Revolutionary Measures

Turning the Oscars fiasco into good PR

We’re now living in a world where fewer and fewer of us watch TV live, preferring to use catch up services or clips on YouTube to get our fix after the event. Hence TV companies increasing focus on event-based shows that you have to experience live if you want to be part of the conversation. Whether it is the half time show at the Superbowl, or the climax of the Great British Bake Off, broadcasters are looking for ways to make us tune in.arriving_at_the_oscars_2106606836

Which brings us neatly to this year’s Oscars ceremony. Let’s face it awards shows are never riveting viewing, with the only interest normally being whether (a) someone gives a really terrible speech or (b) to judge the sartorial elegance (or otherwise) of the dresses on show. No wonder that the 2017 Oscars had the lowest ratings for a long time.

Therefore the fiasco which saw the Oscar for Best Picture initially given to the wrong film is actually a bit of a blessing in disguise for the event. The organisers get to blame PwC for giving out the wrong envelope to presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, while knowing that the issue will keep the show in the public consciousness for much longer than previous editions. It certainly wasn’t a deliberate PR ploy, but it bet it means that next year more people will tune in, secretly hoping that something goes wrong again. But, in an age of shortening attention spans, I think there’s a lot more that the Oscars (and any other awards ceremony) could be doing to keep viewers glued to their screens:

1.Random awards
Rather than just getting two candidates for best picture mixed up, organisers need to get a lot more random. Add in a few leftfield choices or even get the auditors from PwC to offer presenters a choice of envelopes with different winning names in them. It’ll certainly make the whole process more entertaining when the Best Actor award goes to Danny Dyer for his performances in EastEnders, even if he wasn’t on the shortlist.

2. Best dressed
As I said a lot of the time people watch award shows for what the stars are wearing, and this (primarily) means women in dresses, given that men tend to stick with a suit/dinner jacket and bow tie. So reward the best (and worst) dressed by running a quick poll on Twitter or Facebook and then announcing the results during the ceremony. It is sure to be hotly contested – and might even see male stars become more adventurous in what they wear.

3. Fights/drunkenness
The best ever award ceremony moment was undoubtedly the year at the Brits when Jarvis Cocker invaded the stage when Michael Jackson was singing, was then arrested and was sprung from the cells by ex-solicitor Bob Mortimer. At least that’s how I remember it. So use some common sense when deciding the seating plan – two actors that hate each other’s guts and get chippy when they’ve had a skinful? Pop them on adjoining tables and start a rumour that one called the other a lightweight. Perfect entertainment for the watching masses.

4. Gunge tanks for speeches
The sheer excitement of winning an award often goes to a star’s head and they then drone on for hours thanking everyone they ever met, and going through their entire life story. At one ceremony Tom Hiddleston even brought in doctors working in South Sudan. Politely telling people to finish is obviously not enough, so organisers should take a leaf from children’s TV. Install a gunge tank above the stage, and put a hyperactive 10 year old on the controls. It’ll certainly shorten the speeches and keep people focused.

I’m sure there are many more ways of spicing up award ceremonies and increasing the interest of the general public – let me know your suggestions below.

photo by Alan Light [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

March 1, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The impact of the on-demand economy on marketing

The British government has just released its latest housing white paper, aiming to address the chronic shortage of homes across the country. But what caught my ear when listening to the news on the radio was how keen minister Sajid Javid was to avoid focusing solely on getting people onto the property ladder, and how much he wanted to broaden this to include having more homes available to rent. Partly this is down to the enormous cost of buying a first home in most places, which puts it out of the financial reach of many young people, but also I think it reflected a change in how goods and services are bought and consumed. And it is a trend that marketers need to wake up to.7123352181_fe91f516f6_z

Quite simply, consumers, particularly younger ones, are now renting things that in the past they’d have bought outright. Why buy music or DVDs when you can access a huge library through services such as Spotify, Amazon Prime or Netflix for a monthly charge? Do you need to buy a car outright when you can hail an Uber or sign up to a flexible leasing scheme that means you never actually own the vehicle.

