Pharrell & The Republic Of Content

Back when I first started attending search conferences you would often hear people saying “content is king” or some variation of the same phrase: on that I remember repeating quite a lot was “conversation is king, content’s just something to talk about”.

However it struck me recently that the metaphor of a king was rather misguided as it suggests that one single piece of content will rule all others. Or, in other words, that it’s possible for a brand to create one piece of content and then sit back and count the winnings. Instead, increasingly, it seems obvious to me that we actually live in a republic of content where power and influence is available to just about anyone.

So, on Facebook you might end up looking at photos of a friend’s new child, taking a Buzzfeed quiz to decided where you should live or read  Guardian article about how the NSA are using social networks to monitor what people are doing. And, to use 2014′s buzz-phrase of choice, when all of this content is ‘native’ it really doesn’t matter whether it’s branded or not, it only matters whether someone is doing something that stops them interacting with your brand.

Ben Thompson summed this up brilliantly a while back:

attention is a zero sum game; every minute spent in Snapchat or LINE or WhatsApp is a minute not spent in Twitter or Facebook or Instagram.

To which we could add ‘or giving you an opportunity to sell to them’.

This was brought home to me again today when I saw the 24 hour video that has been created for Pharrell Williams’ track Happy. It is essentially made up of over 300 individual videos, each of them set in Los Angeles and each of them essentially mimicking the original video, which saw  and they feature Pharrell and lots of other people dancing and singing on a street, with a cast of hundreds that includes ballroom dancers, skateboarders, Magic Johnson, Steve Carrell, Jamie Foxx & Odd Future. The ‘standard’ video is essentially a Best Of for the 24 hour version.


And that’s basically it.

Pointing out that Noel Gallagher is wrong about something isn’t exactly an Olympic sport but, when he said that ‘no-one watches videos any-more‘ he rather missed the point. People rarely watch shit videos anymore.

But videos like Pharrell’s Happy marathon, or Arcade Fire’s mash-up of video and Google Maps, the Beastie Boys’ comedy epicBob Dylan’s multi-channel karaoke or Danger Mouse’s visual extravaganza can actually command even more attention that ever.

It might seem crazy that anyone would make a 24-hour video for a song that lasts a fraction of that time but the film, which is what it really is, is absolutely delightful. It’s a great track for a start*; charming, full of life and innocent.

And the videos, each of which feature little snapshots of people enjoying themselves, is much the same, though I do wish they’d flown out the Northern Soul girl for it**. In many ways it reminds me of the movies Swingers & In Search Of A Midnight Kiss in that, it is, essentially, a love letter to LA.


When someone can spend a whole day watching almost endless variations on a 4-minute pop video, what exactly are you going to do? Because the king is dead, vive la République!

*So’s the movie it’s taken from; don’t let the fact that it’s supposedly for kids put you off.
**Maybe they did, did you really think I’d watched the whole thing?
*** Here’s the whole 24 hours.


Suite For Ma Dukes – Stakes Is High (De La Soul Cover)

ma duke

This, as my friends back in Dublin would say, is for the day that’s in it.

De La Soul were the band that helped me truly fall in love with hip hop. 3 Feet High & Rising is a stone-cold classic. But then so are quite a few of their other work, including Stakes Is High, produced by the beat genius who was J Dilla.

This cover of that amazing track is taken from a fund-raising concert where Dilla’s amazing output was interpreted by an orchestra and a few of his old accomplices including, in the case of Stakes Is High, Posdnous of De La Soul (one of my favourite rappers, ever) and Talib Kweli.

You can see and hear the emotion in the crowd and on the stage and when the strings really lay into the sample of Ahmad Jamal’s Swahililand the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Every time.

The Stakes Is High cover is an amazing version of an amazing song, and a fitting tribute to Dilla’s amazing talents and, of course, De La Soul’s fantastic output.

And so, as I wait for my free donwload link to arrive (and hope it will work when it arrives), I leave you with another charity tribute to Dilla (this time from Phife of A Tribe Called Quest) and an absolutely amazing radio show from just after he died. Peace.


Be The Ad Break


There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.

