Friday, February 10, 2017

might as well jump

Note: This thing was written for the Mumbrella '24 hours with...' weekly feature.

After about 6 re-writes it was still rejected as not meeting the criteria, so I gave up. This is version 2 which was the best 'take'.


Are readers are familiar with the BBC comedy TV show ‘Room 101’?

On the show celebrities are invited to discuss their pet hates and then attempt to persuade the host – Frank Skinner - to send those hates into oblivion in Room 101.

The literary Room 101 is the torture room in the George Orwell novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' which reputedly contains ‘the worst thing in the world’.

Interestingly George Orwell himself named Room 101 after a real meeting room in BBC Broadcasting House where he sat through many tedious meetings.

Perhaps you have one such room in your agency…

If I were ever to appear on the show, one of my items for Room 101 would almost certainly be in-flight magazines.

In particular those ‘one day in Marrakech’ types of articles.

‘Wake up early and take a stroll through the local artisanal shepherds market where you can pick up a single-origin Nicaraguan black honey espresso – infused with Apricot, of course – and peruse the selection of hand-made authentic Mongolian compost toilets.’

Hopefully I can get through this article without that kind of status-signaling twaddle. Or at least keep it to a minimum.

I say minimum, as I’m only human.

So, a day in the life - minus the conspicuous ‘authenticity’…

The day begins…

As much as I can I try and organise working time during daylight hours.

Routinely staying up way past bedtime to finish work that didn’t get done during the day is an indicator that something else has gone awry.

Some of us think of ourselves as night people, but - as a species - we have evolved to function best in the daytime.

For a start, we can't see in the dark.

Given that sabre-tooth tigers and suchlike tended to hunt at night this was of some importance or our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

There’s a lot of talk these days about this-or-that disruptive innovation.

In terms of impact innovations such as the electric light were exponentially more disruptive than any Uber or Snapchat glasses will ever be.

Even if you prefer to work at night, it is still the down time on the evolutionary body clock. I have extra admiration for people like A&E doctors who work through the night. It’s a hard enough job as it is without battling against 2 million years of evolution.

I’d rather just get up a bit earlier in the morning. Speaking of which…


I get up. But nothing gets me down.

I’d like to be able to say that this is a tactical self-nudge to anchor my biological clock, however it’s more about the necessity of getting on the road. I live down the Mornington Peninsula so I’m part of the traffic on the M3, M11 then M1.

If I’m not on the M1 by 7am it can take forever to get to South Melb.

I’ve generally selected the next day's clothes etc the night before – by ‘selected’ I mean jeans and whatever t-shirt is top of the pile (its my variant of the famous Obama two-suits method).

A morning routine helps me function without having to think about what I’m doing, and get out the door without waking the family at stupid o’clock.

Car time is often creative thinking time. But who couldn’t be creative zipping through the morning rush in a canary yellow Porsche 911 Carrera?

It’s a bit harder in a 2003 Honda Jazz, but I manage.

I recently read about the cartoonist Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) who thought up all the original Dilbert cartoons between 5am and 7am before going to his day job.

Even after quitting his job and going pro he continued to do the strip from 6am to 7am and doesn't attempt any creative work in afternoon, reserving that time for admin tasks.

With a bit of luck I’ll get into the office around 7.45. This means I’ve got about an hour and a half to get some creative or investigative work done before I have to start attending meetings.

Once or twice a week I’ll use this time to keep up with political sections of the major newspaper sites, it’s a good idea for me and my team to keep up to speed on policy issues, locally and nationally.

I’d like to tell you more but the sensitive nature of my work for the government demands utmost secrecy. I know you will understand.

I am healthy and well and making lots of money.

(Like Travis Bickle, I’m God’s lonely man.)

It’s hard to say what a typical day is. We work with all manner of government departments and institutions with budgets ranging from tiny to some of the biggest spenders in Australia.

I’m lucky to have a very capable team - all are generalist strategic planners but among them I have three directors - each with their distinct experience and specialisms to add from Behavioural insights, Ehrenberg-Bass Marketing Science and Cultural Science.