In many ways this reflects two major things that have happened over the past five years or so. The pace of innovation (and the uncertainty in the world) means that many people don’t want to be locked into a big ticket commitment such as buying an expensive TV which could be out of date in less than a year. They want to get things on-demand. You may pay more overall, but the flexibility, ability to change and regular billing rather than a one off lump sum makes up for the additional cost. It also fits with the more demanding expectations that consumers now have – if they don’t like something they can switch to a rival, rather than being locked into an agreement that they can’t get out of.

As I say, this dramatically changes how brands need to market themselves – in three key ways:

1          Build for the long term
We’ve all had the experience of thinking we’re valued by a business and then seeing new customers receive a better deal. Every year I have to point out to the AA that I could just cancel my membership and sign up for less, rather than pay the renewal fee that they want to charge me. With on-demand services companies have to keep the good experience going, day after day, week after week, if they want to retain customers. And that means marketing to them constantly, but without confusing them with complex offers that are designed to dupe them into spending more

2          Be personal
The advantage of on-demand services for marketers is that they are constantly generating data – what you watch, what you download, where you are driven by Uber. This is incredibly powerful knowledge, that needs to be used to personalise services and make the experience special. At a basic level it is recommending other films you’d like to watch, but it is also about offering better ways of using a service that may even save the customer money. That’s how you build real loyalty.

3          Exploit the network effect
The reason tech firms such as Facebook grow so quickly is the network effect – the more of your friends use a service, the more reasons there are for you to join. Keeping customers happy through clever marketing means you retain them, going beyond that by incentivising them to recommend you to their friends helps widen your customer base. Bear in mind the reverse also applies – annoy a customer and they’ll not only leave, but are likely to share their frustrations with friends and the wider world via social media.

The on-demand economy is changing many traditional markets, from consumer goods to automotive and travel. Marketers need to understand that this isn’t a passing fad, but a trend that more and more people are joining. It requires a move away from old-style marketing where the goal is getting someone to sign on the dotted line, to one where you need to keep nurturing customers to make them feel special. Campaigns need to be faster, more personalised, more adaptable and more immediate if you want to succeed in the competitive on-demand economy, whatever industry you are in.

Let me know if there are any areas I’ve missed when it comes to on-demand marketing in the comments section below.

Image courtesy Ryan McGilchrist on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons https://flic.kr/p/bRt3qV

February 8, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Marketing middle-aged companies

Theresa May’s description of a squeezed middle of Britons who are “just about managing” may have been a passing aside that seems to have dropped by the wayside, but it made me think. A similar problem affects technology businesses. Everyone loves the innovation, excitement and (often) wide-eyed naivety that drives a start-up, while having respect for those organisations that have grown to lead their industry or niche. Consequently there are clear ways of marketing both these types of business – essentially you either focus on the hopefulness of youth or the solidity and strength on old age. After all, no-one got fired for buying IBM.

Where does this leave the squeezed middle – companies that are still growing, but not at the hyper-powered speed of a start-up, and are not yet big enough to be the safe choice that old-timers provide? These organisations are affected by a number of challenges:

1.Differentiating themselves in the market
With competition increasing, how can they remain relevant to existing clients while fighting off rivals from above and below?

2.Attracting and retaining staff
In incredibly competitive markets, the squeezed middle lacks the name recognition and safe salaries of older businesses, while not offering the potential rewards of getting equity in the next Facebook provided by start-ups.

3.Choosing where to expand
After building a base in a single country or segment, companies need to look at their next steps. But with limited resources they have to choose wisely and invest enough to drive success, without risking their overall survival.

4.Keeping the excitement going
Five years on from being a start-up, teams can become tired and see the world from jaded eyes. How can you keep people motivated, particularly when that IPO or acquisition seem further away than ever?