Ty Webb (Chevy Chase), Caddyshack

There are many forces in the universe, and they aren’t all encapsulated in cult comedy from the early 80s. One such force is the rising battle between consumer attention and advertisers. Whilst reports of the death of TV have been greatly exaggerated (there will undoubtedly be a few over the next few days to celebrate the arrival of the 2nd series of House of Cards), what is true is that the attention of viewers is increasingly hard to hold.

To be honest, we’ve always known that ad breaks are the time when people go to the loo, make a cup of tea or just walk around so as to avoid getting cramp, but now they have even more ways to avoid watching the ads. If they’re not on Facebook or Twitter they could just fast-forward through them on their DVR. How then to get people to pay attention?

Recently there has been a trend of owning the entire ad-break: this isn’t new, advertisers like Nike, T-Mobile &  Honda have long known the benefit of creating epic ads that fill an entire break. But this new variation of that tactic is slightly different. Essentially it involves weaving one brand through an otherwise normal mix of ads.

DHL were the first company I heard of doing this. Basically their van appears in every other ad in the break that they top & tail. It’s cute, very slick advertising, but not really something I think people would necessarily watch rather than making the tea/tweeting/fast forwarding.

Channel 4 did something similar during their Comedy Gala in 2011. In this instance the brand doing the weaving wasn’t an advertiser so much as the advertisee. I’m guessing that this was a way of Channel 4 getting premium rates for the ads, which is fair as, in this instance, the allure of seeing what people like Jimmy Carr would do to an ad is probably strong enough to fight off the collective ADHD for a few minutes at least.

And then, just the other day, Lego (my favourite brand more or less) recreated an entire ad break out of bricks to promote the launch of their new movie. It includes Lego versions of Vinnie Jones and Lenny Henry. How could it get any better? Not only would people have been unlikely to want to look away during his, a whole heap of people who weren’t even there have decided to watch a video of it since.

Of course Lego are well versed in what brands need to do to gain and keep attention in the modern world, and highlighted that again here: becoming a publisher doesn’t just mean throwing men from outer space or creative native ads. Content that people want to watch can still take place in an ad break, so long as it’s not one that sets off 1.5 million kettles.


Mobile Is Dead, Long Live Mobile

Last month the mobile devices came very close to overtaking PCs & laptops as as the dominant access points for the internet in Australia; one would imagine that mobile will take that majority position this month or next. According to Nielsen, that switch has already taken place in the US.

I would imagine that these pieces of news will result in much wailing and gnashing of teeth, probably whilst quoting Mary Meeker’s famous gap between attention and ad spend, about why mobile isn’t getting a big enough slice of media dollars. Essentially many people will be arguing that time spent with media should be a proxy for media spend. If that’s the argument used, then it never will close the gap and rightly so.

A lot of people spend a lot of time using toilet paper, should we be advising brands to put their messages where the sun don’t shine? I don’t think so.

So, what will help dollars become more mobile?

Firstly, a recognition that the answer to every brief might not involve an ad. Reading much of the trade press the standard response to any new tech innovation which involves a screen seems to be trying to work out when it will come with pre-rolls. The digital advertising industry shot itself in the foot when it jumped on click through rates as a success metric and it’s repeating that same mistake by desperately trying to work out how many banner ads we can plaster on mobile devices.

Secondly, we need to plan around audiences and their needs and behaviours, not just which screen they happen to be facing at any particular time. By doing this we will unlock the creative potential of smartphones and tablets to act as bridges between the real world and the internet, to deliver brand utility and entertainment and, ultimately, to drive the business growth we should be worrying about more than what percentage of ad budgets happen to be spent on mobile ads.

Finally, we should look at the last two and a half decades of the web and try to learn from our mistakes. I’ve mentioned one already, but another one that strikes me is the feeling that just because something can be done it should be, particularly when it comes to data and targeting.

It seems as if the recent industry panics around EU & US regulations and legislation on cookies weren’t enough of a wake-up call based on conversations I’ve had recently: any number of new targeting solutions are being hawked about on the basis that they’re not illegal, from app sniffing to bypassing device limitations to push messages. The fact that such acts might be inappropriate, un-ethical or, more basically, simply bad PR waiting to happen, doesn’t seem to occur to some of the companies pinning their hopes, and our clients’ reputations, on such tactics.

