Craft fatigue / Artisanal exhaustion?

screenshotOne of the things we are watching at Culturematic HQ is whether the artisanal theme is beginning to run out of steam.

Leo Burnett London offers us this lovely repudiation of the theme for McCafe / McDonald’s UK.

A single ad playing in the UK does not a summer make.

But clearly this would be big news for a lot of CPG players.

We need more evidence. Let’s keep a “weather eye” open.

Perhaps best to file this under “early / earliest possible warning.”

p.s. fly high with your dreams!

Hat’s off to the Leo Burnett London team:

Creative director: Matt Lee, Pete Hayes

Art director: Matt Lee, Pete Hayes

Copywriter: Matt Lee, Pete Hayes

Board account director: Simon Hewitt

Account director: Sam Houltson

Senior account manager: Emily Reed

Account executive: Gracie Smith

Agency producer: David Riley

Director/Production company: Tony Barry/Knucklehead

Producer: Sara Cummins

Culture when it takes us captive

[This post was originally published on Medium.]

Every organization operates out of an idea of itself. (We call this idea several things: our “business model,” our “value proposition,” our “core mission.”)

Of course, we would like to think this idea is perfectly adapted to reality, that it is the best, most sensible, way of extracting value from the world.

But sometimes our idea falls out of its “match” with the world. And now that the world changes so often and so fast, this happens a lot. “Idea” and “world” are no longer dance partners.

Part of the work of management is detecting these moments of disconnect and restoring the connection between our idea and the world.

If, on the other hand, we neglect (or refuse) to restore the connection, something bad happens. We are taken captive by our culture.

This makes for a grand sounding generality. So I was interested this morning to find an example from the Spotify boardroom.

Thanks to the magnificent curatorial work by Jason Hirschhorn at REDEF, I read this essay from Track Record. It describes a confrontation at Spotify between Blake Morgan and Spotify executives.

There are lots of issues here. I will focus only on the cultural one.

Here is Blake Morgan’s account of his meeting at Spotify.

I was a vocal participant in the meeting, and when it was over I found myself surrounded by several Spotify executives.
One said, “Blake, I just don’t think you understand, our users love our product because it’s such an amazing one.”
Another added, “You have to look past just numbers, our product is so great it’s actually turning the industry around.”
This went on for a while, until I finally said to one of the executives, “You keep using that word, ‘product.’ I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m really asking you: what do you think your product is?”
The executive was surprised. He stared at me blankly and said, “What do you mean? Our product is Spotify.”
There it was. It was a shocking admission to me, in earshot of everyone, and one he obviously didn’t think was an admission at all.
“No no…sorry,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Your product isn’t ‘Spotify.’” He continued to stare at me. I said, “Sir, your product is music.” The emboldened musicians standing around us started laughing. The exec smiled and backed away, “Well okay, if you’re going to be like that.”

I especially like the line:

“The executive was surprised. He stared at me blankly.”

That’s when you know someone is the captive of their culture. They cannot “compute” the question that challenges it. They are “deep in.”

Cultural captivity is dangerous. It may be the single most reliable way to expose the organization to disruption.

What’s the best way to escape cultural captivity? Make sure that your ideas are not assumptions. Make them vivid and present. Make them visible. Work on your ideas as if they were the first and most precious of your “intellectual properties.”

Culture is your friend or it’s your captivity.

Why you should move from Word to Pages

[This post originally appeared on Medium.]

Logo_Pages○ Word is expensive, Pages is free.

○ Pages used to be bad at footnotes (while Word was always superb). Now it’s fine.

○ Word used to have a brilliant “selection” feature for sentences (Command + Click) that many writers found indispensable. Microsoft eliminated it. Then they put it back. (But by that time I was gone. Please, Apple programmers, could we have one of these for Pages.)

○ Pages is better than Word at producing well behaved PDFs. Images in the PDF are more stationary. The PDFs produced by Pages are higher resolution than those produced by Word.

○ Pages is not quite as good as Word at giving us a “map” of chapter headings. But its “bookmarks” feature is catching up. (Apple only need to look at “sidebar” then “navigation” to see why the Word version is stronger. It’s more compact and it distinguishes between chapters and subchapters.)

○ Pages handles Tables of Content more elegantly (and more automatically). Word TOC needed to be refreshed with each change to headings in the manuscript. This was a pain.

○ Pages handles the “find” function more efficiently.

○ Pages converts Word documents faultlessly, as nearly as I can tell.

○ Pages feels simpler and smarter. Less feature bloat. More “all but only” the features we need. By this time, Word is a bit of a Frankenstein. Microsoft has been “adding to” instead of “starting again” for years now.

