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Archive for September, 2010

No, not websites.

Real places.

Both intensely popular.

Both at risk of being victims of their own popularity.

Both applying simple but not easy approaches to queue management.

Photo borrowed from Brian Forbes

First the multi-award-winning Anstruther Fish Bar on the East Neuk of Fife.

We took a trip up there on a Saturday evening before we made tracks for Mongolia. It happened to be the Saturday evening that coincided with the second day of the Open Golf Championship not far up the road in St Andrews.

So, on a pleasant summer evening, it was busy.

Very busy.

Queuing out of the door busy.

Further out of the door than the queue in the photograph busy.

But we’d come a long way, with our hearts set on some award-winning fish suppers.

(And mushy peas in my case.)

((Is there a national mushy peas award?))

I took my place in the queue whilst the others walked round the harbour looking at boats.

Pretty soon I was off the street, inside the restaurant and snaking my way round the metal barriers that made anything other than orderly queuing impossible.

So no anti-social behaviour, queue-barging related stress here.

Also, once inside, the reasons for rapid progress became apparent.

There were separate queues for takeaway and people wanting to sit in the restaurant.

More significantly, one of the staff worked her way down the takeaway queue taking orders well in advance of you reaching the counter.

These orders were fed into some kind of computer system with a wall-mounted screen that showed the next few orders in the queue.

So you weren’t just moving forward all the time, you also had the reassurance of seeing your order working its way to the top.

It looked and was organised. No luck involved.

But at the same time the service was all very friendly and personal.

As if by magic, when you reached the counter your order was just coming (fresh and hot) out of the fryer and being wrapped in paper.

It hadn’t been lying under infra-red heating lights for half an hour.

Nor did you experience that sinking feeling of seeing the last piece of fish being taken out from behind the glass and given to the bloke in front of you.

You experienced the mouthwatering prospect of seeing your fish come piping hot out of the fryer and being given to you.

Just-in-time, lean manufacturing methods applied to fish suppers.

Which were very, very good by the way.

Photo borrowed from Ewan-M

Next, what used to be the Phoenix & Firkin pub on Denmark Hill, London.

When I lived in Camberwell it was a stroke of immense good fortune that this was my local.

The Phoenix was so named because it was formerly the ticket office of Denmark Hill train station. The building burned down but was rebuilt and rose from the ashes to form the pub.

In the early 90’s the Firkin pubs were very popular and rightly so. Serving home brewed beers like Dog Bolter in a raucous but friendly, honky-tonk atmosphere.

Tragically the Firkin chain was bought out and handed over to the accountants who apparently changed most of them into O’Neills in a fit of plastic paddydom.

I’m glad I didn’t stick around long enough to see it happen.

On Friday and Saturday nights the place would be absolutely rammed.

The queue at the bar would be four or five deep along its entire length.

For the entire night.

But everyone got served quickly.

None of your tallest, loudest, prettiest favouritism at the Phoenix and Firkin.

No desperate waving of ten pound notes to catch the attention.

How so?

Firstly the supply of bar staff was in proportion to the demand for beer.

Secondly, and more importantly, each member of the team religiously worked a single three foot section of bar.

They served whoever was in front of them, and then the person behind. And so on.

They were deliberately blinkered in their approach to anyone to either side of that yard or so of serving territory.

In effect they created between eight and ten orderly sub-queues out of a scrum.

It quickly became apparent to the punters that you didn’t need to push, shove or maneuver to get served.

Even if you were five back from the bar you knew you would be served in a matter of minutes.

And so, after a while, no-one bothered to push, shove or maneuver.

Which served to further improve the already boisterous but friendly atmosphere.

An atmosphere in which a lot of beer was being sold very quickly.

What was good for the punters must have been good for the business too.

Premier League zonal marking methods applied to pouring pints.

Throughout my long and illustrious beer drinking career I’ve never seen this zonal system in use anywhere else.

It seems so simple.

But a lifelong study of pub service would suggest that it can’t be that easy to implement.

Simple but not easy.

Making simple things look easy when they clearly aren’t is the secret of success of many businesses and business people.

Read the biography of any high profile, successful CEO and I bet that their career has been based in large part on doing exactly this.

Leadership, vision and, above all, commitment work for FTSE 100 companies.