5.Attracting continued attention
Start-ups can manufacture news, while established players have a pipeline of new products, partners and customers to publicise. For companies in the middle, finding new things to talk about can be hard – journalists and social media flock to the next big thing, rather than celebrating incremental progress.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of organisations in the squeezed middle and there are a number of ways of marketing yourself that can differentiate your from larger and smaller competitors:

1.    Be known for something
Don’t try and take on established players by talking about the speed or even cost of your product – even today, many buyers are reassured by the expense of buying from a big company, while start-ups will be more than happy to make wild claims/offer below market pricing to build their business. Focus on the business issues your potential customers suffer from, and become known as the answer to their problem. This might mean looking at just a part of what your product does, but if the niche is big enough you can dominate it. The same applies to marketing – don’t try and out-compete the big boys through a playbook of hundreds of messages or campaigns. Cover a few, but do it well and keep repeating it to hammer it home, so that you are known as an expert in at least one thing.

2.    Focus on the customer
It is an obvious point, but to get where they are, middle aged companies have had to sign customers. And often these companies are passionate about the benefits that their products have delivered to their operations, making them the best possible evangelist for the business. Nurture them, treat them well and involve them in strategic planning (through things such as customer days and customer advisory boards), so that they remain onside and are happy to be involved in your marketing.

3.    Build the right culture
Retaining staff – and attracting new blood – is crucial to growing your middle aged business, but it is about continuity rather than revolution. Set out to build the culture that will make the most of your advantages, such as international reach, but include the flexibility and inclusiveness that big companies don’t have. Show that every member of staff can contribute and make a difference – without the imminent threat of closure that underfunded start-ups face.

4.    Keep doing it, all the time
It can be tempting for middle aged/midsize businesses to try a lot of different things, searching for a silver bullet that turns them into a star overnight. Unfortunately, marketing doesn’t work like that. What is needed is constant, consistent, campaigns that hammer home a message day after day, month after month. Do the basic things right and don’t be downhearted if things aren’t an immediate hit, but build over time. Obviously look at measuring results and improving what you do, but keep on keeping on. It may sound like an uninteresting approach, but it doesn’t have to be – it is just a question of avoiding the flightiness of a start-up or the random changes that big businesses can often make in an effort to be trendy.

In competitive sectors, middle aged tech companies can easily get an inferiority complex – to succeed in their marketing they therefore need to make the most of their advantages, apply hard work, and focus their efforts if they want to thrive.

February 1, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

4 communications lessons from Bernie Ecclestone

This week saw Bernie Ecclestone replaced as the head of Formula One, after essentially running the sport for 40 years. It is no understatement to say that Ecclestone built Formula 1 from a disparate collection of races into an extravaganza that ranks as the third most watched sports event in the world, behind the Olympics and football World Cup. The fact that Liberty Media paid $8 billion for the sport is a further demonstration of the value of the F1 brand.

bernie_ecclestone_2014_bahrain_grand_prix

However, at the same time, Ecclestone has been a controversial figure. Tried for blackmail in Germany over previous sales of F1’s TV rights and accused by some teams of pocketing a fortune while leaving them struggling financially, he also cosied up to autocratic regimes in countries such as Russia, Bahrain and Azerbaijan and was fond of provocative utterances such as praising Hitler and calling women ‘domestic appliances’. In many ways he echoed the power and dubious practices of other sports leaders such as Sepp Blatter at FIFA and Lamine Diack at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), meaning his removal marks the end of an era.

So how do you turn a squabbling series of teams and races into a polished product that is worth $8 billion and is known across the world? There are four communications lessons – good and bad:

1.Be unpredictable
Ecclestone was continually coming up with new ideas – whether it was changing the qualifying format or awarding double points for the final race of the 2015 season. These didn’t always work in terms of spicing up the spectacle, but they generated discussion and hence interest in the sport.

2.Be approachable and open
By all accounts Ecclestone was always visible in the F1 paddock and accessible to journalists. He may not have necessarily answered their questions, but always gave good quotes, meaning his own profile (and that of F1) moved beyond the sports pages to reach the general public.

