Google Firestarters 15: How To Think Differently About Advertising - The Event


Monday saw the interested and interesting of UK planning come together for our 15th Google Firestarters event. Our sole speaker on the evening was planning legend Paul Feldwick, who talked about his controversial new book The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising. Paul spent 30 years as an Account Planner at BMP and DDB Worldwide so knows a thing or two about planning and advertising and it was this quote from the book that set the context for the debate:

'Our ability to decide clearly where we want to go in the future, I now believe, depends first of all on our understanding of where we and our predecessors have already been.'

A number of Firestarters events have been quite forward-facing in outlook, so it's no bad thing that on this occasion we were thinking about the relevance of what we (should) have already learned about how advertising works. Yet it can seem on occasion that this historical context is too often ignored.

Paul began by talking about the three main kinds of story that the ad industry tells itself about its own past:

  • The enlightenment narrative: 'The past was primitive, but now we are enlightened'
  • The golden age narrative: 'The best years of the advertising industry were in the past'
  • The year zero narrative: 'The world has changed and the old rules no longer apply'

The enlightenment narrative has been popular because it makes things appear simpler than they are, but today's 'enlightenment' language is set to become tomorrow's obsolete 'mumbo-jumbo', and to a large extent this has now been replaced by the year zero talk which acknowledges more the impact of external forces for change. The golden age narrative, says Paul, is fundamentally unhelpful and disempowering, functioning so that ad people can demonstrate to themselves that they have excellent taste and know what they'd like to be producing for their clients whilst acknowledging that they're not, and putting the blame for that elsewhere. The external forces that are behind the year zero narrative are typically seen to be the changing nature of the consumer, and technological change. Paul's point about this prevalent view is that there are many aspects of consumer behaviour that actually haven't changed, and that we will only be able to respond adequately to the continuing rapid pace of change if we understand the basic principles of how people are influenced by publicity.


Paul went on to describe how the concepts that we take to be self-evident now, and the language that we commonly use (including words like impact, recall, proposition, attention, reason why, messaging) which support and reinforce these narratives are rooted in a historical context that may come with associated baggage from a particular world view. He categorised six main ways of understanding advertising theory - advertising as:

Salesman - theories that coalesce around themes of rational persuasion

Seduction - in many ways a parallel to advertising as salesman, but less about the rational and more about the power of emotional connection, the subconscious mind, imagery

Salience - generating fame for a product or brand

Social connections - advertising as a means of creating or maintaining relationships

Spin - advertising theories more akin to the world of PR

Showmanship - or showbiz

The ebb and flow of these theories has characterised advertising practice, and its historical context, but there is no right way, no singular view on the world that should win out. Instead:

“It’s only when we realise that none of these theories, models or metaphors represents absolute truth, but is one of many ‘ways of seeing’, that we can make use of any of them as a source of inspiration rather than be confined by it.”

And it is in that ability to understand advertising theory through metaphor, and hold and apply multiple metaphors in our minds at once, that we might be free to create the best work for our clients. Paul's talk was at one and the same time astute, controversial, informed and insightful. The subjects touched on by the questions and debate that followed ranged from the power balance between functions in agencies (who may be more aligned to certain theories about how advertising works) to the briefing process and the separation between planning and creative. Which all made for a great event.

So my thanks to Google for hosting, to Paul for such great provocation, and all those that came. There's a Storify of the conversation around the event which is worth taking a look at, and as always we had the brilliant Sciberia who did a great visualisation of the talk which you can see in all its glory here. The next Google Firestarters will be in June so if you'd like to ensure you get notified of when registration opens you can sign up for my newsletter for news of that.


Image courtesy

Why Small Teams Work


(N.B. This post is part of an occasional series I'm doing, drawing from some of the thinking that's going into the book I'm writing - any feedback is appreciated)

'From the Founding Fathers in politics to the Royal Society in science to Fairchild Semiconductor’s “traitorous eight” in business, small groups of people bound together by a sense of mission have changed the world for the better.' Peter Thiel

There is a story (seemingly from a former executive) that whilst at an offsite retreat where Amazon’s senior staff had gathered, some of those staff suggested that employees of the company needed to start communicating more with each other. Jeff Bezos apparently stood up and declared to all in the room: "No, communication is terrible!". Bezos was referring to the potential for over-burdensome communication to slow everything down. Yet many managers at many large organisations still loudly advocate the need for more communication. It’s the kind of rallying cry that very few others will disagree with. The kind that feels like it is just what is needed to solve a broad range of internal issues that need attention. 

I've written before about the power of small teams, and am fascinated by their potential for bringing greater agility and speed of delivery to organisations, and also for generating significant change. But this is not just conjecture. There is plenty of research into how small teams can do this, some of which is summarised by Janet Choi in this excellent blog post on the subject. Janet draws on the work of J. Richard Hackman who was Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University to make the point that the issue with larger teams isn’t necessarily the size of the team itself, but the number of links between people.

As group size increases, the number of unique links between people also increases, but exponentially. So whilst a small team of 6 creates 15 links between everyone, a larger team of 12 will generate 66 links, and a team of 50 has no less than 1225 links to manage. This exponential increase means that coordination and communication costs are soon growing at the expense of productivity. Hackman, writing in The Psychology of Leadership, explains that:

“The larger a group, the more process problems members encounter in carrying out their collective work …. Worse, the vulnerability of a group to such difficulties increases sharply as size increases.”

Leaders, says Hackman, may often create oversized teams in the faulty assumption that ‘more is better’ for team effectiveness, or due to emotional considerations such as sharing responsibility and spreading accountability across larger numbers of people, or for political reasons such as ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are represented:

“For these reasons, individuals from various constituencies may be appointed to a team one by one, or even two by two, creating a large politically correct team - but a team that can find itself incapable of generating an outcome that meets even minimum standards of acceptability, let alone one that shows signs of originality."

Janet also mentions research conducted by Bradley Staats, Katherine Milkman, and Craig Fox (The Team Scaling Fallacy: Underestimating The Declining Efficiency of Larger Teams) showing that larger team sizes can lead to overconfidence and an under-estimation of time needed to complete tasks. One experiment conducted by the researchers set different groups the task of building the same Lego figure. In spite of the fact that the larger teams were almost twice as optimistic about how long they’d take to complete the task, four person teams took 52 minutes whilst two-person teams took only 36 minutes.

It’s tempting in digital transformation to think that since the outcome is so important and speed (in delivery of transformation or digital development) is often such a factor, more people will lead to a greater chance of success. But we underestimate the increasing burden of communication at our own cost. Small, nimble teams can achieve amazing things. So rather than throw numbers at a problem, ask yourself this - what's the smallest number of people you can put together to achieve a result? It's likely to be less than you think.

Image courtesy

The Talent Revolution Survey


I've done quite a bit of work in the digital skills area and one of the things you see a lot, particularly in non-digital-specialist roles, is a disconnect between intent and action when it comes to training, so anything that gives companies more reason to invest in their people in this way is a good thing. So it's interesting to see that the Google Digital Academy (full disclosure: I do some work with the Google Digital Academy on their Google Squared programme) have got together with a group of industry bodies (including the IAB, ISBA and The Marketing Society) and big advertisers to launch the Talent Revolution Survey. The idea behind the survey is to build a knowledge bank on what marketers do well in the field, and what they do less well, and if you have a number of marketers complete the survey you get access to a benchmarking report. More details here

Google Firestarters Austin - Engineering Strategy - The Event


Saturday saw our first ever Firestarters event in Austin, held in the Google Fiber space during SXSWi. We'd themed the event around the intersection of user experience design and strategy which, judging from the audience feedback and debate on the night is rich territory for discussion right now. Perhaps unsurprising given the growth in importance of UX within both clients and agencies, and more generally how tech-savvy design resourcing, expertise and practice is in ever increasing demand (as encapsulated nicely by John Maeda's Design in Tech Report that was launched at SXSW).

Our first speaker was the brilliant Oonie Chase, Director of Experience at Wieden & Kennedy, who talked about how UX was influencing briefs in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways at W & K, but also how the two disciplines will likely start start from a different place - planning from the lens of the brand, UX from the customer perspective, and what they can teach each other. She used a quote by Dave Terry at W & K ("It's entirely wrong, but it's golden in its wrongness.") about UX:


User Experience practice challenges the idea that you need scale immediately - you might start small to acquire learnings, whilst advertising has a ‘need for glory’. UX is something that is co-created over time so not necessarily perfect. It doesn't worship creative and 'doneness' in the same way as planners do. But whilst UX can be overly focused on getting from A to B, planning can teach UX about not losing sight of the ‘soul’ and emotion of what you do. Rather than aiming for a Minimum Viable Product, perhaps it's more about achieving a 'Minimum Lovable Product'.

