Roblog

I’m Rob Miller

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.

Recent posts

  • I wrote last month about the strange figure who appeared to be stealing manuscripts before their publication, seemingly without motive.

    The FBI have now made an arrest:

    “On Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old rights coordinator for Simon & Schuster UK, saying that he ‘impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals’ over five or more years, obtaining hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the process.”

    …but without yet gaining an understanding of why the books were stolen:

    “For years, the scheme has baffled people in the book world. Works by high-profile writers and celebrities like Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke have been targeted, but so have story collections and works by first-time authors. When manuscripts were successfully stolen, none of them seemed to show up on the black market or the dark web. Ransom demands never materialized. Indeed, the indictment details how Mr. Bernardini went about the scheme, but not why.”

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  • One of the downsides of ESG investment, in the short term at least, is that it creates an opportunity for the unscrupulous. (I’ve written about this before.)

    The logic is fairly simple: if a bunch of investors choose not to invest in “sinful” stocks, those stocks will be underpriced; if a bunch of investors choose not to lend money to “sinful” businesses, then the cost of raising capital for those businesses will be higher, meaning higher returns for those who lend to them. Big institutional investors have mostly moved towards ESG principles, which means that – if you’re a sociopath – you can get higher returns by consciously choosing to invest in those sinful stocks. While they’re still around, at least.

    Sadly, private equity (not known for its strong ethical foundation) seems to have got the memo:

    “Private equity firms are lining up to take on the dirty – and highly profitable – assets being divested by publicly traded commodity producers as the world grapples to decarbonize.

    “In the latest example, private equity accounted for most of the 30 so-called western candidates that signed non-disclosure agreements in the sale of Vale SA’s Mozambique coal business, according to Luciano Siani Pires, head of strategy and business transformation at Rio de Janeiro-based Vale.

    “‘The ensuing combination of high commodity prices and low acquisition costs for unwelcome assets may provide these firms the bonanza of a lifetime,’ Siani said.”

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  • An unsuccessful coup

    Thirty years ago, Communist hard-liners launched a coup in the USSR. Days later, they’d failed – and Boris Yeltsin had catapulted himself into the heart of power. Why did they fail, why did Yeltsin succeed, and what can we learn from Yeltsin’s navigating of uncertain events?

  • From 2017 and found via Tom Stuart’s weeknotes, some brilliant and beautiful writing advice from George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo.

    “How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

    “The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

    “The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in ‘real life’ – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.

    “And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.”

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  • JP Castlin, whose Strategy in Praxis newsletter is well worth a subscribe, explains the Ansoff Matrix, something I’ve always been fond of. But he also eloquently explains its limitations.

    Hope is not lost for the Ansoff Matrix – it can still be useful – but perhaps needs to be put into a broader context:

    “Given its limitations, then, the best way to use the Ansoff matrix is together with a contextual understanding of the business and an already set strategic aspiration… it is a good way of visualizing what one can do – but despite Ansoff’s best efforts and Kotler’s claims to the contrary, it tells us little about what one should do or why.”

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  • Clive Thompson has an excellent theory of the emergence of new technologies, which he credits to Bill Buxton.

    Rather than coming from nowhere, new technologies are apparent in the world long before they reach widespread public consciousness:

    “…very few major technologies emerge suddenly. Quite the opposite: They’re usually the product of gradual tinkering and experimentation, with engineers and designers puttering around for years or even decades. Things get slowly refined, and the new tech starts being used in real-world circumstances, but mostly in niche areas.

    “Eventually some mass-market inventor notices these niche uses and realizes huh, this tech really works now. They build it into a mainstream product – which bursts into truly mass adoption.”

    Knowledge of this can enable you to search out technologies that might well reach mass adoption in the future:

    “If you wanted to predict the Next Big Thing, the Long Nose theory suggests that you don’t need to look in top-secret corporate innovation labs or in the latest scientific literature.

    “No, you look in the world around you. As Buxton told me, you go “prospecting and mining” – and see what tools are already being eagerly used in areas that lie just outside the mainstream. Those are the technologies that are being stress-tested to the point where they’re ripe to become a mass phenomenon. And you look for something that has that element of ‘surprising obviousness.’”

