Hundred days, hundred grand: a fun work goal

Hey there, marketers! I’ve had an idea today, and I’d like one thousand of you to listen. Broader upside is that it delivers £10,000 to charity, but let’s get the self-indulgent stuff out first…

…since turning indie novelist I’ve led a dreamy life. A cycle of eat-sleep-create, true to myself and answerable to no-one. I’m a solitary type who spends a lot of time inside his own head, so the last year – teaching myself the principles of narrative fiction then writing my first stories – has been one of the most enjoyable.

Only problem: your income takes one hell of a whack.

00_2birds_100px700,000 books are published each year. But worldwide, I’d bet fewer than a thousand authors scratch a living wage from fiction. And perhaps only 200 earn more than a top-tier copywriter in a major market. (That’d be me.) Writing the commercial prose used in a single campaign typically earns its creator more than Britain’s median earner makes in a week… while 99% of books sell fewer than 100 copies, making the author less money than would fold. (Er, that’d be me, too.)

So it’s been a great year, but with the principles of fiction now baked into my brainpan, every thriller novel and sci-fi short from now on – and there’ll be many - just counts as practice. (I can’t call myself “good” until I’ve got a million words out.) I need a fresh goal to rebuild my cashflow. And since this is me here – the guy who combines touchy-feely words and hard-quant numbers – every goal needs numbers attached.

Starting 01 April, I’m aiming for 100 days to reach an annualised income of £100,000.

It sounds a lot. But in a market like my hometown, the thing about a six-figure income is how small it is. A hundred grand could be just three clients. But it takes work. This isn’t get-rich-quick, folks.

Here’s how I plan to do it. And how you could do it, too.

Looking for clear market space? Take a walk with Chris.Any sales exec knows selling is a numbers game. There’s a mountain of skill involved in closing a deal, but most of the time, the guy with the best sales figures is the guy who made the most calls. To get the small number of retainer clients it’ll take to rebuild my roster, I’m counting on approaching 1,000. And since I can’t count on my scintillating personality getting me over the hump (I am the world’s worst networker) this means a campaign.

I’m not talking about a bought-in list; strike rates for cold names are below 0.01%. I’m talking about 1,000 individuals with a marketing budget, each connected to me by someone I know who’s consented to be used as a reference. That’s the In that gets me in their Inbox. So where to start?

It means work. And the place to start is LinkedIn. That’s 434 connections, roughly half in my native UK, connecting me to most of the companies I want to approach. And there’ll be an individually worded letter to each one, in my own voice.

This is where the resource costs start. Even the cheapest content mill I write for pays 20p a word, and these letters top out around 500 words a throw. So that’s £100,000 of effort going in. Which dwarfs the cost of printing and posting, even given some won’t go out on a proper sheet of paper.

I’m counting on averaging ten letters a day. More on weekdays to take weekends off. And they’ll be personal letters. There are some common paragraphs, but there are three or four paras that aren’t replicable page to page. Stuff like:

  1. A para on who you are, and what you want to do for them (THEM.)
  2. A para on how you heard of them – your contact, their job ad, whatever.
  3. A para showing you understand their business or sector, with proof.
  4. The separate email to your contact, telling them what you’ve done. It’s only polite.

That’s four custom paras, of maybe six or seven in total. (Not much space for anything else save the sig.) And I need perhaps a 1% strike rate. That’s all.

To see why, let’s look at clients I’ve had in the past. One paying £1000/mth for a 3,000 word article for their website. One of which pays an occasional £1500 for a small research project. Two paying over £2,500/mth for a programme of activity around a monthly marketing campaign. Two others paying £1,750 each to have 3-5 days/month reserved for them.

And with my max day rate of £600 – top tier, but not over-the-top by London standards – it doesn’t take too many of those to hit an £8k/mth run rate.

(When I was an agency creative clients paid upwards of two thousand Euros, and that was a decade-plus ago. (One or two advertising celebs charge two grand today, but you could probably count them without taking your socks off.)

And to add punch, I’m making a commitment: if I get there, 10% of that income for one year will be donated to charity.

Works starts today. If you’d like to support me – or do it yourself! – share this post on Twitter, with the hashtag #100days100grand. Here’s my Tweet to retweet.

My 1200-ish punch-and-kick workout

punchbag-757181

An uppercut bag is best for this, allowing both kicks and punches from all positions.

I do a bit of Krav Maga, a flexible combat art from Israel. A lot of it’s drawn from boxing, and I like it because a) it’s simple, no bowing philosophical stuff; and b) it keeps you in great condition, pushing you into a balance of strength/speed/stamina in both core and outer.* With my heavy bag re-exposed from beneath moving boxes, I’ve restarted my thrice-weekly solo whackathons… two months and I’ll be back in shape!

Here’s my routine, latest iteration of a workout I’ve been swapping and substituting for several years to find something complete. You can do it at your own speed and take as many breaks as you need; even slowfight or shadow it if you want. It’s about 1200 blows, takes about half an hour, and the sweat should be pouring off after three minutes.

(Caveats: first learn the basics – how to stand, how to throw a blow: the jab, cross, roundhouse, hook and hammer. And warm up first; just a few minutes of stretching will do it. Without these you’ll overpunch and hyperextend. Don’t know what hyperextension is? Your shoulder will.)

Why do it? It’s fun and gets you fit. But the real value is psychological: whether you’re male or female, knowing how to strike a blow gives you a physical confidence most people don’t have… and the resolve to do it for real if you ever need to.

1st set of 200: Jabs & crosses:

Face bag.

— 66: fastjab-jab-jab, fastjab-jab-jab (3 x 11) (left-left right)

— 66: fastjab-jab-jab, fastjab-jab-jab (3 x 11) (right-right left)

— 66: jab-jab cross, jab-jab-cross (3 x 11) (left-left-right)

…for 200 total

2rd set of 200: Forward and backwards kicks:

Facing bag.

— 66: 3 x 11 front roundhouse (one-one-one, two-two-two etc) leaning back, other foot at 45deg, then change foot for 66 total

Back to bag.

— 66: 3 x 11 first back roundhouse leaning forward (one-one-one, two-two-two etc)  then change foot for 66 total

Facing bag.

— 66: 3 x 11 forward kick (one-one-one, two-two-two etc) with ball of foot into groin, then change foot for 66 total

… for 200 total

3rd set of 200: Backwards punches: 3 sets of a 3-punch combo of 33 each fist:

Stand with back to bag.

— first back KNUCKLEpunch straight vertically up over shoulder,

— then backwards roundhouse with SIDE of fist/arm,

— then backwards downwards groin punch with OUTER side of fist.

…. each set of 3 repeated 11 times with each fist (one-one-one, two-two-two etc until eleven-eleven-eleven)

…for 200 total

 4th set of 200: Elbow & knee blows:

Use elbows and knees to strike.

