I Feel For You

Jules et Jim (1962, Francois Truffaut) image courtesy of Curzon Cinemas

Jules et Jim (1962, Francois Truffaut) image courtesy of Curzon Cinemas

I was watching the splendid Truffault film, Jules et Jim. There’s a scene in which Jules, courting the mercurial Catherine, endeavours to impress her.

‘Catherine, I understand you’, he says.

Catherine replies,’But I don’t want to be understood.’

I paused for thought. Don’t we spend our lives trying to understand consumers? What if, like Catherine, they don’t want to be understood? Understanding implies explanation, logic, rationality. And, critically, it suggests control. Which is precisely, I suspect, why Catherine didn’t want to be understood.

As a young Planner I’m not sure I completely understood the behaviour, ethics and attitudes of British consumers. But I did feel a strong sense of empathy with them. I felt for them in a way. I wonder now whether I’ve lost some of that natural, instinctive judgement. I wonder whether, in a data fuelled world, we have a diminished regard for feelings in our engagement with consumers.

A Latin friend of mine occasionally dismisses films she did not enjoy with the simple assertion that she ‘did not feel it’. As an Anglo Saxon I was originally somewhat nonplussed. Surely a fuller explanation would help? Similarly we were always taught to grill Clients on their responses to work, to demand that they account for their instinctive immediate reactions. Now I wonder whether I have been wrong on both counts: in the way I expect my friends to assess movies and my Clients to judge work.

Shouldn’t  feelings always trump understanding? Shouldn’t feelings suffice?

Do you ever find it a little sinister when modern marketers promise to translate data into knowledge, and knowledge into sales? I do. I confess ‘hidden persuasion’ has never been my bag. I don’t aspire to that level of control. Of course we all want the web to be all-knowing, but should I want it to know all about me? Personally I don’t want the web to know me; I want it to feel me. And I find the prospect of an empathetic, all-feeling web increasingly attractive. Who am I to talk? I’m generally uncomfortable with unfiltered emotional expression. I shudder at the prospect of corporate hugs. Nonetheless, I return to work with a modest resolution: in 2012 I want to base more of my judgements on empathy and feeling, rather than on logic and understanding. And I’d like the web to do the same please.

Chaka was, as ever, right all along. ‘I feel for you’…

First published: BBH Labs 13/01/2012

No. 10

To Sleep, To Dream

Girl Sleeping, by Tamara de Lempicka

Girl Sleeping, by Tamara de Lempicka

‘O sleep,why dost thou leave me?
Why thy visionary joys remove?
O sleep again deceive me,
To my arms restore my wand’ring love’

I recently attended a concert in which these words of Congreve were sung in a beautiful Handel aria. I’m sure we can all relate to the sentiment: sleep is a place of joyful deceptions and re-found loves; it’s a place for escaping, forgetting, recovering, refocusing. However harsh the work environment, however stressful the unrelenting day, I have always been sustained by the promise of sleep, its welcoming embrace, its warm repose. In fact I have a singular talent for napping at will and I have inherited from my mother the habit of the Sunday afternoon kip. I like to drift off on the sofa, newspaper on my lap, to the sound of children’s chatter and roller bags from the pavement outside.

I have long felt that sleep is an area of untapped opportunity for brands. We spend a third of our lives sleeping, but we’re increasingly concerned by our ability to get enough of it, at the right quality. One can’t help but be underwhelmed by the plethora of scented candles, quack remedies and orthopaedic pillows that currently constitute the ‘sleep sector’. Can’t we do better than this? Surely space is not the final frontier; it’s sleep.

When, many years ago, BBH first embarked on our efforts to develop brand ideas that could cross borders, we had to overcome the argument that cultural difference abhorred generalisation. We observed that, whilst all markets are indeed diverse and varied, there are often strong consistencies around aspiration, belief and hope: we are united in dreams, but divided by reality. It’s a creative tension that I continue to find useful.