In a general sense our remit involves working with information and putting it to use (to paraphrase Stanley Pollitt). This is not just marketing or media research but all the information available – in order to identify and help solve a client's problems.


Until recently I’d spent the bulk of my career in creative agencies and no suppliers ever wanted to take me to lunch.

It’s a different story in a media agency.

Everyone wants to take you out.

To keep it simple, I generally decline politely.

Not for any virtue-signaling reason, I’ve got a bit of a weird diet to follow (don’t ask), so it’s just easier to bring my own lunch.

Aside from client work our big project at the moment is further developing out our cultural insights platform, DIALECT (Diversity in Identity, Area, Linguistics, Ethnicity, Culture and Technology).

This platform allows us to explore and transform multiple cultural data inputs into usable market intelligence, mapping important cultural nuances – where they exist – and also the human universals that play out across cultures.

DIALECT is essentially our foray into the emerging field of applied Social Physics, fusing data analysis and mathematical laws of biology to understand group behaviour.

Today is our weekly review of the platform, and our Cultural Director, is taking me through the next set of iterations and incrementals. I nod and pretend to understand agile development methodology.

By mid-afternoon I’m already thinking about sleep.

I regard sleep as an essential part of my work.

At the moment I’m interested in 90-minute sleep cycles.

90mins is the optimum cycle, this means that you can feel more refreshed after 3 hours sleep than after 5 – waking after 5 hours means you have woken mid-cycle.

The psychologist Richard Wiseman says a good sleep is like a wash cycle on a washing machine – cleaning out your mind of the day’s memories that you don't need.

We all receive vast amounts of information during the day, and quite a lot of it – campaign tracker research reports, for example – can be totally useless, so this sorts out which memories are important and which to discard.

At this time of year the many articles that claim to reveal the top 24 (or more) marketing trends for 2017 can be safely set to boil wash.

A good way of distracting the mind and getting off to sleep is thinking of very positive scenarios.

I’ve come across many marketers who must be able to sleep very easily.

They are especially adept at building fantasy worlds in their head and should be able to drift off easily with very positive imagery of loyalty programs, social media engagement and suchlike.

Before the end of the day I have a catch-up on internal training with our Marketing Science expert in Canberra. She’s coming down in a couple of weeks to get us up to speed with the finer points of NBD-Dirichlet Distribution and Ehrenberg’s law of buying frequencies.


Back to the Honda Jazz and back to the freeway for the commute home. Tonight I listen to a couple of episodes of the BBC Radio 4 podcast ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ that I’ve been saving. Who would have thought that particle physics would be the new comedy?


At home, I try and park work stuff into my subconscious as much as possible and let it sort itself out while I'm doing other things.

Discerning creatives will be familiar with the seminal 1939 work by James Webb Young, entitled ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’.

Stage 3 of the 5 stage process Young outlines involves removing a problem you are trying to solve out of your conscious mind to stimulate the unconscious.

He likens it to how Sherlock Holmes would often stop right in the middle of a case, and drag Watson off to a cello recital, or something.

That was irritating to the practical minded Watson, but letting the unconscious chew on a problem was essential to the creative process for Holmes.

To let my own subconscious chew, I’ll take the dog out with my boy for a bit then when he’s tucked up maybe Mrs P and I will watch some written-by-algorithm series on Netflix, like ‘Designated Survivor’.

Or re-run old favourites like ‘Utopia’, ‘The West Wing’ or ‘The Thick of It’, anything just to try and switch off my mind from Government work.

I travel most weeks, back and forth to Canberra usually, so before bedtime I might pack my bag.

Flying time is good reading time. I’ve adopted the catchphrase ‘Nothing in advertising makes sense except in the light of evolution’ and I’m devouring a lot of evolutionary psychology just now.

Does all science and no novels make Jack a dull boy?

Round about 10.30pm it is time for some Peach Momotaro Blooming Tea, brewed from its own biodegradable tea temple and then I’m off to sleep for seven and a half hours exactly (that’s 5 sleep cycles).


I only promised to keep conspicuous authenticity and status-signaling to a manageable minimum.

