Archive for the ‘Food for thought’ Category

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.


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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?)

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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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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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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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What does it mean if you include your employer’s brand in your Twitter name?

Whoa! Let’s back up and rephrase that highly assumptive opening sentence.

What does it mean if you include your employer’s brand in the name of a Twitter profile operated by you?

In other words, can a Twitter profile operated by you, but which includes your employer’s name, truly be regarded as “yours”?

A recent post on the Brand Republic blog, featuring the case of Laura Kuenssberg, served to highlight that this is currently something of a grey area.

But I doubt very much that it will remain so for long.

Literally overnight, @BBCLauraK became @ITVLauraK. She took circa 60,000 followers with her to her new employer.

And, as one comment on the Brand Republic piece points out, she had been tweeting exclusively about her work at the BBC. The Beeb would have had a legitimate claim that people were following their Political Correspondent, not “some krazy chick called LauraK.”

They would have had a legitimate claim this is, had they shut the barn door before the horse bolted.

This is all about value exchange.

A high social profile has potential value to a potential employer.

Likewise, an employer’s brand has potential value (kudos even) to a potential employee.

Employers and employees have always considered this kind of value exchange. “What value will this person’s CV add to our organisation?” versus “What value will this organisation add to my CV?”

The rise of social platforms has just added another layer to an existing dynamic.

But whereas considerations on both sides of the fence about CV value might have gone unspoken, considerations about social value need to be openly discussed.

What if, for instance, you’re a digital agency looking to hire a new developer? And what if you’re considering two candidates with identical coding skills and experience? Both feel like a good cultural fit, both have the same salary expectations, but one is an accomplished tech blogger with a five figure following of relevant people on Twitter.

It would be highly assumptive of said digital agency to hire candidate B (accomplished blogger) on the expectation of being able to access his or her community but without any kind of up front discussion and agreement.

In these circumstances the potential employee brings to the table a potential asset. A hard earned and valuable asset. And he or she hasn’t used the potential employer’s brand to establish its value. It is a proprietary asset in the potential employee’s name. It is for he or she to decide whether that asset is for sale (“yes I will be ITVLaura”) or rent (“yes I, Laura, will tweet about ITV stuff as and when I feel said stuff is relevant to my followers”).

Whether, and how, that potential value of the employee’s asset might be realised to mutual benefit should be as much a topic of up front conversation as holiday entitlement and working hours.

Your personal brand and your social profile are precious. And, like the full set of  AC/DC albums on vinyl, they should probably be protected by some kind of pre-nuptial agreement that guarantees you continued custody if you and your employer should ever “divorce.”

What if this hypothetical digital agency actually decided in its wisdom to hire candidate A, an accomplished coder with no social profile to speak of?

It would be highly assumptive of of said candidate to incorporate their new employer’s brand into their Twitter name as a shortcut to growing a following, and expect to take that following with them if and when they moved on.

In this case the value equation works the other way and the employer has equal right to “pre-nuptial” protection of its brand name and the potential effect on its reputation of an employee tweeting in its name.

That these things should be discussed in advance rather than in hindsight clearly isn’t as obvious as it should be.

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