Too much transparency

Hungary: sorry about our prime minister - billboard

This week, this month, we are living through incredibly interesting times. That such a large chunk of the world population has been forced to move is monumentous. Our reaction to it has been perhaps the biggest test of our values (that much overused word) for several generations.

Some have come out looking better than others. Perhaps an interesting twist in stereotypes and history, the Germans and their leader in particular have inspired by compassion today.

And I assume they will continue to do so. Of course, the situation is much more nuanced than just right or wrong, but it has exposed so many base instincts in so many, so many attitudes, so much of cultural dynamics, and of course so much that never changes – our underlying human instincts.

Transparency, in companies, governments and the press is so often given as a universal positive. But in today’s world do we always have to accept that. An MP who was on the right side of the public opinion (and the evil press, personified by the Daily Mail) could be a pariah today.

Is this really the most effective form of government, formenting as it does a preference for point scoring over genuinely solving problems? Here and in the States, we see these structures causing paralysis, not action amongst those charged with leading.

How about this. Every year, rather than four, we hold a vote in the UK (via Facebook, or something) on whether the government is doing a good job overall. And if they’re not, we hold an election. And then we make debates in Parliament subject to Chatham House rules.

I suspect this is more or less the situation we had before round the clock media and a million lobbies on our leaders.

Might it make a difference?

10 years

Over lunch at Dots, Antony and I were reminicising about how we first met. 

Back then, I was the MD of a small digital agency and Antony was something senior in PR. We both worked for the same holding company. We were asked to form a group, along with various others, to figure out what impact the Internet would have on the holding group.

Antony joked yesterday that we were in the group because we knew what a website was. This wasn’t far from the truth. The whole industry was really struggling to adapt to digital. 

But going on from the themes of the conference yesterday: difficulty of change, how we move towards the future and so on, here’s the interesting thought… If we could have told the group back then exactly what was about to happen: from social media to Uber, to hacktivism, to Egyptian revolutions, to how young people are interacting, would we even have been believed?  And would the companies involved managed to cease the opportunity?

Why’s this interesting (to me at least)? Because it underlines that thinking about what is going to happen is not always the problem. Often, it’s reacting to those ideas that is.

One day, at a time

Ciara Judge - big screen at Dots

Yesterday was the Dots conference, part of the Brighton Digital Festival. I was there to do a little bit on Unthinkable but mostly just to sit and enjoy the conferences with the 200 or so other attendees.

In terms of content, this was the conference’s difficult second album, after a blinding debut last year including Russell Davies, Mark Earls, John Wilshire and many others.

Antony and the team at Brilliant Noise ensured a low-pomposity affair at the Duke’s cinema. Light-hearted but packed full of short, impactful presentations (oh, and very nice food).

My key take-aways:

Adam Morgan, inventor of the phrase ‘challenger brands’ opened (obvious headliner!) with an interesting piece on how constraints drive creativity. Some of the examples may suffer a little bit from the ‘selection bias’ of picking winners out of history that fit a particular thesis. However, the concept that an entrepreneur is someone who doesn’t assume that the available resources are only those which are under their direct control would prove to be a theme that ran throughout the rest of the day, and forces us to look quite differently at many of the challenges we face.

Continuing his naming flair, Morgan came up with the “Uber Generation” to describe our currently emerging ‘unreasonable’ consumer who expects more for less and presented in a prettier box. Whether we like generation Uber or not is left to the reader. However, they are presented as the target market for the Next Big Thing.

Next up was Tess MacLeod Smith from Net a Porter. She’s behind the brand’s Porter magazine (a bi-monthly global fashion magazine to rival vogue but with built-in shopping off the page) and various other apps and social media components.

For me, the most interesting thing was to see the huge change that an ostensibly traditional media person (MacLeod Smith) had experienced in leaving Hearst and Harper’s Bazaar to go to a tech startup which was basically doing the same thing. Perhaps it’s equally interesting that once she had learned the new ways (agile and all that), that she had little intention of going back.

