Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why strat/plan is more like nursing than doctoring these days or a different defense of listening

Saw a great show on the growing Nursing Crisis on NOW the other night. Now comes at the end of a series of newsweekly shows (Greater Boston, McLaughlin Group, Washington Week) that generally occupies the attention of my media junky family on Friday evening so I'm usually pretty burned out on current events by then, but this show caught my attention.

The segment began by describing how important nurses were--the proportion of well-trained nurses to patients has huge impact on survival rates--and then went on to detail the causes behind the nurse shortage.

While the majority of the show was about the nurse shortage, I'm writing about the first half of the show here because it reminded me once again that the exhausting, repetitive, caring, tedious work of just paying attention--or what we can call listening now that "listening" is a technical term--is often more important than the single, grand deductive insight in achieving a successful and satisfying outcome.

Maybe it’s because I had spent several hours of that day monitoring radian6 feeds and optimizing keywords for a paid search. Or maybe it was because the earlier half of my week was spent listening to franchisees talk about trying to drive traffic to their stores in our challenging times, but the combination of events made me think that the work I do--strategy and brand planning--seems to be shifting from more high-level diagnostic type work (voila, the strategy is X) that we associate with doctoring to the more continuous listening, monitoring, supporting, comforting and adjusting that we associate with nursing.

I don’t think this shift from big top-down thinking to continual ongoing vigilance is unique to our planning/strategy profession. On the contrary, as others have noted, this shift seems to have impacted just about every field in which an expert has to make an important decision with imperfect information. There are many reasons for this new appreciation for careful, ongoing attention, but the most significant ones seem to be:

  • New technologies of measurement have created an overabundance of data: access to an increasing complexity of data in almost all fields makes it harder to make a simple overarching decision with confidence.
  • We suck at making decisions: Those who study the way we make decisions (from cognitive scientists to behavioral economists) have uncovered innumerable “heuristics” or cognitive biases we all use when we make decisions, often without being aware of them.
  • Skepticism about expertise in general: And related to the above, an empowered non-pro population with new access to pro-grade info is growing increasingly dubious about expertise in general. Just this morning the NYT cited a study in the Journal of Consumer research here that showed we find confident amateur reviews more convincing than expert evaluations. (So it's no accident, I think, that our popular culture is suddenly more interested in nurses than doctors.)

And then, reinforcing my developing thoughts on subject was an article/review I read in the NYRB making exactly the same points about the medical profession.

The review- “Diagnosis: What Doctors are Missing” by Jerome Groopman--isn’t an attack on the profession so much as a description of how so many interpretive professions have evolved: from an early optimism that new technology would help produce infallible expertise to a growing recognition that the complexity of these tools and the limits of our brains only increase the need for good old-fashioned human attention and listening (along with a healthy skepticism about our over-confidence) in order to solve complex problems.

Groopman’s biggest gripe is that the economic structure of the profession make it difficult for doctors to spend time doing what doctors most need to do: that is, listen because the system doesn't allow them to charge for it. Or to put it another way: they can't make money when they behave more like nurses.

There’s obviously been a lot of talk about the importance of listening in the marketing profession as well. And I think listening is important too, but not necessarily for reasons most often cited. Among proponents of listening in marketing, the argument generally goes that now that consumers are in control of our brands we have to listen to them in order to serve their needs. They don't want to be told what to think anymore. (TV is dead: the monologue is out, the dialogue is in, etc., etc.) They want to tell us what to think.

I actually don’t think consumers are in control of brands except in a highly relative way, at least so far. (They can choose among options; just as the patient can choose among doctors; if they could they cure themselves they wouldn't be at the doctor in the first place) Nor does evidence suggest that consumers are very good at knowing what they want. So we shouldn’t convince ourselves that giving consumers what they think they want will make them happy for very long.

No, I think listening is so important less because the consumer is always right than because we (like doctors) are so often wrong, especially when we are making lots of complex decisions. In our newly complex media/culture-scape, it's almost impossible to get everything right the first time, or at least get it so right you that you can't make it better in the near future by paying attention to what happens and making adjustments. It's only by listening that we fix our first mistakes fast enough so that we don't kill our own patients and our brands.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why we (or at least I) still need creative departments: a tribute

A combination of both long-term trends and recent events impacting our business have led to some interesting conversations about eliminating creative departments altogether. Like the talk on this panel here. One can see the logic. Creatives are, or at least were, pretty expensive. And, the logic goes, they only did one or two things. And it's certainly true that these days we need lots of people to do lots of different things. We can't possibly afford to keep all this multifarious talent under one roof. Wouldn’t it be great to just outsource all the creative?

This should be good news for strategists like me. It could potentially elevate roles like mine even higher, making creative strategists and strategic creatives brand orchestrators or, in the latest buzz word, "curators" of creative elements that we arrange to form brand experiences and communications. And in many ways I do think this is a golden age for planners, but I’m not so sure I want to do away with creative departments altogether, if it means I don't get to have daily meetings with people who actually make stuff.

Why? Well, I could explain my hesitation with a bunch of big unsupported generalizations, but since this a blog, I'll just speak for myself. I’ve worked at a bunch of different agencies and brand consultancies and the simple truth is that my thinking is exponentially better when it is developed through an ongoing dialogue with a creative partner. And not "creative" in the general sense of someone who has ideas, but someone who spends the majority of their time thinking about and making creative objects. (I still think there is a difference, but that would take a post by itself)

I’ve been doing this for awhile now and I have some evidence that I'm pretty good at asking useful questions that yield intriguing data points. And a fair amount of people have told me I'm also not bad at synthesizing these data points with various perspectives into platforms and provocative formulations that help inspire creatives across a number of disciplines from advertising to design to application development. (And if only to prevent this post from being relegated to the POV of a wonky analyst, I’m a published fiction writer too)

But again, much to my annoyance, whatever ideas I'm able to generate using my right or left brain (and, on very special occasions, both halves of my brain!) those ideas get infinitely better whenever I share them with creative partners as they develop. Simply put, the good creatives I work with see things I don’t see. Over and over again. And I'm not just talking about the creative development stage. I'm talking about the research stage too. Even the pre-research, wtf are we going to do, stage.

Good creatives see tangents and weird possibilities and just bizarre inversions that would never come to me and frankly I could never get to through the data (quant or qual or cultural) in any conventional analytical way. And these sometime wacky, sometimes insightful thoughts in turn help me ask better questions that yield even more interesting answers which in turn yields better work.

So when I propose a thought and a creative says to me, what if we asked the same question but from a bunny's perspective, or, I think it's just the opposite of what you just said, I couldn't be happier, because that's exactly what I need.

The point I'm making should be obvious, but I haven't seen it in the dialogue around these points. Creatives don't just execute ideas; they are especially good at generating ideas of a certain kind, the kind that are, well, creative, intuitive, weird, surprising etc, And I'd argue that the kind of ideas that agency's develop are great and valuable in part because of the dialogue between analytical and conceptual thinking types like me and the many creative thinkers I've worked with.

It's this dialogue that makes agency ideas different from the business ideas that are generated by big consulting firms like Mckinsey and Accenture. They aren't just insightful and rooted in lots of data and analysis. They may be rooted in data and analysis, but at their best, they do more than that, they engage with the broader culture in a surprising unique powerful way that only art can and thereby transform consumer behavior and culture. .

Can you do what I'm talking about with outsourced creatives? One great company I worked at called Mechanica is built on just this principle. And they are particularly good at thinking broadly about addressing business problems beyond communications, and using a range of network partners to address those issues, whether they require employee training or new product development. On the creative communications front, my experience suggests it's not as easy to outsource great creative as it might appear.

Why? Again, I'll speak personally. If you've ever worked in a really creative agency, one which really valued creative excellence, you know how many conversations and iterations it takes to get the idea where it needs to go. And it isn't one or two or five. It was more like 20 or 30 or a 100. If you’re using freelance talent that can get pretty expensive pretty fast. And we all know how hard it is to work creatively when you don't have existing relationships.

