Sunday, November 07, 2010

Johnson, Writing, Briefing and Orwell..

It's been a little while since I updated here. A combination of laziness, work bits and bobs and just not really having much to say has meant I've left WAM well enough alone.

Anyway, after going to see a lecture at the LSE by Steven Johnson (which was excellent - he's very good value) on the topic of his new book, all about where good ideas come from, sparked a thought.

Recently, I've been getting a tad fed up with the use of buzzwords in the communication industry. 'Glocal', 'Agile', 'Transmedia', 'Platform' - all of these make me wince whenever they're used.

Yes, most are shorthand for a bigger thought, but I don't find them particularly helpful.
And there was one thing that Steven Johnson referred to - the need to make your ideas as easily understandable as possible, to increase the size of your network. Basically, ensure that what you're saying can be understood by many, to increase the likelihood that it'll be picked up, adopted and shared.

Jen, my colleague at work, pointed to a T.S. Elliot essay, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', which asserts the need of creative work/ideas to have some nod to the tradition in which it is born into, in order to be understood and be accepted.

And, after reading that, I began to think about the odd good idea I have when I write briefs. Without exception, the best thinking happens (or, indeed, the best selling to client) when complicated things can be translated into simple language, which can easily be shown to be spreadable - people read it, and it leads to a debate or a thought from it.

Not something which is self evident (I'm looking at you, Transmedia) and has a word attached to it which confuses the 95% of the world that don't work in comms - and some of those who do. When words like that get accepted, I think they lead to exclusivity, and not great ideas.

Now, I don't mind words which coin something brand new - but they should be able to be understood from the get-go. Otherwise, I don't think Planners are doing their job, which is (partly) to synthesise complex topics, encourage lateral thinking, new, useful ideas and, ultimately, behaviour change.

So, I decided to have another look at my writing Bible, George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language'. If you haven't read it, stop reading this and take ten minutes to sit down, have a cup of tea and pore over it.

Like Richard, I'm a very big fan of George Orwell, and thought it was worth splicing in some of his thinking with Johnson's lecture, and what we know about Eliot. This next quote is a great introduction to how to write decent briefs (especially propositions, for my money):

"A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?"

And, next, Orwell continues to explain (much, much better than I can) about why using lazy, shorthand phrases is wrong:

"But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself."

The last point is crucial. Certain industry buzz words don't help foster innovation or lateral thought - they have the effect of confusing most people, and acting as lazy shorthand, not helping people express what they mean. For my money, if you have to explain it to your creatives, account team or client and it's not clear, take it out. Simpler and shorter is almost always right, not academic and perplexing. You aren't doing your job if it requires a BA in Cultural Studies to 'get it'.

In his essay, Orwell also does a neat job of explaining just how you can express what you think is a good idea. Interestingly, it's not always found within language, and this next passage is fascinating:

"When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally."

In short - think about what will best sell your idea. What combination of pictures and sensations will most easily lead to your idea being sold? Don't simply risk using the comms word of the day.

To bring this back to the Steven Johnson lecture, he talked a lot about the 'Architecture of Serendipity', environments that take advantage of the slow burning nature of ideas, that make the connections between people. Comms agencies need to not quash these thoughts, not impose artificial environments (I'm looking at you, lazy briefings and brainstorms) which don't help.

You can see in your mind's eye, can't you? A planner with no time, cobbling together some of the latest shorthand buzzwords, confusing the creative/account team, and pissing in the well of inspiration.

Those three writers are why I have a natural tendancy to dislike whatever the comms word of the month is. I like analogies, because they tend to do the sensation and image part much better than an 'Agile' or a 'Platform', which already lead you to the wrong places.

I'm aware of the need to coin a term, but most, I don't think, are that helpful. The lazy definition of a planner as 'the smart one' encourages this, in truth. Heck, just look at the Big Society - it reads like it was written by a bunch of planners with not enough time.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The folly of categorisation...

Harsh, but fair.

In recent years, I've become a bit of a muso, as the odd post on this blog (and how I spent my student loan) should testify.

And, in no other part of my life do I get as much pleasure as recommending a new band, or an old band that no-one else knows.

There's the old horse chestnut when you have to describe a band to someone else, and compare them to others. I'd argue that there are bands or artists who take such a right turn from their usual sound (though I don't like him, witness Plan B recently, or say Radiohead for Kid A) that they defy categorisation.

This sort of thing is why I worry a bit when people apply arbitrary labels to people to explain their behaviour. An 'early adopter' for one product doesn't necessary apply to the next one they release. I love the iPod, but would I buy a Mac? No, and there are a variety of reasons. I would consider Nike for running shoes, but fashion trainers? Not a chance.

Segmentation is fine when it works for broad behavioural patterns, but the whole Gladwell bell curve attempt by agencies to neatly fit people into an assumptive model, or to assume buying patterns somehow have a rational pattern is bullshit.

Much as I find him to be a grumpy bastard when he writes, this is something I cede to Taleb. People are too chaotic, and life is too random, to assume that the most middle of the road strategies are going to work. Why not do a combination of the safe and highly dangerous when planning or executing campaigns?

Middle of the road means your market share will atrophy. Grouping consumers as early adopters means your values will parallel theirs; witness brands which chase an ideal too strongly; one which has gone out of fashion (say most mobile phone brands and having an eye on the future) - or those which succeed by re-harnessing an ideal which has come back in (say, Old Spice or Hovis).

Daily, people defy audience segmentation. So why do we bother? Increasingly, it looks like something which results in jobs for the boys; a lazy back up plan for weak-willed Marketing directors.

I'd far rather be a brand which did the basics brilliantly and hedged its bets on consumer behaviour, rather than executing a strategy which has been passed around so many people that it now bears no resemblance to what was first presented.

Given these trading conditions, strategies either have to be so, so basic (I'm thinking of a certain jeans brand's recent work) as to seemingly insult the intelligence of its audience and not really say anything, or contain a lot of mixed messages which don't DO anything.

We talk in hushed tones about a 'purpose idea' or a 'brand ideal', but all of this is bullshit if it relies on the sort of Stone Age segmentation which a lot of marketers seem to be so fond of. People just aren't a brand character; they have more interesting little niches or jagged edges - it's those which'll make money going forward, those fascinating gaming inspired Easter Eggs (like Google's Pacman display, or Dole's approach to labelling) which tell you more about the people who are going to be your consumer for the next twenty years, rather than an empty current figure.

In fact, gauging the lifetime value of a consumer is interesting these days. A Facebook 'fan' is obviously not a reliable metric here. As discussed on twitter, there's quite a gap between being a fan and being an advocate, someone who will keep on buying.

A personal example - I love Adidas trainers. I like the style, I admire the Predator connection, and love their golf clobber. Yet, I think their marketing (compared to Nike) is often a bit amateur hour. I wouldn't favourite their stuff on Facebook, but give me some money off some Stan Smiths, and I would buy. Nike, I'd love the thinking behind the work, but would I buy their trainers? Not a chance.

Digital metrics are great. I think it's wonderful to be able to gauge the sentiment behind work, and see how well it's been received online. But would I rely on them to knock out a segmentation, or be able to tell how easily my product would fly off the shelves? Not a chance. Would I use them to figure out how to place my budget, and how much of it is for straight promotional activity and how much of it is for more chaotic activities? Damn right.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Obliquity: Why You Shouldn't Behave Economically..

Hello there. It's been a little while since I've posted. Sorry about that. Been busy at work, doing a variety of new business bits and bobs, along with trying to hire a Junior Planner for the burgeoning department.

One of the more fun things which has happened has been getting a book budget (a bit sad, but very exciting if, like me, there's a lot you want to read). And, one of the first books on the list was Obliquity by John Kay, which has been oft-trumpeted by the IPA.

