The Parasite As Host?

I has a DM from Lee at the weekend, after we’d caught up last week for the first time in ages: “…loved your comment re Monzo as an incumbent – smart, in an ‘of course’ way. Might make a nice blog* post…”. So here it is.

I’d mentioned the poster and campaign below, and the weirdness of seeing new financial startups treat Monzo as an incumbent.

Yes, Monzo now have over a million users. Yes, they’re prepping for a US launch. Yes, they’ve raised £85 million to help fund new product development.

But are they the banking incumbent? No, not really.

Perhaps, though, they’re now the incumbent service for a thin layer of people who want banking no thicker than the thin glass layer atop a smartphone, a business that skips along the top edge of the pace layers, feeding on a deeper system below.

They feed off the slower moving layers below to survive; yes, the parasite metaphor has a metallic tang in the mouth, and probably doesn’t reflect intentions, but as a description of how they’ve captured the mobilista section that the market without really contributing to the lower layers is arguably accurate.

And now, we see the emergence of others who try to thrive in the whole they’ve burrowed in the host organism. One question emerges though about the campaign; who is it for?

It’s surely not for people with a Monzo card already, as getting people to switch bank accounts remains notoriously hard work, so why go after a small subset of a market. Viola Black is not going to feed off Monzo in the way that Monzo feeds off the wider system.

And it surely can’t be for those on the verge of making a decision to switch to Monzo, as any quick search on comparisons of the two would bring back unfavourable results for Viola Black; it is just a pre-pay credit card, as Monzo used to be.

It’s perhaps more likely that it is just a market statement, for current investors and potential future ones; ‘look, we’re in this market, associate us with these other players’.

In startup land, you don’t need to live off a real user base, sometimes the fumes of hype will provide enough sustenance for months or years. It’s like vaping success.


*It’s 2019, so let’s try more blogging, as per this:

Short fast blogging, rather than having an existential crisis when trying to fashion a passable Medium post. Why is it every Medium post ends up as a Large?

Why Making Things People Want beats Making People Want Things – #adtech_london

My slides from the talk from earlier today at Ad:tech 2013 in London:



It links back to some of the questions raised in the written piece from a couple of weeks ago.  It’s nearly two years since I stumbled across the phrase as a galvanising idea for the work I do with clients and agencies here at Smithery, so it’s been great to reinterrogate the notion slighty in the context of some other things.  As always, a smattering of economics and maker culture infuses it all.


How Our Work Might Work – my talk from Silicon Beach


That nice Dave Birss grabbed me before my talk, for a wee interview.  Though it would fit well here – covers basic ideas of the talks, making things, the new Artefact Boxes, and the Oxford Saïd Business School project…


A talk I gave at Silicon Beach 2013 in Bournemouth, about how the way in which brands, agencies and makers all might think about how they create the marketing for what it is they do.  Thanks to everyone down there for the brilliant reception, and especially Matt Desmier for inviting me.

Are Brands Fracking The Social Web? [ My talk from Squared ]

I’m not long out of giving a new talk this morning for the first time, at Squared in London to the bright young things who’re just starting out on a six week intensive learning experience.  It’s always a privilege to talk to the future leaders of an industry, and today was certainly no exception.  Find out more about Squared here.



I was nervous beforehand, given that so much of it was new thinking, and the rest was a different look at some older things I’ve written and talked about.  It seemed to go well though, and it started a good debate (which could have gone on longer, so I should try and shut up sooner next time perhaps).

More than ever, there’s a lot lost in just having slides here, rather than the full “sound & vision” experience.  But would love to know what you all think, as ever.

Thanks to Sarah & Jen for the invitation to talk, all the mystery folks who kept recommending me to them for a ‘talk on the social web’, and to Mark Earls for kindly giving it a quick sense check last night at some ungodly hour.

And finally, thanks to everyone who adds to the dialogic conversation around this stuff, by blogging, writing, sharing and chatting about it.  It makes putting the talks together so very interesting and enjoyable.




