Bonfire of the Metaphwoars

Are you sitting comfortably?  Good-oh.

A lot of this might be familiar to you, but if you’re going to Metaphwoar on the 9th November, please do read to the end… I need your help.


Last summer, whilst sitting on the train up from Brighton one morning, I was writing a short piece for the IPA Social Collective… we wanted to change how people think about “social”…

…you know,  how to get the folks in the media & advertising game out of the notion of just thinking ‘big, immediate, shiny’, and think more along the lines of starting small, interesting social things, that are built collaboratively with people to become big, interesting social things.

Just then, a wandering metaphor pixie happened upon me, leapt into my head through the right aural passage, sprinkled some magic dust, and watched as a metaphor formed.

I think I felt her dance a little jig on her way out, as what she’d left me with was this…

“If advertising is firework, then social media is a bonfire”.

Being one of those people, I shared it on twitter.

(Of course, being ‘one of those people’, I share quite a lot on twitter, mostly not as funny or smart or interesting as perhaps I think it is whilst writing it, and regret it a little afterwards just about every time…).

Twitter liked it.  It liked it a lot.

Maybe it was something to do with putting fire in a metaphor.  Maybe it was because everyone loves making bonfires, and lighting fireworks.  Maybe it takes us back to our childhood.  It might be all of the above, it might be none of the above.  But there was appetite for more…

So I started to expand it a bit with some reasons why; stuff like “advertising burns very brightly, but dies very quickly” and “social media takes time to start, but with attention and dedication, as you fuel the bonfire it will only ever burn brighter”


Then, the best thing happened; people started joining in…

Dan – “What about if we notice people are building a bonfire for themselves?  How could we help them make it even better?”
Chris – “your bonfire maintains interest and builds advocacy once the bright lights of the works have long gone”
David – “people tend to remember really good bonfires that let off loads of heat but for every one of those there are loads that don’t light”

…and it’s the thing that happens every time the bonfires & fireworks metaphor is repeated by anyone, really; in meetings or talks or blogs, people love to join in.

Which brings us to Metaphwoar


It’s an evening Andy Whitlock from Poke has created as part of Internet Week, and he kindly invited me to be part of it.  The fool.

Anyway, here’s the thing; I have accumulated lots of slides and thoughts and examples of the bonfires/social thing.  I could pick the best, speak fast and Scottish, and get through the ten minutes.

But it occurred that it’s not true to the spirit of the original bonfires metaphor.  It’s always been a collaborative thing.  It started small, and people joined in.  It’s a bonfire in it’s own right.

So we’re going to do something collaborative.  I’m not going to tell you exactly what yet*.  But I am going to set you some homework.

If you are coming to Metaphwoar, please think about how would you complete this sentence:

“Social projects are like bonfires because…”

See you on the 9th…


*Partly because of some misguided sense of mystery, and partly because the idea I have is still only half-baked.  Hey, there’s plenty time.  Anyway, I’m on last, we’ll all be a bit tipsy, and if it goes wrong I’ll sing a song or something.  Or fall over.


Pocketgame… the story so far

I mentioned before that I was working on something with Cadbury called ‘pocketgame‘… a crowdsourcey open game design competition thingy.  Which has been tremendous fun so far, as this video shows:

Anyway, there are now 10 shortlisted pocketgames up for public vote; the most popular two we will make 25,000 of to send out in Matterbox in October, and people who play the games will decide on the winner.

Please have a look at the ten entries at and vote for your favourite; we’ve been blown away by both the ingenuity and quality of the entries we’ve had, and I know you will too.


Social Projects – The tall and the long of it

Beth asked me if I’d like to contribute a guest post to the Social Collective 2010 blog for the event she’s co-organising on September 30th in London – there’s still tickets available here, too. 

The Social Collective conference is rooted in practice rather than theory; finding a better way to pitch social projects to clients, and then run them too.

So I said I’d like to talk about something that’s be brewing for a while, off the back of the ol’ bonfires & fireworks analogy… so here it is…

The tall and the long of it

In one of my favourite traditions of episodic storytelling, I’d like to start with something you should imagine is spoken by a gruff American man…


(You really heard him too, didn’t you..?)

