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I used the Authors’ Toilet at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Once upon a time this would have been an act of mischief, a low level dare.

On this occasion I was not just allowed but encouraged to do so by a nice person with a walkie talkie.

Nonetheless it still felt naughty and fantastic (the idea of admittance rather than the act of relief.)

 

Phil was 'ere.

Phil was ‘ere.

 

“Once upon a time.”

Was it real or a fairy tale?

It was both.

It must have been real because I received an email from Sarah at Edinburgh City Of Literature, pretty much demanding that I send an invoice for my reading fee.

What’s more she insists that I turn the resulting cheque into money.

 

CASH IT! You earned it and then some. Feel free to take a picture of it and frame the picture, but cash the cheque.

It was real and it was a fairy tale and it was a professional gig.

I’m still inclined to pinch myself, but the temptation to do so is assuaged by my author’s lanyard.

I have an author’s lanyard.

An Edinburgh International Book Festival author’s lanyard.

I picked it up in the Authors’ Yurt, a tranquil oasis amongst the trees and tents of Charlotte Square, next to the Authors’ Toilet.

At the new writers’ reception a few evenings previously I sheepishly raised my arm when they asked the authors to put their hands up.

It was definitely real.

 

lanyard_450

 

I wrote a short story called Blood Bath, about a salmon and a bear who share a flat, and submitted it to Edinburgh City Of Literature’s Story Shop competition.

And it was chosen. It was one of seventeen stories, and I was one of seventeen previously unpublished Edinburgh writers, to be chosen.

We each got to read our story, one a day, at 4 o’clock in the Guardian Spiegeltent at the Book Festival.

That’s to say that we performed our stories. Our written words were chosen by the Story Shop powers that be on the basis of their potential to hold an audience when spoken.

To help us writers become readers, City Of Literature kindly organised a workshop in which we were schooled by professional voice coach Alex Gillon. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience but boy was it useful. How and when to breathe. The importance of eye contact. The art of selling our words. Making every capital letter, every italicised word, every element of punctuation mean to the audience what it meant to us when we wrote it. Alex Gillon is the epitome of constructive criticism. Hard rather than harsh and always fairly so. She wanted us to be great. She and City Of Literature are both class acts.

Alex insisted that for me to have any remote chance of being a class act on the day I had to read Bear’s dialogue in a Russian accent. Cue steep learning curve ascent.

I am eternally grateful to the internet and to benign nutters like Jay Britton for their simple, practical and (in Jay’s case) highly amusing video tutorials, which gave me a fighting chance of being laughed with rather than at. Jay really gets going at about a minute into the video below.

 

 

Who knows if the reading (the performance) was any good? Some very nice people who took time out to come and support me said some kind things afterwards. But I genuinely have no idea.

I approached the lectern at 4pm precisely. At approximately 4.01 the heavens opened and Edinburgh’s best impression of a monsoon battered the Speigeltent roof for the next ten minutes.

There was a microphone but I was behind both it and the speakers. I couldn’t hear myself. Apparently the whole thing was audible over the percussion but I couldn’t tell at the time. As a result I belted it out and “projected” a little more than I had intended.

The rain was but the tiniest fly in the most magnifcent ointment. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Sarah and the rest of the City Of Literature team for such a wonderful opportunity. It was a dream. A dream come true.

And thanks to Claire, who had the original idea for Salmon and Bear. It’s going to be a lot of fun writing more together.

 

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This hideous ride.

This hideous ride tattoo

 

A needle to the waist punctures the girl’s bravado.

 

“Holy shit,” she gasps as the gun rattles to life, and I’m glad I opted for the upper arm rather than the lower abdomen. Trevor said it would be more comfortable for a first-timer like me and the look on the girl’s face tells me that he was right. She’s puffing and blowing her way through the pain. Her eyes are moist and she’s biting her lip. She’s suffering for her art. I think she’d take some gas and air if it were on offer. I think she’d sign the waiver for an epidural. I think they should have pieces of leather – individually wrapped, sterile, single use only – for clients like her to bite down hard upon.

 

A minute ago she was all teenage hubris, showing off the autograph which Gary Barlow had written on her arm with a Sharpie pen, and which she’d had fixed and made permanent with sharp needles and ink. The voice of experience.

 

I don’t know what she had done but it was all over mercifully quick. Not so cocky now. Take that, Gary Barlow fan.

 

The artist with the gun in his hand is an Aussie. He has a short residence at the studio, en route to his next visiting gig in Hawaii. It is hot outside by Edinburgh standards but he’s wearing a beret and a heavy shirt. I suspect the rolled up sleeves are for show rather than a concession to the weather. His forearms are, erm, impressive. I think he’s concerned for the girl. I think he’s being as gentle as he can be. But that is a seen-it-all-before smirk if I’m not much mistaken.

 

Between the girl and I sits a stout young man. He remains mute and apparently impassive as some kind of Godzillaraptor is deftly rendered on his arm by a second artist who is hunched over his work. The artist has his back to me and I can see that it is a hunch of focus and intense concentration. The stout man is a cadaver. That’s the name given in tattoo circles to clients who don’t speak whilst being worked on. Let’s call him John Doe.

