Have you transcended the Umwelt today?

August 21st, 2023

Transcending the Umwelt

If you’re wondering what that is and why it matters, the Umwelt is a way of thinking and feeling that is specific to individual brains of different species, (and artificial intelligence).  Transcending your own Umwelt to understand others is crucial to being a planner and creating great communications for brands.  Understanding the Umwelt of power is crucial for your career.  Empathising with the Umwelts of others is the key to creating diversity of thinking in your organisation.  Being clear about the Umwelt of AI  is important to maintain your edge.   

Jakob Johann von Uexkull was a German biologist who first coined the term Umwelt to explain how different organisms perceive life because of their particular biological characteristics and their environments.

For instance, as animal behaviourist Con Slobodchikoff explains, bees and some birds see in ultraviolet but humans don’t.  Dogs have a million times better ability to detect different smells than we do.  Bats, dolphins, dogs and cats can hear ultrasonic sounds that we can’t, or at least most of us.  If you are under 25 then you can detect sounds that older people cannot and as a result of understanding here there exists an anti-loitering product on the market that makes noises undetectable by most people to deter teenagers from hanging about and behaving badly in public spaces. 

Uexkull called the worlds that every organism exists in their Umwelt.

In The Book of Minds, Philip Ball shows how different umwelts transform how we react to things.  For example, if you are in a dark and sinister forest, and are a bit lost, a woodland path is a relief, a sign of civilisation.  If on the other hand you are a vole the path is an open space, and therefore dangerous, as you might be swooped on by a predator, whereas the more vegetated areas are safer.   The Umwelt shapes how you react to things, and even how you imagine things.  A teacup placed to close to the edge of a table will make most people instinctively reach out to prevent it falling.  A gerbil is unlikely to be bothered by this.

The Umwelt that you belong to differs not just between species but also from human to human. 

This starts to explain how one person may instinctively, and perhaps incomprehensibly, react differently to another person to the same scenario.

The craft of planning relies on understanding signals and interpreting them to connect with audiences.  The skill of leadership requires empathy, listening and understanding of people who are gloriously different from each other.

If we fully embrace the concept that we each have our own Umwelt, based on background, circumstances, our friends, family, level of privilege and education, regionality, gender, age and sexuality (and all the other things that make us different), we will become better at communicating both commercially, and in creating a sense of belonging and inclusion at work.

We don’t resent the octopus for having a different outlook and Umwelt from our own.  We don’t disrespect dolphins for their differences.  The popularity of David Attenborough proves our innate curiosity and love of different worlds.

Sharing the workplace with diverse teams of people and creating work that different audiences will respond to is rewarding. 

As the Economist writes, thinking of AI in human terms is understandable.  But it is wrong.  ChatGPT doesn’t “hallucinate” when it gives an erroneous answer to our questions – it follows the logic of how it has been programmed.  Hallucinations happen to people, not robots.

Love the Umwelts, transcend your own Umwelt.

5 take outs from Cannes this year.

July 26th, 2023
  1. AI

Lots of discussion on the impact of AI on our industry in the broadest sense.  From the optimists who are already experimenting and using AI as if it comes naturally to them, to the pessimists who are worried about the impact on their jobs and on ethics.  There is overlap between the two cohorts of course (optimistic about transformation, anxious about chaos) but once again it feels like the sector is taking sides, as it did over the metaverse, as it originally did over the internet itself.  And there’s the lesson.  Stick it in the “one day in the future” pile, as some organisations did then and you consign yourself to be one of the crew that lose out.  Over invest and you splash cash unnecessarily.  Find the middle path of conscious and careful development and surely there’s the breakthrough.

2. Diversity and purpose mean action.

There’s some outstanding work, and some excellent discussions.  Everyone now is looking for action and outcomes as well as intent.  Author, activist, cultural innovator and founder of MuslimGirl.com, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh on the superb Inkwell beach spoke about the importance of doing something, anything, to help change – explaining that however limited your impact is, it might have the butterfly effect of encouraging one other person, who might open up action in another and create a movement that is unstoppable.  Something that Conde Nast’s Chief Business Officer Deborah Brett  said at “The Female Quotient: Lift As We Climb” panel stayed with me too: “Don’t apologise, everyone is afraid to speak and take a stand, in case you get it wrong.  But you don’t have to apologise all the time, you’re on a journey, everyone is on a journey.  You don’t have to fake it till you make it, because if you are not learning on the job you won’t have a job.”  As EssenceMediacom global creative chief Stef Calcraft puts it too, you have to unlearn, because everything is changing and the old rules don’t apply.  The peerless Aayati Dash (who is 10, and therefore might have been the youngest speaker this year at Cannes), made it clear that her generation are expecting action, and won’t settle for fine words.  I was thrilled to share a panel with her at the World Woman Foundation session on the power of advertising to create an equal future. 

3. Humour

After what seems a while, humour is back at Cannes.  This was however evident more in the bronze and silver Lions wins than in the Golds and Grand Prixs leaving some wondering if humour travels well in such a global competition.  We know that sex sells, and that purpose sells, but so does humour.  So it was great to see some light hearted twists on creativity for instance the chickens with pedometers and Oreo’s restoration of 2011.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw said: “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”

4. Relevance Rules

The challenge is clear. Without relevance reach is nice but outcomes lag. In the new communications economy people spend time gaming, shopping online, chatting and socialising as well as with media that can frequently interrupt them ads they don’t want to hear from.  In my 2012 book on marketing, Tell the truth, honesty is your most powerful marketing tool, I dedicated some space to the importance of cutting through by communicating in the right space, at the right time and with the right message.  That if you could find the right moment then focusing effort there with the right message, would transcend simply reaching people at scale in terms of empirical evidence based growth.  Being relevant in this way informed some award winning campaigns that drove real growth for brands in Cannes.  So,  Samsung’s Flipvertising turned the rules of media on their head by persuading the audience to search for their ads instead of chasing after their attention.  Heineken sold beer to people working late in the office by partnering with cleaning firms.  WAOO “killed” for love, getting partners of gamers to nominate them for targets to get them to take a break.

5. Big brands and partnerships

There were significant big brand winners at Cannes this year with real business challenges solved.  Many people were saying this was about time, and good to see.  Dove took the Grand Prix for media with a campaign that everyone was talking positively about, and that tapped into their long-standing purpose agenda and demonstrated real action.  All of the winners required a team to deliver the work.   Rob Reilly, ECD at WPP, stressed the importance of understanding the huge energy that is needed to create work like this, and that the partnership of multiple agencies and clients is crucial and should always be celebrated.  I heard one Creative agency ECD celebrating work on a stage that I know the media agency were instrumental in delivering without crediting them, or any of  the wider team. That’s why I’ve only named brands in this blog, not agencies. For full credits please see the Cannes Lions winners page.   I know it takes a village to win a Lion. I hope we can always acknowledge this in future.

“Great marketers tend to be great convenors”

June 28th, 2023

Says Becky Moffat, CMO at HSBC.

But what is a convenor?

Its not a word that I had in my vocabulary at all until I took on the role of deputy and then convenor of the IPA Effectiveness Awards judges.  During this period, from 2018 to 2022, when I read more words in IPA awards submissions than there are in War and Peace and Lord of the Rings combined (with less fights, and fewer hobbits), I found myself talking about and thinking about convening more than in the rest of my career.

Becky was talking about the fact that the role of a modern marketer in the new communications economy is complex, has multiple responsibilities, and requires influence beyond direct reporting lines.

Direct reports might not be responsible for the ingredients necessary for success. We know of course that there is a much better chance of a product launch success in fmcg if it can combine a gondola end in a supermarket with an advertising campaign.  Yet although the ad campaign may be the direct responsibility of the head of marketing, the negotiation of gondola ends trading may not.  If the marketing director has the remit of delivering queries to the website, the user experience, which will enhance or diminish conversion to sales, might be out of that remit.  Even within the marketing framework, if the pr team don’t align with the brand team, who don’t liaise well with the performance team, then chaos will limit successful growth.

