Ad agencies are discovering products like Columbus discovered America

SPOILER ALERT: It might not end well for the natives.

Having spent more than a decade with job titles alternately containing the words “product strategy” and “customer experience,” I’m all for the sentiment behind John Willshire’s slogan: “Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things”. And when I hear this thought presented as some kind of revelation, I usually bite my tongue and smile at the zeal of the new converts to the cause.

But over the past year or two, I’ve sensed a growing momentum behind the trend for marketing agencies to engage deeply with the world of products and services, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they could actually get quite good at it.

Like the first Europeans arriving in America, agency people meet with natives, the product management community, who have a rich and complex culture but lack the fire-power or expansionary mindset to meet the challenge of the newcomers.

First the fire-power. Despite the lip-service paid to innovation and new product development, many consumer organisations routinely devote far bigger budgets to the Make People Want Things side of the equation than to Making Things People Want. There’s a reason for this – making things people want is hard, it takes time, and it depends on listening to the voice of customer, not just to the loudest voice in the boardroom.

Moreover, marketing budgets tend to be more liquid, to flow more rapidly, than budgets for product and service development. The marcomms team can blow millions on an above-the-line rocket launcher in the time it takes product development to make the business case to take a better pea-shooter to market.

So it’s little wonder that some of the most innovative things I saw in my time in telecoms came from advertising campaigns and sponsorship deals that succeeded and grew. Top of the bill would be Orange Wednesdays, a tie-up with the Cinema Exhibitors Association which brought real value to mobile customers, involving text messaging, point of sale integration and mobile app fulfilment mechanisms. By sticking at it through the tenures of multiple marketing directors, Orange UK bought itself unrivalled brand recognition in film.

Which brings us to those expansionary tendencies. The product tribe often gets tied up in knots over its “right to play” in a new or changing category. Think of all the people who sagely declared that Apple would fail if it tried to move from music players into mobile telephony. If you limit your core competences to the flat earth of your existing category, it becomes difficult to respond to customer needs just over the horizon. Not so the agencies, who tack happily from client to client and sector to sector. They can see opportunities where in-house teams may not dare to reach.

What’s more, advertising people understand, more than any other tribe, that needs do not have to be rational. In the pursuit of Making People Want Things, any fragment of culture, art or fashion is fair game. They understand that sometimes fast and different beats slow and better. While the product tribe labour methodically towards feature-based superiority, their counterparts in advertising throw so much mud at the wall that sooner or later some of it must stick.

Superior access to rapid funding, boldness in exploiting adjacencies, a willingness to try lots of stuff – all of these are supremely transferrable to the iterative, customer-centred practice of Making Things People Want.

But before they send in the smallpox-ridden blankets, the newcomers to the products world might find they need the natives to help them through the first few winters.

Making things is hard, especially things to last, things that people will find useful in their everyday lives. And often people used to marketing things underestimate this. Take the story of the Ford Key Free Login App. Ogilvy Paris thought it would be cool to accompany the launch of bluetooth vehicle unlocking with an app that stores your social networking passwords. Except that, instead of encrypting the passwords the way Lastpass or 1password do, the Ford app stored everything in an easily accessible plain text file. The app was hastily pulled.

And even when they do get the basics right, agencies soon learn that while a campaign may be just for Christmas, a product or service is for life. Only the best of them are set up to handle the on-going issues of release management, customer support and so on. If a product is created unexpectedly out of a campaign, sooner or later it needs to make the tricky transition into long-term in-life support, either in-house in the client organisation or staying within the agency but on a footing very different from the usual campaign-centric ways or working.

Product and service managers know this territory, and they know where the traps are hidden. If the newcomers from marketing-land are prepared to befriend the product natives in the new world of agile service development, they could, together, make a winning combination.

Two things we did last week

We went to Warner Brothers’ “Making of Harry Potter” Studio Tour, which is very good. Even if you think you know all the tricks of the trade in 21st Century big budget film making, the scale of the thing is amazing – a 1:24 model of Hogwarts. Also the attention to detail – thousands of props to dress sets that make only momentary appearances on screen. For days afterwards, every time I saw something bright green I assumed it would be edited out later in chromakey.