This is not to say that my relationship with sleep and dreams has always been positive. As a child I was cursed by a recurrent nightmare : my father, padded up, in cricket whites, being chased down the stairs by a crocodile. Not pleasant perhaps, but at least it was interesting.

When I was a young researcher there were guys who put respondents to sleep, hypnotised them in order to probe the deeper, darker unspoken truths of brands. I confess I felt at the time that this was all somewhat daft. Nonetheless I can’t help but admire the intent.

I sometimes wonder if the ‘always on’ digital age is depriving brands of the opportunity to pause and ponder, recover and refocus. I’m concerned that nowadays we fail to find the time and space for our brands to sleep and dream. As we reduce everything to rational reckoners, KPIs and capabilities, are we cultivating brands without conflict or contradiction, brands without personality or human frailty? Are we creating an Age of the Anodyne? Pity the insomniac brand, cursed to roam the earth in the endless waking sunshine of unforgiving rationality.

It seems reasonable to suggest that, whilst brands today should naturally seek to deliver immediacy and reciprocity, utility and individuality, they should also find room to rest, relax and restore; to dream the illogical and impossible; to yearn for lost loves and found hopes.

‘Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I’m tired and I
I want to go to bed…’

Asleep, Steven Morrissey and Johnny Marr

First published: BBH Labs: 02/08/2011

No. 9

Is That All There Is?

‘Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing.
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is.’

Is That All There Is? Leiber & Stoller

Peggy Lee, image via peggylee.com

Peggy Lee, image via peggylee.com

I remember the first time I heard Peggy Lee singing the classic Leiber and Stoller number, ‘Is That All There Is?’. The heroine relates how, through the course of her life, experiences that may initially have been exciting, had in fact turned out rather tiresome. From her home burning down, to going to the circus, to falling in love. It’s a hymn to disappointment and apathy. Like most teenagers I had spent large chunks of my short time on the planet lying in my room being incredibly bored. In amongst the bubble gum pop and dinosaur rock of Radio 1, a song that celebrated ennui was a rare and precious thing.

I remember the first time I heard the Clash sing ‘I’m So Bored with the USA’. I was simultaneously shocked and excited. Could one really so publicly proclaim disappointment with the home of rock’n'roll, the land of the free, the country that had given us Barry Manilow, Boz Scaggs and The Sound Of Bread? Was that acceptable? Was that legal?

I remember the first time I saw the painting Ennui by Walter Sickert. The bored couple cannot be bothered to look at each other. One stares into space and the other at the wall. The blank generation. Tedium in oils. And yet so utterly compelling.

 

Ennui, by Walter Sickert

Ennui, by Walter Sickert

It’s a curious thing. Apathy, boredom and tedium seem such dull, passive, inert qualities. Yet they can be exciting, inspiring, disruptive.

And I wonder whether this particular truth is lost on us and our world. We claim to be consumer experts. But are we not in denial of the fact that most consumers, most of the time are just not that into our brand or category? They just don’t care. We sustain a myth that the primary communication challenge is lack of attention, when really, more often than not, it’s lack of interest.

I started my career as a Market Researcher and occasionally I had to conduct focus groups to establish names and positioning concepts for industrial paints. I well recall the blank stares, the listless body language, the echoing silence. ‘Just call it paint’, one chap suggested.

I have often felt that a wholehearted recognition of the true level of consumer disinterest might conversely be the platform to build transformative engagement. Surely we can turn apathy, ennui and boredom into a positive force, a force for good. Would not an honest acceptance of the diminished role a brand or category plays in consumers’ lives encourage us to think harder about utility, experience and reward?

Whilst I am keen to embrace and celebrate the apathy at the heart of many markets, I’m conscious that within our own business failing to care can be corrosive. John Bartle in his closing address to BBH some years ago warned that ‘the opposite of creativity is cynicism.’ And I’m sure he was right.

As I have aged I’ve noticed, regrettably, an increasing inclination to dismiss the new and original as familiar and derivative. We veterans are cursed by the ability to see antecedents, to cite failed precedent. ‘We tried that and it didn’t work’. Far from the wisdom of age, we suffer the scepticism of age. It’s a cancer. And we must cut it out if we are to sustain our careers.

