Labs: to be or not to be

The latest issue of NESTA’s The Long & Short has a really interesting read on innovation labs in the social and political arena through the years. Specifically, this stood out:

Type the term “social lab” into Google’s N-Gram and you will see two spikes in its usage in the 20th century: the Depression, and the oil crisis of the 70s. It’s not difficult to see the attraction that labs promising to prototype the future hold when current institutions are failing – and whose very failure generates for labs (like their close relatives, the thinktank and the startup) a vast gene pool of talent in today’s reserve army of the underemployed. Here at the fag-end of our own lost decade it’s perhaps wise to ask whether we are poised on the cusp of a new golden age of experimentalism, or rapidly approaching Peak Lab?

There are lessons for marketing labs no doubt. The article indicates that social labs came up at a time when underemployment was rampant. I plotted the growth of ‘innovation labs’, ‘advertising labs’ and ‘marketing labs’ from 2005-2015 on Google Trends. The results for ‘advertising labs’ were too small to be of significance compared to the other two. I excluded ‘media labs’ because the results were too many (prompted by searches of institutions like MIT Media Lab, I’d assume).


Anyhow, ‘marketing labs’ peaked as a search term around mid-2009 when the economic recession was in full flow (meaning one of the article’s theses makes sense). ‘Innovation labs’ peaked in June this year. Doesn’t indicate good news on the global economy front.

I think we’re hitting Peak Lab indeed, and that innovation needs to be folded into the larger business as a core objective if it is to make any difference. Otherwise it’s all an exercise in vanity – and besides, I’d say the economy needs innovation to work and not stay an experiment.

It’s time to talk about ad blocking

Photo Credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL) via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL) via Compfight cc

The story so far

It’s time to talk about ad blocking.

Over the last few months, not a day goes by that doesn’t have another news story about the philosophical imperative of advertisers doing the right thing by the user on the one hand and the financial impact of ad blocking for media businesses on the other. The thing is: the two do not need to be at odds with one another. It doesn’t need to be a mutually exclusive arrangement.

Let’s step back and examine the situation as it stands. In the 12 months to June 2015, PageFair reports that usage of ad blockers has spiralled by the not-inconsiderable figure of 82% in the UK, to 12 million Monthly Active Users (MAUs). In the US, figures are obviously larger: a growth of 35% to 77 million MAUs. AdBlock Plus on Chrome is the most widely used plug-in, at nearly 60 million users worldwide. Peak usage is by 18-29 year olds, according to PageFair, and in general males tend to use it more than females.

As someone who works in the media industry, I know how much money is spent by publishers, agencies and brands on digital advertising every single day. As a fairly active member of the digital community, I also know how irritating said ads can be when they are irrelevant, and consist of large-sized images or videos, causing pages to load sluggishly and occasionally to crash altogether.

From a publisher’s perspective, the user is wrong to deploy ad blockers in the first place because ads are what keep the web free. Some publishers, like ITV and Channel 4 in the UK, simply refuse to display content when they detect an ad blocker on a page. Others have started using work-arounds being offered by technology companies: for a premium, they are allowed to bypass the ad blocker and serve their ads (talk about one industry begetting another, similar to the cleaning and management services that cropped up in the wake of Airbnb’s popularity – in this case however, it’s a pretty vicious circle). It’s also not a permanent solution, it’s simply treating the symptoms instead of the real problem.

From the user’s perspective, the publisher is wrong for two reasons: one, they track people’s movements on the web in a rather opaque manner; there’s no real knowledge of what the data being collected on users exactly is and how it is being used – so there’s a privacy issue. The second reason is that ads increasingly spoil a user’s experience of the internet altogether. Indeed, some publishers don’t have any concept of self-control, resulting in a situation where people are over-targeted and shown the same ad, or a similar ad, too many times. In effect, these publishers are signing their own death warrant.

The situation isn’t without its repercussions within the hardware manufacturing cohort. A lot of intelligent people have already weighed in on Apple’s plans to create provisions for ad blocking in iOS9 when it launches in September, which could change the playing field. As developer Paul Hudson noted, this is because these provisions could be used to build an ad blocker without too much work, especially if you consider that “the modern definition of “one man year” is “365 Reddit users working overnight”.  And as of 2 days ago, Mozilla’s built an ad blocker into the Developer and Aurora builds of Firefox.

