The (marketing) fallacy of our time

Giles Hedger, Leo Burnett’s chief strategy officer, has articulated very precisely my feelings about the delusions of today’s tech-obsessed marketer:

The error is more than a technical miscalculation – it is a complete spiritual misdirect. It is not confined to a core of native technologists; it is everywhere and it is fundamental. It is the belief that brand-building can be reduced to a binary essence in which there are just ones and zeros and none of the captivating maybes; the belief that creative hypothesis can be replaced by optimisation; and the belief that marketing contract can be stripped of all its joyful subjectivity until all that remains between consumer and brand is transaction. It is the fallacy of our time.

Stuff marketers say

The Trebor brand manager had this to say about Wieden + Kennedy’s new campaign for its mints:

It will encourage shoppers to pick up a pack of Trebor by highlighting its great taste and heritage.

Maybe there’s more ads to come where taste and heritage get highlighted but this just looks like a bit of pointless surrealism to me.

Good times

Warriors returning from battle were handed oliphants filled with wine and told that if they could drink without spilling a drop, their wives had been faithful.

From a New York Times’ review of The Medieval Oliphant. Now you know that oliphants are musical instruments fashioned from tusks and apparently used for drinking.

‘Exhausting’ doesn’t cover it

Educated parents engage in a non-stop Socratic dialogue with their children, helping them to make up their own minds about right and wrong, true and false, wise and foolish. This is exhausting, so it helps to have a reliable spouse with whom to share the burden, not to mention cleaners, nannies and cash for trips to the theatre.

Working-class parents, who have less spare capacity, are more likely to demand that their kids simply obey them. In the short run this saves time; in the long run it prevents the kids from learning to organise their own lives or think for themselves. Poor parenting is thus a barrier to social mobility, and is becoming more so as the world grows more complex and the rewards for superior cognitive skills increase.

From The Economist.

That’s mine, that is

This wonderful but somewhat chilling William Dalrymple piece on the antics of the East India Company made me think of the time I was relieved of a toy gun I was trying to sell at a car boot sale. A young Gypsy boy approached my table, picked up said gun and proclaimed: ‘That’s mine, that is’ and promptly wandered off with it.

Seems like the East India Company had much the same attitude to the treasures they came across during their hostile takeover of the Indian sub-continent:

In many ways the EIC was a model of corporate efficiency: 100 years into its history, it had only 35 permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations – whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google – they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company.

‘I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.’

Oliver Sacks writing in the New York Times about coming ‘face to face with death’:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

Words to live by.


In November, the official noted, three hundred Libyan soldiers being trained in the U.K. were expelled after half a dozen of them ran amok in an English village, sexually assaulting several women and raping a man.

The New Yorker dissects the crisis in Libya.

Breaking Bubka’s record


I missed this when it happened – I guess pole vault is not big news these days – but Sergey Bubka’s long-standing world record has finally been broken. The Guardian has an excellent piece documenting Renaud Lavillennie’s feat. But almost of as much interest are some of the tangents taken by the author:

The back-story to Bubka’s records:

Bubka revolutionised the men’s pole vault competition. He was faster, stronger and more athletic that anyone that had gone before him. This allowed him to build up more speed on approach, use a heavier pole that could generate more recoil force, and grip the pole much higher than the average vaulter in order to get more leverage. He perfected a technique, first used by the Swede Kjell Isaksson, which concentrated on driving the pole upwards while rising towards the bar. This allowed Bubka to load the pole with more energy than his rivals and better exploit the recoil action to swing his body up and over the bar. Though less obvious to the untrained eye, Bubka’s model of vaulting was as big a game-changer as Dick Fosbury’s flop in the high jump 20 years before.

And the notion of the single defining moment of optimum performance:

The human body is not a machine. It does not perform in an identical way each time it is put to a task. At some point in your life, in any given action, your body produces an optimum performance. The variations are so minute that for most of us this is a complete irrelevance. For elite athletes, however, striving for records in fields were the margins are literally millimetres, it means everything.

In the 1968 Olympic Games, Bob Beamon jumped 8.90m. It bettered the long jump world record by a frightening 55cm and, when he realised what he had done, Beamon’s muscles succumbed to cataplexy and he collapsed to his knees. After that day in Mexico City he never again came remotely close to his record and it took almost 23 years for anyone else to do so. Clearly, that was Beamon’s moment of optimum performance and he certainly made the most of it.

There’s a lot more, including Bubka’s revolutionary deal with Nike, who paid him $100,000 for each world record, and, most poignantly, the belief that he may have been able to go even higher:

Can we be sure that the 21st February 1993 in Ukraine was his special moment? Watch the old footage and it seems unlikely. Sure, he cleared 6.15m that day but in previous vaults he cleared lower heights with greater ease.

Pause the videos when he reaches the summit of his vault and the amount of daylight between body and bar is enormous – at times enough to comfortably better world records by five or ten centimetres. The shame of it is that we will never know just how high Bubka could have gone.



What Drew said


I agree with everything here, the latest weeknote from Drew Stock, an acquaintance who’s documenting his creation of Bellow, ‘a new way to call each other’. Since joining Podio I’ve struggled at times to come to terms with the overwhelming rationality of life at a tech company. Test, learn, measure, improve. Repeat. What place is there for intuition and vision in an environment where every idea has to be quickly validated?

Drew eloquently teases out the limitations inherent in the orthodoxy that permeates start-up culture:

A grad-school instructor once told me products that attempt to prioritize cultural invention over problem solving, no matter how delightful, cute, or mind-expanding, would always result in flash-in-the-pan novelties with no enduring power. Better to start from a place of real user need — at least that was the kind of ambiguity that could be managed and de-risked with best practices. I internalized this as a challenge to find (and maybe create?) examples that would tell a different story.

And, using Snapchat and its confusing UI to exemplify his argument, he makes the case for seeking out new vistas over and above the solving of problems. Inventionism over utilitarianism:

It’s funny, whenever someone points to an example of a company like this that fumbled their way into success, vocal parties will tell you to ignore whatever they did because it was a fluke. There’s no use searching for patterns between all such anomalies because whatever they did is not reproducible. Instead, you’re supposed to follow the recipe. Keep your focus narrow, your purpose clear. Make sure your hypotheses are tight, your users well-researched, and avoid noodling…

One more thing about Snapchat: to me, their contribution is as much cultural as it is utilitarian. Sure, ephemerality has become a buzzword, but it’s an important counterpoint to the permanence we assumed inherent to the internet. Not only that, but the app has introduced video as an easily capturable and manipulatable element of collage, resulting in a high-low aesthetic that celebrates authors, yet remains distinctly Snapchat. Other vistas, basically.