Shipped in 2018

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back from the rush of the day-to-day and really look at the bigger picture of what you do in order to take stock. So every year around this time I write a sort of review of what I’ve been up to work-wise as a thinking-out-loud way of doing this. I think I mentioned in the last two reviews what a strange and disconcerting year that they had both been and with everything going on, this year has proved to be even more bonkers. Working for yourself always carries with it a relatively high level of uncertainty but as we go into 2019, that uncertainty feels more present than ever. And in a number of ways 2018 has been one of my most challenging years. Nonetheless, I’ve been fortunate in that this year has seen a succession of challenging but fascinating projects through which I’ve continued to learn, develop and adapt. So in no particular order…

  • My biggest project for the year by far was working with the wider leadership team at Vodafone to help them with their transformation to more scaled agile ways of working and to develop the kind of leadership mindset that can more broadly support these ways of thinking and working. Much of this was workshop based, working with the leadership teams at their head office in Paddington and also in the operating companies around Europe. There were 54 days of workshopping, and quite a bit of travel involved but there was also the rare opportunity to work with one organisation over an extended period of time which really gave me the opportunity to get under the skin of how that business thinks and works. It was really challenging but rewarding work and I loved it.
  • It was also a good year for Google Firestarters. We ran seven events including one (for Google’s 20th Anniversary) that brought together the planning and performance marketing strands/audiences for the first time in a session focused on navigating the over-polarised debate around the value of data/technology and that of creativity and brand. Rory Sutherland and Rebecca Burchnall’s talks were personal favourites from that. But we also ran performance marketing events on topics ranging from the Future of Search, to automation, to use of audience signals. And we had some exceptional speakers at our planning Firestarters events on the brilliance and brutalisation of insight, learning from the innovators, and Simon Wardley’s excellent concepts around mapping and technology strategy. I can hardly believe that we’re now moving into the ninth year of Google Firestarters. 
  • Overall, I’ve been doing far more work around agile transformation this year, and that’s taken many forms including an agile transformation consultancy project with a large media owner, agile leadership workshops with companies as diverse as L’Occitane, EY, DFS, Arco, Cancer Research UK, The British Red Cross, Fitflop, Octopus investments, a series of webinars for Centrica and Axa, and latterly a rapid prototyping session at Asda in Leeds and facilitating an innovation day for the Post Office.
  • I’d like to do more conference speaking next year but this year there was a talk at the Google Agency Summit, and also talks at Sainsbury’s and at Mediacom’s transformation week. 
  • Digital marketing capability is the other area in which my work is focused, and this year I worked with teams at Ferrero in Luxembourg, Barilla in Milan, McCormick in Baltimore, a public body in Bahrain, did several fast-track training sessions and ran workshops for General Mills which are continuing into next year.
  • I was fortunate to work with the lovely folk at AAR group on a couple of fascinating research projects this year, the output of which were two reports. The first, on evolving agency/client models, looked at the rapidly changing dynamics of how client marketing teams are working with their agency partners (in some ways building on the work that I did for the IPA in 2017 on the future of agencies). The second was a really interesting look at the innovation partnership landscape in the UK and beyond which I think was something of a first. 
  • I also worked with a couple of agencies this year on projects to help define their proposition, and to think about more agile ways of working with their clients
  • This year was the sixth year of me running Econsultancy’s Digital Shift trends service which meant another four reports and eight webinars. 
  • This was also (unbelievably) the eighth year of my weekly newsletter which saw another 42 episodes. Weekly Fish Food is simply a round up of the most useful/fascinating/interesting/intriguing/funny things that I’ve seen in the week but the subscriber base keeps growing and is now almost 3,000 so I guess people like it.
  • It was a crazy year work-wise, but I did (just about) manage to keep writing, and there were 85 blog posts here (actually the same as last year), and another 15 over on the agile business blog. Blogging is still something that I get huge value from

So 2018 has been another very busy work year, and one in which I’ve learned loads, for which I’m extremely grateful. But what didn’t work out so well? Well, once again I seem to have failed to really carve out time to explore, read, think, and write. So again, I’m going to try and focus on that more next year. I need to look after myself better, and keep more time for that. Some stuff outside of work this year (most notably my Mum suffering a bad fall from which it’s taken months to recover) has sucked up a lot of time so I’m hoping that I can manage things a bit better next year. And there’s a few projects this year that have really developed my thinking around some of the things I’ve been working around for years (like how companies manage change in the modern world) so I’d like to dedicate more time to that. As I said at the beginning, the environment we’re in in this country (and perhaps the world in general) feels more uncertain than ever which is something I worry about a lot, but I continue to be grateful to smart friends and good clients, and for all the learning the past year has given me. Long may that continue.

Post of the Month – November 2018 – The Vote

Post of the Month – November 2018 – Nominations


It’s time to open nominations for Post of the Month. So if there is a post that you’ve read over the past month that you thought was particularly good, please do nominate it in the comments below or direct. As soon as I have a good number on the shortlist I’ll stick them up for a vote, but as always I have a few starting nominations which are:

Adding Value, by Adding Values by Ben Terrett

A Rocker’s Guide to Management by Ian Leslie

It’s time for employers to realise that work will never be more important than our children by Amelia Torode

Dear White Men, We Need You by Imali Hettiarachchi

Please do add to these nominations with your own.