Alternative business models: the technology startup landscape

In the gap in between are the plethora of startups like Powr of You who are creating new business models predicated on a much clearer value exchange: you give us permission to access your online data voluntarily, we show you in a neat manner what exactly that data is, and we pay you when companies decide they want to buy that data to reach you with better messaging (‘better messaging’ is of course the very reason re-targeting exists –  it’s just that it’s always been a very one-way relationship that I wouldn’t blame the user for rebelling against). I had the chance to speak to Powr of You founders Shruti Malani Krishnan and Keshav Malani about this recently and they echoed the same sentiments. They said, ‘Data is the currency of the future. We as consumers are creating a ton of data, but are not getting anything back in return, while brands are also struggling to understand how people spend their time across devices, their likes and dislikes. There is a natural fit there in how the data can flow one to the other, and Powr of You strikes that balance by changing how the data economy works’. Crucially they spoke about how this process can create better brand trust, which is the core factor at risk when it comes to brand success.

Other business models in this space include intent-casting, where the user indicates a need for a service before being spoken to by brands (Uber is the most popular example of this). A whole plethora of companies are involved in this space,as Project VRM documents here.

So where does that leave ad-blocking?

Potential industry solutions

Let’s consider this from the perspective of the user, without whom, let’s face it, content can’t be monetised in the first place. Let’s call this user Ann. Ann is a rational person who wouldn’t use ad blockers if ads weren’t so tiresome. In order to give Ann what she wants, agencies and brands alike should commit not to re-target incessantly, and include frequency capping as a mandatory part of their media buying process. Doc Searls at Harvard University recently suggested anotherinteresting solution, by way of sign-posting ads that are about brand marketing instead of acquisition, because the former are the ones that are less about data collection. He says that perhaps people in the know will see an ad that’s marked as a ‘brand’ ad, understand its contribution to keeping the web free (while not serving as a hub of data collection), and not block it. That would be a whole project for an industry body like the IAB, but it’s a thought.

Another solution is the one being floated by coalitions of different kinds such as the Do Not Track compromise led by theElectronic Frontier Foundation in the US and the Digital Catapult’s Trust Framework initiative in the UK. These initiatives guarantee the user’s position of privilege and asks media owner participants to respect their choice not to be tracked, so that users become comfortable enough with these sites to not use ad blockers in return.

Here’s another one: what if a consortium of publishers charge a ‘digital license fee’ to users who are willing to pay, similar to the TV license fee in the UK that largely funds the BBC? Think of it as a paywall, but an industry-led one. Of course this fee would need to be split by the free sites that a user visits. Payment would need to be voluntary, because a free internet is for the good of all and not everyone can afford to pay. The accruing revenue is likely to make at least a few sites profitable over time, especially the smaller ones with fewer overheads – and definitely better than no revenue at all.

More realistically however, what is likely to happen is the continued rise of native programmatic advertising. The foundations are already in place: in May 2015 the IAB released a native programmatic standard, called OpenRTB 2.3. Many agencies and technology companies are also forging partnerships to execute on native programmatic as well: WPP’s Xaxis and Disqus for example, and in mobile, InMobi and the Rubicon Project.

If we’re lucky, as an industry we’re also likely to see better quality advertising in general: think visually-rich large-format images and informative research wrapped up as advertising, both of which sites like Quartz already use.

It’s important for all of us, agencies and clients, to be aware of these issues – in terms of ad trackers, some media owner sites deploy dozens, some hundreds, and this is getting people into trouble. Have these conversations where relevant so the right information is out in the open.

As I indicated when I started this piece, people block ads when the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Brands, agencies and publishers need to be more mindful than ever about the need to do right by their audience. If they do, ads are less likely to be blocked, content can remain free, and everyone wins.


On brands, customers and implicit responsibility

I was getting a pedicure over the weekend at the salon when the lady sitting next to me tore a bit of a page out of a magazine she was reading and shoved it into her bag, then resumed reading like nothing had happened. The therapist and I looked at each other in shock simultaneously.

Then I looked at the lady more closely, wondering what kind of a person does that to someone else’s property. And I noticed she was wearing a Withings Activité Pop on her wrist.