But they’re just as important when it comes to cooking fish suppers and pulling pints.

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I finally got to play with my new Storify beta invitation.

Unfortunately the embed option works on self-hosted WordPress blogs, but not here on wordpress.com.

So you can read my first Storify story here.

And you can see it embedded, along with my initial observations, in the Blonde blog here.

It’s good.

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Herewith a musical slideshow with some edited highlight’s from this summer’s Mongol Rally shenanigans.

Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan (again), Russia (again), Mongolia.

Dead animals, dead tanks, dead cars, dead ends.

Really, really bad roads. And some really good new friends.

Still working out what it all meant.

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On the occasion of Facebook Places going live in the UK (17th September 2010 for posterity) an ex-colleague and I had the Twitter conversation which is played out below for your entertainment and edification.

And the moral of this story?

I dunno.

Why not suggest one?

(Also available on Slideshare).

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Mary Poppins described herself as “practically perfect in every way.”

Well she wouldn’t have been quite such a smug cow if the X Factor had been around in 1964.

Mind you she (Julie Andrews) might well have won it.

(No such luck for Dick Van Dyke. He would have been mentored by Louis Walsh, and voted through the first few live rounds Jedward-style by a public with a perverse sense of humour, before deservedly crashing out when things got serious.)

Anyway, I contend that The X Factor is perfect in every way.

How so?

There are not one, not two, but three powerful dynamics working in harmony to give X Factor its extraordinary cross-generational appeal.

Firstly it’s a contemporary pantomime.

Pantomime ˈ(pæntəˌmaɪm) – n – a kind of play performed at Christmas time characterized by farce, music, lavish sets, stock roles, and topical jokes

“Farce, music, lavish sets, stock roles (think Simon vs. Louis)” sounds like a pretty good description of a show that also reaches its climax Christmas to me.

Secondly it has all the rags-to-riches, faint-heart-never-won-fair-lady drama you could possibly want from a modern day fairy tale.

Fairy talen – narrative centered on magical tests, quests, and transformations

“Magical tests, quests and transformations” – another pretty good high concept description of the X Factor.

And thirdly it is a finely tuned example of the Reality TV genre.

Reality TVn – television programs that present real people in live, though often deliberately manufactured, situations and monitor their emotions and behavior

“Real people, live, emotions and behaviour” – these are the ingredients that add the human interest and emotional engagement to the narrative and the drama.

As argued by the Venn diagram above, other highly popular shows successfully combine two of these genres but only The X Factor is holding a full house.

For instance, whilst there are obvious similarities between the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, the crucial difference between the two shows is the potential for a much greater level of emotional engagement with the X Factor protagonists.

This is mainly a function of the programme format – a BGT contestant who survives the initial filtering process has the opportunity to perform live on two shows maximum – their semi-final and the final if they get through. Compare that with, say, ten or more live performances, plus all the individual back story content that goes with each one, for an X Factor “contender”. Like Big Brother, the X Factor format affords greater opportunity to “monitor emotions and behaviour” in true reality TV style.

What can we learn from the X Factor?

Firstly that “big” ideas these days are rich, multi-dimensional ideas that work on several levels. Traditional advertising is an exercise in reduction, simplification and single-mindedness. And at its high concept level the X Factor is what Steven Spielberg would call an idea “that you can hold in your hand“. But it is also a complex, layered idea that rewards extended interaction. “Digital” frees us from the constraints of 30″ timelengths and two dimensional A4 spaces. Ideas that are simple to explain but complex to experience should be what sets the industry apart from “trad-ad”.

Secondly the X Factor is perfect in concept AND execution.

Only yesterday (15th September 2101) Dave Trott quoted John Hegarty as saying that “A great ad is 80% idea and 80% execution.” Meaning that excellent execution can elevate a good idea to greatness, and that poor execution can undermine a great idea.

The X Factor is perfectly executed. Ambitious in scale. Extremely high production values. Produced by what is obviously a tightly knit, crack team of people. Delivered by people who understand the idea and their roles within it – the choice of Dermot O’Leary as front man for instance is inspired. Not to mention all the added-value content spin-offs like the Xtra Factor, YouTube channel etc. The quality control that is applied to every aspect of production is every bit as ruthless as that which Simon Cowell applies to the contestants.

It’s easy to look down your nose at mainstream, populist success stories like this.