When I first joined the business I fell in love with the bright eyed enthusiasm that characterised ad people. They seemed to share a particular genetic strain, high on hope and positive thinking, resilient to any disappointment. Like Weebles they wobbled, but they wouldn’t fall down.

I once read about a West Coast experiment where half of the sample took a test fortified by free hamburgers and the other half tackled the same test without sustenance. It transpired that the burgered sample significantly outperformed the unburgered and the researchers concluded that happier people work more effectively.

Being an enthusiastic adman, I’ll not pause to address the obvious shortcomings of this experiment. But I do agree with the key finding. The longer I have worked in this business, the more I have come to believe that  enthusiasm is the critical factor that drives success.

We have a saying here that ‘positive people have bigger, better ideas’. I believe it’s true.

‘Is that all there is?’ you may well ask. Well, yes it is.

First published: BBH Labs: 29/6/2011

No 8

Whose Ad Is It Anyway?

     Tamara Rojo  Courtesy of Charlotte Macmillan

     Tamara Rojo Courtesy of Charlotte Macmillan

Last week I attended a talk by the magnificent Royal Ballet dancer, Tamara Rojo.

As a child growing up in Madrid she had not been aware of ballet and had stumbled into her first dance academy somewhat by chance. She immediately fell in love with the art form and became a diligent pupil. Observing her enthusiasm for dance, her parents took her to a performance of Swan Lake by a visiting Russian company.

The young Tamara was, however, disappointed and upset by the experience. She loved ballet, but had never imagined that it was to be crafted into stories and performed in front of other people. She thought ballet was, as she had experienced it in class, an entirely personal thing, a beautiful private escape.

Subsequently Tamara’s teachers would tell her that she was there to entertain the audiences, not herself.  But one could not help concluding that Tamara’s exceptional ability to inspire others was derived in part from her determination to do something for herself.

Inevitably when we discuss modern communication, we spend most of our time considering whether we are properly reflecting the truth of the brand or engaging the interest and participation of the audience. And rightly so.  But doesn’t it help, a little at least, to be motivated by our own interest, enthusiasm and sense of pride?

Many years ago I worked with the much loved and respected creative, Martin Galton. We would return, heads bowed, from another attritional Client meeting to supply the team with the customary ‘builds’. Martin, however, would only entertain a certain level of distortion of his original concept. Beyond that point he’d say: ‘Forget it. Throw that idea away and I’ll do you another one.’

Frustrating at the time, but his self-belief endured. In an era where the communications process is increasingly driven by the end user and hyper-targeting techniques, how many of us stubbornly hold on to our own vision? Is there still a time and a place to ‘dance for ourselves’?

First published: BBH Labs 16/05/11

No. 7

Raging Against The Machine: A Manifesto For Challenging Wind Tunnel Marketing

The Mesta Machine Company Courtesy of ' Plant and product of the Mesta Machine Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania'

The Mesta Machine Company Courtesy of 'Plant and product of the Mesta Machine Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania'

This is the second of a two-parter. For the introduction to Wind Tunnel Marketing, check out "Wind Tunnel Marketing"

***

1. Seek Difference In Everything We Do

“Is it different?” has been relegated to the last question, the afterthought, the bonus ball.  But the last should be first.

We should tirelessly seek difference in the people we talk to, the questions we ask, the processes we follow. “Is it different?” should be the first question we ask when we look at work  – both in terms of content and form.

2. Kick Out the Norms

We’ve become addicted to backward looking averages. But norms create a magnetic pull towards the conventional. Norms produce normal.  The new frontier doesn’t have norms, but it does have endless supplies of data, and a rich diversity of tools with which to mine it.

We should create a data-inspired future, not a norm-constrained past.

3. Only Talk to Consumers who are Predisposed to Change

Where there is change, there are people that lead and people that follow.  In research we mostly talk to followers, because there are more of them and they’re cheaper. But ultimately they are less valuable.

