I rather liked this approach to doing a To-Do list from Peter Bregman, taken from this write up (found via Fraggl) of his 18 Minute plan to managing your day and finding focus. What I particularly like about it is the more comprehensive way in which it is inclusive of elements that sit outside of work tasks. It's easy (particularly when running your own business I find) for the time for these non-work related tasks to get squeezed, and this is a good way of allocating them at least equal prominence and so being more disciplined about making them happen. It's a point made well by Paul Graham in this short post about changing the defaults in life to make sure you don't forget about the really important stuff.
I'm really excited to announce that, on the heels of our events in New York and our recent one in Austin at SXSW, Google Firestarters is coming to Australia. We'll be running two events in one week - one in Melbourne on the 21st April, and one in Sydney on the 22nd April - both on the theme of 'Adapting Strategy for the Adaptive Age'. We want to delve into how strategy and planning is changing in response to the impact of digital technologies on the practice of marketing and advertising.
It's a broad subject, that will no doubt touch on themes that have arisen at previous Firestarters - the intersection of technologically-native practices like user experience, service and product design with planning, impact on agency remuneration and the way agencies work with clients, iterative strategy, and how agencies innovate. But it's also a defined enough topic for us to have some wide-ranging but cohesive debate and it will be fascinating to gain a new and potentially different perspective.
As always with Firestarters we have some excellent speakers. Google's Head of Strategic Planning out of New York, Abigail Posner, will be in Australia and on the roster for both events. And I will be there to moderate both events. Our full line up is:
Melbourne 21stApril, 6pm, Clemenger Auditorium:
Dave King, Director of Strategy at The Royals
Eaon Pritchard, Head of Strategy, Red Jelly
Roger Box, Director of Digital, Clemenger BBDO
Abigail Posner, Google
Sydney 22nd April, 6pm, Google HQ:
Simon Small, Exec Strategy Director, Isobar Australia
Sudeep Gohil, CEO, Droga 5
Jason Lonsdale, Exec Planning Director, Saatchi & Saatchi
Abigail Posner, Google
As always with Firestarters, I have some guest passes to give away to readers of this blog, so if you'd like one, please leave a comment below or contact me direct (stating whether you'd like the Sydney or Melbourne event).
I'm so pleased that Firestarters is coming to Australia and expanding globally in the way that it is. It's a hugely exciting and positive thing.
"The first natural advantage of good strategy arises because other organisations often don't have one. And because they don't expect you to have one either. A good strategy has coherence, coordinating actions, policies and resources so as to accomplish an important end. Many organisations, most of the time, don't have this. Instead, they have multiple goals and initiatives that symbolise progress but no coherent approach to accomplishing that progress, other than 'spend more and try harder'."
"The very essence of strategy is explicit, purposeful choice. Strategy is saying explicitly, proactively: 'We're going to do these things and not those things for these reasons.' The problem with a lot of strategies is that they are full of non-choices. Probably most of us have read more than a few so-called strategies that say something like, "Our strategy is to be customer centric." But is that really a choice?"
Martin goes on to say that you only really know that you've made a real strategic choice if you can 'say the opposite of what that choice is, and it's not stupid'. And how, in a similar vein to the first quote, developing strategy so often becomes 'an exercise in agglomerating initiatives, assigning responsibilities without a coherent set of choices that help bind them', meaning that most strategic plans are more accurately described as 'budgets with prose'.
Monday saw the interested and interesting of UK planning come together for our 15th Google Firestarters event. Our sole speaker on the evening was planning legend Paul Feldwick, who talked about his controversial new book The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising. Paul spent 30 years as an Account Planner at BMP and DDB Worldwide so knows a thing or two about planning and advertising and it was this quote from the book that set the context for the debate:
'Our ability to decide clearly where we want to go in the future, I now believe, depends first of all on our understanding of where we and our predecessors have already been.'
