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I’ll Be Watching You.

‘Big Data’ this, ‘Big Data’ that.

One of the quirks of modern corporate life, is that we somehow expect ‘the numbers’ to show us the way.

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Now, don’t get me wrong – I love data. But data is collected through systems designed by people. And those systems are paid for by people – often with particular interests.

And so, whatever your agency/Chief Data Officer/insert-other-overpaid-analyst-here tells you, the reality is that, without a truly anthropological approach, most of the data your business gets is, to all intents and purposes, dead.

Of course, it’s not just business that is susceptible. Science itself is fallible. A point that was proved, beautifully, by two now quite famous anthropologists, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar.

They conducted ethnographic research amongst that most remote and disconnected of tribes – the scientists of San Diego’s Salk Institute.

The scientists, of course, were having none of it. Non-specialists would never understand the intricacies of the science being produced. Moreover, ran the argument, data are not produced by social or cultural processes: science is the uncovering of natural, incontrovertible fact. Like Michaelangelo before them, the Salk Institute’s world-class biologists were merely ‘freeing truths’ through the rigour of scientific method.

It’s a lovely notion – but it’s a false one. The people who collect the data matter.

As Latour and Woolgar found, the process of scientific discovery is its own narrative form; the stories fit a genre, so to speak. When a scientist tells of her findings, it is done in a linear fashion, and it ignores the other collaborators, the accidents that led to breakthroughs, the ‘inconclusive data’ thrown out because they don’t fit the experiment expectations, and the many, many failures.

Scientific activity, the production of data is not ‘freeing truths’, but rather a fierce fight to construct them. From a disordered array of observations, scientists work to produce order.

And it’s the same in business, if we’re not very, very careful.

Think about how often we look for solutions to business problems or opportunities by ‘running the numbers’. I’m not suggesting that business data can’t be incredibly helpful; business-critical, in fact. Rather that too often, like the scientists at the Salk Institute, we – or others – use it to tell ourselves what we want to hear, consciously or otherwise.

This is how businesses end up missing major shifts in their industries despite, in retrospect, obvious warning signs. From Kodak to Blockbuster, there are countless recent examples – and none of them was short on data.

Anthropology not only looks at how the data are produced, but what they mean in context (society) and for your business (insight). It’s an approach that generates deeper understandings and new forms of meaning. Latour and Woolgar say as much in defending their own presence at the Salk Institute – anthropologists are trained to develop a kind of ‘weirdness’ that enables them to see everyday objects and processes in new ways.

Weird can be very, very good for business.

Melyn McKay is a socio-cultural anthropologist with Monticello LLP, and a contributor to The Library of Progress.

They Seek Him Here. They Seek Him There.

Can you remember the last time you saw, or read, something that really made you stand still, draw breath and want to wallow in its beauty or message?

Something so impactful that it felt like it was literally reaching out and touching you, pulling you in.

Something that made you stop, held you and then sent you back on your way, but on a slightly altered course.

These things are rare, magical and can be found in the most unlikely places.

Last night I watched ‘Dior and I’, the documentary that follows Raf Simons’ first haute couture collection as the new artistic director at Dior.

Stay with me.

Clearly haute couture is not something that most of us will ever experience, or even something that many are interested in.

But the documentary is one of the most beautiful reflections of brand and culture I have witnessed or read about.

Quite frankly, business leaders could learn a lot from Raf Simons and his team at Dior.

Raf Simons joined Dior a mere eight weeks before their 2012 Autumn collection. Not just his first show for Dior, his first haute couture show. Ever.

Until you watch this documentary, it is almost impossible to appreciate what a huge undertaking that was. For starters, most collections are conceived and produced over a three to four month period, not in eight weeks.

But it is more than that. How many business leaders have eight weeks to set a new vision, on-board their team, and to create, design and produce a show of this magnitude (or the equivalent) – a show which re-engages your customers and the industry, and sets the tone of things to come?

How many business leaders, after merely eight weeks, have to simultaneously present not just their ideas and vision, but the resultant tangible product to their key customers, competitors and the press?

Not many. And for good reason.

