My talk for @brilliantnoise’ #dotsconf recently

Long overdue – here’s what I said at the Dots innovation conference in early September.

A decade or so ago, I was a brand ambassador for Nike in Asia-Pacific. I had the chance to visit their stores in Australia on the one hand, a beautiful country with long coastlines and plenty of space, and go on runs with the local staff and understand what running and training meant to them. On the other, I needed to bring this spirit of sport to the stores in India, located in big and small towns in overcrowded cities, where sports shoes, so to speak, meant ‘casual shoes’. I started taking the shop assistants out on runs on those crowded roads, early in the mornings before the store officially opened, getting them to understand what the shoes they were meant to sell really were for. As you can imagine, it was not an easy task. They probably really really disliked me to start but in a few months they got why I was asking them to do it.

The reason I mention this is because over the last few years, I’ve been reminded time and time again how different different parts of the world are in reality and why those differences matter. Sitting in London, my team regularly encourage planners to think outside the London bubble.

Forcing ourselves to think outside the usual boundaries can shift our thinking in some pretty important ways. Consider some of the most popular books around creativity and innovation by people like Jonah Lehrer and Steven Johnson (for example). The people who read it, ‘us’, start sounding a lot like each other as a result. You know the examples they (and we) often quote, 3M, Nike+, Apple, Instagram, Airbnb – you know the pattern.

There’s a great Salon article from last year that puts it really well. Because we essentially read the same things, quote the same things, our ideas and thinking are often a bit too similar for comfort.

So, to help us move out of this cycle of creativity, so to speak, let’s look to other parts of the world, where things are changing pretty fast. Let’s start with Asia and Africa. Back in 2009, the web was already showing signs of rapid adoption there, but companies were struggling with profitability. Fast forward 5 years and there’s been a huge change, because there has also been a huge change in the socio-cultural make-up and the technological maturity of many of the countries in the East. A New York Times article in 2009 actually quotes a YouTube manager who said that people accessing YouTube in Asia were ‘eating up the bandwidth’ and they might need to consider significantly cutting access because they weren’t making enough money from them.

But a few years on that’s all changed. Not only has the momentum of growth continued, there is now a significant revenue upside as well – driven of course, as it is here, by advertising. The biggest reason of course is that Asia and Africa are probably the biggest adopters of mobile technology over the last few years, and that is only poised to grow, year-on-year.

And technology is the focus for governments in these regions as well.

So, there’s a huge opportunity in these parts of the world that a majority of companies, whether it’s a Unilever, Procter & Gamble or even an Airbnb, Uber or Facebook are scrambling over themselves to capitalise on. I can see some of you thinking: that’s not a good thing, right? In parts of the world where there are huge problems: poverty, illiteracy, lack of proper drinking water and toilets, do companies really need to focus on advertising? I’m not saying this isn’t a problem – it is. But the answer to that is to make marketing an enabler, a social tool instead of a marketing one.

The World Food Programme started using a mobile SMS service called Geopoll in the Democratic Republic of Congo recently to get refugees to tell them what their needs were. They had good take-up but saw participation falling off after a few weeks – enquiry resulted in them learning that it was because the phones couldn’t be charged properly as access to electricity was patchy. So the WFP set up solar charging stations, free for people they were working with and at a cost to others – and poll participation went up again.

Nathan Eagle, an MIT researcher who is now the CEO of a company called Jana, previously called Txteagle, has a research agenda in the field of engineering social systems: generating actionable insights from big data that can be used to improve the lives of people from whom this data is generated. Jana rewards people with free airtime in return for certain actions like completing a market research survey, or listening to a message. They work with 70 global operators and have compensated nearly 3.5 billion people so far. Global institutions like the UN, Danone, General Mills, Unilever, Coke and Microsoft are all using Jana to better understand people in emerging economies. One of the most interesting stories about its inception is when they gave nurses in Kenya phones to text information about blood supply in their hospitals. The story is similar to the WFP one – people stopped sending responses after a while, because the texts came out of their data plan and they couldn’t afford it. So a credit to their accounts sorted the problem – and that’s how Jana was born.

So constraints are not a bad thing. They give you focus and a challenge. And more interestingly, they accelerate the creation of new products and funding models. The missed call phenomenon is something I’ve spoken about before. Valerie Wagoner realised its prevalence when she was living in India – the fact that people call friends or family and hang up before they pick up, indicating they’d like to be called back. Out of that insight was born a startup that has had over 416 million interactions with customers so far, and brands like Oreo, Disney, Nivea, Colgate and Greenpeace have all used them to reach their audiences – and they are now expanding from India to South East Asia. Pakistan has a startup called Flashcall that does the same thing, again with a market in the hundreds of millions.

