Only, Connect

March 2016 | Fern Miller

I want to help you widen your field of vision and force yourself to connect a variety of seemingly disparate pieces of information, inspiration and insight, in order to improve the creativity and effectiveness of Your thinking.

Week 1
Books to read, sites to visit, advice, why diversity matters, and mass observation
Week 2
Multitasking for Strategists: 3 things do go do, 4 things to listen to, 3 other things for you
Week 3 & 4
Fern goes to SXSW 2016
Show More

We are all rightly taught to be disciplined and to follow a logical, best practiced flow as good agency strategists. The client brief, the research groups, the market data, the brand history. All lined up neatly behind your shiny new proposition.


Which is fine and you won’t hear me arguing against discipline in strategy. 


But following the well trodden path too often leads to briefs and strategic thinking that seems to float above reality, somehow. A symmetrical Roman castle in the sky that has little bearing on the oddities and uncomfortable truths of real life.  A castle whose residents respond to an advert or social post by thinking to themselves “That brand really gets my outlook on life, I must try their new handcream”.


A world in which brands you love are always beloved and preferred for purchase.


A world in which people talk to each other about things like instant coffee and travel preferences.


A world in which a planner can say out loud in company that this brand will “Own Friendship” and people won’t throw things at them.


By lining a fairly standard set of references up behind our beautiful big ideas, in sort of the same way we always have, we lose sight of the messy real-life context of a brand, and I would argue, we deny our clients the sort of creative connection with real life they want from us, and which they sorely need to do anything that really matters to real people.


So during my curation I plan to bombard you with lots of things that don’t necessarily connect, as well as some ways to learn from new people and places that might extend and inform new thinking, to offer some models that help to connect more things than usual to better ends.. and I would like to invite you to discuss things we don’t ordinarily discuss with more open minds than usual.


Including the uncomfortable truth that the world-leading strategy community in the UK seems to be disappointingly…. British. Not to mention White, the same sort of age at the same sort of time their career, and university educated (usually in Humanities).  But lets leave that for later in the month when we’ve hung out together a bit.



Books to read, sites to visit, advice, why diversity matters, and mass observation

2 March 2016


When I were a little girl there was a programme on Saturday morning telly called “Why Don’t You?” which had a theme tune that ended “Why don’t you switch off the TV and go off and do something less boring instead?”. Which was counter intuitive, and exactly what I am about to do. All that follows are sources of inspiration through the illuminated rectangle of your device. My real advice is to close that down and go off and do something less boring instead.

Good new book

Aziz Ansari plays the little gobby one in the excellent Parks and Recreation. He is also a standup comedian and has written his own show called “Master of None” which I am personally very much enjoying. However more pertinently he has teamedup with sociologist Eric Klinenberg to write a book about Modern Romance which is much much better than that biog might at first imply.

Fantastic old book

I am extremely lucky to work with a smashing young researcher/ strategist called Amy Sherman who is as brilliant as she is personable. Recently, despite my constant availability she repeatedly requested time in my diary for a “cup of tea” which, being an old management-hardened cynic I was convinced meant she was about to resign. As I tensed myself for the inevitable, she gave me a book that she had found useful instead.

Amy says she finds this useful in absenting herself from a debrief or trying to understand what the hell these builders/teenagers/ insurance purchasers were going on about, when she wants to get the equivalent of a breath of fresh mental air. I have found her recommendation to be as helpful as she is. Thanks Amy.

A site worth visiting

Max Roser’s excellent long term view of key indices helps us to step outside of our immediate jihadi-threatened-sleb-informed-instagram-filtered lives and look at how Mankind is getting along, in the greater scheme of things. Aside from cocking up the climate and thus prompting our imminent doom, we haven’t done as badly as you might think:


Advice from my best Planning teacher

“An insight is invariably something that is a complete surprise to the marketing department and utterly obvious to the consumer” – Hilde Oord

Some useful evidence for things we probably know already

Variety is the Spice of Life: We know, instinctively, that an industry full of teams of people with the same background is likely to lead to undifferentiated thinking. But here’s some evidence to back up our instincts: Why Diversity Matters


Some of my friends, ex colleagues and colleagues are experimenting with their own exploration of this theme. You can follow the progress of this here: The Great British Diversity Experiment


Mass Observation

The  original Mass Observation project sought to record the experience of daily life for large groups of correspondents (a panel recruited to send back their diaries and responses to questions about their life and opinions) as well as the observations of researchers who stood and watched people going about their business. It is therefore an incredibly rich historical record, and I could read the content on their online archive forever.


The Mass Observation Project was revived in the 1980s and the responses of correspondents can be read as part of the “Observing the 80s” project, which is bringing these pieces together with voices in the British Library Oral History Collections to create a “time capsule” of the 1980s.  For me the handwritten entries from people on the subject of AIDS, the Falklands and the Future add nostalgia to an already dangerously addictive online pursuit.


Multitasking for Strategists: 3 things do go DO, 4 things to LISTEN to, 3 other things for YOU

7 March 2016


Let's face it, who’s got time to read the ever expanding recommended reading list that planners impose on each other? And no I haven’t read Sapiens. Have you seen the bloody size of it?


And anyway if we all read the same thing we will all have the same point of view, that’s my cover story.


This week I’m going to load you up with some bits and pieces that might re-fill the references with some new stuff in ways that don’t involve spending all evening reading the first and last chapter of everything Seth Rodin/ Malcolm Gladwell/ those Freakonomics dudes have written.


Three things to go to:

Full disclosure, I live in South Essex and I have a reasonably full on job at the moment during the week and so I haven’t attended any of these. If I had a weekend in London coming up I definitely would though and I’ve heard good reports from all of them.


1. The Wellcome Collection is amazing. This exhibition is getting rave reviews and is suitably brainy for you lot. Plus their site has reading material to expand the ideas their exhibitions tackle including this smasher on the subject of consciousness.


2. The School of Life is hardly a little known source of inspiration but this month its probably worth noting that they are promising to ROADMAP YOUR WHOLE LIFE for thirty quid next Wednesday 9th March. I’m not sure Londoners should walk away from value like that.


3. Where we Live Now: Social Media, Place and Policy. Okay this is a bit of a plug because we are hosting this for NESTA and the British Academy, and we are doing some nice social data analysis about Brick Lane for it. But also the speakers are brilliant, the subject matter is fascinating, it’s FREE and I’m a CMO now, right? Publicity what I do.


Four things to listen to:

I’m told that Podcasts are BACK. I find this information alarming as I hadn’t noticed them going away, and I feel I should have. But anyway, for commuters, walkers, people who do the washing up the podcast is the ultimate multitasking inspiration source. Here are a few recommendations from my brilliant colleague Nic Howell and from me:


Grace Dent's lovely new podcast

Featuring real life tales (yes, like This American Life but British)


Planet Money’s podcast

On the next phase of cash-and-carry taking the 'Anti-Store’ concept to another level


Radio 4 In Business 

On how Steinway’s marketing machine maintains its iron grip on the concert piano market:


Freakonomics Radio

On using behavioural economics to make more appealing advertising (with the help of Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness



Three other things

Indulge yourself

in a random feature-length article. The quality is very high on here, albeit very very US focused. In fact the list of topics covered includes 4 US cities… Russia and London.  But that’s the internet for you, more evidence you need to get out and take a look at the world for real rather than through the illuminated square.


Chart fodder

Sign up for these smashing graphs in your inbox, daily from Statista. Actual data on things you are probably interested in will then fall into your lap without you having to lift a finger.


Even Lazier

This very clever chap has done you a comms planning presentation template complete with common diagrams and charts.


Fern goes to SXSW 2016

22 March 2016


A promised round up of Some Things from SXSW 2016


For full disclosure, my experience of SXSW was truncated (I was there for one day) and suboptimal. If you haven't been to this giant expo of interactive/ tech/ entertainment/content speaker sessions with an associated fringe scene of demos and stunt, it is possibly the best example of the Paradox of Choice​ ever. Being unschooled in who was likely to offer the best exploration of the opportunities of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and Obama - the themes of the moment - I instead did what I do at the Edinburgh fringe:


I meticulously waded through the entire speaker list and very very carefully picked three events that were... well.. rubbish. ​I won't say who they were that would be rude. But they were the equivalent of a student mime production of the Orestaia with additional juggling.


Anyway luckily for me I attended with some very smart people from our innovation team who did know what they were doing and gladly shared the things they thought were notable.


So with due appreciation for their wisdom (their SXSW experience in pictures is here if you are interested) here is what I might have enjoyed at SXSW with their guidance:


Artifical intelligence

The big news that week was this:


Further discussion here:

As unlikely as this might seem I actually know a tiny bit about Go because I once knew someone who dominated the Go league for so long he had to resign to let someone else have a go. This is what I know about Go: it's really complex and the decisions possible in each turn are possibly even more baffling than the SXSW programme.


The final paragraph of this article covering the event is, however, beautiful. It's not about Man V Machine. It's about Man AND Machine.


Anyway with this news looming large, the AI events were well attended including this one:


Siri, plus AI =

The man behind Siri takes talking to a machine a step further, with a team working on a conversational interface that is able to learn and grow its knowledge and which can be applied to ANYTHING. My mind can't really hold the implications of that but he gave this example in a Wired interview recently with a scenario which I can imagine:


"He envisions someone unsteadily holding a phone to his mouth outside a dive bar at 2 am and saying, “I’m drunk.” Without any elaboration, Viv would contact the user’s preferred car service, dispatch it to the address where he’s half passed out, and direct the driver to take him home. No further consciousness required."



So, this study has found that whilst drunk people, as well as the suicidal and otherwise troubled people can already get a certain amount of advice from Siri, those who have been sexually assaulted, suffered domestic abuse or who have mental health crises are met with silence.


The lack of diversity in the tech world continues to dog our ability to meet a broader spectrum of human needs, whilst the many possibilities of VR/AR demonstrated at the show rarely strayed much further than the male bucketlist, with the big name demos being extreme sportsgaming and porn. Well done, lads.


The programme included many speeches on the ills of developing technology from one person's point of view, including the authors of this somewhat depressing study​.



My friend and colleague Scott got a golden ticket to go and see Obama's keynote. He now suffers from a crippling man crush and the full force of my envy. Still, we can all join in and watch the keynote here.


Although word is, his wife's talk at SXSW music, on the subject of promoting women and girl's education was even better. (SXSW is not a good place to be if you suffer FOMO)


My own personal crush cannot be swayed from another Keynote presenter, however. I could listen to/ watch Casey Gerald talk forever, and wish I had. Sigh.


So, Robots playing Go, women struggling in tech and a preacher for Socially Enlightened business.


Only, connect. Oh, whoops I forgot to mention the highlight of my trip. A stunt for a local agency, in which my face was made to appear in a tortilla. Awesome.

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