Distraction is the mother of invention

I’ve just been planning out a ‘creative writing in business’ workshop. As part of it, I’m going to be sending people out for a slightly random wander round the neighbourhood. That might seem counter-intuitive – people usually think of workshops as being tightly planned and very focussed – but in fact purposeful self-distraction is key to the creative process.

I tend to think of it as letting your subconscious go to work. Whenever I’ve got a creative problem to solve, I start by gathering as much information as I can. That’s a very conscious, rational process. I want to learn as much as I can about whatever it is I’m looking at, and I want to know that I’ve learned it.

Say, for example, I’m coming up with a new name for a car. I’ll find out as much about the car as I can. I’ll try and understand what makes it unique, and what sort of people are going to be driving it. I’ll dig up information about its competitors, too. And I’ll do some more general reading, to help me get to grips with the way people are talking generally.

All that’s very helpful. But it’s only a starting point. I tend to think of it as a creative brief for my subconscious. Once I’ve briefed it, it needs some space and time to go to work. And that’s where the distraction comes in. It’s there to occupy the more superficial parts of my mind, so the deeper bits get all the time and space they need to do the job.

So, I might noodle around on the internet. I might go and make myself a coffee. I might take a stroll round the block, or go for a run. Anything that stops me thinking too directly about the problem tends to work. That’s when I find that the really good ideas tend to pop up.

In fact, that’s how naming a car worked the last time I had to do it. I’d had a couple of days of research, and I’d blasted out some basic name ideas, but none of them were really doing the job. So, I decided to leave it for a bit and cycle home. And that was the best thing I could have done.

The right name popped into my head while I was waiting for some traffic lights to turn green. I didn’t want to forget it, so I called up my voicemail and left myself a reminder of what it was. And then, back home, for a nice relaxed evening knowing that I could head back to the office the next day and know that the job was done!

Writing speech for brands

It struck me just now that the best way of writing for brands is to see your words as speech, not prose.

That came out of thinking about the difference between writing for brands and writing fiction. I’ve always separated them by saying that, when I write for a brand, I’m trying to sound like someone else, and when I write fiction I’m trying to sound like myself.

But in fact, when I’m writing fiction I’m never just talking in my own voice. Stories are built on characters, and characters spend an awful lot of time talking to each other. So, whenever I’m telling a story, I’m actually working hard to sound like several other people at once.

And that’s what made me think that writing dialogue a lot like writing for brands. In both cases, I’m trying to understand and communicate a coherent personality, one that’s entirely separate from my own. And that, I think, is going to be quite a useful insight, both when I’m writing and when I’m teaching writing.

First of all, it’s a reminder that brand communications are more effective when they’re pitched in a more conversational tone of voice. A formal, blandly corporate tone might share information, but it can’t share emotion like speech can. And – of course – emotional engagement is core to any effective piece of brand writing.

And secondly, it’s a reminder that we live in a world where any brand’s audience can very easily go online and start talking back. Any piece of brand writing can start a new conversation, or become part of an ongoing one.

That means, every time I write for a brand, I need to be thinking about what’s already been said about it, how what I write is going to fit into it, and how I’d like people to reply to whatever it is I’ve just said.

Nicholas Negroponte in conversation

Nicholas Negroponte‘s an avuncular man and an incisive thinker. Yesterday I went to see him talk at TechHub in Old Street. I noted some of his comments – they’re in quotes below. I’ve added my own thoughts, too.

1. Going with the dynamic flow

Early in his career, Negroponte realised that ‘the future of computer science is in the applications, not in the science’. Applications release outputs into the wild. Their meaning comes from how they’re actually used, not what they are or what they’re planned to be.

Flipboard‘s a practical example of that. ‘I think Flipboard is more profound than Flipboard understands’. It’s the application of the application, not the application itself, that makes the difference. Success is a dynamic by-product of use, not a static end-product of design.

That fed through into his investment strategy. ‘The idea almost makes no difference. It’s the person, not the idea… time and time again I’ve seen good ideas fail and bad ideas make lots of money’. It’s not what you’ve got but what you can do with it that counts.

2. Learning the children’s new world

In the remoter parts of Peru, Negroponte’s seen his One Laptop Per Child project lead to children teaching their parents how to read. Children are experts in dealing with novelty and hard-wired to learn languages fast. OLPC reverses the traditional parent-child relationship.

‘Many of the kids sleep with their laptops…’ When the laptops break, they’re very reluctant to hand them back for repair. They won’t let go of the broken laptop until the new one is in their other hand. This is symbiosis. The child sees the laptop as a permanent, non-negotiable component of self.

In the western world, ‘I don’t know of any child between six and twenty six who has read a newspaper… (they’ve) abandoned long-form reading. The concept of boredom has gone. If you’re not doing something, your thumb is.’ What technologies have our children fused with? What are they trying to teach us?

3. The politics of OLPC

It’s easier to seed more autocratic countries with laptops. One person can get behind the project and make it happen. I asked him about the problems of dealing with more democratic countries. He defined the difficulty as bureaucracy. ‘In a bureaucracy, if things go wrong you get the blame, and your boss gets the credit’. Risk aversion breaks progress.

OLPC put the Koran on the laptops it sent to Afghanistan. This is the only time that they’ve supplied them with content. Because of this, the Taliban haven’t taken any of the laptops away from the kids. ‘That was purposeful and worked magically’.

There’s ‘very little theft, very little abuse. The worse you get is an older sibling who didn’t get one of the laptops because they’re older than the age group’. I wondered what it would be like to be one of those, trapped in the middle as your juniors become fluent in the new world, and then start teaching your parents how it works.

4. What’s the significance of Social Media?

Social media creates ‘a general feeling of your voice meaning something… it’s heard, it’s meaningful’. Its multiplicity breaks autocracy. Negroponte cited the various Middle Eastern revolutions as examples.

OLPC is a subset of social media. I wondered about the various autocrats pushing laptops out to their children. What did they understand themselves to be doing?

The killer app is other people

I’ve just spent part of the day experimenting with the Zen void that is Color while wandering round London. I found no traces of anyone else in Color’s virtual world; it was like LARPing ‘Waiting for Godot’, only with added futility. I ended up having flashblacks to the beginning of ’28 Days Later’, and getting worried about zombies.

The whole experience made me wonder if Color is in fact a brilliant piece of conceptual sleight of hand, it’s hidden purpose being to remind us that technology means nothing without humanity, and that the ultimate killer app is – and always has been – other people. I for one was profoundly glad to step out of Color’s empty space and into reality which, as ever, has 100% uptake from everything that lives.

The you-ness of business

I don’t often get inspired by by business books, but I have been by 37 Signals’ rather wonderful Rework. They describe it as being about their experience building, running and growing (or not growing) a business.

It’s at once easy to read and very challenging. More importantly, it feels very personal indeed. This book was clearly written by people who’ve lived what they’re writing about, and are now really enjoying sharing it.

In fact, that sense of the personal is one of the book’s key themes, and one that really resonated with me. Rework does a great job of reminding you that you’re in business to be you, and that your success will stand or fall on nothing other than your you-ness.

Pour yourself into your product and everything around your product too: how you sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it. Competitors can never copy the you in your product.

Words to both live and work by, tho’ – if you follow the 37 Signals’ ethos – there can be much less difference between the two than you might think.

No brand’s a hero

For various reasons, the whole narrative branding thing has popped back into my head lately. As someone who’s been intimately involved with brands, worked in feature film development, and written much fiction, it’s something I’ve thought about quite a lot, over the years.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that people tend to want to make the brand they’re working on the hero of its own story. On one level, that’s entirely reasonable. Whether you’re agency side or client side, you’re paid to become unusually obsessed with one particular brand. Because of that, it’s at the centre of your own personal narrative. It’s not surprising that you then want to put it at the centre of the stories people tell themselves about their own lives, too.

But, on another level it’s a complete nonsense. Since when has anyone who isn’t professionally involved with a brand put it at the centre of their own life? Rather, we are ourselves always the heroes of the stories we create about our own lives.

At best, brands are present in those stories as sidekicks, supporting each one of us in clearly defined ways as we go about the complex business of living. At worst, we (quite rightly) scarcely notice or remember them. What brand of washing powder had you used to wash the shirt you were wearing when you asked your beloved to marry you? Who knows? Who cares?

So, I’ve always been much more interested in personal narratives than brand narratives. And I use the term personal very deliberately. That’s because even the word consumer privileges the branded over the personal, defining an individual not by what he or she wants to achieve in life, but by what they consume; by how they interact with brands.

The best way of using narrative techniques to understand brands is to forget about brands entirely. Think about people; think about what they want to achieve in life; think about what motivates them, and what frustrates them. Understand them fully as individuals in their own right.

Only then will you be in a position to ask yourself how your particular brand – the brand that’s at the heart of your working life, that you spend your working days being professionally obsessed by – can help them, or is hindering them. And remember, when you do that, be humble. You’re not dealing with a consumer, who’s defined by brands; you’re dealing with a person, who isn’t.

The Matrix, Experience Channels, and THE WINE PACKAGING OF TOMORROW!!!

Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. He was wrong. In fact, in the future, everyone will be an advert for fifteen minutes. That’s because it’s in the nature of experience channels to allow just about anyone to share their impressions of a particular brand in a way that’s very public, very credible, and thus very good for the brand.

Whenever that happens, I’m reminded of ‘The Matrix’, and in particular the way that the men-in-black security agents possess people. Someone perfectly normal is walking down the street; all of a sudden, they get zapped, turn into a man in black, and start chasing their target; all of a sudden, the chase has moved on, and a rather puzzled citizen is left to be themselves again. When you watch that, you’re not watching fantasy; you’re watching a very astute metaphor for the ad agency of the future.

And now it’s my turn to step into the chase and become an advert, because the rather lovely people at FreshCase have sent me a couple of boxes of Hardys Nottage Hill wine to try out – a Cabernet Shiraz and a Sauvignon. Rather than write about it, I thought I’d make a quick videoblog – so, here’s my own small contribution to their rapidly growing experience channel:


And how’s the FreshCase experience channel coming along? Well, if you google FreshCase then the first page you get balances more formal news stories with a number of bloggers talking about the product. It’s not at Red Bull levels yet, but it is an impressive demonstration of just how impactful a well curated web presence – rather than a website – can be. A whole page of positive mentions from varied sources will always trump one or two search results pointing to a single site, no matter how well placed those results are.

What’s interesting, though, is how FreshCase’s experience channel can develop. It’s doing very well on the blogs, but those rather funky wine boxes haven’t yet metamorphosed into the fully fledged social objects that they could so easily become. As a result, the FreshCase experience channel isn’t yet fully mature; the various film and video sites are still waiting to be populated with content that records the social drinking of FreshCase wine, rather than just the more individual testing of it.

There’s a very interesting opportunity there. I’d look to follow the example of Hugh Macleod’s work with Stormhoek; by getting 100 Dinners going, he created an experience channel based on authentic real world fun, that both generated substantial online content for the brand, and helped a lot of people have a really good time so doing. Oh, and increased sales by five in less than two years!

I wonder what the FreshCase equivalent would be? I’m not quite sure, because I’m not really close enough to the brand to judge. If you put me up against a wall and threatened to shoot me, though, I’d be tempted to think in terms of FreshCase soirees / salons; I’d get some interesting folk along, maybe a little performance of some description, lots of conversation, a FreshCase box on every table, make sure there’s wireless, and let the social media generate itself. And of course I’d run them over a very specific six week period, because that’s how long wine lasts in a FreshCase box.

And in the meantime, I’m off to have another glass of wine. One tip, though – the wine doesn’t breathe as well as it could, precisely because the box is so effectively airtight. That’s not a problem for the white, but we’ve been decanting the red and letting it sit for a bit before drinking. Chin chin!

What is an Experience Channel?

Having introduced the idea of an Experience Channel in a previous post, I thought I’d sketch out what I meant by it in a little more detail. So, a few more thoughts on what exactly I think an Experience Channel is:

Poly communication

In an Experience Channel, communication isn’t one way or two way, but multi-way. Anyone can talk with anyone, whenever they want to. Interaction opportunities are created from as many different kinds of media as possible. Coherence develops from a single theme or set of themes shared across multiple platforms, rather than from use of a single, central content platform.

Three degrees of channel engagement

There are three different ways of engaging with an Experience Channel; as a content creator, a poster or a lurker. Content creators create or add new content. Posters comment on existing material. Lurkers are an audience in the traditional sense; although they could interact if they wanted to, they choose to sit back and watch the Channel develop.

Web presence, not website

An Experience Channel’s front end isn’t really a particular website; it’s a page of search engine results. It does not use a single, exclusive site as a platform. It can be accessed through multiple portals, and exists on multiple sites. Everyone who engages with it is free to pick and choose from these different portals / sites, mixing up their own personal version of the experience Channel.

Evolution through interaction

Experience Channels are in a constant state of evolution. They develop through conversation between content creators and posters. Ideally, regular new content should constantly be triggering new bursts of conversation, to both inspire existing content creators / posters / lurkers, and bring in new ones. As much as possible, evolution should be open and unmoderated – it’s the community that creates and steers the channel, not one single channel owner.

Keeping it real

Experience Channels exist in the offline world too; they’re not just about virtual engagement. Formal and informal events bring together channel members to meet and engage with each other, and share relevant experiences. These experiences are then recorded / talked about online, providing a further basis for Experience Channel evolution.

That’s a very basic definition of a what an Experience Channel is; but why are they useful? What’s an Experience Channel for? Well, some thoughts on that –


Experience Channels facilitate in-depth audience engagement with your brand, organisation, or even just your particular, personal obsession. They make it easier to reach relevant content by making it more pervasive, and they accommodate multiple browsing styles (the random Googler who just wants to check out a website, the committed Tweeter who wants ongoing updates on their iPhone, the blog poster who loves chatting with like minded people, etc).


They make it easy to share rich information about your brand, organisation or whatever in a wide variety of formats. They also ensure that that information doesn’t just come from you; external Experience Channel Content Creators / Posters add to the liveliness and variety of the channel, in effect advocating on your behalf. Lurkers might even help bring new eyes in. They won’t be taking part in the conversation, but they could well be forwarding links to their own online networks.


Constructive conversation is always a good thing. At their best, a fully functioning Experience Channel allows you to support and become a member of a group of committed, creative people who share your obsessions, and are willing to constructively engage with them on an ongoing basis. At a more basic level, they give people who want to talk and share information about your brand / organisation / obsessions the tools to do so.

So, that’s the initial Experience Channel definition. I’ve touched on one below – the Red Bull Experience – but in my next post, I’m going to dig up some more practical examples.

There’s one EC I’m definitely going to include in there; the one built around everyone’s favourite meerkat, Aleksandr Orlov. VCCP have done a superb job there – more on exactly why I think it’s so good when I get a moment to sit down and write about it!

Red Bull gives me wings

I had a bit of an odd experience a couple of weeks back at the Media140 Conference, because Red Bull and an upcoming BBC documentary came together to help me understand exactly what it is we at Tuttle produce for people. In particular, that’s fed into an understanding of what we are beginning to do for Counterpoint and – through them – the British Council.

Inspiration kicked off with Red Bull. A whole section of the conference was dedicated to what they’re up to; watching slides about their Flugtags, Air Races, X-Fighters, and so on, I realised that they had moved from being a product brand to a grouped set of related experiences. As one of the speakers pointed out, ‘the marketing becomes the product’.

It’s possible to read that as a kind of Ballardian condemnation of Red Bull, but I think to do so is missing the point. In Red Bull’s case, ‘the marketing becomes the product’ doesn’t mean that the reality of a consumer good has been replaced by the ephemerality of marketing activity. Rather, it’s a comment about what’s available for Red Bull consumers to invest their money and time in.

Red Bull began as an energy drink; people buying Red Bull brought liquid in a can. Marketing activity – designed to amplify the drink’s energy positioning – became more and more elaborate. Now, if people want to buy into the Red Bull brand, they can do so by enjoying a wide variety of different events.

That creates a deep change in what Red Bull is. It no longer sells you a drink that makes you dynamic; rather, it sells the experience of dynamism in a variety of formats. Given that, it seemed to me to be no longer enough to call Red Bull a consumer brand. Rather, (I thought) it has become a highly profitable experience channel. But what is an experience channel?

Next up to speak were Innocent; they provided a little more inspiration. They’re renowned for their ability to engage consumers, by making them feel that they’re personally engaged with the brand. That sense of personal engagement is very important. Consumer brands communicate through monologues. Experience channels, however, are much more two way. Ideally, they’re all about conversation.

That sense of conversation led me away from what you’d traditionally call a brand, and towards the BBC. A little while back, I went to the launch of Digital Revolution, a partially crowd-sourced documentary series. The team there have been filtering traditional documentary making methods through online conversation and engagement. They’ve turned the documentary development and production process itself into an experience channel; one that a variety of very savvy, and very engaged, web denizens have been deeply engaging with.

Thinking about these three led me to a basic definition of what an experience channel is. That’s something I’ve been jotting down notes about over the last week or so. Rather than go into full details here – and create a truly epic post – I’m going to do some more jotting, and post a basic experience channel definition at some point over the next few days. Don’t touch that dial! (as I would say if I were a radio host).

Watching the 20th Century

Well, it’s been another very hectic few weeks, so another period of hiatus on the blog! Not to worry, I am taking myself in hand (as they say) and should be reverting to a more regular publishing schedule from now on. And, of course, the reasons for the hiatus have been rather exciting. First of all, I’ve started writing the next novel – details of that over at allumination – and secondly, I’ve been doing some really fascinating work with the Counterpoint team at the British Council, which is just starting to go live.

First of all, some introductions. Counterpoint is the British Council’s thinktank; their website here. To celebrate both their recent relaunch and – more broadly – the British Council’s 75th anniversary, they are developing four project streams – ‘Identities and the self’, ‘Cultures’, ‘Radicalisms’ and ‘Social Planet’. Taken together, all deal with the great modern question; how can we balance the individual with the social in a world that combines more-militant-than-ever senses of self with a historically unprecedented ability (and need) to come together in mass social groups?

I’ve become involved with this very fascinating debate through the Tuttle Club. In broad terms, we’re helping Counterpoint and the British Council explore the possibilities of social media. In specific terms, along with Lloyd Davis I’m rooting through the British Council’s media history, exploring its film holdings at the BFI and blogging about what I find. You can read what I’ve been up to so far here – over the next few weeks, this will be extended with more posts, videoblogs, interviews and so on, and should also be mirrored on the main Counterpoint website.

So far, it’s been a fascinating process, and I’ve barely begun. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the main body of the British Council / BFI film holdings, exploring the administrative history of the British Council film division, and so on, over the next few weeks. That’s all going to be on the project blog, so I won’t be talking about it in detail here. I’ve also ended up spending a lot of time engaging with the BFI – they’re a really interesting organisation, and in some ways ideally placed to take advantage of our modern digital media age. There will be an upcoming blog post on that, when I get a moment!

So, for now, that’s what’s lain behind the hiatus. I’m going to keep watching the 30s, 40s and 50s; if you’re as fascinated by it all as I am, then make sure you bookmark the ‘British Council at 75’ blog where that will be happening, and I’ll see you over there!