Friday, 20 July 2007

Monsieur Herd

(There follows a topline write up of Juliana Xavier's write-up of her interview with Mark Earls)

Mark Earls sees himself as someone who can help clients and its brands "to get over there". His job is to see the bigger picture from an outside perspective in order to draw a pathway. We have spoken for almost two hours, under a persistent very English rain, about business, brands, culture, psychology and even physics. In order to explain to me some of his case studies he had to talk about all other kinds of subjects, which I have realized are all source of information for his thinking. It was a different interview, because it was impossible to stick to the guidelines I’ve got so used to, but slowly Mark became more aware of his own thought process and it started to get a form.

Usually inside a company people in different departments are focused on specific things and don't see the bigger thing. Marketing is only the surface of the business, while there is much more behind it. It has a political, economical and above all it also has a social dimension. It is fundamental to put things in context, each bit of the problem, in order to get a triangulation that connects: business, people and culture.


Try to understand what is behind the business. Have in mind that there are all kinds of little things and particularities that are not evident, not even to the client and that are important in order to contextualise the problem and understand what the brief is really all about. It also helps you connect to your client – talk the same language - and get him to trust you. Mark tends to work on very simple questions, asking businessmen to explain themselves: how do they make money? Is there any pressure on that people who are running the business? What are they promising as opposed to what are their competitors promises to people.


Mark always assumes that all marketing is spam, unless it has some social value, political value. So he is always trying to do something that cannot be accused of that, by looking for things that actually make the world look more interesting rather than less interesting. For Mark, it is important to have sympathy (or find where you have sympathy) with the brand’s agenda/ point of view. He believes that we’ve slipped away from the personal in business with intellectual thinking styles and processes that give us the impression that there’s a way of reducing the odds of failure and increasing the odds of success. When the truth is that none of these things guarantee success or the avoidance of failure. In order to find what is interesting, what can change the way people feel about things, to do something that has culturally real value you have to understand how the culture works. Look at creative and cultural noise. Trying to find something to kick against, something that in itself challenges what people think, or how people assume things are.


When it comes to people Mark is actually interested in their behaviour not thoughts. Culture is the stuff in which we all swim through all our lives. With all the assumptions we carry about how the world is and how we are in the world. But each of us, individually, does what we do because of the other people around us and how we see them through the length of our culture. We are not consumers. We are people living lives. People's lives with each other and their enthusiasms are what are important.

If you have got something that is interesting enough that generates certain behaviours with consumers, then other people will copy it or react against it. So he's always looking at what is the behavioural context or prototype that he wants to generate. It is a quite difficult place to be, because actually human behaviour is complex, adaptive and therefore unpredictable. You don't know what is going to happen.

It is much more about observation. You have to ask people but bearing in mind that people are expert in research. Mark believes that people's accounts of their own lives are – however plausible - largely irrelevant to their behaviour. Our brain is designed to give us the impression to do what we do because of our own independent decision-making capabilities, whilst we do what we do through many other influences, mainly other people and how we see what other people are doing.

There are many ways Mark explores all the areas and subjects he needs to explore in order to understand each vertices of the triangle. Technology is one of the most important sources for him, because it has enabled him access to information in all of areas that he never thought possible - not just information, but also experimentation.

He has also developed a circle of experts in food, drinking, tech, culture, who can give him really useful expertise on specific fields of knowledge: cultural experts, sanitarians, anthropologists, etc. Talking is really important; it brings things to the surface that he’d never consider if he just sat and thought about it.

“And I just ‘worry’ at things until it all makes sense.”

In the end, the important thing is to come up with an idea that resonates with the business issues and the culture where it is operating at, so that people actually do things differently.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Where are the Jones? just tipped (or Facebook did)

I know this because 6 largely unconnected friends of mine on Facebook all just joined the Where are the Jones? group. It's been criticised thus for only attracting a daily audience of about 500 at YouTube, most of whom must be journalists, marketing strategists, media watchers or bloggers. Come to think of it most of my friends on FB are... Oh anyway it just tipped, Facebook is the ultimate cultural divining rod, right? And with the numbers so low you have a really good chance of getting your script made, assuming there are less writers than viewers. I like the episode where he says he is getting out of the car for a stretch and then farts repeatedly. It's certainly a new tone of voice for Ford advertising. :J

The other thing that's doing the rounds like wildfire is the idea that people's blogging reading and writing time is now FB time. If that's true no-one is reading this, so I might stick a note on my FB page just in case. I couldnt help noticing that Facebook in London appeasrs to be growing quite fast; it was 510,000 four weeks ago tonight its 790,000. In the introduction to Michael Birch's (Bebo founder) brilliant talk the other day at Glasshouse, Michael Smith (Firebox & Mind Candy founder) joked that its was "brilliant that so many people had taken time away from their Facebook - I mean Bebo - pages to come out tonight."

What Michael Birch predicted among other things was that the next phase of social networks - with the incorporation of video - could see them become like giant reality TV shows. That obviously links to their own rather more hyped kate modern. This programming strand from the makers of Lonely Girl 15 also features user generated suggestions in scripts. Plus Bebo have their new talent contest style partnership with Current TV. link

Bebo are also doing a lot with "music discovery"; Bebo bands. This being based on the insight that you often discover music through friends. He also thought location based mobile social nertworks would kick off, as your virtual life and your real life collide (how many friends are within 500m now...?). It's certainly true that when people meet today they seem to use Facebook as a social alternative to biz cards. He also said that the new wave were all about real friends/conversations rather than MySpace style friends collecting which seems to be true.

Fascinating times we live in, as we say every year.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Blogging vs Writing

I've been forced to consider what the relationship is between writing (free, promotional) articles for publications and my blogging. Here's what happened:

1. I agreed to write an article for a trends magazine, to a tight deadline
2. I used my blog greenormal to get input on 3 successive drafts
3. after a lot of help from comments at greenormal I got to a draft I was really happy with
4. I sent it in on time but quite tentatively because I actually worried it might be too theoretical - but they wrote straight back to say they really loved it too
5. then I got this message:

"we can’t really publish the piece in the magazine, as since the piece has been published on your blog it’s been picked up by other people and posted elsewhere online, like PSFK. It’s a hazard of being a printed magazine, and an old media way of going about things, but as ___ is expensive and fairly exclusive we can’t really publish content in the magazine that will have been available for people to read a from six weeks before we come out. Instead, we were going to run the essay as part of our newsletter this week, if that sounds ok"

I can see their point I suppose. And there's no hard feelings - they've said they are open to other submissions.

But on the other hand the article was very much the product of a discussion on the blog

And most publications really like the fact that I am a blogger, and want to mention my blog as much as my books

And you could say the same thing about my book as it was freely available in draft form on the blog and I have given getting on for 20 public presentations telling people in detail what the 'model' in the book is ('the grid'). The publisher could worry that it would seem old news by the time it appears. But its different with books, you buy them as references to dip into and draw from, you want them even more when you are familiar with the contents in some ways.

The same with journal articles. These are often papers which have been given at MRS conferences, summaries of arguments appearing in longer studies or books. They are for reference rather than having to be new news.

I dont know what to do about this because I have usually shared drafts of all my articles and in many cases they have been helped by it. I think this case is unusual because firstly it is a trends magazine ('you heard it here first') and because there is such an overlap in audience; between psfk (who I didnt approach about this piece, but its a free bloggosphere) and ---. whereas something for a magazine in turkey, for the innovation page, the marketer magazine etc is more remote.

On the other hand this is the modern world. A place where the CEO of LEGO once wrote on his blog "Draft presentation for board meeting. Comments please."

Here's some possible things I could do:
- make it clear to anyone who wants a free article for their non-free magazine that they can only have this if they agree I can share it on the blog (I made that sort of upfront agreement with my publisher)
- publish the articles on my blog retrospectively so they get priority
- get input from the usual suspects by mailing the article to them rather than posting it
- or if I am to comply with professional journalistic constraints and act like someone else actually owned the IP: charge publications the commercial rate (about £1 a word) for articles & refuse to write free ones
- or even start an online journal for plannersphere articles written and shaped on people's blogs including mine

As far as that article goes I actually think it is worth publishing & is pretty good, so I think I'm going to do the green thing (recycle) and develop it further into a whole new unblogged article and either submit it to a journal who is waiting on a proposal or maybe even a national newspaper I've written for b4, who presumably may not be as concerned about earlier drafts and comments online, any more than they would be about my having produced a book covering the same ground.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Cloud Seeding

I find that trivia and the minutiae of daily life are a great source of stimulation or inspiration or maybe just stimulation. I'm working on a new project requiring a wide spread of starting point concepts and it is the tiniest things, like a word on a poster or a book in a bookstore I hadnt seen, that can trigger an idea. It's a bit like cloud seeding. Including the fact that you dont know if it actually produces more rain on the ground. For those who dont know about cloud seeding (& I must admit i was pretty hazy on it) I thought this was really interesting btw:

"The largest cloud seeding system in the world is that of the People's Republic of China, which believes that it increases the amount of rain over several increasingly arid regions, including its capital city, Beijing, by firing silver iodide rockets into the sky where rain is desired. There is even political strife caused by neighboring regions which accuse each other of "stealing rain" using cloud seeding. About 24 countries currently practice weather modification operationally. China also plans to use cloud seeding in Beijing just before the 2008 Olympic Games in order to clear the air of pollution" (Wikipedia)

Anyway here are a couple of fragments to show what I mean by trivia and minutiae. Both gave me ideas:

- did you know that readers of my green marketing blogs tend to visit proportionately less at the weekend than readers of this one? Could be all sorts of reasons but I like to think greens switch their computers off when they arent at work (I dont - partly because there isnt a really clean line between life & work, not leat because I work from home - but maybe I should)

- ethical dilemma of the day. I saw someone handing out those cheap phone call cards in the high street today. I took one because I figured she got paid to hand a certain amount out and no-one else seemed to be interested. But then I wondered if by taking this piece of card I was supporting an industry of needless flyers and cards - if we all refused they'd have to stop and it wouldnt take too many of these tacky, glossy cards to equal a plastic shopping bag.

Come to think of it I think I just glimpsed a half idea that relates to cloud seeding itself. Better go and work it up b4 bed :J

Saturday, 7 July 2007

The Empty Format

I'm playing with a theory of media. It's called the empty format.

it involves how the form of engagement of certain media have a life of their own.

For example Big Brother is the empty format of celebrity.

Twitter is the empty format of small talk.

The iPhone launch was an empty format of a craze
(it successfully simulated catching on before it actually launched)

The Y2k bug was an empty format computer virus

There seem to be a number of things going on here:
- evacuation: loss of content
- disembedding: loss of context
- self-reference; the 'story' become the story

If that's as far as it goes it is rather McLuhan meets Baudrillaird meets Kierkegard etc.

But what's interesting is to wonder what new empty formats could be created:
- an antisocial community where no-one has any friends in their network
- a massive prize lottery with no actual prize
- a 'word mob' boosting a search term to no1 in technorati, where the word doesnt exist

Dunno what the point of this is yet, it's on the workbench.

Really useful acronym guide for over 14s

AIM site link



Monday, 2 July 2007


There's a new (or arguably) ancient form of myth emerging thanks to the internet. The quotation that is taken as correct and/or correctly attributed but is actually a mistake, compounded by hundreds of thousands of repetitions. If anyone has a year or two to write an Umberto Eco style book on modern culture viewed through the lens of semiotics (you'd make liberal use of 'langue/parole'), this might be a good subject. Here are a few examples I have tripped over:

- the chinese for crisis consists of the charatcters meaning 'danger' plus 'opportunity'. This was apparently concocted by an american presidential script writer. Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese literature link. attacks this "widespread misconception" of "oriental wisdom" noting that the second symbol really means something like "incipient moment or crucial point," meaning that someone in a "crisis" must be aware of both danger and its special point in time. The second symbol definitely does not mean "opportunity!"

- “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." is attributed to Goethe. It actually comes from a very loose misquote by Scottish mountaineer W Murray. link (what Goethe actually said was "Now at last let me see some deeds!”)

- the text to "the sunscreen song" initially circulated for some time on the web attributed to Kurt Vonnegut and a speech he had given to the matriculating class at MIT. It was actually written for the Chicago Tribune by journalist Mary Smich. When Luhrman was working on the single he first tried to contact Vonnegut to get permission. link

In the time before libraries, academic references and so on it was very common to claim a work came from a famous author. It gave it authority. In the intro to many of the penguin classics are long essays explaining that it is doubtful who actually wrote what. The internet seems to reintroduce the same effect, because quotations are doubled and redoubled.

The moral is:
"If it sounds good on Oprah then it's not exactly likely to be Shakespeare." (please do quote this liberally, but attribute it to any to famous person of your choosing)

Of course it doesnt actually matter who said what. What's interesting is the way we still seem to crave a mixture of textual authority vs the power of the free floating thought virus, which is well designed for transmission (fitting a common point others will want to make with a quotation, worded in an accessible, catchy, sentimental way...)