A number of Firestarters events have been quite forward-facing in outlook, so it's no bad thing that on this occasion we were thinking about the relevance of what we (should) have already learned about how advertising works. Yet it can seem on occasion that this historical context is too often ignored.
Paul began by talking about the three main kinds of story that the ad industry tells itself about its own past:
- The enlightenment narrative: 'The past was primitive, but now we are enlightened'
- The golden age narrative: 'The best years of the advertising industry were in the past'
- The year zero narrative: 'The world has changed and the old rules no longer apply'
The enlightenment narrative has been popular because it makes things appear simpler than they are, but today's 'enlightenment' language is set to become tomorrow's obsolete 'mumbo-jumbo', and to a large extent this has now been replaced by the year zero talk which acknowledges more the impact of external forces for change. The golden age narrative, says Paul, is fundamentally unhelpful and disempowering, functioning so that ad people can demonstrate to themselves that they have excellent taste and know what they'd like to be producing for their clients whilst acknowledging that they're not, and putting the blame for that elsewhere. The external forces that are behind the year zero narrative are typically seen to be the changing nature of the consumer, and technological change. Paul's point about this prevalent view is that there are many aspects of consumer behaviour that actually haven't changed, and that we will only be able to respond adequately to the continuing rapid pace of change if we understand the basic principles of how people are influenced by publicity.
Paul went on to describe how the concepts that we take to be self-evident now, and the language that we commonly use (including words like impact, recall, proposition, attention, reason why, messaging) which support and reinforce these narratives are rooted in a historical context that may come with associated baggage from a particular world view. He categorised six main ways of understanding advertising theory - advertising as:
Salesman - theories that coalesce around themes of rational persuasion
Seduction - in many ways a parallel to advertising as salesman, but less about the rational and more about the power of emotional connection, the subconscious mind, imagery
Salience - generating fame for a product or brand
Social connections - advertising as a means of creating or maintaining relationships
Spin - advertising theories more akin to the world of PR
Showmanship - or showbiz
The ebb and flow of these theories has characterised advertising practice, and its historical context, but there is no right way, no singular view on the world that should win out. Instead:
“It’s only when we realise that none of these theories, models or metaphors represents absolute truth, but is one of many ‘ways of seeing’, that we can make use of any of them as a source of inspiration rather than be confined by it.”
And it is in that ability to understand advertising theory through metaphor, and hold and apply multiple metaphors in our minds at once, that we might be free to create the best work for our clients. Paul's talk was at one and the same time astute, controversial, informed and insightful. The subjects touched on by the questions and debate that followed ranged from the power balance between functions in agencies (who may be more aligned to certain theories about how advertising works) to the briefing process and the separation between planning and creative. Which all made for a great event.
So my thanks to Google for hosting, to Paul for such great provocation, and all those that came. There's a Storify of the conversation around the event which is worth taking a look at, and as always we had the brilliant Sciberia who did a great visualisation of the talk which you can see in all its glory here. The next Google Firestarters will be in June so if you'd like to ensure you get notified of when registration opens you can sign up for my newsletter for news of that.
Saturday saw our first ever Firestarters event in Austin, held in the Google Fiber space during SXSWi. We'd themed the event around the intersection of user experience design and strategy which, judging from the audience feedback and debate on the night is rich territory for discussion right now. Perhaps unsurprising given the growth in importance of UX within both clients and agencies, and more generally how tech-savvy design resourcing, expertise and practice is in ever increasing demand (as encapsulated nicely by John Maeda's Design in Tech Report that was launched at SXSW).
Our first speaker was the brilliant Oonie Chase, Director of Experience at Wieden & Kennedy, who talked about how UX was influencing briefs in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways at W & K, but also how the two disciplines will likely start start from a different place - planning from the lens of the brand, UX from the customer perspective, and what they can teach each other. She used a quote by Dave Terry at W & K ("It's entirely wrong, but it's golden in its wrongness.") about UX:
User Experience practice challenges the idea that you need scale immediately - you might start small to acquire learnings, whilst advertising has a ‘need for glory’. UX is something that is co-created over time so not necessarily perfect. It doesn't worship creative and 'doneness' in the same way as planners do. But whilst UX can be overly focused on getting from A to B, planning can teach UX about not losing sight of the ‘soul’ and emotion of what you do. Rather than aiming for a Minimum Viable Product, perhaps it's more about achieving a 'Minimum Lovable Product'.