The next era of cigarette branding


There is something grimly fascinating about the creation of electronic cigarette products & brands. They seem to veer from the ‘make it look like a cigarette as much as possible’, to the ‘what would they smoke in Tron?’ brigade.

2013 Projects: From Making to Media


Yes, I know.  It’s a bit slipshod to be writing a “2013 Projects” post when a 1/12th of the year has gone already.  But hey, you know, there’s been stuff on.  The good news is that I’ve started doing some of the things already, so I haven’t lost all that time.

NB: If there’s a balance to be struck, it’s probably to lean more towards doing things rather than writing about them.

Firstly, let’s consider the bigger theme.

Last year’s projects were all about MAKING, in a mostly explicit ‘tinkering with atoms which surf in and around the pixels’.

And whilst I’m not going to stop making things, it feels these annual studio projects should have a different slant every year.

Plus, I get the sense you’ll all be bombarded with stuff about making projects about physical stuff  from folk this year, so I shall refrain from adding too much to the cacophony.

Instead, I’d like to concentrate on MEDIA.

Which, given my background at PHD that might seem, well, predictable.

But I now feel I’ve spent long enough away from a media agency to objectively examine media in its very broadest sense.  As I talked about in the Hollow Factory talk in Paris at the end of last year, we need new metaphors for media.


The metaphors I’m most drawn to are these; they’re the ones that over the last few years have stuck with me the most, and hang together as a threesome too:

Media is the Connective Tissue of Society” – Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, 2010



Media is a vehicle for knowledge” – Cesar Hidalgo, MIT Media Lab, 2011 (?)

(I think I got this via a talk Graeme circulated and may have been at… I can’t find it referenced anywhere else, though)

cesar hidalgo


Now, nothing is all-digital any more than it’s all-physical.  Media is hybrid, just like buildings, devices, spaces, events etc.  Dan Hill, 2012

dan hill


Media at its broadest is everything that connects us with others, that carries knowledge back and forth, and has transcended that initial, reactionary digital / physical division…

…yes, it’s a work in progress, but it’ll do for a fast, functional definition of what media might be in 2013.

Which is important, because the Labour Theory of Brand Value philosophy (which I’m developing further this year) demands that you demonstrate every single last piece of work that you and your company puts in to a product or service…


You’ve got to consider every piece of media possible as part of the perception of your company, not just the top ten statements that come out in research, or where you decide to spend the vast majority of your media budget.  Which means going far beyond the old comms planning thing of “oh, we could use packaging too”…

If anything, a brand nowadays is like a BitTorrent file of a film; it’s a complex, granular entity which is pulled together from a million different locations, without any one of which, no matter how small, the film is incomplete and won’t work properly.

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 08.11.58


The media grains of the BitTorrent brand of course include every single last tweet, Facebook comment, check-in and so on.  And remember, it’s not just the stuff you can see, it’s the stuff you can’t, because it’s not public (email, for instance, and anything else which people started calling ‘dark social‘), or because it’s just not happening somewhere that it’s captured digitally (hello, word of mouth)…


…I’m just going to stop that there, and get back to the actual projects… more on all the Labour Theory of Brand Value and BitTorrent Brands and the like another day…


So, what are the three media projects?

Well, there’s an audio one, a video one, and a platform one.

A few things over the last month or two have made me think that there’s a sea-change in the way people make and share stuff, which will change the makeup of the brand BitTorrent.

Previously, to be good at sharing things on the Internet, it was about writing and images.  Anyone can type into a blank box, and as more and more photo apps emerged, everyone began to see that they could take and share good pictures (not great, just good enough).

But as device storage gets bigger, broadband, wi-fi and mobile signal gets faster, and the costs gets lower, the capacity is there for more rich-forms of media to be shared with increasing regularity.

So I’ve been wondering if there’s going to be a new phase in the creation of audio & video by  people who’ve been taught that media doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be up.  You can worry about making it great later.

An example of this is, of course Instagram in relation to Flickr.  The quote I always come back to is the one I read in this post by Dan Catt last year, which is originally from Aaron:

“We did a lot of stuff wrong during my time at Flickr but if I had to highlight one thing we fucked up it was somehow creating an environment where people started to believe that their photos were not good enough for Flickr. I mean, really, how did we ever let that happen?”

Flickr used to feel like a place for ‘proper’ photos.  So if you didn’t take proper photos, why would you use Flickr?

Instagram came along, and that wasn’t for ‘proper’ photos.  In part, it felt like cheating, but a kind of cheating that was ok because everyone was doing it.  And in part, it was pretty hard not to share photos with Instagram once it was on your phone, because of the wonderful experience facilitated by what I’d argue was the first amazing social sharing app for mobile.  It just worked.

Now, as more and more things likes Vine emerge, Flickr then is YouTube now (and most certainly Vimeo, the home of artfully prestige videos).

The vast majority of people don’t shoot videos and upload them to YouTube, despite carrying the tools to do so everywhere they go, because there’s nowhere to hide behind in unedited, raw footage.  There’s no way to cheat.

Yet as start-ups and app developers turn their attention to different forms of sharable media (because that’s what brings users, and users are what brings attention, suitors and dollars), there will be increasingly more ingenious ways to cheat audio & video forms.



…sorry, yes, I  know I’m off at another tangent… what the FUCK are these three projects then..?


To the point; an audio project, a video project, and a platform project.


1.  The Sound of Smithery

Christian Payne, AKA Documentally, introduced me to Audioboo at the end of last year.  It’s been around for EVER of course(since 2009, that is).  In short, it gives you a platform on which to record and upload audio through your smartphone (or whatever device, of course, but I’m focussed on using the phone), and then curate in a variety of different ways.

I want to try it for a fast form of blogging; either initial ideas that seem too informal to write properly about (yet), but that I want to capture, or in-the-moment pieces (at conferences and the like) where a fast turnaround piece might be useful.

Here’s the first week’s worth of stuff.  I am slowly getting into it, but enjoying the challenges.  My audioboo profile is here, and there’s an iTunes link is here.


WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) Sound recording has always fascinated me, from being in Gamages Model Train Club and the like, and I’m curious to find out if making media in this way is something that’s pretty niche (making, listening, sharing), or if it has broader possibilities for people and companies.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) Do a weekly “podcast” thing here on the blog, as a post, and see what people think, if people listen, and what they do as a result.


2. View From The Desk

Video is becoming increasingly important in all sorts of ways for companies, but rather than learn about it top down, I thought it’d be better to start bottom up.

My son is fascinated by Youtube, and more specifically unboxings.  He’s only three, but he’s clearly developing that geek gene already.  But he’d rather watch people talking about stuff, how it works, and how good or bad it is.  Especially when it’s other kids:

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about doing videos for a while; I was in Oslo in 2011 and a nice guy called Chris Brogan kept telling me that I should, I think largely because I have a Scottish accent. I couldn’t work out a way that I wanted to do it though.  Until I saw this:

Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 10.07.07

It’s an instructables project, where you can build your own webcam on a lampstand.  I used it to shoot this test video (but that’s all so far).

So the plan is to now use it to shoot and share more videos, and tell stories on the desk, as if we were doing it over coffee. My gut feeling is that it will be a bit more work to prep than the audio, but maybe less than writing long blog posts (like, you know, this one?)

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) Because if I shoot more videos, and get into it, I’ll start to build up a better understanding of how small , inexpensive videos might be used in the future with the same regularity as written content and images might be now.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) One video a week.  Starting this week.  With some time off for holidays and the like, let’s call it forty videos this year.


3. Capturing the BitTorrent for Artefact Cards

Lastly, a really ill-defined project.  The Artefact Cards project in particular is growing into a really interesting platform and community, but the two things I’ve learned about them come down to this:

i) People really only understand them when they use them for the first time

ii) People get better at using them when they see other people using them

And seeing both people using them, and talking about using them, is really helping me understand more about the cards themselves, but more broadly about how people work best in the modern ‘workshop’ (a wee nod to Sennett there).

In short, I started out looking at Artefact Cards through the lens of the work I do.

lens 1

But now, quite by accident, I’ve found I’m looking at the big themes in modern working practices through the lens of the Artefact Cards…

lens 2


So I’d like to have a proper infrastructure in place to capture all of the things that happen around the cards (as much as possible), and help people put in and take out from the communal knowledge base.  It might be wikis, apps, YouTube channels, whatever… I don’t yet know yet.  It’s the engines that help power all the granular media around though.

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) Because introducing people to a new way of working, then leaving them on their own to figure it out seems, well, a bit on a 20th Century way to do things.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal)  I have absolutely no idea… let’s call it “three ways in which people can put in and take out from the communal pot”.  That’s super-woolly, innit?


So there we go, folks.  Here’s to 2013 (or at least, what’s left of it… if you’ve finished reading this, it’s probably March already…)

I’ll have what @herdmeister’s having

This evening, I’m tearing through the latest book from Mark Earls (aka @herdmeister), “I’ll Have What She’s Having” (which he co-authored with Alex Bentley and Michael J O’Brien).


It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, and contains some really useful, practical structures around using data around a business to understand what sort of market you’re in; is it one where people truly decide autonomously based on precise information, or really are they simply copying others because nobody really knows the difference between products.

One paragraph in particular grabbed my attention, probably because of the idea amnesia and adverspectacular posts I wrote recently.

“…everyone else is also trying to spread his or her ideas the same way.  It’s like shouting across Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  Most of our attempts to spread our ideas or to generate attention for them fail because , as Charles Darwin realised upon reading Thomas Malthus’s essay on population and food supplies, there is only limited space for success.  Hindsight is 20/20, so we look back, trying to emulate past successes that no one predicted beforehand, no matter how lucky or complex or timely those past successes were…”

We’re all copying machines, as Mark says.  Especially when we can see what everyone else is doing.  So we copy what we can see them doing, because, hey, it can’t be wrong.

But actually, given space is rapidly filled up by “me-too” activity (eg – everyone has a Facebook page, and is demanding time and love from a limited pool of users), any previously successful tactic or strategy will be a lot less likely to work again.

And what’s more, it’ll be really hard and frustrating for people to work out why, because of the complexity around the mutating network, increased activity, cultural shifts and so on.

So, ironically, understanding more about how people copy each other in making decisions might make you less inclined to look for success in spreading messages and stories by copying someone else’s marketing ideas.

Anyway, no doubt you’ve already got a copy of IHWSH, but if not, treat yourself here.  You won’t be disappointed.

More Perfect Competition evidence from latest Mary Meeker roundup

The latest Mary Meeker goldmine of stats is out, which you can flick through here on Business Insider.  (HT @graemewood).

One chart in particular grabbed my attention:



It reminded me of the Perfect Competition stuff I wrote on feeding the puppy about two years back:

“The advances we are making are pushing us further towards ‘perfect competition’, which is increasingly making it hard for companies (especially retail ones) to generate the profits they used to.”

(full post here)

Perfect Competition has several key market characteristics that bring it about:

  • Infinite Buyers/Infinite Sellers – Infinite consumers with
    the willingness and ability to buy the product at a certain price,
    Infinite producers with the willingness and ability to supply the
    product at a certain price.
  • Zero Entry/Exit Barriers – It is relatively easy to enter or exit as a business in a perfectly competitive market.
  • Perfect Information – Prices and quality of products are assumed to be known to all consumers and producers.
  • Transactions are Costless – Buyers and sellers incur no costs in making an exchange.
  • Homogeneous Products – The characteristics of any given market good or service do not vary across suppliers.

In the retail space, the rise of the smartphone is rapidly bringing about a situation where perfect information is available about price & quality of goods in the retail environment…

So although smartphones alone will not bring about classic theoretical perfect competition (where no company is able to make any profit, just enough to keep them going…), it makes it a damn site harder to make decent profits.

So if you’re a retailer facing this problem, what might you do about it?

Play on the other factors, perhaps, and move them to your advantage.  Which strays into behavioural economics, which as always is no bad thing, but it naturally strays into some quite Machiavellian ideas, it seems… (five days being exposed to the cash-rinsing exercise that is Vegas was proof of that).