3.Don’t forget new audiences
Every sport or brand needs to attract new fans, otherwise it will eventually become irrelevant. Yet Ecclestone seemed disinterested in investing in younger generations – due to the hosting fees he charged circuits to hold grand prix, ticket prices were enormous, pricing many families out of the market. The main focus appeared to be corporate guests and sponsors – he famously asked why F1 should appeal to 15 year olds as they were unlikely to buy Rolexes or bank with sponsors UBS, ignoring the fact that they are undoubtedly buying Red Bull. At the same time more and more TV rights have been sold to pay TV channels, limiting the available audience by shutting out the casual viewer.

4. Don’t forget the internet
One of the big areas that Liberty Media has promised to address is the internet and social media. F1’s presence and use of these channels has been pretty woeful, taking years to even come up with a Twitter hashtag for races. Again, this stems directly from Ecclestone who said he didn’t see any value in “tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is”. While it may not directly lead to money coming in, fan engagement is crucial to every sport today, and is an area where F1 as a brand (unlike teams and drivers) has been lacking.

And before his detractors see Ecclestone’s departure as the end of the era of fast-talking, slightly dubious, deal-making dinosaurs take a look at the new resident of the White House. Perhaps if Ecclestone was on Twitter, he’d still be leading F1……………

Photo Habeed Hameed [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

January 25, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why the trust breakdown is getting worse – and how to fix it

Who do you trust? Perhaps unsurprisingly given the political turmoil in 2016, the answer is ‘no-one at all.’ That’s the headline finding of the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, which found that trust in politicians, media, business and ‘the system’ has dropped precipitately over the last year. Less than a quarter (24%) of those surveyed in the UK trust the media, and just 26% trust the government. Figures continue to drop – comparing data from the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017 shows that trust levels fell a further 11%.edelman-trust-barometer-archive

What is most worrying is that while trust in politicians is at rock bottom, the majority of people believe outspoken, spontaneous ‘straight-talkers’ over diplomatic communicators. This echoes Oxford-educated Michael Gove’s boast during the EU referendum that the British public “have had enough of experts”. 53% of people believe the system has failed them and that the odds are stacked against them. They blame immigration, technological change and changing values and simply don’t trust existing politicians and organisations to sort them out.

As someone who studied history it is easy to draw parallels with the 1930s. The immediate impact of the Wall Street Crash was bad enough, but the failure of things to return to normal over time led to disillusionment and the rise of radicalism and racism. Existing liberal institutions thought they could control these forces, hence trying to do deals with the likes of the Nazis. Instead, it had the opposite effect, making them appear stronger than they actually were and encouraging a rise in support.

What is especially concerning is that things could be about to get much worse in 2017. We already have the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House, and the triggering of Article 50 to launch a hard Brexit. But elections are also due in France, Germany and the Netherlands (and potentially Italy), where extremist and anti-establishment parties are expected to do well with disenchanted electorates.

The impact of two of the main factors driving the breakdown in trust (immigration and technological change) are going to accelerate, further weakening support for the status quo. It is a vicious circle – isolationism and suspicion reinforce themselves, allied to the fact that many of us now get our news through social media networks that reflect our own background and views, rather than leaving us open to ideas that are different.

What can be done to change this? And, can it be changed at all? The first step is to wake up to the seriousness of the issue. Just as politicians and the public seemed to sleepwalk into the rise of the far right in the 1930s, there is a danger that the same thing will happen again. Politicians need to take a stand and outline exactly what the benefits of the current system are, taking steps to be positive about what it delivers to people. This is what the Remain campaign singularly failed to do during the EU Referendum vote.

Secondly, equip people to deal with change. Automation and artificial intelligence are hollowing out the workforce, but they are also creating new jobs. It is up to government, working with business and trade unions, to put in place the training to help reskill people on an ongoing basis. The old system of early education needs to be complemented by lifelong learning with access for all.