If we’re seeking to change markets, shouldn’t we talk exclusively to change makers?

4. Embrace Insights From Anywhere

We’ve lived for too long under the tyranny of consumer insight. Of course consumer insight can be engaging, but it can also be familiar.

Surely insights can come from anywhere and we’re just as likely to find different insights from an analysis of the brand, the category, the competition, the channel, and, above all, the task.

5. Don’t Iron Out All the Creases

The Wind Tunnel abhors rough edges.  It likes to smooth over, iron out, edit away.  But people are drawn to the irregular and eccentric.

Let’s treasure, protect and nurture the happy accident, the illogical flaw.

6. Test in the Market, Not in the Test Tube

We have known for years that the optimal way to deal with complex communication needs in a fast moving, volatile market is to test in beta.  The gamers know it and the retailers knew it before them. Now all markets are fast moving and volatile.

Let’s learn from and with the market.

7. Practice Foresight

We’ve become too accustomed to considering the world as it is now.  We need more often to be considering the possible worlds of the future.

Let’s lift our eyes to the horizon.

8. Learn to Love Risk

The Wind Tunnel is risk averse.  We have come to consider risk as something to be feared, minimised, eradicated. But risk is integral to innovation and change.  It’s integral in fact to success.

We need to learn to feel comfortable with risk again, to calibrate it, to embrace it.

9. Value Expertise, Value Inexperience

Our risk aversion has led us to overvaluing category experience and undervaluing communication expertise. But an excess of experience predisposes to the tried and tested.  Relevant difference occurs at the intersection between expert judgement and naïve enthusiasm.

Let’s listen again to the experts, whilst opening the process up to the inexperienced.

10. Hurry Up

For many years Agencies have argued that they need more time to protect quality.  But too much time compromises quality because it creates room for caveats, committees and complacency. And we’re often late before we’ve arrived.

Speed can be liberating, exciting, invigorating. Come on. Let’s go……

First published in BBH Labs 16/09/2010

No. 6

Wind Tunnel Marketing

The Propulsion Wind Tunnel Facility -  Photo by Phil Tarver

The Propulsion Wind Tunnel Facility - Photo by Phil Tarver

I wrote a post on BBH LABS which Campaign magazine (campaign live) asked me to expand on. This is one of two posts – on the subject. The second is a post entitled Raging Against the Machine: A Manifesto for Challenging Wind Tunnel Marketing,

Have you noticed that all the ads are looking the same?

Perfectly pleasant, mildly amusing, gently aspirational.

The insightful reflection of real life, the pivotal role of the product, the celebration of branded benefit.

Advertising seems so very reasonable now.  Categories that were once adorned with sublime creativity are now characterised by joyless mundanity.

Some of you will recall the day in 1983 when we woke up and noticed that the cars all looked the same.  There was a simple explanation.  They’d all been through the same wind tunnel.  We nodded assent at the evident improvement in fuel efficiency, but we could not escape a weary sigh of disappointment.  Modern life is rubbish…

Are we not subjecting our communications to something equivalent: Wind Tunnel Marketing?

Have we not so formularised the process that we’re eradicating some of the elements that made advertising so effective in the first place?  And has the Recession made us more dependent still on this Wind Tunnel Marketing?

The Origins of Wind Tunnel Marketing

I guess it all began with the best intentions:  businesses taking Marketing more seriously.

Some years ago, with increasing globalisation, there was a drive to identify best demonstrated practice, to codify it and coach it. We developed acronyms, characterful shapes and ring-bound folders. We attended conferences, bunjee jumped together and went home with wittily sloganned T-shirts.

With the pressure at Board Room to demonstrate ROI, we became obsessed with proof and measurement, with norms and traffic light systems. What gets measured gets done and what gets green gets made.

Now of course the development of a common Marketing language and a culture of effectiveness has to be a good thing.  But few noticed,  as the industry professionalized, that the Cavaliers were being marginalised.  A steady stream of mavericks made their way to the exit door, their hitherto precious gut instinct no longer deemed valuable.