I'm all for the new models emerging out there and I'm curious to see how they develop. But to do my job well, I, for one, want and need daily interaction with people who spend most of their time making strange, new, beautiful, compelling things.

So Jason and Tommy and John and Bruce. And Trish and Laura and Ted and Ed and Greg and Karen and Jim and Libby and many many other art directors and writers and designers and developers who've collaborated with me every step of the way: I couldn't have, still can't and don't want to do it without you so I hope we all get to stick together.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Inspiration remains a hot commodity, even in these tough times

I just heard they are closing the Bank of America branch in the small New England village around the corner from my house. It's convenient having a bank so close but not a big hardship to see it go. Worse by far is the news that the great cheese shop next to the BofA is suffering too. The owner is going to try out some different inventory to try and get sales going but he told me he’s taken a big hit in the past year. Since it’s fair to say that most of the people in my neighborhood aren’t about to go into foreclosure (though one did), it’s another sign that the recession is changing everyone’s habits.

It was with this frame of mind that I noticed that despite the bad news, some stores seemed to be thriving. In one set of stores in a plaza down the road here's what I saw doing well: a yoga studio, a karate school, one of those working kitchen/culinary arts places where they teach people how to cook again. What else, well there’s also a fantastic running shoe store with super knowledgeable staff and a brand new performance bike shop. Oh, and there's also a hairdresser/manicure salon and a (therapeutic) massage place.

Now, you don’t have to be a genuine professional brand planner like me to see the common thread here. People might be buying fewer fancy cheeses and mutual funds but they are still buying experiences, especially ones that make them look and feel better, that expand their horizons and teach them new skills.

Pine and Gilmore first talked about this coming wave in their 1999 hit “The Experience Economy.” The part that’s most relevant to my point here is in the final chapters where they discussed the next wave of business, after experience businesses, what they called “Transformation” businesses, because these businesses help people transform themselves into something they want to be: lighter or prettier or smarter or more relaxed or more effective martial arts killing machines.

I think they’re right. And you don’t have to go to the mall to see it. You can just look at your twitter/social media feed where dozens of people will tell you every day, over and over again, that you should be more focused, more determined, more positive, more entrepreneurial more committed to doing what you love. And that many of these people who call themselves life coaches and/or human potential professionals, can be hired to help you be all these things and more, because that's what it means to reach your limitless potential.

You can tell by my uncharitable tone here that I personally have a limited tolerance for these kind of platitudes, but as a senior consumer insight professional, my job isn’t to let my own snotty tastes interfere with the accuracy of my observations. And I’d be a very bad consumer insight professional indeed if I didn’t see what was staring me in the face everywhere I looked: people want to be inspired, inspired to transform themselves into something they haven't quite become yet, and even in these very challenging economic times, those that can afford it are still very willing to pay for it

Monday, September 28, 2009

Google and the novelist: more on how technology is impacting the creative process

Any of us who work in marketing know that technology is having a dramatic impact on how commercial artists and writers work in all kinds of double-edged-sword ways, both offering amazing new tools to help us get work done and challenging our value props.

But I’ve been interviewing creative people across the creative spectrum—from poets to TV producers--and some of my more surprising findings are coming from writers and artists who aren’t involved with marketing at all. Their stories demonstrate how even fundamental elements of new media are transforming the art they make.

The writer Justin Cronin put it this way, “The easy availability of almost any fact has turned me into a different kind of novelist.”

I don’t normally think about Internet Search as having a transformative impact on the creative process, but for Justin, and I’m sure for other writers., it has.

A little background might help illustrate the dramatic nature of the change I'm talking about. Justin was a classmate of mine at the Iowa Writers Workshop where he wrote beautifully crafted lyrical stories that were in the tradition of contemporary realistic fiction. After graduation, he published two well-received, prize-winning novels which, I think he’d agree, were also in that tradition.

More recently, however, he’s been writing a post-apocalyptic Vampire trilogy which—as widely reported—he’s already sold for a big pile of money. The first volume of the trilogy—The Passage—is being made into a major movie by Ridley Scott.

Now, how does a literary writer suddenly turn himself into an instant master of high-concept futuristic thrillers? Part of the charming story is Justin's native talent. Another part is that the plot was inspired by conversations he had with his daughter while she rode her bike alongside him on his daily run. In order to help pass the time, he told his daughter they were going to plot a novel. What should it be about? She replied, “A story about a little girl that saves the world.” A winning idea if there ever was one.

But the part that interests me here--is the power of the Internet to make available a set of experiences Justin had never tried to imagine before as part of his subject.

Again, in his words, “If I need to know how to hot-wire a diesel engine, well, I can just Google it and it's right there. If I want to know what the dashboard of a military vehicle looks like, it’s there too. ”

He didn’t need to go to the library or interview people or take a trip to a military base. It’s not that Justin stopped doing original research. He told me one story about hiring a guy to take him to a firing range so he could experience what it felt like to shoot assault rifles.

But he acknowledged that the immediacy of search helped him stay in the writing process. The instant availability of facts and images and video helped him quickly fill his imagined world with the stuff that his characters needed to go out and save the world. As he put it, “I might have been able to write this book without the internet but I don’t think I could have written it as fast or as well.”

He also said that the process of imagining more unusual experiences liberated him from an impulse to rely on autobiographical material for his plots. While all artists and writers tend to draw from their own lives to some degree, especially early in their career, the Internet has accelerated or at least help enable that transformation. In this way, the title of his first novel in the trilogy--The Passage--could also double as a metaphor for his own evolution as an writer.

When thinking about technology and creativity, it’s easy to fixate on works that make use of new or sophisticated technology: augmented reality and data visualization. But sometimes it’s the more fundamental elements—like search--that make the biggest difference. It's the question I'm continuing to explore now: asking other writers and artists if Google has helped inspire them to make leaps of imagination into new genres, media and forms.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A call for new tools: starting with observations on successful Facebook applications

One of things that I've noticed about the social media revolution is that it seems to be a lot easier to find big, visionary talk than new tools and practical guidelines for how to do it. In any google search I can find thousands of blog posts about how the world is changing but when I searched for advice or models about how to write a new creative brief that would help creatives develop work for a multi-platform world, I couldn't find anything. My direct queries on the various socmed platforms asking for existing models didn't yield much either.

I think it's pretty established now that the world is changing. What we--all of us, but I'm writing for strategic/brand planners in particular--need now are some new tools to help us navigate and develop work for the changing landscape.

So, in the positive, can-do, crowdsourcing spirit of social media, I decided to try for myself in the hope others will complement/supplement/edit/critique my work as I go. I'm not going to start with the digital/platform brief because that's going to take some work. But there are plenty of smaller tools I need to develop as well.

For instance, one of the things I need right now is a set of high level strategic guidelines for developing successful applications. Chances are, like me, both your creatives and your clients are looking for help guiding the development of branded applications on facebook and iphone. The interest has only heightened as we approach the holiday season in which (as my creative director partner Jason Gaboriou recently pointed out) we are assuredly going to see a hailstorm of holiday-themed gift-finder-ish apps.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about technical guidelines for developers (e.g. what to do with uninstalls) but rather clues to what makes a good experience based on current consumer behavior (though of course the areas overlap these days). Here's my working list. I'm starting at a very high level of generality, because I'm finding it's what my clients and some more traditionally-trained creatives need.

I'm absolutely positive there are people out there who know more than me on this subject so hope they jump in and correct me either here or on twitter @copia

  • Support with marketing, both online and off: the early fantasy of digital media (that people will just find it for themselves) is over. In this very crowded field, you need to help even your loyal consumers find your stuff.
  • Be social: Doh! Facebook is a social medium. App’s should have a social component which means there is a built-in reason to spread it around. Ideally, it should facilitate an exchange of information rather than just a dissemination.
  • Fads are real: We always complain about fads in marketing, but the majority of apps tend to move in and of popularity pretty fast. Consider linking to timely events and don’t expect it to last forever.
  • Keep it simple: Most successful apps do one or two things well. Facebook is simple. It shouldn’t be more complicated than Facebook itself
  • Utility and entertainment is better than utility or entertainment. App’s which actually offer something useful tend to have longer shelf lives. Many app’s have succeeded by just entertaining but they need to be pretty funny.
  • Profiles as content: Facebook connect now enables app’s to customize experience based on user data. Think of user profiles as content
  • Online behavior is still behavior: extend, enhance, supplemnt the most popular and frequent online behaviors: searching, shopping, playing, flirting, (though of course this changes fast as diagram below from 07 indicates).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How technology is changing the creative process in not always great ways: the other side of the coin

Earlier this week, I shared some early observations on my research exploring how technology is changing the creative process for creative people from poets to producers.

I started with the good stuff: how the technology is energizing artists and encouraging them to explore more forms of self expression. But all transitions—and this is a major one—brings as much anxiety and ambivalence and euphoria. Today I wanted I share a few early observations about the other side of the double-edged sword we’re all dancing down.

1. Speed may be the essence of the war but is it the essence of art? Every single writer and artist I spoke to acknowledged that technology has sped up their deadlines and accelerated their working process.

Several were exhilarated by the challenge of speed—especially those blessed with natural high-speed wit like @awohl—but others—both commercial and non-commercial artists--acknowledged that the pressure of speed wasn’t always leading to their best work.
We traditionally think about creative work as something that depends on a little time and personal reflection to develop. Around the office, we say that some work isn't "cooked" or "baked" yet. Around the classroom, we sometimes refer to Wordsworth famous definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” And while of us who work in creative businesses have found ways to accelerate the process--we take 6 hours or 6 minutes rather than 6 months to develop ideas--it’s worth asking if there’s a limit to how fast certain kinds of good work can come.

One sign of the speed of the culture was the fact that some of the writers I spoke to couldn’t remember the work they’d recently done. It just passed by too fast.

Quality is harder to judge. Artistic appreciation is of course subjective. But one copywriter put it bluntly: did you look at this year’s Cannes’ reel? It’s a joke.

2. Does originality matter? The question of originality has always vexed the world of art in general and marketing in particular. On the one hand, most acknowledge that every idea has been done before, on the other, people still complain when they feel someone has "stolen" their idea. So which is it?

So while the issue is nothing new, it does seem to be amplified by our ability to instantly access all the work in the world on almost every media and subject imaginable. How do artists feel about this new access to all the abundance out there? Are you inspired or overwhelmed? A little bit of both.

The vast majority of creative people did not test the“originality” of their idea with the internet archives before proceeding. On the contrary, as @eproulx eloquently put it, “I have to pretend it's my idea until it's too late.”

3. Clusterf*ck, Committee or Collaboration? Related to the above is the question of the relationship between the number of people involved and the quality of the work. In the old days, we used to say that work by committee was bound to get “watered down." Or worse.

Many artists and writers these days feel the opposite is true, including those who work at Pixar who describe their process of collaborative development as Amplification. See, e.g., article in June HBR. A preview here. And a post on the subject here. (Tx to @edwardboches for noting the relevance of this topic ) The emergence of crowdsourcing as a vehicle for innovation and creative development has called additional attention to this changing definition of the creative process.

My early conclusion is that most artists and writers today agree that collaboration is a good thing early in the process. But many involved developing and executing work, as opposed to generating the idea, still hunger for that old-fashioned time by themselves, listening to a music, or going for a walk to let the idea churn around inside them.

4. But how much is it worth? The simultaneous adoption of crowdsourcing models, new distribution models, the explosion of amateur involvement and the economic crisis have raised questions across the artistic committee about the value of their work in strictly economic terms. Because it directly impacts their ability to make a living, this issue obviously leads to strong opinions on both sides.

Crowdsourcers argue that it’s good for clients who wouldn’t pay as much as they used to anyway. Others lament that artists and writers are rushing to participate in their own exploitation, calling the emerging group of people giving away their work, digital sharecroppers.

This issue is particularly charged among designers, perhaps because technology has allowed un-trained amateurs to approximate a decent, if not that good, design. (Check out the brewing storm on @edwardboches blog here for a front-row seat.)

Recently, the crowdsourcing machine has taken up the task of translating, with a similar reaction among the crowdlovers and the old-line experts. Here's one post on the recent linkedin controversy.

Almost everyone agrees that most fields of artistic expression are due for a leveling or perhaps a hollowing out, with a lot of the work being commodified. Stars in every field of artistic endeavor will always command top dollar for their unique forms of cultural expression. And amateurs and small creative companies can now deliver decent work for value price. But most of us who make a living writing, painting, producing, designing are not big stars. But we don’t want to give away our work either. We’re in the big middle.

And life in the big middle is a big question, which is why so many artists and writers are diversifying.

Monday, September 7, 2009

How technology is changing the creative process for the better (for some creative people): early observations

There's obviously a lot of talk about how creative content is changing for just about every media that uses it, from advertising to music to film to publishing. So many people are making so many bold pronouncements on the subject, usually by declaring the death of one thing or another (the agency here, publishing here, DVD's here) that I could just about link to anything my stumble upon button stumbles upon and find a strong opinion on the subject.

Many of the commentators are celebrating these changes in the spirit of creative destruction: often noting how this is good for both brands and marketers—b/c they can source work at lower cost and accelerate innovation--and good for audiences/consumers--b/c it gives us abundant access to so much free content.

But I also noticed that not too many people seem to be asking the actual cultural producers themselves—all the poets and writers and artists and designers and producers—who are making the creative content in the first place. (Though it's true these writers and designers often make guest appearances as forward thinking futurists or anxious critics in the sidelines of debates raging around crowdsourcing, like the recent one here).

I noticed this partially because it’s my job, as a planner at an agency, to help guide and inspire the development of creative products and partially because I have lots of semi-anxious friends who happen to be poets and writers and screenwriters and art directors and designers. So I thought it might be interesting to hear how they felt about all these changes.

I started with a simple question. Has technology changed your creative process? And if so, how? And because the answers were so interesting they quickly led to a set of follow-up questions about whether technology had influenced how they get inspired and whether it impacted their relation to their audience and how they felt about the wave of hyper collaboration and even some questions about the old-fashioned idea of originality.

I’ve done about dozen interviews so far, and I thought I’d post some early observations both because I hope other people find this subject as interesting as I do and because I’m hoping I can lure other artists and writers into sharing their thoughts on the subject.

I should be clear when I say creative, I'm not limiting myself to the ad agency job title. I'm defining “creative” people in a pretty broad sense, from those who work in commercial professions (art directors and copywriters and designers and producers) to poets and writers and painters and musicians and filmmakers and conceptual artists to those creative people who work in the medium of technology itself: programmers and game designers.

So far I’ve spoken to 2 novelists, 2 poets, 2 copywriters, 2 art directors, 1 creative director, 2 screenwriters/producers, 1 dancer, 1 musician/producer ( several of the above overlap in a couple categories) So special thanks to @eproulx, @jonkranz, @edwardboches, @gretchenramsy, @adamwohl, @lauracarterbird (and a bunch of people who aren't on Twitter yet!)

My first observation has to be resounding confirmation of the generous spirit of the artistic community on the interweb in general and social media in particular. Everyone I’ve interviewed, whether I knew them before or not, has been more generous, thoughtful and helpful than I could have hoped.

So with that, I'll start with the good news or those things most artists and writers agree were more or less positive about the influence of technology on their work.

1) They might still be tortured but aren't lonely: Remember those stories of Romantic poets who needed to retreat to a rustic cabin in order to dig deep into their creative soul, uncorrupted by the distractions of civilization. Well, that ideal or fantasy doesn't seem as relevant to artists today. Almost all the artists and writers I spoke with were energized by more direct and frequent contact with other artists, their audience, as well as the culture as a whole. This was true of producers as well as poets. Maybe especially poets, who in the past felt particularly cut off from feedback on their work. We seem to be finally getting tired of the the long-held Romantic ideal. Both artists and audiences like to be connected.

2) Nor do they plan on starving: Technology seems to have jump-started the entrepreneurial spirit among artists. Whether they like the digital revolution or not, almost all the artists I spoke to agree that you have to diversify. They aren’t relying on one job or boss or patron or income source, but are developing multiple projects both within traditional frameworks and on their own. As one copywriter put it (I’m reserving attribution until I get permission), we always knew it was bad for an agency to only have one or two clients. Now we know that's true for all of us.

2a) It's a deal: Social media has also given artists more direct access to decision makers in almost all fields, inspiring them to send their work and ideas to places they didn't have access to previously. In the past the long odds at ever getting some muckety mucks attention tended to discourage these efforts. It's still too early to tell with my small sample, but technology seems particularly valuable for those in managerial positions, creative directors and producers, or anyone who spends more time making deals about cultural products than actually creating art.

3) Artists are diversifying their media/mediums: After college I went to an MFA program where people applied to be either “poets” or “fiction writers.” And most of the writers/artists of my gen-x gen generally took this narrow route. Most of us thought it was important to specialize early in order to develop the necessary skills to succeed.

But specialization seems less important to artists today. In fact, technology has made previously inaccessible (both complicated and expensive) tools much more accessible. Several writers I spoke with have turned their hand to film-making and while modest about their accomplishments, were frankly surprised at the relative success and professional quality of their efforts. This seems even more true for youngsters in their teens and twenties who I’ve encountered on research projects for clients. In fact, as I’ve posted before, many wanted to be managers/producers rather than artists per se.

4) The end of writers block? Probably not. Everyone goes through dry-spells, but several of the writers and artists I spoke with, mentioned that the constant stream of inspiration does seem to jump-start their thinking. Twenty minutes cruising a twitter stream or reading some blogs almost always generated some kind of response which gets the creative energy flowing. Whether the inspiration leads anywhere interesting is another story, but most agree it's almost as good as coffee.

5) You can be anywhere and so can your partner: There's no longer any need to restrict your creative partnership with people in the same room, town, company, country. Especially for those who work with partners in commercial production of some kind, technology has made it possible to work with just about anyone, anywhere, on any project.

6) New technology, new forms: Several writers and artists I spoke with are exploring new media that wouldn't be possible at all without new technology. Everything from printing images on bread to new forms of social storytelling being explored at MIT's medialab. It's too early to tell whether these forms will go the way of computer art of the 70's or amount to something more interesting. But there's no question that technology is opening up possibilities for self-expression

7) oh, almost forgot: The 24/7 focus group: creative people whose success depends on high speed production and hconsumer approval (e.g., marketers) also relished the fact that you could find out almost anything all the time. They barely remembered the day when they had to call an account person or a planner to look something up. And Twitter provides constant and instant feedback to any idea they want to throw out there, to see if it generates any interest, before the develop it.

Of course, it's not all good. For instance, many writers and artists I spoke to seemed ambivalent about how technology was accelerating culture and tightening deadlines, but I'll save thatanxiety for another post.

Again, would love to talk to more poets, writers, artist, musicians, game designers, etc or anyone who'd like to talk about how technology is impacting their creative process. Get in touch here or at

Monday, August 17, 2009

Webinar hell or some elements of a good class I wish were in more them

The power of education in general and the ability of a good teacher to change lives is one of my last idealisms, so I find it particularly frustrating when i get subjected to presentations by people that haven't given any thought to what constitutes a class or seminar, from the perspective of the teacher or the student... While I've experienced a couple good classes/lunch-in-learns/webinars (notably Avinash Kaushniks clear, informative, concrete webinars), the vast majority of them suck. The most I've been in/to are:

--Some thinly-veiled PR for the organization with a couple generic recommendations (I recently read "advertising" listed a key way to drive traffic! That's a revelation! ) followed by "contact us for more insight/info/consulting"


--A summary of past work/successes, usually bullet pointed, usually just thinly reformatted case studies that were used for an awards submission or new biz pitch.

For example: I recently "listened" to webinar that claimed it would provide advice on how to successfully apply for a certain kind of award (yeah I know, god punishes), but it was nothing but a description of the winning submissions by people that wrote them. No inside info on why they won. No explication of the decisions they made while preparing the submission. No other evidence or analysis of the kinds of submissions that generally win or don't win. Just more communal back slapping.

So as an effort to be positively productive, here are some fo the basic elements that make up a good class, derived from many years on both side of the class room.

1) Tell me something new/challenge or advance conventional thinking. Business courses/webinars seem to be under the delusion that people all agree about how to approach a problem or alternatively that they all share your company's pov. A good course first establishes the range of pov's on the subject. It actually orients the student in relation to past thinking before telling the student how the class is going to challenge or supplement or advance that thinking. And if you aren't going to add anything why are you wasting my time?

2) Address a particular problem and tell me how to solve it with particular details. Don't tell me about a general problem. No problems are general. All problems are particular. Even if I haven't had the particular issue being discussed and am not likely to have it, I'll learn a lot more from the particular choices you made, then general statements about "being transparent" which can mean just about anything. (75% are marketing blog posts are like this too in my snotty opinion) If you want to generalize from the particular experience, that's fine, people love it, but still give me some examples that support the general point.

3) Tell me about your mistakes: We all know that we learn more from our mistakes so why do businesses act like they never make them. I suppose the obvious answer is liability. If you confess publicly to having fucked up, your ex-client and can come back demand reparations (which raises a question about whether you can ever really tell the truth about a business experience and why case studies always read like half the story.). But let's assume it's still possible. At the very least, describe how you made a difficult decision between two equally good choices.

4) Give me some evidence for your point: One of the things that drives me insane about the whole kool-aid drinking aspect of social media is that everyone is always preaching the same gospel to the converted. The only time I've ever seen the writers at Mashable actually muster up the energy for an argument with actual evidence is when they were responding to some criticism about the value of social media. And I'd much prefer if the evidence was more than a charming anecdote about something funny your children did when setting up a lemonade stand. (yes, this is an actual example of a blog post supporting the trendy C. Anderson thesis in "Free")

5) Tell me how your approach resolves a contradictory piece of data: The test of any theoretical or practical framework is its ability to resolve a contradiction by reframing the opposition in a new way. Very few things are more intellectually satisfying than resolving these kind oppositions So if you are a making a point about how easy it is to get people involved in social cause and I happen to know that MOST people are not actively involved in a social cause, then tell me why what you're saying is true in a way that I previously didn't see. What do you see that I don't?

6) Tell me what your course or theory doesn't explain: As we used to say in graduate school, every theory explains only so much. It's important to acknowledge those things that are simply irrelevant to your topic. Don't delude yourself into thinking your theory explains everything. Once your terms become big general inspiring metaphors, they become relatively useless for anything else.

Which is maybe just a long-winded and pretentious way of making big general points like: clearly define your terms, tell me something new, provide evidence, demonstrate a solution with particular details, tell me about your mistakes and what you still don't know....

That would be a nice way to spend a lunch hour

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Media Lab explores the future of storytelling

Had a fascinating and fortuitous chat yesterday with my Acela seatmate, who turned out to be Frank Moss, Director of the MIT Media Lab. He told me that, among all kinds of other characteristically cool projects, they were also developing a research area around the future of storytelling, exploring multi-platform and/or transmedia and/or buzz-word of your choice ways of telling stories.

He said he’d just been out in Hollywood and many studios were experimenting with ways to expand the traditional formal elements of the film: from its duration (very short to very long) to the way you encounter it (multiple screens in your life), to some feedback mechanisms that allow the film to be shaped by the viewer’s own personal data or feedback.

It sounds “cool,” in the classic nerdy sense of the word: technologically innovative, visually striking, full of potential. I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.

But at the same time, it’s worth remembering that storytelling in its basic form, with all the traditional elements (plot, character, scene, etc) has been around for a very long time and historically, it has been durably conservative.

For one thing, traditional storytelling in both literature to film has weathered very many cultural and technological challenges to its conventional structures from surrealism to modernism to the French New Wave and while these movements influence its development and often lead to great innovative works of art (e.g., Ulysses) they tend not to create new pathways. Rather, the dominant culture tends to steer storytelling back to the center.