Thirdly, the media must take a stand against extremism and those that are wantonly making up ‘facts’. They need to call out deliberate lies from politicians, even if that makes their job harder. And companies like Facebook need to be considered part of the media, and redouble their efforts to stamp out fake news on their networks, given that this is where a large (and increasing) percentage of the population get their information.

The breakdown in trust that the world is currently suffering from cannot be easily remedied. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth trying. Public relations professionals should be playing their part, but it will take a sustained effort from all the groups named in the Edelman report (business, politicians, government, the media and NGOs) to change perceptions and rebuild trust.

January 18, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Marketing your business post-Brexit

English: (Green) the United Kingdom. (Light-gr...

Most people I know have been deeply depressed since the results of the EU referendum came out. Many clients and colleagues are EU citizens who have no idea what the future holds for them, while others work for companies that will be directly impacted by Brexit, either because they trade with the remainder of Europe, or because they are owned by businesses based in the EU.

The fact that many people seem to have been swayed by the downright lies of the Leave campaign adds to the anger, as does the hasty backtracking of Brexiteers on key pledges repeated during the campaign.

We’re left in limbo, and what’s more it won’t be resolved soon – negotiations to leave will not begin until the Autumn at the earliest, and then could take two years to complete. So how can businesses ensure that they are not casualties of Brexit, and what marketing lessons do they need to learn?

1. Strengthen existing relationships
It could be tempting to deprioritise any customers within the EU and focus on the UK only. This is exactly the wrong approach – now is the time to invest in the relationships that you have and even extend them. No-one knows what will happen when it comes to potential trade tariffs or barriers, but the best way to be ready is to build a strong relationship with customers that mean they still want to deal with you if tariffs mean your prices will potentially go up. Make the effort to go out and visit customers and get under the skin of their businesses to make yourself as critical as possible to their operations.

2. Target the US
One immediate consequence of the Leave vote has been a slump in exchange rates between the pound and other major currencies. This means that for those selling abroad, they are currently more competitive – particularly if you are a services business that is not buying in raw materials from overseas to make products. So look at how you can exploit this by marketing to Europe and the US and coming up with new offerings targeted at their particular needs.

3. Develop new markets
Brexiteers claim that we don’t need Europe, as we should focus on trade with emerging economies such as China, as well as internally within the at the moment United Kingdom. So do look at how you can market yourself to new countries – what is required and what advice/grants can you access to build a presence in new areas?

 4. Show you are open for business
As many commentators have pointed out, companies can only play the hand of cards they are dealt – unlike Boris Johnson they can’t just walk away from the mess we are in. As we move forward it is time to show that you are going to focus on the positives. Invest in marketing to spread the message that you are open for business and ready to take on the challenges of the next few years. This is equally true if you are an international company or a local one – people are looking for reassurance, so ensure that your marketing reflects this.

5. Focus on the value you deliver
Even if there will not be a recession in the UK, there is likely to be an economic slowdown of some sort. The companies that survive will be those that deliver real value to their clients, rather than just winning business due to costs or familiarity. Go back to basics, talk to clients and understand what the benefits are that you deliver, and market these strongly to existing and new clients. This might mean pivoting your business, or introducing new services, and that can be difficult, but might be necessary for your survival.

Nietzsche’s quote that “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger” has already been trotted out many times, but it is not a bad place to start post-Brexit. Unless you plan to flee the country your business needs a plan to move forward, and following the marketing ideas above is a good place to start. If you have any further suggestions don’t hesitate to add them in the comments section below.

July 6, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The PR lessons from Boaty McBoatface

English: NERC LOGO

It began as a bright idea to interest the general public in polar research and swiftly became an internet phenomenon. The little-known National Environment Research Council (NERC) wanted to come up with a fitting name for its advanced new polar exploration vessel, and so decided to hold an open competition for the public to provide suggestions and then to vote on which they thought would be most suitable.

