“The best for the most for the least” – 2016 Projects

Every year, we set three internal projects for Smithery; things we want to work on that will improve our own practice, be fun to explore, and originally to occupy a little downtime too. As perhaps evidenced by the performance on last year’s projects (see 2015 project write-up), we seem to have a bit less time nowadays to purposefully muck about.

Firstly, some of that is down to workload; we’re working on more complex, nuanced, interesting problems for clients. They’re more compelling to get readily lost in, to wander through and wonder about. We’re doing the sort of projects I started Smithery for.

Secondly, a lot of the things we do as part of projects nowadays perhaps take the place of the more makery stuff we used centre some personal projects around. Adopting various things into our approach, like the principles from Seymour Papert’s Constructionism, means that more often than not we have ‘a thing’ in the middle of the table to facilitate discussion, design and direction. We make things all the time.

And perhaps thirdly, the internal projects have served as useful proof-of-concepts, and in pointing to them (and subsequent clients things) we are asked to do more things like those. Getting paid actual money for things you really like to do anyway is always nice.

I talked a while ago about ‘The Blacksmith’s Sign’; a beautiful wrought iron sign that hangs from a post, an ornate piece of communication about the type of work done within. People would see the sign, and think ‘ah, there’s someone who could help me with X…’ and another client was secured. The client didn’t want a sign, of course. They wanted the skills that created that sign. In some way, that’s what some of the Smithery internal projects have been about, wittingly or not…

In the light of all this, we’ve been thinking a lot over the holidays about the right internal projects this year, and how after four years they might change focus a bit, beyond just thinking of ourselves.

‘Internal projects’ seems a little small. We have decided we want to be a little more ambitious in how we make the projects as useful as possible beyond our own walls. Stealing an idea from Charles & Ray Eames, how do we use the projects to deliver “the best for the most for the least”; to create really useful outputs from the projects, which can offer greater value for more people, making the very best use of the resources we have available.

With all that in mind, here’s our three for 2016.

There’s a What, a How and a Where


1. WHAT – Strategic Design Unit

What is Smithery? Ah, the perennial question. The original answer was long and uncertain, as proved by the thing I must’ve written when asked by Campaign on leaving PHD:

“…called Smithery, the business will look to work with clients on brand and service innovation, community initiatives, crowdsourcing projects and marketing and media strategy.”

About a year in, and after I’d reflected on the actual work I was doing, it become “an innovation studio” (after a German magazine called PAGE called it that). Formulating “Make Things People Want > Making People Want Things” helped explain what it was about.

What about now though? Smithery has always been centred around innovation; an inheritance of the previous role I’d had for five years, a comfortable legitimacy.

But increasingly, looking at the work we’ve done over the last twelve months, that’s not the right definition anymore.

It’s harder to see what I thought innovation was looking at how it’s used everywhere now. As a term, innovation is at risk of being meaninglessly overused and abused. In too many cases, it just means ’slightly better than useful’, or ‘the things we do to hide the day job’. It is hard to discern what it is someone’s actually talking about when using the word. It is a fat, unhelpful descriptor, just like digital became before it. I find myself having to go through layers of conversation with people when they say ‘innovation’ to find out what they actually mean

you keep using that word

Which is partly what the system we’ve developed around our practice is a reaction to, I think.

Rooted in the gearbox idea from Smithery 3.0 in 2014 (around Stewart Brand’s shearing layers), the system uses four complementary realms, and in particular their relationship to each other, to help us define what sort of job we’re actually looking at. Or at the very least, helps state the question that everyone at the start of the project thinks we’re trying to answer (it usually changes, but that’s another story).

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 10.56.08

None of the realms are described as ‘innovation’, of course, and you can’t describe everything we do as innovation, either in our own understanding of it or that of others. So if Smithery isn’t an innovation studio, what is it?

I went back through the bookshelves to find some clues, and I picked up Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” again.

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

DMATH is a terrific read, and in reading Dan’s post about it, which started from Dan’s talk at the first Laptops & Looms, which itself was an important experience for me, as I found myself at it barely a month into starting Smithery at Toby & Russell’s invitation.

L&LRead Adrian’s take on what it was, if you don’t know, which is a) great and b) links to lots of other reactions to it, as all good rabbit holes should.

But it’s only in reading DMATH again, in context of the last eighteen months of work, that I’ve started to appreciate what Dan is really getting at, from a practitioner’s perspective, when talking about Strategic Design.

Rather than trying to design specific solutions, and ones constrained by the same silos that create previous failing ones at that, Strategic Design bridges disciplines and departments within the organisation as currently exists, and seeks to change the cultural, political and social factors which prevent necessary change; the hidden things, the ‘dark matter’ the title refers to.

Another thing I’ve been reading (for the first time) is John Harwood’s The Interface, an exploration of the seminal IBM Design programme led by Eliot Noyes (who brought in Charles & Ray Eames, Paul Rand, etc), which transformed the business starting in the late fifties. What you realise from reading the stories back is just how much the politics and the social structures that Noyes & Thomas Watson Jr (his client, and new IBM CEO) navigated their way through were part of the design project.


I could keep going in, but in this first week of January though, I’m very aware that there’s a lot more to research, and this is just the setting out of our stall. What other examples and takes on Strategic Design should we appraise ourselves of? This one? These folks? Does it really match up to the system we have? It does feel, on the surface, like what we’ve been working on with Smithery (somewhat unknowingly to an extent):

Exhibit A: We’re working with an innovation team from one end of the business, as well as the sales team from the other end. Rather than waiting three years for innovation to hit the front line and change the organisation, we’re helping them create and deploy the ideas and constructs immediately to make a difference for their customers.  Building conceptual and functional platforms and methods upon which they create things together. It’s a long, investigative journey of researching, prototyping, talking and observing. Developing a feel for the rhythm of the organisation, things we can see, things we can’t. What results is a field kit, a box full of the future, in many different iterations, that the sales team can use with clients to scope out problems together.

Exhibit B: We were asked to put together a ‘War Game’ for a global strategy team last autumn. They were bringing together the thirty strategic leaders from across the globe, who don’t see each other that often. The brief time they have together is valuable. Traditionally, ‘War Games’ are long extrapolations of one scenario. And it’s a rational thing for global strategy teams to ask for. No one gets fired for asking for a war game. But in rooting around in what the problem actually was, they wanted their people to become better at reacting to unforeseen circumstances. So instead of running a long game of ‘Risk, one long, exhaustive scenario, we designed a card game, more ‘Poker’ (multiple, recombinant, rapid scenarios). Instead of one scenario, we build 21 in three hours. But we only build half the deck; half are blank, for the client teams to create their own additional and variations in the future. In a sense, rather than just create a fully formed thing for one experience in the business, we made a half-formed thing they would take back home with them, and create their own experiences with.

In both these cases, of course, it wasn’t just us. We pull together ‘units’, small specialist teams to work on these things, according to the task. Sometimes individuals, sometimes wee groups of people from other companies. But importantly, I think, people from the inside of the client teams too. It’s less about building units for people, but building the units including people.

So the WHAT project is this: What Is A Strategic Design Unit?

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) In these first fresh weeks of 2016, inhabiting a new way of seeing what we do is something to test out. Then with further reading and reflection, we’ll be experimenting and investigating what it takes to be a “Strategic Design Unit”.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Working out what Strategic Design means for us, how we describe ‘strategic design units’ helpfully for others, and creating an artefact of our investigations (writing a guide on how we get on to publish,  a white paper, or something). The best articulation we can create, available to develop and build on through creative commons, that asks the least from others and ourselves in order to take the most from it.


2. HOW – Universal Agility Map

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sketched the thing below in the last year. Using the same axes of ‘people’ and ‘things’ as the system above, it’s nine-box variant for appraising what you should do next on a project basis. If the four box system model is the what, then this is the how.


Very simply, you start projects in the bottom left, work quickly with a small team, then work out what to do next; Improve or Share. Go out to the right to share with more people, taking what you’ve got into qualitative, then quantitative ways of testing what you’ve made, before you spend all your resources making it better. Go up to improve, and make a better version of what it is you’ve come up with as a team.

As a simple instruction, ‘improve or share’ shares a lot from modern, iterative working, but there’s some additional things in there too.

For one, it’s non-judgemental. There is no right and wrong in the approach. Instead, it simple demands that you ask yourself, as truthfully as you can, what the most appropriate thing to do is. For another, it allows you to perceive the empty spaces in the process, and think about where else you might have taken the project, had you chosen to go there.

There’s more detail on what this method is here, but in short it’s about using a design process that isn’t wedded to time. Time doesn’t sit on the X axis of the two-dimensional model, so therefore the emphasis is not simply on moving from left to right. It’s like a self-directed version of snakes and ladders for projects.

The more we’ve used it ourselves, and talked about it to other people, the more it seems useful in situations as a way for other people to think about the way they work.

We think it might be a Universal Agility Map.

The idea that it’s a map, specifically, came from an afternoon we spent hanging out with Ella Saltmarshe and Tim Milne, reflecting on a project each of us had done and mapping the out across the grid, plotting points according to the action we’d taken at each stage (improve/share).


Then the best bit, which was Ella’s idea for the session, was to then think about how it felt at each stage of the project, and to map those feelings on too. We got to some really interesting ways of describing the territory through this.

For instance, if you only keep improving something, without sharing it with others, it gets harder to share it eventually and take all the feedback on board at once. It’s like a mountain range that’s easier to cross when you’re further south in the foothills, but the further north you go, the higher and colder it becomes to make it over the mountains.

If you only talk about and get input and data about a project, on the other hand, and never use any of that to make significant steps on, you get lost in ‘the forests of constant chatter’… you never get anywhere as you’re lost in the reactions of what you get from external sources.


All of this is something we want to work on more this year, and make something that people can take for themselves and use as a way of improving their own working process.

The HOW project is this: How Do You Use The Universal Agility Map?

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) We’ve found it really useful. We think other people will find it really useful. How we communicate the value we’ve found in that will be a good challenge for us (we’ve spent a year on it, surely it doesn’t take that long to learn), and beneficial for others.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Work out a way to teach it to people. Then teach it in person, at places where I teach already, like IED Barcleona & Google Squared, and in new places too. And, just maybe, create an artefact of the method too, so that people can teach themselves. Our friend Tina does a wonderful range of maps already, we should talk to her…


3. WHERE – Perpetual Spatial Ranges

The book I recommended most to people last year was Prototype, edited by Louis Valentine. It features a cornucopia of different takes on what prototypes are, written by practitioners in quite different spheres. It’s from 2010, rather than being from last year, but when I stumbled across it, I loved it from the off.


One of the ideas I kept coming back to was from an essay called ‘Prototypes as a Central Vein For Knowledge Development‘ by Pieter Jan Stappers, in which he references ideas created during a PhD by dutch designer Ianus Keller.

Keller proposed that there could be ways to set up working environments for people engaged in prototyping which bring together what they are working on immediately in their hands, what is close to them on the table, and what they see in the environment in line-of-sight.

The bodily interactions in design activities can be divided into three spatial ranges, each serving different cognitive functions” as the essay puts it.


The simple idea of the ‘spatial ranges’ gripped me, partly because of the Artefact Cards work over the last few years (which starts at the precision range, then stretches into the layout range), but partly because I’ve always been fascinated at exploring the spaces we all work in (effectively and not).

The Atmosphere range is one I personally think we at Smithery should concentrate this year on understanding more, and linking back to the other ranges. We’ve also been working these last six months on a fascinating ‘Future Of The Workplace’ project with a client, which we should be able to say a lot more about soon, I hope.

