Data privacy: the marshmallow test


Two things have reshaped my view on privacy in the past few months; 1) reading Luke Harding’s gripping account of the Edward Snowden revelations and 2) Advertising Week Europe. After much thought I have come to a couple of personal conclusions. Firstly, data collection is not benign. Secondly, it is – probably – the silver bullet for advertisers.

I was lucky enough to attend Guardian chief editor Alan Rusbridger’s panel discussion at Ronnie Scott’s on the opening Monday of Advertising Week earlier this month, and thanks to Harding’s book I came in with a deep understanding of the complex web of issues at play; metadata, PRISM, Merkel’s cellphone, the gang of five. Rusbridger’s opening quote set the agenda for the rest of the week; metadata is not a stripped back sanitized form of our data, “it is our souls”. A powerful concept for consumer and advertiser.

Let’s take the consumer first. If we are, as is often said, the aggregate of the five people we spend the most time with then, in today’s digital society, metadata can figure us out in a split second. Who we love most, what we care about, what frightens us can all be figured out using metadata. Anyone with access to it has incredible power to understand us; hence its potency in the hunt for terrorists.

Now to advertisers. Back in the golden years of the industry, the Mad Men couldn’t reach inside our souls. Instead they sold us dreams and try to encourage us to reach for them. Think keeping up with the Jones’s. Today data gives them the power to truly understand us. Why bother selling a dream when you can know the ones we’re having already? To my first point; data collection is not benign. It is not just a tool that uses demographic data to make ads more relevant. It is a profound unmasking of the consumer’s veil of self.

Occasionally there was a flippancy with which privacy was discussed in some – not all – of the sessions at #AWEurope. On one panel, each of the five participants shrugged, laughed and dismissed a question about privacy in the same way you might have dismissed Tony Benn; a relic barking warnings from the sidelines, to be respected but not feared. A million miles away from the action. Almost an irrelevance. Generally participants did a good job of paying lip service but you sense it is just that; lip service.

That’s because asking advertisers to respect privacy is the equivalent of the marshmallow test on children. If you haven’t seen it, YouTube it. A child is given a marshmallow and promised a second one if they wait five minutes before eating the first. Naturally, few can resist. Data is the industry’s silver bullet with the power to completely change an age old paradigm. Now you CAN reach inside your audience’s soul. Advertisers want to eat their marshmallow now, not wait to for consumers to adjust to the idea no matter what the long term benefit might be.

Indeed, l I lost count of how many times the word data was used at #AWEurope. Everyone had a perspective; media agencies, tech companies, marketing directors, agency chiefs. Data felt very much like the Marilyn Monroe of this particular party, while Tony Benn lurked uncomfortably in the corner.


The World Tour


In six weeks, I fly to Omaha where I will spend a week as a visiting professor in PR at the University of Nebraska Omaha (ONU). Much to the frustration of my colleague and close friend Charlie, I am talking it up as a ‘World Tour’. His (rather flimsy) argument is that a World Tour is only a World Tour if there’s more than one city. “After all Peggers (nickname, long boring story)”, he says. “Did you ever see a band flogging a World Tour T-shirt with one date on it?”. Semantics …

My relationship with the University of Nebraska, and one of its most distinguished professors Dr Chris Allen, goes back six years. UNO boasts one of the most respected advertising and marketing schools in America and one of the highlights of its final semester is a student trip to London to visit some of the world’s leading media and marketing companies; Reuters, Al Jazeera, McCann and Weber Shandwick to name a few.

Six year ago I was asked to host the Nebraska student workshop and designed a morning of theory and practical activities designed to give a genuine insight into what it was like to work in a global PR agency for a host of iconic brands. Safe to say I was completely blown away by how smart, knowledgeable and determined these undergraduates were. A blog post I wrote in 2009 illustrates just how impressive the group – which I now host every year – always is.

This summer Chris got in touch to ask if I would be interested in flying out to give a series of lectures and join seminars covering the entire spectrum of PR topics and issues. Without hesitation (well after checking with my heavily pregnant wife), I agreed. After hearing about all of the amazing initiatives that make up the programme – a full length election night broadcast in 2012, a real life charity PR agency – I can’t wait to experience it all first hand. I expect to come back both inspired.

I’ll be spending the next couple of months preparing for my time out in Nebraska, and will shamelessly draw on all of my professional networks – online and offline – for sage advice and engaging stories. I’ll also blog like crazy during the week itself. Stay tuned.

Over and out

Timing Can Be Everything


I’ll often accept flyers handed out on the high street. Why? Because a good, exceedingly well bred friend and colleague @charliemh told me it was a small, simple way of making a leafleter’s day that little bit easier.

This morning at Kilburn Station I took one (above) from the London Labour Party shrilly advertising rail price hikes under the Tories. It informed me that in 2014 my fares would go up and staff would go down.

This flyer was almost wilfully lacking in any nuance or creativity, but that doesn’t matter. How come? Because it is timed to utter perfection; the day everyone goes back to work after Xmas, in a bad mood, with a maxed out credit card, looking for someone to blame…

Et voila, the Tories are the scapegoat for everyone feeling depressed on what is officially the worst day of the year. Timing is everything; you just have to figure out when your public is going to care about the message.

One of my soapbox topics is making sure you create comms campaigns and tactics that swim downstream with the current not the reverse. Picking moments in time, locations, where your agenda intersects with the external one.

It sounds obvious, but it’s so easy to be led by other factors. The loud sales director who wants it to happen before a big event. The ‘let’s just get it out of the door’ mentality. All of these should play second fiddle to when works for your audience.

In 2014, make sure you swim downstream …

Lost. Literally …


Ever seen Lost?

If not, don’t do it. Trust me, it’s not worth it. Series 1 and 2 lure you in with captivating characterisation and storytelling. The rest of it just pushes your patience to the limit.

I’m too far gone and have to see it through. But unless I’m proved spectacularly wrong I expect to be sorely disappointed by the end. It’s become so sensational it’s no longer credible.

Ever heard that nursery rhyme about the young lady who swallowed a fly, and then – instead of just putting up with a minor throat irritation – ate a whole heap of other animals, hoping each one would eat the next? She swallowed a horse and died of course…

The writers of Lost did exactly the same thing. Trying to fix a woolly plot with more and more complexity. Covering a lack of direction with more and more story layers. They spent millions doing it, and the production house swallowed a lot more than a horse.

Sound familiar? It should. We comms folk do it every day. We spend hours covering up inadequacies in our core story with more and more words, ideas, strands, until it’s so complicated that it completely loses it’s worth.

One if the things I learned in 2013 from a great colleague @davidjwoodward, is that achieving clarity and simplicity is the hardest part of storytelling. The writers of Lost are the best, biggest budget example of why.

As it goes, Twitter is one of the best ways of negating this. There’s nowhere to hide in 140 characters.

Over and out.

Why Nigella Will Be Back


“Seen this Grillo stuff?”, a friend at work asked me this afternoon. “That’s Nigella’s career in flames.” I sagely nodded. “I mean Kate Moss would get away with it. But Nigella the domestic goddess? No way.” I bobbed my head sadly. “Finished.”

This evening on the tube, I changed my mind. Sure, it’s a long way back for Nigella. Rock stars, film stars, models, politicians, even athletes can all bounce back from a marital breakdown or drug addiction. Domestic goddesses though are a different kettle of fish. Their chosen career means they are judged by wildly different standards. If you sell ‘the perfect wife’, you have to live it.

All that being said, I can envisage a not-altogether-unlikely comeback from dear old Nigella. Here’s how it plays out in the press:

Spring 2014: Lawson: Rehab ‘best decision I ever made’ (Guardian)

June – obligatory tell all This Morning interview

Summer 2014: Exclusive Snaps – Nigella wows St Tropez with her stunning new figure (Look)

Autumn 2014: Is society magnate [insert English-sounding double barrelled name] Nigella’s new man? Read their saucy tweets (Mirror)

Winter 2014: Past boiling point – 12 months on Nigella explains why she’s forgiving and forgetting after her ‘living hell’ (Sunday Times magazine)

Spring 2015: Nigella treats Cosima and Bruno to NY trip amid wedding rumours (Daily Mail Online)

Summer 2015: Exclusive Snaps – The Nigella wedding and revealing honeymoon beach shots (NOW)

Autumn 2015: 20 reasons why Nigella is still the ultimate housewife (Buzzfeed)

December 2015: Self Raising: Nigella’s comeback baking book for Christmas. Don’t worry, she jokes, no space cake recipes …

Let’s face it, in today’s 24 hour rolling media world, you’re only a warts’n’all interview, diet, tan, shag, new beau and wedding away from a spectacular comeback.

Nigella, you can DM me here: @joewalton. I’m expensive, but worth it.

When the Selfie is the Story …


My take on the selfie:

1) It’s rude to take a selfie at a funeral. Never try it at home, kids. Ever.

2) Madiba – a man with a big heart and wicked sense of humour would have loved the selfie. If you disagree, read Long Walk to Freedom. Or anything about him for that matter.

3) The selfie is not a sad indictment on the media. Phone hacking was. This isn’t. ‘The Selfie’ was a social media sensation. It was a highlight of otherwise understandably dry funeral coverage. It was covered relentlessly because we all talked about it relentlessly.

4) It is yet another example of how wonderfully powerful and potent a picture can be. From Che’s portrait to the Obamas’ ‘Four More Years’ hug, images are the most contagious form of communication we have. As marketers we haven’t even scratched the surface.

So next time you sit down and write a release, ask yourself this: if the pen is mightier than the sword, then surely the camera must beat the atom bomb hands down? …


A Festive Recipe


It doesn’t just happen kids. Believe me, I found out the hard way. Sitting waiting for glad tidings to wash over me. It comes in little waves, not the big heroin injections we crave.

Home Alone helps, for sure (the original and Lost In NYC). Putting up the tree is a big, beautiful hit but doesn’t last quite as long as you expect. A Starbucks red cup? Do me a f**king favour.

Get off your arse. Do it. Bang on the Christmas songs, loud … LOUDER. Slowly – soaking up every second – make mince pies with shapes on top. Brew up eggnog, or mulled wine. Write a letter. Carrots for Rudolph.

Christmas is what you make it. And ‘make’ is forward motion.

Those are my secrets to feeling festive. I want more. What are yours?