Even new technologies have had only a minor on narrative form. We have bigger explosions and better special effects, but we still have heroes and villains and beginnings and ends. And let's not forget that other new technologies have made big claims about the transformation of storytelling as we know it but after a few fledgling efforts (technologically "cool" and artistically primitive) they basically went away or became the pet projects of subcultures. Remember hypertext and the create your own story fad?

The development of video games is a bigger question. There is a long and surprisingly heated debate on whether games count as stories (they do in some ways and don’t in others) which you can read all about here (Check out pdf entitled "Ludologists love stories, too). But listening to Frank, it sounded like many of these experimental modes were taking their cues more from video games than film or other narrative forms.

And it’s certainly possible that games will become the dominant cultural form of entertainment moving into the next century. Of course nobody knows what’s going to happen. That’s why it’s great that places like the media lab are exploring these questions. Traditional narrative storytelling has lasted at least 5000 years and it may be here to stay. But it’s possible we are just at the very very beginning of something totally new.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Lay off fiction (Black Box 1a, vers 2)

My second-to-last job for Spartan involved a start-up which had made its final stand on the cheap real-estate fringes of the Chicago. It been launched with great fanfare a few years back, but I didn’t remember the name until I got the call from our CFO. It was one of those made up words created by a computer or someone trying to sound like one. Even when I was staring at the name, it was hard to remember. The syllables kept sliding around in my head. From a business perspective these invented words made sense (no history/no ownership) but I couldn’t escape a pang of sadness over the fact that we’d so exhausted our language that we had to make up words to name our ventures. We’ll call it Company X which at least has advantage of describing its fate.

At its launch, X was heralded as a next-generation real-estate portal, a paradigm-shift in how we buy and sell. It was originally developed as a content play, providing access to information previously restricted to professionals. Disintermediation. Consumer empowerment. Transparency. There were the words of the day. But when their content failed to draw a crowd X tried to evolve into a data aggregator, drawing multiple listings into a single place. But they never got rights to use all the listings. After another round of funding, it tried a b2b model, selling what they described as a superior version of the standard competitive evaluation. The comp may well have been better but there’s no point in using a comparison unless other people do too, which they didn’t. It had been easy to disguise the gaps in logic a couple years ago, when anything seemed possible. But no one was confused any longer, especially Spartan, who had poured over 20 million into it. They were ready to cut bait.

There was no HR department to speak of so I was sent out to manage the exit interviews with the founder. We met first in a coffee shop around the corner to avoid too much of a stir. We had crossed paths before but I doubt he’d remember me, and he didn’t.

“This just sucks,” he said, as we sat down the counter.
“Never shut down a shop?”
“Yes, no, yes. You know. Not personally. But I feel,” he paused, “like I need to be here.”

He pursed his lips together in a boyish pucker of regret. It was the expression of a man who knew he should care, and did, up to a point, but had also put the whole thing in perspective. His stare settled onto the middle distance somewhere beyond the diner window out in the soybean fields that still carpeted the land around the office parks.

This loaded silence went on for a good twenty seconds and I let him have his moment. These lapses into sentimentality were more common than you might think. It’s hard to know what do with failure in America. It always seems to call out for some ceremony or ritual that acknowledged that a dream had come to an end. But there was no ceremony. Plus no one wanted to get bogged down in nostalgia.

The waitress brought our coffee and broke the spell. Then, to help move the conversation along, I asked him about his plans.

He turned away from the window, his eyes brightening and began drawing on the paper napkin as he spoke, a rapid sketch of vectors shooting out from a central circle. He described a platform for sharing energy resources. It was completely on trend with the new global They could do for X what Y had done for Z. It was a potential game-changer. Companies were clamoring for new options. He was having trouble keeping up with the calls.

As he described the potential, I felt my heart racing despite myself. Bruce was a great salesman, a born entrepreneur. By the end, I think he forgot why we were there. I had to interrupt him, glancing at the clock.

“Any advice?” he said, looking a little sheepish.
“Don’t take offense. It’s not about you.”
Isn’t it?
“Not anymore,” I said, adding “No offense” with a gentle pat on his shoulder.
“I suppose that’s right. That’s fair.”

When it comes to lay-offs, people like to imagine that these things can end “well” or ‘badly.” If you’ve been part of one (and if you haven’t you will) you will hear a lot of talk about the style of the event. Someone will undoubtedly say, “I just wish they would have handled it better.” But the grim facts being what they are, this is a fantasy. When you’re getting dump by a boss or lover or anyone else, you're never going to feel particularly well-handled. In my experience , the range extends more from “badly” to “very badly” to “actionable.” My job was to keep it on the bad end of the spectrum

We walked into the office in mid-morning. I am used to being met with stares of fear, anger, contempt. Sometimes worse. So I was surprised to find the room so animated. Despite the doom hanging over the place, there was a giddy energy in the air. The faces were wide-eyed, eager, expectant, maybe a little confused. The small staff clearly sensed that not all was not right with the world, but they moved through tasks with a jittery alertness as if they could all make it right again with a little gumption and positive attitude.

I soon realized that I was dealing with a gathering of innocents. Many had come in the company’s first incarnation, recruited from other careers: journalism, publishing and other institutions known for intellectual capital. These were talented people with high ideals and expensive educations. They had worked for institutions with long histories and iconic names: Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Ford Foundation. Companies that had been around for decades. They probably didn’t imagine that something could disappear so fast. The majority reacted to the news with stunned perplexity.

“Like for good?” said a young woman named Linda, eyes welling up in astonishment. She turned to Bruce, face slowly settling into a grimmer mask. “I thought you said ....”

I gave Bruce a moment, but when he began with “I want you to know that your special contribution…” I had to cut him off.

The package was generous. Entrepreneurial ventures were risky. This experience would undoubtedly be perceived as valuable by future employees. We wished everyone well.

Expeditiousness was crucial. When it came to avoiding trouble, time was not on our side....

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ten reasons teaching is great training for business in general and marketing in particular

While just about everyone agrees that education is really important for just about everything, teachers don't get much respect in our culture ("if you can't do, etc."), especially our business culture. So as my small public service to the profession I thought I'd list some of the ways that teaching at a bunch of different levels helped train me for a career in marketing.

1) Good teachers know how to break through the clutter: Remember how distracted you were in class? How easily it was to think about something else, like going home and getting high and watching Spongebob? Good teachers knew it too. But it was their job to get your attention anyway. They always knew they had to give you a better reason to be there than because your parents made you go or because someone was paying a lot of money for tuition.

2) Good teachers know that it’s all about engagement: While some old-fashioned teachers still hide behind their lecture notes (just like boring presenters who rely on their power point slides) most good teachers learned long ago that most people learn best by doing: whether that means trying it themselves or merely engaging actively in a debate. One of my former professors (@afilreis) was a pioneer in both creating productive and often heated debates in his classrooms and as well as utilizing new technology to facilitate discussion.

3) Good teachers are good at explaining complex stuff in simple, accessible ways: Unlike the sad (and often unfairly maligned) “expert” who is so wrapped up in his knowledge that he doesn’t know how to relate to people who don’t share his background, good teachers have to find a way to reach the class, whatever level they are at. Then they develop ways—through illuminating examples, frameworks and exercises—to explain a new idea in a way that is relevant and exciting. This is in fact "the work" of teaching, often lacking in seminars--and the dreaded webinar--held in business environments.

4) Good teachers like helping people learn new things: Duh? right. It’s their job after all. Even though businesses know that the most common complaint from dissatisfied employees (usually when they are walking out the door) is that they lack opportunities to grow and develop and learn new skills, most companies have a hard time making ongoing training a priority. Good teachers are naturally attuned to the hunger of young people or any non-lazy people to continually challenge themselves and learn. (Unfortunately, this means more than a few lunch-and-learns!)

5) Good teachers are inspiring: Like most teachers, I had some pretty bad classes when I was first starting out, and later as well. At first I tried way too hard to get the students to like me which obviously didn’t work. And then I tried too hard trying to get them to agree with me. Or understand me. It took a year or two but I finally realized that one of the objectives of teaching, at least in the early classes, is inspiration: getting students excited about thinking in a new way. I'm not claiming I was good at it, but I've found that this aspiration also works pretty well in new business meetings. In their hearts, most potential clients don't want to be told what to do, or even what you know. They want the same things we do. They want someone to help them get excited about their own jobs again, usually by looking at their work in a new way.

6) Good teachers are born facilitators: A great classroom isn’t a “team” in the sports or business sense for the simple reason that not everyone there is trying to accomplish the same thing. Students come in at different levels of ability, background and commitment with different things they want to get out of the class. Which makes it even harder to cultivate an exciting, productive atmosphere. A good teacher knows how to use the different personalities and styles of thinking to create a stimulating atmosphere while still respecting every student’s individual perspective.

7) Good to have an educator on staff: Everyone agrees ongoing education is an essential part of the new economy. The stats are pretty clear: everyone is going to be changing jobs many times in their career. Even when you stay in the same job, rapidly changing technology is constantly making us all learn new things every week if not every day. Everyone also knows how hard it is to find the time to learn new stuff or set up productive, useful programs to educate people in the company. This is what teachers do. It's useful to have someone around who actually knows how to design a class.

8) Good teachers believe in the ability of people to change: Anyone who has experienced, witnessed or helped a student overcome a challenge knows that it is a profound event. That whole “light going on” thing is real, though it often takes a long time and lots of hard work to get to that “moment” of inspiration. People who know me know I’m an incurable skeptic, but as a skeptic, I’m convinced by strong evidence and I have seen students of all levels transformed by the work of great teachers. Teachers know that almost everyone has the capacity to be better at their work than they were before. Isn't that good source of productivity to have around?

9) They are used to being underpaid: Seriously. This is was a bigger advantage a year or so ago, before talent got cheap again. But as a manager, it’s good for everyone when you can double someone’s salary and still get them under market value. You're happy. They’re happy. The CFO is happy.

10) Good teachers often have a sense of perspective--what we once called humility: While business in general and marketing in particular is full of self-proclaimed experts and hyperbolic and unsupported claims, most good teachers have spent a fair amount of time studying a difficult subject, often with really big thinkers. In other words, they've spent time around their betters, and so tend to be a little more sparing with the terms “brilliant” and “genius.” It’s just nice for balance.

I'm sure there are more. There is a site here which claims seven different roles for teachers (actor, writer, manager, salesperson, professional, developer, subject specialist). I invite people to add others below.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Performance anxiety: dirty workers on cable TV

As I'm pretty sure I've said before, I watch just about all the major dramatic efforts on cable. I like some (6 feet under, Sopranos, Mad Men, Californication) more than others (Entourage, True Blood, The United States of Tara) but even when they have basic flaws in logic or structure, they tend to be pretty well written and really well acted. And I love TV in general, so why not?

And like everyone else who has the full monte of cable channels, I've been watching Nurse Jackie and the new seasons of Weeds and True Blood. In addition, I've noticed the preview for a new show--subtlety titled HUNG--about a down-on-his-luck guy who also happens to be swinging some serious pipe and so decides to become a prostitute. . On the most basic level, this obviously follows the basic situation/structure of Weeds. Put a basically decent person in some difficult situation so we grant them the moral license to do something that would otherwise be considered ethically or at least socially marginal and we watch the comic misadventures follow.

(Digression: Frankly, I'm not sure how well that structure is holding up on Weeds, at least for the lovely SJP, whose character seems to change with each episode. But who cares with such fantastic secondary characters)

But that's a digression, because what I'm really interested in here is an apparent pattern in all these shows: That is: the main character's career is a source of moral conflict. Among the artists on cable TV (Entourage, Californication), the moral dilemma is usually one of artistic integrity. Among our petty criminals (Weeds, and I'm guessing HUNG) it is around the definition of crime itself, as the characters try to negotiate the boundaries of social convention ("victimless crimes") and balance their personal necessity up against real social harm. Nurse Jackie, while the most recent, is actually up a against a more familiar conflict. The passionate renegade bucking the system to do what's right, even if she has to break the rules.

But even here, the show's writers felt the need to burden or enrich her character with several other ethical flaws (drug addiction, adultery). Perhaps they thought this made her more gritty or realistic. But this pattern of morally flawed heroes suggests that the writers are responding to something bigger than the requirements of character development.

The high-flying cultural theorist might claim this is a response to our lack of confidence in traditional institutions of cultural authority: Doctors, Lawyers, those darn greedy bankers, etc. But all these shows are dramas of personal conflict, not social commentary. They aren't about the culture at large, or the roles of institutions in our lives, but rather how an individual attempts to define their identity in the midst of ethical compromises required by work.

I'd say this trend is more about the fact that many of us (or maybe just hollywood writers) feel ethically ambivalent about our careers, or the notion of a career in the first place. Most of us think we are basically doing good work, or least doing it well, but unlike previous generations, we aren't as confident that making a decent living is itself an ethical act, worthy of respect.

We wonder about the social impact of our careers and so try too mix progressive causes with our capitalist labor. We worry we have given too much of our life to our work and so try to redefine work/life boundaries creating new aestheticized definitions of what the "good life" looks like.

And of course we are drawn to shows and heroes that embody this same conflict but in more dramatic and funny contexts. The heroes of Weeds, Hung, Nurse Jackie, and the Soprano's, all need to make a living too, just like us. And in virtually every show, they dramatize this conflict between what they think they need to do to survive and what they fear it is doing to them.

It seems NO ACCIDENT as they say in the trade that the previews for HUNG show our hero at a career counseling session being asked about his special talent. His answer "a really big dick" is both a shallow and a deep (pardon the pun) joke. The deep joke is about all our professional anxieties to "perform" in the newly competitive workplace. If only all our special skills were so tangible.

Friday, June 12, 2009

How intersting is he? Dos Equis' ironized appeciation of TMIMITW suggests a new way to communicate relevance

The new Dos Equis ads starring a faux celebrity spokesperson "The Most Interesting Man in the World" (herafter: TMIMITW) are getting a fair amount of attention and deservedly so. There is a smart non-industry review here on Slate which is worth checking out, suggesting the influence of Wes Anderson. (The review also points out inclusion of the surprisingly daring line "I don't always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis" which is worth additional discussion that won't happen below)

Like a lot of ads marketing mainly to young man, Dos Equis is trying to figure out to represent the new (or at least shifting) ideal of masculinity to the next generation of young men. It's not as easy as it looks. On the one hand you have to avoid the embarrassing macho conventions of the past but you can't go all wimpy and metrosexual on your audience either. There is already a lot of strong work in the space: Axe and Old Spice or earlier, Budweiser's Real Man of Genius campaign or Erroll Morris' High Life commercials.

In various ways, all these ads try and pretty much succeed at having their cake and eating it too, by bringing some ironic perspective on a bad male behavior (usually messiness, laziness or horniness or all three) But the ironic framework in the Dos Equis ad is a little more complicated and interesting than most. By using a fictional spokesperson, they've created the opportunity to make the ad less about the character than our relationship to the character.

Most brands use 'real' spokespeople because they want to associate their brand with the spokesperson's famous skill or behavior or attitude. The MIMITW, however, isn't real. He's a fantastically perfect model of traditional masculine virtues: power, charm, sex appeal, strength, proficiency. Of course all kinds of highly stylized executional cues (the Will Lyman voiceover --you've maybe heard it on Frontline--to the Wes Anderson-styling noticed in the Slate interview) and some pretty funny writing make it clear that we aren't supposed to actually take this guy seriously. We like him, but we like him as a character, not as an actual role model. (Though if some see him unironically as a role model--as I'm sure many do--that's fine too).

But I'd argue that the actual persuasive force of the ad isn't about the character at all but rather our shared relation to the character. Dos Equis is trying to create a bond with their male audience by sharing our recognition--in a funny way of course--about the contradictions inherent in modern masculine identity. We can't be macho and can't quite not be either.

