No Tables Were Turned

I watched Leah Green’s video on The Guardian website yesterday. It sought to ‘turn the tables on everyday sexism’ by having the young, very female Ms Green shout sexist phrases at men.

Except it didn’t work.

Driving along in a van. Beep Beep. ‘Get your arse out mate!’ Outside a pub. Two old men. ‘Have you ever kissed each other?’ In a shopping precinct. A lone male. Lunchtime sunshine. ‘Will you go home with me?’

Her efforts were met mostly with bewilderment. A failure, but not of her own doing.

The issue is not what she said or how she did it, but the societal context in which she had to do it. Put simply: ask a bunch of gym-boy twenty-something ‘lads’ how they manicure their pubic hair and they won’t feel shocked, ashamed, or intimidated.

Those men have never existed in a society that sets out so vindictively to target their insecurities in order to sell them products and force them into conformity.

As a man, I have not had great cause to think about my pubic hair situation. For women it is a very different story. There is a pressure on them to not just do something, but to do it whatever the right way may be at that time.

It’s a personal question to a woman because it’s a personal issue. To men, it isn’t even an issue at all – and so it cannot be personal. And without it being personal, the question won’t be perceived as intrusive.

(Let’s also not forget the physical context. A lone female asking a bunch of men is not threatening. The tables turned would be extremely so.)

This absence of context is probably most obvious when she attempts to solicit a man on the street. After some confusion, he agrees to go home with her. To his young male friends he will likely be a ‘legend’ or ‘hero’ (and I did chuckle that he’d only sleep with her after he’d visited the bank).

But if a girl were to similarly acquiesce to a man’s enquiry, she would be an unequivocal slut, ripe for shaming by all and sundry. Society does not afford women the freedom of men in this respect.

I heard some teenage boys trying to wolf-whistle at businesswomen on the way home from the office today. It was pathetic. Stripped of all context, it was just a noise they were (badly) making. But the context gave it more weight: young boys asserting themselves over grown women with impunity. It must be hard to live with.

I’m not criticising what Leah Green set out to do. But without the context of a society that has criticised, oppressed and distorted women, her sexist remarks were not scary, offensive, intrusive or shocking. They’re just words.

Maybe if we could change our wider society then the insults of sexist men would become just words, too.

Response to Alex Proud’s article

I read and enjoyed Alex Proud’s article on The Telegraph about ‘cool London’ being dead.

I can’t speak for London but I can speak for Newcastle and Leeds, two cities mentioned by Alex in which I have lived and contributed to the arts scenes.

Alex envisages a scenario in which disenfranchised ‘cool’ Londoners visit friends in other cities and decide to relocate there; one in which ‘London’s craven fealty to the ghastly rich will finally accomplish what no government policy ever has and rejuvenate our provincial cities.’

I would very much enjoy such a scenario occurring. But that doesn’t mean I think it ever will.

Just as there are fewer feelings more satisfying than getting tickets to a sold-out event, for a town or city to foster a cultural scene that feels vibrant, relevant and worthwhile – all the things needed for such a scene to persist and develop over time – residents of said town or city need to feel a sense of ’everyone wants a part of what we have created here.’

That feeling can keep the cultural network of artists, musicians, writers and promoters going even when money is scarce. But there are reasons why artistic scenes don’t flourish across the country as readily as they used to.

That sense of ‘everyone wanting a part of our scene’ rests primarily on two precepts. Firstly, that the scene can be focused on a single cultural center. Many of the, typically independent, venues and spaces that historically formed hubs for the creative movements have gone to the wall in recent years, making it harder for a scene to become anchored to a specific place.

Furthermore, the drivers of new cultural movements are often the young: individuals with time and energy to burn. But young people are moving around this country far more now than ever before, whether leaving home aged 18 to go to University, or leaving their University cities three years later when the pull of London jobs inevitably becomes too great.

A scene needs time to grow roots, but the transitory lives of our younger people and the persistent growing necessity of economic migration towards our capital work against this.

Secondly, for such a scene to persist it needs other people wanting to be a part of them. Musically-speaking, we’ve had Merseybeat, Madchester, Northern Soul, post-Radiohead Oxford and the dance scene in Liverpool.

They only became significant and persistent when other people – outsiders – wanted to be a part of them. The stakeholders of such cultural scenes are almost entirely dependent on the makers and breakers within the industry and media to create the publicity required to start building an audience and generating interest.

When I think of my time in the Newcastle music scene, from 2006-9, I was privileged to see so many great bands and musicians. Richard Dawson. Paul Jeans. Uncle Monty. Spies. Minotaurs. Molek. B>E>A>K. It was a scene. It was cool.

But it never persisted and so you’ll have never heard of any of these artists. No A&R people came North. No industry people bothered to watch our bands; no media folk reviewed us. After three or four years of being without money, support or interest, no-one cared about a ‘scene’: we just cared about paying our bills.

It was cool, it was brilliant, it was fleeting. Had a few labels dared to send their people north of Watford it might have stuck around. Our group of musical friends may have become ‘a scene’. Newcastle may have even been ‘cool’.

But it never happened. With the jobs and industry, media interest and hype being predominantly focused on the capital, artists, musicians and writers outside of London will always run out of steam.

The artists I knew wanted, ideally, money. They would have settled for excitement. Meritocratically, they deserved both. But the system they needed to help facilitate either for them was not interested in paying them a visit.

The artists gave up and the scene died. The same thing will have happened in lots of different UK towns and cities since; I’m sure you will have your own examples.

Because whatever the motivation the component artists of a scene need in order to continue operating, it is nigh-on impossible for them to do so independent of the great internecine complex of London-centric power brokers.

Thoughts on Ecommerce Product Discovery

Whenever I look at ecommerce websites – even the best of the bunch, and particularly those retailers with large or diverse catalogues – I can’t help thinking that there has to be a different, if not better, way to let users discover products.

Throughout all the iterations of code, platforms, bandwidth and devices that we’ve had since the 1990′s, all we’ve established is a more refined search-led interface. By which I mean ecommerce websites still best serve those users who already know what they are looking for.

The search bar is the most obvious example. But even faceted navigation and category filters still require the user to ‘drill-down’ in some fashion. And drilling down is only possible if you already know, to some extent, what you want.

I think about my girlfriend and I. We are in the throes of buying our first house. There are lots of things we know we need, and I’m sure lots of things we don’t yet know we need. How will a search-led interface help us discover and buy those products? Shy of viewing every category on a website in ‘View All’, it won’t.

What an improved discovery interface (apologies for the pretentious term) could look like, I don’t yet know. But I do know that a similar shift occurred in another media when Apple introduced Cover Flow to iTunes. They were admittedly aping a jukebox interface, with no obvious analog apparent when we’re talking ecommerce. But where are the attempts to innovate?

There are enough smart people out there to work out a way to improve this. But there isn’t the money or the appetite, generally speaking.

I’ve found time and time again that the creation and accrual of the collateral needed to display products is the domain of buyers, product managers and IT.

Maybe the buyers have to photograph the products. So they want to photograph them in the most rote, predictable and same-as-John-Lewis way as they can. That’s ‘best practice’ and won’t land them in trouble with the boss.

Or IT has been tasked with sourcing the tools and platform to underpin the organisation of products onsite. Their busy, disinterested in innovation and risk-averse. So a search-led, faceted navigation becomes the brief.

In both cases, the buyers and the IT crowd have chosen ‘best practice’. But at what point does best practice become stagnation?

The vast majority of ecommerce standards are set by following a handful of industry leaders. But when it comes to discovery, some retailers should look elsewhere. A search-led interface works for Amazon, but is it the best option – the only option - for an art seller? A homeware retailer? A fashion house?

I’d love to see more innovation in this field. But to do that, marketing managers will need to be given more authority – over other departments and the brief itself – and the security that their job won’t be lost if their innovation does not work.

If our commercial culture could work together like that then collectively we would see more innovation.

PS. As a very basic idea, I like the way Fatface display products directly on their homepage. It isn’t a giant leap, but its a small step to help users view catalogues differently.

 

Injuries, Patience & The Long-Term Game

I’ve been seeing a physio these last couple of months; an attempt to regain my running form without the chronic injuries I’ve suffered from for the last five years.

Things had been going well until, last week, I broke down after only 42 seconds of a run (I had my stopwatch on). Ouch! I was so dispirited. I just wanted to run injury-free, and it felt like my entire body was so compromised in some way that this would never be possible.

Having visited my physio again a couple of days ago, I’ve learnt that it is not some bone issue that’s causing the problem – and my technique is better than it has ever been. The problem is a tightening, caused by knots – themselves, caused by stress – of the muscle that runs down the front of my shin.

And its this muscle, all tightened up and shrunken, that needs to lengthen when I’m pushing a stride off the ground. It struggles to unravel itself, such is the damage I have done to it previously, that it pulls at the shin bone and H-U-R-T-S.

It blows me away, seeing my physio explain how interconnected all this body of mine is. And it gives me hope that I will be able to get back to where I was – and then build on that to where I want to be.

