ’s than others.

Some people have exceptionally big feet. Some people benefit from extreme intelligence.

Key word = exceptionally.

Key word = extreme.

In fact most people have feet that are slightly bigger or slightly smaller than the average foot size. Ditto for IQ.

Statisticians would describe this with a Normal Distribution graph.

Ignore the scary maths symbols. If this were a normal distribution of foot size, the horizontal axis would correspond to the size of foot and the vertical axis to the percentage of people with feet of a particular size.

The peak in the graph would correspond to the average, and most common, foot size.

And, in this example, (borrowed from wikipedia) 68.2% of people would have feet that are slightly bigger or slightly smaller than average.

13.6% of people would have noticeably big feet.

Another 13.6% would have feet that are noticeably small.

2.1% would have exceptionally big feet.

And 0.1% would have ‘extreme’ feet.

This kind of distribution applies to all sorts of natural phenomena and to just about every field of human endeavour. Some people are taller, some people are better at sport etc. Most people are either side of the average. But some, the very few, are exceptional or extreme.

This also applies to ads or to any kind of ‘content’.

Most ads on TV are slightly better or slightly worse than average. Some are good. But very few are awesome.

And your content needs to be awesome if you have designs on it going viral.

For awesome read keyword exceptional or keyword extreme.

But ‘viral’ briefs are put into the same systems, worked on by the same people, and quality controlled by the same clients that churn out largely average content.

The same people, systems and cultures that, in many cases, are hardwired to avoid the extreme.

Key phrase = head above the parapet.

And yet some planners, creatives and clients seem to think that because their brief carries the word ‘viral’ at the top, the resulting content has some kind of divine right to be distributed for free by millions of hapless ‘consumers’.

(They might as well write ‘abracadabra’ at the top for all the wishful that writing ‘viral’ entails.)

Let’s assume (like most ad agency people still do) that ‘viral’ content is video content.

With over 20 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, what is it that you’re going to do differently with this brief to give your viral a chance of going viral?

Let’s face it. Unless you’re going to relax some rules, unless you’re going to lose the usual commercial safety nets, unless you’re going to embrace extremity, the odds are stacked against you.

Let’s face it. Even if you relax some rules, even if you lose the commercial safety nets, even if you embrace extremity, the odds are stacked against you.

It probably won’t happen.

(Thanks to Andy Irvine for the bell curve of awesomeness image).

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