I know that's a pretty indirect and academic description of a funny ad so let me try it this way. For most of us I'd argue that Dos Equis isn't saying: Drink this and you'll be like TMIMITW. Rather, what it's saying is: At Dos Equis: we get it. And if you drink Dos Equis, you'll show the world that you are a guy that gets it too. Dos Equis is for guys who get it. Guys know that being a a cool guy, an interesting guy, isn't that simple anymore. And it's by showing the world that you get it, that you get to be interesting.

Whatever the simple comic charms of the ad, it suggests a potentially new path to building a bond with an elusive audience. Not by communicating some ideal or desired behavior (buy this/get laid) but by communicating a particular relationship to some loaded cultural content that the brand and the consumer can share.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What Madison Avenue agencies?

Just read a smart and well-intentioned blog post on what GM should do to truly reinvent its marketing. Here. Lots of good points, but it began by telling GM to fire their Madison Avenue agencies: "From a marketing perspective, you've become addicted to the crack cocaine of big budget advertising. " I find this a tiresome, inaccurate, distracting straw man that turns up in every post and article from every marketing strategist who wants to position themselves as a new innovative thinker. But what agencies are you talking about? Anyway here is my response (slightly cleaned up):

Lots of solid points, but isn't it about time we put the whole out-of-date Madison Avenue cliche to rest? I'm not sure there are any more agencies on Madison Avenue, but even if you mean it as a metaphor for big NYC agencies, it's still wrong.

There are no big agencies in NYC or anywhere else who aren't doing some good work in new media/non-traditional spaces. I don't work for one, but I know plenty of people at big agencies who are doing great, effective work across all media platforms. I'm pretty sure that DDB and BBDO (2 very big nyc agencies) won the most Effies this year (based on advertising effectiveness not creative coolness). Check it out. This whole trashing of the big NYC agency is a tiresome red herring. And a distracting one at that

Anyone who has ever presented to GM management knows that the problem isn't some old-fashioned obsession with TV, but GM itself. GM has been too lazy, self-involved and risk-averse to make the hard marketing decisions that any number of big or small agencies have recommended for years.

It's just as easy--and probably easier--to make expensive, unstrategic, pointless digital marketing as it is to make expensive pointless TV. Viral marketing in particular generally demands making the kind of provocative work which GM has never had the courage to make.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Algorithmic art or the collective experience of the isolated consumer

Lots of people seem to be making and writing about works of art and marketing that are about omass experience lately. Not just commenting on it, but made from it, works which were dubbed algorithmic art in a post last month on BBH labs.

While the desire to create works of art from or about mass experience is hardly new, it seems to be on the rise again, perhaps facilitated by newly accessible technology or a reaction to the explosion of social medi and its emerging encircling aura of mass chatter. Maybe we are looking for new works of art to make sense of of the role of our subjective selves in this new world where everyone is talking all the time? These works obviously encompass a wide range of forms, but rather than attempt any kind of systematic categorization, I'm just going to (in the bloggy spirit) pick some at random and generalize.

Some of are free-standing works of creative expression, some are produced by collectives of various kinds, some advertisements or some other form of marketing vehicle. But whatever their intention (to challenge or amaze or market, or all of the above), they all share some common features. Almost all of them attempt to visualize some collective or mass experience. Sometimes the experience is shared in real life—like the recent run of spontaneous dance of events (T-mobile's in Liverpool here; the Do-Re-Mi event in Belgium here.) These are more familiar stunts: situationist in their occasion though without the subversive intention. And they do a decent job of creating a sense of temporary spontaneous exuberance and jubilation, a fancier version of the now dated "wave" or any other fan activity in a stadium.

More interesting work focuses less on a sudden cohesion of a crowd into some orchestrated, cooperative activity,than on a mass individuals (us, online) whose isolated experiences are brought together—synthesized—into some aesthetic experience for the viewer, generally in real or recent time, with the help of technology. The work of Jonathon Harris is prime example. Harris' oft cited “We feel fine” uses search and data visualization to gather statements and images of people who are expressing their feelings into a single evocative six-movement-work. Related, but distinct, are the works that turn outward, fragmenting and reassembling cultural materials, like Brendan Bell's Five (Dramatic Pause), which synthesizes fragments of the nightly news into what Bell calls a "collage poem." Or the recent youtuube 36 rows mosaic phenomenon. Alice in Wonderland seems to be getting the most action on the Internet.

Reacting online to these works, most people describe these works as “cool.” And they are cool. Both in the conventional sense of visually striking and intriguing and hip but also “cool” in the slightly more figurative sense used to describe emotional engagement. They are cool in the sense that they distance us further from emotional or even cultural engagement with the original material, decontextualized or recontextualized.

If this is a trend or a movement and I'm not sure it is yet, it's worth asking what it's about. What are these works trying to do and are they achieving their ends? At some level, they seem to be trying to suggest an experience of collective unity (we're all in this together!), gesturing at a shared transcendent humanity, like looking down at the swirling group of strangers at a rave you aren’t participating in.

But then almost immediately, or perhaps simultaneously, there is a falling away of engagement: repetition, dullness, boredom. While the vision of the sequence is temporarily enthralling, it doesn't really lead anywhere. Each one of the fragments--expressions, images, cultural fragments, statistics--says something about mass and volume and the technology that has made the works possible in the first place. But most of these works, to my eye, fail to meaningfully engage the question about individual subjectivity in mass culture that they are taking on whether they know it or not.

This a question of prime concern to marketers as well, but I'll save that for that another post.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Why so nice? More thoughts on thin skins and social media decorum

Since my last post, I've been poking around for more thinking and insight into why social media exchanges seem so conflict averse, and I haven't found very much.

There are a couple miss manners guides to good behavior like this basic and matter-of-fact post from 06 about how to not get freaked out by flamers and trolls. But not very much analysis or theorizing about why bloggers often respond to critics by challenging their ethics ("stop spreading negative energy," or "being evil," etc) or their manners ("pedantic" "too serious") or utility ("it's much more useful to...")

But there does seem to be a think-positive self-image thing going around. As I was making my rounds through people's bios on all kinds of social media sites from Blogs to Twitter to Linkedin, I noticed that a lot of people described themselves as "positive," and often in really assertive ways, like "irrepressible optimist" and "super-positive thinker." And not just life coaches, who are are obviously in the business of being positive.

I was reminded of research I did about a half-dozen years ago for a candy bar brand. I was interested in seeing what teens and young adults thought of as attractive personality and character traits. So I went to the various dating sites, which were more new and popular among young people then, and checked out a bunch of profiles.

What I saw was it was important for young people looking for dates to say they had really diverse interests and tastes. There were a lot of statements like "I enjoy the opera at Lincoln center as much a seat in the bleachers. "Ready to raise a glass of champagne or a Pabst Blue Ribbon." or "Everything from Mozart to Mos Def." You get the idea. You don't say these things about yourself on a dating site unless you think they are going to be appealing to your peers. (As was, as an aside, using the work "geek" or "nerd" to communicate your unembarrassed passion for a subject, e.g., "I'm a total "star trek nerd" or "gardening geek"

So maybe this is a sign, at least among the social media users, that being upbeat is just the way to be.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Thin skins on twitter? Toward a theory of social-media niceness

I’ve been following a couple instances of critical commentary and backlash on various blog-like objects like this one (involving a debate over website design) and it raised some questions about tone and style in the social-media world.

It’s not unusual of course for people to express strong feeling on the web, often too strong, protected by the anonymity and distance of the screen, saying acerbic and mean-spirited things they would never have the courage to say in person. That’s not what I’m talking about right now (though it’s related to one of my theories below.)

What’s interesting to me in these cases is less the initial critique than the tone and rhetoric of the response. In several cases, I’ve noticed that people have reacted to reasonable if somewhat snarky criticism by complaining about the critic’s attitude or style or even intention, as if there was something unethical about making a critical comment in the first place.

The link above is representative: The original poster complains that the critic is spreading “pedantic negativity." Other bloggers have told their critics to "have a sense of humor" or "lighten up" Or "be positive."