Then we went to Future Cinema’s Bugsy Malone. The Troxy makes the perfect venue, already being a rough approximation to Fat Sam’s. We enjoyed the atmosphere, we enjoyed the entertainment, we enjoyed the film, and we even enjoyed being splurged as the venue erupted into a replica of the mayhem on screen.

Brilliant!

At first sight, recorded media is a one-way trip from real life action to canned repetition, a butterfly skewered in a glass case. But what if you could reverse the direction of travel? Can you make a great live experience from a movie after the fact? These two things seem to prove that you can.

The past is a platform from which we launch into the future*


In my dayjob, mobile media, we spend a lot of time talking about platforms. Curiously we like to think of these platforms as eternally new and shiny. “Legacy” is is not a windfall from the preceding generation. It’s a perjorative term. Sometimes we even set our old platforms on fire, which is strange, because, as a historian, the biggest platform of all is the past.

I wanted to use some of my time at Foo Camp to test out a long hunch about the past as a platform: that every one of us comes from somewhere with a past which shapes the innovation that’s possible in its future. It was harder than I thought.

Yes, we captured some great examples of the grand and generous legacies of industrialists who shaped European and North American educational institutions – tour any great campus and you cannot help but wonder at the wealth of history beneath your feet.

Then there were the unintentional cast-offs – the recycling of cheap spaces in marginal locations that bear out Jane Jacobs’ aphorism, “New ideas must use old buildings.” We have no shortage of either in West Yorkshire.

But what struck me most, on asking this question in Northern California, was how many seemed to see history as ballast to be jettisoned, rather than raw material to build foundations. The dominant old world image was of modern-day Rome, littered with the doom-laden ruins of an ancient empire.

In Singapore, so I learned, they erase the historic built environment  but keep the gardens.

At Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, passion for what the place once was impedes the search for a viable future even though the hockey teams have long since upped sticks and gone. New media could help – someone suggested –  by decanting cherished memories from their bricks and mortar body into a digital casket, freeing the building itself to be demolished without guilt.

Technology certainly seems to facilitate such outcomes. From my flip chart notes:

  • Open Plaques
  • History pin
  • Tying archive material to place
  • Geolocated, contextually relevant stories
  • Discovery – phone as augmenting where you are
  • History layer through all location based services
  • Curated paths through a neighbourhood vs random voices passing through

We are, as Ben Cerveny so beautifully put it in another session, busy building a data-based model of the world which we may soon choose to inhabit in preference to the real one. Why should the past be exempt from this dissociative space-hopping?

And there’s a loaded phrase at the back of my head as we shovel our past into the big data sausage machine.

“Since records began.”

I love stuff like the Old Weather project in which citizen scientists transcribe World War I naval data to help improve predictive models of our future climate. I love that Iceland’s genealogy data goes back to the 9th Century, enabling the charting of long-range genetic trajectories.

But I worry that “big data” by definition privileges quantitative insight over the qualititative. So many value judgements are embedded in what we choose to measure and to encode. Before long you have exactly five exabytes and all kinds of other Eskimo snow vocabulary tropes.

People in California told me that they came “from the future”; that their parents moved west in a spirit of optimism where anything was possible. America still thinks of itself as a young country, yet there are roads in upstate New York following paths that people have trod for more than 1500 years.

Maybe this is an inevitable blind spot in an entrepreneurial culture. As Will Davies wrote of Britain’s Big Society cheerleaders:

“Entrepreneurs, by definition, find it plausible that things can be built out of nothing.”

But I reckon Britain’s planners have it right (admittedly in a PDF, sorry):

HE12.1 A documentary record of our past is not as valuable as retaining the heritage asset, and therefore the ability to record evidence of our past should not be a factor in deciding whether a proposal that would result in a heritage asset’s destruction should be given consent.

When I bemoan the loss of whole swathes of a city’s historic fabric it’s not because it was more picturesque than what comes after: the past can sometimes be ugly. Rather, those old buildings represent a resource from which to tell stories, a platform of accumulated pride and achievement which makes the future less daunting.

