Thursday, 6 May 2010


So, it's finally Polling Day, and about time too. I tell you, if we didn't have this every four years I don't know how I'd satisfy my putting-crosses-in-boxes proclivity.

This time around, I was up at 5am in South-West London to play direct mail boy for the Lib Dems, and it was pretty enlightening. Great fun too. (and I have to say in passing that the feeling I got from having helped out was well worth it, I'll be doing it again) I got to distribute 200 of these -

<--- image justified to left. Ha! Ha!

The following thoughts are dedicated to anyone who's ever instigated a direct mail campaign and wonders what it's like. Extra, extra, read all about it:

-Here is the ideal door. Simple flap that opens outwards, isn't sprung-loaded to fuck, and hasn't got those weird boot-brushes inside. Don't let anyone tell you different, the brushes are intended to stop flyering, pure and simple. They're essentially an economically-tuned filter; crap paper stock isn't strong enough to push through. If you get lumbered with such a thing, try folding your flyer to make it thicker, and push it fold first so it 'cuts' through the brushes.

-Next door along, and this one's tough because of the sounds of massive dog resonating within. This was still very early in the morning, but you're wary of taking chances. The owners have tried to give their abode a 'run-down' vibe with the strange gray paint and wonky doormat, but it's not enough to hold back a political ninja like me. Should've gone for the "I've taped up my letterbox so they can't get me" vibe:

-Once you start to see the act of forcibly inserting flyers into people's personal spaces through a small slot in a psychosexual context, it's almost impossible to shake. So don't start.

-Some gates are impossible to close. As a mild obsessive, this became rather distressing.

-Positioning relative to the road is all-important in affecting delivery time. Here we see an ideal scenario. This is also the reason why estates are so popular with the door-drop crowd. Longer drives probably have something to do with it, but I wonder why the external mail box system is prevalent in the US but nonexistent here. A conspiracy between the US mail service and advertisers? Most likely.

-Those 'no junk mail' gambits come in more varieties than you can imagine, and strangely I found myself treating different kinds in different ways. So, here's my roundup of anti-mail measures, from least effective to most:

-Standard No Junk Mail sign. Makes you stop and think, but actually provoked me into thinking "how dare you call my vital communication junk mail? I shall give this to you just to show you how wrong you are"

-Same, but printed on a plaque of some sort. "Damn, this guy would pay to keep mail away? He is a) quite serious about it, and b) sufficiently resourced to hunt me down". They work on the newbies.

-Homemade sign with cute, friendly element. Okay, so this is our sign at home, but it works because it wins over the deliverer (who, remember, is doing a fairly boring and thankless job and will appreciate the 'interaction'. Interestingly though, we still got mail from all the other parties, which tells you their opinion of their own stuff.

Or maybe we could make it clearer.

-Sign with implied/explicit 'green' agenda. These will be in a green typeface or have some sort of environmental organisation's endorsement, or a specific recyling message. These certainly made me stop, as it combines direct request with a challenge to your very profession. I reckon these are the way to go.

One last thought. As I set off on a task which I was excited to try, for a party I was proud to help, I had high spirits. But when I got to the crunch of actual delivery, I felt a little sleazy, like an unwanted intruder, an invader on personal space. I was hoping I wouldn't get caught in the act. And yet, I've instigated a few Door Drop mail campaigns over the past year without a hint of remorse - and those were for commercial products, not political enterprise in the name of fairness. And to anyone else in advertising - what exactly do you think your actions constitute? Have a think about what your campaigns actually mean for the recipient.

And for Door Drop Guy.


p.s. fucking VOTE WILL YOU

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Fakes on a Crane: Public Planning, Part 2

The following is a continuation of my behind the scenes One&Other story from last week. Sorry it took so long.

What do people like? Do they like your thing, that thing you do? What are they prepared to do to get it?
Do they like you?

These are the main questions of marketing, really. If we knew exactly what people wanted - and believe me, they often don't know themselves - then we'd know exactly what to give them, and how to present it. But these questions are more interesting because they hint at one of our deepest vulnerabilities - fear of judgement. Fear of what's truly unknown; the workings of another mind. We're good at constructing layers of precedent and example to bridge the intuitive gaps, but all this means is that when we do something we truly don't have precedent for, it's by turns empowering and absolutely fucking mortifying.

Like asking someone to marry you. Or your first interview. Or pretending to be a dead king in the UK's most famous gathering place.

Where were we? Oh yes.

