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October 2012
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December 2012

Project Wild Thing

I'm lucky enough to live with some of England's loveliest countryside on my doorstep and my children get out in it every week. But not every child is so fortunate. The distance children roam away from home has shrunk by 90% in 30 years, and according to Natural England, less than 10% of children get to play in wild places, compared with 40% a generation ago. 

So what will happen if we raise a generation of children completely out of touch with nature? That's the question asked by Project Wild Thing - a movement, and now an excellent feature length documentary project currently up on Kickstarter in which filmmaker David Bond seeks to explore the relationship that children today have with nature. It's supported by a range of worthy organisations including the National Trust, the RSPB, and the good folk at Good For Nothing. I think it's a really worthwhile project and so I've pledged my support, but it will only be funded if at least £30,000 is pledged by Thursday Dec 6 and at time of writing they were 70% of the way there. You can check out the trailer for the project below, and pledge your support here

Facebook - Challenge and Opportunity

Post IPO the pressure has clearly been on Facebook to develop new ad models, crack mobile and drive their average revenue per user but I'll say now that I don't think this kind of monetisation is going to be their greatest challenge. There seems to be some momentum behind the development of new ad products and research to prove value, and at last they seem to be thinking differently about how to apply all that data they have on their users including models built on both destination and distributed thinking - integrating Facebook data with third party data to improve the sophistication of targeting not just on Facebook, but out there on the web.

The launch of Facebook Exchange for example - the real-time bidding system that enables users who have been tagged on a third party sites to be re-targeted on Facebook and shown ads that are related to their web-browsing. With the amount of display inventory that Facebook has (a recent comScore study suggested that Facebook could represent more than 25% of display inventory on the web) this is no small opportunity to extend re-targeting strategies into a new area that was previously off-limits.

Similarly, the new Custom Audiences product allows advertisers to plug-in data they already hold on customers (email addresses, mobile numbers, Facebook UIDs) into Facebook in order to re-target them with specific messaging whilst they are on Facebook. The capability to re-target a list of people from a pre-segmented database with context-specific ads is really interesting, and early indications seem to be that it leads to higher conversions at lower cost. 

On mobile, where they have had a lot of negative press, newer 'native' ad formats are proving more effective and contributing towards a not insignificant 14% of their revenues now coming from mobile. 600 million active users on mobile (a number which continues to grow rapidly) and higher levels of engagement than desktop (Sheryl Sandberg said recently that the average mobile user is 20% more likely to come back on a given day) gives them plenty of opportunity to test and learn and a great foundation from which to rapidly scale the right model/s.

So many of their recently launched ad products play nicely into the some of the areas of digital advertising that are showing healthy growth: native advertising formats, re-targeting, and the real-time, programmatic trading of inventory. And efforts are being made to prove where the real value in advertising on Facebook may lie. Their partnership with Datalogix is enabling them to create accountability-driven tools that help establish value beyond the click, better illustrate the relationship between reach and revenue, help advertisers to understand optimum frequency (all very TV-like). Meanwhile tagging technologies are helping establish a more direct data-driven link between ad exposure (as opposed to simply ad-clicks) on Facebook and conversion.

Back in July Business Insider posted a visual drawn by a 'source plugged into the ad tech industry' which, in their usual excitable manner, they described as 'Facebook's next $10Billion business'.


The visual described an area of opportunity that I've long thought had potential: using Facebook data to target advertising on third party sites. Well now it seems that they might be about to do just that, via an ad network that extends beyond their walled garden. This is interesting because it takes a truly distributed approach in the application of their unparalleled mine of user data beyond Facebook itself. In this model, and like Google Ad Sense, you don't need users to come to your domain in order to monetise the relationship you have with them.

Which brings me to what I think is their greatest challenge. In order to pave the way for the kind of ad exhange described above, Facebook have made yet more changes to their privacy policy to ensure they can use the information they hold about you to display ads to you elsewhere on the web. Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan is quoted as saying: “Everything you do and say on Facebook can be used to serve you ads...our policy says that we can advertise services to you off of Facebook based on data we have on Facebook.”. No confusion there.

I'm not going to bang on about privacy here - Facebook have always pushed the boundaries in this respect and often taken a three-steps-forward, one-step-back approach to settings, defaults, and use of user data. But the point is that this is always a balance, and a really tricky one at that.

