Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Red Rose Rising

2009 has been more maelstrom than magic. Faced with rolling shocks ranging from the great crunch to swine flu to the passing of a pop king and tarnishing of a tiger, most people have felt a gust of blowback. It feels pretty good to be at year-end, and I’m hoping that people, families, businesses and communities the world over will be able to flip the switch from survivor mode to come-back mode. On my read, 2010-20 is going to be a more hardworking and meaningful decade, a time when abundance is generated by hard work rather than borrowing on the cheap, when creativity rides in as a revolutionary, when social impacts are accounted for up front – and when success is earned. I got an inspiring note of gratitude recently from a marketing student, Lisa, who I encouraged half a dozen years back. As a struggling student she dug deep to get through her MBA, topped her class, and now plans to go for a PhD.

A return to old fashioned hard-work and to big creative shifts takes me back to my Red Rose Roots in Lancashire where I grew up on the unswept side of the street. Red is for boldness, passion, optimism and that priceless feeling of “nothing is impossible” that we lived for in the 60’s revolution. Lancashire of course is an inventive powerhouse. From the jelly baby to the Beatles, from cotton to the Co-operative movement, the region has been rolling out magic since it birthed the industrial revolution. Here’s to the Red Rose County, here’s to the red of Christmas, to a big creative year ahead – and season’s greetings to all.

E-Readers Hit the Big Time

Fear of new technology is not new. In 1982, the king of all Hollywood lobbyists, Jack Valenti, told the US Congress:

“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

Hysteria aside, the movie industry was utterly convinced that the advent of video cassettes would destroy the film industry. 30 years on, video and DVD have had the opposite effect – far from undermining the industry, they are integral to its ongoing profitability. How could Hollywood keep producing so many films, at such great cost and such variable quality without the “straight to DVD” option? Even the notorious box-office bomb, Waterworld, almost broke even in the end, thanks to DVD sales.

There has been similar angst about the fate of books and the publishing industry since the arrival of the Internet and new technology like e-readers. In 2007, the US National Endowment for the Arts reported a “remarkable decline” of American reading habits, its chairman saying that it would damage the civic, political and economic fabric of the country. The New Yorker chimed in, quoting sociologists who claimed that “reading for pleasure will one day be the province of a special ‘reading class’, much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy.” The Boston strangler strikes again!

E-readers are all the rage this holiday season. Industry experts forecast that Amazon will sell 900,000 Kindles in the last two months of 2009. The Sony Reader and Barnes & Noble Nook, which sold-out before it even hit the shelves, are also on a tear. There was a lot of skepticism about e-readers in the first couple of years, and a lot of doomsayers who thought they spelled the end of the written word.

The truth is that technology has ended the monopoly of bound, mass-produced manuscripts we call books, and expanded choice for readers. We can read on the computer screen, on dedicated e-readers like Kindle and Nook or on our cell-phones.

We love books for the stories and the emotional power, the insights and inspirations. Who ever puts down a great book and says, “Wow, I loved the paper-stock, and the font was awesome!”

People who love reading will read more than ever before – I know I do.

Circumstances, mood and moment will determine how and what we read – the Kindle is great for plane trips or train-rides; the cell-phone works well for a quick catch-up with emails or news, and nothing (for me, at least) will beat the pleasures of a book on a beach, or a bookshop on a rainy afternoon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Selfless Gene

Biology fascinates me. I love the work of Stephen Jay Gould who theorized how change in evolution happens at the edges, the margin, the fringe. He calls this ‘punctuated equilibrium”, and it explains how evolution doesn’t take place on a predictable, linear path but with unpredictable and dramatic bursts coming from the outer reaches of the species. The same can be said of the world of ideas and innovation.

Another biologist, Richard Dawkins, a brilliant communicator, created a lot of confusion when he called his 1976 book on evolution, ‘The Selfish Gene’. The book details the brutal efficiency of evolution, but the phrase itself has entered common usage to mean that human beings are genetically programmed for selfishness. It means nothing of the sort – and isn’t it great when research comes along that proves the exact opposite.