All was going well, with a selection of worthy names in the running, until BBC radio presenter James Hand came up with Boaty McBoatface. Interest (and votes) skyrocketed, with other new suggestions including RRS I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie, RRS Capt’n Birdseye Get Off My Cod and the apt RRS It’s bloody cold here. In all 7,000 names were provided by the public, though Boaty McBoatface was the clear winner with just over 124,000 votes cast for it. Through Twitter alone, the research council reached 214m people after the BoatyMcBoatface hashtag went viral.

This left the NERC with a bit of a problem, as Boaty McBoatface wasn’t quite what they were thinking of when they started the process. Instead, they’ve chosen the fourth place name, RRS David Attenborough – although one of the boat’s submersibles has been given the Boaty McBoatface moniker (surely it should be Subby McSubface?). The head of the NERC was even called before a Commons Select Committee to discuss whether the PR campaign was a success or failure – which either shows how little MPs know about PR or was simply an excuse for them to make boat-based puns.

So what can businesses learn from the PR campaign? I think there are four things:

1. Don’t take yourself too seriously
It would have been really simple for the NERC to close the poll or simply vet suggested names to ensure that they were ‘sensible’. But it didn’t – it rode the wave of good PR and used it to draw attention to what it does. Even the most casual observer now knows that the NERC does something with polar science.

2. Have a Plan B
The NERC made very clear from the start that the winner of the online poll wouldn’t necessarily be chosen as the name of the ship, and that public suggestions were merely ideas that would be considered. That meant that when it didn’t chose Boaty McBoatface the backlash was minimised – even more so when one of its robot submersibles was given the name. Expect him/her/it to get their own Twitter account as soon as they are launched.

3. Link to the rest of the news agenda
In many ways NERC was lucky, as the poll closed at pretty much the same time as the nation celebrated David Attenborough’s 90th birthday. This gave it a ready-made name that summed up exactly the right image of science, exploration and explanation that they were looking for. Holding the competition first, rather than simply naming the ship after Attenborough made all the difference to coverage of the announcement – it moved from a news in brief to the front pages of the press and onto the national news.

4. Make it work going forward
This is where NERC has to capitalise on the interest and goodwill of the British public and keep them involved once the ship is launched and dispatched to the polar regions. It needs to engage through social media, popularising what the vessel is doing and the benefits it brings in a straightforward and approachable way. That will not only help its work in particular, but will hopefully spark wider interest in science generally, guaranteeing its future importance (and funding).

So, before embarking on a campaign that may take off make sure you have a plan B, set clear rules of engagement but be prepared to go with the flow, and keep momentum going beyond the end of the programme. That’s the overall lesson for all communicators, whatever sector they are in or product they are publicising.

May 11, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Write more, type less

According to research quoted by Richard Branson, half of 13-19 year olds have never written a thank you letter, and just 10% own a pen. And before we adults start moaning about teenagers, texting and social media replacing good old fashioned ink and paper, think back to the last time you hand wrote something, other than your name on a Christmas card.

Image of a modern fountain pen writing in curs...

As Branson points out, the act of writing long hand holds more meaning than an email or electronic message. You have to put greater physical effort into it, and you also need to think about it more, plan it and take time to actually write the sentences, particularly if your handwriting is as atrocious as mine. He points out that poems and love letters, no matter how scribbled, are the perfect way to crystallise feelings and emotions directly, rather than through the medium of a keyboard and screen. You can’t cut and paste sections of text, move things round or delete words without leaving a mess. Obviously this does involve more time, but that isn’t always a bad thing – particularly given the breakneck speed of modern life.

Writing shouldn’t just be about letters either. I find that physically taking notes is the best way of ensuring I actually remember what I’m hearing, particularly if I then type it out again later on. And planning in longhand is the perfect way of collecting your thoughts before drafting a press release or document and avoids starting with the soul destroying white space of an empty Word document.

