— On Comms Design. From London

This is by no means an educational post. You should not feel obliged to learn anything from it because I am not the only person turning 40 nor am I in the 1% of wise people who have turned 40. It’s more comedy than how-to and you might find it more comedic if you’re a woman than if you’re a man.

I’ve turned 40 and it’s already daunting, not because 40 is the age I thought parents are and now it turns out it’s me, but primarily because I LOVED my 30s and I worry that my 40s will be a terrible second act. That said, let’s not look back in sorrow but rather record for all posterity some of the things that make me dread my 40s.

Being sexy in one’s 40s

While most of the women in Sex & the City kindof felt like they were in their 30s (except for Samantha who was clearly older), I have no stereotype of sexiness in your 40s to relate to. Most of the cool, 40 yos in the UK are women who have embraced their mom/wife status and being 40, and for whom sexy is almost a constant source of surprise. “OMG, I cannot believe this dress looks good on me. Geesh, I am indeed wearing sexy sandals”. I don’t have kids, won’t have kids and I am struggling to understand what’s the ideal of sexiness one should aspire to. BTW, this is equally a personal observation as it is a marketing one. Who is cool and in their 40s? Not sure because while the beauty industry has embraced young AND old, when they say old they tend to go closer to 50s and 60s almost to make up for the fact that they basically hated older women until 5 years ago. So, leaving Caroline de Maigret aside (because she’s French, a rockstar so doesn’t really count) I am finding myself in a space of nothingness.

Things that happen to your body

When me and Andreea were working Garnier a while back, we stumbled across a dreadful realisation: adult acne. Turns out that while hormones surge in your teens and then settle down to blissful clarity for a decade in your mid 20s and early 30s, come late 30s and early 40s and stuff begins to shift again. TBH, not sure it’s just hormones, but let me tell you, wrinkles IS NOT the only thing that separates older women from younger ones. Shit occurs that the beauty industry fails to acknowledge and address openly not only with ads but also with products. Metabolisms slow down, skin dries out, hairs start doing unearthly things in places you’ve never thought it would and so on. And there is nothing to read on this nor any cream to apply. It’s a wasteland of information and solutions. Unless you’re worried about wrinkles. So, I am forever dreading the 40 yo-induced “developments” because I’m not sure we’re prepared for them.

Things that happen to your brain

Now, we’ve been told that one’s life is clearer when you’re in your 40s. That you’ve done the turmoil in your 20s, career and kids in your 30s and then your brain settles into a clear confirmation of what you can and cannot do. Seriously, just google in my 40s and you will almost exclusively find accounts of women who are thanking their lucky stars for being 40. Well, good on them, except that isn’t always the case if you have moved house, moved country, moved job. Having to encounter change in your 40s may seem like an interesting challenge if you have an incredible support system (husband who earns well, kids who don’t need to be pushed around in a pram, parents who are happily but energetically retired and living nearby) BUT if you don’t, change at 40 is going to floor you because the world is telling you you should be settled and …. you’re not. So here’s what happens, you dwell more, you worry more, your anxieties accelerate. You overcompensate by trying to do more, you google “early onset dementia”, stop eating sugar because you can track your momentary lapses of memory to an eclair and insist to your OBGYN that you should be put on hormone replacement because pre-menopause is killing you. Of course, you’re not experiencing any of those things but it’s a taster of what to look fwd to especially with a lot of women awakened to the trials and tribulations of menopause and sharing them online. Because, you see, in your 40s you;re not menopausal, or pre-menopausal but you’re also not 100% NOT THOSE THINGS. So it’s very much like when you think you’re going to be sick but are not but keep gagging every two minutes. Your brain is preparing for the possibility of what’s to come and you are experiencing this preparation as weekly inconsistencies. Fun, ey?

Things that happen with your job

You definitely know more by 40 because you’ve tried a lot of things and hopefully learnt from them. But there’s a nagging worry that you should have done better by now, that you’re at a point where other people HAVE done better, so you squirm and ponder on what you should be doing to be where you think you should be. You work with young people who claim to know as much as you do and cannot really silence silly ideas because it’s a “sharing” world so everyone’s opinions are valid. So you need to listen to everyone and not roll your eyes. You need to teach more and do less. By all accounts, in this country in particular, the 40s is when most advertising/tech professionals decide it’s time for something else. Either, it seems, because the industry has a tendency to push out seniors or because you start questioning whether this is all worth the longer evenings. I’ll keep you posted on that one.

