Archive for September, 2011

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.


“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.

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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.

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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.

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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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I can remember exactly where I was as the 9/11 atrocity unfolded.

I was in Edinburgh then Brussels.

The Brussels trip was for a pan-European advertising pitch on 10/11.

As Gerry (creative director), Giles (bag carrier) and I dashed out of the agency, an account manager came dashing in saying, “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Centre.”

At the time we lacked the imagination to assume that it was anything other than a tragic accident involving a Cessna. Pilot and passenger dead and hopefully no-one hurt on the streets below.

At the time we also lacked the mobile wherewithal to investigate further en route to the airport.

Check-in and security at Edinburgh passed without incident.

However, once we were flight-side, things started to get more odd and slightly more disturbing.

British Airways was broadcasting announcements asking passengers travelling to Heathrow for connecting flights to the States to contact a member of staff.

Then my wife phoned and pretty much begged me not to fly.

I don’t remember her being aware of the full extent of what was happening in New York. She just knew that something terrible had happened involving aeroplanes. And she believed that I would be in grave danger if I boarded the plane to Brussels.

At this point we still had no idea what was going on. There was nothing on the public TV screens. Indeed there may not even have been public TV screens back then.

And it was a pan-European pitch for God’s sake. Those things don’t grow on trees.

No way were we not flying to Brussels.

As it happens I think we were pretty much the last flight to leave Edinburgh that day.

No announcements regarding the situation were made during the flight.

So we were unprepared  for the utter chaos that greeted us in Brussels Airport.

(Brussels Airport is more or less next door to NATO European HQ we discovered later).

It took hours to collect our bags and get through security.

And we were both white.

It was conspicuous that anyone with the slightest amount of non-Caucasian skin pigmentation was being shepherded into a separate queue, having their bags more or less ripped apart, and being subject to heated interrogation. We moved quickly by comparison.

It was only, finally, as we checked into our hotel in the early evening that we saw a commercial airliner fly into a skyscraper.

There was a throng of delayed latecomers in the reception area. And we collectively convinced ourselves that we had indeed seen what we had just seen.

When we left Edinburgh we lacked the imagination to envisage this. And, along with our fellow guests, we struggled to comprehend then recalibrate our notions of the possible.

We made contact with the potential client who confirmed that the pitch would be going ahead as planned the following morning.

Under normal circumstances we would have eaten a quick meal then rehearsed, rehearsed and rehearsed again before getting an early night.

Instead we huddled around the TV and drank into the early hours in a crowded bar full of dishevelled euro-businessmen, top shirt buttons undone and ties loosened.

The next day we half-heartedly pitched regardless.

Pan-European pitches don’t grow on trees.

But we should have walked away from this one.

We should have walked away when the potential client proudly told us that he had spent the evening recreating the attack on his flight simulator PC game.

Sick fuck.

My parents’ generation can all remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination, and when man first landed on the moon.

For me the death of Diana (taking coffee back to bed on a Sunday morning and remarking to my wife that it was odd for Radio 1 to be playing solemn classical music) and 9/11 assume the same significance.

I don’t think there’s any other day from the last decade that I could document in the same eidetic detail.


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This Lancashireman is struggling to compete with the extreme, and extremely competitive, privations described by the four Yorkshiremen.

Working a twelve hour overnight shift in the (now defunct) Rathbone’s Bakery in Wigan may not be as bad as licking a motorway clean before breakfast, but it felt pretty close at the time.

It was an Easter holiday student job, which promised to pull in a tidy sum by the standards of the mid 80’s.

My shift ran from 6pm to 6am, punctuated by a couple of short rest breaks.

My job was to move bread from the end of the production line to the waiting trucks in the loading bays.

The baking, slicing and packaging of said bread was a fully automated process. And said bread came off the end of several lines in plastic pallets containing, from memory, about sixteen loaves.

Along with several others I collected these pallets using a manual trolley-cum-forklift. You slid the forks under a pile of pallets, used a foot pedal to raise the bread tower off the ground, and wheeled the lot round to the lorries with a quick stop en route to weigh a random sample of loaves to ensure that they were within the prescribed tolerance levels.

Whilst (I assume) the production lines were state of the art for their day, the building itself lingers in my memory as a red-brick, Victorian, dark-satanic mill of a prison to which I was sentenced for twelve hours of hard labour every night.

And high on the wall behind the production lines was a large, Victorian clock with Roman numerals.

A round trip from the production line to the loading bays and back took around two minutes.

So this clock had the drip, drip, water-torture-like effect of breaking twelve hours into 360 two minute segments.

There were no Walkmen in those days, let alone iPods.

No music, no podcasts, no talking books to alleviate the monotony.

So I devised a coping strategy based on repeatedly lowering my personal best time for a round trip.

But this strategy was brought to an abrupt halt before I’d had the chance to really push the envelope of what was achievable.

My coping strategy had drawn attention to me.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

The shop steward looked me in the eye and said, “Slow down son. You’re making the others look bad.”

I hadn’t been looking to increase productivity. I’d been looking to stay sane. And now I was fucked.

I think I lasted no more than three nights.

But it was the best piece of university-of-life learning I’ve ever had.

I determined to always have a job that would have me bouncing of of bed in the morning. Life is way too short for any other attitude to work.

Indeed that bakery job is why I did a handbrake turn straight out of university from engineering to advertising. And I can genuinely count on the fingers of one hand the number of days in the last twenty three years when I haven’t wanted to get out of bed.

Unfortunately this sample-of-one personal experience has also deeply coloured my attitudes to trade unions. But that’s another story.

Everyone should have a “worst job I ever had” story. What’s yours?

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