Saturday, November 6, 2010

Don’t fight it. Feel it.

When Don Draper places the full page ad in the New York Times at the end of Mad Men Season 4, he refuses to explain himself, saying only “If you don’t understand why, you shouldn’t be in this business.”

Don didn’t really know what he was doing. He just knew that, as he says himself, “Someone had to do something.”

So much is written on the secrets of 'design thinking' and whether or not it can be taught in business schools, but one of the important distinctions of someone with a creative bent is the ability to comfortably be led by their gut. This requires bravery and a sensibility that not everyone is capable of. But it’s so vital to innovation that those who are, have a duty to use it responsibly.

Silicon Valley, the presumed spiritual home of innovation, is currently obsessed with what it calls 'The Lean Startup’. This concept is born out of the web’s suitability to ‘rapid deployment.’ Ideas can be continually tested and improved incrementally, therefore reducing the cost of mistakes and misjudgments. The Lean Startup could be seen as a great use of ‘ready, fire, aim’ decision-making but it also commits heavily to the idea that everything is testable therefore everything is provable.

This is dangerous territory for creative thinkers because most of what we do is not testable and is often greatly damaged in the attempt to do so. I can see why The Lean Startup is such an appealing model for investors but I wonder how many truly important innovations arise out of businesses that believe all change should come in the form of provable increments.

While we should keep fighting for design and creative thinking to be taken more seriously in business, it shouldn’t mean having to forsake our non-rational side or jeopardizing our freedom to operate by ‘feel’.

This doesn’t get us off the hook, however, for having to understand analytic rigor and knowing when it is useful to us.

Kevin McCullagh in his excellent article on design thinking ‘Stepping Up’, says that ‘Designers have traditionally excused their lack of analytical rigor by nonchalantly counterpoising it to their intuition, but this is a false and lazy dichotomy. Just as there are many creative mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, why can’t there be analytically cogent designers?’

Well there should be and there are.

Where we get into a muddle is if we try to decipher which decisions should be analytically defensible (or provable) and which are made by some combination from the myriad of factors that can influence a designer’s gut feeling for rightness. I’ve seen some horrible stuff come out of designers falling over themselves with on-the-spot post-rationalization in order to try and stop clients from picking good work apart.

We know clients can be infuriating with their habit of questioning seemingly random details. But this often stems from an insecurity about the idea as a whole that perhaps they don’t have the vocabulary to describe any more than we do. If they are emotionally committed to the core idea, they are often less likely to sweat the details.

A wonderful business man I once knew used to talk of ‘The Arc of Rightness’, meaning that  the results of any decision taken by a reasonably smart and qualified person will land, not on an absolute target but somewhere within an area of helpful possibility from which adjustments can be easily made to achieve a good outcome. I found this idea liberating when I first heard it and I rely on it in pretty much all situations. It’s so much more positive than talking about ‘margins of error’.

The Arc of Rightness is born of both analytical and intuitive thinking. Sometimes it is a rational concept that decides the direction of the arrow but intuition that defines the span of the arc, other times it’s the other way around.

So it’s wrong to assume that qualitative and intuitive thinking are the preserve of creative practitioners alone.

Most great business people, particularly at the higher levels of an organization, have to make so many decisions in the course of their work that they can’t possibly rationalize all of them. To have the confidence to keep moving ahead and trust that you will land somewhere within The Arc of Rightness is one of the most important qualities an intelligent business leader can have.

Design decision-making differs mostly by the The Arc being quite a bit wider. So many decisions are made on the way to a good creative solution that we’re usually not even aware of where the all pivots were. This is why it is so difficult for designers to defend their work when they are asked to break it down into explainable elements.

I’ve read so many ‘About Us’ blurbs on agency websites which claim that every creative decision is underpinned with solid ‘rationale’, their pure talent counterbalanced with strategic rigor. While this is no doubt important and often true, it reads a bit like: ‘We’ve made the effort to understand your rational business world because we know it’s too much to expect you to understand our fuzzy creative one.’ And I just don’t think things are that black and white.

My father worked for many years for a large, international corporation who’s owner once said after several days of strategy talks, ‘Well you can tie yourselves down with a strategy if you like but are you telling me that you will never have a good idea again?” It was one thing to drive the company in a quantitative direction but he knew that surprising sparks of inspiration were just as vital to the future of the business.

As practitioners of creativity and innovation we have to remind ourselves that other people (the smart ones) do get this stuff. And most often we are better off selling our wares by tapping into our clients right-brain tendencies than by trying to manufacture left-brain defenses of our ideas.

After all they’re employing us for our qualitative judgement. They just may need to be reminded of that every now and then.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kill your darlings.

William Faulker, one of the greatest writers in the English language, when talking about writing once said, ‘You must kill all your darlings.’ 

I’ve often heard this quote misunderstood as meaning that we should learn to let things go. But Faulkner meant something far more imperative.

I had a tutor in art school who, if we were struggling with a particular part of a painting, would give us a pot of white paint and a wide brush and make us paint out all the parts we thought were working until only the problem area remained. ‘Now start again from here.’ he would say.

This is closer to what Faulkner was talking about. It’s not just that you must be able to kill your darlings but that you should kill them. Being too in love with an idea will bias all your decisions about it and hinder serious consideration of alternatives. Just because it’s your favorite, doesn’t mean it’s the best.

Translated for the world of client/agency relationships: when preparing work to present to clients, beware of falling in love with one of your own ideas so much that you will be upset when it gets thrown off the table.

Granted, we all have to feel passionate about what we do, but go for a Friday afternoon drink with a bunch of creatives, anywhere in the world, listen in to their tales of work-woe and sooner or later someone will always say ‘clients never pick the best ideas.’ Everyone’s bottom draw is full of ‘wonderful’ work that never saw the light of day in the real world.

Good ideas should never be wasted because ‘good’ should be the stuff that works. All the rest is collateral.

If you are going into a presentation with one idea that you love above all others, consider these two possibilities:
  1. The other ideas are not good enough.
  2. You love that idea for the wrong reasons.
For an idea to really work it may be required to stand up against a whole range of criteria beyond the cute, clever and aesthetically satisfying, in which we tend to find instant gratification. That’s why you should always be suspicious of your first, best idea. Your star option may be blinding you with it’s perfect loveliness and not allowing you to hold it up to all the complex and often highly nuanced factors that will require it to actually do it’s job and solve a problem.