Things that happen with your social life

Nothing. By 38 you’ve stopped having a clear social life outside dinners and theatre with your partner because everyone who doesn’t have kids is too young to hang out with and everyone else has kids and seeing “Death of a Salesman” with two 7 yo in tow is not an option. If you’re lucky you have some childless friends of your age and you sometimes see them to commiserate.

Things to do

I have found the following works for me: keep notes, start a notebook with things to remember, eat healthy, very healthy food and exercise a lot; try to get out of the house and walk while listening to podcasts or music; look at things around you and ride the bus; watch good films and then talk about them with someone who gets them; read books and make lots of notes and then go back and re-read the notes; try to understand politics beyond who you think you should vote for; understand the issues in your city and your country; eat lots of veg and fruit (Michael Pollan was right!!); think about controversies and try to understand if you have a POV and if you don’t, read up and make yourself one; wear clothes that are looser rather that tighter because they will make you look thin (surprisingly); don’t buy too much make up but buy a nice perfume; wear comfy shoes and carry a book around all the time; if you’ve ever enjoyed writing, for God’s sake, find the time to write (even stupid posts like this one); think about what your problems are and really try to define them; think about what your ideas are and REALLY try to define them. Dwell less (easier said than done so here’s what my therapist said: “first time you’re finding yourself dwelling, set a time and do it for that time; next time, reduce the time, next time reduce it again”) and take showers more because weirdly enough, not only do they make you smell better but they also focus your mind on creative thinking.

Here’s hoping I survive this!

I didn’t use to keep any type of checklists when doing my job. Which, by the way, is not to sit and think to get ideas. That’s nobody’s job, not even a creative’s 🙂

But, in all seriousness, there comes a time after doing any job for a while when you think you have a process built in, and you will naturally just go through the motions. Read the client brief, do some desk research, ask for the debrief questions, see what additional info we have and what we need, read through that, scan user research, try to source independent research etc. You think you know what steps you go through and that you will go through all the necessary ones to get to the desired outcomes.

Routine is not a guarantee.

But you don’t. And I found myself just skipping one of these, not by design, nobody makes the decision to just skim through the brief, but because I thought I had in-built some steps and I didn’t need to pay attention if I was going through all of them.

Primarily, though, what I have found myself doing is skipping steps because I think I’ve cracked a problem before going through ALL the steps. So my brain gets into a very comfortable space where I feel like I have finished my task and I am unwilling to put more effort into it. [BTW, this is where there is a very useful thinking “hack” you can use which is to “put a pin in it” — basically, yo mentally decide that is a good idea but you need to go and think of something else.]

Your brain wants to be lazy.

The other thing that happens is my brain also actively works to keep me from information that might get in the way of the comfort that having “cracked” the problem has generated. I actually have gotten annoyed at getting info which seemed to contradict an opinion which I had already formed. So this is where you and I both need to go back to Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and always remember that if the brain thinks it can solve something on autopilot, it will go out of its way to do that and not engage the more active part of it. The brain wants to be lazy.

So, I keep checklists for everything I do. Research — I have a research checklist. User research — separate checklist for that. Taking notes — checklist for that. Documents I should be filling in — okay, these are on the research list, I’m not totally crazy. And every day, I go through my checklists to make sure I have done my due diligence before I form an opinion. And I have checklists for after that as well?

Is this counter-creative? Maybe, but I’d rather have three good solutions to optimise, than 45 questionable ones that will get killed by someone in the room. Get checklists. 

PS: no, you cannot have my checklists 🙂 make your own.

And so it goes again. Something social breaks through the clutter online and young people love it, because, let’s be honest, they’re young, they want to have a bit of fun, they’re creative, they like to bob their heads to their favourite music and film themselves doing it.

No. I am not being facetious. I think TikTok is great. It really doesn’t matter that it’s Vine and Musical.ly merged together (incidentally, Musical.ly was merged with the Chinese app to create the Western Europe and US TikTok). What matters is it has filled a gap left wide open by Twitter when they ineptly decided they could not be bothered to monetise Vine. And people love it and, should you decide to try it, I bet you will love it too.

The big question among 30 year olds and older in the marketing industry now seems to be “should I download this now?”. The even bigger question in the marketing industry media is “will Tik Tok kill anything?”. Nobody seems to know the answer to any of these but everybody loves to mock the new digital “innovation” thinking that it’s cool to be a luddite. It’s not.

Here’s what I’ve always said about these things to folks in marketing:

  1. Yes, download it, if only so you don’t ever say something I heard in a meeting from a Business Director → “I have no idea how filters on Instagram work”. Have a play. You don’t have to be a TikTok superstar. Just find out how the controls work and also learn how ads are placed because then you can move on to no. 2
  2. No, it will not kill anything but at some point the sheer scale of it will mean you will get a brief which implies that TikTok is an interesting option to explore. And here’s the good news: unlike Vine which, for some crazy reason could now figure out how to monetise, TikTok has a fast developing ad ecosystem in China which will soon be translated into other markets. As a brand, it’s not complicated to “pay to play” with TikTok. You don’t even have to figure out who the influencers are because the main “feed” shows them to you on a regular basis if you don’t specifically follow someone. You can place video ads (currently seems only in Chinese version), sponsor hashtags, sponsor people, create challenges and soon there will be multiple ad formats delivered through a pretty modern ad platform. It’s not rocket science and if you’re in the game of reaching younger demographics it’s AN OPTION.

Of course there are problems. It’s a platform that grew by 30 million in 3 months following its takeover of Musical.ly. It’s adding incredible numbers as we speak. People are creating content all the time. Some of it is not great, some is ok, and there are small pockets of content that needs moderation. There’s also a fear that some of the very young users might be at risk in an environment which is not really moderated.

Are these new challenges, completely different from other platforms? No. will they be addressed? No, but then you should also consider holding back from Facebook, a platform that has been blamed for both damaging democracy and the individual self.

So what do you do? Embrace YES. Dip your toes and try it. It’s not going to kill you or advertising as we know it. It’s just going to make you sound qualified in meetings.

Last Friday was my last day at Poke. For now. I don’t know what the far future holds but I do know what the immediate one does, and it no longer involves what remains my favourite place to work at ever. EVER.

So, this is not a “what happened” type of post. Nothing happened. Yes, the industry is going through dire straits again and yes, we’ve seen many a strategist, Strategy Director and even CSO leave with no clear plans but my leaving has nothing to do with that. I leave Poke because I’ve found something else that interests me and I think I also have identified a better place for me to explore that interest.

So this is more a post about planning for change. Actually, planning for progress, because change, as much as popular wisdom wants to convince us is always for the better, sometimes is not.

I started thinking about what I wanted to do next when I was appointed Head of Strategy. Until then, the goal had always been to be appointed Head of. I know, it sounds is a bit hollow/career-oriented but I was new to this market, new to the ad industry here, and I had to re-start my career in my late 30s which was not ideal. So for a good couple of years my plan was to climb back up the nomenclature ladder. When I was appointed Head of, I spent about a year learning and refining the intricacies of that role. Despite having a very small team, being Head of was a real challenge for me because I had always been a strategist, but now I also needed to be a manager of people who were doing the same job as me. I am not sure if I was a good Head of Strategy. One of the parting notes from my team included the following “you have been a strange boss but I am sure Poke will be worse off without you”. I guess that’s good and bad all rolled into one.

At any rate, it took me about 1 year to get comfortable and then I started looking around. I am not one to “nest” into a position. I like to have a clear path. What was my path now, I asked myself every time I had a week off.

For one, I had always been a comms planner, I was good at that. I dabbled in brand planning and, obviously, having worked at Google meant I was good at platform specifics. But Poke had a second dimension to the work they were doing which was heavily service design orientated. I was spending more and more time with UX designer and designers, workshopping journeys together, developing personas and prototyping. And I LOVED it. It probably helped that, for some reason, at about the same time, the ad world fell in love with CX, and the idea of mapping journeys and being persona centric started to enter into pretty much every conversation I was having.

I quickly did some UX Design 101 and 201 courses, started looking into content strategy (not the social content one) and began to get my head around agile vs waterfall and new ways to code for larger digital infrastructures. It took about 6 months for me to realise this was the most exciting part of my working week. I still liked doing comms but I was consumed by the enthusiasm of learning something else.

As I learned, it turned out that my comms background, combined with my workshop moderator abilities was coming in very handy. I was able to translate UX methodologies to comms planning and the other way around. Having the wider view and being able to match behavioural insights with solid audience segmentation turned out to be very interesting not just to me.

It was also becoming very apparent to me that this holistic way of thinking about digital infrastructures was more and more relevant to clients. We had been called into countless pitches where the marketing and the digital functions would butt heads and argue over requirements. Marketing budgets were no longer enough to sustain the digitisation required. And a lot of clients had very antiquated tech infrastructure that hampered their marketing goals. This was a good time to do this type of work.

So, I decided to move on, learn more and do more of this. In the coming week you’ll find out where. It’s a no-brainer choice, a company specialising in service design, able to ship fast and looking to work holistically to marry marketing and infrastructure. I’m excited. This was the plan. Fingers crossed 🙂

This is the subject of the email I sent myself with a print screen of the following tweeted quote “Creatively, I want our work to be so resonant that it feels like it’s come from within culture, rather than an observation from a research report”. I’m not really sure who said this, I saw it retweeted several times and TBH the point I am trying to make is not about who said what but how we think about how we make advertising.

Why did I react with that email subject? Without trying to over-interpret or second guess myself over what the person “actually meant”, this quote is not saying something new. Since I started in advertising land, over 15 years ago this was a mantra. We wanted ads not to look like ads. We looked up to United Colors of Benetton who had enraged the Vatican with their billboards which looked more like political commentary than anything else. Everyone wanted to make stuff that was more like culture than advertising.

Why this is the case is not something that concerns me because I suspect the reasoning behind is quite basic. For one, we have grown to believe that people hate advertising, find it irritating, so we need to tell them what we want to tell them in ways which are not advertising-like. That comes with a sub set of other considerations, all, again, based more on assumption than actual data, or on old data IMHO. There’s the “people trust things that feel authentic” and something that’s trying to sell you a thing cannot be authentic (this BTW, is also why we fall for influencers :). Then there is the “people have learned to tune out advertising so we need to jar their attention with stuff that mimics what they want to see”. And finally, the more recent “brands need to have a purpose beyond that of selling stuff to connect with the new generation”. I am dubious about all of these things but that’s not the point.

What concerns me is how to reconcile our desire to make things that do not look like ads with the need to persuade people to buy stuff. “Are we trying to trick people?”, to quote myself.

I have been following the way the Facebook “fake news” story has been rolled out and one thing stuck: whoever was behind the “fake news” and whatever the “fake news” was, it was really meant to persuade people of something by appearing like “culture”. Those people behind the “fake news” accounts, created promoted posts which told stories that were untrue in order to sway how people felt about a certain topic. This is the case with the Presidential elections but it’s also the case with the Antivax movement. So, you make something that looks like “culture”, ie. news, so that you can persuade people to change their mind. Sounds familiar right?

A while back a graph was circulating on Twitter showing how much people liked ads in contrast to the shows these ads were placed in. I had now idea such a research had been carried out since the 80s and it seems there was a “golden age” when people actually liked ads. Not as much as the shows, of course, but enough. Naturally, that’s getting worse. Today everybody hates them and maybe that’s why we try very hard to camouflage them.

What went wrong? Here’s some thoughts : number of ads, frequency of ads, lack of targeting (oh, no, I said the bad word!), and yes, ads that really did not try at all. But you see how, before we need to start pretending that ads should not be ads in order to work, maybe there’s other things to consider.

Maybe we get good at negative retargeting. Mahabi’s is a company that built a reputation for either employing the worst media agency in the world or being completely careless with their money, so bad was their online targeting, with ads following everyone around at all times. There are so many simple fixes for that. The tech is there. That was human error.

Maybe we “respect the attention we’ve been given” like Russell Davies says. There’s only this many fridges you need in a lifetime, keep a proper customer cycle view and you won’t need to advertise your fridge to everyone at all times.

Maybe we start thinking of longer life for our products so you don’t need to advertise them all the time.

Okay, that last one is utopia.

What I’m wondering here is do we really need to pretend like our ads are not ads in order to make them work? Think about it.

So as you can see from the unforgiving chronology of this blog, two years ago I decided to give Medium a try. You can find the fruits of that try here and if you have time give these ones below a try. Not all I write is really worth reading in retrospect.

The Case for Brand Salience

Is Marketing the Only Industry Where We Don’t Standardize?

An apology for Digital Metrics

This series on menstrual apps and why they’re crap

The reality is that I only ended up using Medium because I liked the interface. Nothing about the “community” was actually useful or exciting enough to make it worth one’s while. So I think I might be back here. Let’s see how it goes.

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago in Medium.

You should check me there for the foreseeable future. Or until something else interesting comes along 🙂

 

“I started writing a blog almost 8 years ago, maybe more. The first one was on Blogger and that was, by far, the most rewarding blogging experience of my entire blogging “life”. Blogger was basic, easy to use, blogging was just starting, we had less of this “I blog professionally” shit and people had more options to discover other people they thought worthy of reading.

Somehow I got popular so people suggested I start blogging “professionally” which meant that I was to get my own name-domain (which I still own and it’s giving me a constant headache, find it here www.bogdanabutnar.ro), switch from blogging in English and move to WordPress where I could get better exposure in Google and have more control over the design and “accessories”. I’d say there were a couple of good years doing that but eventually managing a self-hosted WordPress blog became a huge pain in the butt. I was clearly not going to be a professional blogger. My profession is digital marketing and, as it happens, blogging is a small part of that, but I was not going to make money from writing on my blog. So the design, constant updates, SEO and Cache and whatnot plugins started to really bug me. I was lucky to have my blog hosted by a dear friend but even the minimal server updates sometimes left my WordPress blog crippled because of lack of constant care. Read More

It’s been a year already since last year 🙂 And one resolution is already happening and announced in the post previous to this one.

I have not blogged more. I feel bad about it and stupid with having given in to the ease with which one shares stuff on Facebook only to see it liked a bunch of times and then disappear into nothingness. That has not changed. Facebook is still a bottomless pit of darkness.

But other stuff has. This is my 2015 resolutions post. I was sad back then. I missed my life in Romania, my friends, my flat, my R2D2 doll. One year on, I still miss some of that: the friends mostly, but I have a new flat I am growing to like, and my life in London is not too bad, made a bit better by working in a great place and a few kind people who take care of me (Andreea, Andreea, Stefan, Adriana, Ben, Tom, Christina, Nik, Dragos, Gabi, Mihnea and recently Sanziana and Adriana). Skype and Messenger keep me connected to my best friends at home, Andreea and Cristina, you will forever be the lights of my life and the people who keep me sane. Skype connects me to the people I need, Mircea and my parents. Bobby is sometimes only a plane ride away. Trains now connect me to the man in my life. I have, clearly, learnt to make connections in various ways and replaced physical closeness with the next best thing. And this life is now good.

How did I do for resolutions? Surprisingly well I might say but unwittingly so, because whatever has happened did not happen because my will power has improved. I am now 10 kilos heavier than I should be and still cannot make a decent croissant at home. I have made a bunch of other stuff though and people seem to like them (I could link here to a nice album in FB but, guess what, FB sucks so no albums). I have seen a bunch of great movies and walked a whole lot more (made it through two Tube strikes) and read enough but not as much as my resolution suggested. I meditate sometimes. Not “professionally” but I do spend time thinking about my life. And I do strategy in a place that lets me do it the right way (Head of Strategy since October now, wheheeey!). Can’t even remember what the womanhood thing was about. I think I still suck at that one but who cares, if it was that unimportant probably should not have been a resolution to begin with.

What’s the plan for 2016? I have a draft but it’s really not thought through. The first 5 ones are below. They are the obvious ones. The big deep ones I am still working on.

  1. Blog for Christ’s sake! – I already made a jump to Medium. I’ll try some more things. I need to be able to take a serious hold of this publishing stuff and do it properly.
  2. Build something at work – there’s a handful of us now and we’re growing in the strategy department; but I want to make it something people are proud to speak of and something that genuinely works.
  3. Walk even more, maybe run, maybe swim – because I do need to get back in shape. I am clearly aware that this one needs to be a bit clearer and more specific because otherwise it will be among the not done ones. I’ll think it through.
  4. Bake and bake some more – breakfast and bread and cake. That’s the new frontier. I am done with muffins and cookies and pound cakes. I want layers and tiers and pastry.
  5. Start something that will define my life in my forties. Not sure what that is but I feel 39 is a new deadline and I should be planning for it.

+

5 more I still need to work on. To be continued.

 

I am trying something new. See it here.

I am not sure whether to rejoice that I might not be seeing all those inane responses to people’s Facebook posts and that these responses will be confined to neatly recorded smilies or hearts, or to be annoyed that we are coming closer and closer to an ultimate standardisation of people’s reactions (i.e. emotions) on social media.

This is of course about this, the news that the world is not getting a dislike button but rather a plethora of smilies, hearts and other icons that will enable us to not outright hate something but rather express a wider range of feelings.

The annoying thing about this is that we WERE able to record a wider range of emotions by leaving comments that could say “I partly agree with this” or “This is an immense and stinking pile of horse shit” (by which the commentator would not have simply described what he saw in the picture). The point of Likes was to aggregate the overall sentiment on the post, so it was mostly a scale thing, a way of measuring overall impact. People were asking for a dislike button mostly because sentiment analysis is so bad that 500k comments saying “I hate this” would be collapsed into something too small to compete with, say, 100 likes. Nobody campaigned for a “I kinda like this but I am not sure” button. There was a lot of conversation around Meh, but that was it.

The trouble with standardising responses is that people have a tendency to replace actual nuance with that standard. Remember when “In a relationship” had become the ultimate badge of commitment? Standardising means simplifying and we know the human brain loves a good simplification, but somehow it does not feel like we should be trying to simplify things when it comes to points of view or emotions. People should have to make an effort to express exactly what they are feeling because using smilies just impoverishes the conversation.

I want a dislike button. Because we need to be able to say no in a VERY loud voice to some things. I do not think, however, that we should be happy with being given a Facebook-approved list that bridges the gap between like and dislike. We mind find ourselves in a couple of years expressing a lot less.

So the Kardashian ladies have the most successful Instagram profiles ever. They have millions of followers and millions of likes. What do they do next? They turn their profiles into advertising billboards for their apps where they upload and share more content, more advertiser-driven content and more product plugs. The money flows in, they have no pesky Instagram rules to abide by and they control the stats and cookies of their downloaders.

Now if you ask me, instead of trying to do the same old thing of pushing ads on their users (which is getting a bit of a backlash I understand), Instagram could try and do something similar (you know, like YouTube has been trying to implement for a while, although it might be a bit later than anyone can stomach) –> simply put, paywall some major accounts, split the revenue with the creators and not risk bleeding users into apps. Or annoying everyone with ads, especially when your platform is hugely prohibitive to ads. What do I mean? Let’s say you follow 400 people on Instagram [which is already insane because there is NO way you can go through all of their updates at a time]. There is only this many ads Instagram will be able to serve in between your followed accounts’ content before they piss you off [Facebook has waaaay more display areas, Twitter faces a similar problem to Instagram so it’s trying to redesign itself]. The one solution would be for them to allow, say, chronological pics to be shown in a horizontal slider, versus the vertical one we use now ,which would give them twice as much display space. The ads would be shown both among horizontally sliding pics and the way they are now. And still how many can they show before they piss everyone off? Not many I would say.

So why not do the smart thing, start early and paywall some of that coveted content.