March 14, 2019

Data-rich in the analogue world – challenging grey-tinted glasses perspectives on the times gone by

It is all too easy to slip into lazy thinking and simplistically assume that pre-internet, Big Data, cookies, mobile phones and so forth, it was like the Dark Ages and that options in terms of tracking and surveillance were limited. Well, think again. My own such assumptions were challenged from an unlikely source: a detective novel written in 1929 (“The Man in the Queue” by Josephine Tey).

Instead, the enterprising, thoughtful and rather dapper detective (Inspector Alan Grant) was able to get hold of many little elements of data, all of which provided valuable clues. This was possible because he was operating in the smaller scale, slow, pre-globalised and pre-AI world where people still wrote things down by hand and carried out many transactions in person.

Here are some examples to bring life what I mean:

Critical to uncovering to the identity of the murder victim was his tie. As things still got made in the UK at this time, the Inspector and his team went off to the tie manufacturer for some insights. The manufacturer checked their books and found out to which shop this tie with a more unusual design had been sent off. The next stop for the team was the identified department store on Nottingham. The Inspector spoke to the young man who worked on the tie counter, who was able to recall what the gentleman who had bought the tie looked like. There was no need to spool through hours of CCTV footage, hoping to find the right moment, which would have no doubt been caught only in limited grainy detail and at an odd angle. People remember people and, more importantly, are able to describe a person not just in terms of appearance but what ‘they were like’, giving valuable clues as to their character and state of mind.

In the 1930’s there was no digital social media but instead real-life community networks. And this turned out to be very useful for finding out where the suspect might have gone off to hide holed up by their family or friends. One of the Inspector’s team pretended to be a struggling soldier looking for some odd jobs to do in the neighbourhood and deliberately targeted the vicar. It was a smart choice as the vicar’s household knew all about their congregation and their backgrounds – a little flattery to some gossiping servants went a long way. No misleading fake posts here.

Another important point to note is that the analogue world still ‘did’ data but in different forms. Fingers prints abound, used left right and centre, whilst more ingenious and interesting, was making use of the serial numbers on bank notes. The suspect left a significant wedge of cash in their room and the Inspector took these notes to the bank. The bank tellers were able to look back at their ledgers and check who had actually withdrawn this money. This turned out not to be the suspect, thus providing another valuable clue.

But you know what – at the end of the day, none of this data was actually useful and more of a distraction or red herring! The guilty party turned out to be someone not caught up in this trail of records, files, community chat and so forth – but that kind of surprise twist is what you expect from a detective novel. Some things don’t change.


May 17, 2017

Homo Deus

Filed under: Business,Futures,Innovation,Technology,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:32 pm
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In an earlier post, I gave some thoughts on Yuval Noah Harari’s first book Sapiens. Though I don’t normally like to read books by the same author, preferring to endlessly taste the new and different, I had the opportunity to get to grips with his follow-up tome, Homo Deus, as I received it as a gift.

As with Sapiens, it is an intoxicating read, with grand sweeping ideas set to make you think differently and challenge your assumptions about how you think things are progressing. In Homo Deus, the Big Idea is that now Man has learnt how to conquer famine and horrible diseases that used to wipe out whole populations, he can think about higher objectives. We can focus on achieving immortality and eternal happiness, making use of the latest technological innovations to reach this goal. Our brains and bodies will be re-engineered by algorithms with those controlling these algorithms becoming the elite and the rest rendered useless from a societal perspective.

Harari puts forward all too convincing evidence and examples of how the steps leading to this are already taking place. Whilst I agree with his prognosis of increasing and insidious inequality spreading beyond basic wealth status to social mental and physical wellbeing, I am not so convinced that the conversion to a technologically determined utopia (for some) will be that straightforward.

These ideas make sense when taking a macro, more ‘godlike’ top down perspective, but less so when going bottom up and thinking about how individuals think and act. For a start, people have become more wary about how their personal data is used. 84% of US consumers are worried about the security of their personally identifiable information.

And there are signs that people simply can’t bothered to keep collecting personal data if it is left up to them. Research among those who have invested in wearables, still very much at the early adopter stage, reveals that barely a third of them continue to gather information about personal performance. This is surprising low for what would otherwise be assumed to be the keenest part of the market.

In addition, I am not sure that people will necessarily be that keen on options which have been designed as perfect for them. Instead, realistically, they are more likely to go to opt for what is most satisfying. Food is the most obvious example here. Though vitamin pills have been around for a long time, we still bother to prepare food. Soylent is still has pretty niche appeal, despite its recent efforts to go mainstream. And I haven’t even touched upon resistance to genetically modified and other forms of manipulated food.

My final quick challenge is about something completely different and only an aside, albeit an interesting one. In chapter one, Harari uses lawns as a way to illustrate how many of our preferences and aspirations connect back to earlier dynamics in society, though we are often now oblivious. Lawns were the preserve of the rich and thus associated with political power.

But I would argue that the ‘smart set’ are now increasingly opting for astro turf.  In fact, this is actually another demonstration of how the elite are using better technology to improve their lives. But it could be done better: surely the super elite would have grass personalised to match their wellbeing needs, being in the right shade and right texture to deliver optimal stress release. Perhaps I should try that on Kickstarter…..

August 12, 2013

Where do good ideas come from? Part 2

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Marketing,Technology — by xrematon @ 9:12 pm
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I had the opportunity to share some of the ideas captured in my earlier blog post with Stephen Wise, the founder of Bright Young Minds , a crowdsourcing and co-creation agency. I was interested to get his perspective as someone who has clients knocking on his door for ways to get those good ideas.

To begin with, Stephen made some interesting observations about Big Data.