The idea of starting a magazine today is also so counter to traditional wisdom that is causes us to look once again at all of those “x is dead” statements.

Last before the break was a wonderfully irreverent insider look at the transformation of from its CIO Christina Scott. Unlike the standard case study (and it should be said, Net a Porter), Christina offered a peak at the real challenges faced when trying to get innovation and transformation away inside a big firm. If I had to pick one thing, it would undoubtedly be the rule that execs at FT (including Scott herself) are no longer allowed to attend governance meetings because of the impact they have on projects. Sound familiar?

I remain convinced that real life stories such as Scott’s are the most valuable inspirations for all of us trying to affect some kind of change (which is probably most of us), even if they are not shiny, simplistic or have the best outcomes.

Next up was Antony himself with a great talk about organisations, leadership, transformation and possible futures, a topic he had unapologetically half-inched from Nick Price, a late addition to the afternoon line up.

Again a theme which would be echoed several times over the day, Antony talked about businesses as organisms not mechanisms. Good line. And about the concepts of ‘possible futures’. For example, will we end up with centralised or ‘stacked’ web that Facebook, Google, Amazon and others are pushing us towards, or the radical decentralisation which blockchain promises and has historically been the hallmark of the web?

Either way, we should think of the future not as a 10-tonne truck which is hurtling towards us, but a range of possible outcomes over which we have influence and where there is tremendous opportunity.

Contrary to earlier promises, however, Antony did hold a metaphorical large melon (in the style of TED):


Before lunch we had the treat of Steve Chapman. Steve made a compelling case that we spend most of our lives deliberately avoiding the creative zone and presenting lots of ideas for getting out of our comfort zones, including some toe-curling conference experiments. Plus great, hand-drawn, pseudo science charts making good points:

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 08.46.45

A panel discussion after lunch covered how companies are working with start-ups. Although it quickly became obvious that the answer lies somewhere between ‘they aren’t’ and ‘unsuccessfully’, although we hope in the future things might improve.

Nick Price followed, standing in for Eva Applebaum, and talking about future thinking. I’ve personally never come across this before, beyond the somewhat pointless ‘futureology’ of generic trends forecasting. It was a great introduction to the art form, and reassuring to hear that Neal Stephenson (who has incredible form in predicting the future) is part of the US chapter of the several organisations trying to turn future thinking into a discipline. Simplistic take. Don’t start with the end in mind. Start with the possible ends in mind.

After that it was me. Slightly too sardonic as usual and I think the only person to actually be profane but people were very nice about it and luckily only one person knew who Steve Sasson was.

I’m very glad the lady following me wasn’t on before instead as I think she probably captured the conference’s imagination most. Ciara Judge (pic at top) is the winner of the Google Science Fair, an entrepreneur, and a very compelling speaker. She talked about the fact that people chose to focus instead on the fact that she is 17 and a girl. She made the case that social constraints and expectations are largely imagined restrictions, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her on a TED stage very soon. Whether she’s young or not, I think a lot of us were humbled that she’s done more in 17 years than we have done in twice as many.

She didn’t mention One Direction. Not even once.

Actually, however, I think Ciara was upstaged. The next presenter was Stuart Turner. Stuart joined by Skype, not least because he is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. He told an extremely inspirational story of more or less dragging himself out of his ‘prison’ of disability using modern technology: first wheelchairs and assistive devices, and then robots and drones which allow him to travel, run and experience more of the world once again. Even doing the presentation was clearly highly tiring for him, again humbling us with the ‘constraints’ we feel in our lives.

Steven Ramage introduced What three words – a new approach to mapping based on the idea that combinations of three words (out of the 40,000 available), creates enough variants to uniquely identify any 3x3m square on earth. It’s a tantalising promise of creating addresses for millions worldwide who do not currently have them.