Friday, January 20, 2017

it’s like that, and that’s the way it is.

The original articulation of the is-ought problem, is attributed to 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume.

The problem simply describes the tendency we have to make claims about what ‘ought to be’ (prescriptive) on the basis of statements about ‘what is’ (descriptive).

The is-ought problem is also sometimes known, rather menacingly, as ‘Hume's guillotine’.

Here’s a current example that should be salient for advertising types:

There is gender imbalance that favours males in ad agency creative departments, therefore the patriarchal conspiracy that perpetrates this injustice must be destroyed. 

Positioning a prescriptive claim after a descriptive claim in this way is a cute trick of the rhetoric.

The closeness of the two claims carries the implication that they are relevant to each other and, furthermore, asserts that the prescriptive claim (ought) is a logical consequence of the descriptive one (is).

The difficulty with this kind of is-ought statements is that they do not address the fundamental ‘why?’ question.

In this case, why are our creative departments disproportionately male?

In order to begin to understand this ‘why?’ question, I propose that we need to make the distinction between proximate and ultimate explanations.

 To lay the blame out as a ‘boys club’ or patriarchal conspiracy (besides being a wrong assumption, anyway) looks only at the ‘how? and ‘what?’ (proximate) questions, but ignores the ‘why?’

Ultimate explanations tackle the ‘why?’, and can be expressed from a Darwinian standpoint.

In other words; what might be the adaptive purpose – or the evolutionary roots - of a given behaviour?

With that in mind, we recently read about the mating behaviour of North American Prairie Chickens.

These creatures attract mates via a big social event out on the wilderness called a lek.

I know you do like our occasional biological detours.

A lek is akin to a massive open-air chicken rave.

The male birds gather together and compete for the attention of the females in a mass dance-off.

The best dancers then get chosen for action from the most females.

(Incidentally, this Prairie Chicken Dance is one of the oldest forms of Native American dancing, still performed to this day in those cultures and for similar purposes.)

This link between music, dance, creativity in general and mating strategies permeates all human cultures, of course.

For example, finding potential partners is a principal concern among many concert and club-goers, and the best dancers tend to do well.

Those on the stage itself tend to do even better.

For many a teenage boy who first tentatively strapped on an axe, at least one reason he got into a band would be because he might improve his chances with the girls.

In his book, Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rob Brooks, (Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of New South Wales) has looked deeper into this phenomenon.

He points to data that suggests that up until the early fifties women accounted for around one third of the singers of the day that dominated the popular music charts.

But from the mid-fifties - the beginning of the rock ’n’ roll era – and on to more recently, that ratio had changed to about one in ten.

Brooks proposes that the emergence of pop radio and television the 50s and 60s provided the perfect vehicle for young men to pursue their (or, more accurately, their genes) evolved agenda of competing with each other to attract women with their singing and dancing skills.

(And, as an aside, several studies have shown that in a general sense women tend to be more attracted to men with deep voices. This is an auditory cue linked to testosterone levels - a male phenotypic quality that would have been a fitness indicator in our ancestors. This has encouraged some biologists to label this the Barry White Effect - another example of pop culture’s many contributions to evolutionary theory.)

In simple terms evolutionary theory states that it is in the interest of the male genes to try and mate with as many females as possible, thereby increasing the rate of passing his genes into the next generation.

Conversely it is in the genetic interest of the female to be far more choosey and select only the best quality males. From a parental investment point of view she has far more to lose by making bad choices.

Looking at brands and advertising through this lens we might suggest it follows that, for the most part, advertisers are seeking to attract as many potential buyers to their brand as possible.

This could be viewed as a ‘male’ mating strategy. Quantity of mates slightly trumping quality.

Consumers, therefore, must adopt a far more cautious approach. There’s significant risk in making the wrong choice. They need to select the ‘fittest’ brands that they can. This could be compared to a ‘female’ strategy.

Why does this matter when considering the question about why our creative departments seem to skew disproportionately male?

From a status standpoint, the creative department represents the sexiest part of the whole advertising process. They make the work, pick up the awards, they are the stars of the industry.

Is it any wonder, then, that young males in the industry are attracted to the creative department?

Aside from anything else, their genes compel them to.

Women tend find creative men sexy. And as an added bonus creativity beats just about every other attraction cue, you don’t even need to not be that good looking if you can bash out a decent tune, or write a Lion winning campaign or two.

The evolutionary psychologist Dr Geoffrey Miller explains it in this sense.

Creative men will attract women because their creativity reveals the following heritable traits:

  • Extraverted personality 
  • High intelligence 
  • Ability to express emotions 
  • Ability to obtain social status and resources 

By absolutely no means are we suggesting that the creative department should be sole domain of men. That would be an equally fallacious is-ought statement.

But for competitive young males it’s a pretty attractive proposition.

The role of creatives is to represent the idea, and the role of the creative work in advertising is to propagate a brand idea among large populations in order to influence buyer behaviour. In this respect there is some similarity between how advertising creative works (when it works) and male mating strategies, from an evolutionary standpoint.

So perhaps it’s not unreasonable to speculate that this – coupled with the benefits of the traits above associated with creativity – will have a tendency to attract a disproportionate amount of young males who fancy their chances when competing with each other in this field.

It’s also well documented that – in an overall sense, across all functions – the sex ratio in agencies is far more evenly distributed. Close to 50/50.

Strategy and Client Service, then, are the other key functions in the agency.

These roles are to represent the voice of the consumers and the the voice of the client respectively. Both consumers and clients take on considerable risk if they make bad choices, either in the brands they buy or campaigns they sign off.

There is therefore a distinct possibility – given the resemblance to choosey female mating strategies – that these functions may attract more women than men.

And, guess what? They do.

Not only that, in other flavours of agencies in the industry, where there is less of a focus on a creative product (Media, PR, Content etc), this gender question doesn’t arise nearly as often.

There are not nearly enough women in creative leadership positions, and creative departments in general. True.

Yet they dominate the other departments. Also true.

By seeking to understand why this might be the case – the real why? - an ultimate explanation rather than the grab-bag of whats and hows - then perhaps we might come up with some better ideas for what might be the best way forward.

I’d suggest some scientific rigour would not go amiss in the exploration. There are quite enough ‘ethnographic’ opinion pieces masquerading as ‘studies’ or ‘research’, thank you very much.

As a final note I should point out that this author spent many years in creative departments before moving over into strategy.

In this time I’ve worked with many women creatives and reported in to at least three women creative directors.

All 3 were fantastically talented and as good, if not better, than the top male CD’s I’ve also experienced.

But what sets them apart, and contributes to their continuing success, is their willingness and ability to compete, survive and thrive in the toughest department in this industry. 

It is this simple fact that needs to be recognised in this debate.

Lack of this competitive drive was my own failing in the creative department.

Talent is mandatory but it’s not enough.

Survival and success also depends on the individual’s ability to compete, fiercely. At the time I was lacking in this area and that’s a big part of why I did not survive.

I’m happier in strategy anyway, thanks for asking.

Creative departments are hugely competitive environments. Especially the best ones.

People literally disappear if they don’t compete, win and produce. Go 12 months without bringing in a piece of metal and you are run the real risk of being toast.

It’s like that. And that’s the way it is.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

'twas the night before christmas

This will be the final communication from the Boat HQ in 2016.

As ever, thanks for reading, commenting and sharing in the last 12 months.

I'll be back sporadically from the middle of January, I reckon.

Feliz Navidad etc.

Friday, November 11, 2016

selling the digital economy

Functional stupidity, or Fachidioten as the Germans wonderfully phrase it, tends to manifest itself in three main behaviours.

Not thinking about your assumptions
Not asking why you are doing something
Not considering the consequences or wider meaning of your actions.

There's a whole book on this stuff, I challenge you to read it and not weep with equal parts hilarity and despair.

We attended a business breakfast seminar this week hosted by two digital economy product/services.

Their principal aim, obviously, was to demonstrate the value of their platforms to the media community.

I'm not going to name them specifically - this piece is in no way an attack on those companies in particular - however events conspired to futher demonstrate some of the prevalent fachidioten style ideological dissonance among media types, these days.

The dominant themes of discussion revolved around millennials (natch), the benefits to advertisers of the platforms' capabilities in automation, algorithm curation, programmatic approaches, data-driven approaches, hyper personalisation and extreme targeting (by age, gender, location, mood, behaviour, real-time and every conceivable niche etc). 

Cue head-nodding across the floor.

(That data-driven targeting is increasingly, and unquestioningly, assumed and accepted as inherently good is fascinating, but a topic for another time).

Following the presentations, came the obligatory Q&A.

An non-millennial, woman at the back of the hall raised her hand with a question for the vendors.
In a quiet voice she graciously acknowledged the efforts our host were making to adapt there platforms to the technological, targeting efficiency and performance needs of modern marketers.

Then in the very same modest way she dropped the bomb.

'Could [the vendors] tell us a bit about what they were doing to grow their own user base, and grow their own brands?'

To which the digital economy companies representatives - without the slightest recognition of the irony that was to follow - happily chirped, 

'Were running TV ads, doing press and outdoor and partnering with large telco's on their advertising and partnering with the big supermarkets' 

'Thank you' she replied, with a very slight - but visible to me - half-smile.

Monday, October 31, 2016

no scrubs (or... is every girl crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man?)

In the famous study conducted by Townsend & Levy (1990) the two scientists wondered about the effects of status (as signified by clothing), AND attractiveness, on both male and female subjects willingness to engage in romantic relationships (on the Craig David scale.. eg going for a drink on Monday, and though until Wednesday...).

The big question for the chaps was whether high status was enough to compensate for less handsomness?

To test this, a selection of male targets were pre-rated for physical attractiveness and divided into two categories -  described as handsome, and 'homely'.

The targets were then assigned one of three outfits:

Outfit number one included sharp suit, shirt, tie and a Rolex watch. Targets wearing this garb were described as being doctors (high status).

The second outfit included a simple plain white shirt and trousers and its wearers were described as having medium status occupations.

The third outfit was the uniform of a Burger King employee. Obviously, low status.

In the results, and for the most part, the women subjects expressed a preference for high status males, regardless of good-looks than with medium or low status / handsome males

The clothes maketh the man, it would appear?
Or is it simply the status?

Of course, we wondered if this would replicate in advertising agencies, given that dress codes are somewhat reversed.

Here’s an experiment to try.

Get three groups of agency males  together of varying good-lookingness, and a panel of agency women.

Group 1 outfits. Ironic t-shirt, beards and tattoos. Described as being creatives (eg high status).

Group 2. Cardigans, brogues, glasses. Described as being planners (medium status – although we all know that they are the most important people in the agency).

Group 3. Expensive suit (slightly too small a la Norman Wisdom, no socks, slip-on shoes. Described as being Account handlers (low status).

We can compare data at a later point.

Friday, October 28, 2016

what we've got here is... failure to communicate

The announcement that Google has made small but significant adjustments the way it handles the personal data collected from Google product users and the 'behavioural' data via its ad network, DoubleClick came and went with surprisingly little commentary.

In case you missed it, he previous policy had been: “We will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent”.

Now you have to opt-out.

The updated policy now states: “Depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and ads may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivers by Google”.

That this change happens at around about the same time as the release of Google’s new total surveillance machine (ooops... phone) 'Pixel' may be purely coincidence, although - to be fair - I expect many of us assumed that total surveillance had had been the case on all along.

Either way, the battle continues between - on the one side - the Googles, Facebooks and assorted nefarious 3rd party adtech doing all in their power to harvest and process all available data.

And us - the hapless users - on the other side, either lethargically capitulating or offering token resistance through the application of ad-blockers and anti-tracking.

(Indeed, as something of a public service, this blog had a piece of code added that would inform you if your browser is vulnerable to 3rd party tracking, the makers seem to have disabled it now, though)

This creates something of a dilemma if one appreciates the 'social contract' between advertising and the content we want to read or see.