The mobile revolution has only just begun, and it’s still far from clear what it will mean for any of us in marketing (though those wanting some good guesses would be wise to read the two Bens, Evans and Thompson). But what’s for certain is that we spend too much more time worrying about why ad dollars are or aren’t spent in any particular channel, we won’t be concentrating on how we can use these incredible new devices to bring creativity into the 21st Century.


International Sport Is A Bad Joke


And lo, it has come to pass that we have to rely on multinational corporations to bring some sort of moral dimension to events designed to promote and celebrate human diversity.

As Google’s homepage reminds us all today, the Olympic Charter states:

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Which is easy to forget considering that the Winter Olympics is about to kick off in a country where this sort of behaviour is, more or less, accepted and ignored.

Does anyone need me to point out the irony of the fact that the Olympic Games originated in ancient Greece? Still, at least we have the beautiful game, football. Oh, maybe not.

Although the 2012 Olympics eventually seemed to rise above the petty greed, corruption and general horror that tend to stick to most modern international sporting events, one has to ask whether we wouldn’t be better off abandoning the World Cup and Olympics until we’re able to remember why the hell they started in the first place.

Obviously that won’t happen, so whilst I wish all the brilliant sports-people taking part in Sochi well, I plan to do the only thing I can really do to show my feelings by refusing to take any notice of any part of it.


You Have To Read This Book

If you have even the vaguest interest in the world around you I would imagine that you have some sort of view on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, or tragedy to use a more appropriate word.

If you are descended from Anglo-Saxon/European stock, I would imagine that you broadly believe that the Holocaust required a safety zone for the Jewish people. But you may well also believe that subsequent treatment of the Palestinian people leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth. Particularly if you drink Soda Stream.

What can’t be denied that this is an incredibly complex and spectacularly emotional subject, with words like apartheid, concentration camps and boycott thrown around. Which is why I would recommend that anyone with a real interest in the nub of the situation read a recently released book called My Promised Land.


The book is an unashamedly personal history of the modern state of Israel, written by one of Israel’s leading journalists, Ari Shavit. He traces the progression from the Zionist dream in the late 19th Century to the realities of this divided country in the first decade of the 21st Century, through a succession of beautifully recounted personal histories.

Many of these stories are directly related to his own family, from the account of his great-grandfather, the Rt. Hon. Herbert Bentwich, an Anglo-Jeiwsh grandee who led an expedition to then Palestine in 1897, to interviews with his friend, the Palestinian lawyer who believes that Israel is destined to fail.

Whilst Shavit is a liberal in some areas, including his long-standing belief that the occupied territories are a moral, political and historical disaster, he also argues strongly for the necessity of Israel’s existence and the danger of Iran. His brutally focussed dissection of the fundamental contradictions that lie at the heart of Israel’s birth and early years, and his impassioned description of the follies that have littered its more recent history, make for compelling reading.

I doubt that anyone who has strong opinions on the rights or wrongs of this epic global tragedy will have their mind changed by Shavit’s writings, but I would still recommend that anyone, of any political or idealogical persuasion should read it.

After all, in a region consumed with so much rash rage and anger, it surely can’t hurt to stop and think for a bit?


I Hate Videos


Whatever you may think of his music, and I am a massive fan who lost faith in them, it’s hard to deny that Noel Gallagher is one of the most intelligent and funniest musicians out there. His music may be dull but he rarely is.

As if to highlight these two facts some bright spark has collated the best commentary from a DVD collection of all of Oasis’ videos and it makes for hugely entertaining videos. If you haven’t seen it yet I can’t recommend highly it highly enough. I’ve watched it about 5 times now and it still makes me laugh.

Whilst his proclamation that no-one watches videos any more is as mistaken* as his views on hip-hop at Glastonbury, the rest of it is funny, honest and true. Some of my favourite lines include:

I look like…Columbo

Is that how easy this is? You just go and randomly suggest nonsense and people go and film it?

The missus wouldn’t let you do a video like that now would she?

Look how pissed I am there. That’s me really pissed.

It is a good song to jump up and down to, drunk.

That wasn’t an actual record player by the way and that’s not a real clown.

Do you want me to..stare at you like a…serial killer?

