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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Ten years on, can we stop worrying now?

Ten years ago this month the Sunday Times published an article by Douglas Adams called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet”. You can read it here.

Some starting observations:

  1. It’s a tragedy that Adams died, aged 49, in 2001, depriving us of more great literature in the vein of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, of genuinely innovative new media projects such as H2G2, and of the witty, insightful commentary we find in the Sunday Times column.
  2. Adams’ insights have stood the test of time.  Everything he wrote at the end of the Nineties stands true as we near the start of the Tens.
  3. We still haven’t stopped worrying.

Adams from 1999:

… there’s the peculiar way in which certain BBC presenters and journalists (yes, Humphrys Snr., I’m looking at you) pronounce internet addresses. It goes ‘wwwDOT … bbc DOT… co DOT… uk SLASH… today SLASH…’ etc., and carries the implication that they have no idea what any of this new-fangled stuff is about, but that you lot out there will probably know what it means.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on…

2009: John Humphrys is still huffing and puffing [Update 3/9/09 - further proof provided!], and…

you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

The moral panic continues, now transferred to social networking and camera phones.

And Douglas Adams hit the nail of the head in his taking to task of the term “interactive”:

the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport – the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

The same fallacy persists, now transferred from the term “interactive” to “social“.

Ten years ago, Douglas Adams identifed a few problems.

  • “Only a minute proportion of the world’s population is so far connected” – this one’s well on the way to being fixed, as much by the spread of internet-capable mobile devices as by desktop or laptop PCs.
  • It was still “technology,” defined as “‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs.” – has the internet in 2009 reached the same level of  everyday acceptance as chairs? Almost, I think, though the legs still fall off with disappointing regularity.

The biggest problem, wrote Adams, is that “we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don’t really get it”. Invoking Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct (read this too, if you haven’t already), he argued that it would take the next generation of children born into the world of the web to become really fluent. And for me that’s been the most amazing part. Reflecting the other day on Tom Armitage’s augmented reality post to the Schulze and Webb blog, I realised that I see that development in my own children’s engagement with technology.

  • At birth a child may assume that anything is possible: a handheld projector holds no special amazement for my three-year-old.
  • Through childhood we are trained, with toys among other things, to limit our expectations about how objects should behave. My six-year-old, who has been trained by the Wii, waves other remote controls about in a vain attempt to use gestures.
  • My nine-year-old, more worldliwise, mocks him for it.

We arrive in the world Internet-enabled and AR-ready, it’s just that present-day technology beats it out of us. I work for the day when this is no longer the case.

Last words to Douglas Adams, as true today as in 1999:

Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.

Update 3/9/09: Debate about Twitter on the Today programme, and Kevin Anderson takes up the theme.

Lock up your marbles! Here come the curators

I love museums and art galleries. I love the web. So why is it I feel so uneasy about the use of the word “curate” in connection with online content?

It certainly seems to be a hot term in the media industry, as seasoned hacks struggle to reinvent themselves in the face of impending old media extinction:

Curation is the new role of media professionals.

Separating the wheat from the chaff, assigning editorial weight, and — most importantly – giving folks who don’t want to spend their lives looking for an editorial needle in a haystack a high-quality collection of content that is contextual and coherent. It’s what we always expected from our media, and now they’ve got the tools to do it better.

Apparently a piece of paper with news on was so century-before-last. Now your newspaper must be transformed into an online hub with copious links to events, organisations, comments and blog posts about your locality or specialist topic.

Creating original content was a thankless task. I know from the hours spent as a young reporter in drafty village halls, smelly magistrates’ courts, and wading through the wreckage of the latest chip-pan fire. [Tip: if you ever come home  from the pub late at night and feel like making chips, don't. Just don't.]

How much better, some seem to be saying, to make a living organising and displaying other peoples’ work instead. How innocent it sounds when “curation” is the borrowed name for this new business model. I don’t like it and I’m not alone in my unease.

To homage a joke from a recent I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, that’ll be curate as in Ronnie Biggs the Great Train Curator.

Continue reading

Note to future historians: We know it doesn’t look good, but we weren’t really shallow time-wasters in the Noughties

Greetings from 2008! I’m really pleased you’ve picked the Early 21st Century Social History module this term. You’re going to love it.

But before you dive into the wealth of primary evidence we’ve left on the net, there’s something we need you to understand. We know it doesn’t look good, but we weren’t really shallow time-wasters. You see, the billions of pages of social networking archives through which you’re crawling don’t really tell the whole story. Before you condemn us as the idle generation who played Scrabulous while the icecaps melted, we’d like to put those texts into context.

Context #1. We were young. Your course notes may include some stats showing that lots of people in their 30s, 40s and beyond were signed up to the social networks. This is true, but the most active users remained in the under 25 bracket. They were finding their way in the world, and trying on new personalities. They lived for the moment and some learned the dangers the hard way.

Context #2. Even when we weren’t young, we were inexperienced. We’d only just taken the controls, like learning to drive a car. (OK, bad example. I guess you’ve seen one in a museum.) Looking back, our efforts will seem clumsy, lacking the nuances and vocabulary of other more-established communications media. With time we’ll get these things right, but you future historians probably look at our online efforts like we look at 1950s TV.

Context #3. Even when we were experienced, we weren’t serious. Surely this was the first (though by no means the last) medium to start with the trivial and scale up to the serious. It took decades for electronic communication to move as Andrew Odlyzko notes “from Samuel Morse’s solemn ‘What hath God wrought?’ to Alexander Graham Bell’s utilitarian ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,’ to the banal ‘How was your lunch?’ that is so common today.” Now we’ve moved from pull to push: we upload photos of our lunch without even being asked. For many of us posting stuff online is more a time-killer than a communications tool.

So while you’re flicking through our old Myspace pages and Facebook groups, please believe us when we say: The rest of the time, we were really busy doing mature, skilled, serious things. It’s just that we didn’t document that stuff. You’ll have to take it on trust.

By Their Words You Shall Know Them

Recently I’ve been spending time around online advertising people and I’m starting to wonder: if they’re so smart at communicating, do they ever listen to themselves? For some reason this industry has adopted the most aggressive and unattractive jargon – targeting, eyeballs, cut-through, impressions, and so on.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The parallel world of CRM does roughly the same thing but in much softer terms. CRM talks of customers, engagement, response, a lifetime. Yes, the CRM guys may be after only one thing (see Clue #80), but at least they have the decency to tell us they want a relationship.

Why does this matter?

  1. because the words we use about people behind their backs shape the way we act towards their faces
  2. because they might be listening.

Update 20/04/2008: Similar sentiments expressed by Russell Buckley on Mobhappy: The Language of Advertising

Update 05/11/2010: John Dodds has targeting in his sights

I have seen the future and it folds

Ten years ago I worked in a declining industry. Regional newspaper readerships were aging, as papers struggled to connect with their communities. Staff cuts and inflexible new technology at the paper I worked on meant we had a 9:30am press deadline for some localised editions – which rather made a mockery of the word “Evening” on the masthead.

Like many others in my generation of journalists, I quit print for a new media. The new media would be all the things that the old one was not. It would be instantly updated, interactive with its audience, and free to access. In the future the new media would become mobile, contextual and relevant. It would be like having someone come up to you in the street with the information you needed to know, exactly when you needed it.

Funny how the future arrives in the most unexpected form. For me it was just outside Edgware Road tube station, about 3:45pm, when a man came up to me in the street and handed me a copy of The London Paper.

Now I’m not going to go into a debate about whether this one is a better put-together product than the other contenders in London’s free paper war. To be honest, the design was faintly reminiscent of my student newspaper – lots of boxes and tints, and over-quirky headline fonts.

But what blew me away was the immediacy of the content. There’s something slightly Harry Potter about seeing the latest Tube information in print as you’re about to enter the station. And how refreshing to let readers vote by text on whether the comment writer should be allowed to pen another column. I’d gone for years thinking those things were the special domain of the digital media, yet here they were in print, in the palm of my hand, with the ink coming off on my fingers and everything.

The sense of everyday magic was compounded by the way the paper was delivered: no shouting unintelligible manglings of the title; no fumbling for loose change at risk of being mown down by bulldozing commuters intent on walking at exactly 4.2 miles per hour. Just a guy in a fluorescent vest offering the paper so I could take it without breaking my stride. He was standing strategically, moments before the point at which I’d need to put my hand in my pocket to pull out an Oyster card and thus be unable to take a paper. This user experience is what sets the bar so high for mobile content.

I’m not sure what all this means, except that to paraphrase Winston Churchill (I think), I used to think newspapers knew everything. Then I thought newspapers knew nothing. Now I’m amazed at how much they’ve learned.