  • Regardless of what we might find out from playing around with Big Data, it already has an upfront advantage in that it removes the need to talk to consumers directly, saving time and money.
  • It can be more representative than qualitative research. Whilst it is possible to observe customers to find out how they really engage with a product or service, the numbers involved will always be fairly limited. Big Data means it is possible to survey the behaviours of vast swatches of the customer base.
  • It’s worth thinking about where Big Analysis lives within an organisation and how this affects how it will be approached. More traditional research will be the remit of the marketing team, who will be looking to learn as much as possible from any research; Big Data is often from the social team who may be mining it in order to find the answer to a specific question and put the findings in a different context. As is raised in this piece from the New York Times, it is important to recognise that Big Data is not neutral – those who work with it will feed in their own assumptions and biases.
  • However, ultimately, it’s important to recognise that Big Data is only a starting point. Big Data is a useful platform – but it needs to be surrounded by great consumer connectivity and co-creation (more on this below), and not just traditional qualitative research to make the most of it.

So – next to co-creation – Stephen explained how the whole space has evolved.

  • Initially business embraced co-creation in a fairly crude way – the aim of the game was to get consumer involvement and input in any way possible.
  • The next stage involved a slightly more discerning use of co-creation in which only the best ideas were taken.
  • We are now at co-creation 3.0 – this is when the consumers involved in co-creation are used selectively – those with appropriate skill-sets are invited to participate on a particular problem. (This is the core principle behind Bright Young Minds).

In terms of thinking about creativity and sourcing good ideas, I was particularly struck by Stephen’s point that, regardless of what the ideas themselves are, often what is more important is the process by which these ideas are brought to the organisation. From my own experience of innovation, I can vouch for this too – all too often end outputs are received as an anti-climax as the client is less than enthusiastic, feeling that the ideas can’t be acted upon or have already been tried but failed. This means that in addition to thinking about where good ideas might come from, you really need to think about how to manage the whole process so that the client is aligned and ready to embrace what is being proposed.

And what might good ideas look like? We talked about the idea of good ideas clustering in a bell curve – that magic diagram which can be used to capture so many different concepts. However simplistic this may seem, it is reasonable to assume that most people’s ideas will cluster. The question then becomes about how to get to those ‘outlier ideas’ – the more radical/fresh concepts that no one else will have thought of. It’s clear that’s where getting the right people will make a difference – find those who are the best lateral thinkers.

Finally, we turned to the future. Here, Stephen is optimistic that as businesses get more open and keen to embrace these kinds of techniques, they will be ready to use skill sets which are not only outside their organisation, but also outside their sector.

To me, that sounds like more than co-creation – how inspiration extraction?


July 16, 2013

Where do good ideas come from? Part 1

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Innovation,Marketing — by xrematon @ 10:22 am
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As someone who was on the WPP Fellowship programme, which emphasises the importance of ambidextrous brains, I have been following with interest the recent discussion about the relative importance of intuition versus analysis.

So what is going on to make this issue so ‘hot’ at the moment? Well, there’s a lot happening in technology which has the potential to change how we approach marketing. As this piece  highlights

“tremendous strides have been made in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience which help us more deeply understand how people process and respond to the world around them.”

The article is worth a read as it goes to briefly assess the different technologies on offer, many of which seem to involve off-putting acronyms. These include fMRI (Functional Magnetic resonance Imaging), EEG (Electro-Encephalography), as well as physiological measures (heart rate, changes in breathing etc), and eye-tracking. For an assessment of whether neuromarketing is bonkers or brilliant, check out this link.

Perhaps the area attracting the most attention is ‘Big Data’, which, admittedly, is a rather amorphous term, but basically involves collecting and analysing data produced by individuals, rather than directly studying them as one does in traditional market research. This analysis can be used to gain better picture of consumers’ behaviour. For thought-provoking perspectives on this area, spend some time on the blog of Alex Steer, senior strategist at Fabric Worldwide and a fellow Fellow from the WPP programme.

Kip Voytek, Director of Digital & Analytics at MDC Partners, writing in the Guardian Media Network Blog, described how combing through client data helped them find inspiration for a campaign. Their client was a beer brand, whose social media conversations peaked – unusually compared to other beer brands – on Sundays evenings. The agency worked out drinkers of the beer were enjoying their drink at the end of a long weekend being a good dad with the family, as oppose to being drunk to celebrate the end of the week as is the case for many other beers. Hey presto – that should help with how to position the product in a meaningful way.

Developing profiles or typologies of consumers is another core part of marketing. Sophisticated analysis is already in use, but a recent article in the Economist shows how this kind of output can be obtained in a different way – how about assessing people’s personal characteristics from their tweet streams?

So whilst some may feel inclined to go for the next new thing in technology and analytics, there are others who are pushing back. Diageo recently asked its agencies for ‘more creativity please’. A more extreme example is going for a live, improvised ad – which goes in the face of the idea that extensive research and pre-testing a requirement.

Rather than plump for one side over the other, I’m pretty clear what the answer is – if one wishes to go down the sensible and uncontroversial route – namely, that both sides are critical to getting good ideas. To put it crudely, you need a bit of everything to maximise your chances of getting those breakthroughs that are so desperately needed in today’s mature consumer markets. I would like to finish with a quote from Adam Kleinberg, the CEO of a US interactive agency, which captures well the need for a diversified approach.

“Data can help you avoid risk (if it’s not misinterpreted). Data can help you make incremental gains. If you’re very lucky, data could lead you to a groundbreaking “aha!” moment. But those insights are rare. And insight is vital. Sometimes data provides insight. Sometimes it provides confusion. Insight is just as likely to come from the gut of a seasoned copywriter—or even the whim of some millennial HTML programmer—than it is from some data analyst poring over reams of spreadsheets. You’re just as likely to find insight in the shower as you are in a spreadsheet.”


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