A nice ad, based on a nice insight, for a nice new product…


Then…. someone thought it was a good idea to involve people further…









Which obviously led to this


The agency said don’t worry, it’s aimed at girls, the risks are low, we’ll get nice stories back, maybe even as many as one hundred if we promote it on TV.

The moderation was in place so few will see the above comments.

But no one thought, maybe, just maybe, it’s a tricky ‘involvement’ idea.

Would people submit nice stories? Would they inspire our next TV ad? Would anyone bother? What would happen if they don’t? Is it best to be seen to be doing facebook (as a test) rather than worrying about the numbers. After all it’s not about ‘likes’ these days is it?

All common questions and considerations.

But any failure will be very public.

So the answer might have been to test the idea better.

All of the above concerns can be answered by posing simple questions to existing communities through community management. The resulting involvement (or lack of) and the consequent insights can guide the next lot of paid-for promotion. Learnings about what mechanic will get women to spread the word about a tissue product can be gathered. Public failure averted.

But this requires managers to stagger investment, test hunches live, resist having every channel launch with a bang at the same time, and generally operate in a tricky new area of test and learn around ideas.

It’s a tricky area because ‘involvement’ (emotional, physical, through sharing, commenting etc) is in the realms of social sciences, not ‘campaign messaging’. It’s psychology, not messaging. People share things to make themselves look good, respond to things that move them, mostly are passive, love free ideas and inspiration and care about their friends. Often these things conflict with brand messages and the marketer’s desire to create fast reach and awareness to hit short-term sales targets.

Messaging is messaging – here’s a point of view we want you to know. Paid media delivers this very well. FMCG product launches are often best delivered this way.

Involvement however is messy. It requires opinions, slow growth, test and learn, debates about products and their pros and cons, ideas for new products and services, new ideas for positioning. openness and continuous marketing processes.  This is tricky in a single ‘big bang’ campaign push. And tricky if you’re not set up to make it work.

So we all run a massive risk of getting it wrong. It’s massively difficult to get people to do things they have limited interest in doing so that we can implant a message into their heads and get them to share this message with their friends. It’s also a rather odd thing to do isn’t it? Looking at it like that.

Which is why involvement seems to work best at a brand vision, company direction and product innovation level, not at an ‘extending the campaign reach’ level.

Unless of course your campaign is extraordinary and the involvement you’re asking for is a simple mechanic like passing it on or ‘liking’ it. Which means a fab product and a wonderfully creative idea.

Which I don’t think this product or campaign quite managed.

If you were the brand manager, what would you do?


Thanks to Alex Jena and Simon Walton for the images.



1. The action or process of innovating.
2. A new method, idea, product, etc: "technological innovations".

Innovation is mostly behaviour: behaviour designed to bring a big, bold vision to life.

It is repeated behaviour. Action, improved, again and again.

Whether that behaviour happens in one closed journey, as Apple’s process suggests, or out in the open in a lean start-up approach, it is learning behaviour that counts.

Innovation processes guide our learning behaviour. Successful innovation processes tend to be  completely customer centric and iterative.

So obviously innovation is not just doing something new, rather finding ways to make something new-ish really work, and then improving it to spawn more and more things that really work, that bring people closer and closer to you. This cycle of action proves the brand/company’s vision to consumers.

Ideas are built up over time, so are never truly ‘new’ anyway.

Successful innovation makes ideas with potential better, or more relevant, for a target consumer (think MP3 players vs iPod, TV hard drives vs Tivo, business flying vs virgin atlantic, electric cars vs Tesla).

Fast/better followers tend to be more successful over time than first movers.

…how about the story of Overture. In 1998 Goto.com, a small startup (later Overture, now part of Yahoo!), created the pay per click search engine and advertising system and demo’d it at the TED conference.

It was not until October 2000 that Google offered its version of a pay per clickadvertising system -AdWords -allowing advertisers to create text ads for placement on the Google search engine.

Google is a $25 billion dollar company with most of its revenue from AdWords.

Overture was acquired by Yahoo for $1.6 billion.

Successful innovation, therefore, is the success of HOW we mitigate risk and improve those ideas  that show potential. Often the WHAT is borrowed and built on all that went before. Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants” quote provides a powerful insight to help us manage ideas.

Agility in business is agile behaviour managed consistently: agility to learn faster than competitors, test faster, build more efficiently on what went before.

Here’s an interesting post from consulting group Bluewolf about agility in business asking ‘Is facebook the reincarnation of Kodak?’

Organizations that become agile enterprises — being customer obsessed, iterative, and social — stand a much better chance of leaping from their current business model to future business models that still promote the essence of their identity.Oracle should have realized ten years ago that they were not a software company; their customers couldn’t care less about software.