Some big changes start small. I have written over a million words with Word. This made me what you might call a loyal user, or at least a habitual one. Then Word withdrew that “sentence selection” feature. Clearly it was an oversight because eventually they put it back.

But this sudden, apparently thoughtless, change started a cascade.

I began searching for another word processor and I auditioned several, including Mellel, Byword, Scrivener, Pages, iA Writer Pro and Ulysses. (I love Scrivener, but the lack of WYSIWYG, and the need to fiddle with output, drives me crazy.)

Once Pages demonstrated new skill with footnotes and PDFs, I signed on.

And now that I was done with Word, I began to think about leaving Powerpoint. I was already using Keynote some of the time.

And now that I was out of Word and Powerpoint, I could consider dumping Excel.
All of a sudden, I was post-Microsoft.

Microsoft has never made the best software. It has relied on an installed base, and the lethargy of people like me. But eventually, at least for me, their cynicism and/or indifference caught up with them.

And things slid away. No black swan. No radical disruption. No act of competitor innovation.

Just a self inflicted wound.

And one user escapes his Office captivity. How about you?

Google’s early warning of the rise of Trump

[This post first appeared on Medium, October 23, 2017]

screenshotAll social observers should (still) be asking themselves, “How did we miss it? How did we miss the rise of Trump?”

In a perfect world, we would have had some sort of “early warning.”

We would have detected “faint signals” that put us on notice.

I want to examine one strategy or tactic that we could classify as “early warning from big data.” I will attempt to show how Google helps twice, once with the autocomplete function and again with Google Trends.

Net worth

Some time around 2010, years before Trump was a presidential hopeful, something dramatic happened to the search term “net worth.”

(Much of what follows is speculative. Hang on to your hat.)

I think you have probably seen “net worth” pop up as a Google autocomplete suggestion. You are putting in the name of an actor, say, and Google anticipates that the object of your curiosity is how much money this actor has made.

And I think (here comes the anthropological speculation) there was a time when people loved their celebrities generously and without qualification. They didn’t care about net worth. They didn’t think about it.

And then around 2010 this changed. (Possibly.) According to Google Trends (see the image above), some people began to care what celebrities were worth…not as celebrities, where their value is, to a real fan, inestimable… but in an economic sense.

Now, to be sure, some of these inquiries might have been admiring. Net worth might have served as an additional measure of the celebrity, outsized not just in their beauty and accomplishments, but in their economic standing.

But some of these Google Search queries may have sprung from another motive. It is possible, now to engage in still more speculation, that “net worth curiosity” was an expression of incipient resentment. People were asking because they were no longer unqualified in their adoration. The attitude was something closer to, “Let’s have a look at how this guy managed to get himself paid.” Admiration was turning to scrutiny. Adoration to skepticism.

There may be a zero-sum thinking in evidence here. The searcher was asking, effectively, “how much value has gone to you that did not come to me.” Or still more inquisitively, “how much value has gone to you that came from me. How much did you profit from my adoration?” This is truly zero sum. Your win was my loss. Your celebrity came at my expense.

All speculative. We would need to do the ethnography and talk to people who are using the search term. If resentment is at work here, it will surface soon enough and we will have a chance to map its origins and logic and imagine its outcomes.

[Let me just say that the big data players are, some of them, still inclined to suppose that their data are so big as to be self sufficient. All we need, they seem to say, is quantitative data. We can detect, infer and/or extrapolate the rest. This is sad. All you need to do is ask. And if you are a trained anthropologist (or other scientist) and even if you’re not, you can get straight at motive and logic. It’s there for the asking.]

But back to the larger methodological, future-casting opportunity here. Google gives us two instruments for early warning. One is the auto-complete function which is itself a statistically driven exercise. Google is playing back what people are using as a search term. And this makes it a window for those of us in need of continuous illumination. I have to say it would never have occurred to me to consider the possibility that people were asking this question. Auto-complete worked for me as a kind of “head’s up display.” I was asking about one thing and the Google data flashed before my eyes. This happens with every search we make. We dismiss most of the autocompletes. But sometimes we say, “Wow, that’s interesting. Why are people asking that?” We have just had one, fleeting, glimpse of a possible future.

There is a kind of serendipity function here. As a student of American culture and as a forecaster of American futures, I can’t possibly anticipate all the things I should be looking for. And in this event, it makes sense to have some device that peppers me with data points. Google’s auto-complete works just this way. It serves as a kind of “head’s up display.” Over the course of a day of Google searches, I will get, say, 50 opportunities to see something I would never have thought to go looking for. Effectively, Google’s autocomplete function is working as my “desktop dashboard,” a flow of messages from the deep space of the Google data sphere.

The second instrument is Google Trends. I enter “net worth” there and the results are very interesting. There is (see the image above) a clear starting point. So this is not a chronic, low level curiosity. It starts. And then it rises. We are looking at a social trend or cultural movement that erupts and then scales. Our attention is arrested. Am I right to think that these data can be read as early warning of a change in attitude towards the celebrity world and, perhaps, the creative class and coastal elites? Who knows? It would take a lot more research to know. But I am put on notice that there might be something “out there.” In a world filled with black swans, that’s valuable, especially when one of the swans is Donald J. Trump.

In the case of the ascendency of a Donald J. Trump, this “something out there” is a matter for something more than idle curiosity. Every strategist, marketer, design thinker, pollster and political party would have been well served by early notice. If there was something happening to the bed rock of American attitude and opinion, if there was a new order of alienation “out there,” we needed to know and the sooner the better.

Post script: Over the weekend I participated in an event on “Design, futures and happiness” at the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Thanks to Bruce Tharp and Stuart Candy for including me in a very stimulating series of discussions. Thanks also to Hal Varian and John Deighton for conversations over the longer term on Google as a window on the future.

Goat Rodeo vs. dumpster fire

screenshotOne of the pleasures of American English is its gift for new and pungent metaphors.

My new favorite: goat rodeo.

I used it often while driving with my wife today. It is surprising how many opportunities presented themselves. Traffic jams, strip malls, bad drivers, urban blight, the back seat. I am sure I was overdoing it, but that’s how you learn.

Goat rodeo replaces my recent favorite: the dumpster fire.

The great thing about dumpster fire is how contemptuous it is. To call something a “dumpster fire,” I think, is to say that it is vivid, alarming, but, for all that, harmless. A dumpster fire looks bad but, hey, what’s the worst that can happen? The guys working in the kitchen at Denny’s gather in the parking lot to see what the commotion is and one of them says, “that’s gonna burn itself out.” And everyone loses interest immediately and goes back inside.

Which is to say, I get why “dumpster fire” enjoyed such a nice long run.

What is it that’s so appealing about “goat rodeo?”

Certainly, there is a standing American hostility for badly organized situations. This is expressed in words like SNAFU, herding cats, and cluster f***. Now that we live in a digital era and the world is so much less disorderly, anything that remains chaotic is a special offense. So we are, presumably, on the look out for new terms of scorn.

“Dumpster fire” doesn’t carry any class hostility, but goat rodeo really does evoke that old fashioned contempt that city folk used to love to cultivate for anyone who had committed the unpardonable sin of being a “hayseed.” So we are brushing off an age-old prejudice to stage this act of criticism.

Plus, there is some slight implication that the people running a goat rodeo may not actually grasp how far off standard they actually are. “What? Horses? They wanted horses?” This would make the phrase a way of saying that the situation was wrong from the beginning. and that this tells us that it’s in the hands of idiots, and that this tells us it is utterly intractable. A goat rodeo stays a goat rodeo. (Even as a dumpster fire burns itself out.)

And then there is the choice of “goat.” Herding cats is sweet because cats are such dozy anarchists. They really just want to find a place to fall asleep in the sun. No harm, no foul. Goats on the other hand are, I believe, much more willful, and aggressive, and they really smell. And they will eat your shoes. Cats will never eat your shoes.

Finally, there is something so self flattering about the phrase. When you call a situation a goat rodeo you are saying that it wouldn’t be so if you were in charge. This is a bad situation, but only for people who are too dim or rural and clueless to put it right. The speaker elevates himself. And I love elevating myself. Someone has to.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Charles Dan for the photo. See his article here.

How to make a good ad

There are two DNA ads running at the moment. They illuminate the art of advertising today.

The first is called Testimonial: Livie and it’s for AncestryDNA.com. This is perfect serviceable. And that’s a problem.

This gives us a woman, Livie, living a safe, tidy life. Her DNA results come as a revelation. It turns out she is, as she puts it, “everything.” She now checks “other.”

An entire world opens up, and, and, and Livie checks a new box. Good lord.

This is identity as ornament. This is that girl who cornered you at a party in college to say she is 1/32 Choctaw. This is identity as a cocktail chatter, a party favor, a way of showing how absolutely fascinating you are.

And never mind the hair raising assumptions being made about the difference genetic origins make to who we are. (We love to think they do, but the science is of course stubbornly unromantic on this score. We are made by our upbringing and the culture in place. That “Choctaw difference” makes no identity difference.)

Ok, now have a look at %100 Nicole.

