I believe the history of marketing and design can teach us a lot, and look to find ideas and insights from the people and approaches of the past.

Teamwork – a niche sports analogy featuring Reading FC — 30 July 2020

Teamwork – a niche sports analogy featuring Reading FC

Like lots of people who I move in similar circles too (in an online sense), I’ve been watching The Last Dance on Netflix. If you have missed it so far, it focusses on Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls – but uses this as a scaffold to look back at his career.

If you really don’t understand what I’m talking about – this is basketball – the one where you can bounce the ball with your hand and throw it in a hoop and all the games have ludicrously high scores. Yes, it looks a bit frenetic, doesn’t it?

What many people seem to have taken from the documentary series is Michael Jordan’s remarkable drive to win. One episode focusses on his former teammates, saying he wasn’t a pleasant guy a lot of the time, and would push them and cajole them to do better. This flows nicely into the question of whether it’s okay to bully, or come close to bullying, someone if it helps them to achieve remarkable things. But I’m not going to write about that here – if you’d like some thoughts on that I recommend the excellent film Whiplash.

No, the part that stood out for me was the episode discussing the relationship between Jordan and his teammates – and Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in particular. Jordan needed great support from people around him. He formed excellent on court relationships and understandings with key players on his team. They relied on him, and he relied on them.

Is it possible Jordan really could have been as successful with a bunch of average players around him? Examples from team sports of individuals carrying whole teams is very rare. Probably the most famous example is Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup – which I mention mainly to point you to another excellent film – Diego Maradona by Asif Kapadia. If you enjoyed The Last Dance – you’ll enjoy that too.

But team sports are in the mainly won by great teams. Even an iconic player like Messi had most of his success when surrounded by players like Iniesta and Xavi. So, what makes a great team? Well, this is where I get a bit niche.

As you can tell by my use of examples above, I am foremost a football fan. And football fate has lead me to support 2 clubs, neither of which have, so far, done anything to bring them worldwide attention – Reading and Exeter City. The one I want to focus on for this analogy is the mighty Reading.

You see, Reading have done nothing to bring them worldwide attention, but they did manage to be quite brilliant for 2 seasons back in the mid-noughties. In the 2005/6 season, they won the Championship (the second-tier of English football) with 106 points – a record that still stands. They won 31 games, drew 13 and lost just twice, scoring 99 goals and conceding 32. They were promoted, and followed that season up with an 8th placed finish in the Premier League, despite most pundits tipping them for instant relegation.

So who were these super talented players? Well, there was definitely no Michael Jordans. Instead, Reading assembled a team of players with no dramatic standouts – but the right combination of talents to make a successful team. Allow me to introduce the main men from the Reading squad of 2005/6:

Goalkeeper – Marcus Hahnemann

A, frankly, terrifying looking bear of an American. Kept the ball out of the net by mainly staring it down.

Right back – Graeme Murty

An absolute club legend and the Captain. Converted from winger to full back – liked to bomb forward and shout at people. Scored a penalty in the last game of the 05/06 season to make sure of the record points tally and everyone went nuts.

Left back – Nicky Shorey

Played for England twice. A dimunitive player with a peach of a left foot.

Central defender – Ibrahim Sonko

Very athletic Senegalese defender. Seemed to repel the ball like an unfriendly magnet. Left the club a bit acrimoniously, which is a shame.

Central defender – Ivar Ingimarsson

With Sonko formed an inpregnable barrier at the back. Dependable, and an Icelandic international.

Right wing – Glen Little

Set up 14 goals and scored 5 in 05/06 – including at absolute beauty against Plymouth. A majestic player who probably would have played for England if he was a bit quicker.

Left wing – Bobby Convey

The sides second American and winner of 46 caps for the US of A. Pacy and with a good work rate. Floppy hair.

Central midfield – Steve Sidwell

Probably the most talented of the whole squad – signed for Chelsea after leaving. Like to get forward and score while pivoting perfectly with…

Central midfield – James Harper

Skilful and a hard worker. Wherever Sidwell wasn’t, Harper was.

Striker – Kevin Doyle

Famous for being a bargain buy from Cork City. Hard working and pacy. I saw him eating in a restaurant once and was shocked at the size of his watch.

Striker – Dave Kitson

A man who often seemed a bit too sensitive to be a footballer. But nonetheless was the big man in the big and small partnership who also weighed in with a decent number of goals.

Honourable mention – Leroy Lita

The third striker in the pairing. Had that arrogance that a lot of the best strikers have. Also owned a hummer.

And in control of this team was Manager, Steve Coppell – a man who liked keeping a low profile, so an unfashionable club was perfect for him.

The thing that strikes me looking back at that side, is how rare it is to get that perfect storm. The right club, with the right manager, and the right squad of players at the same time. Reading have never put together another side to rival 05/06. There’s been good sides and bad sides – but nothing like that.

So, what can we learn from this? That real success comes from working together, and trying to put together the best team you can. But also being aware that you won’t know when the perfect storm is going to happen, so be striving for it – always. That’s your best chance of developing your own 05/06 Reading FC.

I just wanted to give you the table — 25 May 2020

I just wanted to give you the table

I once worked for a major UK charity.

At the time Google was offering free partnering sessions to help charities with marketing. Google arranged for 2 members of the public to come to a workshop to discuss their experiences with the charity.

Yeah, it’s just a table. Look at it, holding stuff.

One quote (which I will have to paraphrase) really stood out to me.

“I had a table I wanted to donate, so I brought it to my local shop. I was instantly offered a range of options to accompany my donation – gift aid, tracking what happened to the table, a loyalty scheme – all with a raft of accompanying paperwork.

All I wanted to do was give you the table.”

For influencing behaviour, friction is a powerful tool. If you want someone to do something, make it easy – maybe frictionless. If you want someone not to do something, make it harder.

Recently I move my house insurance to a new provider. I’m a classic ‘get a new quote for every renewal’ guy – yes, you may leave now if you like. I found a cheaper quote and set up a new account and paid for a years insurance upfront.

Right there was some friction. If I paid monthly, it would cost more overall. But if I paid for the entire year, it was cheaper. So I paid for the year – the insurance company are happy as they have their money – and I’m probably a stickier customer as I don’t have to see the money going out of my account every month.

Then I needed to cancel the existing insurance – so I went into my online account and looked at the renewal. All the details were there, and it told me it would be auto-renewed if I did nothing (quick! do something!) – but there was nowhere to cancel. To make any changes, I had to call them.

So I did – and, as you’d expect, they tried to talk me out of it.

“We can match your quote… Do you know about these benefits… There is a cancellation charge…”

They’re creating friction – in a classic way that businesses do. Make it easy to sign-up, but hard to cancel. It happens with some email lists too – just pop your name in the box and you’re signed up. But want to unsubscribe? You must click the link, then enter your email address, then tell us why you want to, then confirm… lots of opportunities to change your mind.

Some of these tactics seem… well… questionable.

But adding friction need not be employed with questionable motives. If you are fond of a chocolate biscuit or a bit of cake, a suitable way to try to stop yourself eating too much is to put them on a high shelf. Make it more effort to get to your favourite fattening treats and put the fruit somewhere easy to reach.

“I recently wrote about how important it is to make the right thing easy. The opposite is also true: it’s important to make the wrong things difficult.”

Tim Kadlec

If you’re trying to convince someone to adopt new behaviours – a customer, a team, a friend or family member perhaps, could you think about adding or subtracting friction?

Well, I hope you enjoyed that. If you want to keep up-to-date with everything I find and post then sign-up for my email newsletter – The Cream.

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The Time for Magic — 17 May 2020

The Time for Magic

In these unprecedented times. In these somewhat precedented times. In these times that some have precedented. Hey, there’s a pandemic on (or there was, future readers) who cares if anyone was precedenting it? That’s not what’s important. The important thing is how we react to it.

And in all times, including this one, I think it’s time for more magic.

“Magic (noun) – the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

There are lots of things other people do, thay I don’t know how to do – and they look like magic to me. I don’t really know how my car works. Like, I know broadly, at a macro level, but not at a micro level. I know what some of the big parts of the engine are – but I don’t know exactly what’s going on. Most people don’t.

There’s also lots of things I make happen, that others don’t know how to do (thankfully for me). They ask for something, and I deliver something that, I hope, surpasses their expectations. This is where the magic comes in. Not just doing what needs to be done, but doing something that goes above and beyond and adds a touch of something, well, magical.

If my car was broken – I gave it to the garage and they fixed it, cleaned it, and gave it back.

We cover the car in the magic sheet, say the magic words, wait a couple of days, and then whip the sheet off to reveal a clean, working car!”


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law from Profiles of the Future (revised edition, 1973)

Good work, Clarkey. But not just advanced – anything that someone else hasn’t got a clue about. My partner was on a Zoom call with a group of people from a charity she volunteers for. At one point, someone shared their screen – most of the group are retired and in their 70s and 80s and had never used anything like it before – they audibly gasped! How is it done? HOW?!

The Vietnamese didn’t need to build a bridge that looks like a dragon. But they did. They could have just built an ordinary, standard bridge – that stays up, and carries cars and trucks and other wheeled items. But they added some magic, and look at it! Beautiful.

It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.

Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry knew a thing or two about magic – he wrote about it a lot. To his readers, what he did was magic. He took words – words that could be arranged in so many different ways, and arranged them in fantastical stories – THAT ARE FUNNY. Yeah, if you’re reading this and you’ve never dipped your toe in Pratchett you probably think “wizards and swords and that, it’s not for me”. But his books are genuinely funny. Try one.

Rory Sutherland, the oft-quoted behavioural marketing expert, believes that “illogic is at times uniquely powerful” and that “the models that dominate all human decision-making today are duly heavy on simplistic logic and light on magic – a spreadsheet leaves no room for miracles.”

How can you go beyond just doing something that is rationally the right answer? What magic ideas do you have that might help people? Now’s the time to get them out.

How long can a message last? — 29 March 2020

How long can a message last?

The human race generates vast amounts of data. In just one minute: Twitter users sent 473,400 tweets, Snapchat users shared 2 million photos, Instagram users posted 49,380 pictures, LinkedIn gained 120 new users. Data, data, data. All this information is useful to someone to some degree (we have to assume), but some information is really important. Not just really important, hugely important. I mean we’re talking life or death. And mainly death.

In 1981 the the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corp founded the Human Interference Task Force. Their goal? To find a way to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation sites. THAT is really, hugely important.

Radioactive waste can have a half-life of 24,000 years. Tamil, the longest surviving living human language is around 5,000 years old. How do you ensure warnings are understood in the distant future when you don’t know what language they should be in? How do you write a message to last thousands of years?

Built to survive

The present is a constantly moving feast, its hard to get people to pay attention to everything happening now – how do you maintain attention on something so vital? We don’t understand how to maintain knowledge for such long periods of time.

“No culture has ever tried, self-consciously and scientifically, to design a symbol that would last 10,000 years and still be intelligible,”

Said David B. Givens, an anthropologist who helped plan the nuclear-site warnings.

“And even if we succeed, would the message be believed?”

There are 4 four requirements that must be met to successfully send a message to the future:

  • the message must survive
  • the message must be found
  • the message must be understood
  • the message must be believed

The Human Interference Task Force suggested a number of mechanisms to achieve this – written or pictorial messages, hostile architecture, even designing the sites to naturally make whistling noises to draw attention to warnings. One proposal was that domestic cats be genetically engineered to change color in the presence of dangerous levels of radiation – and then people would be taught to keep away from the odd-coloured cats. However, in Europe the warning models rely mostly on integrating the waste disposal facilities within society so information about their presence can be passed on from generation to generation.

The Task Force even proposed the creation of an atomic priesthood who would pass on stories and try to make them beliefs – so people wouldn’t interfere with the sites. It sounds far-fetched at first, but has there been a better mechanism for passing important lessons through generations than organised religion?

The value of information is in the interpretation

Researchers calculate that humankind is able to store at least 295 exabytes of information. (Yes, that’s a number with 20 zeroes in it.) But big data is nothing without “thick data,” the rich and contextualised information you gather only by venturing out into the real world and seeing how people interact with signs and warnings.

Data isn’t valuable unless people can absorb, process it and take actions from what it says. How do we retain, not just the data, but the knowledge of what to do with that data?

Cultural imprinting

Kevin Simler wrote an essay about cultural imprinting back in 2014. He defined it as:

“…the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product…

In this way, cultural imprinting relies on the principle of common knowledge. For a fact to be common knowledge among a group, it’s not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it – and know that they know that they know it… and so on.”

You can see examples of successful cultural imprinting all round us. That there is a particular product we turn to for a particular task, and that may be the same product the generation before us would reach for – a Biro, for example. But there aren’t a lot of examples. There aren’t a lot of examples of products, and certainly not messages, surviving across generations.