Wrapping up the day was Sam Conniff, Co-founder of Livity, a fascinating social enterprise. Facing statistical obsolesce as Livity approaches its 15th birthday, Conniff took a philosophical and wide-ranging look at characteristics of businesses which last 100s, not 10s of years, concluding that we need to replace today’s profit-focussed and self-centred business leaders (under which he invoked Kim Kardashian and – phrase of the day – ‘Jack Welsh’s disgraceful face’ ) with leaders who care about society and sustainability – modelled on the Rowntrees and Rockerfellers  of the past.

To do this Conniff has appointed himself the world’s first Chief Purpose Officer.

In a twenty-minute presentation that covered about 40 topics, Conniff was an energising end to a brilliant conference.

For those of us exhausted with traditional conference formats, speakers and, frankly, pricing, Dots has now twice proven to be the perfect pick-me-up.

Dot – dash dash

Did I mention I was speaking at Dots in Brighton? Neil (who is curating) has a look at the whole line up here. Even better, I can offer a few time-limited reduced price tickets if you are one of the first five to use the discount code ‘Tom’ when booking online. See you you there for a lovely, lively and interesting day by the sea.

Picture perfect

Selfie - Beatle

We all spend a lot of time in brainstorms, imagining the future. Often the excessively audacious ideas are shelved. Sometimes they’re kept but labelled “vision”.

And then, every so often, one of those weird or audacious ideas will materialize.

Whether that’s because you did it yourself, or someone else did it, it’s a very strange feeling. Like the storybook dragon coming to life.

There’s been a few for me. The hard-drive based mp3 player which can store every compilation tape you’ve ever made (aka the iPod – not the first but the first true incarnation), synchronized “last watched” positions in movies across devices (hats off to Netflix  – again not the first, but the best), and “from here you could get home in 43 minutes” (currently best done by Google Now).

These are all a sort of reverse-Eureka moment, where not the idea but the reality, is the reason for jumping out of the bath.

Possibly the most audacious problem I’ve ever worked on is the challenge of managing digital photography.

For a short period, when our ideas were only constrained by Post-It glue, we had devised the perfect solution, only to find that it would be almost impossible to achieve.

The problems were clear. The volume of digital photography most people collect is enormous. The information held in photos is hard for machines to decode or file. Once lost, photos cannot be recreated. Whilst most photos are rejects, it’s almost impossible to spot which ones aren’t without (or even with) human interaction. Duplicates and close-duplicates are hard to pick out, and fit into multiple different use cases  – sometimes it’s “take four so at least one of them is good”, sometimes its burst shooting on purpose, sometimes its burst shooting by mistake and on and on.

At the heart of it, the apparent freedom to point and click, click, click with little cost attached translates into a deferred cost of managing, storing and ultimately deleting which few care to deal with, and even fewer have a good strategy for.

These are all the consumer problems. What is the business problem?

We put it like this: knowing that consumers are trigger happy, and few have had the incentive required to take the management problem seriously (i.e. few have lost the wedding pictures and now think about it properly), no business in their right mind would get into the free-storage for photos business because:

  • Unlike music/video lockers, there is no room for de-duplication
  • Storage must be incredibly robust as must be any plan to delete user pictures (e.g. for inactive accounts) since the PR risk of deleting family photos is high

Yet, consumers themselves are highly unlikely to pay for such a metered service, as this would require them to act responsibly, which they don’t want to do, or sign up for an essentially open-ended cost.

Enter Google Photos. The search giant has woken from its social network madness, releasing photos from the inadvertent sharing risk which Plus imposed. And the chocolate factory has provided the user with several types of magic:

  • Unlimited storage – no need to act responsibly
  • Free up storage – Keep you photos easily accessible but off your storage-strapped device
  • Auto-magic organisation (a technical term from the project team) – Turning photos into collections, finding duplicates, organising bursts, using information in pictures to categorize them (most notably landmarks), using meta data cleverly (e.g. if picture A is in London and 10 seconds before picture B, then it is likely also in London).
  • Assistant – which creates fun and interesting slideshows and similar from your images and plays them back to you.

