I'm Chief Strategist at big fish®, where I work with consumer businesses to help them solve brand, tech, and marketing problems. I’m interested in uncertainty, creativity, and sustainability – particularly in the world of consumer brands.
New here? You can browse by topic, or these featured articles might be a good place to start:
A really thoughtful post from Nick Asbury on the phenomenon of “brand purpose”, which has come to dominate the world of branding in the past decade:
“It’s a hazy fiction that allows people to think well of themselves, even as their decisions are driven by commercial incentives. The defining dynamic of Tech Valley is this outward belief in brand purpose, allied to an inward focus on venture capital and IPO, where you just have to get enough people to believe in your story for enough of the time. IPO is the cashing out of brand purpose.
“Mark Zuckerberg is the supreme example – brand purpose is the wind beneath his hydrofoil board. But we all live in Zuckerberg’s world. I believe passionately that, each time we lend credibility to brand purpose as a concept, another corporate sociopath gets their wings. It’s time to stop feeding this narrative that has dominated the last decade. Turn off the dry ice machine that provides the corporate atmospherics. See the world as it is.”
In the 1970s, “thick description” revolutionised anthropology. Out went grand universal theories of human behaviour and passive, neutral observation on the part of anthropologists. In came context-rich, subjective narratives that took into account the complex web of relationships behind how people behaved. I think strategy needs to undergo the same revolution.
In a story packed full of interest about taste and evolution, one fact in particular blew my mind:
“Genetic studies show that the largest group of birds – the oscines, or songbirds – originated in Australia before spreading worldwide. That group now contains about 5,000 of the 10,000 known bird species, including robins, cardinals, thrushes, sparrows, finches, jays, and starlings. All of these birds descended from an ancestor whose voice lilted through Australian trees and whose taste buds were tickled by sweet Australian nectar.”
In the 1980s, the Human Interference Task Force set about trying to communicate, across tens of thousands of years, the danger of nuclear waste. Their mission was to develop signs and symbols that could be placed at sites where nuclear waste was buried, that would communicate the danger that lay beneath. One of the proposed solutions was to create long-time nuclear waste warnings, carved into stone and part of a system of hostile architecture and other symbols that would signal to any future inhabitants that these were hostile and dangerous places, not to be disturbed.
E. Saxey has written a haunting poem in both Old English and modern that restates these warnings, transforming them into something supernatural and other-worldly. #
Seventy years ago Doug Engelbart realised that, if humanity was going to solve its most fiendishly complex problems, it was going to have to get an awful lot better at harnessing its collective intelligence. Even today, his ideas have enormous relevance to the ways we work together in teams and the ways that we manage the collective knowledge that those teams produce.
A beautiful song, surfaced to me by the algorithmic vagaries of Spotify: a collaboration between Malian singer Mamani Keïta, Ethiopian band Arat Kilo, and US producer/MC Mike Ladd.
In its “non-African musicians collaborating with African musicians” capacity it reminded me of when, a couple of years ago, Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project recorded in South Africa. The whole album is great, but the standout for me is this haunting Xhosa-Welsh duet between Zolani Mahola and the Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys: Absolutely Everything is Pointing Towards the Light. #
A mesmerising account, from 1998 and via Matt Webb, of François Mitterrand’s orgiastic last meal, including the horrifying and illegal spectacle of ortolan – a tiny songbird, drowned in Armagnac and eaten whole. #
An innovative looping video about looping videos, by Marcin Wichary, delivered live at the Ignite conference. #
A stunning – and yet in some ways completely intuitive – paper from Ellis Monk, Michael Esposito, and Hedwig Lee that explores the earnings gap between attractive and unattractive people, and discovers that it’s greater than the white–black income gap and the male–female one too:
“Physical attractiveness is an important axis of social stratification associated with educational attainment, marital patterns, earnings, and more… Notably, the magnitude of the earnings disparities along the perceived attractiveness continuum, net of controls, rivals and/or exceeds in magnitude the black-white race gap and, among African-Americans, the black-white race gap and the gender gap in earnings. The implications of these findings for current and future research on the labor market and social inequality are discussed.”
I found this interesting and challenging to my own preconceived ideas. I’ve been strongly in favour of measures to curtail the coronavirus, although I hope I haven’t been judgemental about it. But this piece argues fairly convincingly that an army of middle class professionals, safely ensconced in their working-from-home Zoom palaces, have largely outsourced the risk of the pandemic to working class people and then had the temerity to chide those same working class people for perceived breaking of rules:
“The Labour Zoomocracy has been quick to call for further lockdowns, harder border controls and has failed to acknowledge the inequalities that they both benefit from, and are complicit in. The middle-class sneers about pubs reopening and the protests against lockdown, whilst happen to attend and support their own protests. This demonstrates how removed many on the left are from the lived experience of suffering. It is easy to call for extended periods of lockdown when you are saving money, baking banana bread and transferring your risk to precarious warehouse and delivery staff.”
What consumers say and what they do are quite different. That’s often used as a stick with which to beat the idea of “conscious consumerism”. Is it that consumers are only pretending to be ethical? Or does money play more of a part?
Women are less likely to negotiate their salaries, earn less than men, and are underrepresented at the highest levels of business. Narratives that explain these problems often focus on what women can do differently – to “lean in”, to negotiate harder, to stop apologising, to be more assertive, and so on.
Stefanie O’Connell explains how these narratives, problematic in themselves in the way that they blame women for problems they have little control over, can also have unpleasant side effects. Women who adopt these more assertive behaviours, and show their ambition clearly, often face a backlash for doing so:
“A 2020 study linked this backlash directly to ambition: when women were arbitrarily assigned leadership positions, they were less likely to be found unlikeable. It was only when a woman was actively pursuing a leadership position that she encountered penalties. This suggests that more than power, influence or success, women are penalized for the pursuit of those things. This shows up in tangible outcomes, like the denial of job opportunities, raises and promotions – all of which can make building wealth harder.”
Lucy Edwards is a hit on TikTok with her videos explaining her life as a blind person, breezily answering questions from viewers that they might feel awkward asking otherwise. Lots of her videos focus on technology (How does she film herself? How does she read a menu in a restaurant? How does she edit her videos?), and Apple have done a special feature on the apps she uses.
I’ve seen videos of visually impaired people using iPhone accessibility features before and always found them incredible. This is another great example of a side of technology that most people never see, but that is vitally important as more and more of modern life involves being able to use technology. #
A surprisingly engaging – and informative – article on the evolution of the… well, you’ll get the picture.
“One unusually aerated specimen, a type of polyclad flatworm, sports multiple anuses that speckle its backside like feces-spewing freckles. Two others, a pair of sponge parasites called Syllis ramosa and Ramisyllis multicaudata, will twine their body through host tissues like a tapestry of tree roots, with each tip terminating in its own proprietary butthole; they have hundreds, perhaps thousands, in total. (It’s not totally clear why these animals and others spawned an embarrassment of anuses, but in at least some cases, Hejnol thinks it’s a logical outcome of a branched digestive system, which can more easily transport nutrients to a body’s every nook and cranny.)”
Many people who get into creative fields already have a highly tuned sense of taste for their chosen discipline. But this taste, rather than being an asset, often prevents them from progressing – by causing them to reject their own work as sub-standard. How do you get past that?
There are high-context cultures and low-context cultures, in human society as well as in businesses. Strong cultures are often high-context: implicit, respectful of hierarchy, desiring of consensus and continuity. That means fewer arguments – but that’s not always a good thing.
A lot of wisdom in a very short post: Andrew Bosworth on the ways that complex systems fail.
“It has always struck me that the more edifice you build to prevent minor failures the larger the capacity you create for catastrophic ones, just like climbers roped together on a mountaintop… My concern is that many of the efforts we have to defend against failure create catastrophic complexity without meaningfully reducing failure at all.”
For those of us who have been running remote workshops during lockdown using platforms like Zoom and Miro, an interesting article from FutureLearn on taking that a step further by running asynchronous workshops – workshops where people don’t gather together at the same time, but rather participate over a longer period of time, batting ideas back and forth between each other. #
Less is really more. When designing systems – from planes to marketing plans – we reach a point where additional complexity can only make things worse. Why is that? We do we find it so difficult to simplify things, and in doing so improve them? And how do we fix that?
Like many people, I’ve been captivated by the recent glut of upscaled and enhanced historical films, like the 1911 footage of New York City or the incredible stabilised film taken from Wuppertal’s Schwebebahn in 1902.
Such footage is incredible, but uncanny; I thought it was simply the glitches and artefacts of the upscaling process, but there’s actually an ethical unease here too, as Thomas Nicholson explores.
“Digital upscalers and the millions who’ve watched their work on YouTube say they’re making the past relatable for viewers in 2020, but for some historians of art and image-making, modernising century-old archives brings a host of problems. Even adding colour to black and white photographs is hotly contested.”
Nicholson quotes the film historian Luke McKernan, who says:
“Colourisation does not bring us closer to the past; it increases the gap between now and then. It does not enable immediacy; it creates difference. It makes the past record all the more distant for rejecting what is honest about it.”
Alfred Lee Loomis was a lawyer, a banker, a socialite, possibly one of the most influential physical scientists of the twentieth century, and can reasonably claim to have done more than any other civilian to bring a swift end to World War II. And yet, in the intervening decades, he’s faded into obscurity.
What the Royal Mail IT scandal can teach us about the nature of truth inside organisations, and why things often look perfectly fine until right before they fall apart.
The behavioural economics revolution has been on a quest towards rationality, aiming to recognise our messy, inaccurate cognitive biases and replace them with something more solid. But by throwing out intuition and heuristics, we risk losing a great deal.
Adam Wells writes beautifully on the subject of cider, and the romantic journeys that he takes as a cider writer and that the apples take on their way to becoming the final product:
“If cider does indeed have a soul, it is locked in the apples, in the trees, in the land and in the slow cycle of seasons that brings all three into the confluence of a unique expression. It is in the unrepeatable patterns of weather; the vicissitudes of fate that make every harvest different from the next, however subtly. It is in the gentle incline of an orchard’s bank that drains water that little more quickly, gives every row of trees that little more, little longer, exposure to sunlight. It is in the crusts of sand or clay or limestone that make each orchard geologically individual. It is in the trees that are forty years older than the trees of the same variety next door; in the small-gains increase in intensity of flavour that every passing year has cultivated. It is in the choice to plant one variety over another, not for reasons of yield or efficiency, but simply because the former variety tastes better; imparts greater qualities into its resultant drink. It is in the trimming back of the hazel thicket that casts shadows onto the apples. It is in the health of the soil, and the ways in which the orchardist chooses to maintain that soil’s condition. It is in the careful winter pruning that gives the trees a better chance of a better-tasting crop. It is in the deliberate selection of apples that are pristine and fully ripened and the rejection of those that are dirty or rotten or unripe. It is in the space between the trees, the airflow between the branches and the time between an apple’s falling and its being picked up. It is in the transfiguration of everything above and more into a liquid in our glass that offers all of the answers, if only we knew what the questions were.”
Craig Mod writes beautifully on the healing power of programming computers, a sanctuary of knowable certainty in a world aflame:
“This work of line-by-line problem solving gets me out of bed some days. Do you know this feeling? The not-wanting-to-emerge-from-the-covers feeling? Every single morning of the last year may have been the most collectively experienced covers-craving in human history, where so many things in the world were off by a degree here or a degree there. But under those covers I begin to think – A ha! I know how to solve server problem x, or quirk y. I know how to fix that search code. And I’m able to emerge and become human, or part human, and enter into that line-by-line world, where there is very little judgement, just you and the mechanics of the systems, systems that become increasingly beautiful the more time you spend with them. For me, this stewardship is therapy.”
It’s a long time since my time has been mostly occupied by programming, but I still feel the same draw Mod does. Tinkering with this site, writing a little script, withdrawing temporarily from the messiness of the wider world and focusing for a moment on a tiny, knowable part of it – and in doing so achieving something, creating something, and generally pushing some kind of mental reset button. #