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:

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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:

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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

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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

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.

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