Rather, they were a business automation company, and newer models of disseminating that business automation — i.e., the Cloud — should have been at the forefront of their thinking.Like Google today, Facebook, in a decade’s time, will likely be scrambling to catch-up with the next evolution of commerce and collaboration.

The barriers protecting the disruption of Facebook’s stronghold are lower than we think, and rest more with their brand and name recognition.But what Kodak’s story reminds us, more than anything, is that innovation does not require an organization to create a new identity.Sometimes ‘innovation’ is only a matter of understanding what that identity actually is.

Here’s my Campaign YouTube Ad of the Week review. Appearing next week.

I’ve not followed their structure too well (with their permission) 🙂

NewNow Campaign

Why I like it

I don’t.

I’ve been transported back to 1999 when we could get away with cumbersome, impossible to navigate Flash sites and ‘experiences’ we naively forced hapless users through.

While I admire the ambition and artistry LV have tried to display, the result feels ten years out of date, pompous and irrelevant. The NewNow film is vacuous and uncomfortable in a web format; the youtube comments reflect this. The site is choked with random ‘luxury’ content, tiny thumbnails, weird cul-de-sacs and an irritating cube navigation. The temporary mobile site benefits from being mercifully limited in content (just the stunning catwalk show films, rather than ‘we curate the web for you’ content efforts)

I wish I’d thought of

Burberry’s strategy.

Compare/contrast. Burberry is a delight on mobile, is clever on its .com, is open and welcoming, yet amazingly stylish and beautiful to behold.

Christopher Bailey is connected and inventive, embracing new customers and transforming his brand. Connected business as it should be.

Don’t take my word for it. 

Ask Alexa:









Incidentally, LVMH‘s digital attempts are not limited to Louis Vuitton.

It’s Nowness.com initiative is interesting.

In it’s own words:

NOWNESS previews the latest in fashion, art, cinema, entertainment, culture, music, gastronomy, design, travel, and the world of luxury.

It’s a bit more useful, certainly is more open and has content that jumps from the page, rather than looking embarrassed to be there. I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.

Commercials are generally disliked.

They interrupt people’s fun. They flagrantly copy ideas from popular culture and rarely build on them. In general people don’t thank us for the contribution we make to their lives.

Despite being faced with these challenges, Honda USA thought that teasing people with the prospect of a sequel to the adored Ferris Bueller’s Day Off would get them talking and looking forward to the Super Bowl ad breaks. They were right. Pre-Super Bowl, the excitement was palpable.

It’s just that when the sequel turned out to be a Honda commercial, a vast outpouring of loathing spilled out onto the Internet.

Here’s a printable example of many people’s opinions:

‘Dear Honda Marketing Team: Leave my past alone. Stop mining my memories in order to make a buck. You are a bunch of soulless, unimaginative douchebags. Thanks.’ floresarts

As an ad it’s well shot, has lots of hidden references to the original (for the bloggers), is entertaining and tells a story.

But it’s the wrong story.

What made the original a cult film was the joy of watching the extraordinary worldliness, guile and luck of a high school student. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be him. Now, sadly, we are told a story of a middle-aged man with a facelift driving a sensible family car. No girl friend, no kooky mate, no teachers, no Ferrari.

But perhaps the most unfortunate element of this campaign is the strategy. Honda forgot the golden rule of ‘under promise, over deliver’. Doing the opposite is risky indeed. But at least the marketing team have nerves. You’ve got to applaud them for that.

A version of this article appeared in the January 2012 Admap magazine

Planning is just guessing.

We have hunches. We need to test them.

No-one really knows.

 “Almost anything we do in the world is an interaction with an almost impossibly complex economy we’ve created around ourselves.”

So said Economist and author Tim Harford at the Research 2011 conference.

The suggestion that modern life is too fast moving and too complicated to understand is gaining significant ground. Especially in product development:

“You solve impossible problems through trial and error,” Hartford continued “The difficult thing is dealing with the politics and psychology of when things go wrong — as they will.”

Things constantly change. Most initiatives fail eventually (products, change management programs, start-ups, governments…). Change makes them fail.

Those organisations that exceed expectations know how to change, often dramatically, in order to survive. The Lean Start-Up movement, popularised by Eric Ries, calls these changes ‘pivots’; nimbly shifting direction in response to a new learning; a new normal.

The 2008 IBM Global CEO Study (‘The Enterprise Of The Future’) interviewed 1,130 CEO’s in 45 countries and 32 industries, and found that organisations not only felt bombarded by change, but that many are struggling to keep up. Eight out of 10 CEOs saw significant change ahead, and yet the gap between the expected level of change and the ability to manage it had almost tripled since the previous study in 2006.