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  • Dan Luu neatly summarises why treating people as interchangeable is one of the most damaging things you can do to an organisation:

    “A friend of mine recently told me a story about a trendy tech company where they tried to move six people to another project, one that the people didn’t want to work on that they thought didn’t really make sense. The result was that two senior devs quit, the EM retired, one PM was fired (long story), and three people left the team. The team for both the old project and the new project had to be re-created from scratch.

    “As we’ve previously seen, an effective team is difficult to create, due to the institutional knowledge that exists on a team, as well as the team’s culture, but destroying a team is very easy.

    “I find it interesting that so many people in senior management roles persist in thinking that they can re-direct people as easily as opening up the city view in Civilization and assigning workers to switch from one task to another when the senior ICs I talk to have high accuracy in predicting when these kinds of moves won’t work out.”

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  • The shamrock organisation

    Conventional wisdom encourages businesses to think about their core competencies, and then outsource everything else. But the organisational theorist Charles Handy saw things slightly differently, inspired by his thinking on “portfolio careers”.

  • For years, a mysterious figure has been using deception, hacking, and subterfuge to steal unpublished manuscripts from literary agents and publishers.

    The puzzling things is: nobody really knows why:

    “This was a setup Stieg Larsson would have admired: a clever thief adopting multiple aliases, targeting victims around the world, and acting with no clear motive. The manuscripts weren’t being pirated, as far as anyone could tell. Fake Francesca wasn’t demanding a ransom. ‘We assumed it was the Russians,’ Mörk said. ‘But we are the book industry. It’s not like we’re digging gold or researching vaccines.’ Perhaps someone in publishing, or a Hollywood producer, was desperate for early access to books they might buy. Was the thief simply an impatient reader? A strung-out writer in need of ideas?”

    Reeves Wiedeman dug into the story, and found himself tied up in knots, as obsessed as the thief themselves. #

  • John Hanke, who founded the company that developed mobile gaming sensation Pokémon Go, advocates persuasively for a conception of the “metaverse” that involves making our current reality better, rather than escaping it into a fictional world:

    “But now people are babbling and swooning about this thing called a metaverse. Companies like Facebook – well, mainly Facebook – are pitching a more immersive vision where people don hardware rigs that block out their senses and replace the input with digital artifacts, essentially discarding reality for alternate worlds created by the lords of Silicon Valley. ‘Our overarching goal… is to help bring the metaverse to life,’ Mark Zuckerberg told his workforce in June.

    “Hanke hates this idea. He’s read all the science fiction books and seen all the films that first imagined the metaverse – all great fun, and all wrong. He believes that his vision, unlike virtual reality, will make the real world better without encouraging people to totally check out of it. This past summer, he felt compelled to explain why in a self-described manifesto whose title says it all: “The Metaverse Is a Dystopian Nightmare. Let’s Build a Better Reality.” (Facebook’s response: Change its name to Meta so it could focus on constructing Hanke’s nightmare.)”

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  • A beautiful short film by Dana Frankoff:

    “Voice Above Water is the story of a 90-year-old Balinese fisherman who can no longer fish because of the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, instead he collects trash in hopes of being able to fish again. The story is a glimpse into how one human is using his resources to make a difference and a reminder that if we all play our part we can accomplish something much greater than ourselves.”

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  • The merits of mêtis

    Why is work-to-rule effective as a way of workers negotiating with employers? Isn’t doing your job according to its description what you’re supposed to do? The answer lies in all the tacit, subtle, commonsensical things that employees do every day – in other words, in mêtis.

  • The end-of-year lists are trickling out; Christmas must be around the corner. The Economist’s best books of 2021 is well worth a dig.

    Three highlights from among many:

    “Empire of Pain”, by Patrick Radden Keefe

    “This is the tragic, enraging story of the Sackler family, the previously low-profile owners of Purdue Pharma – which in 1996 introduced the drug OxyContin. The author shows how an epidemic of prescription-opioid abuse morphed into a worse one of illicit heroin and, later, fentanyl.”

    “We Are Bellingcat”, by Eliot Higgins

    “How did a bunch of self-taught internet sleuths help solve some of the biggest crimes of recent years, such as the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine and the Salisbury poisonings? Bellingcat’s founder chronicles some of the outfit’s investigations, and its efforts to galvanise citizen journalists, expose war crimes and pick apart disinformation. An antidote to cyber-miserabilism.”

    “Fallen Idols”, by Alex von Tunzelmann

    “Ranging from George III to Saddam Hussein, India to the Dominican Republic, this account of the fates of controversial statues – variously dumped, destroyed, moved and re-erected – offers insights into the times and places they were put up and taken down. Statues simplify history, the author says; what is really educational are the arguments they provoke.”

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  • Tim Carmody has a great collection of links in celebration of the peerless Mel Brooks’s 95th birthday. Few can beat him for staying power:

    “Let’s try to put it in context. Brooks was born in the same year as Queen Elizabeth (II, don’t be cheeky), Marilyn Monroe, and John Coltrane. He’s old enough to have served in World War 2 (which he did), and that he was already in his 40s when he became a filmmaker, with The Producers. People sometimes point out that Barbara Walters, Martin Luther King Jr., and Anne Frank were born in the same year, to note how exact contemporaries can belong to such widely different time periods – yet Brooks is three years older than that trio.”

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  • Count me among the confused, who’ve been struggling with the correct pronunciation of “omicron” even after looking it up.

    That’s partly because of the difference between ancient and modern Greek:

    “Even before the pandemic, linguists couldn’t agree on what ancient Greek sounded like, other than that it often didn’t sound like modern Greek. Among scholars, there’s no consensus on how Omicron was pronounced in millennia past. Even in those days, people in different regions spoke their own dialects.

    “‘There isn’t one way of saying Omicron,’ said Armand D’Angour, professor of classical languages and literature at the University of Oxford. ‘First of all, you know, we’re not there, we haven’t recorded it.’”

    It’s not just coronavirus variants; the world is full of Greek-inspired words, most of which we seem to be collectively mangling.

    (When it comes to the name of the coronavirus variant, the least-bad option seems to be “OH-mee-kron”, but it’s probably one of those things – like “chorizo” – where you’re always going to get corrected by someone, and can’t really win.) #

  • The Metropolitan Police employ a team of “super-recognisers”, people who are preternaturally able to memorise and recognise faces. They’re aided by the uniquity of CCTV cameras in the UK:

    “By some estimates, as many as a million CCTV cameras are installed in London, making it the most surveilled metropolis on the planet. Boris Johnson, who before becoming Britain’s Foreign Secretary served as the city’s mayor, once said, ‘When you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star. You are being filmed by more cameras than you can possibly imagine.’

    “James Rabbett pointed out to me that whereas in Britain people live with the knowledge that ‘ninety per cent of their day’ is captured on camera, ‘a lot of other countries have issues with human rights and that sort of stuff.’”

    At one point, the head of the team talks about the capabilities of computer facial recognition systems:

    “‘It’s bullshit,’ Mick Neville said when I asked him about automated facial recognition. ‘Fantasyland.’ At the airport, when a scanner compares your face with your passport photo, Neville explained, ‘The lighting’s perfect, the angle’s perfect.’ By contrast, the average human can recognize a family member from behind. ‘No computer will ever be able to do that.’”

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  • Kevin Kelly takes on the fallacy that the application of more intelligence is necessary and sufficient to solve all problems:

    “Thinkism is the fallacy that problems can be solved by greater intelligence alone. Thinkism is a fallacy that is often promoted by smart guys who like to think. In their own heads, they think their own success is due to their intelligence, and that therefore more intelligence brings greater success in all things. But in reality IQ is overrated especially as a means to solve problems. This view ignores the many other factors that solve problems. Such as data, experience, and creativity.”

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  • Thermocline to vericline

    Earlier this year I wrote about an idea first expressed by Bruce Webster. In many or even most organisations, there exists a line. Below that line, reality is known and people understand the (usually disastrous) state of the project; above that line, the picture seems rosy, because everyone reports good news upwards in the organisation.

    Webster called that line the “thermocline of truth”, but I wonder if that’s a slightly unwieldy name. I’d like to humbly suggest that we refer to this concept as the “vericline” instead, from “verus” (truth) and “cline” (a graduated continuum).

    Yes, it mixes Greek and Latin, but so does “television” and that’s been pretty successful!

  • Owning your externalities

    Economists talk of externalities as something to be dealt with by regulation or taxation. But how can businesses that want to be more sustainable wrest control of theirs – and make sure they’re positive?

  • The late Donella Meadows’s book Thinking in Systems first exposed me (and countless others) to the idea of systems thinking.

    Here’s a great essay of hers that starts from the question of control:

    “For those who stake their identity on the role of omniscient conqueror, the uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do?”

    Encouraging us to abandon this desire for control and embrace a lack of it, she suggests that working with complex systems is a form of “dance”, before offering us all a superb dance class:

    “I had learned about dancing with great powers from whitewater kayaking, from gardening, from playing music, from skiing. All those endeavors require one to stay wide-awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback. It had never occurred to me that those same requirements might apply to intellectual work, to management, to government, to getting along with people.”

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  • John Merrick reviews Alberto Prunetti’s new memoir (of sorts), Down and Out in England and Italy:

    “Prunetti is no genteel returnee, instead acting as our Virgil leading us, the latter-day Dantes, deep into the recesses of the capitalist inferno. His leaving and returning is not from the solidity of middle-class life to the working-class of old, but rather from one form of manual labor to another. We follow him from the stable, unionized, masculine labor of his father’s generation in the steel mills of that crucible of the Italian workers’ movement, Livorno, into the new world of dreadful temp jobs, deep into the abyss of long hours and poor pay, followed by heavy drinking and a fight on the weekend. The working-class hero, our Virgil tells us, is no longer the celebrated blue-collar worker on the picket line but the tabarded underclass cleaning p*ss and sh*t from the floors of the nation’s toilets or serving up reheated slop to dead-eyed consumers in suburban shopping malls.”

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  • Michael Lorenzos hopefully ends one of the more tedious and intractable debates within marketing: the conflict between brand and performance marketing.

    Brand marketers see performance activity as cheap, short-termist and diluting of the brand; performance marketers see brand activity as ineffective, fluffy, and imposing of unnecessary constraints on creative.

    Lorenzos argues the sensible middle ground: that the dichotomy is a false one. Brand building helps drive sales and generally makes performance marketing perform better. Performance marketing builds brand associations. He ends with some great advice for both camps, and for the CMOs who are tasked with wrestling them into some kind of cooperation. #

  • Markus Strasser spent quite a while trying to build a business that extracted knowledge from academic papers: understanding the insights within them, building relationships between them, throwing up new and interesting connections, and generally automating much of the drudge work of sifting through the published knowledge within a given field.

    His findings were dispiriting, and his business sadly failed. Part of the problem is that ideas alone don’t tend to lead to innovations; you need teams of people, and much of the knowledge within successful teams is implicit and not expressed in the papers themselves:

    “But the complexity threshold kept rising and now we need to grow companies around inventions to actually make them happen… That’s why incumbents increasingly acqui-hire instead of just buying the IP and most successful companies that spin out of labs have someone who did the research as a cofounder. Technological utopians and ideologists like my former self underrate how important context and tacit knowledge is.”

    Strasser’s essay is interesting not just as a deep dive into scientific knowledge and its structure, but also as a personal story of the pain of starting a business that turns out not to be viable:

    “I’ve been flirting with this entire cluster of ideas including open source web annotation, semantic search and semantic web, public knowledge graphs, nano-publications, knowledge maps, interoperable protocols and structured data, serendipitous discovery apps, knowledge organization, communal sense-making and academic literature/publishing toolchains for a few years on and off… nothing of it will go anywhere.

    “Don’t take that as a challenge. Take it as a red flag and run. Run towards better problems.”

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  • Chesterton’s many fences

    G. K. Chesterton wrote about the mistaken urge that reformers often have: to remove things without fully understanding why they were originally put in place. It’s a lesson that’s of enduring usefulness.

  • One churned up by the YouTube algorithms: a soothing and illuminating film of the wonderful and eloquent Mark Knopfler just talking about guitars. Few things can beat a master of their craft, who happens to be a lovely person, being given time to talk. #

  • A fascinating oral history of Processing, a programming language designed for artists:

    “Cooper and Maeda established a long lineage of designers and artists who were interested in pushing the boundaries of what code could create. Among them were Ben Fry and Casey Reas, two research assistants in Maeda’s group. During their time at MIT, Fry and Reas began to question how programming was taught to visually minded students. They wondered: How could they make programming more accessible to designers and artists? And what would it look like for code to become both a creative medium and part of the creative process itself?”

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