To wit; three mildly evil ideas for shop owners…

Decrease the feeling of “infinite sellers”

If you’ve got a shelf full of products, people are more likely to think “well, they’re still going to be selling them in half an hour, I can shop around”.  Keep just two of any product on a shelf, and as soon as one goes through a till, have backroom staff replace it when the customer has left.

Create some Exit Barriers

As people enter the store, hand them a voucher for free home delivery/5% off/free fitting (whatever is relevant) that only lasts 30 minutes, and states ‘only one voucher per customer per day’.  Suddenly if they walk across town to another store, the thirty minutes will have lapsed…

Only trade in limited editions

Homogeneity is your enemy; if your competitor offers the same product, here’s nothing to stop people shopping around.  So do whatever you can to make your products unique, individual, and only available on your floor.  Free gifts, special designs, signed editions… what’s the thing you’re offering that’s stopping the customer walking?


There’s lots more you can think about, of course, but the list of five perfect competition characteristics is a good place to start looking for inspiration.

If you’re mildly evil, that is.

The X Factor, Adverspectaculars, and lessons from Dr Seuss

It’s that season again… reality TV dominates the autumn schedule, as nights close in and people huddle round the warming glow of that screen in the corner.  And this year more than ever, the advertising world goes mad for the only reliable ‘Event TV’ spot left.

(It’s worth bearing in mind that before the internet came along, ‘Event TV’ was just called ‘Tuesday night’.  Or Wednesday, or whatever day.  Every night was Event TV night.)

Anyway, I don’t watch the champion of ‘Event TV’, The X Factor, for many reasons (probably good and bad).

But I do watch twitter whilst it’s on.  And, because of the company I keep in twitterland, I see a lot of tweets about the ads in between the acts.

Now, of course last night it was #yogurtwars in X Factor slots, and ergo my Twitter stream…

…and there was an Activia one with Tiffany from Eastenders too, apparently, but I’ll spare you that.  Basically because I can’t find it.

Now, clearly Britain’s being invaded by yogurt stormtroopers intent on spreading all sorts of new types of counter-cultures.

And I, for one, welcome our new yogurty overlords.

But, on a slightly more thoughtful note, I think it’s part of a slightly worrying, one-dimensional train-of-thought in agency land; the push for the ADVERSPECTACULAR, the greatest song and dance show it’s possible to put on in thirty seconds.

(Although better in sixty.  Though, actually, it only really works as a ninety…)

You can understand exactly why… because when they work, they really work.  Without dipping into exactly why and how you measure it, we can all point to the adverspecatular successes of the last few years (Sony Balls, Cadbury Gorilla, Nike Write The Future, etc etc), which did everything from galvanise supply chains and sales people to customers and marketing circles (to the best of our knowledge).

But it seems to be the driving force behind a lot of campaigns nowadays, and there’s perhaps too much gravity pulling people to the marketing model that says ‘make an adverspectacular, debut it on The X Factor, monitor social buzz…’

So what’s going on?

Mel Exon at BBH, behind the Yeo Valley ads, gave (and subsequently shared here) a brilliant presentation on the future of agency models at the last Google Firestarters evening (there’s two more excellent presentations from James Caig of MEC and Martin Bailie of Glue too).

Mel points out:

“At its simplest… ALL marketing – not just the rare handful of brands that regularly win awards – needs to be *genuinely* useful or entertaining.  If  not, marketing will become that thing that marketers and agencies fear the most: unseen and unheard.”

Which reminded me of something Ed Cotton posted about three years ago, off the back of an Emily Bell column – I borrowed it at the time, and it feels right to revisit it now.

It was rooted in what technologists are motivated by; entertaining people, being useful, educating them, or connecting them together.  Ed proposed that it was also a good model for working out what your brand should do:

I would propose that marketers and their agencies default to “entertain” far too readily.

There is nothing new or innovative in making an entertaining ad and putting it in a high rating TV slot.  That’s been modus operandi for years.  Of course, the infrastructure that can be placed around the spot is the interesting bit for me, and a lot of people are doing that really well, I think (e.g. getting the Yeo Valley song up on iTunes on launch night is simple, but really smart).