Approaches that plan around ‘feedback loops’, ‘journeys’ and ‘just in time’ decision making are better placed to deliver outcomes that move businesses forward as we can learn swiftly from what is happening, rather than what we assumed would be happening.

McKinsey, for clients ranging from the military to manufacturers, is proposing techniques based around learn and react practices, suggesting that

“fixed annual planning and budget processes are antithetical to timely strategy setting and decision making.”

The danger of an increased tactical focus is short-termism. Long-term vision is still critical, but a mix of long and short term planning should be designed to create competitive advantage through learning, rather than simply to follow conventional industry practices. So several businesses have been balancing new nimble monthly (not quarterly) budget reviews with their 3-5 year planning. This allows for a clear long-term direction, but short term ‘pivots’. Vision remains intact, but tactics move in response to opportunity.

Yet planning is still just guessing. And we appear hard-wired to be optimistic about our plans: “optimism bias” also known as the “positivity” illusion is the heuristic that guides people to over-estimate their chances of experiencing a good outcome.

So confronted with this seemingly disastrous biological defect, we humans must test everything. And test quickly. ‘Fail fast’ is the dictum of start-ups, where bootstrapping and huge unknowns are the norm.

How many times have we followed the The Agile Manifesto’s advice of stopping and seeing if our tests suggest we pivot or even quit?

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”

In reality, marketing campaigns come and go seasonally, and changes in competitive contexts make even the simplest learnings difficult to bank on.

What if we entered into this selling business with the assumption that a) we will likely be ineffective (Dave Trott said that advertising doesn’t work, only good advertising works), b) that we don’t really know what will work, and c) that our entire process for operating won’t help us succeed? We’d likely get ourselves into the mindset of the start-up with a desire to mitigate all risks, as quickly (efficiently) as possible. We’d design a system to help ourselves to succeed, rather than to just deliver.

‘Delivery’, it appears, is a ‘vanity’ output for agencies. Our output should be only to drive ‘Learning’ so that we deliver more effective outcomes over the long run. Delivery of assets is a secondary responsibility to sustainable outcomes, so focus should shift to what an asset is for, rather than what it is.

To help make this happen, here’s a collection of approaches being explored, which should help the industry deliver learning-based, nimble marketing.

The right vision

If marketing is moving from pointing stuff ‘at’ people, to doing stuff ‘with’ people, then being able to respond becomes crucial to building a successful selling engine.

To paraphrase IDEO: “Don’t make marketing, solve a problem”. Solving real consumer problems, over longer periods than a campaign, allows us to plan for continuous learning. 30% of the budget on making/getting it out there, 70% on pivots and making it better.

The process

Taking a leaf out of the lean movement, we may see a process for marketing creation and improvement as follows:

Identify (the problem and the solution options)
Make (something that works)
Improve (the thing we create)
With Alignment becoming critical throughout.

Alignment comes in three varieties:

1) Alignment with customer’s needs.
2) With client organisations
3) internally with the right type of teams to create and improve the solution.

For example, the first question we ask when a client asks for a social strategy or similar is “can you respond in real-time online?” If the answer is no, then alignment of their organisation and culture towards a listening and responding way of marketing is required before anything else happens.


Exploring potential solutions as a ‘minimum viable product’ is a useful trick. What if we did something like this? Would anyone be interested? What’s the need out there? Who’s doing this already and how could we improve it? Google insight tools provide one of the most powerful ways to test one’s earliest assumptions. Business cases can be made with minimum viable products and a few hundred pounds spent on AdWords. Brainjuicer has insight testing methodologies, so ideally all the assumptions are tested before and during the solutions are created.

We should plan for how we will create learnings up front.

So assumptions are just that. Every insight should be tested and when it comes to using things we make, claimed behaviour must be treated with great suspicion.

Scenarios, Feedback Loops and User Stories

With our ideas, we can build Scenarios: ‘what-if’ scenarios based on all available data. We don’t know what will happen, but we can model scenarios. If we don’t know anything about the area we are in, then fast Iteration and Split tests become the only way forward.

Depending on the type of thing we are creating we can judge the speed of the ‘Feedback Loop’. Fast feedback loops (as seen in digital solutions) allow us to plan how to improve what we do in close to real time. Slow feedback loops (as likely from a traditional ad campaign) will dictate what can be improved and when. The slower the loop, the more the need for Scenarios. The faster the loop, the more an Iterative approach can be used.

User Stories are a great way to show how features will work, and why certain content or asset ideas are required. When budgets get slashed (as they always do) User Stories help show how our ideas are connected. Superfluous ideas can then be ditched. Core ideas that are based on consumer journeys can be protected.


Aligning the right team to the type of brief you have is the most important part of this stage.

