Abracadabra; there’s no fooling the robots

March 17th, 2017

magician-026There are many talented chiefs in our industry.  One of them is literally a magician.


A highlight of any meeting with Trinity Mirror boss Simon Fox is that he might just make something disappear and reappear.  He’s a member of the magic circle, and the last time the Trinity Mirror roadshow hit our agency he did the most awesome piece of magic involving Claudine Collin’s phone and the regional press.


(Who can say how much his magical skills influence the business performance – but latest results showed growth in profits of 24% – some good news in a challenging sector.  Results aside, the magic show at MediaCom was a treat.)‎


The reason we love magic is may be because we live in a world where our core senses are constantly performing magic tricks every day.  When we see something, we don’t see what we think we see. Every day and all the time.


Humans experience a time lag.


It takes a fifth of a second for an image to go from your eye, to your brain to be processed, and then for you to act on it.  Because you don’t feel that time lag, your brain is also constantly making up for the time lag by constantly predicting the future a tenth of a second ahead at a time.


Most of the time that doesn’t matter, (unless for example you’re a bike rider commuting in London then you’ll know how important a fraction of a second can be in terms of surviving.)


This is what a magician exploits when he does a card trick. It is misdirection.  Very clever misdirection, but it is, of course, science and not magical.


Magicians use misdirection to manipulate our attention.  It works because we don’t ever see everything that is in front of us.  Our brains couldn’t possible analyse every stimulus or every detail.  There are loopholes in cognition because that is how we cope with the world.  We cannot process everything and so we choose, unconsciously, what is most likely to fit an accepted pattern.


Goldsmith University Dr Gustav Kuhn studies the impact this has on our daily lives.  Kuhn is a cognitive psychologist who researches human perception and cognition.  Or put in a way that sounds like much more fun:  he studies magic and how magicians allow you to experience the impossible.


Kuhn says:  “magic happens to us all the time — our whole experience is a massive illusion, we’re just not aware of it.”


It is one of the key differences between you and a robot. Robots can’t believe in magic, and they don’t have gaps in cognition. They can process more information faster and more accurately than is possible for you in a split second. As the pace of real time business decisions continues to increase, understanding how our brains compare at making split second judgements is crucial.


As we come to assign roles differently in the cyber future, there will be significant shifts in how money is spent when it’s the algorithm that decides, based on processing every bit of data that is available, not just the information that we can grasp.


We will need to decide which decisions require strategic reflection and which will be made by the machines.



The loneliness of the empirical media planner.

March 13th, 2017

runThings are moving fast.  New technologies are creating new opportunities for media planners but things are far from simple.   The pace of change seems breath taking.  The pace of change is going to continue to get faster still.

The industry is full of questions.  Ad fraud and viewability.  Fake news is tarnishing reputations.  The calculation of audience views is not standardised across platforms or across the globe.

The task of the media planner has got more complicated. 

Take TV.  A dozen years ago a media planner thinking of placing video assets at scale was largely faced with the challenge of deciding between planning into space on the TV in the corner of the living room or going with some cinema.  They might worry that some households had a second or third TV in the bedroom and kitchen, and that this might fragment family viewing.  They might consider investing in cinema.  (That decision was at the time largely made on the basis of whether the video asset was cinematic enough, because there was no comparative way of measuring audience across TV and cinema).

Now of course there’s much more to consider. TV versus VOD.  Lovely big TV sets, with friends or family gathered round, versus solitary viewing on a smart phone screens or tablets in bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and on the bus.  “As TV” which is what Group M’s Rob Norman, CDO, calls web destination TV like YouTube Preferred.  In app video, feed based video, and of course, if your asset is cinematic enough for the big screen, cinema (because there is still no standardised comparative audience measurement here, let alone between all the other choices).


What does this all add up to?  More complications.  More opportunities.


The task of the media planner has also become simpler.                   


There’s much more evidence of outcomes now than ever in the data streams media agencies are analysing.  The media planner has more data to consider and more informed judgements to make.  Judgements about media planning from scratch, with zero based budgeting assumptions.  Judgements based on evidence based arguments for planning assumptions.  Judgements about sorting the real facts from the multiple factoids that circulate.


This is how the empirical or evidence based media planner might get lonely.  Sure their new best friend is the data scientist, (but they don’t tend to get out much).  The media planner may find that they need to hint to the creative agency that their lovely 40 second ad might need significant amending before it is fit for purpose for social feeds.  They might find that they need to challenge media owner research.  They will have to balance the different joint industry body definitions of audience to deliver one cohesive view across a multi-media plan.


