Freelance consultant? Why you should take credit cards

Pay online by debit or credit card.Professional services like consulting and copywriting aren’t sectors you’d expect to accept credit cards; you can hardly imagine a sharp-suited ex-McKinsey guy or interim marketing director whipping out a card reader. Or can you?

I’ve recently started taking credit cards through my site Chris does Content, and it’s had a surprising effect. Not so much for longstanding clients on retainer (although they have the option) – but in the first month after setting up card payments I’ve had several clients buy single days of my creative consultancy by card.

Why? I’m guessing three things matter:

To escape the hassles of overseas PO’ing. With the vast majority of consulting-type tradespeople limiting their market to their own country or city, taking cards expands your market with little effort. (The clients who’ve taken it up so far are in France and Taiwan.) I’ve always had an international roster, but not everyone’s lucky enough to have a background and contacts in Europe and Asia; taking cards exposes you to that broader audience.

To enable faster response. If someone’s putting me on their credit card, I know they need stuff fast – and if schedule allows I can usually move them to the front of the queue. With basically zero argument to be had over payment cycles, a exchange of emails is all it takes to get things started; how’d you like 2,000 words of SEO’d up copy 24 hours after first contact? Can do.

To take advantage of extreme discounting. I’m currently offering a 25% discount for one-off projects paid for by card, and it seems to benefit both sides – the client gets a competitive price, I get paid in 3-5 days instead of the 60-90 day payment cycles many EU businesses work on.

If you’re on your journey towards being a six figure freelancer, it’s a useful addition to your payment options. Give it a go!

This head’s note to her pupils has gone viral. And it’s wrong.

That’s it, I’ve snapped. Could everyone raving about this head’s letter to her pupils PLEASE try and See The World As It Really Is?

Barrowford letter

Here’s why. The school has numerous advantages in educational terms. Its cachement is wealthier and more homogenous than average (easier to teach). And it has a large intake (resources per child go further). If any school should be at the top of its game, this one should.

Yet it’s rated merely “good” by Ofsted. (Which means “bad” in the nuanced argot of inspections.) Its exam results are BELOW AVERAGE.

Despite having every advantage in the book, this school is not succeeding.

Could that be the real reason its head sends letters like this… to deflect attention from what really matters?

Aside from being poorly written (packed with bad grammar and overlong paragraphs) the letter’s takeaway is that “education doesn’t matter much”. All you have to do is let it all hang out and be yourself. No suggestion you might be able to change yourself for the better. To take control of your own existence and be self-actualised. Where’s the ambition? The drive? The urge to succeed, the celebration of success? Nowhere.

“You’re perfect as you are” might be a nice thing to say to kids, but it’s poor prep for life.

See the World as it Really Is, people. This school sucks, and it’s because of the namby-pamby fuzzy-thinking liberal-leftie attitudes displayed by this so-called teacher.

 

Adding a second dimension: the Nolan Chart

500px-Nolan-chart.svgThe Nolan chart gives form to what happened in the EU elections… and why those you’d think of as right of centre, like me, aren’t happy with its swing rightwards.

Politics isn’t a single Left-Right axis; it’s a boston box, with both small-state and big-state variants of Left and Right. I’m a hardcore libertarian (NOT “liberal”), at the extreme top-right: favouring high personal freedom and high economic freedom. On the left side, the bottom left would be socialism and the top left traditional liberalism.

The UK’s big three parties each occupy one quadrant: Lib Dems top left, Cons in the top right, and Labour bottom left. As nominally centrist parties, each is in the approx centre of its quadrant, with Ed Miliband’s lot maybe slightly further southwest and David Cameron a bit further northeast.

UKIP (and the other far-right parties that won on Sunday) often call themselves libertarian, but are actually pretty low on personal freedoms. (As we’d find out if they exercised real power.) So all belong at the bottom right, many of them at the extreme southeast corner.

Seen in this context, Nigel Farage’s success is easy to understand: he simply saw the open marketspace and moved into it. Politics, like life, can often be understood by the dynamics of marketing.

This mailing to a cold list got 19% response. Here’s how I did it.

It might not look much. But this one-page letter to a cold list (part of my 100 Days, 100 Grand project) returned an incredible response rate… between ten and twenty times what a snail mail campaign usually delivers. (And hundreds of times what you’d expect from anything beginning with “e-“.)

One director called it “the best piece of direct mail [he’d] received since starting the agency“.

As an exercise in navel-gazing, here’s the text of the letter… with my notes on why I think it worked.

Chris's letter to a self-built database of inbound marketing agencies.

The letter itself. Note extreme mailmerge fields.

Opening para: making friends

Nobody writes proper letters any more, do they? The kind you open without a click. Scribble notes in the margins. And delete with a crumple. When you do get a proper letter, you notice it.

Ah, the kick-off. It breaks most of today’s rules: no upfront offer, no call-to-action. It’s a preamble.

But… it interests you, doesn’t it? A straightforward truth: you don’t get personal letters any more. A real person wrote this, thinks the reader. And I’m guessing most of them got past this para without aiming it into the circular file. Takeout: before establishing your offer, first establish you’re human.

Body copy: setting the scene

I noticed «COMPANY». Because you're sky-high in SEO for "«CUSTOMPARA1»". (As I am for "London copywriter".) I'm writing in the hope you'll notice me. Because your "«CUSTOMPARA2»" approach syncs with what I do: custom copy for content marketers.