The teams will already be working together through Identify. Many ideas will have been explored. Honing these ideas takes the right combinations of people to be involved all the way through.

This stage is also about the plan for improving the things we create. How to learn depends on the type of brief. Anything other than a linear film requires real behavioural testing if we wish to ensure it will work. Even linear films have a place in the consumer journey, so the objectives and KPIs of that stage of the journey can be tested before and after exposure to a film.

Most solutions now are multi-faceted. So planning around the consumer journey becomes the most useful tool. Ideas have roles, and they fit within the journey model, being optimised based on their performance at that stage in the journey. This is where the data dashboard comes in.

When devising the solution we can look at Scenarios again, but through a RAP Plan. RAP stands for Responsive, Anticipated, Planned and scenarios, or actions, are mapped on a time basis (short, medium, long term). You might start with Planned and work backwards to Reactive.


Dashboards provide the raw data for the improvement of what we put out there. Data should be displayed as a ‘cohort analysis’. This means that each new person’s behaviour with our solutions is judged as unique.

c/o Bokardo
‘Engagement’ in this example is simply ‘return visits’











If performance from each new cohort is not changing from our improvements, we must consider if the fundamental idea is wrong. Cohort information (vs ‘vanity’ measures like compound visitor growth) allows us to view actual success. Read Eric Ries for more on his ‘innovation accounting’ and ‘validated learning’ techniques.

I’m loving these two dashboard start-ups at the moment:


Examples of fast learning and testing:

Instagram went from an early unpopular idea based around foursquare (Burbn) to a simple, immensely popular photo-sharing app in a matter of weeks. Learning: learn fast and focus on doing one thing really well.  Read the founder’s story here

Macintosh was famously designed as a writing and spreadsheet computer. It’s early users and the software it inspired suggested in was better for desktop publishing. A partnership with Aldus PageMaker software saved the company. Learning: follow your customers and partner if you have to.

Dropbox could not convince a single VC to invest in its filesharing idea. So to test their vision their Minimum Viable Product (MVP) was a video of what they *wanted* to build, not what they had built. In hours they’d attracted 10k beta testers wanting to try it. Learning: test you idea, however you can. Here’s the original MVP video

W+K’s Off-On internal energy saving solution won a Gold at the APG Awards under the Real Time planning category. It’s use of data to constantly improve the product was commended. Learning: Do, then learn. It’s journey is documented here

Made by Many’s Skype in the Classroom service that connects teachers up to help school learning are blogged about here

Old Spice W+K did a great job of responding to fans – building on what they said and finding new fans through it. Learning: invest time to have fun with your fans, and reap the rewards

I received the below email (again) today entitled ‘Oracle has genuinely changed the game – Fusion CRM’ . I think a few people at glue Isobar have.

So I thought I’d reply with this

Dear Karl

If you had genuinely changed the game of CRM you would know:

  1. We’re not one of your top clients. We’re not even one of your bottom clients.
  2. The ‘best CRM on the market’ shouldn’t have to spam people to get their attention. V dumb.
  3. Long copy sells and your copy is so short full of meaningless that I can’t see any benefits of your what you’re trying to sell
  5. Hyperbole (especially in B2B marketing) leads to distrust and frustration from busy managers
  6. There’s no easy Unsubscribe link which pushes right up against EU privacy laws
  7. I’ve already been spammed by one of your colleagues and asked for no further contact

Good start Oracle. Smart CRM.
Consider these failings blogged about.

Then Karl called me. He said thanks for the points. Because he agreed. And now he has useful evidence to show his managers.

His job is a tough one after all. And we all know there’s little differentiation for a new email dispatch product in a mature market. So good luck Karl. Hope Oracle learn how to do CRM.

How not to do it

Below is my talk in summary and the slides.

There were some excellent builds on the ideas, which I will write about shortly.

Thanks to everyone who added ideas in the ‘unconference’ discussion and pub afterwards. So many good ideas. So much to explore!


An Emerging Agency OS

What’s broke?

-Our focus:

Outcomes have become divorced from outputs

Clients seek a profitable growth outcome, agencies seek rewards from a famous output

Clients like increased profit, agencies like making things

Consequently, clients don’t always value the same things as agencies do

Replacing a client with a new one easily costs £100k or more. Our failure to align is eating into our profit and morale.

-Our business model:

Agencies have two masters but only get paid by one.

Agencies are addicted to short term client cash whereas consumers offer an additional revenue stream.

Spend will slowly flow away from agencies to cheaper crowd and outsourced services. All areas will be affected, from strategy modeling, to production, to optimisation to ideas.

As marketing, products, services and media merge, agencies, with new partners, will be able to service consumers as well as clients.

What’s the need?

