Well Told: A conference about longform and narrative journalism

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend an unusual event (unusual for the London conference world): the city’s first conference focussing on longform journalism. This is a particularly interesting time to zoom in on this form of storytelling, given the unfortunate rise of fake news and sensational events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, which eclipse other important ones like the ongoing migrant crisis. The former suit the 24-hour news cycle much better than the latter, and so a lot of important stories go untold.

It’s about trust and tribal identities, not facts

Amy O’Leary, Chief Story Officer at Upworthy, began her talk by showing us a clip of the story of Rob Scheer, which gained tens of millions of views and 477,000 shares. It is an emotional story which truly resonated with people, and she used it to illustrate that even in the age of sensationalist news, human stories can break through. As she said,

‘We have a reality-based problem. Facts are under assault like never before’

Facts are easily overwhelmed by master narratives that people employ to understand the world. So the simpler, better story wins cognitively, whether or not it is true. So it’s not facts, but stories that matter.

She also made a really good point about the importance of trust. If people don’t trust you, it doesn’t matter how good your facts are because they won’t believe it. Referring to Eli Pariser (founder of Upworthy) and his book The Filter Bubble, she said that we are moving from a ‘process-based to an interpersonal form of trust’, or handing over the reins from experts to our friends. We trust our friends in the way we sometimes don’t trust experts. The scary thing is that sometimes people don’t really care if they are familiar with only one-sided views, and this has repercussions, as we have seen in the US. According to the Pew Research Centre, ‘Conservative Republicans that say the news they get from friends and family is fairly one-sided are much more likely than others to say that this is OK (51%, compared with about a third or less of other political groups).’

The solution is to engender trust first, and then provide facts. This is also part of the reason why Trump won: if your community wasn’t covered much by the media then you’re already not thinking favourably about the media, and it doesn’t take a lot to trust a politician who said that you shouldn’t trust that media. This was best summarised in a tweet that Amy showed us from writer and editor Ayesha Siddiqi:

That is precisely why fake news has traction: it serves people’s need for tribal identity. Throwing more facts at the problem, therefore, isn’t the answer – it’s in the craft of journalism: “to tell true stories that reflect the community to a larger understanding of ourselves”.

In short, Amy left us with the following tips:

  • Be aware of a community’s tribal identities or schemas
  • Understand various schemas, don’t ignore them
  • Acknowledge that in today’s world especially, facts are not enough
  • Activate new tribal identities
  • Build trust by serving the need of communities

‘Take them there and make them care’

Manveen Rana, a Radio 4 producer, told us about her experience making a radio programme tracking the Dhnie family, who migrated from Syria to Germany. A 2-day project became 6 weeks, but she was able to convey so much more of the nuances of the story of the individuals in the family by taking the time to uncover their story, rather than just produce one episode.

She mentioned a quote from a colleague of hers about what she should try to focus on: “take them there and make them care”, because people are saturated with refugee images coming out of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. So she realised she needed to surface the back story to make people care. As she said, “longform allows for complexity”, which short news stories don’t.

‘Narratives are designed to render felt experience’.

Tom French, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer and novelist, spoke about how it is important for journalists to recognise the need for people to know.

He also spoke about how information is different from stories. Most journalistic forms are structured to convey information. Narratives, he said, are different, in that they convey stories and are ‘designed to render felt experience.’

He encouraged journalists to take the time to know specifics about the lives of the people they were writing about, to find out what they care about. ‘Zoom in tight’, as he said. Because people want to know the details.

Compassion fatigue

Emma-Jane Kirby, a reporter for BBC’s Radio 4, gave a fascinating account of her experience meeting an optician in Italy who happened to come upon a group of drowning Eritrean refugees while he was on holiday sailing on a boat in the sea off Lampedusa. He was able to save 47 people, but the experience never left him because he had to leave many others who died.

The story of that event became the book ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’. Ms. Kirby spoke about how she did a fair bit of research about the migrant situation in Eritrea and even wrote a couple of chapters on it, but in the end decided to leave them out because she realised she didn’t want anything to detract from the experience of the optician, who was the reason the story existed. It was through his experience, she said, that people could perhaps feel compassion again for migrants, an emotion that we have become numb to, having been almost saturated with tragic images of the crisis for years now. As she said:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re anti or pro-immigration, right or left politically – who can accept that 14 people per day died trying to cross last year?”

