All posts by Paul Wood

Ugly Babies and Hungry Beasts

I’m reading Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull at the moment.

It’s fantastic, the best book on working in a creative environment I’ve ever read, and I’ve read literally some.

The whole book is fantastic, but one chapter in particular stands out.

It is a chapter about finding balance.

Balance between the need to keep a team busy, yet allow them the space to come up with new ideas.

Catmull uses two analogies to describe the struggle that many organisations go through.

The first is the hungry beast.

The hungry beast wants stuff happening all of the time.

When there is a team of people employed, the hungry beast insists that they are engaged in productive work all of the time.

You wouldn’t want a team of paid staff sitting idle for very long.

Ugly babies are new ideas.

They’ve just been born, and like a lot of babies, they’re ugly.

They are ideas that are different to anything that has come before.

The seem strange, different, sometimes alien.

But they often grow into not-so-ugly adults.

So they need protecting.

New ideas and the need for 100% productivity are not opposites.

But they do upset each-other’s balance.

An organisation that concentrates on ‘feeding the hungry beast’ is likely to be productive, but it also eats ugly babies; killing the new ideas that are the future of the company.

An organisation full of ugly babies will be full of new ideas, and some will become organisation changing.

But the time spent nurturing ugly babies leaves the beast pretty hungry.

Catmull suggests that the success of an organisation rests on its’ ability to strike a balance between feeding the beast and protecting and nurturing ugly babies.

Or to translate – keeping the business producing a successful output whilst continuing to develop and explore new ideas and ways of working.

A business that ignores one or the other will either eat itself, or fade into obscurity.

This needn’t just apply to creative organisations either.

Take Ford and Toyota.

Ford was famed for its production line.

The production line would roll all hours of the day, producing vehicles at all times and stopping for nothing.

Toyota took another approach, it developed a production line that anyone could  stop if they spotted a problem.

It was a new way of working, and it meant that Toyota enjoyed periods of producing what some would argue were the most reliable vehicles in the market.

Ford, on the other hand, had to grapple with the effort of always remaining productive.

Both systems produced good results, although Toyota arguably nurtured the better ugly babies.

Its’ production system now has a huge following (lean manufacturing) and they launched the genre-defining hybrid Prius.

If Toyota hadn’t found the balance between protecting ugly babies and continuing to feed the hungry beast, it would simply have become another manufacturing company, facing exactly the same issues as Ford and potentially missing the opportunity to develop something new.

Catmull finishes the chapter by reciting his (and my) favourite quotation from a Pixar film.

At the end of Ratatouille, food critic Anton Ego delivers a review of Gusteau’s Restaurant.

Anton Ego summarises better than I ever could the importance of protecting new ideas:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement.

We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

Here is Anton Ego delivering his review in this great scene:

Fake it until you become it

Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist.

In 2012 she delivered a TEDTalk that has since had over 15 million views online.

As of December 2013, Cuddy’s talk ranked as the fifth most watched TEDTalk ever.

When she was 19 Cuddy was involved in a serious car accident.

She was thrown from the car and sustained life-changing head injuries.

Waking up in hospital she learned that she had been withdrawn from college and that her IQ had dropped by two standard deviations.

Having always identified herself as being smart this was especially tough news to take.

Despite her efforts colleges would not take her back.

Doctors advised that she should focus on something else.

Left with the thought that her own identity had been taken from her, she felt completely powerless.

Determined not to give up and accept second best she began working on a way around it.

She worked a lot and got lucky and eventually graduated from college.

Then she was able to convince her Doctoral Adviser, Susan Fiske to take her on at Princeton.

As part of her first year at Princeton, she was due to deliver a talk.

Despite gaining her place at Princeton, Cuddy felt she was an impostor who was not meant to be there.

The night before her first year talk she decided that the risk of being found out the next day was too great and she informed Fiske of her decision to quit.

Not content with Cuddy’s decision, Fiske told her to fake it.

