I know which one I want to be.
But it’s hard.
I know which one I want to be.
But it’s hard.
Last week I went alone to the first Google Firestarters here in New York.
It was great. Really great.
If you haven’t come across the programme, it’s a format for Google to spend time with agency folk, in particular planners. Neil Perkin curates it, and he is a genuinely great curator. That particular gift combined with the Google brand means that you get a very good quality of people. And planners are cerebral, smart cookies working in a creative services environment, whose job it is to be very up to date and who work daily with translating lots of input into big ideas. Ben Malbon, Director for Creative Partnerships at Google, brought Neil and the Firestarters format over.
The topic was ‘the new agency OS’ – how do agencies need to be in order to thrive in this changed world.
The line up was outstanding:
Over the course of the evening, a few things struck me:
1. This is the center of the world ;-)
Of course, I would say that now that I live here.
But what a line up. I have followed Anomaly distantly for years and loved their hybrid model, their venturing. Percolate is very hot, a startup doing great things, so to hear from Noah was exciting. Vice is obviously interesting and significant, BBH provide some blue-blooded pedigree, and Almighty I confess I hadn’t heard of, but I really enjoyed Ian’s opener. It just felt like a superb proper proper event lineup. It was a privilege.
There is something of a counterpoint to that ‘centre of world-ness’ I suppose. 3 of the 5 speakers were British, which was kind of thrilling and embarrassing at the same time. Made by Many got namechecked 2 or 3 times and Clearleft, fellow Brightonians, were referenced once – mainly by Ian who was one of the Americans. So it was enlightening to me, and unexpected, to see the British influence at the heart of American agency-land.
2. Code as a metaphor or proxy for culture
Ian from Almighty introduced this idea that there are ‘big’ small agencies and ‘small’ big agencies, and in fact what we meant by this was a short-hand for their shared code, their accumulated history, their ‘this is the way we do things around here’ through assumptions and convictions.
He used that to talk about stripping back code, about hiring people from different backgrounds and other related ideas, but just that core nugget itself is interesting to me as someone helping to rapidly grow a software startup – given the challenges that creates around culture and given how tech-centric a big part of our team are.
3. The OS and the Apps
Sarah Watson had the most idea-sy approach and I warmed to that, particularly as she was last up. What she did was took this question of the new OS for agencies and differentiated between the OS itself – the platform – and the Apps.
Sarah’s point, I think, was that the OS is like the agency’s culture. And that efforts to evolve or combine agencies often concentrate on the nuts and bolts, the process and teams, and not on the OS. And they founder, because the OS is what fundamentally advances or holds back – this is the stuff that governs who is allowed to speak, what is prioritised, valued and rewarded.
Again, for me it wasn’t so much about how well the detail of the idea was landed, but the idea itself. It was good to be reminded of the different elements at play in systems, and to sophisticate an organisational metaphor that continues to gain in momentum.
4. Getting back to big ideas matters
As I walked the 10 mins from Brandwatch in Flatiron to Google in Chelsea, I realised how little of this I’d done – feeding my brain – since I’ve joined just over a year ago. Understandably, it’s been full on execution-mode from day one.
And being back in an environment where the sole focus was opening up and playing with ideas was rewarding. And useful.
I hadn’t realised it, but I needed that. I have work to do that could easily be dealt with in a hands-on, bit-by-bit, executional way. Thanks to these guys talking about the bigger picture themes and issues in their world, I’ve now been reminded that getting back to the core of a problem, back to the underlying big ideas, is vital.
Looking forward to the next one. Thanks to Neil for the invite and Google and speakers for a great evening.
Balance is interesting.
I watch my kids in the skatepark, and the older and younger kids and adults too. Flexing, swaying, tilting; it’s all about balance. There was an adult guy today, he had the basics but he just looked so stiff every time he came to land something. Too rigid to balance. And a tiny kid the day before – 4 maybe 5, seemed to be stuck to his board, so flexible were his joints. At times he would be lying horizontal after an attempt – like he was superglued to the skateboard. He was probably too flexible!
I see it at work too, in teams and in myself. Keeping balance in the priority list. Being balanced in ones reaction. In energy levels and health – burn outs before holidays, bounce restored at the return to work. Crashes at weekends. But also the bigger balancing act – rigour and process balanced with agility and instinct, risk and flair balanced with consensus and thought. And across functions – the interplay between marketing and sales, finance and HR, support and product. Planning vs execution. Most of this happens around us. We’re part of it but it’s part of something much bigger.
All of these things are in tension, are interconnected, pull at one another. Balance isn’t static, I don’t think it’s an achievable or even desirable state. It’s a promise, at best a momentary flicker in time. The plane is never on course, it’s just always nearly on course.
(Aside: probably the most incredible masters of balance I’ve seen have been working mothers. They’ll tell you what an exhausting never-ending pursuit ‘balance’ is).
My current challenge with balance is around short-term vs long-term. We usually take the long view in my team but it’s coming to the year end and I’m desperately keen for the team’s short-term results to give us the proud finish we deserve after the year of effort, growth and achievement. So there are I am, consciously and deliberately chucking balance out the window, and instead relentlessly chasing the short-term.
I’ve also seen balance in our company.
I’ve seen us sway and tilt, learning to land tricky new shifts. It’s just as hard as any other kind of balancing act. Sometimes the changes feel like sine waves – a rise in chaos and ambiguity, the smell of entrepreneurial cordite in the air, and then a counter-wave, a tranche of new process and accountability, as the company lurches back to a more sober state, for a while…
The thing is, we need it all. It’s all right. And it’s all about balance. About how much and when and where. Its about forever tweaking dials. It’s like cooking or conversation or music or – most of all – nature, of course. It’s the growth that follows a forest fire. The art that follows a recession.
I love all of this, I have to confess.
I love the dynamism. I love the lack of knowability. And the bloody challenge.
And as for what to do, I think this is the best advice I’ve found in recent times, from Gianpiero Petriglieri:
Here’s to balance. Shout when you find it.
Taxi driver just undercut a police car at speed while switching lanes.
Racing along a suspended highway and slowly realising the grey modern megaliths of the city skyline have encircled us and suddenly we’re entrapped, caught right where they want us, in their metropolitan maw.
I’ve just come back from a wonderful, maybe even life-changing, 3 and a bit days in Shanghai. My first trip to China. I wrote those notes from the taxi, groggy, having just left the airport, nailing it down the Chinese highway.
And now looking back these are the themes I want to remember from the experience.
I had approached with the naive arrogant assumptions of a Westerner used to being at the centre of the world. I expected big web properties, but just with different names. I expected a sweet, developing marketing and digital community, behind but finding its way. I expected to feel knowing and confident, superior even.
What I found was a digital and business landscape moving so rapidly that even though 15 or so local veterans we met and spoke to are struggling to keep up with, even with their resources, their knowledge, their inside relationships and on the ground. I felt inspired, dizzied, shaken and admiring.
It feels like there are major iterations to the digital topology every 6-12 months. ‘Weibo is dead!’ we were told over and again. ‘I go there now and again just to check what’s happening’ one of the guys we met told us. Right now the momentum is particularly with WeChat, a closed, timeline-driven social network owned by TenCent, Sina Weibo’s major competitor. Brands are struggling to figure out what to do and we found the Shanghai agencies and social data players equally perplexed.
This market has been moving much faster than the Western market has. And we were speaking with smart digital veterans – people from companies like Ogilvy, JWT, We Are Social, Porter Novelli, OMD, as well as local outfits like NIM Digital and CIC.
In fact, just as we’d got our head around WeChat being the platform where the action is happening, we were told that mobile app vertical communities feel like the next big thing.
Chatting about the local talent market we heard a phrase that resonated: ‘talent isn’t loyal – life is moving too fast here’. Kinda sums up the speed and spirit of Shanghai.
Other differences that stood out:
Whilst Shanghai bustles with the noisy car-horns and weaving scooters and speeding taxis, it also feels very distinct from the outright chaos of say Delhi or Bangkok.
A high percentage of the cars on the road are recognisable global brands – like 80%. And many were Audi, VW, Porsche, Mini, BMW. Quite a jolt, actually. Yes, that’s Shanghai – a wealthy bubble. But even so.
We walked to our first appointment on the second day, 35 minutes through a particularly smoggy morning. And what struck us as we did was how European it felt – like Barclona with wide boulevards lined with short Palm trees, neatly manicured gardens and small public parks with bamboo-shrouded paths and trimmed bushes. And the gawky sci-fi elevated walkway network high above the traffic had sweet, simple hanging plant boxes tracked along its edges.
The streets were cleaner than NYC, although there were patches of sewage-y smelling areas.
Perhaps its the European and international history of the place. Perhaps its the modern pace of innovation and concentration of wealth. But Shanghai doesn’t feel alien or altogether different. It feels like a place of fusion.
A real global city.
The Chinese people we met were open, smart, knowledgeable, interested, savvy. I expected smart but I didn’t expect the transparency, the humour and the generosity we experienced. Preconceptions. Stereotypes.
And in particular the generosity. Our colleague Xinglong was met at the airport but his best friend’s best friend – someone he’d never met before. This friend Edward then drove us around from appointment to appointment for the next two days in his fancy BMW. Utterly humble (he is a successful entrepreneur with a digital business in North America). We were told, ‘it’s the Chinese way’.
The people we met were great. Very impressive.
Shanghai. What a place.
Developing people is probably the single most satisfying thing I have been part of in my working life.
I know that have helped some people to substantially develop themselves and I have helped other people move forward a bit. And there are people that I haven’t really helped at all, too – people I didn’t click with, people I didn’t prioritise and people who didn’t seem to want to or were stuck.
At Brandwatch I think I’ve focused mainly on ‘results first’ in the past year, on outcomes, and I’ve tried to nudge people and stretch them in ways that they could in order for us to better accomplish our goals. It’s been a secondary goal.
In this second year I want to flip that around and put developing people first and foremost. I know if we can do that together – really grow and enable and unlock their creativity and drive – that the results will continue to flow.
As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that the people who I’ve been able to help the most tended to behave in a particular way. They shared attributes or desires, even though they were all very different characters.
1. Want it
They all wanted to develop. And were prepared to take risks, expose themselves, try harder than just showing up for another day. It’s so bloody simple, but they wanted it. Most people I find can tick this box off.
2. Make it happen
They all made stuff happen – they took overall responsibility for their growth. They bought and read books, they updated their plan, they took the steps and volunteered for the projects and pushed their development to happen. They definitely were not sat back. There’s a big drop off from people who want it and people who are prepared to make it happen. The knowing-doing gap.
Pretty simple. So all we need to do as managers is unlock in people the desire to develop themselves and then the habits and commitment to follow through on those desires.
Unfortunately, that skips over two fairly big blocks.
1. It’s bloody hard to *make* someone want to develop, if they don’t already
2. It’s fairly hard to change behaviour in order to develop as an individual (in oneself or in others)
Maybe we could noodle on those two another time :)
Every once in a while I get asked for a list of good blogs to read (for people interested in the stuff I am interested in, I assume).
I’m putting them here as an easy place to point people to and, y’know, to share.
(Important aside: I’m noticing there are few women on my list, I dislike that.)
Do shout if something really good is missing.
Unbelievably, it’s just a week from my first anniversary at Brandwatch. These are the things that stand out for me.
If my experience has confirmed one thing to me it’s about the importance of teams. The quality of the people in them. The communication within and between them. Their environment, their happiness. Their sense of purpose.
The moments I’ve enjoyed the most over the last 12 months have been being part of focused happy groups doing great work and accomplishing new, difficult things.
The moments I’ve enjoyed the least have been where I’ve been disconnected from a team I belong to (I can think of three formal teams I belong to, plus more informal project groups) or where I’ve lost sight of what makes teams tick, and ignored the issues that needed addressing.
For me it’s all coming back to people.
When I joined we were 140 people. 12 months later and we are close to double that. That is a lot of change. As I’ve said to people internally, in most cases it feels like the primary unit has shifted from being the office – like Brighton or New York – to the team or even sub-team. Which means that the affiliation and communication between teams and sub-teams, even within the same office, now requires additional effort and probably some new skills too.
It’s very interesting and exciting seeing this arise as a challenge and seeing us find our way through it. (We also have a fantastic new chief of staff Tom who is helping us all out, which I’m delighted about).
Speed of change
One of the other things I am absolutely loving at Brandwatch is the sheer pace of change.
Every week something happens in our market or in our company which makes a material difference to the company’s business or my team’s work.
There is literally no time to get bored and I bloody love that. I love the dynamism. I love how we have to deal with it and seeing the people around me dealing it so admirably.
And yet most of us in the company would like to be moving faster, to be innovating more quickly, to be launching everything, everywhere, tomorrow (!) and that tension between quality and speed, and having to say no many times in order to say yes a few is really fascinating to me.
This 12 months has also helped me clearly see that, having worked in a startup, then my own entrepreneurial endeavours, and now a scaling startup, I definitely belong in this world. Startups for evarrrrrr (probably).
Travelling for business is just a reality within the US. And in my role I need to travel to Europe and beyond too pretty regularly.
What I’ve learnt is that my travel comes in waves. September is a write-off – I’m at home for (most) weekends, but that’s it. April and May were pretty full-on too. But the summer is quiet and there are troughs in between the peaks in which to recover and spend time getting back into healthy patterns.
I met a friendly guy from one of our competitors who travels every week within the US as a VP of sales. Because of the time involved he told me that over the years he has worked to reduce and compress all of that waiting around time as much as possible to the extent that he accepts that he will miss 2-3 flights a year, and if he isn’t missing those flights, he’s not pushing it hard enough and wasting time sitting in airports.
I can feel myself on the same trajectory. I was the last one on the plane on my last US domestic flight, and on the outbound leg I got through security with 30 mins to spare (still plenty of padding). I’ve racked some serious miles this year and am getting more polished at the business of travel. Although travel becomes a ball-ache, I love visiting new places and I love spending time with people face to face. It is part of the adventure I sought out and signed up for, and I’m lucky because I feel in control of it at the moment.
As I side note, I LOVE the BA mobile app. It’s close to Amazon and Uber for me in creating loyalty through sheer simplicity and ease of use. Big fan. Quite impressive, given their not being a digital native company.
Health and happiness
Despite the intensity and change, I’ve managed to stay reasonably healthy and sane. I’m not as fit as I was a year ago – I haven’t clicked with the way they structure the CrossFit programme at my local box, and bouts of travel mean that running has become a more reliable, easier to plan activity.
It sucks a bit because CrossFit is the most amazing way to be all-round fit IMO, and physically I’m not exactly built to be a natural runner – that said, I do enjoy it and I’m looking forward to running in a ‘race’ or too. (Race in inverted commas because I won’t be racing, I’ll be surviving :).
So I do feel grateful that 12 months in I’m genuinely happy and pretty healthy. You never know when you change job, country and all that other stuff.
Lastly but most importantly, the most amazing thing about moving country as a family has been what it’s done for us as a family. We were already in a good place but there’s something ‘us against the world’ about hoiking yourselves to an entirely foreign country where you know next to no one. I never saw that coming.
It’s been beautiful to see how we’ve pulled together and been able to share in the joys of difference together.
So that’s it.
A great 12 months. Learnt loads, done loads, and excited for the next 12 :)
I love being in teams. I’ve just always been that way. Through childhood, then especially playing rugby as a teenager and in my twenties, and then at NixonMcInnes where we managed to assemble a special team. I’d almost always rather do work and play activities as part of a collective.
And like many people, I love especially those moments and periods of time when the teams I’m part of somehow reach that higher level of performance. When everyone is contributing their particular strengths, giving everything they’ve got, and the whole thing is working together fluidly.
Those moments when you look around you and you’re inspired and driven on by your teammates. And you suddenly realize that the individuals have become more like a single entity and you’re part of it. Yes it’s hippy-sounding and it’s also true and tangible. You must’ve experienced that too. Playing in a band, dancing in a club, organizing a brilliant event, whatever.
What prompted these thoughts was that I was at the dmexco show in Cologne, Germany these last few days. An unusually high quality event. Enjoyable to be part of and impressive in scale. (Most noticeably, not soulless in the way that the large scale trade shows have become – and better than anything in London of the same scale in my experience).
And these thoughts of teams are prompted by how our team came together to put that on.
Before the event our design and marketing team worked particularly hard to make a richer, more engaging platform than before – so some great foundations were laid and our goal of going further was established too. And then over the two days of dmexco our German commercial team just blew me away with their attitude and results.
In my favourite moments during the show one of two things was happening:
- sensing the same without communication
Every time I thought I was going to need to suggest to one of our guys that there was a person nearby who looked interested in chatting, as if by magic a team mate would sense the same thing and engage. Sometimes this was a lot more subtle than it might sound, and that was the inspiring, exciting bit. And the initiative, the proactivity to keep the whole thing functioning – the bin being emptied, screens being fixed, laptops being swapped. None of this is glamorous or difficult. But normally there’s friction in the need to spot, communicate, in the egos about who does what, that stop the flow.
- total contribution
Total effort all out. And ego-less. Our longest serving German team member gave out flyers and quietly supported from the edges. Our CEO gave product demos. Our head of client services lost her voice from talking to customers and prospects. Our young marketers shape-shifted into a salesperson and an IT / AV guy. And – to a person – our front-facing commercial guys worked so bloody hard. They smiled and they chatted and they won. Two days, everyone on their feet, extended periods of complete focus on other people, limited or no breaks. Our team gave their all.
All of this makes me wonder how we can do this over longer more stretched out periods of time. And across the boundaries of sub-teams. Our whole company is one team, after all.
Because I’ve experienced this team flow in a 60 minute new business pitch, in a half day workshop, over a two day show and – outside of work – in an eighty minute game of rugby.
Given that the teams I work with are located between 3 offices and working on programmes that can last weeks or months in quite different regions, the question I’m left with is can this state be designed for, given those constraints?
Can we reach this level of work zen and unity over an extended period of time, longer than 48 hours? Or is there just something about that compression of time and that essentially physical, face-to-face experience that best suits these moments? The reality is that very often we feel like we’re a long way off this smooth, satisfying state.
And what are the ingredients? What conditions create the right environment for this to happen?
At the heart of this team experience was one person – Susanne, our marketing manager for the DACH region. She was the axis at the heart of the whole endeavour, from deliberately planning the event into her budget in December 2013 to being the last person in the event hall, waiting for delayed delivery guys to show up. The playmaker. The conductor. The team captain. Not in a strategic armchair, but working like crazed person in the thick of it.
And secondly, there was a complete sense of shared purpose, and I think our team in this instance wanted to prove themselves, too. We all knew what the goals were. Shared purpose. And we wanted it.
I love teams. I wonder what else is present when teams of people reach their full potential and put on their best performances?
Life is interesting now. I have many thoughts but no theme to wrap them up, so I’m going to slide them into this blog post, like pouring pebbles into a bucket. Feel free to look away.
I’m in my 12th month at Brandwatch, and I feel that I now fully understand the company, the market, the people, the dynamics. Obviously it hasn’t been linear – probably a nice s-curve – but it’s interesting to me how long it took. 12 months to nail it. As an aside, the company has doubled in staff size in that time.
(Knowing all of that how the company works stuff isn’t necessarily helpful. I feel the value of fresh eyes, when new people join us. As much as I’ve understood the status quo, I am now part of it too. Gotta watch that.)
I have loved taking services-side experiences and skills and using them inside an organisation. Especially having worked with so many different types of personality and spent time learning about listening / motivations / organisational culture etc. So for me the transition from external (consulting/agency) to internal (client-side) has been very rewarding. Seeing things through. Being at the heart of it. I love it. I don’t think I will want to go back to services, but never say never.
The only two things I miss from the type of work you do services-side are:
Still loving living and being in New York. We had a great summer (bloody hot, but unseasonably mild apparently – I shudder at the thoughts of ‘normal’).
My subway card swipe (no Oyster card here) still needs work. Really pisses me off. How can I consider myself settled before I can confidently swipe through with 99.9999% success?
Favourite moments are still where the melting pot blends ingredients that were just not available back in Brighton & Hove. Like taking the kids to the playground, and there being 5 or 6 families cooking BBQs for their kids parties, Puerto Rican music blaring out of proper sound systems, while I push the kids on the swings in the sunshine. Or seeing snakes and eagles on our summer holiday. The variety, the difference.
