The worst form of government

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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

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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.

Lean blog post

I’ve always been a fan of Lean. Most recently Lean Startup has been very influential on me, as it has been on many others. On my desk sits an unread copy of Lean Analytics, and now, I see we have also got ‘lean strategy’, meaning not the strategy of using lean techniques, but rather the use of lean techniques to develop strategy.

In this post, Andy Whitlock of Made by Many, espouses the change in mind set of strategist getting involved in new lean techniques.

Is this still strategy? Not, perhaps in its traditional sense. Many would say lean is almost an ‘anti-strategy’ movement, in the sense of favouring action over long planning cycles. This would make ‘lean strategy’ an aggressive contradiction in terms, a self-destructive oxymoron. And that sounds like some thing we should avoid.

But forgetting all that, what is it Andy is really saying? He seems to have three themes:

1/ The ideas can come from anywhere – strategists need to come to believe that their team is just as capable of generating useful insight as they are, and need to learn the language of their colleagues so they can take part more

2/ Don’t cook up big intellectual theories to confuse people – provide information that can actually be used to do things.

3/ Propose intermediary hypothesis and watch them adapt rather than trying to solve the whole problem upfront. Very lean.

Perhaps it was always a good idea for planners to be less precious (1), less overly intellectual (2) and less hell-bent on grand unifying theories (3). But if the lean movement underscores those needs, so much the better.

For my money, the job of the strategist / planner remains the same: make complicated things seem simpler and figure out how to solve the problem. Doing that in rapid iterations and tests is certainly unusual for the average planner, but should be welcomed by most once they’ve got over the shock of the whole thing, since it gives us a chance to break down and learn about problems in pieces as humans really do,  removing the often unrealistic expectation for a sudden, blinding flash of inspirational light.

Music

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“Music is, to me, proof of the existence of God. It is so extraordinarily full of magic, and in tough times of my life I can listen to music and it makes such a difference.”

The quote above from the great American Novelist, Kurt Vonnegut is made more compelling by Vonnegut being, at times, humanist, atheist and agnostic. The idea seems broadly accessible to all that – in its various forms – we can make deep, almost spiritual, connections with music.

But of course, taste in music varies considerably. Why is that, and how does your preference get defined?

For my own part, two things appear to be true.

  1. If I listen to any music for long enough, I can learn to like it and then find it enjoyable.
  2. I don’t typically fancy doing (1)

So perhaps if I’d been brought up in a house and school full or Iron Maiden and AC/DC, I’d be a metal fan now; or perhaps in different circumstances, I’d be a classical music boff, or devotee of rap?

What I tend to find, in fact, is that what I’m listening today is either:

  1. The music I learned to like in my teens
  2. Music that I’ve got to from the music I listen to in my teens (from The Smiths to Johnny Marr to The The)
  3. Music which has been pumped out of the radio, or TV so often I’ve come to like it.

A good example how tastes can develop is Martin Stephenson. Growing up in Newcastle, Stephenson and his group the Daintees were like local heroes, signed to local label, Kitchenware alongside other local favourites PrefabSprout. At the time, the band were destined for the charts, groomed and PR-ed for it.

I fell in love with the band, bought all their albums, saw them live and kept on listening to them for years, even though they quietly disappeared.

Then a few years ago, he started playing concerts again. At first I went along to see the old songs. But there had been a lot of water under this particular bridge. Still a fantastic showman, Stephenson had transformed into a much more eclectic performer, mixing many musical influences, mysticism, the wisdom of therapy, addiction and religion. Songs would blend, narratives would drift off. It is hypnotic. The Stephenson of  2012 is – of course a totally different performer to the Stephenson signed to Kitchenware in 1982. Like the philosopher’s axe, all the parts have been replaced, only the name and the memories remain.

I wonder if I’d never heard the old Stephenson, would I love the new one? I doubt it. Liking the original gave me enough licence and patience, I suppose to learn to love the descendant. And for that, I’m very lucky.

What about the catchy, manufactured pop that floats out of youth radio (to which I still, erroneously, listen)? This fantastic New Yorker article takes a peek behind the scenes at how much of this music is made. Certainly ‘manufactured’ doesn’t feel like a stretch. But then again, have you ever actually tried to write a song? It’s not easy, and part of the reason it can feel so difficult is that the result can appear flat and unseductive. These techniques pull those levers deliberated and simply adds in meaning later. The idea that the singer must write the songs, and write them from the heart, is a relatively recent one.

