Planning in High Heels

A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian, 18th October 2016 

Back in July, Barack Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention and ended perhaps the last great speech of his presidency by going back to the beginning: to “the audacity of hope”.

Stark dividing lines have been drawn in the US election contest between hope and fear, between a yearning for simpler times and a belief that the best is yet to come. It is not hard to draw a parallel with some of our own political challenges; the tension between those excited by a more global and connected future and those who fear being left behind in this brave new world.

Much has been written about how to make globalisation work for all and a solution remains elusive. A challenge we can meaningfully wrestle with as an industry however is how we make an increasingly connected society work for the many, making technology a source of hope not a source of anxiety and exclusion.

The internet has arguably been one of the most powerful forces for democratisation the world has ever known, giving a voice and opening a market to many who were previously disenfranchised. Platforms from TXTBKS to Ushahidi show the potential of the simplest technologies to make major differences.  Yet within our own society we have been slow to make innovation relevant and accessible to those most apprehensive of or under-served by new technologies, to tackle real, everyday problems such as access to credit, access to a GP within an overloaded NHS or access to meaningful roles within a fast changing labour market.

The Fintech industry for example can often seem preoccupied with wooing Millennials with slick data visualisations and effortless mobile transactions. Yet 1.5 m adults in the UK do not have access to a bank account– while 1.8m a year access pay day loans in the absence of more affordable credit. With high street branches closing at ever faster rates, the digital banking revolution can exclude those most in need of assistance.

Yet the technology exists to make access to banking services and credit possible without access to a traditional bank account. Services such as Kenya’s MPesa enable any user with access to a mobile phone to deposit and transfer funds, no bank account required. Meanwhile almost half of finance executives surveyed believe blockchain technology will mean “the end of banking as we know it”, creating entirely new models for the transfer of funds.

How then can we apply these technologies to providing accessible and affordable credit to those in immediate need, or to ensuring urgent benefit payments are as swiftly available as possible?

In the realm of healthcare, private enterprises in the US are applying the Uber model to medicine via apps such as Heal and Pager which identify the nearest doctor, their ratings and reputation and their price for a real time consultation. Could we apply the same principle to clusters of local surgeries within the NHS, enabling patients to identify the nearest available appointment to them, dynamically updated to take account of changes and cancellations?

Once hailed as an empowering force for change, the gig economy has come under fire in recent months over working conditions and the status of workers. Perhaps a more equitable and interesting approach is to ask how traditional infrastructure and traditional roles can be repurposed- meeting the needs of the on demand economy in a different way. Pass my Parcel, a venture from Smiths News, works with independent local stores to facilitate same day delivery on behalf of Amazon. Retailers receive a small fee for each parcel collected, and increased footfall in store while Amazon receive an increased footprint for same day delivery services. New technology leveraging traditional infrastructure.

In a similar vein, The School in the Cloud uses the “Granny cloud” to facilitate remote learning among some of the world’s most underprivileged children-tapping into a resource that might otherwise be unused and undervalued. Yet there is no reason a similar principle cannot be applied more broadly. Imagine the impact on an over-burdened education system of thousands of retired teachers, craftspeople, scientists or writers signing up to provide even an hour or two of virtual tuition a week.

In a nutshell, imagine a world where we stop designing products and services with young, urban and affluent populations at the forefront of our minds. They won’t mind-they’ve got Pokemon to catch. The opportunity is to design services that are simple, scalable and solve real problems; so how do we make it a reality?

The team behind Gov.uk have done an extraordinary job in making it simpler to access government information and services. Is the next phase of that journey to move beyond making existing services accessible and towards developing new service propositions? Or can the private sector lead the way, re-engineering the on demand economy to be not just egalitarian but genuinely fair for both workers and consumers?

Either way there is a genuine opportunity for the tech community to prove that it is not a “liberal elite” designing for fellow liberal elites but a community committed to making technology a force for hope, not just a force for change. As the founding father of the web once put it “This is for everyone”. 