— 33: hands behind head, roundhouse with elbows at head height going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 33: burst forward bringing knee upwards to groin going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 66: backwards elbow blows: straight back to groin, rear roundhouse to torso, other arm roundhouse to torso then change sides (2 x 33)

— 66: attack forwards with elbows: driving forward and up from prone, driving forward and down from raised position, forward (2 x 33)

… for 200 total

5th 200: Hooks, uppercuts, hammers

Facing bag.

— 66: left-right-left x 11, then right-left-right x 11

— 66: from keeling or crouching, 3 x 11 uppercuts each hand (2 x 33)

— 66: downward hammerblows from arm raised (3 x 11 each hand)

…for 200 total

6th 200: Side, ground, and knee kicks:

Lying down with feet towards bag.

— 33: Lying on back: kicks: roundhouse to shins  going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 33: Lying on back kicks: straight forward sole kick to shins going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 33: Prone kicks: half-roundhouse from low kneeling position, flipping yourself half-over going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 33: scissor blow: scissor the bag with one foot striking slightly higher to bring opponent over (3 x 11 alternating foot each kick)

— 66: Side kicks (lean over and kick out and down without kicking leg away from line of body) try not to put kicking foot down for each set of 11 (3 x 11 each side)

Once everything feels nicely embedded in muscle memory (i.e feels instinctual, what coaches call “unconsciously competent”) you can start combining moves, like a rear roundhouse where you swing a 180 then forward kick plus a cross then carry on round to 270 for a nice elbow to the torso on the way back to 180. Hell, buy another bag and imagine they’re multiple attackers. Try it. It’s killer!

* And of course c) It lets you think you’re Jason Bourne.

Still an insult, no longer an offence

Finally! The word “insulting” has been removed from the UK Public Order Act’s offence of “threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour”. It’s about time: like all laws written with the best of intentions, it’s been abused time and again to bring people who merely disagreed with a litigious person into a cowed defensive posture.

It’s not far enough – British law still favours people with “beliefs”, constantly letting them off societal and legal obligations simply because they made a big noise about their imaginary friend in the sky. (Witness the way “faith schools” are allowed to discriminate based on what ancient text pupils’ parents prefer, or the way an organisation sending 26 people to the House of Lords is allowed to deny people a certain job rank simply because they’re female.) But it’s a step in the right direction.

Introduced in the 80s, the law’s been abused by countless thin-skinned people who think anyone criticising their beliefs should be jailed. (Interestingly, some of the biggest numbers of both plaintiffs AND defendants in such case have been Muslims. Proving once again that religion is principally a divisive force, something for playing up our differences, not bringing us closer together.)

So at last, UK citizens are once again free to voice nonviolent opinions and concerns as they please. Can I just mention that you are stupid and ugly and your mother dresses you funny?

Kindle Fire: up in smoke?

I love my Kindle with a passion. In less than a year I’ve got whole libraries on there; I get The Economist delivered to it; I’ve put a library of classics referenced by historical era and geographical origin on it that I’m sure I’ll get round to reading someday.

But I won’t be buying a Kindle Fire. And usability expert Jakob Nielsen has put his finger on why.

The Fire is a tablet, not an e-reader. It’s a computer, a general-purpose device. And any jack-of-all-trades instantly loses the stuff that makes it special, just as a camel is a racehorse designed by committee.

With my bog-standard Kindle, it’s some gestalt of the e-ink display (no backlight, just like paper) and the few bars and buttons (they turn a page, do nothing else); it feels like a book, reproducing the experience of reading without the silly (Hi, Apple!) cheese-graphics of wood-grained bookshelves and leather-stitched edging. Just as 80s-era text adventures gave you the feel of wandering around Zork without a graphic ever being needed, a Kindle celebrates the book by not trying too hard to be one. It’s a bluesman, not a cheesy tribute band.

And yet, of course, I’m tempted. I like hi-res colour screens more than most people (I run a full 2880 x 1800 on the Windows partition of my Mac.) And the Kindle Fire is new, always appealing to a techhead. But I’m older and wiser about these things today, because…

… I’ve been here before.

About a decade ago, seduced by a colour screen and animated apps, I traded my PalmPilot for an IPAQ. (Remember them?) At first I was excited by the colour screen and a version of Windows that fitted in my pocket (sort of); something that could run Word and Excel as well as keep my calendar.

The excitement lasted all of two days. It wasn’t even a week before I started missing my Palm.

The Zen-like simplicity of the Palm 5 (the last one I owned) was what the IPAQ – and today, the Fire – is missing. The Palm really fitted in your pocket, and didn’t even weigh you down. The battery lasted for weeks. The black-and-white screen and crisp text just worked. It had that essential subset of functions you needed each day with the option to add more only as you wanted them. No palmtop or phone has ever been as useful as my little Palm, and I miss it even today.

The Zen of e-reading is the same, as long as you stick to the e-readers. Don’t ever assume reading a novel on an iPad or Fire is going to be the same experience: they’re heavier, more complex, and backlit, more tiring on the eye than any e-ink page and not like a book.

To be honest, I’m not sure how big I am on the whole tablet phenomenon to start with; I’m a content creator, whereas most people are content consumers, and pads are for consuming.

And there’s the rub. Seduced by the splash of colour, pads and tablets may well kill off e-readers: not much room for a specialist in a world of good-enough generalists. The Kindle phenomenon won’t go away, but reading books on a backlit screen with fixed pagination just isn’t going to be the same; if it was, all books today would be published in PDF. e-ink companies are already having problems; electronic paper just isn’t glamorous enough for a world that doesn’t read much. But I’m not making the same mistake I did a decade back.

I’ll keep on loving my Kindle, and may well be loving it long after the technology is obsolete.

“Looper”: sheer loopiness

And this week’s Sneak-Out Wednesdays movie is… Looper!

For the first 30 minutes, I honestly thought it was a turkey. It commits that laziest of all directorial sins: the narrative track that explains the film for those in the audience who shouldn’t really be let out unsupervised. (“I’m too untalented to show you, so I’m going to read it out instead.”) It probably came from a focus group rather than the Director’s hand, but it’s intensely annoying nonetheless.

Fortunately, after the first half hour the director gets the upper hand over the focus group again (there’s definitely going to be a Director’s Cut) and it turns into this amazing piece of art. Tarantino on his best day would have trouble getting close.

I didn’t come with high expectations. Time travel films annoy me, travelling the arrow backwards being one of the few things that’s really impossible. But let’s face it, a world where Bruce Willis speaks French and Mandarin is already pushing the disbelief scale skywards…. and the subgenre’s so full of hackneyed cliches I didn’t think there’d be much creativity here.

But somehow Rian Johnson pulls some real characters out of the Kansas canesugar. It’s believable how a young runaway might grow up into a jobbing assassin trained to kill without motive or reason and think himself the Man for doing it. There are the right motives for jumping into a time machine when you’ve got a chance to escape. The whole narrative is well-constructed and pretty coherent within its own frame of reference. (Although I’d have taken a gun back with me, Bruce.)