Now, if you click on book's link, you'll find it's had a bit of a panning by certain people, who claim the book only contains one idea. Well, they aren't wrong. And, it is short. That said, I wasn't expecting more than an idea in 180 pages.

Anyway, on with the review. Kay merges some of Taleb's Black Swan thinking with Kahnemann et al (which makes sense, as an former think-tank employee and a senior financier) to come up with the central hypothesis about life and problem solving. Essentially, all what he calls 'high level objectives' (life objectives like being successful/happy et al) are best achieved indirectly. Life, for Kay, is too complex to try and map a direct solution onto it.

Most people, in his view, after they have achieved something, back their opinions up with post-rationalisation (sound familiar, planner folk?) as they can't adequately explain all of the factors which governed what they did. He calls this Franklin's Gambit, in homage to Ben Franklin, who wrote about how he made moral decisions:

“Divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then, during three or four days’ consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different times occur to me for or against the measure.

“When I have got them all together in one view, I endeavour to estimate the respective weights… I have found great advantage for this kind of equation, in what may be called moral or prudential algebra.”

This was known as Franklin's Rule, but it is rarely so black and white as that when dealing with major corporations, government or the like - decisions have already been made internally, or a narrow picture has been painted and acted upon, so any work done creating models or the like is simply justifying the decision that's already been made.

Does this sound familar to anyone who works in oooh, Advertising, PR or Management Consultancy? Kay preaches the need to get started, to focus on those small tasks which work towards the larger goal; new problems and thoughts will occur.

I'm somewhat divided by this book; part of me thinks it's terrific, and a very good justification for trying, failing and carrying on, and has useful ammunition to stop clients deciding that the communications solution is black before they've ever contemplated white.

The more cynical side to me agrees with the Amazon critics; for all its worthy case studies and writing, it does essentially play the same note throughout the whole book. Yes, of course people act with a sense of pluralism - no-one (save the brain damaged) can focus wholly on one goal and never be shifted. Real life's not like that; a small child could let you know that it's not fair, never mind a FT columnist/former Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

I would say to you (whoever 'you' are) to have a look at it - particularly if you've not dealt with many big corporations in your time; it's a welcome voice of sanity when it comes to goal setting and focusing attention on getting the small things right as an absolute necessity. It also does a good job of justifying some of the more obscure bits of Planning, in my opinion; i'm not surprised the IPA liked it so much.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Far too important to leave to chance..

They aren't a comfortable pillow, believe me.

This blog was originally started with selfish reasons (aren't they all, to begin with?) I wanted to get into the ad business, and I wanted to be heard. Happily, it worked.

Now, as time went on, the need to stop people doing what I did (or learning from what went well and why) became more of a primary focus. So much, in fact, that it helped spawn AdGrads, and I'm delighted that it continues to help people into the business.

It helps throw the curtains open and show (I hope), just what goes on the murky communication world, and what agencies are really looking for, even if they don't always say.

However, there's still an itch on my part - there are some massive, massive barriers that the creative industries suffer from, and this is sort of a plea to my readers to help out:

1) Staffed by people "like me"

I am white, middle class and British. I don't have data to hand, but people like me make up the overwhelming majority of the UK advertising industry. I'd like to say this is fine. I really would. But I can't. If you get people who think the same, act the same, go to the same places, live in the same area, you get vanilla work. It's not helped by archaic agencies only allowing those who are vaguely related to people who work there get work experience.

Now, I can't help my background (having spent most of my degree course apologising, it would seem, for being responsible for the world's literary ills, and I don't mean my shoddy undergrad essays), but I recognise that diversity is not just an old, old wooden ship, and will lead to more interesting places to work, and better, more focused work.

2) Economy and Geography

It is BLOODY expensive to move to London, and it is hard to relocate to a big city where you know few people. The web's helped to minimise this, to some degree, but if you're not from the South East, you have a far harder time getting into the industry, especially given pretty piss-poor starting salaries (yes, they get better, but £18k when your flat costs £550 a month before bills means you'd better love free museums in the first year in the business).

