Balance is a dynamic activity

ZZ10C5F218Sometimes when I read or hear a useful insight, I remember to squirrel it away (on my Tumblr, and  - via IFTTT – under quotes on Diigo). This one, from Ed Catmull’s superb book Creativity, Inc., has been in my head a lot recently.

Our mental image of balance is somewhat distorted because we tend to equate it with stillness – the calm repose of a yogi balancing on one leg, a state without apparent motion. To my mind, the more accurate examples of balance come from sports, such as when a basketball player spins around a defender, a running back bursts through the line of scrimmage, or a surfer catches a wave. All of these are extremely dynamic responses to rapidly changing environments.

Balance is a dynamic act.

How wonderful and how true. It’s liberating to realise that all that wobbling you’re doing could just be quick movements you make in staying balanced rather than some impossible dream of achieving balance.

It reminds me of a question a colleague asked me: Do you think the company is heading in the right direction? The instinctive, reassuring answer is “yes”. The more accurate answer is “sometimes and mostly”.

If there’s a direction we should be heading in then, on aggregate we’re going that way. As with all start-up companies – or I suppose on a grander scale, all companies – heading in the right direction is a series of course corrections.

 

Two unusual portraits of my family

This week I got two very unusual family portraits – one expected, one a delightful surprise. One very digital-age, the other a kind of analogue throwback.

Portrait #1: Lomokev street-style

The first was by the brilliant Brighton photographer Kevin Meredith (a.k.a. Lomokev), of whom I’m a big admirer. I own one of his prints and when Brilliant Noise started up a couple of years ago he did the portraits of the founders for our website. Last year I did one of his excellent weekend Hot Shots courses and tried my own hand at Lomography, the old Russian film cameras which Kev has long championed, and from which he gets his nickname.

When I saw he was doing family portraits using the photo-montage technique he uses for his street style photography, I knew I had to get one done of my lot.

And here it is. The final version will be four separate framed photos, but this digital version has us all side-by-side. I really like it…

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Portrait #2: Us on holiday two years ago

The second portrait I stumbled across on the internet. A couple of years ago we were on holiday in Mallorca. On our way out for the day we stopped down the road from our villa to put our rubbish and recycling in the communal bins and we saw a Google Maps car go past. Knowing that it was heading for a dead-end, we stood and waited for about five minutes and it came back.

Of course, I checked the map a couple of months later, but the road we were on wasn’t available on streetview on Google Maps. I assumed that perhaps it was a private road and Google wasn’t allowed to post images of it. Ho hum, I thought, and forgot about it…

…until this week when I was booking a holiday to Mallorca again and trying to see a villa on streetview and I thought, why not check and see if that photo is there now. It took some clicking around (I couldn’t remember which backroad outside Pollensa it was) and then… bingo.

ZZ2A707FE2 ZZ58C0ADBBFunny little moment of serendipity, eh?

‘The three stages of digital transformation’

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Newspapers were among the first businesses to feel the full disruptive force of digital. But they aren’t unique. Best to to watch their struggle, and learn from them, whatever line of work you’re in.

Adam Tinworth’s analysis over at Journalism.co.uk of how print publishing businesses is, then, interesting both for what it says about that sector, but also because you can broadly apply it to most other industries:

Broadly speaking, I think we can place pretty much all traditional print businesses making the move into online publishing into one of three categories: Additive, Replicative or Transformative[....] 

Additive [...] They are still doing what they used to do – publishing a print product that is much as it’s always been – but also creating a digital product that contains additional material. [...]

[Replicative] You’re not doing anything substantially different from what you were doing before, but are instead just publishing it in more channels.

[Transformative] Surviving at this level requires a massive rethink of the organisational structure of the whole operation.

“Digital transformation” programmes are too often not transformative. There’s a proclamation by a board – everyone cheers for a bit, does some training, and then gets back to business as usual and hopes for the best. As Adam goes on to say:

Hitting the transformative stage means letting go of the idea that we’re an organisation that exists to publishing a newspaper/magazine/website and focusing on the idea that we exist to produce journalistic content for a particular audience.

Substitute the middle bit and this is the same crisis of strategy and culture that almost every company being challenged by digital is facing. The answer for all of them begins with a customer-first approach, I believe. Beginning is really, really hard though – and it may be the easiest part of the process.

 

 

Buzzfeed the disruptor

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With the leaked and digital transformation there’s a lot of focus on the struggles of the newspaper business to remain competitive in the internet age.

Buzzfeed, like all great digital businesses, rewards revisiting and close attention. It is evolving so quickly that it’s just lazy to have it mentally filed under “listicles & kitten photos” or “death of news culture”.

The New York Times understands this, as its leaked report on innovation makes clear. Look at its elegant visual explanation of Clayton Christensen’s innovator’s dilemma and for “Disruptors”, read Buzzfeed and its amazing social media distribution engine now being used to develop higher quality journalism.