The NY Times reported last month that research into young babies demonstrates that we are born with an in-built instinct to help others. Before parents have even begun to teach the rules of social behavior, researchers saw kids as young as 12 or 18 months in small, selfless acts of kindness. This innate generosity and willingness to share and cooperate is unique to humans; even our closest ancestors have no interest in helping out a fellow chimpanzee unless there is something in it for them.

Researchers are quick to point out that there is ample evidence that selfishness plays a part in our make-up too. As one of the researchers puts it, “That’s why we have moral dilemmas, because we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”

These findings confirm what radical optimists already believe, and it’s nice to have some science to put in the back pocket.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Will Avatar Spark More Originality?

Avatar, opening in the US tomorrow, has Hollywood holding its breath. The $350 million spectacle by writer/director James Cameron seems destined to one of only two possible fates: spectacular blockbuster or massive bomb. The middle road never seems open to Cameron, who famously drives Tinsel-town bean-counters bonkers with his uncompromising vision and gargantuan budgets. Sigourney Weaver calls him an “idealistic perfectionist”, which is a pretty good aspiration for all of us.

I haven't seen the film yet, but I wish it well for three reasons.

One, Peter Jackson's Weta Digital in New Zealand has been responsible for the special effects, which are said to take 3-D animation to a different plane. Another hit for Weta would be great for this awesome Wellington Lovemark – and for the city itself.

Second, I love James Cameron's gutsy approach. In an industry teeming with yes-men, corporate cronies and wannabes, Cameron stands apart as a maverick who rises and falls on the size of his talent, not his Rolodex. He put his philosophy this way: “If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success”.

Most importantly, I hope that Avatar succeeds because it represents something that has all but disappeared from mainstream film – a truly original idea. It is not recycled from a TV show or old movie, nor is it based on a book, play, musical or comic book. James Cameron is the sole writing credit, and the story is woven entirely from his imagination.

The rise of innovation in Hollywood (and Wellywood and Bollywood) has been startling, but it has not been matched by the rise of great originality – in fact, the opposite has happened. The graphs below show how the number of films made from an original idea – as opposed to sequels, book or musical adaptations, comic books or earlier films – has declined dramatically in the past decade. Instead, we are saturated by sequels….15 of the top 20 box office hits of the 2000s were sequels (and some of them were brilliant, but the point is valid).

The last decade will be remembered for awesome innovation we used to help tell stories on screen. Let’s hope that the ‘10s is known more for the creativity and originality we bring to storytelling itself.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Challenge – Cut Jargon Emissions

It’s getting to that time of the year when people start thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. For anyone working in business, here’s an idea: let’s try and make 2010 the year of plain English. A good way to start would be to read George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. Orwell understood how language could be used a weapon against the powerless, and how jargon and clichés are used to hide meaning, not clarify it. He offers six timeless rules for effective communication:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I am not 100% on number 6, and here’s another one for people in business:

7. Try and express your thoughts in one breath.

MBA-speak started by infecting the workplace but has tragically made its way into sport (losing teams now “lack accountability”) and even the home (KPI’s in the kitchen!).

  • Why do we have to touch base to get our ducks in a row when we could just meet?
  • Why must we synergize our learnings going forward, when comparing notes would do fine?
  • Why wouldn’t a busy person save time by saying “I’m busy” instead of due to cascading workflow, I am lacking in requisite bandwidth?
  • Why reach out when you can just make a call?
  • Why can’t we leave a meeting with things to do, rather than take-home actionables?
Communication is about accountability. If we express ourselves clearly, we have no choice but to stand by what we say. By resorting to clichés and jargon, people are blurring meaning to avoid scrutiny. It’s also laziness.

People are hungry for clarity and authenticity. In every part of life, let’s commit to using language to amplify meaning, not bury it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tis The Season To Be Jolly (Careful)

Memo to guys planning to cut corners with the Christmas shopping: watch this video!

