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.

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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 FT.com 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):

Antony-Mayfield

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.

Evil

Google-dont-be-evil

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:

floor-mops

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.

Optimism

I remember heading up the stairs at the Ace Hotel in New York City (one of the finer things about that fine city) and, stumbling – almost literally – over this:

Image

I think I took a photo at the time but I can’t find it now. And this one is better anyhow. Turns out the staff at the Ace really like this idea, so much so that they also print it on the back of their keycards:

Image

And they’re not alone: as tumblr proves. Artist Martin Creed has made a habit of constructing various signs saying just the same thing everywhere from Edinburgh to just a few blocks north of the Ace in Times Square.

And the affirmation remind us that, things now are as they should be, and the future will work out just fine.

What do we call this. In fact the definition of the work ‘optimism’ is a belief that the current state of affairs is the best it could be, and that the future will be too. And yet sometimes we fail to see this truth about now until it is later. It’s when we look back at our past that we can see what we should have perhaps valued more at the time.

Do our modern lifestyles make it easier or harder to be optimistic? I’m not necessarily contrasting optimism with pessimism (the belief that things are not as they should be and may not be in the future). What I’m contrasting it with is distraction. This dream that Steve Jobs et al have had – to put a computer in the hands of every man, woman and child, seems to rob us of our ability to understand where we are now. Everyday as I travel into work and back I see people staring endlessly at tiny iPhone screens, as disengaged with the real world as we could be. And most of the time, I’m one of them. Perhaps on occasion, what’s on the screen of the anonymous commuter is photos of family and friends from a million miles away via the miracle of  Facebook and the internet.

But a lot of the time it’s work email or Angry Birds.Why do we do this to ourselves? Why must we constantly stare at these alternative universes?

I suppose the answer is where we started out. That sometimes we do not wish to contemplate now, and prefer neither the past nor the future but some other timeless realm. It’s escapism, but often escaping to somewhere as uninspiring as a work email.

Still, the reassurance remains, everything will work out as it should, even if you’re reading this on the 5.27 to Sevenoaks.

The worst form of government

Image

Anyone who is a bit of a smart arse, like me, will recognise the quote above. It’s from Winston Churchill and it is about Democracy.

You would be forgiven for thinking the full quote is ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’, as that is how the punchline is usually delivered. In fact the quote is

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried from time to time

I remember learning about democracy at school. The ancient Athenians, I was told, had the purest form of democracy because literally all the people were called to vote on the major issues. It was an entirely participatory democracy, not a representative one. The voice of the people spoke directly on all the issues (so long as ‘the people’ only meant rich Greek men, of course).

We don’t do this any more because it would be impractical… but of course, now, with the internet and our clever phones, we probably could do it again if we really wanted to. We could also, when it comes to it, do any number of other things to make decisions which would like be way more representative than what we do do. Why couldn’t we do sampling to decide, why couldn’t we analyse Google’s search logs? We might not trust Google, but we don’t trust MPs either.

When I talk about polling or sampling, I don’t mean the sort of polling where Rupert in Piers Rupert and Tristan PR asks two mates what they think about designer handbags and then sells it to a newspaper as a story (“66% of women like handbags”). I mean honest to goodness polling. Ask a scientifically balanced control group their opinion and then do that. It’d probably still end up being more fair than what we do now, and a damn site more practical, and cheap. After all, that’s how they decide what’s on the telly.

The obvious concerns is that we wouldn’t have any safeguards against tampering. Well why not, we don’t think people tamper with general elections now do we?

The truth is that we do already govern by polling. Not officially perhaps but political parties often using polling / sampling to set policies and decide agendas. This is how they figure out which laws they’ll pass and how to spend your money. But most people would shy away from it being a formal mechanism (polling suggests).

Why? Because  it’s not what we’ve done in the past. And we must always do what we’ve done in the past.

As I see it, the most fascinating example of this very conservative bias towards the past is US politics. Americans agree on nothing. They are bitterly divided on almost everything. Unless it was said more than 100 years ago, or by a Kennedy or by Dr King. In which case, everyone agrees on it.

This reverence for the past is amazing. Especially for a country so wedded to the future. The American Dream is about tomorrow but the American consensus is firmly about the past.

Of course, revolutionary America was gifted with many fine men, many great public speakers and many heroic soldiers. If only the leaders of today who match these qualities could gain the same respect.

And as we look at the hideous turmoil in Egypt, can we ever imagine that the statesmen, the soldiers and common people will be revered as such decisive change makers? I certainly hope so, but they should not be forging that future based on the model of dead presidents or prime ministers from years past. Where the army can remove elected officials in the name of democracy, perhaps we need to think more originally about what it means to be a democracy.

Now that we can all talk to each other all the time, couldn’t there be and shouldn’t there be a more challenging re-evaluation of what it means to operate a society. Why cling so fervently to rulling through putting folded pieces of paper in metal boxes?

Let’s look for one of these forms of government that is less bad that democracy to try from time to time, or rather lets look at a version of democracy which deliver fairness but also the progress needed by these countries who are growing up in an era of big data, or mass communication, of mass participation and of political despair.