This para’s where I swing in the big guns: extreme personalisation in the mailmerge fields. (With a parenthetical riff on my own SEO rank.)

«CUSTOMPARA1» is the search phrase I used to build my list: the first few pages of Google results are, by definition, hot prospects. While «CUSTOMPARA2» is the agency’s (they were all agencies) approach to its work lifted from its website. (It’s usually a punchy portmanteau term like attract-convert-repeat.) So we’ve established rapport: I know what they do, and I took some effort to find out.

Callout 1

Add chrisdoescontent.com to your list of freelancers...

Now here’s the first part of the offer, centred and highlighted as if with a yellow pen. It only took two paras to get here, and it jumps off the page – most importantly, it tells the reader what they’ve got to do. Something a surprising number of mailings forget.

The support act…

Why use me? Because I've done a lot of what you want. My stuff combines fresh ideas (I'm an indie novelist on the side) with experience gained at top-10 ad agencies (200+ campaigns and 1000+ articles across Asia and Europe.) All backstopped by research methods from a top-1% MBA that keep the insights solid. That's why clients use me for years and stay friends forever. More at chrisdoescontent.com/what.

Once your reader’s interested you need to give them a reason to stick around, so I added the backup. Hard numbers and facts are what work here; your readers are getting down to business, and the touchy-feeliness of the intro is over. (Well, almost.) Yes, I do what it says on the tin. Now questions are forming, it’s also time for a link.

… with backing dancers

While I haven't worked for clients on your roster, like «CUSTOMPARA3» or «CUSTOMPARA4», I have created campaigns and programmes for big names like «CUSTOMPARA5». I'm mostly B2B, in tech /media /telecoms, finance, healthcare, automotive and aerospace. Know-how that may be of use to you: hit the ground running and all that...

Into the mailmerge forest again. The data here took ages to extract. <<3>> and <<4>> are the names of actual clients on the prospect’s roster. There’s no fast way to build metadata like this; until The Semantic Web hits its stride (at least another decade) trawling through websites by hand is the only option.

And <<CUSTOMPARA5>> is a handpicked selection of my clients – clients which match as closely as possible the sectors the prospect operates in. I’m moving in closer with every sentence.

...but it's pricey, right? Nope. Try £450 for a 1,000wd+ research paper or consideration content, less for snacks and snippets elsewhere on the nurturing pathway. Or £225 for a 500wd listicle with metadata. And turnaround times that can drop to 24 hours if your deadline's hot.

It’s time for go in for the kill. Content marketing – the point of this mailing – is price-sensitive, and while I try not to compete on price, it’s a reality of this space. I simply worked out what I need to work up a killer article (half a day min) and priced it in.

You can lean on me for teasers, pages, posts, blogs... Buzzfeeds, featurettes, infographics, and newsletters... microsites and Case Studies and White Papers. The whole kit and caboodle, with metas, tags and links whomped up and ready to go. I've worked on platforms from WordPress to HubSpot to Uberflip to SlideShare, in formats as diverse as PPC, ePub, and XML. I'm also conversant with 12 CMSs, HTML5 and CSS. See chrisdoescontent.com/portfolio for the exhibit.

Notice I used a couple of buzzwords in the previous para – listicle, metadata – to show I’ve got a grip on social and content marketing? They were warmups.

In this most verbose paragraph in the letter, I list the applications and formats I think they work with, and will expect me to know. It’s filler, but solid filler.

Callout 2

...and get your first content marketing brief answered for FREE

Again highlighted, the second of the 2 callouts communicates my offer without anyone needing to read the body copy. (As any good piece of marketing should.)

Closing para and call-to-action

But there's one thing you don't get: hassle. Contact me with a brief; I'll write you a sample you can use at no cost. I'm on 07876 635340 or chris@chrisworth.com; current availability's about 9 days/mth. Let's talk.

It’s time to sign off. All the boxes are ticked here: offer front and centre, with a note that subtly communicates further proofs (I’m available, but not too available, ‘cos that’d mean I’m no good.) Hammered home with a homily.

Do I need to mention the letter was personally signed? My wrist’s still sore.

Footer block

PS. You can download a PDF of this letter from chrisdoescontent.com/?attachment_id=«xxxx». (All right, proper letters don't work for everything. Let me know if you went all TL;DR on me.)

Every sales letter needs a PS. This one adds a neat trick: I uploaded each individual letter (not the template) to my site, and the reader can download the exact letter he received by clicking a unique URL. I finish the way all sales letters should: with a chuckle that gets the reader’s head nodding.

How could it be improved?

envelopesBeing self-critical is a good trait for any copywriter, so here’s what I think I did wrong.

First, I should have put the offer in the postscript somehow. People still scan down to a PS before they get into the body copy. And using the too long; didn’t read euphemism was borderline; while agency bosses are web-savvy, they don’t always speak geek.

Second, the transition between the opening and second paras doesn’t quite hit the mark. I talk about letters being noticed, yet when “I notice them” it’s not because I got a letter. Small stuff, but it’s lapses like these that make tears in a piece of copy’s overall fabric.

Third, the backup in the middle. Lengthwise it works, but I’m divided as to its density. Too much jargon? Am I sounding clever rather than intelligent? On the edge.

But ultimately, this letter worked for me, so you be your own judge. And if you’d like me to do some content marketing for you – or just write you a sales letter or two – contact me here.