But conceptually, for a client, “make a really entertaining ad” is a pretty easy step to move to.  And it is something an agency feels utterly happy to execute, because they’ve got loads of people already who can do that.  It’s a brave decision that’s actually pretty safe to make.

The other three categories aren’t so straightforward.

Usefulness is more interesting, and difficult.  It unlocks a lot of the things around mobile, apps, service improvements that only a very few agencies genuinely get off the ground for clients.  The timescales on it are not campaign timescales either, whether you’re talking about development or measuring effects.

Education is again harder, trickier; how to impart knowledge, skills and ability to a group of people, leaving their lives better and more fulfilled, in a way that still satisfies the demands of marketing.

“Connecting people” I always think of the equivalent of running a party, booking a venue, paying for the food… but then just letting the guests get on with it.  They’re interested in each other, not in you, necessarily.
So of the four, you can see why Entertain is so appealing.  The other three are hard to define, extract value from, measure against the short-term effectiveness of “entertain”.

Howevre, I’ve been wondering… in so readily defaulting to “entertain”, are marketers and agencies are building up problems for the future?

Maybe a brand can only go so far down “entertain” before expectations (their own, and that of their audience) become unreasonable?  And at a macro-level, if EVERY brand starts playing the “entertain” game, does that universally dull the effect?

Every time, the joke has to be pushed THAT MUCH FURTHER… bigger, longer, more CGI, more preposterous, more inspiring…

It’s the problem The Cat In The Hat faced when playing “Up-up-up with a fish”…

“Look at me!
Look at me now!” said the cat.
“With a cup and a cake
On the top of my hat!
I can hold up TWO books!
I can hold up the fish!
And a little toy ship!
And some milk on a dish!
And look!
I can hop up and down on the ball!
But that is not all!
Oh, no.
That is not all…

“Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me NOW!
It is fun to have fun
But you have to know how.
I can hold up the cup
And the milk and the cake!
I can hold up these books!
And the fish on a rake!
I can hold the toy ship
And a little toy man!
And look! With my tail
I can hold a red fan!
I can fan with the fan
As I hop on the ball!
But that is not all.
Oh, no.
That is not all….”

That is what the cat said…
Then he fell on his head!
He came down with a bump
From up there on the ball.
And Sally and I,
We saw ALL the things fall!

The current state of the market means people will keep adding more bells, more whistles.  Because they have to, to look better than the rest.  Is this sustainable, though?  I wonder what happens if, or when, the ADVERSPECTACULAR model for advertising falls..?


The Blacksmith and The Economist

I’d like to start, as one does, with The Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century.

(no, don’t worry, not all of it… just a bit)

The Scottish Enlightenment was an 18th Century intellectual movement, ranging across the fields of philosophy, chemistry, geology, architecture, poetry, engineering, technology, economics, sociology, medicine and history.

The ideas and advances that stemmed from The Scottish Enlightenment helped forge the world as we know it today.

Central to the Enlightenment was what David Hume (philosopher, historian, economist and essayist) called the development of a ‘science of man’.

This merged a scientific study of how humans behave in ancient and primitive cultures with a strong awareness of the determining forces of modernity

Which to us, who’ve been at the heart of an industry savaged by the forces of modernity, surely sounds like something we should undertake. More than ever, we cannot use the beliefs and tools of the immediate past to frame where our future lies.

The opportunity currently described as ‘social media’ shows our desperation perhaps to frame things in familiar, comfortable terms. But it is about far more than another media buy, or channel to be plumbed into the marketing mix.

It is more than new and improved tools, it is more than better measurement and specific targeting.

It is about being human. It is about being part of communities. It is about helping our clients learn to be people again, not brands.

To understand this properly, we have to study how older cultures and businesses worked, the ones that existed before mass media.

Then we must frame this learning what we know about modern technological capabilities. In short, we need our own ‘Enlightenment’. We need our own new ‘science of man’.

So why hasn’t it happened already?


To help answer this, I’d like to focus on a key protagonist of the Scottish Enlightenment in particular…

Author of the Wealth of Nations, creator of ‘the invisible hand’ of market forces, Adam Smith.