Now, of course we’re not all trying to stop people digging up some dangerous atomic waste, but it seems like the ultimate challenge for a marketer. Can we come up with a message that will out last us? What if we needed to? What if it was life or death?

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Working from home, and other stressful locations — 21 March 2020

Working from home, and other stressful locations

Suddenly, a big slice of the worlds population is finding out what it’s like to let the people you work with see the walls of your home.

“Interesting art choices, not that I’m judging you on them,” says a colleague, clearly judging you on them.

Before my current job, I worked mostly remotely for 3 years. When I first started, I got interested in knowing the best practices, and obviously I learnt a lot during that period. So, here are my 5 key ways to make working from home work.

(I know loads of other people are doing this too, and their advice is also excellent, but this is my perspective).

Routine and habits

Get up, shower*, eat breakfast*, get dressed**, get your morning coffee*, and be at your computer ready to start work at the right time.

(* I am aware not everyone does these, so you know, just maintain your regular schedule ** This though is non-negotiable)

Finish work at a specific time, close your laptop, put your work phone away. You are done, clock off.

Be either at work, or not at work. Don’t let the two become mixed up.

Keep exercising (you do exercise, right? I mean, you really, really should). It’s not sensible to go to the gym right now, so work out a different exercise schedule. Ask a colleague or friend to hold you accountable, and maybe sync your schedules.


Set your workspace up – get a comfortable (and preferably adjustable) chair, make sure your desk or table is at a good height with your screen(s) at eye-level. Have you got a standing desk? Could you hack one together? Try to use a separate keyboard and mouse – it’s more comfortable.

If possible, separate your workspace from your living space. Be able to close the door on work.

Get a better microphone and speakers for your computer. Sound quality isn’t a big priority for people until they notice it. If not speakers, get good headphones or a headset.

Don’t have light behind you, people won’t be able to see you on video calls. Have light on your face (maybe get a lamp if needed? Selfie lights are good for this, or windows).

What kind of background noise do you like? For a lot of people, they can’t stand the silence of not being in a busy office, but you might like it. If not, perhaps music? There are playlists of music designed to help you focus – using your favourite music is usually a distraction as you singalong, epically. There are also apps that will generate white noise for you – the sounds of a coffee shop, or the sea, or a woodland glade. Try a few things, pick the one that works.


Remove or avoid distractions. Sadly, human beings have invented the greatest distraction mechanism of all time – the internet – which you need to avoid like Pac-Man avoids those ghosts.

Take regular breaks – go get yourself a lovely cup of tea or a coffee. Try to make sure your workspace isn’t too close to the kitchen or bathroom, so you need to keep moving around.

Take a proper lunch break too – get away from your computer. Maybe go outside for a walk, get some fresh air, try to avoid sitting down for long periods.

Work in bursts of productivity and focus, you’ll find it more sustainable than a long slog. Try the Pomodoro Technique, or find something similar.


Rather than “sending that quick email” have a video call with someone instead. There’s no better way to explain or demonstrate something than a quick screenshare and you talking them through it. You probably would do it that way if you were in the office, so keep that up.

Have regular calls with your team, people you work with a lot, people who might need more contact (they work alone, or in a small team).

Set up group chats based around your team, common interests, projects, ANYTHING AT ALL. And keep them updated – try some ideas to stimulate conversation – what do everyones workspaces look like today? What are everyone’s pets up to? What did everyone cook last night?

Be punctual for meetings – its much more noticeable when you’re late for a video call. Don’t keep people waiting.

Some people aren’t going to like this – but always have your camera on for a call. It’s better for connecting and building relationships if people can see you. Also, just before you go live make sure you check what’s behind you…

When you’re not speaking on a call, mute yourself. But remember, people can still see you – be engaged and look engaged.

Avoid doing video calls on the move – it’s distracting for everyone.

Be yourself

Don’t worry about your partner, child, hamster, dog, parrot or lizard appearing behind you unexpectedly. It isn’t as embarrassing as you think – it happens.

Your hair doesn’t look weird today. Nobody is looking at that spot on your nose. Everyone wants to see and hear from you.

Nobody will mind that you look more casual at home than in the office (but maybe avoid the Megadeth t-shirt?).

Keep active on chat, participate in calls, keep in touch. People miss you, worry about you, and want to know you’re okay.

If you want to read more about working remotely, I strongly recommend Remote by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried of Basecamp.

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