Why great creative is more important than ever

Every year we all have the opportunity to dive into the creative pool of Cannes Lions, the international festival celebrating creativity in communications, entertainment, design and tech. Like me, most people do it via the festival’s excellent website.

No matter; it’s still an exhilarating splash, and this year’s annual plunge has me convinced that, in the “Engagement Economy,” great creative is more important than ever. Let me explain.

I believe that Apple invented high-tech marketing back in the ’80s. And with Steve Jobs at the helm, it was all about creativity — in messages, design and production. In the early ’90s, I cut my marketing teeth working with Jobs at Next, and then rejoined Apple, where I was manager of consumer advertising.

Over the ensuing years, my faith in great creative to produce something valuable and inspiring has never flagged.

But the marketing game has changed considerably since then, specifically with the advent of online channels and the almost unlimited data that we marketers can now leverage.

In some quarters, this has led to creativity being sidelined, or at least being knocked askew on its pedestal, as the scientific side of marketing has grown in importance.

Bad mistake, because while you need both art and science in marketing, creativity is the killer ingredient that drives marketing effectiveness.

‘Thumb-stopping creativity’

In today’s world of all things digital, the demands on people’s time are more intense than ever. As marketers, we can shout, loudly and often, and hope someone hears us over all the background noise.

Or we can capture people’s attention through truly creative work, and start engaging with them in a meaningful fashion by appealing to their hearts.

It’s a matter of value versus volume. Easy choice, don’t you think?

Cheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, who spoke at Cannes Lions this year, would seem to think so. Here she is, quoted on the festival’s website:

For Sandberg, “Organizations often don’t move quickly enough.” People are spending most of their time on digital — but for creative teams, “usually it’s outdoor, then print, and mobile is often just added in the last 10 minutes.” This is particularly misguided, she explained, since “a natively mobile ad grabs your attention in a couple of seconds. We call it ‘thumb-stopping creativity.’ It communicates the brand very quickly and you measure results, not seconds. Taking advantage of that power is so important.”

What is great creative?

Great creative always starts with strategy. Here’s an area where all that scientific data comes into play as it’s mined for insights into what the customer wants, and what you can provide. Essentially, you need to be relevant to be engaging.

A great example of this is the recent joint campaign of Airbnb and the Art Institute of Chicago, constructed around a meticulous recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom as portrayed in one of his most famous paintings.

Many Airbnb prospects, myself included, are looking for more than just convenient, cost-effective digs. We also want a unique and immersive experience of place. In a splendid display of relevance, the ad speaks beautifully to this desire, while also building interest in the Art Institute’s special Van Gogh exhibit.

In addition to being relevant, a campaign or ad must be bold and take risks to engage most fully. People like the jolt that comes from boldness, bravery and risk. It’s not a data thing; it’s a chemical thing.

You don’t have to look farther than the “Fearless Girl” campaign, produced by State Street Global Advisors to honor International Women’s Day, that captivated so many people earlier this year (and bugged a few, too) with its boldness.

Appearing one night in the middle of Wall Street, the sculpture of a courageous young girl, arms akimbo, staring down the famous Charging Bull statue, became an instant media and internet sensation.

The ad and story around the statue not only went viral faster than a bull market, but the campaign also has some serious legs as the statue continues to be a much-photographed tourist attraction.

And how well did the combo of relevance and boldness work for State Street Global Advisors? The firm’s SHE Fund, which invests in companies with women executives, experienced a 384 percent increase in average daily trading volume in the first three days following the campaign’s launch. Let’s hear it for Girl Power.

Celebrate great work and its impact

You can find many, if not all, 2017 Cannes Lions award winners on YouTube. Viewing these ads is instructive, inspiring and often just plain fun. But don’t let your commitment to creativity stop here. Act on it, consistently.

In the age of martech, do not abandon creativity. It means more than ever


Giphy Says Is the Coolest Thing Ever to Happen to GIFs

Giphy Says Is the Coolest Thing Ever to Happen to GIFs

GIFs have become synonymous with pop culture as messaging apps and social networks have grown rapidly over the last few years. No matter which social network you use, you’re more than likely to find GIFs from popular TV shows and movies.