Slow journalism

Rob Orchard, co-founder of Delayed Gratification magazine, spoke about the position that his print magazine occupies in a digital world. He wanted it to ‘do the most that print can do’ – he wanted it to look good, smell good and feel good. He said that there was a place for it in the world because traditional news media are in decline as they have too much space to fill in their pages and do not discriminate when it comes to how they fill them. They also have a herd mentality that leads to the same stories being covered by everyone in the same short span of time. Delayed Gratification, he said, is more about slow journalism. They have two main goals: to revisit stories after the dust has settled, and to tell stories that the rest of the media has missed. They focus on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary – which links back to Emma-Jane Kirby’s focus on the experience of an otherwise ordinary optician.

Stories can be a matter of life and death

In a very touching session, Tom and Kelley French spoke about their book on the fight for survival of their extremely premature baby, born at 23 weeks. Kelley narrated her lived experience and the multitude of questions that came with it: baby Juniper was born at an age that was less than the number of weeks that babies can legally be aborted in many countries (24 weeks); as Kelley said, what to do with babies born at the edge of viability is one of the biggest controversies in medicine today.

They spoke about the quandary they had when it came to landing on the structure for the story: two-person memoirs are tough, and it’s rare for people to successfully write a memoir as two people. So they landed on the route of using a ‘baton-writing’ style, with neither of them writing the same part twice.

With a story like this, it was also very easy to get into a territory that might have made them sound indulgent, and they wanted to strictly avoid that. They wanted to be true to who they were, versus who they wish they had been: experiences like this could very easily fall back on stereotypical descriptions of love and life, but they didn’t want that.

It was heart-rending to hear about how Tom read Harry Potter to Juniper as she was in the NICU, and how her heartbeat would slow at good stories and start dropping when they were stories she didn’t like. That was why he closed by saying, “Stories can really be a matter of life and death”.

Juniper was in the room during the talk.

What does it even mean?

Mark Kramer’s masterclass on narrative journalism had a few good tips for the journalists among us:

  • Only put yourself in a piece if there’s a point in doing it.
  • If you turn emotions into narrative, you get a mawkish article.
  • The more you get into it, the better you know what you’re writing about (hark back to almost all the sessions above).
  • …which led to how access is all in journalism. You have to get to a point where you experience a story at a ‘felt life level’. Mark himself had to give up on a story because one of the people he wanted to interview refused access.
  • Don’t be scared of short sentences and paragraphs – use full-stops!
  • Eliminate ‘to be’ verbs, and words like ‘when’ and ‘as’ – they all remove you from the immediacy of the scene, and lose you readers.
  • Remove ‘blank’ images – like the phrase ‘gaudy picture’. What does that even mean?

Longform stories lead to longer reads

Jill Nicholson, Head of Product Education at Chartbeat, gave us an insight into the metrics behind longform journalism success. From research drawn from looking at longform content from 1 January to 15 May 2017, she mentioned how Chartbeat found that the human component stands out in longform journalism, as a result of which people tend to share them more.

Longform journalism is consumed mostly on mobile – 62% of the content examined was on mobile, while for all content it was 44%.

The best day to push longform journalism is Friday, so she suggested using social media then to give existing content a second life.

Existing readers matter – 11% of repeat readers for a US publication contributed 56% of revenue.

Facebook matters when it comes to promoting longform – it’s much more important than Twitter.

Longform journalism leads to people spending an average of 76 seconds on a site compared to 37 seconds for all content. Also, if you can keep a reader on your site for 3 minutes the first time they visit, they are much more likely to return than someone who stays just for 1 minute the first time.

And then there was more

There were also a couple of other very good sessions at Well Told. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again, and I sincerely hope that conferences like this mean we will start seeing publications and brands of all kinds spending more on good quality longform content.

Finally, #IAMW16 in my words (and then a bit)

There are conferences and then there are conferences. When Andres Colmenares got in touch late last year to ask if I was interested in speaking at their Internet Age Media Conference in April this year, I was curious, and all I read and saw about it online was positive, so I said yes (it was also in Barcelona!). In the following few months leading up to the conference, I got to know the IAM team better, met them in person when they were over in London on work, and began working on my talk.