The way Joseph Gordon-Levitt presumably trained for days (possibly fixed in post) to get just the look of a young Bruce Willis in his eyes for one of the film’s opening sequences … the way his older self might still find the killer within him unreconstructed after all… I’m not giving anything away here; this much is in the trailer and voiceover. But there’s a couple of not-quite-foreseeable plot twists – and I left the cinema happy. 8/10, Rian Johnson.

London 2012: So, how was it for you?

The flame’s gone out. The confetti’s on the ground. The last leathery throat has rasped its signature anthem. Perhaps the closing ceremony had some odd musical choices – the house only started rocking when the dinosaurs came out, proving today’s youngsters can’t hold a torch to Who and Floyd even when they’re covering. (Even Eric Idle got the house rocking.) And the less said about those mascots, the better.

But in the light of the morning after, with the London Olympics still fresh in the reddened eyes and twitching footfall of ten million Londoners, everyone’s asking: how was it for you?

Here’s my list (doubtless one of thousands): 9 great things about London 2012.

1. The city resplendent.

For everyday Londoners like me, it’s been a surprisingly pleasant two weeks. The Tube’s been busy at times and hilariously crowd-free at others, but life for most people went on without hassle, with the added frisson of genuinely feeling part of it all. At the opening ceremony it was fun to open the window every time the volume rose on TV and hear the real thing happening a klick or two downriver.

I didn’t go to a single event, but if you were out and about in town this last fortnight, you were in the games. Strangers struck up conversation; eye contact signified warmth not aggression; everybody smiled. London was a great place to be.

2. The opening ceremony.

Let’s face it, it was a work of genius. Perfect choreography, proper narrative, and an ability to laugh at itself in a way the Chinese or Americans could never match.

On a limited budget in a time of crisis, the curtain-raiser sent the watching billions a message: this is Britain.

3. The rainbow of faces.

The Games proved that opportunity exists in Britain for everyone, whatever’s written in your genes… if you push yourself to achieve something. (Not force others to pander to your proclivities.) On “Super Saturday” the three most noteworthy golds went to a Somali Muslim immigrant, a mixed-race woman, and – shock horror – a ginger. And I’ll bet it’ll just get better as the Paralympians come out to play.

The Games delivered a slap in the pursed kisser to every ethnofascist and religionista with a chip on his shoulder, showing them that if you feel downtrodden or oppressed, it’s entirely your problem. London emerged as the most diverse and tolerant city on earth.

4. The deafening silence from the public sector.

Days before the Games, the headlines were ablaze with predictable threats from the unions: Tube drivers, airport officials, I think even Bob “the Dinosaur” Crow made an appearance, desperately trying to hold Britain to ransom yet again. Yet the coddled millions of Britain’s bloated state sector stayed strangely quiet.

Perhaps the cotton-cossetted hordes have got it into their heads that if people dislike them, perhaps it’s because they’re just not that good. That maybe they should start delivering better services, instead of whining about their lot. And admit that maybe, just maybe, it was more fun being part of the party than trying to stop it.

5. The confirmation that competition works best.

Everyone points the finger at G4S’s staff undershoot as a failure of capitalism. In fact, G4S was the perfect example of why capitalism works. The company’s facing tens of millions in fee cuts, far more in years to come as its biggest customers write it off as a toxic brand. G4S will shrink, adapt if it can, and come back stronger, having learned the lessons.

How different to public sector provision, where a failing department usually gets more resource poured into it. The reason the London bid succeeded in the first place was because LOCOG acted like a good capitalist: ditching its first boss and bringing in Seb Coe. The Games celebrated the  marketplace.

6. The architecture.

The Pretzel, the Pool, the Park: the way a swampy disenfranchised sector of London’s gained a skyline is awesome. These buildings give focus and direction to an area that badly needed it: just a bit more shoving, ensuring the social capital gets properly used in the decades to come, will make the legacy real.

And Seb Coe – just appointed as Legacy director – is a terrific choice for the job. Unlike the sad birdcage of Beijing, the Olympic landscape is set to leave a real legacy.

7. The way marketing took a back seat.

Being a marketer myself doesn’t make me any keener to see stadium and arcade an infinite loop of logos, and how McDonalds and Coca-Cola can sponsor sports with a straight face mystifies me. So it was great to see just how far below the horizon the brands were: they were certainly present, but weren’t in-your face, helped by the BBC being principal broadcaster in the UK.

Of course, this wasn’t true globally (Twitter #nbcfail for how not to do it) but in their home city, the 2012 Olympics were about games, not brands. And rightly so.

8. The realisation that Britain’s actually brilliant.

It’s been less than 12 hours since The Who turned off the amps, but something’s… different around here. The UK ignored a gurgling recession, a mountain of debt inherited from Blair and Brown, the cries of a media desperate to sniff out disaster.

There’s a sense of YES! We can do stuff like this. We’re not second-rate Americans, or death-spiralling Europeans. Britain can do pretty much anything.. and better still, it can take anything. The UK has rediscovered its backbone.

9. You.

Even if you weren’t there, you were “there”. The shared sense of excitement was for real, and if you felt it, you made the games, as much as Mo or Jess. The best thing of all about London 2012 was … you. Yes, you with the surprised look on your face. You pulled it off!

Thank you, Seb Coe and LOCOG. Thank you, athletes, for entertaining us and demonstrating the unconquerability of the human spirit. Thank you, volunteers, for every smile and wave on a thousand street corners. Thank you, performers and creatives, for bookending the whole thing with two great acts of artistic direction. Thank you, stadium crowds who cheered and stomped – whoever and wherever you did it, they heard you.

London forever!

SNS Special Alert: Long Live Science

Mark Anderson of the SNS Newsletter has used the successful MSL landing to skycrane this poignant piece into the rarified atmosphere of public science awareness. It’s aimed at a US audience, but with religionists and public sector workers – and worse, those who misguidedly pander to their reality distortion fields – on the march in the UK too, it has relevance here too. Here it is in full.

To All SNS Members:

Many of you have already written in asking for permission to re-distribute this piece.  Please feel free to distribute to as many people and publications as you wish, with the caveat that it be complete, and have attribution.  I hope it does good in larger circles – and thank you for your willingness to do so. – mra.

To Our Members:

As you are no doubt aware, at 1:38 a.m. this morning, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech succeeded in landing a one-ton rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars.  This effort required years of scientific, technical and engineering preparation, resulting in a novel multi-stage process for getting heavy equipment onto the red planet, rife with steps which, if any failed, would likely cause mission failure.

The landing occurred without a single problem, including minutes during the critical last phases of the flight when the spacecraft was out of communications with Earth and ran autonomously.

While this effort will no doubt have a great impact in improving our knowledge of the Mars geology and surface, including habitability for future human missions, and perhaps information on past life in the targeted crater, there is a deeper meaning to this effort:

Science is reality.

