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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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Feed was recommended to me by Robin Sloan. He of Snarkmarket, he of the Fish Tap Essay, he the author, he the self-styled media inventor.

(He also recommended it to the other two hundred and eighty four thousand or so people who follow him on Twitter.)

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His tweet (linked above) describes it as an “almost impossibly prescient book” and I one-click-Kindle-bought it on the spot.

Unfortunately Robin was right. It is indeed impossible for a book to be that prescient.

Feed takes place in a post Google Glass world. Wearable technology has been replaced by embedded technology. The Internet, the Feed, is irrevocably implanted in a procedure that takes place in most children’s kindergarten years. To not be “fed” is to be underprivileged, and socially and professionally handicapped.

I don’t know when they first had feeds. Like maybe, fifty or a hundred years ago. Before that, they had to use their hands and their eyes. Computers were all outside the body. They carried them around outside of them, in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe.

For Feed to be as prescient as advertised it needs to be read as an exercise in futurology.

And in that respect it sadly disappoints. I would actually file it under lightweight sci-fi.

And I’m not a sci-fi fan.

I like science as much as the next man. More probably given that I have an engineering degree.

But I don’t like it when science is the point of a story.

The purpose of science in science fiction is revelation. Human revelation. If the introduction of future technology does not reveal something profound about ourselves then what is the point?

My favourite science fiction storytelling concept (ever) is the fabulous Machine Of Death.

The machine in question doesn’t kill people. It tells them semi-clearly, semi-cryptically, but unerringly how they are going to die. Not when, how.

The collection of short stories that has been generated by this simple provocation is startlingly varied in nature. But what they all have in common is that the underlying science is not the point of the story. It is a catalyst for human insight. For instance, in one story, knowledge of one’s cause of death is a right of passage on your sixteenth birthday. It becomes another source of teenage angst. Something to worry about beforehand. Something that determines your social status afterwards.

The Machine is a platform for the telling of stories about humanity.

By comparison, the Feed isn’t.

Feed mostly falls short in respect of human insight.

The science, sadly, is the point of the story. Mostly it is. And, for the most part, thinly and predictably so.

Retargeted advertising is already a scourge on the Internet. And so it is hardly surprising that it is much worse when the Feed is inside your head, neurologically entwined, and the line between fulfilling your wants and influencing them is blurred.

It’s hard to be impressed by a caricature future in which inefficient forests have been cleared to make way for oxygen factories.

Or where a trip into the “countryside” includes a visit to a filet mignon farm. Hedges of beef irrigated with blood via an artificial vascular system.

And where the main characters in the book meet in a zero gravity nightclub on the moon.

It is first-base science.

First-base science against a first-base dystopian backdrop. (Rampant over-population, nasty lesions which we assume to be a Feed side-effect, and hinted at but never fully explained civil unrest and international tensions).

There are some mildly amusing and more interesting concepts, however.

For instance, who needs drugs when the Feed is hard wired to your nervous system? The young funsters in Feed get their kicks by going “Mal”. They deliberately cause their Feeds to malfunction by logging into underground Swedish sites that temporarily fry everything. Like downloading LSD and magic mushrooms straight into your subconscious.

And the implications of hacking are more severe when it is your head that is being hacked. Indeed it is an episode of head hacking that reveals a fatal flaw in the Feed of Violet, shortly after she and Titus meet.

Violet and Titus are then human interest in Feed. For which read the interest.

Violet’s Feed is slowly but surely crashing on her. Which means that her body and her life are crashing on her too.

She needs help and support.

This is not forthcoming from the mega corporations behind the Feed. Violet is the future version of today’s privacy activists. She has made an art form out of confusing the Feed’s segmentation and profiling algorithms. Sadly for her this means that they are not interested when she cries for tech support.

We’re sorry Violet Durn. Unfortunately, FeedTech and other investors reviewed your purchasing history, and we don’t feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time. No one could get what we call a “handle” on your shopping habits, like for example you asking for information about all those wow and brag products and then never buying anything. We have to inform you that our corporate investors were like, “What’s doing with this?” Sorry – I’m afraid you’ll just have to work with your feed the way it is.

And so she turns to Titus.

Which is when Feed stops being flimsy sci-fi and becomes a nicely observed, sensitively written tragedy.

Mr Anderson can write.

“We Americans,” he said, “are interested only in the consumption of our products. We have no interest in how they were produced, or what happens to them” – he pointed at his daughter – “what happens to them once we discard them, once we throw them away.”

“I didn’t,” I said. “I didn’t throw her away.”

“And the worst thing,” he said, ” is that you made her apologise. Toward the end. I didn’t say anything to her, but she told me she was apologising to you for what she said, for how she behaved. You made her apologise for sickness. For her courage. You made her feel sorry for dying.”

This section of the book is so good that it reminded me of my favourite Beatles song – For No One. Two minutes of genius that beautifully, excruciatingly captures the utter desolation of unrequited love.

That is what Titus does to Violet. As she and her Feed simultaneously crash she becomes desperate to live as much as she can as intensely as she can. She also becomes concerned for her Feed-dependent memories and feelings. So she tries to back them up by sending streams of consciousness to Titus for him to hold on her behalf.

He ignores her, he deletes her messages and, worst of all, pretends never to have received them. This last act makes Violet fear even more for the extent of her deterioration. What hope if her heartfelt outpouring is for nought?

At the end of the Kindle version of Feed there is a series of book club style discussion questions.

I don’t like the idiot’s guide tone in which they are written.

But the content is interesting nonetheless. Most of the questions focus on the Feed itself.

In Feed, product information flows directly, and unceasingly, to the brain. How deeply have commercial messages penetrated your own day-to-day life. Does the presence of that advertising bother you? Are there things about it that you like and that you would miss?

Mildly annoying isn’t it?

Such are the obvious questions raised by Feed. And it is doubtless the nature of the book’s subject matter that prompted suggestions of almost impossible prescience.

Hmmm.

Even if the idea behind Feed did become technically possible, would people really accept it and allow it to happen on a mass scale? The book does not discuss this. Mass adoption has already occurred. Those who are without the Feed have not rejected it on moral grounds. They simply can’t afford it.

There would be more to commend this book if it had attempted to explore the ethics of Feed technology. Alas no.

And it is telling that there is only one discussion question about the most interesting aspect of the story. Namely misplaced love and juvenile callousness.

When Violet is gravely ill, Titus mostly ignores her messages and rejects her pleas. What does Violet need from Titus? Why doesn’t he give it to her? Why does she believe he’s different from his friends? Is he?

That indeed is the question.

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Digital disintegration.

Integration, by which I mean integrated marketing communications, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Indeed it’s in danger of cracking up.

And this crazy little thing called digital is largely to blame.

The front end of integrated communication – the carefully orchestrated end result that gets seen by the outside world – is, when it works, a holistic, whole-greater-than-sum-of-parts thing.

Seamless. Joined up. Resonant.

The back end of integrated communication – the organisation, the processes, the haggling, the compromises – is, when it works, a high-order diplomatic exercise in aligning discrete vertical skills, disciplines, personalities and agendas.

Integration done well has always been a minor miracle if you ask me.

The conditions for it to work (and I think you need all of these) are:

  • A brand idea that lends itself to “proper” integrated comms. Not the same execution repeated slavishly everywhere, but an idea that allows each channel to utilise its inherent strengths whilst building towards a coherent whole.
  • Maximum complement and minimum conflict in the expertise and commercial agendas of the various parties.
  • A secure environment facilitated by the client that allows the various agencies to take a long term view and resist the temptation to make as much as possible out of every project.
  • Light touch management from the client. Set clear expectations for what integration should look like then trust your agencies to make it happen (i.e. make them responsible and accountable.)
  • Strong personal relationships between peers at every level in each agency. It helps if people at your various agencies genuinely like each other. Smart clients facilitate this with frequent social occasions.

“Digital” and social media are making it harder and harder to satisfy these criteria, particularly when it comes to maximum complement, minimum conflict. They play havoc with the fragile back end agency ecosystem that sustains integrated comms.

Integration was about aligning vertical disciplines.

But digital is not just another vertical.

Digital is horizontal too.

It has girth.

It fracks verticals.

Every vertical – advertising, PR, DM, media, sales promotion, events – is also digital (and social) these days. The boundaries between agencies, which once were clearly delineated, are increasingly overlapping and blurred.

Digital introduces agency conflict where once was none.

Digital has you watching your back.

Border skirmishes are a weekly occurrence.

It’s not much fun sometimes.

I presented at a DMA conference earlier this year, at which Kate Cox of Havas Media shared a lovely metaphor for what integration has become.

She described it as a pirate ship.

Viewed from the outside (i.e. the client’s eye view) it all looks fine. Everyone is on board and the vessel is moving in the right direction.

But what you can’t see, unless you’re on board, is the crew fighting amongst itself and slitting each others throats over hard tack biscuits.

Everyone at the conference laughed – clients and agencies alike. The comedy of recognition.

I offer here an alternative metaphor.

The golf balls of my youth were not solid like today. Beneath the plastic shell was a tightly bound ball of rubber bands. If you hit a bad shot and cut through the outer layer you released the pressure that was holding the rubber bands in place and they would unwind, sometimes spectacularly, of their own accord.

Integration is an old style golf ball.

And digital & social media are the bad shot that splits the thin shell holding the whole thing together.

The effect of digital on integration.

 

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