This needs to change in some way shape or form - people need to have a way of justifying being paid just a little bit more, and the comms world needs to see beyond the borders of Kent or Surrey when it recruits. A broader recruitment policy, and paying just a few thousand pounds more would help a great deal.

3) Prizing academic qualifications over practical ability

I've met an awful lot of Oxbridge graduates since working in communications. Many are bright, erudite (as you'd expect) and well suited to their jobs. But, on the other end of the scale, i've met those who really, really aren't - there's no hunger, no passion or fire, and no real interest in the career. They signed up because they wanted an academic exercise and aren't sure what to do with themselves. Some should be academics. Some should just do something else.

And, given what I know about how agencies recruit, red brick University status shouldn't be everything. The IPA have done their bit with Diagonal Thinking, but more needs to go on. There needs to be more stories of people starting in the post room and working up. The comms industry needs to get better at marketing itself - there's a curious reluctance to, partly because whenever a camera comes into one, agency people behave like tits, and parts of the job seem faintly unreal to those who spend their days in front of organograms and spreadsheets.

4) Lacking hunger

Through AdGrads, I've met an awful lot of people who want to get into comms. Some are very bright, others who aren't as bright but are damned persistent, and those with the magic combination of both.

Part of it is because the industry doesn't promote itself very well - so those who are genuinely bright aren't as hungry as they perhaps need to be because they don't know the ins and outs of the job. Generally though, whilst it's easy to decry passion as being somehow a misdirected trait, I want to see people who will turn their hand to anything. It's more important than a first in your degree. The future belongs to people who care about what they're going to do - you can always teach people the basics, but you can't teach them how to explore new things. That's born, not made.

What you can do

Now, with all of this said, I had a very interesting meeting last week. It appears there are other people who are committed to coming up with a solution to those four problems, rather than just blogging about it, like yours truly.

I met a man called Marc Lewis, who is Dean of the newly (re)formed School of Communication Arts. Marc was the last scholarship student of the school when it existed in its previous incarnation. A successful career later, and he's now committed to helping break down those barriers by encouraging those who'd have been put off otherwise to apply for his school's accredited qualification. They accept scholarship pupils, and encourage entrepreneurial folk to get involved - watch the video on the site to understand more.

Now, the reason this post is on WAM rather than AdGrads is because it concerns you, dear reader. Their syllabus is written entirely by wiki by people who are currently in the industry. They are not far off from opening for a new term, and need YOU. You can do as much or as little as you'd like, which is always a good thing. I've signed up, and think you should too. Have a look here.

After all - I want to be sure the industry's still in rude health, and finds the best people. Who knows? You may end up employing some of the school's alumni.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Time, Time, Time..

The title of the post allows me a spot of Waits. Good stuff.

How long is too long? Does it really take weeks and months to write a thoughtful piece of creative work? What would happen if we tightened the screws and made it days and weeks? Why do some people need years to summon up the courage to tell someone they love them?

Flipping it - when does quality begin to suffer with not enough time? Coming up with a decent creative solution shouldn't be like keeping battery hens and expecting a golden egg every time.

I'd think that this would vary depending on who you asked, like the Tom Waits song of the same name. Account handlers would always like more time. They are those who are often placed in battery hen situations, and it's nice when you have a select few who can rise above it and see the blue skies. I think the reverse happens to planners, in truth. We don't often have particularly concrete deadlines for our work (save pitches and big bits of client scheduling).

And, as the Fast Strategy conferences touched upon, there may be some merit in speeding up the whole planning process now and then. You can have too long to think about something. I bring this up because, well, PR planning has a lot less time than Advertising. You get a month to pitch? We get two weeks. When faced with this sort of thing, it's easy to understand why there's a historical divide between the two disciplines.

Personally, i've always been an advocate of it taking as long as it takes. Yes, I know that sounds incredibly woolly, but to assume that you can come up with anything more than a semi-decent strategy in a day is fallacious. I think the bosses i've ever worked for have understood this - you can come up with a piece of thinking on Sunday that's infinitely better than a week's worth of work when you're obviously trying to think about it.

