Five provocations, with annotations
I was honored last month to have been invited to share some thoughts with students in the Planning program at Boston University's College of Communications. Carolyn Clark, Tobe Berkovitz and now Edward Boches (among others), have been building a remarkable program there for some time, and I was flattered to play a role in it.
I've shared the slides from that talk on Slideshare, and received some really good feedback on it. As always, slides without context make for tough consumption. And so, I've added some notes here, for those interested in getting the broader context of the talk.
I think for a lot of us, the idea of 'planner' means a very specific role. I'd encourage you to embrace a very broad idea of what planning, and specifically brand planning, might mean — if for no other reason than that it's evolving rather rapidly.
If I impart nothing else today, I'd like to convince you that there are many paths up the mountain. Most of you are going to be graduating soon, with an advanced degree in advertising. I imagine that many, if not most, of you imagine that you'll take a junior planning role at a large agency, work your way up to Planner, to Senior Planner, VP of Planning/Strategy, etc. I'm not here to suggest that this is the wrong path for you, just that it's not the only one.
This is my path, so far. I can connect the dots between each of these stops in a way that demonstrates both the trajectory of my interests and the ways in which each of these builds upon the perspectives I bring to a project. I'd scarcely suggest that you should emulate my path, but the further outside of the traditional narrative you can go while continuing to connect the dots, the more interesting you'll be to some people.
More importantly, ideas and perspectives don't spawn from stasis. If you've not already read Heidi Hackemer on the need for divergent thinking, it's probably time that you did.
The opportunity here — for both the work you create and the story you build for yourself — should be rooted in salience. I think Bruce Sterling nails it when he demands that we 'stop hoping that the straight people will keep you on as some sort of pet.'
The connective tissue between not only the great planners I've known, but also between the people I've loved working with, has been the extent to which they're interested. It's a trait that will serve you both in the life you shape and the work you deliver: Gareth Kay likes to talk about the idea that you should 'do interesting things and interesting things will happen to you.' I think that's an enormously important idea, and one you should work to internalize.
Mel Exon of BBH wrote a great post about a year ago with highlights from a talk that Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian gave, in which he highlighted three consistent traits of a great journalists. He highlighted the capacity to write well, the constant pursuit of new information (and information sources), and a strong capacity to connect seemingly disparate pieces of information. She makes the point that the same traits are shared by great strategists, and I wholeheartedly agree.
What I'd impart to you is the significance of the second trait: a relish or hunger to find out new intelligence. To achieve this trait — and I think it's something you have to work at (or at least I do) — you will necessarily adopt an interested posture. We can, and must, build practices of curiosity.
To practice curiosity is to, necessarily, seek out the messy (and occasionally amorphous) perspectives of others. To be great at planning, or I'd posit at any pursuit charged with shaping things for people, requires both that we embrace and develop a profound respect for people who are not like us.
If you haven't come across Robert Moses in your studies, it's worth learning more about him. Moses was New York City's great master builder of the 20th century — an urban planner of enormous significance, famous for (among, many, many other things) his championing of highways. His influence was such that his remarkable biography was titled 'The Power Broker'.
Late in his career, Moses spent enormous political capital on an initiative called the Mid-Manhattan Expressway — a plan to bring a superhighway (two really) into Midtown and Greenwich Village, designed to expedite the flow of commuters and visitors into and out of the city. It was an ambitious project, in which the highway plans called for a pair of four-lane interstates would be built above the existing city infrastructure. It was defeated, in large part, due to the efforts of the equally-influential urban activist Jane Jacobs — advocating on behalf of the residents and business owners of mid- and lower Manhattan, whose homes, offices, stores and parks would have found themselves permanently under the literal shadow of Moses' system. If you're interested in learning more, a brilliant 99% Invisible podcast touched on elements of the story.
I think this story is terrifically relevant to the work you'll do over the course of your career. It's important not because of the populist Jacobs vs. the establishment Moses — that's far too reductive. Instead, I think it's critical that we understand the difference between a systemic approach to human needs and a humanist approach to their needs. Systems and programs (where Moses worked) are attractive, in part, because they provide neatly-designed solutions to problems both real and perceived. Brand programs frequently share these traits — constructs designed for broad relevance to a group or audience (please don't over-use the word audience), that gloss over the messy fabric of people's lives.
Please don't forget that people are messy. It's what makes us (including you) interesting, and what makes it incredibly difficult to design one-size-fits-all solutions (or communications).
Ben Durrell, who's now with Artists for Humanity, but spent years heading up exhibit and experience design at the Boston Children's Museum, gave a talk at this year's Planning-ness summit in which he asked people to draw the place they played as children. He later related that almost no one draws pictures of playgrounds.
Playgrounds are adult constructs of idealized child play: safe, repeatable, easily constructed from component parts, requiring that the child bring little of their own to the experience — these are my words, not Ben's. They serve a parental need, clearly — give the children a place to play outside, in clean air — but they're not designed purely for children, who often prefer a made up game in an open field.
I bring this up because I think that we, as marketers and advertisers, build a lot of playgrounds. We bandy about references to 'user-centrism', but frequently we find ourselves in the business of creating safe, repeatable, componentized experiences designed largely to bathe people in brand juice. I think we can do better.
This is a diagram drawn by a participant in a 2012 study we did at Almighty looking at the relationships between people and the performance devices they use. Each participant was given, among other things, a disposable camera with a shot list and a notebook in which we asked him/her to describe their use of the system.
This participant, a man in his late 20's who was using Adidas MiCoach (not a client) system, drew this illustration to explain the ways in which the system was unique. There's a lot to be learned from exercises like this, particularly as relates to the way user perceives the value of a product, service or experience. In this case, it's worth identifying that the user illustrates instructional feedback, not just measurement or data collection.
This is another photo from the same study — from another user who (purely coincidentally) was also testing a MiCoach. There's enormous value to be gleaned from self-documentation: in this case a user with a desk so cluttered that a product with a lot of small parts would be easily lost (thus undermining the value of the product). Note also the (bricked?) iPod on the monitor stand, the stray cables, the piles of papers, the photos of (presumably) her children. When you choose to fall for users — and their messy, complex lives — you'll inevitably come across things that helps you make better things for them.
It's worth noting, by the way, that much of this kind of work can be (and is) done with disposable cameras and cheap notebooks. There are times to spend a lot of money to glean deep, valuable insights. Don't build that habit, though.
This slide is taken from a custom tool we developed in-house that allows us to mine the data in a study we did of the digital habits of runners. For this, we put together a quick survey using Wufoo, and sent emails to several dozen running clubs asking them to participate in the survey. Several hundred people participated, each giving us around 100 anonymous data points.
Certainly, it's not the most scientific study that we might have performed. It wasn't designed to be. Instead, for a minimal investment in time, and utilizing free tools (Wufoo, PHP) we were able to learn a great deal about a handful of behaviors that are unique to one of our clients' core customers. We all — you, me, us — have to get better at working with data in a quick, purposeful way.
I can't re-state this strongly enough: the tools are available today to make valuable research available at a cost that — while not negligible, is rapidly approaching it. I'd also posit that when we all use the same inputs, the same sources of population data and research, we tend to generate similarly irrelevant outputs.
If you believe — as I've articulated — that people are messy, then it becomes your job to document and synthesize that mess. There's been enormous work done in fields like social psychology and anthropology that tap into human truths with low-cost tools that researchers build for themselves. When you can learn to make your own tools, you'll find that it lends you an enormous advantage in making equally useful things for people (and brands).
As an aside: when you're getting to know the people for whom you're designing and making things, avoid the temptation to derive truth from the most charismatic among them.
I talk a lot about the idea of designing for networks. It's hardly a new idea, and it can take a lot of forms: Mike Arauz of Undercurrent gave a brilliant presentation of the same name that covered similar ground in a terribly compelling way.
When I talk about networks, I'm not usually talking about social systems (though they're certainly related). Instead, I'm advocating for a way of thinking in which organizations operate not at the center of a system, but rather as a smaller part of a wildly-interconnected universe.
Almost nothing orbits around a brand. Certainly, people and their attention do not. It behooves us, then, to find a better way to plug into them than to depend on a gravitational pull that we don't posses.
Most of you will be familiar with Metcalfe's Law — if you're not you'll no doubt encounter it by its' more familiar name, the Fax Machine effect. It's a cornerstone of network theory, and has been written about to excess.
It's relevant to you and me in several ways, but most-critically in this form: how can we build experiences and communications that add more value to each user as the network scales?
We tend to focus on network scale as something that adds value to the brand. Then we expend enormous energy trying to add that scale. If we invert that, and the value of what we make for the network is real, then we create meaningful incentives for people to participate in adding scale to what we make.
This is a shot from the 2013 New Balance Nationals — the national high school track and field championships sponsored by one of our clients. When we began our work on the project, in 2010, we began by asking how we could add scale to an event that takes place with only a few thousand athletes in a relatively fixed location — in a way that created currency for the participants, and by extension the brand.
One of the first things you notice when you spend time at a large track meet is that each athlete wears a bib with a number. If you've spent a lot of time with data, you'll recognize that bib number as a unique ID, a number identifying that athlete specifically and uniquely.
Each of us carries with us a lot of unique ID's — a Twitter name, a drivers license number, a social security number, a Starbucks Rewards number. Most large data systems, at heart, are built on reconciling multiple unique identifiers.
Starting in 2010, we connected the unique bib numbers of thousands of athletse at the US indoor and outdoor national track and field championships with their Facebook IDs. It allowed us to do some pretty interesting things.