Don’t mistake this for unfriendliness or lack of desire to collaborate by the way.  Without a shadow of a doubt, as my CEO Josh Krichefski recently stated, most of the award winning work in this industry comes from collaboration with media owner and agency partners.  Great fruitful collaborations that help brands to thrive.


And yet it can be lonely to be an evidence based planner.  It is their job to ask difficult questions, to speak truth to power and to jostle the apple cart.  It isn’t their job to spend the most money in the most fashionable medium.  It isn’t their job to preserve the status quo.  It’s their job, and it is needed now more than ever, to love numbers, to embrace disruption and to love real consumer insight, to look for the substantiated facts, try the new, to be ambitious for their clients and to remain media neutral.







Why transformation is important

March 6th, 2017

20120808-blists-hill-town-criers-competition-s600x600There’s an easy answer to this – pop down to your local town centre and ask the blacksmith.  If you can’t find the blacksmith, look for the town crier and ask him.


If you don’t look out for the inevitable consequences of external changes to your business, then you’ll end up in the same place as those two once flourishing career paths.


The pace of change now is such that every business must have an agile approach to transformation.


If you do, particularly if you are the fastest or the first, then it can be a competitive advantage.  In the 20th century you needed a USP or unique selling proposition to have a competitive edge.   Now the agility of a business to adapt to real time changes can be, in itself, its USP.


In the past a USP was a product attribute (“the sweet that melts in your mouth, but not in your hand”) or a positioning statement (“we’re number two so we try harder”);  Now it may be the brand’s ability to change its messaging in real time, or its variants to suit fashion, cultural memes or season fast enough.


This requires a reallocation of resource in the business.  A change of focus and a new set of key performance indicators including one about speed of delivery.


Customer experience in buying and using the brand too must be a key consideration, of course, as important as the brand personality and idea.  Sometimes this is out of marcomms scope or sub-contracted.  Customers, often with better tech in their pockets than businesses offer their employees, will not be patient or understanding about inadequate mobile experiences or poor delivery or complaints procedures. If a business puts the web experience in a different silo to the marketing then it needs to transform.


Recently tech giant Gartner declared that the biggest threat to innovation is internal politics and an organisational culture that doesn’t accept failure, or ideas from outside, or change.  As Gideon Spanier stated in this Raconteur special report: “companies must be willing to think, move and respond faster”.


This is not to suggest that any business should throw the baby out with the bath water.  Anyone with a memory that dates back to the turn of this century will remember watching organisations chuck money at ill-advised internet initiatives that failed to deliver any lasting change, let alone transform those businesses.   You also don’t have far to look for businesses that did transform their offer, but failed to do the same for their business plan.


The solution is to transform with agility.  Don’t replace current processes designed to deal with anachronistic silos with a lengthy elaborate redesign of new processes or more elaborate matrix management.


Work in sprints with minimum viable products and individuals who can respond to change. Create a culture where people enjoy working in project teams rather than are stuck with tribal and defensive department structures.   While this is easy to design it is harder for traditional businesses to deliver.  Working on a very human and empathetic level to deliver change is essential.


Or carry on as normal, and look out for whatever happened to the blacksmiths.






Where we stumble, there we find treasure

February 27th, 2017

Fail-First-Attempt-In-Learning-2Learning to fail

A new study into teaching has pointed out that one of the failures of our education system is that it doesn’t prepare students for failure, nor reward them for making mistakes.

Which is a mistake.

How do you learn, if you’re not learning from your mistakes?

The study, from the Open University, by the way the brightest hope for social mobility in UK, says that teachers should prepare students to fail, so that they can learn.  This requires a real change to teaching techniques.  Mike Sharples, chair in educational technology at the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology, admits that while “trying to fail successfully” sounds contradictory, it allows students to gain insight into a topic before they are taught it.

“For the learners, you’ve got to say to them: you’re going to fail with this, you’re going to struggle, you’re not going to understand it in full, but try it,” Professor Sharples told Times Higher Education. “And for the teacher, they’ve got to hold back and not try to profess their subject, not try and teach the topic, but to let the learner explore first in a controlled way.”

Stuart Firestein, chair of the dept of biology at Columbia University, points out in his book “Failure, why science is so successful”, that great scientists are great at failure.  He says that great scientific experiments rest on “two great pillars, ignorance and failure”.   Whereas failure is regarded as something to be avoided, both in education and in business, in science it is regarded as crucial for success.  If you embrace failure as a necessary step towards progress, then it makes it easier to learn from it and helps people be much more positive about it both at school and in the workplace.

The general culture in many businesses is to celebrate success.  Our prestigious awards shine a light on brave and creative business building campaigns.  As of course they must.  An army of pr gurus help our leaders present themselves in a strong and invincible light.  In a world as fast moving as the marketing and media community who has time or space to reflect on failure?

Brilliantly it seems the Marketing Society is doing just this.  Early in February they held an event where the leaders of the marketing community opened up about their failures.  Syl Saller, Sarah Warby, Dominic Grounsell and Annabel Venner spoke to Marketing Society ceo Gemma Greaves about their mistakes.  It’s clear from the resounding applause on Twitter that the event inspired.  As one tweeter commented: “Its rough seas that make good sailors”.

As 2017 looks like more rough seas ahead, it is incumbent on all business leaders to encourage and make failing acceptable and safe.  This isn’t just about rhetoric.  It might require as big a change in how we coach and train our employees as teacher need to make at school.

My ceo Josh Krichefski has stated publically “where we stumble there we find treasure”.  Do businesses need a culture transformation?  How about KPIs for all staff of a “good failure, and lessons learned”?  Open your next team meeting with the question “Who’s had a brave failure this week?”






Are you ok?

February 20th, 2017

PrintFebruary 2nd was Time to talk day, when the charity Time to change, encourages the nation to reach out to each other and take a moment to check in and make sure everyone is ok.

Don’t worry if you missed it – you can take the time to reach out today too.

This can be as simple as asking “are you ok?” although as one wise person pointed out to me there’s a world of difference between someone hastily assuring you that they’re “just fine” and people really being in a good state of mind.  It isn’t just about asking the question it is also about really hearing the answer.

At the moment too many people with mental health problems feel undermined and worthless.

It’s perfectly acceptable to have the flu (especially man flu!).  If you break your leg you’ll get everyone’s sympathy.

All too often people find it embarrassing and shameful to tell their colleagues and their manager that they can’t cope with the anxiety from stress in the work or that they have been diagnosed with depression.  Yet one in four people will face this situation, every year.  90 percent of those who are in that situation feel stigmatised.  If there’s a team around you at the moment, the likelihood is one of them is suffering right now.  Do you know who it is and can you speak to them about it because it might really help?

MediaCom’s Inclusion network’s event on Feb 2 was about mental health and overcoming the stigma surrounding it.   The inspirational speakers included Jonny Benjamin MBE and Neil Laybourn.

Benjamin and Laybourn are award winning mental health campaigners who give talks at schools, colleges and workplaces throughout the UK.  Their journey together began in January 2008 when Neil talked Jonny out of taking his own life.  Neil was on his way to work as usual, hurrying across Waterloo Bridge with hundreds of other commuters.  He suddenly spotted someone, a complete stranger, perched on the edge.  Most people were ignoring this and striding past, headphones on, head down, ignoring everyone, as you do on a London commute.  Perhaps Neil behaved differently because he’s not a real Londoner – he’d only just started commuting in from Hertfordshire.  Perhaps he behaved differently because he’s more of a hero than most.   Neil stopped and asked Jonny if he was ok.  Jonny was far from ok – he was contemplating jumping into the Thames. Jonny had just been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression and was extremely unwell.  He thought that he could hear the voice of the devil and that he was the subject of a real life Truman Show.  Neil’s interaction saved his life but the two were soon separated when the police intervened and took Jonny away to be sectioned.   As Jonny recovered he set out to find the man that had saved his life, and their story was filmed in a Channel 4 documentary Find Mike (actually Neil, but that’s part of the story).

Hearing their story emphasises the importance that looking out for each other has in the workplace.  Work is a community as well as a job.  We care about each other, and taking a few seconds to show this can make a massive difference to someone who might be in trouble mentally and can’t find the words or the way to reach out to you.

Time to Change’s work has shown that people do not get the help that they deserve and need and are often left feeling isolated, ashamed and worthless.  We take pride in being involved in their campaign to get everyone to open up to mental health: to talk about it and to listen to each other.

Jonny said mindfulness and resilience techniques had really helped him.  If it’s you that’s feeling anxious and stressed then one positive step is to explore this too.

Let’s find more time to talk.  Techniques and workplace pledges are at http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/