 

The reptile on John’s arm is magnificent but I suspect it lacks narrative. A decorative dinosaur with no back story. Skin deep in every sense.

 

But maybe the story is already told. Maybe the unknown artist of unknown provenance is devoting his rapt attention to imbuing John’s bicep with secret meaning that has been vouchsafed unto him alone. And maybe talk would only cheapen the proceedings.

 

Either way I’m feeling a little cheated. I assumed that the parlour would be a den of gut spilling; ink as therapy. I envisaged three clients on three chairs simultaneously sharing hopes, fears, dreams and momentous life-defining events. I imagined the air thick with comingled stories that would permeate our tattoos like cigarette smoke in your clothes after a few pints in an old style snug bar.

 

At least there’s Trevor [that's not his real name but I daftly didn't seek his blessing to write this post].

 

I suspect there’s no such thing as a dull tattoo artist but, for the record, Trevor is an interesting guy.

 

His work/life balance is pretty much sorted. Much more sorted than most of us. He is just back from the Seychelles and talks about how tattoos fund his scuba and natural history habits. He shows me videos of giant tortoises. He laments the rising of the oceans. He laments how Dubai keeps the lights on in sports stadia at night, just so that they can be seen from passing airliners. He laments how Dubai treats coral reef like furniture, digging it up and moving it around in a gross form of urban feng shui. Trevor doesn’t have much time for Dubai and citations are probably needed for much of this paragraph.

 

Talking takes my mind off the insistent, scratching pain of the tattoo gun. It’s not too bad actually. Trevor is using a single needle for the outlines and lettering. This draws approving comment from his fellow artists. It is uncommon, evidently, and the sign of an artisan. Trevor explains that it is more usual to use several needles soldered together. In that arrangement the needles more or less auto-regulate the depth of puncture. A single needle should keep the words clear and legible for twenty years or more, but he has to be careful. “If I keep pushing it will just keep going further and further in,” he tells me. Oh ok.

 

I explain the significance of the bottle, the sense of losing control of my emotions to elemental forces which, like wind, currents and tide, have chaotically determined my ups, my downs and my sense of direction since Rachel’s death. Trevor changes the subject.

 

I’m not sure I like hearing Trevor describe the needles and gun as his “works”. I totally trust in the parlour’s heath and hygiene practices but sharing needle nomenclature with drug addicts is disconcerting.

 

Works don’t come cheap it seems. The alloy handle on Trevor’s gun cost £120. It makes me think of Formula 1 wheel nuts.

 

Trevor hails from London. Tottenham Hale as it happens. He has worked as a bricklayer and labourer and spent a short time in the family business at Smithfield Meat Market. He made hand-drawn flyers for the London rave scene in the late 80′s and achieved minor celebrity status within that community. And from there into tattooing. Despite the demand and the money, Trevor laments the extent to which tattoos have become mainstream. He harbours a nostalgic hankering for less lucrative, more authentic times.

 

Trevor does a mean lament.

 

I wonder what he thinks of me. Just another mid-life crisis probably. Would I be sitting here if getting inked weren’t so normal these days? Who knows?

 

To be fair my tattoo does indeed speak of crisis, just not of the mid-life variety.

 

If each man is given just one life-stage crisis to deal with then mine came when I turned thirty. And if that represents mid-life for me then I’ve got twelve years left and those pension contributions are futile as well as inadequate. Rachel, my late wife, was three months pregnant with our first child at the time and the morose introspection hit me like a freight train. My twenties were gone and they weren’t coming back. What had I achieved? To what unavoidable regrets was I already committed?

 

Fortunately I don’t remember it lasting very long. Fatherhood amazed and delighted me. And I didn’t have enough spare cash to blow it on anything stupid.

 

Turning forty was a breeze by comparison.

 

This hideous ride.

 

The words belong to Johnny Depp, and I borrowed them for the message in the bottle.

 

They are from a letter that Depp wrote to Hunter S Thompson on 29th July 1997, during pre-production for Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, in which Depp would play the part of Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke.

 

Some time later Depp read the correspondence between he and Thompson in a series of videos posted to YouTube.

 

It appears that Thompson was somewhat concerned (for which read freaking out) about how he might be portrayed by Depp in the movie. And Depp – no mean writer himself as it turns out – is seeking to reassure him on the basis of best intentions and his skill as an actor.

 

At 3 minutes and 50 seconds into the clip below he says…

 

We are at the beginning of this hideous ride and things are just starting to take shape, only starting, so don’t freak out. Give it and me a chance.

 

It is a curious choice of words. Depp is clearly anticipated a rocky road but he says the words with some relish, and refers to a previous quote from Thompson himself.

 

Who is the happier man? He who has braved the storm of life and lived? Or he who has stayed securely on the shore and merely existed?