Chloe Gottlieb, SVP Exec Creative Director, R/GA, complimented that nicely by focusing on where planning and UX (or rather Experience Design, which is the term they prefer at R/GA) overlap. Great planners, said Chloe, are inherently creative and great Experience Designers are inherently strategic, but it's how they work together (as opposed to working in parallel) inside the agency that is becoming increasingly important. Both planners and experience designers are pattern seekers, consumed by consumers, and obsessed with culture and behaviour, but:

"While UX folk might veer more toward architecture, engineering and design - closely observing customer needs and how to add value to them over time - planners are more like poets, anthropologists, psychicians – finding tensions in culture and bringing them to light."

UX insights might lead to products, services and platforms (systems), planning insights lead to brand stories, content, comms. R/GA's own progression has amplified the overlap, growing into making more branded interactions and systems for campaigns, becoming more strategic (e.g. thinking about functionally integrated services that tied products and services together), just as planning comes from brand and storytelling towards having to create strategies that could lead to products, services or communications, and is evolving to find ways to stay involved as work is made, tested, evolved over time. 


So it is far from binary, there is plenty of overlap, and planning and UX need each other more than ever. The intersection is where the magic happens, particularly now that most brands are primarily experienced through interfaces (in fact 'Brand is Interface'), product and message are integrated more than ever, and experiences are not separated into silos. Strategy becomes 'truth over time', requiring more system thinking, experimentation, tweaking, QA than ever before. At R/GA, getting to insights involves multidisciplinary teams working together on the problem, looking for patterns and collisions, and briefs are the crystallisation after the ideas are baked. The way they know they have a great insight is when it enables creatives to take giant leaps.

Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, added a third unique perspective. Moving to a tech company from an agency background, said Ian, meant coming to a place where big ideas are not as important as big releases, where impact is more important than inspiration, and from an environment run on creative disciplines, to one dominated by engineering. His tool set and collaborators have also changed (he counts algorithms amongst his new set of collaborators). Planners dig for insights, and uncover or manufacture a truth, and creatives make fictions (through stories and designs). So the flow of the process is that from an insight you get a big idea, and from that big idea you tell or make a story, and in software especially you create an experience for the customer. But in software the distance between creating a story and creating an experience can be a long and winding road. But increasingly both marketing and product now focus on the essentials of the experience they are trying to create at the end. This may be in a story like form, but stories illustrate a promise, and all promises are lies until we keep them. So 'planners tell awesome lies', lies we can believe in.


And whilst software companies understand their customer’s behaviour, they rarely understand their customer.

Russell Davies (Creative Director, UK Government Digital Service) built on his Firestarters UK talk by focusing in on how usability increasingly trumps persuasion. In a pleasingly controversial talk, he talked about how the product is the service is the marketing, and why this meant that experience design was the future. A brilliant product will always be better than a parity product with marketing. It was once hard to produce brilliant products, but as everything becomes increasingly digitised it's easier than ever. So companies that are still set up around persuasion need to design around the needs of the user, and be set up to deliver the best experience possible. This means no new ideas until everything works ('fix the basics'). And that user experience is killing marketing since if the product is good enough there is no need to over sell it. And about how everyone should be concerned about making user experience better.


The questions and debate afterwards picked up on just how topical a subject this is right now for strategists and agencies, and we had no lack of interesting (and sometimes controversial) opinion on the night. You can see a Storify of some of the feedback and conversation here

My thanks as always to Ben Malbon and Google for hosting, to our amazing speakers who made our first Google Firestarters in Austin such a success.

Thanks to DDB Worldwide and ImageThink for images used in this post.

The Connector That Disconnects

I saw a charming talk here yesterday at SXSW by Dutch designer Daniel Disselkoen who themed his session around the idea that familiarity with a subject, our environment, surroundings or routine can limit discovery. This provides the basis for Daniel's work in exploring ways to encourage people to notice and observe more, and to be more self-aware of where our attention is focused.

For four years, he made the same journey on the same tram route to the art academy, and realised that he had stopped looking out of the window and being curious about what he might see. So he developed a simple little real-world hack called Man-eater:

Man-eater from Daniel Disselkoen on Vimeo.

Daniel also talked about how our focus is so often looking down at a screen (a behaviour there is no shortage of here at SXSW). He described the smartphone as 'the connector that disconnects'. So another project is an app called Cucalu, which is a game that encourages you to look at the ordinary with a new perspective by spotting, photographing and sharing geometrical shapes in your immediate environment.

Cucalu from Daniel Disselkoen on Vimeo.

There were some delightful stories of how creative people had been with the challenges, a few of which you can see here. Rather lovely.