When we combined Facebook IDs, bib numbers and start times, we could let the Facebook friends of each athlete know that their friend was about to compete (along with a link to the live stream), allowing friends and families to watch their athletes win a national title across the country (and giving them a place to comment on it).
When we combined Facebook ID's, bib numbers and results data, we could share the results of each athletes' performance on their wall in real time. This gave athletes a way to share their performance in a space in which their devices were not accessible.
When we combined Facebook ID's, bib numbers and historical track data, we could give athletes a context for how their performance in an event compared to both their friends, their region, the nation, and 100 years of track and field history.
I can't articulate this strongly enough: regardless of where your career in making things (and communications) for people takes you, a well-sharpened point of view will be one of the most valuable tools in your arsenal. Avoid the temptation to believe whatever circumstance (or business opportunity) dictates.
To me, the UK's Government Digital Service is the most interesting creative agency in the world right now. I doubt that most of you have ever heard of the GDS, but it comprises a staggering collection of digital and advertising talent, entirely geared toward delivering better products and services to a specific group of people: the British public.
Notice a few things here: they place an enormous emphasis on 'users' (not customers, not citizens), and they begin their work by articulating a set of beliefs (most of them rooted in service of those users). Read these principles carefully — they're not Luthers' 95 theses, but they're an enormously disruptive force in our world.
Consider this: the GDS has become such a force in the UK digital scene that it's become a public sector job with a magnetism that's pulling in talent from the advertising space. Imagine what it would take for a US government administration to pull in America's best digital talent.
Beyond that, an even more interesting question: what happens to users' expectations around digital experiences when government systems that touch the entire population are 'best of breed'?
We've been working for some time to define a working set of design principles for our own organization. These are scarcely official, but they're reflective of a point in time and a set of shared perspectives.
I'm a believer that, at the heart of a strong organization there exist a set of shared principles of this sort. Failing that, people are bound together only by a shared desire to be employed in the same place.
An increasingly substantial part of our work at Almighty today lies in helping client organizations develop a well-articulated set of design principles — starting points for their own work. If our organizations are going to make things with purpose, designed to meet the needs of our most important users, we're going to have to begin with a shared sense of belief.
A final provocation: there is no one way in which things are made now. In fact, quite the opposite is true: new forms of manufacture, design and delivery allow for an infinitely-configurable and recombinant approach to making things.
Use this to your advantage, both in the way(s) in which you approach work and the manner in which you grow personally.
This isn't intended to frighten you, nor is it a reworking of the old aphorism about how we're all going to change jobs a dozen times or more over the course of our careers. I think it's important to recognize that market forces are such (and accelerating in such a direction) that the nature of what we each do will be in near-constant flux. As the pace at which industries can be meaningfully disrupted accelerates, a significant portion of the value you will provide as an employee or leader will lie in your capacity to adapt to not only new ways of making, but new ways of delivering what you make.
You can train yourself to adapt. Start on that now.
This is a still from some work we did this summer with members of the California Highway Patrol and LAPD on reimagining the problem of motor vehicle theft. The important thing here is not the presence of post-it notes, but rather the involvement of the end-users of a system in rethinking the way in which data and products inform a process. We don't make things better by restructuring a system for people, but rather redesigning a system with people. Refining that skill will be critical for you, both as planners and as leaders.
Agencies are going to have to get as good at collaboration with client organizations as they are at delivering things for them.
This means facilitation of systems design. This means understanding how data flows through organizations, and how to make that data useful and actionable for the people inside those organizations. It's really un-sexy things like collaborating on better workflows where we'll create meaningful business value for our clients.
With that in mind, some suggestions:
Get out of the echo chamber. We need to find better sources of information — unique sources of information and inspiration that inform unique, constantly-evolving perspectives.
If you've not read Martin Weigel, his notion that we've developed a habit of seeing ad-shaped problems — that we've become means agencies — is a really important one that bears exploration.
Avoid the temptation to assign significance to stuff: Apple's share price, a new data point on Vine adoption, a viral for a toy company or a pending ad-world acquisition have almost no relevance to the making of salient, relevant, useful things for users and clients. They're the cheap carbs of brand thinking.
Read King. Read Ehrenberg. Read Sharp and Romaniuk. Read Suzuki, Pariser, Christensen and Coles. Read Willshire, Yakob and Kay. Be a person who traffics in ideas.
Mashable will take care of circulating more stuff, I promise.
If I can inspire you to try one new thing, it's this: sit down with a clear mind and begin to make a list of the things that you believe to be true about designing, making and bringing things to people. Build a habit of revisiting this list, refining and adding to it.
Finally, from the 'program or be programmed' files: learn to code. Making things is what binds us to one another, and code is increasingly the way in which we do that. Again: when you can make your own tools, the things you create will be infinitely more compelling than what you can create with the tools available to everyone else.