What does a Digital Brief look like?

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 10.34.55 PMHere’s something to think about. During my brief stint at a pure play digital agency recently, I noticed one thing. Digital agencies don’t ask for a digital brief, they ask for just a brief. This confounded me a little because an integrated environment and often my conversations with friends in bigger agencies have focused on the digital brief or the tactical brief and the precise structure of it. There is no doubt in my mind that integrated model is the way to go – both for agencies and for clients. And this requires a debate and even a reexamination of how we’ve managed briefs and briefings to date. Here, I talk about how to approach a campaign or tactical brief.

Must-have documents:

To write a great campaign brief or even a tactical brief, the team must have the brand idea defined, and aligned upon. Correct? The brand idea is something briefs don’t mess with – it is typically written verbatim in the first section of the brief and left alone. I propose that in addition to defining and agreeing upon the brand idea – the teams must also concurrently define the brand’s channel strategy, in the context of the brand idea but also the business.

A channel strategy is basically the prioritization of platforms for a brand. When it comes to digital, this document must drill down to specific platforms. A brand’s website is the only true owned channel that a brand has – social platforms are NOT an owned channel. A brand’s presence on social channels is akin to hosting one’s party at someone else’s home – we must still respect their home and abide their rules while expressing ourselves. 

In addition to achieving channel prioritization, this document must then assign the expected role each channel and platform is meant to play for the brand. With social, for example, Pinterest and Instagram may not be right for some brands and as such these should not be in the channel strategy. Similarly, all major platforms may be right for a brand in which case, what is the role of Facebook vs. Twitter. vs. Pinterest. vs. Instagram? What about new platforms? What is the criteria for assessing new platforms (SnapChat? Yo? Keep?) for this particular brand? The Channel Strategy must detail the guardrails.

In addition to the Channel Strategy – I also recommend quarterly social media audits. It is critical to at all times pay attention to the competitive set and activities in the social space, especially with digital brand building efforts. These documents then must be treated as facts – must be revered.

In my opinion, establishing these rules early on helps create a sandbox for the creatives. It also avoids ridiculous situations such as “I need a Facebook brief, or we need a Twitter idea.” There is no such thing as a Twitter idea or a Facebook brief – only media agencies can field those types of requests and the answer is usually, media dollars.

Even if your clients are not paying for digital strategists, they are expecting integrated ideas and campaigns. At least they should be, even if they have a digital AOR or other agencies ideating against a brief. As such the channel strategy and social audit must be done irrespective of whether or not they are being paid for.

Client input brief + Creative Brief: This is critical too. Before beginning to craft the creative brief, frame the problem with the client. What are they trying to achieve? What is the KPI? Also, what is the budget? This is also the opportunity to explain to clients that one single campaign cannot possibly achieve awareness, engagement and sales – on a shoestring budget. The bigger the project ( product launch, defending a brand etc), the more critical it is to frame the problem before delving into the creative brief.

Once the problem is framed, the planners and digital strategists should work together to uncover the appropriate insights. A random fact about a Facebook feature is not an insight  - but if you have something that sheds light on a particular and specific behavior of a brand’s audience, explore it – there could be an interesting insight there. It is therefore important that the strategy-types also collaborate with the analysts to uncover gems. If you also end up learning a boat loads about your audiences, that’s great – save it.

The briefing, in my opinion, is more important than the brief. And often the briefing is the most easily ignored, missed, done of the “phone” or (shudder!) not done at all. How can a brief take the creatives through the journey of exploration you have been on? The briefing is also the opportunity then to talk about some of the learning’s – not insights- about the brand’s audience. And to reiterate the channel strategy and appropriate-ness of certain platforms vs. others.

What about the brief then? There are obviously several schools of thought on this. When working with Jeff Benjamin on a few accounts, I loved his approach to briefs. “What’s the tension,” he would ask. That’s all he needed to be inspired. The brief’s we wrote for him, were never ever longer than two pages. The client problem was tightly articulated, as was the measure of success. Much of the focus then was spent on the cultural tension – what was that tension?

Other schools of thought prescribe to longer briefs – and they have their value to. What I have made up my mind about is – the brief must be in service of the creatives. So if your creative teams respond better to long briefs, go for it. If they want just one line, like my friend Jeff, strive for that. As long as the briefing – your one hour to hold the creatives captive and inspire them and fill their heads with all sorts of magical possibilities – is what you treat preciously and revere. Even Jeff loved a great briefing.

After the idea: Thinking about the metrics must happen as soon as the ideas start taking form. And once the idea is approved and producer-blessed for its feasibility – KPI’s must be established and aligned upon with the clients. Post that, a distribution plan (because, everything is content!) in collaboration with media must be worked out and an optimization plan (if the clients and budgets and idea allows for it) in collaboration with analytics. Scorecards etc to wrap up the campaign – but that part you already know. :)

For tactical briefs as well, I think it helps to have the groundwork done and roles of channels established.

This thinking is still in-progress and constantly iterated and improved upon. If you’ve had better luck with your approach, do share.

 

 

What Ship of Theseus teaches us about branding

Ship of Theseus is a complex philosophical question….Ship of Theseus was a successful, sea-faring ship that remained active for hundreds of years because of its constant upkeep, maintenance and replacement of parts.  Plutarch in his book, “Life of Theseus,” raised a question: if every plank of the ship was replaced during its voyage, was it still the same ship? And Thomas Hobbes, built on this (centuries later) by posing another question – if another ship was built out of the discarded parts, was that now the original Ship of Theseus?

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

—Plutarch, Theseus[2] 
This question has become a means of debating and exploring the question of one’s identity – is an object more than its part? Are we more than our thoughts?
Lannyland adds another example that makes a similar point:  The little-known story of Steve Jobs and his Mercedes Benz. Steve drove a Mercedes without license plates for years  - thanks to a loop hole in the CA  law.
It turns out there’s a provision in California regulations that give one six months to get license plates for a new car, and Jobs took advantage of it. Yes, he leased a silver Mercedes SL55 AMG, said Callas — and every six months he traded it in for a new one. So to Steve, the car was still The Car of Jobs, but to the Californian DMV, the car was a different one.
I don’t quite know where I’m going with it but I find this thought fascinating. 
We use Ship of Theseus as an example because it was a particularly successful ship. For some reason, it ended up with the best team of sea-farers, the best repairmen, maybe always caught the right currents and avoided the pirates.  For whatever reason, other ships around the same time did not manage to survive long enough to become immortalized in history. I’m assuming they had access to the same resources, the same pool of talent, the same tools for repairs and replacements – but they failed to be as successful as Ship of Theseus. Theseus’ ship was the one that lasted, turning it from  just a ship into an idea to fall in love with, an historical story to respect and pass on.

Abe Lincoln’s axe has also been used in the same argument. His axe was a political and historical legend. Why do we use his axe to illustrate this paradox and not anyone else’s? Lincoln’s axe came not only to symbolize his humble roots but also what he went on to achieve after that, thus immortalizing his humble beginnings and use the axe as a metaphor to signify it.

So perhaps it is not about any object but about certain objects. Not about any individual or company but about certain individuals or companies that transcend their limitations and join history. Make a place in the hearts and minds of the people are more than an object, as a brand.

I can only assume that during its time (or after its time) Ship of Theseus became a brand. A brand that was respected and discussed. And perhaps the public doesn’t let respected brands die so easily.

So, even if another ship is built, plank by plank by the components of the original ship – it is not the Ship of Theseus because it has no history, no story, no brand, becaue it did not hold the same spirit as the original ship. Just as any other axe built from parts of Lincoln’s axe will never be wielded by him and hence will never come Lincoln’s axe.

How to avoid Christmas Tree Strategies

 Screen Shot 2013-09-03 at 1.44.17 AM
It is every strategist’s dream to work on a challenger brand. Today, I want to share with you what I learned about strategy, and collaboration while working on one such brand. 

This global brand used to be iconic and still is in certain countries. But in the Americas, it has lost its relevance and become “my mom’s brand” as a customer eloquently put it. Despite newer, better advertising, the brand had stopped being relevant to its consumers. It’s advertising told a different story than the products on the shelf. And its website told another story than what was on its social channels. This brand’s competitors, on the other hand, with their 2x media and marketing budgets crafted slick stories and niches. Their TV, print, social and even media sponsorships told one singular story.

When everyone is selling potatoes, the story your potatoes tell matter. A nicer way to say would be, in a commoditized world, brand is the only differentiator. With this brand, no one knew what story it was telling. The people that worked for the brand knew what the story was and their agency-of-record who wrote the story (brand purpose, voice etc) knew what it was. You could wake them up in the middle of the night and show them a word, a color or even an image and they’d tell you if it was on brand or off brand. But there were two problems with this knowledge.

  1. This wasn’t transferring to all the other agencies who were actually executing against it.
  2. This knowledge wasn’t actionable in a way the agencies could execute against it.

Media, digital and shopper agencies struggled to interpret the ambitious, airy and 10,000 feet high brand guidelines. These agencies needed to make sense of them so their community managers knew what kind of content to write and so their media buyers knew what kind of partners to engage. To get there, each of these agencies ended up creating their own processes, strategy documents and workshops. The digital agency put the clients through a Social voice workshop. They started with the brand guidelines and ended up with a set of additional guideliens, verbs and 3 bullet point strategies for social. The media agency put together a jam session to create a media plan. They started with the brand guidelines, and ended up with a set of 3 bullet points and comms task for each of the brand pillars.

What the clients ended up with was a beautifully designed Christmas Tree Strategy with the brand essence at the top of the tree and then layers upon layers of verbs and adjectives and actions that described the brand’s voice, the brand’s strategy, its pillars across social, media and traditional etc etc. There were so many words and 3 point bullets on that document that the star at the top of the tree, the brand essence was completely overshadowed by the shiny, colorful five-worded strategies beneath it.

After that exercise, all the stakeholders still had a different idea of what the brand meant. Executing against this was a nightmare. For the clients and also for the agencies. Half a year into it, the client scrapped it. And tasked the agencies to simplify and articulate the brand story and the strategy, together.

Over six weeks, these agencies collaborated together. Each made an argument for their needs. Each made the commitment to put aside their agency “products” and “frameworks” and decided to come up with what was right for this client, and what satisfied all their needs. They emerged with ONE page after deliberating long and hard over what was the north star for the brand. What was the point of view it would like to own and execute against. And once that was set, they debated the merits and flaws of other frills (brand personality, values, voice, pillars, RTB’s etc – isn’t the positioning an amalgamation of it all?) continuing to simplify the document to what each agency felt was charged with enough horsepower for them to execute against.

Result? This global brand is slowly earning back its iconic status. Maybe I will tell you which brand it is someday over drinks.

Here’s what I took away from this experience:

  • Traditionally, agencies that make the TV ads have by default also been the ones defining the brand strategy, brand campaign and other elements. Now as digital spend is increasing and media is becoming more complex, it will take the three disciplines (and perhaps even more) collaborating closely to create the brand strategy so what is executed is a consistent brand story.
  • The job of a digital strategist (or any) is NOT to introduce new nomenclatures and add more words to the brand guidelines, but it is to simplify. Ask yourself if your proprietary frameworks, models and processes will simplify or create more confusion and more verbs for the clients? Social playbooks have a nice thud factor but I’d rather workshop the brand behaviors and voice in the context of digital with the clients and AOR instead of creating fat decks that frankly, no one reads and all they do is justify the digital strategist’s role.
  • Christmas Tree Strategies and 3 bullet points look good and make independent agencies look good. But they very rarely serve the brand. The disconnect, however nuanced and tiny, is palpable in the consumer’s minds.

xxxx

If you like what you read here, sign up for my newsletter below. I send out short exclusive weekly Essays on Strategy.

Life lessons on the improv stage

I recently changed jobs and I was smart enough to negotiate one week off between the two jobs. (also not smart enough to negotiate more than one week off.) My default relaxation mode is watching mindless television shows and punting around online, in my pajamas, on the bed. This leads to an unstable cycle where I sleep very late and as a result, wake up very late. Plus, multiple episodes of Walking Dead tend to make my mind mush. I was keen on not dealing with a mush brain during this break.  I also wanted to step outside my comfort zone so I signed up for Intensive Improv Classes at Upright Citizens Brigade.

Dictionaries define Improv is the art of improvising. My week long immersion into it has lead me to the conclusion that improv is actually the art of listening.

To be a good improv artist, one needs to be physically and mentally present on that stage. In my class, the best Improv scenes were where the performers listened to each other and built on each other. The scenes where performers had their own jokes or ideas prepared, quickly fell flat because they didn’t tie together with their partner’s improv lines. This is a difficult lesson to internalize without enough practice (and gentle scolding). On stage, the natural human tendency is to say the best lines and do what one can to make oneself look good. But this is counter-intuitive to Improv! Improv is about making the other people on stage look good. Listening to their lines and giving them great ones in return. Providing rich fodder to one another. What’s mind-blowing is that this rule goes beyond the stage and Improv…. doesn’t it. Some of my best scenes throughout the course were where I was playing a supporting role and actively making the others around me look good. Those were also the scenes that elicited the most laughs.

Another thing I took away from my classes is that (surprisingly) Improv is NOT about being funny or telling jokes. Again, this is counter-intuitive to what I assumed would be the crux of Improv. Our instructors repeatedly chided us for not having won the license to be fantastical or imaginative with our audiences unless we have established a base reality. A who, what, where. And even after establishing context, the scenes needed to build in an organic, natural manner within the reality of the world that has been established in the scene. Using jokes to get a laugh out of our audiences was a cop out – one that was very easy to try to fall back on. Interestingly, the rules of journalism (and even strategy!) are the about establishing context.

“Play to the top of your intelligence,” is a phrase I heard constantly during my program. It was easier to try to act dumb to elicit a few laughs on the Improv stage. But that meant, we aren’t being truthful to ourselves or to the stage. Improv performances treat the audience and the performer as intelligent and smart folks. Folks that can smell bullshit. This was the most difficult trick to not succumb to. I won’t be lying if I say that the thought of playing the dumb kid or the stereotypical immigrant  didn’t cross my mind several times during our practice sessions.

My major breakthrough came in class #3. I am a confident person and not afraid of falling flat on my face. But even then, it was difficult to give up all inhibitions and not feel conscious of playing a monkey, a warthog or a 2 year old boy on the stage. Giving up those inhibitions was liberating because it stopped me from taking myself too seriously and allowed me to give my 100% to the stage. Also, I was able to do a better job of listening and reacting to my partner.

These are universal truths though, aren’t they? Listen, be present, be selfish about making others around you look good, play to the top of your intelligence….Kinda cool that I learned these on the stage. Cheaper than traveling around the world in search of exotic stories and adventures to basically learn these same truths. no? (although I will still travel around the world)

Sidenotes:

What was most beautiful about last week for me is that I constantly surprised myself. I’ll be thirty soon and there’s not much I don’t know about myself but it was nice to be surprised by my own abilities and my capacity to still have a sense of wonder about new ideas.

The process of learning in itself is a wondrous thing. I started with learning the foundational building blocks, practiced them, and then began layering them on top of each other to make something. And then I watched some Improv performances and deconstructed them to identify the building blocks they used and how fast and well they used them. This gentle spooling and un-spooling is true of any new skill I’ve attempted to learn in the last few years: fiction writing, swimming, bicycling and now improv. The word that kept coming to mind: layercake.

 

Stouffers Local Warming

Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 3.14.20 PMShout-out to Local Warming – a fun 24 hour campaign for Stouffer’s, one of my clients. Our trusty crew are warming up New York’s coldest by bringing steaming servings of Stouffer’s Mac & Cheese to them. The price? A tweet telling Stouffer’s why they are New York’s coldest.

And we’ve had some really cool stories to boot. Follow along here #localwarming

Ten Digital Strategists to watch

Screen shot 2013-02-12 at 6.24.36 PMJulian Cole at BBH has compiled this incredible list of digital strategists for The Guardian. A bunch of my peers are on it and I’m honored to be included in their company. Thank you to Ana Andjelic for nominating me for this list.