Communities robbed of their stories have to reach further, and are readier prey to false, easy narratives: the past can sometimes be inconvenient. Entrpreneurs may appear to benefit, at least in the short term, from the proprietorial control these fairy stories give them, but they’ll soon find out that all that extra lifting and stretching outweighs the work of accommodation to unexpected truths. These are the grains of sand around which pearls will form.

Conversely, looking at Michael Brohm‘s wonderful photos of Leeds, I see a city remarkably rich in history which its people can use and reuse in unexpected ways. It’s the opposite of “Londonostalgia“, a rose-tinted version of a city’s past to boost a conservative agenda that ossifies inequality. Rather it’s a dynamic use of the old as springboard for the new.

The past is the platform from which we leap to the future.*


* Ironically, I have been unable to find the source of this phrase. All suggestions gratefully received.

And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet

The depths of winter, two weeks off to take stock of where we are and where we’re going, a chance to catch up with family and friends. We travelled through blizzards, cooked and ate good food, lit fires, drank wine, fiddled with MP3 play-lists, time-shifted TV, and made one (thankfully minor) visit to Accident and Emergency. We – friends, family, all – talked about our lives in early Twenteenage Britain: public sector insecurity, the choice of good schools, distant relatives, our new phones and other devices. The confection that follows is made from the left-overs.

Our current preoccupations seem to boil down to two resources, both of which are unequally distributed within families, communities, our nation and world at large. To understand these resources is to see where opportunities and conflicts lie, to look for unlikely allies and unexpected lines of agreement.

The first of the two resources is disposable time – the uncommitted minutes and hours in which we make our own choices.

The clichéd “cash rich, time poor” professional classes are not alone in their want of this resource. The pressure on the “squeezed middle” is as much a temporal crunch as a financial one. As Ed Miliband said: “If you are holding down two jobs, working fourteen hour days, worrying about childcare, anxious about elderly relatives, how can you find the time for anything else? … Until we address the conditions that mean that people’s lives are dominated by long hours, then the big society will always remain a fiction.”

Time wealth ebbs and flows as we move through life-stages, and is at least partially subjective – there are huge variations in people’s estimations of their own and others’ busy-ness. But, whether acknowledged or not, the debate over fairness and equality – over social security, pensions and the division of unpaid labour within families – must be as much about time and energy as it is about money.

The second resource, sometimes a skill, but as often a learned attitude, is tech mastery, a belief that computers, the internet and mobile phones exist to help us achieve our goals, not to enslave or bewilder us.

Tech mastery is the toolkit to take control in the modern world, to “program or be programmed.” Good technology products and services increase the mastery of their users; poor ones sap it. That tech mastery tends to rise and fall with age, and to be more concentrated among men than women, says more about the biases of tech implementation than about the innate abilities or preferences of those demographic groups.

I believe 2011 will be a year when people get angry about bad usability and the failure of the new media to meet the needs of all but a narrow section of society. As the web becomes more mobile and more, genuinely, worldwide, it has to do better at empowering all its users, young and old, rich and poor, not all of whom have the latest device designed in California.

The interactions between disposable time and tech mastery reveal (via sweeping generalisations, I know) some interesting gulfs in understanding to be overcome…

When free tech culture meets the law it’s more than a matter of understanding the “what.” There’s also the “why”.

One person’s innocent checking of their mobile phone is another’s gross intrusion into quality time.

We also find some opportunities…

What services could bridge the gaps between the generations and social groups by drawing on what they have in common?

How could two groups of people make the most of their complementary resources?

To square this circle, we need to pay attention to the different characteristics demanded at each point, and find ways to spread the wealth more equally. Something like…

Right now, at the start of 2011, I have many more questions than answers about disposable time and tech mastery inequalities. But I reckon we’ll see a lot more of these themes before the year is out.

