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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Reading the wrong books

Bookshelf at the British Library

Towards the end of his (excellent) presentation at the Google #Firestarters 3 event, Martin Bailie said something along the lines of “It’s not enough to read the right books; you have to go out and do something”.

While I agree with his sentiment, it reminded me that I don’t really read books. In fact, this book is the only one I’ve finished this year. This isn’t a conscious choice; merely a result of prioritising other forms of media during the day, and making very slow progress with a fairly large book on the occasions I do read.

As a child, I was a voracious reader, and fondly remember my weekly trips to Tewkesbury Market to spend my pocket-money on the next Three Investigators book (It wasn’t until years later that, to my horror, I discovered that they weren’t actually written by Alfred Hitchcock). At school I diligently read the set texts in full for my various English assignments, while others were seemingly content to read to watch the film (though now I suspect that less engaged students suffice with reading the Wikipedia synopsis)

I wonder the extent to which I’m missing out by not reading more long-form, particularly when people such as Mitch Joel talk up the benefits of reading multiple books a week.

Because it is not as if I’m missing out on any revolutionary thinking; I’m simply consuming it in a different way.

For instance, I’ve read chapters from both Groundswell and Predictably Irrational this year, only to find that their (original) thinking and findings seem outdated as I’d listened to and read so many different people quote and build upon their arguments in the time since they were published. Even at the Firestarters event, the speakers quoted at length from books such as The Lean Start-Up and Creative Disruption.

Should I still read them? I’m not totally sure (particularly when factoring in opportunity cost) but I suspect I should still try to make the time. A second-hand précis isn’t as powerful as digesting the full, coherent text and experiencing the subsequent inspiration first-hand. While the core arguments of some titles may now be beyond familiar, there would be value in following the author step-by-step through his or her logic, rather than skipping to the end with only a superficial understanding.

Indeed, if anything, my experiences don’t suggest there is no value in reading books. Rather, it seems there is value to be had in reading different books. While I would gain additional understanding through reading a book that I’ve already seen widely quoted; this seems an inefficient means to simply catch-up with my peers. Instead, it would surely be better to augment my second-hand consumption with books that aren’t being regularly quoted elsewhere, so that I can move my thinking in a different direction to the crowd.

One way of doing this would be through “conflict reading” – forcing myself to read books containing ideas I expect to my be contrary to my own thoughts, in a similar way to how I read the Daily Mail as a student to know thy enemy. Rather than engaging in group-think, I would be forced to re-assess my own views in light of opposing theories with their own justifications. When successful, this can help add nuance to ideas since beliefs are placed in the context of what they aren’t, in addition to what they are.

Rather than reading the right books, it might be worth reading the wrong books.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swamibu/2868288357

Google Firestarters: The New Operating System For Agencies

Firestarters #3, hosted by Google and curated by Neil Perkin, featured three fascinating and provocative presentations from Mel ExonMartin Bailie  and James Caig on “The New Operating System For Agencies”

Each of the three talks had slightly different emphases:
• Mel posited that brands need to be useful, entertaining and epic, and so should its marketing. To the point that the marketing and product is indistinguishable – the marketing singularity
• Martin argued that agencies should decide whether they are interested in outputs or outcomes, and indeed whether they are serving the right master – should agencies be dealing with consumers rather than clients?
• James talked in favour of open ideas and innovation so that agencies can diversify their revenue streams. Experimentation and sharing in the short-term pays off in the long-term

However, what I found surprising was the level of agreement , both among the speakers and in the audience, with some of the more disruptive suggestions. While there are the odd exceptions – Zag, Victors and Spoils etc – most agencies still seem to represent fairly traditional models.

Why is this? A few suggestions
• Semantically, the agency of the future doesn’t exist yet
• The status quo is difficult to change, and progress tends to be slow, phased and invisible
John V. Willshire makes the excellent point of the Prisoner’s Dilemma here
• Particularly in a recession, it takes a brave company to emphasise long-term strategic development (and investment) over the short-term cash-flow required to keep the business running
• Start-up culture might accelerate innovation, but start-ups motivate its staff members to bear the long hours and high risk due to the potential of a vast reward. Agency contracts tend to stipulate that all ideas generated are agency property
• Marketing agencies are generally unknown at the company level and distrusted at the industry level so becoming consumer-facing is a big challenge
• With brands increasingly present across multiple sectors and disciplines, it might be hard for an agency’s own product to offer credible independence

These are all obstacles, but none are insurmountable. Things can and will change. Hence the excitement in the room.

So, synthesising the views of the speakers (and casually ignoring the slight disagreements) with a couple of my own, the agency of the future will
• Be more strategic and focused on the long-term. This requires investment to slowly change the core but to quickly innovate around the edges.
• Meditate on strategic decisions before acting. Martin’s advocacy of real-time insights is one of the few things I (partially) disagree with – the filter challenges make it very easy for a small tail to wag a very large dog. (SIDENOTE: This isn’t a reaction to his jibe that “research agencies are shit” because they don’t do real-time, though that opinion is as reductive as me saying digital agencies are shit because they don’t create banner ads I want to click on)
• Focus relentlessly on the public as people rather than consumers of a particular product, brand or industry. True cultural understanding means engaging with people as peers, whether through traditional market research, observation or hiring spokespeople
• Prioritise the opinions of the target audience over the opinions of the client, since no client other than Apple can dictate what people want and can have
• Widen teams to encompass a variety of generalists and specialists required for the situation.

Taking these points to an extreme, one example of an agency of the future could be an incorporated joint venture between a brand and various specialists (client marketers, strategists, creatives, PRs, researchers, designers etc), where everyone is a partner with a financial stake in the long-term success of that brand. Even more extreme, agencies could engage in multiple JVs, acting as the pivotal node between brands in different industries, with complete autonomy in how ideas are distributed between brands or kept for themselves. In some ways, they become mini Unilevers – a holding company bringing together disparate, individual brands. This would enable
• Greater integration between the brand’s desires and the actions of the “agency”
• More potential reward for the team members
• Reduced dependence on account managers to mediate between the two (sorry, account managers)
• Greater agency synergies in creativity and ideas, in addition to the bargaining power from media buys
• Reduced duplication between different stakeholders e.g. social media can be concentrated with one person rather than spread across multiple agencies or client departments
• More control over which ideas are invested where – they could be kept for the JV themselves, or even shared across multiple brands

Of course, this proposal has a ton of holes in it (can holes have weight?) and is pretty impractical. Nevertheless, the first two bullet points should be critical for any future agency. There should be no cross-purposes – is the desire to generate profits or to make a great campaign? And there should be more reward for success. Steven Spielberg was paid $250m for Jurassic Park yet Universal Studios didn’t moan (loudly) because it was only a pre-agreed cut from enormous profits. It is better to work together for a big win, than to antagonise and penny pinch for the sake of “fairness” with others.

While failure can be random and out of the hands of the individual; shared reward should be a priority for the agencies of the future.

sk

NB: Slides and notes from the talks are available from James here, from Mel here and from Martin here