Macy’s yes Virginia Musical


Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 2.10.57 AM

One of my favorite pieces of work at JWT was for one of my favorite audiences: children. Watch the video. Check out the site. Read the press and see the awards! What an incredible team.

Awards:
Gold CLIO, Branded Entertainment & Content (Digital/Mobile)
Gold CLIO, Branded Entertainment & Content (Live Events)
Gold CLIO, Content & Contact
Silver CLIO, Integrated Campaign
Bronze CLIO, Digital/Mobile (Campaigns)
Bronze CLIO, Engagement (Experiential)
92nd ADC Awards, Silver, Integrated
92nd ADC Awards, Bronze, Online Content
Merit, One Show Interactive

On origins of everyday phrases

My current obsession has been centered around mythology and its contribution to everyday language and words. This delightful article from NYT on the origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards” caught my fancy. Here’s a fun excerpt from the article:

The recent discovery of several instances of “the whole six yards” in newspapers from the 1910s — four decades before the earliest known references to “the whole nine yards” — opens a new window onto “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time,” said Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School who announced the findings in next month’s issue of The Yale Alumni Magazine…..Like the Holy Grail “the whole nine yards” has inspired both armchair mythologizing and years of hard and often fruitless searching through random books and miles of newspaper microfilm. Not that the expression is necessarily all that old. The first scholarly dating, in a 1986 supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, traced it to 1970. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang then pushed it back to 1967, with a citation from “The Doom Pussy,” Elaine Shepard’s novel about Air Force pilots in the Vietnam War.

What brands can learn from start-ups

Fast CompanyScreen Shot 2013-06-08 at 2.00.00 AM was kind enough to publish some thoughts I had on how brands can learn from start-ups.

Copied below:

As a Digital Strategist, I’ve been in plenty of brainstorms and meetings where we talk about how we can co-opt popular digital behaviors and mechanics (check-in, badges etc) introduced by start-ups and digital companies. The cross-pollination of ideas and best practices is exciting and I specifically want to share five things start-ups can teach brands, each other and learn from brands.

Positioning: Couch the offering in familiar frameworks

Building on behaviors: Users find it easier to glom on to existing behaviors (badges, points, etc). If you are building a new digital campaign or creating a new product, think about your audience’s existing behaviors and start from there instead of trying to introduce new habits, and concepts. Both start-ups and brands anchor their products in existing behaviors to help explain what they do.

Examples:

  1. Kickstarter and donorschoose.org have made everyone an “investor”
  2. Weightwatchers turned the idea of losing weight into a game.
  3. Gilt took an offline sample sale and introduced the flash-sale concept
  4. Foursquare introduced the notion of checking-in.
  5. Learnvest has very cleverly used the gym-membership model to create a paid model for its offering
  6. American Express and Kate Spade are organizing their own flash sales.

 

The 10-word pitch

If you can’t describe the campaign or your product in ten words or less, go back to the drawing board. What’s your product/ app/ idea’s 5 word pitch? Examples:

  1. Kickstarter = “A new way to fund and follow creativity.”
  2. Skillshare = “Learn Anything. From Anyone. Anywhere.”
  3. Dailyworth = “A community of women who talk money”
  4. Tumblr = “Follow the world’s creators”
  5. Weduary = “Make your own beautiful and social wedding website”

Baked-In Marketing: Start-up’s almost always do not hire marketing folks. They let their product do the marketing.

Activating users to bring in new users: Most successful start-ups bake in audience acquisition levers into their product so that the product self-sustains itself and continues to bring in new customers on its own. How is your product bringing in new customers?

  • Everlane has the BEST acquisition levers I’ve ever seen. Most sample sale sites (Gilt, Rue La La, Ideeli etc) started off by offering monetary incentives – $10 for each friend invited and purchased to lure users to bring in more users. Everlane one-ups the system by creating tiers. 5-invited friend gets the user a discount. 10 friends bring the user a free luxe t-shirt, 50 friends – free shipping for life. This is the only site I’ve ever really invited my friends to. What is your strategy to activating your users into inviting more users?

One-step sign-up processes – again, this is something I’m watching most start-up’s get right from the beginning. Check our Tumblr or even Skillshare for how easy to make sign-up. In fact, Skillshare lets you explore the site’s offering and only requires sign-up’s when you want to follow a class or sign up for a class. Is your marketing campaign simple to participate in?

High Value Content

Creating Engagement: What’s the best piece of content that you can create that will make people want to use and become a part of your product experience?  Examples:

These entertaining content experiences invite press, buzz and expose the companies to new audiences. And the best part? Most of these videos are created for a small, small budget!

Demo/ How to use the product videos/ guides: This simple piece of content is the most overlooked and under-estimated. Demo videos or straightforward and simple keys on how to use the product are crucial in establishing trust, forming habit and encouraging new audiences to give the new product/ site a spin.

Examples:

MVP Filter

This one is a hard one to explain and show examples for. It is more of a process than a visible, tangible principle but I assure you, every successful start-up is successful because they have nailed this.  This principle asks a start-up to consider, what is the single-most important feature without which this product will not be this product? And that’s feature becomes the immediate priority. Once this is nailed, the communications, messaging and branding for the product becomes simple and straightforward.

This is also the most important principle for a brand to understand. A digital campaign cannot and will not hit all your metrics. One campaign will not drive awareness, trial and then purchase. Those are all different mind-sets and it is unfair to expect one story, one mechanic to achieve all three. Bring in the MVP. In my strategy sessions, this is the one tool I keep bringing in again and again. What is the immediate challenge/ problem we want to solve? If so, these are the type of mechanics that will most likely work and hence, this is the type of digital campaign that should be considered.

(Start-ups apply the minimum-value-product filter which is a prioritization tool to help them triangulate what is the one thing that the product must do/ be)

Community Evangelists

For a lot of start-ups, the world needs to be impressed before the users/ customers are impressed. So the right type of press and “buzz” is essential. Trippy.com built an all-star advisory board (Randi Zuckerberg, Soraya Darabi etc) because these advisors are avid travelers. By getting them to use their site, they’ve tapped into their networks for free! (Plus made them feel important by giving them the epithet of advisers) Who are the influencers in the your sector and what is your plan for attracting them in a manner that makes sense to them and to your brand?

In hiring community managers, brands must put in the same level of rigor and monetary investment that they put for other jobs. A community manager is the most important hire a start-up will make. This person makes in-roads into the community, and their presence brings serendipitous opportunities to the brand.

Results/ Impact

I personally love it when start-ups share their impact/ results. Not quite applicable to every start-up or brand but I’m a huge fan of Fab, Kickstarter and CharityWater and how they share their learning’s and metrics publicly. I think it’s a brilliant way of creating and sustaining interest in the company. (Esp when they use beautiful info-graphics)

Let’s fuckin’ set the record straight: Account planners and digital strategists are NOT the same

I’ve been reading so many traditional planners go on about how they don’t get digital strategists and how this role makes no sense to them that it’s time to set the record straight.

I vehemently disagree with the tendency most planners have in assuming that a planner and a strategist is one and the same. The argument is not about the title – which could be merely semantics but it is about the work process and the skill-set. It is especially easy to mistake and get confused about this in the type of environment we work in (i.e advertising agency) Step outside this bubble, and you’ll see that there are many flavors to a digital strategist and there are several deep skill-sets they have honed and developed over time to be simply merged with planning.
Screen shot 2012-05-29 at 6.05.12 PM
Just as there are several layers to brand planning, there are several layers (maybe more) to digital planning. If you ask me, digital planning sits under brand planning and not next to it because it needs to ladder up to the brand attributes/ values etc.

My biggest criticism of traditional account planning is that the planners don’t get very involved in the actual “making” of the idea. It’s called production in planner speak and the word is boring and uninspiring but in digital – that’s really where the idea gets made. And the idea continues to morph until it is beta tested. It continues to morph even as it is launched and the results come in and we tweak and make the idea better in real-time. Digital strategy is the true marriage of account planning, creative and production.

A (good) digital strategist works for the idea. With digital, you have to launch an idea that is in perfect harmony with innovation and current consumer habits/behaviors. You have to launch an idea that is technologically not too advanced and not too behind – Goldilocks! And that is not production or creative’s job alone – that is as much strategic thinking and application of tactical insights.

Also, the insights a planner brings to the table often only inform the birth of the idea or a creative direction. The insights that a digital strategist brings to the table informs the success of the idea and the actual meat and flesh of it. Sometimes the insight or “strategy” maybe tactical (will this particular user experience really invite participation and sharing?) and sometimes it is blue-sky. Point is – these insights underwrite the making of the idea and its success across the phases.

Our role will eventually become obsolete – it will mostly be absorbed by creative and a very small part of it will be absorbed by planning. But not yet. And not for the next few years. We have far too many traditional planners that simply aren’t interested in digital to wear this hat. You can’t teach someone to be an early adopter or experiment with technology or play around and deeply immerse/ engage in every new social platform or make games. Advertising needs us right now so if you still don’t get it – please STFU and let us do our jobs.

Call us whatever the fuck you want – as long as you let us work for the idea. I’ve even swept floors and washed dishes in name of creative. So there.

If you have more questions or want to hear more thoughts – please see the most popular posts (to your right). Feel free to leave a comment, unless you are going to serve up the same drivel I’ve been reading.

Mobile Shopping Study – Mashable

I co-authored a study for JWT about mobile shopping behaviors. Mashable was kind enough to publish it.

Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 2.03.43 AM

TED Ads Worth Spreading Curator 2012

Keeping this brief because there is nothing I can say that you haven’t heard or read before.

As one of the six industry nominators for TED Ads Worth Spreading 2012 Initiative, I was honored to represent both my industry and JWT at TEDActive in Palm Springs this March. The kind folks at TED also made a dream come true for me by whisking me off to the main TED conference in Long Beach for a few days. Raghava and I started our first day by interviewing briefly for a short video about our experience as nominators for TED Ads Worth Spreading. The one thing I learned from this experience is that fantastic work transcends boundaries, categories and even context. Both Raghava and I are from different worlds and while we had our share of debate over which ads to nominate, we seemed to both unanimously agree when we found an incredible one. You can see the top ten ads that won here. (Congratulations to my fellow nominators and the winners – what an amazing experience to be a part of!)

About TED, there is not much else to say other than what you already know. I was lucky to have attended both TED and TEDActive. As with every conference, these attracted a bunch of people that were mostly only interested in selling themselves or something they made. And what a turn off that is! But for the most part, I met people that were interested in ideas and debate and had a genuine interest and desire to belong to the community. TEDActive, in particular, seemed to attract a beautiful like-minded community of thinkers, doers and game-changers.

Among the TED Talks, the ones that spoke most to be where Susan Cain’s “The power of Introverts,” Dr. Brown’s talk on “Vulnerability,” Chip Kidd’s talk on “Creating visual haiku’s for stories“, Sherry Turkle’s 18 mins on our culture of sharing and Billy Collin’s beautiful beautiful talk on poetry.

What was more important to me than listening to and absorbing all this knowledge was finding time to process and understand it. Think about what I was learning and how I could apply it. I tried to pay attention and be fully present at the conference so I wasn’t tweeting or blogging much. TED can be an inspiration overload and most of the attendees had figured out a schedule that worked for them. So between watching the talks and talking to each other to develop the ideas further, I’d say it was a week full of intense intellectual masturbation.

Best life and career advice I’ve heard

Today at an early breakfast with Erin, (an incredibly inspirational woman. also the Dir of Operations at SVA’s Design in Social Innovation program) she passed on this gem of advice that someone else had passed on to her.

When thinking about your life and where it is going, try to answer these three questions as truthfully and honestly as you can
1. What makes you joyful? Joyful, not happy. You feel sorrow when this is not in your life.
2. What are you good at? Not what you think you are a good at. What are you actually good at?
3. Who do you want to serve? Everyone of us serves someone. Who is it that you want to serve?

I was blown away by the simplicity of these questions. That they are so simple, is what makes them so difficult to answer.

I’m often confused when people separate life and career advice or planning. We spend more time and energy at our places of work than anywhere else. To a large extend, the work we do and the things we make define us and fill our days. How can planning for this be different than planning for life?

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received or heard?

Do “Gated Likes” dilute the value of a brand?

Undercurrent has a provocative blog post today titled, “How Brands are Killing Facebook.”

I have a lot of problems with the content in it. No offense to Jim Babb (whose excellent work, btw, I have followed and am a huge fan of) but the few points I want to make below, need to be heard and made.

The blog post asserts, “Hiding content behind a “Like-wall” is killing the value of a Facebook Like. In doing so, these brands are eroding the value of the Like and damaging their own social presence.”

This is not true. And here’s why:

1. There is no way to quantitatively differentiate the earned, paid and gated likes. And because it is impossible to do that, it is impossible to segment and understand the behavioral implications of these fans. Plus, most conversion studies I have seen say that a gated page does not negatively impact the behavior. It’s the content that makes or breaks it. Without any data to back up the assertion, I’ll be hard-pressed to make such a recommendation to my client.

2. In an ideal world, it will be nice to not use “Gated” likes. But here’s the reality. I just finished a study at JWT New York to understand how we use social media and what the behaviors are. When we asked our respondents, what were their reasons for connecting to a brand on Facebook or Twitter, the top three reasons were to do with incentives.

67% said they like a page to benefit from a specific promotion or offer;

63% said they like a page because to search for promotions and special offers.

53% said they like a page to participate in competitions and win prizes.

Point is, data and user behavior already suggests that the primary reason they are coming to a page or liking a page is for promotions and sales. Whether the page is gated or not, has nothing to do with it. Instead of focusing on the gated vs. ungated aspects of the puzzle, we are better off focusing on what to do and how to engage with these fans once the enter the turf. How they get there is important but more important than what we do with them once they get there!

If “Gated” likes have worked as a tactic to attract them and since they don’t yet show (at least to my knowledge) any negative impact on brands or consumers  – why not experiment with it? And use it as a tool to bring more people in?

Also, lets get off our high horses regarding Facebook and “fans.” Who says these people that like our page are our “Fans?” Facebook calls them that but it doesn’t mean they are truly our fans. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with gated likes. In real life, to avail of a discount, you still have to step in the store. And that’s what I think a Facebook page is now. We call them “fans” because Facebook told us to call them fans. They could all just be people “in your store” – shopping or not.

We need to be careful in making recommendations that aren’t backed by data. I’ve done this before to0 – made recommendations that “feel” right for an ideal world. But we aren’t living in an ideal world. Brands are putting in a significant investment of resources, time and hard cash to grow their social footprint. This field is nascent but to move forward, we need to be able to sift through what “feels” right and what is accurate.

Just my two cents.

What every digital strategist must know

I’ve now been at JWT for one full year and have developed a healthy respect for all the different kinds of skills and temperaments that are required to make advertising, irrespective of whether it is TV, Radio, Print, Out of home or digital. I’ve also had more time to develop further my initial point of view and early thinking on the role of a digital strategist. My thoughts below are based on observations and discussions with my peers and colleagues.

A Digital Strategist is an amalgamation of planning, account and creative.

An ideal digital strategist wears many hats and balances many tasks artfully. Most of us have a stronger predilection towards one of these three roles or tend to be better at one or two of them. And that’s okay. It only means that there are other areas we need to get better at.

In working with the planner, the strategist must offer input on the digital behaviors of the constituents.

In working with the account teams, the strategist must demonstrate a clear understanding of the client’s business. More important, also understand how to do business with the client. Know what the client’s risk tolerance is or understand the level of due-diligence the client requires for new ideas, the parameters the client likes to operate within and other such sensitive information. Unfortunately, there are no guidebooks or decks on how to do business with a client. This sort of intuition is developed with experience.

I typically chart my clients on a digital appetite spectrum – some clients are more ready than others for bold, new ideas and some need a little more hand-holding and others are perhaps too scared or risk averse to try new things. But understanding where your client stands is essential because that dictates how you will approach and plan for them.

And lastly, the strategist needs to be able to partner with the creatives. Throw away all preconceptions and ideate with a blank mind for the client.

A Digital Strategist must learn to produce and execute.

