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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As businesses grow, they face all sorts of pressures – from shareholders to be more efficient and more profitable, from management to do more with less, and from workers to reduce workload. Unwittingly, these pressures erode the margin of safety that keeps the organisation from making catastrophic errors.
Geoff Manaugh marvels at the strange geography of suburban Orange County, California:
“In the process, I noticed some incredible street names. I love this development, for example, with its absurdist, greeting-card geography: you can meet someone at the corner of Luminous and Dreamlight, or rendezvous with your Romeo on the thin spit of land where Silhouette meets Balcony.
“The same development has streets called Symphony, Pageantry, and Ambiance – and don’t miss “Momento” [sic]. Nearby is a street called Heather Mist.”
Brands inevitably end up reflecting the organisational structures of the businesses that create them. What does that mean, and how do you fix it?
Jerry Seinfeld being interviewed in HBR (a very strange sentence) produces this gem:
You and Larry David wrote Seinfeld together, without a traditional writers’ room, and burnout was one reason you stopped. Was there a more sustainable way to do it? Could McKinsey or someone have helped you find a better model?
It’s a consulting firm.
Are they funny?
Then I don’t need them. If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it – every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.
I can only imagine the beat between “Are they funny?” and “No”. #
Amy Kean on the samey language of modern advertising:
“The word ‘reimagine’ has crept into the advertising space in tandem with the growing number of brands hiring management consultants to manage their journeys into the future. We’re being sold shoes, reimagined. Laptops, reimagined. Teabags, reimagined. Cars, reimagined. And every single one of them is only slightly different.
“The word ‘reimagine’ is a tactic. It’s grandiose waffle (which is why management consultants love it). A meaningless word. Style over substance. A preference for what sounds good, versus what actually says something. So why is everyone doing it?”
Even a brief jaunt through TikTok will reveal countless videos in which people speak in the same uncanny, unnatural way. Olivia Yallop, author of Break the Internet: in Pursuit of Influence, explores why:
“And so over time, thanks to the conditioning effects of the algorithm and the prerogative to self-optimise towards virality, TikTok users all end up sounding the same. ‘The way you speak is how you fit in, how you become part of the crowd,’ says Kate. ‘And nowadays, of course, we’re part of the crowd anywhere in the world.’ If everyone is now a broadcaster, everyone now has ‘broadcast voice’. Audrey agrees: ‘Just like I’m getting fillers to emulate [Instagram influencers’] cheekbones, they are altering their pitch so that they can sound similar to me.’ Perhaps, she muses, ‘people have been scrolling for so long, they don’t even realise they’re starting to talk like that.’”
Brands are strange things. Everything about branding involves keeping things the same: the same logos, the same colours, the same zingy lines. But everything about the real world involves adaptation to changing circumstances. How do you decide what to flex and what to fix? What happens at the different layers of brands, from the most static to the most dynamic?
A comprehensive statistical analysis of the Wordle phenomenon, which I for one am still hooked on, by Robert Lesser.
In particular, Lesser explores whether people are less likely to Tweet their Wordle score when it’s poor, which he’s able to do by looking at the rate of tweets vs an objective scoring of the difficulty of the words:
“A common saying about sharing in the internet age is that social media is a highlight reel. People only post their best moments.
“Does this apply to Wordle? Are people less likely to share their mediocre performances or failures?
“Here’s one way to approach the question. If people are less likely to share their results when they do poorly, we would expect fewer people to do so on days with harder Wordle answers.”
A timely piece from Patrick Radden Keefe on London’s facilitation of dodgy Russian wealth:
“The stark implication of ‘Putin’s People’ is not just that the President of Russia may be a silent partner in one of England’s most storied sports franchises but also that England itself has been a silent and handsomely compensated partner in Putin’s kleptocratic designs – that, in the past two decades, Russian oligarchs have infiltrated England’s political, economic, and legal systems. ‘We must go after the oligarchs,’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared after the invasion of Ukraine, doing his best to sound Churchillian. But, as the international community labors to isolate Putin and his cronies, the question is whether England has been too compromised by Russian money to do so.”
Common-sense thinking from Josh Barrie:
“Next we come to one of the foremost junctures in the rule of pints: having two pints doesn’t exist. To have two pints would be a waste of time. It would be to fail oneself.
“To clarify, two pints is nonsense behaviour of the highest order. What is the point? Let’s examine the proposition before a more abstract and meandering deliberation – after two pints, you are not even nearly inebriated. But you are a bit drowsy and sluggish, probably, and you’ll definitely need the loo on the way home. Two pints is a suggestion of three, one of the best quantities of pints, and yet isn’t three at all. It’s two.
“Two pints is the amount drunk by bosses who are trying to fit in with their workers at the pub, staying for 35 minutes or so to seem like they care but leaving before actually committing to any semblance of an evening; it’s a ‘oh go on then’ to peer-pressuring pals before’ driving home illegally; it’s trying to make time for ‘one more’ when there simply isn’t time and having a whisky or rum alongside the first pint would have served perfectly; it’s queuing up at the football for too long and then missing a goal; it’s thinking two before dinner will be okay and then having to go to the loo three times before pudding and everyone thinking you have diabetes or worse; it’s a waste of time because it’s almost impossible not to have two without having three, and in any case it’s almost certainly illegal because of some medieval code.”
A great insight from Tom Critchlow: when you’re mid-career, neither at the top nor the bottom of organisations, many of your struggles come from a lack of context. You know enough to benefit from that context, but you aren’t in a position in the organisation where you – or even the people who are assigning you work – have it.
“As someone who gets given a request from someone more senior - it’s crucial to remember that the more context you are given, the better your work will be.
“Asking for context is being good at your job, not being needy and ineffective.
“And said another way, if you’re managing people you should be providing as much context as you can:
“Providing context makes you a good manager, it’s not micromanaging.”
A thoughtful post from Tom MacWright on note-taking:
“You can feel like you understand something without knowing anything about it, and you can understand something without feeling like you do. Both are problematic. Creating notes and other symbols of knowledge is a way to affect that balance.
“Maybe the real metacognition isn’t about having a mirror image of your brain encoded in a computer, but just having a mirror. Having a nice birch box filled with notebooks or a nice dense graph that symbolizes all the things you’ve noted, so that you can learn and forget comfortably. The world will always be too big to understand, but my box of notebooks, that I know.”
A lovely interview with J. Kenji López-Alt in the New Yorker. Kenji’s long been one of my favourite food writers for his work demolishing myths and improving techniques on Serious Eats.
I particularly like his distinction between recipes and techniques. It’s deceptively simple, but it applies in lots of disciplines – not just cooking:
“The technique is something that has wide applications. It’s a method, as opposed to a recipe, which is just the one thing. If I ask my phone, ‘How do I get from here to the post office?,’ it gives me a recipe to the post office. I can just stare at my phone and see how many feet I have to walk this way, which way I turn, and then I get to the post office. Whereas learning a technique is like being handed the map. It allows you to choose other destinations – it allows you to choose alternate routes. That’s basically the difference to me: a recipe is turn-by-turn directions, a technique is a map.”
How do you strike a balance between the past, the present, and the future? The trick is finding the right period of time to focus on – not so long that it allows your ambitions to float off into the æther, but not so short that you never tackle anything tough.
Adam Tooze gets characteristically to the point on the unfolding war in Ukraine and how it might escalate, at what feels like a particularly critical juncture:
“Over the last week, we have seen how the reality of war, the shock of moving from hypothetical to reality, changes the calculus. That is the stage we are reaching with the economy next week. The shooting has started. What will be the fall out? The truly concerning prospect should be that a general panic in Russia, triggers a further dangerous and unpredictable military escalation.”
Putin’s nuclear threats might be a tactic – “escalate to de-escalate” – but they might not be, either. As Tooze cautiously concludes:
“…the worrying thing is precisely that, as far as the economy is concerned, the chaos is just about to get started. Clearly the economy has not been the determining factor in Putin’s calculus so far. Sanctions were intended to get his attention. Next week will reveal how that message lands.”
An incredible story of hustle culture, a con artist, and an introduction (for me at least) to the word “jobfishing”:
“The Zoom call had about 40 people on it - or that’s what the people who had logged on thought. The all-staff meeting at the glamorous design agency had been called to welcome the growing company’s newest recruits. Its name was Madbird and its dynamic and inspirational boss, Ali Ayad, wanted everyone on the call to be ambitious hustlers - just like him.
“But what those who had turned on their cameras didn’t know was that some of the others in the meeting weren’t real people. Yes, they were listed as participants. Some even had active email accounts and LinkedIn profiles. But their names were made up and their headshots belonged to other people.
“The whole thing was fake - the real employees had been ‘jobfished’.”
There’s a feature of many organisations in which those at the top know far less about what’s going on than those at the bottom – with sometimes disastrous consequences. But there’s a cure for it, too.
As someone who spends roughly half their day raging at Google Slides, this was truly traumatic:
“Perhaps like you, I naively started out thinking that Google Slides was just a poorly maintained product suffering from some questionable foundational decisions made ages ago that worshipped at the shrine of PowerPoint and which have never since been revisited, but now, after having had to use it so much in the past year, I believe that Google Slides is actually just trolling me.
“Join me on this cathartic journey which aspires to be none of the following: constructive, systematic, exhaustive. I’m too tired for that, dear reader. Consider this a gag reel. A platter of amuse-bouches. A chocolate sampler box of nightmares.”
A fascinating optical illusion; even when you know what you’re expecting, it still works.
Molly White, creator of the fantastic web3 is going just great, explains what seemingly no one else has: the potential for abuse that blockchain/crypto/web3 projects have baked into their technology. It’s concerning stuff, but this lack of regard for the abusive potential of technology is sadly common in the tech world:
“‘How will this technology be used to harass and abuse people?’ is a form of that question that too often goes unasked, particularly given that the demographics of people who are most at risk for abuse and harassment tend to be underrepresented in the industry. Apple apparently didn’t put much thought into how its AirTag location tracking discs could be misused by stalkers and domestic abusers. Target didn’t realize how its attempts to market to expectant mothers might out pregnant teenagers to their families. Slack didn’t foresee how people might use its invitation feature to send people harassing messages they couldn’t block.”
Complex systems rarely respond in predictable ways. Whatever we try to change – companies, other organisations, the environment, technical systems – we run the risk of unexpected behaviour, both good and bad.
Wordle has taken the internet by storm. It’s fun and simple, two qualities that have inspired a host of interesting spin-offs.
A great story from what’s been a great Winter Olympics so far: Jamaican skiier Benjamin Alexander, who only started skiing six years ago, successfully finished his giant slalom race. Although he finished last and was 1m10s off the pace, his philosophy – “if you finish you beat everyone who doesn’t” – seems like a pretty great one for more than just skiing. #
James Greig examines the “concept creep” of the language we collectively use to talk about behaviour in the dating game. “Trauma”, once limited to life-altering events, now essentially means “anything that hurts me”. “Love-bombing”, a manipulative behaviour that involves showering someone with a disorientating amount of affection at the start of a relationship, is now used to describe behaviour that previously might have been called “a bit keen”. Everyone, it seems, is either a narcissist or going on dates with one.
As well as watering down useful concepts to the point that they no longer hold meaning, this language reinforces problematic relationship dynamics:
”Using this kind of language can also lead to ‘moral typecasting’: the idea that the world is split between moral agents (people who do either good or bad) and moral patients (people who have good or bad things done to them). What’s interesting is that studies show that we think of people as either one thing or the other, and very rarely a combination of the two…
“But if you think of yourself as a moral patient and anyone who hurts you as a moral agent, it means that anything you do to them becomes fair game, because you are constitutionally incapable of inflicting harm, and they are constitutionally incapable of experiencing it.”
The fascinating story of Danielle Miller, rich kid turned fraudster.
“Miller and Blas didn’t interact much, but their meeting set off a chain of events that would draw them both deeper into the criminal world than either had gone before. By the time their friendship fell apart, stolen credit cards would be the least of their troubles. “I was interested to know why this mean girl wanted to be friends with me,’ Miller says now. ‘And in the end I think it was because she wanted to use me for whatever crimes we were accused of.’”
This kind of profile, interesting though it is, is an example of a phenomenon that Chris Dillow has written about extensively: people, and especially journalists, are bizarrely deferential to criminals from upper and upper-middle class backgrounds. Dillow quotes Adam Smith:
“We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.”
As Dillow notes:
“The sympathy of headline writers is tightly circumscribed. They rarely speak of a downfall or fall from grace after working class people are convicted.”
This collection of label designs from Portuguese fish cans is a treasure trove of typography, vernacular design, and wonderful illustrations. There are thousands to get stuck into.
(Love the gnomes.)
(Does what it says on the tin, I suppose.)
(The world’s snootiest sardine.) #