The Bionic Brand: Delivering a Service that is Both High Tech and High Touch

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‘You are my creator, but I am your master; Obey!’

Mary Shelley, ‘Frankenstein’

Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein first gave life to his Creature in the early nineteenth century, we have been fascinated by science’s ability to replicate and enhance human beings’ physical and mental capabilities. And we have wondered whether these machines could acquire human feelings and emotions. Could a robot have a soul?

‘I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.’

Mary Shelley, ’Frankenstein’

In 1968 Philip K. Dick famously asked ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ And his novel spawned the 1982 movie ‘Blade Runner.’ It concerned itself with the possibility that synthetic humans, ‘replicants,’ might develop memories and emotions; that they might even acquire a capacity for love. The recent sequel, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ speculates on the possibility of humans and replicants cross-breeding; of a replicant that is ‘born, not made.’

There are countless books and films about robots, androids and humanoids. They seem to return again and again to the possibility that in the future machines might not just act and think like humans; that perhaps they might feel like us too.

‘Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ’More human than human’ is our motto.’

Eldon Tyrell, ‘Blade Runner’

Of course, in recent years we have seen science fiction evolve into science fact. And the discourse seems to be following the same path. Industry has already automated basic physical tasks, and is progressing onto the not-so-basic. With the onward march of AI, businesses are automating the mental functions too. Increasingly leaders are asking how many of the everyday exercises of commerce can be taken over by machines. And inevitably they are wondering whether artificial intelligence can feel as well as think. Will there be a time when we can entirely replace humans in the workforce?

‘In our bank we have people doing work like robots. Tomorrow we will have robots behaving like people.’

John Cryan, CEO of Deutche Bank, The Guardian 6 Sep 2017

I think we may be getting ahead of ourselves.

I’ve no doubt that some sectors and services will in time succumb entirely to automation. But I suspect that there are other services that are so central to our lives that they will retain a requirement for essentially human qualities: for emotion and empathy, sense and sensibility; for care, craft and creativity.

Robots can act and think, but they can’t feel – or at least they can’t yet feel as well as human beings can.

To my mind we talk too much about robots and AI substituting or replacing people. It would be more helpful to consider automation augmenting or enhancing human skills and talents. Many businesses will continue to need ‘humans in the loop.’ Perhaps their future will be less about robots and more about cyborgs: ‘organisms whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.’

‘Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive…Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.’

In the 1970s TV adventure series ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ NASA astronaut Colonel Steve Austin is injured in a horrendous crash. Doctors manage to put him back together with the aid of bionic implants in his right arm, both his legs and one eye. When Austin recovers, he is fitter, faster and stronger than any normal human being, and so is put to use by the US Government fighting crime and foreign agents.

When I was a kid I wanted to be a Bionic Man. I’d sprint in mock slow motion across the fields that backed onto our back garden, intent on intercepting enemy spies. With my infra-red vision, I’d spot hazards in the dark. With my robotic-enhanced strength, I’d throw cars out of my way. And all accompanied by the ‘dit, dit, dit’ sound effect of my bionics in action.

The appeal of the Bionic Man was that he had superhuman talents, but he remained fundamentally human in nature. He could run at 60mph; he had the strength of a bulldozer; he had a zoom lens in his eye. But he could also be brave, truculent, considerate, romantic. Critically he could feel.

Imagine the Bionic Brand: a service organisation that integrates the advantages of automation with profoundly human qualities; combining technical efficacy with human empathy; functionality with feeling; calculation with creativity. An organisation where the machines supply the corporate IQ and colleagues supply the EQ; an organisation that is both high tech and high touch.

As Steve Austin’s boss, Oscar Goldman, might have said:

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we can rebuild it. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic brand. Ours will be that brand. Better than it was before. Better…stronger…faster.’

No. 157





Fresh Pants Every Day: The Galvanising Power of Positive Thinking

There used to be a small extension to a building society opposite Harold Wood Station. It was not perhaps a Stirling Prize winner, but it was the source of some pride for me, as I had a hand in creating it.

One summer when I was 19 I worked as a labourer. I learned how to dig holes, mix concrete, lean on a shovel and make tea. I learned that I wouldn’t survive on site if I came into work with The Guardian under my arm. And I learned a little about organizational culture.

We labourers sat on the lowest rung of a sophisticated hierarchical ladder. We looked up to the brickies, plasterers and plumbers; and in particular to the site aristocrats, the sparks. Everyone was aware of his position in the social order and everyone looked down on us.

And then there was the Management. We didn’t really know who they were or what they did; and they in turn didn’t endeavor to explain what we were doing, or to inspire us with wise words or visionary speeches. But every week or so, when we’d dug a significant trench or laid a bit of concrete (‘a nice drop of stuff’), a chap with a navy sports jacket and loosely knotted tie turned up. He didn’t say too much, just poked around with a stick, had a scratch and eventually said everything was fine to proceed. The blokes on site called him ‘The Man from Delmonte.’

You’d think that sitting at the bottom of a hierarchical organization with a distant management and a very limited understanding of our collective purpose, would lead to a disenchanted workforce. Far from it. We were happy in our work. We took pride in a hole well dug, a concrete well mixed, a job well done. And collectively we were boundlessly positive.