In the same way that it’s easy to dismiss as lowbrow the awesome storytelling abilities of authors like Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Jackie Collins et al.

Not me. I love it. And Saturday night on the sofa with the kids and a London Pride in hand is one of the highlights of the week.

My name is Phil Adams and I love The X Factor!

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Gerry Farrell, the creative director of The Leith Agency would sometimes describe an advertising idea as having “got the Zeitgeist by the bollocks.”

Well this book put the Zeitgeist’s wedding tackle in a vice back in 1998 and, rather than loosening its grip in the intervening years, it’s slowly been turning the screw ever since.

How many contemporary themes can one book realistically hope to explore?

You want a banking crisis? You got a banking crisis.

Prudent? It had been a struggle even to be prudent. In the 1980s Prudent hadn’t stood a chance; nor in the late 1990s. The boom was on, and the banking business had caught fire, and a wonderful giddy madness was in the air. The line officers from Marketing were pushing through loans, their “big sales,” with a pell-mell abandon. If you were a referee who insisted on detecting the madness and blowing your whistle, they just ran right over you, laughed at you, made you feel timid and old-fashioned. Like every other senior credit officer, Peepgas had signed off tens of millions of dollars’ worth of loans with self-destruct written all over them…including Charlie Croker’s, rather than try to stand in the way of the stampede…

But you also get…

  • Racial tension.
  • Misogynist rap lyrics.
  • The different rules that modern sportspeople and celebrities believe apply to them.
  • The shallowness of “friendships” based on status, money and utility.
  • The impact on all stakeholders of a dick-led divorce and second marriage to a younger spouse.
  • The machinations of local politics.
  • The potentially catastrophic consequences of marital infidelity.
  • The pressure of being the main family breadwinner in times of economic downturn and uncertainty.

A Man In Full tag cloud would probably sell the book to you on its own. (You should never judge a book by its cover, but a tag cloud is probably ok.)

There are a few recurring themes in this book.

Firstly that our lives – all lives great and small – are hanging by threads. And that it only takes one poor decision, or the wrong response to an incident of bad luck, for the whole thing to unravel and fall apart.

Secondly that pride almost certainly does come before a fall.

Thirdly that redemption moves in mysterious ways.

This morality tale is beautifully told through the eyes of a series of trademark Tom Wolfe larger than life characters, whose personal stories gradually converge across 750 odd compelling pages.

But the reason that I’ve read this book three times now, and Bonfire Of The Vanities only once, is that these larger than life characters have more depth and are more sympathetic. Indeed this seems to have been a common theme amongst professional book reviewers, and I heartily concur.

I believe that Will Self once described “what is your favourite book?” as the most stupid question anyone could ask, although I couldn’t find evidence of this on Google. If he did say it I kind of know what he means. Favourite book singular, as opposed to favourite books plural, is a notion that I’d instinctively resist. Nonetheless, A Man In Full is the title that pops into my head if I ever entertain the thought. That must mean something.

I realise that I’ve said a lot without actually giving any detail on the characters or any precis of the storyline.

And I’m not going to.

There are plenty of places where you can read a plot summary if that’s your bag.

Just trust me. This book is an epic treat. In turn funny, poignant, and insightful.

The only slight criticism I’d level is that the ending lacks some of the sparkle of the rest of the book.

But don’t let that put you off. If I’d just watched Liverpool tear Manchester Utd apart for 85 minutes, scoring five or six spectacular goals in the process, I wouldn’t begrudge them two or three minutes of passing the ball back and forwards without attacking intent before the final whistle.

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Just back from a month of Mongol Rally action, driving a second hand ambulance nearly 9,000 miles through lots of countries ending in “stan” for the hell of it and to raise money for various charities.

Lots of deserts, lots of weird and wonderful experiences, and some very good new friends.

Oh yeah and lots and lots of dust…

Hence the lack of any posts on this blog for the month of August.

Content generation energies have been focussed on our team website and our flickr account.

Favourite Mongol posts are here, here and here.

I arrived back in Edinburgh at 10pm on Sunday after travelling more or less 24 hours to the minute, and I was straight back to work on Monday morning, a week later than originally planned. Limping towards the weekend for some proper decompression time and then normal service will hopefully be resumed at home, at work and at blog.

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