I’d like to mention the collegial culture – more of a community – that Andres and Lucy, the organisers of IAM, are creating, two years on from the launch of the conference. A few of last year’s speakers were in attendance again, for no other reason than to be part of it again. It helped that no one really had to dash away to their offices, and it was a fairly global audience, from all over Europe and some from the US – you didn’t feel like you were just speaking to the same people you know from work.

The passionate talks by the publishers of niche media really stood out for me: Oslo-based Recens Paper (a youth culture magazine targeted at 16-25 year olds founded by 16 year-old Elise By Olsen), Brownbook Magazine (based in Dubai, and catering to the Middle East and North Africa region), Freunde von Freunden (or Friends of Friends, by Berlin-based agency More Sleep), and Stack Magazines (a subscription-based business that sends out a different indie magazine every month). It wasn’t surprising to hear more than one member of the audience ask the same question: ‘how do you make money?’ (there’s no easy answer).

Zach Seward on the genesis and evolution of Quartz’ new-ish bot-based iPhone news app was also fascinating. It is impressive that every single talk by a Quartz employee that I’ve seen so far (mostly in London; this was the only non-UK based one I’ve seen in person) has been so open in terms of truly opening the business up to the audience. You really get the sense that they are about the future of publishing, not steeped in legacy as so many news publications are today. The only other publication that comes to mind when I think of that ethos is Medium – which I know is not a ‘publication’ in the traditional sense of the word, but their engineers are so focussed on product and market fit that yesterday’s news of the $50m Series C round did not seem surprising to me at all; witness this from an interview this month with Ev Williams:

“If you look at feedback loops like likes and retweets, they’ve been very carefully crafted to maximise certain types of behaviours. But if we reward people based on a measurement system where there’s literally no difference between a one-second page view or reading something that brought them value or changed their mind, it’s like – your job is feeding people, but all you’re measuring is maximising calorie delivery. So what you’d learn is that junk food is more efficient than healthy, nourishing food.”

Anyway, that was an aside. Back to IAM – also check out Exposed Magazine, which came out of the incubator at CIID in Copenhagen last year: a dual media publication in the form of a printed magazine and a free iPhone app that recognises images inside the magazine, with additional content. I got a copy.

John Willshire gave a thought-provoking talk on meta-mechanics (or how the internet works, or should) in true Smithery style – it’s up here. The ‘future of museums’ was also neat – the past meets the present and future – and we were brought up close and personal with people from Rhizome (affiliated to New York’s New Museum), the Tate (their Tate Collectives division, working to engage young people with museums, has some cool projects like last year’s hilarious 1840s GIF party in their portfolio) and the V&A (who launched a sleek new website last week in collaboration with Made by Many).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the very experimental internet-y things during the conference, like Domestic Data Streamers‘ real-life emoji experiment after each talk (you had to put up one of 5 emojis that were handed out at the beginning of the conference, to indicate your opinion about it), and Sergio Albiac’s code-as-art experiment with the attendee badges. This was mine (it involved speaking into a laptop for a minute, and getting a picture taken):


Anyhow, back to my talk, which happened to open the first day of the conference (no pressure). It was broadly about internet culture, seen through the lens of my work with Ada’s List and the Other Valleys. There’ll hopefully be a video soon, but till then, here are my slides.

Lucy and Andres, thank you for the opportunity. And to the entire IAM family – YOU ROCK.

Towards more conscious cities – and residents

Yesterday I went to the Conscious Cities conference, organised by the Museum of Architecture and The Cube London. It was an event that sat at the confluence of technology, neuroscience, architecture and urbanism. I was obviously more familiar with some topics more than others, but being a firm believer in pushing the edges of learning thought it was a day I’d find useful, and I wasn’t mistaken.

I’m going to use this post more for bookmarking, maybe some of you will find these links useful too.

First, a lot of links from MIT’s Senseable City project (Emma Greer from Carlo Ratti Associati in Italy, who are affiliated with the project, took us through a lot of their work):

Hubcab uses taxicab travel data to assess the impact of transportation on society and the environment.

Trash/Track used location-aware tags in trash in Seattle to follow the journey of these discarded items around the world, to understand the ‘removal chain’ around the world.

Cloud Cast creates personal water vapour clouds over individuals as they walk through. This was part of an installation in the UAE, an otherwise very arid region, so it was to experiment with an efficient cooling mechanism in those climates. Emma mentioned an interesting anecdote in the Q&A: that they borrowed a neighbouring stall’s perfume samples to include in the ‘cloud’ and people really seemed to like it as opposed to being sprayed with vapour alone – could be something to do with the local culture, where perfumes are used a lot (from my limited experience in the region, this is true!)

Digital Water Pavilion used water as an architectural element, as that was part of the brief. For an expo in Zaragoza, Spain, they created interactive digitally-controlled water curtains on the front of a building – which, as you’d imagine, parted as it sensed someone approaching.

If I absolutely had to pick one project of Carlo Ratti Associati that I liked above all, it would have to be the Future Food District which was an actual installation at the Milan Expo in 2015. It saw millions of people interacting with a prototype of the supermarket of the future, with 1500 products displayed on interactive tables, and information visible on suspended screens that look a bit like the ones out of Minority Report. I was heartened to hear them also speak about the community aspect of it: “In a way, it is like a return to the old marketplace, where producers and consumers of food saw each other and had actual interactions.” To be fair this is all digitally mediated, but the intent at least is there. I’ve been doing a bit of work on the future of retail thanks to my day job, and all retail clients should look at this work to get a sense of how their industry could be disrupted thanks to technology, not too far in the future.

Philip Tidd from the architecture and design firm Gensler mentioned their Placemaking app Poppy Seed, which allows us to learn about a city based on how the buildings around it make us feel.

Introducing PoppySeed from Jack C. Newell on Vimeo.

Academic and researcher Itai Palti published a Manifesto for Conscious Cities in the Guardian last year and spoke about the project that came out of it, notably the launch of the Journal for Urban Design and Mental Health this year, the first issue of which was recently published. Watch this short video for more and check out Conscious Cities.

Ruairi Glynn’s ‘Balls’ project was an array of 42 lights robotically engineered to rise and fall in the atrium of Arup’s London office in response to building activity. Also check out the work of Bartlett’s Interactive Architecture Lab, which Ruairi is affiliated with.

Similar to Poppy Seed, Neil Davidson spoke about the Urban Mind project, which aims to measure what people feel about city living in the moment, by asking a series of questions throughout the day. The project started last March and ends this month, so they will have a year’s worth of real-time data collected to analyse. If you’d like to participate, you still have time – download the app here. Apparently people from all over the world are taking part!

The theme of mental wellbeing in urban environments was strong during the first part of the day, and smart cities will play their role in this going forward. Juliette Morgan, the Head of Property at Tech City UK and Partner at Cushman & Wakefield, spoke about the importance of allowing artists, poets and philosophers to comment on advances in areas such as urban policy. She also spoke about the need for investors and real estate developers to consciously back architecture projects which gave people a sense of well-being and were thoughtfully designed, as opposed to a primary focus on maximizing floor space only.

A lot of lessons there, and I’m sure I’ll refer to some of these projects a few times in the coming years.

Canvas Conference is over, but the learnings are worth your time


Last month, I had the opportunity to attend Canvas Conference in Birmingham. Canvas is a very product and consumer-focussed conference, and it was a breath of fresh air to listen to the things that are the basis of good marketing: good products, thoughtful design and a focus on the customer. I think anyone building a brand would do well to pay attention to how you do that – first and foremost by making products that matter, and that people want.

Julien de Preaumont, Chief Marketing Officer of my favourite watch manufacturers Withings (yes I own one), spoke about how it was important to them that their products are designed well and looked good; it needed to be something people would be proud to wear. The progression that he referred to was that good Design leads to Emotion which leads to Adoption and finally Impact. I can vouch for this – I used a Nike Fuelband for years (which tracked activity but looked like I was part of a cult, the same problem that affects the Fitbit and Jawbone) and other watches that looked good but routinely needed new batteries. The other important point that Mr. de Preaumont made was that impact can only be achieved when a habit becomes regular, and design plays a big part in Withings’ products because they want to achieve impact. As he said the Withings Activite family of watches is ‘a watch that happens to be a tracker, not a tracker that happens to be a watch’ – which is probably what distinguishes it from most of the other devices that do the same thing in the market.