At a time when a large and increasing fraction of the U.S. population does not “believe in” science (i.e., objectively provable reality) – or, worse, has bought into the idea that science is just one choice on the reality menu – NASA has again given concrete reason to understand that science works, and that science is not an option, not a theory, not a menu item, but instead represents the finest efforts of human minds in understanding, and addressing, objective reality.

Those on Earth who currently think that science is a political football should take note: not only are you endangering your own reputation, you are endangering the welfare of your constituents, and today, of the planet itself.

Any person or party which mocks science should be considered for what he or it is: a threat to the welfare and future of us all.  Under the influence of political propagandists, misled religious zealots, and truly dangerous television and radio empires (such as Fox (Not) News and Rush Limbaugh), too many people today have been led to believe that science is in some way an option to opinion.

Science is as optional as gravity.  Ignorance is the only real option.

It is time for the U.S. to catch back up to the world in this matter, and recognize the value of scientific study and theory, the use of scientific consensus in guiding public policy, and the wonders that we can achieve when we abandon self-aggrandizing political fantasy in favor of objective scientific knowledge.

We should use this marvelous achievement to create a new cultural change in the United States, returning us to the group intelligence of past eras, when no one doubted that an experiment, done with the same result several times, demonstrated an objective truth.  Not an opinion, not a religious position, not a political chip, but another addition to human scientific knowledge.

The world owes much to the people of NASA, of JPL, and to the taxpayers of the U.S., who have achieved the most important step in space exploration yet attempted.  This was done by a willing and informed government, working with private contractors, paid for with taxes.  It stands as one of the greatest of tributes to human intelligence yet achieved, shoulder to shoulder with decoding the human genome.

I highly recommend that you take a moment to watch the scene inside JPL headquarters in Pasadena, as Curiosity makes its way safely to the Martian surface.  We owe a great deal to those pictured in their moment of triumph, and citizens of the U.S. owe it to themselves, if they wish to remain a great nation, to put a rapid end to the rise of ignorance in their country which threatens scientific endeavor, and the acceptance of scientific findings.

Our thanks go out to all of the people who, using Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, just flew a car-sized laboratory across the solar system, landed it safely at the end of four lines under a crane under a rocket under a parachute, to bring us yet more scientific knowledge about the world.

It is time for all Earth inhabitants to recognize the value of science.  In doing so, we will find common ground for agreeing on other important things.

Here is the video:

<http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=149948191>

Long live Science.
Sincerely,

Mark Anderson
CEO, Strategic News Service

Going Mac: the first 72 hours

It’s been three days since I landed on Planet Mac, and so far it’s been a pleasant experience. First thoughts…

1. The biggest issue is still with Windows. Outlook for Mac works just as well, but importing 12GB of data took effort and hasn’t quite worked properly. Why, for example, does anything in the Inbox not import with attachments? And why don’t root folders import one-on-one, slotting your Calendar from the PC into the Calendar on the Mac? Instead  it creates new folders, and on Calendar I see no way of transferring 10 years of appointments into the Mac root Calendar folder.

2. Anything out of the ordinary is abnormal. A Mac likes to store things in particular folders. Well, so do I, and my preference is for separate volumes – which I’m having difficulty pointing various Mac applications at. Which means I’m storing data on an “open” machine protected only by a password, for the first time in a decade. Today – having just upgraded to Mountain Lion – I’m encrypting the whole disk as a stopgap.

3. The screen is as beautiful as expected, and I haven’t even cranked up the resolution to max yet. Office for Mac, unfortunately, doesn’t handle Retina yet, and multiple pages of text onscreen don’t look especially better than on my old Dell. I’ll see how it looks with Windows on a partition soon. 

4. What’s with the keyboard? Mac keyboards lack a lot of keys; no obvious hash symbol, no forward delete, and other keys that could have been used for this stuffed with symbols nobody ever uses (I don’t even know how to pronounce § and `, much less know when to use them.) Not a criticism; Macs are different. I just don’t know why such obvious and user-friendly innovations aren’t in play; Apple is normally attentive to this stuff.

5. Dragging good in some ways, bad in others. I’m learning the multitouch trackpad and already finding it useful; instead of large limb movements being needed to shift the cursor to the Back button, a single-finger swipe in the right direction is all that’s needed. But other things that are simpler in the Windows world (like deleting a file by highlighting and hitting “delete” don’t work, and I can’t think why; it’s such an obviously useful feature.

That said – I’m enjoying my excursion, and expect to make it my normal work environment from now on. Fanboi alert!

London 2012 Opening Ceremony: Boyle pulls it off

I’m not much for the Olympics. I like that it’s here; all great cities need reminding how great they are, and the chaos and complexity of the London Games will shake things up and show us where the next round of public infrastructure’s needed. But the whole bread-and-circuses aspect isn’t really me.

But what I think is irrelevant. Because Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony last night was brilliant beyond belief.

And if one thing marked it out, it was just how different it felt from Beijing’s histrionics four years ago… and by extension, how different *we* are from China.

London basically grabbed Beijing by the scruff of the neck, slapped it around the face for three hours, then rubbed its nose into the ground.

Beijing’s theatrics – costing ten times more – were fantastical rather than fantastic, bravado rather than bravery. London showed the world not what Britain wants to be seen as, but what it actually is. And was better than the soulless Chinese Olympics, by a factor of about a hundred.

Where China had spectacular, Britain had spectacle: intimacy and interest, in a stadium seating 80,000. Where China replaced a young singer with a “more photogenic” Party Member’s daughter, Sir Steve Redgrave gifted his Olympic flame to a set of young athletes to perform the final honour. Britain’s opener was about celebration, humility, and humour. Totally different to Beijing… and infinitely better.

For me, this was the point that proved a theory at the core of my investment philosophy: China will not join the first rank of nations, its economic steamroller is winding down, and the way it steals and hacks and foils the rest of the world is now blowing back. (Two years ago, plenty of European train operators were actually considering the PRC’s 40%-cheaper locomotives, despite them being obvious copies of European designs. Today only a few are.) On the surface, China can do it by the numbers, but just doesn’t “get” the people stuff.

Britain does Story perhaps better than anywhere. Combining live farmyard animals with molten metal and 1000 drummers rarely ends well, but the narrative of Britain’s ascent from bucolic backwardness to the Industrial Revolution and universal suffrage – not sugarcoated, not even celebrated, just a story told – was brilliant, culminating in the rising smokestacks blowing blazing Olympic rings upward. The jukebox of British music fitted like a favourite shirt; the homage to the NHS, featuring dancing doctors and bedridden children somehow just worked. While the comic relief – Daniel Craig skydiving with the Queen into the stadium, with Her Maj playing along; Mr Bean getting bored with a one-note brief from Sir Simon Rattle – were something perhaps no other country could get away with.