I have come to the understanding that digital strategists must take a healthy interest in execution. Sold an idea, great? But nine times out of ten, what I end up launching does not look anything like what I initially sold. And I suspect this is true for a lot of us in this role.

Going through the feasibility checks, budget requirements, threshold checks, idea iterations and testing is painful and has often been outside my comfort zone. But it’s taught me to ask the right question and know when to raise red flags. I read this excellent article recently about the three types of knowledge. (Things you know; Things you know that you don’t know and Things you don’t know you don’t know.) Going through or being closely involved in aspects that don’t necessarily concern me: user experience, production, coding etc. have broadened my knowledge of “Things that you know you don’t know.” To me, a digital strategist doesn’t always know all the answers, but he/she knows where to get them. And this can only happen once you’ve been in the trenches.  Once you’ve executed and made stuff.

Another thing I’ve learned is to involve production early on in meetings and preferably team up with producers that are problem solvers. The right producer will not only find a way to make the idea happen but will push you and the creative teams to make the idea better.

At my previous job, my boss once had be execute a conference. My initial reaction was pure horror. “I’m a strategist,” I whined. “I don’t do conferences!” But he wouldn’t listen. Instead he said, “I know you won’t believe me now but this is only going to make you better strategist.” And that is true. I didn’t believe him them but the wisdom of his words stayed with me. It wasn’t until a few months after the conference that I realized how right he had been. Executing that conference had helped me evolve my thinking process and I wasn’t even aware!

Bottom-line: If something is making you feel uncomfortable, it means you are growing. So just do it.

___

I know I’ve got some more thoughts floating around in my head so will eventually put them on paper. I’ve been thinking about “Invention Strategists,” the term that Winston Binch invented. I need to crystallize my thoughts but I think it’s a great way to integrate strategists into the creative department. But more of an organizational strategy than a new role. I’m not sure though that all strategists belong in the creative department but more on that later…

Living knowledge vs. dead knowledge

Stream of consciousness so bear with me…

I was at lunch with a dear friend of mine earlier this week. At 27, Clara is a highly accomplished business leader. Not only does she run and manage an amazing not for profit institution but is also currently enrolled at Stanford Business School. Over steaming aloo parathas, we caught up with each other and then our discussion moved to what we had learned.

Clara shared with me a very curious phrase and I’ve googled the heck out of it but cannot find much. She described to be the concept of living knowledge vs. dead knowledge that was recently discussed in one of our business classes. The notion being that living knowledge is the type that is still being argued upon and talked about and opinions are still nascent.

It reminded me of Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates philosophies. I just finished reading Job’s autobiography. It is a fantastic look into his life but offers broad strokes over the key philosophies that defined and nurtured the last fifty years of the digital age. One of them was the argument about closed integrated systems vs. open syndicated systems. (Jobs vs. Bill camps) I think we’ve seen how both models can work (with caveats, of course) but to me, it is one of those issues that is piece of “living knowledge.” Still being argued hotly and worked upon by members of both camps. Got me thinking, what other examples of living knowledge do we have from our digital history?

Digital in 2012: The web will make us smarter

The last decade or so were the august years of the Digital web. A sort of industrial revolution that created entirely new types of economies, skill-sets, companies and most importantly behaviors. Led by programmers and tinkerers and computer scientists, this industrial age has been crucial in helping us write our generational history. One of the biggest outputs though of this age has been the birth of a culture were our need for visibility has overtaken our need for privacy. What this has done is created a digital world that is not designed for developing original thought.

There’s nothing wrong with that and ofcourse the onus does not lie on the web. But I believe that anything in excess hurts the society. And all this talk about connectivity has left a few other equally important values for humanity at bay. It’s time to address this excess.

The good news is that a new slew of characters have emerge to balance out the equation. I believe, we are on the fringes of entering a new wave. I’m calling it the age of enlightenment in our digital history. And this age is being lead by a new class of people. These are thinkers, artists and storytellers not programmers and geeks. These are people driven by a vision that’s a bit more individualistic, centers more around exploring the tapestry of human opinions and feelings instead of connecting the world into one large immutable being.

The problem

Sharing has become a thoughtless act: Sharing used to carry weight – it used to be hold more meaning. Now, it’s passive, robot-like. And does not persuade or evoke response. Yet brands and marketers continue to tout the one-to-many function that social networks (and the Internet) has enabled. The web systems we have designed unfortunately haven’t focused on curating for the self but for the echo chamber that each of us is a part of. Some may argue we have become mindless drones, quick to react and retweet, but not *think*

I refuse to buy that a meaningful conversation can happen on channels we currently use: Facebook and Twitter predominantly. Even sites such as Pinterest and Tumblr who I’m a huge fan of, often symbolize nothing more than “inspiration fetishism” (a word coined by Stefan Boublil) What this has resulted into is a culture of people that backslap each other, think like one another and as a result, even act like one another. (I cannot tell you how many times I have heard about checking-in and scoreboards in a boardroom for new products. Which brings me to my next point..)

Value exchange is quantified in terms of likes, friends and followers: Web has become too much of a game. With gamifying the web and making instant gratification an expectation, we are setting ourselves up for failure.  I’ll give that the conversations around gaming are evolving and becoming more substantial but we have been trained to respond to flash sales, group buying and other forms of commercial game-induced behaviors. Gaming will have a larger role to play in the age of enlightenment, but perhaps not so overt. It’s job will and should become about elevating the meaning and importance associated with a like, number of friends and followers etc.

As our social quotient goes up, our intellectual quotient is coming down: The web is not going to disappear – if anything, it will continue to become more important in the next few years and become the entity that our kids will play with and even learn from. But if the growth of the web continues to perpetuate in such a manner – what kind of original thought will our kids will capable of producing?

The Solution?

The web, if designed and engineered differently,  has incredible power to induce substance back into our lives. To teach us how to think and encourage behaviors that aren’t simply reactive or celebratory. Our natural instincts are to shut technology or cut ourselves from it for a few days, to take a sabbatical or a thinking break. But why does it have to be this way? Why aren’t we or why haven’t we discussed the possibility of desgining technology and the Internet to make us smarter? Why don’t we make systems that:

1. Are designed for constructive debate and dialogue by exposing us to different points of views
2. Are designed for quality – not quantity. Where there is less immediate gratification.

In our capacity as marketers and brand stewards, our work is also indirectly shaping the future of education, humanity and intellectual thought. What roles can we play to encourage the evolution of the Web in a direction that’s not stunting our growth, but making us smarter individuals everyday?

The good news is, that I’ve already been seeing whispers of a movement in this direction. As I mentioned earlier, artists and thinkers are the one’s the forefront of this movement right now. Raghava KK, my fellow TED nominator and artist, has recently announced the launch of Shaken Media Collective.

Shaken Media Collective is an initiative brought about by the talents of creative individuals dedicated to forging a new direction of storytelling that raises empathy in readers by shaking up perspectives, and bringing stories to life through a fusion of play, art and technology.

You can see a glimpse of what this means (and its current incarnation) by downloading Raghava’s perspective-shifting PopIT application for the iPad where one shake of the story reveals a completely new perspective.

Another such attempt to bring more substance to the web and to our behaviors on the web is Cowbird. I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the early storytellers on the site. Cowbird, like most of other Jonathan Harris projects furthers how technology can offer new ways Screen shot 2011-12-21 at 6.54.01 PMof looking at the world, and telling stories. A tightly controlled and curated environment, Cowbird, is (in its own words)

trying to preserve and evolve the dying art of storytelling, using technology as friend instead of foe. We believe all people deserve equal access to the best storytelling tools, so the communication of ideas cannot be monopolized. We support the broad empowerment of individuals to voice their honest ideas about life, and we believe they deserve a clean, ad-free, uncluttered environment for sharing personal experience.By encouraging self-reflection and deeper connection, we hope to foster a feeling of empathy among people all over the world, so we can start to see our species — and indeed our planet — as a single living organism.

Regarding it’s whimsical name, it says, “Cowbird combines these two extremes to form a new kind of storytelling medium — mixing the slow, deeply rooted, contemplative idea of a cow with the fast, efficient, playful idea of a bird.”

I don’t know how successful these two initiatives will be, but we’ve entered the age of enlightenment and as the collective consciousness around this grows, more entrepreneurs, artists and thinkers will veer in this direction and build upon each other’s work to create a digital world that balanced. A world that can teach us to think as well as it as taught us to respond. Marketers as a rule respond to the current zeitgeist, and once we create a new habits and behaviors, marketers too, will play their part in accentuating and intensifying them.

This is my sincere hope for the coming year and I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this.

Home is where the family is

My mom left for India this Sunday after a two-month long visit. When I tell my American friends this, they give me a look of surprise. Followed by one of awe. And then I go on to explain how it works differently with Indians. And my family. I tell them that if I was still in India and unmarried, I’d be living with my parents. And that if I moved back and lived in the same city as my in-laws, we would live together. This concept is so foreign to most Americans. They only see the width and breadth of my studio and think how can three people live in this space. They think about my social calendar and work obligations and wonder how I would entertain my Mother for so long. I don’t blame them. It’s a cultural thing.

Seldom does advertising move me the way this ad has. In fact, by the time the ad was over, I was weeping. Remembering all the times I have stood at the airport saying bye or leaving. In fact, I don’t even consider this advertising.  This project aligns well with Coca-Cola’s Happiness Project and its brand idea, but I think it is every single brand’s responsibility to empower people. To celebrate them and bring them joy.

Big, big brownie points to Coca-Cola and McCann Manilla for looking beneath the underbelly of a nation and bringing it to the forefront.

What I hope to achieve with TED Ads Worth Spreading

As I sit to write this post, I am reminded of all the things in-between that I have missed sharing and writing about. It’s out in the news that I’ve been (humbled, honored, excited, insert more adjectives here!) invited to be one of the twelve nominators for TED Ads Worth Spreading Initiative. The category I’ve been assigned is “Creative Wonder.” And who better to be partnered with than Raghava K.K, former TED Speaker and artist-extraordinaire!

Let me back up a bit though. This is a big deal for me. I also understand that things like this usually beget the question, how did this happen. I’ve been asked this numerous times. The answer is surprisingly short.

I attended WPP Stream in Athens, Greece earlier this September where I hosted a discussion on “The Future of Publishing”. Toward the end of this discussion, Ronda Carnegie of TED and I ended up having an incredibly thought provoking conversation about the role of curation and point-of-view. And this is where our collaboration really began. I will confess that until she mentioned it to me, I hadn’t known of or seen the TED Ads Worth Spreading initiative. So you can imagine how humbled (but excited) I was when she invited me to participate in this initiative.

The thing is, I don’t have a traditional advertising background. I’m still figuring out how I can be useful in an ad agency. I started my career as a journalist at InStyle magazine and found my way into marketing through trend-spotting work that I was doing for PSFK and a bunch of other sites. Point is, JWT is my first “proper” advertising job and I’m not yet jaded or bored with it. In fact, I’ve only just begun.

TED is a powerful platform. I’ve had several people tell me that they don’t understand this initiative from TED. Why ads, they ask me. The way I look at it, advertising is one of the most easily accessible (and mainstream) forms of creativity and art. You have to understand – I grew up in India and we have a rich tradition and a healthy appetite and love for advertising. (I’m known to joke even today that American advertising is boring and lacks imagination when compared to Indian advertising.) Dinner-time conversations with family and friends often involved remarking on the brilliance of a particular advertisement. Even as an expat in New York, my friends and I tend to spend hours youtubing old ads, fabricating our own nostalgia.

Subliminally and overtly, advertising has been my first introductions to story-telling, to creativity and to capitalism. And I believe there is enough room in the industry for someone such as TED to come in with its own point of view on advertising and shape the dialogue further.

For TED, our one true mandate is to discover ads worth spreading that fall under the “Creative Wonder” category – which means we are looking for global work that elevates the craft of creativity in advertising through ingenious use of technology, music, cinematic treatment or even information.

From the moment we were briefed, Raghava and I felt strongly that it was essential for us to open up our process and not remain limited to our own networks or point-of-views in discovering creative work that is meant to speak for and represent our category globally. We believe that creativity doesn’t happen behind closed doors or without collaboration. Even advertisements need an army to make them! Hence, we have decided to democratize our search.

http://www.tedawscreativewonder.com is our humble effort at ensuring that not only is the process of discovering these advertisements transparent and democratic but also a story onto itself.

Screen shot 2011-11-09 at 2.10.30 PM

We’ve invited a diverse group of artists, creative’s and thinkers to the project. Each of them brings a unique POV and their backgrounds, interests and experiences apply a different lens to this, which is crucial for this project. (We’ve already come across incredible ads that I wouldn’t have found on my own!) You can see our growing collection of nominations on our Pinterest board.

Our goal is to emerge not only with unique, global pieces of creative but also an amazing story of the works, how we found them and why we recommended them. Through the conversation and dialogue generated, we hope to elevate our and our community’s outlook on advertising and creativity.

I realize this was a rather long post – but would LOVE your insights and opinions. This is an experiment at crafting a point of view on creativity in advertising and the more people involved, the more enlightened our point of view will be. So drop me a note, yeah?

Digital Strategist Survey: What does the role entail?

***If you’ve arrived on this page after taking the survey – THANK YOU! ***

In the last few weeks, a number of you have reached out to me (via email, tweet or by commenting on my blog) regarding my recent blog post “Why the role of Digital Strategists needs to evolve.” http://t.co/WF9eNOI (If you haven’t read this post, and work in digital, I’d love for you to read it and share your opinion)

In my post, I promised to continue exploring this and share my findings on my blog.  I’ve been having very interesting discussions with other strategists and folks in the industry about this role and what it means. These conversations led me to create this survey:

http://bit.ly/nsAf2w

to test a few hypothesis. In particular, the goal of this qualitative survey is to draw a clearer picture of what exactly does a digital strategist do at their job. Where do they add most value and how is this role perceived at other agencies?

I’m hoping for at least 200+ responses globally so I’d appreciate it if you could take the survey and share it with your (digital) colleagues and encourage them to take this survey as well. I’ll also be grateful if you could post this survey on your Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. I will share the findings of this survey with you once they are available.

Thank you in advance

Is Facebook influencing world cultures for the better or worse?

There’s enough commentary out there about the new interface changes of Facebook and its new Time-Line centered social activities. I had a thought this morning that I’m trying to reconcile and figured I’d share it here and see if anyone else shared my concern. I’ve had the timeline for a few days now and I actually quite enjoy it. But I wanted to play devil’s advocate and argue a different point of view.

Celebrating micro-achievements is a distinctly American trait. For example, celebrations such as pre-school graduations, middle-school graduations and such are a very American trait. I grew up in India and I can tell you when you passed one grade and entered another, it wasn’t (still isn’t) made a huge deal of. I don’t have kids but that’s how I prefer it. Why must children be rewarded for their job? Or what’s expected out of them? I’m not sure if I’ll be able to escape this trend once I have my own children and if I decide to raise them in this country.

But I’m using this anecdote to make a bigger point: every single milestone in America is magnified and turned into a celebration. (There are both positive and negatives to this)

Like many other companies, Facebook is an American company that has global users. And this is important to not forget. With its new time-line feature, it is essentially introducing this very American trait of celebrating micro-achievements to the world stage. Time-lines offer users an exaggerated sense of their life and its milestones. It gives them a platform to celebrate and commemorate the most insignificant details of their lives. (Yes it has its benefits but I’m playing devil’s advocate here so let me run with it.) This isn’t entirely alien to the Americans, it’s more of an extension of how they’ve been raised and taught to value. But to Facebook’s heavy users in other countries (and I’m only intimately familiar with the culture in India so I can only speak to that) what does this signify or symbolize?

Will we raise an entire generation of Indian children to think, talk and celebrate their micro-achievements as American children do? Will there remain a unique cultural imprint on these children that have been raised on a steady American diet of self-exaggeration ?

Also as my friend Ryan pointed out, do these exaggerated celebrations chip away at the real sense of achievement that comes from doing hard work and earning something?

Just something to think about. If you come from a different background or culture, I’d be interested in hearing your perspectives.