Client-siders are not immune to this problem. They need to practice regular bouts of darling-killing like the rest of us. I have often seen clients fall in love with ideas early on then pressure the agency to shoe-horn practicalities into something that is clearly not going to work. In the music industry we used to call it 'demo love'.

Your best protection against ‘darling-love’ is to regard all early ideas as potential cannon-fodder. Don’t develop any one idea until you have considered many others. Preferably develop several ideas at once and all to the same level. If you come across an idea that straight away you just can’t wait to start working on, put it to the bottom of the pile or better still, tear it up and bin it.

If the best ideas are the ones that work, there is little value in stuff that looks good in your portfolio but never sees the light of day in the real world. The only people who care about this work — and your  sob story to go with it — are other creatives. And they don’t pay your wages.

This is why we need to be consistently vigilant and suspicious of our darlings. They distract us from the real cause.

We are all susceptible and the occasional illicit love affair will always happen. You may on occasion find yourself perversely denying your warm feelings for a particular idea just to try, with Brer Rabbit logic, to spare it from the slaughter.

In this situation, remember something else the great man Faulkner also said – ‘Unless you're ashamed of yourself now and then, you're not honest.’

Saturday, September 4, 2010

When to leave the logo alone.

‘Evolution, not revolution’ is one of the most annoying and overused phrases in client branding briefs. But I do wonder if we (as design professionals) too often recommend brand redesigns as a means of creating more work (and better portfolios) for ourselves at the expense of what is right, or necessary for the brand? And do we shoot ourselves (and our industry) in the foot by inventing long-winded reasons for why this work is important?...

This piece was written for Design Assembly. You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pop is dead. Long live pop.

Seth Godin believes that pop culture is dead. Or at least on its 
way out. 

His theory is that the long tail effect facilitated by the internet is allowing us all to pursue our individualism and fragment into increasingly niche markets. The growing number of alternatives to mass media mean we are no longer necessarily experiencing our culture en masse. And we will increasingly choose to align ourselves with more and smaller tribes.

While I have no doubt that his predictions about the effect of 
these mechanisms are correct, I wonder if he is right about the 
final outcome. 

Did the Big Hit evolve because many people’s exposure to culture 
and entertainment has been limited to what is shouted the loudest by mass media or is there something we like about being united in 
our appreciation?

I love the World Cup. Not just because football is a beautiful game but because I love the way it takes over – flags in the street, my Dad calling me at half time from Australia to complain about the referee. When we watch at home we open the windows so we can hear the cheers of the neighbourhood every time a goal is scored.

I’ve never watched Big Brother or the X Factor but I imagine that for people who love them, the reasons are similar to my feelings about international soccer. It’s live and you know all your friends are watching it at the same time and will be talking about it in the morning.

New media has the potential to conglomerate as well as granulate audiences. The abundance of runaway YouTube hits like ‘David After the Dentist’ are bizarrely compelling examples of this. So it’s possible that (as with so many of the changes that the internet has facilitated) things will continue to expand in both directions – big hits will get bigger and the long tail will get longer. 

What does seem likely (and I think what Godin is really getting at) is that betting on big hits as a business model will get harder to justify simply because it will get easier to identify and nurture small but enthusiastic audiences and tailor content specifically for them. This means the possibility of reducing the wastage that’s built into the business models of most entertainment and culture enterprise. The ‘one blockbuster to subsidise 100’s of tankers’ model that was invented by Hollywood and promptly adopted by the music, publishing and television industries, starts to seem very profligate.

So while it seems unlikely that the phenomenon of global hits will disappear altogether, business models structured around the expectation of achieving them will start to look like anachronisms in a market that favours leaner models.

Godin believes that the Avatars and Harry Potters of recent years are the exceptions that prove the rule.

I believe that these kind of hits will continue to happen but we – both as business people and as consumers – may no longer have to throw our lot in with them in order to sustain the production of other options.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hey hey my my.

There are some attitudes that just can’t be contrived. The trickiest and my favourite of these is rock’n’roll.

I’ve been trying for years to come up with a neat definition of rock’n’roll-ness and I keep coming back to Louis Armstrong’s quip ‘If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.’

As unhelpful and arrogant as that is, I fear it may also be true for rock’n’roll.

It’s probably something more easily defined by its absence than its presence. You certainly know when you’re looking at someone who has no rock’n’roll in them whatsoever (think David Cameron, Gwyneth Paltrow or James Blunt) but the ones who have it can often take you by surprise (think Mo Mowlem, Phillip Pullman or John Mortimer.)

You don’t need to be cool to be rock’n’roll. In fact sometimes, coolness can create a kind of precision and cautiousness which is counter to the rock’n’roll spirit.

Rock’n’roll certainly acts on instinct and doesn’t feel the need to explain itself or justify its actions. It isn’t always right but it is not abashed by mistakes and can carry off falling down drunk in public with great aplomb.

It’s not always a good or helpful quality and rock’n’roll-ness alone with no other moderating characteristics can be very destructive. Left to its own devices, it tends to over-dose on drugs, drive its car into a tree at high speeds or choke on its own vomit.

I think the best indication of innate rock’n’roll-ness is having a pathology for turning convention on its head. The truly rock’n’roll doesn’t think about questioning authority or up ending the status quo. It’s just that what seems natural to it often happens to be the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

And it is this that makes it such a useful attitude in business. Not all brands need a bit of rock’n’roll in them but for those that have it, it’s an instant differentiator. Think Google vs. Microsoft, TopShop vs. H&M or Mini Cooper vs. Fiat Punto.

Sadly, advertising is littered with hideous examples of contrived rock’n’roll, which you don’t need to have any rock’n’roll-ness of your own to find painful – WKD alcopops, PJ Smoothies and John Lydon’s butter ads come to my mind.