Strategic thinking's not a linear process, and any job which is actively engaged with the creative process should recognise this. It's not a simple matter of hot housing ideas or thinking. It's about doing stuff to take your mind of it, often. Cwoffee is an extension of this, or even something like my banal twitter account. The aim of both is almost to take my mind off the day job, so I can allow my unconscious mind to chug along to a more interesting solution.

It's also why it's so heartening to realise that most marketeers are beginning to reject the notion of a straightforward purchase funnel. Real life isn't like this, so why the hell should a 'buying process' really exist? It's comforting, but it's damned wrong. It's why the idea of lining up or organising your organisation like a client troubles me; we're The Agency. We are the people who should surprise, shock or delight their clients. Not mirror them. If clients can mildly ape what we can with some talented staff writers and Mac-ites, then proper lateral thinking is the best weapon we have. To foster that, we need to not be tied to being a little sub-client doing factory which you find in many of the agency client relationships around the world.

And when this comes to media, as discussed before, it really puts a lot of the big buying shops under the microscope. Why would you bulk buy media packages? Why wouldn't you be more reactive and creative? To buy even a series of TV spots around a certain type of programming ever more looks like you're spunking money up the wall. Find out where people are inspired and reactively buy. This jars horrendously with the big meeja agency shop's principle of having largely junior staff to fill in spreadsheets and bulk buy, with a smattering of senior staff overseeing the process. Why wouldn't you entrust where the message goes to those who come up with the creative messaging, and actually have RESEARCHED the audience, rather than some limp and out of date dataset which tells you nothing more than what people who like filling in research said, at best, six months ago?

With all of that said, I don't think being thoughtful and being fast are as oil and water as many seem to think they are. To have a set of base principles which inform upon action, which are flexible enough to allow new discoveries to change things (in much the same way Nokia changed its focus from engineering to mobiles many moons ago) seems to be the way to go. To rely on a silo to ensure business success has never seemed so inapt.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Of PR, 'The Sell', and Advertising...

Hello gang. I've been curiously quiet on this blog for a little while. I'd like to claim that was because of a lack of time, but in truth, I've been thinking about what to say next.

And, in truth, one topic kept bobbing up. I wanted to write about what i've noticed the differences are between Advertising and PR, as it's almost been four months in the new gig, which is pretty astonishing. Time's moving quickly.

There is no such thing as a perfect form of communication. We flutter and stutter on the phone, we misplace commas when we write, and get coy face to face. My background's that of someone who's spent his whole life in and around the Advertising industry, and to suddenly have that change in the last four months has been a very strange (but very nice) change.

Some thoughts, then:

1) Generalists vs Specialists

Next to Advertising account handlers, PR people do a far, far, FAR greater number of things. There are no creatives here, remember, so they have to be the ones selling in their own ideas to journalists or clients, making sure everything's on time, on budget and to the required level of creativity that the client expects.

And, they have to attend the events which're put on, which may not sound like a hardship, but you just try maintaining a sense of optimism when you not only have to talk to a client all day, but have to socialise with them in the evenings. The range of skills they are expected to pull off is quite remarkable.

There are obvious similarities in some of the roles, and I might venture that the structures are such that there's a need for different labels at times. I mean, in Advertising (rightly or wrongly), I tend to associate Account Directors with not necessarily being uber-creative, but having a strategic and business mind. In PR, there are aspects of all of these within each AD - though one side is always stronger, because, let's face it, as human beings, we're always better at one thing or the other.

Now, there's a need for the debate about the kind of skills a 21st century communications professional has to have. I value specialists, and always will - but the nature of the way PR bills (by the hour and less by the product in the same way an Advertising agency does) means there has to be generalism, by and large. How do you integrate the two, and stop one seeing the other as meaningless fluff that complicates the job? That's something forward thinking agencies of both discipline will have to wrestle with going forward. One thing's for certain - it has to be more than *just* a service in order to ensure strategic and creative relevance.