My first – and only competitive – experience of distance running saw me finish the Great North Run in the top 3%. That should have been a foundation to do the marathons and ultras that I wanted to. Instead, my body has been broken since.

Hopefully now I have the fix: self-massage. I have a daily routine of 30 minutes’ stretching with regular self-massage over the knots in my shin. I’m sticking to this fastiduously (which, given I loathe stretching and static work, is an achievement in itself) simply because I miss running so much.

Its just a very free, simple sport. Put on your trainers and go. Go with someone else, or go alone. Go on concrete or in woods. At night or at day. In rain, snow, wind or (ever so occasionally) sunshine.

I miss it.

It was a way to balance my mind. Release stress. An addictive chemical hit of endorphins, adrenaline and self-belief. I tried cycling as a surrogate but it didn’t cut it for me – takes itself too seriously; too much Strava and colour-coordination.

I read a quote from the ultrarunner Anton Krupicka today, in which he said that ‘Success in running is about staying injury-free’. I would be a competitive runner if I’d stayed injury free, been patient and listened to my body. Instead I ran it into the ground.

Fingers crossed, this will be a turning point.

Big Week – And its Only Wednesday

What a week so far. Hard to think its only Wednesday evening.

User-testing for a multinational retailer on Monday, flying abroad for ecommerce consultancy on a massive international retailer Tuesday, before a call today from my CD an hour ago saying that a client was ‘blown away’ by my creative concept & copy for an upcoming ad campaign.

At some point I will have to specialise. Am I a creative or an analyst? A strategist? Although there are obvious benefits to having those skills in any role – and a sizable amount of overlap between the roles when done well – my career demands I’ll need to specialise at some point, and wear a specific hat.

But for now I am very happy, tired – and opening a beer.

This blog wasn’t supposed to be about my personal events but its late, I have my flat to myself and no-one to share the good news with other than you, dear Reader.

Now have yourselves a beer also – you’ve deserved it too.

Jeff Bezos on Change

“I very frequently get the question: ‘what’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘what’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two – because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.

[At Amazon] we know that customers want low prices and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery, they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher [or] I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long-term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.

Whatever London Is, it’s One Thing Above All Else

Yorkshire, Harrogate, Royal Baths 1900's

London is many things to many people. To the vast majority of my friends, colleagues and clients currently living there it is a source of pride; a thing to be celebrated.

Having lived in various Northern cities my entire life, it is interesting to see the different attitudes and concepts people form of cities based on where they live.

An example: a friend updated her Facebook status last night. She’d travelled by train from London to Leeds on business. She was bemoaning how decidedly unexciting being sent to Leeds was.

Leeds train station is thoroughly mediocre, fair point. But King’s Cross had cornered the market in post-Apocalyptic mise-en-scene until very recently.

Another example: a PR professional who’d never left the South, assigned to Sunderland and ‘amazed’ that people ‘could live like that’.

Or a developer claiming that nothing worth happening happens north of the M25. Another man on the tube lecturing that London is the only thing keeping the country afloat.

But let’s return to Leeds for a moment. I currently live there. My opinion? The best thing about the city is that its easy to leave.

This sounds like a criticism, but what I really mean is that from my affordable city-centre apartment I need only travel 20 minutes or fewer to be be in York, Harrogate, Ilkley, the Yorkshire Dales or the UNESCO World Heritage site of Saltaire. All extremely varied settings, beautiful and interesting in their own way and, in my opinion, unmatched for their benefits by anything in the capital.

But the common conversation about cities is often presented in a more simplistic, binary, fashion. In this case: Leeds city V London city.

If we reduce the definition of a place to simply the urban centre, then London will win almost every time. How could it not? It has had an extremely great concentration of wealth over the years, now manifested in some of the best architecture and culture in the world.

But how many people live in London city centre? Not many at all. The majority of people I know live in far more average places; the Crodyons, Claphams, Plaistows. These places are not particularly desirable of their own accord. They are, however, within what Londoners perceive a reasonable commute of the things London is famed for.

It is this sense of unity in the way London is viewed that sets it apart for me. Whenever London is discussed as a city – be it in an advert, event, or even just a pub discussion – it is almost always a ‘Greater London’, a single, all-encompassing entity that is up for debate.

A forty-minute train journey from part of London to another doesn’t create a separation within the concept of what the ‘city’ is. Ergo all of the wonderful attractions of the 3000+ square mile area can be wrapped up, presented and promoted under a single banner name.

Is the same true outside of our Northern cities? Does Liverpool promote itself alongside the Wirral? Does Leeds present itself as a package with Harrogate, Bradford, Ilkley, the Dales and more?

No, they generally don’t (spoken like a true wool). In fact, outside of London a forty-minute train journey would generally be seen as far beyond the delimiter at which some arbitrary metropolitan boundary should be created:

“You can’t include things over the line. They don’t count.”

Or, perhaps more realistically, “We [the council] won’t promote things over the line because we don’t make money from them.”

These boundaries are unnecessary and stifling our ability to draw events, investment and talent to the area. The only city that has attempted to adopt such an approach is – surprise surprise – Manchester, the most forward-thinking city up North.

The idea of a Mayor for the North is interesting and I would personally like to see it explored more. It may be the opportunity for Northern towns and cities to finally put aside the petty factionalism that has contributed to the North/South divide.

See, when we work together across metropolitan boundaries we can achieve great things – the 2014 Tour de France being a case in point. Our cities may be small but their wider areas encompass huge, significant regions of great cultural and industrial breadth.

There is plenty that the Government could do to address the growing gap between the two halves of our country. They could start by curbing the dominance of London and promoting other cities for different industry and political sectors.

But we can also make a start, by reassessing how we present our regions – and to engage in the kind of open collectivism that fueled the growth of both our regions and our country in the past.

Northern cities have seen their industries gutted and sold off and their intellectual talent tempted to London or abroad. They face a number of problems.

But if our Northern towns are guilty of anything it is of a small-minded one-upmanship that told us the competition was from another town, over the hill. In reality, the competition was London.

Our capital is many things, good and bad. But if there is one thing it is above all else it is a marketing success. The councils and their communications teams have done a great job of creating and delivering a message of a single London that is now widely accepted as fact.

In doing so, they have created an area that can be anything to anybody and redefined the concept of the city – helping such a large area be desirable to the many talented people seeking to relocate their skills, time, money and business to the area.

Work For Free? You Probably Already Are

“You start to follow the money and you don’t know where the fuck its going to take you.”

So said Lester Freamon in The Wire. Fiction aside, the rise of our digital economy also requires us to consider how wealth is created and then distributed.

The thought came to me when reading that Rap Genius had been caught doing dodgy SEO and summarily demoted by Google.

Loyal users were in uproar. Their community of wonderfully useful rap lyric annotations had been made invisible by Google. Poor Rap Genius, right?

Well. This is the same Rap Genius whose owners recently scooped a $15m investment from Andreessen Horowitz. And its the same Rap Genius that encouraged users to listen, decipher and upload their painstaking annotations.

When the internet began it was a wonderful example of altruism and openness. But while we users may still feel the same way, big businesses have been exploiting us for years.

Make no mistake: it was the unpaid users’ contribution that made Rap Genius valuable. So why feel sorry for the people at the top when their site gets yanked by Google?

Google is, of course, the best example of this type of exploitation. Whether its forcing Yelp to either deindex their site or surrender to being subsumed by Google Maps, or encouraging everyday folk to add Street Views for free (sample comment: “Wow! Such an amazing feature!”), no-one has pioneered the role of getting paid megabucks for someone else’s work as much as the Big G.

Google has given us lots of good tools. I’m writing this in Chrome while keeping an eye on my Gmail. But lets be clear: at some point our relationship with Google, like other network businesses, changed subtly but importantly.

It has changed to such an extent that, when San Francisco council threaten to make Google pay for their staff buses uses of publicly-funded bus stops, comments on the normally-sage Verge denounce it as ‘blackmail’ and ‘class warfare…pure jealousy and envy.’

I don’t like this practice of industrial crowdsourcing, but I don’t blame the businesses. I blame us. Are we really so fucking stupid as to work to make a Zuckerberg or a Dorsey richer while asking for nothing in return? Do we not ever ask what happens to workers when a product is created by its users?

Jaron Lanier, in his book ‘Who Owns The Future‘ raises the point of how Kodak once employed 140,000 people and was worth $28b. They’ve since been replaced by Instagram, a company worth $1b that employs 13 people.

For Lanier, the value of the product – be it Instagram, Google Translate, Facebook, whatever – is due to the contribution of users and real people. But those people aren’t rewarded. Instead the money flows upwards.

With no manufacturing created by these businesses, the money isn’t redistributed downwards to workers, who’ve long been replaced by servers and automation. The money is shared between a shrinking group of programmers and CEOs, in the process gutting the middle class.

Lanier proposes a system of micro-payments: for every piece of value you add to the network, you get paid a small amount (if you think that sounds like bullshit, ask yourself how many times you’ve thought about leaving Facebook except for the fact that ‘all my friends are on there’).

I’m not far into his book yet, and so have no particular opinion on his concept of micropayments. But there is a definite issue that needs to be dealt with at a policy, regulative level.

As a card-carrying member of the digital industries, I know this is practical heresy for me to say. But I am also a citizen and I want a sustainable, equitable future for the generations of my family to come.

What will happen when surgery can be automated? When books exist solely as digital files rather than in printed form? When 3D printers let you print consumables in your home? When taxis are arranged and driven by computers?

In answer to the last one, it seems Parisians are at least aware of the potential problems, protesting against Uber stealing their customers (and ultimately, jobs). The protests have gone too far but hopefully it will at least open some discourse about this big issue.

Unfortunately, here in the UK I suspect that our politicians are so far behind the curve they can’t even see it. And if there was ever a byword for this generation its certainly ‘apathy’. So we will continue to be happily exploited as big businesses lovebomb us with free storage, apps, photo filters and whatever else.

And we can look forward to a future where we’re unemployed but, hey, at least we can check our emails for free.

Multi (TV) Channel (Not) Shopping

Have you bought a television recently?

And if so, what was most important to you?

For me, the thing that matters most is picture quality. Its a television. It does pictures.

But in Curry’s tonight, bloody hell. You’d think a TV did anything but pictures, the amount of obstacles they present to prevent you comparing the quality of one picture with another.

A wall of TVs, but some showing different videos than the others. All had loops of content that lasted over five minutes; one even had a video showing me the quality of video a new mobile phone can record (hint: its not as good as that of a £300 HD TV. So why are you showing me it? Its like dressing down for your first date).

So we narrowed our selection to a handful of TVs, based on price, features and how thin the bezel was (I apologise… A thin bezel just looks nicer).

We were left with three screens and it all came down to picture quality. What I wanted to see at this point was simple: a short (30-60 second) video containing video that both shows off and challenges the TV. Confetti shots. Long shots. Dark shots. Each shot steady on screen for at least five seconds so I could look at how each screen handled it.

And I wanted it to repeat endlessly.

In short, I wanted to be able to compare the way each TV deals with the same video scenario. But all I got was adverts and ‘style’.

Currys, come on. I was trying to spend £300 of my hard-earned with you. I am not a videophile but nor am I an idiot. Provide me with something useful that the internet cannot, and I am all yours.

That direct, A/B testing of picture quality is the one thing the internet can’t provide. So why on earth would you not provide it?

Turnover Is A Load Of Shit

Can you guess what this article is about?

Well, here’s the thing. Of all the metrics you could choose to measure an agency’s success by, why does everyone put so much stock in the most pointless of all?

Good metrics:

- Client satisfaction
- Objective quality of work
- Profit

Middling metrics:

- Awards won

Shit metrics:

- Turnover

 

The Drum and RAR announced their ‘best performing agencies outside of London’ today. You can read this here: http://www.thedrum.com/rar-top-100/2013

One of the agencies on there that had to let around one-third of their workforce go last week. No, I won’t say their name because they produce good work and I respect the agency and their staff.

That agency had been growing quite rapidly and there had been lots of press coverage about their boom. Yet reading between the lines  of the various stories paints a different picture: billings up 50%, staff up 100%.

So unless you’re making massive profit or paying peanuts in the first place, boosting staff expenditure – with its accordant costs of rent, equipment and so on – at a rate higher than billings will surely mean eating into the margin of the agency.

I’m not decrying this as a business practice, by the way. I don’t work for the agency and this may have been a tactical decision they made to meet a longer-term strategic goal (such as growing the business to then win bigger contracts).

They may also have had large assets or high margin that could withstand this growth phase.

But I am absolutely decrying the hard-on our industry has for turnover and billings. Would you rather be an agency that bills £500k/yr, with overheads of £250k, or one that bills £1.5m with overheads of £1.4m?

There’s no single definition of ‘performance’, but if we’re talking financial performance then I would absolutely prefer to be the former – as I suspect most people reading this article would.

Turnover pisses me off because it pretends to tell you everything, yet in reality tells you nothing. It obscures and distorts the conversation about agency performance, distracting us from the bigger conversation we need to be having about the role of agencies in 2013/14.

It lets us all pat ourselves on the back while ignoring that our constant yielding to client requests and giving away of ideas for free has created a billing model that priorities the execution over the conception of an idea, devaluing the standing of agencies in clients’ eyes in the process.

Turnover is not just useless. Its dangerous. It misleads clients and distracts agencies and their staff from the bigger issues that need our time and attention.