Few noticed, as we learned to lean more heavily on our norms and pre-tests, that expertise and judgement were a devaluing currency.

And few noticed, at least at first, that the measures designed to raise the floor of communication output were at the same time lowering the ceiling.

The researchers had taken over the asylum.

When Relevance Trumped Difference

When I was young I was taught that behavioural change could be achieved through communication that was relevant, motivating and different. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost our faith in the power of difference.

There was an Age of Innocence.  An era when brand owners were driven by an obsession for product and functionality.  They had foresight, a passion for the positive impact a brand might have on consumers’ lives in the future.  And they were steeled by the competition to believe that difference was critical to commercial success.

In the face of imitation and commoditisation, it became harder to sustain rational product differentiation. Increasingly we sought difference through communicating “emotional selling propositions”. And over time we learned to excuse the absence of difference if we could at least achieve some kind of emotional resonance with consumers. In our headlong pursuit of relevance, we commissioned endless focus groups and we worshiped at the altar of consumer insight. Gradually we have arrived at an industry consensus around what makes effective communication. But it is a very narrow definition, one that emphasises consumer insight and relevance, and one that minimises or excludes  the once critical role of difference in the selling process.

Relevance has trumped difference. We now inhabit a world in which most brands in most categories approach most problems by asking the same people, the same questions, in the same way.

Is it any wonder that we keep coming up with the same answers?

Does Any of This Matter?

Perhaps it matters little that Wind Tunnel Marketing diminishes difference.  So what if it makes for a less creative, less interesting industry? So what if the ads all look the same? Surely none of this matters if the Wind Tunnel produces more effective communication.

My own conviction is that Wind Tunnel Marketing is turning communication into a numbers game, a game where scale of resource wins every time – whether that be media budget, distribution network or sales team. The cost  efficiencies of brand differentiation are notable largely by their absence. Surely in a fragile economic environment this represents an oversight.  And in an environment where increasingly we need to earn rather than buy attention, it’s lunacy.

Of course, out of a crisis comes opportunity.  And a number of Clients have already concluded that the rewards for bravery, subversion and calculated risk have never been greater.

Excepting these noble attempts to rage against the machine however, I’m concerned that at a macro level Wind Tunnel Marketing is gradually eroding the very foundations of  consumers’ affection for communication and brands. The pop combo Groove Armada memorably remarked “If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other”. I suspect we’re creating consumer fatigue through our homogenisation of our own product. Conventionally, when we see long term declining scores for brand trust and advertising enjoyment, we blame Own Label or the internet or Sky or the banks or BP or Naomi Klein.  But maybe we as a Marketing and Advertising community should look in the mirror.

First published BBH Labs: 19/09/2010

No. 5

Wind Tunnel Politics

Guardian/Dan Chung Dan Chung

Guardian/Dan Chung Dan Chung

It was going to be the most important Election in a generation.

It was going to break the mould of British Politics.

It should have been so exciting.

So why did it all seem so unfulfilling? Why did our eager anticipation of the first debate turn to a stifled yawn by the third? Why did our ardour for the new kid turn so quickly to complacency? Why did we shrug at the glossy manifestos, put the recycled thinking straight into the recycling bins?

This was the Sunblest Election. The Election when all the mighty forces of Marketing created three soft, medium sliced, plastic packaged loaves. Designed to please, guaranteed not to let you down. Perfectly pleasant on their own terms, but curiously unsatisfactory.

You see, all three candidates and campaigns had been put through the same Marketing Wind Tunnel.

Rolling focus groups, private polling, polished PR, whispering spin doctors, joy stick analysis…They had collectively eradicated the edges, the uncomfortable, the unpalatable.

They had created three glossy, smooth undifferentiated paradigms of  inoffensiveness.

Everyone knows that the debt needs tackling, that there are hard decisions to be made, jobs to be cut, taxes to be raised. But the focus groups said the electorate didn’t want to hear it and so the candidates didn’t want to tackle it. Efficiencies, my arse… No surprise perhaps, that an exclusive consideration of undecided voters produced indecisive outcomes; that researching marginal constituencies produced mainstream opinions; that endless focus groups produced unfocused group-think. It all seemed so timid, so spineless, so lacking in confidence.