Smith is considered the father of modern economic thought; his ideas helped powered the the industrial revolution at the time, and without doubt still have a huge bearing on how companies are run today.

What is of particular interest to us, a service industry, is what Smith says in book one of the Wealth of Nations, ‘The Division of Labour’.

The division of labour is a simple yet brilliant description of how to increase the productivity of a business using the same finite resources.

Smith observed that by turning each stage of a business into simple, repetitive tasks, with work being passed along a production line, a factory can produce with maximum efficiency.

For a while, the agency model was a factory in all but name.

We had clear and defined roles, and performed relatively simple repetitive tasks.

The advertising agency would make 30 seconds of film, the media agency would place it, the PR agency would gain extra coverage in the ten or so national papers…

…it was a well oiled, efficient machine.

So what happened?

Smith identified three key features which let the division of labour work; dexterity, time and technology.

Firstly, dexterity referred to the repetitive, simple nature of the work any man or woman would undertake.

If you do the same, simple thing again and again, you become better at it, and quicker at it. Your core craft skills improved, and quickly.

In agencies, whereas once we used to undertake relatively straightforward tasks which we repeated and improved, nowadays every piece of work brings new considerations, untried avenues, experimental opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong; We should always, always try to innovate and improve the things we do.

But everyone must recognise that by trying new things, we lose dexterity; it is hard to be dexterous and accomplished at something you’ve never done before.

The second of Smith’s three things is time. In his example, it was specifically the time it took to pass one phase of the work along to another.

By batch working, it’s better to pass 10,000 items once than pass an item 10,000 times.

Now, the way we used to pass work along in the agency model was very clean, very efficient. Everyone knew their place, performed their roles with the utmost efficiency.

But not now. And not just because every agency is trying to be ‘lead’ or take their place ‘at the top table’.

If you were to divide agencies up into separate entities based on today’s landscape, you wouldn’t see what we have now. The reason that everyone says “social media is our area” is because everyone’s right, it is.

So the clean lines of division are gone, and at best there’s confusion about who does what, and in the worst cases it’s open warfare. In each case, it slows the process down. But even within the walls of a single agency, passing work between departments has slowed.

Ideas are more complex, harder to define and describe, easier to get lost down the wrong track on. The simplicity with which work used to be passed through an agency has also disappeared. In an age characterised by speed, it takes us much longer to get things done.

Finally, Smith’s third essential ingredient for the division of labour to function properly; technology.

Now, we are hardly short of new technology. But Smith was referring to technology that would clearly and precisely help the factory function better.

It could come from the improvements made by the workers themselves; if you’ve ever been in a factory, you’ll have seen the cardboard and strings adjustments made by the workers who realise how to make the machine work better.

Or it could be the original designer of the machine, who on seeing Mark 1 in action will redesign Mark 2 with some extra technological advances.

Or, it may be that the people whom Smith calls “Men of Speculation” (“…whose job it is to do nothing, but observe everything…”) would come along, look at the factory in harness, and spot ways in which technology could improve the process.

Currently, given the marketing model used by clients and the agencies is largely unchanged, technology is not helping improve the process, but confound it.

Each additional piece of technology seemingly serves to confuse further, rather than increase effectiveness.


What does all this mean?

Well, in a highly competitive industry, where agencies repeatedly try and shave costs from the process, and increase the effectiveness of their factories, the key principles of the division of labour have stopped working nearly as well.

One solution, and one that some clients may find appealing, is to cleanly delineate who does what again; to reset the boundaries, and as much as possible create a pure division of labour.

And there’s perhaps something to be said for it; it may not get you the most groundbreaking work, but it will increase the speed with which it happens.

However… there’s got to be a better way, surely.

Well, here’s the thing… Smith stated that the Division of Labour did NOT work for every industry.

Take this passage…

“The nature of agriculture does not admit of so many subdivisions of labour, nor of so complete a separation of one business from another.”