2) The more things change the more they stay the same

To any ad or communications wannabe who's chanced across this blog, and is wondering whether to go into Advertising or PR, I would honestly say it doesn't matter. The world may be changing at a ferocious pace, but there's no 'right' way into the two businesseses.

You still need to have a sense about how your clients are going to react to a new idea, and how receptive they'll be to some of the tough conversations you're inevitably going to have with them about budgets/timings/approaches/who they talk to.

The one thing which is absolutely paramount for both disciplines (and indeed, the marketplace in general) is a sense of optimism, tempered by a realistic sense of what's possible. If you don't have a sense of 'making things better', you absolutely, positively shouldn't consider either a viable career.

I'm not talking about being blindly optimistic that things will get better (because that's just naivety in another form), but being able to deal with rejection. You have to be empathetic about why a client has said no to your latest 'game-changing' idea, and why they doubt some of your attempted positioning statements.

There's also never been more of a need for an agency to act, not just as a service, but as a partner. Being a partner means you need a set of account handling antenna to know when things are about to be ballsed up, and when to talk honestly about the direction you think things going, and how to fix them. Both disciplines can be very good or very bad at that depending on the client relationship - but it's something which absolutely has to happen regardless of your background.

3) Replicating client models isn't right (whatever the industry)

Next to Saatchi & Saatchi, where I work now has been the biggest agency I've ever worked in. It has many different departments and moving parts. I still don't know half the names of people in the building.

It's been an interesting time for me, moving into a world where planning isn't automatically thought of, as it's such a new thing. It's not been around in PR since the 1960s like account planning, so there's an element of explaining just how and why you can be useful.

Clients haven't met PR planners before, and we need to explain how and why we can fit in. I think it's bloody helpful to be parachuted into different situations; not to mess with the status quo, but to prevent things becoming too comfortable - it's too easy for agency people (of both sides, I hasten to add) to get used to the day to day with client x and not challenge it. And this, after all, is why planning was invented; to offer a different point of view.

Not - in my opinion - to become as naturalised as it's become in certain spheres of advertising/marketing, where the planner is nothing more than a sense checker before the work leaves the building. Planning SHOULD be a bit bolshy and difficult, and being a shiny new resource is a good thing, because we can be a force for change. We're not here to match up with how client x sees the world, and I think that's always helpful.

4) Selling stuff remains a core skill

The wheels tend to come off any agency when they forget themselves, and their overall role; it's to sell ideas and thinking to clients. This may, or may not involve flogging product. Often (and excitingly) in PR, it's about shaping CSR strategy, or advising on just what a client is doing in country x and y and how to manage that.

There's a danger when any agency tries to client please too much, and presents too many ideas. Both sides can be guilty of this - the risk it runs is that even if a client loves them all, it looks like the agency hasn't been able to make its mind up. I understand why Richard harks back to a time when the agency only presented one route, rationalised it, and tried to sell it. The agency was a true partner then, and (though I think presenting one route is sometimes dangerous) had the courage of its convictions.

Both industries NEED salesmen/women to help push the business forward. Those people who can bring to life ideas through the force of their will, and borrow from James Webb Young, show a sense of 'salesmanship'. This doesn't mean death by PowerPoint, it means considering just what would move that client to a different place, and help them think laterally about a problem. Those people hold the keys to the kingdom, same as ever, regardless of discipline.

5) Idea generation has no silver bullet

The biggest change for me has been working in a place where there aren't 'creatives' in the sense there are with Advertising. My favourite part of the job within Advertising was spending time with the creatives and shooting the breeze.

To suddenly come somewhere where a lot of ideas are generated through brainstorming (with, as mentioned before, a lot of account handlers/client leads) is a bit strange. However, I will say that i've seen just as many good ideas generated quickly in PR as Advertising. It is interesting though, that there's a lot less navel gazing about the 'key message' as there is in Advertising - it's more about what the story will look like when it eventually comes out. It's a mindset shift, and a bit of a headfuck for me, as I've never worried or thought about this sort of thing.