From the playbook we dreamt up five years ago, virtually everything is in there. It is interesting to see that facial detection is played down and social network ingestion is not currently present. But this will surely come, and with it, a whole new level of utility (especially if Google can crack the challenge of metadata removed by networks such as Facebook).

So the consumer problem is – for the most part – solved, including the ingestion problem with apps for various devices doing the heavy lifting.

But what of the business question?

How on earth can they afford it?

Considering the likely take up of this service, can we imagine them taking it down any time soon? Deleting users “memories”? Haven’t they saddled themselves for an indefinite period with an enormous storage challenge for images that even the photographer themselves may not care about keeping?

Here is where conspiracy theory comes in of course. The photographer. The hapless chronicler of first birthdays. Surely they must be the product. But how?

I can imagine only two potential business models. In pure storage terms, especially with video included, we could conclude that users will cost Google at least £30+ per year at commercial AWS/Azure rates (which presumably are above Google’s internal costs). They must be expecting to make this back in some way.

Option 1 – Driving Google Drive revenue. This is the straight-forward upsell path to store larger images and  potentially other documents.

Option 2 – Monetisation based on data. To achieve this, we would have to suggest that the images will tell Google enough about their customer to increase the cost it charges for advertising in some of its many channels.

Given that Google already knows what you’re interested in, where you’ve been, who you know, what you buy and so on, what do photos give them? Perhaps device ownership or usage (through EXIF data). Perhaps putting faces to names (beware the conspiracy theorists!). Perhaps inferred data, like children’s ages is of such value that a case can be made but it seems pretty thin.

Of course, we may never find out exactly how they’re paying for it. But it is an amazing accomplishment and hopefully one which will quickly influence other ecosystems to finally take the pain out of one of the last issues that exist with personal data management.

How brands talk

Found a ton of great Fishburne cartoons when writing a post over here. Here’s a great  one that didn’t fit that theme:


For me, it brings to life two great fallacies about brands:

1/ That customers want to have a relationship with their brands. There may be some very special brands that are like that for some very ‘special’ people. Obviously, there are the Mac people. I’m told some people are very keen on sports clubs, but does anyone really want to have a relationship with their breakfast cereal?

2/ That consumers spend very much time at all thinking about what brands mean to them. Of course the wonks at branding agencies would love to perpetrate this myth (and indeed the one above). We’ll get people to “Like us on Facebook”, they plan with the most wonderful double think: “When I friend a brand on Facebook, I’m just messing around. When a ‘consumer’ does it, they’re really serious”.

Yes, you might be able to trick a customer into clicking on a Like button about your brand, but don’t be convinced that they care, or even remember you. And ask yourself further if the patronizing empty content on most brands’ Facebook pages is likely to have a positive effect on any poor sods who find themselves there accidentally.

Old jokes home


My favourite joke. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

Moore says: “I’m writing a book”, Cook replies: “Really? Neither am I.”

I’ve written a book on innovation. There, I’ve said it. And if there’s something more commonplace, less innovative than books on innovation, it must be blog posts about how bloody hard it is to write a book.

But I don’t care.

I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t believe it. I thought that it might well be the case for other people but I would take to it just fine. I’ve always liked writing. I know how to use Word, and I absolutely knew what I wanted it to say.

But it was hell. I started it in 2013. I wasn’t 40 when I started. I had a different job. And now its almost finished. Its had the gestation period of an Elephant. If it went on much longer, it would have had the lifespan of a government IT project.

I’ve loved it as well. Not only do I understand now why everyone told me how hard it would be but also why they told me I should do it anyway.

It’s got a big chunk of the story of Fluxx in it, Hugh McLeod has done the cover, and I very much hope that I’ll be able to interest at least a couple of you in reading it when it is on Amazon early next year and we launch it at Fluxx at the start of 2015.