 

 

 

 

This article was first published in The Guardian on 6th July 2016

Some time in the last five years, attention became the only currency in town. We might argue it was ever thus- since the dawn of time stunts, snakeoil, and slogans have all had their place. Yet with the advent of social media and online news, eyeballs are everything. We exist in a race for clicks which rewards the extreme at the expense of the erudite, the controversial over the considered.

What’s particularly sobering right now, however, is the extent to which the attention economy is shaping the tenor of our political debate. The primacy of the impression has created a political discourse which draws its inspiration increasingly from the world of clickbait. Inevitably, this environment privileges the most provocative of views. What is lost in the middle is nuance.

Donald Trump, it was recently reported, has generated almost $2bn in earned media over the course of the course of his campaign to date, dwarfing Republican and Democrat competitors alike. Meanwhile, a reported 82% of newspaper coverage of the EU referendum focused on Brexit versus remain.

This more polarised tone of voice has also spilled over into how we engage with one another around the issues. Those who disagree with us are easy to dismiss as trolls while, as Jerry Daykin points out, the self-selecting nature of social media creates filter bubbles which comfortably reinforce our own world view and make other opinions ever more alien.

It’s easy to argue that the press are at fault, that they should take a more measured and nuanced approach. But with a few notable exceptions, the job of the press is ultimately to make money. To urge publications not to court eyeballs is to urge the tide not to come in.

So what can we do to change the debate, to preserve a political discourse that acknowledges complexity and embraces ambiguity? And what does it have to do with the advertising industry?

As consumers, we need to be prepared to invest in news again. This may seem like a heretical idea in the age of free; I’d argue the demise of the centre ground is too high a price to pay for free news. Yet I am as guilty as the next person is of voraciously consuming free content, because, as Clay Shirky so memorably put it “Behaviour is motivation filtered through opportunity”.

So while we may be motivated to invest, publishers need to provide the opportunity. Only when paying for an article or a piece of analysis is as easy and effortless as paying for an app, a new HBO series or an Uber will a model for paid news truly thrive. Moreover, in a world where content is increasingly dispersed across the social web, we must think beyond traffic referred to the home page as our only model for monetising content. As John Battelle puts it:

“I suggest we augment that revenue stream with another, one that ties individual ‘atomic units’ of content to similar ‘atomic units’ of marketing messaging, so that together they can travel the Seussian highways of the social web with a business model intact.”

As publishers and marketers, we need to move beyond impressions to establish new metrics that measure quality of content, quality of user experience and ultimately brand impact. The Financial Times has rolled out an alternative pricing model which monetises time spent with content as an alternative to CPM (cost-per-thousand), while Bloomberg, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal have also experimented in this space. Nielsen is focused on demonstrating the brand impact of online marketing, not solely the direct response.

As agencies, we need to shift our clients away from a focus on cost of impressions towards a focus on cost of impact. While adoption of programmatic planning and buying is increasing, for too many brands it is seen as a way to drive down costs when the real potential is so much higher. The true power of programmatic is to understand real time context – where the user is, what their mood is, what their needs are – and to serve up the most relevant content in that moment. This is a more expensive approach but, the onus on is to demonstrate, it is a disproportionately effective one.

Finally, for all of us involved in creating and publishing content, perhaps there is a lesson about underestimating our audience. We hear a lot about ever diminishing attention spans and the need to instantly engage the swipe right generation whose brains have been reshaped on a diet of Twitter, Tinder and Snapchat.

Yet in parallel, Netflix data shows that half of House of Cards viewers consumed an entire season in just one week, and that a majority of viewers immerse themselves in just one show at a time. Even a casual glance at the TV content that dominates our popular culture shows that complexity – overlapping narratives, expansive casts, elaborate mythologies – is no barrier to engagement. The average YouTube viewing session on mobile is now 40 minutes long.

So perhaps rather than delivering on expectations, we should raise them. Perhaps rather than ruthlessly simplifying, we could believe that our audiences can cope with complexity. If you can follow the plot of Game of Thrones, there’s a decent chance you can follow the pros and cons, ins and outs of richly nuanced political questions.