Some of my language has changed. I say apartment instead of flat, even to Brits. Elevator. Resumé. Soccer (I know). But not all. I say Surname. And said ‘trainers’ the other day – I’m never saying sneakers. It’s a non-negotiable. Mrs and kids have gone further: they say chips instead of crisps (this upsets me greatly). Accent-wise, I think I’m still largely unchanged. Some gentle rounding of Ts, maybe. Our eldest said ‘peanut budder’ the other day. Our youngest deliberately pronounces ‘wadder’ to make himself understood at school. Sweet.
Perception – this is a bit abstract now, but I am becoming more and more fascinated by perception. It seems to be a central opportunity and challenge for us at Brandwatch, and principally for me given my role. And for anyone who has something they want to share with others. I can’t really explain all of it, but it’s about I suppose it gets called and relates to (but isn’t entirely about) Positioning, a lot. It’s a magical area. How people feel about a product, a company, a sector. I am looking forward to learning and playing in this area.
Face time – I spend the first 2/3rds of every day in Hangouts and on Skype calls, some one to one, many with multiple attendees. It is often a frustrating experience. This area is still so flawed, technologically, for consumers. What’s great is that I have found that strong relationships can continue to thrive through these channels, but really working through challenges when the relationships aren’t there yet or are suffering is very difficult. It’s also hard to contribute to important, dynamic conversations when the majority of a group are together in a physical space and one finds oneself the voice from the screen. A challenge. (And the reason that business travel continues, despite tech).
Time for writing – I write best in the morning. Morning is now when I catch up on 5 hours of the UK’s productivity (and to a lesser extent, 6 hours of Germany’s) and start jumping on video calls with people. I need to find a way to hack this. I enjoy writing and I know it is a great investment.
And those are the thoughts I’ve been carrying around with me.
I’m starting to get a bit miffed with THE CLOUD.
I was on a flight, went to listen to some podcasts I subscribed to especially for time spent on trains, planes and automobiles, piped through a mini iPad bought especially for travelling, and yet none of the podcasts were available because the default setting is to stream them from the cloud.
Making various changes to my iTunes account has also resulted in my biggest commitment to Apple, my music library, first being uploaded to the cloud (iTunes Match) and then gradually disappearing from various devices. I got Genius support early on in the process, but one step after another it went wrong. Somewhere along the line I’ve overwritten the fullness of my previous library, and with it a chunk of my lock-in and goodwill with Apple.
Actually, what pissed me off the most wasn’t losing the back-catalogue of music, but losing my beloved favourites playlist, which had over 600 tracks that I’d manually rated as either 4 or 5 star. It was my go-to music resource, whether head down in some PowerPoint or post-pub kitchen-dancing at friend’s houses. The first transfer of music to the cloud and a new Macbook worked, but that tiny file of metadata was lost, and with it a slowly curated and highly personal compass that helped me find the best of my music. I would pay good money to get that playlist back. Not the tracks, just the listing.
And as I whittle down my inbox of several hundred emails flagged for reply or action, it gets to the point where the 100 or so left all contain links that point to the cloud – to Google Docs, to Soundcloud, or that need reference to my calendar (Google Apps) or just the straight good ol’ internet. I’m in an internet deadzone, thirty thousand feet above the Labrador Sea.
The cloud is great when you’re online, but it rather sucks when you’re not.
I’m not knocking the internet. I love the internet. It’s given me knowledge and connections and a job that I love. But there’s a utopian feel to how the cloud is described. It reminds me of part of Honor Harger’s utterly brilliant talk at Meaning 2013, where she talked about how the dreamy branding of the cloud belies its inherently physical nature of big ugly datacenters. A mesmirising and potent talk.
And I think what else is niggling is that some of the time that this disguises some of what is good for the vendor company than for the consumer. Like those irritating cards in hotel rooms proclaiming green credentials and asking the guest (quite rightly) not to drop towels on the floor unless they really want fresh ones, but pretending it’s all out of the good of their hearts. Why would my brand new mini iPad default to streaming podcasts? I can’t see how that benefits me.
What would help is simple. Better offline support for cloud-based platforms. Offline platforms that work intelligently and carefully deploy precious storage to maximize the chances of me being able to access what I want to. And more wifi everywhere. Good wifi, free wifi.
Then we can cherish the cloud more as we traipse around our busy lives down on the ground.