Google Firestarters 30: The Brilliance and Brutalisation of Insight


Last Wednesday we had a properly fascinating Google Firestarters for the planning and strategy community, tackling a much discussed but perhaps often misunderstood theme – insight. We had three brilliant, and brilliantly different, speakers who all took different takes on the theme.

Rob Campbell, EMEA Head of Strategy at R/GA (and ex W & K Shanghai and Deutsch LA), kicked us off by saying that insights matter because people matter, so perhaps the real question we need to ask is why do we have so much bad work out there? Poor work happens when we become lazy, and look for the convenient answer rather than the real directional insight – too many observations, too much generalisation, too much desk-based judgement and not enough getting out in the world. He spoke of a great insight being like looking for the dirty little secret, and the value of conflicting people’s views rather than always trying to get them on your side. He talked of relevance and resonance (and not just the former). He talked about how insight should inspire, and not dictate. He talked about missed opportunity – like the Boaty McBoatface episode where a competition to name the new National Environmental Research Council vessel operated by the British Antarctic Survey resulted in the NERC ignoring the result of the poll and naming the ship the RRS Sir David Attenborough. What a missed moment, he said, to create a creative platform that could spread knowledge of the work of the NERC and the threat of climate change. He spoke of (using a rather good Yoda analogy) the danger of planners always wanting to be the smartest person in the room and celebrating their intellectual shrewdness rather than the effectiveness of the output. It almost feels like an injustice writing it up in this way because the talk was delivered in a way that only Rob can (lots of passion and a healthy bit of swearing) but it was a brilliantly astute and powerful talk.


Dr Helen Edwards, Marketing Week columnist and founder of PassionBrand, structured her talk around answering three key questions on whether we over-rate insights, under-define them, and can even work around them. We certainly rate them, she said – witness the growth of insight consultancies, the inclusion of an insight box on every creative brief, and yet many innovations or breakthroughs (like the iPad, Yakult) have arrived without leveraging an ‘insight’. Sir Tim Clark who oversaw the spectacular turnaround of Emirates airline never commissioned a piece of research. The turnaround was instead based on the principle of bringing little luxuries to economy passengers in multiple small ways like footrests (the idea for which came from the attentiveness of cabin crew to customer behaviour). There’s a lot to be said, said Helen for proximity, and weaving a ‘close web of understanding’ to create a well crafted campaign (she used GE’s great recruitment campaign which increased applications to the company by 800% as an example) rather than always needing a single point of insight. Helen decried the kind of vague platitudes and generalisations that can often pass for insights (‘when my hair looks good I feel good’), saying that we need to work harder to define what a great insight is (like ‘little secrets hidden beneath the surface’ or ‘something that is wierd-normal’). Her working definition is:

‘A revelatory breakthrough in your understanding of people’s lives that directs you to new ways in which to serve your customers’

The four key areas that make up a great insight therefore, are that it should be revelatory (it needs to tell you something non-obvious), it should be directive (obvious what to do, can support not just comms but product and UX), it should be about them not us (avoid retro-fitting an insight because it’s convenient), and it should be currently unaddressed and therefore a ‘new way’ to serve customers better (she referenced Pampers work that led to the design of a new nappy to help babies sleep through the night). Finally, Helen’s provocation was that we can actually work around insights if we need to (through the collision of consumer observation/proximity/web of understanding and category/culture/academia.

Mark Pollard from Mighty Jungle flew in from NYC to join us and gave a wonderfully creative talk that was half performance, half wisdom-bombing. When Andrea Pirlo played soccer in America he described it as ‘A lot of running, too little play’. We spend too much time, said Mark chasing (money, self-respect) and we’re in danger of becoming too myopic. Insights are gossip and gossip helps us survive, but you don’t take all gossip seriously. People take insights seriously because they take themselves too seriously. Yet insights can change us and reinforce us, give new meaning to ideas that are new or that have been with us for a long time. They can, he said, give better words to hunches and new words to things we’ve never contemplated. They can open doors, offer common ground. They can be either historically new or psychologically new. They can take us to the edge of our domain, which can take time.

Like the structure of an idea a good insight combines things that don’t usually belong together. Like the statement ‘I don’t feel accomplished enough to be bald’. Something that has truth at its heart and yet is a new way of expressing the idea. What would it look like if you originated a point of view that agreed or disagreed with that thought?Good insights can create stress and tension. Look for the opportunities where you can say ‘people believe x but y is true’.


Mark’s talk was full of fun, quirkiness but also depth of understanding and wisdom, and it was a brilliantly complementary build on Rob and Helen’s talks.

My thanks as ever to Google for hosting, to all those that cam along on the night, and to Scriberia for visualising the talks in their inimitable way. You can see the full Scriberia visualisation here. As we move into planning for 2019 Firestarters, I’m keen to get input into subjects or themes that you think we should tackle next year. Firestarters has been going now for over seven years and it’s been a fascinating discourse on the evolution and future of the ad and media industry but it’s always been an ongoing conversation with our community.