Ridiculous. Incredible. Bonkers. Brilliant. And that’s Britain.

Welcome to London!

Going Mac: the why of it

After two decades in the PC paradigm, I’m going Mac.

I’ve been in the Windows world, with brief diversions into Linux, since before Windows existed: my first PC ran MS-DOS and I pasted on Windows 3.1 around 1994.  Excluding ipoddery, my total time at a Mac keyboard totals perhaps ten minutes. At times, I’ve been anti-Apple; the silly fanboi culture that surrounds the childlike logo still puts me off.

Yet my order’s in processing and a maxed-out Macbook’s arriving early August. I find myself reading, with interest, articles headlined The Real Reason Macs Before 2011 Can’t Use Airplay Mirroring in Mountain Lion. (No, I haven’t a clue what it means either.)

The reason’s simple: that screen.

I’m a resolution junkie. On a series of 15″ laptops I’ve run 1600 x 1200 since 2003; since 2008 I’ve had 1920 x 1200 on a solid Dell workhorse that’s given the highest ROI of any machine I’ve ever owned (over four years of essentially all-day, every day use: thousands of hours and millions of words of copy put together in offices, universities, airports and coffee shops. I frequently have three full A4 pages lined up across Word; people squint over my shoulder and ask if I can actually read it. (Yes, I can; I’m a copywriter with the pixel-perfect eyesight of a young art director.)

Onscreen real estate is productive – which means profitable. Within reason (my reasoning I mean – I’m already beyond sensible limits) 2880 x 1800 will let me scan and dive into eight full A4 pages of text, even editing it right there at that res without having to play around.

Other choices come into play. In a world of Clouds and SaaS and Wifi there’s no real problem using a Mac these days even when most of your clients use PCs; I spend most of my time in Office and Outlook, which at present are actually a version ahead in the Mac world. And I’ve got a lot of obsolete software on my Dell I need to wean myself off; some applications are over ten years old.

I’m carrying baggage I don’t need. And if there’s one thing in life I hate, it’s baggage.

While another factor is Windows 8. I’ve seen it and it works great as a phone/pad operating system, but I’m less sure about its usefulness on my workaday laptop. Interfaces that look great in films or presentations (Tom Cruise waving his arms around in Minority Report) don’t work in real life; nobody wants to spend eight hours at a desk expending physical energy instead of intellectual, and Windows 8 is designed for touch, not typing.

The Mac will let me start afresh, a whole new perspective on space, time … perhaps even life itself. (I’ve heard that on a Mac you don’t need to “install” applications; you just drag them into a folder called… Applications. It can’t be that simple, surely?)

For this reason, I’ve decided to go the whole hog and use my new Mac as a Mac. (My original plan was to install Windows and use it as a PC: no real change in my working life but I gain beautiful new screen. Several reviewers state the best Windows laptop these days is… a MacBook.) But the only two hurdles – three if you count learning Mac stuff in the first place – seem leapable.

First, my ten-plus years of Outlook data (I live my entire life in Outlook; every day’s scheduled in two-hour increments and I’ve got colour codings for every client and activity) can be exported (I think). Might need to draw on some expertise from the Mac community – there’s probably more than one way to lug a 16GB .pst file into Mac Outlook 2011 – but I can’t believe such a thing isn’t doable.)

Second, the strong encryption I use (my hard disk’s scrambled at preboot level and the Pentagon couldn’t get in when the power’s off) has Mac equivalents hitting the market soon. (TrueCrypt, freeware that’s been well tested with the bonus of being open source, doesn’t yet encrypt beneath the boot on Mac OS, but it will soon – and it does everything else my PC crypto does, with much the same choices of hashing algorithms.) With the upcoming Mac OS (Sabre Toothed Polecat or something) a few other things click into place.

So, aside from keeping an old Windows 7 (or perhaps 8) on a Bootcamp partition for backup, I have no real reason to remain in the Windows world. It’s going to take some getting used to…. but perhaps not as long as I think.

I’m going Mac.

Freestyling: the mark of a true Londoner

Tube logoIt’s not about your ability to delete homeless people from your field of vision. It’s not about having a minimum of three locks on your door, or believing £30 is a reasonable sum to spend on a takeaway. No, being a true Londoner is about …. freestyling!

Freestyling is the skill of staying upright on the Tube without holding on to straps, poles, or parts of other people’s anatomy – “riding” the floor of the train as if it were a surfboard. (Of course, we’re assuming the surfboard is huge, dry, stops every couple of minutes, and is shared with a hundred people. Use your imagination.)

The rewards for doing so successfully are enormous – out-of-towners gaze at you in amazement, recent immigrants to the capital look mournfully at your smug no-hands-ma poses, and you’ll have the chance every couple of rides to prevent an attractive female person hitting the deck in a tangle of heels and miniskirt, for which she’ll be duly grateful. (Or alternatively, enjoying the amusing sight of less-attractive people spreadeagling themselves on the floor with a thump.)

So, as a service to Londoners who haven’t quite got the hang of it all, here’s A Tube User’s Guide to Freestyling! First I’ll cover the basic techniques.

The Tube User’s Guide to Freestyling

Basic skills

1. Be a tripod. You have three legs, not two. (Stop sniggering at the back.) Instead of thinking of your stance as a two-dimensional line, do what martial artists do: feel how balanced you are and compensate a couple of times a second. As the train sets off, slows, or makes one of those inexplicable stops in the tunnel that happen about ten times a journey, see the spot on the floor that offers most support and move your weakest foot there. Three legs is the most stable arrangement for any chair or table; be a tripod.

2. Keep it moving. The game’s to stay upright, not resemble a statue in the British Museum. The physics for this is “metastable” (the movements, not the statue); keeping yourself slightly dynamic can combat any Circle jerk or Northern rattle. Keep your weight forward on the balls of your feet (balls being a necessary component of Freestyling on the older lines) and always, always keep your body supple and joints unlocked. You are a coiled spring ready for anything, not a life model. Keep it moving.

3. Think about it. However good the thing on your Kindle, keep one thread of your mind focussed on your stance. Some stops (hi, Northern after rushhour!) are stamp-on-the-brakes sudden and there’ll never be any warning. Board each train as if there’s a brick wall across the track that the driver can only see once he’s within ten feet. (On older lines, this is partially true.)

Imagine there is a metal pole, floor to ceiling, in the carriage. (Er, OK, there really is, but if you were holding onto it you wouldn’t be a Freestyler, would you?) In your imagination, you are circling slowly around this pole; it’s there if you need it. Keep that vertical pillar in your mind and you’ll tend to stay upright.

4. Laugh at losers. On every train, at every start, there’s at least a couple of people in every carriage who seem baffled by the basic physics of it all: when the train starts off, a body will attempt to remain in place, leading to said body stumbling in a direction opposite to that of travel. It’s too late for these people: they will never learn, so it’s okay to laugh at them. It’s not too late for you.

Over the next few blogs I’ll look at the individual characteristics of each Tube line and the advanced techniques needed to successfully Freestyle each. More later!

Iron Sky: don’t mention the…

After a six-month contract that kept me occupied pretty much fulltime, I’m back to being an independent. Working in town and out of suit and tie, this can only mean… the return of sneak-out Wednesdays*! This week at one of the few cinemas taking a punt on Iron Sky.

I went on the basis it’s the first cinematic release funded by crowdsourcing, and wanted to see if collaborative development had worked – the community also had input into set design and character bios. (It’s not “bunking off for the afternoon” it’s, “Continuing Professional Development”.)

While everyone applauds the *model*, it’s been getting mixed reviews *as a film*…. and when I hit the Prince Charles Cinema, it was obvious from the bums on seats that the business model hasn’t quite worked. This was a geek-only cinema with NOT A SINGLE GIRL IN IT. So my expectations started low, and I had a pleasant surprise: it’s so stupidly funny I enjoyed it straight off the bat.

First off: the cinema itself. The Prince Charles Cinema is a hidden gem: tiny, atmospheric, and what a *real* cinema should be: close and intimate. Less about watching a film and more about the popcorn-infused experience of going to the movies. it shows a lot of reruns you wished you’d seen the first time around. Go there: rents are high around Leicester Square and it needs you. 

But anyway, the film. In 1945, a Antarctica-based bunch of Nazis decided the best place to vamoose was not South America but … the Moon. And they’ve been there for 70 years, waiting for the right moment to return.

The enjoyable thing here: I expected to be annoyed by the way they skipped over the huge difficulties of living on the Moon – recycling air, growing food, building giant swastika-shaped bases etc. Not to mention getting a few hundred people there in the first place.

I’d have appreciated a ten-minute montage showcasing those first years on the lunar surface. The cramped conditions in the saucers … the breakthroughs by the scientists when their CO2 scrubbers and hydroponics worked … the gradual ascent into functioning machinery and mining the Helium-3 … the first Nazi children giving their first Seig Heils as their society developed an economy. But the film’s premise is so laughable you forgive it the dropped balls.

It’s perfectly acceptable that the Nazis don’t have any more trouble living on the Moon than, say, the Amazon. The gravity doesn’t appear any different to Earth’s, and Moon-born people don’t have any problem adjusting to the crushing weight they’d feel. The steampunk look just about allows suspension of disbelief; after all, during the Cold War ICBMs went into space with no more computing power than an abacus. But there are other errors. Air-breathing petrol engines appear to work just fine on the lunar surface. They’re on the dark side, yet the giant base is clearly bathed in sunlight. And in one shot, controls on the Nazi spacecraft are clearly labelled in English. It may have crowdsourced $millions, but this is still a low-budget independent film.

However, the plot goose-steps along at reasonable pace, and the moments of comedy – “In case of emergency break to hear National Socialist anthem” – mostly work. Sometimes it goes overboard (although whether a film about WWII-era Nazis living on the Moon can go over the top is debatable): the US President isn’t a parody of Sarah Palin, it actually is Sarah Palin.  And the ending is brilliant. Whether or not you’re into the whole Nazis-on-the-Moon genre, support independent film and buy the DVD.

And of course, apologies to my girlfriend. It’s impossible for a Brit to go to a film featuring German dialogue and not speak in an accent for hours afterwards.

* All right, Mondays. But I work so many weekends that my monthly cinematic escapes can legitimately take place any weekday.

Adventures in Spread Betting: episode 1

The interesting thing about financial spread betting is just how unlike betting it is. It's amazing how few "City traders" actually work in the City.

Betting on spreads – where you’re given bid/ask prices by your spread betting provider, and you wager a sum per point on how far and in what direction the price will move outside this range – is classed as gambling in the UK. But since you can back your decisions with all the normal tools of the financial business – technical analysis, corporate fundamentals, information – spread betting isn’t really about gambling, any more than poker’s about gambling if you know where all the aces are.

However, it’s not really about investing either. (You’re not buying a share; you’re contracting with a bookie about where its price will go.) Spread betting is really about trading. Buying cheap and selling high, like every form of mercantile exchange for 30,000 years. Like a bank extending you credit, you can trade on the margin: with most bets your provider will only ask you to front 5% of your total exposure. And you can use leverage to magnify your wins (betting £10 a point, a penny’s rise in share price gives you a thousand times that in profit) meaning the profit opportunities are large. Of course, the downside is just as big – which most people find out very, very quickly.

(One resource I use a lot is this site: http://www.financial-spread-betting.com/. It’s got a huge array of articles on pretty much every aspect of spread bet investing, including stuff about other exotica like CFDs.)

I’ve been FSBing a day or three a month for the last six months, and just starting to get into it seriously. It’s something I thought I’d enjoy; I never expected it to get vocational. But when I looked back on trades the Why of it became obvious. I don’t have a gambling mentality; in twenty trips to Las Vegas I’ve sat down at a blackjack table precisely once. But I do have an affinity with charts and patterns – the trends and trajectories of technical analysis. In spread betting, that’s what you’re really betting on – herd behaviour, not the fall of a dice or the turn of a card.

I wrote a thesis on behavioural finance once; the way human biases affect markets is a subject I know a lot about. In addition, the complexities of financial derivatives that keep most people out of the game – the calculations around stops and limits, the patterns of market timing, when to go on margin and how far to pull the leverage – are, at the scale I’m doing it, simple enough to fit on a spreadsheet.

Now I’m starting to trade seriously I’ve decided to blog my wins, losses and learnings – keeping it open keeps me honest. As with all writing, the critical thinking it forces will help me develop a trading strategy – patterns that work, patterns that don’t, places where my own cognitive biases get in the way. In two years or so I hope to be trading for a consistent monthly profit; note what matters here is consistency rather than number of zeroes. Here goes nothing…

Queues at Heathrow, Q’s for the unions

Summer’s on the way, and just before a public holiday the news is full of two-hour queues at Heathrow. How convenient… for some.

And as usual, Britain’s journalists are completely missing what’s really happening here: Britain’s unions want the queues. Here’s why.

Let’s look past the talking heads to some basic drivers of human behaviour. You’re a union baron wanting to secure yet more pay and benefits for your members. (Most of whom don’t vote in favour of strikes, but that’s by the by for union bosses – nobody plays faster and looser with inclusive democracy than a committed Socialist.)

Now Labour’s out of power and the days when you could rock up to Number 10 and be invited in for beer and sandwiches are long gone, the main tool at your disposal is striking.

And if you’re looking to strike, lengthy queues at Heathrow beforehand would make it look justified, wouldn’t it?

So that’s the crux of it: who, here, really benefits from long queues at Heathrow? Not the government; they’ll shoulder the blame. Not, of course, the customers: we’re talking unions here, whose only attitude to customers is fuck the lot of ‘em. The only people to benefit from apparent undermanning are the people planning to go on strike.

