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February 2012
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April 2012

What Is The Difference Between A Fad And A Trend (redux)?

Thanks to everyone who took the time and trouble to contribute feedback in answer to the question I posed in the previous post. It was brilliant to be able to pass on some wise words from some good thinkers to the graduates at Squared 2012.

After I gave my talk, and before I revealed to them what everyone had said, I ran an open space session to get some debate going and they then spent a short time honing that thinking into some key themes which everyone then voted on. The winning definition from the graduates was: "A trend is a general behaviour over time. A fad is an extreme action related to that behaviour." I then wrapped up by giving them the answers contributed by the readers of this blog, and it was good to see a good degree of similarity. I've compiled the feedback from both into a few slides below - I have paraphrased some answers slightly for the sake of brevity but endeavoured to keep the meaning as intended. Thanks again to all those who participated.

What Is The Difference Between A Fad And A Trend?


A few years back I crowdsourced a presentation - curating a bunch of individual slides contributed by the readers of this blog into a talk about community that I then gave at a conference. It was a wonderfully positive (albeit a little risky) experience.

I've been asked to speak at Squared this week. Squared is a Google-led initiative (full disclosure: Google is a client of mine) in partnership with Hyper Island and the IPA designed to address the talent shortage in digital marketing in our industry (a subject I think is critical). It's described as 'an ambitious and transformative programme' to take graduates at the start of their advertising and media careers through an intensive three-month education designed to accelerate digital capabilities. There's some amazing people involved including Sir John Hegarty and Jeremy Bullmore. Part of it is about education, part is about inspiration, part is about working on real-world projects, and gaining some good experience of 'creative, debate-driven collaboration'. I think its a great initiative (check out some of the tweets from the participants). The programme isn't limited by a fixed structure, and it provides a framework for ongoing support and discussion, as well as an invaluable peer network that will no doubt serve them well as they progress in their careers.

So on Tuesday, I shall be speaking to an audience of 80+ graduates from almost 30 agencies, each with 0-6 months experience in the industry. I shall be talking about content, agility, and the intersection of business, media, and technology. And whilst I'm not planning on crowdsourcing the presentation this time, I do think its a wonderful opportunity to pass on some wisdom from some truly smart people in the industry. 

One of the truly challenging things right now I think is the ability to identify amongst all the noise (and spikes of attention) the trends and shifts that are really important - the ones that mean you need to adapt your strategy - the ones that are really going to change things and make an impact. I think knowledge and skill in this area will be a hugely valuable thing in the years to come, so I'd like to ask for some contributions that I might pass on to the graduates that might help them identify the difference between what's a fad, and what's a real trend to take notice of. To make it pithy, let's try and keep it to less than 140 characters, and I'll aim to capture feedback I get and also include it in the deck on Tuesday.

As a starter, I really like this quote from Henry Jenkins (which was on the slide that Faris contributed to the crowdsourced presentation): "Our focus should not be on emerging technologies but on emerging cultural practices".

You can leave a comment here, or email me, or tweet me your answer before Tuesday PM. So (ideally in 140 characters or less):

How do we tell the difference between a fad and a disruption or trend that really matters?

Contributions/answers greatly appreciated.

Content Curation, Stock and Flow

What is Curation? from Percolate on Vimeo.

A lovely short video here from the guys at Percolate featuring some of their favourite curators (including Swissmiss, Maria Popova, Anthony De Rosa) ruminating on the subject. Says Noah Brier:

"Obviously it’s been a big subject of discussion over the last week, but we think there’s something bigger and more important about curation. It’s a way to create content in a very lightweight way and start to hone a voice and understand what works and what doesn’t. In hearing from these folks you get the real sense that most of them started doing what they do to satisfy their own curiosity. For most of them that curiosity transformed into full-fledged publishing as their simple act of sharing morphed into a hybrid publishing model: Combining third party content with their own original thinking to create something bigger."

It follows hot on the heels of another smart post by Percolate founder James Gross on the stock and flow of content, building on a theme originated by Robin Sloan, and expounded upon before by Noah. James describes 'stock' content as that which is timeless, durable, has a long shelf-life, is more expensive to create and is based on slow moving trends. Channels that lend themselves to publishing original stock content might be owned media assets such as a brand domain, YouTube channel or Instagram. 'Flow' content on the other hand lives in the moment, is inexpensive to produce, and is (to quote Robin Sloan) the "stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist", suited to channels such as Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest that can curate content that lives somewhere else.

Regular readers will know that I am a fan of this view on the world. James goes on to make some interesting points. First about how Tumblr is a channel that facilitates both stock content (own domain, permalinks to house content) and the flow of curating 1st and 3rd party content. And then about the positioning of content beyond reverse chronology and how if Facebook focused on creating value through permalinks it could get interesting.

For me, the big challenge that sits within this is the shift from embedded processes, thinking and resources that are established firmly around campaigning, towards the kind of always-on strategies that capitalise on both stock and flow content, as James describes. This requires different skills, different processes, different approaches. Not least of these is brands getting their heads around the idea of properly curating third party content, and managing the compex relationship between content which potentially has huge longevity, and the kind that exists in continously updated streams.

Revenue As A Lagging Indicator

This post by Paul Graham (Y-Combinator founder) is rich with unique perspective on the really big, 'frighteningly ambitious' startup ideas. I like the way in which he frames them (and they are certainly ambitious) by acknowledging that the biggest ideas are always terrifying, not just because they involve so much work, but because they seem to threaten your very identity ("you wonder if you'd have enough ambition to carry them through"). So whilst any one of those ideas could make you a billionaire, they actually become rather unattractive which means they are effectively invisible to most, and even the most ambitious among us are wise to approach them obliquely. 

This obliquity theme continues later in the post in an intriguing section in which he questions whether a post-Jobs Apple can continue to create new products in the way in which it did under its late founder's leadership. The conclusion is no. None of the existing players on that field, says Graham, are run by product visionaries. Reading the Isaacson biography of Jobs over the past couple of months (I'm a slow reader), I can appreciate why this might be a quality you can't hire ("empirically the way you get a product visionary as CEO is for him to found the company and not get fired. So the company that creates the next wave of hardware is probably going to have to be a startup."). When Apple lost its way in the 80s, it tried to focus on revenues but forgot its essence of creating amazing products. Graham's point is that whilst Apple's revenues may continue to rise for a long time: "as Microsoft shows, revenue is a lagging indicator in the technology business".

I'd argue that in the context of rapidly changing markets and growth in more intangible assets, revenue is a lagging indicator in many different types of businesses. Unfortunately, it often seems to be viewed as a leading one, a behaviour revealing itself in an overly short-sighted focus on short-term financial targets and objectives. 

As far back as the 90s, Norton and Kaplan were talking about the balanced scorecard as a more appropriate approach for a post-industrial information age where exploiting intangible assets has become more important than the ability to manage physical assets. It acknowledges that whilst important, financial measures tell the story of past events and should therefore be supplemented with measured performance from three additional perspectives: customers, internal business processes, and learning and growth.

Balanced scorecard

Operational and management control systems, they say, are often built around financial measures and targets which bear little relation to the company’s progress in achieving long-term strategic objectives. Such non-financial metrics close the gap between the development of a strategy and its implementation, give a more rounded understanding of how the company is really doing, and can predict future financial performance rather than simply report what’s already happened (in Obliquity, John Kay goes as far as saying that we should be wary if a company announces shareholder return as its number one goal since the most profit-orientated companies aren’t usually the most profitable).

Like most things its all about balance. It's easier to focus on lagging indicators. They are more visible and more tangible. Making investment decisions on the basis of leading indicators feels riskier. The short-term return is less obvious (take social media as an example). But people usually get there before businesses do, so an imbalanced focus on lagging indicators at the expense of leading indicators will tell you very little about whether you will acheive your strategic objectives or indeed how you're going to get there. I suspect this is a lesson we will have to learn more than once.

The Power Of Habit


Charles Duhigg from the New York Times wrote a fascinating piece in the Times magazine recently in support of his new book on habit formation (The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business). The piece focused on how the science of habit formation has become a major field of research and focus, fuelling an arms race in the collection of data and the recruitment of analysts, mathematicians and statisticians.

Small wonder when habits potentially govern so much of what we do. Duhigg quotes one study from Duke University that estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape up to 45 percent of the choices we make every day. Hence the concentration by many different types of organisations on the smart collection and re-application of data in order to understand consumer behaviour, how products might become part of existing habit cycles, how to improve targeting or make experiences better, and how to capitalise on the brief periods in our lives (like having a baby or buying a house) when our old routines fall apart and our shopping habits are in a state of flux.

But it was this excerpt concerning the key to radically changing your life that I found particularly enlightening:

'In a 1994 Harvard study that examined people who had radically changed their lives...researchers found that some people had remade their habits after a personal tragedy, such as a divorce or a life-threatening illness. Others changed after they saw a friend go through something awful...

Just as frequently, however, there was no tragedy that preceded people’s transformations. Rather, they changed because they were embedded in social groups that made change easier. One woman said her entire life shifted when she signed up for a psychology class and met a wonderful group. “It opened a Pandora’s box,” the woman told researchers. “I could not tolerate the status quo any longer. I had changed in my core.” Another man said that he found new friends among whom he could practice being gregarious. “When I do make the effort to overcome my shyness, I feel that it is not really me acting, that it’s someone else,” he said. But by practicing with his new group, it stopped feeling like acting. He started to believe he wasn’t shy, and then, eventually, he wasn’t anymore. When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real. For most people who overhaul their lives, there are no seminal moments or life-altering disasters. There are simply communities— sometimes of just one other person— who make change believable. One woman told researchers her life transformed after a day spent cleaning toilets— and after weeks of discussing with the rest of the cleaning crew whether she should leave her husband.

“Change occurs among other people,” one of the psychologists involved in the study, Todd Heatherton, told me. “It seems real when we can see it in other people’s eyes.”'


Image courtesy