Client needs are simple:  Clients need Ideas, Innovation and (real time) Intelligence to power sales.

Agency needs are to attract best talent and to increase revenue to pay for that talent and any (currently lacking) R&D

-Talent: Agencies are full of inventive and productive people but servicing clients full-time undermines motivation. If they are to be kept in agencies, agencies will need to find better ways to fulfil them.

-Revenue: Agencies have loads of ideas but make too few. We can divorce ourselves of client only revenue by exploiting our existing ideas and engaging new partners to fund and develop our ideas to successful launch and customer revenue.

What are the trends?

Two agency types are emerging – those that value outcomes, and those that value outputs:

1) Outcomes agencies will worship effectiveness and will be built around the client’s business. They will become convergence consultants to deliver Ideas, Innovation and Intelligence (from any source) to grow client profit over time.

2) Output agencies will continue to generate big ideas, they will create fame for clients but will also develop new revenue streams for those ideas from direct to consumer products and services, thereby beating their addiction to short term client cash

All agencies need an AgencyOS – a data driven platform and structural/organising principle to deliver real time insight, development and optimisation.

The most successful agencies will deliver both ideas and effectiveness. But those will be rare as the increase of channels and approaches continues.


1. the agencies closest to the data will lead their agency partners and will gain new business The most successful agencies will combine both talents in equal measure.

2. in client organisations, the older generations will cede control to younger managers investing ahead of the curve for the real time and digital future that’s unfolding. This will come too slowly for some. Those that don’t answer customer’s immediate needs will quickly lose customers.

thanks to net_efekt/flickr

As part of the google firestarters event, brilliantly hosted by Neil Perkin, I debated the failure of research companies in helping clients and agencies with the ‘how’: the act of making and perfecting ideas in market, with communities and within organisations.

Since that event Cog and Face Group have discussed their services, as well as Brainjuicer.

This is great. Well done those pioneering companies. Every one should hire them!

But the problem with the ‘how’ remains a big one for us on a number of fronts, not just insight and testing. And it’s getting bigger by the day.

Once agencies relied on the power of the idea and communal faith (with a bit of testing) it would work now we must become engineers of its success.

What do I mean? Well, here’s the logic flow:

Because business never stops, neither should our marketing. PR, e-commerce and CRM have always known this. The ad world are catching up.

Advertising in the future will be much more like PR, observed former Publicis COO Richard Pindner for the ever thought-provoking Ignition group

“We’ll be run more like a daily TV show or an interactive newspaper than an advertising factory.”  As in political campaigns, agencies today need to operate as a nerve center.  Most PR firms are already built on this model; ad agencies must learn to do the same”

So if our marketing is to be always on, and if ‘doing’ then becomes as important as saying, then it figures that HOW you do what you do becomes as important as WHAT you’re trying to do.

Surely you need to get ‘what’ right first don’t you?

Well not necessarily.


First, we all know that we improve and learn through ‘doing’. And in this way we get better at helping customers. So ‘doing’ is critical to business improvement. So through doing we can improve what we’re doing. The ‘what’ is iteratively improved all the time across all business functions. Why should the marketing function be any different?

Some of the biggest recent improvements in business service (the thing people talk about most and that most affects Net Promoter scores) has been seen via iterative innovation. See how Instagram founder Kevin Systrom references simplicity and focus when developing the right solution for customers.

Second, we’ve witnessed that all of our stresses, every one of our failures (I won’t go into details!) and every single frustration that we have with clients and that clients have internally (and of course with us) is born out of a failure to ‘do’ effectively.

Pretty much every intelligent person in a marketing or sales function can get their heads around the ‘what’; the plan or the ad or the app or the service we’re proposing. Only a handful of naturally entrepreneurial sorts as swiftly compute ‘how’ to make the idea happen.

These people, wherever they sit in an agency or client business, instinctively think about inventing new ways of working so that we can make these awkwardly non-traditional ideas happen. The approaches that get debated are most often approaches working around a client’s organisational structure.

To put it simply, the client’s company is in the way.

These agents of progress are critical to making anything vaguely imaginative or (as everyone is realising) effective happen. Without people willing to stick their necks out and thinking in new ways, nothing new would get out the door. So more of our day to day efforts are going into making the ‘how’ possible.

If we focus on better ideas and they sell themselves don’t they?

Well, not really. Great ideas in new forms force us to focus on the ‘how’ and failure to make the ‘how’ work kills ideas. No matter how seemingly great they are. ‘Great’ to us usually looks like ‘risky’ to a client.

So we’ve lots of unsold ideas because we lost the fight or the race to make them happen. And here’s the rub: look around you – everyone, eventually, comes up with the same ideas. The original, ground breaking new ‘what’ is an NPD fantasy. In our networked age, most of an agency’s ideas to help a client solve customer problems in a category have been thought of in some form or other, and probably already prototyped or launched. Just check Google and Springwise.