New Gabe Rayner short story, “Worked Out”, up at Amazon

workedout_thumbA short story featuring my business consultant action hero, Gabe Rayner, is up at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk for your Kindle.

In “Worked Out“, Rayner’s in the mood for some R&R after a conference in Miami. The miniskirted nymphet beckoning him over gives him some ideas, but they might not be what you’re expecting…

… and if you promise not to tell, the ebook’s also FREE as a download in .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (iBooks) format.

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.

Enough of the dancing, already!

By creating a video of herself dancing around her office at 4am, this girl found a creative and innovative outlet for delivering her resignation letter.

NOT.

The video is overlong, moves too slow, and says nothing of significant importance worth the viewer’s time. But worst of all, it’s yet another example of the laziest trend in advertising: If in doubt, put some dancing in.

Dancing. From big-budget broadcast to web virals, it’s all many of today’s young creatives seem capable of. “Yeah, let’s put some dancing in this one too! We haven’t done dancing for about, oh, one, maybe even two campaigns!” Dear me, kids today. A true race to the bottom, without concern for the most important person of all – your audience. 

I would estimate the standard of creativity required to get a job in a decent ad agency these days is no more than a third of that required twenty years ago. Evidenced by the cooing of her video viewers about how “creative” this girl is.

Look, SHE JUST PLUGGED IN HER FUCKING IPOD AND JIGGED ABOUT FOR A FEW MINUTES. There is precisely ZERO creativity in this work. THIS. IS. NOT. CREATIVITY.

It’s not entirely their fault – agencies these days want content producers and graphics designers. People who execute with craft, but never develop the “ideas gene”. That set of skills that lets them examine a marketing strategy and crash concepts together until they snap into the perfect line and visual that deliver the perfect impression to your audience, rewarding consumers for their time.

The market for copywriters and art directors – people who combine their skills to deliver epic and original concepts – seems smaller these days. But this fucking asskissing cocksucking catch-all of JUST PUT SOME FUCKING DANCING IN AND CALL YOURSELF CREATIVE has got to stop. Kids, STOP. THE. MOTHERFUCKING. DANCING.

 

Simple solutions to complex problems: target the hardcore criminals

The USA’s “black budget” – the part of security spending outside scrutiny, including the NSA’s spy-on-everyone programmes – is now an incredible $59bn. All of it unaccountable with the figure rising each year. There’s a much better way to achieve national security – one that preserves civil liberties for the law-abiding while creating half a million jobs for no net increase in cost. The solution: focus on the actual criminal.

Let’s look at some UK figures first. In England & Wales, a hardcore of 5000 people commit around half of all crime. Raise the set to 100,000, and you’ve basically covered all crime except the odd parking ticket. Assuming the same dynamic applies to the USA, that’s 25,000 people on the Most Dangerous List and half a million on the Watch List.

(The USA locks up a lot of people for life who’d merely be cautioned in the UK, so the actual figures might be higher, but the principle holds.)

The simple solution to this complex problem: for $59bn you could pay over a million people a decent salary to watch one person each.

That’s it: all these new employees do is follow one specific lawbreaker around, day in day out, reporting on what they do and who they’re doing it with. Infringement of civil liberties? These people are known criminals; they’ve already demonstrated their lack of interest in civil society. And the upside – no need to listen in to everyone in the world’s emails and calls – is a far greater prize.

Imagine: the ancient legal principles dating back to the Magna Carta – the right to be free of unreasonable search or seizure, to not be detained without reasonable suspicion – actually coming back into force, regaining the rights we’ve all lost since 9/11.  Big win for the honest citizen.

The cost structure is appealing, too. Many of those 0.5m offenders will be low-risk and nonviolent. (There are plenty of people in jail across the USA because they got caught with a joint at 18 or slept with a girlfriend aged 17.) So watching them like a hawk wouldn’t even be a full-time posting: the odd phone call and app check-in would suffice.

This means the hardcore ones could then be assigned up to a dozen Watchers each: experienced professionals whose sole job it is to stick closer to the offender than their own shadow. There’s an excellent career path for a young Watcher. In your first years on the job, you get Mildred Who Once Took a Bong Hit Near a Window. With a bit of seniority, you get assigned to Fred Who Repeatedly Drives Uninsured. Five years in, you’re into Boris the Bag Snatcher and Mohammed The Hate Preacher. Stay in the job long enough, you might even get the worst of the worst, a tax-and-spend socialist or something. (OK, but you get my point.)

That’s my simple solution: target the people who actually do crime. Civil liberties get respected once again: the lawbreakers earn credits based on how long they’ve stayed on the straight and narrow, giving both watched and Watcher aligned incentives. The jail population shrinks by two-thirds overnight; over a million people return to society within strict limits. It also erases the artificial distinction between criminal and civil law – which in the USA and UK doesn’t really exist in practice anyway, with 1% of the population in jail and white-collar crimes being charged under Terrorism legislation.

We don’t need a secret security apparatus watching our every move, where everyone is a suspect and your thoughts are used against you. We just need to do the sane thing – watch the criminals.

 

 

One Good Muslim

To donate to Help for Heroes, a UK military charity, all you have to do is text HERO to 70900.

To donate to Help for Heroes, a UK military charity, all you have to do is text HERO to 70900.

Here’s an idea. In the wake of a soldier’s murder by Islamic maniacs, two people have been arrested for a heinous crime: Tweeting. I’ve no idea what these two idiots Tweeted – presumably some racist claptrap – but it made me think.