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In an interview at the DLD NYC 14 conference, Buzzfeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti talked about the company’s strategy. It’s well worth 20 minutes of viewing, but I’ve noted some bits that resonated for me below…

  • Social content: Asked “what is Buzzfeed?”, Peretti responds, that “Buzzfeed is a social content website….  Social content is content that people think is awesome enough to pass on to their friends.” He says that whenever a new media arrives, people put the old kind of content into the new distribution technology. When that fails, new players bring in new types of content that work…
  • Scale. Buzzfeed has the scale of a traditional media company without the industrial media infrastructure, he says. 75% of our audience [120 million uniques a month by its internal metrics] arrive through social media.
  • News and entertainment. Peretti desribes Buzzfeed as a news and entertainment company – just like newspapers always have been (to illustrate this he cites crossword puzzles and property supplements, but of course a lot of news is essentially entertainment – think sensationalist coverage of celebrities and murders). Buzzfeed is investing in foreign correspondents and investigative journalism now – it has two reporters in Ukraine right now, for instance.
  • Mobile-social audience. People spend more time looking at phone screens than TV screens, Perretti points out, but “In a world where media companies are still making media for legacy systems that are not nearly as relevant, especially for younger readers…”
  • Empathetic, not authoritative. He contrasts Buzzfeed’s tone and approach as being more about empathy, where traditional media would be more about authority.
  • Not selling “adjacency”. Traditional measures like clicks (CPMs etc.) aren’t as important to Buzzfeed, as it doesn’t sell “adjacency” (putting ads next to content. Buzzfeed’s model, is a platform for social content (CMS, data science, brand. metrics, systems)  which they use for news, entertainment and branded content (the latter being the revenue of course). “CPMs are based on this mistaken notion that there is limited space [on the internet]…” News, entertainment and branded content can all find their audiences, he says – there’s no limit [beyond users' attention , of course.]

: : Bonus link: My Brilliant Noise colleague, David Preece has some analysis of the New York Times Innovation report.

: : Timothy B. Lee at Vox has some interesting analysis both of the NYT report and of the innovator’s dilemma model – incumbents rarely change and survive, he points out. H/T Adam Tinworth.

Brands on the edge of a cultural breakdown

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Let’s connect a few dots around the idea of brands.

After the Forrester Marketing Leadership Forum in London, I finally caught up with this James Surowiecki article from February’s New Yorker, Twilight of the Brands. The gist of it – consumers need brands less than the brand marketing industry thinks they do…

It’s a truism of business-book thinking that a company’s brand is its “most important asset,” more valuable than technology or patents or manufacturing prowess. But brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos. “Absolute Value,” a new book by Itamar Simonson, a marketing professor at Stanford, and Emanuel Rosen, a former software executive, shows that, historically, the rise of brands was a response to an information-poor environment. When consumers had to rely on advertisements and their past experience with a company, brands served as proxies for quality; if a car was made by G.M., or a ketchup by Heinz, you assumed that it was pretty good. 

Connect this with The Economist piece on the collapse of trust between people and advertisers, as the industry continues to optimise for interruption marketing that no one really wants…

Havas Media, a big marketing agency, says trust in them has been declining for three decades. Last August it published the latest in a series of worldwide surveys, in which 134,000 consumers in 23 countries were asked what they thought of 700 brands. A majority of those taking part would not care if 73% of them just vanished. In Europe and America 92% would not be missed. Only in places like Asia and Latin America, with lots of newish consumers, is there a bit more attachment to brands, though Havas Media reports that it is declining there too.

Fracking the social web, as John Willshire calls the relentless chasing of consumer attention by any and all technological means, is part of all this.

And meanwhile brand marketing is losing the brightest and best talent to adjacent, more digital, agile and innovative industries, as agency CEO John Winsor wrote in post at The Guardian:

Every day the best and brightest young talent leaves the industry to join (or just bypass the industry all together) digital alternatives from start-ups to established digital players and other, more innovative established players in other industries (IDEO is an example). They might think of themselves in the marketing and advertising businesses but they don’t want to take the traditional path. Working their way up through the creative ranks not only seems too slow but much too political and bureaucratic.

In a couple of weeks’ time the Cannes Lions festival of advertising will kick off. The last day, Saturday, is innovation day. Maybe next year, that should come at the beginning.

Connecting some dots around social, earned and satisfaction

Working through the connections between these things…

Oliver Blanchard says:

If you treat earned media like paid media long enough, you will teach it to act like paid media.

…This is connected with the idea we explored that editors should be in charge of paid digital media (or at least have control of their own budgets) m- treating paid like earned could be a lot more useful than the other way around.

…It’s another angle on what John Willshire discusses in his series of presentations on the idea of “fracking the social web“. The race for Likes and shares and and views leaves depleted culture and relationships in its wake.

…Andy Whitlock says in this deck that creating noise (chasing attention) isn’t always the best approach. Platforms and products are ways of creating long term value, long term relationships, he says.

…This connects with why at Brilliant Noise we’ve talked more about earning advocacy than earning media, or even earning attention. The media’s not the point, the customer is… and they couldn’t give a fig for brands, most of the time.

Which also reminds me of an interesting Twitter conversation yesterday between Mat Morrison, Jon and Professor Byron about brands and satisfaction:

 

Hat tip to Anne McCrossan for pointing me to the Oliver Blanchard article.