It makes what Raf Simons pulled off even more impressive. It showed him to be not just a visionary, but an incredible leader.

What is clear from day one is that Simons really understands the value in the Dior brand and heritage.

After years of flamboyance and drama under the creative leadership of John Galliano, Simons knew he had to return the brand to its origins, to the imagery of Monsieur Dior himself.

He knew that to move forward, they needed to strip away the overcomplicated distractions and missteps of the past, to return to the heart, soul and DNA of Dior.

By the time Simons took over, it was no longer possible to describe or recognise a ‘Dior’ woman – the fundamental elements that enable that all important emotional connection with customers (and staff), and distinguishes Dior from its competitors.

Simons educated himself on the history of the brand, immersing himself in the designs from the archives, the places of inspiration for Dior, and in the many articles and books written by the man himself, and others, on the Dior brand and business.

He started to tease out the distinctive signatures of the brand, and re-introduce what he calls the ‘codes’ of the brand.

Only once he truly felt the brand through every fibre of his being, could he start to embrace it, to see where he wanted to take it. As he says, “The more you understand [a brand], the more you can see what it can become”.

And what it became was a stunning collection, sympathetic to its origins, but which was relevant in, and embraced, the 21st century. What Simons calls “nostalgia for the future”.

Simons took influences from the modern world and superimposed them onto traditional designs using cutting edge technology – in some cases, creating new processes to generate the desired finished article that everyone apart from he had deemed to be impossible.

And it is when you see his intellectual approach, his challenging attitude, you realise what a natural leader Simons must be. And how impressive the culture at Dior is.

The most telling aspect of the Dior culture is that so many in the Dior family have spent their whole careers with the fashion house. They were Dior man and boy, woman and girl. The longest serving seamstress has been there 42 years. They didn’t necessarily intend for that to be the case, but that is what happened. They didn’t want to be anywhere else.

Aside from the formidable talent that each member of the team displays, what is most impressive is the way they execute their work – their approach to a new project, the level of teamwork, their dedication and their pride in their creations.

The vision for the collection is set by Simons, as creative director, then shared with the whole team. Every team member has the opportunity to contribute ideas and designs within each theme. Once Simons has selected the designs that will be used, these are handed back to the seamstresses to develop and create.

This back and forth pattern continues throughout the multi-staged process of translating the original pencil drawing into the perfect finished physical form.

There is an intimacy in the way that the different players hand the designs between each other, each building on the contribution of the last, over layering ideas and gently perfecting each garment until it truly embodies the brand and the collection. As the seamstresses finally relinquish their beloved garments for the last time, they speak of loss and pride, almost as if they were speaking of a child leaving home to forge their own way in the world.

If only all companies could create such a deep bond between their employees and their business, vision and output.

We may not all work for companies as creative as Dior. But every business has its own story to tell, something different to offer. As humans, we love stories. We love to feel an emotional connection. We want to belong to something bigger than ourselves. Companies need to remember this, and use their stories, their history, their vision to connect with, and inspire, their staff and their customers.

Shonagh Primrose is a partner with advisory firm, Monticello LLP, and a curator of The Library of Progress.

Dior and I is a quiet, thoughtful, beautiful love letter to an industry, a brand and a team. Watch it.

Too Many Protest Singers?

For an industry that’s all about fresh thinking, there doesn’t seem to be much of it on display when it comes to the election.

Instead, for the most part, the advertising world gleefully skips down the same well-worn path that (supposedly) leads to the inescapable conclusion that, if you work in a ‘creative’ business: Labour good, Tories bad.

Tories very, very bad, if the volume of everyday, unprompted political spleen-venting and kvetching is anything to go by.

Witness the pillorying of the brilliant Frank Turner when, as a musician, and a folk-punk-fusion musician at that, he had the temerity to suggest that his political heroes were classical liberals such as John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson. Or the shrill, near-celebratory, response to Margaret Thatcher’s death, in at least in parts of adland.

People can vote for who they like, obviously. And so they should. Lots of incredibly brave folk over the centuries have risked, and sometimes lost, their lives in order to guarantee our freedom to opine and express.