Pedantic negativity? Lighten up? Interesting. In two different ways, these responses reframe the critic’s attempt to correct an error or express a difference of opinion as a social gaffe, a lapse in decorum. 1) These responses undercut the critic’s point, not on the basis of evidence or argument, but on the basis of style. Those of us who have spent any time in front of a classroom know that the accusation of being “pedantic” is often an easy way of dismissing someone who has the bad taste to call you to account for an error. Details, details. Can’t you just go with the flow, dude?

The new age language (energy, negativity) reinforces the point by suggesting that the critic isn't just being rude but in fact has a bad intention to begin with . Anyone who has particpated in the identity politics debates of the go-go grad school 90's knows what it's like to be accused of not being wrong so much as bad.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is only kind of exchange out there. The web is way too big and messy and multifarious for that. But there does seem to be a dominant rhetorical style emerging, one which to my (admittedly cranky) ear has more in common with a support group’s optimistic cheer-leading and uncritical support than the public sphere of reasoned debate across different points of view. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se. In fact, it maybe exactly what most people want. Sharing ideas and accomplishments and getting a lot of rhetorical high-five's in return.

But my original question was: how did this happen? Why is is the social-media style developing this way. Is this the natural progression of any unregulated social groups talking their way into self-governance? Here are a couple more half-assed theories

Theory #1: This is the personal, subjective, confessional one. People are just nicer than me. I’m skeptical by nature and just temperamentally unsuited to all the unsupported optimism flying around, about which who cares and too bad for me. I should just lighten up already.

Theory #2: People are compensating for a learned or intuitive sense that short-form comments often get read more critically or negatively than they are intended. Most of us have dashed off a quick email at one time or another and were somewhat surprised to learn later that we really pissed the receiver off. I’m not sure why short emails often seem meaner than they are intended to be, though most people seem to agree that it’s true. I remember reading a review in the NYRB of some Janet Malcolm book or article on email decorum that basically advised people to over-compensate for this accidentally negative tone with lots of happy enthusiasm and “that’s greats” in their emails. Seems like an interesting problem for some social linguistics grad student.

Theory #3: Fear, though of the deep Hobbesian variety. We’re mostly dealing with strangers here and a lot of them, so rather than risk offending someone who might go psycho on us, it might be best to err on the side of friendliness and support rather than risk repercussions the dimensions of which are scarily unimaginable.

Theory #4: Early adopter effect: The early adopters (enthusiastic, energetic, positive techies) set the happy tone, a tone which seems pervasive in the tech community (though I’d be curious to hear about the mean techie cultures) and since they were clever enough to come up with this stuff, we all just stuck with it.

Theory #4a: Related to above. It’s generational. I’m somewhat dubious of big generational claims but most cultural observers have agreed that kids these days are an awful optimistic bunch, a pov that I mostly share. They’ve had a pretty good run of it, until recently, and gosh darn-it, they just don’t see why they can’t make the world abetter place, and get rich and famous in the process, all before they get, like old…. They also, somewhat notoriously, don’t like criticism so much. And many of a certain class, at least, were raised in a culture of deep support for just about everything they ever did. So maybe they’re just passing along the love.

Theory #5: The Brainstorm: Just about everyone who has spent a season in an office has participated in a brainstorm-like event and heard the now familiar rules. Here's one version: No idea is a bad idea, support, withhold judgment, build on ideas rather than "squashing them," or risk being shot with a nerf gun. There's a lot to be said for these principles too, and I can imagine they are an important corrective to the top-down power-mad cultures that they are trying to loosen up. MMost people view the social media sphere as one big brainstorm and so bring the same stay positive principles to bear.

I'm sure there are more, but in the meantime, I'll take a chill pill, just as soon as I finish this section of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

How creative is too creative for a creative company?

Read a great post on BBH labs in turn responding an article in the NYT's which got me thinking about another cultural contradiction of business culture: the battle between innovation and efficiency; Or, the constant push for greater creativity and innovation but within the limits of business culture, which can be quite constraining.

In an effort to create a culture of greater innovation, we tend to celebrate, even mythologize outsider thinkers both in internal and external communications. The famous Think Different campaign is of course a prime example. And there are dozens of books from various perspectives about how to create more creative/innovative cultures from The Pirate Inside, The Designful Company, Outliers, but when we celebrate unleashed creativity we tend to forget, among other things, how hard these people are to work with.

In any case, here's my response:

Interesting, provocative post. Fuller’s line is great In my darker frames of mind, I prefer Beckett’s grim outsider fortitude (”We can’t go on. We must go on. We’ll go on” or Kafka’s bleak optimism (”Of course there’s hope. Just not for us.”) And I cite those two example for a reason; lots, many, if not most great artists and thinkers are unrecognized or even scorned during their lives. Germany didn’t got over failing to appreciate Mozart, until they had bigger things to be ashamed of. Truly original artists and thinkers tend to challenge the status quo. Not within the system–doing a viral campaign rather than a TV effort–but by absolutely refusing to work in the system at all. Justice Souter comes to mind. How many men or women would have the balls to tell the Supreme Court to screw themselves, describing his seasonal time on the supreme court as his yearly “intellectual lobotomy”? Most of us love the rewards and satisfactions collegial respect, success, money, etc.(myself in included) too much to gamble everything on our kooky personal visions. And these guys and gals tend not to be very good “team players,” as they say in the trade. It’s a deep structural problem which your post calls attention to, reflected in our culture of commentary and constant recycling. And it’s one that all creative industries (basically all industries now) are facing: How do we balance the needs of organizational efficiency and structure with the freedom to include really loopy geniuses (who are very hard to distinguish from the merely loopy anyway). My own sense is that real outsider thinkers (Fuller, Gould, Pynchon) will never play along or play for long enough to help a business achieve its goals without causing all kinds of collateral damage. That’s why we love them right? As the post above says: we want to be inspired by them; but do we want to work with them? Google’s famous 20% time model is one approach, but I doubt that someone like Fuller would bother to show up at the office to begin with.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The rhetoric of Evangelism or maybe I should go to the seminary

because I’ve been listening to this local Evangelical radio all day and I’m finding it pretty riveting, like listening to someone try to explain away evidence that is staring you right in the face. My first impulse was to compare it to a burglar trying to explain why his fingerprints were on the cash register and his face on the store video camera but I don't want to be that disrespectful because it was actually quite impressive. This one preacher who--in addition to a charming Irish lilt to his voice--had a bunch of cool tricks up his sleeves. Here are couple

1) False oppositions that set a masterful divine intention against a red-herring counter-intuitive vision of Darwinian chaos. (I mean: look at the window: does creation look random to you?).

“In some cases it is true that some animals and humans share characteristics--the chimpanzees can use tools for instance- but isn’t it likely that God in his infinite wisdom and majesty would choose, CHOOSE, to replicate certain elements of his design across variations of his creation. Isn’t that logical? Isn’t that more logical than that we are merely some set of random atoms swirling through space that just happened to form, by CHANCE, into the miracle of mankind over millions of years.

2) Sudden shift in the register of rhetoric from a precise vocabulary and high-academic diction to describe the creationist position to groundling comedy when he was was claiming to representing the evolutionary argument.

3) Often in combination with the partial admission of opponent's point (to disarm listeners sense that he was being polemical or one-sided) only to completely take back the admission with the following statement:

“Now I admit the differences between man and animal are sometimes differences in DEGREE rather than differences in KIND but these DIFFERENCES between man’s capacity for reason and intellect, to build and create, have faith and wisdom and knowledge of eternal life and an animal’s abilities are SO VAST that they canNOT be simply dismissed by apparent similarities.

Now, I know there are some of you in the audience that are thinking right now that you have a really smart Labrador or golden retriever. And I know you’re thinking that your Labrador can do some pretty neat tricks. But I never saw a bunch of Labradors at Starbuck’s discussing THE HOLY TRINITY? (laughter) And I know that some of us SEEM to act like animals sometimes. Maybe your Uncle Charlie even LOOKS like a gorilla a little bit...

Ba-da-boom! The crowd goes wild


I’m addicted