Making GIFs has also become easier than ever. There are several awesome apps that let you do this, including Giphy Says. Giphy is one of the world’s most popular stashes of GIFs on the Internet. Its new app is exclusive to the iPhone for the time being, and lets you capture short clips, while automatically adding subtitles. Just point the camera anywhere and talk for a few seconds. When you are done, you’ll see your words plastered on the video.

This is perhaps the coolest thing to happen to GIFs since, well, the rise of cute GIFs of puppies and kittens. The idea is quite simple and has been executed very well. Giphy Says uses Apple’s Siri voice recognition tech to convert what you say into text and that works surprisingly well most of the time.

We tried this in a quiet room and Giphy Says managed to catch most of what we were trying to say. Some of the words it did not understand, such as “pulao” can easily be attributed to Siri’s unfamiliarity with Indian words. It picked up the correct phrase about nine of ten times, which is pretty good.

Giphy Says is a good example of an app that does just one thing and does it very well. It’s just like using a camera app with filters. You can swipe either side to reveal these “filters”, which are simply different effects to the text. You can have text plastered all over the screen or in a callout, like the dialogue in a comic strip. There’s even one filter that turns everything you say into emoji, which is by far our favourite filter.
Once you’re done, you can easily share these GIFs via iMessage, FB Messenger, or post them to Instagram. Alternatively you can save these GIFs to your photo library, or just hit the share button to send them to practically any app.

The experience overall is quite smooth and should present no problems to beginners. Just remember that GIFs, in general, aren’t as high-quality as videos you’d normally shoot on your phone.

The only thing it lacks is an Android version, but we’d assume that the developers will eventually ship one. It’s not often that we come across slick apps that do what they promise extremely well straight out of the box. Giphy Says is one of the few apps to manage this and we’d be very happy to recommend it to everyone.

You can download Giphy Says free from the App Store.




Mashable Raises $13 Million, Its First Ever Outside Investment

mashable logo2

We’ve all heard of huge investments and acquisitions in the world of tech startups.

Last year alone saw Yahoo’s $1 billion acquisition of publishing platform Tumblr. And there was also news of accounting software company Xero raising $150 million in capital for further expansion.

In fact, we even saw some failed attempts like Facebook’s two unsuccessful attempts to acquire photo sharing app Snapchat. (Perhaps they wouldn’t have been so eager had they known something like this was brewing.)

Anyway, many small business owners online don’t happen to be developing the next great iPhone app. Instead, a blog or other website with unique niche news or other content is more likely to be their product.

And though big investments and acquisitions in the world of independent news brands may be somewhat unsung, it turns out they are no less prevalent.

Business Insider, Huff Po Show News Brand Value

In fact, big investments and acquisitions in the world of independent news brands is kind of old news. Remember when Amazon CEO Jeff Brazos’ personal investment firm Brazos Explorations led a $5 million round of funding for Business Insider last year?

It turns out as recently as late 2013, AOL had offered to pay between $100 and $150 million for the business news site. But talks eventually broke down over price, Fox News reports.

And, of course, most memorable of all might be AOL’s other big news acquisition. In 2011, the online media giant acquired the Huffington Post for what then seemed a hefty $315 million.

Though AOL’s other investments, most notably its group of local news sites known collectively as Patch, have not fared nearly as well.

Lessons to Take From Mashable Success

So it should be no surprise to learn that Mashable has raised $13 million in private equity funding — even if its the first funding the news site has received in its near decade of existence.

CNN News says investors include Updata Partners, New Markets Venture Partners, Social Starts, Buddy Media Co-Founders Michael and Kass Lazerow, Iglo Group Chief Executive Elio Leoni Sceti, and Havas global CEO David Jones.

There are some simple lessons other independent news brands can take from Mashable’s success:

News Sites Can Wait Longer for Investment

Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore founded the company at age 19 as a blog he ran from his home in Aberdeen, Scotland. From there it has survived and thrived into a news site that now claims to receive 30 million unique visitors per month.

With the digital publishing tools available now, independent news publishers need little more than unique content to start them out. So money for expansion can wait until later.

Growth Comes From Broadening and Deepening Coverage

Mashable started as a blog about technology and matured into a news site dedicated to the social media space. But since then, its coverage has expanded to include business, entertainment and other subjects. While early coverage was largely regurgitation of material already on the Web, the company continues to do more original reporting.

Hiring additional editorial talent like Jim Roberts, a veteran of both The New York Times and Reuters, shows a commitment to more of the same.

Technology is Used to Improve Experience

Certainly most online publishers can start today with very little investment using available tools. But that doesn’t mean independent news sites should ignore investing in new tech solutions.

At a social media summit, Cashmore observed that the greatest challenge faced by online publishers was lack of control over reader experience. (Is your reader coming to your site using an iPad or Kindle tablet? What difference does this make in his or her experience?) To address the issue, Mashable has built products like its Google Glass app. The company also has a special products division aimed at creating technology to help readers consume its content in a variety of ways.

See the video of Cashmore and Mashable CEO, Robyn Peterson, at Internet Week New York 2013:

Bottom line: Mashable shows independent news brands may require a more gradual, long-term growth plan than some other tech businesses, but investments are low to start and rewards can be significant.

Image: Mashable


Black Mirror Season 3: As Good as Ever

Black Mirror Season 3: As Good as Ever

Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a still from Black Mirror “San Junipero”


  • All six episodes available October 21 on Netflix
  • Charlie Brooker collaborated with a total of three people on two episodes
  • Bryce Dallas Howard, Mackenzie Davis, and Kelly Macdonald star

Over the last two decades, the exponential rise in technological advancement – regularly termed the digital revolution – remains unparalleled. As citizens of the 21st century, we’ve seen the birth of social media, fuelled the dominance of self-clicked portraits (aka selfies) in digital photography, witnessed the power of the Web in sparking political change, advocated for a technology that isolates us from reality (hint: virtual), and regularly spend more time pondering, scrutinising, and prioritising the launch of another generation of a bar-shaped consumer device more than the candidate in a general election.

And even after all this, the next breakthrough always feels right around the corner – be it the adoption of gigabit-speed Internet, miniaturisation of electronics, or fully-automated autonomous vehicles. In Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror – an anthology series that showcases the potential negative effects of new technologies – though, the future is already here. And it’s never good.

The show isn’t new to the scene. Black Mirror started in 2011 on Channel 4 in the UK, and has aired a total of seven episodes over two series and one Christmas special. Its third series, releasing October 21 in its entirety on Netflix, is a big step then what with an order of six new episodes. As before, every single episode inhabits a world of its own, with its own cynical and satirical take on a new technology.That isn’t always the case. One of the reasons Black Mirror feels uneasy to digest as a viewer has to do with how probable and logical its events can seem, even outside its fictional reality. Take its first-ever episode “The National Anthem” back in 2011, where the British Prime Minister is forced into an embarrassing situation post the kidnapping of a royal family member. Or the third episode of series two, “The Waldo Moment”, which had an animated blue bear run in an election as a joke – something that now serves as an eerie allegory to Donald Trump’s run for the US presidency.

Alex Lawther in a still from Black Mirror “Shut Up and Dance”

This time around, that episode – the one that could theoretically happen in the world we know – is the third in “Shut Up and Dance”. Directed by James Watkins, and written by William Bridges and Brooker himself, it stars Alex Lawther as 19-year-old Kenny and Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones’ Bronn) as Hector. The two strangers are paired together at the behest of unseen individuals giving them commands over the phone, after both are hacked in comprising situations.

To keep hold of their secrets, Kenny and Hector are forced to do task after task, which tests their patience, strength, resolve, and the lengths they are willing to stretch themselves to keep the slate clean. And as with thriller shows of this nature – Black Mirror has oft been called The Twilight Zone for the Internet age – there is a great character reveal in the closing minutes that casts new light on the events you had already witnessed.

At the other end of the reality spectrum is episode two “Playtest”, which finds Wyatt Rusell (22 Jump Street, Everybody Wants Some!!) playing a slightly dim-witted American named Cooper Redfield who sets off on a world trip to get away from trouble at home. While in London, Redfield signs up to help test out an in-development survival horror video game, which plays out in real world conditions while drawing from your memories. Based on that premise, director Dan Trachtenberg – who seems to have a knack for creating pulsating horror dramas, see this year’s gripping 10 Cloverfield Lane – goes wild with the concept and story provided by Brooker.

It helps that Trachtenberg is adept at building up the tension, and the writing’s twists and turns are capable of ferrying you through the episode, albeit while relying on some well-worn genre tropes that can come off as a cheap trick. If there’s one problem with how Playtest unfolds, it’s that in its tendency to outsmart the viewer, it goes too far with the capabilities of the technology on show.

Wunmi Mosaku, Wyatt Russell and Ken Yamamura in a still from Black Mirror “Playtest”

This is a much bigger problem in the series’ fifth episode, “Men Against Fire”, directed by Jakob Verbruggen, who also worked on the two final episodes in House of Cards’ fourth season. In a post-war world, Stripes (Malachi Kirby) and Raiman (Madeline Brewer) are part of a new breed of soldiers who are tasked with protecting a nearby band of villagers from a subset known as the Roaches. The latter are portrayed as “feral mutants” with diseases, whose hitting of food rations renders them useless for use to anyone. On Stripes’ first mission in the field, he gets two kills and is heralded as a hero by his peers. But an incident during the mission at the farmhouse causes him to have lapses in concentration and problems with memory.

Men Against Fire is the weakest of the lot here, and much of that is down to how its central mechanic feels like an overstretched gimmick at times, and not a logical extension of certain events. It’s tough to talk about a Black Mirror episode without spoiling its central mystery, but even the themes here – the theory of evolution, advanced ideological warfare, and voluntarily self-delusion – have been discussed better in the past, if only not all in one place. Even with the likes of Michael Kelly (House of Cards’ phenomenal Doug Stamper) playing the powers that-be, too much of the episode relies on exposition and less on visual storytelling.

In that regard, the episode prior – “San Junipero” – starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis is an absolute delight, and a strong contender for the ‘Season 3 Favourite’ for many, given the emotional chords it tugs at. It begins in 1987, with a poster of horror-comedy cult classic The Lost Boys hanging above a neon-lit night club, and Belinda Carlisle’s all-time pop hit Heaven Is a Place on Earth blaring off car speakers.

When Davis’ Yorkie first walks on screen, she seems uneasy and out of her comfort zone, unable to mill with the mid-20s crowd that populates the place. It’s only when Mbatha-Raw’s Kelly uses her to get out of a sticky situation with a guy and takes a liking to her that Yorkie begins to open up, though she’s quick to recede after sticking out like a sore thumb on the dance floor.

Mackenzie Davis in a still from Black Mirror “San Junipero”

During its opening quarter, San Junipero seems completely unlike a quintessential Black Mirror episode – which all seem to involve a futuristic technology. There is one here as well, and even though the episode starts to give away itself only 20 minutes in, it’s a joy to watch the mystery and story unfold over the rest of the hour. A lot of that is down to great acting from the duo of Mbatha-Raw and Davis, whose raw power and contained youthfulness respectively, are wonderful to behold.

San Junipero is also the only episode in the new series that sees a returning director – Owen Harris also helmed season two’s opener, “Be Right Back”, which recreated an individual’s personality using his social media communication after his death.

Social media as an entity, and the power it wields, forms an essential part of the two final Black Mirror episodes in the third series: the first episode “Nosedive”, and the sixth and final “Hated in the Nation”. The former comes from the minds of Parks and Recreation duo, co-creator Michael Schur and actress Rashida Jones, along with Brooker – with directing duties being handled by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice). Brooker is the sole writer on the latter, with James Hawes (Penny Dreadful) as director.

Talking thematically, they represent the two sides of the same coin as both explore social media and how it can change our society for the worse. In Nosedive, society has moved to a stage where it’s become completely acceptable to rate people on a star-rating system after every interaction. While a similar concept – Yelp for people called Peeple failed massively in our world – it’s taken off in Nosedive, and is central to workplace talk, eating out and even where you’re allowed to live. Hence, in a bid to keep up their rating, everyone behaves as a goody two-shoes with each other.

Bryce Dallas Howard in a still from Black Mirror “Nosedive”

Hated in the Nation is much more familiar, a world where people say whatever they like hiding behind their screens. Anonymity allows individuals to be their worst selves, the episode notes, and it not only deals with the wrath of online harassment, but how the ones perpetuating it claim innocence since it’s impersonal.

Both episodes focus on entirely different scenarios. Nosedive is a personal story, with Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) as Lacie, present in almost every frame. She’s living with her brother who craves real conversations, but she is completely focused on raising her profile, especially after she sets her sights on a beautiful house that needs you to be a minimum 4.5. Lacie is a 4.2.

While the exact mechanics of how a person’s rating is calculated are never made clear, the episode does enough to give you a gist. Lacie must covet highly-likeable “Prime” users – ones that are a 4.7 and above – in order to afford the house. As she struggles to make inroads, a terrific opportunity lands at her doorstep – her childhood friend Naomi is getting married, and she wants Lacie to be her maid of honour. Thrilled at the prospect, Howard’s character prepares an emotional speech that would help her whip 5-star votes from the guests.

But things are never so straightforward in Black Mirror, which loves revelling in dark and cynical satire. Nosedive’s mollycoddled world – despite being rosy and sunny on the surface – is a terrifying prospect, which turns the old adage of “be nice to everyone” on its head, and pushes it to the extreme. As much as we try our best to be polite, everyone has an off day. At some point in our lives, we’ve shared a terrible moment with a stranger whom we will never see again.

Bryce Dallas Howard in a still from Black Mirror “Nosedive”

In Nosedive, that embarrassment stays with you forever, courtesy of the rating system. So midway through the episode when Lacie – rushing to get to the airport – runs into a stranger and spills coffee on the person, she gets handed a one-star rating. No apologies possible, and no “it’s okay” extended – just a cold, mathematical demeanour. It really makes you think twice about judging your Uber driver next time, seeing how the rating affects their livelihood as a result.

Social status has achieved the same level of prominence in Nosedive, effectively placing a blockade on actual conversations, and instead just present to service each other’s agenda. Saying whatever you feel like is probably the worst idea you can possibly have.

Thankfully, there are no such concerns for the people in Hated in the Nation. An online-hatred-fuelled social media experiment has ties to mysterious deaths, which ropes in Kelly MacDonald (No Country for Old Men, Boardwalk Empire) as a worn-out police detective Karin Parke and Faye Marsay (Game of Thrones’ the Waif) as her new-blood tech-savvy partner Chloe ‘Blue’ Perrine.

With the series finale, Brooker explores the problems with online bullying, the limitless greed for government surveillance, and – a very Black Mirror trope – the wide-reaching effects of a technological creation. The episode, running at an hour and 29 minutes, is pretty much a feature film in length. It’s also a strong contender for the third season’s best episode, with MacDonald and Marsay’s performance chops alongside Hawes’ steady direction, contributing to a taut thriller with one hell of a final punch.

Faye Marsay (extreme L) and Kelly Macdonald (extreme R) in a still from Black Mirror “Hated in the Nation”

Brooker’s writing ensures that the two strong female leads are never seen through the lens of their gender, even if – in other places – the episode does omit the explanation of a minor but crucial point that enables much of the disaster. Like other Black Mirror episodes, Hated in the Nation represents a vehemently cynical and dystopian viewpoint of what our future could be, 10 minutes from now. The only glimmer of hope it offers is with its open ending, which is bound to leave fans (us included) clamouring for more of Parke and Blue’s adventures.

Overall, this new crop of Black Mirror – which all but doubles the show’s total count before this – is better than ever. The six independent episodes touch upon dozens of themes, and while some misfire, most are relevant (and timely) for the world we inhabit. The show has long lived under the radar – in Netflix, Charlie Brooker has found a platform that can provide not just bigger production values, but a much wider reach. That, along with the quality of the third season might just help it breakout.

Black Mirror’s third series of six episodes will be available via Netflix on October 21.

Tags: Black Mirror, Netflix, Charlie Brooker