The scary thing is that we are becoming physically less able and practiced at holding a pen. As a student I wrote for three hours straight in exams, without any ill effects, yet now I struggle to manage more than a single holiday postcard without getting cramp. Children today increasingly don’t need to write, with much of their coursework completed online, so no wonder that they don’t need to own a pen.

What we need is to embrace the best of both worlds – you need the skills to type quickly and organise your thoughts using modern technology, but also to take a step back, breathe and think about what you are trying to say. The pen is perfect for this – we should all remember to uses digits in the offline world, as well as the digital one. So, if you don’t have one, put a pen and notebook on your Christmas list and make a New Year’s Resolution to write more and type less.

This is my last blog of 2015, so thanks to everyone that has read, commented and shared my posts. Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

December 16, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Being a fox, not a hedgehog

In a famous essay based on a fragment of Greek poetry, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided writers into two groups – hedgehogs (who essentially know one thing in depth) and foxes (who know many things and see the world through a variety of experiences). This classification can be equally applied to all of us.

A Red Fox on an Evergreen, Colorado's porch.

As human knowledge has grown, and professions have become more specialised, people have been encouraged to be more hedgehog, and less fox. After all, the time, dedication and skills needed to become a brain surgeon, mean it is unlikely that the same person could train as a rocket scientist. So, since the Renaissance, where the likes of Leonardo da Vinci were equally adept with science and the arts, we have been pushed down the path of specialising and knowing one thing in depth.

This has obvious advantages – no-one wants to be operated on by a brain surgeon who only did half their training, but it also very limiting. As hedgehogs, people tend to view the world through the prism of their own experiences. Hence you might find that someone in the police force is by nature suspicious and on their guard, or a primary school teacher talks down to adults, treating them like children. These are obviously extreme cases, but we’ve all met someone and been able to correctly guess their profession due to what they say and how they say it.

More importantly, at a time when pretty much all the knowledge in the world is on the internet, and digital technology is changing how we work, live and play, being a hedgehog is also out of step with today’s reality. Sticking to what you know, rather than looking to acquire new skills limits everyone’s potential – it is no accident that the most enthusiastic and fearless users of new technology are children, who are naturally foxes as they learn.

However, becoming more fox-like is not easy. Like anything new, it involves giving up long-held, cherished beliefs and taking a risk. It can also be more difficult than it looks. The internet overloads our hedgehog brains with too much information, making it hard to see the wood for the trees. For example, when Spotify has tens of thousands of tracks how do we choose what to listen to? The safest bet is just to stream what we know about already, confirming our hedgehog tastes. Artificial intelligence that learns what we like automatically suggests more of the same, rather than throwing in a curve ball – “you like Puccini, have you tried Taylor Swift?”

So, how do we encourage our foxiness, but without losing the focus that a hedgehog brings? I think it comes down to three things:

1. Communication
It is easy to sit in our hedgehog silos, blaming other groups when things go wrong. Companies are full of inter-departmental feuds, with sales complaining about marketing who criticise engineering who grumble about accounts, until no-one is happy. Much better to actually sit down and listen to what everyone does, why they do it, and then try and fit it all together for the good of the wider organisation. The same principle applies in relationships outside work – understand the mindsets of those around you if you want to be able to talk their language.

2. Turn the internet on its head
In the same way that the internet encourages silos, it also provides almost limitless scope for new experiences. Rather than just extending what we do offline onto the web, use it to find new things to do, new skills to learn and new people to talk to. Type a random idea into Google and see what comes back (though be careful what you wish for), take up a new hobby or subscribe to the magazine used in the Missing Words round of Have I Got News For You?, for example. Obviously make sure it is legal, and while you may hate it, at least you’ll have had a new experience.

3. Don’t smother fox learning
As I’ve said, children are naturally foxes in how they pick up experiences from all around them. But at a certain age this stops, and they are focused solely on what they should be learning, at the expense of letting their imaginations wander. I’m not advocating dismantling the education system completely, but schools and universities should make sure they are teaching a balanced curriculum, and ensuring that students remain curious about the wider world. Why not get astrophysics students to read French literature at the same time?