It pains me as someone who works in the communications industry to see the techniques designed to sell soap powder applied so assiduously to such substantive matters. It pains me not just because politics ought to be a little more complicated. But also because the Marketing model that’s been applied is itself broken.

Advertising Agencies used to be in the business of finding and articulating difference. We used to help our Clients establish strong, compelling, differentiated truths. Don’t just ‘hold a mirror up to the consumer’, we said. Consumers don’t want their worldview mirrored and reinforced; they want  to be challenged, stimulated, inspired. But over the last ten years Marketing has fallen victim to formularisation and commoditisation. ’Best demonstrated practice’ has been distilled, codified, taught and tested. The researchers have taken over the asylum. The quest for difference has been replaced by the quest for inoffensiveness. Holding a mirror up to the consumer is no longer anathema; it is the recognised norm, standard practice. Have you ever wondered why the beer and car ads you used to love now look so similar, so sane, so sensible?  Well the Agencies and Marketeers that produce them have been looking for the same answers, in the same way, in the same places.

They’ve all been through the Marketing Wind Tunnel.

This was also supposed to be the first Digital Election. We had visions of grass roots participation, of new voter engagement, of a more visceral, real time debate. Indeed there was a vibrant online conversation, but it was a conversation fuelled by the big beast of telly. I guess the political establishment fell for McLuhan’s seductive aphorism: the medium is the message. They imagined that arming our MPs with Twitter accounts might send the youth of Britain into a swoon. But the truth is the medium is not the message. It communicates and amplifies the message; in some cases it prompts participation with the message. But it is not the message.

It’s obvious that Obama wasn’t successful simply because he designed a cunning digital strategy. It’s obvious that Obama hadn’t been through any Marketing Wind Tunnel. In our world we’d say he was a great product, a great brand, with a real difference, with something worth saying…

I hope, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that all Politicians, winners and losers, are humbled by this Election. I hope there is a rebellion against the insipid, spineless, formularised Wind Tunnel Politics that have deprived us of the vital engagement the electorate craves and the issues demand. They may not want to talk to the likes of us again. But if our political masters want some communication advice for next time, let’s give it to them. Get yourself a great product, with a strong sense of difference. Be confident in who you are and what you stand for. And then sing it from the rooftops (and the blogs and the Twitter feeds). You know what. People may not mind that you’re saying something different or challenging or hard to stomach. They’ll respect you for it. They may well want to talk to you about it.

And if you say it well and persuasively, they might even vote for you.

First published BBH Labs: 12/05/10

No. 4

I Will Not Follow

 

In 1983 Celtic troubadours The Waterboys released a song called “I Will Not Follow”. I’m pretty sure it was a response to U2′s anthemic “I Will Follow”. Answer songs have a rather mixed history (though I’m grateful to the category for providing us with Roxanne Shante and Althea & Donna…), and I suspect “I Will Not Follow” was not The Waterboys’ finest moment  Nonetheless, I admired their courage in taking on the emerging Titans of Rock. And I loved the sentiment. The determination not to go with the flow, not to follow the masses, not to get lost in the crowd. A passionate rejection of passivity. A celebration of the power of negative thinking.

When I was in my last year at College, thoughts turned to possible careers. It was the late ’80s and , in the wake of the Big Bang, there was a magnetic pull towards the Big Job in The City. It was natural, obvious, exciting. The dark satanic thrills .. I recall my decision not to apply for a City role felt more significant to me than any subsequent active career choice.

I used to interview young graduates looking for a job. I found that their CVs were curiously similar. When asked what they’d achieved in life, they’d say they’d travelled to Asia, captained the hockey team, and they liked skiing and reading. But when one asked what the candidate had chosen not to do, more singular answers were forthcoming.

Some of our most important decisions are the paths we choose not to take,the roads we refuse to travel. Our lives can often be best understood by mapping the things we didn’t do, the words we didn’t say. Perhaps we should more often consider a brand’s unspoken truth, quiet regret. Because in its silence and inaction may reside its strength and identity.

‘If you gave me a pound for all the moments I’ve missed,
And I took dancing lessons for all the girls I should’ve kissed.
I’d be a millionaire, I’d be Fred Astaire’
ABC – “Valentine’s Day”

My first job after College was as a Qualitative Researcher. ‘Brand elasticity’ projects were very much in vogue. Could this everyday family margarine perhaps be a cheese, or a biscuit, or a ready meal or a jam? With a sip of Chardonnay and a nod of assent, my respondents would consistently give the green light to a whole host of reckless innovations and insane brand extensions. And over the years the song has remained the same, even if the lyrics have changed. Could my brand be an experience, a portal, a membership club? Could it be a hotel, a hub, a content provider? Could it release a clothing line with rugged check shirts, boxer shorts and rain resistant outerwear? Isn’t my brand more a lifestyle choice than a yellow fat?

Curiously perhaps, research respondents find it easy to endorse our grandest aspirations. But then it’s not their money and maybe they’re just being polite. Sometimes it seems we need to be better at defining the limits of our ambition, at identifying the red line, the point beyond which we will not go. Sometimes we need to demonstrate more restraint, more discipline, more negativity.

Many Clients are instinctively suspicious of the negative perspective. Surely it betrays a lack of confidence, enthusiasm, ambition? In order to sustain consistency they develop processes and platforms, models and matrices, funnels and formats. But best demonstrated practice is often worst demonstrated imagination. Over the years negative thinking has inspired truly exceptional communication by the likes of Dunlop, Audi, Marmite, Volvo, Stella and Guinness. What would a world be like without this brand? Who are its enemies? What is its weakness? Whenever one is confronted by the bland, boring or undifferentiated, it’s always helpful to reach for a liberating ‘not’.

Of course in the age of the social web possibilities seem infinite. We want campaigns to be all embracing, 360º, holistic. We want to tick off platforms like

some bizarre game of I Spy. We want all the colours in all the sizes. Yet I wonder if the democratisation of knowledge and opinion creates a kind of accelerated conformity: the Consensus of Crowds. Surely brand behaviour on the web would benefit from a little more negative thinking? Perhaps more discipline and self denial? Maybe we need to see more of the brand that likes to say ‘no’, the brand that will not follow…

Every morning I face the horrors of commuting as I change Tube at Kings Cross. Crowded, crushed, compressed. Downbeat, dour, depressed. In order to get onto my teeming southbound train into the centre of town, I walk along the less cluttered northbound platform. Periodically empty northbound trains stop and then recommence their journey out to the quiet leafy suburbs. I’ve always promised myself that one day I’ll jump on one of those empty northbound trains, make my way to the end of the line, find a caff and settle down to The Guardian, bacon, eggs, tea and toast. One day…

No. 3

The Birds That Sing At Night

 

Sometimes recently I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and there have been birds singing in the street outside. Two or three o’clock in the morning, well before sunrise and they’re chirping away, casually, confidently.

I’m no ornithologist, but shouldn’t they be saving it for the dawn chorus?

Inevitably one is troubled by the abnormal. My initial concern was that their singing portended some dark event, an omen of impending doom.

But the world didn’t implode.

I wondered was I witnessing some form of ecological fallout? Was the nocturnal bird song an unnatural response to an unnatural environment?

The bird authorities’ website reassured me that our feathered friends sing primarily ‘to attract a mate and defend territory’ and that some species are just  happy to do these things at night.

I prefer to imagine that the birds outside my window are adapting to the modern world. Working, socialising, eating and courting on a more fluid, 24 hour, ‘always on’ basis.

Perhaps the collective unconscious of London sparrows has connected with humanity’s accelerating metabolism. Perhaps they’re embracing deconstructed social norms, flexible working, speed dating.