So, of course, Becky is correct, you need to get people working together in the best possible way, whether they work directly for you or not, whether they share your short term kpis or not.  Otherwise the business will falter in terms of overall growth potential.  Getting a team of disparate people to work well together is the skill of the convenor.  I asked my convening peers at the IPA to explain how you best do this.

Here’s Harjot Singh, Global CSO McCann (Convenor 2022), picking up on the emotional intelligence necessary: “To me it is a leadership skill in general and about doing 5 things really well in particular: Planning, communicating, facilitating, building relationships and problem solving.

You know you’re a good convenor if you can do these 5 things in a way that places you in a position of strength to create an environment conducive to collaboration, where all parties involved are comfortable sharing knowledge, expressing ideas with enthusiasm and working cohesively towards a common goal.”

Neil Godbar, exec strategy director WundermanThompson, convenor 2018, has a practical take on the skills needed for the role: “Making sure you finish on time won me the biggest good will. Structuring the sessions: I told everyone we would start at the top, then the bottom, and use the rest of the time in the grey. That helped people navigate the day and feel productive. Be thorough in your preparation: make sure you know the papers AND the judges’ responses. That meant starting with the consensus, but picking up the outlier comments that could change the POV. I felt the need to balance giving everyone their voice, whilst ultimately steering the ship. When in trouble, ask for a show of hands.”

And here’s Jo Arden, cso Ogilvy, who is convening in 2024, on the power of active listening: “. I think the big thing for me is about making sure everyone has their say. Which is why I think that strategy people are pretty good at convening – we are used to hearing the quiet ones. I think we are also good at hearing what is going unsaid – the tone, the enthusiasm, the caveats that people attached to their POV are where the debate cracks open – I think we recognise those moments and dive in.   The last thing I would say is that whilst consensus is good – there is also real power in going with an outlier view when that view has more rigour.”

I would add one more thing.  Find the best people, get them in a room, and then disregard what their job titles are.  If you limit people to their specialisms then you don’t get the best out of them.  Get the experts and the right experience, then, like the pirates do, get everyone focussed on one goal, irrespective of their day jobs. Let them challenge each other, regardless of areas of expertise, by resolving these challenges in a safe and constructive manner, you get to the best outcomes.

Convening is crucial, it is a skill and an important role.  Taking it seriously can be a step change to business success.  

If you can measure it, you can improve it.  If you are measured, you will game it.

May 30th, 2023

If you can measure it, you can improve it.

Dr J is one of the greatest basketball players ever.  Julius Winfield Erving 11, better known as Dr J won 3 NBA championships, 4 most valuable player awards and is an inductee of the Basketball Hall of Fame.  In 1994 Sports Illustrated named him one of the 40 most important athletes of all time.  He has a reputation for bringing artistry to the slam dunk.

I saw him speak at a Converse basketball shoe marketing conference in the 1990s, just after he’d retired.  He described his upbringing in New York.  He said whatever he did as a kid, he continually tried to improve.  If his mother sent him to the store to buy milk he would add excitement to the chore by trying to beat his personal best running to and from the shops and up and down stairs to the apartment.  Through measurement came both improvement in speed, and satisfaction of growth.

If you are measured, you will game it, prioritising the targets even at the expense of the wellbeing of people and indeed companies.

Targets for schools is one prime example of this.  When the government set exam targets for school children commentators and experts pointed to the harmful outcomes for many pupils.  One National Union of Teachers report stated: “Teachers object passionately to the accountability agenda imposed on them because of the consequences that flow from it. These are undermining creative teaching and generating labels which limit students’ learning. Crucially, they also threaten children’s self-esteem, confidence and mental health.”

Alfie Moore is an ex-cop who now works as a stand-up comedian.  His insider take on policing is both funny and sad.  One of his routines takes on the extreme outcomes of the target culture in the police.  He tells a story of a man who tries to report a burglary when new targets (to reduce the number of burglaries) have made recording more burglaries against policy (as recording them as other things means that the target gets met, even if the burglars continue to rob).  He says: “the guy shows the attending officer scratch marks around his patio door.  The cop says: ‘That’s badgers.  Badgers have done that.’  And the guy says: ‘ But, they’ve been away with my 42-inch colour TV.’  The cop replies: ‘Must have been two of them.  Sometimes they’ll work in gangs.’”  This month he commented on Twitter on a story that a retired police officer had carried out breathalyser tests on himself to meet targets: “Well they did say that meeting performance targets was a priority”. 

So, targets are good, and targets are bad.  Without targets how can you measure progress, but with targets you have to be aware of the externalities of people only focussing on what is measured. 

One tactic is the anti-target. As well as setting an objective also set an anti-goal.  Be clear on what you don’t want the team to deliver? 

Andrew Wilkinson, successful entrepreneur and founder of Tiny Capital, set out his schedule of anti-goals on Medium in 2007.  The list of 7 includes: “Never schedule morning meetings, sleep in when necessary” which I know would strike a chord with many people who are trapped in the alpha patriarchal schedules that suit the minority few who mainly set rules for business. 

If the goal is to drive profitability, then it might be crucial to set an anti-goal to ensure that you don’t optimise profit at the expense of growth (this might seem redundant but I’ve seen modelling optimisations to profit at all costs that ends up in a non-optimal position).

Measurement is good, but to be effective targets need context and nuance. 

Conditions for transformation

April 24th, 2023

Lionel Shriver is not noted for her optimistic outlook on the world. She is an author and spokesperson, her breakthrough book was “We need to talk about Kevin”.  This was a dystopian description of a mother’s journey to explain why her son killed 9 people at his high school.

Lionel was born Margaret Ann in 1957 and changed her name to Lionel when she was 15.  She’s an American, but lives in Bermondsey. 

I once heard her speaking about the NHS, and the dire state it finds itself in.  (Not that this needs emphasising in a week of junior doctor strikes, but to quote the British Medical Association: “The NHS is experiencing some of the most severe pressures in its 70-year history. The COVID-19 pandemic is just the tip of the iceberg – the health service has been facing years of inadequate planning and chronic under-resourcing.”)

Shriver commenting on why this is difficult to fix (and bear in mind that there is no NHS in America), said: “However bad things are they can always get worse.  Better the chaos you know than the chaos that you don’t know”.

This is the very opposite of the mindset that you need for transformation and change.  It is why people in all kinds of sectors cling on to outdated and anachronistic practices and fail to take advantage of opportunities and grow. 

The UK editor of Campaign Magazine, Maisie McCabe wrote a leader denouncing the failure of creative agencies to embrace change.  She notes that this has led to a disappointing “quality of output”.

Creative agencies however are full of smart, creative people.  Are they also too full of people who like control and predictability over the potential chaos of the unknown? 

It might be a bit unfair to pick only on creative agencies.  The tendency for managers to resist change in favour of things they know they can deal with is across our industry, across the UK as a whole (with a few and of course notable exceptions).

What proportion of leaders truly embrace change?  How many of our people love the new?

Statistics state that just one in five people in general at work want to step out of their comfort zone.  If the comfort zone is heritage status quo, then any business in our industry needs a much higher proportion than this.

We are in the new communications economy, where change is continuous and accelerating.  If you have built a career on certainties that are now redundant its crucial to be open to new learnings. 

For generations (according to a survey from Deloitte, quoted in The Economist) Americans have picked TV and film as their favourite home entertainment, those under 25 now prefer gaming.  Although gaming is specially favoured by the under 25s (9 out of 10 Brits of that age game (what is the other one doing?)), two thirds of people in rich countries play, nearly half of them are women and half of the population aged 55 to 64.  At Snoop’s appearance last month at the O2, the millennial woman in the row in front of me was playing a word game on her phone during the support act.  On the tube home a Baby boomer woman sitting next to me was playing patience on her smart phone.  Gaming is a mass medium, whether it fits with heuristics of creative and comms agency planners or not. 

On Founder’s day at EssenceMediacom, Andrew Shebbeare stated: “Step change feels like an existential threat but sitting still is really the existential threat”.

We all need to embrace change and potential chaos to deliver customer value, not necessarily with advertising but with data informed comms, creative and tech fit for the new economy.