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 lovely extract from the memoirs of Alan Cumming that’s a paean in its first half to Stanley Kubrick, and in its second to the Spice Girls:
“So, that summer running around London, laughing, and frolicking with five girls who were at the very zenith of their pop princess potency, being taught the dance moves of the Spice Girls’ songs by the Spice Girls themselves, was golden for me. I felt at home, I felt happy, I was carefree. Every day was an adventure, and anything seemed possible, and that’s how I want all my life to be.”
The first response to accidents, outages, and mistakes is to blame “human error”. If we think that chalking things up to human error explains things, argues Sidney Dekker’s book The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’, then we’ve got a lot of learning to do.
Emma Pattee introduces a brilliantly simple but powerful metaphor for thinking about your individual impact on climate change: your “climate shadow”. More useful than just thinking about your climate footprint, your climate shadow takes into account the secondary impacts of what you do, who you vote for and what you lobby for, and forces us to consider ways of making a far bigger impact than just by changing our own individual behaviours:
“The problem with the carbon footprint is that… our footprints don’t paint an accurate picture of our true individual impact on the climate crisis. And by encouraging eco-minded people to use their carbon footprints as a ‘guide’ to fight climate change, we risk them spending all of their energy on low-impact individual actions that are easy to quantify, like recycling or turning off lights, instead of putting that energy toward broader, more meaningful work, like lobbying local politicians or speaking up at work about wasteful practices.”
The always-fantastic Tim Harford on Britain’s recent spate of shortages, the global supply chain crisis, and all the other things that just aren’t meant to happen in our integrated, globalised, market economy:
“The complex world of obscure supply chains is a wonderful curiosity when explained by Leonard E. Read’s pencil. It is less wonderful when the shelves are empty and billions remain unvaccinated. ‘Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand,’ declaims the pencil. Should we?”
Jonathan Nunn, publisher of Vittles and perhaps the country’s best food writer at the moment, writes brilliantly on the cynical classism of food in Britain, particularly among the right-wing commentariat:
“You can understand the policing of food boundaries in a few non-food-related ways – the more charitable one is that for a certain type of political commentator, it is extremely convenient to portray the working class as a homogeneous, socially conservative and incurious bloc, whose vision of food corresponds to a kind of political nativism. It’s a bizarrely infantilising view, one that assumes that an interest in better or different foodstuffs is class treason and that puts people in clearly defined boxes, just as much as the identity politics that these commentators supposedly rail against.
“A less kind analysis, but perhaps a more accurate one, is that assigning middle-classness to cheap staples from other cuisines – hummus, soy sauce, cumin, for instance – usefully disguises the reality that the working class is far more diverse than these commentators understand. The fact is that if a similar inventory of ‘working class’ foods were to be undertaken across contemporary Britain, it would be less ‘gammon, pie and mash and ale’, and more ‘ackee, pierogi and shatkora’.”
An interesting look at the psychologist Steven Taylor, who presciently published a book on the psychology of pandemics immediately before the best test-case in human history:
“[Taylor] wrote a remarkable little book back in 2019 called ‘The Psychology of Pandemics.’ Its premise is that pandemics are ‘not simply events in which some harmful microbe “goes viral”’, but rather are mass psychological phenomena about the behaviours, attitudes and emotions of people.
“The book came out pre-COVID and yet predicts every trend and trope we’ve been living for 19 months now: the hoarding of supplies like toilet paper at the start; the rapid spread of ‘unfounded rumours and fake news’; the backlash against masks and vaccines; the rise and acceptance of conspiracy theories; and the division of society into people who ‘dutifully conform to the advice of health authorities’ – sometimes compulsively so – and those who ‘engage in seemingly self-defeating behaviours such as refusing to get vaccinated.’”
It’s not that Taylor had a crystal ball, but rather that the coronavirus pandemic has followed many of the same dynamics of pandemics throughout history, because humans are fundamentally human. As Taylor says:
“Pandemics bring out all these extremes in behaviour. Anxiety, fear, denial, racism, conspiracy theories, the popularity of quack cures, the ‘you’re not the boss of me’ backlash to health directives – these things have all been seen dating back to the medieval plagues.”
Interesting video documenting a grassroots effort to hold back desertification in northern Africa by planting spiral gardens. #
We think we know what people are good at and what they’re like. But how can we be sure, when we ourselves distort the way they behave? For some people, the power of this distortion is so great that they’re almost incapable of making accurate judgements about people.
A fascinating essay by Tom Stafford on the power of domestication, something humans have done not just to plants and animals, but perhaps also to ourselves, to remarkable effect.
“Human reason is a miracle resting on top another miracle. That we can persuade with words relies on a platform of communication and understanding that has its own complex origin story. Once that niche exists, reasons acquire their own force, used for good or ill. We can try and persuade, but we risk being persuaded in turn, or even of being tricked. Of pursuing noble goals, or dedicating ourselves to great lies.”
The latest generation of university students grew up with ubiquitous search on their computers and devices like iPads and iPhones that don’t reveal the filesystem. Educators are discovering that this means that they generally don’t know where they’ve put their files:
“Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved – they didn’t understand the question.
“Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.”
Environmental, social and governance investment strategies have been much talked about, but haven’t achieved much. One activist investment fund is trumpeting their latest model – but is it the solution that we’ve been looking for?
The superb story of Ksenia Coffman:
“When Ksenia Coffman started editing Wikipedia, she was like a tourist in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. She came to learn the tango, admire the architecture, sip maté. She didn’t know there was a Nazi problem.”
Coffman is almost single-handedly dealing with Wikipedia’s Nazi problem, from overt political bias to subtle glorification of “war heroes”. Wikipedia is full of unsung heroes like Coffman; I linked last year to a piece celebrating them that’s worth a revisit. #
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.”