I own a Withings Activité Pop.

I almost instantly felt sullied, like I was part of a tribe that engaged in antisocial behaviour, for no fault of mine. I felt responsible.

That got me thinking about the psychological impact of brand ownership, of which we know there is plenty. It’s why Burberry wanted to wipe away the association with chavs that people used to often make a few years ago.

It also got me thinking about customer responsibility, quite distinct from the larger, more pressing, and more discussed issue of brand responsibility.

If you own a brand that is of a particular stature (and I’m not saying Withings is necessarily one such brand!), do you have a responsibility to behave a particular way, conferred on you implicitly by the brand as a result of your purchase?

The argument obviously is that that’s nonsense – you’re the one who’s buying the product and you can behave any which way you choose.

Do you, though?

The 3 percent London conference 2015

Image courtesy: Zoe Scaman
Image courtesy: Zoe Scaman

On Friday, I was on a panel at the 3 percent London conference, organised by Kat Gordon. The movement to increase the number of female Creative Directors in advertising has been running since 2012, and this is the first time the conference has come to London. The logic is that without women on the teams creating ads, which arguably have a lot of impact culturally, we wind up with men creating their version of what they think women want to see (50% of consumers, let’s not forget, and significantly higher in many key categories, like retail) – which is often very far from the truth.

It was an inspiring day, and I had the privilege of being on the same panel as Roisin Donnelly, Brand Director at P&G Northern Europe, Laura Jordan-Bambach, Creative Partner at Mr. President and Kati Russell, founder of soon-to-be-launched startup The Girlhood. Cindy Gallop gave the closing keynote, as honest and motivating as ever, no holds barred.

It’s worth reading some of the articles from the day on why the industry needs to be changed, and how. The CEO of PHD UK, Daren Rubins, had an interesting perspective on how media has changed over the last decade, from ”barrow-boy traders, aggressive, obnoxious characters” to having a lot more women leaders and having more feminine qualities in general, something all businesses would do well to emulate.

Here are a few:

Roisin Donnelly: why breakfast meetings don’t work for her

Nick Bailey, Daren Rubins, Nils Leonard and Russell Ramsey: why men need to realise the bubble of privilege they work in

Kat Gordon: learn public speaking

Thanks for @thedrum post @hamishpringle! Video of @we_are_squared hangout now live

Last week, I was invited by the current cohort of Google Squared students to participate in a Google Hangout on ‘Global brands, local consumers, glocal campaigns’ (forgive the portmanteau, it wasn’t my idea!) from their recording studio in London. Also participating were Hamish Pringle, Strategic Advisor to 23red, Stephen Woodford, Chairman of  Lexis (both Hamish and Stephen were past Director-Generals of the IPA), Arlo Brady, Managing Director at PR agency Freuds, and via video joining us were Nicole Yershon, Director – Innovations at Ogilvy, and Gregor Lawson, founder of Morphsuits.

Hamish has written an article in The Drum about the main points we spoke about, but if you have an hour, you can watch the whole discussion here.

Behaviour, Experience and the new world of business

I read a bit about two fairly new C-suite roles this week: the Chief Experience Officer and the Chief Behavioural Officer. The former gets the company more heavily invested in thinking about the whole customer experience process, with a focus on design and development, and the latter does a similar role but with a focus on the psychology of the customer at the time of her experience with the brand.

The one thing I took from both pieces is that though both roles are more or less new to the industry, the best indication of their success will be when the entire leadership of a company is able to see these as crucial to day-to-day and not worthy of a callout. It’s the same thing with innovation today in businesses – I notice that companies that see it as a natural part of what they do are more likely to go through with it versus discuss and debate endlessly.

At the end of the day, a clear focus on the two key audiences for a company – customers and employees – are what will see businesses grow. It’s important to note how linked the entire team (CMO, CIO, CXO, CTO, CFO…) needs to be aligned to execute these well enough. If the people in charge of internal comms, both design & deployment, aren’t in tune with what’s going on in the market, then “if they have a choice, [employees] will go work someplace where the systems are easy, useful and allow them to be productive,” as Greg Petroff, CXO at GE, says. If the team isn’t in tune with with customers’ true feelings and behaviour, then those customers will not “get more of what they want” and, in turn, they will not “reward those companies with their business and trust”.