This article first appeared in The Drum on 5th October 2015

In a world of increased competition and diminished attention, breakthrough ideas are an agency’s only source of sustainable advantage.

But breakthrough ideas don’t come from hiring the same old people to work in the same old ways. Steve Jobs (the child, lest we forget, of Syrian immigrants) didn’t build the most valuable brand in the world by urging people to “Think Homogemous”. Yet there are more men named John (or Dave) leading FTSE 100 companies in the UK than there are women.

Embracing difference has never been more important to our industry. The days of the solitary genius are gone. Creativity today is about the collision of different disciplines: artists and technologists, fashion designers and data architects, behavioural scientists and product strategists. It is about hybrid talents and hybrid teams, working in nimble and collaborative ways.

Beyond the creative industries, senior executives across all industries are beginning to understand the business value of a diverse workforce. In a Forbes survey, 85 per cent of senior executives agreed that diversity is a key driver of innovation.

Yet, as many of us know, just three per cent of creative directors are women. Looking more broadly, just 25 per cent of senior advertising and marketing roles are filled by women. There are many and complex reasons for this of course.

One important reason though is aspiration-a sense of possibility and opportunity. A recent study by the Lean In organisation revealed that at every level, women are less likely than men to say they want to become a top executive. They simply don’t imagine themselves in those roles. There is, as Lean In put it, an ambition gap.

It’s easy to understand why. Every woman in the industry has at some point been the only woman in the room, the only women on the panel, the only woman in the business lounge. It can be difficult at times like that to feel there is truly a place for you at the top of the industry. Women are significantly less likely than men to describe themselves as ambitious, and when others call them ambitious, it can come loaded with negative connotations not present for men.

This is where the SheSays Awards come in. At the heart of the awards is a simple but powerful thought: I know my place. The idea takes the misogynist old notion that women should know their limits and turns it on its head, celebrating women who are confident in their place as industry leaders. It encourages young women to imagine their future place in the industry, to accept no limits to their imagination.

The Awards champion successful and ambitious women at every stage of their careers, from students to established creative talents to inspirational female leaders. They make successful and ambitious women more visible and in doing so they help other women see themselves in those roles. In doing so, we hope they can start to close the ambition gap and help more women see – and proudly say – that their place is at the top.

This article first appeared in Contagious Magazine on 31/07/2015

One of the founding principles of technology is Zuboff’s law: “Everything that can be automated will be automated” 

One of the most beloved principles of technology is Clarke’s law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

We are seeing both these principles hold truer by the day-the more advanced technology becomes, the more invisible it becomes.

Ever smarter algorithms are building more dynamic, contextual understanding of where we are, what we’re doing and what we might do next. Today, Google Now knows where I am and where I need to be. It knows the weather and the traffic conditions. How long before, without asking, it hails me an Uber right when I need it?

Much has been written on how interface brands (Uber, Air BNB, Zipcar) are the winners in the digital age. The most successful interfaces, however, will ultimately become the least intrusive-metrics like dwell time and visibility will become obsolete as experiences become seamless, effortless and automated to invisibility. As Matthew Panzarino puts it:

 “You’ve probably heard the argument that for an app to be truly successful it needs to earn a place on your home screen…. we could see another whole class of apps that not only don’t need to fight for a home screen slot, they don’t need to be opened at all to add value. And that’s interesting.”

These invisible technology experiences will in part by fuelled by data and in part by new kinds of interface.

Retail brands will be challenged as a rash of “buy now” buttons invades our favourite search and social platforms. When I can browse, discover and transact direct from Google or Pinterest, retailers run the risk of becoming simply back end fulfillment and data engines.

FMCG brands will be challenged as e-commerce platforms seek to minimize friction via automated replenishment and subscription services. When I can reorder all my grocery staples via smart buttons situated around my home and linked to my Amazon Dash account, what opportunities are there for new brands to interrupt the path to purchase?

