Organisational Structures from Scratch


Ashley Freidlein, CEO and Co-Founder of Econsultancy wrote a recent post on the Econsultancy blog as a first take answer to the question: 'With a blank sheet, what organisational structure would you choose for marketing and digital?'. It's an interesting question, and the answer he came up with incorporated a structure that brought improved customer focus to the organisation, and integrated marketing and digital to a far greater extent with other other customer facing and support functions and roles.

I think that there are some big questions around how we design our organisations in response to the ever changing environment in which we find ourselves, and so I built on Ashley's post with a response of my own which you can read here. As you'll hopefully see, asking ourselves what it would look like if we started with a blank sheet leads to some interesting possibilities, but also the question of whether it isn't time to have a more challenging debate about how we structure organisations (particularly functions like marketing, customer experience and digital) for a digitally-empowered world. I'm interested to know what you think.

Distributed and Destination Thinking (Redux)


It's been almost three years since I wrote about the importance of combining distributed and destination thinking into strategies, and quite a bit longer since I first started talking about it. But the concept has become ever more relevant, and I was reminded of it again last week in reading about Facebook's plans for Messenger. It's not hard to see where a strategy that focuses on people being able to send money to each other (and surely soon to companies too), integrating with third party apps, and enabling Messenger to be integrated with online retailers and other businesses as a direct channel for customer service, receipt and shipping notification, is headed. Like many aspects of Facebook itself, Messenger is becoming a service layer. As well as incorporating interaction via a destination site or app, they are (in the words of The Guardian) weaving themselves 'into the fabric of the internet'.

People may think that the term 'platform' is hype but to me, this is what it really means. The same is happening with Facebook ads capability, as their ad platform Atlas increasingly enables you to amplify the use of Facebook's huge data repository beyond Facebook itself to find and target users across the internet. A capability that, as Simon points out, potentially goes a long way toward solving critical issues of targeting, attribution, measuring reach and optimising frequency, even across devices (and in doing so highlighting the weakness of cookie based systems).

Google takes a similar distributed approach of-course, with it's Ad Sense network, embedded search in third party sites, development of Doubleclick, cross-device analytics, joining up of offline and online. And the similarities don't end there. At F8 Facebook also unveiled an embedded video player, bringing it more into direct competition with YouTube, and meaning that Facebook video (and no doubt the advertising that accompanies it) will now not only sit on the site itself, but be woven 'into the fabric of the internet' via countless other sites.

All of which puts the discussion around Facebook's rumoured plans to directly host publisher content on the site into an interesting light. Media owner strategies have traditionally been focused far more on destination models. On bringing as much traffic back to owned media assets likes websites and apps and keeping it there as long as possible to derive value. Even distribution of content onto third party platforms is typically focused on bringing traffic back to destination sites which might be monetised through strategies that have typically focused on maximising ad impressions, often through maximising page impressions (leading to ridiculous tactics like splicing long articles into multiple page views, or creating image galleries that can generate larger numbers of impressions, or putting banners on timed rotation). Such tactics may provide a short-term minor boost to revenues but sacrificing user experience to revenue is a slippery slope (and surely a lesson we learned fifteen years ago with the explosion in commercial pop-ups).

There is significant potential downside of-course from hosting publisher content on Facebook (captured in these questions from John Battelle), not least potential loss of control, loss of revenue, loss of customer data. But as Battelle also says, there is reason enough to test and learn (whilst walking into it with your eyes open) and it could be that in some situations it could well make sense

Whilst at SXSW I heard Jonah Peretti talking about Buzzfeed's counter-intuitive 'network integration' strategy which values impressions and views that occur in the stream without necessarily an expectation that traffic will brought back to the site. Whilst they might get over 420m referrals in a month back to the site, their content attracts over 18 Billion impressions across networks like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.


Peretti described the value he sees in going where the eyeballs are. For most publishers the big question is of-course about monetisation. But my impression was that Buzzfeed believe strongly in the value of the impact and reach that those 18Billion impressions bring. So much so that this distributed approach is a key part of their over-arching strategy:


This requires producing content for a single story in multiple formats for wide distribution, and the payback is the data and learnings they get which feeds back into the content generation work. Buzzfeed have of-course concentrated on native advertising rather than banner ads, which makes sense in the context of this network integration strategy. Whilst banners are destination focused, and arguably failing on mobile, native is highly portable and works in the stream. Which makes me wonder if, in the context of this Facebook strategy, there isn't greater opportunity for publishers to think more laterally about how distributed content might work for them.