She told Cuddy to do every talk that she ever gets asked to do.

No matter how terrified she is.

No matter how paralysed by the fear she is.

No matter how many out-of-body experiences she has.

She must fake it.

But one day she will have a moment when she realises she is doing it.

She will become the thing that she was faking.

Years passed by and Cuddy delivered and ‘faked’ it until she found herself at Harvard.

One day at the end of her first year at Harvard a student entered her office.

The student said “I am not supposed to be here”.

At that moment Cuddy realised that she had become what she thought she had been faking.

She also realised that the student was meant to be there.

Cuddy told that student to go and fake it.

Fake it until you become it.

Standing still

Update: Since this post was published I have written up these notes in more detail on the website.

I overheard a conversation between two web people a while ago.

One (a web developer) was explaining a tricky situation.

A client had called with news that a button on their website had broken.

The client wanted it fixed.

Elaborating further, the client explained that they had not ‘touched’ the website in the entire time (1 year) that it had been live.

Therefore it was not their fault it had broken.

The developer then explained that they too had not touched the website in that time period – and neither had anybody else.

This leaves two questions:

  1. Why was the button on the website broken?
  2. Whose fault was it that it had broken?

The answer would prove important because it would be the difference between the developer fixing it for free or the client having to pay to have the work carried out.

So how does something change on a website that hasn’t been touched?

It doesn’t.

The website hasn’t changed at all.

The code has stayed exactly the same as the day it went live.

It has remained in a constant state.

But the rest of the world hasn’t.

In the space of a year a lot has changed.

Including web browsers.

Since January 2012 Google has launched somewhere in the region of 12 new versions of Chrome.

Mozilla’s Firefox was on version 10 in 2012, it is now on version 24.

Even Internet Explorer has had a Windows 8 flavoured overhaul.

So the website hasn’t changed at all.

But everything else has.

The website that worked on Chrome 17, or Firefox 10 or Internet Explorer 9 doesn’t necessarily work on their modern day equivalents.

A website can only be built to the standards of the day it goes live.

So who’s fault is it that the button broke?

The answer is no-one.

The website just stood still for too long.

When everything around you is moving forwards, standing still is as good as moving backwards.

Thinking about it

I used to work at a large institution.

My role afforded me the right to meet with the person in charge of the website to find out what they did.

During one such encounter we discussed the upcoming launch of a new website.

Being privileged, I was allowed to see the ‘work-in-progress’ version of the website.

Whilst reviewing the article the person in-charge proudly explained how the first three links in the navigation of the site were; ‘central to the user journey and had taken a matter of 6 months to decide upon’.

That’s a long time to choose what to put in your website navigation.

That’s so long that eventually you have to ask; what is going to be more damaging, rushing out the incorrect new navigation or leaving the crappy old website live for an extra 6 months?

I’d wager that the crappy old website (and believe me, it was crappy) was doing them significantly more damage.

So why do institutions labour so hard over these decisions?

The web isn’t ever in a state of ‘final form’.

If you make a website live and it doesn’t work you can make changes relatively quickly and easily.

In the days of print there was a need to think carefully before you gave the printer instruction to complete the job.

There was no going back.

But the internet isn’t like that.

It is progressive.

You can change things.

The Marketing Director of a large company once told me that the best websites don’t change, they evolve.

It’s true.

When was the last time Amazon completely redesigned its website?


It redesigns features.

Never the entire site.

It evolves.

If Amazon makes a change live and then sales suffer, they just go back and make a new change live in its place.

This could have been the case with the website I was looking at.

Work out the best navigation option your have in a matter of days / weeks.

Make it live.

Watch what happens.

React to the findings.

That is a luxury the web affords you, don’t waste it by thinking too hard.

Doing and being

A few years ago I was speaking with a friend.

At the time he was preparing to save some money for an upcoming plan.

In order to do so he had accepted that he needed to work hard in a job he wasn’t particularly fussed about.

Naturally the conversation moved onto ways he could increase his income without changing his current situation.