The problem is that, all too often in our world, the ‘Labour good, Tories bad’ mantra goes unchallenged. This is a shame because what may well be a compelling political argument risks instead coming across as a sort of automatic group-think, which often doesn’t get beyond some very basic tautologies.

For a sector that claims to be generally expansive of thought, interested in challenge and the search for the truth, this is both ironic and tribalistic. And of course tribalism’s great strength – unwavering loyalty to the cause – can also be its greatest weakness. Because, if one isn’t very careful indeed, things can quickly degenerate into an intellectual torpidity that manifests in knee-jerk responses that are so clichéd, one can almost predict them.

Dogma is never very attractive, particularly in politics. And especially when there is, for those who want to go beyond the (admittedly fun) adult equivalent of poking-the-jellyfish-on-the-beach, a fairly powerful counter-case to be made to the received wisdom.

Let’s be clear. I’m not advocating one way or another, and I’m certainly no Tory. It’s just that, when you look at it logically, creativity in the whole – and advertising in particular – has an obvious co-dependency with capitalism. Economies that, to a greater or lesser extent, set sail in Jefferson’s “boisterous sea of liberty”, tend to enjoy a much greater degree of diversity in creativity than those which do not.

Capitalism depends on difference; the unusual, the stand-out and – above all – the new. Creativity is novation and novation is creativity; magically joining worlds to give birth to new ones.

The brutal schema of ‘survival of the fittest’ that underpins right-of-centre thinking on economics has a relentless appetite in this respect. The beast, by definition, can never be satiated. In fact, the more it is fed, the hungrier it gets – always wanting more; more products, things, people, art, choice, ideas. A relentless, exponential cycle of winning, losing, succeeding, failing – a phenomenon that cannot help but produce a huge amount of waste, but – equally – one that cannot but result in much greater creativity, in the true sense of the word. Capitalism doesn’t ‘prefer’ or ‘think’ about this. Its nature simply demands it, of all of us: an iterative, often unforgiving, tinkering in search of optimal results.

Contrast this against the, often incredibly well-intentioned, interventionist policies or meddling that, one way or another, characterise left-of-centre thinking: the central, governmental efforts to steer people, businesses, nations towards a different, ‘better’ way. Socialism certainly doesn’t kill creativity, but its insistence on control, regulation, will inevitably tend towards a top-down, dirigiste approach that ultimately delivers uniformity. Exhibit A: The Soviet Union, Exhibit B (avec, mes amis francais, mes excuses): France.

Ronald Reagan knew this. And it is notable that in his Farewell Address, the famous articulation of the United States as that Shining-City-On-A-Hill, he chose to use the C-word – America was for him, ‘a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.’

Like it or not, the truth is that absent him, absent Thatcher, most of us working in the creative industries today would likely be doing other jobs, and significantly less creative ones at that.

Creativity, of course, in many respects comes from within, and deep within at that, but it is a fragile flower – and like all fragile flowers, it needs the right conditions in which to flourish.

And it is at least arguable that the definitive – and deliberate – shift that Reagan and Thatcher made in the 1980s away from centrally-controlled, state-led economies and towards the free market, was the hothouse that incubated the huge growth of the creative industries that we have seen in the last 30 years: the starter pistol for a global creative race that is still being run today.

Nick Jefferson is a partner with advisory firm, Monticello LLP, and a curator of The Library of Progress.

LOOK AT YOU. YOU’RE HIDEOUS.

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This is how an overwhelming amount of media imagery makes billions of people feel. It’s not good for you, me or anyone. None of us is physically perfect. Not one of us. We get what we’re given and we make the best of it. Maybe Scarlett Johansson has only eight toes? Perhaps Aidan Turner has got wonky knees, excessive ear wax or a flatulence problem? And even if human physical perfection existed and could be precisely quantified and defined, there are more worthwhile things we should care about. Promulgating Photoshopped images of a prescribed, cookie-cutter notion of ‘perfection’ is crass and demeaning for us all. It’s also really bloody boring. The same lean, tanned body types over and over and over again. Whether it’s on the cover of Men’s Health or on a dim-witted poster for Protein World.