Joe Polastre, Product Lead at Medium, gave an excellent talk on the power of the network and how Medium is building for content distribution. He spoke about not feeding the trolls and how the design of the site ensures that comments that are not engaged with aren’t really seen over time. It’s also built to be an intuitive reading experience, which users of Medium will be familiar with: if you click one word while reading on the iPhone, the entire sentence is automatically highlighted, and so on. There was also an interesting story about tags, and how spammers started posting torrents of videos on Medium, tagging them ‘uhd’ (or Ultra HD), which then gave a clue to Medium what was going on. That wasn’t all of it of course – tags are really surfacing interesting content for readers on the site. For those who are Medium fans, keep an eye on their blog The Story, and for the developers, they released their API last month. Plus, their new logo is one of the best *new* logos I’ve seen for a software company lately. The 3D look is particularly cool. Here are their latest new features; I particularly recommend How We Get To Next, which Storythings built on Medium once Medium introduced customisable domains.

Liz Crawford, the Chief Technical Officer of Birchbox, spoke about the challenges of customisation for content discovery, especially for an online retail subscription business like theirs. The technical challenges of having to personalise content for every single person who visits a site are huge – but the upside is equally big, if you are able to get it right. Any business that sells online should be doing this – and I’m not talking about Amazon’s recommendation engines, but an algorithm that is much more detailed, which Liz spoke about.

I was fascinated to hear about what Travelex’s Tech team has been upto lately, as explained by Dave Wascha, Global Director of Digital Products. Mainly because Travelex isn’t one of those brands that has been over-exposed in media in my sphere of influence, but also because the way he spoke about it, they have an excellent grip on the challenges of working in fintech, which is being disrupted acutely even as we speak.  It was good to hear him admit, as someone working in the field, that ‘most banks thrive on obfuscating’. Check out their Supercard product (currently in pilot testing with 25,000 customers), and also the beautiful and practical look of the Travelex Money App, which was released this summer.

Jaime Delanghe, Senior Product Manager at Etsy, gave us an insight into product at the company, saying that ‘shipping the right thing was necessarily slow’ for them because of the community they work with; tags are another important feature for them too. Also, if you’re a developer in this space, check out Code As Craft.

Edd Read, Chief Technology Officer at Graze, was very engaging as he spoke about the challenges of building a subscription food company. Small things mattered: they started off wanting to ship fruit as one of their snacks, for example, but when there was a postal strike one day and deliveries were delayed, the product got spoilt and they had to re-think that strategy. There was also a fascinating story about postal bunnies (yes!), where they sent their excess supply of Easter bunnies to customers in the US using the US Postal Service, to see how long it would take, because – get this – the USPS did not have a tool to track how long it would take for mail to be delivered to various parts of the US from abroad!

The coolest job title of the conference (and maybe ever) went to Catharine Conley, Planetary Protection Officer at NASA. She does what her job description says, as unusual as it sounds – she works to ensure that extraterrestrial and outer space-facing exploration projects take ethical factors into consideration. For example, once we get to Mars, what are the health hazards we need to be aware of that may affect people both there and on Earth? I took away from her talk this point: that not only is it important how information is made, it is important how it is distributed.

There were more talks: Aaron Weyenberg from TED and Tom Petty from Go Cardless both had some useful design considerations to talk about, and Tom Guy, the Product & Commercial Director for British Gas’ Hive had a unique look at the challenges of creating a beautiful hardware product that has the potential to be used by millions of homes.

I just noticed that 383, the studio that produced Canvas, have recently released the talks online. It’s worth your time, folks – go watch them. And next year, when Canvas is back in the beautiful surroundings of Birmingham, consider going along if you’re in the UK.

Thank you to 383 for having me there.

Increase Your Options: A talk at Digibury Weekender 2015

Last month, I was invited by Deeson to speak at the Digibury Weekender in Canterbury, Kent. I thought it was an interesting premise – the theme for the talk was ‘technology for good’ – and I really enjoyed the day – thanks to the organisers. I’ve been meaning to upload my talk here for a while, so here it finally is.

I spoke about the contrast between my role at a media agency, working with startups focussed on making advertising money, to what I do with the Other Valleys and Ada’s List.

By and large, I believe that technology can be absolutely a force for good, depending on the people who put it to use. By itself, technology isn’t good or bad – it is the people who use it who make it so. Let’s say Facebook is good, because it helps families and friends connect across geographies, it helps build relationships – social capital, in essence, which for anyone who has Robert Putnam’s seminal work in the 70’s ‘Bowling Alone’, is crucial to maintaining a society. So let’s say Facebook is good. But Facebook, as a result of being heavily invested in its business model, which relates to advertising money, has its dark patches. The research project they conducted last year, that manipulated people’s feeds to test how negative status updates affect people’s tendency to use Facebook was a case in point. 

“Ultimately, we’re just providing a layer of technology that helps people get what they want,” Chris Cox, chief product officer of Facebook, said during an interview in February about changes made to the news feed to show more news articles and fewer viral videos. “That’s the master we serve at the end of the day.”

…which to me sounds a lot, and I’m pretty sure Chris Cox said this completely unwittingly – it sounds a lot like what Kevin Kelly says in his book ‘What Technology Wants’:

As a practical matter I’ve learned to seek the minimum amount of technology for myself that will create the maximum amount of choices for myself and others. The cybernetician Heinz von Foerster called this approach the Ethical Imperative, and he put it this way: “Always act to increase the number of choices.” The way we can use technologies to increase choices for others is by encouraging science, innovation, education, literacies, and pluralism. In my own experience this principle has never failed: In any game, increase your options.”

(Emphasis in both quotes above is mine).

Except for one key problem: the Facebook tweaks were not done to increase the number of choices for Facebook users. It was out of a concern that ‘that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook’.

Every single decision that a person makes while creating technology has to be a considered one, because of the impact that it could have on thousands, even millions of people. Even design decisions.

So, then, how is technology actually being a force for good in parts of the world that perhaps many of us are not familiar with? Some of my favourites include Project Mudra, Gravity Light, Literacy Bridge and Nextdrop.

These are all examples of technology being used in a very considered manner, to ‘increase the number of choices for people’ as Kevin Kelly says.

Technology also connects people in ways that I find it very difficult to put a value on. Ada’s List started 2 years ago as an online space for women to ask questions, hire other women, get advice – things that many of us in an industry dominated by men don’t always have access to. And it is making a difference. To many of our members, it helps them stay connected to a larger community they didn’t have access to before. 

I’m particularly glad that this conference is examining technology as a force for good because we’re doing so in an environment where billions of dollars in venture capital investment is being poured into startups every single day, many of them not really acting as a force for good – or positive action in any way. Instead it’s become all about the money. A couple of months ago, a VC called Maciej Ceglowski wrote an excellent thesis on why this might be, and these words in particular are really relevant to this conference. He said:

Investing has become the genteel occupation of our gentry, like having a country estate used to be in England. It’s a class marker and a socially acceptable way for rich techies to pass their time.

Gentlemen investors decide what ideas are worth pursuing, and the people pitching to them tailor their proposals accordingly.

The companies that come out of this are no longer pursuing profit, or even revenue. Instead, the measure of their success is valuation—how much money they’ve convinced people to tell them they’re worth.

There’s an element of fantasy to the whole enterprise that even the tech elite is starting to find unsettling.

That’s pretty worrisome. And it means that all of us sitting here today, as men and women working in technology, need to think about this seriously. If it is so easy to make unmindful things, we need to commit – strongly – to using technology as a force for good. To ask for this from the people around us, the people we work for and with. And ultimately, to help create a society that works better for us, and for our future generations.

Thank you.

Beach, sun, technology and philosophy

Matthew Desmier, host of Silicon Beach. Image credit: Paul Clarke Photography
Matthew Desmier, host of Silicon Beach. Image credit: Paul Clarke Photography

Last weekend I had the pleasure of speaking at Silicon Beach 2015, a conference for curious people in marketing and advertising, that took place in the lovely seaside town of Bournemouth. I hadn’t been there before and with the sun making a welcome appearance along with some very thought-provoking talks, it was a good 2 days indeed.

Chris Thorpe, who used to the CTO of Moshi Monsters and is now the founder of I Can Make, a 3D printing education startup, gave a really inspiring talk about how they are looking to engage with schools across the UK. They have done a lot of beta testing and are launching a subscription service where schools get monthly lessons on how to engage their students with 3D printing, later this month – so keep an eye out for it!