Men have a knack of doing the wrong thing, especially when it comes to choosing gifts. (Does your wife really want that PS-3 or the Bourne Trilogy gift-box?)

This video is a sequel to the smash hit interactive campaign, Beware of the Doghouse for JCPenney. Doghouse 2 is also from Saatchi & Saatchi New York. The original campaign attracted 14 million YouTube views, won the 2009 World Retail Award for Best Digital Retail Advertising Campaign at the World Retail Congress, and surpassed previous industry benchmark viral campaigns like Burger King ‘Whopper Freakout’ and Dove ‘Evolution’ in key metrics. 7,000 occupants sent to the doghouse and over 9,000 additional warning messages issued.

It’s funny but serious. Guys, do the right thing these holidays; be romantic, generous and unconditionally loving – and in doing so, avoid the dreaded Doghouse!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Howling Under The New Moon

What is it about vampires, witches, warlocks and werewolves? I shouldn’t have to ask. Apart from lurking at the bottom end of the alphabet, they are dead proof of the emotional storytelling power of mystery. A recent dark proof point is the vam-wolf flick “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”, taking Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books loved by girls into a new realm of Gen ZY mania. On its opening weekend in the North American market, the second Twilight film ‘New Moon’ was the third largest box office take on record…coasting past the Harry Potter films and beaten only by The Dark Knight and Spiderman 3 (yep, more dark guys). A love triangle between a human (Bella), a vampire (Edward) and a werewolf (Jacob) is asking for success, so no surprise they were breaking down the movie doors.

And don’t discount the zombies, another tribe of Lovemarks for some. From recent books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Zombie Christmas Carols (It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies) through to zombie walks around the world, this lot has a macabre irresistible pull. In October 2000 people donned the worms for an annual zombie walk at Monroeville Mall, near Pittsburgh. This is where George Romero shot the classic chiller, Dawn of the Dead in 1978.

An ironic connection here is that some of us live with vampires and work with zombies without realizing it (I’m talking power here, not people!). At home, one way to DOT – do one thing to make the world a better place – is to disconnect your vampire electronics, those stand-by plug-ins like microwaves and TVs that can suck energy even when devices are turned off. At work, get your IT guys to venture downstairs and check there are no zombie servers hidden. They are the computer servers that were once useful but now have nothing to do except just keep on running… and feeding.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Skill And Will In World Cup 2010

It’s been exciting times in football land (that’s soccer for those in the US, still), with the draw for next year’s World Cup taking place in Cape Town a few days ago. New Zealand is in Group F, which has been called an “easy group”. I’m optimistic by nature, but any group that includes the defending World Champions, Italy, along with Paraguay and Slovakia isn’t going to be easy for New Zealand. In fact, there are no easy games at the World Cup, and next year teams will have to deal with the problem of altitude as well, with games in Johannesburg sure to sap the energy of even the fittest teams.

The great Muhammad Ali said "Champions aren't made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: A desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill." Every tournament carries a massive upset, so I’m hoping New Zealand can surprise everyone and get to the 2nd round. That would be huge. To do that, the All Whites have to forget about the difference in skill and have the will. That’s an issue for those other all whites – Fabio Capello’s England. With one of the best squads, one of the best managers in the world, and a relatively friendly draw in a friendly nation, I’m backing England to go all the way and win... vs Spain in the final. Capello will have them more mentally ready than ever before.

There’s always a star of the tournament too, and next year we’re due to see the newly crowned Ballon D’Or European Footballer of the Year winner on the global stage a little way in to what is already a truly great career. Argentina and Barcelona’s Leo Messi beat his nearest rival Cristiano Ronaldo by more than double in the vote for Europe’s best player, recording the highest ever score in the history of the vote. Messi is the classic made good story: a child from a family of limited means, with a growth hormone deficiency, who only grew to his current size of 5 foot 7 with the help of medical treatment paid for by Barcelona, who brought him to Spain at around 12 years old.