Free doesn’t always put the customer first

A lovely article by Jessica E Lessin, the founder of subscription-only tech news site The Information describes how a tight customer focus and and prioritising quality content over quantity helps build and audience.

There’s lessons here for brands in any sector:

We believe the best way to build a brand is to be indispensable to some people, rather than try to appeal to everyone. The business model aligned with that mission is a subscription business where our only incentive is to write articles our customers want so badly they are willing to pay for them.

This echoes Cynthia Montgomery’s advice in The Strategist, that if your company has a strong strategy it would be missed by its customers if it were to disappear overnight.

An insistence on creating a premium service creates a strong business model and value that goes beyond financial returns:

One benefit of the model is it helps build our revenue quickly. But a far more important outcome is that it puts the focus exclusively on high-quality, original journalism. In the world of ad-supported media, traffic volume is everything. Too often that means sacrificing quality for quantity and prioritising stories that generate clicks. In the subscription world, quantity doesn’t move the needle. Quality does.

Hat tip – the excellent Fraggl curation service. 

Too many apps stop digital transformation? Piffle.

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CIOs say there are too many apps, according to a CapGemini survey. It’s getting in the way of digital transformation they – or the people asking the leading questions say.

What?

There are too few, more like.

I’ll invoke digital pioneer Stewart Brand once again

Software is an extension of the nervous system.

Buyer beware.

If our machines are there to help us think, the last thing you want is everyone thinking in the same way, with the same tools. You just end up scaling flaws and narrow thinking and myopia along with all the efficiencies of scale.

You need standards and interoperability and APIs and all that. But too many apps? That’s just complexity-denial, wishing away diversity for the sake of a neat-looking IT infrastructure.

More people using more apps, that sounds like a company where digital transformation is really taking hold. A plurality of software, not a mechanised monoculture.

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Images credit – Quickmeme / Amadeus

R/GA’s disruptive trends

Most predictions and trends articles are glib headline-grabbers that cue clueless nodding, but no real grasp of what they mean (variations of “digital is over” or “Snapchat is the new Facebook”) or shallow and obvious (“wearables will be big” or “mobile is getting bigger”) – but Bob Greenberg of R/GA gets down to disruptive trends and what they will mean for the agency business in an piece for Campaign Brief Asia.

Here’s my re-mix/commentary on the five trends he mentions.

Clients will change their businesses to be less reliant on advertising. This is the crumbling of the pack ice beneath the feet of the old-model advertising. The more customer and innovation focused you are, the less important advertising becomes. The more you have in-house teams and tech for media buying, or put them under the supervision of editors, the less you need an ad agency.

Wearables (and other devices) have engagement built in… This is a much more useful train of thought than “how do I build me some wearables” (successor to the “how doI build me some apps/websites/microsites” impulses of old. What will be possible – not in the sense of Groupon tattoos that vibrate when there’s a two-for-one offer on in a nearby shop – in terms of how you engage with the customer.

Ember

Greenberg uses the example of R/GA client Nike’s Fuelband. I don’t have one, but I do sport a Jawbone Up and I can say that I check in and engage with that brand at least a few times a day as I log calories and check on progress. Up have earned (see below) my attention by being useful again and again. It’s an excellent app.

A much more expensive, advanced and yet less connected device – my DSLR camera – might get used a lot, but I never interact with that brand other than to subject myself to ten minutes painful form-filling to try and get the cash-back I was promised at point of sale. (The sales promotion is actually damaging my perception of the brand, feeling as I do now, a little bit conned.)

Similarly awful is the Blu-Ray Disc player and indeed disc, which every time I try to access services online with (say downloading the movie I have paid for as part of a triple-play offer disc from the company). I resent each poorly designed stage of the experience and each grubby grab for my personal data that is requested for the thing I have already paid for.

Both of the latter brands – Sony and Nikon, since you ask – appear to see digital, online, as a bit of promotion on top of their product. Jawbone and Nike see the digital experience as part of their product and an opportunity to bond with their customer.

Agencies will get into the transformation business. Yep. “Transformative digital” is one of the three key elements of our strategy – the others being “customer first” and “earn advocacy”. If you put the customer first and commit to earning their advocacy in your marketing and your business, the result is transformative.

Big data = earned data. Earned data is a lovely thought – you earn the right to gather customer data, both by implicitly by earning their attention and engagement and – esepcially as people begin to control more of their personal data – explicitly by asking for their trust both in your organisation and that giving you data will give them some value in return. Brilliant Noise’s second strategic pillar is “earn advocacy”.

Sustainability is growth. At Brilliant Noise we talk about long-term value as the focus for our work with clients. Sustainability isn’t something we have talked about in this context, but at a strategic and practical level, it needs to be part of the conversation. In fact, if it absent we aren’t really talking long-term at all.

Greenberg mentions the rejection of non-sustainable brands by millennial consumers. I’m not sure this is true, however much we wish it to be the case. Sustainability needs business leadership as much as it does consumer pressure on governments and corporations.