And yes, that’s why there hasn’t been any blogs.

It’s over here if you want to find out more and sign up for news.



If I were to set up a company whose whole brand promise was ‘no snack foods’ and then I released a range of delicious healthy biscuits, you would think I would have some branding issues. I’d certainly have to reconsider that ‘no snacks’ banner on my corporate headquarters, and perhaps I would have to rethink those 30 second TV ads talking about my anti-snacking commitment.

Well, what’s up with Google then? This company has long traded off the idea that their founding principle is ‘Do no evil’, yet it has recently been found  guilty again on appeal of illegal wiretapping in the US and Europe. For a business that is basically about communication, it’s hard to think of a more pertinent type of evil than stealing person data from customers. And this is far from being the first time they’ve been found guilty in this way.

Think that’s bad? That’s nothing compared to what they’ve done which is ostensibly legal. Even before we think about their relationship with Chinese authorities or the NSA. In particular, look a their attitude to the rights of others over information. I’m not talking about Rupert Murdoch’s information – which he is reasonably peeved that Google has profited so highly from. No, Murdoch is hard to frame as a victim. Think instead of all the millions of photographers who try to eek out a living from their craft. Or just those of use would rather keep ownership of the pictures we’ve taken of our kids.

So convinced, Google is, of the right to access other users’ data for free that they have been lobbying politicians at the highest level to try and push through the orphaned works legislation.

Andrew Orlwoski seems to be the one journalist covering this issue with any clear idea of the implications. Google is, in essence, lobbying that any image on the internet which has lost its meta data (even if it’s really obvious who owns it), is fair game for them or anyone else to commercialise.

And, of course, images which have ‘lost metadata’ includes every image on Facebook and Instragram (also Facebook), the largest photo sharing sites on the web, as well as many others.

Given the out cry that every Facebook Privacy Policy change attracts, why are people not more concerned that Google is directly influencing the highest level of our governments in order to get their hands on our content?

Out of our minds

Cardgan Bay (image stolen from Russell Davies)

Four weeks ago I went to Wales, to the beautiful area around Cardigan Bay, to join Russell Davies’ day on How to be Interesting.

And now I want my money back etc etc. Boom boom.

But seriously folks, seven hours on Parc y Pratt Farm (home of the Do Lectures), with one of the most fascinating thinkers of this here internet was a rare privilege and one I thoroughly enjoyed. And that’s before you count the amazing, food and hospitality of the event’s hosts. Just Brilliant.

It’s also the reason that I’ve been back writing almost weekly on this blog of late – something I haven’t done since I was a young lad back when the internet was just starting out. The theory being: if the main part of being interesting is being interested (here is the original inspiration for the day in convenient readable format), then we need to practice the habits which help us to collect experiences and think about them. And so that is what I’ve been trying to do.

I’ve also started concentrating much more closely on how other people work  in groups. Partly because that’s interesting for me. But mainly because, like interesting-ness itself, the effect of people working together seems, to me, to be a kind of magic.

Faced with a problem you are trying to solve, you can often spend hours alone and find no solution. A companion and a bit of energy and you’ll have solutions in minutes. Why is this?

Smarter groups seem to produce better ideas, but willingness to take part seems almost as important as cleverness in this context.

At the heart of both things – interestingness and using groups to solve problems and create things – there seems to be a similar dynamic. A new thing (a useful solution, a creative idea, an interesting notion) will most often come from taking ideas, breaking them up, and then putting them back together. Sometimes as little as forcing together two apparently unrelated domains will generate something of interest, or of use.

Like this:


Or this

Post its

Why does that work?

Our own brains seem so set on getting reliably from A to B (and we train them to  be better over the course of our lives), that even a little bit of a curve ball thrown into the process is refreshing, or surprising, or can move us away from producing the same old answers.