This is fucking nonsense

Look at the size of Bonehead’s shirt, that’s…insane

Is that Phil Mitchell?

If you need four guys to walk around in slow motion…we were the best at that.

So there’s a death in the video, that’s nice.

If anyone’s listening to this at home you’d probably be advised to go and mow the garden because this goes on for ages. And ages.

They are really ill-fitting suits aren’t they?

Robbie Williams based his entire…career on this song.

Is that a man with legs made of sausages?!

Why didn’t somebody…stop me at that point and say you need to go on a holiday?

That’s supposed to be a space-ship taking off, it looks like a load of scaffolding sinking.

Can we listen to this with the sound down?

Walking and playing is basically what (we) do. And standing still. And look bored.

I fucking hate this next tune, I really fucking hate it.

That last comment is followed by a sigh of such disgust that it really had to be heard to be believed. Just like Karl Pilkington was always the best thing about Ricky Gervais’ radio shows so it seems that the best things about Oasis’ videos is the man who starred in them all slagging them off.

*The video of him talking about videos has already notched up nearly 225,000 views whilst the likes of Sy, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga would probably have something to say about whether or not anyone watches videos any more.


On Canvas, Communities & Commerciality


Hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing. Particularly when the person blessed with it is speaking from the sidelines of an event, having passively observed, rather than being stuck in the action.

I say that because I am very aware that it is very easy to pick holes in failed projects when the projects in question were conceived, set-up and run by other people. Because I know that it’s far easier to criticise than to create. And because I don’t want to sound like a bad version of Valleywag.

But, having said all of that, is it really any surprise that Canvas is to close? For those who don’t know what Canvas is, or was, it was set-up by Christopher Poole (founder of the infamous message-board 4chan) and was going to be:

the most exciting and interesting community for real-time creativity on the Internet

According to a very thoughtful post by Poole about the site’s failure (and that of the app they tried to spin out of it):

It may seem surprising that a seemingly successful product could fail, but it happens all the time. Although we arguably found product/market fit, we couldn’t quite crack the business side of things.

None of this is particularly revelatory and it has to be said that both Poole and his investors have written about the experience in a very open, honest and humble way. But a couple of things strike me.

1: There are limited ways to make money online, particularly with communities (the factor that investor Fred Wilson pulled out in his original post): you can sell advertising designed to reach the members of the community (Facebook), you can create a community designed to sell things to each other and take a cut (Etsy) or you can charge people to be a member of the community (I can’t actually think of an example).

These broadly match the three models of physical goods, advertising and SaaS that Ben Thompson pulled out in a recent post. And Canvas was never an obvious example of any of these.

2: Poole had no background of creating successful businesses so I am not sure why he was entrusted with $3.6 million. I realise that many successful entrepreneurs are also first-timers (though actually most of them are older than the myth of the 20-something genius) but Poole had singularly failed to make a fortune out of his existing site 4chan – probably because it’s entirely uncensored and has a (not undeserved) unsavoury reputation.

It seems that he had a change of heart when it came to Canvas, saying:

We approached a few companies and no one was buying what we were selling…The nut that was interesting was the community, but it wasn’t really clear what exactly this community would do for their business

It’s quite a striking admission from this defender of internet freedoms that he tried to sell a community (presumably for the data it held) but, again, at least he’s being honest. But I’m not sure why anyone ever thought that this community would be of interest.

I realise that people questioned the likes of Twitter and Facebook when they started, but Facebook was following in the footsteps of Friendster and MySpace, so there was obvious commercial opportunity, whilst Twitter was simply more accessible – the barrier to usage were and are low, whereas wanting to remix random images was surely always going to be a niche interest.

At the end of the day, we can probably see the seeds of failure in Poole’s own words.

Firstly, they spent half of the $3.6 million they had raised trying to flog the dead horse that was Canvas before trying to pivot when they released a drawing game called DrawQuest: what I find amazing is that they actually raised the bulk of their funding after they had been live for a year, when I would have thought that the seeds of their failure should have been visible, but I guess not.

Secondly, when they did try to pivot they thought that they had created a business model by allowing people to buy virtual paintbrushes but, as TechCrunch explained:

[They] found that selling paint brushes in a drawing app is a lot harder than selling extra lives in Candy Crush. There’s just not the same emotional ‘I can’t play if I don’t pay’ urgency. “I definitely have a new appreciation for game designers,” [Poole] tells me.

Maybe they should have used some of the money to hire some.

Rather than just highlighting faulure I think it’s useful to look at what other companies have done right.

Paint, another app, has pivoted to creating physical products (as the Thomson post above highlights) whilst WhatsApp, which was founded on the mantra of ‘no ads, no games, no gimmicks’ has built up an audience of 430 million active users and now handles almost as many messages a day as the entire global SMS system.

The scary thing is that the most insightful comment on this whole episode came from a man pretending to be a dinosaur way back when Wilson announced the investment.


I really hope that Poole does bounce-back, because he’s obviously an intelligent and honest man – two virtues not necessarily widely associated with the West Coast tech-scene. And I hope that Wilson backs him again. But I just hope that it’s something that has even a slight hope of success.


Play It Cool Trig

Sad news that Roger Lloyd Pack, known to millions as Trigger in Only Fools And Horses, has passed away at the age of just 69. I’ll always remember him because the famous “Play it cool Trig” scene was one of the first I remember seeing in an online video.

It was the days before YouTube and I was working in an internet cafe in Kings Cross; I’d never really watched Only Fools And Horses as a kid and when someone sent me this (I can’t remember in what format – presumably an actual file, rather than a link, which would have taken-up half the cafe’s bandwidth back in 1999) I couldn’t stop laughing for about 10 minutes.

God knows what the customers thought of this weird English skin-head having hysterics behind the counter. Whatever they thought, he was part of one of the funniest British comedies of the 80s (which got an astonishing 24 million viewers when it returned for a special in 2001) and created a character who became shorthand for a certain type of lovable idiot.

Play it cool Trig, play it cool.


Paid Media Isn’t A Four Letter Word

Some time last year I was having a meeting with a start-up that had just launched in the Australian market. I explained that whilst clients often like to be involved with new and exciting projects, they also want to invest in products and platforms that are, or will be popular with a decent likely life-span. No-one really wants to invest lots of time, energy & money on the next Gowalla.

What, I wanted to know, would this start-up being doing to advertise its product and drive new users.

Well, we don’t believe in paid advertising, we’ll just be using word of mouth.

Cool, I said, I’ll tell our clients not to buy ads with you then.

Although I was joking (kind of) this chat has stuck with me, encapsulating as it did the beliefe that many people seem to have that paying for advertising somehow lessens the purity of your creative message; that it’s a bad thing to do.

I was struck by the same thought just before Christmas when I was judging some awards. I would estimate that something like 25% to 50% of the entries mentioned that the success of their campaign was in spite of the fact that they hadn’t spent any money on paid media. And again, yesterday, I was watching this (otherwise) excellent case study for a Fiat campaign from Germany which seems to boast about spending 0 on media.

Why is this something to be proud of? If your campaign was successful despite spending nothing on media, imagine what could have been achieved if you had done so. From my perspective, it almost feels like not paying for advertising is a sign that the creators aren’t confident in their work; if you haven’t spent money on paid media then expectations will be lower so success is easier to achieve.

As Eaon Pritchard points out in (another) excellent post on branding and promotion:

According to…data the single biggest predictor…of online video sharing is it’s initial distribution. For the best performing videos it’s about 8 views to 1 share. 24 to 1 is the average. So to get sharing, initial seeding/paid support is key.

And this, surely, is the key. Every-time an agency shouts about how they achieved something without paid media, they are essentially saying that they didn’t do their job properly, assuming that their job is to get their client noticed. And when a media platform or owner does this, they are saying that they don’t believe in the model they ask their clients to believe in; a media version of the greater fool theory if you like.

When Google started they were very proud of the fact that their success was built on recommendation and word of mouth. And they should have been. But as they have matured they have come to accept and realise the value of paid advertising. And Apple, surely one of the coolest companies out there (in the eyes of the sort of people who tend to sneer at paid media at least) have long known its value.

As Eaon puts it so succinctly:

Even the greatest, most creative most exciting video if only seen by a few people, wont get many shares. Get it in front of as many as possible.

Unless you don’t actually want anyone to see it, in which case, go right ahead.