He’s done it all with good grace, humility, and the most sublime skill seen since a certain other Argentine graced the world stage at high altitude in Mexico City. He’s often been criticised for not being as good for Argentina as he is for Barcelona. But if his will is greater than his skill, 2010 is going to be something special for fans of football the world over.

And watch out for one man with real will. Wayne Rooney. England's next captain.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Old Dog, New Trick

Newspapers are up against it in the Participation Economy, the Internet-powered revolution of joining in, taking part, sharing and joy. For the modern consumer, the idea of reading newspapers full of day-old news hand-picked by faceless editors seems, well, very early 90’s.

These days we get to be our own editor-in-chief, selecting the bits of news, opinion and analysis that best suit our tastes, politics or predilections. The news business still hasn’t worked out a way to make this work financially, but I suspect that will change soon. Free is not sustainable. Walter Isaacson, former editor of Time, proposed one possible approach to the issue of payment here.

There may be some spark in the old format yet. On the first day of the climate talks in Copenhagen, 56 newspapers in 20 languages pulled off a dramatic and high-impact stunt. They simultaneously published a front-page editorial calling for action on climate change. Papers included The Guardian (which got the ball rolling), the Toronto Star, the Jakarta Globe, Le Monde, The Brunei Times, la Repubblica and The Cambodia Daily.

This degree of collaboration across geographical and political boundaries carries a high degree of difficulty. Whatever you think about the editorial itself, the scale and audacity of the maneuver is impressive. The old-school newspaper editorial is long past its heyday, but -- on this occasion at least -- some creative thinking and collaboration breathed some life back into the art-form.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Opening Bell

I spoke this morning with Alexis Glick on FOX Business’ The Opening Bell. We discussed the ongoing impact of the recession on advertisers and society, the importance of priceless value and the creation of loyalty beyond reason, the opportunities for creating intimacy and conversations through screens, and even played a word association game. This was my second interview with Alexis (having met her at the World Business Forum in October) and it was fun - while I do a lot of media, nothing quite compares with the buzz you get from working with a great interviewer on live TV.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Brief History of Online

The curators of the best of the Internet have recently come out with a list of the top web moments of the past ten years. David-Michel Davies, the Webby Awards’ executive director, called the Internet the "story of the decade", and while I may question his objectivity on that perspective, I’d be hard-pressed to disagree.

The chronologically-ordered list, below, is interesting to me as it’s a clear testament to the growth of the Participation Economy. More and more, people online are finding new ways to create, share, and connect. And as the two most recent selected “influential moments” show (the US Elections and Iranian election protests), when movements form online, the rest of the world feels it. Davies concurs: “The recurring theme among all of the milestones on our list is the Internet's capacity to circumvent old systems and put more power into the hands of ordinary people”.

The other thing that jumped out at me was that, despite the Internet’s worldwide nature, the websites the list is based on are by and large US-centric (although of course their users are more widespread). I’m confident that another such survey in ten years time would show more stories of change starting in the margins, or at least outside of the West. In China alone, the number of Internet users surpasses the total US population – despite the “Great Firewall”. And with Internet regulators voting to allow website domain names in non-Latin scripts, the barriers are coming down even further for the 50% of Internet users who speak languages based on other writing systems. While in the USA Facebook is social networking base du jour, don’t forget that in India it’s Orkut, South Korea has Cyworld, and China’s biggest such site is Renren.

The Webby’s Ten Most Influential Internet Moments of the Decade

2000 Craigslist expands outside San Francisco
2000 Google AdWords launches
2001 Wikipedia launches
2001 Napster Shut Down
2004 Google IPO
2006 Online video revolution
2006 Facebook opens to non-college students and Twitter takes off
2007 The iPhone debuts
2008 U.S. Presidential Campaign
2009 Iranian election protests

Thursday, December 3, 2009

John Key, New Zealander

In Tokyo recently when I spoke to the Japan-New Zealand Business Forum meeting I was able to spend some time with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. I was impressed. He’s definitely a new age leader. Practical experience, successful track record in business, excellent at international relationships, passionate and committed to purpose and ideals with the nation at his heart.