In the One&Other trailer I gorged on tea and biscuits and made weather talk with the crew - or their version of it. What's the weirdest thing you've seen? What's it like late at night? Has anyone got naked? What gets the best responses? A bit of chit-chat, an obvious way to pass the time.
But also one of the biggest elements of planning, right? Learn the medium. A picture emerged of something caught between stage, soapbox, podium and pavement. Something where people came hoping for a diversion and a break from reality, but wouldn't indulge nonsense or self-obsession. Something where people expected you to be larger than life, to match the statues around, or they wouldn't get the message.

At the same time, there was a second audience - the online audience. Go back a fortnight and I'd tried to prime that. @KingWilliamIV (who has since then been reburied - sorry) had been commenting and interacting with the O&A webcam fraternity for a couple of weeks beforehand. I tried to make sure this was spur of the moment, unique stuff, both to give those online something extra and to get me used to the idea. It was also a good way of making sure I wouldn't pussy out.

Which was starting to feel a little attractive. But momentum is a great ally - the funny thing about doing difficult stuff is that sometimes, you can get to the point where the obvious choice, the path of least resistance, is just to carry on - and when it comes in small steps, often you're past the point of no return before you know it. So picking up your bag is easy, stepping out the door is a cinch, climbing into the cherry picker isn't too bad - and after that point, your involvement is no longer necessary. Just give a good 5-second interview to the guy with the mobile phone camera, and try to look composed. Try to look regal.

Whatever you do, don't try to look like an escaped public schoolboy with a crown made of yellow card and sweet wrappers.


But it was okay - people stopped, people laughed. People listened. Occasionally, they would politely applaud, in that peculiarly English way. Best of all, a few actually came by to say thanks afterwards. I like to think it was a success - and I'm certain that the best bits came when I stuck to a few principles:

Interrupt: Telephones, doorbells, a wave of the hand. Attention always starts with interruption.
Interact: You are not a play. People haven't paid to see you. They expect their time to be acknowledged.
Project: You're you and they're them. They don't know what you're thinking, so you have to tell it. Tell it big.
Be Authentic: Do something that, fundamentally, shows you for who you are - or people will see through you. Like cellophane wrapped round a turd.
It's just communi-

...oh, who am I kidding? You don't want this pseudo-planning crap. You want to see it for yourself.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

LOOK AT ME: Public Planning, Part 1

When we try and talk to someone, how often do we consider what they're willing to hear?

Last summer, I was part of officially the UK's Most Indulgent Event: Anthony Gormley's One&Other. 2,400 people stood on a bit of brick in Trafalgar Square, and a nation had the word 'plinth' on its lips for probably the only time, ever. It was gloriously cringe-y, trashy, serious, ridiculous.

But was it art? No, it wasn't. Yes it was.
It depends what you think art is - and hundreds of people took 'art' to mean "Not giving a swinging bollock whether the audience can appreciate or even see it". It's their prerogative to do so.

But some people didn't want a stage - they wanted a soapbox. They wanted to communicate.
Was it communication?
Well, sure, it had information in it, transmitted from a source. But then you could do that from anywhere - there's this little place called Speaker's Corner, I'm told - so what's the difference?

I didn't see all the slots...but from what I did see, there was a bit of a pattern, a bit of a missing ingredient that made otherwise awesome things lose their edge. As the days ticked by to my turn,  I took it like a planner:

What's so special about this then? What's the USP?
It's the fourth plinth.

So? There's three others.
It's in Trafalgar Square?

Thousands of people are. Think harder. Do they give you anything?
No. So anything I could do, I could really do anywhere. There's no material difference.

So if the materials are the same, what's different?
Context. This is all about context!

Okay, what's your context?
Well, I'll be high up - higher than anyone else there. But far away too. And I won't be amongst a crowd, which is rare in Trafalgar. And, I'll be standing somewhere reserved for a statue. There's not many of those around.

This is a point of difference. This is what separates you and everyone else, so explore it. Who was meant to be there?
(After a bit of searching) William IV. Blimey, he got up to a lot. And he's not commemorated anywhere. The latent spirit of William is pretty much only to be found here, if anywhere. And nobody knows about him. Could I tell his story?

I don't know. Could you, from up there?
Well it's going to be midday, so there's plenty of people about. But Trafalgar is a transitionary space; people don't usually stop for long. And they're not there for anything weighty. Whatever I do has to be episodic enough that people can pick up the thread halfway through and still enjoy it, and it's got to be simple, so that they can appreciate it quickly. And if I can, it's got to be fun because I need to earn their attention before I communicate. And it would be nice if people felt like they were sharing the experience - maybe dealing with universal themes is the way to go.

