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.
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It turns out that Mailchimp’s founders, who recently became billionaires after the sale of the business to Intuit for $12 billion, had spent the lifetime of the company promising not to sell and using that as a reason not to give employees any equity whatsoever:
“When employees were recruited to work at Mailchimp there was a common refrain from hiring managers: No, you are not going to get equity, but you will get to be part of a scrappy company that fights for the little guy and we will never be acquired or go public.
“The founders told anyone who would listen they would own Mailchimp until they died and bragged about turning down multiple offers.”
Jay Rayner’s COVID-related amnesty on bad restaurant reviews seems to be over, and the world is a better place for it:
“Editors don’t send their journalists to cover wars because they like misery and carnage. They do so because the readers need to know about the carnage. By the same token, albeit with rather less moral urgency, I didn’t go to the pop-up of the Polo Lounge on the rooftop of London’s Dorchester Hotel because I like watching rich people pay ludicrous prices for cack-handed food that’s a gross insult to good taste, manners and commercial decency. I went because some risible hospitality operations need to be called out. Being positive is all well and good, but that shouldn’t mean absolute shockers get a free pass.”
Ben Mathis-Lilley explains the bizarre case of Alex Murdaugh (nominative determinism?), “a 53-year-old South Carolina lawyer at the centre of an astounding web of criminal activity and suspected criminal activity, much of it fatal.” #
Advances in technology are allowing online communities not just to organise themselves, but to create economies that benefit themselves and to create brands that are owned by no one. What does that mean for existing brands, and what new brands might emerge?
Creative ideas are becoming easier to have and easier to execute. They’re becoming commodities, low in value and interchangeable. In this brutal world, is there anything left for the professional creative? I think there is.
From 2015: Sam Knight’s dispatch from the Welsh war on Japanese knotweed, and the realisation that we’re not so different from the invasive, unkillable pest:
“Taylor kept talking about the knotweed’s power and versatility, and I thought I detected in his voice some of the admiration that I had heard from other professionals who had dedicated their working lives to controlling the weed, a feeling that Trevor Renals, the national invasive-species adviser at the U.K.’s Environment Agency, described when he told me about the time he saw a shoot of knotweed rise from a plant that he thought he had killed thirteen years earlier. ‘That’s my girl.’
“But in fact what Taylor was expressing was not admiration but the pain of recognition, another feeling that many people experience when encountering the plant, and one that I found myself suffering from during the summer I spent in its company. There is no weedier or more invasive species than humankind, and the world that we have made is for generalist organisms like us – Norwegian rats, common crows, zebra mussels, long-horned beetles, brown tree snakes – that can thrive on the far side of any mountain. ‘I mean, Antarctica is the only place we’ve not actually gone to and adapted to,’ said Taylor. ‘Japanese knotweed is the same.’”
Phil Levin ponders why all our cities are old (even in the US), what it might take to start a new one, and why that might be a good idea. #
Hillel Wayne examines the question of whether software developers are “real” engineers, a question that has broader relevance than you might think. #
James Roach explains why the marketing funnel is a less than useful concept: it doesn’t reflect the reality of purchase journeys, which are messy and non-linear and highly individual.
A puzzling piece from 2002 about Darius McCollum, a man who is obsessed with the New York subway. McCollum knows every rule and procedure, every timetabled train, every station; problematically, though, his obsession also extends to lengthy spells impersonating workers on the train system, with stolen uniforms and forged permission letters. He does the job properly and to a high standard, but nevertheless is routinely arrested and has spent the better part of twenty years in jail for his crimes. The MTA, who run the subway, are reluctant to employ him for liability reasons – even though he’d likely be the best employee they have. Intriguing and dismaying. #
I’d never encountered a Hang before; it’s a musical instrument, two steel pans fused together that produces sound through Helmholtz resonance when tapped. (Helmholtz resonance is the same type of sound produced by blowing over the top of a glass bottle.) The sounds it produces are amazing: percussive but also melodic, impactful but also resonant and lingering.
This mesmerising duet between Hang players Danny Cudd and Markus Johansson – AKA the Hang Massive – is a great example of what it can do. #
A list of books that I think every strategist should read.
An informative look at Ghent’s “circulation plan”, the nimble and low-cost approach to urban planning that vastly increased the number of journeys made by car and foot – and vastly reduced the number of cars in the city centre. More of this, please! #
Matthew C. Klein argues persuasively that to be in favour of economic growth isn’t to be anti-environment, but that to be against it is to be anti-humanity:
“That’s because there is no way to lift living standards for the vast majority of people – including the large number of poor and working-class people in rich countries who would happily enjoy better food, larger homes, a wider array of gadgets, and more opportunities for travel, if provided with the necessary spending power – if humanity as a whole must consume far less. Vastly increasing global production and consumption of goods and services is the only solution to global poverty, and it’s the only acceptable way to reduce inequality.”
There’s a big difference between literacy and competence, but we often conflate them by mistake – and create cultures and organisations that are fragile as a result.
A fascinating view from Avivah Wittenberg-Cox on navigating one’s career and relationships as a woman in the 2020s, in which she concludes that women need either a truly supportive partner, or no partner at all.
“‘I didn’t know,’ many of the men I interviewed told me after their wives left. To me, this sounds a lot like what corporate leaders tell me after their most senior female executives quit. They hadn’t expected them to leave, hadn’t quite understood how upset they were by the attitudes, the lack of recognition, or the promotion of the less competent man down the hall.
“But in the end, underneath it all, it isn’t true that they didn’t know. The reality is they didn’t care. They didn’t listen – because they didn’t think they had to.”
There’s lots of work to be done by men – and the companies that they still overwhelmingly run – to fix this, and Wittenberg-Cox has a useful starting list. #
Tom Whyman looks at the glut of big-name celebrities writing childrens’ books:
“There is an increasingly obvious problem in the children’s books industry, whereby celebrity authors are able to attract big advances, and outsized promotional pushes, for books which are often simply no good at all.”
“Children deserve better than this. What they really deserve is artists: writers and illustrators who will provoke them to think differently about the world they are – yes – just beginning to learn about, and who will thus help them to understand it in a better, deeper way.”
He goes on to recommend a particularly interesting example, one that might make a better choice for a “half-known niece or nephew” than the latest big name. #
In their quest to improve how they improve, how can organisations learn from not just from their allies, not just from their competitors, but from everyone?
What Shakespeare’s friends and textile manufacturers in a 1960s factory have to tell us about creativity, power, and who we collectively choose to celebrate.
Scott Galloway unleashes an appropriately vituperative take on Jeff Bezos’s bulbous, compensating-for-something “cocket”:
“Astronauts, my ass. Apollo 11 and Columbus travelled 240,000 and 3,000 miles to reach the moon and Caribbean, respectively. New Shepard 4 traveled 0.026% of the way to the moon. Put another way, on Tuesday we watched a man plant a flag three feet up from base camp at Mt. Everest and expect to be knighted. This weekend, I’ll be in Montauk. I plan to swim a half-mile from shore (I can do this) and declare I’ve discovered Spain.
“It’s his money, and he has the right to spend it on what he wants. But if Mr. Bezos was genuine about doing something more than crashing a canary yellow T-top Corvette into a Bosley for Men franchise, he could raise the minimum wage at his firm to $20/hour.”
(H/T: Max Bray) #
In this review of Xiaowei Wang’s Blockchain Chicken Farm, Clive Thompson explores the bewildering, empowering, and alienating forces of technology that are shaping rural China as the country grapples with a deeply cloven urban-rural divide, massive and continuing urbanisation, and the question of how to feed an ever-growing population. The future is here, and not everyone benefits:
“Wang also finds that, for rural China, tech-propelled business models can produce the grim dynamics of the gig economy, where a far-off tech giant runs your life. The blockchain chicken software? It’s nifty, but the farmer neither understands the technology nor owns it; it’s provided by a tech firm that in the first year of their collaboration ordered 6,000 chickens in advance to sell off to an online supermarket, and in the second year, nothing. Meanwhile, those Taobao villages also contain some embittered merchants who hate the e-commerce platform, because it allows buyers to demand refunds long after they’ve received their goods. One shoemaker has lost so much money this way that he’s forced to make lower- and lower-quality shoes to keep his profits up. ‘It’s all a scam,’ he says.”
James Poniewozik writes of a cultural shift, particularly on TV and within that particularly in comedies, from a sort of detached irony – exemplified by The Office – to a sincerity and warmth.
I’ve certainly found myself recognising this, falling deeply for shows like Schitt’s Creek, Detectorists and – the example that Poniewozik uses – Ted Lasso. They’re shows that are warm, character driven, full of heart. I don’t think it’s about a rejection of irony per se, and certainly not a return to old ways of doing things. These shows aren’t naïve or earnest. I think it’s more of a synthesis of two eras, something that only could have happened now – but I like it a lot. #
Brand purpose is an idea that’s consumed the world of brands for nearly a decade, much to the chagrin of many marketers and countless more consumers. The tide seems like it might be turning – but what will replace it, and what does its death mean for ethical business more fundamentally?
A fascinating early Japanese cookbook, the Ryori Monogatari dates from 1643:
“Taken together, the book’s explanations of its dishes open a window on how the Japanese ate during the Edo period, named for the capital city we now know as Tokyo, which lasted from 1603 to 1863.”
Perhaps surprisingly it contains recipes for several familiar-to-us dishes, such as sushi, udon noodles, and yakitori.