Last year I was part of the wonderful IPA Social crew who created a list of principles which would help inform the approach agencies should take to ‘social’…

…rather than just imposing the ‘hey, it worked this way in advertising’ rule to everything.

Ten of us wrote a principle each, and my contribution ran as follows:



In the sense that…

i) Firework = Big, explosive, attracts a crowd immediately, expensive, dies quickly

ii) Bonfire = Small at first, collaborative, draws in a crowd slowly, gains momentum

It helps imagining it using a simple diagram like this…



I’ve found it particularly helpful in giving folk an easy-to-get image of why social projects are different than things like advertising.

(“Social Projects”?  Yes, I’ve been trying to stop saying ‘social media’, because sometimes there isn’t really any ‘media’ involved, especially in a media agency sense).

But still all a bit theoretical, which is not what Social Collective is about.

What ‘Bonfires & Fireworks’ has made me realise is this:

Selling in tall potential is easy.  We need to get better at selling in long potential.

Think about the firework (advertising, PR etc).  The way we (always have) sell in fireworks is talking about the total audience of a television channel, the readership of a newspaper, the unique users of a website.

All of these large numbers are stuffed full of tall potential; no-one expects that nearly everyone in those figures will be affected by what we place there (or even see it, necessarily). 

But the comfort of potential makes everyone happier at buying a firework, despite knowing that the ‘actual’ delivery will be considerably less.



Social projects, on the other hand, don’t have that ‘tall potential’.  What they have instead is ‘long potential’.

Long potential in social projects is the moment when something big and amazing happens.  The world rejoices at the wonderful thing you’re done, all your employees sign new lifetime contracts because the company rocks so much, your customers dance in the streets and set up religions dedicated to you.

Or, more realistically, it’s the bit where the project is successful enough for everyone involved to be really glad they did it, and want to keep doing it.

The problem is, unlike fireworks, it’s really hard to get a handle on when or if the ‘actual’ might tip into  ‘potential’, how big that potential might be, or how much it might cost; three questions clients are understandably pretty keen on asking when starting projects.



So how do we need to get better at responding to the ‘when, how big, how much’?  Using that wonderful gift of hindsight, here’s three things I’ve found help make everyone, both client and agency, happier and more effective on social projects.

1. Keeping it real

It’s very tempting to use the ‘social media rock star’ examples when selling in social projects… “yeah, Dell made $267 billion using twitter, and they installed the moon on a USB stick as a result…”

However, just using these examples at best sets wildly unrealistic expectations for the client, and at worst you’ll be dismissed as a fantasist and show the door.  Scour the web for examples that are a) a lot more like what you’re proposing and b) show results that sound realistic and achievable for what you are proposing to the client.  Those examples are out there, just not as hyped, so you’ll have to dig a bit harder.

Then when you’re selling in your project, you’ve got a range from the ‘realistic’ to the ‘fantastic’, which starts to resemble the actual/potential dynamic seen in the firework model.

2. Living one day at a time

I’ll be honest, I’ve nicked this from Omar Little.  The only way to be as active and reactive as you need to be when building social bonfires is too fix as few constraining frameworks around yourselves as possible.

Because, unlike fireworks, we don’t know when bonfires start and stop, it’s very hard to phase them into the traditional ‘campaign’ expectations… it makes everything clients might expect really difficult, from estimating how many people will see it, to carrying out research to see how it affected those people.

What’s been more effective for us is creating a loose framework of the stages you think the project will go through, roughly estimating how long each might take, and then setting off.  You travel through the project grabbing insights & statistics en route, spotting opportunities and closing down redundant sections, which you present to the client at pitch stage; it overtly becomes part live-project, part experimental research piece.

3. It’s always worth doing

Finally, we get to the ‘money’ question… how much will this cost?  With all the preparation you’ve done above, you’ll have an idea of all the elements needed to make a brilliantly successful project… and that’s your job, to think of every angle, and propose it.

Your client will, invariably and reasonably, ask ‘do we really need section x/y/z?’.  Things will start dropping off the plan, the project will become leaner and tighter as a result… but there isn’t really a stage where I think you should turn around and say ‘I don’t think this is worth doing with that much money’. 

Firstly, no-one’s really qualified to say what will & won’t work with social projects. 

Secondly, remember it’s a part-research piece, and if the finding you reach is that social projects don’t work for your client at that price, you’ve all learned something.

And thirdly, and most importantly, this brave new world isn’t going away.  So the sooner you get some social projects up and running, the better it’ll be for your client and for you…

John V Willshire is Chief Innovation Officer at PHD Media in London


The Eepybird Guys are back… with a Coke & Mentos Rocket car!

Oh, yes, oh yes they did…

…The Eepybird Guys, who did the original Mentos/Diet Coke fountain film, and then the excellent Sticky Note Experiments, have just released a trailer for their next project…

The full thing will be up on the 1st June, in 3D apparently.  Like everything is, nowadays.  My lunch today was in 3D.

Anyway, I’d recommend signing up to their mailing list to find out more… it’s really infrequent and non-spammy, which is nice for a change.


Want a good review for Four Lions? Ask twitter…

This is interesting…

…the honourable Rupert Britton, Dark Lord of Content Strategy here at PHD, has had a tweet picked up of his thoughts on the new Chris Morris film Four Lions, and it’s been used in an ad. 

It’s the second one down…



He’s not the only one though… they’ve used about four or five, mixed in with reviews from proper journalistic organs.

Oh, and the Evening Standard.

Anyway, it’s really interesting, for several reasons. 

Firstly, if you were a little short of good write-ups of your film (which I’m not suggesting Four Lions is, it’s just a hypothetical ‘if’), you could just find the tweets by people who did like your film, and use those.

Secondly, it highlights the fact that we increasingly trust (or at least marketers believe that we trust) the opinions of other people at least as much, if not more so, than those of the so-called ‘experts’.

Thirdly, if you are going to use someone’s tweet in a review… is it polite to ask?  The first Rupert heard of it was when a friend called him up and told him…

Rupert says he wouldn’t have minded at all. 

So why not just ask?

(If you’re listening, Four Lions folks, the very least you could do is send him a poster or something…)


Is hiring social media 'voices' like renting a TV?

There’s something I’ve been struggling with over the past few weeks, just in my own head…

…is hiring in social media folks to talk to your customers (from specialist social agencies, or indeed media/PR/advertising/digital agencies) a bit like renting a television set?



In the short term, with a constrained budget, it makes a lot of sense.  You get the thing you need instantly, there’s no massive up front investment, you can see how it pans out for you in your circumstances, and after a month, you can give it back.

In the long term though, it makes no sense.  It’s a really expensive way to get television.  12 months later, and you’ve paid enough money to have bought a set outright in the first place.  With a little careful budgeting, and diversion of funds in the first place, you could have had your very own telly.

How is this like ‘social media’?

Well, rather than ‘renting’ the time of agency staff to deal with the ins and outs of their own social media interactions, should clients just bite the bullet and…

a) invest in their own specialist people to do it, or even…

b) just make it a little part of various people’s jobs in the company?

Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about the strategy behind the social media, driving awareness of the social channels, the analytical analysis and tool development and so on… I think there’s a lot of valuable experience, insight & ability that agencies can bring to this process.

I’m thinking more of the people at the other end of the social tools…

I’ve got a belief in my head that I can’t quite shake about the importance of ‘who’ people talk to on Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, forums or wherever. 

If they want to talk to someone from ‘company X’, it should be someone from ‘company X’ they speak to (for various reasons of transparency, cultural response, ability to action things internally and the like).  

The ability to talk directly to a person in a company is something that I think people are getting increasingly used to (and will demand more of, I think).

I talked about it a lot in The Communis Manifesto.


Everything I’ve seen of late makes me think that the need for companies to have internal people available who are adept in conversing like this will only increase.  

Getting in agency staff who do this (and no doubt do it across three, four, five different accounts) strikes me as a little… short term, maybe? 

Renting the TV, not buying your own.

Yes, agencies will still help with the ideas, amplification, analysis… but I think companies will increasingly have to have the people internally who do the talking themselves.

I’m really interested in what other folks (i.e. YOU) think… am I being overly precious? 

Does the average punter not care, as long as they get a response?  Is being part of the agency team on a brand good enough?


Social Production… my 'big idea'

I was invited to take part in yesterday’s APG/Campaign Battle of Big Thinking (yes, an honour to be asked, thanks guys), and managed to carry the public vote in the innovation section…

I talked about Social Production… I’ve put it together as a slidecast here, I’d love to know what you think.

Just click the green ‘play’ button at the bottom to hear the voiceover… 

…it’s not the original audio, I quickly rerecorded a track this morning, hence it being longer than the allocated 15 minutes…


Bonfire Builders: Mark Earls

This week’s Bonfire Builder is Mark Earls, author of Herd, formerly of St Luke’s, BMP & Ogilvy, and “London advertising scene’s foremost contrarian”… 



What are your thoughts on the social bonfire/advertising fireworks principle of ‘not either/or, but both…’?  A long term proposition, or just a step along the road to something else…

To be honest, I think that you’re right about the need for both, but given human nature I also suspect that there’ll always be more of a need to encourage businesses to do the hard yards of continuous daily interaction.

“Fireworks” seems so much more appealing if you’re in the corner – as does magic, generally – but the real value comes from the daily commitment to the “bonfire” work.  To being open and responsive to the people-what-buy-your-stuff

Equally, I think this plays to the thoughts in my chum John Winsor’s latest book: “Baked In”.  We’ve allowed ourselves to believe that somehow the magic of communication can overcome mediocre product and service delivery. 



Just get the right ad, the right campaign architecture, optimise the spend etc etc… and it’ll be sorted.

The truth is – and always has been, I suspect – that excellent communication can make the best of a bad job but the real value comes from making the job better.

Tesco is a great example here – while advertising has played a role and the strategy is good (though identical to the one that one Safeway received plaudits for in the 90s) the real value is created more in the way they keep on going – working out ways to make things better for the customer.

Bonfire communication enables this kind of approach to business – more two-way, more responsive, more human but much more hard work. By contrast, fireworks communication tends to be prone to the outbound dialling and pointless display!

You speak to a wide variety of folks around the world… who gets it, and who needs to get there quicker?

It’s hard to generalise, but I think in the client community the biggest discriminator is probably those who see making communications as a factory function and those who don’t.

By this I mean those who by dint of volume have had to professionalise and develop processes for communications development.  This tends to embed really unhelpful practices and ideas in the business (like “what’s our message?”) and make it harder to envision other kinds of communication.

It’s also really hard to unpick the vested interests when budgets are huge – large amounts of money makes marketers conservative; they feel the need to not be seen to be p****** it up the wall.

For those who haven’t professionalised communication as a core function of the business, it’s easier to show how the bonfires approach can be embraced without entering the world of sharp suits and flower-arranging. 

Smaller, more entrepreneurial businesses tend to fall into this camp.

I guess the agency model we’ve ended up with doesn’t always help.  I kind of see the purpose of a media agency like PHD being reframed as ‘connecting companies with people’, however that best happens.  It often involves talking to other people in organisations beyond marketing departments though (HR, IT, sales and so on…). 

Is it inevitable that marketing (and agencies) must break out of the ‘mass communications silo’ to take a much more company-wide role?
I suspect you’re right here. Part of the problem for all marketing services businesses is that their ability to create value is often limited by the clients they have – by the marketing clients in particular.

It’s not just creative agencies who come across as florists and astrologers: marketing people are often seen this way by other business functions.

It’s interesting, isn’t it: while marketing’s big ideas are now everywhere (brand, consumer etc), in most organisations marketing is no closer to real leading the company’s activities than it was back in the 1950s and 60s.

One of the central things you talk about in ‘Herd’ is the need to ‘light many fires and see which one(s) take(s)’… 


Media_httpfeedingthep_mghbj’ve you found selling that into marketers who’re used to lighting fast working fireworks?  Any tips?

Boring answer: the place to start is probably by understanding where the marketers are coming from – what the other issues and conversations they are party to which are shaping the context to this particular issue.

Sometimes there’s already a willingness to accept the relative ineffectiveness of past firework activity; sometimes not. Sometimes there’s a willingness to accept the world is complex and inherently unpredictable so you’d better; other times this just scares the bejeezus out of clients.

Find out this kind of stuff and adjust your pitch accordingly.

HERD answer: seeing what other companies are doing always helps. Particularly successful ones.

Finally, what do you foresee in the future for the bonfires and fireworks?

I rather suspect that the future for fireworks advertising is going to be rather less rosy than many imagine.

Of course, we’ll need these gunpowder-fuelled punctuation marks (and shows of corporate virility) but increasingly a combination of the bonfires model and the Baked-In idea (making things better and making better things) are going to prevail.

Less glamorous but rather more valuable to our clients – and for those agencies who do it well, too.


Bonfire Builders: Jake McKee

I had a thought a couple of weeks ago about the Bonfires & Fireworks analogy…

If, as I believe, it’s going to be through cross-disciplinary effort that we build successful, conversational communications between people and companies, we should get all sorts of different perspectives from across the board on the principle of bonfire building.

So, to that end, I decided to start asking a few folk whose opinion and work I think highly of about the principle, and their perspective on it.

First up, I’m delighted to say we’ve got Jake McKee, of Ant’s Eye View, Community Guy and Lego fame…



Let’s start with something social… tell us about yourself…

I’m Jake McKee, co-founder and Chief Ant Wrangler at Ant’s Eye View (  I’ve spent my entire career on and around the Web trying to help businesses use new tech, people, and processes to improve the way that customers interact with the company.

At AEV, our focus is the same: helping clients improve customer experience and drive customer engagement by building strategies that tap into those new technologies, as well as age old improvements in people and process to truly improve the bottom line.
Outside of work, I’m an amateur photography, infrequent mountain biker, and a proud dad of an insane smart and funny 3 year old.

How did you get started in bonfire building?
I actually went to college for traditional 3D product design.  Even in high school I was fascinated by the idea that people got paid to think about how people used things and to design products accordingly.  I graduated about the time the Web started taking off and brought that product design thinking to Web development.

When I joined the LEGO Company in 2000, I lucked into working for a boss who encouraged me to own the relationship between LEGO and the adult LEGO enthusiasts.  That led to a full-time gig at LEGO doing community work, helping to form the community development team, speaking about community work, and blogging at



How do you persuade others of the need to build social bonfires alongside setting off advertising fireworks?
The answer to this question is a bit different if you’re talking about being an employee of a company working inside the enterprise towards change versus working as a consultant helping those folks see change through to completion.

Looking at the work that needs to be done inside the organization (since that’s where the buck stops), I’ve always talked about the strategy of “Success by 1000 paper cuts”.  Start with the smallest element you can effectively do with minimal budget, little managerial approval, and minor legal team approval.

Nothing breeds acceptance like success.  Even tiny successes excite people to see more.  Succeed, expand your efforts a little, succeed again, rinse and repeat. Before you know it, you’ll be launching huge programs but with far more support than if you tried to launch a big program straight away.

Where do you see the balance between the bonfires & fireworks at this point in time?
Well, there’s probably not much of a “balance” at this point!  I think largely we’re still seeing a vast majority of the social efforts being funnelled through the traditional marketing/advertising lens.  With a sadly rare exception, most business people are struggling to get past their own training – we’re all programmed to believe that protectionism is a huge business value.

That mindset was passed along in school, and backed up by nearly every business dealing we’ve had in our careers.  Getting past that mental training is going to some time and some serious effort, but it will happen.  With an entire generation being raised to expect a direct connect relationship with the companies they do business with, it’s seriously only a matter of time.
That said, I don’t think we’ll ever get away from seeing fireworks.  In fact, I hope we don’t.  Fireworks can be a lot of fun, and can do lots of great things… IF they are a component of a larger, social-infused strategy.

Finally, what do you foresee in the future for the bonfires and fireworks?
It’s not terribly exciting, but I think we’re going to continue to see the same progression we’ve been on for the last few years, just with an increasingly accelerated pace. 

Companies and consultants alike are certainly still struggling to get to a more social-minded place, but the pace at which things are moving is picking up speed. 

Success is leading to success, and we’ll be seeing a lot smarter, bigger, more successful campaigns over time…

…success by 1000 paper cuts.

Thanks Jake 🙂