But on a broader point, whilst combining both destination with distributed content might make for a sound content strategy, it is often the latter that is harder for people (used to destination thinking) to get their head around. But whether it is people talking about what we do, highly portable content like mobile cards, embeddable content, or the notification layer in mobile, or integrating with other services, there are surely many ways in which we can develop greater opportunity from distributed thinking.

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Google Firestarters 15: How To Think Differently About Advertising - The Event


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.


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Why Small Teams Work


(N.B. This post is part of an occasional series I'm doing, drawing from some of the thinking that's going into the book I'm writing - any feedback is appreciated)

'From the Founding Fathers in politics to the Royal Society in science to Fairchild Semiconductor’s “traitorous eight” in business, small groups of people bound together by a sense of mission have changed the world for the better.' Peter Thiel

There is a story (seemingly from a former executive) that whilst at an offsite retreat where Amazon’s senior staff had gathered, some of those staff suggested that employees of the company needed to start communicating more with each other. Jeff Bezos apparently stood up and declared to all in the room: "No, communication is terrible!". Bezos was referring to the potential for over-burdensome communication to slow everything down. Yet many managers at many large organisations still loudly advocate the need for more communication. It’s the kind of rallying cry that very few others will disagree with. The kind that feels like it is just what is needed to solve a broad range of internal issues that need attention. 

I've written before about the power of small teams, and am fascinated by their potential for bringing greater agility and speed of delivery to organisations, and also for generating significant change. But this is not just conjecture. There is plenty of research into how small teams can do this, some of which is summarised by Janet Choi in this excellent blog post on the subject. Janet draws on the work of J. Richard Hackman who was Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University to make the point that the issue with larger teams isn’t necessarily the size of the team itself, but the number of links between people.

As group size increases, the number of unique links between people also increases, but exponentially. So whilst a small team of 6 creates 15 links between everyone, a larger team of 12 will generate 66 links, and a team of 50 has no less than 1225 links to manage. This exponential increase means that coordination and communication costs are soon growing at the expense of productivity. Hackman, writing in The Psychology of Leadership, explains that:

“The larger a group, the more process problems members encounter in carrying out their collective work …. Worse, the vulnerability of a group to such difficulties increases sharply as size increases.”

Leaders, says Hackman, may often create oversized teams in the faulty assumption that ‘more is better’ for team effectiveness, or due to emotional considerations such as sharing responsibility and spreading accountability across larger numbers of people, or for political reasons such as ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are represented:

“For these reasons, individuals from various constituencies may be appointed to a team one by one, or even two by two, creating a large politically correct team - but a team that can find itself incapable of generating an outcome that meets even minimum standards of acceptability, let alone one that shows signs of originality."

Janet also mentions research conducted by Bradley Staats, Katherine Milkman, and Craig Fox (The Team Scaling Fallacy: Underestimating The Declining Efficiency of Larger Teams) showing that larger team sizes can lead to overconfidence and an under-estimation of time needed to complete tasks. One experiment conducted by the researchers set different groups the task of building the same Lego figure. In spite of the fact that the larger teams were almost twice as optimistic about how long they’d take to complete the task, four person teams took 52 minutes whilst two-person teams took only 36 minutes.

It’s tempting in digital transformation to think that since the outcome is so important and speed (in delivery of transformation or digital development) is often such a factor, more people will lead to a greater chance of success. But we underestimate the increasing burden of communication at our own cost. Small, nimble teams can achieve amazing things. So rather than throw numbers at a problem, ask yourself this - what's the smallest number of people you can put together to achieve a result? It's likely to be less than you think.

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The Talent Revolution Survey


I've done quite a bit of work in the digital skills area and one of the things you see a lot, particularly in non-digital-specialist roles, is a disconnect between intent and action when it comes to training, so anything that gives companies more reason to invest in their people in this way is a good thing. So it's interesting to see that the Google Digital Academy (full disclosure: I do some work with the Google Digital Academy on their Google Squared programme) have got together with a group of industry bodies (including the IAB, ISBA and The Marketing Society) and big advertisers to launch the Talent Revolution Survey. The idea behind the survey is to build a knowledge bank on what marketers do well in the field, and what they do less well, and if you have a number of marketers complete the survey you get access to a benchmarking report. More details here