It’s not just a way to think about the way people work when in particular set-ups (like Keller was exploring with ways of prototyping) but in every moment we work. Do we always pull things in from the precision, layout and atmosphere ranges when working, knowingly or not?

Do we work in what we might call ‘Perpetual Spatial Ranges‘, three circles around us we should be much more mindful of? By considering these ranges, and understanding how they relate to each other, and what makes for good working practice for ourselves and teams, can we learn how to adjust and align the ranges, like a dance of working practice?


When you start thinking about it in this way, you realise that in most work environments, the design of the spatial ranges aren’t that aligned. Team leaders, facilities managers, IT Departments, the board’s latest attempt at interior design… the number of different people taking unilateral decisions about the ranges soon stacks up, and perhaps damages or impedes the work people are being asked to do.

So what to do about this, then? Well, we have, by chance, some projects lined up this year which have a lot to do with the realms in which teams work. How to design environments which are most conducive to the sort of work you want people to more readily and easily produce. We might also explore our own working environment more, and set up an experiment of working practice that plays on these ideas.

Finally, then, the Where project is this: Where can you see Perpetual Spatial Ranges at work?

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) From the 2014 work based on the Stewart Brand shearing layers, it’s been really apparent that the spaces in which people work are part of the domain of trying to solve the problems we’re asked to. This is the year to get to grips with that properly.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Find a place to show people what we mean by Perpetual Spatial Ranges, whether it’s a place we work in, or someone else works in, or one we’ve designed for someone else for a specific purpose. Then, perhaps, run a tour of the space…?


There we go then. That should keep us busy, but hopefully in a way that creates more value for more people. We’ll see at the end of the year in the wrap-up.

Here’s to 2016.



Needless Things

We went to the rugby at the weekend. Samoa were playing the USA in a game at the Brighton AMEX stadium. Outside the ground, people in bright clothes were selling all sorts of things, including the thing you’ll see attached to this guy’s ear:


It’s a radio that lets you listen to the commentary, or listen to the referee talking to the touch judges, players and TMO during the game.

It helps you understand more about what’s going on. Fair enough; it’s an interesting augmentation of the experience.

The guy had a phone that could have done that, though. Everyone in the crowd did. They could have made an app. Set up a locally hosted web server. Made it available through something like TuneIn. There are probably fifty different ways they could have streamed the audio to the devices we carry around with us anyway, and not needed to make or supply any other devices.

Except I suspect none of those ways would have let them charge £10 per person for doing so.

The economics of the physical object is still intrinsically understood by the vast majority of people – ‘oh, you made loads of things, but if I’m to own one of the unique things, I need to give you money‘.

There’s still something about ‘digital’ services that means people wouldn’t pay. ‘Oh, you’re doing that anyway, I’m not paying that. It should be free…‘.

But it’s produced by as much ‘physical’ labour. People who make it happen (who you can’t see). Devices and connections working hard (that you can’t touch).

Until we work out a way to sell the general principle of digital distribution of physical effort, we’ll face two problems.

Firstly, we’ll be unable to charge sustainably for things to keep them going.

Secondly, we’ll continue to make more physical things where we don’t need them, in order to make money.

How do we get over the atom problem?

Innovation + Community = X

Mr Nick Kendall called me up the other day, as something had just crossed his path that made him think of (as he put it) the two realms of what he perceives I do, namely innovation and community.

(I’m glad someone has a more precise handle on this, because I’m never quite sure myself…)

He’d been listening to this Radio 4 programme on ‘Bread for Scotland‘, and he’d started thinking about the different sort of innovation that can evolve from getting all sorts of different people involved in an economy that surrounds something.

I’m off for a listen now, but in exchange I told Nick about my new friend for Barcelona, Anahí.


Anahí owns Onna Café in the district of Gràcia. We met on my first day there, when I was scouring the city for the best coffee shops I could find.

Of course, great coffee shops are becoming an indicator species for any city nowadays – find the really good coffee places, and they’ll be in the heart of other interesting things.

What’s more interesting than usual about Onna, and Anahí, is that she’s not come into the business just through a general love in all sorts of coffee from everywhere. She’s originally from Costa Rica, and is using Onna not just as a venture for herself, but to improve the way the coffee economy works for all the people throughout the supply chain of her home country.

She works with everyone from the farmers who grow the plants and look after the soil right through to the wholesale customers she supplies with Costa Rican beans, to establish an understanding of exactly where the cofee comes from, how it’s processed, packed, shipped, roasted and so on.

What it means I think is that everyone becomes visible to each other, all along the supply chain, and it’s helping Costa Rica step away from the commodity stock market approach to coffee beans (where price is dictated by the market), and help everyone realise greater value for the product through understanding how and why to make great coffee.

It all means that the coffee economy for Costa Rica is changing – so much so, Anahí pointed out, that the very first Latin American winner of the World Cup Tasters Championship was Juan Gabriel Cespedes of Costa Rica (who apparently had never been outside the country before heading to Gothenburg to compete).


Which is another interesting thing about the visibility throughout the supply chain; it’s not just one way.

It’s not just the wholesale or retail customers at the end of the chain understanding how the coffee is grown, processed, and delivered to them in their businesses and homes, but about the farmers and shippers at the other end what and how people value the coffee. If you need to grow and ship coffee that stands up well in a coffee cupping test, well, you need to learn how cupping works.

When I think back to what Nick was describing, the crossover of innovation and community, I think more about this sort of business, and what businesses of all sizes can take from it. How do you make everyone visible and valued by others along the supply chain? How can they change the conditions in the chain for mutual benefit? And how do all these stories leak out to add to to a complex, compelling, authentic brand?


This Week In Barcelona…


Right now, I’m holed up in a lovely little AirBnB in Gràcia in Barcelona, a self-proclaimed ‘writers apartment’, which to be honest does live up to its claim. It’s a perfect spot for sitting and working on a few things, as the sounds of the streets bubble up through the wide bay windows, whilst hidden at the back of the flat is an oasis of air-conditioning in which to sleep.

I’m not here just to hang out, though.

Scott Smith invited me over to teach on the Innovation and Future Thinking summer course that he runs here at the IED. Thirty-one students are coming to learn about how to spot things in the world, and use them to start building up versions of the future from the fragments of the present.

Barcelona as a city is a perfect environment to do this; complex different types of economy and social behaviour, combined with an independent streak a mile wide, means that the city just tries to talk to you at every turn.

To make the most of this, we’re giving each of the students an Artefact Field Kit, which they can prowl the streets spotting and collecting the clues about what might happen in the future.

FW - open

Then we’ll be teaching them how to use these clues together in exploratory mapping using the cards, and recombine them in speculative acts of creation. As Scott put it last night when we were prepping, it means we could run this course sitting on the pavement somewhere, in the event of a sudden and seismic collapse in the infrastructure that takes the power grid down… I’m hoping it won’t come to that though.

We’ll try to post as much as we can up from the course, and share it on twitter using the #IEDFutures hashtag.

More as we have it, as they say…

PS Thanks to the guys at Flamingo in London for doing some game testing last week as part of the preparation for today


Is Our Strategy Working For Me?

I was in Shoreditch on Friday, and passed by an installation called “Capitalism Works for Me”, part of the 2 Degrees festival. You have a think about the question, maybe have a chat, press a button to vote, and get a sticker.




The artist, Steve Lambert, has been asking people across London whether Capitalism works for them – here’s his video from that day of the installation:


We had a chat about the nuanced set-up of the question when I was there; does it work for me?

At one level, you can quite readily think about ‘me’ as the immediate things that affect you; your job, circumstances, monthly pay packet, career prospects. Things that form the immediate relationship between the system and you. But the further away things get from you, the more subjective judgement becomes on exactly what capitalism is doing for you. Perhaps as a broad rule of thumb, if you’re doing well, you’re probably in favour. If you’re disadvantaged, you’re probably after some form of change.

Resolving the tension between the two things in sustainable ways is what keeps everything ticking along, of course. Elizabeth Warren encapsulates that best, perhaps:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

What it does demonstrate is that it’s hard to view a system objectively whilst you’re a part of that system, no matter how well intentioned or honest you are.

Beyond the broader economic/political perspective, this has made me satrt thinking about when I’m working with a company from the outside; what does ‘me‘ mean in the context of a company that you might be working in and looking to improve?

What’s the equivalent of building the roads and an education system that will benefit the business long after you’ve left? How do you make sure your people are thinking about long-term benefits rather than short-term personal KPIs?

In short, what if you asked a question as punchy and provocative as Steve’s, but inside your own company?

Is Our Strategy Working For Me?

Piketty for Attention

In between reading swathes of Peppa Pig to our youngest, I’ve started reading Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, the book that’s taking the economic and political spheres by storm.

If you want some quickfire synopsis pieces on it, try Paul Krugman in the New York Review of Books, or the Economist’s ‘Capital summarised in four paragraphs‘.  The book is changing the way that everyone is having to think about capital, wealth, and the widening inequality gap between richest & poorest.

Largely, of course, because it’s based on a lot of hard-graft data work, rather than messing about with theoretical models; as Piketty puts it, “the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for the purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences… this obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearence of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we  live in”.

There’s a lesson in that alone for planners and strategists of any discipline.

Rather than get into the economic and politics of the book though, I’ve been thinking about the main assertion that Piketty puts in the book, and wondering how it plays out in the media world.


Piketty’s point is neatly summed up by a very simple equation: r>g, where r is the rate of return on capital across the system, and g is the rate of economic growth.  The data suggests, say Piketty and team, that having money is greater than earning money.  You can make more money just by having a big pile of it than you can by starting from scratch and trying to earn it, taken across the board at the macro level.

This is the status quo of the capitalist system; through the twentieth century, there are decade long shocks (The two World Wars, with the great depression in between for instance), but we’re now return to the ‘norm’ of this system, and in some countries Voctorian-era levels of inequality.

What I’ve been wondering is if the same pattern plays out at the media level, with attention.

(I’ve been thinking a lot about this across the last year, with the Fracking the Social Web stuff, and if you haven’t read Matt Locke’s terrific thinking in his Empires of Attention then do so now.)

These aren’t answers, of course, but questions.  They’re probably questions that could be answered with data, too, but consider this a formative post to start thinking about the area.


In short, is the best way to grow attention to have lots of attention in the first place?

By having a big pot of users that people will hand over money in advertising money to access, do have ready access to capital that allows you to acquire more users more quickly than if you were starting from scratch?

This could either be in the form of spinoffs (unbundling one big service in to more smaller services), or just simply buying the rapidly growing competition.  The arms race between the technological giants to buy services which will now never grow to rival them; if they continue to be successful, great, more money for the pot.  If they stagnate, shrink, or even disappear, then fine, there’s one less gunslinger in town.

In the same way that the events of the mid-twentieth disrupted Piketty’s r>g, did the internet disrupt the media only in the short term, when the previous media giants suddenly found themselves exposed to the rapid growth of competitors.  In the medium and long term, are we settling back down into the previous pattern; the only way to get significant attention is to have significant attention?  Are these media giants the ones we’re now stuck with?




Continuity vs Copying: a dialogic conversation with Martin Weigel

You might remember, dear reader, that earlier this week I told you about this dialogic experiment I was doing with Contagious?  Yes?

Well, the first response piece to my original provocation has gone up, from Martin Weigel over at W+K in Amsterdam (Martin’s blog over the last year in particular has been a constant source of sharp inspiration and beautifully put common sense).

The following stuff will make sense once you’ve read Martin’s piece, and maybe the original if you haven’t already.

I’ll wait here for you.


*whistles absent-mindedly*


Done?  Excellent, I’ll continue.

Martin and I, after writing the pieces, shared an email exchange which we think helps further arguments, areas of interest and so on.

So with Martin’s permission I’m republishing that here, for your delectation, before finishing it off with a wee doodle I’m thinking about at the moment…


On 27 Aug 2013, at 14:47, Martin Weigel wrote:

Ok… I’m handing my homework in early.

At 499 words, it’s certainly tested my ability to be concise.

The opening sentence probably sounds more snarky than I mean it to be…. Very happy to edit and be less of an asshole.

Let me know if this is what you were looking for!



On 8/27/13 8:51 PM, John V Willshire wrote:

I’ll tell you what is has made me think of, that continuity thing.  

We use various ways to help us buy things with minimum fuss.  As you say, in the grand scheme of things, brands aren’t THAT important in our lives.

Two of those ways are continuity, and copying others.  If we see other people doing it, we think ‘yeah, it’s easier to presume they have it right’.

Perhaps there might be some form of trade-off between the two.  If you can create more social impressions of people using your product/service, other people will use that as a guiding factor.

The more interesting you can be, maybe, and as long as it’s related to people using your thing (as opposed to pointless social media cupcake malarkey), the less you need continuity.

now drawing payoff curves of continuity / copying….  more later 🙂


On 28 Aug 2013, at 09:05, Martin Weigel wrote:

I’d add distribution as the either means by which buying a brand is made easy.
Moran called all this the creation of physical and mental availability.
I’d call it marketing.
Though I suspect marketing has forgotten that.

All that said, here’s an uncomfortable thought.
For some.
Particularly the self-styled rockstars.
Innovation in advertising has never been led by the thinkers.
It’s been led by creatives (or makers) jumping on technological possibilities.
Thinkers are merely apologists, and publicists.
Creatives do it because it’s new.
We help them understand why it might just be right.
Feeling a post coming along….!


On 8/28/13 11:25 PM, John V Willshire wrote:

I was thinking about the distribution thing more today.  The distribution factor might be how the curve shifts up.  I need to explain it better.  Will do soon.

On the innovation in advertising point, I’m less comfortable with the divide of thinkers & makers than I ever have been.  I think perhaps a lot of it comes down to nurture in environments; because the two different divisions of “thinking” and “making” exist in agencies, we separate the two out when sometimes we shouldn’t.  I’m a big fan of the “making is thinking” argument, working on doing things helps you discover what’s going on, what you think about them.

I hear a lot of frustration from the grads on the Google Squared programme that in agencies they’re put in a box, and not allowed to operate outside it.  They can only work to the job description, not to what’s a more innovative and compelling course of action.

Maybe innovation in advertising is led by those up to their elbows in doing things?  Not just those thinking about things.  And I can think of plenty of examples of both types on traditional creative/planning axis.



On 29 Aug 2013, at 09:49, Martin Weigel wrote:

I absolutely agree that we leant by doing.

I am also in favour of generalists.

And yet at the same time I endorse the importance (and benefits) of the division of labour.

Good agencies encourage collaboration. We’ve had planners write end lines for Nike campaigns, wrote TV spots and come up with interactive work..

But as the same time we do want people to excel at something.

I had this same discussion with Dave Trott. Who told me to look at page 150 of his book Predatory Thinking. It’s worth a read!

Good debate!



So I did draw out those payoff curves, as it happens, and they’ve been waiting on my wall for a month and a half to do something with.  Here they are:


It’s still just a rudimentary idea, and full of the usual sweeping assumptions (that’s what teaching Economics to people who went to Uni to do English encourages).  But it is this…

You could choose continuity, and the road of minimum fuss.  Concentrate all your efforts on that, being highly repetitive at low-cost.  One easy-to-sell, consistent thing.  The pay-off is pretty sizable (the black rectangle up the y-axis).