Which is interesting, because more than ever, it’s harder to draw a complete separation between different parts of the agency world. Smiths continues…

“The ploughman, the harrower, the sower of the seed and the reaper of the corn are often the same. The occasions for those different sorts of labour returning with the different seasons of the year, it is impossible that one man should be constantly employed in any one of them.”

More and more, teams need to be able to follow an idea from beginning to end, rather than just play their one, single, repetitive part and drop out. Finally, Smith says:

“Country workmen are almost everywhere obliged to pay themselves to all the different branches of industry that have so much affinity to one another as to be employed about the same sort of materials”

We are all increasingly “employed about the same sorts of materials”, perhaps that is the truest part of all. The division of labour has fallen foul of the dissolution of boundaries, but that’s because the very nature of the work has changed, because the materials are all the same.

Now think about the language we use to describe the work we do… we nurture ideas, grow communities, seed campaigns, develop relationships…

…because of the very human and organic work we are now doing, we are becoming increasingly agricultural in our approach.

People from all agency backgrounds are “employed about the same sort of materials” nowadays.

The notion of the “materials” we work with is even more interesting than the ‘agricultural’ idea, though.

I believe we can actually take inspiration from another figure of Smith’s time…

…the one man in the community who would create whatever was need by the community from the raw materials of that age; the blacksmith.

The blacksmith lived and worked at the heart of every village.

He would be the provider of vital technology for the village; toolmaker, engineer, armourer, bladesmith, chainmaker, nailmaker, rivetmaker. He would help travellers get where they wanted to go; mend carts and wagons, make wheels and shoe horses, and invent countless designs of horse-drawn gear.

He would even be the horse dealer, vet, dentist, doctor… or undertaker. As his job demanded sharp intellect, numeracy skills and business sense, he would often hold important offices in the village, such as magistrate or church warden. He’d be the person to bring new technologies to the village… more often than not, most village garages were the old Blacksmith forge.

And on a practical level, a smith knew how to keep a fire going all year round, so much so that the community would rely on the smithy’s fire to roast meat and bake bread. The smith was creator and keeper of the fire at the heart of a community.

In short, the blacksmith was the original generalist, a man who would turn his hand and head to any task the community would ask of him.

Through an innate understanding of the raw materials of the age, he would innovate and forge as required. Each task a unique and specific request, a new problem looking for an effective and speedy new solution. This approach would only serve to develop his skills further with every job.

To me, it feels like we have entered a new age of smithery. But the raw materials of our age are not iron and fire, but materials like technology, connectivity, and generosity…

We must approach the modern world as the smithy would; with flexibility of thought and versatility of action.

We must once more embrace each problem we encounter for what it is, not what we wish it to resemble from our experience.

Only like this can we forge and reshape the world to meet our new expectations of it.

Can agencies really do this, though? Let’s bring this full circle to find out, and finish where we started, with the Scottish Enlightenment.


Why did the Enlightenment in Scotland happen when it did? It was a result of three things; Education, Religion and Politics.

Two centuries earlier, after the reformation, the Church in Scotland decided that everyone should be able to read the bible. From 1570 onwards, every Parish in Scotland had a school.

By the time the 18th Century comes around, Scotland has the most advanced education system in the world.

Then the Church of Scotland, previously vehemently against any new ideas, started to become more relaxed about them. After all, if you educated all these people, it’s a result of your work that they start coming up with new ideas in the first place.

Finally in 1707, with the act of Union, all Scotland’s tribal politicians upped sticks and left for Westminister. The consequence was that a scholar could promote any school of thought or idea without it being dragged to one side or another of a political debate.

What does this teach us for the agency landscape? Two things.

Well, firstly, think about the power structures; the two most powerful bodies, the politicians and the church, either got out of the way or became free and open to change and new ideas. The people who lead our agencies and agency groups must be willing to hand the destiny of their companies to the scholars, the planners, the thinkers.

The creative, cerebral forces within each agency are the best people to plot their agency.

Secondly, and most importantly, we’ve got to be as fanatical about education as the 16th century Church of Scotland…

Only by making sure that every single last one of our people is fully literate in the tools of the modern age can we hope to build an industry fit for the future.