It just so happens that he is an incredible artist.

Only a week prior to our conversation I had been admiring some of his artwork.

Watercolour paintings of idyllic English country settings.

The kind of thing that would hang inoffensively in most conservative, middle-class households.

“Why don’t you sell your paintings?” I said.

“But I am not an artist” he said.

And there is the difference between types of people in the world.

There are people who do things in order to be something.

Then there are people (like my friend) who have to be something before they can do it.

My friend had limited his outlook by deciding that in order to sell paintings he must be ‘an artist’.

Except there is no such thing as ‘an artist’, there are just people who do art.

My friend does art, he could quite easily sell it and call himself an artist.

But he didn’t see it like that.

He thought of it as a job.

In order to sell art you have to be an artist.

You had to be that thing in order to do it.

Which is the correct way to do things?

My friend went on to achieve his goal and now enjoys a very successful career.

Who am I to argue with that?

But then again, what better way to become something than to do it first?

Want to be a manager in your company?

Why not try managing people, then you will become a manager.

Sometimes the best way to be something is to do it first.

Explicit and implicit search

Go to Google and search for “restaurant”.

Chances are that a number of the results are local to you.

This is the result that I get:

Restaurant Search

The third organic result is for

How can that be?

I searched for “restaurant” – not “restaurant Witney”.

This is as a result of implicit search.

In the past, search engines have typically worked like this:

The user searches for a keyword – for example “restaurant Witney”.

The search engine then returns a set of results based on what was searched for.

There are now two things that happen in search.

Explicit search and implicit search.

The old way was explicit.

The search engine user would explicitly state what they were looking for.

Implicit is the stuff that the user does not consciously provide.

It can be their location.

The device they are on.

Their search history.

All of the things that Google knows about the searcher that the searcher has not explicitly provided.

The combination of explicit and implicit search is starting to fundamentally change the way we use search engines (and in particular, Google).

Back to the example search above.

I am sitting in an office in Witney, Oxfordshire.

I carried out an explicit search for the keyword “restaurant” on Google.

To have a local restaurant rank number three for such a broad term was previously unheard of.

But when we consider implicit search, the term “restaurant” no longer just means what it explicitly says.

Google has used my implicit search details to show me results that it thinks I want to see.

Despite making no conscious effort to provide this information, Google knows where I am.

That is implicit search and it means that the keyword is no longer at the centre of the search.

It means that a local restaurant can appear in a vastly elevated position for an ultra competitive search term.

It means that measuring rankings is a wild goose chase (more than it was already).

I might be seeing one restaurant, you may be seeing something completely different.

The result of this is that the keyword research model of SEO is going to have to adapt.

Planning and analysis is going to have to rely more heavily on the data gleaned from analytical tools.

Implicit search is also going to bring online results more in-line with offline domination.

If a brand has 100 physical shops across the country and another has only one, the large brand is potentially 100 times more likely to be in the localised search results thanks to implicit search – regardless of who has the better website.

Implicit search means that it is not all about what you say but more about who you are.


This post was inspired by this video from Will Critchlow and Tom Anthony at Distilled:

Twitter, the BBC and fast news

Apparently Twitter is a popular source of breaking news.

When something happens whitenesses grab their phones and tweet.

Probably before they call 999.

As soon as the tweet is sent, it is live.

Viewable by anyone, anywhere in the world.

A few carefully placed hashtags and the tweet can cause quite the storm.

It is certainly a delicious prospect for news junkies everywhere.

Except there is one major flaw.

Trustworthy news sources and Twitter have one key difference: the editor.

When you buy a newspaper you hand over some money in exchange.

The money you hand over suggests that the newspaper has value.

The value can be found in the editor.

The role of the editor is to maintain standards, check accuracy and cherry-pick the news that is relevant to the audience.

Twitter on the other hand is unedited.

That means that there are no set standards, no checks of accuracy and no-one is cherry-picking the news that is relevant to the audience.

There are two depressing things that result from all of this:

1. For every accurate example of citizen reporting on Twitter there are hundreds (if not thousands) of inaccurate tweets.

2. Cunning PR professionals can very easily inject their own spin on an event in the name of diverting attention to their own agenda.

Both of these options are crap for the consumer.

That is why users follow the Twitter accounts of news organisations.

These news organisations ply their trade away from Twitter.

I like to think of their Twitter accounts as embassies in a chaotic foreign land.

The BBC Breaking News Twitter account has over 6 million followers.

That’s 6 million people who crave fast news that is accurate.

The fact that it is the BBC means that fast is not the emphasis.

Having spent some time in a BBC newsroom, one thing I learned was that the editor would rather hold-off on breaking a news item until they knew it was accurate.

The followers on Twitter know that.

They know that their news may be slightly slower, but it will be accurate.

The BBC will never specialise in fast news at the expense of accuracy.

Twitter does, and will continue to do the opposite.

Twitter is a popular source of breaking news.

It isn’t a popular source of accurate news.

*Update – 19/07/2013

The BBC has just published a piece on its new Breaking News Tool (BNT).

It is a tool that allows journalists to publish breaking news.

Note the fact that the BBC BNT is platform agnostic.

Also note that “the BNT [allows] journalists to publish a single accurate breaking news line”.

The word “accurate” is the key there.

Twitter for all

I attended Marketing Week Live last week (26/06/2013).

The first presentation was by a man who works for Twitter.

He was a big fan of Twitter.

Engage this.

Content that.

You name it, he had a cliché for it.

One of his big success stories was that of Oreo.

During the Superbowl 2012 was a power cut.

As you’d expect, the lights went out.

Being night-time, it was dark.

Within half an hour Oreo had tweeted:

“You can still dunk in the dark” – accompanied by a picture of an Oreo cookie in the dark.

Very good, they managed to turn that around quite quickly.

To date it has had more than 15,000 retweets and so is officially a success story.

Is it going to help them sell more Oreo cookies? You be the judge.

At the end of the sales pitch talk was a short Q&A session.

One plucky audience member asked this:

You have spoken about how big brands have used Twitter to successfully market themselves…

Can it work for a small company? Something like a local concrete laying company?

After stringing some words together in no discernible order the man from Twitter concluded by sitting firmly on the fence.

In effect, he tried his best to not say “no”.

So in effect, he was saying “yes”.

There’s a challenge for you.

Market a local concrete company on Twitter.

Ok, so there will probably be a smart-arse who makes something go viral – like a blog about strange things you can do with concrete.

But that isn’t going to sell the stuff, it will just make teenagers laugh.

And it can only be done once, it’s not an industry changer.

So there is the problem with social media marketing.

It can and does work from time to time.

But there is a majority group of marketeers who are too obsessed with it.

They feel that it is simply ridiculous to think that it won’t work in some scenarios.

This attitude rubs off on many businesses who begin to question whether they should have a Twitter account.

The man from Twitter did nothing to fix this problem.

He knew that Twitter is perhaps not the tool of choice for a local concrete company.

But he couldn’t bring himself to admit it.

Sometimes it’s ok to say ‘no, it probably won’t work’.

Sometimes you have to admit, Twitter is not for all.

How to get people to queue

People don’t queue at bars.

They linger.

The bar becomes a flat structure where the only way to signal your turn is to make eye contact with the bar tender.

When the bar is busy, this tactic can prove to be thirsty work.

People with large personalities tend to get served quicker than those who are less imposing.

Despite the injustice of the whole system, people will not form a conventional queue.

So, if this was a marketing problem here is the brief:

How do you stop punters either A. leaving or B. fighting each other as a result of the frustration that comes from trying to get a drink at a busy bar?

The obvious route to go down would be to increase the speed at which you serve drinks.

Although this could help, you are putting yourself into a game that you cannot control.

If the bar gets especially busy you may become overwhelmed and end up missing someone out.

Or what if the beer runs out and you need to change the barrel?

Counting the change that the local who lives next door gives you is an unforeseen burdon.

You see, the speed at which people are served once the bar tender gets to them is not the problem.

So to answer the brief we need to find the real problem.

If people end up leaving or fighting the biggest effect to the bar owner will be loss of revenue.

All of the time your customers spend leaving and fighting is time that they cannot spend giving you money in exchange for drinks.

That is where the genius of a beer festival I attended last week comes in.

Each stall selling beer would not accept cash.

Instead, thirsty punters were required to purchase beer tokens at a separate kiosk.

People don’t queue at bars, but they do at a kiosk.

This meant that an orderly queue was formed at the kiosk whilst each bar could concentrate on serving drinks only.

The beer festival answered the true brief.

How do you continue to take money in exchange for drinks during periods of extreme busyness at a drinking establishment?

The owners of the beer festival spotted the true problem and then they played a game in which they could control the odds and win.

That is creativity.

Turning a problem into a solution.

Getting drunk people to form an orderly queue to give you money.

Brand share vs. market growth in e-commerce

There are two types of advertising that a brand can do:

Brand share or market growth.

If you are the market leader you will often want to do market growth advertising.

Ie. your aim is to grow the size of your market.

If you are not the market leader you will want to do brand share advertising.

Ie. growing your share of the market that already exists.

To carry out a market growth strategy when you are not the market leader can be a fruitless exercise.

To prove why, let’s for the sake of argument say that Coca-Cola has 75% share of the cola market whilst Pepsi controls the remaining 25%.

Market growth vs brand share

This is why it would be a silly idea for Pepsi to focus on a market growth strategy:

Market growth advertising

The grey area represents how the market has grown (the circle is now bigger) after a market growth advertising strategy.

Although Pepsi has gained some new customers and grown as a result (light-grey), Coca-Cola has grown by three times the amount (dark-grey).

The correct approach for Pepsi to take is to practice brand share marketing:

Brand share marketing strategy

Using a brand share strategy, Pepsi is able to take customers away from Coca-Cola – not only do they gain ground but their competition loses some share.

To be a non-market leader and to grow the market is to hand new customers to your market leading rivals and can be the precursor to downfall.

That is why kitchen towel advertisers don’t convince you that you need kitchen towel, they instead tell you why their brand of kitchen towel is much more absorbant than any other brands available.

Using this thinking in e-commerce

This style of thinking doesn’t (or shouldn’t) just apply to advertising, it should be used in other forms of marketing.

An e-commerce website should not be solely focussed on convincing its visitors that they need to buy its product.

It should instead be telling its visitors why they should buy the product from them instead of their rivals. Their rival will often be the likes of Amazon and Ebay – both have market leading credentials.

If a small e-commerce website does a fantastic job of providing exciting information about a product but does not do a good job of giving reasons to buy from them instead of their rivals it is too easy for the customer to default to the market leader to fulfil the purchase.

Reasons can include:

  • Price
  • Security
  • Speed of service
  • Quality of service
  • Familiarity

The trick of the small e-commerce site is to convince the website visitor that what they offer is better than their (often bigger) rivals.

The small e-commerce website must identify a game that their market leading rival is not playing and then win that game.

If you are too good at getting people interested in buying the product (market growth) but are not very good at selling yourself as the place to buy (brand share) you will be handing customers to your rivals.

Sadly, much of the battle is lost on price when it comes to e-commerce, but customers can be swayed.

A good brand share strategy should focus on shouting about simple promises that can be kept.

Customers should understand that you guarantee next day delivery.

They should understand that you are officially endorsed by the product maker to supply their best products.

Amazon makes it hard for customers to speak to a real person: you can guarantee that it is very easy to speak to a real person.

The brand share strategy that you offer depends on who you are.

The important thing is that you put most of your energy into telling people reasons to buy from you instead of your rivals.

Take from the e-commerce market that already exists, don’t get hung up on growing it.