How Metaphors influence culture and daily language

I’ve never participated in an Ignite talk before. So as a challenge to myself, I decided to participate in Ignite at Stream and spent the next few weeks agonizing over what I would talk about. Ignite is a very compelling (and a little intimidating) talk format. You are allowed 15 slides and 4 minutes. Your slide changes automatically every 15 seconds so it’s very important to time your talk.

Stream 2011 is WPP’s three-day un-conference that brings together brilliant minds in marketing and technology from all over the world to discuss new trends, behaviors and ideas. (Not that I consider myself anywhere close to the league of people that were present!)

The real challenge for me was to find something unique to talk about that the crowds would find interesting. As a storyteller, I’m mildly obsessed with metaphors and so I decided to package everything I knew about metaphors in 4 short minutes and present it. Enjoy!!

Ignite: How metaphors influence culture

View more presentations from Jinal Shah
Voice-over for of each slide: (I’ve added more context here to explain better!)
Metaphors exist because as humans we are incapable of thinking about things literally. Metaphors are nothing but stories that anchor our understanding and allow us to approach the world from a frame of reference. As children, we allow influential epics, books and stories to shape this frame of reference (For eg: Good vs. evil from Mahabharata; etc) As humans we yearn for figurative language to help us contextualize and make sense of our worlds.
Unless, ofcourse if you are Spock. In which case, this talk will not amuse you. (And I just used Spock as a metaphor for someone that does not speak emotions or understand figurative language) The point us, our conceptual systems, our jokes and even our national identities to a certain extent are metaphorical. But we are not readily aware of it.
Even as a professional (in advertising) metaphors from the basis of what I do. Metaphors allow us to dip into our values, histories and mythologies to communicate the value of a brand and connect to our audience. For all those naysayers, good advertising is good storytelling. (This advertisement will not make sense to you if you don’t have the cultural context. Ask me if you are curious about what this ad means)
Learning basic metaphors is essential to participate in daily life. You can call it slang or cultural literacy. I didn’t feel fully American until I understood the metaphors that dominate in this country. But I still have a lot to learn. Just a few weeks ago, I found out what “beaver” stands for in America. It was quite embarrassing. Either ways, in thinking about origin of metaphors – they come from every aspect of life. Cooking, eating, local animals, local foods etc. (Characteristic foods are often used to label ethnic groups: Krauts (Germans); Dhoklas (Gujaratis); Frogs; Limmeys etc)
But what has a profound impact on our culture is transformational inventions and events that become new sources of metaphors and have a lasting impact on how we communicate in thought and action.
Take for example, the invention of clock. The clock was a new representation of time. It’s mechanical clockwork came to symbolize pre-ordained regularity and order.

By 18th century is characterized and defined by clockwork metaphors and mechanistic philosophy. The figure of a clock is commonplace in the period – and the regularity with which it is used to metaphorize the mind. Descartes treatise on man compares our inner-workings (memories, passion and imagination) to that of a clock – mechanical and pre-ordained. Alexandar Pope pictured a clock-work soul in his Essay on man.

Over time though the thoughts and ideas evolved and now clock remains an expression of an authoritative mind. more closely associated with men. As keepers of time and order. A gentleman’s signature. Time-pieces that are passed down as legacy. That was an example of how an invention became a cultural metaphor.

But perhaps a bit closer to home and something we can relate to is the invention of the ship and how the age of sailing influenced our everyday vocabularies. Even though the industry has changed and we’ve forgotten the meanings and logic of hundred’s of these borrowed words.

For example,  “Show someone the ropes’ is taken from the use of ropes to orient and adjust the sails. With flying colors comes from the time when a ship would surrender by lowering the colors (national flag) the term is now used to indicate a victory. But the word I was most taken aback by was, “taken aback!” It describes what happens when wind veers 180 degrees on square-rigged ships; and the ships are suddenly driven straight backwards.

And my favorite, “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” referred to a brass tray on which canon balls were stored. The jury is still out on this one and the internet keeps disagreeing – but sailors still use it so it goes.

Another metaphorical devices that we use when we argue comes from “war.” When we argue, we are often “attacking “ our opponents weaknesses to “win” an argument. In some cases, our arguments are “shot down” and we are “wiped out” by our opponent, especially if they are right “on target”. The concept, the activity and the language is structured as a war metaphor.

The biggest invention of our time that has transformed thoguhts and actions has been the internet. But its true impact and the metaphors it has birthed won’t be evident until generations after.  I’ve already followed some of you here and by the time we are done, I will have friended some of you. Some of words have found new meaning in our everyday parlanceand made it to Webster. As close to an official seal of approval that we can get but it remains to be seen the kind of impact these inventions and actions will have on the next hundred generations.

As a little exercise, try to pay attention to the words you use in everyday language and business and see if you can decipher which ones are metaphors and where they come from.

Why the role of a “Digital Strategist” needs to evolve

****This blog post has ignited tons of conversations and discussions around the role of digital strategists. I’m currently collaborating with several thinkers to explore this thought forward. If you’d like to learn of the results, email me jinals28 AT Gmail. And thanks for visiting!

It’s been about six months since I joined JWT. And what a ride it has been. I feel like I’ve grown ten-fold and the learning’s continue. I’m reminded of how I felt when I first left India to come to USA for undergraduate studies. For someone that loves learning, JWT, like college, hasn’t disappointed. I will write a series of posts about key lessons I’ve learned but today, I want to explore some ideas I’ve begun to noodle with regarding the role of “digital strategists” in larger agencies. My title confounds me. It didn’t until I began to view it in the context of working in a global communications and marketing agency. I think now I have a more objective view of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this role. Some of this will be very common-sensical to you and I think it is, but I felt the need to articulate it so I can understand it better.

Missing skill-set in a digital strategist

There is varying degrees of overlap between traditional account planning, engagement planning, communications planning and digital strategy. Account planning was born in response to the increasing complexity in consumer needs. From my understanding, engagement and comms. planning responds to the complexity in media channels. Digital strategy, does a bit of both. It represents the consumer’s digital behaviors and also lays into consideration the channels and platforms to reach them.

All these forms of planning are more art than science. Or as Mark Pollard calls then, part intuition, part science. However, what I’ve noticed is that digital strategists often lack a foundational understanding and grasp of brand strategy. Because digital strategy is practiced so differently at different agencies, it is often reduced to a very tactical interpretation or extension of the core brand idea or platform. Account planning on the other hand is by and far practiced similarly across the board. Each planner has their own flavor but the process and output is similar. This brings a sort of discipline and uniformity to the craft that digital strategists at yet to grasp.

I can’t speak for others, but I’ve taken upon the task of teaching myself this missing skill-set because my instinct is that it will help me become a better strategist. Also I think as our industry matures, these three roles will merge to produce a hybrid thinker and problem-solver of sorts that is T-shaped: adept at planning and strategizing; but has a common, foundational knowledge.

Behaviors; not technologies:

Digital strategists must focus on the consumer behavior digitally – not the technology or the platform. I realize that this is an oxymoron, especially because consumer behaviors are born out of new technologies and platforms. At its root, problem-solving is the notion of inducing action or activating a new behavior in the consumers. It makes sense to anchor the thought-process here instead of the platform/tool/technology. Also, it is because in the current ad-agency environment, this is the most significant area of differentiation that a digital strategist brings to the table. Her understanding of behaviors online is why the creatives and the planners will listen to her. Leave the shiny technologies and tools to the creatives.

Areas of excellence:

Digital strategists must have an “area of excellence.” This goes back to the notion of being T-shaped. I think there are three main communication cycles where a digital strategist can situate themselves: Brand building/ awareness cycle; Acquisition or product sale cycle and customer loyalty cycle. See the attached diagram. Depending on the project need and the agency’s capabilities, a digital strategist with the right type of “excellence” should be on the team.

Screen shot 2011-07-22 at 5.55.50 PMEach digital strategist must have an “area of excellence.” For example, within my team, although we only have three digital strategists by title, I could argue that every member on my team understands and can consult intelligently to the broader strategy. However, each of the team member has a very pronounced area of excellence on her.

As you can see on the diagram, some area of excellence are applicable across the board – some sit more squarely in one product cycle. (PS: I’m sure social media cross the board but I wanted to provide a more black-and-white and a less nuanced look at the key specialization areas. I have also not accounted for technologists on this to keep this discussion focused and simple.)

I’d be open to any feedback you have on this theory of mine – but the general notion here is that when interviewing for digital strategists to join your team, discover early on what product cycle they best fit into and understand and what their area of excellence is.

These are just some top-line thoughts I have but I’m sure I’ll be writing about this more as my experience offers me additional learnings’ and insights.

101 on Google Plus (and what it means for brands)

What is Google+

Launched on June 28th, Google+ is a new social networking service intended to compete with Facebook.Google+ has incorporated the best features from Facebook and Twitter and eliminated several privacy challenges, giving users greater control of their content, who they share it with and how they share it. Since the announcement, Google’s brand perception has  soared led by a lift among the 18 – 34 age group)

How it works:

Three key features:

Circles: Google+ lets users put friends into different groups called circles, such as “friends,” “acquaintances,” “family” etc. Users can send specific updates to specific circles and also select to receive updates from specific circles.

Hangouts: Hangouts let you chat face to face with upto 10 people at a time, further enhancing the “social-ness” of the platform

Sparks: Sparks serve up content (blogs, videos, recipes, news, links etc) based on interest. As users add interests over time, Sparks become a personal content feed that users can share within circles

How it differs from Facebook & Twitter:

Unlike Facebook, Google+ lets you slice and dice updates coming into your newsfeed by topics and circles, giving users greater flexibility in consuming content. Google+ also lets users follow the public updates of people that a user is not friends with. At the same time, users can choose to share both public updates with everyone (like Twitter)

Unlike Twitter, Google+ does not limit users to 140 characters. Google+ also allows users to share videos, images etc and comment on the content. Twitter updates no longer appear in Google search, thus limiting the reach and impact of the Twitter content.

Cons wise, Google+ currently offers no application platform for third party developer or brand pages for companies and interest groups. But it’s only a week or so old, I’m certain that as it evolves, Google+ will address these issues.

What it means for brands?

Google already has a suite of excellent products (Docs, Gmail, GChat, Picasa, Maps, Blogger, Android, Search, Chrome, Reader etc) that are used by a billion people globally. What this means is that Google+ has a fair advantage in audience development and growth.

Secondly, Google+ has Google search. And Google Search is every brands strongest ally. Any brand that learns to use Google+ appropriately, stands to benefit from organic search. So while Google+ hasn’t yet rolled out brand optimized pages, brands such as Ford have been quick to build presences on the platform to engage with the early adopters using the existing functionality.

Lastly, I think (although we are far away from it) e-commerce integration will be easier with Google thanks to its experience with Google Wallet and Google Checkout.

Bottomline:

I don’t think there is a question whether brands should establish a presence on the platform. The question is when. Google is welcoming brands to enlist in a beta trial. I recommend you go add yourself to this list and if you have an in at Google, begin your conversations with them now so you can not only build your presence but work with Google in helping them define what that experience for brands and fans should be like.

Other Articles:

Singularity Hub: Fantastic and detailed review of Google+. If you have time, go read this now.

Watch-outs:

I’d been experiencing Facebook fatigue. With over 900 people in my list, it became quite a chore to figure out what to share with who. And I figured my network was feeling the same pressure which is why the quality of content in the newsfeed became drastically un-interesting for me over the last few months. I hid my photographs, I decreased the frequency of my status-updates and became overtly conscious of how much and what I was sharing.

Google Circles promises to eliminate this for me and so that excites me. Google Circles also is just fresh and crisper and I happen to trust Google more with my information and privacy than I ever trusted Facebook.

Having said that, one of my concerns is that users wont really understand how to use the circles or will get bored/tire of using them and begin spewing out content to everyone, relevant or not. I don’t want another Twitter. And it is a slipper post when a social network tries to be both Facebook and Twitter. So we’ll see what happens.

Right now, I’m fascinated with the notion of having my content, conversations and network in one place. If I can figure out how to navigate my identity across these circles, I probably won’t need Facebook or Skype or even Twitter any longer. Just my two cents.

Liquid & Linked – Coca Cola’s fantastic marketing strategy

Although I use consume none of their products, Coca-Cola is by far one of my favorite brands in the world. Even before it defined its strategy, story-telling has been at the core of their communication efforts and I feel like I’ve grown with its narrative. I recently came across this fantastic presentation by Wendy Clark, Head of Integrated Marketing at Coca-Cola that talks about their 2020 vision. I found myself nodding vigorously to every point she was making and it’s so simple and so good that I wanted to capture some of those points here.

Watch live streaming video from adage at livestream.com

Paraphrased:

- As a brand, we refuse the shiny object syndrome. We have too many successes and learnings internally to abandon before we go after a new idea.

- There are equal number of television sets as there are computers; and both are eclipsed by the number of mobile phones. In fact, the Economist wrote: A baby is born every 4 seconds;  but 15 mobile phones are sold in those 4 seconds. Brands that don’t know how to tell stories on the phone will be left behind. (Another cool fact: Qatar has 212% mobile penetration)

- Strategy to achieving Coca-Cola’s 2020 vision (of doubling their business) is “Liquid and Linked.” Liquid because Coca-Cola’s communication must travel the furthest and “Linked” because it has to stay true to the brand strategy.

- Marketing model: Paid, Earned, Owned & Shared. Shared is a key piece of this model and how Coca-Cola is activating its consumer engagement.

- Paid as at the crux of what Coca-Cola does and it varies dramatically country to country. 80% of Coca-Cola’s target audience watches TV so ofcourse, their dollars are going to go there.

- With Shared, it is important that it is integrated. It is important to partner with the right kinds of distribution partners to ensure that the story does not fall apart.

- The mandate with owned is to activate it. Everything communicates: so as marketers it is important that we leverage everything from our cans and bottles to our equipment to our transportation. It is all hard working media for us. We constantly ask ourselves, how can we make these more interactive? And the power of design is critical when we think about owned media. Everything that is static now will become dynamic and contextually relevant. At any point in the continuum of connections, we will be able to share our story. Our global fleet is twice as large as that of Fedex and UPS combined. We are the fourth largest employee in the world. We need to ensure all these assets are working for us and we need to use them to drive our competitive advantage.

- Our approach with Earned is to Engage it. Our model for that is “Distributed Creativity.” Impressions will always be the backbone of how we measure it but they offer no level of engagement. So the way we are measuring impact is via Expressions – instead of impressions. Expressions is your engagement with my brand: like, share, comment, etc.. Consumers are driving the conversation by creating content. Share is more important to me, than like – That’s why we drive the expressions on our brand.

- What’s a fan worth? We’ve done our own research. Fans vs. non-fans – fans have two times the consumption frequency of a non-fan and have ten times the purchase intent of a non-fan. When we activated the fan page, we did a pre-and post against then. Even with our fans, our most loyal consumers – we drove a 7% increase in active consumption and 10% increase in purchase intent. (Marked differences in Columbia and Great Britian – but gives you an idea)

- Mandate on content for us is to tell powerful stories. We cannot afford to put out mediocre content. Stories ahve to be powerful, liquid and linked. We think about storytelling at Coca Cola from end to end. Simple text based programs for the global mobile audience.

- As marketers we have to meet our consumers at their truth and work them towards ours. You have to co-create, participate and honor the community. When we do, our community fans pay us back.

Summing it up, Liquid and Linked landscape means: innovate paid, activate owned, integrated shared and engage earned through storytelling content.

ROI on the handshake

One of the most profound anecdotes I recently read was on Rohit Bhargava‘s blog about Charelene Li. Paraphrasing it, as is here:

During a presentation at the World Business Forum last year, Charlene Li, bestselling author of “Groundswell” as well as the brilliant new business book “Open Leadership” and a leading mind in how social technologies can be used for business, talked about this in her short presentation to a global audience of business people. At one point she asked all the members of the audience to shake hands with the person next to them. Then she asked them to describe the ROI of that handshake. It was a nice example of where the measurement problem lies – because most of us are not used to quantifying the value of social relationships and conversations

How do you define the ROI on a handshake? How do you further define it if you follow it up with a smile, a card-exchange, a hug? Something to think about.

Part 1- Digital Brand Building (What & Why)

Digital is a broad term and encompasses a variety of skill-sets and channels to achieve specific goals. There’s the usual paid, owned and earned each with an aligning goal. While they all contribute towards building a brand’s presence digitally, I’ve been seeing a lot more conversations and interest around how these, if they do at all, contribute towards differentiating a brand as a thought leader or building a positive brand presence. The term “thought leader” implies intelligence, knowledge, and a higher purpose and those claims need to be justified. That term is not appropriate for every brand – but every brand must strive for differentiation using the tools and channels afforded by digital. And there are different ways to earn it. For the purposes of these posts, I may use the terms digital thought-leadership and digital brand building interchangeably. I’ve tried to explore some of these questions that I’ve been thinking about for a while. (What is digital brand building; Associated Benefits, Implementations, Measurement & Case Studies)

WHAT IS DIGITAL BRAND BUILDING/ THOUGHT LEADERSHIP?

Thought-Leadership has long been the competing ground for organizations whose primary product is expertise or strategic advice. Think professional strategy firms, business schools and to a certain extent even advertising agencies that utilize its assets (top analysts, professors, research facilities) to author strategic POVS and create new strategy tools, in the hopes of gaining mind share of potential executives, clients and students. (The most famous example of thought leadership building is the 2003  BRIC report authored by Goldman Sach’s economist Jim O’Neill) I believe two absolutes set apart a brand that gets thought-leadership from one that doesn’t.

Solid POV: And this isn’t just the mission statement of the company, but an encapsulation of how the mission statement of the company manifests practically. An intelligent insight into what the company stands for, what it believes in and why. Zappos is the perfect embodiment of this value; for Zappos, Customer Service trumps all else and the company lives and breathes this dictum on an everyday basis (creating some very inspiring stories in the process – but we’ll get to that later)

The point of view must be singular and all actions (and in-actions) of the company must reinforce it. Whether it was through Tony Sheih’s book “Delivering Happiness” or through the Zappos HQ visits (open to everyone) – the company has a focused message and hones in on it through various channels.

I believe that it is key that the point-of-view be timely and culturally relevant. No one cares about a company mission if its only self-serving and not contextualized in culture, environment or a belief.

Benevolence: There are many ways to interpret this term. What I mean by benevolence is a disciplined approach to creating an inclusive dialogue around the brand’s POV. For some it means sharing the “insider” process, for others it means opening up their doors and the breaking the PR strategist rules. (Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, offers candid and honest answers to questions about Netflix operations, his POV on the business and where it is headed on Quora) Benevolence involves offering value but also allowing the community to create value.

Benevolence also applies to the culture at the company. We are living in fairly transparent times and with sites like Quora, Glassdoor, Vault, Twitter etc, consumers are able to discern the company culture. So when Reed Hastings publishes a Slideshare saying very honestly (and a tad bit clinically) that Netflix does not treat its employees as family, – as a reader and a believer, I respect that.

That said, I don’t think all brands that practice benevolence do it for good karma. Benevolence or community giving is a popular earned media trick – but often it ends up positively influencing the brand’s basic value system on some level.

Roger White of Pendry White Marketing Communications agrees and sums it up rather well when he says:

Thought Leaders do three things well.

  • They raise the profile of an issue and deepen understanding
  • They set the agenda with their industry peers.
  • They introduce new topics to the boards of potential and current clients in their chosen fields and they do these things over a prolonged timeframe

I couldn’t have said this better. This definition however, is not applicable to all brands. (A Skittles, Axe or Old Spice wouldn’t quite fit in this category, but they differentiate themselves in different ways.) What I want you to take away though, is that Thought leadership or Digital Brand building exists on a continuum and not at fixed points in history. It builds over existing brand truths and manifests them in ways that make sense to the audiences and fit contextually within the culture.

THE BENEFITS OF DIGITAL BRAND BUILDING

Digital brand building accelerates serendipitous stumbling of audiences into the brand’s experience set

The consumer purchase journey is no longer linear. According to this study by McKinsey, the evolved consumer journey has two key phases: Initial Consideration & Active Evaluation. In both these phases, consumers are likely to be influenced by friends and family but also have a propensity to seek out brand experiences, whether they are digital, in-store, or traditional. Screen shot 2011-05-05 at 10.40.48 AM

Most brands err on the side of creating a fantastic brand platform and compelling ad campaigns. But the channels for these are passive and linear. Brands aren’t yet considering the question: how can we accelerate serendipitous stumbling into our worlds? Digital brand experiences help create a persistent presence but also increase the likelihood of increasing opportunities for audience engagement and influencing them positively. It grants brand the promotion from the Consideration to the Evaluation stage – at which point the more rational elements kick in. (comparison shopping, information gathering etc)

Digital brand building enhances the perceived value awareness of the brand, thus accelerating arrival at purchase

While metrics are hard to find, the most important benefit of building thought leadership is to build value awareness and increase the perceived value of the brand/ product. Stronger digital brand experience, have a propensity to generate more earned media and provide additional fodder for search engines. As such, ownership of search results become critical in influencing brand evaluations. (A recent Nielsen and AOL study found that 53% of time spent online is directly attributable to content consumption. Out of which, nearly 60% of all shared content specifically mention a brand or product name.)

These thoughts are still in exploration and I will continue to sharpen and better this post as my own thinking evolves. My next post, I’ll focus more on the how, measurement and discuss some excellent case-studies.

A Discussion on Transmedia – Conference Review

I was lucky to attend a fantastic Cross Media Forum hosted by IFP and Power to the Pixel at the Lincoln Center Film Society earlier this week. The speaker-line up was impressive but what I learned is still whizzing in my mind so I want to capture the notes here before I lose them to time. This is not a line-by-line review of each of the talks but more of a review of the overall trends I noticed and some interesting quotes that stood out to me.

1. Power of the Story:

Ex-JWT Chief Creative Officer and current founder of Co: Collective, Ty Montague gave an inspiring talk on the power of story. He’s a perfect ad man. At the right moments, he modulated his voice to a whisper for a dramatic effect. His presentation was very inspiring but like most advertising-folk presentations, I find that it lacked substance. He stressed the importance of storytelling whereas  I think we are beyond being convinced of that. But he  shared an interesting experiment by Rob Walker, Significant Objects. This project makes a perfect case-study for brands that don’t place enough emphasis on telling their stories and approach their brand from a purely functional and rational POV. The experiment demonstrated that objects with stories had an average appreciation of 3800%. (Did I hear it right?)

To this effect, he shared that Apple never pays for product placement. Every single Apple product featured in shows, movies etc – is because the directors want the Apple story to align with their protagonists. He also mentioned that every single protagonist he has noticed uses an Apple computer.

2. Transmedia in Action

What was more thought provoking was Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner, a 100% Transmedia company. I loved his talk because it was prescriptive enough that I walked back with a lot of fodder to mull over. “True interactivity is how your choice impacts the progress of your narrative.” His company works with big-budget films (Pirates of the Carribean, Avatar, etc) in taking the canon established in this movies and these fantastical worlds and extending it into the pop culture universe in a way that lasts for a very long time. Their process is very interesting as well: they have a team of writers/ editors and designers that begin a project by first identifying areas where there can be room for additional or an expanded narrative. Perhaps its secondary character, or a fictional place/ land that demands more history or a backstory. Once they have the gaps identified, their team brainstorm ideas and come up with a series of appropriate “transmedia” objects to fit into the narrative. It could be a graphic novel, a video game, a lost chapter, a board game, toys – etc etc. Screen shot 2011-04-21 at 2.56.42 PM

As a marketer, this is very interesting to me. Geico tried to do something similar by extending their popular Cave Men advertisements into a mini TV Series. It flopped but kudos to them for trying. Can you think of other brand examples where brands have extended their narrative successfully?

I loved Andrea Phillip’s talk. She took the audiences through an exercise on applying transmedia lens to “Romeo and Juliet.” I loved that she did this – her point was that transmedia does not just apply to sci-fi or fantasy. She stressed that it is important to consider from the audience’s POV what they want. I found it easiest to document the process and the outcome she took us through in the chart below.

One of the most important points that Andrea shared was,

“It is a myth that you can make something great, put it out there and expect it to take off. A lot of great transmedia products have failed because of that approach. It is important to treat and market a transmedia property like you would market its parent product. (Film/ game etc)”

A couple great case-studies emerged out of the talk by Brian Clark who is an experience designer and storyteller. I will need more time to dig through all the case-studies he mentioned (they are all in film, fyi) so that’s for another post.

Nina Bragiel, former writer on Lizzie McGuire and transmedia producer for ValemontU by MTV shared a great insight.

“The key to transmedia is providing something for every level of participation.”

Her presentation and the story behind how she managed the transmedia efforts for ValemontU was interesting but shed no light on success factors. I asked her particularly about the Twitter followers. Across 9 Twitter feeds, they had only 2000 or so followers at their peak. This is where I think that marrying transmedia principles with social media best practices would have been a smart way to approach this conundrum. I understand the importance of every character wanting their own feed, but at some point, transmedia producers will have to evaluate whether the celebrity feeds are more valuable than the character feeds and whether or not every narrative needs to have multiple voices. I would have liked more discussion on how or if transmedia contributes towards results. I suppose in regards to film, the answer is clear. Ancillary revenue. But for a Web show (like ValemontU) what is the goal of transmedia and what should’ve been its contribution towards increasing viewership?

Conclusion:

Personally for  me, with Transmedia, I think I’ve found the bridge that connects my two interests: fiction writing and marketing. The challenge is now to allow this thinking to inspire the work I do for my clients. That said, my concern is also that transmedia will become the next new “buzzword” (much like “gamification!) and everyone will want to “transmediafy” everything, much like they tried to gamify everything. Success for brands will rely largely on identifying the RIGHT mix of brands, narrative and audiences.

For further reading, JWT Intelligence recently published a report on Transmedia (as it relates to marketing/ advertising – not film or books)

Rio, The Movie: How to tell a strong story

Screen shot 2011-04-14 at 1.06.28 PMYesterday, thanks to a dear friend, I had the privilege of witnessing a Crew Premiere for the multi-million dollar film, Rio. I watched the film mesmerized, completely drawn into the narrative. As a storyteller myself and someone that’s working on a middle-school fantasy fiction novel (is that a genre!?), I learned a lot from how Rio was made. Here are some of the elements or in an author’s word, “tensions” that made the story so gripping:

Brazil vs. Minnesota: Brazil, is without a doubt a character in the film. The juxtaposition of Brazil with Minnesota made it even more alluring and alive. The music, the colors, the accents, the favelas, the Carnival – one might say that the movie has taken every possible Rio sterotype and jammed it into the movie. But the exotic works.

Birds vs. Humans: I thought it was clever that the movie had two parallel story lines. Two sets of hero-heroines and villains. As Blu falls in love with Jewel, Linda falls for Tulio and the changes in all the characters are quite heart-warming.

Rare bird with a psychological disability: The plot itself created a lot of tension in the film: Blu is the last male blue mackaw of its kind. And he cannot fly. You know there’s going to be an interesting twist when you give the central character such strong strengths and weaknesses.

Coterie of colorful “bird” characters: One aspect the film lacked was a sidekick. I think the movie had a great cast of supporting characters but it would have been nice if they were consistent throughout to build a strong story arc. A lot of new characters were introduced and I kept wondering which one of them is important/ key. Turns out, all of them were and none of them were. If you know what I mean. (There’s Louis the dog, the woodpecker, the tweety-like bird, and the fat cockatoo – and then there’s the monkeys.)

All in all, I think I might have learned a lot more about how to craft a strong story from this movie than I have from traditional fiction writing books. As a marketer, perhaps I should also mention how clever the Rio + Angry Birds promotion is! :P

Best Practices: Branded Mobile Applications

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what makes a branded application worth downloading and interacting with for consumers. I wanted to share some top-level thoughts here and hope that I can build on them in the coming weeks. My goal with this post is to provide you with a framework on how to think about a branded application. The final build and concept will vary from brand to brand but here are some principles and tools to think about how you can make the most of your investment into the mobile app. space.

Entertainment vs. Utility:

My research has led me to believe that branded applications usually fall under one of the two value propositions: Entertainment or Utility. I found an amazing chart compiled by Geoff Northcott, Client Partner at AKQA of publicly available download data for branded applications. Geoff, too, in his post categorized the applications as Entertainment or Utilitarian. Although these download numbers are circa 2010, I re-shuffled this data a little bit to make a point. I divided them into two separate charts: Entertainment vs. Utility and picked the best five branded applications in both sections with the highest download numbers.

Screen shot 2011-03-07 at 4.31.19 PM

The point of doing this was to illustrate some of the key benefits: pros and cons of Entertainment Vs. Utility in branded applications.

Entertainment:

  • PROS: A one-off promotion based approach to mobile applications usually delivers huge spikes in customer engagement and often shows significantly higher download numbers.
  • CONS: Brand recall – a large number of entertainment based mobile applications are game-based and as such, it is difficult to ascertain whether users are even aware of the brand when interacting with these applications. Another major con is sustaining on-going interaction with the brand. Interest wanes as the novelty wears off and often, there is little to no re-usage. In fact, 95% of downloaded applications are not used after 30 days. Under-utilized asset of x many customers that have downloaded the application.

Utility:

  • PRO: Evergreen application; perhaps not very sexy. Has a slower build initially but evolves and grows with the brand and its audiences. Usually also reflects the general brand direction
  • CONS: The biggest challenge with such an application is to continuously evolve the offering and keep it interesting and valuable to the consumers. It needs to strike the perfect balance of entertainment, content and utility

Most brands have taken an either/or approach. While I think it depends on the direction and the strategic needs of the brand, it is worthwhile to consider that it doesn’t always need to be an either/or approach. Entertainment based applications have demonstrated the ability to drive high downloads. Why not consider an “Entertainment” based feature as part of your Launch strategy for your branded application ? Ongoing updates can work on evolving the brand and adding newer features and offerings into the application.

Another point-of-view to consider is simply creating diverse applications for diverse audiences. Lets face it. A deal-hunter will not download a branded application for a highly engaging game. And a gamer will not be very interested in a content-based application. In such cases, it is smart for brands to consider which audiences they want to target and build experiences specifically for those niche audiences. My only caveat is that even as brands build niche experiences, it is crucial to think long-term instead of immediate short-tern return.

Kraft’s iFood Assistant is one of the best branded application case-study that I can think of that has nailed the program vs. platform concept. The application offers up to 2000 recipes, many of them using Kraft products. The application has also in-built shopping lists and deals/ coupon features that incentivize users. It is one of the few applications that has continued to keep its users engaged: It launched in 2008 and to date, about 60% of users that downloaded the application continue to use it. In fact, Kraft charged a cool 99cents per download as well, ensuring an alternative revenue stream and solidifying its value with the users.

Regardless of the route you choose, here are some best practices to keep in mind when designing and building the application:

Best Practices:

Marketing Support: Every successful branded application has had strong marketing support in form of paid media, mobile ads and even online PR. This support gives the initial boost to the application but mostly focuses on generating enough downloads to have the application listed in Apple’s Top 100 applications. Applications featured in the list have a 40% higher chance of being downloaded by other users. Additionally, Star Ratings and Reviews also incredibly important tools towards increasing a brand’s chances towards making it into the Top 100 list. Although this is specifically for iTunes, it is fair to expect similar marketing levers to emerge for the Android Marketplace as well. (Consiering Android is now the number one Smartphone in the word)

Intuitive User Experience: If you are not going to invest the necessary time and resources into building an intuitive and highly capable user experience, you are better off not making a mobile application at all. In a recent study, 13% of users said that  a bad experience with a branded application avoided them from downloading other applications from the brand. Also, users just expect an application to be fun and easy to use. Don’t just try to replicate an existing marketing promotion, elements of your website or an ad campaign on your mobile app. Build for its audience and its eco-system.

Social Sharing: Maximize the capabilities offered by a mobile application. Several applications can “speak” to each other. Also there is no point in reinventing the wheel. So where and when possible; make sure your application is connected to Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare or whatever eco-system your brand lives in.

Customization: Depending on the brand, I believe that simple customization not only helps make an application more interesting but also increases the opportunity for re-use. It’s also highly beneficial for brands from a data-collection perspective to have more granular information about your customers.

I’m sure you’ll want to look at case-studies to build your own argument/ case. I didn’t see any point in re-writing the best ones there are. So here are the links to the best resources on the web. I hope this helps.

Additional Resources:

  1. Mashable’s Top 13 Branded Applications
  2. Best Practices: Mobile Marketing & App. Strategies for Food Brands
  3. Best Practices: Branded Application Design
  4. Geoff Northcott: Branded Apps: Strategies for Success

Facebook profiles for new-borns

I suppose I’m at at age now where a lot of folks around me are having babies. An interesting (disturbing?) trend that I’ve noticed is the eagerness with which this set of excited new parents build Facebook profiles for their new-born’s and invite friends and families to the fold. I’m particularly torn because on one hand, it’s a fantastic idea to stay in touch with family and share pictures of the baby as he/she grows up. On the other hand, I wonder about the implications of this digital trail that the new parents are creating for their new-borns. As these children grow up and pursue careers across the board, will these digital trails hurt their prospects? Or does this trend mean that agencies such as the government, secret services and even politics need to develop a tolerance (and solutions!) for these possibilities? I’m just thinking out loud. I don’t know the answer and I don’t think there is a right or wrong. Curious to hear your thoughts.

Why I’m leaving Soho for Madision Avenue

Or in this case, Lexington Avenue.

After almost three amazing years at Electric Artists, I’ve decided to take a new opportunity with a company that I’ve admired for long. Later this month, I will be starting my first day as Digital Strategist with JWT New York. I’ve joined a niche and unique group at JWT called JWT Experience charged with putting digital at the forefront of all the client businesses. From a recent press release, “Positioned as a peer to the Creative, Planning and Account departments, the Experience department is geared to ideate and develop digital experiences that enhance the other online skill sets within the business.”

I don’t think JWT needs any introduction – but for those that are not in the advertising/ marketing business, check out the Wikipedia page for high-level highlights.

Why this move? After spending the last years in 100% digital environments and doing some amazing work for a range of clients, I wanted a different challenge. And my decision to join a traditional agency is based on these thoughts:

1. Driving change on a large scale is impossible to achieve by a purely digital agency.  I believe that a marketing  concept has to be medium neutral – and the brands that will achieve the most success will be the ones that use all platforms in synch. As a Digital Strategist, I will always be partial towards the role of digital in business, but I want to acknowledge and understand how all the spokes of the wheel fit together. I want to put my money where my mouth is and instead of being one of those digital know-it-all’s that sit from the sidelines and criticize brands and traditional agencies for ‘not getting it,’ – I wanted to join one and be a part of this change internally.

2. The role of Digital Strategists in 2011 and beyond will be to inspire a shift in how digital is perceived. The ones that will have the strongest impact on the future of digital will be the ones that are thinking beyond tactical applications on digital platforms and tools. Imagine the volume and quality of work that can be done if there isn’t just one but a million digital evangelists, both on the agency side and the client side? Shifting this mindset and helping others embrace digital (while  learning from them) will elevate the industry on the whole and enable us to collectively do amazing things in the future. It’s probably not going to be easy or quick, but the ability to influence change and see it through is perhaps the most important skill-set I will cultivate as a business leader – and this stage in my career, that’s more exciting to me than launching yet another digital doodad.

As excited (and I’ll admit, a tad bit nervous) I am about this role, it is also with bittersweet memories that I leave EA. I found a mentor and a teacher in my boss here and couldn’t have asked for a more motley, fun and brilliant crew of colleagues to work with. Wish me luck  :)

Why Quora.com will be successful

Twitterati has suddenly recognized Quora and is wondering if it’s the flavor of the month. I joined Quora sometime ago and have found it profoundly useful. There are three main reasons why I’m betting on Quora.com.

1. Content: Quora.com has created a mediated space between Twitter and long-form blog content. Twitter took away the need to write thoughtful, long-form posts. Social media has created an opinionated culture that now demands a deeper level of discourse than 140 characters. Quora has not only validated, but bought back the need for long-form content. Because it is a very specific environment and framework, it actually enhances the user experience by creating mini-communities within one large platform. If Twitter is where we eat pop-corn, Quora is where we go for a glass of wine and some debate.

2. Quality: I’ve never been a fan of anonymous comments on blogs. It’s the same reason why I don’t trust answers on Yahoo Answers and any of the other Q&A sites. Quora.com requires users to identify themselves. When our personal reputations are at stake, it brings out the highest quality of responses and opinions that are well-thought out. What’s more is in most cases, these comments are qualified because you can see who is answering them. A question about AOL? No problem, Steve Case has answered it. I’d rather take his word over someone elses.

3. Ease of use: What’s best about Quora.com is that it balances all my interests and allows me to maintain with equal importance all facets of my personality. I can follow Questions about Creative Writing while I answer Questions about Social Media. My home-page mirrors caters to my interests and as a result, I’m more engaged and involved in the community than I’d be otherwise. There’s also the possibility of making new friends!

Summing it up, Quora is intelligent, smart and just what we needed 2011 to be about. It’s interesting to have followed the trajectory of massive social movements from Faecbook to Twitter and now, my bet is, Quora. Not fair to compare these platforms as they are starkly different, but I like how each of them serves a specific need without overlapping one another. Absolutely love it.

Your thoughts?

How to think about naming a social enterprise

Recently, I’ve become more attuned to the finer uses of story-telling in a brand experience, namely, in the brand name. I’ve been thinking about how difficult it is for social enterprises and even non-profits to differentiate themselves and create a strong perception in the minds of their audiences. Social enterprises tend to have more inspirational names or even non-descript names that require some explanation. I understand the motivation behind it, but wonder if it’s in the best interest for the organization?

Is it more important for a social enterprise brand name to communicate its aspiration or its story?

I am not a naming expert and have never before named a brand, but personally I’ve been drawn to companies with names that encapsulate a story in itself. It lures me into discovering more about the enterprise, their background and eventually converting me into either a donor or at the very least a supporter and a very vocal proponent of the brand. Here is what I mean:

Falling Whistles: My first introduction to this charity was via a brief flip-book that told the story of four boy soldiers in Congo that were forced on the front-lines and were asked blow whistles to warn the rebel leaders of oncoming gunfire. The story is also told online using stunning imagery and eloquent text. Falling Whistles, an unseemly phrase, took on a different meaning in my mind and has stuck since. Not only does this brand make an excellent use of story-telling to explain the mission and campaign, but they’ve incorporate “story” throughout the brand experience: from the name of their campaign to the tools used to communicate their mission and the ask. I’m a fan.

Flying Kites: Similarly, this little NPF started by two twenty-somethings in USA, runs an orphanage in Kenya. At a recent StartingBloc event, I met a woman who has been volunteering at the organization for over a year and the passion in her voice and the stories she told was infectious. Flying Kites is a beautiful metaphor for how the organization see’s the future of the children whose lives they are trying to improve. Everytime I narrate this story, it’s not about a “friend that runs an orphanage in Kenya,” it’s about, “Flying Kites.” That’s powerful naming right there.

There’s also TOMS Shoes, Invisible Children, Pencils of Promise etc etc. Every organization is unique in its own right but

with so many diverse organizations focused on micro-causes and competing essentially for the same pool of money, it is SO important to establish brand recall. I think, a compelling story helps but an evocative name seals the deal.

Just my two cents.

3 Best Continuing Education sites

Learning never stops and here are three reasons why not.

OPEN CULTURE

Picture 4One of my favorite sites is Open Culture – a high quality cultural and educational blog for folks like us, where the learning does not stop at school or at the job. Run by Dan Colman, (Director and Associate Dean of Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program) Open Culture curates audio books, online courses, movies, language lessons, ebooks and much, much more. There is also an iPhone application.

SCHOOL OF LIFE

Picture 5

The School of Life is actually a very unique store/ shop in London that sells a highly curated batch of books. What’s interesting about this shop is that the books are not listed by category, but by problem and each problem has no more than six books as a potential solution. (How to enjoy your own company; etc) The School of Life also offers a bunch of other content in form of events and salons that are about “how to live wisely and well.”  In their own words, ” We address such questions as why work is often unfulfilling, why relationships can be so challenging, why it’s ever harder to stay calm and what one could do to try to change the world for the better.”

The highlight of this institution is its Sunday Sermons program where they ask “maverick cultural figures to talk about what they see as the virtues to cling to and the vices to be wary of.” Sunday Sermons have covered various topics such as “Loving your neighbor; Punctuality; Wonder; Pessimism; Curiosity etc)

Part philosophical; part pedagogical – I’ve been a fan of these Sunday Sermon videos for a while and on my visit to London, this store/ shop/ cultural institution is on the top of my list of sites to visit!

KHAN ACADEMY

Picture 6Founded by HBS Graduate, Salman Khan, The Khan Academy is a NPF that uses video to empower everyone with a free, “world-class” education. The Khan Academy houses over 1600 videos made in digestible bites of 10-20 minutes each, covering everything from math to chemistry and physics to biology. Sal Khan maintains total autonomy over the content that is produced for the site. I’ve spent some time on the site and even re-learned some of the concepts I  had a weak understanding of (Limits, anyone?!) What works for me is that although the teaching is virtual (chalkboard and a voice-over) it’s not clinical or prescriptive. It is not formulaic either and focuses on instilling a deep understanding of the subject matter at hand – no other agenda.

Check it out – it’s worth a lecture.

Top 6 Under-the-Radar Creativity & Design Magazines you must read

Since I’m constantly in search of interesting, quirky and off-the-hook creativity and design magazines, it only makes sense to share my latest finds here.

Halo Magazine by Central Saint Martins

Picture 4A little known fact- Central Saint Martin’s School of Art & Design, puts out an excellent, well-researched magazine with unique stories on innovation and design. Also, the largely UK/ Europe perspective is refreshing and much appreciated.

As a Creativity magazine, Halo doesn’t necessarily get high points for sexy, eye-catching design but the content is pretty top-notch. The most recent, Innovation, issue includes snippets of unique art and fashion collabs and exhibitions. Definitely check it out. (And applaud the efforts of the students!)

8 Faces – Typography Magazine

Picture 5This is a more recent find – and only two issues old. I have not personally read it but any magazine that is sold out in under an hour has to belong on this list by default! On a more serious note, I like the concept of 8 Faces because it’s quite refreshing to see a specific, thematic approach to content. In this case, the magazine explores one core question – if you had to use only eight typefaces for the rest of your life, which would you use and why? The magazine poses this question to eight leading designers from diverse fields and creates a visually stunning portrait of the responses. It is a bi-annual publication and will be made available online as a PDF once all the 2500 copies are sold out.

Abe’s Penny

Picture 6I came across this litle gem on Cynthia Rowley’s blog. Abe’s Penny is not a traditional magazine – more of a collectible. Published by sisters, Anne and Tess Knoebel, Abe’s Penny launched a little over a year ago. The magazine features a series of weekly post-cards that feature a new story each month. The narrative unfolds in sequence, as a combination of photos and text. The most recent issue features photographs by Massimo Vitali and a story by James Yeh. With such high-profile power creatives on its mast-head, this magazine belongs more on your walls than on your coffee-tables. (PS – They also recently launched Abe’s Peanut- a micro-zine for children)

Lonny Magazine

Picture 8

Launched about a year ago, Lonny is a purely digital magazine that still retains the best elements of the print magazine which is bewitching photography and artwork. This might not be as under-the-radar as the other magazines – Founded by Michelle Adams and Patrick Cline, both alumni of Dwell and a bunch of other interior magazines, Lonny has a fiercely individualistic tonality. I’m a huge fan of its Facebook fan page as well. Lonny has also amazingly managed to secure some pretty high profile advertisers to sponsor its magazine – providing a fully offline experience, online.

Design Mind

Picture 9design mind has been one my favorite go-to resources for inspiration and inquiry. An editorial product of the eminent innovation and design firm, frog design, Design Mind examines a cultural theme with each issue from “Work-Life” to “Numbers” and “Motion” to ‘The Substances of things not seen.” It is entirely written and designed by the frog employees  and often features celebrity guest writers. While the print version is only published thrice a year, the online website is updated daily with ideas and perspectives on emerging trends, technologies and culture.

I highly recommend this magazine for times when you are totally tapped out of inspiration and are looking to inject fresh energy in your thinking.

Patterns & Designs On

Picture 10Picture 11Who isn’t a fan of IDEO? Both Patterns and Designs On are a treat as they not only expose the IDEO process and thinking, but offer actionable insights. Pattern, just launched in 2009, has already published a handful of issues, all available online and as easy download-able pdf’s, Patterns shares insights and ideas that are universal across most IDEO projects. Designs On, is also a PDF digital booklet, but it explores actual solutions to world’s most pressing challenges. Both these magazines offer new insights and a peek into the IDEO process.

5 Best Design (and life) Manifestos

I am a fan of advice condensed in a form that I can print out and tape to my wall. Good work is 99% percent hard work and 1% inspiration and so here’s  the best 1% I’ve come across.

BRUCE MAU’S INCOMPLETE MANIFESTO FOR GROWTH

Picture 5

Lets start with the ultimate and perhaps the best there is: The Incomplete Manifesto for Growth by Bruce Mau. Although it was written more than a decade ago, and passed down generation to generation, every word in these 43 truisms is still as applicable and relevant as it was in 1998. These three in particular resonated most strongly with me – perhaps a good reflection of where this blog in its maturity cycle.

40. Avoid fields. Jump fences. Disciplinary boundaries and regulatory regimes are attempts to control the wilding of creative life. They are often understandable efforts to order what are manifold, complex, evolutionary processes. Our job is to jump the fences and cross the fields.

8. Drift. Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore adjacencies. Lack judgment. Postpone criticism.

18. Stay up late. Strange things happen when you’ve gone too far, been up too long, worked too hard, and you’re separated from the rest of the world.

This gorgeous typographic treatment of the Manifesto is done by Kate Andrews. You can also download a simpler PDF version of the Manifesto here.

THE CULTURAL DESIGN MANIFESTO

Picture 6This is brevity at its best. Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design has been responsible for some of the industry’s greatest design talent across all fields. These 80-words are the most profound language I have come across that do an incredible job of not only inspiring young designers but also elevating their role in society. And again, this manifesto, when applied in a broader context, rings true for other disciplines as well.

A MANIFESTO FOR SUSTAINABILITY IN DESIGN

Picture 7

Allan Chochinov, Founder of the remarkable Core77 blog and someone I deeply admire, wrote this sometime ago. This manifesto makes a strong case for why sustainability and design should not be two separate conversations. Allan makes ten key points:

1. Hippocratic before Socratic: Designers are not in the artifact business, but in the consequence business.

2. Stop making Crap: (We like it when someone calls a spade, a spade!) Desginers are feeding this cycle – helping to turn everyone or everything either into a consumer or a consumable. This has gotta stop.

3. Systems before Artifacts: Before designing anything new, examine how we can use what already exists.

4. Teach Sustainability Early:  (Cannot agree more!)

5. Screws Better than Glues: Build and design in a way that people can understand the workings of their built artifacts and environments, and more importantly understand the role and impact of those built artifacts and environments.

6. Design For Impermanence: Paradoxical idea – but designers should be designing for an eco-system in which everything is recycled into everything else, not for permanence.

7. Balance for talents; Metrics before Magic and Climates before Primates

10. Context before absolutely everything.

INFORMATION VISUALIZATION MANIFESTO

Manuel Lima, author of the Visual Complexity blog, penned this simple manifesto on Information Visualization last year. The surplus of data in a digital age has created a strong need to make sense of it and understand the relationships in data to throw light and insight into world problems. Statistics and Stories, now belong in the same sentence. It’s no wonder then that Data Visualization and Info-graphics have emerged as dynamic new problem-solving tools. And that is exactly why, it is more important than ever for an accepted book of rules and guidelines to help those that are experimenting with data and information.

Among the ten points Lima makes, the one that speaks most strongly to me is:

The Power of Narrative: We have a deep and profound need to make sense of the world around us via stories. Whether these stories are told in form of words, language, pictures or information – it is important for the message to be crystal clear and the narrative to be compelling enough to touch the audiences.

Visualizations for the sake of visualizations, or stories for the sake of stories – no matter how aesthetically pretty, adds no value and impacts no change.

and lastly,

THE KARIM RASHID MANIFESTO

Picture 9I  love what Rashid says about poetic design.  Yes, it is a departure from the hard-hitting design with a meaning manifesto’s I’ve shared. Rashid’s belief that” Every business should be completely concerned with beauty – it is after all a collective human need,” can come across as shallow and less perceptive. But we live in a world where it is exactly this kind of pluralist thought economy that is driving the collective mind-meld on topics of more profound implications. It is important to value and offer due credit to points of view that fall across the spectrum.

Because ultimately as Rashid puts it, “Design is about the betterment of our lives poetically, aesthetically, experientially, sensorially, and emotionally.” And we need a multidisciplinary leadership of thought and ideas to achieve this.

Other Resources and Compilations on Manifestos:

100+ Years of Design Manifestos - A fantastic resource of all kinds of (didactic, poetic, brief, book-like!) forms of manifesto’s on design published over a century.

If you enjoyed this article, please like it, tweet it and tell your friends about it :)

Using popular culture narratives in Education

Have you read, “Persepolis,”? You could call it a book, a cartoon-strip or a story about Iran’s history. When I first read the book a few years ago, I felt that I had learned more about the Iranian Revolution than I did in my World History Class. Readers like me were able to strongly relate to the story because suddenly the Revolution wasn’t faceless anymore. It had a name, a shape, and a color. Stories, inherently, are powerful in simplifying the complex,  influencing perception and even behavior. Everyone has a different learning style – some are more visual, some more linear, but stories is a universal language. I think, it’s hard to disagree with that.

Which is why, this specific project is so brilliant. A group of professors at Eastern Illinois University & Baker University have created the most ingenious tool to help their students understand and grasp Econ 101. Answer: Seinfeld. Picture 4These professors have not only created an online sites but they also regularly use clips from Seinfeld to teach their Basic Economics class. According to the website,

Seinfeld ran for nine seasons on NBC and became famous as a “show about nothing.” Basically, the show allows viewers to follow the antics of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer as they move through their daily lives, often encountering interesting people or dealing with special circumstances. It is the simplicity of Seinfeld that makes it so appropriate for use in economics courses. Using these clips (as well as clips from other television shows or movies) makes economic concepts come alive, making them more real for students. Ultimately, students will start seeing economics everywhere – in other TV shows, in popular music, and most importantly, in their own lives.

I can’t tell you how much I love this. It’s repackaging existing media and stories into a different context that elevates its purpose from entertainment to education. This is magic. We need more of this.

The other thing I came across was Shambling Hoards – a new game from Yahoo Sandbox that uses zombies and gaming to teach economic theory. Edu-gaming is not a new concept, but I’m glad its getting more attention and resources now. Have you come across any interesting uses of story-telling / narratives in the education space?

Eager to hear your thoughts!

Selling stories via your own narrative

I’ve had a set of incredibly interesting and enlightening conversation with a few folks in the industry over the last few years. One of the conversations I’ve had recently simply reconfirmed my hunch that the next major shift in our industry (creative, branding, advertising, digital -call it what you will”) is going to be a consolidation of viewpoints and skill-sets. There is going to be ONE Strategy department and digital is going to be the POV added to the mix just like any other. I’ve been doing more thinking on my end about what it means to be a digital brand? As clients now question the monthly retainer fees they are paying to see increases on their social media fan base, we’ve begun to see the com-modification of social media. Is there a true value associated with the fan base ? It is essential to become smart about metrics, but what value do you put on an R&D lab? What value do you put on the Customer Service departments or Public Affairs?

Brands are stories and a set of experiences that build on each other. However as companies and their product lines grow (whether its through creation, or M&A) articulating a consistent story becomes more challenging. In light of this, I’ve admired for long Penguin’s approach to building on its story and managing to create interesting and valuable brand experiences for its customers. Penguin is in the business of selling stories. And perhaps not all of Penguin’s story-telling forays were runway hit, but it has still managed to create a reputation and brand halo of experimenting and inventing new approaches to narrative.

I’m personally a huge fan of brand experiences that deliver on utility. Whether it is an iPhone application, a new product or an interesting advertising campaign (although those are rare to see) Whether the utility is knowledge, entertainment (play) or convenience, as long as the experience delivers on it, I think it is still enhancing and elevating its own story. And at that point, whether the utility is digital or not, it doesn’t matter. And I believe that’s why Penguin has been so successful to date with its branded experiences.

Just a thought.

Art on the move

I’m not the first to chance upon this story – but when I read it this morning, it warmed my heart. Meet Fabio Peralta, a taxi driver in New York. Peralta has been driving a cab for the last 40 years but since the last 3 1/2 years or so, he carries a sketchbook and a pen in his cab and asks his passengers to “Draw me a painting – any painting.” Peralta has assembled over 7000 sketches – if you are lucky enough to sit in his cab, he may even offer you a book of passenger sketches for a price of your choosing. It sounds like a happier version of post-secrets, on the move!

fabio_peralta

Lima, Peru

That’s me – Almost touching an alpaca!

It’s already September. I barely noticed the summer pass me by and here we are again, my favorite time of the year. Come September, I begin to feel a renewed glow of energy for life. The summer lethargy is washed away as things at work come back into focus and life fills back into the city, yes, even on weekends.

We’ve managed to stay mostly local this summer and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I think R and I are both the kind of people that need and want home time to re-charge and feel grounded.
But now summer’s ending and our travels are about to begin again, with Claire’s wedding in Ireland.

I want to backtrack for a second though and speak briefly about Lima where I was earlier this year.

In hindsight, Lima was a joke of a trip. I’m not even sure how I ended up there. I remember an annoying day at work and RS pinging me online about a ridiculous deal to Lima. And even though I had no vacation time left, I bought two tickets. Machu Pichu was never on the agenda so I don’t feel bad about missing out on it. I know we’ll return. Last minute visa issues prevented R from making the trip and I bitched my way to the airport, turning back several times, but finally pulling through. I’m glad RS was traveling with me though and we ended up having a terrific time. Sort of felt like being in college again – what with living in a hostel and going out drinking and partying every night. It was a welcome change. Made some friends, ate some incredibly fresh food, finished reading four books on my Kindle, went cliff-jumping and laughed uncontrollably when RS flashed and mooned the locals as she changed into her surf-gear.

Lima reminded me of an old, forgotten shanty-town. Bollywood references (whether it was Shahrukh Khan’s photograph peeking from a Spanish magazine or a Peruvian woman at the salon opening up her cell-phone to play Bole Chudiyan for me) were never more than two feet away. Even at a local music store, A.R Rahman’s CD’s and his music permeated the atmosphere. It’s times like these when tiny waves of pride and joy envelope me, even if its just for a second. It’s humbling to belong to such a vibrant and rich culture. I feel its influence very viscerally in the most unexpected places.

Paragliding – one of the best pleasures of Lima

(Or maybe I seek it out. It’s strange how I look for references to Bombay every time I visit a new country, a new city. It helps me draw parallels and quickly orient myself into unfamiliar surroundings.)

I’m not much of a history nut, but the catacombs at San Fransisco Church, Plaza de Armas in downtown Lima took my breath away. I was fascinated. To imagine it was someone’s job once to handle these bones and skulls and arrange them in such perfect symmetry for the benefit of wide-eyed tourists such as me…wow. History is same all over. A hero, a martyr, an uprising, a revolt, a victory, a defeat. I’m more fascinated with the now. How do people live now and how different are their lives from mine? What do they read? What are their favorite foods? What are their dreams and aspirations? What do they think about the world outside of their immediate lives? What are their imaginations like? and where do their curiosities lead them?

Another memorable experience in Lima was our last dinner at Almazen. RS heard of this place and it took us a solid two hours to find it. I lost my patience a few times, out of hunger and then out of annoyance, but RS’s determination prevailed and we finally hopped into a cab only to realize that the restaurant was three blocks from our hostel.

With my close friend RS, overlooking the Pacific!

Henry, the chef and owner of Almazen, was immediately taken by our candor and excitement. We were the only guests in the restaurant and Henry made it worth our while. We engaged on a gastronomical journey tasting Peru’s local fruits and vegetables. Who knew cactus fruits are delicious, bright and moist red? Who knew tomatoes originated out of Peru? We learned this and more from Henry. His story was just as inspiring: a vegetarian out of choice, he is as Peruvian as they come. With his lightly accented English, he told us of the time he spent in England before returning back to start a vegan restaurant in Lima. The food we ate had only hours before arrived from his farm 45 minutes outside of the city. Both RS and I agreed that this dinner was perhaps one of the richest experiences we’ve had in Lima.

On a different note. I will remember Lima. A lesson on moral boundaries and an epiphany but perhaps, this trip was meant to be a story from the moment it began. If its cryptic, it’s meant to be.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Irish Storytelling Tradition at its best

We just returned from a short trip to Ireland. It is heartfelt when I say that Ireland is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve visited and even one of the best vacations I’ve had. It’s a country with million shades of green, rainbows that appear and disappear with the chimerical weather, fluffy yellow sheep that cross the roads at their plea sure and a stunning landscape that forces you to stop and give Ireland the attention and awe it is due.

I could wax eloquently about the mountains and the people. (not the food!) But right now I want to share my brief sojourn to the coolest art exhibit I’ve been to. We spent a few hours in Dublin and couldn’t resist the “National Leprechaun Museum” signs in the city. We followed teh signs and paid the 14 Euros fee to the museum. Absolutely unsure of what to expect, we walked inside with a group of Italians, Norwegians and a woman from North Carolina.

Our introduction to the museum began with a brief history of the leprechaun and its place in Irish stories and fantasies. As we traced the origins of the little green men, we learned a lot about the Irish penchant for storytelling and weaving tales. We also learned how the Irish bought the leprechaun stories to America and were shocked a few decades later when America packaged and exported back the leprechauns to Ireland in form of Simpons (the Leprechaun episode) and drawings on boxes of cereal. Cultural trade!

We also learned why storytelling is at the core of Irish culture. With its tumultuous history, the Irish often have had nothing but stories and tales and conversations to carry forward and pass on to the next generations. The magic, wonder and imagination is the gift the pass on – and evident in Ireland’s rich literary legacy. (Ireland is the only country that has three n oble laureates)

Anyways, so this exhibit was the brainchild of a local Dublin architect, Tom O’Rahilly. From what I was told, Tom is obsessed with storytelling and wanted to create a fun, experiential way to experience Irish stories. And boy, did he!

The museum has twelve rooms that you are free to explore, take pictures and play around in. Each room offers a very interesting perspective of dimension, color, story and play. There’s the Giant’s Causeway, the Tunnel (an important symbol in fantasy storytelling!) Life-sized furniture, Rainbow colors, Story walls & so on. At the end of the museum is a place to chill, make drawings and read more about the rich Irish tradition of st ories, faeries and leprechauns.

Here are some photos from our visit to the museum. The museum is only six months old so still making into all teh Guidebooks. Serendipity at its best! And I’ll admit, I’m psyched to h ave had such a rich, fulfilling and wholesome experience in Dublin. Even though we only spent a few hours in the city, it was absolutely worth it.

Storytelling is my passion as well. I wis h I could do it as well as others but I try, in my little ways. Maybe that’s why this particular visit has so profoundly affected me. I can tell you one thing for sure, I’ll be courting Ireland and its stories for a long, long time to come.

Ireland 2010 136Ireland 2010 131

Innovation in Healthcare

I stumbled upon the Mayo Clinic Innovation blog and was astounded with the amount of research, thinking and ideas that are alive on this blog. My thoughts are random and all over the place so bear with me while I try to make sense of my thesis.

Mayo Clinic was founded on the principle of consistently developing better ways of treating patients and running operations. It would be fair to say that this is the core mission of Mayo Clinic and has been since 1889. Over a century, not only has Mayo Clinic stayed true to its values but become a case-study for other leaders in and outside the healthcare industry to follow suit. This fascinates me because its not very often that you hear about innovations in the Healthcare sector. A revolutionary, disruptive technology might sit in the news for a few weeks before dealing with adoption and scalability issues, but incremental innovations and improvements (esp. in the Healthcare) are overlooked and underestimated. A few months ago, I read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto and was astounded by the idea that a tool as simple as a Check-list in ER rooms showed measurable results in improving the quality of health-care and saving lives.

I think there are two things that stand out to me most about Mayo Clinic’s efforts:

Transparency: Leaving aside the social media jargon for a second, Mayo Clinic’s efforts with the The Center for Innovation and their approach to communicating it has not only contributed towards elevating its position as a thought leader in healthcare innovation, but also simplifies the complex world of patient care. Here is an example of a post on the design of a stool-collection kit. A very unsexy topic but the learnings shared from Mayo Clinic’s focus groups are insightful.

Accessibility: Mayoclinic.com is a better, more trust-worthy webmd.com. I was very pleasantly surprised at Mayo Clinic’s adoption of the web in helping users learn more about diseases. I prefer that MayoClinic keeps it to the point unlike webmd.com that has now morphed into an ivillage.com lookalike. I think MC is still working out its kinks (there are several different versions of the sites that exist with a different look and feel on each) but I already like where they are headed.

Why should anyone be led by you

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on leadership lately. For a few reasons, I’m managing more at work now – whether it’s the client, or vendors or inter-office relationships and since I’ve avoided the business school path, I find myself paying extra attention to inspiring individuals around me and watching how they lead. Two days ago, we were in a C-suite meeting with one of the largest Fortune 500 company. The senior-most leader in the meeting is a a well respected business executive and it can be quite intimidating to be in the same room as her. It was very humbling for us to see how well she was listening, asking questions or further clarifications. It is also worth nothing that this leader created a congenial environment for her team by asking them to share more about their initiatives and asking them questions and their opinions on certain issues.

I’ve been reading articles on Harvard Business Review and the one that resonated most strongly with me is called ‘Why Should Anyone be Led by you?” It is co-authored by Robert Goffee (Prof. of Organizational Behavior, London Business School) and Gareth Jones (Dir of Human Resources and Internal Comms. at BBC)

According to their research, inspirational leaders have four unexpected qualities and I do think they are worth sharing here. And I am quoting directly from the article,:

  1. They selectively show their weaknesses – By exposing some vulnerability, they reveal their approachability and humanity
  2. They rely heavily on intuition to gauge the appropriate timing and course of action – Their ability to collect and interpret soft data helps them know just when and how to act
  3. They manage employees with something we call tough empathy – Inspirational leaders empathize passionately and realistically with people, and they care intensely about the work employees too
  4. They reveal their differences – They capitalize on what’s unique about themselves

I think after a point, leadership becomes less about the technical or industry knowledge and more about how a leader is able to empathize with his/her employees and lead them to their best performance. Just my guess..

Facebook Stories – Art meets Technology

Picture 7 Facebook announced the launch of Facebook Stories application to celebrate its 500 Millionth user. It blew my mind away. When I saw the the trailer for the film, Social Network – it’s haunting NIN track and the montage of a life (its trials, tribulations, joys and conversations) through Facebook, it reminded me of how Facebook has integrated itself in the everyday lives of millions worldwide. It’s changed the dynamics of relationships we have with family and friends and also how we perceive ourselves.

This Facebook Stories application, in my opinion, is a celebration and documentation of all the ways in which Facebook has affected us. I spent some time reading through the stories and was struck with the palette of emotions they displayed.

What’s also very interesting is this story map generated by Facebook. India, as you can see is one of the most active Asian countries. I find that quite impressive.

We had a very interesting discussion at work earlier this week about all the data on the web and how there is a strong need now for applications and services that analyze, visualize and make sense of this data. I cannot agree more. We’ve amassed a wealth of knowledge about our relationships and interactions with each other.

This project also reminds me a lot about We Feel Fine - although We Feel Fine was more abstract and computer-driven. Just a thought.