 

And that is what my tattoo is all about. A permanent reminder that life is a bitch and a hell ride. But a reminder also that you shouldn’t want it any other way. Fear and loathing are the salt and pepper that make our three score years and ten more palatable rather than less.

 

I think Trevor is pleased with his work. I know I am. But he has more prosaic concerns than the meaning of life. He tells me how to nurse the skin trauma with nappy rash cream, and how to protect my clothes with cling film.

 

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Les lads en tour.

Lads en tour à la Tour Eiffel.

Lads en tour à la Tour Eiffel.

My daughter Penny’s French teacher is French.

She speaks English with an accent that is (eez) pleasing on the ear.

Penny and her friends (and her French teacher) are not long back from a school exchange in Versailles. They stayed en famille and a week of speaking French improved Penny’s accent to the extent that she now sounds not unlike her teacher. Formidable!

Not for tout le thé en Chine would I want the dubious privilege of wrangling dozens of self-consciously Cray Cray fourteen year-olds on these trips. Anyone would need a six week summer holiday after that.

Not that they are bad kids. I’ve met quite a few of Penny’s friends. They are lovely. High spirited, confident, and on the loud side of outgoing. Occasionally cheeky, but in that endearing, funny-and-they-know-it way. And not a hint of malice.

But I would not want to shepherd large numbers of them round a foreign city.

On group outings to Paris each teacher was responsible for a rolling maul of around ten hyperactive adolescents. Crowd control was apparently achieved by means of a pre-agreed code-phrase. No matter how boisterous, no matter how hyped up on chocolat chaud, no matter how high en vie they were, the group would immediately restore order the moment the phrase was called. In theory at least.

Penny’s teacher made the mistake of allowing her group to choose its own phrase.

A deliberate mistake of course.

Canny and shrewd. Literally as well as metaphorically streetwise.

She knew that the kids would choose a phrase designed to embarrass her. But she knew that by giving them ownership they would feel more inclined to respond as desired to their own self-imposed stimulus. A minor joke at her own expense, a joke that might even make her seem like one of the lads, would be a small price to pay for safety in an emergency.

Penny’s group chose “Lads on tour”.

“Nous choisissons ‘Lads on tour’ madame.”

So each time that the savvy Gallic professeur with the admirable sense of humour had to herder les chats, she had to shout:

Lads (silent s).

On (pronounced ‘en’, silent n).

Tour (lips pursed as if saying ‘confiture’).

I imagine her tone was not dissimilar to a Bow Street runner shouting “Stop thief!”.

However it sounded, Penny tells me that it worked.

Clever teacher, giving a lesson in communication planning.

She had thought about her objectives. Her purpose was not to be obeyed. It was was not to impose her authority. Her purpose was to ensure that the kids would respond immediately. And she had an ingenious strategy that demonstrated an understanding of her audience, of teenage psychology, and of the subtle relationship between stimulus and response.

Vachement chouette!

 

 

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Pressure Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh David Haig

“I believe that it’s easy to be deceived by this chart.”

Everyone who saw the preview showing of Pressure at The Royal Lyceum Theatre on Saturday 3rd May knew that it was good. Very good. Exceptionally good.

No doubt everyone who acted in the show knew from the audience reaction that it was very good too. We were enthralled and entertained from the get-go. Palpably so.

But it has only just dawned on me why it is so very good. Two reasons.

One: Passion is sexy.

Passion is sexy and infectious. Passion for an unlikely subject has the added dimension of being surprisingly sexy, and is all the sexier for it.

In this case it is Group Captain James Stagg’s passion for the weather that is sexy. He makes that most British and most boring of subjects feel intense, dramatic and vital. Stagg has the unenviable task of providing long range weather forecasts to General Eisenhower and his staff in the run up to the Normandy landings in 1944, using the limited data available at the time. The weather was obviously critical to the invasion and the wrong call could have cost thousands of additional lives.

Played by David Haig, who also wrote the script, Stagg is the meteorology equivalent of the brilliant maths teacher who makes the subject come alive for their class. He conveys a sense of wonder in the weather, and a fervour for scientific method over hunch, in the most testing, most pressurised of environments.

Much of the dialogue in the play pertains to a giant weather map at the back of the stage. The map is changed several times over 48 hours (2 acts) as tensions mount and stakes are raised. And the joy of this show is that, through Stagg’s understated charisma, a meteorological chart comes alive as the centerpiece for some utterly gripping storytelling.

Two: Back stories are cool.

Some people mistakenly think that cat pictures are what the Internet is for. Fools! The Internet is about back stories. Things you didn’t know about things you’re interested in. When back stories are done well, a little knowledge becomes a delightful thing.

Pressure is a delightful thing.

Pressure is a back story done extremely well.

One of the friends with whom I saw the show remarked that the story was compelling despite the fact that you knew what was going to happen.

On reflection I disagree. We didn’t know what was going to happen. That is the beauty of back stories. Knowing the outcome is not the same as knowing what happens.