It’s always, ALWAYS, a team effort. As the Re/code article says, researching insights, scoping projects, engaging clients (and employees – my addition), building technology, designing tests and measuring results is rarely done by one person.

On sunshine and advertising in China

I’d bookmarked this documentary on Aeon a few weeks ago and finally got down to watching it. 15 minutes, and a beautiful film on advertising in the modern world, especially the philosophical questions that come with working in this field in a developing nation like China. You’ll also learn why the Chinese in the film insist on having people who represent ‘sunshine’ in their ads. I recommend it.

An endearing portrait of a conflicted modern-day ‘Mad Man’, Sunshine explores the world of advertising from an insider’s perspective. Drawing connections between cultural tropes from Mao’s era and China’s current push into consumerism, the film offers an interesting insight into both changes and constants in Chinese society.

Sunshine from American Buffalo on Vimeo.

As a brand, what is your reason for being? What will your heritage be?

Brands with a heritage make us feel confident and comfortable, in part because history conveys a sense of weight, of gravity, of trust. Modern brands (going back, say 50 years or so) do not, by simple fact of being born at a later time, have that depth. Which is why they typically need to build a heritage, a story – or that trust. Some new brands do this very easily and naturally, like Hiut Denim. Some do it through first class customer service, which immediately *becomes* the story. Zappos? Check. Amazon? Check. Most brands that emerge suddenly and situate themselves in this loud world without either a heritage or customer-centric focus fail to adequately communicate their reason for being, and consequently come across as having missed a beat in the rhythm of the market.

214 High Street in 1935 & 2014; images from
214 High Street, Lewes, in 1935 & 2014; images from

During the Brighton Photo Biennial in October, I walked down a high street in Lewes, East Sussex, where one of the projects on show was the Reeves Archive. In the window display of a few stores was an image of the frontage of that store, taken around 1855. It was just a regular high street in a small town, but that project made Lewes’ high street feel much more important than that because it did a great job at communicating the heritage of all those stores. In some cases, the stores were actually modern brands that had simply bought or leased real estate over the years as older stores went out of business; the photo project added something to them at least temporarily.

I visited the Sainsbury’s Archive last week, and that told a similar, enduring story about Sainsbury’s.


Bowndling is built ground-up with a story too. When Collyn Ahart was around 14 years old, she went kayaking 10 miles all by herself in Canada, over a route that could on occasion be so treacherous that it had killed someone the week prior to her outing. Her parents weren’t too happy when they found out of course, but it was testament to that spirit of adventure they instilled in her themselves. Collyn has built Bowndling for women like her – women who want to enhance their lives with beautiful and strong experiences, personally and professionally. She is inspired by the doers of our generation and hopes that future generations will take these women as inspiration themselves and reject currently held stereotypes of fitness and success. As she told me, ‘If there was ever a time for fearlessness, it’s now.’ It’s a timely and important point of view that has a place amidst the growing global discussion on gender disparity in spaces ranging from corporate boardrooms to Davos. If, as recent research indicates, women lack self-confidence and fear being judged, then the voice of a brand like Bowndling is relevant and important.

It’s clear when you look at it that a considerable amount of thought has gone into the design of the brand. Collyn confirmed this and explained the inspiration to me: “Maps, souvenirs of travel like postcards, postage stamps, passports and old photos, especially those in duotone and sepia. Think of the photojournalist with the Raybans.” This spirit of adventure is reflected in Bowndling’s communications as well. Their online journal, featuring conversations with inspiring women across the globe, is the home of a growing body of inspirational travel writing.

So if you’re working on a brand that has no heritage or history to begin with, think of what your reason for being is, what kind of narrative you want to be remembered by, and go from there.

Has anyone else noticed the Rolex Timekeeper button?

I just observed an interesting button on the Economist website. If you’re reading an article, there’s a button which says ‘Timekeeper’ next to the usual share buttons. Turns out it’s a sort of private Economist Instapaper that allows you to save articles for later consumption, sponsored by Rolex. It was launched around April 2014, and currently runs on The Economist and The Talks websites, though in the latter it is a more obvious play with a separate tab.

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 10.56.48

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 11.05.48

It’s one of the more interesting sponsorship executions I’ve seen on the web, even if the name is a bit obvious!