As a species, we’re not made – as it were -for surprises. But we can suppress our instincts, and get there any way. And the the trigger for doing just that can be the dynamic effect of multiple people working together, or – I suppose – the mind altering chemicals used by several generations of writers, or perhaps the writing processes many authors follow of free-association, and simply creating huge volumes of stuff. There’s lots of ways (see Arden and Bernbach), but often the simplest and most powerful is a struggle between 2, 3 or 4 people, each building and refining the other’s thinking. Getting out of their own minds, by letting go of their own ideas.

Part of this leaves me wondering, just how vast are the possibilities of our creative minds.  And if Russell’s course taught me anything, it is that they are without limit.

How will we evolve these skills? It’s not as ifnadvertising creatives will be killed off by their inability to think laterally (even if digital media has slowed them down considerably).

Rather it will be whole societies, cultures and companies who will live or die, perish or persevere through their ability to get people out of their day to day minds and acknowledging the incredible power of hacking our synapses to produce things which are new.

Every nice girl

Nice girls, sailors

I’ve talked before about my amazing Maths professor at Bristol university, Dr Mayberry, and in particular about his dissection of the phrase ‘every nice girl loves a sailor’. Is it: “For each nice girl, For each sailor, the nice girl loves the sailor”, or perhaps “For each nice girl, there exists a sailor, such that the nice girl loves the sailor”? Each of these possibilities, and I recall there being many more, was written out in logical notation. The point was, I suppose, that language is sloppy, logic is not, and… you know… be careful.

Perhaps the most infuriating lack of care is when a marketing person gets hold of a ‘unifying idea’. And the best example of this was a former employer (I was an adopted child in a marriage of the shotgun variety), who shall be know as XYZ Corp.

Two sorts of super smart people worked at XYZ’s massive head office, it seemed to me at the time. Type A went and did complex acquisitions. Type B went around behind them explaining why such and such an acquisition was ‘strategic’. This is all well and good of course, you can’t possibly announce you’ve just bought companies for the sake of getting bigger, or to conceal and distract from some other failed corporate activity. Protocol dictates that for a period of at least one year, all involved will pretend they were genuinely in love and not remotely drunk. After a year, it’s time to start arguing over who owns the CD collection and what you’ll tell the kids.

Anyhow. The rightness or wrongness of corporate mergers is not the point. The point is the mangling of logic which often ensues. For XYZ, faced with integrating a digital design consultancy with a company that made things with flashing lights, the story was that we were both ‘information’ businesses.

I suppose we could have just said we were both in the sales business, or the bullshit business.

Aside from the pure bravado of this manoeuvre, which is breathtaking, the most amazing thing about it is that it sometimes worked. People would nod along, half asleep in meetings. The air would be punched at sales conferences as we discussed how ‘information’ was that the heart of our growth strategy. The fact that not a single employee understood a word of it was not discussed.

And XYZ corp were certainly not alone in this madness. I’ve seen all sorts of companies stitched together on the thin understanding they are about ‘results’, about ‘communication’, or shared a ‘passion for customers’. Someone once tried to tell me our digital agency (a different one) should merge with a bill stuffing company because we were both ‘about customer data’. This last one must have taken a supreme effort of self will to keep a straight face for. Equally brazen, and potentially more incoherent, I once heard that a music retail company was ‘already a social network’ because people used to socialize ‘in their stores’.

If your objective is to make two things that aren’t equal sound equal by positioning each at the end of a similar sounding definition, then you have only served to slightly weaken our ability to communicate. And if it’s your job as a branding agency (who I believe have to take at least most of the blame for this sort of behaviour) to do this, then I fear you’ve not responded candidly to the brief. Go back and tell your client it doesn’t all fit neatly together, and that’s not the end of the world, so long as you can create customer value. There are other branding strategies than ‘one big brand’, there are worse things than being diverse. Namely being incoherent and self-obsessed. And if your client doesn’t want to hear that then let them hire someone else.


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