Tracey Follows, ex-Chief Strategy Officer of JWT and founder of the futurism consultancy Any Day Now gave a really eloquent talk on why technology isn’t the future; it’s going to be important but it’s not the whole of what we should be thinking about. Also interesting was her point that instead of focussing on one ‘probable’ future (usually science fiction-oriented), we should be talking about the many ‘possible’ futures, in the multiple.

Mark Adams, Head of Innovation at Vice, showcased the breadth of what Vice do. I loved what he said about cat videos: ‘making cat videos is not a business, it’s a hobby’. He also made a useful point about the importance of brands earning the trust of their audience, by having a strong point of view that isn’t just about the latest, newest thing. His parting message focussed on the importance of finding interesting ways of telling human stories; brand messages aren’t always interesting but people will always have time to read about stories that feature people or things they can relate to as humans.

Venture capitalist Niklas Bergman honestly admitted to passing on Spotify as an investment opportunity as he talked about his vision for the future (yes they involved robots).

Dan Machen, Director of Innovation at HeyHuman, reprised the talk he did with colleague Felix Morgan at both Cannes and SXSW earlier this year to much acclaim. It was about an experiment they conducted that wanted to see how the brain’s shape and attention changed as a result of the constant attack of media, steadily increasing over the last few years. I liked what he said about multi-tasking, a term that has origins in computers being able to do parallel processing; however humans are not computers and yet we insist on saying we can multi-task as if it’s something to be proud of. It really made me think – there’s a tremendous cost to switching our attention from our phone to our laptop and back to our phone, for example, and yet people do that as a matter of course these days, hundreds of times a day in some cases. There is a cost to this, with our brains less and less able to adjust to the task at hand the more we are distracted.

Louisa Heinrich, founder of Superhuman, gave a talk that combined religion and technology in an unusual analogy. She mentioned atheists and agnostics, and their attitude towards religion on the one hand, and humans’ blind faith in computers in the other. We need to think about the impact of our choices in our lives, she said, and not leave everything to computers. ‘Computer doesn’t always know best’.

Rina Atienza is moving to the Philippines in a couple of months, and her talk wove the popular boardgame Settlers of Catan into a journey through her life, to where she is today and what has motivated her to want to move abroad and try and make a difference there. Very inspiring – I’m sure more than one person started examining their own lives after that!

Jeremy Ettinghausen, Innovation Director at BBH, listed nine No’s of Innovation. He mentioned how too often innovation is about saying yes to everything, but some things you really need to avoid.

Amy Kean, Head of Futures at Havas, gave a very future-facing talk about ‘dreamvertising’ – she postulated that there might be a time when people will choose to access advertising in their dreams, which, if we go by what we know of how the brain works during sleep, might actually be more impactful for brands. This is in return for not being shoved ads when we are awake, of course! Disturbing and yet I strangely enjoyed it – I don’t know what that says about me!

James Caig, Head of Strategy at True Digital, ended the conference (‘I’m the headliner’, he said tongue-in-cheek) as he compared his life in London to his new life in Bristol, where he now lives.

The talks I haven’t mentioned were all equally entertaining to listen to (I just don’t have good enough notes for them!). There were lessons for us advertising people in every session – life lessons, work lessons, humanity lessons. Hats off to Matthew Desmier and the team at Silicon Beach for pulling such a good event off – and drawing people to sunny Bournemouth. I highly recommend it for next year!

Here’s my talk, on personalisation in media:

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

Well done @iotwatch @anabrdly @theleadingzero, @techcityiwd 2015 rocked

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the third Tech City International Women’s Day. It was a great evening, mingling with makers, authors and entrepreneurs including projects like Tara Binns (a book by Lisa Rajan and Eerika Omiyale that actually has female role models, unlike the so many that are written with boys in mind), Tampon Club, Civic Shop, Project Blush by Microsoft Research, Pacif-i by Blue Maestro, ethical fashion retailer Birdsong and many others. I was interviewed for the showcase video for the event (below), and more than anything else it gives you a sense of the vibrancy that diversity brings to technology. Really glad I went; great job organising by Alex, Ana and Becky.

Wrote up my notes from #story2015 @thestory2015, thanks for an excellent day


Matt Locke and the Storythings team are making things difficult for themselves with each year that they organise The Story. This year’s conference, on Friday, was the best yet, so I can only wonder how they can improve on the line-up next year.

Television executive Gary Carter made me think about how the internet is impacting his industry with his tales of Big Brother Africa, but his remarks on the changing times stuck with me: a decade or so ago, TV broadcasting depended on shooting as little as you could to get a good quality product, but the advent of digital technology meant dramatically reduced costs, leading to reality shows like Big Brother with their 24/7 cameras actually being possible. Obviously it took off and people started becoming famous as the spotlight could shine on stories most of us had only heard of and not seen till then. It’s almost closed the loop now – the quality of reality TV is compromised because of the ease with which anyone anywhere can and often is filmed (even if there is no point to it). He ended on an encouraging note about what else might be possible if we choose to exploit the medium intelligently again – Woody Allen doesn’t need to be constrained by the boundaries of traditional broadcast TV when he makes the series Amazon has just commissioned him for, for example.

Having just watched both series of Orange Is The New Black, being introduced to Clean Break’s work was particularly interesting for me. They are a theatre company set up in 1979 by women prisoners that not only brings female prisoners’ stories to the stage but provides them training and education to develop their personal, social and professional skills. What the group is doing is very inspiring – the ‘redemptive power of storytelling’ isn’t often discussed in this literal a manner and it was worth listening to.

Kati London’s work was both amusing and made it evident how data and play can make interacting with our urban environment easier. Here are some of the projects she talked about: HereHereNYC (cartoons created from actual data about the city), Botanicalls (plants getting an amusing personality and talking through a robotic voice, this project was in 2011 or so but reminded me immediately of the Parrot Pot covered at CES this year), Code of Everand (teaching 9-13 year olds about traffic rules through an MMOG) and Sharkrunners (an online role-playing game incorporating actual shark movement data).

Alexa Clay spoke about her upcoming book with Kyra Maya Phillips, the Misfit Economy. It speaks to the work of intrapreneurs, jugaad and the informal economy, and I’ll look out for it when it’s published. It’s also being made into a film – watch the trailer here. And in one of the most amusing and yet thought-provoking actions I’ve seen lately, she dressed as an Amish woman and went to tech conferences as the Amish Futurist.

One of the best phrases I heard on Friday was by Matthew Plummer-Fernandez as he described the philosophical nature of his work: ‘future finds of a bygone era’. His Tumblr Algopop is very New Aesthetique (New Aesthetic-ic?). And the Disarming Corruptor project he won a Prix Arts Electronica Award of Distinction for is so meta it kind of blew my mind: it is a free software application that helps people to circumvent file-sharing restrictions. More from the project page: ‘Inspired by encryption rotor machines such as the infamous Enigma Machine, the application runs an algorithm that is used to both corrupt STL files into a visually-illegible state by glitching and rotating the 3D mesh, and to allow a recipient to reverse the effect to restore it back to its original form.’

Simon Munnery‘s was the talk I laughed most at, fully living up to his reputation as a comedian. His use of existing technology (linking back in a way to what Gary Carter referred to) was quite smart: he wasn’t on stage, instead projecting his face on to a screen using his laptop camera.

I can still hear Nelly Ben Hayoun’s wonderful French accent ringing in my ears. Her film Disaster Playground, based on re-enactments of crisis situations for the public, is set to premiere at SXSW 2015. But also: the International Space Orchestra! Her work is a mix of film and critical thinking, and she minced no words when she said ‘LA (Hollywood) producers don’t really get critical thinking.’

Philip Hunt’s narration of the creative process behind Lost and Found and the challenges in its production conveyed the sense that the journey to making it was the journey of the maturity of filmmaking itself.

George Oates re-engineered Grimm’s Fairy Tales by replacing the male characters with female (I think she called it the ‘gender flip zeitgeist’). I also learnt about seejane.org, which is a good tool for my Ada’s List toolkit. Loved the passion with which she asked everyone to rally around and support female gamers who are having a tough time with the vile residuals of the internet right now.

Like many others no doubt, I find James Bridle‘s work incredibly inspiring. He spoke about his Render Search project, where he is seeking to identify people who appear in stock images used (mostly) by real estate developers – it took him all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico! Lots of things to think about but I noted down one particular thing he said: ‘when you want to understand the internet, you don’t do it to understand complex systems, you do it to understand politics and history.’

Which is really what events like The Story are all about, in a sense.

Anna Rafferty, the MC for the day, summed it up well: