Revolutionary Measures

Why technology companies have to play by different rules now

In the 1970s and 1980s the business world was dominated by big oil companies, with energy giants becoming the largest corporations in terms of market capitalisation. These were followed by banks and financial services in the 1990s and early 2000s. All of this has changed – the world’s five largest public companies are now Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, with upstarts such as Uber leading the way when it comes to unlisted businesses.

pexels-photo-239898

As they’ve grown these tech giants have expanded dramatically in what they do and the range of services they offer, demonstrated recently by Amazon buying offline upmarket grocery retailer Whole Foods. Essentially they’ve gone from being niche players, albeit in particular sectors such as search or retailing, to offering a panoply of interconnected services that constantly affect our daily lives – and in many markets they are essentially a monopoly, due to the power of network effects.

Much of what they do is invisible to the consumers that use their services – for example the majority of people don’t question why they are served particular search results, ads or news on Google or Facebook. Hence this week’s record $2.7bn fine imposed by the EU on Google for promoting its shopping comparison service to the top of search results.

Is fast too fast?
They’ve also often operated independently of existing rules, working to the Silicon Valley mantra “move fast and break things”. This has driven a huge amount of innovation, but has also led to behaviour that many find either reprehensible or even illegal. In 2014 Facebook’s UK operation paid considerably less corporation tax than my two person PR consultancy, for example.

Uber is a perfect case in point, with many countries banning its operations as its drivers don’t meet local taxi licensing regulations, set up to protect the public. Add in ongoing scandals around sexual harassment that have led to the departure of CEO Travis Kalanick and the overriding impression is of a company culture that focused on aggressive expansion at the expense of its people or the wider world. And Uber isn’t alone – the low number of Silicon Valley founders and VCs that are female or from ethnic minorities has raised eyebrows about the ethos behind the world’s largest tech firms.

Why does this matter now? Simply that the power of tech firms has increased dramatically at the same time as the complexity of their operations has deepened. At the same time, many people around the world feel left behind by the pace of technology and digital disruption, whether it is in the work or home lives, leading to a potential polarisation between the tech savvy and the tech illiterate. These worries haven’t driven people to populist politicians like Donald Trump on their own, but have added to a mood of not being in control amongst many citizens around the world.

Reading the papers, the number of bad things happening on the internet, from simple fraud to terrorist plotting, seems to be increasing exponentially, although whether this is true or is just the result of better reporting is a matter for debate. Whatever the cause it has led to calls for greater regulation and control by national governments over cyberspace.

Altogether this means that tech companies are facing an existential threat. While they are delivering record profits and driving ever-greater innovation they are now central to everyone’s lives and are therefore under ever increasing scrutiny, from governments and the public. Hence the call from Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn for the tech community to sign a Decency Pledge, looking to stamp out sexist behaviour and sexual harassment, particularly amongst venture capitalists in relation to the founders of businesses that they fund. It is a start, but I think any Decency Pledge needs to go a lot further and cover all behaviour, and how it is communicated. Tech giants can’t hide behind complexity any more – they need to communicate openly and operate transparently if they want to win back public trust. Time for the old Google motto “Do no evil” to be resurrected…………

 

June 28, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why marketing needs to get a handle on culture

The past couple of months has seen a spate of stories highlighting how poor cultures can be toxic to brands and organisations. Uber has been particularly in the spotlight – with allegations of sexism from female engineers through to a rant from its CEO Travis Kalanick against one of its own drivers. New company president Jeff Jones left after six months, saying “The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.” Only this week allegations have surfaced of senior management (including Kalanick) visiting an escort/karaoke bar in South Korea. The story came out when Kalanick’s ex-girlfriend, part of the party, alleged that she was pressurised to say she ‘had a good time’ at the bar.

Uber is not alone. The environment at British Cycling has been described by some athletes as operating through “a culture of fear”; misselling scandals at banks, such as around PPI, have been linked to poor cultural control; while Amazon and Sports Direct have both been accused of exploiting workers. In all cases it seems that a blind eye has been turned to how things were done, provided that overall objectives, such as company growth or Olympic medals, were delivered.

What has this got to do with marketing and communications? Essentially, when stories hit the media, it has to attempt to defend the (often) indefensible and then try and rebuild corporate reputation. All scheduled marketing plans have to be put on hold, with every effort focused on dealing with a growing number of allegations.

That’s why I believe marketing needs to step up and be more involved in guiding and monitoring corporate culture, ensuring that it has early warning of any minor issues so that they can be dealt with before they develop further. This isn’t about covering up bad behaviour – more ensuring that it doesn’t happen in the first place. There’s no point investing in huge advertising and PR campaigns that aim to demonstrate corporate strength, when a poor culture undermines everything you do or say. Marketing can exist in its own bubble, particularly in large companies, so that the department doesn’t see what goes in other parts of the organisation, leading to a false confidence that everything is going well. Therefore, it is vital to break out of this bubble and find out what is happening across the business.

Obviously marketing shouldn’t be responsible for culture alone. HR, internal communications, and senior management all need to help set the standards for “how things are done around here”, with regular checks that everyone understands what is expected of them, and their behaviour. Marketing is normally at the frontline of building a brand’s reputation, so it needs to have greater knowledge of what is going on. Otherwise it can’t ensure that the organisation is not tacitly or knowingly encouraging bad, unethical or illegal behaviour, potentially harming staff or customers and storing up major issues for the future. Marketing therefore needs to get a handle on culture if it is to do its job properly, whatever type of organisation you work in.

March 29, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

4 challenges to the rise of the virtual assistant

Home automation is the next battleground for technology. Following on the heels of Amazon’s launch of its Echo and Echo Dot devices, which feature its voice-controlled personal assistant Alexa, Google has unveiled its plans for a range of hardware to control the smart home. The Google Home speaker features a virtual assistant, excitingly called Google Assistant, that lets you give commands and then either provides information or controls your smart devices. For example, you can stream music, control the temperature and turn the lights up/down/off, as with the Echo. And Amazon and Google are not alone, with Apple announcing its HomeKit standard which will allow users to control devices through their iPhone via either apps or Siri.amazon_echo

When it comes to mass adoption, it is early days in the home automation market, and each one of the major players will need to overcome four big obstacles:

1          Do we need it?
Smart home kit has yet to really take off, with many consumers not willing to pay extra for internet-enabled light bulbs or thermostats. While Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa can do more than control your home, with the ability to find information, check the weather/traffic, book an Uber taxi etc., you don’t really need a separate device for this. You have one – your smartphone. So what each player has to do is find ways of encouraging people to adopt it, developers to create apps that use its functions, and manufacturers to incorporate it into their own hardware. Given that we’re talking about white goods such as fridges which are replaced infrequently and are normally price-sensitive purchases, this last point is going to take some time. As an early adopter I’m going to give Alexa a go, but I can’t see a compelling reason for mainstream consumers to buy an Echo or Home, until the ecosystem around them are more mature.

2          Is it clever enough?
As an existing Siri user I know that for a smart assistant it can be pretty dumb. It doesn’t really know enough about me to provide helpful answers and most attempts at ‘conversation’ end with switching it off and trying a Google search instead. Amazon and Google promise that their assistants will be much cleverer and will learn about you in order to provide a personalised experience that understands your context, location and previous behaviour. The jury is still out on whether it can be intelligent enough to replace human interaction for basic tasks.

3          Is it private?
The self-learning promise of Assistant and Alexa also has a darker side. Essentially, you are putting an internet-enabled microphone in the heart of your home, where it can listen and learn about you, before sharing that information with Google and Amazon. While both have privacy safeguards, the less you let it share, the less useful it will be. Many people will be concerned about where their data is going, and how it will be used – particularly given the amount of information Google and Amazon already possess about us all.

4          Are we going to be trapped in silos?
For me the main issue behind each of these platforms, is that essentially they are silos. You can’t play any music stored on iTunes on either of them for example, but have to either rely on Amazon Music, Google Play Music or Spotify. Even in an age of technology giants, very few of us rely on just one platform – we tend to use bits of each and value the fact that we can pick and choose where we get email, buy products or listen to music from. By their very nature, rivals are not going to push their competitors’ services, and no-one wants to have to buy multiple hardware to cover all their bases. What is needed is some form of interchange between all platforms, a kind of one ring to rule them all – but I can’t see that happening soon.

As with any innovation there’s a lot of hype around virtual assistants, and the hardware that they control. What is needed is some equally smart marketing that overcomes the objections listed above and really focuses on the benefits – otherwise mainstream consumers are likely to simply keep their dumb homes as they are.

October 26, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How smart can a smartphone get?

If you needed evidence of the growth of the smartphone market and its move into every part of our lives, then this week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) provides it. It wasn’t that long ago that the event was dominated by network infrastructure companies, but now it is essentially a consumer electronics show in all but name. And one that looks far beyond the handset itself. Ford launched an electric bike, Ikea announced furniture that charged your smartphone and a crowdfunded startup showed a suitcase that knows where it is and how much it weighs.

English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone...

Five years ago none of these companies would have even thought of attending MWC – and it is all down to the rise of the smartphone. It is difficult to comprehend that the first iPhone was only launched in 2007, at a time when Apple was a niche technology player. It is now worth more than any other company in the world and 2 billion people globally have an internet-connected smartphone. By 2020 analysts predict that 80% of the world’s adults will own a smartphone.

As any honest iPhone owner will freely admit, they may be sleek, but they are actually rubbish for making and receiving calls. What they do provide is two things – a truly personal computer that fits in your pocket, and access to a global network of cloud-based apps. It is the mixture of the personal and the industrial that make smartphones central to our lives. We can monitor our own vital signs, and the environment around us through fitness and health trackers and mapping apps, and at the same time access any piece of information in the world and monitor and control devices hundreds or thousands of miles away. Provided you have a signal……….

Essentially the smartphone is a universal platform that companies can build on – whether it is a disruptive taxi business (Uber) or completely new ways of dating such as Tinder and Grindr.

So, based on what is on show at MWC, what are the next steps for the smartphone? So far it seems to split into two strands – virtual reality and the Internet of Things. HTC launched a new virtual reality headset, joining the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Samsung and Oculus Rift, promising a more immersive experience. Sensors to measure (and control) everything from bikes and cars to tennis racquets are also on show. The sole common denominator is that they rely on a smartphone and its connectivity to get information in and out quickly.

It is easy to look at some of the more outlandish predictions for connected technology and write them off as unlikely to make it into the mainstream. But then, back in 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, there were plenty of people who thought it would never take off. The smartphone revolution will continue to take over our lives – though I’m not looking forward to navigating streets full of people wearing virtual reality headsets who think they are on the beach, rather than on their way to work…………

March 4, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moving back to a medieval economy?

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum.

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My very first blog post, four and a half years ago, talked about how social media had parallels with how people worked in medieval times. Essentially as a worker you attracted business through personal recommendation – do a good job and you’d get more work. Do a bad job for the Lord of the Manor, and you could well be clapped in irons. The industrial age changed all that, with companies mass producing goods or services and the personal link disappearing from many professions. No-one knew if you’d done a good job in your cubicle –the chance to express your individuality was simply not there in a lot of sectors.

In the same way that social media is changing how we interact with companies and how they market to us, the internet is also changing how we work. As a recent piece in The Economist pointed out, we’re increasingly becoming a freelance-based economy, with skilled workers now available on tap to complete specific tasks, with no need to employ them full time. Figures from the Freelancers Union claim that 1 in 3 members of the American workforce do some freelance work.

The internet and smartphone apps mean a business can now find someone to do everything from research a new product to provide legal advice or consulting. Many routine tasks, even in knowledge-based businesses, can either be outsourced or digitised, so why go to the trouble and expense of employing someone to do it? And for those businesses that worry about quality, the platforms that deliver these people will have vetted them and you can read reviews from previous customers.

This is going back to the medieval model – with skilled artisans and craftspeople available to work directly for their end customers, rather than toiling in a factory or office for a regular salary. On the plus side, it delivers freedom and flexibility to those with the right skills. On the other hand, the vast majority of the medieval working population were itinerant labourers, turning up where there might be a job and hoping they’d get picked. Essentially, not much different to a modern zero hours contract, which is the flipside of the freelance economy.

There’s also multiple other challenges to address, both for freelancers themselves and the wider country. I know that as a freelance it is up to me to market myself, provide for my own retirement, sort out my work financial affairs and keep my skills up to date. If I don’t work, through illness or holiday, I don’t get paid. All of these are things that previously my employer would have provided for me as part of the contract between us. For me, that’s not too much of an issue, but for others (thinking again of zero hours contracts), what happens when they reach retirement age without private pension provision? The state will need to provide, where previously an employer did. Education will have to teach people to think in new ways, so that they can pick up skills throughout their working life, rather than training them to do the same thing for their whole career.

The other challenge is that the freelance economy needs corporate businesses in order to survive. Firstly, it is where it recruits many of its members, who’ve got their training within a large organisation and then decided to strike out on their own. Working for a large company not only provides a positive endorsement of quality on a CV but also gives access to an ecosystem of potential assignments within the company and its peers.

Secondly, freelances need larger companies (and those that work for them) as a market. Whether it is selling to organisations that have a specific skills gap or providing on-demand services to the salaried (in the US you can get everything from food, to taxis (Uber) and home cleaning at the touch of a smartphone screen).

Take away this infrastructure and you remove the market and the skills – in fact, essentially moving back to the medieval model. The main difference is now, with the internet, you don’t just have access to your village carpenter, but potentially millions of them all over the world. Like any change there will be winners and losers, but it is important to look at the negatives as well as the benefits before we fully embrace the on-demand world.

January 14, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uber and PR – how not to handle the media

There are a lot of jobs I wouldn’t want in PR – helping North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or promoting cigarette companies. But head of PR at lift-sharing company Uber has catapulted itself to the top (or should that be bottom) of my list.

London anti-Uber taxi protest June 11 2014 by David Holt via Flickr

London anti-Uber taxi protest June 11 2014 by David Holt via Flickr

Any disruptive tech company is going to hit the headlines, but here are some of the stories that the aforementioned head of PR has had to deal with:

  • Upset cab drivers across the globe, angry with its business model, sparking protests, riots, and bans in countries such as Germany (though some restrictions have now been lifted).
  • Consumer complaints about its practice of charging more at peak times.
  • Taking out full page ads plugging the service on the same day that a mass demonstration of London cabbies brought the City to a halt.
  • Claims by rivals such as Hailo that it tried to squeeze out potential investors in its service.
  • Accusations of dirty tricks, such as getting its employees to book, then cancel rides with competitor Lyft in order to waste driver time and company resources.
  • Safety concerns, focused on the lack of driver vetting at the company, with reports of female abductions and a lack of concern for passenger safety.

And now it faces charges that, at a private dinner attended by journalists, its senior vice president of business, Emil Michael mooted the idea of spending a million dollars to hire a team to dig up dirt on reporters that had written negatively about the company. He has since tried to retract the comments, and a spokesperson has helpfully pointed out that “these remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.” CEO Travis Kalanick has also issued a rambling, multi-Tweet apology.

But aside from the cosmic stupidness of airing such views at a dinner attended by journalists (and showing that, yet again, there’s no such thing as off the record comments), Uber needs to understand that few things bring journalists together more than an attack on one or more of their number. Not only has the row sparked fresh bad press, but it will have also impacted how journalists see them. And that’s not as the plucky David against the Goliath of the global taxi industry (as Kalanick claims they are), but as a playground bully trying to buy its way to success. More Jerktech than technology leader.

So what would my advice be to the PR team at Uber? To start with, realise you aren’t in a war and everyone isn’t automatically out to get you. Be more open and take on board criticisms and start a dialogue rather than using heavy artillery. If your service and approach are innovative enough you don’t need to bully the opposition so blatantly, risking bad feeling from your customers and the wider world. Essentially, stop acting like a stroppy teenager and grow up. And, above all, never try and threaten a journalist, whatever the circumstances.

November 19, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments