Category Archives: Conferences

This was one of the best sessions I attended @sxsw 2014: @tceb62 @joi on the future of making

This was amongst the best sessions I attended at SXSW this year; the video’s just been released – Joi Ito and Tim Brown on the Future of Making.

Some highlights relevant to this talk that I spoke about at the SXSW-themed IPA 44 Club event earlier this week:

The very definition of a product has changed with the evolution of technology. I’m a big fan of the work coming out of the MIT Media Lab, where they are actively challenging what it means to make. The interesting thing about wearable sensors, which the Affective Computing group at MIT is looking at, is not only how these sensors can understand our emotions but the insight we can get into human behaviour, which the group is using to design better experiences. For example, brands can design how to set up the right motivation scenarios because people always have to decide what to pick (if your competitors’ product’s aren’t there then they have no reference point and behave differently).  The Mediated Matter group is looking at 3D printing with objects of varying density – and 4D printing too. These materials can help us avoid wasting resources when we 3D print objects that are not of uniform density. The Self Assembly Group is looking at industrial applications of materials that literally build themselves when the right amount of energy and pressure is applied. Bioengineering was in fact repeatedly referred to as the future: Joi Ito said it would be as ubiquitous soon as the internet is today, it is growing as an industry at 6 times the rate of Moore’s Law – so one to watch. IDEO is also working with MIT to translate this work into simple concepts that are easier to grasp so I encourage you to take a look at their site Made in the Future.

One of the issues of the Industrial Revolution was that it was hard to design through making – you couldn’t really design while at a factory, where products were churned out. But that’s changing. The ability to contribute to design changes with the materials used: MIT sends students to Shenzhen to make things right there in the factory, A/B testing hardware live!

With every product that you make and sell, you are adding to culture. Think about that as marketers and as agencies.

Things I learnt from @advertisingweek #AWEurope

Last week I popped in to a few sessions at Advertising Week Europe. Key themes:


The master and the tool: A panel of well-known female editors and publishers spoke about how we need to learn to live in harmony with technology without depending on it too much. The Huffington Post’s servers apparently went down during Hurricane Sandy, so they shifted all of their content to Facebook, Twitter and Rebelmouse and they were able to continue posting as if the site was still up. The interesting thing is that because of the social interaction, they got record traffic when the site was back up again. Brands need to think about building communities and not just content and commerce in today’s times. Commercial ends will be served very well by building communities of interest.

Think global always: This was from an Industry Index panel with a Senior Manager working on Growth Companies at PWC and the Chief Data Officer of Mediabrands. The internet has erased almost every boundary, especially for startups and ideas. When a startup launches in a specific market, they need to be thinking internationally from day one because sooner rather than later, if they want to grow, they will need to expand beyond their home market and will need to learn about things like tax implications, automating media plans across markets with similar technology maturity levels, patent trolls and so on.


Defining value: One of the panels I went to had 5 agency founders who’d all sold their companies chatting about what makes a good acquisition and a good sale. A key point that stuck in my mind was the importance of always adding value to the business to increase its appeal as a brand. This can be done in different ways: clients, employees, the work itself to name a few. Value was also referred to in emotional terms: when the founders sold they sold at an amount they were emotionally comfortable with, which differs for different founders even within the same agency. As with any purchase, the panel also suggested avoiding haggling too much because it takes away from the whole process. They also spoke about having someone keep an eye on the work throughout, because during a sale there are so many things to pay attention to that often the work suffers (inadvertently potentially bringing down the value in some cases). And finally, they spoke about value in terms of partnership and teamwork and suggested getting the best people on board with them during the sale such that they benefit as well. Good karma etc.


The wisdom of the crowds and identifying patterns: Probably my favourite talk (apart from the PHD one of course!) was the one by Oxford University mathematician Marcus du Sautoy (he has a site built in Flash though, oops!). He drew a parallel between mathematicians as pattern searchers, the basic building block of algorithms.  He showed us sets of numbers and asked us to identify what the pattern was; some were easy enough, like the Fibonacci series, others had no way of being identified as a set unless you really knew the information beforehand: the winning numbers in the Euromillions on September 28 for example. He made the point that people always tend to think in terms of themselves and their universe as opposed to generalised information – they get too close to the content and can’t identify patterns because of their emotional investment in some cases. He also mentioned some really interesting experiments, notably the dead ox experiment by Francis Galton in 1906, which proved that the wisdom of the crowds was actually much closer to the actual answer than one would have thought. However, he said, the wisdom of the crowds only works when the problem in question has been carefully thought about; it’s the reason some projects on Kickstarter are successful incredibly quickly and others struggle. I thought that was very interesting.

The modern CMO’s challenges: Being agency side, I was keen to know what some very senior marketers from a range of brands thought of the challenge of marketing today (William Hill, Pernod Ricard, Britvic, RSA). The first topic of discussion was how the role of the CMO and the Chief Information Officer need to be linked together almost as partners. Technology is such a huge part of marketing that it can’t sit separately anymore. They also spoke about the importance of marketers spending time with technology companies; Diageo took the entire board to Silicon Valley to meet startups there and understand how they were working with many brands.

The relationship of the agency and the client was also discussed in no uncertain terms. In many cases it is a partnership of non-equals which is not at all ideal. Clients want people who work on their accounts to live and breathe the brand and many agencies just put their junior people on it, not that that’s a problem per se but in some cases there are those who don’t really have any affiliation for the brand whatsoever. Interesting anecdote from the William Hill CMO who asked the agency whether the team working on his account betted, and none of them did, chowing a clear lack of interest and therefore likely understanding, of his business. The panel spoke about revenue targets being as much a part of the agency’s KPI’s as the CMO’s could make a difference and make them have more skin in the game, which I thought was interesting – because I don’t think that that’s a popular model in the business yet though it should be. The importance of constantly bringing new ideas to the table was discussed – CMOs might reject them but it has the potential to push the overall brand thinking higher up.

Content marketing took a solid knock as the CMOs said that providing a service to the customer is the key role of marketing and unless content serves that goal, ultimately helping to sell product, it is pointless.

The power of the network was a topic that I haven’t heard too many people at the top talk about. The Marketing Academy was recommended for its role in getting marketers together as it rarely happens in a social situation (two of the people on the panel had gone through the programme). The panel said they need to hang out more together so they learn from each other on an ongoing basis. (On a side note, it’s why we started Ada’s List, to help women get a peer group and network they wouldn’t otherwise have access to).

Someone asked a great question at the end: what the panel’s biggest mistake was. I have always found that the best leaders give really illuminating answers to that question. But at the event that  turned more into a list of things they value (still useful!). In no specific order, these were:

-          The importance of curiosity and always asking what makes your business work as this will change with time and technology

-          The relationship between marketing and procurement – the latter will always be driving costs down but if you have a good relationship with them they will understand why you need to spend on talent for example

-          The importance of diversity for creativity, both gender and ethnic diversity, so that the brand stays in sync with the needs of different people and not just a homogenous set.

I think I picked a good set of sessions to attend overall. Lots of things to think about.

And that’s a wrap: @SXSW 2014, chapter closed (for now!)

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It was one crazy week in Austin. Forget the BBQ, tacos and margaritas. We’re talking ideas that are hugely thought-provoking (privacy, data, authenticity), prototypes that make you wonder if you’re going forward or backwards (Deloitte’s wearable technology was heavy and unfriendly, tethered to a cable that controlled a projected screen) and people who were incredibly inspiring (MIT Media Lab, I salute you).

I wrote a post a day from the trenches for the IPA and PHD blogs, so if you’re interested go on over.

Here’s a pre-SXSW post. Here’s Day 1. Day 2. Day 3. Day 4. And a summary post with 10 quotes that I remembered best.

Social design in a world of digital complexity cc @always__curious

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Earlier this week I was at the V&A Museum to listen to Vinay Venkatraman, CEO of design & innovation company Leapcraft and previously of the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, speak about design complexity in the digital age.