When the Hedgehog and the Fox was written in 1953 there was no internet, smartphones or tablets and in many cases the solid, reliable, trustworthy hedgehog was the ideal to aspire to. Times have changed, and we all need to encourage our inner fox if we are to thrive in the constantly-evolving digital world.

December 9, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are startups solving the right problems?

 

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to launch a startup in the UK. The public profile of the tech industry is incredibly high, and those that create businesses are more likely to be seen as visionary entrepreneurs than cranks who couldn’t get a job in a proper company. Indeed, for those leaving university, setting up your own startup is a valid (if not as initially lucrative) alternative to becoming an accountant, banker or lawyer. I’m sure startups would complain that it is still difficult to raise money, or scale up their businesses, but it feels that there is now wide public and political acceptance of the importance of creating a culture that encourages startups.

Relief map of Europe and surrounding regions

Read the press and politicians’ speeches and there seems to be a relentless search to find the ‘European Google’ or ‘British Facebook’, multibillion dollar global companies that can become standard bearers for the industry. Alternatively, other European companies essentially mimic what is being done in the US, taking their business models, localising them and then hoping that first mover advantage will let them create viable businesses before the original enters the market.

The people that run startups are smart, as are the venture capital funds that back them. But are they looking in the right areas when it comes to creating new businesses – as an article by Liam Boogar in Rude Baguette recently asked “Where are the European startups to solve Europe’s biggest problems?” Leaving aside the question of whether Europe is cohesive enough that the same problems apply to life in Edinburgh, Athens and Bucharest, it is a valid point. What issues can be solved, first in Europe, and then expanded globally, to create thriving companies that benefit us all?

The article focuses on the need to shake-up the savings market, and with interest rates in many countries close to (or even below) 0% I can see the opportunity to transform the sector, such as through peer-to-peer lending.

However, what other areas would enable European startups to build global businesses? Thinking about the particular problems Europe faces, here are four that come to mind:

1. Healthcare
Across Europe, people are living longer and birth rates are falling. Longer lifespans increase pressure on health and social care services, as the elderly battle chronic diseases and poor health. While this isn’t just a European problem, it is one that startups can focus on, particularly given the public money currently being spent on healthcare research. Areas such as wearable monitors and the Internet of Things can potentially help improve the quality of care, even allowing people to remain in their own homes, rather than be treated in hospital.

2. Transport
From driverless cars to drones, technology is revolutionising transport. With its combination of major car and aeroplane makers, Europe is well-positioned to lead the way, but it needs an injection of startup energy and fresh thinking to succeed. Whether it is new ways of charging electric vehicles as they wait at traffic lights or smarter cities where you are automatically guided to the nearest parking space, there is plenty of scope for innovation, along with the chance to scale up to export the technology across the globe.

3. Employment
More than 6 million jobs were lost in the recession between 2008-13, and youth unemployment in many countries remains high. Many of the roles that were made redundant are simply not coming back as they have either been offshored to lower wage economies or replaced by technology. What are needed are ways to reskill European jobseekers so that they can compete in the global market. Much of this should be the responsibility of governments, but technology can help with new ways of training, new opportunities for collaboration and the encouragement of remote working to combat rural depopulation.

4. Cutting bureaucracy
All governments, of whatever political persuasion, seem to delight in creating red tape that tangles up citizens and businesses alike. And, despite the European Union, there is still a range of different measures that need to be met. Many countries have begun to put their services online, but more can be done, and in many cases nimble startups can get things done quicker than lumbering government departments.

I’m sure there are plenty more European problems that need solving, from the environment to education. These don’t just benefit society, but are potentially extremely lucrative as well. So the challenge for startups and entrepreneurs is to try and solve them – and at the same time we might create the European Googles that politicians are so keen on.

August 5, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments