House-hunting woes

I’ve been looking for an apartment to move into and for the umpteenth time am struck by the sheer frustration that the house-hunting process involves. Estate agents are more likely than not to make your life hell with their processes, demands and rigid ways of working. At the end of the day, it is the (prospective) tenant that is left holding the baby if something goes wrong, usually at the very last minute, and then you get desperate so as to avoid being on the streets.

Vikram mentioned this to me last year – why doesn’t someone create a site where people can rate estate agents by name and company, as well as landlords (where agents don’t exist)? They can receive an overall score based on their rating by certain criteria: helpfulness, involvement, how personable they are and so on. Think of it as a sort of RateMyProfessors.com, except with a real estate angle to it. Buying or renting a property is easily one of the most important decisions a person makes (apart from getting married and selecting a career), and it shouldn’t be something that leaves you with a bad taste in the mouth. After all, estate agents aren’t exactly doing what they do for charity – they get a good commission in most cases. And you pay some of that, if not all, so it’s your money at stake. 

There are certain risks of course – most renters are part of the floating population of a city and they may not bother about logging in to rate if they’re going to leave the city soon anyway (though that’s probably changing with the mortgage crisis and more prospective house owners turning to renting as a stop-gap arrangement). On the flip side though, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of opportunity for advertising revenue.

India’s First Digital Elections : My Thoughts

The world’s largest democracy is heading to the polls in a few weeks’ time. It will be the country’s first all-out digital election, by which I mean that it will be the first time digital media like blogs, Facebook, Orkut, YouTube and Twitter will be harnessed on a massive scale. During the unfortunate November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the world watched as the eventsunfolded day by day on Twitter. It is time for Indians to channel their energy in a much more positive direction now, and they are certainly taking the bull by the horns, if initial indications are anything to go by.

Gaurav Mishra has started a wiki that documents digital initiatives, blog coverage and media coverage surrounding India’s 2009 General Elections. The list there is growing larger by the day. He’s also written a great summary of the main corporate campaigns focussed on the elections in Global Voices
When Barack Obama and John McCain were contesting for the post of President of the United States over the last year or so, the entire world tracked the successes and failures of the two, and observed as Obama strode ahead, eventually getting elected to the post. It is by now no secret that his campaign’s extensive efforts in reaching out to the new generation of voters as well as all those who were tech-savvy, were largely responsible for his success. (Read Edelman’s summary of his social media successes here).
I think India is on track to at least try and replicate some of that. And I say that in a good way, because politicians the world over should learn from the US’ experience with digital media during their elections. I say that also knowing the diverse nature of India’s population on many counts: education, employment, race, religion, gender and so on, a country where travelling a few hundred miles can take you to a different world even if it is the same country, and a country whose recent economic growth fights head-to-head with it’s teeming problems of poverty, illiteracy and malnourishment, among others. 
I say that because today news spread that popular Bollywood film director Karan Johar got a host of stars to appear in a video encouraging young people to vote, a la Google’s video with Hollywood stars along the same lines for the US general elections a few months ago. (The video hasn’t yet been released on the internet as I write this). 
I say that because 4 years ago, I lived in Bangalore and today I received an email from an elected MP of the Rajya Sabha (an Independent candidate) endorsing the candidature of someone else for the position of MP of Bangalore South constituency – a first. The email was informative – not rambling and full of marketing schlop, and also pointed me to his blog (another first, I haven’t been emailed by a political candidate before, leave alone one that has a blog). 

Obviously my first reaction was to wonder how they got my email (I must have filled in some form or the other at some point during my stay there), but when I saw this at the bottom of the email I didn’t think it mattered:

We combined and used all databases we could access to reach all Bangaloreans. If you find this email intrusive and an invasion of your privacy, please accept our sincere apologies and we request you to click here to unsubscribe yourself from further emails.

I’m not going to unsubscribe myself from those emails for now, even though I can’t vote and I’m certainly not a Bangalorean anymore. Because I’m very keen to see how these elections play out as far as digital media is concerned. Because it’s a first for India.

Younger, faster…better

Today I heard about digital agency Street Attack’s new ‘product’, a revolving retail storefront called 303 Grand in Brooklyn, New York. A while ago, Electric Artists (also a New York-based agency) was behind Meet at the Apartment, a dedicated space in Soho, New York for creative and business executives to ‘re-invent their business’, as they put it. The Brooklyn Brothers created Fat Pig Chocolate last year, an example of creative packaging and brand marketing along the same lines.