PHD’s India office worked on the Kan Khajura Tesan campaign last year based on the same insight, to much success.

Colgate did a similar thing in Myanmar, when they made use of their vast distribution network by re-purposing packaging and attaching mobile content to them, so to speak. Children in villages across the country were taught by teachers who rang a mobile number and got access to teaching material that accompanied the posters on the inside of Colgate’s packaging.

And giving something back is something that is being actively explored in the US and UK, if you consider the gradual rise of permission-based marketing and vendor relationship management – as opposed to managing the customer, the customers manage the vendor, so to speak. As with the examples I’ve just mentioned in other parts of the world, who are all doing the same thing but in a different way.

There’s a book called ‘To See Ourselves’ by Chinese academics Zhongdang Pan, Steven Chaffee, Godwin Chu and Yanan Chu from 1994 that compares traditional American values to Chinese values, and they posit that US culture values the individual’s personality, whereas Chinese culture values a person’s duty to family, state and clan. An analysis of advertising messages in these two countries then showed that this was reflected: American ads are largely about enjoyment, individualism, economy, while Chinese ads focus on family, technology and tradition. So though the Chinese government itself leaves much to be desired, perhaps there is something in looking to the East for inspiration.

A Sri Lankan professor, Shelton Gunaratne, has written a book on the press, called the Dao of the Press, where he quotes a lot from the Tao of Pooh, talking about things journalists can learn from Eastern philosophy. It’s quite fascinating – a bit confusing in parts, as a lot of philosophy is, but interesting. I think this one quote from the Tao of Pooh is particularly important for us all to remember in the context of learning from different cultures and working on solving different kinds of problems: spend the time we have wisely – and use technology, which we have lots of access to, much more wisely than we currently are.

As Noah Brier says, advertising is not a tax for being unremarkable. He was talking about media in general and social content in particular. Advertising – always existed and will continue to.  Even in the olden times, in countries like Nigeria, there were people who went out into the streets and announced new products. In India at election time, you still have jeeps with political parties yelling propaganda out as they drive past local neighbourhoods. TV ads will continue to exist, even good old print will, in some form. But what we do with advertising doesn’t need to be unremarkable, especially with the access we have to technology that our predecessors didn’t.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is familiar to most of you, but here it is updated for the modern era with wifi as a basic requirement! (I didn’t scribble that on by the way).

As I was writing this talk, it struck me that a lot of the solutions I come across that aren’t familiar have parallels with Maslow’s old hierarchy. If you interpret the physiological level – we’re talking about things like food, health – and today, connectivity. Up Energy is a company in Africa that finances, builds, and supports distribution channels for products such as high efficiency cookstoves, water purification technologies, and solar lights using carbon crediting mechanisms. Project Isizwe, a consortium of technology providers and others is looking at providing free wi-fi there the way Facebook, Samsung and others are looking to with internet.org. On the corporate side, Pampers in the Philippines basically bought a vacant radio frequency, branded it, and made it a utility for mums who needed white noise to make their kids sleep. Remember the white noise apps that you may have seen mums here use – I’ve seen some of my friends who are mums use it – aren’t easily accessible there with data issues.

When you go to the esteem and belonging sections in Maslow’s pyramid, think of entertainment and education, both of which give people self-esteem and a sense of belonging. A startup called Sterio.me also in Africa is helping teachers connect with students on the mobile – they upload lessons and quizzes, and kids take them directly on the mobile, with teachers getting access to analytics. Unilever and Colgate’s examples that I mentioned earlier would fall in this category as well. And finally when you get to the top of the pyramid, self-actualisation, problem-solving, think of brands like Warby Parker and Toms that give one to someone in need when one is sold in a developed market, and a project like Cora, crowdfunded through Plum Alley, that sends a month’s worth of organic cotton supplies for a girl’s period to someone living in poverty in India when one is bought in America. I interpret that as asset provision. I don’t see this as a pyramid necessarily, but different ways of coming up with products and businesses that make a difference.

By connecting the dots between things happening around us, we can help people and start developing business models that work, while all the while learning. Without learning, there is no real progress.

Thank you to Neil Perkin for inviting me to speak, and Antony Mayfield, Ruth Oliver, Maddy Wood and the entire Brilliant Noise team for a great conference.

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