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On Company Values

I'm not really a fan of mission statements. Rather than being an exercise in inspiration, looking at an aggregated list of the mission statements of the Fortune 500 companies makes you realise how vague and riddled with corporate-speak many of them are. Mission statements are all too often just that - a statement of intent that is not really brought to life through the culture and daily interactions of the business. 

That said, I think it's very important for companies to have defined values that inform their culture, vision, hiring choices and just about everything they do. As Fred Wilson once said:

"Companies are not people. But they are comprised of people. And the people side of the business is harder and way more complicated than building a product is. You have to start with culture, values, and a committment to creating a fantastic workplace. You can't fake these things. They have to come from the top. They are not bullshit. They are everything. There will be things that happen in the course of building a business that will challenge the belief in the leadership and the future of the company. If everyone is a mercenary and there is no shared culture and values, the team will blow apart. But if there is a meaningful culture that the entire team buys into, the team will stick together, double down, and get through those challenging situations."

Some of these articluations of company culture can be very powerful (like the note that greets Apple employees on their first day). In a separate post, Fred mentions the nine things that Twilio (the web and mobile apps telephony business which is a portfolio company of Union Square) have set out as their values (click to enlarge).


One of my favourites, though, is Biz Stone's set of seven assumptions that he says all Twitter employees are asked to pay attention to and embrace. Despite the fact that we know making assumptions isn’t ideal, he says, we do it anyway so if you’re going to make them, make it these:

  1. We don't always know what's going to happen. And that’s OK.
  2. Leave space for the unknown.
  3. There’s a creative answer to every problem.
  4. There are more smart people outside your company than there are inside. Use them.
  5. We will win if we always do the right thing for our users.
  6. The only deal worth doing is a win-win deal.
  7. Your co-workers are smart, and they have good intentions.


Image courtesy

Organised Complexity

Blue brain project 1
This is an image from the Blue Brain project, showing a network of 30 million connections between the 10,000 neurons that make up just one neocortical column. Our brains contain around ten million times this many neurons in total. Manuel Lima (a senior UX design lead at Microsoft Bing) uses this as illustration in this wonderful RSA lecture in which he explores the idea of network visualisation as a way of navigating the complexity of our modern world. The RSA have done another lovely Animate film of it below which is worth watching.

One of the ideas that I found most fascinating is how the structures we use for classifying knowledge and mapping our increasingly complex world are shifting away from hierarchical 'tree-like' representations that reflect our desire for control, symmetry, simplicity and balance, towards potentially far more accurate and convincing network representations. Networks are, and perhaps always have been, a fundamentally better way of understanding the 'organised complexity' of the ecosystems which surround us and of which we are a part. Fascinating.

Image courtesy

Distributed And Destination Thinking


When I talk to clients about getting into a 'digital mindset' I often end up talking about the differences between distributed and destination thinking. Destination thinking is the kind of media approaches that have been with us for many years. We create content, attract (or 'drive') users to that content in order to keep them there for as long as possible, serve advertising at them, or make money from them in some other way. The defining characteristic of destination thinking is that the user has to be on one of our properties in order for us to be able to monetise that relationship. So, to take the example of a traditional media owner, whilst The Daily Telegraph may have multiple channels through which it is delivering its digital content (apps, website, podcasts for example) those channels are still largely owned media assets that requires the user to be in situ.

Distributed thinking on the other hand takes the approach that the relationship might be monetised in many different places, not necessarily your own. Google's Ad Sense network is a great example of classic distributed thinking. Rather than the users just coming to the Google domain, millions of sites around the world have embedded small boxes on their site that use Google algorithms to serve contextually relevant text link advertising against editorial. The relationship is revenue share, so whilst the publisher is deriving additional benefit against the energy and resource they have invested in creating that content, Google are also successfully monetising access, context and relevance. Similarly, we don't need to go to Google to use Google search since it also powers the search functionality on millions of sites around the web.

Distributed thinking can lead to some powerful advantages. The embed functionality on YouTube videos for example, enables the platform to monetise the video content it hosts wherever it is consumed (and that's a lot of places). One of the big paybacks is, of-course, data. Twitter uses data collected from the integration of millions of Twitter follow buttons to recognise patterns in site and content visits that can be used to recommend other accounts to follow. Facebook log-ins and functionality are embedded in countless sites across the web and the Like button positioned against billions of pieces of content, giving Facebook access to a huge wealth of contextual data which it might reapply in multiple ways. Having established this kind of distributed presence, imagine what kind of three dimensional data might be possible if all those Like buttons could spin off other actions and descriptors (such as 'Want', 'Buy', 'Watch', 'Listen to', 'Read'). This might be one way in which Facebook could create a whole new scale and type of intentional marketing of the kind Noah talks about.

Distributed models are often difficult for businesses long based on legacy destination thinking to get their heads around since they start from a completely different place. Whilst the growth in importance of distributed thinking does not mean that destination has no place (that would simply be an example of lazy-endism), I think we'll increasingly see examples of the smart combination of both types of thinking applied to all kinds of marketing and content models.

Let me give you an example. ASOS Marketplace was created a couple of years ago by one of the smartest digital retailers on the web as a platform to facilitate ASOS customers (and new young designers) selling their own clothing to other ASOS customers. I suspect that most retailers would have run a mile before contemplating allowing their customers to buy from each other on their site, perhaps instead of buying from them. ASOS on the other hand, recognise that Marketplace creates a compelling, sticky piece of content that gives users a reason to come back to site again and again, generating plenty of opportunity for them to also shop from new stock. But there's another, very real benefit for ASOS. Whilst much of the action happens back on the ASOS site, Marketplace also provides a platform for a community whose distributed presence reaches out into many areas of the web. ASOS marketplace is interesting as a solution for a number of reasons - not least because it was created by an agency, as a long-term platform (rather than a short-term campaign), and it is very much a business solution, not a marketing solution.

When The Guardian launched their Open Platform, they talked about how it was designed to allow people to re-use Guardian content and data for free and weave it "into the fabric of the internet". It's a description I have a lot of time for, but it is the possibilities created when both types of thinking are combined that is so exciting. Or to put it another way, and to borrow another phrase I have a lot of time for, it's about "focused creation, ubiquitous distribution".

The Rise Of Product Management


The function and role of Product Management is increasingly becoming a really pivotal one in many digitally facing organisations. Having been aware of it's increasing popularity amongst media owner organisations, the growing importance of Product Management into a much broader spectrum of businesses and sectors became clear when I was researching organisational structures and resourcing for Digital Marketing on behalf of the smart folk at Econsultancy late last year. From the subsequent project on The Progression Of Agency Value that I also did for Econsultancy earlier this year, it's clear that there is also some fascinating take-outs here for agencies.

One of the interviewees for that initial research was Digital and Product Strategist Nic Newman. Nic has been focused on this growing discipline for a number of years - he was one of the founding members of the BBC News website and went on to develop a number of multiplatform products across BBC journalism. He now consults and is a visting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. He wrote a seminal paper on the subject called The State of Product Management(PDF) for the BBC Academy which you can download, as well as a couple of other great papers on Journalism In The Age Of Social Discovery, and Social Media In The Changing Ecology Of News.

Our paths have crossed a few times, and each time I'm rather fascinated by his views on the rise of Product Management. So I asked Nic if he would answer a few questions on the subject for the readers of this blog:

NP: What is a good pithy description for the role of a Product Manager?

NN: A product manager in the digital space is someone who really owns the whole process of creating and executing products that audiences love. That means everything from the product strategy and vision to the detailed delivery and the ongoing running of that product or service. That ongoing part is crucial – and it is what makes them different from project managers who flit from task to task.

The BBC often talks about a product manager as like a conductor of an orchestra in that they bring everything together; they co-ordinate and inspire; they embody success or failure. I think a football manager is another good analogy. Ultimately they are responsible for results – but there are some difficult characters in the boardroom and on the pitch who need to be managed. They need to be across the big strategic picture but also be across detailed tactics on the training ground – as well as the views of the fans. Ultimately they need to get the best out of the very different skills sets that make up the team. 

NP: Why is this role becoming so much more prevalent/important/pivotal?

NN: Everywhere you look the internet has created new competition and threatened long standing traditional businesses. Barriers to entry are falling, audiences can move to a competitor with a click of a mouse. In many cases having great content is no longer enough – it needs to be combined with great experience.

Creating those experiences requires having an understanding of technology, design and content and so you need people who understand all three. Steve Jobs talked about the magic that happens when the creative people and the technologists come together, but he also recognised that it’s very hard to do. That’s why Apple along with many of the other most successful companies in the technology an internet space employ product managers and give them a significant amount of power and control.

NP: What kind of people make good Product Managers? Are they hard to find?

NN: Both IBM and Ideo talk about T Shaped people – those who have may have a detailed understanding of one area but who know enough about the whole picture to be able to collaborate horizontally across disciplines. They’ll normally have a good understanding of technology, design and business needs but typically they’ll also have great communication skills, the ability to translate and synthesise. A great product manager sets the vision for what needs to be built but lets the discipline specialists use their creativity to contribute to that bigger whole.

And yes – given that job specification, it’s a tough ask. Developers can do it, but often don’t have the wider business vision. Marketers, editorial people or strategy people can be great product managers but often don’t have enough understanding to the complexities and discipline required to deliver great products. There are more and more good product managers in the media sector – but a real gap of people at a senior level who can confidently articulate product strategies in the boardroom.

NP: This seems to have been a role that has grown from within media organisations. Do you think it has relevance across a broader spectrum of businesses/sectors?

NN: It’s come from the technology companies more than the media sector – but media companies are increasingly adopting a product led approach because it makes sense as they move to a more complex multiplatform world with multiple touchpoints. They need people with more focus on the audience and the technology.

Most companies and sectors will recognise the need to work more horizontally and the growing importance of digital services and products in what they deliver. They have probably created these kind of hybrid cross-cutting roles themselves –but maybe called the job something different and not given it enough power in the organisation.

NP: What are the potential implications for marketers and ad planners?

NN: Brands are increasingly thinking and behaving like media companies. They need to run products and services and channels – either on their own or working with agencies. Content marketing is going to grow in importance and that’s all about the deployment of these skills in a digital space. It is also about that long-term ongoing commitment to a domain to an audience and to a product – not a one off campaign. Product strategy is going to be a much more important part of marketing success. 

Finally, product marketing and communication is a closely related discipline – and in the media industry the interfaces with the digital product manager are critical.

My thanks to Nic for taking the time to answer these questions.

Image credit: I took this photo on my recent trip to Kiev and if my very rusty O-level Russian is to be believed, it says 'products'

Aggregating, And Being Aggregated




I've been playing around with the Tomahawk Music Player. Tomahawk is described by Word Magazine (which is where I first saw mention of it) as a "high-precision one-stop desktop app for millions of tracks from every last corner of the web". It's a pretty good description. Tomahawk runs many sources of music side-by-side, so you can plug it into your Spotify subscription and your iTunes library, but it will also crawl the web to find music wherever it exists (including Soundcloud, YouTube, Grooveshark and many more) and enable you to play it seamlessly regardless of source.

It's been developed by the open source community (people like Richard Jones, who years ago worked on the scrobbling capability that was pioneered on LastFM, have been involved). The smart thing about the service is that since it doesn't host any of the music it plays, it doesn't have to deal with any of the licensing issues that the places it is streaming from do. And it also has some rather neat functionality that enables you to create playlists based on any number of criteria including familiarity, mood, danceability, duration, tempo, and even a measure of the online buzz about an artist or track.

I've been using it a lot, and doing so reminded me of using publishing aggregators such as Zite, Flipboard,, Pocket and Instapaper and the way in which they enable access to a broad range of content without requiring you to visit the source of the content (with Pocket and Instapaper you need to be on the content to initially bookmark it of-course), frequent the publication websites or download their apps.

A couple of weeks ago, the Editor-In-Chief and Publisher of Technology Review wrote a searing piece declaring that (in stark contrast to Chris Anderson's rather silly The Web Is Dead piece from a couple of years ago) the future of publishing and media doesn't lay with applications but with the web. Christopher Mims, a Technology Review staffer, balanced this with an exposition that was slightly antithetical to that set out by his boss, arguing that instead of consuming via walled-garden publishing apps, we're increasingly consuming content through aggregators like those above.

Whilst we may not quite be at the point where aggregators are replacing newspaper and magazine apps, my own experience is that aggregators offer an enhanced user experience due precisely to the fact that they can aggregate content from multiple sources, and also offer unique functionality that curates the most shared stories from my social networks and positions those alongside my Instagram and Google reader feed creating a far more personalised experience. As the Mims' piece points out, aggregators typically offer an excellent reading experience where advertisements are stripped from the content we consume.

Layers of aggregation are another example of just how difficult it is these days to keep any kind of control over access to your content. The lack of monetisation for content accessed via these apps is an issue, but aggregation of content through different means is simply not going to go away anytime soon. So I'm left feeling that the longterm future is more likely to be about embracing it, and exploring ways to make it work better as a business model for both aggregators and publishers.