Brands across every category will be challenged by new and intimate interfaces. When I can unlock an account with my thumbprint, make a payment with a selfie, or receive notifications at a “glance”, how do we make these micro interactions tangible, branded and rewarding?

Consider the controversy over Domino’s Titanium Grand Prix. The Emoji Ordering initiave is rooted in the world of invisible technology, removing the need to visit a site, speak to an operator or indeed speak at all. It has the potential to have a transformative effect on the client’s business. Yet it is a controversial winner because it looks so very different to the kind of brand experience we are accustomed to.

So how do we build brands in the age of invisible interactions?

The answer, it seems to me, is a two pronged approach.

The first is to future proof our brands to thrive in a world of connected and predictive data, a world that has shifted from e-commerce to everywhere commerce. This means investing in mining and integrating the diverse data sets (social data, search data, site data, location data) every brand today has at their disposal to better understand users’ needs in real time.

It means interrogating our brands’ e-commerce platforms to ensure we are ready to sell not just on site but off site and in the stream. It means interrogating the path to purchase to remove friction and building hooks and habits at every stage of the journey-subscription models perhaps, or smart packaging that automatically triggers replenishment.  Subscription models need no longer be the preserve of big brands or corporations-the Cups coffee app platform offers pre-paid and subscription packages for New York’s independent coffee shops.

The second is to ensure that our brands reward interaction at every touchpoint. That every interaction, however fleeting, is a delightful and valuable one.

This means opening up new dimensions in how we think about branding. Thinking not just about tone of voice or look and feel, but about the body language of a brand in the digital space. How do our brands feel, swipe and gesture? What are the ergonomics of our brand? In the world of invisible technology, micro-interactions are king. (It is interesting to note that even Siri, Apple’s much maligned personal assistant is slowly developing a personality).

It means thinking about online retail as a brand experience. As buy now buttons remove the need to visit retailer’s sites, we must build a desire to visit those sites, thinking of them less at digital catalogues and more as concept stores where every interaction is carefully considered and infused with brand promise. Net a porter, as ever, are ahead of the curve, supplementing their core site with not only a shoppable magazine but a new shopping app infused with social context-the Net-Set app.

It means lavishing ever greater care and attention to how users encounter our brands in the physical space. Packaging and delivery experiences will become critical touchpoints in our arsenal. No category will be immune-subscription based tampon company Lola marries personalisation (design your own assortment) to beautiful, minimal product design (and a beautiful, minimal online interface).

Most importantly, it means giving our brands a clear purpose and reason for being in the digital space. Purpose is an over-used (and abused) word when it comes to branding, often confused with CSR initiatives. In practice, it’s simple: What does this brand do (not say) to add value to its users. Brand positioning is no longer enough. In the world of invisible technology, brands need an active brand purpose-a purpose that comes to life through digital products and services that deliver genuine value for the user. In a world of invisible interactions, only the truly valuable will command time and attention.

In summary, we must minimise effort on one hand while maximising reward on the other.  Designing our systems and databases to seamlessly integrate with the world of invisible technology and our brand experiences to stand out. Crafting experiences where every micro-interaction is not only delightful, but offers real and tangible value.

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in Marketing Magazine, 7/5/2015 

Breaking technology stories in early April is a challenge. The pace of change is so extreme, the advances in blurring the boundaries between real world and online experiences so extraordinary that it’s difficult to tell innovation from April Fool. So when Amazon Dash launched its buttons product late on March 31st, the confusion was understandable.

Physical “Buy Now” buttons for all your favourite brands, conveniently located around your home and synched to your Amazon Prime account seemed like an obvious-if well executed-prank.  Of course so too do delivery drones, a Google store on Tottenham Court Road, a bank account you unlock with your heartbeat and an Argos “concept store” that looks like a boutique hotel. In today’s retail environment, truth really is stranger than fiction.

The reality is an audacious play by Amazon to seize control of the grocery shopping experience. It’s a move that brings in to sharp focus some of the fundamental changes happening in the world of commerce.

It was once a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that the internet would be the death of the high street, as once iconic brands such as Woolworths, HMV and Blockbuster disappeared, felled by the might of iTunes and Amazon.

The reality is more complicated. We live not in a world of online versus offline but in a world where those boundaries are inextricably blurred. Where offline sales are influenced and enabled by digital technology. Where physical stores are powered by digital data and mobile is ubiquitous at the point of purchase.

While retailers once feared the “showrooming” challenge, today smart stores are gearing up for the “webrooming” opportunity-consumers who research online but buy in store. US designer Rebecca Minkoff recently launched a new concept store equipped with touchscreen interfaces enabling users to send items direct from screen to dressing room and an app which notifies shoppers when their dressing room is ready. RFID tagging for every garment equips store staff with a real time stock inventory. Is this an e-commerce experience or an offline store? It’s a little of both.

In a world where the path to purchase is woven so seamlessly across channels and devices, the notion of e-commerce becomes redundant. This is the world of Brand Commerce-a world where every point of brand interaction can become a point of transaction.

The blurring of these boundaries is made possible by technology and made personal by data.

From a technology perspective, the rise of connected objects, new user interfaces and frictionless payment are creating a world where we are constantly, effortlessly, surrounded by opportunities to connect and transact.

From a data perspective, the rise of programmatic buying and technologies such as Facebook’s Atlas platform mean we are increasingly able to track and optimise today’s complex, multi channel shopper journeys as they weave from mobile to desktop to store and back again.

So what does Brand Commerce look like in practice? 

Brand Commerce is about the seamless integration of on and offline retail experiences. The Rebecca Minkoff store is one example. Another is the Fiat Live Store experience created by Isobar Brazil-the world’s first point-of-view Auto Store, offering every user a live guided tour of their car of choice. Disney have invested $1 billion dollars in equipping Disney World with hundreds of sensors designed to capture real time data on where guests are and what they’re doing-for the user this manifests in a simple and effortless “Magic Band” enabling one swipe access and payment.

Brand Commerce is about the seamless integration of content and commerce-L’Oreal recently announced a partnership with Powa that would enable them to make every ad, on or offlline, shoppable. Meanwhile Net a Porter, one of the world’s most formidable online businesses, has launched a glossy, shoppable magazine.

It is about effortlessly managing complex, multi-channel retail journeys. About  smart packaging, payment and vending solutions which attach digital data to real world interactions.

Perhaps most importantly it is about thinking of commerce not as a destination but as a layer-building the ability for users to transact whenever and wherever they encounter our brands, whether they pay with a tweet, a Facebook app, or a Magic Band.

What do brands need to thrive in the age of Brand Commerce? 

A hunger for data-the world of Brand Commerce will require ever more sophisticated integration of ever more diverse data sets-data from social, data from mobile, data from smart packaging and in store sensors. For every project we undertake we should ask ourselves: What is the data dividend? 

An obsession with user experience: to thrive in the era of Brand Commerce brands will need to deliver experiences as effortless, nigh on invisible as Amazon Dash or Disney’s Magic Band

A spirit of invention: Brand will need to break down silos and challenge existing notions of what constitutes a store. The era of Brand Commerce will require the seamless integration of brand builders and engineers, storytellers and store merchandisers, art and the algorithm.

 

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There’s been a reflective mood in the industry of late. A recurring theme in many end of year roundups was the need to stop, to look inwards, to step away from the perpetual motion of the stream. I was relieved in many ways to read it, to realise that I wasn’t alone in finding that the noise was increasingly drowning out the signal.

Like many others, I was struck powerfully by Alexis Madrgial’s post: “The Year the Stream Crested”, where he laments the rise of “newness” as the sole organizing principle for the web:

“The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on newness.”

It’s a fascinating read, that touches on any number of interesting themes, from the polarisation of our attention span (from 7 second Vine videos to “bingeing” on House of Cards) to the pursuit of disposability as a response to surveillance culture.

In response both to this post, and to an overall sense that enough is enough, lots of clever folk- from Mel Exon to Andy Whitlock to Toby Barnes-have come up with their recommendations for stepping back, for finding islands in the stream. I wonder though if there’s more at play here than simply feed fatigue. If the problem isn’t just the stream but the same-ness.

Like many of these commentators, I found myself feeling that what seemed exhilarating and dynamic just a short while ago was feeling not just overwhelming, but somehow stale-dulled by sheer volume and ubiquity. It was harder to get excited not only about the next post or list but about the next big acquisition or the next social sharing app-and I say that as someone who is deeply passionate about the power of technology to transform.

So what lies behind this broader sense of ennui?

I think there are two factors in play:

1. The revolution has paused
2. We have created a new consensus

1. The revolution has paused

In the last decade, two huge developments have enabled change on an unprecedented scale: the rise of the social web and the invention of the smartphone.

These structural changes-enabling ever more connected consumers and ever more connected devices-set the stage for almost every trend that has consumed us in recent years, from crowdsourcing to wearables, location to the sharing economy, big data to crowdfunding to social activism to mobile commerce.

There have of course been important developments which have fuelled these macro trends-peer to peer payments, ubiquitous WiFi and 3G access-but a third great structural leap forward has been slow to emerge.

Which means rather than having a world of brand new possibilities to evangelise, we have some now familiar technologies to perfect and mature, which is nowhere near as easy to do.

The promise of the social web in particular feels slow to come to fruition as the major players wrestle with monetisation challenges and become ever more like broadcast channels and less like the transformative forces for change they first appeared. Yet it’s important to remember that the social web is more than the social networks-that the gift of those networks is a web of data and connections that creates an infrastructure we can build all manner of services on top of-inspiring and delightful services built on the power of peer to peer sharing, from Waze to Ushahidi to Kickstarter to AirBNB.

Our challenge is to remember it’s still early morning in the evolution of these channels. That much of the hard work of the last few years has been groundwork. That we will get things wrong, go down some cul de sacs, feel disenchanted and start again. That when we do build products and services that are genuinely social-social in that they empower users to share their data, their wisdom, and their property-we make a difference. That as familiar and ubiquitous as these technologies now are, that is the very thing that makes them so extraordinarily powerful. As Kevin Kelly puts it:

“As technology becomes ubiquitous it also becomes invisible. The more chips proliferate, the less we will notice them. The more networking succeeds, the less we’ll be aware of it.”

2. We have created a new consensus

Much of the fire and energy that has ignited the blogosphere in recent years has been about rejecting older truths. The spirit of challenge and iconoclasm has been rife. In the process we have created new orthodoxies together:

• That brands are now built as much by what they do as by what they say (From Big Ideas to Big Actions)
• That we live in the age of a vocal, connected consumer where peer to peer influence-ever powerful-is now powerful at scale
• That ideas are used, shared and propagated in networks, not solely in agencies
• That consumers are telling us, in real time, more about what they need and want than ever before and that we can and must respond to this in real time

We have been distracted, at times, by some flawed assumptions:

• That a mass of consumers want to actively participate with brands-they don’t
• That the campaign was dead, long live the platform-it isn’t
• That it would be easy to mine and integrate social, location and brand data-in practice, it can be extraordinarily difficult

And we have remembered that some old truths should not be forgotten:

• That brands grow, in the main, though scale not depth
• That most consumers, most of the time, don’t care very much about brands
• That they care, enormously, about the things they have always cared about-connecting with their loved ones, building social capital, connecting around their passions, improving themselves and their communities. Old motivations, new techniques

Along the way, some amazing brains have created some of the Ur-texts of this new consensus-Gareth Kay, John Willshire, Mel Exon, Edward Boches, Martin Weigel, Mark Earls, Mike Arauz, the brothers Malbon to name but a few- all big thinkers and always worth a read. Some of these new orthodoxies will be challenged and upended, some will stick-but for now, we hold many of these truths to be self-evident. (Which is enough, in itself, to make an iconoclast twitchy).

So despite stream fatigue and perhaps even some innovation fatigue, we live in extraordinary times, with amazing new infrastructures and exciting new brand imperatives. So what do we do in this new environment?

Be your own inspiration

In this new world order, we need to be our own inspiration. To work harder to add value, not simply have a presence. To develop social applications and services that harness the power of sharing to disrupt, empower and enable. To develop mobile applications that genuinely transform a brand’s availability, distribution channel or service model.

Make less, but better 

Despite the wealth of new work springing into our feeds everyday, there are perhaps a handful of pieces of work we look to again and again for inspiration-gems like the aforementioned Waze and Ushahidi alongside Nike Plus, We Feel Fine, Aaron Koblin’s experiments in data and crowd-creation.

What pulls these pieces of work apart is that they are labours of love, perfected over time. There are executed beautifully, not fetishing design for design’s sake but with care and reverence for the user experience, motivation and reward.

They make leaps forward in what is considered possible. They invent. They avoid becoming what Tim Malbon describes as “digital landfill”.  

Think invention, not (just) innovation

A culture of innovation as important. Whatever strategies we put in place to help navigate the stream (and we certainly need them), it is important of course to remain connected to the new. But it is equally important to remember that trends are tools, not ends. More important is a culture of invention, of making things that never existed before. Creating our own inspiration.

Or as the late, great Seamus Heaney put it:

“Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

A version of this article first appeared in Campaign magazine on September 5th 

In recent years, the “Big Idea” has often seemed to epitomise everything wrong and backward looking about our industry.  As Joseph Jaffe, author of “Flip the Funnel”, put it:

“I’m sick and tired of this notion that there is a singular BIG IDEA out there…Big ideas are equated to expensive ideas…hence the word Big. Big ideas are similarly, full of hot air, fluff, inflated with self-importance, exaggeration and hyperbole”

How much more compelling the lean manifesto or the Agile movement have seemed – trim and nimble versus the bloated “Big” idea. We have been encouraged to develop minimal viable products, to test, optimise and iterate – all extraordinarily useful approaches when it comes to making things.

The danger is that we apply this approach to our thinking – that we start to think small.  There is huge benefit to making small. The challenge is to think big while making small.  

Thinking big remains critically important for a number of reasons:

We have big problems – and bigger opportunities: The web is not impacting our clients in small ways. Margins are squeezed, cost of entry is plummeting, transparency is no longer a choice and entire industries are disappearing.

But the web can also impact our clients in incredibly exciting ways. Our ambition should be to fundamentally transform our clients’ businesses in a way that simply wasn’t possible in an analog world-to open up new distribution opportunities, to create new products and new paths to purchase. That calls for big, audacious thinking-the kind of thinking seen on the smallest screens of all at Cannes, where Mobile Lion winners had the audacity to imagine turning every smartphone user into a volunteer in the hunt for missing children. 

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The Missing Children application by Baby Back Home and JWT Beijing

 

We need scale to grow: An oft-forgotten truth, as Martin Weigel of Wieden + Kennedy has pointed out lately, is that most brands, in most categories, grow by increasing penetration (scale) not frequency or fandom.  In a fragmented media landscape reach will be less and less easy to buy – so we need to create ideas with reach.

We like to share: Precision targeting has been another strike against the blunt instrument that is the big idea. Why use a sledgehammer when you use a scalpel to target individuals with surgical precision? Again, while precision marketing is an extraordinarily useful tool, we must remember the power of shared experiences. The dual screen phenomenon (27,000 tweets in 90 seconds during the X Factor) highlights our overwhelming desire to connect with others. While we are watching more TV on demand, overwhelmingly we are using it to catch up on what our peers have seen rather than discover the new and esoteric. 

Yet while big ideas remain critically important, the nature of the big idea has changed.