Every day, in thousands of mosques and madrassas across Britain, imported Imams – often non-English-speaking and with no real conception of British society – spout sermons of hate containing the most incendiary anti-Western rhetoric imaginable. Much of it aimed at white people. Burn them, kill them, cut their heads off. The sort of stuff that’d see you down a cop shop before your feet touched the ground. If you said it in an open forum, instead of a semi-public space in a foreign tongue.

Perhaps someone – just one per mosque – could note such things down, translate it into English, make a complaint. Anonymously if necessary.

After all, these are the men providing the toxic narrative that turns under-employed young men into raging jihadis filled with hatred. Taking down the men they see as teachers is the first step towards bringing them productively into British society, instead of forever raging at its fringes. Perhaps they’ll never come all the way in – but that’s ok. One of the truly great things about Britain is the way it’s big enough for a great many cultures to live side-by-side, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And no, this idea isn’t “racist”. If you think it is – I ask: what race is Islam, then?

Is it South Asian? A lot of people in the deserts might dispute that. Is it Arab? I know plenty of Persians who’d take issue there. And there are millions of Muslims in the regions around Russia that gave their name to the term “Caucasian”. Islam isn’t a race, it’s a belief system. And thankfully in the UK we’re allowed to question, criticise, even insult a belief system without falling foul of the law. (There are many belief systems I criticise, including Nazi ideology, socialism, the tooth fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

If you’re a mosque- or madrassa- going Muslim who speaks English, why not familiarise yourself with your local police station’s non-emergency number or its online equivalent today, record accurately any racist comment your Imam makes at his next sermon, and report it once you get outside? Include the name and address of the mosque and the name of the Imam in your complaint, plus the date and approximate time the comment was made.

Is there, in every Mosque in Britain, just one good Muslim who could help?

The trouble with Harris & Hoole

There’s a new chain of coffee shops in town, which I’d normally regard as a major event: I like coffee but limit myself to one cup a day, so it’s got to be a good one.

I recently tried Harris & Hoole‘s London Bridge outpost and it’s exactly what a hip independent coffee shop should be: chalkboard menus, boho chic decor, unbrushed wood and sunny smiles. Even the server was an ideal representation of a Seattle/San Francisco hipster chick, all short hair, snakehips and big geek-glasses. (I thought she was hot, although to complete the vibe she was presumably gay, or at least bi-curious.) Perfect.

And then you taste the coffee.

Oh, dear.

It’s so bad you can taste the Tesco in it.

Yes, Harris & Hoole isn’t independent. It’s a venture by the supermarket giant, and it shows everything that’s gone wrong with Tesco in the last 3-5 years. There’s nothing wrong with a coffee shop owned by a supermarket; I shop at Tesco all the time. But I used to be a fanatical Tesco fan, and now I only go there because it’s nearby. It fell so far, so fast, so obviously that the brand just hollowed itself out.

I stopped loving Tesco about three years ago, when its boardroom cost-cutting showed up too much in the food. Today I buy the basics there, wine, maybe the odd bit of deli, but most of my £70+ weekly spend now goes to Waitrose. (Which I need to get in the car for.) Harris & Hoole illustrates why.

If you launch a coffee shop, it should really be about the coffee. That should be the single thing you concentrate on first, the one thing you don’t subject to salami-slicing on costs; there are lots of coffee shops out there, so the bean’s got to be special. Yet it’s the most characterless, bargain-basement discount filter drip I’ve ever tasted. And – sharing this with Starbuck’s – it wasn’t bloody hot. I know the marketing rationale: keep it cool and they’ll gulp it and get out, faster table-turn. Well, they succeeded: I gulped and got out. Trouble is I won’t be going back.

Oh, Tesco, you came so close. If only you’d put the resources that went into studying the Seattle scene… into the one thing that mattered.

Google AdWords: expect to pay

Root-and-branch marketing across all media. 07876 635340.Google’s AdWords is an amazing business: an intrinsic part of the pricing model is that prices automatically rise to the maximum level the market can support. As a marketer, that means Google isn’t leaving much on the table – what economists call “minimal consumer surplus”.

But there’s a flipside: the maximum the market can pay also means AdWords delivers the lowest utility the market can bear. Unless you stick to the shadows of ultra-rare keywords in undiscovered market space, the service is always priced just below the level where it’s not worth it.

So what does that mean for small marketers like us?

First, it’s that AdWords will be expensive. Eyeball for eyeball, for instance, it’s pricier than a superbowl ad, and much more expensive than local radio. (Radio is always one of the best deals in media, incidentally.) If your market’s restricted by geography, as most consulting-type businesses are, take a look at traditional media: a 5,000-envelope snail mailing may well deliver better results than AdWords. The rule in this space is that “something happens” – a client turns up, a big new booking arrives – about once every thousand customer touches; expect 4-6 projects from your 5,000. Such a mailing will cost north of £3k, so you need each project to be over a grand to make it worthwhile.

(Of course, most consulting work comes from repeat business; find guys you get along really well with and they’ll still be paying you a decade later. That’s where the value is; a £3k mailing that brings in £3k of billable hours isn’t a breakeven, it’s an investment. Because one of those guys will like you enough to use you again.)

But AdWords still has value for a small marketer. Namely that it’s easy to control. You can create, change, and test ad executions in two shakes; dial your budget up or down; experiment with different times of day or sets of keywords. But because you can get started on a budget of a few pennies a day, many marketers make the Big Mistake of thinking it’s a cheap option.

The trick to making it function is to work backwards. Let’s take some figures.

Let’s say you’re in my business: a jobbing copywriter. I’ve got some built-in advantages – a decade in the world’s top agencies gives me some heft, while parallel skills with buzzwords like predictive analytics and information architecture position me a few rungs up from the average ex-agency type. But by contrast, being a lone wolf by nature means I’m hopeless at the schmoozing and networking that leads to new client contacts. While working at a higher pay grade, I’m fishing in a smaller social pond.

So key is to know what you’re looking for. A “good client”, for me, is a midsized company (up to 250 people or £50m in turnover) doing something interesting but complex. (Often you find these in the technology or financial sectors.) These tend to be companies where internal marketing resources are stretched, or who can’t afford the £80K+ cost of a senior marketing director… giving them an incentive to make good use of outside resources. (With the absolute minimum cost of employing a junior professional being £30k+, they can afford a much more senior person on a part-time basis, especially one who doesn’t need a desk.)

So what does it take to win a £30k client with Google Adwords? Answer: at least £5,000. That’s a budget that puts you in the top few percent of all AdWords spenders.

Of course, you might get lucky. But I’ve done it half a dozen times over the years, and on average, a big new client – the sort who pays a retainer for an agreed set of services month after month for a year plus, a client you can learn and grow with and give ever more value to as the journey progresses –  will cost you £5,000 to acquire and another £5,000 in resources to retain. (The second £5k: we’re talking pitch projects, meet-and-greets, learning curves and outright freebies. I shortcut part of that with my free £1000 offer.) That’s £10,000 you need to invest for every new client win.

That’s why most freelancers don’t make any money. They just can’t make the investment.

Let’s look at the figures. My ideal client profile describes perhaps 15,000 companies in the UK, perhaps 50,000 across Europe. That’s surprisingly few in a zone that contains tens of millions of businesses, even given that my capacity is about 4. With half the world’s population using Google, you’re going to waste a lot of clicks and pageviews before any of them stumble across your value proposition. Count on a campaign running for three months before you get a solid sniff.

In that time you’ll have a few thousand clicks and your ads will be shown several million times across Google’s Search and Display networks. It’s all worth it, but you have to make a lot of upfront investment before it pays off.

Because that’s Google’s value: once you get a real lead, it’ll really be a real lead. The gap between someone idly clicking your ad, and actually dialling your number for a chat, is a huge mental commitment. By the time someone’s heard your voice, the odds of them becoming your client are a lot better than 1-in-10. (Once I went a whole year with every single first contact leading to a paid project.)

But on average, count on every new longterm client costing a third of that client’s first-year gross to acquire.

AdWords. It isn’t cheap. But it has coverage. And if you make the investment, it pays off forever.

The simple life

I had a fantastic life in my 20s. I lived in the great cities of Asia and Europe; flew B-class, stayed in Five Stars, built a network of contacts and clients that keep me gainfully employed to this day. The last few years working for myself haven’t been like that. So why don’t I miss it?

The answer comes when I meet people from my past, people still living the expat dream. Not to put too fine a point on it, they’re not candidates for a Greek sculpture. Plump. Soft. Too much hotel food, too many redeye flights. There’s a softness about them that makes them… lacking in something, somehow. Often, their world is narrower than people who lack a passport: they clock up 100,000 Miles and a dozen cities a month, but they stay in the same big-box hotel chains, visit the same expat bars, eat in the same restaurants. Few have the backpacking mindset that started me off on my ten-year journey in the 90s.

Another ten years out, these people look ten years older. Greying. Frownlines. Serious. They’re basically dead people who just haven’t stopped moving yet. Worried about their futures, families, legal matters and pension expectations. Many are in denial.

Whereas my only worry is that I’ll explode under the pressure of my own awesomeness.

Being me is just amazing. I pity the rest of the human population for not being me. I don’t want wealth’s trappings: in fact, I’m getting rid of as many as possible. I don’t want a yacht. A plane. Or even a big house: my little patch of London costs little to run and less to keep clean. What I do want, though, is to remain self-actuated.

Look at what I actually do for a living. I work on a few longterm clients I know well; I add value to property in little chunks; I look after my little pension pot and spread-bet the markets for fun. And, er, that’s about it. It’s all me; I don’t really rely on (and am not beholden to) anyone else. My total costs in life hover around £2k a month and the rest is gravy.

Health, learning, the ability to live in the moment. No real worries in life. That’s wealth.

Is life, perhaps, one long journey towards becoming self-actuated?

Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: take away their votes

According to The Economist, Britain now spends £175bn on welfare, mostly housing benefit and income support. In a country of 30m taxpayers. C’mon guys; every taxpayer paying £6000 a year of someone else’s rent isn’t sustainable.

So here’s another of my simple solutions to complex problems: if you rely principally on government assistance – say two-thirds or more of your household inflow – you don’t get to vote.

My simple solutions are all about making one change, then getting out of the way and letting second-order effects work. (Note they’re simple ideas, not simple to implement.) Let’s take a look at the effect this change would have.

First, the vast bloc of voters whose votes are essentially purchased rather than won are instantly out of the equation. (It wouldn’t be party political, either. Older voters tend Tory; younger claimants towards Labour.) Politicians can form policy with a much longer-term view.