If you think rock’n’roll may be important to your brand or your customers you need to hire someone who has it. It can be neither faked nor learned. If you have someone within your organisation who has some rock’n’roll in them, use it and nurture it. Just be prepared to occasionally lose a TV set out the window.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Argentina and Lesbian Mums

Legislation passed this month by the Argentinian Senate now makes this, one of the world’s most Catholic countries, also one of the most liberal in terms of equal rights for same-sex couples.

The legislation, which was passed narrowly, allows same-sex marriages and adoption by same-sex couples. This is such a wonderfully brave and decisive move from a government who is not short of other issues to be worrying about.

Although happily married myself, I’m fairly ambivalent about the institution and what it should mean to society as a whole. Ultimately marriage is a matter of personal choice from which no one should be restricted on the basis of who they happen to be in love with.

I have much stronger feelings, however, about the rights of same-sex couples to be parents. Full disclosure here: I have a lesbian sister who has two fabulous children with her partner of 14 years. But while I believe that my niece and nephew are the two greatest kids who have ever lived, my point here is not to extoll the virtues of lesbian parents.

The more serious point is this: if we are to pass judgement on who is, or is not, fit to be a parent, we need to pass that judgement universally. Are heterosexual parents willing to have the government involved in deciding whether or not they are able to raise children? I would think not.

In our society where both declining birthrates and teenage pregnancies are increasing problems, we should embrace anyone who takes seriously the role of parenting and who enters into it with the sort of thought, planning and self-awareness that is required for same-sex couples to do so.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Managing the turf war

There’s an almighty land grab going on in which traditional ad agencies are fighting on all fronts with branding, design and digital agencies, not to mention PR and management consultants, all claiming expertise and grasping for parts of what would have previously been their budget. This really muddies the pond for marketers who are used to relying on their above-the-line agency for brand direction and making everyone else follow suit.

If you are a marketer at the moment no doubt your PR agency is coming up with ideas for social media campaigns, your digital agency wants to do print ads and your design agency has thoughts on corporate structure. All of a sudden everyone has ideas and they’re not afraid to use them.

With the ever-increasing number of channels that need to be serviced and monitored, the health of brands will start to depend a lot on how they manage their various agencies and how resources are distributed across these channels.

And it’s not just time and money. How do you carve up the strategy among multiple channels and still keep a clear consistent message?

Marketers should not make the mistake of thinking they can put all these agencies in a room together and work it out amongst themselves. I’ve sat through several ‘pan-agency’ strategy meetings and they are, without exception, a hideously counter-productive soup of indignation, deviousness and chest-thumping.

As with so many issues in our industry, the secret is in the brief. Now more than ever, the client needs to be the one driving the strategy bus and using good briefing to carve up the responsibility for ideas and execution among their agencies.

I’m aware that this thought might give ad agencies (and particularly their planning departments) the heebies and I admit that I haven’t come across enough clients who really do this well. But I’ve also seen the big old mess that comes from brands being pushed and pulled in all directions by a roster of agencies that all think they know best.

Gone are the days of the long-standing, full-service relationship in which the ad agency knew the brand as well as, if not better than, the marketers themselves. There will never again be a neat formula of ATL + BTL = ad campaign. The very notion of a ‘campaign’ is probably in question anyway.

So what are marketers to do?

I think the new learning for this era will be about how and when to set briefs which do and do not transcend the boundaries of media. By this I mean, every agency wants to get the ultimate do what feels right, ‘media agnostic’ brief and will often turn in cross-media ideas even if they have not been briefed on them.

Clients need to have a sense of how their strategy will best pan out across multiple channels and how to tie everything to a clear, central brand idea, then brief each agency accordingly. All the while being careful not to give briefs which are too dictatorial. Nothing is as greater creative buzz-kill for an agency than being told the solution instead of the problem.

To have one agency who really understands your brand and leads the strategy for all channels is a very attractive proposition for many reasons. Not the least of which is only having to deal with (and pay for) one Account Manager. And there are many new smaller agencies who are managing to do cross-media thinking very well. But unless this agency really can do it all (both in ideas and execution) you get the problem that any other agencies you need to pull in will be forced to play second fiddle. A role which in my experience, good agencies are rarely happy to do.

The reality is that agencies will accept a strong strategic lead from their client more easily than they will from another agency.

If the idea of the large international ‘catch-all’ agency is to prevail, I doubt it will come from any of the traditional holders of that title. Some creative destruction will certainly be needed to make way for innovation. It’s likely we will see both more specialisation and more diversification as the agency turf war continues. But in the meantime, clients are the ones who have to rise to the challenge of navigating the storm. The health of their brands, their budgets and their sanity depends on it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Classical Music marketing

I love Greg Sandow’s blog on the future of Classical Music.

Classical Music has its own unique set of problems within the many problems of the music industry as a whole. But unlike many pundits, I don’t believe the illness is terminal and Greg Sandow seems to be one of the few people giving intelligent thought as to potential cures.

He has some interesting thoughts on the traditional audiences and their attitudes to the Artist and Repertoir choices made by classical recording labels, which I’m not qualified to comment on, but I think there are also some obvious (and easily remedied) marketing issues that I am.

Classical Music enthusiasts complain about dwindling sales but the ability of classical recordings to reach new audiences is being held back by the same people who want the genre to remain elitist and won’t accept change for fear of ‘dumbing down’ or not doing things the way they have always been done.

The idea that Classical Music requires some sort of specialist, trained ear to really appreciate is pure nonsense and there is no reason why it should be marketed in the apartheid way that is currently is. Rock magazines talk about Reggae. Jazz magazines talk about Hip Hop. Most real music fans have a very catholic range of likes. What makes Classical Music people think they are so special?

I know plenty of people with tastes for long, challenging, instrumental, beat-less pieces of music. They listen to classical music if it is on labels like ECM or Rune Gramafon and promoted via blogs and websites that carry other styles of music that they also like. In fact I know a lot of people who obsessively seek out this kind of thing. They wouldn't think twice about buying a collection of string quartets or an album of orchestral music if it was presented to them in this way.

But they won't know about it if it’s only reviewed in Classical Music publications and they won't buy it if it has a picture of a violinist in an evening dress on the cover.