He took us through some of his research work from India, narrating some intriguing observations that he came across. In Mumbai, for example, he observed that in a back alley, a big company had thrown out dozens of old computer monitors, and people were taking them away, putting CRT tuner kits into them, converting them into TVs and taking them into rural areas to sell them with a warranty, for as little as (the equivalent of) 30 euros! The interesting thing is that the knowledge transfer (hence the warranty) became as much a part of the design process as the actual hacking of the computer screen, and is a huge part of creating sustainable products.

This is something that bears more thinking about: how often do manufacturers think about how the user will make a product her own after purchasing it? Because surely the more confident a person is as an owner, the more weight that product or brand has in the market. I have plenty of objects in my house that are languishing in a corner because I do not feel fully confident in my ability to make them work properly; a definite waste of resources.

Two projects of his that he mentioned that I thought were really interesting were the Tele-Panchayat, a public phone installed in an Indian corner shop that doubled up as a democratic voting booth of sorts (it wasn’t looked upon too kindly by local politicians, for obvious reasons), and Clock Sense, an old alarm clock hacked to indicate how serious an illness is, for rural health workers to be able to assess the seriousness of patients’ diseases. Pictorial in nature, it meant the health workers, mostly educated till Class 10 or 12 and not formally trained as doctors, didn’t find it a problem to understand what they needed to do.

Image via Frugal Digital
‘Clock Sense’. Image via Frugal Digital.

He also mentioned a couple of controversial but very true observations, at least in my point of view.

One, that design schools don’t emphasise collaborative design much. Today’s most interesting projects couldn’t have been built by any one designer. The halo-ed designer who has full control over a project doesn’t exist anymore, and not enough people talk about that.

The second point came up during the Q&A session, and it was asked by someone who was involved with the Restart Project in London: how can makers in the West learn to have more  of a sense of maintaining and re-purposing existing products? Vinay responded (and I realised as he was speaking that he was saying something I’ve had at the back of my mind for a long time), that ‘making’ has acquired a cult status in the West, when the fact remains that it isn’t necessary for people here to make everything. You can buy a lot of things instead of making them. He agreed with the principle of refurbishing products but not hacking for the sake of hacking. In the developing world,  it is necessity which is truly the mother of invention – people hack products because they have to, as they seek to improve the quality of their lives. The tools and techniques of the West are just not available, and more importantly, cost is a huge consideration.

In a lot of work that I see today (and I am absolutely no expert), the designer is still placed on a pedestal, and a lot of things simply don’t need to be made. They’re fun, but they’re vanity projects more than anything else (like a lot of advertising, actually). Don’t get me wrong – I agree that there is dignity in making one’s own things, as there is in more basic, day-to-day stuff – cooking, for example, and you do learn independence. But the context is very, very different – let’s not kid ourselves about that.

A good understanding of local know-how is crucial in building something that is actually used and stops being a show-piece on a shelf; Vinay himself said that the only real measure of success for his products is how many of them you can see in the field. As with the recent debate about the internet of things, we need to stop and ask ‘why’ more often as a society and especially as the marketing industry. Additionally, knowledge needs to be de-concentrated: Seeed Studio in Shenzhen supplies the hardware to the vast majority of the maker community in the west, and they are sharing knowledge gained from one project so others can benefit. This in itself is turning out to be a profitable model for them:

“When a maker asks Seeed to build a circuit board, the firm keeps a copy of the design which can then be used without charge by other customers. Most factories in Shenzhen work for big customers and have long assembly lines where workers perform only one task. But makers typically want just a few items and are willing to pay more, so Mr Pan has split his employees into self-organising teams.”

Lastly, Corinna Gardner, Curator of Contemporary Product Design at the V&A, asked a thought-provoking question about how museums like the V&A could continue to collect interesting products to showcase in a world where data and know-how are becoming more important than actual objects. Vinay replied that the stories are becoming more important than the objects, and so showcasing the stories behind a product’s genesis could take precedence over showcasing objects (I’m thinking how that would affect an exhibition like Designs of the Year, which I’ve been going to annually for the last few years, and though an excellent collection of disparate objects somehow leaves me with the feeling that I’d like to know more about the back story behind the products displayed).

And in response to another question about where these stories could be uncovered: Kickstarter! As I’ve started shifting more of the money I contribute to projects from Kickstarter to Seedrs, looking at Kickstarter as a hunting ground for the objects of the future is a useful way to look at the platform, and makes it more appealing to me. Maybe Kickstarter should start marketing themselves that way!

The videos from @bodydataspace #womenshiftdigital are out

The videos from Body>Data>Space’s Women Shift Digital conference a few weeks ago are out. I was on a panel titled ‘The Added Value of Gender Balance’ on the day. The session itself wasn’t filmed – there were 3 panel discussions happening in parallel – but the summary of what we spoke about in all 3 panels is here:

Watch all the videos, including keynotes by MP Chi Onwurah, Head Stemette Anne-Marie Imafidon and founder of #techmums Sue Black, here.

My notes & slides from @thedrum #4minwarning this week cc @leemallon @duncancook @mattdesmier

This week, I spoke at The Drum conference 4 Minute Warning on how the modern workplace is changing. Here’s the transcript of my talk and the slides are below.

I did sociology and then social policy back when I was a student so the habit of observing people everywhere is sort of ingrained in me, in a sense. I was on the tube the other day and I saw a banker wearing these plastic shoe–protectors so his leather shoes wouldn’t get spoilt in the rain. And this headline just said so much about our obsession with celebrity!

But as much as we need to keep your eyes open, or at least as much as I like to think I keep mine open, as humans we have a tendency to miss a lot of stuff that is right under our eyes. I highly recommend reading Jan Chipchase’s Hidden in Plain Sight for an anthropological narrative of how this happens across the world.

We live in a state of constant beta, as Bruce Nussbaum, the design thinker & author said back in 2009.

A state of beta (and for any nuclear physics experts in the room, please forgive me) that is not dissimilar to nuclear transmutation, when the process of atomic decay transmutes one chemical element into another if both a proton and a neutron are part of the atom.

Similarly, even as we struggle to understand one element of technology, Microsoft Kinect’s IllumiRoom, for example, it will morph into something else, like the Oculus Rift. In fact at the conference earlier in the day someone demoed a £20 version of the Rift’s £250-ish device! A state of constant beta.

So, in this scenario, I think there’s a lot to learn from the way startups work. From tools like the business model canvas, which forces even the most confident entrepreneur or businessman to understand what their core business problems are that they’re trying to solve.

These are some of the companies that actually use the business model canvas – and you can see some pretty big names there.

What else do we need to know about the workplace? Well for one, people are unhappy. Upto 87% of people are disengaged with their work, according to research done by Gallup recently. So we need to find ways of making people feel happier at work, which is where they spend a lot of their time. Now a lot of game designers have done research into how introducing elements of gamification into work can help. PHD has its own planning system that takes this into account, called Source. We are working with game designer and author Jane McGonigal to refine our new it such that it not only encourages people to work as part of a global team, but gives them opportunities to feel the sentiment of flow that games bring – and anyone who’s won a game knows that feeling.

Source, our planning OS, also allows to ensure that underpinning our campaigns is a creative tool that takes things like channel planning and allows people to customise it to their client’s needs. And it allows people to see how they are part of a system that is larger than just their team.

Going back to the startup world, where we hear about the million and billion dollar exits all the time, it feels like, the wisest startups out there are those who are very clear about wanting to solve a problem – and that’s something every single company today should aim to do with their products and their marketing by default.

This is Oren Netzioni, a 6-time entrepreneur and the head of a non-profit research institute in Seattle. He recently said in the New York Times that money isn’t what motivates him.

And the smartest CEOs are thinking this way too. This is what Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, said in January this year at their shareholder’s meeting.