For example, the great pensions problem affecting much of the developed world would disappear in 10-20 years. With upping state pensions no longer a vote-winner, it’d probably be replaced by something contributory and defined-benefit… perhaps not individual accounts, but “notional” accounts that show you how much you’ll get in retirement based on what you pay in. Everyone becomes responsible for their own retirement; these people don’t count as receiving government support, and retain their vote. Simple.

Then there’s welfare. If you want to vote for a party that puts money in your pocket… well, you’ve got to work. It’s the ultimate incentive, to a genuinely concerned citizen, to get a job and make sure their government assistance, if needed, comprises less than two-thirds of their household income. (It’d also make corporations behave better; wage structures are often cynically set to take advantage of availability of housing benefit rather than get workers off it.)

This works because it’s not a black or white policy. Plenty of people are genuine workers, but by circumstance or accident have to rely on a certain amount of help. They’ll continue to get that help. But if they want to affect policy in the most basic way, they have to do some level of meaningful economic activity. The two-thirds level doesn’t even affect that many people; probably less than two million.

And over a decade or two, policy will become less knee-jerk. Without a couple of million of society’s less useful to skew the ballot, the country’s financials will improve sustainably. Policy can be constructed from proper data rather than tabloid lobbying. And the UK will get back to work, driving economic activity from the right source: people’s hard work, not state spending.

It’s so simple. But like all my simple solutions to complex problems… somewhat harder to implement.

Free

This weekend I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time: got rid of all my books.

Well, not all of them. A couple of cherished volumes remain. An edition of Ulysses I was given at 16;  a few textbooks peppered with notes from b-school; rather too many graphic novel trade paperbacks, my guilty pleasure. (If you so much as think Kapow or Biff, I’ll hunt you down; “Sandman” and “100 Bullets” are high art.) But I think I’ll get rid of even those, in time.

Because I’ve completed the transition.

All those word-filled bricks everyone keeps forever – because they’ve owned them since teenhood, or make a shelf look dressed, or plan to read sometime but never get around to – are now boxed up into giveaways.

My literary life’s now entirely digital, and I couldn’t be happier.

My KindleI came late to Kindle, buying a fondlepad only in 2011. But now there’s a hundred volumes on there, including a fair few I owned already and bought again for the convenience, and it’s started me reading again because it’s just so simple. I don’t pay heed to the Booker list or Times Literary Supplement; too new (literature needs time to let the good bits bubble up) and the pop-science works are too bulky when released and out of date when they reach paperback. Business strategy books come and go, and any good review gives you their main ideas; ninety-nine out of a hundred you never need to read and even fewer are worth keeping, while investment texts tend towards thousand-page epics that put too much weight in my backpack. My Kindle is as close as I’ll ever get to an addiction, because…

I’m all about the kilograms.

Minimalists don’t own much. Storing everything I own during a year away took a single lock-up cube a metre and a half along each side. And most of that – eight 50cm cardboard boxes, about four hundred kilos – was bookware, the old fashioned ink-on-paper sort with spines that crease and dogears that take decades to delete themselves.

The photographs I own that use paper as their substrate… fit into a small worn envelope. I haven’t bought a single CD since I came back to the UK early this century; all went onto my hard disk years back. I don’t buy DVDs any more; what’s the point in the era of LoveFilm and NetFlix? (And the 400 or so I bought in more stuff-obsessed times fit into two wallets if you strip away the boxes.)

But books … they were my last holdout. About six hundred of them, masses of fiction and nonfiction amassed over thirty years.

The travel guides went first. In a summer of injury I surfed the globe in DK’s illustrated technicolour instead, and never lost the habit. But they’re gone now. Then textbooks, many on stuff that just interested me at the time: molecular biology, nuclear physics, electronics and nanotechnology and supramolecular chemistry. A step closer to the bestseller lists came the popsci: Gleick and Deutsch and Dawkins, papery chaos reduced to bits and forced into extinction. Then a torrent of penguins: Dickens to Melville and and Burroughs to Pynchon, Shakespeare to Thompson and Wolfe. (Not because I don’t want them, but because I’ve got them in a format without heft or inertia; classics in particular cost pennies in e-book format.) Gibbon was declined, and fell; no element of Euclid had solid reason to remain choate; Plato and Aristotle failed to justify their existence. Old Oxford anthologies – monster kilobricks of two thousand pages apiece, six of them – crumbled into memories flakier than a Don’s potato. MBA Required Readings got skipped; Operations textbooks were surgically removed.

With every handful heaved cartonwards, I felt a little more free.

And I hope this is the way we’re all going.

A state of mind where we can all be free. Footloose and open to opportunities, living lives free of compromise beholden to no-one.

Free of the suffocating paperstuff that weighs us down and anchors us in one place because it creates too much inertia to do anything else.

Too many educated people are in thrall to their libraries, their natural impulses to explore held in check by the gravitational pull of a hundred groaning bookshelves. I’ve seen apartments in this town where every wall is covered and doors only open as far as the stacks huddled behind them allow. Old people yellowing in synchronicity with the foxing on ancient hardbacks: best case = lost in the words they love as their lives trundle towards midnight, worst case = trapped by them and prevented from giving the world beyond a last hurrah. I’ve seen young people already circumscribed by what they own, life choices inexorably narrowed because they’ve got too much stuff to carry around.