Or, you could choose a route where you’re making loads of people engage, interested, and sharing your stuff.  It’s probably phenomenally expensive, experimental, really hit and miss.  It might even require you to do lots of experimental product stuff too, rather than one homogenous thing (heaven forfend!).

I guess you’d say (if you were that way inclined) that it’s the infamous ‘earned’ media; getting people to talk about you so you don’t need to buy media.

Copying each other, buying things from brands because ‘they look popular’ in whichever social waters you swim.

Graeme pointed out the other day that branding could arguably be a simple proxy for popularity, which is important to make it easy for people to choose you.

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 22.55.32


But if you go for it (really go for it), you’ll beat everyone else to the attention of the masses, and again, the payoff is considerable (the black rectangle along the x-axis).

And that’s probably true that you could do that no matter what sort of product you have (hello, rouge bovine energy drink).

But there are only ever a few winners in this space; it’s the far end of a bell-shaped curve.  Not everyone can do the exceptional; the clue is in the name.

The danger point, however, the place where you get little payoff, is in the middle.  A halfway house.  Not committing to either route specifically well, spending too much time and energy toying badly with trying to make a social splash, and not spending enough money or attention on doing continuity well.

You get stuck on that red rectangle in the middle as a result, a far worse payoff than either of the alternatives. The chances are then that you’ll be in a slump.

And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself is not easily done


Finally in this model, perhaps distribution (being physically available) plays the most significant part; it’s how the curve shifts up.


Distribution determines under all scenarios how much you’ll sell, and it may well be that you don’t need to give a hoot about where you are on the curve if your distribution is strong and defendable enough.

(how you make that happen is a whole other story)


Anyway, there we go, some more meat on the bones of the ongoing experiment.

This might also coincide with something else I’ve been thinking of recently – The Humdrum Conundrum: whether average FMCGs are becoming SDCGs – Slowly Dying Consumer Goods – but I need to work out if there’s truly an argument here rather than just a nifty title.



Forget Tone of Voice; Find A Certain Tone of Action

I had the pleasure of speaking at the first ever Folksy Summer School a couple of weeks ago, to their burgeoning community of Designer-Makers about brands and ideas around how to talk about themselves.

The video’s just gone up here:

John V Willshire at Folksy Summer School from Folksy on Vimeo.

When writing the talk, I stumbled into a way to think about the major advantages that these brilliant, creative individuals had over established, inflexible ‘brands’, and found an interesting line of thought along thinking about not having ‘a tone of voice’, but instead demonstrating ‘a certain tone of action’.

The slides are just up here too, if you want them:




Back at the Forge

I’ve returned to the Smithery forge after a wee break which culminated in talking at the first Folksy Summer School.

Full talk (slides plus audio) to follow soon, but I’ve also been playing around with the new camera (a fantastic Panasonic Lumix LX7 – perfect for carrying around if you don’t want a full-on DSLR).  It’s for capturing a project which I’ll talk about another day.

In the meantime though, here’s some slowed down footage of the bonfire we made on the Saturday night at Folksy….

It’s like Michael Bay meets Baden Powell; slow motion footage of firey shit and that.  Thanks to Anne Hollowday for the inspiration on experimenting with it.




Are Brands Fracking The Social Web? – V2.0

I’m really enjoying talking at Squared every quarter.

Notionally it could be the same talk, but what I’m finding is that it’s a question I’m asking out loud all of this year, and so as I get a better grip on the question and its many answers, the presentation changes.  And gets better, hopefully.

I’m now wondering if it could become a presentation that regenerates like Doctor Who… hmmm.  Anyway, here’s V2:


The changes are quite significant in this iteration.  There’s a whole new back end, which is actually only a day into its life as a structure, so no doubt bears revisiting a good few times in the coming month or two.

As always, thoughts from you fine folk greatly appreciated in the comments below, as it informs the thinking wonderfully.