Towards Leastmodernism; Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer

I was at my second International Futures Form (IFF) breakfast this morning. On Zoom, naturally*.

One of the conversation threads in our breakout group was about clutter. We’re spending much more time in our homes, and so undoubtedly eyes and activity will turn to the things we’ve accumulated over the months and years. What to keep, what goes.

Another person drew a lucid picture of great tension point; we’re being told that the economy must restart again, which is basically a veil for increased consumption.

Hence the cunning wheeze of extending Sunday shopping hours, which feels like a doomed trick from the eighties economic playbook. If you really think people aren’t confident in spending because the shops aren’t open long enough on Sundays, I have some miraculous hair oil I want to talk to you about.

It made me remember an idea, a word, a loose concept I’ve had floating around since I talked at dConstruct in 2015.

The theme that year was about Designing the Future, and whilst I was uncomfortable in claiming or assuming that it was our future to design (which still remains my view), as part of the metadesign stance I talked about, a word popped into my head the day before the conference… it often happens the night before, as you’re sweating over the slides.

Leastmodernism.

I don’t have a crunchy description of exactly what it is. I referred to it again in a talk called The Oliver Twist at the RCA, but it’s an idea that every so often creeps up on me then I wonder what exactly to do with it, or how to articulate it.

Leastmodernism is about trying to harness a similar energy around solving societal problems that existed round modernism (for all its flaws), in a way that focuses efforts on what we are not doing, rather than what we are. It happens in pockets perhaps, and certainly can find allied concepts in parts of things like the Green New Deal.

How do you starting building an economic model around it, though? There’s something about drawing the connections between the thing, the creator, the customers, the money and the brand. We can take a stance that money is just a construct, as are brands. These two constructs float around the actual thing ‘made’ in the middle. Then a lot of the connections circumvent the actual thing in the middle:

Which perhaps opens up an opportunity to think about what you might do to replace that thing. Is it possible that money can flow from customers to creators, building a shared sense of what the brand means as a connection between people, but without the impact (or better still, negative impact) in the middle?

This might be the year to start thinking and articulating this more, but for the time being, the proxy I’m using is Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer.

Mr Prosser, of course, is the man from the council in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who is trying to knock down Arthur’s house. Arthur is lying in front of the bulldozer, preventing it from doing so.

Then Ford Prefect, in order to whisk Arthur away, comes up with a cunning ruse… well, you might as well just read it for yourself:

(Except taken from NPR)

Ford looked across to Mr. Prosser, and suddenly a wicked thought struck him.
“He wants to knock your house down?”
“Yes, he wants to build . . .”
“And he can’t because you’re lying in front of his bull-dozer?”
“Yes, and . . .”

“I’m sure we can come to some arrangement,” said Ford. “Excuse me!” he shouted.
Mr. Prosser (who was arguing with a spokesman for the bulldozer drivers about whether or not Arthur Dent con- stituted a mental health hazard, and how much they should get paid if he did) looked around. He was surprised and slightly alarmed to see that Arthur had company.
“Yes? Hello?” he called. “Has Mr. Dent come to his senses yet?”
“Can we for the moment,” called Ford, “assume that he hasn’t?”
“Well?” sighed Mr. Prosser.
“And can we also assume,” said Ford, “that he’s going to be staying here all day?”
“So?”
“So all your men are going to be standing around all day doing nothing?”
“Could be, could be . . .”
“Well, if you’re resigned to doing that anyway, you don’t actually need him to lie here all the time do you?”
“What?”
“You don’t,” said Ford patiently, “actually need him here.”
Mr. Prosser thought about this.
“Well, no, not as such . . .” he said, “not exactly need . . .”

Prosser was worried. He thought that one of them wasn’t making a lot of sense.
Ford said, “So if you would just like to take it as read that he’s actually here, then he and I could slip off down to the pub for half an hour. How does that sound?”

Mr. Prosser thought it sounded perfectly potty.
“That sounds perfectly reasonable . . .” he said in a re- assuring tone of voice, wondering who he was trying to reassure.
“And if you want to pop off for a quick one yourself later on,” said Ford, “we can always cover for you in re- turn.”
“Thank you very much,” said Mr. Prosser, who no longer knew how to play this at all, “thank you very much, yes, that’s very kind . . .” He frowned, then smiled, then tried to do both at once, failed, grasped hold of his fur hat and rolled it fitfully round the top of his head. He could only assume that he had just won.
..

Now, the obvious problem in drawing this parallel is whilst Mr Prosser doesn’t knock Arthur’s house down immediately, he does eventually.

Therein lies the trick. How do you hold back Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer indefinitely?


*Yes, the breakfast is a welcome space to connect, it’s not a room though. Off the back of another participant describing the rooms in her house, I realised how much I miss walking into rooms. Rooms that I don’t know, know barely, or know well. Subconsciously scanning, sitting down or leaving.

I’m looking forward to walking into other rooms again.

The Parasite As Host?

I has a DM from Lee at the weekend, after we’d caught up last week for the first time in ages: “…loved your comment re Monzo as an incumbent – smart, in an ‘of course’ way. Might make a nice blog* post…”. So here it is.

I’d mentioned the poster and campaign below, and the weirdness of seeing new financial startups treat Monzo as an incumbent.

Yes, Monzo now have over a million users. Yes, they’re prepping for a US launch. Yes, they’ve raised £85 million to help fund new product development.

But are they the banking incumbent? No, not really.

Perhaps, though, they’re now the incumbent service for a thin layer of people who want banking no thicker than the thin glass layer atop a smartphone, a business that skips along the top edge of the pace layers, feeding on a deeper system below.

They feed off the slower moving layers below to survive; yes, the parasite metaphor has a metallic tang in the mouth, and probably doesn’t reflect intentions, but as a description of how they’ve captured the mobilista section that the market without really contributing to the lower layers is arguably accurate.

And now, we see the emergence of others who try to thrive in the whole they’ve burrowed in the host organism. One question emerges though about the campaign; who is it for?

It’s surely not for people with a Monzo card already, as getting people to switch bank accounts remains notoriously hard work, so why go after a small subset of a market. Viola Black is not going to feed off Monzo in the way that Monzo feeds off the wider system.

And it surely can’t be for those on the verge of making a decision to switch to Monzo, as any quick search on comparisons of the two would bring back unfavourable results for Viola Black; it is just a pre-pay credit card, as Monzo used to be.

It’s perhaps more likely that it is just a market statement, for current investors and potential future ones; ‘look, we’re in this market, associate us with these other players’.

In startup land, you don’t need to live off a real user base, sometimes the fumes of hype will provide enough sustenance for months or years. It’s like vaping success.

———————————

*It’s 2019, so let’s try more blogging, as per this:

Short fast blogging, rather than having an existential crisis when trying to fashion a passable Medium post. Why is it every Medium post ends up as a Large?

Wearing Culture’s New Shoes

I’m wearing new shoes today. They’re made by Atheist Berlin. They feel like hot chocolate for the feet.

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Now, I’ve been following the Atheist story for a while, because I know David, Chief Atheist (is that a thing?) from when we did the IPA Excellence Diploma together some years ago (dates redacted to protect the aged). Indeed, it’s interesting to reflect on the number people from the IPA ExDip who’ve gone on to do their own thing; consultancies, accelerators, etc. The course clearly gives people a bit of motivation to do something differently.

But within that those who’ve made a thing. Making things is different from service industries. Not better or worse, just different. Another example would be Matt’s success with Two Fingers Brewing. I make some card things you might have seen. There are no doubt more examples from diploma alumni too. And there are definitely lots of examples of ex-agency people who start making things instead of selling other peoples’ things. But it’s not just a few agency folk leaving uninspiring surroundings to play around at ‘maker’ (although Murat’s post from 2013 still hits upon most of the reasons why that happens).

There’s a cacophony of forces driving more and more people to start making their own things. Some are positive; access to funding of some sort (grants, investors, crowd-funding), the ability to use the internet to learn new skills and find an audience at the right scale. Some are negative; lack of fulfilling work, high youth unemployment, cost of higher education.

They all add up to interesting times for existing companies. Take beer, for instance. The number of breweries operating in the UK in the last five years has tripled. Yet beer sales in the UK remained in a long-term decline until last year, when they managed a 1.5% annual increase. All in all, it adds up to more suppliers fighting over less sales, and more interesting suppliers stealing share from less interesting ones.

This summer has felt like what started as an expression thing for the creatively minded has started to become a business thing for a lot of people. The conversations I’ve been having and become aware of are less about how brands can support makers do their own thing, and more about ‘what happens when they start to make our thing?’

Our culture has a new pair of shoes, and it’s starting to test just how far it can walk in them.

 

Cruise is to Adverts as Shatner is to Phones

Bobbing and weaving through the tweets an hour ago, I picked up on Jeremy‘s post on the issue of website performance vs serving ads/tracking people

…in fact, I really picked up on it because of Mark‘s reply:

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Which is interesting, because there’s something been pinging around my head recently about why the advertising industry decided on this as their future. And why did we as people decide that advertisers knowing all this about us was OK…?

Here’s my hunch; Tom Cruise is to Adverts as William Shatner is to Phones.

Which means what?

Well, there’s the famous, perhaps apocryphal story that the mobile phone, specifically the flip phone, were inspired by the Star Trek communicator. The engineers growing up and watching telly around this time had a ready-made prototype of ‘the future’ in front of them… and so, it came to pass. Let’s make that.

Shatner Communicator Star Trek

Another example – last week at IED, the brilliant Andres Colmenares was talking about the Hendo Hoverboard that’s received kickstarter funding. It’s basically the Marty McFly hoverboard. Let’s make that.

Hendo Hoverboard

And the advertising example?

Minority Report, of course. Specifically the scene in which Tom Cruise goes hurtling through a crown of people in a shopping mall, and all the adverts start addressing him individually…

You’ll know the scene, because no doubt everyone’s been shown it often enough in presentations about ‘personalised marketing’. It became so trite that people stop using it. It may even be cool and retro to start using it again (I’m not really sure, as I don’t do enough advertisingy type things anymore to know).

Basically, it became a cultural shorthand; ‘This is a future for advertising’ became ‘this is the future for advertising’.

When enough people can use it as a common reference point, they can sit in meetings and decided what advertising should be in the future by using this example. When people were talking about how the ads that would support their platform, they’d major on just how ‘identifiable’ people were, and so the ads could be personalised too.

“You know, like in Minority Report”.

And maybe that’s why we’re here.

Thanks, Tom Cruise. Thanks a bunch.

Getting Off The B Ark

I did a wee talk on Monday evening, at the IPA 44 Club, which inevitably resolved itself in a Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy metaphor. It was part of Nick Kendall’s evening on the ideas behind the What Is A 21st Century Brand? book – Neil Godber from JWT spoke on Stephen King’s original, pioneering thinking on what a brand was in the 20th century.

In the book, Nick’s collected together what he considers the most pertinent theses from the ten years of the IPA Excellence Diploma. You can download mine as the sample chapter from here.

I thought I’d quickly write out what I think I was getting at.

It’s notionally a talk about brands, but in hindsight is as much about organisational change as anything. Which makes sense, I guess, given some of what Smithery does.

So, onwards.

My thesis, back in 2008 or so, was called The Communis Manifesto. To pull an explanatory paragraph from it, it was about this…

“I believe the future of brand communications lies in finding a way to become part of communities, and communicate with them in a way that is shared, participatory and reciprocal.”

I realise now, though, that I fell into a classic economics trap. I took a micro view of one brand, and forgot to consider the macro perspective; what happens when every brand does this?

Well, as we can see now, it all gets a bit noisy… an endless hum of brands vying for your attention at any given opportunity, all going a little ‘gorilla in a jock-strap’ in order to arrest some eyeballs for the briefest of seconds (go and read Faris’ Paid Attention for more on that).

Thinking about how brands and companies operate in the 21st century, and how some struggle to remain meaningful, it made me think of Golgafrincham.

You know, Golgafrincham, yeah?

Ok, I’ll explain…

In the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent find themselves on a massive spaceship, with lots of frozen bodies in the hold. It’s the Golgafrincham B Ark. The captain explains that they’d been told that the planet of Golgafrincham was in terrible, terrible danger, so they all had to leave.

spaceship

On the A Ark would be all the leaders, scientists, pioneers… the high achievers.

On the C Ark would be all the people who made things and did things.

And on the B Ark, there would be everyone else. The middle managers. The hairdressers. The telephone sanitisers.

The leaders of Golgafrincham explained that they would send the B Ark first, so that when they settled the new planet, everyone else could be confident of a good haircut and a clean telephone when they got there. So off the B Ark went.

They hadn’t, explained the Captain, heard anything from the other two ships since leaving. Which he began to think was a little strange, having finally told someone else about it…

—————–

Some companies are clearly on the A Ark. They lead in their space, well, any space. Pioneers, future provokers, creating the products and services we love to use.

A Ark stuff is easy to point at, and hard to do.

Increasingly [because INTERNET], there are a lot of C Ark companies around. Start-ups, and hobbyists, those born in the internet, who’re happy to show you everything that they do. It’s a new transparency, it makes companies and the people who work there very visible, believable, and trustworthy. It regularly works for much smaller companies, who can make enough people see what they’re doing to be successful on their terms

C Ark stuff is easy to do, and hard to point at.

Which leaves the B Ark companies. The companies that just kind of exist in that middle layer of life. They didn’t used to do the stuff that was hard, because they just had to do things that were good enough. They didn’t used to worry about pointing people to things, because you could switch on advertising and pipe people’s eyeballs towards your products.

It’s hard to be a B Ark company today.

So you’ve got two choices.

You can try and get on the A Ark, and start pushing the boundaries of expectations in your market. Every market has a future. Show people the one you really believe in.

Or you can jump onto the C Ark, and start showing people all the things you make and do. If it’s not good enough to be interesting, then you need to change the what and how of your makings and doings. If you do it well, people will start to point other people towards it.

Both things are hard to do.

But they’re better than being on the B Ark.

 

 

On The Nike Treadmill

I’ve started running a bit more consistently this month. This year’s been a bit busy, and I allowed that to become an excuse to not run. June’s been better though. I don’t run particularly far, or well, or fast. But I enjoy it when I do.

A message popped up on the Nike Running app last week, and the end of one run – I wish I’d screen-grabbed it, but didn’t – along the lines of “your Nike Lunareclipse 3 have done 560km – perhaps time to think of a replacement“.

Some interesting things happen as a result.

Firstly, I start wondering if my right foot, which was a little sore on the run, was caused by defective trainers. I didn’t think this on the run, but suddenly blame the shoes.

Secondly, Helen and I start talking about how they ‘know’ the trainers need replacing. Is it just distance? It asks for terrain type after each run, so is that a factor? And perhaps there’s even something it can track from the running motion through the accelerometer – do runners with worn shoes wobble in a different way?

Whatever it is, suddenly I’m psychologically finished with the old running shoes. Even though the cynic in me knows that Nike have one intention in sending that message, and so the incentive for them is to send it a little earlier than they absolutely have to…

The next thing is to get some new ones.

When I bought the last ones, I did the running machine test at NikeTown in London. It’s just over from the office, so across I pop the next day.


Explaining which shoes I had before, I go back on the machine to test new ones.The type of support in the shoe helps your ankles align better on striking the ground.

The old camera at the rear of the machine has been replaced with an iPad version, I note – be it FuelBands or Running Cameras, Nike has clearly thought better of making its own devices, and just uses someone else’s nowadays.

Walking out with new shoes, I realise that I feel quite trapped.

The runs logged in the Nike App are hard to get out, so I can’t readily migrate my data to a different system. And I don’t know how to translate the type of running shoe support into other trainers – I don’t have the Rosetta Stone that would say that ‘this type of shoe in Nike means this in another brand’.

The system is created to make this sort of ‘loyalty’ more likely, of course. But it’s not loyalty if I just haven’t got the energy to fight my way out.

So on I run on the Nike treadmill.

 

Copycat Camera Communities

I was out and about at Borough Market last week, spending an hour people-watching after one meeting and before another. Amongst the things I saw was a lot of photographers hanging around outside Monmouth Coffee. All with one thing in common…

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They all had Leicas. They were there on a meetup with The Leica Meet, a series of regular meetups that’s nothing officially to do with the brand, but run by the Leica owners themselves. The sort of thing that the internet has made a lot easier to think about doing over the last couple of decades. “Come and meet other people like you”.

It made me think of the illustrations I’ve done recently for Mark Earls’ new book, Copy Copy Copy, as amongst other things, he talked about how the camera market works in terms of visibility:

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Luckily for me, I got to work on the book and read it early – it’s a phenomenally useful toolbox of a book, and I’m honoured to have played a wee part. Go and get it here, folks.

Everyone else is, because that’s HOW COPYING WORKS….

…ha, yes, sorry, couldn’t resist.

 

 

Many Is Greater Than One

Many > One.

Yep, of course it is. And no, I’m not just trolling maths geeks.

Last week I delivered an updated version of my new talk for this year on the Google Squared talent accelerator programme. The train of thought is still called “Fanfare For The Common Brand”, but the lead principle is now that Many > One.

Have a read of it here, and thanks to Brad Berens and David Wilding for their invaluable input on version 1. And as always, all thoughts welcome…

Slap Dash: quick reactions to the Amazon Button

There are many better places to read about the new Amazon Dash button, launched yesterday. One such place is Matt Webb’s excellent (and as he calls them) ‘raw’ thoughts on what it means from an IoT perspective. And he should know.

Amazon Dash Button

One sentence in Matt’s piece made me sit up though… “You’re a loyal Tide customer, but you’ve run out“…

Loyalty does seem to be the presumption in the launch campaign for Dash; that people have a firm favourite (not even just a fixed repertoire) amongst the countless toilet rolls, washing up liquids, soaps and cereals they stock their homes with.

Loyalty. A big word, with an ironically fickle fan base.

What I perceive to be the general wind direction in the realms of best brand practice is that ‘loyalty’ might just be a largely fictitious beast, especially in the realms of FMCG.

A quick blast through the main points of Byron Sharp’s excellent How Brands Grow will give you an idea of why…

And there’s a longer list of other brilliant viewpoints on it (read Martin Weigel on it, perhaps, over here).
Yet the launch of Amazon Dash seems predicated on the existence of brand loyalty.
So here’s an open question:
How many brands are you certain enough about to stick a button to your wall for? Think about the last shopping basket you filled, or Ocado order you received. What in there is a permanent fixture? What will you always buy to the exclusion of anything else?
What brand would you nail to a wall with the same conviction that you’d put up a picture in your house?
Dash makes a lot of sense from Amazon’s point of view, clearly. Whooo, go supply-chain monopoly!
And it may even make sense to FMCG marketers who believe they have a hard-core of “brand loyalists” out there, somewhere, who’ll choose their Dash button over a rivals.
(There’s actually a whole other conversation to have on whether you need an Ariel button by the washing machine, or a P&G button, but that’s for another day).
But with what the evidence and understanding of how it seems now that brands have worked, that doesn’t seem like the Amazon Dash idea of ‘loyalty’ is all they make it out to be.
It does give rise to an interesting set of questions though.
If we suppose for a minute that brand loyalty isn’t a thing, could we also argue that it’s because the infrastructure hasn’t existed to make it a thing.
After all, building loyalty in supermarket aisles by running TV ads and putting up posters is doomed to failure becuase of all the stoopid consumers who always forget what craft and joy you put into your ad, right?
Loyalty would probably be a brilliant strategy if everyone used shopping algorithms.
However, is it possible that things like Amazon Dash will create a world where brand loyalty actually means something, because the infrastructure connecting people to needs is so different?
Or, alternatively, are we going to see a short-term future in which people stick three Dash buttons on the washing machine, and use the website to check prices on the cheapest before pressing?
Hmmmmm…
Oh, and those brand stickers – they’re crying out to be screens in two years time. Which could mean adverts, and competition for space, and doom for FMCG brands.
Reckon, reckon, reckon… and relax.