Where are they going? To the Sahara. There’s a lot of decent reading in there, and a charity’s willing to take them off my hands. A part of the world where, sadly, too many maniacs with too few ideas are running amok. Men who follow an apocalyptic antithesis of my idea: that only one book matters, and no other knowledge should be allowed.

They burn ancient libraries that give the lie to Africa being a land of oral tradition. They shoot girls in the head for going to school. They contort ancient beliefs into laws that benefit themselves, and rule by terror and blood. These men must be stopped.

Perhaps by throwing a few hundred kilograms of books into the endless desert, a boy who’d otherwise pick up an AK and a headful of hate will pick up a book instead. And step onto another path.

Perhaps today, I’m stopping one bullet from being fired in ten years’ time. And that can only be a good thing.

2012: moments to remember

2012 wasn’t a bumper year for the UK – hitting the third trough of a triple-dipper, socialism and its henchman the Public Sector on the rise  (again), and business and consumer confidence beating their foreheads against the wall sobbing.  But it was an OK year for me.

(Of course, my definition of “ok” is any day I don’t get pushed under a Tube by a maniac or clusterfucked by hordes of slavering zombies. Deep down, I’m a happy person.)

The year went too quickly, of course: something hits the fast-forward button on your life once you pass 25 . I didn’t jump, didn’t do a tri, didn’t go to Krav, yet it seems mere minutes since I did all three regularly. Getting back into them (and a few new sports) is a goal for 2013.

But as for the things that stood out for me in 2012:

  1. e1499e106I fought zombies in an abandoned shopping mall.Thank you, ZED Events, for making it the most atmospheric experience of the year.
  2. IMG_2156I went Mac, after two decades in the PC paradigm. Two things stood out: how painless it was – the only things I had to learn were Illustrator and a few keyboard shortcuts – and how much smoother life is now.A solid-state hard drive, that beautiful Retina screen, and simpler backups all made it a decision that’s added 20% to my productivity.
  3. snapcityIt was a year of spread bet trading. Bringing together my knowledge of business fundamentals, technical analysis, and cognitive biases started to work and I’m now consistently profitable at around 1% a month, albeit from a small pot: that’s => the averaged returns from even the best hedge funds.How? Because I’m doing it on small scales, trading derivatives I know well. I now believe any garage investor can beat any top City manager in percentage terms, if you don’t have outsiders to satisfy.
  4. IMG_2558I had another great odyssey across the southwest USA, driving the “Grand Circle” out from Vegas. And realised that for all my years travelling Asia and Europe, the Mojave and its hinterlands are my favourite part of the world.Perhaps I’ll go there for ever… someday.
  5. My KindleIt was my Year of the Kindle. I can’t remember when I last picked up a paperback, but it wasn’t in 2012. I’m gradually putting my entire library onto that little grey slate, including some big textbooks and anthologies (tip: read them on Retina instead) and don’t expect to ever buy anything between hard covers again.Three large bookshelves of old-world print, soon to disappear from my already uncluttered life.
  6. IMG_3152I learned to climb. And found it as satisfying as skydiving: the way when you’re hanging off a wall leaning towards you, grasping odd-shaped protuberances and distributing your weight for least energy, you have to live entirely in the moment.No matter how bad your week, an hour on something vertical wipes it away. 2013 will be a year of bouldering.
  7. gJQAFbeOEX_galleryAnd of course, the London Olympics happened all around me. I didn’t expect it to matter, but it did. The way strangers smiled; the dreamy playfulness of each day in those two brief weeks in summer; the satisfaction of being a citizen of the host nation and knowing that, yes, we got it right.

In science there were some big discoveries too. With the Higgs Boson, another building block in our understanding of physics clicked into place. At the other end of the scale, the number of extrasolar planets we know about is heading towards 1,000 – with 7 now confirmed as being in their stars’ Goldilocks zones. These planets have ground to stand on, perhaps atmospheres to breathe, liquid water on their surfaces. Perhaps there’s life on them. Perhaps there’s life on all of them. One day, we’ll know.

But the moment that mattered most in 2012?

Rewind to the Olympics. As Mo Farah won the 5,000m, I made to turn down an overloud TV. Clicking the remote did nothing to quell the ecstatic cheering, And then, I realised it wasn’t the TV.

It was a city on its feet outside my window, joy in its heart and fire in its blood, the whole of London cheering as one.

Happy 2013!

Costing the Jack Reacher lifestyle

Jack_Reacher_posterOn the surface, a lot of guys will find the Jack Reacher lifestyle attractive: self-sufficient loner, no ties or responsibilities, just a rugged individualist living life his own way. A fair few of us without many ties to government will empathise. But is it reasonably possible?

For example, I’ve spent a large chunk of my working life overseas and today work for myself;  I file a tax return and maintain an address and that’s about it. Conceivably I could hit the road tomorrow – just me and a laptop – and effectively drop off the grid except for a few client emails and a bank account.

So if your basic driver in life is to be left alone, today’s always-on, everyone’s-connected world makes it possible in principle. But here’s the kicker: Jack doesn’t do Web. He draws his military pension at Western Union and carries, no phone, no laptop, nothing to take advantage of APEX fares on online-only deals with.

So let’s look at it from a more practical angle: what does the Jack Reacher lifestyle cost?