I’ve never understood why the design surrounding Classical recordings is always so fusty. It’s as if the audience should be reminded that the music is centuries old and god forbid they confuse it with something that has any relevance to contemporary life.

People involved in producing, performing and marketing Classical Music should pull their heads out of the sand and start seeing themselves in the context of a wider culture. There’s a great opportunity for someone to start a Classical label that is sophisticated, thoughtful and even just a little bit cool. Anyone game?

Monday, June 21, 2010


I hadn’t heard this story before I read it on Tom Peters’ blog recently:

A man approached J.P. Morgan, held up an envelope, and said, 'Sir, in my hand I hold a guaranteed formula for success, which I will gladly sell you for $25,000.'
‘Sir,' J.P. Morgan replied, 'I do not know what is in the envelope; however, if you show it to me, and I like it, I give you my word as a gentleman that I will pay you what you ask.'
The man agreed to the terms, and handed over the envelope. J.P. Morgan opened it, and extracted a single sheet of paper. He gave it one look, a mere glance, then handed the piece of paper back to the gent. And paid him the agreed-upon $25,000.
The contents of the note:
1. Every morning, write a list of the things that need to be done that day.
2. Do them.

This made me smile because I have a near-religious belief in list-making.

I live and die by writing things on a list and my brain really doesn’t function well without one. My (largely unscientific) theory is this – trying to remember things clogs up your head. If you’re carrying a lot of stuff around in your short term memory, it’s harder to devote clear space to problem-solving and ideas. I never memorise phone numbers and if you ask me what I’m doing for the next week, day or even hour I can’t tell you without consulting my list. Once I open that notebook, however, it’s all their. Every last detail.

My listing is not an empty exercise. If it goes on the list it absolutely gets done. Equally, if it’s not on the list, it almost certainly does not.

I used to keep separate lists for different parts of my life – shopping lists, lists of things that need doing around the house, work lists subdivided by client, project etc. These days it all goes on one list. They are all things that have to get done one way or another and it helps me make more efficient use of my time if I’m considering them all equally. It’s not unusual for me to have a list that will contain big life-changing decisions along side items like collect dry-cleaning and buy shampoo.

I have a deeply embedded work ethic but I’m not a workaholic. What the list does is allow me to deal with procrastination and actually get through some stuff. But at the same time it allows me to set expectations and not become overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks. It’s a great feeling to look at a list with a lot of black lines through it. A colleague of mine once called it ‘The Joy of the Strike-through’ and I knew exactly what she meant. It makes me feel that no day as been wasted if something on the list gets crossed off.

I realise all of this makes me sound a bit uptight but it’s actually quite the opposite. I’m not a naturally well organised person and I thrive in chaos. My mind tends to romp between multiple problems and the list is what allows me to be spontaneous and flexible while still getting through the grunt work.

Those of you who are already listers will be nodding your heads at all this. Those of you who find the idea repugnant or have tried lists and found them ineffective, might just need some tips on what makes a good list.

Everyone, of course, has their own style but this is what works for me.

– It must be hand written. This allows me to amend, annotate, underline for emphasis and create all sorts of lines and arrows which connect certain items to each other in significant ways. And of course that wonderful strike-through which I find so much more satisfying than the delete button.

– It must be with you at all times. Scraps of paper and post-it notes stuck everywhere just beg to be lost or forgotten. I use a Moleskin notebook because I like it as an object and therefore am happy to keep it about my person.

– It must contain everything you have to get done, no matter how small and or unlikely to be forgotten. A common barrier to getting stuff done is other, non-scheduled stuff getting in the way. Often small things in aggregate take up a lot of time and you can be left wondering where the day went.

– It must be adaptive. If your plan for the day changes, change the list so you take the time to consider the consequences of moving some stuff into another day.

– Everything on the list must get done. Don’t write down stuff that you have no intention of doing or think maybe you might get around to. If you allow yourself to skip over some items on the list then you’ll start skipping over many. Remember it’s a discipline.

It’s rare for me to be evangelical but I do believe everyone should practice good list-making because I think everyone should take responsibility for their own effectiveness. I’ve encountered too many people who spend more time telling you how incredibly busy they are than they spend actually doing something about it. And that’s just annoying.

1. Put it on a list
2. Do it
3. Strike-through
4. Feel the joy

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Music – the value of listening

My husband bought some second hand LPs on Brick Lane Market recently and one of them contained this inner sleeve which carries a CBS label advertisement enticingly titled ‘Here’s how records give you more of what you want.’

Reading the copy it seems it was written around the time of cassettes entering the market and the ad was designed to ward off this new threat to LP sales. It highlights virtues such as ‘convenient and easy to handle’, claiming you can ‘go anywhere with them.’

It’s easy to scoff at the lack of vision here but consider also, the alleged incident in which a Sony Records executive stood up in front of a music industry conference circa 2002 and, in answer to a query about whether Sony were developing new digital formats for music which would be more convenient to consumers, held up a CD and angrily declared, ‘We’ve already invented the best format for recorded music. It’s THIS!’

What both these examples illustrate, as well as short-sightedness, is how geared the music industry is toward selling the physical object rather than the content.

My first job on arriving in London in my early 20s was on the customer service desk at the front of Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus. Among the many weird and delightful queries we used to get, were regular complaints about the price of records, usually accompanied with the remark ‘A CD costs less than £1. So how come, you’re selling them for £14.99?’. Even consumers were forgetting that they were paying for the music on the CD and not just the CD itself.

Perhaps both consumers and the industry alike have always believed recorded music should be free and that what we pay for is the method of delivery. Looking back at the history of record marketing, we see that record labels have staked everything on an individual physical product sold to each member of the audience as being the way music will always be paid for.

This makes sense when you consider that record labels only came into existence when it became possible to record and press vinyl. Before recording and the affordable distribution of these recordings, no ‘recording industry’.

Recorded music is not going to disappear anytime soon. What is changing is the way in which it will be distributed and listened to. And how that distribution and listening, as well as the recording that makes it possible, will be paid for.

In a New York Times interview in 2002, David Bowie, said this: “Copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years time… [music] will become like running water or electricity.” There are many reasons to love David Bowie. His ability to predict the future is just one of them.