Customers recommend companies that get the basics right (the service and the products). So as marketers we don’t need to bust a category open with a startling new innovation. We simply need to reduce the risk of failure in our attempts at making good ideas great.

This might be an odd admission from someone in a creative company selling irresistible new creative solutions. But it’s a reality. Most ideas are already out there in some form or other. Just because this is the case it doesn’t mean a client’s business can’t benefit from them if they were to be built upon, delivered well, consistently improved and integrated into a clients offerings. That’s how businesses grow profitably. Our job is in reducing the risk in innovating. No human likes change or risk. A little bit is fun, but not if it threatens your job. With profits on the line, Marketing Directors and CEOs seek progress with minimised risk.

So our creative skills are being used more and more in marshalling new and existing ideas and techniques together for a brand’s benefit and then, crucially, making them happen. With scale, impact and to customers’ satisfaction.

So this is why the ‘how’ has become the crucial issue.

Getting the ‘how’ right means the difference between a good idea and a truly great one. The testing, the customer (or member) feedback loop and the iterations are the ‘how’. The client business buying into the idea and making it work is the ‘how’. The client themselves being structured to make the idea work internally and across customer touchpoints is the ‘how’. It’s our agility we should be tested on when we sell in ideas and promise they’ll work.

Tim Williams at Ignition sums it up rather nicely when he talks about the internal processes growing to define the way agencies think:

“If you want to make your firm more agile, assign a small team to observe how work really gets done in the agency.  Then build your systems around that.”

Rebuilding systems is a crucial piece of the jigsaw. Without this nothing will be bought and nothing will work in market. So it’s this ‘plumbing’ that will be increasingly relied upon in getting great ideas into people’s hands.

The ideas themselves can be half right at launch. But it’s the ‘how’ that will make them work and deliver the effects for businesses.

Let’s never underestimate the importance of ‘how’ something will happen, not just ‘what’ it is we want to happen.

A planning perspective on Future Foundation’s ‘The Future of Insight’ conference: implications for planning, in client businesses and in agencies.

I presented this article at the above conference as a prezi, which really doesn’t work without the voice-over! So here’s the full contents.

For those who were there, you saw me bitch about the lack of innovation in the recently re-branded marketing and innovation ‘insight’ industry.

With the notable exception of the constantly experimenting Brainjuicer and its irrepressible John Kearon (whose thoughts about corporate innovation practices in his ‘Marketing Has Been the Death of Innovation’ paper I’ve gratefully borrowed) there has been little in terms of exciting new ways to probe the human mind in a way that delivers marketers insights on the fly. Indeed, the whole industry is struggling to work with those more digitally minded (clients, consumers or agencies), nor to create research solutions for niche but inmersive experiences that provide insights in ways Marketing Directors appreciate.

Online communities and their dashboard tools have been a liberation. Likewise, the kind of qual/quant surveying Brainjuicer started out with provide rich but quantifiable data. But beyond their efforts in testing innovation and exploring the web for insight, I’d argue the research industry has been slow to service the needs of modern marketers. Discuss.

The very anatomy of insight is changing

We’re moving from adhoc research to responsive insight, slowly.

But like all change it’s painful and scattered.

Insight is everywhere, it’s just not peddled well by research agencies or by any agency for that matter.

Brilliant insight is as likely to be tiny, tactical and changeable as earth-moving and revolutionary.

I thought I’d share a problem with have…after all, a problem shared…

Insight is only valuable if proven through action, mostly sales-driving marketing.

So it’s the application of insight through what we do that we need to focus on, especially to prove the discipline’s value within the organization.

The problem is that in a connected world, marketing should mean always-on collaboration with audiences, working with consumer reactions and making ourselves more and more relevant to them.

However, few clients are structured to deal with continuous, iterative, responsive communication and few agencies have structured themselves to deliver this either (because the clients aren’t structured that way yet).

We rely on pricey and protracted up-front planning.

But planning, even keeping best practices in mind, is just guessing.

The only military analogies and lore worth keeping from previous eras of marketing strategy is the wisdom that all plans go out of the window at first contact with the enemy.

Most of the time we don’t know how the plan is going, not in time to do anything about it anyway.

So we need real-time insight to tell us.

Once we have an idea of what to improve, we need the latest insight to guide us, continuously, across bought, owned and earned touchpoints.

But this rarely happens.

So testing the quality of insight through marketing is mostly too slow, confusing and inconclusive.

In delivering clients useful, timely insight to improve marketing on the fly, we are failing.

What about proving the value of insight through the resulting innovations in services and products?