All that’s great, but a lot of us here probably work in medium-sized and big companies that have clear processes and structures in place, systems that have existed for decades. Most of them work fairly well – if you’ve worked at a Nike or Unilever then you understand the plethora of things that have to work for a product to get to market successfully and on time. I’ve had the privilege of working at Nike and I have immense respect for that process.

But increasingly, even within businesses like these, we’re seeing the rise of the intrapreneur – someone who is explicitly charged with taking the business to the next level even as the business’ top management focus on the day-to-day, people who have the spirit of an entrepreneur – but not as much of the liability. They might not be explicitly called an intrapreneur, in fact they may be a regular part of the marketing team, but they have a remit that goes above and beyond the traditional marketing job description.

Maggie de Pree is the co-founder of The League of Intrapreneurs, an organisation that was formed to provide a sense of identity and community to intrapreneurs – she and a few others noticed their growing tribe and strongly felt that knowing about other people’s stories is what it takes to make them be better at their jobs. I had a long conversation with her about why intrapreneurs are growing and how they can change business and society.

The idea of working ‘from’ an institution instead of ‘for’ an institution makes for a subtle but marked change in approach. When you work ‘from’ an institution the  institution itself becomes secondary and you’re working towards a goal that is bigger than a single product – the institution itself merely becomes the location. This ties back to what I said at the beginning, about companies having a purpose.

So when it comes to intrapreneurs, what drives them is the desire to make an impact. They want to be able to tell compelling stories through the companies they work for. The positive thing about intrapreneurs is that many of them stay within a big business because they believe that it can be a massive lever of change. It is a way of being: you see a problem and you want to change it. Because technology makes it much easier to do this, there are more and more people who will strongly feel that they want to create change.

And it doesn’t have to be a massive change that takes 8 months to get approved and another 6 to go live. It’s a lot like agile software development that I mentioned earlier but also has shades of the Indian philosophy of ‘jugaad’, a ‘frugal, flexible, and inclusive approach to problem solving and innovation’. Jugaad is, in effect, the culture that underpins agile thinking.

I love this quote from the book:

“The formalization and industrialization of R&D created a split between technologists and marketers. But if jugaad tells us anything, it is the centrality of understanding consumer needs and then working back – even if that’s as simple as deciding the price that people can afford. The consumer is front and center here, and marketers are central to driving the jugaad innovation process in the organization.”

Professor David Grayson does research on intrapreneurs and recently said this as well:

“Unlike social entrepreneurs, social Intrapreneurs, by definition, are working in and through large corporations. Like any entrepreneur, they can be disruptive and threatening to some people, and sometimes hard to manage. Yet the companies that can channel the energy and the drive and creativity of their “entrepreneurs within” will be tapping a vital, extra seam of ideas for new business opportunities. The best organisations already understand that not all their innovation is going to come from R&D centres and specialist New Business Development Units. They want every employee to be a virtual member of their R&D and Business Development teams!”

Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor made the distinction between three different kinds of innovation recently – and I mention this because one of them is the kind of innovation intrapreneurs embody, but most companies miss this: The first are “empowering” innovations. These transform complicated, costly products that previously had been available only to a few people, into simpler, cheaper products available to many. The second type are “sustaining” innovations. These replace old products with new. Electric cars for example, which are good for the environment but they replace petrol and diesel cars. The third type are “efficiency” innovations that bring down costs. These are process innovations – anything that displaces manual labour with machines, for example.

Now intrapreneurs, in case it isn’t obvious, focus on empowering innovations – but they take 5 or more years to pay off where efficiency innovations might take only 1. So people focus on the latter kind – but if you really want to change your business, and you have the resources, then focus on creating the change and culture that empowering innovations and people with the mindset of intrapreneurs can bring.

From GE to Vodafone to British logistics company ByBox, intrapreneurs are a tribe on the rise. The solutions they will bring about are not going to be quick fixes but long-term ones that could drive considerable business growth. The world of work, I hope I’ve convinced you, is changing – in a good way. The good news is that for those who really want to make an impact, there’s never been a better time.