My problem with the campaign was not the headline but the image. If a poster asked, “Are you beach body ready?” without an image, you’re much freer to decide what that means to you and whether you are or not. By including the image of a lean young woman in a bikini, the ad gives you both the question and answer. The ad screams, “THIS IS HOW YOU NEED TO LOOK ON THE BEACH. WELL, DO YOU, FATSO?” Protein World have decided what a ‘beach body’ is and aw, shucks, you haven’t got one. And that, dear consumer, is why you need their pills and potions whose efficacy the ASA has now decided to investigate.

Brendan O’Neill wrote this dim-witted claptrap in The Spectator of all places. According to O’Neill, the protest has been tantamount to Islamic extremism. No, really – you read that last sentence correctly. That’s a numb-skulled thing to say but there are a few simple facts this ‘journalist’ seems to have missed. He’s not overweight and he’s not a woman and as far as one can tell, he doesn’t have any scars or burns on his body or limbs missing.  Lucky Brendan. Maybe he loves what he sees in the mirror? Perhaps he has never hated anything at all about his body. Maybe Brendan loves hot, sexy, beach-ready Brendan just the way he is? Maybe Brendan’s bod has reached the required the standard to appear on a stretch of sand near some water.

What Brendan also failed to notice is that the story about the Protein World ads hit the headlines in the very same week as a story about a woman reporting wolf-whistlers to the police and another about a woman who wrote an open letter to a young man who sexually assaulted her.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the possible connection between relentless objectification and sexualisation of women and a range of abusive male behaviour – everything from simple bad manners through to harassment and assault.

But I digress. It’s an uncomfortable truth for many in advertising but we have a responsibility not to damage people’s sense of wellbeing. Especially if it’s just to flog some dubious dietary snake oil. Advertising plays an important role in society but that role shouldn’t involve incessantly amplifying and reinforcing our insecurities, particularly when they’re about something as intimate, complicated and fundamentally important as our bodies.

Women especially have been bombarded with images of so-called anatomical perfection for millennia. It’s about time we grew up and stopped staring at ourselves in the mirror. Hey, maybe we could even help people truly to value their bodies and health despite their imperfections? Maybe, just maybe, we could encourage people to love their minds even more than their bodies.

Wow. A dietary supplement that could do that really would be worth buying. I’m sure it would lead to a better world than Protein World.

TESCO: BRAND KARMA

Tesco’s founder, Jack Cohen, famously based his business on the mantra “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap”. It’s a philosophy that seems out of step with twenty-first century retail and is, perhaps, the kind of thinking that has led Tesco to the dismal results that have humbled the brand today. Read More

It’s Time To Play The Music; It’s Time To Light The Lights.

In 2006, I stopped going to the theatre.

We had a one year old, and nights out were precious.

Theatre just seemed too risky. Every now and again you’d see a cracker, but more often than not it would be some overly-earnest, self-indulgent, impenetrable shite.

Last week, I changed my tune.

I saw two plays; The Nether, and Golem. It’s been a long time since I’ve been forced to think in the way that each of these plays forced me to think. And it’s been forever since I felt impelled to recommend theatre to anyone.

But recommendation this is, and it couldn’t come in stronger form.

Both plays explore themes that are hugely relevant to everyone in our industry, and beyond. They ask us to consider the world that we are creating around us; particularly with reference to digital.

The Nether posits whether virtual behavior has real consequences. In that respect, it’s a much more sophisticated, and seriously darker, version of the question you might ask your kids:

‘if a tree falls in a Minecraft forest, does it make a sound?’

Creative technologists will be humbled by the play’s subtle reminder that, no matter how savvy we think we are now, the digital world we have created still only engages, what, 2 of our 5 senses? Where is touch, where is smell, where is taste? In our digital world, everything is behind glass, like a visit to the Reptile House. Not so in The Nether…..

Go and see it, also, to marvel at the Olivier award-winning set. It is the stuff of most brands’ (and agencies’) wet dreams: a seamless, and totally credible, integration of real and digital materials and media. Stunning.

Golem, too, employs a set that is a beautiful, avant-garde blend of the online and offline. It is worth seeing the play for that alone. But it is the spellbinding story that will stay with you. And the themes that will haunt you for days afterwards.

Golem is, for my money, the 1984 of 2015. But it is even more terrifying than Orwell’s classic, because it is ultimately grounded in a parallel world that feels all too familiar.

In Hebrew legend, a golem was a little figure made of clay who would do his master’s bidding; take on the chores he didn’t want to, make his life more efficient, more convenient. Usually the golem was small enough that the master could take the golem everywhere with him: he was, if you like, ‘mobile’.

In the old stories, the problem with these sort of semi-conscious mobile entities was that they didn’t tend to want to stay semi-conscious for very long. With each new iteration (‘This really does change everything!’), the golem became more ‘helpful’, and the master became less sure that he was, in fact, the master.

Luckily, these days, we are all far too smart to carry semi-conscious mobile entities everywhere we go in the name of efficiency and convenience….

And so the play’s brilliant, mainly female, cast leads us, through an exquisitely uncomfortable reflection and examination of ourselves and our pursuit of ‘progress’ – and what we might be surrendering in its name.

At times the (hugely funny) songs, the costumes and the production’s overall look and feel will have you relaxing into thinking you’re watching some sort of continental clowning; a fin de siècle circus act.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Because Golem is, in fact, one of the most brilliant, and deeply disturbing, things you are ever likely to see.

A very senior former ECD told me last week that he thought originality of thought in ad-land was in the shortest supply he had ever experienced. There was, he said, a veritable ‘drought’.

If Golem and The Nether are anything to go by, right now in theatre-land, their cup runneth over.

We should all go and drink from it; deeply.

See The Nether if you can.

Cancel everything to see Golem.

Nick Jefferson is a partner with the advisory firm, Monticello LLP, and a curator of The Library of Progress.

RAGING AGAINST THE MACHINE

It’s no surprise that Apple is at the top of Interbrand’s Best Global Brands list but the accompanying profile of the brand ( http://www.bestglobalbrands.com/2014/apple/ ) is rather worrying. In it, we discover that Wired magazine described “the new Apple ecosystem” as having “turned our world into one “huge ubiquitous computer…all around us, all the time.”  Read More

Real, Real, Real.

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We all know about the importance of authenticity.

It’s been part of the bullshit bingo in agency-land for some time.

Even five years ago, on writing a piece for the US Huffington Post about authenticity, I was sufficiently worried that the word strayed far enough into cliche territory that I made a clumsy attempt to aim-off for it.

I needn’t have bothered.

Today, no conference or client-agency ‘strategy session’ is complete without someone uttering the A-word, with due drama and associated pensive twiddling of a well-waxed Shoreditch moustache.

‘Authenticity’ has well and truly entered the lexicon of our industry. And with reason. (Ubiquity does not equal redundancy, after all.)

I was in Washington DC last week. Anyone who has been will tell you that this is a city where it is impossible to escape politics. Indeed, it’s why some of us keep going back there. And as the last bits of bunting were being removed from the White House’s annual egg roll, all the talk was of ‘Hillary’.

When was the former, respected Secretary of State going to launch her bid for the Presidency? The fact that she was going to was the worst kept secret in America. Indeed, the senior Democrats that I met with were more preoccupied with ensuring that her nomination did not look too much like the Zadok-the-Priest-and-all coronation that – at the moment at least – it is.

Having just watched the campaign’s launch video, I think they have bigger fish to fry.

The short film is squarely, one might even say cynically, aimed at showing empathy with regular Americans, particularly women. So far, grist to the mill; your classic political video, rightly or wrongly. But then we cut to the accomplished former Senator and First Lady, and she begins to speak:

‘the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.

Everyday Americans need a champion; and I want to be that champion.’

What?

Hillary Clinton is a graduate of Yale. She is a lawyer. She is a former First Lady of the state of Arkansas and of the United States. She is a former Senator for New York, and until 2013 was the most senior diplomat in the world, bar none. She and her husband are millionaires and their daughter Chelsea has just moved into a $10m apartment in Manhattan.

I don’t begrudge them any of that and I can’t stand the politics of envy. And let’s not even start on the whole different (and crazy) ball of wax that is that the Republican bunfight.

My point is non-partisan, and it is this: Americans are not stupid.

They know what everyday life in America is like. They know what ‘Everyday Americans’ are like.

And they are not like Hillary Clinton.

This able, seriously experienced and accomplished stateswoman has a huge amount to offer the land of the free (as do many of her Republican rivals). But being ‘ordinary’, or even ‘champion of the ordinary’, is not one of them.

Hillary Clinton is smart, and incredibly sophisticated. So are the people around her. Like us, they know that authenticity matters.

Her campaign’s first big problem will be that the American people do too.

Nick Jefferson is a partner with the advisory firm, Monticello LLP, and a curator of The Library of Progress.

I Like Driving In My Car.

– or; What Will Jezza Do Next?

The rights and wrongs of Clarkson-gate to one side, his ‘moving on’ raises some interesting questions about the relative strength of media brands in the 21st Century.

Let’s assume that, for whatever reason, Clarkson and the team want to continue making some type of Top Gear-style programme that has the same global reach as the show which, one way or another, is now no more.

20 years ago, without the support of a big distributor, and probably, in the UK, that really would have meant the BBC, this would have been almost impossible.

Now? Not so much.

Even our grannies could tell us that they could air it on YouTube, without even beginning to think about all the other multiple methods of non-classic 21st Century distribution.

Of course, without serious equity in the Top Gear brand, or at least that of its stars, this would be no different to Cousin Jonny posting videos of his latest Minecraft moves.

But that equity does exist, and by the bucketload. Indeed, such has been the commercial success of the show, that attracting funding for producing it would be the least of the makers’ worries. They’d be thinking about which sponsors not only can provide the dough, but which are brand-assonant.

None of this means that the BBC’s brand is anything other than incredibly strong. That would be naive.

It’s just that, if he wants to be, Jezza could very easily see himself in the driving seat again.

In more way than one.

Nick Jefferson is a partner with the advisory firm, Monticello LLP, and a curator of The Library of Progress.

Video Killed The……..?

If a picture paints a thousand words, then a moving image says it all (nearly).

The world is about to undergo another huge, technology-led revolution.

Last week the conversation amongst the twitterati was all about Meerkat, the twitter-centric live video streaming service.

This week it’s all about Periscope, the rival but yet-to-be-launched service that Twitter itself has recently acquired.

It doesn’t really matter which of these services becomes the BetaMax, and which the VHS. It may be neither, of course – it’s entirely possible that a fresh social media/live video provider, with a kickass offer that users just can’t resist, emerges and takes the crown.

The point is that real-time, live video, peer-to-peer(s) broadcast is here to stay.

And (cliché alert) that really is going to change everything. Because Flo Public can now stream her reality, live, to thousands, maybe even millions of others.

Yes, some of that content will be boring. Crap, even.

But not withstanding folks’ appetite for live feed crap (the bizarre success of Big Brother, anyone?), there will be some gems in there too.

We can expect to see users live feeding anything and everything: from riots and revolutionary exhortations, to product reviews and service critiques.

Consumers will be able to demonstrate, beyond question, the live reality of a brand, as opposed to the brand’s own carefully, and expensively, developed version of itself. The same goes for governments……

Video, or at least MTV, didn’t, in the end, kill the radio star.

But real-time, live video, peer-to-peer(s) broadcast video will kill plenty.

We just don’t know quite what yet.

What we do know is that nations, dictators, advertisers, broadcasters, newspapers and almost anyone else with a vested interest in media can expect to find themselves further disintermediated; and having to work even harder to prove their relevance in the 21st Century.

Perhaps, in the end, Gil Scott-Heron was wrong.

Because it looks increasingly like the revolution will, in fact, be televised.

Nick Jefferson is a partner with the advisory firm, Monticello LLP, and a curator of The Library of Progress.

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