Well, I propose that most of our market research bypasses real ‘innovation’ (new approaches that create disproportionate value by combining ways of working or technologies) and concentrates instead on ‘optimisation’ (small improvements to what we’re already doing).

True category-beating innovation doesn’t tend to fit well with research. Trend research is useful, but testing ideas in consumer research can often kill them or strip the originality from them (in marketing as in innovation) because people don’t tend to respond well to uncomfortably new ideas. Even skilled qual researchers can’t probe the subtle responses to truly eye-opening innovation well.

Real innovation, it appears, is the domain of visionary start-ups, not risk-averse big business.

8 of the Interbrand top 10 brands in the world (and almost half of the top 50) originated the category in which they operate.

Yet the centralised, risk averse marketing-sciences practiced by large businesses since the 1960s has served to merely ‘tend the garden’ these innovations created.

With the exception of a handful of brands, true innovation in FMCG, technology, banking, apparel and other industries has been left to start-ups and fringe players with the corporates buying those that succeed.

Bacardi bought the biggest new thing in vodka of the 90s Grey Goose, then the noughties hero 42 Below, Google has bought every other hyped start-up in Silicon Valley, Unilever the iconic Ben and Jerry’s, Cisco bought the category busting Flip video camera, Coca-Cola bought trailblazing Innocent and Glaceau. The list of big corporates paying top price for innovations they could easily have developed themselves goes on and on.

The corporate exceptions tend to be businesses led by a strong vision, who support their own ideas with gut instinct over consumer research and cultivate a healthy acceptance of failure.

Ibuka, the Chairman of Sony, one of the few big corporations to have created new categories said, “The consumer doesn’t know what they want, it is for us to invent it for them”.

Others that behave in this way are the Virgin group, Apple, Google, Facebook and 3M. Google has bought many of their successes but are committed to experimenting ferociously.

Criminally, the marketing services industry itself fails to innovate. With the exception of groundbreaking research ideas like DigiViduals from Brainjuicer, few new approaches to gathering insight appear to have been created.

So when it comes to big business successes through innovation, we in the insight industry have struggled to provide much demonstrable value.

So from a planning perspective (as a buyer as well as collator of insight), I’d beg the following of our industry:

Support ‘Flexible guessing’

If plans are there to be broken, let’s use scenarios.

Let’s propose what might happen, then adopt agile methodology to change what we do on the fly.

If social networks can respond to user behaviour to roll out new versions and whole new services every few weeks, why can’t the rest of the brands online do the same?

Let’s devise short, medium and long-term activity.

Let’s work out how to react on launch, what to anticipate and what to commit to across all touchpoints.

Thinking long term is critical. Successful approaches need to be learned. Starbucks has its most senior and talented people dedicated 24/7 building long term relationships through it’s most important marketing activity, its platform on Facebook.

While embracing the future, let’s keep a link to the past – history is bound to repeat itself if we don’t plunder the archives for lessons and ensure the inspiring young Turks know them.

Support ‘Responsive doing’

So in a connected world, we should be testing, learning and changing in real time collaboration with our communities

Let’s light lots of fires as we will never know what will take-off and what won’t.

Let’s respect our own hunches. Faster horses would never have spawned a multi-billion dollar industry. Serendipity is more useful than tight processes when it comes to making new ideas from new connections.

Let’s do it in small ways, and amplify what works, and let’s do it in small groups. Autonomy fosters passion and vision and that’s where great ideas come from so maverick thinkers within organisations must be supported with time and cash.

Let’s love failure. Dyson prototype number 1527 was the one that worked, Virgin has more failed businesses than successes.

And let’s re-organise ourselves to deliver this. In client businesses and agencies alike, insight and marketing functions need to be nimble and always-on. This takes bold internal change.

To conclude

Insight into the state of our own profession, like that shared today by the Future Foundation, is a great place to start.

The insight and marketing services industry appears caught like a rabbit in the headlights. Basking in new found relevance, but creaking with processes, tools and systems hopelessly out of date.

We need insight’s innovation and help.

If we are to help clients embrace a rapid, real-time, collaborative marketing environment we’d better get on and innovate pretty swiftly. Else the Googles and Facebooks of this world will eat our lunch.

Below follows a review of Richard Watson’s ‘Future Minds: How The Digital Age is Changing Our Minds, Why This Matters and What We Can Do About It’ that appeared in Admap Magazine Jan 2011 edition ‘Speed Read’ section. The irony of speed reading and surmising a book espousing the benefits of slower thinking and living were not lost on me.

I think this is an important book but it won’t get huge attention, sadly. The cover is awful (so cover-judging book readers will be put off) and the central tenant not mainstream and catchy enough. But it is an informative, and sobering, read. With a bit of sensationalism, the main idea could catch on: slow down or live a poorer existence.