I don’t believe that copyright will disappear (although even now lawyers are frantically penning new definitions of it) but I do believe this idea of music ‘in the cloud’ is a likely winner as the dominant means of distribution and consumption in the coming years.

Developing and testing of this model is already well under way by businesses such as Spotify and Last FM among others. It’s too early to predict who will be the first to get the model right but who ever does will likely win big.

As these online music-serving businesses improve, consumers will benefit from increased convenience and choice. It won’t stop some people from illicitly exchanging digital music files but it will reduce the incentive to do so if all the music they want is available for a relatively cheap subscription fee.

Recording artists will also benefit as the ‘long tail’ effect makes it easier for them to distribute their music and build an audience. There are still negotiations to be made over renumeration – if the fees paid to artists continue to be similar to what they currently collect for broadcast and public plays, it will be a tough way to make a living for all but the very, very popular – but however the pot ends up being divided it's unlikely to be worse than the deal they get with traditional recording contracts.

The biggest effect will be felt by the major labels who will see nothing like the revenue they have enjoyed from CD sales over the past three decades. Not to mention the huge investments in pressing plants that they will have to write off. As I’ve said before, I don’t particularly care about whether the old companies survive. I’m more interested in how new ones adapt and, of course, how musicians and other professionals continue to earn a living. To avoid digressing too much, I’m going to devote a separate post to my vision of life after major labels and here, return to life after ‘physical product’.

As consumers, we will gain more choice and convenience, but what will we miss?

A recent survey conducted by UKMusic on 14-24 year olds found that ownership is still important. For the most part, teenagers are using downloads and file-sharing as a way to research which artists they really want to spend their limited income on. This is pretty much the same way that we used mix-tapes when I was a teenager.

So kids will be accessing their favourite music when and wherever they want in exchange for either listening to ads or a small monthly subscription, (probably less than their monthly mobile phone bill or in some cases, included in it). But they will still want to own something to make them feel part of the tribe and announce their status as a true fan. This will most likely be merchandise – t-shirts, badges posters, as well as, I imagine, increasingly clever added-value ideas such as access to member-only content or exclusive events. All of which will give artists new ways to make money.

For people like me (we are a small but ardent minority, who I believe will be well represented among readers of this blog), what we will miss most will be the sleeves – the wonderful examples of graphic design and photography that traditionally grace the booklets and covers of LPs and CDs. And the sleeve notes (I am an unashamed, cover-to-cover reader of liner notes. Right down to who played additional high-hats on track three and all the personal thank yous. Sad but true.)

But we must be careful not to let nostalgia make us biased. I was a child of the CD era. I clearly remember people bemoaning the demise of the 12” LP sleeve as the being death to great record sleeve design. But some of my favourite graphic design of all time has been made for CD covers and booklets. Think of the work of Ben Drury, Julian House or Kim Hiorthøy.

While I admit that the iTunes thumbnail is not an inspiring canvas, I'm confident that designers and musicians will continue to work together and come up with new ways to express the visual culture of music.

I was delighted recently by this idea – selling a beautifully designed sleeve note booklet to accompany an MP3 download. I would be perfectly happy to disband my sizable CD collection in favour of a harddrive full of music and a library of small, beautifully designed booklets.

Sadly another loss may be the record store. A recent visit to Amoeba Music in LA reminded me of the pure pleasure of ‘flipping through the racks’. But equal to this is the new joy of being able to mention a track you haven’t heard for years over dinner on Friday night and immediately find it online to listen to.

In the last ten years the way in which we acquire and listen to music has gone through significant changes. My prediction is that in the coming years it will change completely. There will always be value in recorded music but how that value is extracted and distributed is in for an almighty reshuffle. Major labels will not survive in their current form (in a forthcoming post, I will tell you my reasons for believing this) but for consumers, artists and anyone wanting to start an independent record label, it is an exciting time.

I wonder if the disappearance of the physical formats, rather than devaluing music, will put consumers closer to artists and refocus our attention on the value of the real product – the simple joy of listening to music.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The magic 90/10

One of my favourite ideas for life was given to me in casual conversation by the very great photographer Laurence Haskell.

He was describing his process to me. When setting up a shot, he explained, it generally took him 10% of the time to get it looking 90% right, then 90% of the time to make it that last 10% better.

His constant frustration was that clients rarely understood this and would wonder why he was taking so long when things looked ‘perfectly fine’ to them. The explanation always came when they saw the final shot. What he had done in that last 10% was the difference between a good shot and a really great one.

I loved this idea so much I wrote it into our employee handbook at This is Real Art. I think it can be applied to almost anything.

The problem is – and this is what prevents so much mediocracy from becoming greatness – that this last 10% requires such a disproportionate amount of effort that it is often hard to justify.

It’s also risky. Sometimes it takes even longer and sometimes that final push yields not very much. If 90/10 is a hard ratio to sell what about 95/5, 99/1 or worse? On a practical level these kind of odds are hard to plan for in budget, time and resources.

But we’ve all had moments where just when you feel you can’t do any more a great break-though comes. So how do you know when you’ve done enough?

My general rule is not to stop when it’s painful. Actual physical discomfort is usually a sign that I need to push on. If I’m enjoying myself too much, it’s possible I’m tinkering and it’s time to put down the tools. I’m aware this makes me sound like a bit of a martyr but in any endeavour that requires tricky problem solving, this has proven to be a good strategy.

The reality is that most of us, most of the time, don’t do the extra 10%. So, risky and painful as it may be, it almost always pays off as a way to stand out from the crowd.

Next time you’re planning a project take a leaf out of Laurie’s book: assume 90/10 will be the ratio and allow for it. That, and practice not stopping at the hard bit. Easier said than done but worth giving a go.

Friday, May 7, 2010

To free or not to free

Personally, I blame Napster.

They may have started all this by planting the idea of free stuff over the internet firmly in consumers’ minds. Big Music made a huge and short sighted mistake in not doing a deal and legitimising Napster early on before the expectation of free music really took hold but Napster made themselves difficult to deal with by not understanding their own business objectives. On one hand they were talking about pay-for-play deals with labels and on the other, they were fighting the very notion of copyright in the courts. They either thought the music should be free or not and if so, they needed to find another way to support themselves. (There is a wonderfully detailed account of all this dithering in Steve Knopper’s excellent book Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age')

Was there a turning point in the early days of the internet in which businesses could have rallied around pay-for-play models and turned the tide of consumer expectation for free before it really took hold? I doubt it, the early days of the internet were far too heady and chaotic for anyone to strategise in this way.