Who wants to be a story millionaire? Some thoughts on the value of Patient Opinion

So, narrative capital. The social scientist has it like this…

… the power [research participants] have to tell the stories of their lives. This ‘narrative capital’ is then located in the ‘field’ of social science research and Sen’s capability approach is introduced to prompt the question: What real opportunities do research participants have to tell the stories they value and have reason to value? It is argued that ‘narrative capital’ can be too easily squandered by the failure to recognise individual values. -Research Abstract, Michael Watts

… and the novelist like this…

What the writer accrues by setting up situations, tensions, threats and other build-ups. If the author decides on a shocking climax that blows everything wide open, they will be spending the Narrative Capital they’ve saved – having the warring couple suddenly acknowledge their love, for instance. The more capital saved, the better the climax – but you can’t spend the same capital twice, and if you try to have a climax bigger than your capital can buy, the audience feels robbed. – author Kit Whitfield’s lexicon

I invoked the idea of narrative capital on this blog when I wrote about the wanton destruction of Leeds’ historic Clarence Dock: You wouldn’t burn a book, so why destroy a place with so many stories?

And last week at our first ever Service Design Thinks in Leeds I was struck once again by the power of stories, thanks to James Munro of 4IP and Screen Yorkshire-supported Patient Opinion.

Patient Opinion is a simple idea: you can write your account of being a patient in the UK’s National Health Service, read other people’s experiences and, crucially, see what NHS staff and managers are doing to make things better.

Making things better is at the core of the service: it’s founded on the insight that the NHS is well-equipped to deal with adversarial “complaints” demanding specific redress, but less so for “feedback” – negative and positive comments freely given by people who simply want to help improve the service for future patients, some with very specific suggestions, others just to say thank you.

With the help of this social enterprise, health service managers and practitioners can hear their patients’ authentic and surprising voices more clearly, and deliver better care as a result.

And at the centre of their operating model are stories. Lots of stories. Stories that have value, donated like blood:

100,000 stories per year. After 10 years, you could be a story millionaire!

It would be tempting to throw the Patient Opinion corpus into some kind of massive algorithmic natural language grinder, to present yummy infographics and Chernoff faces showing the relative happiness of different institutions, like Patient Opinion’s 4IP stablemate Schooloscope.

But that would miss the point. Yes, the Patient Opinion stories are cumulatively impressive – 25,017 and counting – but, as James explained, their power is in their uniqueness. Each story is different, nonfungible. Each narrative is differently shaped and demands a personal response from specific people.

Story, narrative capital, content, call it what you will. The value is not in the words themselves, but in the minds and actions of the “audience”: the right people in the right place hearing the right stuff at the right time, and doing something about it.

You can watch James Munro’s talk on the SD Leeds Vimeo channel.

1794: Prototyping a small story

The Ignite London challenge of telling the story of my 1794 heroes in five minutes and 20 slides set me thinking about other ways to package up a narrative in the most minimal way.

In parallel with preparing my talk, I used the slides as the starting point for some printed material. My experimental recipe is as follows:

First, catch your story. The idea of 1794 as a focal point struck me while reading, for different reasons, about Joseph Priestley, Camille Desmoulins, John Thelwall and Matthew Murray. Desmoulins led me to the war in France, and Jean-Marie-Joseph Coutelle and Claude Chappe. Antoine Lavoisier formed a further link between Priestley and Coutelle. Soon I had a map spelling out the connections.

Excite the attentions of the ingenious.TM I’d been wondering how to break the all-male line-up of heroes when I saw this tweet:

Turns out Roberta Wedge has been engaging on Twitter on behalf of the mother of feminism for several months now. Thanks to her intervention, Mary Wollstonecraft was in. Continue reading

One & Other in a roundabout way

This is a photo of the screen of a computer, displaying a webcam that’s trained on a plinth. Not just any plinth, The Plinth.

On the webcam is a whiteboard that carries a message, a message that’s saying hello to my sons. They were very impressed.

Lorinda (who I’ve never met) wrote the message. Lorinda wrote messages she got on her phone, via a service called Thumbprint. Thumbprint is a dead simple way to say stuff about places and topics by text.

I texted the Plinth after seeing a tweet from Andrew at Blink who made Thumbprint with my friends at Common.

It was all over in a few totally unexpected minutes of a Saturday afternoon, so let’s play that again, in slow motion…

  • Tweet…
  • Text…
  • Thumbprint…
  • Text…
  • Plinth…
  • Pen…
  • Whiteboard…
  • Webcam…
  • Amazement.

Well done to all involved.

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