John Key is producing a dynamic can-do attitude towards politics and has created favorable impressions wherever he goes.

At his core he is committed to seeing New Zealand’s farmers and exporters producing more and getting better prices for their goods. He is a believer in our tourism industry. (I applaud the appointment of Kevin Bowler as CEO of New Zealand Tourism. I’ve known Kevin for many years now and he will bring transformational up-to-the-minute thinking given his recent Telecom/Yahoo experience). John’s core belief is that New Zealand’s future lies in the hands of Kiwi entrepreneurs selling their ideas to the world so they can expand businesses and provide new and better paying jobs. As many of you know, I’ve been committed to this very same belief for over a decade now. New Zealand must export or die and intellectual capital is what we have to offer. The role of business is to make the world a better place and the way we do this is through creating jobs, choices, growth and self esteem.

John Key is also committed to seeing more of New Zealand’s young people realizing their potential in New Zealand. I agree with this but I also feel that it’s necessary for New Zealanders to go overseas to stretch their legs, find their feet, and learn more quickly. My three children have all experienced this positively and successfully. The trick for New Zealand is to offer them a combination of lifestyle and opportunity so they will eventually return.

I’ve read John’s six part program which I feel can be a manifesto for the modern politician everywhere in today’s world, irrespective of political affiliation.

  1. Ensuring our tax system encourages people to work hard, save, and invest in productive Kiwi businesses.
  2. Focusing the Government’s activity on better, smarter, frontline services, and not bureaucracy.
  3. Providing all New Zealanders with the education and skills they need to perform in productive well-paid jobs.
  4. Building the transport, broadband, and other infrastructure networks that people and businesses need to get their jobs done as efficiently as possible.
  5. Removing the red tape and cumbersome regulation that can prevent businesses from expanding, taking on new workers, and making the most of new ideas.
  6. Supporting New Zealand firms to grow and develop new ideas by connecting them with our researchers and scientists, and helping them reach more global consumers by signing free trade agreements with our trading partners.
Count me in.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Creativity Is Fun

I don’t get a lot of free time, and that’s the way I like it. For me it’s never been about work-life balance, but always about work-life integration. Finding compelling and compatible work to who I am and who I want to continue being, and devoting everything I have to performing at peak, getting into flow.

In these new straightened economic times, we’re all having to work harder, knuckling down to the task at hand, and making sure we’re building a future that is sustaining and rewarding. It’s not easy. But it’s easier if you love what you’re doing, and you’re doing it all the time. Naysayers will say nay, but its actually easier than ever to devote yourself to what sustains you. All you need is a computer, and the desire to make a difference.

Probably nowhere in the world is this more clear than in my home of New York City, where once again, creativity is biting back and inspiring people to throw everything they have at their situation. I don’t know if the people who run the http://www.overthinkingit.com/ blog do anything else with their day, but something tells me everything they do has to be fun. At least they have enough time to bring us the graph above.

Which is fun, and will get you arguing about rock music, Rolling Stone, or crude oil. Their blog is classic pop-culture with a semi-serious spin. It’s fun for the readers, but what fun is it for the bloggers themselves? These people have created their world and devoted their time for their own enjoyment. It just so happens we love it too.

Our only way to make the long road ahead through our economic crisis run faster is to enjoy ourselves, to be creative in everything we do, and integrate work and life. Start today with something simple. Eliminate the reasons not to, apply yourself wholeheartedly, make sure you’re smiling, and enjoy the (bumpy) ride.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cumbria Is Open

Video by Martin Campbell

The recent floods in Cumbria have certainly caused a lot of heartache for many and a complete recovery will take some time. But in the wake of this, the famous Cumbrian community spirit has emerged, with many stories of the heroic volunteer rescue effort and the determination of local businesses to get back up and running immediately. The county is once again looking tranquil and beautiful, and Cumbria really is open for business. See the video above for stunning footage from this weekend, and come pay a visit.