But what if there were a way of neither breaking the rules nor playing by them?

Whilst reading The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley we were struck by the following idea.

Foley advocates for ‘detachment’ from the various absurdities of contemporary life.

Though not explicitly noted, the self-commoditisation practiced by individuals in the digital age would be included.

Detachment means ‘if you can't change the world, at least don't let it change you’.

And a paradoxical form of detachment is, what Foley calls, manic engagement'

To illustrate this Foley points to a scene in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman in the lead role as charismatic petty criminal - now prison inmate - Luke.

Luke and his fellow chain-gang convicts are spreading gravel on a dirt road and, as usual, working as slowly as possible.

Suddenly, Luke strangely starts to go at the gravel spreading work with a manic over-enthusiasm.

The others in the gang look on with puzzled bemusement, but then - one by one - begin to copy and, likewise, start shovelling with disproportionate gusto.

This winds-up the guards no end. What are they playing at? Do we stop them?

The gang shift the entire mountain of gravel like men possessed, eventually running out of road to cover then collapse, laughing hysterically while the enraged and bewildered guards look on.

Perhaps one way to foil the aforementioned nefarious adtech 3rd party trackers is by practicing a form of manic engagement in our internet activities.

Achieving detachment by manic engagement.

Can detachment be achieved via Adblocking? After all, who really knows what the adblockers are doing with our data?.

Consider, however, a strategy of manic engagement.

A mass detachment by millions of internet users who disguise their regular behaviour by manically clicking on every link and ad served, performing multiple random searches for tractor parts, Mongolian compost toilets, Elton John memorabilia, indeed any other bizzare term that comes to mind (the more bizzare the better), then following up on every retargeting attempt with more clicks and searches.

Creating incommensurately more noise than signal.

Pumping the data hosepipe full of confusion, misinformation and obfuscation creating a ridiculously false 'profile' and disguising real intentions.

A bit labour intensive, agreed, but surely there's a personal ad-fraud bot-net out there somewhere...

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

i was seriously thinking about hidin' the receiver

In 1894 the president of the Royal Society - the UK's national academy of science - Lord Kelvin, confidently predicted that radio had 'no future'.

The first radio factory was opened 5 years later, and within 8 years a radio set sat in over 50% of US homes.

The time taken to reach 50% of homes is generally accepted as a reasonable way to measure this kind of impact.

Then the transistor was invented in 1947, and ushered in the era of much smaller portable radios.

American electronics companies showed little interest in developing this nascent idea of portable music so in stepped a Japanese start-up called Sony.

Sony launched the first transistor radio in 1954 – it’s possibly no coincidence that rock’n’roll and teenage culture blew up very shortly after.

The aforementioned Lord Kelvin was no stranger to grand - but spectacularly wrong - predictions.

He was also certain that nothing heavier-than-air would ever fly and that X-rays were simply an elaborate hoax.

These innovations of the early 20th century – including electricity, electric light, telephony, TV, radio, central heating, cars, aircraft – all had far greater impact on society than digital technologies have had - up to this point.

To use our previous measure, both radio and television were adopted much faster – under 10 years to reach 50% of households - than personal computers or mobile phones; circa 15-17 years respectively.

Other much hyped technologies – smart watches, connected homes, 3D printers, wearable tech – are being adopted even more slowly.

Regardless, it's important to note that the technology itself is not becoming more disruptive – the majority of the poster children of digital disruption have been services built upon the existing web infrastructure – and because of this we confuse diversification with acceleration.

Yes, the impact of digital technology is expanding on just about every front - and will continue to do so slowly - but the occasional reality check is in order.

Digital technology is actually not changing society like never before, nor is the speed of technological change accelerating like never before.

Which is all a shame really, given we are facing a not too distant future of 10billion of us crammed onto a tiny planet without enough food or water.

Meaningful disruption – of the same scale and impact as electricity or the radio in past times – will have to be about infrastructure, hygiene, food production, environment and healthcare. Not Snapchat glasses or smart clothes pegs.

And, if we are honest, that's not happening quickly enough.