Fanfare For The Common Brand

I’m fresh out of presenting the below for the first time at the latest intake of Squared. For the last two years, I’ve presented various iterations of ‘Are Brands Fracking The Social Web?’, but over the last month or so, I realised that there’s something in the water around the relationship between the brand idea, the execution of it in practice, and what’s happening to the social web.

So, here we are. A first version of a new thing…

Fighting Fires or Lighting Fires?

This flew by my eyes yesterday (HT Mark Storm)

fightong vs lighting

The bit I’m most drawn to is the pithiness of definition – it’s by Kenneth Mikkelsen:

If Management is about Fighting Fires, Leadership is about Lighting Fires

It’s so easy to get drawn into fighting fires. The machinations of the organisation around us make it easier for you get involved in the urgent thing that must be solved. It sucks the time, the energy, the impetus to do anything but focus on the problem at hand.

But if you work that way, if you battle to extinguish every fire in the business, it’s probably at the moment just after you put out the last one that you realise there’s no more fires to be fought, because the company has run out of things to burn. There’s nothing left to do.

Remember to light more fires, folks.


Of course, I have a track record in natty turns of phrases involving firey metaphors. I never use that one at all anymore, but somewhat unbelievably it’s five and a half years old. Where did the time go, eh?

A Flow Guide For Field Trips

I’ve been using the Flow Engines principles a lot since late August, when it arose from the Culture Mapping blog project. It’s certainly the most developed, fully realised tool that came out of that burst of work.

Anyway, I used it last week to write a general guide for people to run field trips. I’m not going to detail out below the stuff under the bonnet, as that’d be a bit dull, but save to say it uses the three steps (Consequences, Environment, Embodiment) reinforced inside each other as before.

Why share it? Well, I love a good field trip. But I don’t think people do them enough. So I thought it’d be good to put it up here, as it might be useful to others, but also so that people can add thoughts and ideas on how to improve it.



A good field trip is something that everyone in any sort of business can get a lot from. Think of yourselves as giant, rechargeable ideas batteries; a field trip provides more good input to replace the output of looking down and typing (which, let’s be honest, we all do too much of).

A field trip doesn’t need to be planned meticulously (though you can if you wish), but you should have a plan in mind to at least give yourself something to deviate from should you need to.

This quick guide will help you write out a plan, and make sure the people you’re leading out have an interesting, useful time.

Step 1 – Getting out

When you have a location in mind to go to, don’t just say “we’re going to xxxx…”, make sure you have a short, focussed explanation in mind of what you want people to learn from going out.


“We’re going to the Science Museum, to learn more about how scientists and inventors discover new ideas.”

“We’re going to Trafalgar Square, to see what happens when you take people out of their natural environments”

To get people to come along, make an invitation that has the location and the reason clearly explained. You can just send an email, or you can be more creative if you wish. What often works well is setting up a little fiction for the trip out; let’s pretend we’re another group of people, or let’s assume that the world is different in this particular way.

Step 2 – Looking around

You don’t have to have been to the location before yourself, but it’s useful. If you haven’t, you should make it clear to the people you’re taking; “we” are going on an exploration. Invite them to be complicit in the discovery of what’s there.

But you should definitely have a good idea of what might be there, from using the internet, or intel from other people who have been.

Once you’re all there, you’re playing two roles.

Firstly, you’re scouting around, looking for the sorts of things that you suspected may be useful. If you spot things, invite others over to see, and think back to the  reason you outlined for coming in the first place in order to ask questions?


“What’s interesting about the way Watt discovered a new idea here?”

“How can we tell who are the tourists here? What are they doing that others aren’t?”

Secondly, you’re bringing up the rear, just checking around to make sure that people are happy and comfortable discovering new things for themselves. As you have different conversations with different people who’re on the field trip, try to cross-pollinate thoughts and discoveries – “oh, David was just talking about that with Gillian, you should catch up with them and talk about it”.

Step 3 – Wrapping up

Finally, at the end of the trip, make sure you have time to all sit together and discuss what you’ve all found, in relation to what you set up to explore.

Having a way to write a communal set of notes around the table is really useful; it locks in the learning of the trip, and will help people remember for future use. I usually use Artefact Cards for this, of course, but whatever you want to use is fine. It needs to be in the middle of the table between you all though, to prompt discussion.

If you go somewhere with a gift shop, for instance, you can get everyone to buy a thing that represents what you’ve learned from the trip, and get everyone to explain their object.


There you go then, hope it’s useful. As always, builds and critiques most welcome.

Interview with Beth Kolko

As part of the preparation for running the third lab of the Stirling Crucible at the University of Stirling, I spoke to Beth Kolko, Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, about an Experiment called Hackademia, which is “an attempt to infect academic pursuits with a hacker ethos and challenge non-experts to see themselves as potentially significant contributors to innovative technologies.”

It’s not just great as an example of creating new conditions for learning in an academic setting, but also offers some great inspiration for other types of organisation where there’s a need to break down the barriers of ‘expertise’. Here’s what Beth said:


Hackademia had two starting points. The first was my own personal journey as an academic who stumbled into hacker communities around 2005/06, the early days of the maker community. I did that work solely as a non-professional activity, it was what I did in my off-hours. I would think “wow, this is really interesting, it’s an alternative research community”. It was like a third place, not academic or corporate, with its own emergent social and organisational practices.

Part of my interest was that people didn’t have formal expertise or credentials. My PHD is from an English department, but I’m a professor in an Engineering department; this means that all of my technical knowledge has been gained through informal means. Essentially, I studied the internet before it had pictures, and as the technology changed I kept up.

So I was an academic within hacker communities, really interested in how non-experts were gaining technical expertise. It is uncommon for someone at my stage of career to be a novice learner. There was something quite magical about that.

The second piece of the genesis of Hackademia was an undergraduate student I was working with, who was changing her major from social work to our department in Engineering. She said she’d never really thought of herself as someone who’d major in a technological discipline, and then we started talking about gender and technical fields. I said to her “well, I don’t know what makes women, or anyone, who is non-technical feel that they can enter a technical field… but let’s figure it out”.

I advertised for a group of students as an independent study, something they could take and get extra credit for it. You didn’t have to have a technical background to apply. We bought a first generation Makerbot, and I said “We’re going to build it. I don’t know how to do this, but you guys are going to have to figure it out, and you’re going to keep track of how you learn. You will be your own object of study”.


(Hackademia class of Winter 2010 – with honorary member Bre Pettis)

So that was the first ten weeks, and I did it again, and again, and again. Every quarter for the first two years, keeping track of the failures and the successes… there were many more project/experiment failures than successes, but the programme has been very successful.

People had to learn the vocabulary of a new area. We had a room, and we had tools, and at the end of each quarter the room would be a mess. So what I would do is start each new cohort and say “we’re going to clean up, and we’re going to put things away”. It gave everyone the chance to learn the names of things, as we labelled the shelves and the bins that they would go in.

Instead of giving people the vocabulary on a list, it was a functional activity; they were creating the space that they were going to work in so that they would have ownership of that space. The conversation around the activity emerges to introduce vocabulary, which is really important; if you don’t even know the name of something, you can’t go and look it up online.

There was then a series of activities that were designed for success, but also to make people curious. I would always start people out with making an LED blink, by writing a few lines of Arduino code. Then you learn about copying; you can copy other peoples’ code, then refine it yourself. Usually there would be people who knew how to do that, and they would show people who didn’t know how to do it, which showed co-operative learning. Then they moved on to gradually more sophisticated tasks, then they’d finally do their own task.

I’d make them go off-campus, and see what was available in the real world, activities that took them outside their momentary learning community. Everything we did also leveraged online resources. I didn’t teach them anything; I wanted them to get into the habit of navigating the knowledge universe.

We created some data collection sheets, and started a blog about the technical aspects, they wrote reflective autoethnographies of their learning process; we produced a lot of documents. We then did exit interviews at the end of each quarter, with retrospectives of peoples’ experiences. Eventually, we’d put on our academic hats and analyse the data available to us (the autoethnographies, individual journals, and a bunch of other artefacts) and extracted six dimensions of technical learning, around which the Hackademia curriculum is built:

Identity, Motivation, Self-efficacy, Social Capital, Material Technical Practice, and Conception.

They’re built on top of what we know about informal science learning, but tweaked for engineers.

In the university community, we value expertise, and that is the death knell of innovation. If you really want interdisciplinary, transformative inquiry, professors like myself who are ‘experts’ have to learn to talk to people who have different expertise, and overlap these vocabularies and come to some sort of shared understanding.


Thanks to Beth for kindly taking the time to share the Hackdemia experiences with me. You can read more on the Hackademia blog over here, or read the full Hackademia paper that Beth and the team produced for the Participatory Design 2012 conference.

Interview with Nell Haynes

As part of the preparation for running the third lab of the Stirling Crucible at the University of Stirling, I spoke to Dr Nell Haynes, one of the team who’s working on the Global Social Media Impact Study, about their approach to recording and sharing the project as they go. It’s very interesting specifically in terms of open academic research projects, but also more broadly in terms of how open working might apply to other types of organisation too. Here’s what Nell said…

nell haynes profile

It’s certainly the intention that this project is more open and visible; we’ve been doing the blog for about two years, which gets a fair number of hits, but there’s only really one post that got ‘picked up’. The idea is that it’s not just for an academic audience, or for an english-speaking audience, but it’s a global project that everybody should be able to learn from it.

We’re currently all writing a book about each field site [the locations around the world where each of the team is researching], but the idea is that they’re quite short and accessible; the ultimate goal is to have everything translated into eight languages (possibly more), everything open access, a final website with videos, photographs and all of the documents, and whatever else we come up with along the way.

My previous work had nothing to do with social media or technology, but I do think that in an anthropologically foundational way, social media is important to humanity, so it’s easy to get excited about those aspects of the project.

I finished my PHD in 2013, having started the research for that in 2011, and one of my Professors has had a blog for years and years, for as long as blogging has existed really. But she’s the one who encouraged me to blog, to put field notes, to put random thoughts on that. I’m not sure I’m the most effective blogger, but I’ve at least been trying it for a while. I think it’s helpful to the process for me because if I even just write a little description of what I did that day, I can go back in and slip that into the project later as it’s already in language that’s accessible. And if I need to make it sound more academic-y, then I can stick stuff in there. I try to make my writing interesting, rather than theoretically dense.

In terms of collaboration, when we were still in the field sites, every month we would write a 5,000 word report, and send it out and read everyone else’s. It was helpful to make yourself write something every month but also read other perspectives.

It was good for generating ideas of methodological things, or connections to think about. The man who is working in China talked a lot about Chinese spiritual beliefs, and how that’s connected to morality and social media, and that forced me to think about these things in context of the work I was doing in Chile.

Chinese family watch television on computer

(Photos from the GSMIS Flickr group)

I was actually the last person on the programme – they applied for a grant for eight people, and then a Chilean University got a separate grant and I started later. They’d had several months of planning here, and had been on field sites for four or five months. So I had to play catch up, but they had already collaboratively made a methodology plan, surveys already. I had to catch up, but I also had a lot of resources that were handed to me to help.

For me, this approach is very different from any other anthropology project I’ve encountered. I think it is a new thing that’s gaining a little bit of traction and respect. I did the US academic system, and as far as I know I’ve never seen anything as collaborative. And certainly there are senior researchers who write blogs in partnership, but usually they go to the same place to do it. In terms of having nine different field sites, I’m not aware of anything else like it.

We have a central blog, a Flickr, a Facebook and a Twitter, technically we have a Pinterest (but I don’t think anyone’s ever done anything with it). But the blog has definitely been the central piece to it, and the website has a lot of descriptions of the project and little bios of everyone working on it, but most of the traffic comes in through the blog. There are certain posts that get a lot of comments, but in generally speaking it’s about one a week.

There have been several people who have said “I’m really interested in the project, is there any way I can help?”. So we have various people translating things into different languages, and some people helping out with some social media stuff. There are some film-makers who’re not academic film makers, and there are some masters students too. It’s either educated professionals or academics, we’ve been fairly visible amongst the academic community. There’s not a lot of interest from the people in the field sites. Part of that is there are only a few posts translated.

Danny Miller wrote a blog post, and in it used the phrase “dead and buried”; I think what he actually said was “for teens, in this small English Town, Facebook may as well be dead and buried”.

The title of the post was then reworded slightly [“Facebook is dead amongst teens]”, and that’s what got picked up. It prompted everyone to go back to the blog post, but not necessarily paying attention to the exact wording of the blog post. [The headline of the post in question was picked up by several national and international news organisations].

It was what prompted us to put a disclaimer on the top of blog, “this is still in process, these are initial insights, not to be taken as forecasts”. We had a lot of discussions in December (2013) after it happened, and a US academic wrote this critique saying that ‘anthropologists shouldn’t be in the business of making predictions’, when actually we weren’t.

So it created some tension there, but we discussed it a lot, and vetted the blogs a little more, and making sure there was nothing scandalous. I don’t think it’s changed what we blog though. There’s been an increasing awareness though about making sure that if we are going to make some sort of bigger claim, we have some more data included.

For me, and the way I blog, it always starts with a story. I just sit down and write it, and whilst I’m writing it. I feel it should be something good, and have a point. I edit it a lot, it tends to be much longer the first time I write it. Part of it is figuring out what your style is, and how you like to write, and not putting too much pressure on yourself.

Readability is important. I have an audience in mind, for the most part; my sister, she’s an artist who lives in Madrid, she’s nothing to do with academia, so I send her things and she’s like “I have no idea what this word means, what do you mean by this sentence…”. She’s my imaginary audience because she’s a really smart person, but not at all in an academic sense, or not at all part of the academy. So if I say something pointless or dumb, she’ll say “don’t say that”.

There’s a tendency to try to fit in; you have to use this particular big word to try to fit in with a crowd of people who’re particularly into a specific topic. It’s almost like a rite of passage, a social norm. You have to perform this academic identity in order to be accepted, or even just feel like you’re part of it. And I think for some people, it becomes a kind of crutch. But at the same time, to be published in prestigious academic journals, you have to play that game.



Thanks to Nell for her generousity of both time and openness. Follow the Global Social Media Impact Study here, and if you’re interested, a good further read on the implications of the reaction to the Facebook post is this piece by Peter Spear, “Qualitative Illiteracy and the One-Eyed Business“.

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:




Maeda’s Leadership Map

Just stumbled across this – a map that’s probably based on the same software platform as Tuneglue, called ‘powershop’ apparently – in John Maeda’s TED talk on Leadership from last year:

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 22.20.48


He talks about the importance in Leadership in finding connections between two things (and specifically groups, people and the like) which aren’t immediately obvious.  It’s worth watching the whole thing to see the full explanation:

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.