I’m beginning to wonder if it is some sort of natural progression for creative agencies to move towards coming up with new products of their own, as opposed to merely coming up with strategies for products belonging to other brands. Personally I like all three cases I just cited, and believe that the energy and passion required to come up with a completely new concept that you will then own and bring to life are core qualities exhibited by entrepreneurs. Much as I like some of Fallon’s or Wieden + Kennedy’s campaign work for Cadbury’s or Nike, I somehow don’t see them taking this sort of less-trodden path. 

I traced the age of Street Attack, Electric Artists and the Brooklyn Brothers out of curiosity, to test a thesis that it is the new-age agencies that somehow have a more natural appetite for risk. Street Attack was founded in 2001, Electric Artists in 1997 (thanks Marc) and the Brooklyn Brothers in 2002. Compare this to W+K which is 25 years old.

There must be some good products created by the traditional agencies over the years, but none I can remember offhand (again, pointers welcome).  If trends are anything to go by, DDB has created Radar DDB and Ogilvy has carved up Ogilvy Digital Innovation Labs for a reason. I just hope that they are not bound to their mother ships, because otherwise they’re just another department in a huge old engine, and there’s no point in that. I’m sure George Parker will agree 🙂

Thinking about online advertising

I was sniffing away last week, recovering from the flu, when I noticed ads for Lemsip and Strepsils on TV. It was as if they were being shown just for my benefit. I was on Facebook later in the day and there I noticed an ad for Ugg Boots on my page, almost as if Facebook could read my mind and knew that they were something I’ve long been coveting. Even if TV ads are about seasonal products to match the weather (Google was clearly on to something with Flu Trends) and Facebook ads are about targeted ads to match your personality, I think you can look at the situation like this: advertising, thanks to technology, is becoming increasingly more intelligent in its deployment and online at least, is weeding out ads that we’d consider useless or spam. In other words, it is saving us time and mindspace. I find this quite interesting. However, every now and then I find myself wishing I saw something completely unexpected on screen. There need to be those WTF days that make you laugh out loud. Won’t advertising become expected and boring otherwise?

Technology and films

In the New York Times, Kevin Kelly writes about the advance of technology with regard to films. From the days of special effects in Star Wars, we’ve moved on to the kind of effects in Speed Racer, where, as Kelly says, “the spectacle of an alternative suburbia was created by borrowing from a database of existing visual items and assembling them into background, midground and foreground”. So now, not only can we create our own movies with iMovie, we can find three-dimensional set models on Google’s 3D Sketch-Up Warehouse and we can recognise objects in still images as Viewdle does with celebrity images. Then of course there are the mash-ups: TimeTube in fact tracks all videos linked to the most popular YouTube videos, including mash-ups. In conclusion, Kelly foresees a time in the near future where we can just drag images from films and transpose them into our own cinematic creations. 

Technology and the internet are also affecting TV – William at Made By Many recently wrote about why it pays to be young in TV, for example. All this set me thinking about citizen film-making, like citizen journalism. Citizen filmmakers already exist – as technology makes it easier for them, I predict that we will see a rise in their number, but, as with the internet, we will also see a lot of babble, which will need to be weeded out. And that will be a difficult task, begging questions of freedom of expression, to start with. 

Ploughing through good ideas

During a brainstorming session at work today, this nugget of information was revealed: the Ploughman’s Lunch, which according to Wikipedia is a traditional British meal for farmers comprising a large chunk of cheese, bread, relish and some butter, was thought up in the 1960’s by the British Milk Marketing Board to increase the sales of cheese in pubs. A smart marketing tactic, through time, became a piece of British history. That’s the power of a good idea. 

Systems above customers, Body Shop?

Standing in queue to pay at a till in the Body Shop last week, I noticed a man who had bought merchandise worth £50 having a conversation with the lady at the counter. She was trying to get him to pay an extra £5 for a Body Shop gift card (some deal where they’d give you £7 worth of free gifts on your birthday). He argued that he’d just spent £50 and didn’t want to spend an extra £5, and that they ought to give it to him free for being a good customer. She conferred with a colleague and then pronounced that they couldn’t do that because ‘the system wouldn’t accept it’. He left in a very angry mood, as he should. They tried getting me to buy the gift card as well, but I politely said no. 

Five minutes later as I was leaving after ringing up my purchase, I saw him coming back with a very determined look on his face. It was a look that said that he’d had those minutes to think about it and wanted to let them know that he didn’t like the way he’d been treated. I didn’t stay to see the confrontation, but one thought flashed in my mind as I walked out: the day your systems become more important than your customers, Body Shop, you should know you’ve got a problem. 

My guide to searching for a job in the creative industry

It’s been a long, painstaking process but I have FINALLY got a job – with digital strategy and design company Made by Many, one of NMA’s Ones to Watch. I’m extremely happy because really, I don’t think I could have asked for a better place to work or better work to do.

I thought it would be useful to share my experience because mine wasn’t the typical road to a job. (While on the topic, some other relevant posts on the topic that are worth reading are by Asi Sharabi, Nathan Burke and Jerome Courtial). I was looking for a job in what can be argued was not the best scenario – not only did I have to fight the fact that the economy was in a shambles and most agencies were losing clients, but I was in the difficult situation of neither being a fresh graduate nor a senior-level hire, which were the two levels most people who WERE hiring, were hiring at. In addition, I was trying to shift from client-side to agency-side.

I’ll try my best not to make this too long-winding a post, but I have a feeling that I won’t succeed! Here goes:

Have a blog. For a non-creative (‘creative’ not as in quality but designation), that is what is going to act as your portfolio – it will function as a record of how you think and the kinds of things you are interested in. There were plenty of people I had chats with that said that they’d seen my blog and thought it was interesting. It’s way better than sending a CV and cover letter, which I am convinced most people barely look at, no matter what they say.

Know what kind of agency you want to work at – a big agency behemoth or a small personalized agency environment. The big names will give you the ‘brand’ on your CV, the smaller ones are likely to give you more solid work. There is no right or wrong here, it’s completely your call. I’d already worked with Nike, a big brand, and by the time I spoke to about 10 big agency people, I got the feeling that I would be better off in a small agency, which is where I then started concentrating my efforts.

Don’t sell yourself short. I had a few years of decent experience in my belt and I wanted to make sure I went to a place where it counted. If you interview at a place that thinks your past experience is worthless because it wasn’t agency-side, then there is no guarantee that they will treat you with respect later. Also, it doesn’t say much about their willingness to take chances, and therefore as a company it doesn’t say much about their willingness to be innovative and produce truly cutting-edge work. Or at least that’s the way I saw it.

Be prepared for people you’re in contact with at agencies you’re speaking to, to move on or move to different roles as you are speaking to them. No less than three people moved to different agencies and one went on a sabbatical while I was in contact with them. It is slightly frustrating, but you have to work with it. People in sales or business development have to face it all the time.

If a representative of an agency is rude to you, ask yourself if it’s the kind of place you’d want to work in. Two people who answered the phone when I called to speak to people at those agencies were outright hostile on the phone. I didn’t feel I lost anything when they didn’t work out.

Asi said this in his post, Amelia mentioned it to me briefly early on and when I spoke to Eaon Pritchard, who moved from Weapon7 to Geronimo, he said it as well. I’ll modify it a bit based on my experience: if you do not have at least 2 years pure agency experience, do not bother going to a headhunter. One headhunter put it pretty succinctly to me: their clients do not want to pay them fees for people without a specific amount and type of experience. Also, headhunters, perhaps by virtue of their training, are examples of the kind of people who see absolutely no value in any other kind of work experience you may have already. Plus, if I may say so, most don’t treat you very well. However, in the week after I finally got my job and was waiting to officially start work (I don’t know whether it was divine providence), three headhunters finally responded to the calls and emails I’d been making to them for weeks. Unfortunately for them, they were too late.

I came across four kinds of agencies in my search. It will do you well to slot the places you’re scouting into one of these categories so that you know where you stand early on. a) agencies who like you and that you like, but who are not hiring at that particular time b) agencies who like you but you don’t like c) agencies who you like but not vice-versa and d) agencies who like you and that you like, AND are hiring at that moment. It goes without saying that you should focus only on category four.

 As Charles wisely said to me, insane networking is key. I went to almost every networking meeting I could find (warning: when I say ‘networking’, I don’t mean bug people there to give you a job): Likemind, Tuttle Club, She Says, Geek Dinners. You’ll meet lots of interesting people who may put you on to someone who could help. Even otherwise, it’s always useful to learn about different things and just stay in the know. It opens your mind and makes you interesting, which leads me to the next point.

Be interested, and that will make you interesting. Note that you can’t force yourself to be interested in things you are not, but by virtue of wanting to work in a creative industry, I hope you are interested in more than, say just one kind of music or one author. I wrote a post about how, after months of doing a range of things that I genuinely thought were interesting, I wasn’t getting a job. Jonathan Salem Baskin left a comment to that post that I think is worth quoting here:

…. the answer is to ‘be interested,’ and throw out the window all the worry or fear about whether or not that ‘makes you interesting.’ While I don’t believe our consciousness can change reality, it certainly interprets it, and how you interpret stimuli affects how you perceive and respond. Bored people, or folks who believe they are uninteresting, perhaps tend to miss the cues and opportunities for engagement in the world — whether work or play — that involved, interested folks find.

           Learn patience in quantities that you never thought existed, and believe in yourself. There will be MANY days when you think you should just chuck it all up and take the first available job that comes along even if it’s not what you want, and days that you completely lose faith in yourself because nothing is happening. Plus, some people will not respond to your calls and emails – some for weeks, some never. Just stick with it. Don’t give up. That is the easiest thing to do. Keep saying to yourself ‘This industry is not for the faint of heart’. Having said that, most people will be nice – the majority of the people I met were really helpful people.

Read. Anything and everything related to your industry. Books, blogs, essays, anything. Some very good blogs are listed here. The Account Planning School of the Web is also a very useful resource. When you go for interviews or informal chats with heads of planning or strategy, the information you come across will help you stay informed and motivate you to develop your own viewpoint about what is going on in the industry. That will lead you to a job.

Develop your own personal way of working. Asi did a very creative thing by sending a puzzle that featured him to all the places he wanted to work, but I started the process by interviewing people on my blog that I thought were interesting, and following leads from there. There is no ‘right’ way other than being creative, informed and persistent.

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I want to thank every single one of the people I have come into contact with during this whole process – and there are too many to name. From everyone I’ve interviewed on my blog so far (I’m not going to stop that, if anyone is wondering!) and every head of planning/strategy or Managing Director that I had conversations with that helped me refine my way of thinking, to everyone I’ve met at Likemind, Tuttle, Geek Dinners and so on. I hope you all know who you are. Also, to my husband (of course) who argued with me no end and made me angry enough to work harder to get a job!!! I owe you all. 

Harness the power of technology and community

A few weeks ago, Jonathan Harris of We Feel Fine fame gave a talk at the Flash on the Beach conference in Brighton. Many perceived it as controversial and he was deemed condescending and arrogant, because his words were thought to insinuate that most Flash work being produced today is not particularly noteworthy. 

He has sought to clarify his intentions on his blog, in a post that I think is as much worth reading as his concise and meaningful presentation. I completely identified with his main thesis, which is that we should all push ourselves to produce work that is meaningful and has a positive impact on people, and not work that is simply mechanical output. This is an idea that I am hearing more and more of, albeit in modified forms, from different corners as the days go by. 
An excerpt from Jonathan’s post:

I believe our medium – the online medium – has the potential to become the next great way of processing and expressing our world.  Some would say it has already reached this point, but I believe it still inhabits an awkward adolescence, with no real virtuosos and no real masterpieces, and that the only way for it to mature is for its leaders and practitioners to push themselves to make better work, which will, in turn, reach a larger and less insular audience.  If the work is purely technological, it will be less likely to reach this larger audience, for it won’t resonate with as many people.  If it connects on a more human level, on the level of ideas, it stands a better chance of touching people deeply and spreading widely, like a Toni Morrison novel or a Steven Spielberg movie.  My reasons for wanting all this are partly selfish – it is my medium and I want it to flourish – but also inherently communal, as rising tides raise all ships.

His entire presentation is here.

Hope and a little sugar

When I was at the Southbank Centre a couple of weeks ago on the eve of the announcement of the Booker prize, at an event where all the nominated authors were reading from their books, I overheard someone asking Steve Toltz, author of A Fraction of the Whole, asking him how many time he’d been rejected by publishers. 

He said, ’11’. 
She said, ‘I’m sure they must be kicking themselves now. 11 idiots’. 
He said, ‘No. I like to think of them as 11 angels. Also to be honest, the the first time I submitted the book to publishers, it was over a thousand pages long.’ (It’s down to 720 now).

I like to take heart from that story. The more I look for a job, the more I find my thoughts and opinions becoming clearer, better-informed and focussed. I guess there’s a reason.