This was in no small part down to Mont, the chief labourer. Mont was tall and tan and young and muscly. He had Herculean strength and adamantine resolve. He spoke with a bright smile on his face and a rustic Essex burr that you’ll rarely hear today. One lunchtime, as we sat in our wooden hut, sipping sweet tea from tin mugs and eating Sunblest sandwiches from concrete-encrusted hands, he proudly revealed to me his secret: 'Do you know, Jim, there’s one thing I insist on in life. I wear fresh pants every day.’ 

You see, Mont was an eternal optimist. He had a phenomenal ability to put away yesterday’s troubles and to live life in the present. And his enthusiasm was infectious. Despite the medieval hierarchy, the lack of communication and vision, ours was a happy site, a functioning unit. It was a lesson I took with me into my advertising career.

The galvanizing force in any team, the animating energy, is enthusiasm; irresistible, intoxicating, inspiring enthusiasm. You can’t discover answers unless you’re eager to ask questions; you can’t create difference if you’re satisfied with the same; and you can’t anticipate the future unless you’re looking up towards the horizon. In my time at BBH we subscribed to the view that positive people have bigger, better ideas. I’m sure that’s true.

 It strikes me that one of the defining characteristics of our industry, alongside creativity, is enthusiasm. And it’s an increasingly precious commodity in a world beset by Brexit blues, abiding austerity, global terror and environmental decay. Perhaps we should make more of it.

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. In my experience Agencies are actually both fuelled by confidence and oiled by fear.  Every business needs a little paranoia to inoculate it against complacency. Every business needs a few people that are angry, awkward and discontent. But no business can sustain too many of them. And it’s a critical role of leadership to manage that mix.

Sadly I’m not sure if my Harold Wood construction is still a building society today. It’s probably a coffee shop or bookies, blow dry or nail bar, Pound Shop or Pound Land. But maybe I’m getting a little cynical. I need to put on some fresh pants.

This piece first appeared in Campaign on 17 August 2016.

No. 97


‘Words Without Thoughts Never To Heaven Go’

Bernardo: ‘Who’s there?’
Francisco: ‘Nay, answer me: stand and unfold yourself.’
Hamlet, I i.

Some have argued that the opening lines of Hamlet are entirely appropriate: this night-time exchange between two guards on the walls of the castle at Elsinore immediately establishes a sense of doubt about identity, a theme that sustains us through the play.

In a bold break with tradition, the director of the Hamlet currently being staged at The Barbican in London chose instead to start her production with the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. Too bold for some, and it was announced last week that the experiment would be discontinued.

Should one side with the purists and demand respect for genius and tradition? Or should one applaud brave endeavour, even when it doesn’t succeed?

I found that, the longer I was in business, the more I had to guard against instinctive conservatism. ‘We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work.’ Age and experience can at once enhance one’s judgement and diminish one’s appetite for change.

I saw the Barbican Hamlet in preview. Benedict Cumberbatch has a strong, charismatic take on the troubled Prince; the sets are magnificent; and the production has many good ideas.

When you revisit great works, different scenes leap out at you. This time I was struck by the passage in which Hamlet’s uncle, the villainous Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father and married his widow, tries to pray for forgiveness. At length Claudius concedes that, since he is still in possession of ‘my crown, mine own ambition and my queen,’ he cannot hope for absolution. His prayers are empty without genuine remorse.

‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’
Hamlet III, iii

Creative businesses are sadly cursed by hollow words and empty promises. We all too publicly worship at the altar of creativity without properly demonstrating our faith in day-to-day behaviour. Talk is cheap. And our belief is sorely tested when the god Mammon steps into the meeting room. Perhaps we should, like Claudius, appreciate that ‘words without thoughts never to heaven go.’


Scepticism Is Healthy for Business Too

Trouble in Paradise is a sophisticated screwball comedy from 1932, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A romance between two upmarket con artists is tested when one of them falls for a society heiress, their next intended victim.

The film is fast paced, knowing and wry. And so beautifully written. The society heiress, Madame Colet, rejects a suitor’s advances thus:

‘You see, Francois, marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together. But with you, Francois, it would be a mistake.’

It’s reassuring to discover that scepticism about advertising and business was alive and well in the ‘30s. Madame Colet has inherited a perfume business and her brand is advertised thus:

‘Remember, it doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter how you look. It’s how you smell.’

In another scene Giron, the Chairman of the Board of Colet et Cie, confronts our hero Gaston, now acting as Madame Colet’s advisor:
Giron:  ‘Speaking for the Board of Directors as well as for myself, if you insist in times like these in cutting the fees of the Board of Directors, then we resign.’
Gaston:  ‘Speaking for Madame Colet as well as for myself, resign.’
Giron:  'Very well…We’ll think it over...’

I understand that in this month’s Alphabet announcement there was a nod to the HBO comedy Silicon Valley (The Guardian, 11 Aug 2015). There’s a great tradition of comic writing about commercial culture. The Office reflected business life as it is, not as we would want it to be. Nathan Barley shone a light on Shoreditch lunacy, with extraordinary prescience and what now looks like understatement. And the recently departed comic genius, David Nobbs, gave us Reggie Perrin, the middle management mid-life crisis that is sadly all too familiar.

Scepticism is healthy. It calls business to account. It shows that the public is alert to our shortcomings.
Better to be mocked than to be ignored.


Can Commerce Integrate Art and Science?

The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon by JMW Turner shows ordinary folk dancing in a beautiful bucolic scene. A few years ago research was published indicating that Turner’s depiction of the sun in this painting was based on the latest scientific thinking of his day. (The Guardian, 13 November 2011)

It transpires that Turner, whilst studying art at the Royal Academy, also attended science debates at the Royal Society, which was housed in the same building. And in particular it is suggested that Turner attended the lectures of the astronomer William Herschel, who had been examining the surface of the sun.

As an artist Turner was comfortable with, and actively interested in, science. The scientist Michael Faraday was a good friend and he knew mathematicians, palaeontologists and chemists. Science inspired him. His commitment to observe nature first hand is captured in the myth that he lashed himself to a mast during a storm, just so that he could understand the conditions; an experience that supposedly prompted my favourite Turner painting, Snow Storm - Steam Boat Off A Harbour’s Mouth. 

I regret to say that, when I grew up, art and science were taught as polar opposites. We imagined that scientists had different shaped brains and we rarely socialised with them. This dualism extended even to our TV viewing: the scientists watched The Body in Question; we arts scholars watched Brideshead Revisited (the show that launched a thousand fops)…

It’s compelling to note that many of today’s more interesting movies, dance and theatre productions concern themselves with science. The Theory of Everything had us trying to keep up with Stephen Hawking; the great Wayne McGregor creates dance inspired by neuroscience; Nick Payne’s recent Royal Court hit, Constellations, looked at a human relationship in the context of quantum multiverse theory.

Though I’ve barely a scientific sinew in my body, I believe that the future of marketing and communications will occur at the intersection between art and science. It’s logical. It's inspiring.



No. 44

The Ghost In The Machine

‘By our spirits are we deified’
William Wordsworth/ Resolution and Independence

Over recent years the marketing and communications community has raced to build a ‘new marketing model’ for the digital age; a model that is more connected, more agile and less wasteful; a model that transforms the way we market brands to consumers. The industry has made real progress and the opportunities for efficiency and effectiveness seem limitless. But the model should not become an end in itself. Once we’ve built the perfect marketing machine, we’ll still need ideas to animate it; and ideas will remain largely intangible, irrational and irregular. We still need to plan for the Ghost in the Machine.

Fundamentally the age of technology affords us an opportunity to harness the vehicles of persuasion (advertising) more directly to the mechanics of consumption (purchase) and of relationship management (CRM). Modern brands will be built around data rich, adaptive digital platforms that take consumers on a seamless journey from seeing relevant content, to selling an experience, to securing a relationship.

Through enhanced customer knowledge and more accurate targeting, the new model promises the elimination of communication waste. In the twentieth century waste was presumed to be a necessary cost of marketing. (A belief best expressed by the familiar maxim attributed to various mythical magnates: ‘I know half of my advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.’)

The emergent paradigm is a marketing machine that is more targeted, more knowing and more efficient; something that learns, creates, adapts and distributes in real time.

It has been interesting to note that the pioneers of the new model have been service and retail brands: banks, airlines, supermarkets, telecoms and tech companies; businesses whose very existence depends on digital platforms. The FMCG brands that wrote the marketing textbooks of the twentieth century have lagged; perhaps because their businesses still revolve around physical products distributed through physical stores.

The new marketing model is also precipitating a consolidation of agency services. In recent years clients have developed new specialist agency partnerships for every emergent technology. But this fragmentation of suppliers has caused an escalation in cost and management stress. There’s now a drive to glue things back together.

Inevitably the new marketing model has required clients and agencies to hire engineers and technologists to build the connections, to design the interactions, to calculate the algorithms. Marketing and communications have become more scientific and we have all become increasingly concerned with agile processes, seamless user journeys and real time data.

Some have indeed argued that the brands of the future will be defined primarily by the fluency and intuitiveness of the interactions consumers have with them. I suspect this is only partially true. I’m concerned that mechanical models can be mimicked; rational experiences can be replicated; fluid user journeys can be followed.

To my mind success will revolve around our ability to design experiences that have personality as well as fluency; interactions that have spontaneity as well as utility; propositions that express sentiment as well as value. Above all we need to remember that great brands are fundamentally built on ideas. The new marketing machine needs imaginative, differentiating, ownable ideas to animate it.

This entails creating an alliance of art and science in the marketing mix. We need to protect the role of creativity in our culture, people and processes. We need to be as mindful of personality as of performance; of feelings as of functionality. Occasionally we need to stop making sense.

So the new marketing model represents a great leap forward for the industry. But however much we may mechanise our marketing, brands, relationships and experiences will retain an emotional dimension. We should respect The Ghost in the Machine.

First published in The Guardian - Media and Tech Network 5th August 2015

No. 40