That’s why the queues last forever: a deliberate act by the lefties to screw Britain’s economy … for the benefit of its own members.

Eyewitness accounts from passengers confirm that at busy times there have been just two desks open to process arrivals. They may have had manpower cut by 10%, but that still leaves a lot more than two immigration clerks. Which makes it obvious what’s really happening here: Britain’s over-unionised, ultra-bloated public sector is cynically engineering a crisis to make itself look like a victim.

I don’t see why anyone’s surprised, really. It’s all the public sector ever does.

When one disused missile silo just isn’t enough

I’ve always had a thing about subterranea, and my Fallout New Vegas Tour last year reawakened an interest in missile silos. There’s a tiny subculture Stateside of people who’ve bought these monuments to Cold War military budgets as unusual living accommodation… and one day I want to join them. (Hey, it’s one hell of a holiday let.)

An Atlas-F site: think of it as a pretty big house with a ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS BASEMENT.Why do I like them? It’s something about the contrasts: the big-sky vastness of the American West, pockmarked by hidden concrete bunkers whose sole purpose was to rain down Strangelovian death on people thousands of miles away. (Or, to take the realpolitikal view, to prevent the need ever arising.)

It’s such a science-fiction cliche – the innocuous shack or wooden door leading down to a cathedral-sized space within the earth – but the pointy bit here is that such things actually exist. Hundreds of them, dotted around mostly-abandoned Air Force bases, from sea to shining sea. Designed to take a direct hit from an airburst in the megatons, they were the strongest structures ever built by Man… perhaps the strongest structures man will ever build. (Cold War budgets aren’t coming back anytime soon.)

Like walking through a graveyard, the few signs above ground create a sense of wonder. Who were these people? What drove them to attempt such feats? What are the stories of that which lies beneath? 

I first travelled across that landscape at 20, and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of it. To own a parcel of it isn’t even an unattainable dream: there’s a lot of land out there, and in parts of the US 3,000 acres cost less than a one-bedroom London flat. But it wouldn’t quite have the melodrama without a missile silo on it. So my needs are simple and specific: an Atlas-F.

If your idea of a missile silo involves a big trapdoor in the desert with a rocket blasting vertically out of it, it’s the Atlas-F you’re thinking of. They cost an incredible sum to build – over $400m in today’s dollars –  yet their operational lifetime was just a few years; the fearful pace of development during the 50s and 60s made many obsolete even before the bomb went in. With no appeal except as novelties, they change hands today for under US$500,000. (In case this sounds like a bargain, consider: many of the silo tubes were imploded or flooded to discourage trespassers, and I know of no case where the tube itself has been remodelled.)

With an Atlas-F, you get a bit of land above ground, the “Command Centre” to convert into a dwelling, and – down a subterranean corridor – the missile silo itself, minus its erstwhile resident. Many are within commuting distance of major cities; the surburbs sprawl broader today. Most of the Atlas rockets eventually got used for peaceful purposes – launching satellites and whatnot – but their amazing garages remain. Gigantic Euclidean solids under the earth, temples of technology to a war that never came.

I saw one years ago, and the sense of being somewhere Man was never supposed to be is hard to describe properly. So that’s my goal: to own an Atlas-F site.

And now, what comes onto the mMash of the Titans. They didn't make many of these; even the Cold War had a budget limit.arket but a Titan-1?

There’s always a bigger fish.

The Titans were the biggest land-based nuclear missiles ever – able to deliver their megatons of radioactive death to any point on earth. A Titan site is basically an Atlas F site… in triplicate. THREE enormous vertical cylinders, a huge fuel dump and machine shop for each, plus a command centre complex, all connected at deep level by half a mile of tunnels. Now that’s what I call a project!

And one of the very few ever built is on sale. If only.

Unfortunately the price is over £2m. And let’s face it, remodelling the equivalent of three 17-storey skyscrapers through a hole in the sand is one hell of a development project. My dreams continue…

Why Nations Fail: not a book review

A great new book provides a useful further confirmation as to why socialism and the left wing in general are wrong: Why Nations Fail, by Darren Acemoglu and James Robinson. (Although the authors, as academics and probable lefties, may not like their work being seen as a vindication of global capitalism.)

The book’s main idea: whether a nation turns into a prosperous land of citizen-stakeholders, or a lawless wasteland with a venal elite, is all down to how its institutions develop.

If they’re “inclusive” – applied to everybody equally, as Britain’s broadly are – rule of law and economic growth happen as a natural consequence, because everybody’s got a stake in things getting better. If institutions are “extractive”, sucking power out of the hands of the public to serve an empowered minority – as in much of Africa and Asia – the pie never gets larger, and all you get is a gaggle of guys in sunglasses seeking an ever-greater share of an ever-shrinking pie.

In the second case, even revolutions rarely change things for the better, since once the rebels are in the presidential palaces they tend to need extractive institutions to cement their newfound powers.(Hi, Big Men of Africa!) Acemoglu and Robinson use countless examples, both in their book and on their blog – from Argentina’s early success and current basketcase status, to why China will fail in the long term despite its apparent juggernautism today. (That’s something else I agree with: Chinese mercantilism will not lead it to global leadership, the Yuan will not become a reserve currency, and it will all end in tears around 2020. Call it a Big Short.)

But there’s no reason for us Brits to feel smug. Because whether countries go one way or the other depends on some very, very small nudges near the beginning. For example, I’ve long thought that the reason for Britain’s dominance of the world in the 19th century was a simple and subtle accident: the fact that British adventurers were allowed to be in business for themselves, rather than acting as agents of the State like the Conquistadores. English Kings and Queens of medieval times were weak, and didn’t really get to order the merchants around…. which led to us developing the boundless potential of big empty places full of promise, like North America and Australia. We weren’t better by nature; we became better thanks to a happy circumstance. There wasn’t anything deliberate or insightful about it, but Britain nudged itself in the right direction around 1600, and became perhaps the most inclusive and successful nation that ever has, or ever will, exist.

Fuzzy-thinking Labour and Liberal voters (is there any other kind?) will doubtless disagree with my take here. After all, doesn’t “inclusivity” sound more like the all-are-equal dream of the Left, and “extractive” sound like fat cats getting rich off the back of the masses?

But this is down to what (I feel) is the great misunderstanding of the Left: life isn’t a zero-sum game. Nor should it be. There is not a fixed amount of work to be shared out among workers (the false reasoning behind France’s 35-hr workweek), nor a set volume of wealth that must be divided equally (the apparent belief of Britain’s grab-it-all public sector.) Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of outcome. In an inclusive system, anyone can start a business … but not everybody will prosper from it. (If the outcomes are guaranteed, there’s no reason to work hard at anything.) Some fail, some succeed, the markets allocate capital accordingly, and the system pushes itself upward. In the capitalist system, an “inclusive” system, the pie gets bigger.

