Feed on

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.)


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 Wearable technology has been replaced by embedded technology.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.


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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Jumping out of a window in a plastic bag filled with water, or feigning death in order to be flushed down a toilet doesn’t seem like much of a choice.

But desperate times call for desperate measures and, if you are a wild fish trapped in a tank in a dentist’s surgery, either option might seem more attractive than the status quo.

This scenario played out “for real” in the Disney Pixar film Finding Nemo.

Bags out of the window was a very funny and epic fail.

Image found on Gifs For The Masses (click for link)

Down the toilet (which actually ended up as down the plughole) actually worked.

We can learn from this.

“Now what?” is what happens when you latch onto a specific solution without properly defining the problem that you’re trying to solve.

Brief as specified solution.

“We want you to help us jump out of the window in water filled bags.”

This kind of brief can get you into all kinds of trouble.

“We want you to set our brand up on Facebook.”

“We want a branded mobile app.”

We’ve all seen plenty of pointless digital and social media activity, behind which there must be a bunch of hapless clients and slightly shifty agency folk asking themselves “Now what?”

Brief as shared problem.

“How can we get to swim wild in the ocean again?”

This is the kind of brief that sends you down the plughole to freedom.

“How can we increase average purchase value by x%?”

“How can we reduce our cost per acquisition by y%?”

“How can we warm up these three specific buyers before the big trade show?”

Next time you brief your agency make sure you’re sharing a problem (How can we [insert commercial issue that keeps you awake]?) rather than specifying a solution (We want a [insert latest digital/social fad].)



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This blog has a new favourite button.

CentUp is a simple, smart idea that enables small acts of kindness over the internet.

And hopefully enough people will eventually sign up to enable lots of small acts to make a big difference.

The idea is this simple…

Image borrowed from THETRENDNET (click image for link)

When you sign up for CentUp you preload your account with a minimum of $10, which equates to 1000 CentUp credits.

And whenever you see the button next to a piece of content that you like you simply click and donate a few cents (you control how many) like so…

CentUp takes 10% of each donation to cover credit card fees and grow the business. (Co-founder Len Kendall assures me that 10% is no more than they need to keep the business moving forward). The remaining 90% is split 50:50 between the publisher and the donor’s nominated charity.

As a donor my nominated charity is called Pencils Of Promise.

Click image to visit Pencils Of Promise website.

However, I shall be encouraging my favourite charity to sign up. And then I shall encourage as many local “activists” as possible to sign up to CentUp with The Sick Kids as their nominated beneficiary. Maybe a community of people working together on behalf of the same charity could generate a useful level of revenue for them.

As an F-list blogger (said he flattering himself) I’m not going to get rich quick as a CentUp publisher.

Indeed it would be great if a future version of CentUp allowed a publisher to divert 100% of donations to his or her nominated charity, because I would definitely do that.

In the meantime you should definitely create an account. It’s nice to reward the effort that goes into good content. Even better if you can reward a good cause at the same time.

Click the image below to request an invitation.

Click me.

And follow CentUp on Twitter here.

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Once upon a time I wrote this post about collective superstitions.

I talked about the George & Lynne cartoon strip from The Sun newspaper, how it was linked to the fortunes of my college football team, and how I found this website selling original George & Lynne artwork whilst researching the post.


Mike Coulter read the post and had reason (as explained in his comment) to contact the proprietor of the George & Lynne artwork website.

(Mike’s wife is an expert picture framer and Mike liked the idea of framed George & Lynne cartoons).

And, as serendipity would have it, it turns out that said proprietor attended the same college as me.


Mike very kindly gave me this cartoon, beautifully framed by Carol as a (completely unnecessary but totally lovely) thank you gift for bringing the site to his attention.

He even went as far as to choose one with a football theme, to bring this story full circle.


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To say that I’m fascinated by how things work is a huge understatement.

If something piques my interest I CAN’T STAND not knowing how it works.

Is that down to nature, nurture or both?

In the early 70′s, as I approached the ripe old age of 10, I read exclusively non fiction. And, egged on by my scientist dad, I read, read and re-read dozens of these How And Why Wonder Books.

There must be a stack of these somewhere in the loft at my parents’ house.

The content will be ridiculously dated for things like Robots And Electronic Brains.

Less so for Dinosaurs (a childhood obsession of mine) or Lost Cities.

But all perfectly pitched at the inquiring young mind full of How? and Why? questions.

It was probably inevitable that I would study engineering at university. It is the ultimate how-things-work discipline. It is also a creative discipline. Engineering is as much about elegant solutions as architecture or product design.

I never worked as an engineer.

Almost by accident I fell into advertising instead.

I think a Chemical Engineering degree from London was more interesting to BBH than a History degree from Oxford. And all credit to them if that was indeed the case.

I’ve loved just about every day of my advertising career.

But my biggest frustration has always been the lack of rigorous, scientific attention to how our ideas actually work.

We can intuitively recognise what is a good idea. We can explain why an idea is on strategy. But our understanding of how ideas work is flimsy.

Our explanation of how ideas work tends to default to correlation rather than causation – if people like your ads they will like your brand, and if they like your brand they will buy your brand.

That sort of thing.

Unfortunately explanations like this are never going to stand up to Five Why (or Five How) style interrogation.

Things have got better in recent years.

Healthy attention is being given to behavioural economics and neuroscience, not just by enlightened individuals within the planning community, but by the industry as a whole.

Indeed the most intellectually satisfying campaign I ever worked on was “I Like Standard Life“. Not the most “creative” advertising by any stretch of the imagination but intensely rewarding because the brief was based on how we wanted the ads to work rather than what we wanted them to say.

The brief was underpinned not by a brand or audience insight but by neuroscience.

Robert Heath worked with us on the brief and we deliberately set out to develop a campaign that would work through Low Involvement (Low Attention) Processing. And, to cut a long story short, it did (work) (as intended).

Why? and How? are powerful questions because they are fundamental questions. They are, or at least they should be, the first principles underpinning everything we do.

Owning the Why? and How? thinking should be the aspiration of every planner. That is our role in quality control.

What is the purpose? (Why?)

What is the model? (How?)

Our job is to get these things right and then let the creative guys deliver the Wonder.

I know these are the days of “great ideas can come from anywhere”, and I want to believe it. But I’ve been lucky to work with enough truly outstanding creative teams to have my doubts.

In the process of generating commercial ideas I see planners as Sherpas. Supremely competent, trustworthy and inspirational. We establish strategic basecamps, plan routes of ascent, and lead on the way up. But the summit push for creative excellence is made by the creative team.

This train of thought was prompted by a ten minute speaking gig for Google Firestarters last week.

Seven other speakers and I each had to say something provocative about innovation in agencies.

I chose to speak about innovating on purpose rather than for the sake of it.

The slides are embedded below, with extra text to make them easy to follow.

I was speaking in the context of innovation but I don’t think enough attention is paid to the definition of purpose generally.

We should always be looking to get well beyond first base with how we define and frame commercial purpose to make the problem “juicy” and appetising for creative teams.

(Like the Airbus example in the slides.)

It is really satisfying for a planner when the creative idea that “cracks it” falls straight out of how the planning problem was shared, and we should pay at least as much attention to how we share the problem as we do to suggesting possible solutions elsewhere in the brief.


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Social capacitance

In the world of physics electrical capacitance is the ability of a body to store an electrical charge.

You can see capacitance in action when, for instance, LED lights take a while to fade after the power supply has been turned off.

These days locations have a social capacitance. Through applications like Foursquare they are able to store “personal charge”.

And this personal charge, generated by the dynamo of multiple check-ins, takes a while to fade after you move on to pastures new.

You are physically there today and physically gone tomorrow.

But your social media presence in an area has a half life and decays over time.

We moved office in Edinburgh in the middle of December.

But my social capacitance in EH3 is such that I’ve been losing Foursquare mayorships around the old office right up until last week.

Electrical capacitance is measured in Farads.

Social capacitance is evidently measured in Egads.


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Watch this very funny Blackadder film clip.

But watch it with these rules in mind.

Imagine the action is taking place not in a Royal Palace but in an unbranded headquarters building in Covent Garden.

Imagine that the heavily powdered thespians are actually senior Facebook executives.

And imagine that Blackadder is saying “Twitter” rather than “Macbeth”.

Do all those things and you’ll have a pretty good impression of last week’s Facebook FMCG Marketing summit.

Actors don’t say “Macbeth”, they say “the Scottish play”.

And Facebook execs don’t say “Twitter”, they say “other platforms”.

To the point where it becomes a “thing”. The audience nudges each other every the phrase “other platforms” is used. There may even be giggles. Little pockets of amused people all of which have independently arrived at the same private joke.

It’s a shame, because the Facebook people were all impressive.

Especially Paul Adams and Rob Newlan.

Also Luc Delany who was a fellow speaker at the Institute of Promotional Marketing’s social media conference earlier in the day.

All smart, articulate, approachable people.

But not allowed to say “Twitter”.

I obviously can’t prove that this is Facebook policy.

I can say that it is palpable when you see several Facebook people speak on the same day.

Some of Luc’s slides and case studies from the the IPM conference in the morning were used by other speakers at the FMCG summit in the afternoon.

So Facebook’s internal comms systems appear to work better than those of most agencies when it comes to sharing knowledge, sharing IP and making it easy to make one’s colleagues look smart.

And I bet that cultural norms spread just as easily. Whether it is a conscious policy decision or whether it is an unwritten ground rule (culture is observed, not laminated) it is the cultural norm at Facebook not to say the T word.

This is mildly amusing for an audience member at an FMCG summit.

It is also mildly frustrating.

If they don’t say Twitter they sure as hell don’t have summit hashtags.

(I tweeted on #FacebookSummitWithNoTwitterHashtag at one point.)

(To make a point.)

A summit hashtag would have made sense.

It would have allowed for curation of summit content in one place.

It would have allowed delegates (it was a big audience) to say hi to each other, converse and maybe begin useful business relationships.

And we would have been grateful to Facebook for making it happen.

Facebook should be big enough and self-confident enough to acknowledge that Twitter does that conference comment curation job better than their own platform.

Failure to do so raises awkward questions about their culture and erodes credibility.

And their people deserve better.

Paul Adams - you can say "social" but you can't say "Twitter".


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