From Big Ideas to Big Actions – the end of metaphor:

Once upon a time, our big ideas were fantasies.  We imagined powerful roles for our brands in consumers’ lives-roles where they connected communities or imbued their users with superhuman powers. We strove to  “own” profound emotional territories like Generosity, Joy and Freedom, to convey product truth through ever more visually arresting metaphors. We dreamed of explosions of colour and giant, CGI fish roaming our cities. 

We dreamed of buying the world a Coke, teaching the world to sing, giving every child the right to play.

Today, if we can dream it, we can do it – the metaphor is no more.

As Google demonstrated so powerfully with its Project Re: Brief, if we want to buy the world a Coke, we can. If we want to teach the world to sing, or perhaps to read, we can do it through Skype and the awesome force of the “Granny Cloud”. If we want to connect communities, or to give individuals the power to glide through cities, we can create social, crowdsourced traffic applications like Waze.

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From metaphor to reality: Project ReBrief

I worked for many years on the iconic Levi’s brand. In the last few years of my tenure, we developed a big idea: New from the Original. It was a big thought, rooted in a product truth-that every Levi’s product is inspired, in some way, by Levi’s unparalleled archive of vintage denim. We brought it to life in a beautiful film, one that picked up lots of awards and one I’m enormously proud of. Today, though, we could move that idea beyond metaphor to reality. Today, or sometime soon, I could, with the power of 3D printing “print “new clothing direct from the archival originals.

 So we still need big, audacious, spine-tingling ideas, but those ideas will be, at their heart, active. As Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism labs says

“The idea of the idea is evolving. We don’t treat Google like a Big Idea — though, of course, that’s most definitely what it is; we treat it like Google. Ditto Facebook, ditto Twitter, ditto Reddit and Wikipedia. Those new infrastructures merge idea and practice, ars and tecnica, so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget how big (and how Big) the ideas that inform them actually are.”

Big Ideas are not (necessarily) big executions

As I mentioned upfront, it’s entirely possible to think big and make small. Big ideas no longer mean 90” TV spots or beautiful, immersive websites. They may do-there is still a powerful role in the industry for craft and for wonder-but they may actually be quite small and simple in execution -and therein may lie the magic.

An example of this “think big, build small” approach is the #SKYREC initiative developed by AgenciaClick Isobar with the SKY TV operator in Brazil. The service synchs users’ SKY accounts with their twitter feeds, enabling them to record a programme with a tweet. A big, business changing idea that in the hands of the user feels simple and delightful.

Perhaps the most current example of the “think big, build small” approach is the Cannes Mobile Grand Prix Winner-TXTBKS from DDB Manila.  A big idea to solve a big problem-decreasing use of textbooks in a country where most families cannot afford tablets or e-readers-executed with the simplicity of a text. 

Big Ideas are made of people

These effortless user experiences are particularly important in developing today’s big ideas because in an ever more connected world, big ideas are made of people. As we move from metaphors to actions, we move towards ideas that demand interaction, that live, as Mark Earls puts it in “the spaces between individuals”

Big ideas will increasingly be built in these spaces-in the millions of tiny interactions that make an idea live and spread. They will demand that we think less about individuals and more about networks, that we treat our consumers less as fans and more as actors.

This is an inexact science today. It will become more rigorous. We will see the rise of social experience designers and of network prediction models with ingenious algorithms calibrating the epidemiology of an idea.

This is incredibly important. Agencies that take it seriously and invest in tools and talent will triumph over those who hope “it will go viral”. It doesn’t mean, however, that we should start by thinking granular. Once again, we may think big and build small. 

Long live the Big Idea:

The Big Idea is alive and well. It is more important than ever at a time when it is desperately easy to be consumed by minutiae and when our clients have ever bigger problems to solve. 

But today’s big ideas are different from yesterday’s. Today’s Big Ideas are not metaphors, but actions. They may not always feel big in execution – we may think big and make deceptively small. They will live in the interactions between people.

The agencies that succeed will be those who can develop big, audacious, business changing ideas and use technology to move those ideas beyond metaphor and into reality, beyond ideas and into actions.  

 

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