Most businesses, understandably, went for the ‘get enough eyeballs and the money will come’ approach because it was easier and quicker to achieve than trying to work out which business models would win in the long term.

It was a land grab and even now, with benefit of more than 10 years hindsight, it’s hard to see any pattern in who the winners and losers have been.

Today, it has become obvious that ‘eyeballs’ alone do not equal value and there is a lot of foot-stamping and hand-wringing over who’s gonna pay for all this.

As online audiences are becoming more discerning and there probably are many who would be willing to pay if it got them exactly what they want, there is a feeling that it’s too late because online consumers have learnt to expect stuff to be free.

For the purpose of this article, I’m putting aside businesses that sell ‘stuff’, (as in things you used to buy in shops but now have the option to buy online) and am thinking about the future of businesses that provide services, entertainment and information (i.e. content) of the kind that is currently available all over the internet for free.

I love wikipedia. Almost every day I’m delighted and grateful that it exists and I don’t believe it could exist in any other way than it does currently. But this model won’t and can’t work for everything online.

In a recent post on Wired Pen, Kathy E. McGill convincingly argues that the content carried in newspapers and magazines has always been free. The cover price pays for the delivery method (i.e., printing and paper) not the journalism. By this argument, the online analogy would be that we pay a small access fee to cover the ‘delivery’ (i.e. administering of the website, coding etc) and that online publications still carry advertising to cover the cost of the journalism. This model doesn’t help the consumer (preferably we want stuff either free or ad-free, not neither) and it also doesn’t help the advertisers who will continue to find the efficacy of their easily-ignored banner ads dwindle at an alarming rate.

So do we put everything behind a subscription wall and make the entry fee high enough to cover the cost of the delivery and the content? My guess is this will work for some publications and not for others. And this is a good thing. Let the consumer weed out what they feel is worth paying for and what not. (Rolling Stone magazine’s recent launch of their entire back issue archive online for a fee is a wonderful foray into this idea.)

But this won’t work for everything either. There is too much competition from people (such as bloggers) who are more than willing to give their content away for free because it serves some other purpose for them.

I don’t particularly care about whether or not the traditional big media survive the transition to online. There will be plenty of exciting new businesses to take their place if they don’t. But I do care about the clever and talented professional people (journalists, authors, film directors, photographers, musicians etc) who create the content.

If these content creators want to continue to earn a decent living in the online era it is looking increasingly like they will need to become entrepreneurial in managing their careers in order to survive.

Jancis Robson, one of the world’s foremost wine experts splits her writing time largely between being wine critic for the FT (a very prestigious and ‘career’ job for a journalist) and creating content for her own (part free, part subscription) website. I was fascinated to learn recently that subscriptions for her website currently earn her around double what writing for the FT does. This is just one of many examples I’ve come across of professional content-creators turning entrepreneur to boost their earnings.

The internet is a delightfully complex beast. It can accommodate, and increasingly will require, many different business models.

There’ll be more pay-for-access, more ‘freemium’, more opportunities for micro-payments through things like Amazon’s Affiliates, more ad-funded sites (but increasingly using consumer-driven platforms involving interaction and choice) and many new ideas and models that no-one has thought of yet. And of course, loads more great free stuff.

Everyone with a large stake in content-ownership is trying to work out which horse to back but I don’t think there will be any clear winners. Probably the best bet for content-owners and creators is to – like any good investor –diversify. A bit of income from this, a bit of income from that.

No doubt it will be a bumpy ride. Businesses, advertisers, content-makers and consumers alike will be muddling through these issues for quite some time yet. As Clay Shirky explains in his brilliant article ‘Newspapers - Thinking the Unthinkable,' the fall out from revolutions can last for many years.

This, of course is not good news for large businesses who are burdened with costly infrastructure and need a solution soon to survive. But it’s great news for clever and brave people who are willing and ready to have a lot of fun trying out all the new possibilities.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Selling-in without selling-out

I’ve just finished reading Dirty Little Secrets’ by Sharon Drew Morgan. The book, which is subtitled ‘Why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell’ is more long-winded than is necessary for its premiss but it contains some interesting thoughts nonetheless.

The basic idea is this: most of the time when a sales lead runs cold it is to do with reasons connected to, but beyond the basic reach of, the solution that is being sold. Morgan hypothesizes that if sales people spend more time understanding the internal issues of the business they are attempting to sell to, they can help their buyer navigate potential hurdles and therefore increase the chances of ultimately closing the sale.

It sounds obvious. And it is. But Morgan is right in thinking that not enough energy and resources are dedicated (on both the seller and the buyer side) to figuring out and preemptively dealing with, issues that may get in the way of implementing a particular solution.

We are all familiar with being left scratching our heads over what happened when a great prospect is suddenly not returning our calls for (what seems like) no reason.

Morgan’s book is directed mostly at large business-to-business contracts but I think this idea is applicable to the relationship between agencies and clients and the selling-in of creative solutions.

Any person who has worked in new business for a design or advertising agency will tell you how much time and energy it takes to close a deal even when the client seems to be very willing to
work with you.

The part I’m interested in here is what happens next after the contract is signed and we move from selling mode to doing mode. We tend to think the ‘selling’ part is over and we can now concentrate entirely on the problem at hand. But every time we present work to a client at every stage of a project, we are (or should be) selling not just our creative ideas but the solutions required to implement them.

In my experience agencies almost always underestimate the time and resources this part of the process will take. And as a result budgets and schedules overrun and frustration on both sides boils over.

Think of the situation where you’ve fought hard to win a job. You’ve thrown everything you had at it, bowled the client over in the pitch presentation, sealed the deal and drunk the champagne and now you get down to the really fun part of doing the job. Your team knuckles under and comes up with what is arguably the perfect solution to the problem that the client has commissioned you to solve. The first presentation goes well. The client loves your solution and is excited about taking it back to discuss with the rest of his team. Two weeks later you get a call saying they need to discuss some ‘changes’ and here begins the age old client/agency arm wrestle to try to get your work implemented in the way that you originally intended.