The music! So splendidly wrong and antique and odd. Perfect. This is how we make some of the best culture now. We run things together that don’t go together…until they do…sort of, but not quite.  These culture meanings deliberately act as what Weinberger might call, to borrow the title of his book, “small pieces loosely joined.”

The sunglasses and helmet of the second scene. So completely “what?” Here too the ad maker (in this case Diego Contreras of [or for] Venables Bell and Partners LA) is asking us to pay attention. This is not culture served up according to genre. This is culture flushed out of its conventional categories. We are driven up out of our couch potato stupor to ask the ancient’s immortal question “huh?”

In the place of Livie’s perfect sitting room, we have Nicole plunged into the world, seizing her DNA connections has an occasion to engage with the world. (Here too, sitting in the background there are troubling assumptions. We hope we are not being asked to assume that Nicole has some essential connection to East Asia or West Africa. Right?) In a more perfect world, we would all travel often and with Nicole’s joy to countries and cultures to which we have no DNA “connection.” Right?

So many details are arresting. The joy of that dance. The shock of that fiord. The delicacy of soccer. The animation of this actress.

Livie ticks boxes. Nicole embraces life. Livie looks for identity in the old fashioned way, by adding badges to her sleeve. Nicole finds it by taking the world by storm.

Hat’s off to the agency in question:

CLIENT
23 and Me
AGENCY
Venables Bell and Partners
LOCATION
Los Angeles
DIRECTOR
Diego Contreras
EDITOR
Martin Leroy

 

Google Trends as life advice?

[this post first appeared on Medium]

I was in Portland last week looking for artisans to interview for the Artisanal Economies Project and stumbled upon a vintage clothing store.

A clothing store is not perfectly artisanal, but I figured it qualified. It is, after all, curatorial, small batch and non industrial.

The woman within was happy to help but she told me that her store was threatened by insolvency. We talked for maybe 30 minutes and it became clear she had stalled. She could not stay in her present location, but she wasn’t sure where she and her husband should move.

“We’re from the midwest…” Marie trailed off, “If you have any suggestions, please let me know.”

Back in my hotel room, I wondered if Google Trends could help. I had the honor of talking to Hal Varian about Google Trends several months ago, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to explore what it can do.

I searched “vintage clothing” and it was clear that this is in decline nationally. Marie is right to be concerned.

screenshot

Google Trends allows us to drill down by state. Oregon shows lots of volatility and a still more marked decline.

screenshot

Google Trends ranks the states. This chart shows the states that rank low. And it turns out that Oregon ranks very low indeed, 45 out of 46 states. By this reckoning, Marie lives in almost the worst state in which to have a vintage clothing store. So moving anywhere is probably a good idea.

screenshot

The next chart shows the states that rank high. It suggests that California or New York might be better choices.

screenshot

Google Trends let’s us drill down to the city level.

screenshot

This suggests Eugene would be better than Portland. (And Boise would be very bad indeed.)

There are several issues here.

1 The chief of these is whether Google Trends is, for Marie’s purposes, measuring what we want to measure in the way we want to measure it. I will leave this issue to readers. I would just say that these data must be dramatically better than the ones that Marie and her husband now have at this disposal.

2 Should Marie and her husband trust a life decision to these data. I think the answer has to be ‘yes.’ Again, at this point they have NO alternative data with which to work. (They appear to be considering a return to the midwest simply because they come from there. From an “industry” point of view, this is anti-strategic.)

3 The last question is the most obvious intellectual one. Why should vintage clothing be doing badly in Oregon? (Marie told me that there used to be 12 stores in Portland and now there are only 4.)

I would have thought that vintage clothing would be one of the best ways of ‘keeping Portland weird.’ That is to say, I would have thought that vintage clothing would have resonate with this and other cultural things that define the locality.

4 This bring us to the prize question. By the looks of things here, a change is taking place in Portland. Consumer taste and preference has shifted. It is an anthropological truth that a shift of this order cannot be trivial. It must indicate a deeper change taking place in the culture of Portland, in the very “mentality” (as the French social scientist would call it) of the city.

Any change of this kind is interesting to an anthropologist. But when it is something taking place in a city now famous for setting the trend for some part of the rest of the country, then, yowser, this is very interesting.

Best of all, this change is, at least for me, counter intuitive. I would never have guessed it. I have no ready explanation. I am mystified. And this means that the change in question is, at least for me, disruptive.

Now to figure out what it is…

5 Google trends has several clear and verified uses. Marie’s example that it might also serve for the purpose of life navigation. Career counsellors and life coaches, take note.

(post script: “Marie” is a made-up name.)