Two tribes

guinness_surfer

A side effect of the digital revolution has been the closing of the perceived gap between product thinking and communications thinking. Not always with desirable results.

Watching these worlds collide has long been a fascination for me, as they are such distinctly different approaches, require such different skills and temperament and are typical bought by distinct clients.

Yet, they have much in common too.

Whilst the staff are rarely transferable between the disciplines, they are very much the same breed: recognisable by their dress, their attitude, their enthusiasm, their intelligence and creativity. And the technical tools and techniques used are often similar too: creative briefs, Photoshop, brainstorms and so on.

Many other worlds use these tools and techniques. You might find PostIt notes and Adobe in packaging, PR, management consulting and other parts of the professional services world, but you’re unlikely to find an agency that does Packaging, Consulting and PR products. Or, at least, one that does it well.

One reason why we see so many try to combine the art of the digital communicator and the art of the digital product developer could be that a single company that could do both could create, launch and grow digital products without need for external support. That’s a powerful dream. Although I don’t know how often it has been fulfilled in reality.

By treating these two disciplines as if they should be accomplished in a single place, do we run the risk of losing the best of each, and the opportunity to properly assess how elements of each would enrich the other.

Let’s look at the two things and see what, if anything they can contribute to the other.

And this is the hard bit. How do we capture the heart of each discipline succinctly, without jargon, and in a way that practitioners can both agree with for themselves and understand for the other.

Skill One: experience of the thing
Product designers (and that’s a pretty broad church) are responsible for developing the thing itself. The more obvious (if not easy) part of this is in developing things that the end consumer will love, that they will find intuitive, rewarding and so on; a thing that users will continue to want to use. In this case the user’s relationship to the thing is more or less obvious. The user experiences it directly. Of course, that doesn’t mean that each user has the sample experience, even if they all see the same thing. Experience depends on the user’s skill, the user’s context, the task the user is trying to achieve. As Lou Carbone puts it, the experience is not related to what the user thinks of the thing, but rather, how the user feels about themselves once they’ve interacted with the thing.

The science of trying to design for users despite their differing skills, context and so on, is quite well developed using research to understand and group people, using tools like user journeys and personas to codify them. Whether it’s a bottle opener or an app, we also need to push product developers to consider the aesthetic as much as the function of the product. The impact on the user can be equally impacted by emotional triggers in the product, not just how successfully it can be used to achieve a task.

Meaning is – of course – socially constructed. And so understanding how objects will be interpreted and understood, should understand this social context, norms, reference points etc. I’m sure owning the first gas lamps was a sign of being cutting edge. Now it would be a statement about being traditional. How do we compare the effect of owning and iPhone in New Jersey with owning one in Shanghai, and so on. When done well, a measure of this social context of use, and of understand the meaning derived from objects, is included in the definition of user experience.

Skill Two: communication of the thing
Modern communications skills are no less important or complex than the skills required to design a product in the first place.

By definition, this is not a design of a product which is directly experienced.

At the heart of it, the communicator is trying to precondition the audience to have a different reaction to the product (or service) and is doing so in the absence of a direct experience of the product. In fact, it is odd for communications about the thing and the thing itself to be present at the same time (think of those awful brand posters in Barclays branches or adverts for Rank Screen Advertising).

How can external stimuli change how we react to stimuli, real or imagined? Fundementally, it must help the receiver to create links amongst their understandings of meaning. It is a process which results in new associations. What is it that makes Prada posh or Pepsi-max precocious. These are truths which have been created by marketing.

In order to do this, a communications designer must have some grip on the inexact art of stimulus and response. Why is it inexact? Because meaning is ever mutating and audiences are not amorphous. If I talk about ‘pretty little colleens’, it is a phrase which some will recognise exactly (it has been a lyric in a pop song), others will recognise generically (Colleen taken as stereotypically Irish name), and others (those called Colleen) will identify with specifically. Your distance from the various references will impact on the extent to which you understand it at all.

So to a real degree, the communications planner must understand how embedded and related these social norms are and construct their message to match this.

So arguably meaning/context is even more important for communications than it is for product.

At the same time, the communicator is most often working to do a lot in a very short time frame, whether the turn of a page, or the 10 watched seconds of a 30 second TV commercial. This has led to lots of techniques focussed on gaining maximum traction with minimal transaction: big ideas, single minded proposition, visual identities and so on.

In contrast, product designers are often working to reduce the amount of time consumers spend with their offspring and making each moment delightful and uninterruptive.

I think all of us who have seen the inner workings of the development of a truly phenomenal advertising campaign, are in awe of the planners and creatives who can translate such a disparate context in such a challenge medium into so much meaning. Guiness’ surfer,  VCCP’s years of work for O2, the great Levi’s ads.

But why would the people that do one of these things be good at the other, and for what reason (other than commercial) would you want both under the same roof?

What I’ve seen is people from each discipline trying their hand at the other. This has rarely ended well. And, worse, I’ve seen managers from one discipline try and manage the other, but without changing their approach. This never works, except in the pitch room where all is roses, and the only possible impact of crushing together ying and yang, of fusing these atoms, is a joyful integration and 5% off the cheque.

I’ll wait for a braver clever agency person to show me the way. Perhaps even in the comments. Go on, you know you want to.