Both the client and the agency are at fault here for underestimating the amount of upfront work that still needed to be done. I believe we will increase the efficacy of our creative solutions and reduce the amount of wasted cost and heartache if we all (both agency and client) get better at doing the ground work.

I’ve heard tell that Pentagram have a policy of not undertaking any project unless they can deal directly with the head of the company. This is a very good policy and one that makes it much easier to get good work implemented. But it’s a policy that you can insist on if you are an entity with the heritage and reputation of Pentagram. If you are a small agency or one just starting out, this will be almost impossible to achieve in many cases. The alternative is to start the project with some very serious conversations with your immediate client on what the chain of approval will be and make sure they understand that secondhand feedback passed down from above will not be helpful to anyone. A good boss will either be in the meetings or will trust their team enough to delegate the decisions.

But it’s not just about internal approval. There are often real, practical hurdles to getting a solution implemented no matter now perfect it is for the problem at hand.

I worked with a client recently who asked us to redesign their corporate website. In the information architecture stage we came up with a solution based on improving user-experience which required a completely different approach to customer segmentation than the one they had been using for many years. The clients in the marketing department who commissioned us loved the solution and were eager to implement it but a rearranging of how their customers where segmented lead to a rearranging of how their product portfolio was sold which meant retraining and reconfiguring a global sales team. All of this is good, important stuff but as the creative agency it means the development of the website and hence the final payment of your fee could be delayed for a long time. Thankfully, due to the determination and persistence of the client team, this particular project turned out well but these situations can bring small-to-medium agencies to their knees financially.

Any really good, significant creative work will bring about some change in the organisation it is designed for.

Before embarking on any important project both agency and commissioning client should ask themselves ‘Are we really ready and able to apply all the effort that will be required to make this change?’. And by ‘this change’ we need to be looking at it in the context of all the connected changes that will also be needed.

At the risk of repeating myself, you cannot overestimate how long this part of the process will take. You should budget for it and schedule for it and not even let your creatives switch on their Macs until you can brief them on the full range of problems surrounding the one you have been commissioned to solve. And, more importantly, be willing to keep solving new issues as they come up at every stage until the project
is complete.

My advice to creatives is, if you are not good at, or just don’t want to, get your hands really dirty in your client’s business in this way then hire someone who can. Either that or accept the fact that you will come out of many meetings saying ‘We’ve given them a perfectly good solution so why they hell won’t they just buy it?!’

My advice to clients is try to think about all the chain-reactions you are about to set off before you commission a creative solution and make sure you have the access and the resources to manage them. And once you’ve begun the project, allow your agency the access and resources to help you implement the best solutions.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Empty Words

I read about the fabulous idea of Empty Miles on the PSFK website. There, is it described as:

“A site that matches a company’s trucks that are returning empty with another company’s potential cargo that can be collected and delivered along the return route."


But then I went to the Empty Miles website and read their opening line:

“Empty Miles is a powerful new online backhaul solution that enables a collaborative business process for identifying transportation efficiency opportunities between trading partners.”

Did anyone else fall asleep before they got to the end of that sentence?

Why do companies do that?

I’ve spent hours of my life rewriting copy for clients who write like they’ve swallowed a thesaurus, an engineering manual and an MBA text book, then vomited them all onto the page.

All business people should learn how to write in good, straight-forward, plain language. It’s just not that hard.

My tip to clients is usually to read your copy out loud then ask yourself, would you explain it like that to a friend in the pub? If not, then don’t write it down.

Or follow George Orwell’s 6 Rules for Good Writing, which are beautifully simple and relevant in all situations:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The future: no more bad ads.

Is it getting harder to advertise boring brands?

In Patrick Collings’ Brand Architect blog post this morning, he discusses some recent advertising ‘game changers’ including Twitter’s Sponsored Tweets and Facebook's ever-adapting ways to put adverting in the control of its consumers.

I’ve been thinking (and hoping) a lot lately about it getting increasingly hard to get away with crap advertising.

Everyone knows that the shift away from broadcast media and the innovations in the way online ads are targeted and created will make consumer censoring of ads even easier but are we really prepared for what we will have to do to deal with it? Ads will certainly need to be more creative and entertaining to get people to watch them but this alone won’t be enough.

With online formats that require interaction with ads, such as rating and recommending, it will become increasingly difficult to create effective advertising unless people love your brand enough to become advocates.

This will create a problem for a lot of brands. Particularly the sort of consumer products which traditionally spend the most on advertising. How do you get people to love your breakfast cereal so much that they feel compelled to tell people about it on their Facebook page?

This leads me on to one of my other pet topics – you can’t make good ads about boring products.

When I’m traveling for business I like to look at all the ads you see in airports for things like investment companies and consulting firms. You know the ones with a dramatic landscape picture and a copy line saying something like ‘Together we are going places.’ It’s hard to imagine who could create ads that bad and pointless until you think that perhaps these businesses just don’t have anything else to say. Perhaps their services are so indistinguishable from each other that their ads have to be too.

Seth Goddin sums all this up better than I can in his book ‘The Purple Cow’. But it comes down to making sure your product is really worth selling before you worry about how to sell it.

Maybe I’m idealistic but I see a bright future in which it will become impossible not only to make bad ads but that products which are not useful, exciting and individually distinguishable will become impossible to market and therefore cease to exist.

Bring it on.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

But is it Art?

When I received Adrian Shaughnessy's tweet ‘Can computer games be art?’ and the referenced arguments by Roger Edbert and Kellee Santiago, I happened to be also watching an episode of Top Gear (I like to multi-task) in which Clarkson and gang decide to stage an art exhibition of their own car-related artwork including a BMW on which they have hand painted the insides of the car (engine parts etc) on the outside of the car and a crash-test dummy positioned in the pose of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’.

They ask an art critic to come an evaluate the work and when he tells them it has no artistic merit whatsoever Clarkson replies ‘thank you for your opinion but I am going to choose to ignore it.’

Clarkson is right. Anything can be called art. It just depends on what your definition of art is.

Personally I found the Top Gear exhibition rather amusing and I am ambivalent about computer games but I’m also relatively unmoved by many great examples of ‘High Art’ (Monet) and reduced to tears on the spot by others (Velasquez).

There are many wonderful conversations to be had about art (and computer games, pop music, opera, poetry etc) but arguing over the definition itself is a pointless exercise and one that is only undertaken by people who have a vested interest in elitism. They are protecting their own position relative to the elite either by keeping others out or by trying to get themselves in. Either way it's a waste of time.

Santiago has some wonderful things to say about the industry she works in but she says in this speech that having video games accepted as 'Art' will help justify her existence. This, of course is nonsense. All her arguments about the merits of and problems with video games are just as interesting and relevant whether they are accepted by people like Roger Edbert or not.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


I've spent the last two nights in the Holiday Inn at JFK courtesy of British Airways and Eyjafjallajökull the Icelandic Volcano.

Truly an example of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan. All the technological advances in the world and the whole of Europe can be ground to a halt by something that's been happening since the dawn of time. These events humble us.

There has been a rather jolly atmosphere in the hotel as we gather for our nightly complimentary buffet. Probably because the strandees are mostly holidaying Brits in I-heart-NY t-shirts and the Brits, as grumpy as they usually are, really cheer up at the oportunity for 'blitz mentality'.

I was accosted in the lobby by a reporter from the New York Post who asked me how this event had impacted my life. When I told her it was just a bit inconvenient, she said she was looking for a real story, someone who's life had been 'turned upside down'. I don't think she
had much luck.

There have been many reasons to dislike BA over the past few years – high prices, bad service and strikes – but I can say that in this situation they have responded well. Each morning there is a note under the door of our hotel room letting us know that we are guests of BA for another night. They are laying on a pretty good breakfast each morning and a passable buffet dinner each night. We've seen angry Virgin Atlantic customers in the lobby furious at being told the airline was only paying for one night and one meal and now they are on their own.

True to their brand heritage British Airways have responded to this emergency with pure Britishness. That is to say 'When the chips are down, you really want to be with us.' If BA can find a way to use this kind of brand integrity across everything they do, it may just save them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Imagine the business plan

In his keynote speech at the PSFK conference on Friday, Rob Walker, while introducing his delightful Significant Objects project, mentioned how hopeless the undertaking had seemed when he first thought of it. He then went on to discuss, with several examples, his fondness for seemingly hopeless projects that have worked out.

This reminded me of a game l like to play called ‘Imagine the Business Plan’. This involves, as the name of the game would suggest, imaging how ludicrus the pitch would have sounded at the inception of some of my favourite, brave and innovative businesses.

An example: St John restaurant in East London. Imagine the business plan –

"I’m an unknown chef who has never had a restaurant before. I’m going to buy a disused smokery near a functioning meat market in a part of town where there are no other restaurants, in fact, not really any businesses of any kind and no residential property. We’re not going to decorate it really, just clean the cement floors, paint the walls white and put some tables and chairs from an old school in there. And we're going to serve mostly offal. Yes, that’s right, venison hearts, pig spleen stuff like that. And anything else that nobody really likes to eat like duck gizzards and squirrel. Oh and it’s going to be quite expensive."

St John restaurant now has a Michelin star and has been voted one of the top 10 restaurants in the world for the past few years.

If you’ve never been there, go. If I’m in London at the time, I’ll likely be propping up the bar with a glass of champagne and a plate of bone marrow in front of me.

I might make ‘Imagine the Business Plan’ an occasional series on this blog. Please feel free to contribute suggestions.

DIY logo

A link to this article caused some very angry posts on the Art Director's Club linkedin discussion over the weekend.

The article - which 'advises' budding entrepreneurs on how to choose a logo for their business by analysing the common attributes of the Business Week Top 100 Global Brands - is far too silly to get upset about. The advice is so pedestrian that any 'entrepreneur' who knows so little about branding and business as to find any of it helpful, has a lot more to worry about than the design of their logo.

But I do think there is some validity to helping clients learn a bit more about the governing principles designers use to make decisions. When I write my long threatened book called 'How To Be A Client', it will certainly contain a chapter on some of the simple explanations this article supplies like "A logo should look just as good in 15-foot letters on top of company headquarters as it does one sixteenth of an inch tall on company stationery".

To us this is so obvious as to seem laughable but I've had to explain this kind of thing to clients in meetings many times (usually accompanied by much teeth-gnashing and eye-rolling from the designers in the room). So much of the pain in client/creative relationships is to do with clients feeling mystified by the 'black art' of design and designers' interest in preserving this mystery in a misguided belief that it will protect the value of their work.

Just because clients understand a bit more about what we do, doesn't mean they can do it themselves. This is beautifully demonstrated by the self-made logo example in the article, which is, by anyone's standards, completely shit.

I believe, in fact, clients will value designers more if we let them understand a bit more about the highly nuanced and complex process we go through to create great work.

The message: don't worry about idiots who think they can choose the colour of their own logo. These are the clients none of us want. But for the clients you do want, let them in a bit more and flatter them with the assumption that they do understand how good you are.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Someone has gone to the trouble of collating hundreds of anti-Obama designs (mostly in reference to the health reform bill) one web page.

On the surface of it, these are hilarious. And it’s kind of hard to imagine they weren’t devised with at least the tip of a tongue in the cheek. But it is scary how little the two sides of divided America understand each other and how willing both sides are to swallow scare tactics. (The anti-Palin merchandise on Café Press fairs slightly better in the humour stakes, and considering how bizarre she truly is, is slightly more accurate than the Obama-bashing but still suggests that she is taken more seriously than she deserves.)

I’m not saying the average Brit is any more politically well-informed but at least the voting public of the UK are largely aware that there is little between the major parties' policies that will have catastrophic impact on their lives. Now, being such a nation of such moderates leads to a political apathy that has many problems of its own (general election on May 6, whatever). But at least it doesn’t foster this great fear of the ‘other’ that seems to be endemic on the extreme ends of American culture.