But if we think about it slightly differently, manufacturing music through chord sequences and hooks, is all about designing tracks which can be very quickly taken on board. It’s about giving your audience a sprinkling of good reasons for putting in the work to get, literally, hooked. And there are as many hooks in ‘A rush and a push’ as there are in ‘Diamonds’. The story about how and where the song was created and the conviction of the lyrics, are merely extensions of the meaning that can be attributed to it. Noel Gallagher claims to have written most of Definitely Maybe while manning an NCP car park. Is this preferable to a studio in LA? And of course (witness the X-Factor final last night), much of this can be manufactured too.

So music, and our preference for it, is fascinating. I’m sure similar parallels could be drawn for film, theater, books and the like.

At different stages of our lives, we may also care more or less how the music we listen to, the books we read and the films we watch define us or support our self-image. Like the character Marcus in ‘About a boy’, the choice of rap music reflects a desire to fit in to a group, as well as just a joy of the experience. Like the boys behind the bike sheds coughing their way into a an addiction to Embassy No 1, how many young music fans have to invest time to learn to love the ‘right’ acts? Is this pretense? I don’t believe so, as the effort required is to build the initial relationship which then builds through familiarity.

Perhaps an interesting spin-off question is how closely this method of liking, exploring and becoming tuned in, is reflect in brands (or rather, non-media brands). How do we learn to love, and how far will we explore beyond our preferred repertoire.

Presumably some of the same principles are true:

  1. We can embrace or reject the brands our parent’s loved
  2. Once we’ve become used to a brand, we stick with it as it develops, as Apple has
  3. We could perhaps define genres of brands and observe tendencies to favour one brand type over another
  4. We need an incentive to try new brands, a chance to sample
  5. We can use brands to define ourselves
  6. The back story of the brand can be just as important as the qualities it manifests

Kodak moments

This wonderful clip from Mad Men on Amelia’s blog started me thinking again about Kodak, both a case study of success and failure in product innovation, and – now – a cautionary tale for businesses facing change. But what, if anything, can we actually learn from it?

One of the best studies of the primacy of experience in product design is that of George Eastman, Kodak and ‘You push the button and we’ll do the rest’. The company grew hugely successful on the back of that thought, successfully navigating several technology changes in its early years and developing a massively dominant position in the film marketplace.

As recently as 1976, Kodak held 90% of film sales and 85% of camera sales in the US. This level of market leadership is interpreted as causing complacency from management, and equipping Kodak badly for battle with Japanese rival Fujifilm.

In fact, it was Kodak themselves who invented the digital camera in 1975 and the first megapixel sensor in 1986, the innovations which would prove a major component of their downfall.

The engineer who made the invention is quoted by the New York Times as describing the management reaction, “That’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it.’” (because of the threat it posed to the core film business).

Whilst it is tempting to think of a beleaguered Kodak being overrun by digital innovation, the company was among the first movers in this new product space. Ranking #1 in the US for digital camera sales in 2005 and manufacturing the first Apple offering in digital photography, the ill fated Apple QuickTake. From that year onward  the company’s position fell by a position or two annually as new entrants, eventually including mobile phones (now the most popular cameras), took hold of the marketplace – making better and lower-priced products whilst generating better profits through lower costs and better efficiency.

Whatever the future of Kodak now, it seems certain it will not be in the consumer imaging market where it once dominated so thoroughly, even though other brands (such as Canon and Nikon) did manage to make the leap from film to digital successfully. Why is that?

It would be easy to assume that it was management incompetence or poor decision making. Indeed, there are some examples of magnificent own goals.

In 1996, Kodak introduced Advantix, a hybrid film and digital product that allowed images to previewed at a cost of around $1/2bn. This was later written off.

In 1998, Kodak commenced an expensive ($5.8bn) experiment, acquiring Sterling Drug in an attempt to diversify beyond the chemicals in its products to the chemicals in pharmaceuticals. This marriage proved mismatched leading to a disposal of Sterling Drug in pieces at a large write-down.

Perhaps these several billion dollars would have provided enough of a reserve to keep Kodak in the game a little longer.

Of course, the prolonged death of the business was down to many thousands to decisions. But at the heart appears to be a lack of enthusiasm for the digital products, even when the company was successful with them, and a business which was simply geared up to do a different thing and had too much invested (financially and emotionally) in seeing film prosper and digital fail.

George Fisher (CEO 1993-2000) described the company he had found, on leaving the CEO Role:

“It was mired in debt. It had haphazardly diversified into pharmaceuticals and other areas it knew little about. Its growth, save the revenues it added on with ill-starred acquisitions, was flat. It was a high-cost manufacturer, with a bloated staff and a sleepy culture that was slow to make decisions. And it regarded digital photography as the enemy, an evil juggernaut that would kill the chemical-based film and paper business that had fuelled Kodak’s sales and profits for decades.”

At this remove, Kodak’s demise seems inevitable. How would you avoid it in your own business:

  • Avoid entrenched conservatism
  • Allow entrepreneurial voices to speak out
  • Read the tea leaves a little better
  • and so on

All nice sentiments, but how many are really practical? The systems put in place in all large corporations are to keep the super-tanker on course, to move people to adherence with a common belief set. Every incentive in business is designed for more sales next year and greater cost efficiency. In fact, Kodak, in continuing to research at all, despite it’s apparently unassailable position, almost seems like proof that macro-economics not company structures are what can continue to deliver innovation, especially after the departure of the visionary founder.

Anyone for the iPhone 6?

Patently

For me, the patent wars, in which so many major brands are currently embroiled are fascinating because of the underlying biases they expose. Read any story about XYZ Corp winning a legal battle and scroll down to the comments and you’ll find acres of diatribe about just how immoral it is for XYZ Corp to take such a matter to court, as if they were suing the council for an uneven pavement.

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Apple in the world. And it’s certainly easy to see their business practices as aggressive at times. But how can anyone keep a straight face and defend Samsung as having not copied the iPhone, either in principle or by debating the intention to copy.

Just after the Apple IPhone 3, Samsung released the Galaxy Ace Plus:

And then, when the IPhone 4 came out, they released the Galaxy S2

Incidentally, here are the USB plug adapters in the US:

Perhaps it is a cultural thing. Perhaps all property is theft. Perhaps it was a homage. These may be valid points but to claim that there was not  a causal effect between one and the other is to treat your audience as plain daft.

G-

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Rarely is it inexplicable why something hasn’t worked.

The things that succeed are the few, are the exceptions. Most technology projects aren’t huge successes.

But the odds are stacked so heavily in favour of Google Plus that it’s almost hard to believe it isn’t the world’s best and most popular site already. And it’s clearly not. I don’t need to analyse huge volumes of data to know this. I can just do what everyone else does, which is to log into the service and see absolutely nothing of interest everyday. I only know a couple of people who work at Google, but they are the main contributors I see in G+, along with a number of social media ‘gurus’. This is despite:

1. It being promoted on the front page of Google, one of the world’s most visited pages

2. Being an almost exact rip off of what is *actually* the world’s most popular website

3. Full integration with Picasaweb, YouTube, and even the chatty text in gmail:

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4. Great social matching and a huge volume of people signed up.

5. Every Google employee has been tasked with making this a success

6. Quickly baked in Android and good apps on several mobile platforms

So, what on earth isn’t working about it? Why is there so much less to it than meets the eye?

I was in China a while back and was amazed by the story of the Chinese ‘Facebook equivalents’. Those sites (Renren, QZone, Kaixinn001) have grown very quickly. To say they’re similar to Facebook is something of an understatement – often they’re fairly shameless rip offs, even taking some of the graphics directly, or implementing copycat features within weeks – but they’re very successful, not least because Facebook itself is blocked.

But not Google.

The really worrying time for Google, I would have thought, is not having noone signed up. It’s having huge volumes of people ‘signed up’ to the service and still no one is using it.

Why don’t people engage?

My suspicion is that whilst G+ may functionally work  very similarly to Facebook, users are failing to see it as more than a pale imitation of the market leading service. If we’d never seen Facebook (or it was closed down by the government) then perhaps we’d all be flocking to G+. As it it, aside from a little initial interest, users seem to not see the point of the new service. And that perhaps is at the heart of why Google + feels so flat.

They might be capitalist monsters now but its not hard to believe that Facebook is genuinely driven to connect people on line, to become the social fabric of the web. Perhaps it was always purely to inflate Zuckerberg’s ego but it doesn’t matter. He had an objective in mind and he went for it. And Facebook has always felt like a site that is about enabling the user to build and communicate with a network.

G +…. Meh. If it has an identifiable purpose, it doesn’t feel like it relates to the user. Even the casual user must be thinking – Google’s doing this to gather data on me. Facebook has always been remarkably canny at the psychology of sharing: just enough subtlety about what you share, which of your  friends you see updates for (without needing to explicitly state it), clever language to encourage interaction. Google’s version seems less human (surprise!), less useful. By trying to be a broadcast platform and an intimate platform at the same time, it’s perhaps trying to do too much, or it’s become too difficult to understand.

We’ve seen a few projects die. Google especially has spent the last few months spring cleaning the projects they don’t think are viable.

How will G+ pass away? It’s going to be very hard to remove it from so many of the Google services. But I suspect they will eventually need to go back to doing what they do best – monitoring, users, sites and information covertly, rather than explicitly. Deducing what we like rather than asking us to indicate it directly.

Taking apart taking part

Over at AdLiterate, Richard Huntingdon has been doing an infinitely better job, it seems, of my favorite hobby – disecting pointless brand ‘immersion campaigns’.

We now have a very wide selection of examples  of supremely stupid advertising-agency-created ideas encouraging the clearly disinterested reader to put down what they were doing and  get involved in a supreme act of pointlessness instead.

Perhaps there are now enough examples of this sort of nonsense that a rudementary classification system can emerge.

a. Make our advert for us

This is probably the laziest thinking and delivers the most cringeworthy outcomes. Of course, it’s not really brand engagement at all, since no-one in their right mind could possibly put in this much effort just to celebrate the brand. Instead ad agencies offer actual money to anyone who can make a better advert than they can. But the result is almost always horrendous, like a desperately patronizing school project gone wrong, which the brand in question quietly has to run once on TV and then sweep into the shit-heap of YouTube. Since the reward is not guaranteed, such misadventures often go through a particularly embarrassing stage with the brand in question asking friendly production companies to get involved. So really this is just hit-and-miss outsourcing done in a very public and embarassing way.

b. Please be my friend

The desperate brand begs and bribes customers into playing along in even the most minor of ways. One of the most embarassing efforts recently was the huge (media wise) McCain chips campaign which required users to become the  brand’s friend on Facebook to stand a chance of winning a trip to New York. Now, I don’t have 11,000 friends but then I suspect that if I did have that many friends as a result of offering them a holiday-based reward, they probably wouldn’t be very good friends.

c. Answers on a postcard

Before we had the internet, magazines used to run competitions to win things. Typically, you had to complete some kind of tie-breaker, normally where you would complete a sentence like ‘I really love Walkers Crisps because….’. Customers would then have to try and come up with something really corny to make their entry stand out and – in theory at least – the best would win. Now, of course, you don’t need a postcard. And the sales promotion johnnies have elevated this idea of a special answer to front and centre. In order to try and get the ‘real human voice’, customers are ironically asked to engage in the most bizarre and tripy sort of  fabrication like these bread-related confessions. I can’t look at a site like this without wanting to post up ‘I have the Lindbergh baby in my airing cupboard’, although unfortunately I can’t because the answers they display are, in fact, all made up.

d. Act like a twat and we’ll put you on the (small) telly

Shows like Big Brother demonstrate that a small number of  people don’t mind public humiliation as long as it’s extremely public. The advertising johnnies have translated this into ‘upload a picture of yourself looking like a twat, and then you can download the picture of yourself looking like twat, and there’s a small chance it’ll be seen by one of the other miniscule number of twats who’s willing to do this’. Unfortunately, this formulation loses even the minimal charm of reality TV and all of its appeal for the aforementioned twats, leaving the poor advertiser with their product being modelled by a bunch of losers. Now, even those worst advertising agency in the world knows that you want to show attractive people consuming your products. Not these people: http://www.milkybar.co.uk/PhotoAlbum.aspx. Incidentally, if ever see a non-loser on one of these boards, they work for the PR company.

Of course, most of this is just harmless. Wasting FMCG budgets is hardly a humanitarian disaster. I think the reason it feels so unpleasant and tasteless, rather than just irrelevant and silly, is that it seems obvious that the people that think up these horrible campaigns would never, themselves, contemplate taking part. The repulsion comes from the inherent (if shit) attempt to exploit an audience who we can only conclude the agency staff hold in very low regard. Customers may not always be right, but if we’re working in the name of participation, can we not try at least to show a little respect?

Copy and taste

Well I’ve been lucky enough to borrow a pre-launch Windows Phone 7 for a few serious chunks of time over the last couple of weeks – enough to properly start living with the device, getting all synced up with Exchange, Facebook, Gmail etc; putting a few hits of the 80s on there; and copying across a few movies and pictures.

And I’m very positive about it indeed. The design effort that the team at Microsoft have put in is obviously enormous and very effective, managing to mix suprise with simplicity and to create a very pleasing interfaces which remains intuitive and usable.

Under the hood, performance is hugely improved and the drive for common hardware specification will make a huge difference for developers. It’s simply a great thing – like its PC companion.

But what has almost been more interesting to watch than the slow dawning realization online that Microsoft has made a device well worth consideration, is the often bizarre tack taken by the usual army of uniformed critics.Of course there is the predictable ‘Microsoft is shit, Apple is brilliant’ (and vice-versa) which polutes virtually every technology comments page. But in recent weeks, this has given way to outraged posts bemoaning the lack of copy and paste. How on earth will we be able to use this phone without this one feature whinge geeks everywhere with perhaps only one thing in common: none of them have tried the device.

This particular bandwagon is really rolling. it’s even got to the stage that – at today’s launch- the product team promised the feature would be added by January next year.

But why has this become so important? Or I suppose I should say, ‘why, oh why oh why?’

Let’s bear in mind that this feature was missing from the first three generations of iPhone without leaving users desperately copying essays onto the back of napkins or breaking down in the street. I’ve got it now on my iPod touch, and on my Android phone for that matter and how often do I use it? As infrequently as possible. And I’d imagine the same is true for post people. Why? Because it’s just too fiddly and I use my phone for working in tiny little chunks not big ones, and besides – when addresses or numbers come up, I can normally click right on them to carry out the appropriate action.

But people criticise the lack of copy and paste because its the only thing they know about the phone and it would obviously be a crime not to have an opinion about this product, especially when it’s made by Microsoft.

As Bill Buxton said at Mix this year when asked about the iPad (pre-release), it’s probably best to try it before making up your mind.

Last acts

Dixons ad (comparing to John Lewis)

I’m certainly not claiming to be any sort of advertising pundit.

However, the recent advertising campaign for Dixons strikes me as quite remarkable, and not in a good way. It has already sparked a lively debate. I’m sure that was at least part of the intention. In fact, I can just imagine a bloke from the agency with a La Roux haircut telling the client that this would make it ‘social media’.

First of all, no matter how good the strategy behind it, is it really a great idea to give your client the strapline ‘the last place you want to shop’?Clever wordplay it may be, but it also making a negative statement about the brand, and not a small one. It is acknowledging a commonly held belief that Dixons offers an unpleasant experience. Especially considering that the advert is for the online store rather than than the scrappy Dixons with abusive staff who have now disappeared from our high-streets (or become Currys), which brand would want to say this? Is there no worry that customers will remember it. Imagine it as a store fascia! Unsurprisingly, the strap line hasn’t made it on to the actual site.

Secondly, by reducing their offer to pure lowest price, Dixons is severly limiting any future value proposition it may put before customers. While Selfridges, Harrods and John Lewis (the stores shown in comparison) all have well deserved reputations for service; by lampooning themselves, Dixons can hardly expect any consumer to be left in any doubt about what they are offering now or in the future.

And here’s the other problem with going for a purely price-commoditised proposition. I have absolutely no doubt that consumers do go to stores to find what they want before finding the best price online. And, of course, geeks have already starting using phones to check competitor prices even as they stand in the competitors stores.

Now if you’re in Harrods, and not a total geek, I can imagine that a good sales person will be able to convince you to pay a small premium to have the product there and then, with Harrods’ service promise. This is not, however, a viable strategy for online. The sort of consumer who looks in-store and buys online is not going to stop at just checking the price on Dixons.co.uk. They will check it in Google, Kelkoo and the rest.

So to win in this strategy, Dixons would have to guarantee lowest prices. Of the products I looked at, they were matched or beaten by players like Amazon and Play in most cases, and even more suprisingly they didn’t appear in Google shopping, even for the very flat screen TVs they were talking about in the ad:

Capture

(Look over in the cheap seats (PPC slots) for the two DSGi brands).

Is it really possible that they didn’t think of this when planning the campaign?

The main point though is that I think this advertising is smart-arse creative written for smart-arsed creatives and planners. It’s an advert aimed at industry people.

But who is the real target audience? Is it really aimed at customers of Selfridges et al? If so, I think it misjudges the value those customers place on service. And, it’s not exactly an excerpt from ‘how to win friends and influence people’ to mock your customers. If it is aimed at a more standard high-street shopper, isn’t it just a bit too clever.

Indeed Neil O’Keefe, current DSGi marketing director says: “With this campaign we aim to reach an even wider, particularly younger audience.”

I would love to see the testing results about how this ad influences intention. For those who understand it at all, I’d imagine it’s more likely to drive people to the doors of Dixons’ competitors than to include Dixons in their online repertoire. In part because the younger, smarter audience understands the concept of price comparison, and in part because, in the hustle and bustle of the tube, or wherever you see these ads, people may not even spend long enough to know they’re not for Harrods, Selfridges or John Lewis. An interesting test is whether you’d ever run this creative on the web? When price comparison is one click away, they suddenly seem completely unusable.

Very strange. Slightly desperate. And, I’m guessing, the last thing the ad agency (M&C) will do for DSGi.