It’s why Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Castro, the Kims, and champagne-swilling charlatans like Marx were wrong. It’s why the worst of British leaders, like Blair and Brown, were wrong. It’s why today’s woolly-minded lefties like “Gogglehead Ed” Miliband are wrong. But of course, plenty of people like the comfort their wrong views provide… like Britain’s wrongheaded public sector. We won’t get rid of the scourge of leftism for a while – but in the long run, it hasn’t a chance.

Retail customer experience: it’s a hard sell

Rapide’s Yiannis Maos has a somewhat unique take on retail customer experience: every time he goes to his favourite shop he wants a different one. (Experience, that is. Not shop.) He blogs:

“When walking into an independent shop, restaurant or hotel, straight away you notice something – “this is like nothing I have seen before”. That’s because you haven’t. One of the things I love about them is that every time you visit you get a different experience.

I applaud Maos for wanting constant variety and diversity in his life. (After all, I’m in the same boat. Life’s a journey where you choose your own pitstops, and I believe there should be constant action. It’s why I’ve trekked across deserts and jumped from planes a hundred times, why I’ve worked in six countries and haven’t had a “proper” job in over a decade. If I walk down the street and fewer than three bullets get fired at me, I find it hard to stay awake.)

But the reality of business is that most people don’t. An inconsistent experience, however positive, remains inconsistent. There’ll be no brand perceptions carried across locations, no shared values for people to talk about. Like it or not, a huge part of customer experience comes down to getting what you expect, even if the quality’s lower than what’s available. The mustard-coloured pants that arrived in your mailbox are great if you like mustard-coloured pants (amazingly, some do) – but if you ordered a quality pair of black 501s, your out-of-box-experience will be somewhat suboptimal.

An example comes to mind of a UK brand called Southern Fried Chicken. The chicken’s probably okay if you like that sort of thing. But after years of immoderate franchising where storeholders weren’t even held to a common set of colours and logotypes, the brand equity is in effect… zero. Even though it’s entirely possible that every visitor, to every store with a Southern Fried Chicken sign in the window, receives a perfectly good experience.

And – if you’re the chainstore’s shareholders – a different experience each time means no brand values get carried through. Which means there’ll be no net gain on word-of-mouth marketing, no multiplier on the P/E ratio, no saleable value in the business beyond that of the individual stores. An explosion of experiences isn’t manageable or growable. And because customers like different things, you’ll be running your losses and cutting your winners too often.

Individuality doesn’t scale.

Which might make you think I’m cheerleading for frozen-faced script-reading big-box chainstores. I’m not. When I’m barrelling down a US Interstate I make a point of always pulling off to a street five minutes away, where the Mom ‘n Pop restaurants are. Time and again I’ve had stunning burritos, homecooked ribs, tasty burgers a thousand times better than anywhere with a golden arch over the door.

And that’s what I think Maos is really trying to get across here: whatever it is, customer experience should be authentic.

I’m not sure he actively dislikes the Costa Coffees and Tescos of this world – it’s possible he’s even shopped in them. What he dislikes is the all-too-common inauthenticity of them: the boring repetition of a standard script, the “Your call is important to us” barefaced lie of IVR. The presentation of something as fresh and original that’s not.

This, I think, is our common ground: good customer experience has a human voice, and speaks with genuine warmth and honesty. Whether you’re in the depths of generica or Mo’s Solo Diner on the wrong side of the tracks. And there, at least, we can agree.

 

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Twinings TV campaign: so wrong it’s not even funny

What on earth do the Twinings folk think they’re doing? Their latest commercial’s completely out in Adland.

Now, these are beautiful ads (there are three of them). And I’m all for showcasing new songwriting or singing talent. (Life can be hard for those who warble and strum, so if any young creative can snare a big brand to license her cover versions to, all well and good.) But the marketing team at Twinings need to be tied to a tree and slapped repeatedly about the head with a drawstring pouch filled with wet teabags.

These ads aren’t just wrong for the brand. They are fractally wrong*.

Take Twining’s previous campaigns featuring Stephen Fry. The great man’s not my cup of – well, y’know – but his plummy Englishness perfectly complemented a no-nonsense, down-to-earth brand with a pleasant sense of humour. The writing was brilliant, with Fry complaining how long it’d taken traditional Twinings (it opened London’s first tea shop in the 1700s) to get into the new-agey fruit teas that appeal to a younger (and predominantly female) demographic. Best of all, the ads sold the product, not just the brand. I’d never bought Twinings before Fry got involved, but pretty soon after my hand strayed a shelf down in the supermarket.

These ads, however, are “artsy”. Art for art’s sake, not because it does the right thing for the brand. And they’re always obvious. They happen when an art director sees a particular visual treatment leafing through awards annuals, and decides to use it in her next campaign, no matter what. It’s why you regularly see ads for totally different products with similar artistic treatments… and why no French TV spot ever features anything more than happy children and brightly coloured balloons. (Bit of a navel-gazing market, French-language TV.)

But think about a tea drinker. Not the most creatively rip-roaring individual, is he? Probably older, a bit traditional, might even believe the Daily Mail represents the voice of Middle England. I dare you to show this ad to any tea advocatenot the people who drink it in the office or on the building site, but the 20% of tea drinkers who buy 80% of all tea. And ask if they think that’s a refreshing representation of their brand.

The only reaction you’ll get will be, “Er?”

It’s WI members in Bournemouth and retired doctors in Tunbridge Wells who build a brand like this, not questionably literate 20somethings working out of an excitingly-painted repurposed warehouse in East London. You can’t drive sales with ads that appeal only to people in Shoreditch.

(The oddest thing is that these ads come from AMV/BBDO, and David Abbott (the ‘A’ of AMV) absolutely personified the intelligent tea drinker. No sense of their own heritage, young admen today. If you haven’t heard of David Abbott, think of Economist headlines. But I digress.)

There are, horrifyingly, other executions. I haven’t seen the one with the girl rowing across a stormy ocean (apparently a metaphor for life’s ups and downs) but my girlfriend has, and thought it was for sanitary towels. (Well, at least she got the stormy reference. Now that’s what I call “assisted recall.”)

These ads will doubtless win awards; that’s the awards game – make something beautiful. But they’re not good ads.

You tie the Twinings marketers who approved this to a tree, and I’ll bring the kettle.

* Wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. Zoom in on any part of this advertising strategy, and you will find messages just as wrong as the entire advertising strategy.

Things you don’t see every day

 Something I’ve never seen in ten years as a Londoner: a fully-laden gravel & sandbags open-bed cargo train, with open-platform steering wheel and everything, going through a Tube station! Of course, I knew such things must exist – it may be twenty storeys beneath the streets but it’s still a railway – but it just felt weird, seeing heavy industrial equipment moving through the clean-tech, electrically operated, sanitised cool hiss of the Jubilee Line.