The importance of being human

Konnichiwa. Hope you are sitting comfortably, caffeine in hand – I am about to tell a story.

From the video games, to the martial arts, to the fashion – heck, even to the abstract jazz scene (indulge yourself in this); the Orient was a significant influence on my formative years. I didn’t aspire to be Zack Morris or A.C. Slater – this Far East obsession is one of my “human truths”; we all have them – a stimulus that is more likely than most to stir a noticeable reaction within.

Feeding this further, the National Curriculum™ taught me businesses in the late 80’s and 90’s were obsessed with the Japanese principle of Kaizen. Literally translated as “change (for the) good”; the never-ending drive for continuous improvement – playing the long game. Curiously, the same ethic has fueled and sustained the growth of digital comms channels through my solid but unspectacular career. I defy any media veteran reading this to claim they haven’t seen a derivative of the below as part of a ‘digital strategy’ over the past decade:

Amazing – an industry marinated in a benevolent work ethic. To quote the Rapha mantra, there is ‘glory through suffering’ – we develop artistry through the hard work, so the saying goes. It is inherently human to strive to understand how things work; to ‘open the black box’ if you will.

Well, say “hello” to the cynic in me. The pursuit of money will always find a way to ruin the purity of an idea. Granted, principles alone are never going to feed a family, but there is a huge artistic ego buried somewhere within me – I personally do not want to become a victim of anyone’s gluttony. Stumble upon a way to make a profit? Great – find a way to do the same again faster, until the avenue is bled dry. Run into an awkward situation? Superb – throw out the quickest response to distance yourself from blame. Meh. I really shouldn’t complain though – this bullshit pays my mortgage.

With this in my head and on my shoulders, I attended the PSFK London conference last month. To quote the website in verbatim, the affair was “a gathering of agenda setters”, facilitating the sharing of ideas to inspire bold thinking. I have read my Philip Zimbardo – I refuse to be deindividualised by this increasingly chromophobic world. My skills should be broad enough to keep the black hole of sector specialism at a comfortable distance; what I needed from this was experience was ideas on how to harness them more effectively. And…I will be honest – I was pleasantly surprised.

Customary grainy “Look, I was actually there” camera phone shot

The trend of the day from a gloriously diverse range of speakers was the grand narrative of ‘secondary markets are the growth markets’ – *deep breath* – sustainable technology, recycling and reconditioning, sharing and enabling, using human insight to drive product development. All that pleasant happy-clappy “green” stuff – we get it, we are killing Mother Earth, and it needs to stop. The more you ram it down my throat, the more I will think sustainability is just another story to spook people into following the lead of the Proletariat. I gritted my teeth in preparation for the next Chief Vitalstatistix (of Asterix fame, kids) to come on stage screaming “the sky is falling on our heads”. I had stopped rolling my eyes by the time Apps for Good took the stage, extolling the virtues of using digital to solve human problems. Yay! Inspiration for the adults, education for the kids, and the chance for businesses to steal some IP on the cheap. Double yay! But then I thought…I can’t waste this experience. I took a deep breath, and tried to stop playing the jaded adult for a moment. As my therapist would probably tell me; “how about trying to see opportunities, not problems?”

Of all people, it was the Microsoft Research speaker to be the guy to light a little fire behind my eyes in a passionately talk around ‘legacies’. We have all had items passed to us by family members – old photos, watches, medals of achievement – undoubtedly a carefully curated collection, which as a result are inherently more valuable to you as an individual. Now – fast-forward yourself to your twilight years; in these digitised times where we attempt to convert EVERYTHING material to live within a hard disk / the Cloud™, what are you going to leave as your legacy? What are the digital heirlooms? We acquire photos and things at such a rate now that the value of things and our interaction with them is surely diminishing – call it “content gluttony”; ancient Rome would be proud. Cue the geek-laden solution – the key lies with data-mapping and organisation; ensuring your content storage infrastructure is strong enough to allow you to effectively filter and cut through your personal data haul. This is man vs. machine; the role of you as the human here is to be an ‘editor’ – you are still able to curate and share, just like Gramps did. Define your legacy through your own tone of voice, packaging pieces of content together that contain shared moments with a given individual (probably via a 4D-holographic delivery device by the time I die). It is the gestures and memories that carry the value, not the Instagram filter you used – I will always get far more from a picture of me and you sharing an experience at a concert, than I will from listening to a lifeless cover song from iTunes. Send a note of thanks to Richard Banks – that is how you gained my ear, PSFK.

My hero. He wasn’t wearing this on stage, unfortunately.

Let us take a step back into the detail of the day for a minute. Another speaker of note was the artist Dhani Sutanto,  who sold the idea of “form over function” – not in the superficial sense, but as means of showcasing your personality. He shared a ring he had made from melting down his Oyster card – keeping the chip intact, of course; reforming it into a piece of wearable jewellery, we all giggled along to a video of him passing through Tube barriers with a mere wave of his hand, like a modern-day Moses. The human part? Displaying his uniqueness via his outward clothing. The digital part? Wearable NFC! They will love this at MediaWeek. A simple use of digital to make the mundane interesting. The function part had already been provided by London Transport; it is down to us to try to make things ‘better’ with our use of digital.

Following this, two marvellously-bearded speakers from the Rockwell Group taught us about storytelling through social spaces – the idea of adding digital input stimuli to physical spaces, blurring the divide between the physical and the digital. Riffing off the “internet of things” ethic – in a completely connected world, what would objects say to each other? Can we let machines have personalities? Before we get too ahead of ourselves thinking about artificial intelligence and miss the point, the focus should be on the power of ‘iterative experiences’ – how can we leverage digital to reconfigure a physical experience? In a shout-out to the folks at Blippar, think of the use of digital to add a degree of plurality to the traditional singularity of a press or out-of-home ad, for example. The Burberry flagship store just 10 minutes from PHD towers is a fine example of this in action, if you so wish to dip your toe in the water. However, as anyone who has seen either of the Terminator or Matrix anthologies will tell you, humans get uncomfortable unless technology is subjugating to us – we cherish our personal human space and champion the importance of being in control of what we have created.

Inside the Burberry flagship store, replete with “connected” mirrors and mammoth digital display.

The Rockwell Group’s interactive 2008 ‘Plug-In-Play’ installation in San Jose, CA

The OMG Digital conference in September taught us our friends at Microsoft (legal disclaimer: “may”) have based all the inputs for IE 8 and Kinect on the tenets of Pat Morita / Jackie Chan, dependent on your Karate Kid generation. Think about in terms of how you use your generic touchscreen device: ‘wax on, wax off’; ‘paint the fence’, ‘catch the fly’ (in the chopsticks). The Sesame (Street) Workshop have embraced this; working alongside Microsoft to add interactive digital layers to their world-famous franchise to stimulate increasingly powerful human responses. Take the established, physical TV show as your base, add a digital layer – suddenly kids are learning by doing. Let’s face it, giving a toddler a mouse is only going to end in tears / expensive breakages. The funny thing is; this isn’t a new idea. In late 1960’s America, there was a dubious animated series by the name of Winky Dink which implored viewers to stick a transparent film (sold separately) onto their TV screens, enabling kids to interact with the show with marker pens (also sold separately). The script would break the ‘fourth wall’ and ask the more attentive kids to draw little bridges over ravines and such to help their hero escape from the bad guys. A cute-ish idea that was too advanced for its technological time; the execution looked a bit silly if viewers chose to ignore the prompt / drew the wrong thing, and Mum and Pop soon tired of cleaning marker pen off the TV screen every evening before they could watch Star Trek or Mission Impossible. The more intelligent utilisations of technology often boil down to the ultimate aim of making things easier for humans, adding value to our lives – doing digital, with the human touch.

The smiles on their faces belie the warmth of this shared TV moment…

So what does this do for us media folk? The message is clear – adapt to the tangible reality around you. Think about what humans do; how can we make our media-based interaction with people part of their ritual, their REAL lives? Look back to my juvenile Oriental obsession for inspiration. Bruce Lee was no Muhammad Ali, but he did bless us with a wonderful elucidation of his love for liquid in his oft-quoted “be like water” quip. Water takes the shape of whatever it comes into contact with – if it is in a square box, it becomes square. If it is in a goldfish fishbowl, it becomes circular. Digital media provides us with so much power to do this, the opportunity not to just “say”, but to “do”. It comes back to that idea of ‘human truths’ again – it is far easier to change business behaviour than human behaviour; the most enduring businesses are set up and reform themselves to better serve humans, not the other way round. You can’t make a business case without speaking in the language of the decision makers. You want money from these people? You need to show how you are going to make them money, my friend – Janet would put it like this.

The celebrated design agency Pearlfisher hammered home the importance of “analogue”; thinking big, acting small. Just as you (may have) once said “it’s the little things you do right that make me love you” to a partner, think how the providence of Green & Blacks inspired Cadbury Dairy Milk to go ‘fair trade’ – a little truth from G&B made a lot of love for CDM. It is this macro-thought/micro-action ethic that makes the Berg “Little Printer” so endearing – no need to re-invent the wheel; just appreciate the value that people attach to physical products. A buzzing business based on sending simple communication direct to people via digital channels.

It cannot be that hard to use digital media to help, not hinder. Microsoft has shown a real appetite to empower people to follow natural, desired paths to complete tasks – Kinect simplifies interaction more than a remote control or mouse ever did; making user inputs simple, human instructions. Know your own territory and respect what sits outside of this; no advertiser website will ever out-Google Google. Take the Sesame Workshop example as your inspiration – leverage established structures, behaviour and legit technology; don’t misguidedly attempt to create your own and end up lumbered with a superficial fad. Adding value through layering improvements on the tangible – that, right there, is Kaizen.

”Hands up if you like what the interior decorator did with this set piece…”

The closing presentation came from Jaguar, with Julian Thomson engaging all on the importance of good design in “concepting dreams and making reality happen”. To most of us he is simply making sexy cars that cost a fortune, but he is selling a ‘dream’ to others. One of the most enduring human traits has been “oral tradition”; the telling of stories from generation to generation, keeping legends alive. Luxury cars are built to communicate values and tell a story – what does this car do, who is this car for – why should people care, given the brand had been in notable decline over the past decade?  The presented solution was to embrace post-modernism, and respect the Jaguar history of innovation – to recreate the winning energy of the past in a modern context. Even as a non-petrol head (my tyres are manufactured by Reebok); I could barely help but nod my head along to the story.

I am surely not alone in assuming the vast majority of us media folk have been exposed to a brief similar to this at some point. The Jaguar response is truly food for thought, in context of everything discussed previously in my story.

You will be glad to know my storytelling is to conclude imminently. The five key points are listed below, should wading back through the near-2,300 words above terrify you so. I will always argue that there is a certain authenticity to telling a personal story; the passion is found in the participation, if you will.

  1. Do your homework to help differentiate ‘trends’ from ‘fads’. There is a reason established structures work – improve on substance, not speculation.
  2. Make the mundane exciting: analogue thinking, digital execution. Layering is not just a fashion trend – it should be your approach to digital.
  3. Think big, act small. Innovation does not require you to re-invent the wheel – seek to always be iterative, ever evolving.
  4. The more natural human touchpoints harnessed within your planned execution, the better. Re-visit your idea; if any touchpoint feels like a stretch once you have taken your brainstorm hat off, it will likely be more alien to everyone else.
  5. Ensure your idea can be explained in corporate terms. Don’t hide behind “engagement” unless you can isolate the direct cause and effect your idea is planned to bring to your clients’ business.

I am no Mary Poppins, but didn’t my spoonful of sugar help that medicine go down?

Pffft. I need a drink…

Posted by John Duku, Digital Client Services Manager (@dukes4)


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