BBH used to say 'how can we make this idea famous', and moving to this (arguably more PR centric) conversational approach is, I think, the right thing. Craftsmen will always be important, but thinking about the story and working backwards is a bloody useful approach when it comes to proposing the idea - and one both disciplines should always bear in mind when generating ideas.

So there we are. Five musings on the differences between Advertising and PR. Add your own. I'd love to hear 'em.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Decoding Decode.

If only real life was a bit more like this. Photo via Tim_D (usual rules apply)

Hello there. Been a bit silent on the old blog front in the last month. Sorry about that. It's been rather work-tastic, which has been excellent, but keeping me from writing about of the stuff i've been up outside of work in the last few weeks.

The most interesting thing i've seen has easily been Decode. It's on at the V&A until April, it is only a fiver, and YOU NEED TO GO.

It is the kind of thing that Lauren would fall head over heels in love with, were she still in London educating ignorant people like me about the wonders of contemporary art. Me, I liked it because of all the interactivity and bright colours. But then, i'm a simple beast (albeit one who likes to do star jumps when an exhibition calls for it).

I'm not going to go into detail about the specifics of the exhibits (We Feel Fine was there, natch, as was the video/visualisation for a Radiohead song - House of Cards), but suffice to say, they were a glorious mixture of the fantastic, the obscure and the intriguing. And a few of them were broken, but it made me feel less intimidated and less like a luddite.

No, what i'm going to talk about is the booklet I snagged from there, which features interviews with a few of the leading exhibitors. It really opened my eyes about how certain segments of the art world are facing the same debates as the comms world - about physicality, of how information is managed and dealt with, and how to manage the blurring between logic and magic. (NB: I'm not claiming communication is art, or even getting into that debate right now...heh).

Daniel Rozin (the man behind the 'Weave Mirror' exhibit- check it out here) in particular had some fascinating things to say. When asked about his work, and how much it represented an evolution of a new practice, or whether it was a brand new discipline, he had this to say:

"I certainly think of my work as part of a continuum of artistic expression that is constantly evolving. The main issues of my work - interactivity, point of view, human perception, image creation, participation etc - are by no means new subjects of thought for art. Artists have been thinking about these issues for centuries. The tools that I currently use are tools of technology (and artists have always used new technologies for their art). So I feel like my tools are different, and with the new tools come new opportunities, but the sensibilities are the same."

And there was another good one. When he was asked about the nature of his work, and what it posed for museums and established collections, he said this (shortened slightly):

"On the artistic side of things, both museums and collectors need to build up a literact when it comes to digital art. It takes a certain amount of experience and knowledge to be able to identify the outstanding and significant pieces from the more ubiquitous pieces which are merely flashy technological demonstration."

Now, this is interesting. I can barely code, but like to think I have a reasonably firm grasp on just what to look for in a good piece of communication (digital or otherwise). I do think there are those who don't have much of a digital mindset - by that I mean a lack of an appreciation that pieces of communication are there to be useful, to be shared and to be inclusive.

The facility for identifying this in pieces of communication, or to be able to tell when a tool presents a new opportunity - those are the traits which I think should be valued above all else. Thinking about the space in which things are going to be consumed, how cross pollinated things will be, how contrary people are, how likely things are going to be played with and remixed - those are skills which should always be applied. Slapping a tired old demographic on something, or a hackneyed, banal cliche - that's the enemy of lateral thinking.

Decode taught me that - you had grandmothers doing a dance to change the colours, and small children acting INCREDIBLY seriously around pieces of interactive art (as if they owned it, and it was only performing for them) opened my eyes a bit.

And i'll leave it to Golan Levin (creator of the fabulously named 'Opto-Isolator II') to have the last word. He was asked what digital technologies allow you to do that design technologies don't:

"I can create behaviour".
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