Monthly Archives: March 2009

Fighting the good fight

Interesting post from one of the NY Times’ blogs, which picks up a piece from the Boston Globe (so this is an especially globetrotting post, boom boom). The basic idea, to save you clicking back down the trail, is that partisan government is more effective in a crisis than bipartisan government.

Why? Because ideas – at least in the history of the U.S. Government – have come from partisan causes and been battled into the mainstream. Cosy bipartisanship, while a wonderful ideal, is simply ineffective – particularly in a crisis. Partisanship brings about “the kind of strong and critical advocacy that opens public debate, forces the parties to explain their ideas, and clarifies choices”. 

That sounds like a healthy way to discuss any kind of idea. Where I work, we have an approach we call “Open”. Taken at face value, it looks like a kind of egalitarian, dreamy Utopia where a good idea can come from anywhere and everyone’s as good as anyone else. But I don’t think that’s why it’s a powerful way to work.

For me, working in an open way means people bringing partisan ideas to the table, and allowing anyone to challenge, question, add to and refine them. It isn’t quite the anarchy of the wiki, where everyone has a delete key and no-one has control. Nor is it the oligarchy of the old-school creative agency, where only Creatives can criticise and everyone else must sell.

Instead, it creates lots of arguments. People question each other. Sometimes it can be frustrating as hell, and the temptation to say “shut up” is overwhelming. As it must be in the House of Commons or the Senate when an idea is under fire.

Time will probably tell whether it delivers great ideas, though it’s already started to. But if the Boston Globe is right about partisan politics, I think we might be on to something.


Given brands are about value added, why isn’t there a line on the brief that says:


This could be about the product. Why is it useful? Or it could be about the why in which the brand enhances the experience.

It could be something consumers know about (better cleaning). Or something they won’t admit to themselves (makes me feel richer).

We’re always talking about things being useful or valuable. Maybe making it an obligatory planning question might help us make more useful communications…

Simplicity Versus Complexity

Here’s a counterintuitive thought: as things get more complicated, they get more intuitive. Well, some things. A lot of games now seem more intuitive than the ones I played on my Amiga 500. The iPod – and most things made by Apple – are complex internally but simple on the outside. High resolution graphics are more complex, but easier to understand.

Why? Probably because they’re better maps of reality. More code under the hood means things are easier to interact with because you need to bring less code of your own.

Probably obvious for a games designer, but not for a simple brand planner who’s always trying to reduce everything to some kind of single-word essence.

Maybe we should try to make brands as complex and rich as possible? Especially if we want to make them instinctively attractive, intuitive, and more like real, analogue people.

Come bearing gifts

On the way home tonight, I had one of those rare things: a genuinely nice, genuinely spontaneous, genuinely shared experience. It came in the form of a tube-car busker playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a reverb-drenched electric violin. I feel like a traitor saying this as a musician, but usually, the feeling I get when I jump onto a tube carriage, the doors close behind me and I realise a split-second too late that I’m going to spend the next five minutes trapped in a small metal box with someone torturing a Bob Dylan song, or reanimating the rotting, late-night corpse of rockabilly – usually, that feeling is regret.

Not tonight, though. The fiddler on the tube was good. He made a nice sound. And from there, lots of other nice things followed.

For a start, people stopped reading and listened. They smiled. They applauded. I found myself catching the eyes of strangers – not something you’d usually do on the Victoria line at 11pm unless you wanted to scare people or get scared yourself.

And then, of course, EVERYone gave him money. Willingly. I did, and immediately thought that I could have given him double. Because actually, what he’d done had been valuable to me, and probably to everyone else on the carriage.

The first thing it made me think about, off the tube and walking up Stockwell Road, was what that value was. I only gave him a couple of quid. That won’t buy you a beer in SW3, where I’d been drinking. And yet what he’d done was worth way more. It was probably worth more than a lot of gigs I’ve been to, films I’ve seen, even possibly one or two CDs I’ve bought. Even though it was transient. Rare connection with strangers, smiles, a little bit of community and aesthetic pleasure in the middle of the night in London: that’s got to be worth more than a pint of Stella.

The second thing it made me think about was something David Hackworthy had said in a talk as part of the IPA Diploma course I’m doing. He said brands should “come bearing gifts”. I guess it was a variation on the old advertising bargain: be nice to people if you’ve arrived unannounced in their living rooms, I think Paul Weinberger used to say at Lowe.

The point was, I guess, that the busker had borne a gift. Not a slick one, or a branded one, or a particularly bling one. It was just some fairly well played, cliched music. But it was worth something. It was a surprise. It changed people’s behaviour for the better, like the sun getting the man to take off his coat in Aesop’s fable. And people willingly, smilingly paid, even though times are hard at the moment.

Some brands I guess do that. Little things that make people feel grateful. But they’re generally CRM-type things, or else they’re free trial-type things outside stations. It’s not that the ulterior motive that makes them less magical than the busker. He had an ulterior motive too. He wasn’t some angel of music. He was trying to make a buck.

I think it was the irrational, joyful, aesthetic nature of what he was doing. And doing well enough that it wasn’t an imposition. He lit up an evening for a bunch of tired commuters. Not many brands genuinely do that.

Just another case of history repeating…

Went to see the Robert Opie collection at the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill the other day. Spent a little while feeling smug about how clever we all are these days, what with our ideas and our 360-degree thinking and our gorillas.
But actually they’ve kind of done most of it before. Look, branded content:
Bovril and war
multi-platform entertainment properties:
Filthy Lucre
And even engagement ideas using gaming platforms to target secondary but influential younger audiences.
Decimals for kids
Fun with rationing
And on the other side of the same thropenny bit, vacuous, lifestyle-oriented shite advertising for cars: