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September 2012
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November 2012

Learning by Teaching


There's a bit in Dave Trott's Creative Mischief where he talks about the practice he's adopted over the years of giving classes of students briefs to work on and having them come into the agency in the evenings to present their work to the creative department. As well as being wonderfully useful to the students he says this helps to train the copywriters and art directors:

"...each class is a crash course in running a creative department. Writers and art directors have just a couple of hours to look at up to 20 campaigns. In that time they have to work out what's right or wrong about the research, the strategy, the media choice, the creative idea, the copywriting, and the art direction of each campaign. And they have to be able to explain what to do about it in a clear, simple way. Great training in fast, powerful, clear thinking."

(Even better, Trott's art director Gordon Smith likes to have the campaigns presented one at a time - but he doesn't let the person who did the work present it. He picks someone else from the group. As it's the first time they've seen the work, their ability to explain it is a great test of how clear the idea and thinking are.)

As part of what I do I've been fortunate enough to do a fair bit of workshop-driven work with clients this year. It's taken me round the world and enabled me to meet lots of fascinating people so I count myself very fortunate. If I'm honest though, the thing that has surprised me most about it all has been the amount it has taught me about all kinds of stuff I didn't know before. Teaching, it seems, really is a great way to learn.

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Being Right Means Knowing When You're Not Right Anymore

I've long been a fan of Jeff Bezos's approach toward being stubborn on vision whilst flexible on details, and playing the long game. Amazon are one of the few companies that seem to really live and breathe that.

So it was interesting to read over on the 37Signals blog the advice he gave to them during a talk he did on product strategy. The smartest people, he said, are not only open to new points of view and challenges to their own way of thinking, but they are constantly revising their understanding and reconsidering problems that they thought they'd already solved. Conversely, people who are wrong a lot of the time obsess about details that only support one point of view and are unable to climb out of that to see the bigger picture from multiple angles.

There's something there that doesn't sit well with more traditional approaches of setting a course and a strategy and then not deviating from that pre-defined plan. The tyranny of an annual planning and budgeting cycle is that as soon as circumstances change (as they inevitably will) no-one wants to look like they couldn't see it coming (least of all the most senior leaders) and it becomes attritional to deviate from the original plan. So responses become squeezed into looking like they were part of the original plan anyway, which leads to it being the wrong response. 

It's one thing being confident and stubborn as a leader in your vision for success. It takes a whole different kind of leadership confidence to consider your point of view on how you get there as temporary.

NewsWeek and the Death of Print

"Exiting print is an extremely difficult moment for all of us who love the romance of print and the unique weekly camaraderie of those hectic hours before the close on Friday night. But as we head for the 80th anniversary of Newsweek next year we must sustain the journalism that gives the magazine its purpose—and embrace the all-digital future." Tina Brown
So in the same week that the Telegraph reported that The Guardian was considering ditching print (something I find hard to believe), Newsweek went ahead and announced that after 80 years they really were ditching print editions and moving to a digital-only model. There's already been plenty written about it, most of it either of a somewhat apocalyptic nature about the fortunes of print editions or else decrying Tina Brown's stewardship and her preference for sensationalist cover stories. But I thought David Hepworth's point questioning the sanity of completely ditching your main revenue source (in times still characterised by print dollars and digital cents) in such an abrupt fashion, was a good one.

Having said that, perhaps there is something to be said for the need to make a precipitous change in direction in order to have a sufficiently radical refocus in what you do. Derek Thompson in The Atlantic compared Newsweek's predicament to that of a 747 flying between two affluent and populous metropolises ('Newsweekly Reader City and Advertiser City') that suddenly enter prolonged recession amidst a mass exodus. And in that context the reality of a huge resource overhead needed to produce a global printed news product must bite you every time you look at the monthly P & L.

But as Thompson goes on to say, in creating a paid, subscriber-only product perhaps they have answered the wrong question. Instead of asking 'how do I publish Newsweek without actually publishing Newsweek, they should have asked 'how do I continue to attract great people to do great work in this media company?'. I've already said my piece about magazines and digital. Whilst there can be little doubt that a weekly news and media title can have been at the sharp end of a change that is affecting just about every print title, I can understand the need to transition revenues and use print editions (even in decline) as 'brand anchors' whilst they "learn to fly a smaller plane or hope somebody is willing to subsidize their 747". 

Digital is not going to kill print. But we have entered a period of rapid change without a defined end. As journalist Howard Owens once observed about newspapers, there is no transition, just constant never ending change. And that's the point.

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Is the Internet a Giant Echo Chamber?

Only if you want it to be it seems. Many believe that the web, and particularly social media, makes it uniquely easy to quarantine yourself amongst groups of likeminded people, surround yourself with positive feedback loops and avoid opposing or divergent viewpoints, in a giant echo chamber effect. Eric Barker quotes from Steven Johnson's new book (Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age) which describes an exhaustive study by two University of Chicago business professors which created a comparative 'isolation index' for various media. The internet fell right the middle, being slightly more ideologically isolating than local media (newspapers and cable news channels), but less so than national newspapers. Johnson also says that:

"...perhaps the most striking finding of the study came in its analysis of real-world communities. Neighborhoods, clubs, friends, work colleagues, family — all these groups proved to be deafening echo chambers compared with all forms of modern media. It turns out that people who spend a lot of time on political sites are as much as three times more likely to encounter diverse perspectives than people who hang out with their friends and colleagues at the bar or by the water cooler."


Doing Things Your Own Way

Gurdon school report

I somehow missed this, but it's a wonderful story. When he was fifteen, John Gurdon's Science teacher wrote on his school report:

"...he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous..."

Last week, Prof John Gurdon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, along with Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka, for their work on stem cells. As the Telegraph pointed out, it's like the Munich schoolmaster who in 1895 said of his student “He will never amount to anything”. Who was he talking about? Albert Einstein.

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