Crisis communications on Facebook: 3 tips to mitigate negativity

Social media execution is more of an art than a science. In my experience so far, brands have only really paid attention to their social media presence (or in most cases, lack of presence) when their brand reputation is at stake. One such case, I had a chance to observe closely was a retail company with poor customer service at its locations. And this was reflected online on the company’s Facebook page and retail review sites.

It’s unfair to expect social media to repair the brand reputation – especially when the reasons for it are rooted in corporate policies and business decisions. However, social media can help mitigate the negativity. In this post, I want to share a few tactics I’ve used to balance out negativity on a brand-owned Facebook fan page:

Take control over Content Programming: As much as the negativity on your Facebook brand page worries you, it is the first eight-ten posts (above the fold) that are most crucial in setting first impression with page visitors. Because Facebook wall refreshes quickly and rapidly with new wall-posts, the past comments and wall-posts don’t hold as much importance or weight as they do on a traditional ratings/ review sites like yelp.com or an tripadvisor.com.

Fueling positive content via status updates on a frequent basis to drown out the negativity. Create a content calendar that pushes out more brand-favored content and pushes down unfavorable comments. Direct conversation and tweak tonality towards positivity by celebrating the fans/ customers.

Set Facebook etiquette: Most brand pages are a kind of public forum, where the community is the boss. However, the page is still owned by the brand and it’s important for brands to remember that and set clear rules for community participation. I’m a huge proponent of Facebook Etiquette boxes that give brands the necessary protection to moderate or remove offensive posts.

(It goes without saying that this Etiquette box, does not give brands unbridled license to delete all negative comments!)

Response Strategy to negative comments: Respond to negative comments when it is an actionable issue. Always provide a direct line of access (phone number, email address) and sign off using real name. (Pref. a communications / corporate affairs personnel or customer service) Try to establish a response time-frame of 8-10 hours. Avoid responding too quickly to negative comments as it creates unrealistic expectations with the customers.

Hope this helps!

Copenhagen, Denmark

The Curious Case of the Drunk American:
When: April 2011; 4 days

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

I have one remarkable story to share. The solitary statute of the Little Mermaid (from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale) is Denmark’s pride. We made the thirty minute walk from Nyhaven to see her. The guidebooks extol her beauty but we were warned to keep our expectations in check.

We were besotted. She was breath-taking. She evokes a deep sadness and longing. The area was least assuming – no tourist traps, no food vendors or memento vendors. Just her. Alone on her rock.

A passing cyclist stopped by us and chatted us up cracking jokes and telling us little anecdotes about the Mermaid. For a 98 year old statute, the Little Mermaid has suffered two decapitations, one theft and and several vandals (once someone colored her entirely neon pink). But she’s just been restored back to her original state by the Danish government. “She’s the most photographed little lady in the world, perhaps.” remarked our cyclist friend.

It was a calm evening and the dusk was fast approaching. We were high on conversations and the Baltic air. The atmosphere around us was full of lightness and happiness. A bunch of backpacking Euro kids stopped by and admired the Mermaid’s graceful stance. A father hoisted his two daughters on a stone next to the Mermaid to take a better picture. All was well until, three (I’m afraid) loud, brash and severely inebriated American kids ambled up to the Statue. On their arrival, the moment was broken and the spell was broken. The crowd began dispersing.

One of the drunk kids, decided to truly prove every single stereotype about Americans (but didn’t realize that he was just illustrating a stereotypical asshole.) He proceeded to climb up the slippery rock and mount himself on top of the Little Mermaid. Then he began making vulgar proclamations and touching the Mermaid inappropriately. Several families with kids turned away and the group of European kids stood transfixed observing this uncouth American kid. He commanded his drunken friends to take photographs of himself over the Mermaid. And after entertaining him for a few minutes even his drunk friends sensed the disdain and rage amongst the bystanders and became nervous. They began making loose statements and disowning their friend, “I don’t know you.. You aren’t with us. Get down.”

This encouraged the drunk friend and he took his antics a notch above. My heart reached out for the motionless statute. I understand its a lump of metal, but the kids antics felt extremely violating.  98 years of history had bequeathed the statute a life. What this kid was doing and what probably several other kids had done, felt wrong and disrespectful. It defiled her. Shortly thereafter, having made his very important point about his superior balls and large penis, the drunk kid began his descent.

There was a wave of unrest amongst the crowd. My friend and I debated yelling at the guy. The Euro kids looked continued to stare at the three boys. Our cyclist friend stood next to us and observed. Silently, everyone was hoping for and demanding justice. Karma.

And then it happened, the drunk America slipped his footing and splashed into the water. His cheek slammed against the rock and he got up, dazed. But the minute it happened, the onlookers erupted into an applause. (Myself included) How the mighty hath fallen!

The fall wasn’t dramatic, the water was barely half a feet. And the kid wasn’t injured. But there was a poetic and metaphorical justice to this fall. The story had come to a beautiful close and our eyes reflected satisfaction and pride at a revenge well served.

Among other highlights from Copenhagen, here is a brief photo slideshow. Hope you enjoy!

Dublin, Ireland

Although we flew in and out of Dublin, we were more interested in exploring the Irish country-side and so didn’t allot more than half a day to walk around Dublin. The traffic was nuts – we managed to park our car two blocks from the Temple Bar neighborhood. We intended to cover as much of the City Center area as we could and marched into a brisk walk, stopping briefly to awe at interesting sights.

As it would happen, a strange little green sign for the “National Leprechaun Museum” caught my fancy. Even though we were short on time, we decided to follow the signs. Ten blocks down, we ended up at the museum. We were so curious about what such a museum could possibly have, that we bought the tickets! Absolutely unsure of what to expect, we walked inside with a group of Italians, Norwegians and a woman from North Carolina.

The “Tunnel”

So turns out, it is not so much a museum as it is an interactive thesis on the storytelling tradition of the Irish.  Our introduction to the museum began with a brief history of the leprechaun and its place in Irish stories and fantasies. As we traced the origins of the little green men, we learned a lot about the Irish penchant for storytelling and weaving tales. We also learned how the Irish bought the leprechaun stories to America and were shocked a few decades later when America packaged and exported back the leprechauns to Ireland in form of Simpons (the Leprechaun episode) and drawings on boxes of cereal. Cultural trade!

We also learned why storytelling is at the core of Irish culture. With its tumultuous history, the Irish often have had nothing but stories and tales and conversations to carry forward and pass on to the next generations. The magic, wonder and imagination is the gift they pass on – and evident in Ireland’s rich literary legacy. (Ireland is the only country that has three noble laureates in literature)

Giant Furniture

Anyways, so this exhibit was the brainchild of a local Dublin architect, Tom O’Rahilly. From what I was told, Tom is obsessed with storytelling and wanted to create a fun, experiential way to experience Irish stories. And boy, did he!

The museum has twelve rooms that you are free to explore, take pictures and play around in. Each room offers a very interesting perspective of dimension, color, story and play. There’s the Giant’s Causeway, the Tunnel (an important symbol in fantasy storytelling!) Life-sized furniture straight from Alice’s Wonderland, A room with a hundred thousand Rainbow colors, and a Wishing well room.

The Wishing well was one of my favorite rooms because we literally sat on the ledge of a largish well and peered down at the leprechaun gold (fake gold!) as a young literature student from Trinity College regaled us with Irish stories. I have fond memories of this kid – he was incredibly engaged and so intelligent. He weaved in stories from his own childhood and made our listening experience even richer. The room itself is a little dark and warm – exactly the kind of room that makes you want to curl up and listen to stories with a fire crackling nearby.

Leprechaun Gold

At the end of the museum is a place to chill, make drawings and read more about the rich Irish tradition of stories, faeries and leprechauns. We left our drawing on the wall – so who knows, maybe if you visit the museum, you might see our little drawing in its archives.

Storytelling is my passion as well. I wish I could do it as well as others but I try, in my little ways. Maybe that’s why this particular visit has so profoundly affected me. I can tell you one thing for sure, I’ll be courting Ireland and its stories for a long, long time to come.

Helsinki, Finland

When: July 2009; 5 days

With: R & J
Helsinki sits on the edge of the world; or so I felt when I spent five days there. The sun never tired and the air tasted crisp and clean. As you read more about my journeys, you will know that I don’t plan very long sojourns into new countries. I take what I can get. While a handful of days are not enough to experience any city in its entirety, they are just enough to whet my appetite, so I can make solemn promises of return.

Helsinki was a birthday gift planned artfully by R and my sister. Even though our flight was delayed from New York, we made it in good time. R and J are not the kind of travels that enjoy roughing it out – so its my default that if I’m traveling with them, we end up at amazing hotels. I’d be hard pressed to convince either one of them to hostel it out with me. This trip as no different – we stayed at the fantastic four-star Hotel GLO. It’s strategic location (now I sound like an ad for Hotel GLO) allowed us to walk everywhere. They sweetened our stay by offering us free access to laptops, bikes, a SmartCar and (thank God) breakfast. And what a spread it was! Freshly baked breads, sliced tomatoes, rocket, variety of cheeses and jellies. If you eat meat, your breakfast just got ten times better with the assortment of cured meats, eggs and other goodies they offered.

My more permanent memories of Helsinki are 1) a panoramic view of enormous cruise ships bayed at its port on the Baltic and 2) a design sensibility so strong and so tangible that it put Helsinki on the global map as the World Design Capital for 2012.

Helsinki Cathedral

My favorite place in Helsinki was the “Helsinki Cathedral.” It is an awe-inspiring magnificent white structure, with tall green domes. Although it is one of the most popular tourist destinations, it was relatively empty the morning we paid it a visit. I remember this church in particular because it’s neoclassical architectural influences had me confused. Its entrance is a close replica of the Pantheon or the Green Parthenon, which made sense when I wikipediad it and learned that it was built by Carl Ludvig Engel, a German architect known for his neoclassical style.

R and J rented bikes from the hotel and I walked. After spending a few hours at the Cathedral, we visited the Uspenski Cathedral, a clearly Russian church designed by a Russian architect. I was charmed by the unusual golden red color of the Cathedral, but both the interior and the exterior were extremely overwhelming and impossible to process in one visit.

But most favorite adventure in Helsinki was when I convinced the two of them to take the train with me to an industrial suburb of Finland in search for the Marimekko outlet. Because the trip was in honor of my birthday, they couldn’t possibly deny me my madcap request. So we boarded a bright orange subway and made our way to this mythical outlet. Thirty minutes out of Helsinki and our surroundings began to resemble those of suburban Pennsylvania. My throat constricted and I felt a little sick. You see, travel puts me in a slightly disjointed frame of mind. When the newness of it begins to remind you of the trivial you left behind, the magic dissolves. “Fuck, this is just like the burbs!” The ugly freeways, squat industrial buildings, not a soul on the roads. So eerily similar. Upon on closer introspection, I thought, why wouldn’t it be? It wasn’t like I had traveled through time or that I sought an experience that was nestled in mostly in fantasy. And yet, the stark reminder was jarring.

Uspenski Cathedral

We got off at a nondescript station and in the scorching heat, began trying to negotiate our way through the freeway traffic. We asked anyone we met on our way if we were headed in the right direction. Most had no idea. At one point, we even contemplated walking back. Eventually though, we found the outlet. It was a small flat building with no signs on it. We knew because we watched a car laden with Marimekko bags drive past us. I want to say that it was worth it or that I ended up buying just what I had in mind. But the truth is, it was a strictly OK experience. I might have acted extra happy then to avoid the collective wrath of my travel companions, but secretly I was a little disappointed because even though we were at the outlet store, I couldn’t afford a whole lot more than at the actual store!
Nonetheless, I dug, rummaged and found a couple hundred meters of affordable and stunning fabrics for home (which by the way, took me a little over two years to stitch and upholster my pillows with) All in all, it was an incredibly unique adventure and opened my eyes to an alternate reality of travel.

(PS: Marimekko is a Finnish textile company that is world-famous for its bright fabrics used both for high fashion and home furnishings. If you’ve watched Mamma Mia – the movie – you’ve glimpsed at Marimekko fabric which was all over the movie: on Meryl Streep’s clothing lines, in her bedroom, even on the boat. Marimekko Stateside fame, however, is attributed to Jacqueline Kennedy who wore Marimekko dresses throughout the 1960′s Presidential campaign.)

At the ridiculously overpriced Ice Bar

With the prime purpose of our trip achieved, we spent the rest of our time in Helsinki drinking, partying, saunaing and in general merriment. We met a few travelers at the Absolute Ice Bar (which is a total waste – a 10×10 room made of ice-blocks; barely fits more than three people at a time and costs 10 Euros to enter! Definitely not worth it.)

Helsinki has an incredible night-life. If you can stay up that late, that is. It only begins a little past 1a.m and goes on until early morning. We just didn’t last. We’d been up since 6am and by midnight, were ready to call it a night.

Midnight, according our watches. If you looked were outside without one, you could never tell what time it was because the sun just never set! Our hotel room had thick black-out curtains that simulated darkness, the only way we could fool our bodies into believing it was night and time for bed.

There’s probably more I could write about Helsinki but I didn’t take notes then and now it’s too late to rummage through my head for stories.

E-Commerce API

Yesterday I noticed my husband log into his Good Reads account and manually add his latest books from Kindle so he could share his recommendations with his friends. It was a little cumbersome and annoying process.

We are both avid readers. We own over 200 physical books and over 25 Kindle books between the two of us (Kindle is just in the last 3 months!) These days, we love coming back home and sneaking some time in the park or at the riverfront with our Kindles. But it is frustrating that I cannot share my books with him. It is even more frustrating that there is no way for either of us to directly port our Kindle buys to a site and rate/ review these books on it and make it accessible to our friends.

So we began thinking, why doesn’t Amazon create an API that allows users to port their Kindle books into a Good Reads equivalent where they can immediately review and recommend the books, or at the very least thumbs up and down it for their friends ?

Then today a few different conversations happened that helped me connect the dots better.

1) We’ve been working on a POV document for our client regarding Blippy. I’m embracing more transparency on the web but am not ready to share my credit card transactions just yet. Blippy is interesting but I’m not sure if people “liking” my purchase is adding any value to me.

At this point, Apple and Amazon have access to majority of my online shopping history. And I’d venture a guess to say that 80% of it is media related. Books, movies, music, DVDS. How amazing would it be for Apple or Amazon to pull a Blippy and give me the option to make any or all of my purchases public. I could not only share them with friends but also record my own experience / review of the particular product.

2. I’ve been playing around with a site called GetGlue for some time now. Getglue reminds me a lot of Netflix but I don’t yet see a tangible return on getglue. Netflix was able to rent or stream me movies and it made sense that the more movies I watched, the better it was able to make recommendations. I guess, I want to discover new faves and have options to buy, rent, read them.

I also spend 30 minutes today answering 50+ questions on Hunch.

3. I also read a terrific review of the KIN phone on the All Things Digital blog. What caught my eye is Mossberg’s assertion that what makes KIN amazing is that all media, images and videos are directly saved online without the user having to do any set-up or transfer! So you take a photo on your KIN, log on to your KIN Studio and lo behold! – it’s already uploaded on it.

So all of this got me thinking, how much richer my experience across all these sites would be if I was able to port in automatically (in addition to my profile/ interests from Facebook) my purchase history from Amazon, Apple and whichever other retailer. (maybe FreshDirect)

I don’t want to physically spend any more time answering questions or likes on sites like Good Reads, Get Glue and Hunch. I want to port in all my available data to them and have them figure it out. Do the work behind-the-scenes and just tell me what I need to know.

Good Reads, Get Glue and even Hunch would become that much more contextual and relevant for me than they are right now.

I actually don’t doubt the possibility of this either. We are moving into an era were privacy is more ambiguous than before and as a generation, we are simply more comfortable sharing personal information at a larger scale. I think an E-Commerce API, or the ability to port in our purchase history (not the amount we spend, but the actual products we buy) will be the next seminal step in creating a more “social” web. It’s not simple about where my friends are and what they are doing – it’ll be more about this is me and this is what I need.

My two cents.