Maybe this also explains the migrant foxes that have long since given up the tedium and conservatism of rural life for the bright lights and diversity of the metropolis.

I have always liked the idea that change is a social, collective thing. That we like to change together, that we are reassured by community even when that community is evolving in different directions.

I have sadly found it frustrating to entertain philosophies to which my Clients do not yet subscribe.

As a student I was taught that a society in some respects behaves like an orchestra. It assigns ‘in tune-ness’  to behaviours that are consistent with everyone else and it rejects abnormal behaviour as ‘out of tune’.

This of course has its downsides. But it’s reassuring to consider that, as we run at the future, we may be taking the the wildlife with us…

First published: BBH Labs: 27/5/2011

No. 2

From Art to Apps: Data Visualisation finds a purpose

 

I recently attended an excellent Made by Many event hosted at BBH which featured a re-presentation by Manuel Lima of his 2009 TED talk on data visualisation. Manuel is the curator of visualcomplexity.com and is an eloquent, modest, charming pioneer in this fascinating field.

As a novice myself, I could not help wondering why we are all so immediately and instinctively attracted to the best of data visualisation.To start with, I’m sure there is some fundamental truth that for most of us data become meaningful only when we can see scale, change, patterns and relationships. Seeing is understanding.

It’s also very reassuring to discover that complex, seemingly chaotic data sets and networks can be expressed as elegant, colourful, ordered maps and models. Perhaps there’s something akin to what the Enlightenment scientists felt as every new discovery revealed the endless beauty of nature.

Indeed the best examples of data visualisation have their own aesthetic beauty. (I felt a nostalgic pang as I recalled time spent with spirograph in my bedroom as a child.)

Like spirograph, but better: Email map by Christopher Baker

Like spirograph, but better: Email map by Christopher Baker

To some extent however this elegance, which makes data visualisation so immediately compelling, also represents a challenge. It’s possible that the translation of data, networks and relationships into visual beauty becomes an end in itself and the field becomes a category of fine art.

No harm in that perhaps.

But as a strategist one wants not just to see data, but to hear its story. And it can seem that for some visualisations the aesthetic overpowers the story. I spent many hours when younger staring at data tables, yearning for them to reveal a narrative. It is the prospect of bringing articulacy to hitherto cold, laconic facts that should be at the heart of the excitement around data visualisation.

The more compelling projects from Manuel’s archive did indeed seem to reveal some insightful truth about the relationships that they considered. Enron’s email patterns, the map of Segolene Royal’s supporters, the plotting of visitor eye traces in Barcelona, all looked extremely useful.

                                         Enron Communication Graph, by Kitware Inc.

                                         Enron Communication Graph, by Kitware Inc.

With this last instance in particular,  one can start to imagine how understanding the dynamic patterns of tourist traffic around the city and its most photographed areas might enable the development of all kinds of helpful tools and services for both tourist and city.

                                                        Tracing the Visitor's Eye by Fabien Girardin

                                                        Tracing the Visitor's Eye by Fabien Girardin

Manuel himself talked about ‘turning tools of curiosity into tools of functionality’. In this respect he quoted Chaomei Chen: ‘A taxonomy of information visualization is needed so that designers can select appropriate techniques to meet given requirements.’ And clearly this desire to enable greater utility is driving Manuel’s own research into the different methods and models of visual representation.

As a pioneer in his field, Manuel discussed the opportunities emerging in interactive data maps and he described a Californian experiment in which it should be possible physically to interact with a huge data set distributed about a six storey building.  Blimey. I think I’ll leave that to the true data connoisseurs …

Finally, as a grey haired strategist, I found myself considering how the paucity of visual representation techniques had impacted the way we tackled problems in the past. I think we knew fundamentally that most events were precipitated by complex systemic pressures and relationships. But our limited power to disentangle the many elements in one system reduced us to characterising most strategic problems in rather monochrome ways.

So, this is progress indeed. Data visualisation has radically improved our understanding of these complexities. The real question is: what will we do with that understanding?

First published: BBH Labs 27/08/09

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