From someone involved everyday in fast-paced continuous marketing activity, saying that things have to slow down sounds a bit hypocritical. And it is. But as a Dad, I’m getting paranoid about the creeping ‘normalisation’ of rapid consumption. You Tube is like cat-nip to my kids. It’s a joy to get to sit and read a book to them. They love it, but only after they’ve forgotten you’ve banned them from the iPad.

So here’s the quickie book summary for you snacking types. I’d advise you to read the whole thing though. In a dark room. Without interruptions every 3mins. And when you’re inspired by the contents avoid the office, as it stops deep-thinking. Enjoy.

Futurologist and strategist Richard Watson discusses an unfashionable idea: that all this connectivity might not, in fact, be good for society or us.

While such skepticism of technology’s rapid changes is not new, the exhaustive support collected by Watson for this argument is sobering.

His central ideas are as follows:
Permanent connectivity is changing the brain

In the process of developing a ‘digital mind’, children as young as five can spend an average of eight hours a day in front of a screen. This ‘screen time’ is affecting the malleable brain’s structure. Connectivity Addiction is on the increase, and Continuous Partial Attention is a noted phenomena.

Digital interruptions affects societal bonds

The pre-teen ‘screenager’ will be continually stimulated by multiple devices. His parents will be glued to BlackBerries and laptops. TV may replace dinnertime. ‘Cerebral whiteout’ can occur and information overload leads to stress and ‘work guilt’ as time poor parents respond to work requests wherever they are, even on holiday. This continuous connectivity scenario is being blamed on societal ills as far reaching as the rise in teenage pregnancies (due to the loss of quality family conversation time) to general ignorance and lack of imagination in students.

Faced with the sheer volume of evidence charting the negative effects of our digital binge, Watson endeavours to provide some guidance:

  • He promotes the idea of ‘free play’, where by children have plenty of time to invent without guidance from games manufacturers, or restricted by structured activity. Boredom is apparently excellent for imagination.
  • He advises that in a knowledge economy staff with lateral thinking ability are prized, and that focusing on only rational subjects harm student’s prospects

The bulk of the book Watson focuses on ‘deep thinking’; the act of the mind to probe its memories and invent new connections to solve problems.

He divides this subject into two broad areas: where ideas come from, and what we can do to get better at having them. The common enemy of both these areas is seen as digital interruptions.

Office based workers apparently suffer from an interruption to their work every three minutes. Yet the brain needs to have time to process ideas. Surveys record that ideas are not generated at desks, but in showers, on running machines, in baths etc. The brain needs lots of sleep and lots of downtime. Doing nothing, Watson argues, is the best way to crack a problem, as the brain is in fact working hard to process the information it has received. Eureka moments come at downtimes (or monotonous/routine times).

Also, don’t be shy to ask silly questions or to make mistakes, as it is well proven that from these experiments serendipitous discoveries are born.

The author explores crowd-sourced idea generation and concludes that for well-defined problems, many minds make light work of the issues. But for revolutionary jumps, groups are hopeless because new ideas don’t fit with existing ways of thinking, and humans collectively reject that which won’t fit.

So Watson explores how we can shrug off this ‘normalising’ instinct and create environments for deep thinking.

  • We must seek ‘the overview effect’; an objective place where lateral inspiration can be found: “Stop searching for great ideas and simply make room for them to visit” recommends Robert Grudin, author of The Grace of Great Things.
  • Messiness may well be part of this: resilience, creativity and effectiveness all come from a messy desk. Paperless offices are a real threat to invention he argues, quoting Eistein: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”
  • Accidental encounters and quality conversations stimulate deep thinking. However be wary of open-plan offices, as these often infringe on the quiet and study space the brain needs.
  • Remote working and teleconferences may be as damage innovation as natural environments (and human contact) slow us down and help the mind relax, creating a more effective environment for thinking.
  • The ‘strategic use of lunch’ is recommended to increase times we can pause and reflect. Reclaiming lunch allows for quality conversations while a visit to a garden or art gallery provides stimulation. In the words of Gandhi “there is more to life than increasing its speed’.

So slowing down is central to deep-thinking. Like the Slow Food movement, Watson foresees counter-trends emerging that seek to defy the pace and ‘crazy busy’ lifestyles we’ve created for ourselves. Instead ‘digital diet’ holidays will appear while café’s and public spaces will start banning wifi and mobile phones.

A powerful warning summarises Future Minds: “we assume the Internet is spreading knowledge, but the reverse could be happening. Ignorance could be increasing …because the volume of digital dross and distraction that is now so easily co-created and distributed is drowning out learning and wisdom”.