December 19, 2017

No, you don’t see it


What do you make of the rather enigmatic image above? Any clues as to what it might represent or where it could have been taken?

Well, it’s a photo I took from a visit to the Perfume exhibition on at Somerset House over the summer – which turned out to be surprisingly interesting and entertaining. Going round the exhibition made me realise how much of a construct perfume is – an insubstantial experience onto which we can overlay our own memories, prejudices, preferences etc. Obviously, this trait is exploited in order to create branded perfumes, where the constructs have been determined by the marketing bods at big commercial perfume houses.

Looking at the packaging used for perfume bottles over the past couple of decades makes clear how perfume is ‘of its time’ – a thing created for ‘then’ . A bottle from the 1950s looks as though it is a prop for one of the early seasons of Mad Men, whilst the ck one bottle appears pale and dated.



The only bottle on display to stand the test of time is the one below – quite resolutely a timeless classic.


The rest of the exhibition was organised through ten rooms, each of which ‘housed’ a scent created by a different modern perfumer, which we were encouraged to ponder over and capture our thoughts on using special little notes postcards.

What was most interesting was how far the set-up / design of the room influenced my interpretation of the smell. Some rooms were almost heavy handed in how they introduced the scent: one had a film of laundry flapping on a washing line against a blue sky with seats draped with white sheets.


Others gave more clues but still left you space to create stories. For this scent, there two couches decorated with rather florid fabric. Was this meant to be a psychotherapist’s study? I could easily imagine a Brooklyn lady in her late 50s, with frizzy black/grey hair, big earrings, hundreds of books lining the walls, and her heavy scent in the background.


And what would you make of the below?


It was all too easy to fear the worst and I hesitated to approach and sniff. It turned out to be fine: a rather sickening, cloying smell, but distinctly more in the realms of perfume as oppose to just bodily odours.

There was one particular scent where the set-up was ambiguous. The friend with whom I visited the exhibition picked up on the black leather pouches and dark wood and thought of a boxing gym, and found the smell deeply masculine and sexy. But it turned out the intimate closed space and heavy sandalwood scent was meant to recall confession boxes!

These different scents were created by what would be described (unavoidably!) as the ‘new generation’ of perfumers – those who are ready to break with convention and take a different and often unorthodox approach to scent. Though I may use a mocking tone, on reflection, it did strike me that perfume and commercial scents are really still very conservative. Gender-neutral perfume actually isn’t really that ground-breaking; read the below blurb introducing a more ‘cutting edge’ perfume.


Such perfumes come across as experimental, deliberating courting controversy, perhaps comparable to how art behaved a century ago with artists such as Marcel Duchamp taking a urinal and making it into an artwork called ‘Fountain’. I wonder how the world of perfume will settle down once it has got past this rebellious phase.

In the interim, we can enjoy the inventiveness. Fancy a perfume inspired by Nutella?

Or theme park rides? You can even get the smelly postcard of it.



April 18, 2017

When something goes wrong at work, what happens?

The answer to this question is explored in Matthew Syed’s book, Black Box Thinking, which proposes that we could benefit from embracing our mistakes and learning from them in order to improve our performance. As with many of these books, the ideas they put forward are, on the surface, very compelling. Who could argue with the need for pompous senior health care professionals to accept they make errors, that hierarchy can be challenged, and the system reformed to ensure that people do not die from what are avoidable mistakes? The airline industry has shown that it is possible.

This is all well and good, but there is more to say about the process behind which we make decisions. Just pick up something by Malcolm Gladwell for instance. In Blink, as well as Outliers, we are introduced to people who are altogether brilliant at knowing what to do: they can make amazing snap decisions better than others who might spend hours on analysis and evaluation; and it’s often because they have in fact spent thousands of hours becoming expert in the area. That to me sounds a bit like what you want from a senior surgeon. So, it seems that it’s acceptable to work something out super quickly and trust your instincts, except for when it goes wrong. The key learning that comes out sounds surprisingly moral: avoid complacency and hubris.

But let’s go back to question in the title to this post: what happens if things go wrong at work. In my area of consumer trends and insight, I am not sure! This is both in terms of knowing whether things do go wrong or not, and if they do, what the implications are. Unlike in surgery or aviation, when a mistake can lead to the loss of human life, in marketing, the consequences are less clear cut.

Though it might be possible to argue that product sales or the loss of a client account are indicative, the more significant issue is that there is a lack of a clearly agreed metric or consensus over how such evaluations are to take place, let alone an obvious path or process for acknowledging these situations and actively learning from them. To be fair, I have known some agencies that carry out review sessions after big pitches or projects in order dissect what worked well and what didn’t. However, this is rarely consistently done, even within the same place, more often than not it is at the whim of how agency culture and priorities ebb and flow over time.

But the space where there is some energy and debate as to what is the right thing to do in marketing is not quite around learning from mistakes, but another form of improvement/trying to make things better: innovation. In a piece on Branding Strategy Insider, Geoffrey Colon argues that the challenge in marketing lies not so much in accepting that mistakes represent learning opportunities, but in being ready to have an open mind as to whether ideas might come from.

Teams of “experts and insiders” can be marketing’s worst enemy. Because they believe there is only one approach to finding a solution, they tend not to accept outlying ideas. When marketing teams represent a cross section of disciplines, the problems are quickly solved and the solutions are often applicable to other areas of business as well. One reason industries are being overthrown is that they don’t allow outsiders into their inner circle to provide new ways of thinking.

It seems the challenge for marketers lies not so much in removing the boundaries of hierarchy, but those of subject matter and discipline. But, at the end of the day, it is still about humility and being ready to accept that you don’t have all the answers – even if we can’t be too sure when it’s not right!


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