In August, Danah Boyd talked about how Facebook was becoming the 'teenage version of email', saying:

“What’s so interesting about Facebook is that it’s not interesting to [teens]. That’s a big challenge for Facebook -- not because people won’t use it, but when they’re not passionate about it, you see a very different kind of user behavior than when someone is passionate about a service.”

The piece suggests that the sheer scale, size and ubiquity of Facebook is acting against it, with teens feeling somewhat overwhelmed by large friend groups, using Facebook for the more utilitarian type of conversation, and increasingly reserving the best content sharing for other networks including Tumblr and Twitter. The lack of asymmetric follow (such as that which characterises Twitter, Instagram and even email) can't help with this.

Facebook 1 

Whilst the article quotes Comscore data suggesting that other social sites are chipping away at Facebook's dominance with this audience, I'm not about to suggest that Facebook is in trouble. It remains far and away the most popular social network amongst teens, and people stay where their friends are so the network's ubiquity also creates its own kind of inertia. But these things are always a trade off and we've seen examples before of rapid declines in usage on particular platforms from this audience (MySpace, Bebo). So as Facebook push the usage of ever more powerful targeting tools that require deeper and more visible use of user data, there has to be a risk that they get this balance wrong. And losing the interest of this kind of early adopter audience cannot be a good thing. 

Earlier this year the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) found that Facebook had the lowest customer satisfaction rating of just about any social network. So as it reaches peak audience in more mature markets could their greatest challenge be how to avoid becoming uncool?

Why Do So Few Publishers Have APIs?

The Programmable Web Directory has just recorded its 8000th API. This is just over a year after it passed 4000, and three months after it passed 7000, recorded APIs. The list is still dominated by digitally 'native' organisations and startups but there is an ever increasing list of more 'traditional' institutions and companies who are recognising the value in opening up their data (as I noted when I last wrote about the subject). 

Back in January, the Directory wrote about news publisher APIs, noting at the time that there were only four - The Guardian, New York Times, USA Today, and NPR (excluding Associated Press and Reuters as they are not classic publishers). They also noted at the time that progress in creating APIs from this sector had been slow. Since then, there looks to have been two additional news publisher APIs - one from the Washington Post for a political speaker database, and one from German newspaper Zeit Online. Yet it remains a very small proportion of global news publishers and progress remains decidedly slow. The only magazine publisher that I could find with an API was Nature.

This surprises me for a few reasons. It means that publishers are unconvinced by the benefits of opening up their data, despite the fact that a growing list of companies from a broad range of sectors disagree. As the post points out, embracing the open web makes sense since enterprises rarely move as quickly as the rest of the web, and the tradeoff between adding an external dependency is out-shined by the ability to move faster by building upon external expertise. The reality of APIs is that they exponentially increase the amount of potential resource you can allocate towards creating new value out of the raw material of innovation within your business. APIs are great in helping develop a digitally focused culture, maintaining good developer relations, and as a platform for good distributed and destination thinking. And publishers are not short on a need for digital talent, continuous innovation, and great digital ideas. 

So why so little experimentation? The Programmable Web post references a quote from Tim Carson (Manager Digital Platforms, USA TODAY) who said that they had to spend a lot of time briefing Executives before their API could be launched, hinting at the caution that may still govern the consideration of such initiatives at senior levels. Yet, even if we consider the open content API pioneered by The Guardian as anomalous in its expansiveness, there must surely be room for some test and learn with smaller segments of content or data, or individual brands within wider portfolios. So why so little experiementation?

Google Firestarters 7: Remix Culture - The Event

Everything is a remix

"Remixing is not scary, or depressing. It is empowering" 

The Firestarters events that I curate for Google are all about inspiration, challenging thinking and provocation and for our latest event on Remix Culture we had that in spades in the form of an excellent talk by writer and film producer Kirby Ferguson. Kirby is the creator of the brilliant Everything Is A Remix series of short films that explore in some depth the theory that nothing is original, and that even our most celebrated creators borrow, steal and transform in order to create the new.

The Firestarters talk built on this premis, with Kirby giving a whistle stop tour through culture with examples of referencing and recombination from music, art, writing, and product innovation. If you weren't at the event, you can get a flavour of what he talked about from his 'Embrace The Remix' TED talk (which has been described by fellow Firestarters speaker Cory Doctorow as "an amazing, must-see talk about the way that creativity comes about as the result of creative re-use of others' work").

Kirby talked about how the fundamental tenets of copy, transform and combine are not simply the ingredients of remixing, but the basic elements of all creativity. To illustrate this he started with music and some fascinating cases in point ranging from folk (Woody Guthrie said "the words are the important thing. Don't worry about tunes. Take a tune, sing high when they sing low, sing fast when they sing slow, and you've got a new tune") to Led Zeppelin and beyond to the more obvious hip hop sampling and the amazing Danger Mouse whose Grey album mashed up the Beatles White album with Jay-Z's Black album and prompted loads of cease-and-desist letters from lawyers. We also touched on the art of Picasso, and the many derivative influences and references of Star Wars.

Kirby ferguson

The talk moved into product innovation, and how the typewriter (which was originally called the 'literary piano') and QWERTY keyboard came about, the story of Apple, and how Thomas Edison didn't actually invent the light bulb but improved the idea to the point where it was commercially viable after testing thousands of different materials for filaments. Kirby's point was that rather than being individual leaps of invention by lone innovators, these were all tipping points in a long history of innovations by a stream of different people.

Kirby also touched on how the current copyright and patent system runs counter to the idea of recombinations as a powerful source of innovation and the fact that we so often build on the work of others. He quoted Henry Ford, who said: "I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other menbehind whom were centuries of work...progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable". And he gave examples of multiple discovery, of where innovations (including the telephone) were arrived at at the same time by more than one person because all the fundamentals were in place to enable that to happen. His point was that we all put stuff together with the same materials ("creative works may indeed be like property, but it's property we're all building on") but the patent system fundamentally acts against this, particularly now when patents of smaller details within larger innovations (Apple, and the wider technology market being an obvious case in point here) prevent other companies from using them as building blocks and forcing them to invent workarounds.

In the Q & A afterwards, Kirby said something really interesting, which was that "talent is interest". As Mark Carroll says in his excellent write up of the event, enthusiasm can get you so far, but it is being interested enough that creates the real point of difference and lasting value ("one will get you ideas with a shelf life and hopefully somewhat future proof while the other will most likely get you something that’s not even a remix, but just a straight copy"). This, I think, has real resonance for our industry. Remixing has been a fundmental part of human creativity and digital culture. The internet has writ large the possibilities to recombine ideas and content to create the new. APIs and the ever-increasing interconnectivity of tools and services make this more and more seamless. Being interested is perhaps one of the best tools we have for opening up the possibilities to originate better ideas, and plan and build stories. As Kirby says, our creativity comes from without, not from within, and admitting our dependence on one another is not about embracing mediocrity, its a liberation from our misconceptions.

I think it's fair to say, evidenced by the conversation afterwards and the debate on Twitter, that the talk actually started more questions than it answered, which is no bad thing. You can see the commentary and some pictures of the event from those that attended on this Storify (worth a look). And Mark Carroll has even put together an 'everything is a remix' playlist which is pretty cool.

As always, thanks go to our brilliant speaker, and to Google of-course for hosting. Here's to the next one.


Phil Adams has written a thoughtful follow up around the 'Talent is interest' idea over here.

And you can now see the Scriberia visual from the event in all it's glory here.

Images courtesy Glyn and Graeme

Top-Down, Bottom-Up Change

Up down
It's rare that you read something with the searing honesty of this interview with a 'top digital exec' at a big agency. In a way it's a shame that the interviewee remains anonymous but if you read it you'll understand why. It contains a huge dollop of cynicism, but in amongst all that cynicism there are some telling points about the pitfalls of attempting to drive change and the tricky positioning of digital within larger 'traditional' agencies.

Over a year ago, Ben Malbon kicked off a great debate on whether agencies really need 'innovation officers'. It's worth revisiting the great comment thread on the original post, and Ben's subsequent summation of the resultant themes. In that summary Ben made the point that innovation does not equal digital, but captured well some of the opportunities but also challenges that sit around these kinds of roles. I have some sympathy for the in-the-trenches executive trying to push the boundaries and be a change agent in an environment characterised by business-as-usual. Individual roles and even teams may well be catalysts for new ways of working but this says (again) that real change can only come from a combination of top-down and bottom-up. A strong vision, the right organisational structures, priorities, and a serious commitment to cultural change from the very top. This combined with a bottom-up approach focusing on knowledge, skills, rewards, processes, tools and behaviours.

Image courtesy