First, let’s recap what we know of Jack from the film. (I haven’t read the books, so to all Reacher fans: apologies if what I say doesn’t reflect the character in print.) Jack makes even the way I travel (a month-long trip into a laptop bag) look like I’ve hired a team of Sherpas and a herd’s-worth of steamer trunks: Jack carries nothing, nada, just the shirt on his back. (And he’s only got one of those).

Wearing the same jeans and shirt every day means they’ll wear out faster, and taking the ass-kicking into account he probably needs to replace them every two months minimum. Let’s say his wardrobe costs are $50/mth. (I’m assuming cheap shoes, which he’ll wear out often.)

Furthermore, Jack travels by bus: without ID it’s the only option open to him. Greyhound discontinued its Discovery Pass a while back, so Jack now needs to pay for each trip separately. Without a phone or web skills, he’ll be buying the most expensive kind of fare – at the station, just before the bus leaves.

So his seat on those glorious obloids of Americana that criss-cross the American continent is probably costing him upwards of $25 every couple of days; sleeping on the bus saves a night’s accommodation of course. Let’s say his bus tickets total $200 a month. That’s a fair chunk out of his pension already.

Next, overnight accommodation. Jack’s a military man, so spending the odd night under the stars counts as fun for him. He’s also one for the ladies – the film has an oddly gratuitous scene early on with the requisite brunette-getting-out-of-bed-topless content – so doesn’t always need to pay for a motel.

However, he’s not the  kind of drifter so funky that rats ask if there’s a window to open. (Remember, the ladies like him.) So he needs a shower at least every 48 hours and a launderette to scrub the blood out of his jeans every, oh, two hours or so.

This is where the costs start to mount: let’s say four motels a week, anything up to 20 a month, and even in the mega-cheap USA that’s a big chunk of change for someone who can’t get the online deals. Even in summertime, when the livin’ is easy and the women are just like the livin’, he’s realistically spending at least $800 a month in beds he’s had to pay for.

Whoa, we’re up to $1050 a month and Jack hasn’t had lunch yet.

Fortunately for Jack, the USA is the world’s premier destination for cheap calories – although how you maintain a Krav-fit body on lard and carbs beats me – so his budget doesn’t need to be too high here. Let’s say he always gets the $3 breakfast special, picks up a Big Mac for 99c, and ends the day with a $10 steak’n’beer at a dive bar to fuel himself for the inevitable fisticuffs outside later. Call it $420 in basic subsistence.

On top of that – surely at least a few of the laydeez that take a shine to him need a drink bought first? Call it $50 a month. (Jack tends not to splurge on a date.)

So technically Jack can survive spending $1520 a month.

But we’re missing a lot of things here. Without even a Wal-Mart bag’s worth of travel gear, he has to use the cheap half-toothbrush and sachets of shampoo available in motels – and many motels charge for such items these days; they sometimes gouge you. (Plenty of mid-to-high-end hotels across the USA have never heard of shower gel.)

So when Jack’s scrubbing other people’s body fluids off his perfectly-defined abs, he’s doing it in the most expensive way imaginable: buying fresh toiletries every day. (Come on, he doesn’t carry spares in his jeans pocket – as anyone who’s “liberated” the odd sachet from a hotel knows, that leads to disaster.) And that can’t be less than $5 a day when you add up disposable razors, decent exfoliant and the odd self-suturing needle. Another $150 in cold hard cash down the plughole.

We’re up to $1670, and that’s just basic necessities.

No second beer for him, no movies, no bowling, no gym membership. Life isn’t worth living! We can assume Jack’s not big on the auteurs, but he must spend something on stuff not strictly needed for continued existence; perhaps $200 a month.

So the absolute minimum needed for a Jack Reacher lifestyle – as spartan as humanely possible – is $1870 a month. While Americans pay a lot less personal tax than us in the UK – all the USA’s financial troubles stem from this, taxing like a small state yet spending like a big one – it’s still the best-case take-home from a salary of over $26,000. And Jack’s on a pension, so our disbelief isn’t willingly suspended yet.

So let’s move onto Jack’s income. In percentage terms a US military pension is one of the best deals out there – index-linked and backed by the State, available to veterans as young as 37. But while Jack’s a retired military policeman, I doubt he completed the 30 years service needed for a full 75% final salary arrangement (does Westpoint count?) and probably isn’t a reservist; you tend to need a permanent address for that.

So his monthly draw is probably lot less than the $35,000 a lucky few might get – and taxes (how does he file, I wonder?) continue to be levied. So let’s stretch a point and say Jack takes “home” about $2000 a month. He always uses money-service offices to draw it, which charge at least 5%, so he’s spending another $100 a month in fees alone. Which makes his income around $1900 a month.

So: it’s a close-run thing – but yes, Jack Reacher can afford his lifestyle on his pension. The question is, could you?

Which, of course, is the ultimate irony. This rugged individualist is entirely reliant on his public sector pension. Because these days, only public sector pensions (the defined-benefit kind still reasonably common in public service, anyway) are index-linked, rising each year with the cost of living. Reacher’s $2000 a month will rise, and keep rising as he gets older. He has to worry about a lot of things… but not about inflation eating away his livelihood.

Which makes people like me – building their own pension pots, doing everything they can to grow a investment worth enough to provide an income in retirement – far bigger risk-takers than our Jack. Nothing’s index-linked in our world, there are no government guarantees or cost of living hikes each year. Far more than Reacher, we private sector people are utterly alone.

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.

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!

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…

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.