Chloe Gottlieb, SVP Exec Creative Director, R/GA, complimented that nicely by focusing on where planning and UX (or rather Experience Design, which is the term they prefer at R/GA) overlap. Great planners, said Chloe, are inherently creative and great Experience Designers are inherently strategic, but it's how they work together (as opposed to working in parallel) inside the agency that is becoming increasingly important. Both planners and experience designers are pattern seekers, consumed by consumers, and obsessed with culture and behaviour, but:
"While UX folk might veer more toward architecture, engineering and design - closely observing customer needs and how to add value to them over time - planners are more like poets, anthropologists, psychicians – finding tensions in culture and bringing them to light."
UX insights might lead to products, services and platforms (systems), planning insights lead to brand stories, content, comms. R/GA's own progression has amplified the overlap, growing into making more branded interactions and systems for campaigns, becoming more strategic (e.g. thinking about functionally integrated services that tied products and services together), just as planning comes from brand and storytelling towards having to create strategies that could lead to products, services or communications, and is evolving to find ways to stay involved as work is made, tested, evolved over time.
So it is far from binary, there is plenty of overlap, and planning and UX need each other more than ever. The intersection is where the magic happens, particularly now that most brands are primarily experienced through interfaces (in fact 'Brand is Interface'), product and message are integrated more than ever, and experiences are not separated into silos. Strategy becomes 'truth over time', requiring more system thinking, experimentation, tweaking, QA than ever before. At R/GA, getting to insights involves multidisciplinary teams working together on the problem, looking for patterns and collisions, and briefs are the crystallisation after the ideas are baked. The way they know they have a great insight is when it enables creatives to take giant leaps.
Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, added a third unique perspective. Moving to a tech company from an agency background, said Ian, meant coming to a place where big ideas are not as important as big releases, where impact is more important than inspiration, and from an environment run on creative disciplines, to one dominated by engineering. His tool set and collaborators have also changed (he counts algorithms amongst his new set of collaborators). Planners dig for insights, and uncover or manufacture a truth, and creatives make fictions (through stories and designs). So the flow of the process is that from an insight you get a big idea, and from that big idea you tell or make a story, and in software especially you create an experience for the customer. But in software the distance between creating a story and creating an experience can be a long and winding road. But increasingly both marketing and product now focus on the essentials of the experience they are trying to create at the end. This may be in a story like form, but stories illustrate a promise, and all promises are lies until we keep them. So 'planners tell awesome lies', lies we can believe in.
And whilst software companies understand their customer’s behaviour, they rarely understand their customer.
Russell Davies (Creative Director, UK Government Digital Service) built on his Firestarters UK talk by focusing in on how usability increasingly trumps persuasion. In a pleasingly controversial talk, he talked about how the product is the service is the marketing, and why this meant that experience design was the future. A brilliant product will always be better than a parity product with marketing. It was once hard to produce brilliant products, but as everything becomes increasingly digitised it's easier than ever. So companies that are still set up around persuasion need to design around the needs of the user, and be set up to deliver the best experience possible. This means no new ideas until everything works ('fix the basics'). And that user experience is killing marketing since if the product is good enough there is no need to over sell it. And about how everyone should be concerned about making user experience better.
The questions and debate afterwards picked up on just how topical a subject this is right now for strategists and agencies, and we had no lack of interesting (and sometimes controversial) opinion on the night. You can see a Storify of some of the feedback and conversation here.
My thanks as always to Ben Malbon and Google for hosting, to our amazing speakers who made our first Google Firestarters in Austin such a success.