So that's what I went for - I would be William IV, tell his story, tell our stories - shout them if necessary. It would feel big enough that they'd be involved, even from the ten meters away they'd be. Since I was demanding attention, I'd try to earn it back in delivery.

But would it work?

Find out tomorrow.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Engagement Planning, 50s Style...

Well, not as such. Let's call it applied empathy. A great passage from Hey Whipple, including a piece from one of my luminaries, Howard Luck Gossage. It's this kind of human understanding that underpins any good communication, personal or corporate.

Except for the handful I see in the One Show every year, most billboards are mediocre or bad. When an ad in a magazine sucks, I can turn the page. But if I live across the street from an ugly billboard, there's nothing I can do about it.
Copywriter Howard Gossage didn't believe outdoor boards were a true advertising medium: "An advertising medium is a medium that incidentally carries advertising but whose primary function is to provide something else: entertainment, news, etc... Your exposure to television commercials is conditional on their being accompanied by entertainment that is not otherwise available. No such parity or tit for tat or fair exchange exists in outdoor advertising... I'm afraid the poor old billboard doesn't qualify as a medium at all; its medium, if any, is the scenery around it and that is it not its to give away"
Until the day billboards are banned, either as "graphic littering" or "retinal trespassing," you owe the citizens of the town where your billboard appears your very best work. You must delight them.

This is a fantastically astute observation. Not because it shows sound business sense, though obviously that's a boon. No, I love it because it is so sympathetic to the audience member. I love it because it can only have come from someone who's in tune with his own feelings and experiences as an audience member.
It's also remarkably sensitive to the individual advertiser's sense of duty to the entire advertising medium. Each one of us, whenever we represent an individual client in an individual piece of communication, is simultaneously representing the entire medium and beyond that, the very concept of interrupted, unasked-for communication. And it's possible, believe it or not, to serve your client's interests well while damaging your medium - any credit card mailer circa 2002 will tell you. So it's nice to see Sullivan and Gossage take the long view.

I'm no expert in it, but to me this looks like a nice early iteration of engagement planning, too. Thinking that doesn't stop at "what's my brand like?" or "what's my audience like?" but continues to the very specific, very important question of "should my brand happen to appear in this medium... then how should it behave? Is it an invited guest in the audience's day, or an intruder? At what - a formal party or a gathering of mates? A sunny afternoon on the porch? A business meeting?" I'm going to stop now before this becomes very convoluted, but it's a worthwhile thought: if my product doesn't belong in this space, how it can it behave like it's been invited?

Monday, 18 January 2010

Ones to watch - 2010

I read with passing interest (read: loathing) the swirl of speculation and gossip surrounding last night's Golden Globes. What was more interesting was the slew of new information about this year's Summer Blockbusters. Odeon are warming my seat already. Read on...

The Road: Billed as the ultimate vision of a bleak, nightmarish future without purpose, without hope, this docu-drama into the modifications to the A303 Farnham-Guildford interchange has purportedly left test audiences weeping and clutching at their eyeballs.

Disaster Movie: an ill-judged new instalment of the never-popular "_ Movie" franchise which has yet again managed to rope in a cast of people who should know better for a project they'll Tip-Ex from their lives the second it hits the wire bins in Poundland, which it inevitably will. One to watch.

Rocky VII: left broken and destitute by his overinvestment in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, Rocky Balboa is about to take his own life for the insurance money when he's approached by a promoter with a truly unique offer. Go back in the ring for one. Last. Time.

Harry Potter and the X of Y: riding the crest of the interactivity trend, the first ever 'Modu-Film' allows each individual viewer to create their own film by picking a motif from Classical mythology, a special effects setpiece, a love interest, and their favourite chapter from the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge, which the Warner Bros. supercomputer stitches together into a three-hour epic and sells them all the figurines and promotional stationery for.

Mulan Rouge: what to do when the entire cast of your Riviera burlesque show drops out at the last minute, leaving no chorus for the night's big number? When Pierre LaFayette (Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself needing replacement dancers with three hours left before curtain up, he does the only thing he can: tries to persuade a passing retinue of Chinese soldiers to dress up. But the soldiers (Girls Aloud) have a secret of their own... time is running out, and the sinister Jean Valdemar (Dame Judi Dench) plans to unmask them. What ensues? Hilarity. Rollicking woman-plays-man-plays-woman comedy from the makers of Snatch.

Snakes on a Plane on a plane: cerebral meta-drama. When a wiring fault in the entertainment system of BA flight 515 from London to Sydney deletes every film except for a rolling loop of Snakes on a Plane, snake-handler John Deckard (Bill Nighy) faces a battle with his own paranoia - and the return of his own mental demons...

Schindler's List 3D! in the wake of blockbuster Avatar, Spielberg's World War Two masterpiece of suffering and hope gets the 3D treatment it deserves. Tragically, the black-and-white colour issues of the original remain uncorrected.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

The Tyranny of Failure

So here's a difficult one. The internet, that Janus-faced mistress, has thrown up two completely contradictory philosophies in 2009. It won't take a lot of editorialising to work out what I'm getting at:


Apps. Crowdsourcing. Blogging. 'Beta' as a positive state. Projects like Platform. Threadless. Personal data visualisers, like ManyEyes. A Battle Of Big Thinking winner espousing 'Brand Play'. The cheap piece of content, launched into the world with dreams of viraldom. Calls from all corners of industry - many industries - that what will save us is creativity and experimentation. Lovely.


Failblog. The #fail tag. The vitriol at Publicis for their cheesy Christmas card. (Beta) get torn apart for their first campaign (the best analysis can be found here). The sheer hatred of Jedward. Susan Boyle (She's ugly and talented! What a hoot!). 500,000 downloads of a song, mainly out of the desire to bring someone else down...

So, internet, what's it to be? Can we encourage experimentation with one hand and slap down failure with the other? The very term experimentation denotes the possibility of failure - a failure we need to be ready to embrace, without the glee of schadenfreude. It's fine for everyone to be a critic - but the problem is that nowadays, the criticism takes flight and spreads far faster than the object being criticised.

(*At this point, we could become very theoretical and talk about how hypertext itself is the final word in editorialising because it allows you to frame any thing you want to share with any other title you choose, and experts in NLP will know that this framing process irrevocably calibrates your expectations and final judgements - for example, would you rather look at this tasteless filth or this masterpiece? Exactly. I know I can feel my expectations shifting by the cultural values my peer group puts on things before I see them, and it takes effort to counter it. Let's leave this be, for now.)

'Get excited' and 'Fail culture' come from the same things - the glee and sense of empowerment that the internet (along with some other forces) has brought our section of society. But each of them runs up against more human problems. Critic Culture became Fail Culture because our brains are wired to fire more intensely and negatives than positives - part of our avoidance stimuli (that's why people watch Eastenders, not "Everything-is-fine-Enders"). And this climate of Fail is going to interact with the human limitation of Get Excited - fear. The fear of being found to be shit. Anyone who's seen me on stage (real, decks, or plinth-like) knows that I have had to suppress that fear in order to do anything at all. If our culture starts to act as an incubator for the very same sense of fear, well, I don't what's going to happen.

So: should we ease up a little on the criticism to encourage more experimentation? Or, in the wilds of the web, do we need efficient quality policing to keep society out of the dregs. I'd love to know. Help me.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Digital Immigrants

There is a phrase now: Digital Native. It's a funny one. It implies that you can somehow gain citizenry of the magical land called Internet. But think about it - the youngest person in the biz will be, what, 18 now, and if they're lucky they might have been introduced to the internet in 2000-ish, at about the age of 9.

That is not native. Childrens' dialect, accent etc. are often fully developed by then so that if they move countries, they will speak in much the same way. Neuroses, habits, tics and so on - it's very likely that they are set in stone by then. Jean Piaget thought so. To go back to media, most of us were introduced to books and TV by about 2. That is native. To be so fully acclimatised with the modes, methods, manners of speech in a space that you instantly understand what it's trying to tell you (and even then, I'd say it's not always true).

But we have all learned to use the net. We're still not in an age where working people are born into it, that's a fact. Yes, we soon will be - but that's the other thing, isn't it? Do you really think that a 2000 child, hidden away from computers for 15 years, would recognise the 2015 internet? I'm not even confident I would right now - assuming it's even on computers... Is it possible to be a native of a country that reinvents itself ever 5 years?

Oh yeah, and that is this big:

I am, while not native, I am well acquainted with corners of it. And in those corners, I don't always speak the language as well as I'd like. But this is all good news! What it means is that becoming a digital native or whatever the hell it is, is far, far easier than getting a Green Card. Because there's no one population, all it really entails is two things:
-a willingness to try/learn evershifting forms of communication, BUT,
-always, always keeping one and a half eyes on human nature. Talk changes, what they talk about, why and how to get them to talk about your thing will stay the same. Seems to me that the big booby trap for digital agencies is thinking that digital is any more than a means to an end. Trust me, it's not the end.

It's the beginning ;)