We all now the outcome of the film Downfall. We know that Hitler and Eva Braun will take their own lives. But that is not the point of the film. The film is about what happened during the final days in the bunker, back stories that we didn’t know, and that is what makes the film so engrossing.

The main back story in Pressure is about the most important weather forecast in modern history.

But there are several human back stories to the back story that add richness and depth to this wonderful play. Say no more for fear of spoiling it for you. Suffice to say that the back story back stories are passionate in their own right.

And that is sexy.

 

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“Planning is the voice of the consumer.”

The stock, clichéd, answer to the question “what do agency planners do?”

Well, in addition to being stock and clichéd, it also remains true. It is accurate but not wholly so. The truth but not the whole truth.

An effective planner these days speaks with many voices, representing many valuable agendas. I can think of six, which I have outlined below. These are roles that, in my view, sit most comfortably with Planning. Not uniquely maybe, but definitely most comfortably.

Thanks to Martin Weigel and Noah brier whose respective posts on radical thinking and first principles got me to pondering these things.

The voice of the consumer.

I can’t add to this. It’s where planning came in. Martin puts it well in his post;

It [planning] devoted itself to developing a real and rounded understanding of the consumer, rather than simply selecting and polishing selling propositions. 

It sought to place thinking about the response of the consumer at the heart of strategic and creative thinking.

It shifted the focus of advertising development from finding ways of selling people stuff, to finding ways of making stuff buyable.

The fundamental job of planning was to care about the people on the receiving end. It still is. In fact this role has become more important rather than less. At my agency the User Experience (UX) discipline sits across the Design and Planning departments. UX and service design are defined by caring about the human beings on the receiving end. UX planners are the voice of the user.

And God knows the consumer needs a voice when brands stubbornly, stupidly (still!) take their broadcast, message-based, advertiser mindset into social media. Good social media planners are the voice of the otherwise occupied and the not easily impressed.

The voice of the consumer set the agenda for planning. We care about things that matter, but which often get overlooked. And people, whether you call them consumers, users or followers are the prime example.

The voice of commercial purpose. (The voice of “Why?”)

Planners are strategic thinkers. Planners “do” strategy.

And strategy is just a plan for how to achieve a set of goals.

Unfortunately it is all too common for planners to dive straight into the plan without thinking hard enough about the goals.

Our industry has a dangerous habit of confusing means with ends. Advertising is treated as an end in its own right, rather than a means to achieve some higher commercial purpose. So we jump straight in and start planning advertising without thinking long or hard enough about defining the problem.

There is an insidious assumption that advertising, PR, direct marketing, social media or whatever means the agency is set up to peddle is always the solution. The answer’s advertising, now what’s the question?

But how a problem is framed has a huge influence on the quality of the solution. This is obvious, simple, but far from easy to do well. Our industry is so obsessed with its output that we don’t pay enough attention to the quality of input. Namely defining problems that deserve and lend themselves to great solutions.

Don’t be a planner of pointless campaigns.

Don’t be the hapless strategist caught holding the mouse when the client CEO oh-so-innocently asks, “Just remind me why we’re doing this.”

Front load your thinking to ensure that your means lead to valuable ends.

Be the voice of commercial purpose.

The voice of how it works. (The voice from under the bonnet.)

I adore this quote from a recent post on the adorable Math With Bad Drawings blog:

I used to play ping pong every week with a computer science professor. He was a very smart, no-nonsense guy. I told him about my tendency to ask a lot of questions, and how it was sometimes a bit much. What he told me has stuck with me till today: some of the smartest people I know ask some of the dumbest questions I’ve heard. Because they want to be absolutely, 100 percent sure that they get it.

Nir Friedman

I studied chemical engineering at university. I am hard-wired to insist on knowing how things work. To the point that not knowing is stressful. I need to know how things work at a mechanical level, but also in terms of the fundamental physics. And I brought this under-the-bonnet curiosity with me to advertising.

I have never been satisfied with the trite “if they like the ad they’ll like the brand” school of how advertising works. I want to know the fundamentals, the psychology and the neuroscience.

Back in the 90′s Allan Leighton, CEO of Asda, was vilified by the creative community for proclaiming his love of “wallpaper” advertising. But if you read what he said he was just an intuitive proponent of low involvement processing. Low Involvement Processing is a model of advertising planning based on theories about how the subconscious effects of advertising can be more powerful than the conscious. It is most associated with Robert Heath, with whom I had the pleasure of working on a Standard Life campaign back in the day. Leighton understood that unwavering adherence to the catchy Asda Price jingle alongside the pocket-patting visual mnemonic would indelibly associate his brand with value in the eyes of the shopping public. As CEO he cared passionately about Why and had strong (well informed) opinions about How.

Sadly, scientific rigour is not as common as you’d expect in an industry that, in the eyes of a cynical public, is all about the manipulation of minds.

There is the same apathy around the question of “How will it work?” as there is around “Why are we doing this?”

Maybe there is less of this assumptiveness latterly, now that the fields of neuroscience and behavioural economics have become more mainstream topics in client and planning circles. But if planning doesn’t concern itself with these things, no-one else in the agency will. It should be an important part of the job.

The voice of precision

It drives me nuts how sloppy and imprecise the language of strategy has become.

Planners should say what they mean and mean what they say. Unfortunately this is another thing that sounds simple in theory but which is not easy in practice. Some very bad habits have set in and infected the whole industry.

Here are but three examples.

Most brands do not come anywhere close to having a “community” as I would define it. Talking at people who have foolishly liked your Facebook page is not a conversation with your community. You need genuine fans to have a community. Pop stars and sports teams, entities that people genuinely care about, have communities. The fans talk to each other about the entity, away from the entity’s spaces, when the entity is not present. The vast majority of brands, with notable exceptions like Harley Davidson, just don’t have communities. So don’t kid yourself that they do or can.

Return On Investment (ROI) is a percentage figure based on money earned in relation to money spent to earn it. There is no other acceptable definition. It is perfectly acceptable to define alternative currencies in which to measure success. But don’t talk ROI unless you’re talking money.

And don’t even get me started on engagement. I presented a chart to a client marketing department recently that had a non-exhaustive list of verbs, each of which is a form of “engaging”. There were thirty words on that chart. There is always a more precise, less ambiguous way to explain your desired outcome than “engagement”. All forms of the word are banned in my department. The casual use of engage, engaging, engagement remind me of the infuriating use of “like” by my teenage daughters. We like say engagement like all the time but because it like means like everything it like therefore means like nothing.

Being the voice of precision can make you appear pedantic at times but rare is the strategy that wouldn’t benefit from a heavy dose of constructive pedantry. Your strategy will be much more effective and your evaluation frameworks much more useful if you dedicate yourself to precisely defining your terms.

bart-simpson-generator

The voice of creative opportunity.

This is why I’d rather be a planner than a strategist. This is where the rubber hits the road. I don’t think I could work in an environment where the strategy didn’t get turned into something. Something elegant and effective, something the agency can point at and say “we did that”. A fully rounded agency planner needs to know how strategy begets creativity. She or he needs to know how to come up with a plan that both solves the commercial problem and provides a solid, liberating platform for the ideas people to work from.

That is not the same as making your strategies “creative”.

There is a lot of pressure within agencies to “own the thinking”. That is how people, particularly planners, impress and progress. This, in turn, creates its own pressure, a pressure to make the thinking “clever”. Which is fine as long as it doesn’t get too clever for its own good; up itself in other words. And this happens a lot. Intellectual onanism is the enemy of effective creative strategy.

I enjoy working with creative teams but I’ve never wanted to be “a creative”. I have a reasonable understanding after 25 years of what makes them tick, the really good ones that is. The really good ones have a strong intuitive sense of whether a strategy is sensible and sound or over-intellectual, wishful thinking bullshit. I try to provide the former.

At the creative end of the process I see the planner’s role as that of Sherpa. You do the heavy strategic lifting. You have a sense of mission. And you have enough creative nouse to guide the ascent. But at some point you’ve got to leave the guys to it and hope that they are good enough to make a spectacular push to the summit – on strategy but delightful and surprising.

The voice of context

Last and probably least is the voice of context. Least? How so? Context is a big deal in marketing communications right now. It has certainly been a hot topic at every conference or seminar I’ve attended recently.

And context is obviously important. The cultural context, the media context, the technology context in which our work lives should all have an influence on how the work is conceived and executed.

Context is also very interesting. Big numbers for technology adoption. “Insightful” cultural trends. Apparently seismic shifts in media consumption. Context provides colour to strategy and Powerpoint presentations.

The trouble is that context is easy. It’s easy to Google and it’s easy to “Magpie” from Twitter or a speaker’s conference slides. And it’s easy to agree with because it doesn’t mean anything until it is applied to the job in hand. So there is a very human temptation to place too much emphasis on it.

For my money, context is about nuance and fine tuning. Really powerful strategy, strategy with longevity, is based on more fundamental things. As Martin said in a brief Twitter exchange, “Context without something fundamental in the middle is just… waffle.”

So by all means by the voice of context, but keep context in perspective.

——

Done well, planning is highly valuable. A planner who consistently masters these voices will tend to be the most important voice of all in the eyes of the client – The voice of “Getting It”. Clients occasionally say things like, “So and so just gets it”. And that’s the kind of language a client uses when they would move their business to follow you.

 

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Brooklyn Bridge love locks

I nearly died from asphyxia in Brooklyn.

To be precise I OD’d on crunchy peanut butter.

But this was no anaphylactic shock. This was no peanut allergy. And I promise that there was nothing remotely auto-erotic about it either.

We, my daughters and I, had spent the day walking the streets of Manhattan. We were tired but exhilarated when we returned to our apartment in the relative peace and quiet of Brooklyn Heights.

We had about an hour before we went out again to eat. The girls were back on wifi and were hitting various social media platforms. I decided to hit a cold beer and a pre-dinner snack.

The apartment cupboards were pretty much bare because we were spending as little time there as possible, nice though it was. But we did have a jar of delicious peanut butter from the local Trader Joe’s.

(By the way, I mention the name of the store solely to add a little contextual detail and local colour to the story. I am in no way implying that the brush with death that followed had anything to do with the responsible retailer that responsibly sold me the responsible item.)

I cracked open a bottle of Brooklyn East India Pale Ale (colour and context again, the beer was not an accessory), quaffed lustily and took down the peanut butter jar from the cupboard. I was alone in the kitchen.

I know it’s unhygienic and the girls always tell me off if they catch me in the act, but eating peanut butter from the jar with a teaspoon is one of my guilty pleasures.

But in this instance my guilty pleasure almost turned to deadly sin.

Gluttony to be precise.

I was hungry and the first swig of beer brought on the munchies. You burn a lot of calories during a day of walking in NYC.

In an act of wanton indulgence I scooped two heaped spoonfuls of peanut butter into my mouth and swallowed without chewing.

Given what happened next it could be argued that this was a big mistake. However I believe that it was my failure to inhale before attempting to ingest that was the real problem.

The peanut butter formed a cloying, adhesive bolus that wedged itself in my throat at the base of my tongue. It created a perfect, airtight seal.

The sensation was most uncomfortable, but no more than that at first. I assumed that some exaggerated swallowing would soon shift it. But it didn’t. It wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

After several abortive attempts, discomfort turned to mild alarm. I started to make convulsive swallowing movements, my neck and tongue straining with the effort, but to no avail.

If strenuous swallowing wasn’t going to do the trick it would have to be air that shifted it. But I had barely any gas in my lungs so blowing the pasty lump back up whence it came was not an option.

I was starting to get really worried at this point. I was pacing around the kitchen in an agitated state as I tried various approaches in rapid succession. I would have to try to inhale through the buttery plug. Hopefully it was not of uniform thickness and if I created enough of a vacuum below, it would give way and create some sort of opening at its weakest point.

Remember that I was not actually choking. The peanut butter had stopped short of both my oesophagus and my windpipe. The risk with the intense inhalation approach was that I would dislodge a piece of butter, send it down the wrong way, and add choking to my list of woes. But at this point choking felt infinitely preferable to asphyxiation.

It is difficult to be objective and accurate after the event about how much time had elapsed since the peanut butter seal had formed. I do know that I was now panicking. I can comfortably hold my breath for more than a minute, maybe even two, if I am still and relaxed. But I had no breath to hold and there had already been a fair amount of vain exertion. I was acutely aware of the increasing oxygen debt and my body’s intense, distressed reaction to it.

I was trying to inhale as strongly as I possibly could but no air would pass through the peanut plug. At this point I stumbled into the hall and the disturbing, throttled wheezing noises that I was making drew my daughters out of their rooms.

They could evidently see the genuine alarm on my face because I could see it mirrored on theirs.

I must have been using every muscle in my upper torso to varying desperate degrees to force some air, somehow, into my lungs. Death felt like a very real possibility at this point. I remember thinking, “Not like this. Not now. Not here.” I worried for the girls. A bizarre, short-term worry about how they would get home, rather than how they would cope without their father. My life didn’t flash before me but the logistics of their repatriation did.

The girls were borderline hysterical at this point, “Dad, dad, oh my God, dad!”

Finally, THANK FUCK, my efforts paid off. I had created the peanut butter equivalent of metal fatigue and what felt like a tiny hole opened up. The air made an awful screeching sound as I gratefully, greedily sucked it through. Now that the seal was broken, the plug rapidly collapsed in on itself. I swallowed it down, and the crisis was over. My chest heaved for while as if after exercise but it was done.

Everyone calmed down remarkably quickly.

Dad nearly died.

But he didn’t.

Let’s go get something to eat.

 

 

 

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I kept reminding myself to look up in Manhattan. Even a tourist is quick to forget just how blessedly high and mighty and vertical and vertiginous everything is.

But sometimes, even in New York City, it pays to look down instead. Or perhaps not. You decide.

As my daughters and I made our way up 5th Avenue from 42nd Street a woman screamed and kicked a rat into the road.

We had been minding our own business. Most likely we had been looking up. So we didn’t see where the rat came from or what it had done to trigger the kick, other than having the misfortune to exist in the same moment in the same square yard of sidewalk as this lady with the lightning leg reflexes.

I don’t know much about rats. I’ve seen but one or two at a distance in Tube stations in London. So I have no idea whether this rat was big or small, young or old. In my ignorance, however, I expect any rat, regardless of age or size, to be sly, streetwise and possessed of a formidable survival instinct. They are for sure the most ornery of critters.

So, as a crowd quickly gathered, effectively ruling out retreat to the sidewalk whence it came as an option, I fully expected the rat to improvise a cunning escape through the four lanes of weaving yellow cabs and honking Mack trucks.

But it didn’t.

It froze. In its terror it hunkered down, made itself as small as it could and hoped for the best. Or, more likely, it feared and expected the worst.

It struck me then as the most unamerican of things. A loser rodent. Silver medal vermin. The sewer rat that choked.

I couldn’t bear to watch. So I turned away and walked on up 5th.

There was a sound like a bursting paper bag, or someone exploding an empty crisp packet. Pop goes the weasel-like rodent. This was quickly followed by excited cheers and disgusted groans from the rat-induced flash-mob on the sidewalk. I didn’t look back.

Three of my daughters could barely contain themselves at what they had just witnessed, their true emotions masked by mild hysteria and sibling bravado. My youngest, a budding animal rights activist if ever there was, was in tears to the point of being inconsolable.

The next few blocks were difficult. Three zealously practising apprentice rat-pop impersonators and one nine year old Saint Francis with her hands over her ears.

Fortunately the 5th Avenue rodenticide was temporarily forgotten as we ascended the 71 floors and 850 feet of the Rockefeller Centre and took in the towering views over Manhattan.

Once more we were looking down rather than up in New York. And the people looked like ants from up there.

Or maybe rats.

Those people look like ants, or rats.

Those people look like ants, or rats.

 

 

 

 

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Advertising characters.

George Tannenbaum Ad Aged

I thought George and I would talk, by which I mean bitch, about advertising.

But we didn’t.

Turns out he’s far too interesting for that.

We talked about New York City, Brooklyn, the New York Subway, daughters, history, museums, art, blogging, restaurants (Chinese and Italian), mentoring, sadness, and doing the right thing by people.

George kindly agreed to meet me after a few comment exchanges on his Ad Aged blog, and me not-so-subtly letting slip that I would be in the NYC area on holiday, and we took beer and burgers at the fabulous Old Town Bar on East 18th Street. (The nearest thing apparently to the Tempus Fugit, a fictional bar – sadly – that features in many of George’s posts.)

George’s posts are anecdotal, well informed, opinionated and refreshingly candid. It is unapologetic, charismatic blogging. His point of view is published with none of the edges rounded off and, in that respect, Ad Aged is the antithesis of the anodyne crap that mostly passes for advertising these days. His basic premise is that things are getting worse not better in the advertising industry. Amen to that.

Had our conversation actually turned to advertising, had George asked me about my favourite ads, I would have mentioned the film that I have embedded below.

I like branded storytelling. I like truth well told. McCann trademarked that phrase over a century ago and it remains as good a definition of advertising done well as I can think of.

And I particularly like my truth to be told well by brilliantly cast characters delivering great dialogue.

I am generally suspicious of a voiceover, particularly if it is pivotal to comprehension. Voiceovers please clients, often do well in research, but seldom cut the mustard in the real world.

Dialogue is different. I love well written, well delivered dialogue as much as I dislike voiceovers.

Sadly I can count on the fingers of one hand the creative teams I’ve worked with who shared that love of dialogue and who actually had a talent for writing it.

Most of them have slavishly swallowed John Hegarty’s obsession with visual narrative hook, line and sinker.

This in a world where YouTube surfaces a new star every day, whose videos are watched by millions of people all of whom who are drawn to the idiosyncratic, the eccentric and the lunatic by what they say and how they say it.

This is for George. An advertising character.

Enjoy.

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Image borrowed from The Independent (click image for the link)

Digital communication is a lot like Olympic diving. The value of success depends on the degree of difficulty.

If I successfully execute an easy dive I get fewer points than I would for successfully executing a more difficult dive.

There are lots of tempting easy dives in the world of digital. Follows, fans, likes, retweets, page views, visits. These are things that are easy to affect and easy to measure. These things can make a contribution to a successful strategy, but none of these things are inherently strategic, none of them have any intrinsic commercial value. If these are your KPI’s you are measuring means rather than ends. And strategy properly evaluated should be about measuring valuable commercial ends.

The most important part of strategy development is time spent up front defining purpose.

Too many digital briefs from clients specify solutions: “We want a…”

Whereas what we really want are briefs that share problems: “How can we… ?”

Good planning is about stepping back from the former and understanding the latter. More often than not an understanding of the underlying problem will lead to a better solution than the one specified in the brief.

A higher degree of difficulty does not mean a higher degree of complexity. Far from it. The opposite in fact. It’s just that it’s not always easy to see beyond the means to arrive at a simple, measurable, commercially valuable statement of strategic ends. Something like this:

How can we ensure [insert desired (measurable) behaviour on the part of those whom you seek to influence] so that [insert valuable (measurable) commercial outcome]?

Simple but not easy. Not as easy as monitoring easy dive proxy metrics for sure.

I shared this Olympic diving analogy at the recent Government Communication Network conference in Edinburgh, and it seemed to strike a chord.

Without a proper definition of commercial purpose too much digital communication falls into the trap of what Alexander Aiken called SOS marketing.

SOS = Sending Out Stuff.

We can, should, but too often don’t do better.

 

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I published a post on Medium that I would normally have posted on this blog.

In just 6 days that one post on Medium received nearly four times as many views as this entire blog receives in an average month.

The post in question was my sixth on Medium since receiving my publisher’s invitation. So, statistically speaking, it’s a bit early to be drawing conclusions. But fuck it.

Medium is a great reading platform, it is a wonderful platform on which to write and, based on this sample of one particular post, it is also great for visibility. It is a highly effective content distribution or audience finding platform.

I have shared my Medium data below but it will mean more in context.

I write for the sake of writing. The pleasure I derive from playing with language is the primary reason for the existence of this blog. Publishing on here is an end not a means.

As (at best) an F-list blogger, any other definition of success beyond the simple satisfaction that comes from the act of writing would be pointless.

Sure enough there are occasions when something I write on here catches a social media breeze and a post gets a decent audience, maybe even some reaction. But those occasions have to be viewed as a bonus.

First and foremost this blog is for me. And it has given me much pleasure over the last few years.

So I have been feeling guilty about my affair with Medium, which has caused me to neglect this space.

Medium is a great place to read. But it is an awesome place to write.

If you like writing you can’t help but love Medium. The user interface is gloriously elegant. It just does not feel like a content management system. As a digital writing experience it is the closest I’ve come to the feeling of committing new thoughts and ideas into a virgin Moleskin pad with a favourite pen.

At the outset I thought I could find room and posts for both my WordPress wife and my Medium mistress.

This blog would continue to be about ideas loosely connected with my professional life.

Whereas Medium would be more personal, more eclectic and a platform on which to explore a different writing style.

And so it began. My first post on Medium was a therapeutic act following the death of my wife. It was written for an audience of one – me – and I naively thought that I’d get away with it. A public post admittedly. But on a newish, invitation-only platform with a predominantly American reader base. And I did nothing, beyond publishing, to bring it to anyone’s attention. No social sharing of any kind.

Well it was an early wake-up call as to the power of Medium to make writing visible. The post racked up several hundred views, a significant number of which came from my local area, leading to conversations that I was neither expecting nor ready to have at the time.

The image below shows the stats for each of my six Medium posts thus far. The posts are listed in reverse chronological order with the most recent at the top. The column headings, from left to right, read as follows: Views, Reads, Read Ratio, Recommendations.

Four of the posts have stayed true to my original intent. More personal subject matter with a different stye of prose to that used on this blog. Two posts – Conducive Environment Officers and The real, unspoken problem with timesheets – should by rights have been posted on here. But I was too smitten with Medium to write anywhere else.

The most recent post – The real, unspoken problem with timesheets – has done a little better than catch a breeze. Over 4,000 views and counting in six days (and counting). 4,211 at the time of publishing to be precise. There is a lot of latent hatred out there for timesheets and the post has touched a nerve. As a result the link has been copiously shared on Twitter by some well followed accounts.

I also posted it in three categories on Medium – Thoughts on Creativity, On Management, and Company Culture.

The last of these has only had five articles published to it and, as a result, my post is still listed as the Most Recent article in this category six days after publication.

My limited experience of Medium is that posts get the bulk (> 90%) of their views over a two or three day period. The most recent, breeze catching, post is unusual in that it is still picking up views nearly a week after publication. So far, and I emphasise the small sample size involved, it doesn’t look as though Medium provides the same kind of long tail, search-based visibility that I get on my blog.

I suspect that the key to any kind of long tail effect is to achieve a persistent, front page presence in the categories to which you publish. That means either getting enough initial momentum to become one of the most recommended posts in a high traffic category. And/or cross post into categories with low post frequency so that you feature as one of the most recent posts for an extended period of time.

Based on only the most cursory investigation it would appear that Medium posts are actually Google friendly. For instance my most recent post appears as the number three organic return for a Chrome Incognito search for “timesheet problems”.

If I were an SEO or visibility specialist I’d be worrying at this point about all sorts of technical and social things like Author Rank on Medium. I’m professionally interested in that sort of thing, but not bothered personally. For the time being the analytics that are available to writers on Medium are limited to those shared above. I have no statistical insight whatsoever into where my views and reads come from.

I write for pleasure and I’m genuinely not concerned with volume or quantity. I’m interested and pleased when it happens but volume is not my goal.

One thing I really do like about Medium stats is the inclusion of Read data as well as Views. It tells you not just how many people visited your post, but how many people actually read the whole thing. That is a quality measure.

Two of my posts have a 100% Read Ratio. Every viewer of these two posts has read to the end. These are the posts of which I’m most proud, particularly How can you know what you want to be if you don’t know who you are?, a post about my teenage daughter and the trials and tribulations of career planning aged sixteen and three quarters.

The timesheet post has delivered the highest volume through a heavy dose of social media luck.

Whereas I’d like to think that the career planning post has achieved its perfect read ratio through writing judgement.

My writing platform love life is about to get even more complicated when Ghost launches to its Kickstarter backers on September 20th. At that point I’ll have some serious decisions to make about what I write, how often and in how many places. Until then I suspect that my infatuation with Medium will prove to be much more than a six post stand.

 

 

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